BY JEFF FALK
Bobby Gerhart has had better times in Florida. He’s had happier times at Daytona. But he’s never had a faster car.
Gerhart did not win his ninth ARCA 200 stock car race at Daytona International Raceway on Saturday afternoon, but he did everything in his power to make it happen, including putting together the fastest car in the field. The Lebanon racer is of the opinion that forces beyond his control prevented him from adding to his record number of wins at the ARCA series’ most prestigious event.
During an exclusive interview with Lebanon Sports Buzz, Gerhart intimated that those forces included a personal vendetta against him by ARCA president Ron Drager, who was motivated, Gerhart said, by the influence of the influx of larger, more affluent racing teams in the series.
After apparently winning the pole position for the race on Friday, Gerhart was relegated to the back of the field when officials said his Chevrolet Monte Carlo failed a post-qualifying inspection. From his final starting spot for the 80-lap race, Gerhart charged to the front of the field before finishing sixth.
“We have worked on this car for one year to get ready for the race,” said Gerhart by phone from Daytona. “For this to be taken away, he (Drager) has no idea of the ripple effect it has on me, my team and my career. It taints what we’ve done for years. It’s on him. It’s not on me.
“I’ll never, ever, ever, ever forgive the series, or him (Drager) for his actions, and his actions after the race,” continued Gerhart. “The sport is changing. I can’t say it’s a good thing for he and ARCA to be manipulated by big money.”
Drager did not immediately return a request for an interview with Lebanon Sports Buzz. But through a statement released by ARCA, Drager said: ““The post-qualifying inspection procedure at restrictor-plate tracks requires a minimum of the top 10 to undergo a thorough under-car inspection and a minimum of the top three to undergo a thorough engine inspection. Today’s penalties are a result of that standard inspection procedure.”
Gerhart’s qualifying time was thrown out and he was moved to the back of the pack when it was decided his rear suspension did not meet ARCA standards. That same part of Gerhart’s car had passed ARCA inspection on both Wednesday and Thursday, before Gerhart posted the fastest time in practice.
Gerhart also posted the fastest time in qualifying, before the rear suspension parts were said to be in violation of ARCA rules. Gerhart was one of five drivers to have qualifying times disqualified, and of of two for rear suspension issues.
Daytona marked the third time in the last five ARCA restrictor-plate races in which Gerhart has competed that his qualifying time was thrown out.
“The issue I have is that it was inspected three times, and the car was approved three times,” said Gerhart. “After we qualified, they didn’t like what they saw before. Nothing was changed in that part of the car. Nothing has changed in that part of the car for years.
“They’re (ARCA officials) way wrong for messing with this thing,” said Gerhart added. “They looked at a stinking bolt, a stinking bolt. That’s it in a nut shell. If this bolt is such an important issue, why did they lay in the grass and wait. They waited to post-qualifying to break the news.”
From his last starting slot, Gerhart needed six laps to work his way into the top 25. But on a three-wide pass on lap seven, Gerhart’s car sustained damage when it made contact with the wall.
Gerhart’s pit crew was able to make the necessary repairs to the car’s body during a long caution on lap 11, and the team managed to stay on the lead lap. Gerhart went back to work on the outside lane and by the time the race reached the halfway point, he was running among the top 15 competitors.
The hard-charging Gerhart was ninth by lap 70 and fifth by lap 73. He momentarily moved up to third place, before taking the checkered flag in sixth.
By the end of the race, Gerhart’s car was posting the quickest lap times and the fastest speeds in the field.
“We pretty much had the fastest car of the weekend,” said Gerhart. “We won the pole and got disqualified over very much a non-issue. It was kind of like a snake-in-the-grass issue. It was such an insignificant, middle-of-the-road, between-the-rule-book infraction.
“We were four and five wide a couple of times on the first ten laps,” added Gerhart. “I simply ran out of time. We were the fastest car by three miles an hour. We had a great hot rod. But if you don’t have the people to go with you, you’re a sitting duck.”
A similar scenario had played out for Gerhart during the Feb. 2012 running of the Lucas Oil/Slick Mist at Daytona. Gerhart had been sent to the rear of the field by a pre-race violation, but defied all odds to win his eighth ARCA race at Daytona.
“I think what it is is that it’s insulting to them that we’re consistently that good,” said Gerhart. “The question to them should be, to the powers that be: ‘How can this be possible?’ When that car gets cleared, one thing has to happen. The issue is a simple one: ‘Where do they draw the line? How can these competitors be put in this environment?
“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Gerhart. “For the first time in 20-plus years of racing on the ARCA circuit, I don’t have a good thing to say about the series. They embarrassed me and my sponsors. Their time to inspect was before qualifying, and to do it after is a game they played. They need to get some heat about it.”
No driver in the history of ARCA racing has dominated a track on the circuit like Gerhart has done at Daytona. In addition to 2012, Gerhart captured the ARCA event at Daytona in 2011, 2010, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2002 and 1999.
Last year at Daytona the 55-year-old Gerhart started third, led for 55 laps and then was relegated to a 29th-place finish by a fuel pump malfunction.
“It absolutely cost us the race,” said Gerhart. ” ‘Did it alter the outcome of the race?’, that’s a question for him (Drager) to answer. Isn’t that what we pay him to do? There’s a lot of questions to be answered on their procedure and why they waited to then to embarrass us. That shows their motive. It’s more of a promotional thing.
“I’m not a happy camper,” continued Gerhart. “Big money is playing a lot of games in this series. It will be their demise. They’re going to lose good hard racers like myself.”
Gerhart said that because of contractual obligations, choosing not to compete in ARCA races is not an option at this time.
“I have to race,” said Gerhart. “I’m under contract all year. It is what it is. But I’m not going to be quiet any more.
“In my 27-year ARCA career, I’ve never been more disappointed in the series I chose to race in,” Gerhart added. “I feel more embarrassed and betrayed than ever.”
Gerhart said that when he learned of his penalty on Friday night, he confronted Drager about it. The exchange never became physical, he said.
“It got very, very, very heated,” said Gerhart. “I’m in a completely different place with them. It comes down from the top, the president (Drager) of the series.
“The truth is there’s a couple of guys inside this series, and they bring 40-45 people, and the majority of them are inspectors,” continued Gerhart. “They conducted a little coop, and the majority of them may not be Bobby Gerhart fans. He’s (Draper) the man who addresses the issue. They look worse than we do, when half the cars get knocked out. It certainly wasn’t a good business decision for them. It’s his (Draper’s) call. It’s his people. It’s his leadership.”