BY JEFF FALK
Many young competitors are sent to the ARCA racing circuit to learn how to drive.
They’re green, aggressive and without senses of timing. They drive more seasoned and experienced drivers nuts.
On Saturday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway in Florida, Lebanon stock-car racer Bobby Gerhart found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time during the annual running of the ARCA Lucas Oil 200, and the result was one of his worst finishes ever at a place he has made his own. Through no fault of his own, Gerhart was involved in a seven-car accident just two laps into the 80-lap race, which served as the season opener for the 2016 ARCA schedule.
The melee appeared to be caused by contact between Derrick Lancaster and Cole Powell, and it ended the day for five other cars in addition to Gerhart’s. Officially, Gerhart finished 37th in the 40-competitor field.
He had started from the 14th position.
“It was a very ugly, violent accident that happened two rows ahead of me,” said Gerhart, by phone from Daytona Beach. “I got in the center of it, and got four cars from behind. It was completely unavoidable.
“One of the things that could’ve happened did,” Gerhart continued. “It was just a little inexperience at the wrong time. It just knocked us out. It destroyed the car. I was very lucky I didn’t get hurt. It is what it is. We’ve got to put it behind us.”
Ultimately, the checkered flag went to John Wes Townley. Townley was followed to the finish line by William Byron, Kyle Weatherman, Chase Briscoe and Frank Kimmel.
“There’s a certain amount that’s acceptable, that’s inevitable,” said Gerhart, 57. “But they’ve (ARCA officials) invited this by lining up by practice speed. Starting 14th is not where we wanted to be. To be honest, we didn’t have a 14th-place car. What happened was complete and utter inexperience.
“I was not overjoyed with the whole concept (of deciding starting positions), simply because it doesn’t work,” continued Gerhart. “It puts fast cars in positions they shouldn’t be in. You can’t avoid it. It’s part of the game you don’t plan for. I think we had a car that could’ve won the race. All systems were go.”
There is no race during the entire season that Gerhart puts more emphasis on than the ARCA Lucas Oil 200 at Daytona.
He and his race team literally prepare, test and plan for months for the event. Gerhart also devotes thousands of dollars of his racing budget to the race.
“There was a tremendous amount of work from everyone on this team that went into it,” said Gerhart. “All the time, all the preparation, all the testing was gone in a matter of minutes. That’s what makes it hard to swallow. But I’ve got to put it behind me. I can’t dwell on it. I’m already thinking about next year. We’ve just got to make a better hot rod.
“In our game, 70 percent of the drivers are rookies,” added Gerhart. “It mis-aligns talent and inexperience, from a lot of aspects.”
No one has experienced more racing success at the fabled Daytona International Speedway than Gerhart.
Saturday marked his 29th straight ARCA start at Daytona. He owns a record eight Daytona victories. and another five top-six finishes.
“We’ve won eight races with four different cars,” said Gerhart. “We’ve just got to make another one. We’ve got to build a better tool. We always want to have a car to beat, and it was nothing different this year. They’re trying to make it (racing in the ARCA circuit) better, and I’m all for it. But this isn’t headed in the right direction. All I can do is state my case. I voice my opinion, whether they want to hear it or not. It’s foolish, and for no gain.
“It’s just a system that breeds some things that wouldn’t normally happen,” Gerhart added. “There are other ways they could do that. We lost the fastest – maybe the best – car I’ve ever had. I haven’t seen the tape of it. I’m probably not going to look at it for a while.”
But Gerhart’s resiliency will serve him sooner than one might think.
He will compete in the Camping World Truck Series NextEra Energy Resources 250 on Friday at 7:30 p.m., and the X-finity Series Powershares 300 on Saturday at 3:30 p.m., both at Daytona. Each race can be viewed live on FoxSports1.
“It gives you an opportunity to place your focus on something completely different,” said Gerhart. “We’re going to have to accept it. You’ve got to put it behind you and move on, as quickly as possible.”