BY JEFF FALK
PHOTOS BY DEB SEGALLA
The world of sports is, at best, a crap shoot, a roll of the dice, the luck of a draw. Preparation is a tool competitors employ to even the playing field, to decrease the odds and lessen the impact of fortune.
On Saturday evening Florida, Bobby Gerhart did what he always does on a race track – put himself in a position to be successful. The only thing different was the result.
A wreck, over which he had no control, ended the Lebanon racer’s pursuit of an unprecedented ninth victory in the Lucas Oil 200 at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway. While the crash left Gerhart shaken, but undeterred, it did accentuate the degree of control over which Gerhart actually had on the outcome.
“Initially, it knocks all the wind out of you,” said Gerhart, by phone from Daytona. “The safety devices do a good job. You don’t expect it. But it’s part of the game. You’ve got to keep your composure and hope it doesn’t happen. I never had a chance to take the gas pedal off the floor.
“I guess I’ve been involved in a dozen or so accidents over my career,” Gerhart continued. “I’ve had worse. I’ve had less. When you’re going that fast, it’s hard on you. Nothing’s small.”
Officially, the accident – which also included novice Leilani Munter and Buster Graham – on Lap 53 of the 80-lap race relegated Gerhart to a 39th-place finish in the 40-car field. Gerhart was making his 28th career start in an ARCA series season-opener which he has won eight times and finished among the top-ten seven other times.
The victory went to Grant Efinger, who beat runner-up Daniel Suarez to the checkered flag by .14 of a second. Brett Hudson finished third, followed by Cody Coughlin and Frank Kimmel.
“The tape will tell it all,” said Gerhart, who was sat in his car for five minutes before being physically assisted to an ambulance. “I’m not pointing any fingers or placing any blame. It’s hard when you’re racing three-wide. I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“We didn’t have the best day,” continued Gerhart. “I got hit pretty hard. We were lined up on the outside, three cars wide. There was a guy in front of me. He was in between us and a car in front of him got sideways. I got a shot on the left. It was what it was.”
What’s questionable is the influence Gerhart would have had on the result of the race if he wouldn’t have been involved in the crash. At the time of the incident, Gerhart’s black number five was running in the 17th position.
“It certainly wasn’t going the way we planned,” said Gerhart. “The series brought in some new engine rules. It’s easy to look back and say we would’ve done things differently. Nobody got a chance to test the new changes. It just played their way, and not mine. We were just a little out powered. I shouldn’t have been in that position. It was a good run, just not a great one. I really felt we had a top-ten car, at best.
“Given our history at Daytona, anything less than going to victory lane isn’t a success,” added Gerhart. “I understand it’s a very high goal. I wouldn’t call it a failure. I had to make some decisions and we had to flip a coin. I would have to say it didn’t go our way this weekend. We just have to put it behind us. We’re going to be here as long as the sport will have me.”
Gerhart actually led Laps 36-38, thanks to a an early pit under caution on Lap 15. Then when another caution came out on Lap 35, and the leaders went to pit road, Gerhart assumed the lead.
But when the race went green again, Gerhart was quickly passed by most of the leaders. By lap 47, he was running 14th.
“The reason we took the old engine package was because it was better on fuel mileage,” said Gerhart. “But I pretty much got run over on the the restart. On Friday, we were the fastest car on the race track. We’re now in a series where someone’s laptop determines the engines we are running. It appears if we’re going to run in this series, that’s what we’ve got to do.
“It might take a little competitive spirit out of it,” added Gerhart. “It takes away the possibility of winning the race in the garage. I don’t like control being taken out of racers’ hands. It’s like anything new, it’s going to have a couple of bumps in the road until things are worked out.”
Gerhart started 14th, and before the caution on Lap 15, was in 17th place. By the time the Lap 35 caution came out, Gerhart had worked himself up to 13th place.
“I was more nervous about qualifying than the race,” said Gerhart. “I was very, very calm before the race. It was just like it was another day at the office. There was a lot at stake for a lot of people.”
Owner of an independent race team, Gerhart continues to compete against some of the biggest names in the stock-car racing business, with limited sponsorship and on a limited budget.
“I think the importance of that was I chose to take the high road on exactly what happened,” said Gerhart of a television interview on Fox Sports One. “I certainly wasn’t happy about what happened. I took the high road and said, ‘let the tape speak for itself.’ It’s a privilege to be there.
“I’m held to a little different standard than anyone here,” Gerhart continued. “There were a lot of Lucas (Oil) people watching and it was their race. At every angle of it, it’s their time.”
Gerhart’s limited schedule for 2015 calls for him to compete in five to six Xfinity series races – including Saturday’s 300-mile event at Daytona – and four or five ARCA races, including Pocono this summer.
“I took a pretty good shot,” said Gerhart. “But the thing that hurts the most are my legs and feet. We’ve got a really good Xfinity car, and that’s a huge platform. I’ll try to run a half-dozen Xfinity races this season. We’ll try to get as much TV time as possible.
“I’ve got to get medical clearance to compete,” concluded Gerhart. “But that’ll go alright. I’m OK.”