BY JEFF FALK
PHOTOS BY JESSICA HUNSICKER
For Bobby Gerhart, racing in Florida is akin to a kid at Christmas – he looks forward to it all year round. In many ways, his entire racing season revolves around competing in the southern part of the state in February.
And given his past there, who could really blame him? Not only has Gerhart enjoyed more success at Daytona International than any other speedway at which he competes, he has enjoyed almost as much success there as any other stock-car racer in history.
But now, in light of recent changes made to the way ARCA goes about its business, there are some questions as to whether or not Gerhart will ever race there again, at least as part of a series in which he is a long-time regular. Gerhart and ARCA are at odds as to how drivers qualify for the Lucas Oil 200 at Daytona, and how those methods affect fairness and driver safety.
At Saturday’s event on Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval, Gerhart finished 15th in the 40-car field. Gerhart appeared to have nowhere to go when he was involved in an on-track incident with Justin Fontaine and Codie Rohrbaugh, with five laps to go, and the race was never re-started.
The ARCA-season opening event endured six cautions affecting 31 laps and slowing the average speed of the race to 101 miles per hour.
Gerhart has won eight ARCA races at Daytona, more than any other driver in the history of the series.
“We know where we need to be,” said Gerhart, via phone from Florida. “But the control of it is out of our hands. What do I say to our guys? I don’t think they (ARCA officials) treat it as a privilege to be here. For 30 years, I’ve earned my stripes in this sport. I try to bring things to people’s attention, but it falls on deaf ears.
“It is a very, very negative thing,” continued Gerhart. “I’m going to continue to race, but I can’t say I’m going to come here if the platform doesn’t change. Every wreck in the race was caused by contact. What’s coming down the pike is allowing more contact. It’s a recipe for disaster. It all comes down to one thing, and that’s safety. I was hit that hard that the cables came out of my radio. It all happened because of contact.
After earning the 21st starting position through group qualifying, Gerhart eventually dropped to the back of the pack and avoided three accidents early in the race. But with 20 laps to go, the Lebanon native made his move and got as high as eighth place.
It wasn’t too long after that that Gerhart became involved with Rohrbaugh and Fontaine.
Austin Theriault was credited with the victory, while Terry Jones was named the runner-up. Shane Lee was third, Dalton Sargeant fourth and Tom Hessert, who started on the pole, fifth.
“We were at a disadvantage from the beginning,” said Gerhart. “I thought we had a fantastic car, based on testing. Unfortunately, they (ARCA officials) changed how they qualified their cars. I wasn’t in a good group. It is as random a thing as I’ve seen. It miss-aligns everything. I’m not a big fan of that, and with the way the program is, it’s impossible to pass. To start in the middle might be the most dangerous place to start. I tried to go to the back and tried to look for opportunities to pit.
“Actually, I thought we were in position before we wrecked, to be in the top five,” Gerhart continued. “On a restart, we were 17th and slid to eighth or ninth. It’s impossible to pass unless it’s a line of cars, and it shows in the results. We had a car that was a very good drafting car. It was a good car, but it didn’t do what I thought it would do.”
Gerhart’s last win at Daytona came in 2012. He also won the ARCA race at the famed speedway in 2011, 2010, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2002 and 1999. This season marked the 30th year Gerhart and his crew competed in the ARCA race at Daytona.
In addition to his eight wins, Gerhart holds the Daytona ARCA record for most poles, most front-row starts, most laps led, most top-ten finishes and most top-ten starts.
“It’s changed the atmosphere, and it’s not something I look forward to,” said Gerhart of the qualifying procedures. “I’ve done the best job I can. When I first came to Daytona, no one even knew who we were. It’s like anything. You’ve got to work relentlessly on it to get better.
“We’re on different sides of the fence,” added Gerhart. “If anyone watched the race, they wouldn’t come to me and say it was one of the best ARCA races. It was one of the worst ARCA races. I’m going to race at Daytona, but it won’t be under this platform. At 59, if I can avoid impacts like I had last night, then I’m going to avoid them. I feel like they’re (ARCA officials) completely looking the other way.”
Gerhart went to Daytona with literally hundreds of man-hours invested into his Chevy Impala.
“We came here to try and win a pole, and we came here to try and win a race,” said Gerhart. “It feels to me like they’re trying to change that. To me, it’s a conscious effort to throw the dice and mix the field up. When I came in the gate 30 years ago, I was a guy trying to break into the sport. Drivers have treated this race as a springboard for their careers or to make their mark in the sport. At this point in time, I’m not going to say I’m not going to race Daytona. But I can’t say it’s going to be in this series. The format has tremendously negative issues. It takes my safety out of my hands.
“I felt like all the work we did, which was a tremendous amount of preparation, didn’t matter,” Gerhart added. “I felt like I was going to the casino. I’m not into that game any more. It’s not the right way to do it. It’s not the fair way to do it. I think they’re doing it for marketing, not for performance. They want to mix the field up and they don’t care about the crashes.”
But being the survivor that he is, Gerhart will get right back on the horse. He is scheduled to compete in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ Nextera Energy 250 at Daytona on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
“We didn’t bring a car here that should’ve started 21st,” said Gerhart. “There was wreck after wreck after wreck. The safest place was in the back. They’ve (ARCA officials) lost sight of what it means. They’ve lost sight of their position in the sport.
“It feels like all these guys would’ve voted for Bernie Sanders,” continued Gerhart. “They want to take speed from the faster cars and give it to the slower cars. We’re not only going to take away from guys who work hard, but we’re going to hurt them. It feels like they’ve lost their train of thought. They want to give medals for participating. I don’t come here to be a race participant. I come here to win.”
Bobby Gerhart’s 8 wins at Daytona came in ’12, ’11, ’10, ’07, ’06, ’05, ’02 & ’99. Outside his career-best ARCA championship point finishes of 2nd, he also finished 3rd in ’99, 5th in ’00 & ’91, 8th in ’88 & 10th in ’90 & ’97. In 313 career starts since 1988, he has 55 top-5 finishes and 122 top-10s. His best superspeedway finishes other than wins at Daytona & Talladega are 2nd at Daytona ’00, 3rd at Talladega ’11 & ’08, 3rd at Talladega ’05, 3rd at Pocono ’04, 3rd at Talladega ’97, 4th at Daytona ’08, 4th at Pocono ’08, 4th at Kansas ’05, 4th at Pocono ’02, 4th at Michigan ’98, 4th at Texas ’98 & ‘91, 5th at Pocono ’06, 5th at Pocono ’04, 5th at Kentucky & Talladega ’00, 5th at Lowe’s & MIS ’99, 5th at Pocono ’02, ’97 & ‘96, 6th at Kansas ’06, 6th at Pocono ’06, 6th at Daytona ’04 & ‘14, 6th at Daytona & Pocono ’01, 7th at Nashville ’06, 7th at Talladega ’06 & ‘14, 7th at Pocono ’05, 7th at MIS ’02, 8th at Kentucky ’06, 8th at MIS ’04, 8th at Daytona ‘98, 9th twice at Pocono ’15, 9th at Pocono ’09 & ‘10, 9th at Chicagoland ’10, 9th at Kentucky ’05, 9th at Gateway ’04, 9th & 10th at Atlanta ’98, 10th at Pocono ‘05 and 10th at Kentucky ‘04. His best short-track finishes are 2nd at Anderson ’00, 2nd at Flemington ’99, 3rd at Salem ’06, 3rd at Hagerstown ’89 & Flat Rock ’91, 4th at Winchester ’07, 4th at Toledo ’04, 4th at South Boston ’02, 4th at Toledo & Winchester ’00, 5th at Toledo ’07, 5th at Winchester ’06, 5th at Lake Erie & Milwaukee ’05 and 5th at Kil-Kare ’00. Bobby also won Menards Pole Awards at Daytona in 4 consecutive seasons ’03, ’04, ’05 & ‘06. Also Pole winner at Talladega ’06, ’02 & ’01, MIS ’98 & Winchester ‘00. He has led 839 in 35 races. His first race was in 1976.
Bobby Gerhart’s Career Racing Stats in ARCA Series