By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
MONROE — For Derek Roberts, winning a season driver championship will always be great, regardless of who owns the car. And for his father, Jeff Roberts, owning a winning car will be a similar thrill, no matter who’s behind the wheel.
But for the two of them — a father-owner and a son-driver — the opportunity to share a love of racing and the elation of winning for one remarkable sprint car season was special indeed.
“When you drive for your dad, you want to do good for him,” said Derek Roberts, a 30-year-old firefighter who lives in Snohomish. “I wouldn’t even know about racing if it wasn’t for him.”
And the chance to win races together, he said, “is the best part.”
It happened last year as Derek Roberts, in his first full season at Burlington’s Skagit Speedway, won the season driver championship and the rookie of the year award in the sportsman 360 sprint car series.
Roberts finished in the top five of all 13 races and had three victories for 1,357 series points. His lead over series runner-up Justin Youngquist of Burlington was a whopping 157 points, which was more than the margin between Youngquist and the eighth-place finisher.
And with some canny foresight — or maybe it was just brash talk — Derek Roberts predicted the whole thing.
Coming off two strong races at the end of the 2010 season, “I told my dad, ‘We’re going to win the championship and rookie of the year (next season).’ And he said, ‘Hey, don’t get ahead of yourself. I know we had a couple of good races, but we’re still the new guys.’”
And yet when Derek Roberts wrapped up the title in the next-to-last race of 2011, “I looked at him and thought, ‘Why am I surprised?’” recalled 61-year-old Jeff Roberts, who lives in Monroe and works in the Mercer Island parks maintenance department. “He told me it was going to happen. And with the work that went in, of course we were bound to run up front and win.
“But it was Derek who made me believe we could win,” he said.
Jeff Roberts has been in and out of racing over the years, but he never lost his love of the sport even when he was away. His son grew up going to tracks and caught the racing bug at an early age, “but I never thought I’d be racing myself,” Derek Roberts said. “I was literally the guy on the other side of the fence.”
But in 2007 Jeff Roberts bought a mini sprint car and they started racing at Deming Speedway. Two years later they moved up to the 1200 Class. And in the summer of 2010 they picked up a sprint car at a sale price — “It was a bargain extraordinaire,” Jeff Roberts said — and that same night they raced for the first time at Skagit Speedway.
Their racing relationship is full of love, but also occasional sparks. “It’s pretty smooth now,” Jeff Roberts said. “But I’ll tell you what, things were a little rough at first. … Through racing you learn to negotiate.”
What helps is that each one has well-defined roles. Jeff Roberts owns the car and is the crew chief. Derek Roberts seeks sponsors, chases parts, and on race day slides into the driver’s seat.
“Dad does all the motor stuff,” Derek Roberts said. “Yeah, I know a little bit about motors, but I don’t want to touch that. There’s too much to know and too much to do, and that’s his realm.”
Likewise, Jeff Roberts said, “I believe as owner and crew chief, you cannot set up a sprint car if you’re not driving it. So Derek has full rein on setting the car up.”
In the end, he added, “I need him to do what he’s doing, and he needs me to do what I’m doing.”
Oh, and one other thing. As car owner Jeff Roberts handed down one iron-clad decree. “I told Derek, ‘If you forsake your family for this sprinter, I’ll pull you out of the car.’”
Derek Roberts, who has a wife and a young son, willingly agreed.
Family, though, is never very far away on race nights. Jeff Roberts’ uncle, Kenneth Roberts, is the president of Onshore Exploration Corp., of Chandler, Ariz., and the team’s primary sponsor. Brother-in-law Brian Haddeland of Lynnwood is on the pit crew, and his wife Cyndy, Jeff’s sister, also helps out around the pits. Other relatives show up to cheer on the team.
“There are nights when we have 15 or 20 family members in the stands,” Derek Roberts said. “And that’s the fun part of it.”
“It’s a family deal,” his dad agreed.
But the primary link is between father and son, and the hours together have helped tighten that bond. Derek Roberts was still in school when his mother and father divorced, “and there were some years there where he was hurt and I was hurt,” Jeff Roberts said. “We weren’t together as much as we’d liked to have been.”
The chance to be racing teammates, he added, “has helped make up for all those years.”
And even though winning can bring future opportunities, “if we can still be competitive together we’ll never do it without (each other),” Derek Roberts said.