TULALIP — The Pacific Northwest late-model racing scene just got a whole lot simpler.
The directors of the region’s two late-model touring series — Scott Elsworth of the ASA Northwest Tour and Jerry Losch of the ARCA West Late Model Challenge Series — announced Friday that their series would merge for the 2009 season.
"I feel this is the best thing for auto racing in the Northwest for many years to come," said Losch, who joined Ellsworth at the Tulalip Casino for a social event preceding the annual Washington Racing Promoters Association meeting.
Although the new series doesn’t have a name yet — the deal was finalized just days ago — what is known is that Ellsworth will serve as overall director, and Losch will be the competition coordinator and have the tire concession.
The American Speed Association will be the sanctioning body and the rules package used by the Northwest Tour in 2008 — which were open enough for local racers from the host track to join the tour drivers for events — will be adopted by the new series.
Ellsworth said he and Losch will staff the new series with "the best people from both the Northwest Tour and the Late Model Challenge Series."
A decision on tires will be made later — Ellsworth said Goodyear has once again entered into the picture after conceding the market to Hoosier two years ago due to supply problems.
"Right now it looks like we have 11 dates, and we’ll try to get a 12th," Ellsworth said of the 2009 schedule. "Evergreen, Yakima, Wenatchee, Stateline, Pacific and Mission Valley. Right now Sound Sound is up in the air, Kalispell is in the air and Vernon is in the air."
Reaction to the news in the regional racing community was both surprise and optimism.
"I would’ve bet anything against that," said Shane Harding, a Northwest Tour driver and two-time late-model division champion at Evergreen Speedway. "Is that right? That’s very exciting — hopefully this rejuvenates auto racing in the Northwest."
"Wow — that’s nice to hear," said Darren Scriver of DS Racing, whose car competed as part of the Northwest Tour. "That’s a good thing. I’m pretty pleased to hear it, especially with Ellsworth as director."
Scriver added that Ellsworth, who served for two years as the Northwest Tour’s media coordinator under founding director Ron Bennett, would provide a clean break from past conflicts that existed between the tours and both racers and promoters.
After Ellsworth succeeded Bennett as Northwest Tour director at the end of the 2008 season, he sent a few emails to Losch to discuss a possible merger. Nothing came of those communications until a week ago when a driver returning to tour racing became the catalyst to the merger.
Mark Sundberg of Seattle contacted both Ellsworth and Losch to discuss racing with their series next season. After talking to both, he called Ellsworth back to say the two series were so similar they should combine efforts.
With Sundberg serving as the go-between, Ellsworth and Losch got together face-to-face.
"We met at (Sea-Tac airport) last Sunday morning," Ellsworth said. "Within three hours we had an agreement, shook hands and the Late Model Challenge Series has merged with the ASA Northwest Tour."
The announcement fulfills the desires of Bennett, who decided to step down as Northwest Tour director at the end of the 2008 season.
"This is an emotional decision I feel I needed to make. As everyone knows my heart has been with the (Northwest Tour) for many years. It pains me to have to make this announcement," said Bennett in the press release announcing his departure. "By my stepping back I hope that communication will open up between the two traveling series to merge. I have tried to get that to happen to no avail. Maybe someone else can bridge the gap."
Bennett formed the Northwest Tour in early 2007 after NASCAR abruptly made the decision to end support for regional touring series nationwide — putting out of business the NASCAR Elite Division Northwest Series that was started in 1985 with a race at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe.
Although the NASCAR Elite series began with open rules that encouraged local drivers to participate, over the years the technical requirements made it harder and harder for casual racers to participate. That impacted car counts for several of the regional series — the Northwest series was not one of them — so NASCAR decided to terminate the program at the end of the 2006 season.
Prior to the start of the 2008 season, Bennett acknowledged that the reconstituted series had a rough beginning, with car counts the first year barely making it to double digits and an on-again/off-again schedule.
Making things tougher for the struggling start-up, defending NASCAR series champion Gary Lewis — a 20-year veteran of racing with a large regional following — joined the other touring series in the Northwest: the Late Model Challenge Series.
"I wanted to race," said Lewis, who went on to win the Late Model Challenge series title in 2007. "The (Northwest) Tour was a go, then it was canceled, then a go, then canceled."
Started in 2000 by Losch, the Late Model Challenge Series operated alongside the NASCAR Northwest regional series with little to no conflict between the two. When NASCAR dropped out at the end of 2006, Losch expanded his series by partnering with sanctioning body ARCA West, a division of the Automobile Racing Club of America, the nation’s second-largest stock-car sanctioning association after NASCAR.
When Bennett created the Northwest Tour, he made the decision to go back to a more open rules package to encourage driver participation and minimize costs. That move put the two touring series in direct competition for drivers, race dates and venues, and contributed to dividing the late-model racing scene in the Pacific Northwest.
The end result was neither series had a broad enough foundation to thrive in the lean times that came with the economic downturn this past year.
Both Losch and Ellsworth are confident that the new series can be successful.
"I know Scott and I know we can work together," Losch said, pointing out that Ellsworth had spent a couple years as the Late Model Challenge Series media coordinator. "A partnership is very do-able."