2009 World of Outlaws Late Model Series Championship Means The ‘World’ To Josh Richards
By Kevin Kovac, WoO LMS P.R. Director
CONCORD, NC – Nov. 30, 2009 – How much did winning the 2009 World of Outlaws Late Model Series points title mean to Josh Richards?
One glance at the young superstar’s face immediately after the season finale on Nov. 7 at The Dirt Track @ Lowe’s Motor Speedway told that story.
Normally a cool, calm customer who shows little emotion, Richards had tears of joy welling up in his eyes when he reached Victory Lane for his champion’s coronation. On top of the dirt Late Model world at the age of 21 after downing one of his racing mentors, Steve Francis, in a dramatic title showdown, he was simply overcome by the moment.
“I couldn’t even get out of the car,” recalled Richards, who became the sixth different – and by far the youngest – WoO LMS champion since the national tour was rekindled in 2004 under the World Racing Group banner. “I remember (apparel producer) Ron Slavic was the first guy to come over to me when I stopped, and I was breathless. It took me awhile to get myself together.
“It’s been my dream ever since I was a little kid to do this, so to work so hard at it, to win the championship on the last night, to beat (Steve) Francis in front of all those people (in the packed grandstand) and (watching) on live (SPEED) T.V. – all that was going through my mind. I still felt like I was dreaming. I thought I was going to wake up and be laying in bed somewhere.”
The $100,000 title capped a march to stardom that Richards began with his first practice laps behind the wheel of his father Mark’s Rocket Chassis house car in 2003. He has literally grown up on the road with the WoO LMS, maturing from the tour’s shy, quiet Rookie of the Year in 2005 to its confident champion and winningest driver in 2009.
After getting his feet wet on the WoO LMS in 2004 by entering about half of the season’s 41 events as a teammate to his father’s hired-gun chauffeur Bart Hartman, Richards went fulltime with the Outlaws in ’05 and has been one of the tour’s signature regulars ever since. He has started 202 consecutive A-Mains (dating back to Sept. 25, 2004) and shown steady improvement each season – eighth in the 2005 points standings (with one win), ninth in ’06 (one win), sixth in ’07 (four wins), second in ’08 (six wins) and, finally, first in ’09 (a series-best eight wins).
“To gain on it every year and come out with a championship – it’s really neat to be a part of that progression,” said Richards, who won his first WoO LMS A-Main as a rookie on Aug. 15, 2005, at New York’s Lebanon Valley Speedway and now owns 20 career victories to rank second behind Francis on the win list since 2004. “When you first start (racing), you’re trying to do the best you can but also gain respect from everybody and fit in. You learn along the way and gain confidence, and then you start to become one of the better guys and people start to look up to you.
“The whole mental game is such a big part of this sport, as far as learning to race smart and race consistent. You don’t pick those things up overnight, but once you start to get the mental thing figured out, other things start to come easier. Eventually you come to realize that if you run bad or something happens, you can’t let it bother you – you learn to worry about the things you can control and not the things you can’t.”
Richards proved repeatedly in 2009 that he had come of age. Coming off a tight battle for second place in the ’08 points standings with Francis and Shane Clanton that provided him valuable experience racing under points pressure and helped make him this year’s title favorite (17 of 24 participants in a pre-season media poll picked him to win the crown), Richards experienced few off nights and, on the rare occasions he did, roared right back with championship aplomb.
A heat-race qualifier in an amazing 39 of 40 WoO LMS events in 2009 (the only provisional he used came on April 18 at Virginia Motor Speedway following a heat tangle), Richards rang up 23 top-five and 34 top-10 finishes and completed 2,154 of 2,160 possible A-Main laps. He didn’t drop out of a single feature due to mechanical failure, and the only race in which he wasn’t running at the checkered flag came on April 17 at Fayetteville (N.C.) Motor Speedway, where Richards got tangled up with the slowing Vic Coffey on the final circuit.
The Fayetteville event, not surprisingly, was the first test of Richards’s championship mettle. He was cruising toward a solid third-place finish that would pad his growing points lead until race-long leader Coffey blew a tire heading to the white flag; Richards came together with Coffey’s limping racer when he tried to sneak by in turn two and the two cars slid to a stop. Richards tumbled to a 23rd-place finish in the blink of an eye – and after another rough outing the following night at VMS, he found himself third in the points standings.
But Richards didn’t dwell on his disappointment; he was back in the points lead two races later. He made similar rallies after a frustrating 17th-place finish with a temperamental new car on May 30 at Hagerstown (Md.) Speedway dropped him from first to a season-low fifth in the points standings; a flat-tire-filled evening on June 23 at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Speedway caused a fall from first to third; and, most famously, two disappointing runs during the Oil Region Labor Day Classic at Tri-City Speedway in Franklin, Pa., sent him into the homestretch of the schedule trailing Francis in the points race.
Richards entered the holiday-weekend doubleheader at Tri-City leading the standings by 12 points over Francis (defending WoO LMS champion Darrell Lanigan, who made the points battle a three-man race during the summer, had fallen from serious contention) and with six wins and no finish worse than 11th in the 22 A-Mains contested since his Hagerstown debacle. But after allowing Francis to pass him for the win on the final lap of Tri-City’s first feature on Sept. 5 and struggling to a ninth-place finish in the second 50-lapper the next night, Richards was suddenly four points behind Francis.
“After Tri-City I was so sick to my stomach that I slipped up and let Steve by and then didn’t come back with a good run the next night,” said Richards. “But that just made me open my eyes.”
After a mid-September doubleheader in the Midwest was washed out and not rescheduled, Richards had nearly two months to stew over his points position until the season-ending World Finals at The Dirt Track. The countdown to the championship-deciding events proved to be tough on Richards.
“I’ll be honest – the last three weeks (leading up to the World Finals), my nerves were tight,” said Richards. “It was hard for me to sleep, hard for me think – I was miserable. You think about winning the championship and know that it’s possible, but you also think about being so close and the points turning out the other way.”
When the November showdown finally arrived, however, Richards’s anxiety leveled off. Winning the postponed Hungry Man Showdown – a WoO LMS special event that offered only show-up points – on Nov. 5 to kick off the World Finals meet soothed his nerves even more.
“We went into Charlotte with an open mind,” said Richards. “Having a show-up points race first off helped us prepare mentally and get our program together, and when we won the race it obviously built confidence for us. Steve (Francis) still finished third and looked good so I knew it wasn’t gonna be easy, but it calmed me down a little bit.
“And actually, on Friday night (Nov. 6 for the first World Finals A-Main), I was relaxed. Then on Saturday night – I think that was the most relaxed race I ran all year. I know it’s weird to say that, but I really had a calm feeling the whole night.”
Well, at least until the scoreboard closed in on lap 50 with Richards in position to claim the title. After overtaking Francis to grab a four-point lead thanks to a fifth-place finish on Friday night (Richards had to rally from a pit stop for a flat tire while running third on lap 43; Francis finished ninth with power-steering woes), Richards slipped by Francis early in Saturday’s A-Main and stayed several spots in front of his rival throughout the distance.
“The last couple laps of that race are something I’ll never forget the rest of my life,” said Richards, who finished seventh versus Francis’s 12th-place result to clinch the championship by 14 points. “Knowing that we were a few laps from winning a championship – man, what a feeling. When that checkered flag finally came out, it was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had in my life.
“You try to accomplish things throughout your career, and, of course, winning a championship is the ultimate for a driver and a team,” he added. “When you realize it’s really happened, it really shows you can do anything. If you set your mind to it and your heart’s in it, you can accomplish anything.”
The well-wishers who congratulated Richards in Victory Lane after his championship included Francis and Richards’s father Mark, who celebrated his first points title since 1983 when he and Rodney Combs co-owned the car that Combs drove to the National Dirt Racing Association (NDRA) series crown.
“My dad was pretty much speechless too,” commented Richards, who has made every start of his WoO LMS career in his father’s familiar No. 1 machines. “He’s pretty quiet and doesn’t get very emotional – I take after him a little bit. We both kinda just let out a big sigh of relief. We just knew that we finally did it.
“He just shook my hand and said, ‘Good job, as always.’ It wasn’t much, but just by him saying that I could see how special winning the championship was for him.”
Richards paused, and then added, “I wouldn’t be where I am today without my dad. He’s given me the opportunity to do what I love to do. A lot of people have just always thought – because of the name and everything – that he pushed me to do this and pushed me to do that, but that’s not true. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. He’s just been kind of steering me where I need to be because he’s lived it his entire life.”
Speaking with so much more polish – and in so many more words – than when he began his career, Richards also hailed his on-the-road crewmen, Matt Barnes and Jimmy Frye, and all the shop help and sponsorship assistance he received to make the title possible.
“Obviously, since I’ve started racing, this has been the goal,” said Richards. “Everything has to fit together to get here – from racing hard and racing smart, to getting a feel for the car, to having a good setup, to having a good crew, to having the sponsors that let us do this.
“I’m just a small component in what it takes to win a championship. Everything’s always been there for me, and this year I just had to put it all together and sort everything out. That’s why we’re here today.”
Where Richards finds himself is a pretty nice place. He’s like so many other 21-year-olds who still live at home, but that’s where the similarities end. How many young adults his age can say they earned over $300,000 (including $286,170 just on the WoO LMS) in 2009? How many have such a bright future ahead of them?
“Oh yeah, I’m definitely living a dream,” said Richards, who expects to chase a second straight WoO LMS crown in 2010 unless his success springboards him to an opportunity with a NASCAR or ARCA stock car ride on pavement. “It’s crazy – I look in the mirror and I still feel like I haven’t changed a lot. I still feel like I’m a little kid going to the races, digging in the dirt and watching races. To be one of the best dirt Late Model drivers now is a dream come true.”