ROSSBURG, OH – For many years before strapping into a race car of his own, Hudson O’Neal came to Eldora Speedway and watched his father, Don O’Neal, compete in the world’s most prestigious Dirt Late Model race and come up empty-handed.
Now, at only 23 years old, Hudson has a globe of his own, bringing one of American motorsports’ most coveted trophies into the O’Neal home as victor of the 53rd World 100.
After a jubilant celebration in Victory Lane atop the Rocket1 Racing, Rocket/Durham #1, Hudson jumped down from the roof of his DIRTcar Late Model and immediately met Don – 2022 Class member of the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame – and shared a long, tearful embrace.
“[My dad] came so close so many times, leading and then would break, or had a chance and then cards didn’t play right and so on,” O’Neal said, recalling his days at the track as a child, watching his father race in the same event. “He came here, tried and tried and tried and just never could quite get it done.
“He’s told me for years that he wants me to win it more than he wanted to win it. It was special, the moment that we had up there. I’m just so happy he was here to witness and be a part of it.”
The next person with whom he shared a big hug – his car owner, Mark Richards. For 50 years, the Rocket Chassis co-owner had come to Eldora Speedway with the vision of one day being able to watch a car of his own pushed onto the World 100 Victory Lane stage. For 50 years, he was forced to wait for that experience, watching his own team drivers and those that he crewed for – Rodney Combs, Davey Johnson, and son Josh Richards – denied of the spotlight in the World 100.
That, too, changed Saturday night, as O’Neal crossed the finish line first to give the Rocket Chassis house team its first World 100 triumph and become the first driver from the State of Indiana to win the famed event.
“It just shows the passion that they take in what they do and how long they’ve been coming here, trying to win this race,” O’Neal said about what the win meant to him and his crew members. “Mark told me on the podium – it had been 50 years this year, 50 years he’s been coming here trying to win this race.
“I’m just very blessed to be the one to deliver that to him.”
O’Neal, of Martinsville, IN, delivered in dramatic fashion, passing five-time globe winner Jonathan Davenport in a slide-job/crossover battle that ensued from Lap 90 to Lap 92, when O’Neal sealed the pass with one final slide-job through Turns 1-2.
“I didn’t realize he was coming when he threw that slider, it kinda surprised me,” Davenport said. “I threw one back, we went back-and-forth, but just wasn’t good enough to hang with him.”
Now with the lead and an expanding gap on Davenport, O’Neal appeared to be directly en route to victory as he clicked the laps down and rounded Turn 4 to collect the white flag, but the yellow flag was displayed. A slowing Kyle Strickler had drawn a caution period and restacked the field for one final restart in green-white-checkered fashion.
“I saw the five-to-go [signal] and my shoulders started getting wider and wider,” O’Neal said. “Then, the caution came out, and it crushed me in my seat.”
With Davenport and Friday night Prelim Feature winner Brian Shirley now right on his bumper, O’Neal hammered the throttle on the restart and drove away out of Turn 2, gapping Davenport and coming back around to collect the white flag.
Try as he may, however, Davenport – the veteran driver from Blairsville, GA – was unable to catch the young Indianan out front and settled for runner-up.
“He just got up there and got a little bit more that I didn’t know was there,” Davenport said. “[O’Neal] and one or two others are the best at running the fence. I just ain’t quite as good as they are, and I just wasn’t set up to do that, really.”
Davenport had taken the lead from O’Neal on Lap 52 after a restart, slipping underneath him into Turn 1 and driving off with the spot. For the next 40 circuits around the half-mile, Davenport showed the way, but O’Neal never let him out of his sights.
“I was running pretty hard and wasn’t pulling away from [O’Neal] any,” Davenport said. “Just trying to move around a little bit and find a little bit extra to get a gap there. He obviously just found a little bit more up on the top.”
A fellow veteran of the Dirt Late Model world, albeit with less history, Davenport expressed his admiration and respect for the man in charge of the car that bested him, having competed against Richards’ cars for the majority of his national Late Model career.
“If anybody else is deserving of a win in this thing, it’s definitely [Mark Richards] for how long he’s tried to win it and how much he’s put in the sport,” Davenport said. “He’s put his heart and soul into this sport going up and down the road with his company.”
2005 World 100 winner Dale McDowell, 57, of Chickamauga, GA, claimed the final podium spot after snagging the final transfer spot in B-Main #1, starting 27th on the Feature grid and advancing 24 spots of position to come home third. Multi-time DIRTcar Late Model national champion Brian Shirley, of Chatham, IL, crossed in fourth, while Tanner English rounded out the top-five from 25th on the grid in his first career World 100 main event start.
53rd Annual World 100 (100 Laps): 1. 1-Hudson O’Neal; 2. 49-Jonathan Davenport; 3. 17M-Dale McDowell; 4. 8S-Brian Shirley; 5. 96V-Tanner English; 6. 25Z-Mason Zeigler; 7. 22-Chris Ferguson; 8. 19R-Ryan Gustin; 9. 1T-Tyler Erb; 10. B5-Brandon Sheppard; 11. 157-Mike Marlar; 12. 20RT-Ricky Thornton Jr; 13. 9-Nick Hoffman; 14. 40B-Kyle Bronson; 15. 8-Kyle Strickler; 16. 25F-Jason Feger; 17. 20-Jimmy Owens; 18. 20TC-Tristan Chamberlain; 19. 46-Earl Pearson Jr; 20. 25-Shane Clanton; 21. 32-Bobby Pierce; 22. 4-Brandon Overton; 23. 99-Devin Moran; 24. 87-Chris Madden; 25. 2S-Stormy Scott; 26. 58-Garrett Alberson; 27. 23-Cory Hedgecock; 28. 18-Shannon Babb; 29. 11R-Josh Rice; 30. 12-Jason Jameson