2023 World 100 at Eldora Speedway

World 100 Victory At Eldora Is 50 Years Of Relief For Mark Richards

World 100 Victory At Eldora Is 50 Years Of Relief For Mark Richards

After nearly 50 years of trying, Mark Richards celebrated his first World 100 victory when Hudson O'Neal pulled into victory lane at Eldora Speedway.

Sep 11, 2023 by Kevin Kovac
Press Conference: World 100 Podium Finishers

Mark Richards spent the entirety of Saturday’s 53rd annual World 100 alone on the roof of his big blue trailer parked in the middle of Eldora Speedway’s infield. It was just the 62-year-old Rocket Chassis co-owner, pacing back-and-forth, analyzing his driver Hudson O’Neal’s every move, holding a cell phone in his hands to periodically check lap times and text directives to his house car team members stationed on the ground.

And of course he was hoping, always hoping, that come the end of the race O’Neal might flash under the checkered flag first to finally give Richards a victory in the most prestigious event of a Dirt Late Model division to which he’s dedicated his life.

But Richards has experienced so many fruitless trips to Eldora — nearly 50 years of them as a crewman, crew chief and car owner with only a single crown jewel victory, in 2019’s Dream with driver Brandon Sheppard, on his ledger — that he was prepared to accept another defeat when Eldora master Jonathan Davenport overtook O’Neal for the lead on lap 52 in pursuit of his second straight and record-tying sixth World 100 victory.

“It just always seemed like every time we got to where I felt like we were in position to win (the World 100) just always something happened or somebody passed us,” Richards said. “And tonight, Jonathan (Davenport) passed us and I figured we were gonna run second.”

This time was different, though. This time the stars, at long last, aligned for Richards. He watched his 23-year-old phenom driver turn up the wick over the race’s final stages, slide Davenport for the lead on lap 92 and go on to the first World 100 win of both Richards’s and O’Neal’s racing careers.

Oh, there still was a moment when the impending-doom part of Richards’s brain activated — on lap 98, when O’Neal’s comfortable advantage was wiped out by a final caution flag because Kyle Strickler ran out of fuel. Richards reacted by throwing his hands up in disgust as he stood just feet away from his trailer’s ladder that he was ready to climb down to begin celebrating.

But O’Neal proceeded to handle the restart with aplomb and beat Davenport to the finish line by 1.121 seconds, eliciting a few fist pumps from Richards — quite a bit of outward emotion for the serious racing veteran — before he glided along each rung of his trailer’s ladder in a dream-like state.

How did Richards feel upon realizing a life-long goal? His answer was simple.

“Relief,” he said later, standing behind his blue No. 1 car in the pit area as the crowd that enveloped it immediately after the race began to shrink. “Fifty years of relief.”


Highlights: 53rd World 100 at Eldora Speedway

Just days before he departed Rocket headquarters in Shinnston, W.Va., for his latest Eldora attempt, Richards noted that his World 100 futility — his best previous finish as a crew member or car owner in the race was a third with Davey Johnson in 2000 — made him “feel like Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500.” Earnhardt, of course, did finally win NASCAR’s premier race in 1998 and was overwhelmed by well-wishers as he made his way to victory lane, and Richards enjoyed a similar experience as he marched toward Eldora’s winner’s stage.

Richards could barely take a step through Eldora’s pit area without having a congratulatory hand thrust at him, people patting him on the back or someone coming in close to hug him. He doled out hugs, too, with a bright smile crossing his face and relishing every second.

“Oh yeah, it was pretty cool,” Richards said. “A lot of crew members from a lot of different cars was over here because they knew that we’d been trying all them years and just never got it accomplished.

“I remember quite a few guys who came up to me and it meant a lot that they did. I won’t go into it (naming names), because obviously they come from other brands of cars, but when it comes down to it, I got a lot of respect for a lot of these guys and I feel like they respect me for what we’ve done and been going after for so many years.”

His all-business facade even broke down amid the post-race celebration in front of Eldora’s massive crowd. Some noticeable tears dripped from his eyes as the realization that all his years of heartache at the World 100 were over.

“I came here in ’74 for the first time, and ’75 was the first time I came here with my brother’s car (as a crewman) with Bob Cook, he was over from Pennsylvania, as the driver,” Richards said. “We didn’t really know what we were doing. We were just here. I know in ’78 Billy Teegarden ran my brother’s car and ran fifth (in the World 100), and that was like a big deal for us.

“From that point on I got with Rodney (Combs) and had all them years in the ‘80s where there were a few times we should’ve won it. The engine would blow out or something would break or he’d be leading … one year I put a new motor in right before the feature just because we blew up the year before leading, and we’re leading with a new engine and driving away, nobody close, and the engine blows up.”

Richards paused, his mind wandering back through the decades to the “few that got away.”

“With Davey (Johnson), I felt like we should’ve won in 2000,” Richards said. “Seventy-some laps and Davey’s driving off, and somebody throws something out on the racetrack to get a caution, and the track rubbered and (winner Billy Moyer and runner-up Scott Bloomquist) got by us in the rubber because we were too tight to run the rubber.

“We had the race in ’06 with (his then 18-year-old son) Josh (Richards), but he’d only drove for two years and he really didn’t know what to do when he got the lead. We had a couple others with Josh that were close … one year, Dale (McDowell) and Don (O’Neal) I think were racing for second and third and one of them bounced off the wall and took Josh out. I felt we was gonna win that one.”

After The Checkers: Recapping The World 100

After The Checkers: Breaking Down The 53rd World 100

Hudson O’Neal, in his first year as the Rocket1 pilot, was the 10th driver to enter a crown jewel event at Eldora in Rocket's house car since Richards started the program in the mid-‘90s, joining Johnson, Josh Richards, Sheppard, the late Tim Hitt, Rick Aukland, Steve Francis, Bart Hartman, Tony Stewart, and Rick Eckert and Sheppard. After finishing seventh in June’s Dream, the rising young star became the guy who brought Richards a globe and he couldn’t have been prouder of that fact.

“I’m just happy to be able to get it for him,” O’Neal said.

The huge throng in attendance certainly warmly embraced O’Neal’s victory, cheering the exuberant kid loudly when he jumped on his car’s roof and following his emotional interview in victory lane. But Richards received plenty of adulation as well in one of the best feel-good moments Dirt Late Model racing has had in recent memory.

The trio of crewman who toil on Richards’s equipment felt especially excited for their boss.

“I’m just so happy for him, and (Rocket co-owner) Steve (Baker), to finally get one,” said Rocket1 crew chief Danny White, who has been with the house car team since 2014. “I was running back towards the truck to meet him (immediately after the race) and he was ecstatic.

“I feel like when we won the Dream, it kind of took a weight off his shoulders, he finally got a crown jewel here. Now, we got ‘em both, and for him and Steve … the (Rocket Chassis) cars have won it (in the past), but finally for this team to win it, for him to win it, and finally take the trophy home and put it in the shop, our trophy, it’s big.”

Richards’s youngest crew member, 25-year-old Joel Rogers, had tears appear to well up in his eyes as he spoke about Richards’s breakthrough.

“You think and you wonder if you can do it, but for Mark to be how he is, how happy is, and Steve … it was epic, it really was,” Rogers said. “He was pumped up. I think he was lost for words. We won the Dream and he was ecstatic, but I think this broke him through. I’m sure it’s a relief for him and Steve, like, ‘We did it.’”

Austin Hargrove, who won the 2009 World 100 at Bart Hartman’s crew chief before finding a home with the Rocket house car team, was overjoyed that Richards finally took his turn as a winner of the race every Dirt Late Model person covets.

“If there’s a storyline of not giving up, that guy’s it,” Hargrove said. “That guy didn’t give up for 50 years and he’s finally got what he wanted, and he deserves every bit of it.

“And he ain’t stopping. That guy ain’t quit yet. Why would he quit now?”

As is his nature, Richards deflected the praise directed toward him by turning it back towards his driver and crew members.

“And this crew here, they’re the hardest working crew that I’ve ever had,” Richards said. “They’re professional and they know what each one’s job is and they get it done.

“This is the crew I’ve had since 2017, minus Austin (coming off the road) last year, so we got the band back together. We just got a different lead singer.”

And what a fine frontman O’Neal has become. His grit, determination and talent was on full display before Richards’s eyes down the stretch of the World 100.

“After that (next-to-last) last restart (on lap 76), I texted Dan and told him to tell Hudson, ‘Burn it down,’ ” Richards said. “He knows what that means.”

O’Neal obliged, pushing his machine to the limit in pursuit of Davenport.

“I drive my heart out like a stud,” O’Neal said on the winner’s stage.

Indeed, O’Neal tore around the half-mile oval’s cushion — much to Richards’s satisfaction — to catch, and ultimately pass, the indomitable Davenport.

“That was the only place we was gonna pick any speed up,” Richards said. “J.D. was good, and they were pretty equal, so we had to find some more speed somewhere, and the only place we was gonna find it was to get up and pound the cushion.

“He went in there and slid him into one (to being his winning pass),” Richards said, “and then he come back across and did a slide-job into (turns) three and four so nobody could go in there and slide him. He slid himself basically.”

A few minutes later, Richards had his World 100. It was a good hour after the checkered flag when he began coming down from his high and became nostalgic over his accomplishment.

“Truthfully, if you would’ve seen the place the first time I came in here in ’74, you’d be in awe,” Richards said, gazing toward the third and fourth turn end of the Eldora facility. “You gotta realize, there wasn’t much here. All that is up there (bleachers and VIP tower), that was like a terrace where the trucks came in and zig-zagged back-and-forth down here to the (pit) gate. And when we come across the track, there was no concrete (in the pits) … then they started pouring a little bit of concrete, and Tony (Stewart) done an awesome job upgrading with the suites and everything’s he’s done since he took over (from the late Earl Baltes in 2004) that really made it the showplace of dirt track racing.”

Richards said Eldora is “definitely the Late Model capital.” For all the misery he’s experienced there, he’s now also enjoyed the highest of highs.

And while Richards will tell everyone that he could have lived without winning a World 100, he’s glad he won’t have to actually see what that would feel like.

“I got a different philosophy about stuff,” Richards said. “It’s gonna be the way it is and there’s nothing you can do about it. You do what you can do and that’s it.

“People say, ‘You didn’t win that race.’ Well, OK, it ain’t the end of the world,” he continued, before concluding with a wink of his eye. “But it was great to win it.”