2024 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series at Golden Isles Speedway

What's In Store For Hudson O'Neal And Rocket1 Racing In 2024?

What's In Store For Hudson O'Neal And Rocket1 Racing In 2024?

Hudson O'Neal started his title defense by winning Thursday's Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series opener at Golden Isles Speedway.

Jan 26, 2024 by Kyle McFadden

Did Hudson O’Neal put the competition across the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series and beyond on notice with Thursday’s opening night victory at Golden Isles Speedway?

On notice in the sense that Rocket1 Racing and its 23-year-old burgeoning superstar are simultaneously rekindling and kindling years of peak performance fresh off their Lucas Oil Series championship and World 100 crown last fall. And especially now that they’ve won two straight, including Saturday’s DIRTcar Sunshine Nationals at Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park.

To speak in geographical terms that are Georgia-Florida Speedweeks appropriate, Mark Richards has been around long enough, and has accomplished plenty enough, to know when the tide is rising on his Rocket1 Racing team. Therefore the swells of momentum suggest that more — perhaps many more — wins could be on the horizon.

“This team’s done it,” Richards said. “In 2016, Josh (Richards) won 27 out of 63 (races). If people want to talk stats, that’s stats. And 51 of them were top fives out of 63. When you’re racing 100 times a year, a guy on a roll (wins) 30 percent (of the time). That’s an achievable number.

“I’m not saying we’re going to do it. I’m just saying that’s an achievable number. Everybody sets out to do the best they can do. I don’t think anyone says they want to win 30 (in a year). I just think you do what you can do, and at the end of the year, you add the numbers up.”

Last year, O’Neal reached six wins on the Lucas Oil Series and 15 total for the season in 93 races, a 15 percent winning rate that was a smidge better Jonathan Davenport’s 14 percent winning clip, but still a tier below Ricky Thornton Jr.’s and Bobby Pierce 30-plus percent mark.

Now acclimated in the Rocket Chassis house car seat, surely the Martinsville, Ind., native is bound for greater success this year.

“There were probably more that we should’ve won,” O’Neal said. “We’ve made some changes this year with shocks (FOX Shox) and it seems to be working out great.”

Then he delivered a statement fueling the notion that he may have put the competition on notice.

“Man, I’m as comfortable as I’ve ever been in these race cars right now,” O’Neal said. “Hopefully we can keep that going.”

There are certainly plenty of signs suggesting that Rocket1 Racing won’t be slowing anytime soon. Richards even went as far to say this is “the best year of sponsorship I’ve ever had.”

“We’re happy,” Richards added. “We’re happy to have them all. It’s been good.”

What strikes Richards the most about O’Neal’s development is his situational awareness. Practically that’d be O’Neal exhausting every effort, whether that’s thoroughly communicating to his team what he needs or sheer determination behind the wheel, but not trying so hard he reaches a breaking point.

“He’s learned when his car isn’t 100 percent, he has to make adjustments as a driver,” Richards said. “A lot of young guys don’t understand that. The car isn’t always going to be perfect, you know? The guys that make the adjustments in the seat are the guys that are going to be better.

“Not everybody that wins has a perfect car. Sometimes the driver has to adjust the put up with what has. And make the best of it. He may not win, but try to get a top five or a top 10. He’s learned to build from that.”

Considerate of how valuable his team is and humble in nature, O’Neal rather attributes his development to the sphere of influences that surround Rocket1.

“That’s all in the help of Mark and Steve Baker,” O’Neal said. “Without them and the guidance of Danny and everybody on the team … they push me to get better everyday. I feel like we’ll continue to grow.

“My guys, they do a great job with giving me pointers when I can and pointing me in the right direction,” O’Neal added. “I had my dad (Don O’Neal) here tonight giving me pointers as well. It’s really cool having the success we’re having this early in the year and hopefully we can keep it going.”

Another sign of O’Neal’s maturity is he’s not overly concerned with being perfect. For instance, on Thursday he thought he squandered the would-be win when he got too sideways leaving turn two, which allowed Jonathan Davenport to lead lap 22.

O’Neal thought he wouldn’t recover — “Yeah, I did. I just got up in there and got tight, got the right side over the crown,” he said — but he regrouped mentally and countered upon Davenport’s self-inflicted mistake.

“Fortunately he went in there and did the exact same thing the next lap,” O’Neal said. “We got a little bit of a break there, but you need them every once in a while.”

In the laps before — specifically on lap 17 when O’Neal tried threading the needle between Boom Briggs and Earl Pearson Jr. before easing off for a corner when the door shut — working slower traffic had been anxiety provoking. On one hand, O’Neal never wants to come across reckless. But on the other hand, he can’t afford to give up his momentum at a track like Golden Isles, especially with Davenport, Brandon Overton, Ricky Thornton Jr., and Brandon Sheppard in hot pursuit.

“There was probably a couple times I should’ve waited and let it develop another lap or so,” O’Neal said. "If you’re going to be in lapped traffic like that, you’re trying to go, go, go because you know they’re breathing down your neck. It’s hard to pass whenever they get two-wide in front of you like that. I think it made it equally tough for the guys behind me, too. We were able to hang on.”

Winning from the outset of the new season naturally raises the question of O’Neal subduing the doubters who don’t want to accept that he won the Lucas Oil Series title under the criteria it called for last year. That’s not on O’Neal’s mind very much, though.

“People are going to talk. If you read social media, you’ll believe anything,” O’Neal said. “Everyone saying that aren’t in this pit area, you know what I mean? We all knew going into the year what it was. Fortunately, I came out on the good side of it.

“Did we know somebody was going to dominate all year and go in there 500 points ahead? No. Listen, I hate it for him. I hate it for Ricky. But at the end of the day, it could’ve been any one of us. Whether it was a 50-point lead, 100-point lead, 200-point lead. Lucky for us we had a good race car, our equipment held up that night and it all worked out for us.

“I don’t bow my head on it at all. Whenever it first happened, I read into it a little bit, the comments and everything. But listen, man, this team, they deserve it. They worked their tails off all year, just as hard as anybody else.”

O’Neal commented that the revamped, seven-race playoff format is “going to be better” for the series, too.

“It’s better. It takes a little bit of the (chaos) out of it,” O’Neal said. “You’re still going to have to be on for those (seven) races, but all in all, you have to be good.”

The seven-race playoff also suits O’Neal exceptionally well: Two races at Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway, one at Ohio’s Atomic Speedway, two at Pittsburgh’s Pa. Motor Speedway, one at Florida’s East Bay Raceway Park, and one at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway. He’s won at all those tracks since 2021.

“It’s going to be good,” O’Neal said. “It’s going to be really good. We’re excited about it. Maybe we can go two-for-two."

As much as O’Neal appreciates the praise and high hopes people have for him this year, he’s mindful to not become hyper-fixated to any sort of specific outcome. How he feels in the present moment speaks for itself.

“If we can win more than that, that’s our goal,” O’Neal said. “It’s to be a little better than where we were last year. And I think we’re on our way.”