2024 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series at East Bay Raceway Park

Hudson O'Neal Relishing Final Days, Stories Of East Bay Raceway Park

Hudson O'Neal Relishing Final Days, Stories Of East Bay Raceway Park

Hudson O'Neal won Tuesday's Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series feature at East Bay Raceway Park.

Feb 7, 2024 by Kevin Kovac

Hudson O’Neal isn’t going to hate seeing East Bay Raceway Park close just because of what he’s done at the third-mile oval. Everything he could do there in the years to come will make its shuttering even harder for him to accept. | Complete Speedweeks coverage

With his $5,000 victory in Tuesday night’s 30-lap Wieland Winternationals feature — the opener of the 48th and final Speedweeks Dirt Late Model meet at the track that promoter Al Varnadore has sold to the Mosaic Co. — the 23-year-old star from Martinsville, Ind., tallied his third straight Winternationals triumph dating back to last year and fifth overall of his young career. His age and supreme talent would seem to have him pointed toward compiling “some crazy stats,” as his Rocket Chassis house car owner Mark Richards remarked, but he won’t have that chance.

“I love this place,” O’Neal said while standing alongside the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series operations trailer during technical inspection following his victory. “It’s been very good to my dad (inactive driver Don O’Neal) over the years, and it’s been very good to me so far. It’s one I’m gonna miss.”

O’Neal said he has “great, great memories” of East Bay despite the fact that his time spent at the facility outside Tampa is far less than many other drivers. He can recall several years during his adolescence when he was allowed to miss school to accompany his father to the Winternationals and, in the early 2010s, witnessed Don win races. 

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He’s experienced some personal milestones there too: his first competitive Speedweeks action (Crate Late Models in 2015), his first-ever Speedweeks triumph (2019’s opener driving for Todd Burns’s SSI Motorsports), his first win for Roger Sellers’s Double Down Motorsports (2021), his first checkered flag for Richards’s Rocket1 team (last year).

That breakthrough victory with Richards — almost exactly one year ago, on Feb. 9, 2023 — will forever stand as one of the most important of O’Neal’s career. He began that night visibly frustrated by his inability to win in his first 14 starts with the Shinnston, W.Va.-based team but ended it with a beaming smile that liberated him, making him feel that he had officially arrived as the driver of Richards’s iconic blue No. 1.

“It was good to get the first one of the way here last year, and then we went on to win some more,” O’Neal said, modestly referring to his three additional Speedweeks victories last year (one at East Bay, two at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla.) and a million-dollar season that included a World 100 triumph and Lucas Oil Series championship. “It was a really great deal. This place kind of turned us over from the other side of it.”

O’Neal returned to East Bay for this year’s final Winternationals completely confident in his ability to tame the famously temperamental track. He showed it by sweeping the program — overall fast time, heat win, feature victory — in convincing fashion.

The elbows-up, on-the-edge driving style that has carried O’Neal to so many of his successes wasn’t even necessary on Tuesday. Instead, the race’s polesitter employed a patient approach, refusing to overreact when Tyler Erb of New Waverly, Texas, passed him for the lead on lap four. He calmly stuck to the inside lane and used it to regain command from Erb on lap 11 and go to defeat Daulton Wilson of Fayetteville, N.C., by 0.654 of a second.

“It was very, very, very tough to stay committed to that bottom,” O’Neal said. “I saw Tyler and he cleared me one time and moved down in front of me. I just kept telling myself, ‘This bottom’s got to prevail eventually,’ and I just kept trying and trying and trying, and finally he just slipped out of that bottom a little bit down in (turn) two and he let me get a run on him down the back straightaway.

“(Erb) could just make that middle roll really, really good, but he couldn’t slow down quite as good (to run the inside) as I could I guess,” he added. “He couldn’t really rotate that bottom really good and he would kind of get hung, and he just missed it real bad one time and I was able to get up underneath of him. It got pretty tight — we rubbed doors a little bit going down the back straightaway — but I knew that was probably gonna be the race.”

As Erb faded to a sixth-place finish, O’Neal chugged on to make another East Bay memory.

“We had a good test the other day,” O’Neal said of the tuneup laps he turned during Sunday evening’s open practice. “And everything went well today. The racetrack was a little bit slower and that played into our hands. We were definitely a little better when it was slower.

“It was a really good night and hopefully we have a few more in us this week.”

O’Neal has just five more chances, including Monday’s rain-postponed feature that is scheduled to be contested after Thursday’s program, to pad his East Bay resume. That’s a shame because East Bay’s demise comes at the end of the 2024 season — which will culminate with a $50,000-to-win grand finale sanctioned by the Lucas Oil Series on Oct. 10-12 — will deprive him of an opportunity to smash Winternationals records (Billy Moyer was 27 in 1985 when he won the first of his event-record 27 features) or at least top his father’s statistics in the track’s marquee week of racing.

Don O’Neal, who will celebrate his 60th birthday on July 10, entered the Winternationals for 19 consecutive years from 2000-2019. He put up an impressive 15 victories (second all-time to Moyer) among 49 top-five and 67 top-10 finishes in 100 career feature starts. He led 884 laps and recorded at least one win in nine Winternationals, most recently in ’13.

Hudson, meanwhile, has been an annual Winternationals participant since 2017. He won his first A-main at East Bay at the age of 18 — a resounding 17 years younger than Don was upon his first victory at the track at 35 in 2000 — and after Tuesday owns five wins among 11 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes in 36 career feature starts. He’s also led 128 feature laps through his eight years of Winternationals action.

O’Neal’s future prospects at East Bay would seem to bode well beyond his age because he’s driving for a team that knows success there as well. Richards’s Rocket Chassis house car operation has 17 career Winternationals victories spread among Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill. (nine), Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va. (three), O’Neal (three), Steve Francis of Ashland, Ky. (one) and Davey Johnson of Greensburg, Pa. (one). What’s more, Rocket1 boasts 15 victories since 2015 and six wins in the last 10 Winternationals events dating back to Sheppard’s triumph in 2022’s second event.

Oh, what could have been for O’Neal, who is hoping to close out the Winternationals with a flourish as he comes to grips with losing a track close to his heart for the first time in his life. He noted that he’s raced at tracks that have been demolished — Mansfield (Ohio) Motor Speedway and I-80 Speedway in Greenwood, Neb., would be two — but he wasn’t connected to them like he is with East Bay.

“Growing up, you always kind of hear the stories of different racetracks that close down and how great they were,” O’Neal said, “and now I’m gonna get to have those same stories for my kids.”