2024 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series at Atomic Speedway

Hudson O'Neal Opens Up On Rocket1 Racing Departure, What Could Be Next

Hudson O'Neal Opens Up On Rocket1 Racing Departure, What Could Be Next

Hudson O'Neal goes on the record for the first time to better explain why he left the Rocket Chassis house car team.

Mar 24, 2024 by Kyle McFadden

There are a few sentiments, in no particular order, that Hudson O’Neal would like the Dirt Late Model world to know and attempt to understand.

First, while his sudden and seemingly shocking departure from the Rocket Chassis house car last week did boil down to “a difference in vision,” the 23-year-old never meant to come across as opaque or avoidant of transparency. He’ll answer questions on why he left the powerhouse Shinnston, W.Va., team on his terms.

“You know, 'a difference in vision’ is what I put in my (news release), and the more I thought about that, I don’t know if that’s the right wording,” O’Neal told FloRacing after he raced a Kevin Rumley-owned No. 71 Longhorn Chassis at Brownstown Speedway on Saturday. “Listen, some things just aren’t made to be. It’s one of those things that we had a lot of success and a lot of fun together. We didn’t feel like the connection was there, so we parted ways. It was what it was.

“I’ll forever be thankful for the year and a half I had at Rocket1 Racing. It taught me a lot. It taught me how to race. It taught me a lot. Those are skills that carry on for a lifetime.”

Hudson O'Neal Racing A Longhorn For Kevin Rumley At Atomic, Brownstown

Leaving the Rocket1 camp — especially off the heels of a season of $1.2 million in winnings accentuated by a six-month surge of success that’s seen Mark Richards’s long-anticipated first World 100 title, a Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series championship, and four wins in a nine-race span to begin the 2024 season — is the toughest choice O’Neal’s had to round himself to. No choice of that magnitude may ever come close the rest of his life.

“It was tough,” O’Neal said. “The hardest thing was we were so successful.”

What followed is what ultimately impelled O’Neal to freely walk away from what so many deem as Dirt Late Model racing’s dream ride.

“But sometimes that success isn’t everything,” O’Neal said. “I felt like it was time for a change. I just couldn’t put the feelings down anymore. So we made a change. I wish those guys all the best with Timmy (McCreadie). Timmy is an excellent racer, one of the best to ever do it. It doesn’t matter if they were off a little bit tonight (in their 11th-place run). They will find their way back and win races. That’s just who they are.”

Reactions from O’Neal’s departure ranged anywhere between salacious rumors by internet trolls to those who observed more sensibly, those who’d gather facts and reasonings from each party to form the clearer picture around one of the biggest news dominos to fall in Dirt Late Model racing history.

While Richards was “completely blindsided” by the split, words revealed to DirtonDirt.com's Kevin Kovac in a March 21 story, he denounced the rumors out to destroy O’Neal’s character, which the legendary car owner and chassis builder vehemently defends despite his company being briefly left in a place of limbo.

“Hudson O’Neal is one of the most respectable young men that I have ever worked with, and all the rumors out there that social media has blasted off with are totally untrue,” Richards said. “Hudson will always be part of Rocket1’s history and we were proud to have him on board. We can’t say enough about how great of a guy Hudson is, we wish him the best in the future, and I’m sure he will have continued success in his career.”

Saying that he “couldn’t put the feelings down anymore,” clearly O’Neal had mulled over the decision to leave Rocket1 for a little while. He never disclosed how long he thought about leaving; nor when the thought first entered his mind. That shouldn’t be demanded of him.

O’Neal doesn’t care about the people that want to label him as soft for perhaps not handling the pressure that comes with the Rocket1 ride to an impervious degree. Actually, he’ll admit firsthand that the pressures are overbearing for any driver trying to be top gun in the sport.

“It is. You have the pressure of the outside world bearing down on you all the time,” O’Neal said. “But that’s just the world we live in nowadays. There’s not a lap that’s not unseen anymore. It used to not be that way. Maybe in 1990 you could go somewhere and run dead-last, and nobody knew about it. Now, you go somewhere, you run dead-last, and everybody’s hounding you. There’s pros and cons of it.”

In that same vein, O’Neal isn’t lowering the standard for himself. He remains second in the Lucas Oil Series standings, 10 points behind Ricky Thornton Jr., and likes to think he has more accomplishments and crown jewels waiting to be reaped down the proverbial road, as long as he’s in competitive equipment.

Teaming with Rumley for the interim, the latter isn’t an issue. Though it was initially announced that O’Neal’s only paired up with the China Grove, N.C., engineer for this weekend at Brownstown and Atomic, the duo will also race March 29-30’s Schaeffer’s Spring Nationals at I-75 Raceway and Tazewell Speedway in Tennessee.

The weekend after, he’ll stay in the Volunteer State for April 5-6’s XR Super Series event at Volunteer Speedway paying $30,000-to-win for the Saturday night finale.

“After that, it’s a coin toss,” O’Neal said. “We’re still working on it. I’ve had communication with some teams. I think we know the direction we’re going, we just have to put all the pieces together, and see what happens. Nonetheless, I’m really excited for these couple weeks with Kevin, to learn these race cars a little bit. It’s a new challenge for me. Sometimes it’s good to have new challenges.”

O’Neal reflected on Saturday as “a good night from what could’ve been a not-so great night.” He started the night 14th of 23 cars in his qualifying group, but made up enough ground in his heat race (going seventh to fourth) to start the main event in 16th.

“It’s just a big change,” O’Neal said. “It’s new everything. … It’s taking some getting used to. We kind of worked all night to find what I was looking for to try and make me comfortable. We achieved that in the heat race I felt like. We were able to make a couple adjustments to get better.”

The 2019 season is the last time O’Neal had raced a Longhorn Chassis. He won five times that year, including the Jackson 100 at Brownstown and a World 100 prelim to boot. O’Neal had the chance to work with Rumley briefly that season, adding that he’s “great to work with."

“He’s very, very open-minded and understanding if I might need something just a little different,” O’Neal said. “We’ve always thought a lot of each other. Hopefully this is a connection that will go on for the years to come.”

And even if O’Neal lands in a long-term situation where he can’t directly work alongside Rumley, he’d be just as thankful.

“Listen, this sport runs so much deeper than just racing,” O’Neal said. “You can’t build relationships and have relationships that last a lifetime even after racing. It’s not worth doing. That’s the relationship me and Kevin have. We never knew if we were going to work together again. The stars aligned, and here we are.”

O’Neal does feel refreshed heading into the heart of race season. Partly why O’Neal had seemed detached from the world is because he had, indeed, retreated from the world. He went on a fishing retreat with his friend, Brad Fleetwood, in Weiss Lake, Alabama, the day after he resigned from Rocket1 on Tuesday, March 12.

“One of my buddies — and he didn’t know what was going on — he was like, ‘You want to go fishing with me? The offer is still there,’” O’Neal said. “It’s crazy how things happen. It was good for me to go get away for two day and not think about racing, not think about anything. It worked out really good. Blessings in disguise happen like that sometimes.”

From that Wednesday through Friday morning, O’Neal had basically turned his phone off, only turning it back on to check in with loved ones.

“I probably made a lot of people mad. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me today and say, ‘Does your phone not work?’” O’Neal said. “It’s just … sometimes whenever you go through something like that, it drains you so much you don’t want to talk to anybody. It’s a hard thing to deal with a little bit. The best thing for me is to gather my thoughts, make a good decision for me, focus on myself and what I was saying, and not what everybody else was saying.”

The fishing retreat was actually a two-day fishing tournament where O’Neal and Fleetwood placed 11th of 34 competitors.

“It was a lot of fun, and something I never got to experience because we’re always so busy racing,” O’Neal said. “I was jobless for a little bit, so I had every opportunity to go, and I was like, ‘I’m going to go.’ And it was a little bit of a reset for me just to go get away, go do something that’s completely different than racing. It was good for me mentally.”

O’Neal has “tried to stay clear of the Facebook and Twitter, and everything, the last couple weeks,” too.

“It’s not healthy to look at that stuff all the time,” O’Neal said. "Yeah, so, I’ve had a lot of people around me who are great supporters of me through all this. It’s been great.”

The only validation O’Neal values is that from his family. They wholly support O’Neal’s next steps — actually, his father Don gave him stick signals on Saturday — and over time will be looked back upon as a large blip on the radar.

“It’s times like this you lean back on your family and see that what you have at home is very, very important,” O’Neal said. “I have a great home life, a great girlfriend, great parents … it’s been very nice. I couldn’t ask for more.”