Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series

Next Man Up: Donald Bradsher Confident In Carson Ferguson

Next Man Up: Donald Bradsher Confident In Carson Ferguson

A whirlwind realignment of the Dirt Late Model world has Carson Ferguson racing for Donald Bradsher on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series circuit.

May 3, 2024 by Kevin Kovac

Donald Bradsher didn’t see it coming. Neither did Carson Ferguson.

“It was a little bit of a shock,” Bradsher said.

“Yeah,” Ferguson echoed, “obviously it was a shock.”

The two men uttered those words Friday while standing side-by-side in the cool spring air of Georgetown (Del.) Speedway’s pit area following the completion of the evening’s Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series-sanctioned Melvin L. Joseph Memorial. They were there as car owner and driver just over month after a whirlwind realignment of the Dirt Late Model world had thrust them together for a national touring series assault neither of them could have foreseen.

When reigning Lucas Oil Series champion Hudson O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., rocked the full-fender scene with his mid-March decision to leave the powerhouse Shinnston, W.Va.-based Rocket Chassis house car team, Bradsher found his Paylor Motorsports operation squarely in the middle of the resulting machinations. Bradsher’s all-star driver for four-plus years, Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y., accepted Rocket1 owner Mark Richards’s offer to pilot the iconic car, leaving the 60-year-old team owner from Burlington, N.C., with a high-profile seat to fill.

Bradsher didn’t take long to name McCreadie’s replacement. He was already fielding a regional Super Late Model effort for Lincolnton, N.C.’s Ferguson so he simply elevated the 24-year-old to his national program.

This was certainly not the trajectory Bradsher nor Ferguson saw their 2024 seasons going, but they rolled with the turn of events and adjusted their mindsets as the dominoes fell.

“Just right place at the right time,” Ferguson said of his good fortune to go from regional racing to chasing the Lucas Oil Series full-time with an established team virtually overnight.

Bradsher, who makes his living operating Mega Plumbing of the Carolinas with his wife Gena, scaled up his race team to bring McCreadie aboard and hit the road for the 2020 season. They clicked immediately — T-Mac won in his first start for the Bradshers in Lucas Oil Speedweeks action at Golden Isles Speedway near Brunswick, Ga. — and went to enjoy resounding success, including back-to-back Lucas Oil titles in 2021-22 and 35 victories overall highlighted by $50,000 triumphs in 2020’s Stream Invitational at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, and North-South 100 at Florence Speedway in Union, Ky., and 2022’s Firecracker 100 at Lernerville Speedway in Sarver, Pa.

The pairing lost some momentum in 2023 (fifth in Lucas Oil points with only two semifeature wins) and McCreadie was off to a slow start this season after ending Speedweeks with just one triumph and sitting ninth in the tour’s points standings. He was, in effect, ripe for a change of scenery, so, when Richards dialed him up upon O’Neal’s departure, Bradsher understood the 50-year-old standout’s immediate interest.

“I mean, it kind of caught me off guard that Mark would even call, but he did and it is what it is and we wish him the best,” Bradsher said. “You know, we were struggling a little bit, O’Neal made the decision he made and Mark offered him a ride, so I’m good with it. No hard feelings.”

McCreadie and Ferguson were actually testing together at Smoky Mountain Speedway in Maryville, Tenn., “getting in each other’s cars back-and-forth,” Bradsher said, on the midweek March day that Richards first contacted McCreadie.

“Timmy called and said, ‘Hey, Mark called me,’ ” said Bradsher, who didn’t travel with the team to the test session. “We talked a little bit, and I said, ‘Are you considering it?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ so I said, ‘Well, you call me back tomorrow and let me know what you want to do. We’re good with it, either way.’ ”

Bradsher provided a rational reason for McCreadie — beyond his previous history with Richards as a Rocket Chassis campaigner for the better part of a decade — to desire a shot at steering the blue No. 1.

“Rick Hendrick has the top team in NASCAR, so anybody he calls (to drive), they’re gonna go to Hendrick’s, right?” Bradsher said. “Well, love or hate Mark (Richards), you can say what you want, but everybody wants to drive for that team. So you don’t blame them. Heck, I run Mega Plumbing. If (Richards) would’ve called me (to drive), I might have gone on a leave of absence.”

McCreadie’s decision to take Richards’s ride certainly saddened Bradsher, but he had plenty of indelible memories to look back upon from their time together.

“We had good years together — two championships, second in points, fifth in points in four full year,” Bradsher said. “I think that’s as good as any team has done, so we don’t have anything to hang our head over. We had a great run. But Timmy’s moved on, and now we’re focusing on Carson.

“Everybody knew it was a matter of time (before) he was gonna step up (with Paylor Motorsports). It just happened earlier than we expected.”

Bradsher had been admirer of Ferguson’s talents since he was racing go-karts, legend cars and bandeleros in the Carolinas and beyond. “There’s nobody that’s won more than he has” in those divisions, noted Bradsher, who also kept tabs on Ferguson’s development when he moved up to Crate Late Model action and competed on some of the same cards that Bradsher did during his own occasional Super Late Model racing.

Ferguson ultimately hooked up with Bradsher after a disastrous 2020 season with his family-backed Crate Late Model put him on the edge of walking away from racing. He fired off a message to Wesley Page, a veteran mechanical and shock specialist from Rock Hill, S.C., asking if he needed any crew help or a driver, and the next day Bradsher, who had raced with Page the previous year, happened to call Page to tell him that he’d seen Ferguson had posted his racing equipment for sale and he would like to offer the “untapped talent” a Crate ride.

What followed for Ferguson was a seven-victory Crate season in 2021 and a pair of fourth-place finishes in his first two Super Late Model starts late that year. Bradsher shifted Ferguson to regular Super Late Model racing in ’22 and his young prospect has responded with steady improvement that made Bradsher believe he was ready to follow in McCreadie's tire tracks.

“Just his determination and how bad he wanted to race,” Bradsher said when asked what led him to become a booster of Ferguson’s career. “He was getting in cars and running up front, and they had very limited funds. And he’s a student of racing. He eats, drinks and sleeps it. He’s always looking to learn. He’s very respectful, he’s good with sponsors.

“I can’t take all the credit for finding him. It’s between me and Wesley Page. We just kept looking at him.”

Bradsher paused, then added: “He’s just a natural. If we would’ve had the money, we would’ve moved him up (to the Lucas Oil Series) a year ago, but you can’t do two teams. It would spread things too thin.”

In fact, after his hiring as Paylor Motorsports’ lead driver, Ferguson didn’t initially think that he would spend the remainder of the 2024 season following the Lucas Oil Series. He figured that skipping almost all of the tour’s Speedweeks events — his only appearances were two DNQ’s at East Bay Raceway Park in Gibsonton, Fla., driving Kale Green’s No. 00 — meant Bradsher wouldn’t want to run the series.

Bradsher, however, had no doubts about the schedule he wanted Ferguson to tackle.

“Not in my mind,” Bradsher said. “I think there was a little (doubt) in his because he didn’t understand how (the tour’s show-up money system) worked. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to, but he didn’t know we would still be in the (Winner’s Circle program) because of our owner’s points. So I knew when we started (together) we were gonna stay on here unless something just crazy happened.

“If we would’ve just took this year off and go run Hunt the Front and hit-and-miss races, he wouldn’t get to see every track so we’d almost be starting fresh again next year. We wouldn’t be in the (show-up money). We’d be behind.”

So Bradsher is sending Ferguson out on the highways with the future in mind. Ferguson is a distant 28th in the Lucas Oil standings — 1,560 points behind leader Ricky Thornton Jr. of Chandler, Ariz. — but he is within 890 points of Rookie of the Year leader Clay Harris of Jupiter, Fla., giving him an outside shot at competing for top rookie honors. Regardless, ’24 is all about finding his footing on the national stage.

“We have a driver that we’ll win championships with someday,” Bradsher said. “I told him we’re gonna treat this year like we’re going to college. We’re gonna give him a college scholarship this year (to learn).

“And I think we’ve made leaps and bounds already with it. We’re going to these races, he’s making the show, he’s competitive in the (feature) race. I don’t know what more we could ask for.”

Ferguson’s four Lucas Oil starts as a regular have yielded finishes of 10th (Port Royal, Pa., on Sunday), 15th (Ohio’s Atomic) and 16th (Brownstown, Ind., and Georgetown), and on April 12 he recorded his first win in his new role with the team with a $5,000 score on the Hunt the Front Super Dirt Series at All-Tech Raceway in Ellisville, Fla. He can feel his confidence growing.

“I think the past few weeks, it’s showing in qualifying, just running a line where before I probably wouldn’t have just because, A) I didn’t want to knock the deck out, and B) I didn’t want to take a chance of wrecking the car,” Ferguson said. “You gotta put yourself in a position in qualifying to win the race, and I feel like the last few weeks I’ve taken advantage of that aspect of it.”

Almost everywhere Ferguson travels this season will be new territory for him, but he does have the luxury of doing it with a team that’s well-equipped to carry him through the challenges ahead. He’s raced with quality help from two nearly full-time crewmen (Aiden Walker and Andrew Stewart) in recent years, but now he has Bradsher’s trio of full-timers (crew Scott Fegter and young wrenches Nick Smith and Kyle Tompkins) behind him. The extra personnel that make a national-level team hum has been the biggest head-turner for Ferguson.

“Obviously now I can spend more time (working) in other places instead of spending a day washing the car or something,” said Ferguson, who works with the Paylor crew out of veteran driver Jeff Smith’s shop in Dallas, N.C.

Bradsher sees the power of a ready-made operation buoying Ferguson.

“We were lucky enough to start a team (in 2020) and have McCreadie come in there and he brought us to the level that we needed to be,” Bradsher said. “When Timmy walked away, we were able to offer Carson where we were already at. We didn’t have to start at the bottom and build up.

“We get awesome support from Longhorn, Wesley (Page), Clements and Cornett motors. A lot of other people seen what we seen (in Ferguson) because every one of our (product) sponsors we had with Timmy jumped right on board, and then sponsors that Gena and I already had with Timmy went right to (Ferguson) too. And then his sponsors come on board and it’s made us a pretty strong team. We’re just blessed.”

Ferguson is thankful for the Bradshers’ full-throated backing.

“It takes somebody to believe in you and want to take that chance on the growing years, because that’s the most costly years,” Ferguson said. “Luckily we’re not knocking the deck out every night, but not having the (best) finishes, you’ve got to have somebody behind you to go through that with you. Donald and Gena fill that role. No matter how we do, they’re always saying, ‘Just keep building the notebook and get ‘em next time.’ ”

The Bradshers didn’t expect to be navigating this change in direction with their team, but they’re happy to be doing it with Ferguson.

“We love him,” Bradsher said. “He’s not our son or nothing, but we like seeing him progress.

“And going back to giving him a chance, Gena and I are in business because somebody gave us a chance. So I try to repay that every day to somebody along the way, whether it’s a smile at them, open a door for them, or give them a chance in a race car. And we got a guy here who appreciates that day-in, day-out.”