Earl Pearson Jr's Wild West Shootout Outings Bode Well For 2022
Earl Pearson Jr's Wild West Shootout Outings Bode Well For 2022
Earl Pearson Jr's solid Wild West Shootout outings at Vado Speedway Park in New Mexico bode well for his 2022 season.
VADO, N.M. — Earl Pearson Jr. wrapped up the 16th annual Wild West Shootout presented by O’Reilly Auto Parts with a runner-up finish in Sunday’s $25,000-to-win finale. Finishing 2.260 seconds behind miniseries champion Mike Marlar of Winfield, Tenn., Pearson vaulted from seventh to fourth in the final point standings.
The Jacksonville, Fla., driver left Vado Speedway Park without a victory in six starts, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a successful outing in the New Mexico desert. With the exception of Jan. 9’s 20th-place finish, Pearson steered his Jason Papich-backed Longhorn Chassis into the top-five every night. He had a pair of runner-up finishes, a third, fourth and a fifth.
Pearson came to New Mexico planning to use the track time to help prepare for yet another Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series title chase while also hoping to meld with his young team. It was a solid effort, enjoyable to boot.
“It’s big for the team, not just me. It’s big for the team owner, Jason Papich, all the crew guys, all of our sponsors,” said Pearson of his strong showing. “I mean, just to come out here and, you know, Jason has his whole family here. This is just closer to (his home in Nipomo, Calif.), to come out here and race and just have a good time and just enjoy the whole week.
“But the big thing is of course, we’re here racing to make money and test a little bit. This year’s full of big-time racing, a lot of big-paying races. So we’re just using this as a test deal. It makes it a little bit tougher here because you hot lap-qualify. You don’t get no hot laps. But once you get your car close, you can work with it. We got some work to do, there ain’t no doubt. I ain’t been qualifying quite as good as I like to, but that’s part of it.”
Regardless of his qualifying effort, Pearson was competitive each night, save for the 20th-place finish. He fell just short of his first career WWS victory on Jan. 14 when he finished 1.159 seconds behind spoiler Tyler Erb of New Waverly, Texas. Pearson started from the pole and led the first 11 laps of the Friday night main event. It was the start of three consecutive podium finishes to wrap up the week.
“(Friday) night I could move around a little bit, where the other night I couldn’t quite do that,” Pearson said. “So we’re gaining on it. We’re dealing with Longhorn and they’re helping out a ton and the shop people and everybody else is involved. This track is a little bit different, how you drive it, vs. say East Bay or (Golden Isles) or whatever it may be and it’s got these holes in (turns) one and three. And you got to kind of get your car through that and that’s where we’ve kind of been struggling.
“It seems like Tyler Erb and (Brandon) Shepherd’s kind of figured it out a little bit better than we have so far, but like I say, we’re gaining on it. (Friday) night was a pill draw for me to start on the pole and I felt like I could have went through some traffic if I started fourth or fifth or whatever, but you don’t never know. But like I say, it’s a testing deal for us, but I’ve enjoyed it out here. I mean, it’s something different. We don’t get to come out here hardly ever to race other than in January here.”
Pearson’s solid outing at Vado was just an extension of the final few months of 2021. He joined Papich in September, making his debut at the Lucas Oil Late Model Nationals at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway, and ran the final 11 series events with Californian’s team, which has a race shop in Camdenton, Mo. The results have been vintage Pearson, especially in marquee events. While averaging a 6.5 finish over the final 11 Lucas Oil Series events, Pearson finished fourth in the Knoxville Nationals and the Jackson 100; third in the Great Lakes 50 at Raceway 7; runner-up in the Pittsburgher; and fifth in the Dixie Shootout. Pearson’s effort at Vado was even better with an average finish of 6.0 and another runner-up finish in a high-paying event.
While waiting for track prep to wrap up Sunday afternoon, Papich said he thinks Pearson is the missing ingredient his team needed to complete “a recipe to beat the best out there.”
“I think we’ve put a team together, with Earl’s addition … you know we’ve been running with good equipment and good information behind us for some time now (but) where we were lacking was just consistent, on-going racing at a national level,” Papich said. “I did it years ago for one season and we’ve just kinda done it for a hobby. With Earl’s situation, it was a unique opportunity to bring a professional on board. Not only that, but he drives clean all the time, he’s not tearing our equipment up and he provides good feedback. We found a few things that we might have been missing that really just could set us at that next level, along with his consistent driving. Our goal is to go for the championship with Lucas. We’re gonna need some luck, but I’m excited, I think we got everything else and with the right luck on our side we’re gonna win.”
Pearson said he’d never made a team change in mid-season before leaving Ronnie Stuckey’s Black Diamond house car program in the fall. He said he leaned on longtime friend and supporter Forrest Lucas for advice during the transition.
“It was tough on me. When you got sponsors like Lucas (Oil) involved and all the great sponsors that I’ve had for years, I had to do something,” Pearson said. “And the good thing of it is the separation (from Stuckey) was good and clean and we’re still friends. That was the biggest thing that I was concerned about, because me and Stuckey, we’ve been together for 15 years, 20 years. So I didn’t want to have any problems there. But hell, we talked this week and everything is just like normal. It was good for me to come out of that deal, get right into this and be competitive, almost win races. (We had) several top-fives and you gel with a team.
“You know, we got a good owner there. Jason is a younger guy who don’t get to race a whole lot. His (construction) business keeps him tied up there in California, but we got all the support we need. We just got to work at it. The biggest thing, like I’ve always told any team I’m with, it’s like a football team. You can’t do it yourself. You got to have everybody gelling, the whole 9 yards. Keep your sponsors involved. I’ve learned a lot from Forrest Lucas, as far as the sponsorship stuff. Me and him have been together for 22 years. I mean, it’s kind of unheard of with a dirt team, but like I said, I’ve learned a lot from him and he helped me get through the transition of moving to different teams last year.”
Part of that transition is a move back to the Longhorn Chassis camp. Pearson feels quite comfortable working with the gang at the Trinity, N.C.-based chassis manufacturer, a brand he helped establish more than a decade ago when he piloted Bobby Labonte’s cars. In fact, he seems to have come full circle, complete with the number on his car as he has reverted No. 46, the digits he used when he first started racing. Pearson said he’s been pleased with the level of support Longhorn has offered.
“It feels good to go back to them,” said Pearson. “Justin Labonte and Terry and Bobby and all them, the whole family, I mean, it’s just great people, a great family business. They opened the doors for me, open arms and I talk to Justin all the time and Matt (Langston) and the guys at Longhorn. (Tim) McCreadie’s been a big help, Jonathan Davenport has helped us, Kevin Rumley. I mean, you name it, they’ve all been there to help us and, you know, we all kind of been somewhat there together on the beginning of (Longhorn) several years ago and just to fall right back into it was just a great feeling.
“They opened up the book for us and we’ve been moving forward ever since. So, I feel good about it. Even this week, Justin’s called and helped us out, Kevin Rumley and Matt, who works there at the shop. We got a lot of help there, a lot of information. They’re behind us 100 percent. I mean, they help all these Longhorn teams out, but they didn’t have to help us out like they did with us just coming back into it. But I think that’s the way Justin wants it to operate.”
The way he closed out 2021 and the way he’s started 2022 has Pearson looking forward to the rest of the season.
“I feel we got a good shot at winning some races and a good shot at finishing in the top three in points,” Pearson said. “I’m excited going into 2022. But this year’s crazy. Look at the money out there. It’s crazy. I’m hearing a lot of teams ain’t gonna run a series, and I mean, it’s just so many races out there that you can pick and choose from. So I guess we’ll see on that part.”
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