Corona, California (December 15, 2016) — A couple of years ago, Eric Hamilton and his family were having fun racing a modified on Western dirt tracks and contending for victories and championships wherever they went.
Then the sanctioning body made some changes to the engine rules that team owner and patriarch Chris Hamilton didn't like. He decided a change was in order, and after looking around and talking to friends he bought a used chassis from another team owner and joined the Lucas Oil Modified Series presented by LoanMart despite never having raced on a paved oval.
Eric Hamilton said when they picked the car up from 2014 champion team owner Mike Garcia he told them what they were doing was like throwing themselves to the wolves and both Hamiltons have felt at times that something was trying to take large bites out of their hind quarters. But they were bright and agile enough to avoid becoming luncheon entrees, they've gotten some help from friends and fellow racers, and two years into the transition the family team from Hanford, California, is attracting attention in the West's most competitive short track series.
As a rookie in 2015 Eric was 17th in the Hoosier Tire West point standings and his best race finish was an 11th at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in May. In this season's 10-race championship the Fresno State University student had four top 10 finishes with a best of seventh in the finale at Lake Havasu City, Arizona, October 29, and was 10th in the point standings.
They've obviously learned a lot in the two seasons they've raced on pavement.
One of the first lessons was about making assumptions and staying humble.
"It was an unexpected step for me," Eric said of the switch to asphalt after five good years on dirt. "I know my dad thought about it for a while, but I just thought he was blowing smoke, to be honest with you.
"We bought the car from Mike Garcia and he said that since we had no asphalt experience that they were kind of throwing us to the wolves. I'd heard that before, in different classes, so we just kind of laughed and shrugged it off."
They quit laughing and shrugging when they got to Havasu 95 Speedway for the opening race of the 2015 season. Then, Eric said, "we realized how ultra-competitive this series is and right then and there we kind of knew we were in for a big transition. Going from dirt, where if you're a little off on the car it's no big deal, to this, where a thousandth of a second can be the difference in making a show or not making it, is a big difference."
Eric didn't make the show that weekend. He qualified 31st of 34, which put him in the B main, and crashed out of that on the second lap. He remembers it being "a long and quiet six-hour drive home" and Chris said he was thinking "holy cow, what have we gotten into here?"
They've gotten into a more expensive series. Chris said to run their dirt car with top-notch parts and pieces "probably cost us $800 a night," including pit passes and all fees. The budget for the Lucas Oil Modified is about $3,500 a weekend.
They've gotten into a more technically demanding series, too. They've had to learn chassis setup and adjustments, tire management and a host of other things including the mindset it takes to race for 75 or 100 laps and not just "charge, charge, charge" as Eric had done in the 25-lap dirt races.
Travel has been different, too. Chris said they had taken the dirt car to Nebraska and other Midwest venues but the team would have several months to get ready. The Lucas Oil series usually races every three or four weeks. That means "when you get home you have to start getting ready for the next race" and part of that process for the team has been learning how to do everything necessary in the order it needs to be done.
The major competitive issue, however, has been qualifying, trying to learn how to run a warmup lap and two timed laps and record a lap time quick enough to earn a spot at or near the front of the starting field.
"I had never really qualified in my life," Eric said. "Just qualifying these cars in general is really hard to get hold of so we struggled for a while. We've had good qualifying times. We're making strides in the right direction. They're just very small strides."
The biggest stride came on the final weekend of the season. Throughout the year the team started every race either because of Eric's qualifying lap or as one of the provisional starters who got a spot based on his position in the point standings. On the next-to-last weekend of the season, at Madera, California, in early October, Chris said "our goal is to get qualified in the top eight," which would put them in the draw for the inversion that determines the pole-sitter and the starting order for the first four rows of the field.
Three weeks later, at Lake Havasu City, Eric qualified seventh. He didn't get the pole but he did get that career-best seventh-place finish as well.
"We keep learning, so that's good," Eric said. "We keep transitioning in the right way, the right direction, so that keeps the morale up. As long as we keep learning and keep getting better and better we're going to keep trying."