DEFYING CONVENTION THROUGH CONSISTENCY

Championship Close-Up: Preston McGhee – JW Martin

 

 

Preston McGhee had never won anything at Motor Mile Speedway…until he won it all.

 

As the 2012 Limited Sportsman season dwindled to a close and the championship escalated to its climax, three teams remained in contention for the division title. Compared to his competition, McGhee’s Black Cloud Motorsports team was an anomaly.

 

The racecar was antiquated and devoid of sponsorship. The skeleton crew varied from two to three volunteers—all amateurs. At the helm was a driver with only three prior starts in the Limited Sportsman division entering the 2012 season.

 

They were racing for Rookie of the Year honors. Not a championship.

 

“The championship wasn’t even a consideration,” McGhee notes. “Our expectations were to be competitive and learn. We thought we could run top-five. But a championship was a far-fetched dream.”

 

To call McGhee an underdog would’ve been a massive understatement. Yet, as the final pair of races approached, the no. 07 team found itself embroiled in a battle with the big boys.

 

The rag-tag operation was pitted against the Pulliam Motorsports juggernaut and its flagship Limited Sportsman wheelman, Matt Taylor. Armed with a brand-new machine for the new season, the two-time defending track titlist had captured a division-high four victories in 2012.

 

And not to be overlooked was Scott Lancaster. The established Derrick Lancaster Racing team was eyeing an historical achievement: with a championship, the Lancasters would become the first pair of brothers to claim division championships at Motor Mile Speedway since the track ownership change in 2004.

 

McGhee had eclipsed Lancaster for the points lead following the sixth race of the season on June 16th.  By September, however, he was in jeopardy of surrendering the top spot to Taylor. When the green flag unfurled on September 8th, McGhee and Taylor were tied atop the standings.

 

McGhee remained unconcerned, his steadfast focus fixed on a much more modest aim: improvement. After all, he wasn’t going to win the championship anyway.

 

“I wasn’t worried, because Matt’s a two-time champion, back-to-back, and I was a rookie. I’m not supposed to beat him. So if I did, it would be cool, but if I didn’t, that’s O.K.—that’s the way it was supposed to be,” concedes McGhee.

 

In the aftermath of the 50-lap feature, Taylor’s championship quest evaporated in a dismal sixteenth-place showing. Lancaster assumed second in the standings, and McGhee’s points lead swelled to 22 markers with only the season finale remaining.

 

The margin proved insurmountable.

 

McGhee clinched the 2012 Limited Sportsman track championship upon arriving at the .416-mile oval on September 15th. The title was determined by the sparse car count: Suddenly McGhee, winless in his career at Motor Mile Speedway, was unbeatable.

 

“It says a tremendous amount about my team,” McGhee says of the championship. “We weren’t always the best, but we were the most consistent, and [we] had the best luck.”

 

The Limited Sportsman division produced seven different winners and four different points leaders for the second consecutive season—the latter a record spanning all classes at Motor Mile Speedway for the second straight year. Parity has become the hallmark of the division, placing consistency at a premium.

 

McGhee’s championship gives credence to the value of consistency. This season, winning was redefined. McGhee becomes just the third competitor since the track ownership change to win a track championship without winning a race, joining an elite shortlist that includes Jeff Montgomery (MOD4, 2006) and Anthony Barnes (LS, 2008). Adding to the significance of McGhee’s accomplishment is the historic achievement of becoming the first racer dating back to 2004 to have a track championship coupled with Rookie of the Year honors. Sources claim this feat is unprecedented in the history of the New River Valley short track, although this is not confirmed.

 

McGhee’s breakthrough season is record-setting nonetheless. The team defied convention through consistency, notching ten top fives in 13 races, a statistic highlighted by five runner-up finishes. In his rookie season in the Limited Sportsman ranks, McGhee never placed outside the top ten.

 

But no wins? McGhee proved that winning a race is not a prerequisite for winning a championship. In fact, winning can mean much more than a victory lane photo shoot.

 

The best driver on Saturday night is called a winner. The best driver all season is called a champion.

 

The Trackside Transcript: Preston McGhee

 What were your expectations entering 2012? Did you believe a championship was a realistic goal?

The championship wasn’t even a consideration. I have a very small team. There’s basically about two or three of us that work on the car. Our expectations were to be competitive and learn. We didn’t want to be in the way. We wanted to be fast enough to be able to race and to learn how to race.

 

We thought we could run top-five. But a championship was a far-fetched dream.

 

What was your mindset after taking the points lead on June 16? Did you think it was possible then, or did you dismiss the notion?

Man, I didn’t even think about points until we took the checkered flag on September 15th. Not one time. Our objective was to keep doing what we were doing, knowing the points would fall where they may.

 

What was that final week like, leading up to the season finale? How nervous were you, and how do you describe the emotions upon finding out you had it sewed up before the race began?

Actually, the week before was probably the most nervous I’ve been—when Matt Taylor and I were tied. I wasn’t worried, because Matt’s a two-time champion, back-to-back, and I was a rookie. I’m not supposed to beat him. So if I did, it would be cool, but if I didn’t, that’s O.K.—that’s the way it was supposed to be.

 

Ron Orr (Head Inspector) was actually the one who came and told me that I couldn’t be beat. And then we were just laid back. It was enjoyable from there on.

 

Was that your most memorable moment of 2012? If not, what was?

The night that Mike Looney sat on the pole and led every lap, and I finished second for the first time. We’re teammates. He’s my spotter and crew chief, and I’m his crew chief. It was just a really special night for our team.

 

Explain how this season came together. How surprising was the success considering you were still learning and growing as a team every week?

It was very surprising. We knew we’d be racing against brand-new cars; ours is an out-of-date car. We had a sponsor buy our first set of tires, after that, we had zero sponsorship—just what I put in the car when I bought it. We weren’t even sure we would be at all the races. We just wanted to finish, and if we had enough money to come back the next week, that’s what we’d do.

 

Five second place finishes this year. Taking into account all you’ve accomplished this season, how disappointing is not winning a race, on a scale of one to ten?

It’s about a six to an eight. We came so close so many times. When you finish second five times, you end up thinking ‘What do I have to do to win a race?’ The most disappointing night was the night we were leading coming to the white flag, and the no. 84’s throttle stuck and took us out of it. I was pretty confident we could win that race. That’s the most frustrating part of the season.

 

The championship is the ultimate goal; the crowning achievement of the season. But I really want to win races. We didn’t win a race all year…and that was tough.

 

How special is this championship to you, personally, and what does it mean to you to win the track title and Rookie of the Year?

Rookies don’t win championships, it’s not supposed to happen. It’s almost indescribable. Ever since I was a little boy racing RC cars in the back yard, it’s all that I’ve wanted. I’ve been very blessed to have had the opportunity to get to race, much less win a championship.

 

SEASON IN A SNAPSHOT

McGhee battles alongside Garrett Bunch

 

A rare scene: McGhee sideways on July 28th

 

The most memorable moment: April 14. McGhee pictured with teammate Mike Looney (center)