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Speedy late model cars set to run

Late model race cars were the rage at the Medford Raceway back in the 1970s.

Their sporty appearance and head-twisting speeds made them a huge hit with stock car racing fans in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

But the cars went the way of disco dancing, victimized by soaring costs that priced all but the top half-dozen drivers out of racing.

Their popularity was never in question, though. If someone could create a traveling circuit that brought together drivers from throughout Oregon and Northern California, it could be a gearhead's dream.

Welcome to the Western All-Star series that makes its debut Saturday night at the Southern Oregon Speedway in White City.

Gates open at — p.m. with time trials scheduled for 6 at the one-third mile clay oval.

We're not portraying ourselves as a low-dollar series, says Robert Hood, the communications director for the six-race series that will visit tracks in Banks, Ely, Nev., and Quincy, Calif., in addition to the Southern Oregon Speedway. This is for guys who have conquered the local level and are ready to move on.

The cars resemble the pro stock class that runs at the White City track each week, but the late model cars are sleeker and much faster.

With essentially no rules on the engines, the cars run aluminum blocks and heads that feature 400-plus cubic inches and 600-plus horsepower. They can reach speeds of 100 mph, depending on the length of the straightaways.

The only rule on the engines is that they have to have carburetors, Hood says.

Most of the chassis and engines are custom-made back East and come with a price tag of about $50,000, Hood says.

Local racing fans probably won't recognize many of the drivers' names, but the competitors include some of the rising stars on the West Coast along with veteran drivers who have dominated action at various tracks. They include: Richard Papenhausen of Chico, Calif. Papenhausen is a past champion at the Silver Dollar — Speedway in Chico and has won main events in the IMCA modified division at the Southern — Oregon Speedway. — — Bob Jeffery, Salem. Jeffery is the defending late model track champion at Lebanon. He — bested some of the top late model drivers on the West Coast last October in San Jose, — Calif. — — Darren Coffell, Bend. Coffell is a three-time track champion at Lebanon and is that — track's current points leader. — — Greg Walters, Portland. Walters competes in two divisions at Lebanon and is a regular on — the NASCAR Winston Racing Series at the Portland Speedway. Considered to be one of the — fastest-rising racing stars in Oregon, Walters also plans to compete in the NASCAR Winston — West series later this year. — — Bill Pearson, Portola, Calif. Pearson has raced with the CarQuest Dirt Late Model Tour — based in Bakersfield, Calif., and was one of the top drivers at Chico before that track — quit racing late model dirt cars. — — Jerry York, Albany. York won the points title in Lebanon in 1996 and has registered — impressive open competition victories on asphalt at Anderson, Calif. — — Russ Sell, Albany. Sell, known as Mr. Excitement because of his fearless — style of racing, has won a slew of races in Lebanon, including the prestigious Firecracker — All-Star 100. —

Coffell said one of the most appealing aspects of the Western All-Star Series is having the opportunity to compete at different tracks.

Every track presents a whole new set of challenges, and that makes racing more fun, says Coffell, whose car resembles a Monte Carlo. It's going to be a guessing game for all of us as far as how to set the cars up.

Saturday's late model event will feature $9,000 in purse money with $2,500 going to the winner.

With so many fast cars and experienced drivers, fans can expect action-packed racing, Hood says.

These guys are going to bump and grind, Hood says. The guys running behind won't be afraid to stick their noses in there and rub a little bit.

Hood said that series director Don Eyerly plans to increase the number of races next year, not to mention the purse money.

We think this thing can really take off, but if we're going to err, it's going to be on the conservative side starting out, says Hood, who has been the public address announcer at Lebanon for the past 12 years and will serve in that capacity Saturday when the late models are competing. In the Midwest, this class of cars is running for huge purses -- as much as $100,000 to win a single race. We hope to generate that same interest on the West Coast.

The Western All-Star series will return to the Southern Oregon Speedway on June 26.

AUTO EXTRAS -- The regular class of cars -- winged modified, pro stocks and mini stocks -- will also be in action Saturday, and some of the pro stock drivers will race with the late models ... Ticket prices are $12 for reserved seats and $8.50 for general admission seats, with seniors and children 7-12 admitted for $7.