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Gearhart fifth in first race with new team

Joe Naiman

Village News Reporter

In his first race with his new team and his fourth race with his current car, Fallbrook driver Jeff Gearhart finished fifth in Barona Speedway’s Pure Stocks main event Sept. 2.

“I want to thank my new team,” Gearhart said.

Polo Zetina had been Gearhart’s only crew member as well as Gearhart’s crew chief. He is no longer with Gearhart due to a military commitment. Gearhart, who was raised in Valley Center and moved to Fallbrook four years ago, had a company called Ingrained Woodworking but abandoned that business when he took a position as a superintendent for Finishing Touch Millwork in late July.

Ben Fode, who lives in Lake Elsinore, now works with Gearhart. Fode, who was a crew chief for a Barona Speedway driver in the first decade of this century and who also has been a crew chief for Best of the Desert off-road racing, is now Gearhart’s crew chief. Fode’s father, Ron, is also on Gearhart’s crew as are Fode’s sons, Jack and Ryker. The crew also includes Gearhart’s daughter Misty, who is now 17 and a senior at Hamilton High School in Anza, and Gearhart’s girlfriend, Stephanie Petty.

Gearhart became a Barona Speedway driver in 2022 after learning that a 1999 Ford Crown Victoria was for sale. He finished eighth in the 2022 Pure Stocks season points standings. The purchase of the Crown Victoria also included another 1999 Crown Victoria which had been a donor car until Gearhart tangled with Charlie Koehler during the July 8 main event this year. Gearhart’s car had a bent frame and was deemed no longer usable, and the donor car became Gearhart’s racecar after it was converted to that purpose in time for the two-day Summer Shootout competition July 21-22. Gearhart did not finish the July 21 main event and was 17th July 22. Gearhart also did not finish the Aug. 5 main event.

Koehler is now part of Gearhart’s pit group. “Brian Fitzgibbons invited me to come up and pit with these guys,” Gearhart said.

Fitzgibbons and Koehler both live in Ramona. Charlie and Jess Koehler own La Finquita Winery and Vineyard, which sponsors Fitzgibbons. The pit group also includes Fitzgibbons’ nephew, Edward Finger, who lives in Murrieta. Menifee driver Kris Carnish races both at Perris Auto Speedway and Barona Speedway, and when Carnish is at the Barona track he also pits with the Fitzgibbons group.

Gearhart is currently sponsored by Dependable Alarm Systems, El Cajon Ford, Finishing Touch Millwork and Mike Pridgeon Race Engines. Pridegon visited Gearhart’s pit prior to the Sept. 2 heat races. “He heard the noise in the motor,” Gearhart said.

Pridegon, who was third in the Sept. 2 main event, warned Gearhart of the risk of a blown motor if Gearhart drove the car that night but also noted that if the situation was in Pridgeon’s own car, he would drive. Gearhart not only drove but also completed his heat race, the B main and the main event.

“I have some motor issues at the bottom end so I’m not at full power. I have to pull the motor and fix the motor over the next two weeks,” Gearhart said. “The car also has overheating problems. I overheated all three races.”

The Sept. 2 races included 26 Pure Stocks cars. The first three finishers in each Pure Stocks heat race automatically transferred to the main event. The other drivers competed in a 12-lap B main whose top eight drivers transferred to the feature.

Gearhart was in the second Pure Stocks heat race Sept. 2. He began the eight-lap race on the inside of the second row and was second after one lap. Eventual heat race winner Robby Norris of San Diego passed Gearhart to move into second. Brandon Jesina of San Diego subsequently passed Gearhart to move into the third position. Jesina finished second after passing Lakeside driver David Hunt, who finished third.

“The motor just wasn’t running right,” Gearhart said. “The car still felt good. It handles real good. I just had motor problems.”

Mike Wolfe of El Cajon had the pole to start the B main. Gearhart began on the outside of the front row. Wolfe took the initial lead and was in front for the entire race. Gearhart was second after one lap.

In the event of a yellow flag caution or a red flag stoppage, Barona Speedway uses a “Delaware restart” format in which the leader is lined up by himself and the remaining cars are lined up two-wide. The B main had two cautions and subsequent Delaware restarts. On the first restart Poway’s Mike Rumbaugh was lined up along Gearhart and moved into second after the green flag was thrown. Gearhart regained the second position after the second restart.

“I could have taken the lead in that race,” Gearhart said. “I decided to save my car for the main event.”

Second place in the B main allowed Gearhart to transfer to the feature and begin that 20-lap race on the inside of the seventh row. He had moved into tenth by the end of the fourth lap. During the fifth lap a yellow flag caused a Delaware restart, and Gearhart fell to twelfth by the end of the restarted lap. A subsequent yellow flag involving a car ahead of him gave him another restart with Gearhart in tenth.

Late in the race Gearhart had contact with the #00 car driven by Lemon Grove’s Bobby Thomas. “The double zero hit me,” Gearhart said. “I was able to save it.”

Gearhart subsequently had contact with El Cajon driver Joe Malone. “That was incidental contact,” Gearhart said.

Malone was not able to complete the race. Gearhart maintained forward motion. “I was able to keep going,” Gearhart said.

A seventh-place finish for Gearhart turned into fifth place when two of the top three drivers failed the post-race tech inspection and were disqualified.

“It was a good race. I felt like I had good results given the cards I was dealt tonight,” Gearhart said.

Finishing the B main and the feature required some luck to go Gearhart’s way. “Both after the B main and the A main my car caught on fire,” he said.

Gearhart lacked full power in the motor. “The car was running at about 75 percent,” he said.

Barona Speedway is a quarter-mile dirt oval, and passing requires room to do so. “The motor was good enough for the first three-quarters of the race,” Gearhart said.

His motor began deteriorating late in the feature. “In the main event the last three laps the car gradually lost power,” Gearhart said.

“It was about 50 percent at that point,” Gearhart said. “I was kind of playing defense at that point to hold my position.”

Gearhart will have Pridgeon work on the motor prior to the next Pure Stocks race Sept. 16. “The motor has been super fast. I’m very happy with it,” Gearhart said. “I’m going to pull the motor and take it to his shop.”

 

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