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Rocket helps Richards race ahead

by John G. Miller


(May 27) SHINNSTON -- There's a guy inspecting the frame of a car and a few more workers in the back welding another frame. A couple more guys are finishing the remnants of a fast-food lunch.

The sound of drills and sanders at full throttle blend in with the conversation and the seemingly continual ringing of the telephones.

It could be any auto body shop in just about any town, nothing fancy, but plenty of action.

But this isn't your normal automobile repair shop; there are no rusted out Olds Cutlasses waiting for a new fender; no Fords needing a fuel line.

This is Mark Richards Racing Enterprises, home of one of dirt track's hottest chassis -- the Rocket -- and its developer, Mark Richards.

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Auto racing is a close-knit family. That holds true for dirt track, the unofficial minor leagues of big-time circuits like NASCAR Winston Cup and Busch Grand National.

Those big-name drivers had to learn somewhere and that place is some local dirt track, where the dirt is literally flying every Friday or Saturday night and that bag of popcorn bought at the concession stand is every bit as important as the cost of an admission ticket.

Mark Richards grew up in this environment. So did his partner, Steve Baker. That's kept them going through lean years and probably steered them to better times.

"If we didn't love auto racing, we could probably find something more lucrative," said Baker. "We spent a lot of time in this building or down at (Interstate 79 Speedway, another of their ventures)."

That love for the sport may be the secret to their success.

Short Track Auto Racing Series two-time champion Steve Francis is the top driver using Rocket chassis.

"It's not just the chassis, but the way they work with people," said Francis, "Mark and Steve and everybody in their shop ... they put so much into every car. It's like they always want to know how Ôtheir' car is doing."

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Francis' emergence on the STARS circuit two years ago mirrors his move to Rocket chassis and his success has been the driving force behind Rocket's skyrocketing stock on the dirt track scene.

"I kept track of what Mark's cars were doing for the last year," said Tom Guithues, owner of K&L Motorsports in Maple Park, Ill. "All you had to do was see what he did for Steve Francis to realize he has something special going.

"I like what he does with the front ends and back ends of his cars," Guithues added. "And they're catching on here in the midwest."

Dirt track racing is like any other industry. Everybody wants the latest equipment to keep up with competitors.

For years the main builders were MasterBilt, Rayburn, Bullett and GRT (Garrison Racing Team). Once Rocket cars started winning, there was another player.

Now, along with Francis, six of the top 10 drivers on the STARS circuit drive Rocket and defending Hav-A-Tampa champion Billy Moyer has added a Rocket to his stable.

And Rockets are showing up everywhere from Mississippi to Iowa, from Pennsylvania to California.

The reason is simple: A car chassis cost anywhere from $2,900 to $15,000 and good ones are as hard to find as a Jeff Gordon fan at a Dale Earnhardt autograph session.

It's funny, but the man with the "golden touch" doesn't believe in magic when it comes to auto racing.

"There are no magic setups," Richards said with a chuckle. "There's really only five or six ways to set up one of these cars.

"The key is to match the car with the driver ... his style and personality. That's the most important thing."

Richards has no fancy degrees. He's not an engineer or a psychologist. But when he talks racing, people tend to listen.

And in the highly competitive world of dirt track racing, Richards has what seems to be an odd goal: Parity.

"We share information with all the drivers driving Rockets. Nothing's kept hidden," said Richards.

He works most weekends with Weston driver Tim Hitt, another STARS circuit success story.

"Really, Timmy's been a big part of our R (that's research) and D (that's development)," Richards said. "We take what we learn from his car and share it with all the others."

While the Rocket has landed Richards Racing on the map, Richards and Baker are hesitant to talk expansion.

They did add on to the parts department and are pleased with their other ventures, including Interstate 79 Speedway.

But they're taking a wait-and-see approach to talk of building a fullscale production facility.

"If we keep building 150 cars, we're the perfect size right now," Richards said. "Now, if we go up very many, we'll need to get bigger.

"But, to make it very big, we'd have to be averaging 500 cars a year to make it profitable."

Baker said the company has "found its niche. There's a lot of interest in our products, but not more than what we can handle and service."

Guithues, who's already sold 12 cars in his short association with Richards Racing, believes Richards Racing's Rocket is "among the top five builders and within two years will probably be No. 1."

Richards and Baker know the company's reputation is growing, but neither is willing to lay claim to No. 1 Ñ yet.

"The numbers say we're doing a lot of things right," Richards said. "There's times when we go racing that there'll be 30 or 40 Rocket cars in the pits. And our numbers get better every year."

"There's no question we've come a long way. But, we know there's a long way to go."