IRWINDALE – NASCAR’s Elite Southwest Series will begin its 21st season on Jan. 22 at Phoenix Raceway. It will hold two races at Irwindale Speedway this year. Then it will be all over. “This was not a sudden decision and is very unfortunate,” Hawk said. “Most of the emotional support (for the division) has come from the Northwest and Southwest. “But track promoters cannot justify paying for big events that don’t draw for that kind of race and thus, NASCAR and the tracks cannot sell sponsorships.” Irwindale averaged 5,580 for its first 16 Southwest series races, roughly 1,000 more than a typical Saturday night race. The decision definitely leaves drivers in a lurch. Jeff Johnson, who has won the last three Northwest series titles, is definitely out in the cold. After the Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale in November, he sold his car, and there’s no sense buying one for just one season. “It’s a tough deal,” he said. “A lot of guys have ties to this series, so this is unfortunate.” Jefferson dabbled in the West series last year, but the cars are Cup-style and bigger budgets are needed. Could he go back to his Washington race track roots, racing the local programs? “Been there, done that,” he said. “I’m comfortable with this type of racing. My budget fits into that. So no, we’ll wait and see.” Some drivers, along with Hawk, hope the late-model touring series, Davey Hamilton’s Stockcar Racing League’s Wild West Late Model Shootout, will step into its place. The SRL and American Speed Association recently announced plans to incorporate the cars for 2007. “Some people cannot live with NASCAR being part of the deal,” Southwest driver and three-time Irwindale champion Rip Michels said. “But if you think about it, it’s not been great. What has NASCAR done for us? Maybe they are too big for us. You look at the ASA truck series (Speed Trucks) and they have a television package for every race. When was the last time one of our races was on television?” The SRL, which held races between Bakersfield and the Bay area last year, says it had planned on developing a Southwest-style tour for several years. “This large void for the teams and tracks led us to hasten our plans for the new ASA/SRL Super Late Model Tour and to continue the history of close, exciting racing and driver development that the Elite Divisions had provided for so many years,” said Steve Fensler, SRL director of operations for late models, on its Web site. In some ways, NASCAR’s decision has come down to sponsorship. Hawk said NASCAR does not want to abandon division sponsor AutoZone. The problem, he says, is that the car parts retailer has only 20 percent of its stores west of the Mississippi River, and most of those are in California. For a division that also holds a lot of races in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, it’s not a good fit. [email protected] (626) 962-8811, Ext. 2272 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! A series that produced drivers such as 2004 Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch, Cup veteran Kevin Harvick and current Craftsman Truck series veterans Ron Hornaday Jr. and Matt Crafton will cease after the 2006 season. NASCAR officials last week made the decision to pull the plug, which has been in the rumor mill for several years. The division is divided into four regions with drivers competing in similar Late Model-style cars. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECoach Doc Rivers a “fan” from way back of Jazz’s Jordan Clarkson“It’s not just one thing,” said Don Hawk, NASCAR’s director of regional racing development. “It’s not the number of cars, not the rules, not the engines, not the finances of competitors. We have found, that since 1999, that it’s the lack of fans and support. It’s come down to the tracks and track promoters. The promoters don’t want them because it’s a big price.” The cost for Irwindale to hold a Southwest race is roughly $60,000, according to several sources. The cost to hold a Grand National event – Irwindale is scheduled to hold two West races this year – is roughly $100,000. “It’s a business decision,” Hawk said. “It costs a lot to hold these events. You have to pay for the templates, the officials, travel, meals, the hotels, the purse. For us, it does not fit our business model. We’re taking it off life support.” Hawk says NASCAR has been both praised and derided – drawing “expletive-filled” messages and “it’s about time; thanks for the last couple of years” e-mails and phone calls – for the decision. It’s a choice, that at least on the West Coast, seems odd. The Southwest and Northwest series consistently draw large car counts for their races, with several teams leaving a track without qualifying for the main event. In both Irwindale events last year, the difference between the fastest and slowest qualifying time was less than a second. However, the Irwindale car counts were lowest ever.