When the smoke settled, spectators were left in awe of another historic rocket sighting in Florida.
They weren’t looking to the sky, though. The mesmerizing visual took place in Barberville, FL with the “rocket” landing on the front stretch of Volusia Speedway Park Saturday night.
While hearts around the track took a breath to ease their rapid pace from the excitement, Hudson O’Neal climbed from his Rocket1 Racing machine, slapping his hands on the roof, and exhausted all the air in his body with every yell as confetti levitated around him.
The 22-year-old from Martinsville, IN won his first World of Outlaws CASE Construction Equipment Late Model race during the Federated Auto Parts DIRTcar Nationals finale and became the 100th different winner in World of Outlaws CASE Late Model history.
“It’s cool,” O’Neal said. “I came really close to winning these World of Outlaws races and for some reason never can seal the deal on them. To do it in the fashion we did and to be able to do it, it’s cool. It’s just more to do with Mark (Richards, owner of Rocket1 Racing) and the history that he has with the Outlaws. It’s special. This is a day I’ll never forget, I promise you.”
O’Neal’s space in Victory Lane was shared with 2006 World of Outlaws CASE Late Model champion Tim McCreadie, who clinched the 2023 Big Gator championship with his fourth-place finish. The Watertown, NY driver put together finishes of second, first, first, third and fourth to lock up his second Big Gator trophy.
Like O’Neal, McCreadie also made history as he became the first driver in the event’s history to win two Big Gator titles in two divisions. His first came with the Super DIRTcar Series in 2018.
“It’s pretty cool,” McCreadie said. “Not a lot of guys go out and venture to do something different. My whole career is about, ‘Hey, let’s go try and do something and have some fun with it and see if I’m good enough to overcome not knowing what to do with a different type of race car.’
“Hasn’t always worked out, but to come down here (at Volusia Speedway Park) and get a couple of these (Big Gator trophies) with all these fans here, that’s pretty cool.”
When the 50-lap, $20,000-to-win, Feature initially lined up, the easy bet seemed to be on McCreadie, who drew the pole. O’Neal, buried in 23rd after transferring in through a Last Chance Showdown, seemed far out of reach for for a successful takeoff.
At the drop of the green flag, McCreadie launched ahead of the field, while outside pole sitter Chris Madden slid back to fourth in the first corner, moving Brian Shirley into second and Brandon Overton in third.
The first caution of the night came at Lap 3 for a slowed Mason Ziegler. In that short amount of time, O’Neal was already up to 12th-place.
Once the race resumed, McCreadie left Shirley and Overton to argue over second place. Six laps later, he found the back of the field. The straightaway led he had over Shirley was cut to a few car lengths in two laps.
Finally close enough to make a move, Shirley dove under McCreadie into Turn 1 on Lap 19, nosing ahead of him by the center of the corner. However, the #39 had the better run around the top of the track and gapped Shirley’s #8 car by a car length off Turn 2.
O’Neal was up to eighth.
By the halfway point of the race, Madden had found his groove again and moved into second. A caution on Lap 29 for Mike Spatola stopping in Turn 4 brought the current Series points leader to McCreadie’s rear bumper.
At this point, the firing of the thrusters on O’Neal’s machine could be heard as he sat fourth in line on the restart.
Shirley and Madden wagged a war for second before Shirley began to master the top and try to run down McCreadie for the lead. However, again, he failed. That opened the door for “The Mailman” Devin Moran to make his trek forward, bringing “Huddy” with him.
While McCreadie was caught behind Jimmy Owens, Moran dove underneath the former Outlaw champion and snuck ahead of him to claim the lead on Lap 42. After another circuit around, O’Neal also worked his way underneath McCreadie to take second.
Staying within reach of Moran, O’Neal moved to the top of the track while Moran hugged the bottom. When Moran had to wait on the throttle exiting Turn 4 with a lap car ahead of him, O’Neal hit the hyperdrive and blasted around the outside of the #99 to take the lead on Lap 45.
Moran tried to keep pace, but O’Neal ran a perfect trajectory to the checkered flag.
“To be honest, we took the green and I rode the middle and I felt like I could steer a little bit better than everybody could,” O’Neal said. “I started rolling around there and catching that middle and started driving by some guys stacked up on the bottom and the first caution came out [three] laps in and I looked up and I’m running 12th. I thought, ‘Oh man, starting 12th is a whole lot better than starting [23rd],’ and we had a lot of laps left.
“There for a while I was passing them, and I stalled out about fourth or so there and I just thought I don’t know if I have anything for them or not. I used my stuff up hard trying to get there. I don’t know, man, sometimes things just workout. Tonight, was one of those nights.”
In addition to the milestone marks of O’Neal’s triumph, he also won the Fox Factory Hard Charger Award, rocketing his way from 23rd to first, and became the fourth different driver to win for Rocket1 Racing.
“It means a lot, we’ve always been a big supporter of the World of Outlaws,” Richards said. “(O’Neal) makes the fourth driver to win for us. Bart Hartman won World of Outlaws races for us. Brandon (Sheppard) and Josh (Richards) won World of Outlaws races over the years. He’s starting a new chapter for us.”
That chapter will always be remembered as another unforgettable “rocket launch” in Florida.
UP NEXT: The World of Outlaws CASE Construction Equipment Late Model Series continues its 2023 season at Smoky Mountain Speedway, March 3-4. For the full 2023 schedule, CLICK HERE.
If you can’t make it to the track, you can watch all the action live on DIRTVision.
Case Construction Equipment Feature (50 Laps): 1. 1-Hudson O’Neal; 2. 99-Devin Moran; 3. 20RT-Ricky Thornton Jr; 4. 39-Tim McCreadie; 5. 76-Brandon Overton; 6. B5-Brandon Sheppard; 7. 44-Chris Madden; 8. 32-Bobby Pierce; 9. 8-Brian Shirley; 10. 111-Max Blair; 11. 18D-Daulton Wilson; 12. 40B-Kyle Bronson; 13. 19R-Ryan Gustin; 14. 12-Ashton Winger; 15. 28-Dennis Erb Jr; 16. B1-Brent Larson; 17. 9-Nick Hoffman; 18. 18-Chase Junghans; 19. 11-Gordy Gundaker; 20. 25-Shane Clanton; 21. 99B-Boom Briggs; 22. 22*-Payton Freeman; 23. 96V-Tanner English; 24. 20-Jimmy Owens; 25. 17M-Dale McDowell; 26. 99JR-Frank Heckenast Jr; 27. 49-Jonathan Davenport; 28. 76N-Blair Nothdurft; 29. 89-Mike Spatola; 30. 25Z-Mason Zeigler