Leader Blues

Friday, July 17, 2009

SPORTS >> Rocketman coming of age

By JASON KING
Leader sportswriter

His nickname says it all.

Searcy native Tyler Stevens has been known as “The Rocketman” since a dominating weekend of go-kart racing at Talladega Short Track as a teenager. Now 22, Stevens can still recall the trip that earned him his racing handle.

“I got it whenever we went to Alabama one year,” said Stevens. “There was a go-kart race at Talladega Short Track, right next to the Superspeedway, and we went down there and entered in three different divisions. We won all three of them. We came back to Arkansas, and someone said something like, ‘Well, you must have been a rocket’, and so ever since then, it’s been Rocketman.”

Stevens, who won four straight national go-kart championships at the Tunica Indoor Nationals from 2002-’06, entered the world of go-kart racing at age 5 and found national success before following in the footsteps of his dad Larry Stevens, who became Tyler’s first car owner when he made the switch to modifieds in June of 2006. Larry had been a modified racer in his younger days, and helped prepare Tyler for racing at the clay bullrings across the state of Arkansas.

Tyler quickly took to the open-wheeled machines, hovering around the top ten for the first two months until he broke through with his first career modified top five at Beebe Speedway in early August of 2006. He finished third behind veterans Ben Waggoner and Donnie Stringfellow that night, but broke through for his first mod win on the last weekend of the ’06 season in late October.

Things got complicated the following season when the family-funded team began to run out of money. Stevens started the season in the modified class, but had to switch to the less-expensive — and far less prestigious — E-mod class by early summer.

“Modified is one of the classes where you have to have top-notch equipment, or you’re not going to be a front runner,” Stevens said. “We had good enough stuff to run top ten, then it turned into kind of sinking money into it.”

Stevens made the most of his disappointing situation, dominating the E-mod class with four straight wins during the 2007 summer season, but when veteran car owner Kevin Barker came calling the following summer, Stevens left the economy mods behind.

“The opportunity opened up with Barker’s, and it was a good opportunity to take advantage of,” he said. “I just wanted to move up the ladder in racing. My dad drove modifieds, and I started out running modifieds for him. Then about a year ago, I started driving for Mr. Barker, and it’s been smooth sailing ever since.”

Barker, of Cabot, is one of the most successful modified owners in the central Arkansas area. He won an IMCA state title in 2005 with Conway racer Chuck McGinty before running two seasons with local driver Jayson Hefley.

Hefley’s busy schedule away from the track left Barker looking for a new driver in the spring of 2008, and it didn’t take him long to settle on a replacement.

“I was watching Tyler back when he was running E-mod,” said Barker. “I told everyone, you better keep an eye on that boy right there. You give him some seat time, and he’s going to be a contender.

“When I got the opportunity to get him to drive for me, he was the first one who popped into my mind. In another couple of years, he’s probably going to be one of the drivers that’s starting in the back and coming to the front every week.”

The explosion of popularity in go-kart racing and 250cc micro-sprints across the country a decade ago has changed the complexion of local short-track racing as a whole. No longer do the 20-year veterans enjoy an overwhelming advantage on any given weekend at the bullring dirt tracks. Young up-and-comers like Stevens are now becoming heavy hitters in all of the more prestigious classes.

Stevens has managed to parlay his success from the go-kart tracks to the quarter and half-milers across the state. And with his comfort level in modifieds improving weekly, that early go-kart streak may end up as a mere footnote by the time he hangs up his helmet decades from now.

“People would be surprised how much a modified is like a go-kart,” said Stevens. “With such a large motor and smaller tires, it’s more or less about being smooth and consistent. Whereas in a go-kart, everybody is so equal that you have to run smooth and consistent.”

His numbers are already solid in mods. The Barker’s 2FAST team has already taken five checkered flags in 2009, giving Stevens nearly 25 open-wheel modified wins during his limited time over the past three seasons.

Stevens said he is happy in the modified division for now, but neither he nor Barker have ruled out a possible venture into the resurgent late-model class in the coming years. With some of the biggest names in the country running modifieds week to week in central Arkansas, Stevens wants to make the most of where he is at right now.

“Around here, you have some of the best modified racers in the nation, with Batesville having Shaw and Greenbrier having GRT cars,” said Stevens. “You’ve got everybody — Jared Landers, Peyton Taylor — all the big names. They come from around here, and they can go anywhere in the country on a given weekend and be a top runner.

“Racing is not an easy sport. It’s going to be tough to win anywhere you go.”