Story By: JASON CHRISTLEY / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – In its infancy, there were too many drivers, not enough cars and far too few races for Rev Racing. The vision for diversity to truly take hold at NASCAR’s uppermost reaches was clear, though the path for getting there was foggy.
Fast-forward eight years and the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Driver Development Program has refined itself enough that Jefferson Hodges believes Rev Racing is ahead of the curve. With a win in the most recent NASCAR K&N Pro Series East event at Memphis and all three of its drivers in the top eight in the series standings heading to New Jersey Motorsports Park this weekend, Rev Racing’s best self is here.
“As far as a program and a race team, the difference we’ve started to make and the heads we’ve turned, the program’s in a great place,” said Hodges, a Virginia native and the director of competition at Rev Racing since 2011. “The success of the program or the race team I don’t feel like can be questioned anymore.”
Rev Racing set its own bar in 2012, when Kyle Larson won the K&N Pro Series East championship in the organization’s No. 6 car. They’ve won 18 races in the series and produced drivers who have gone on to national series prominence — including Larson, Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez, all of whom now compete full-time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Getting there has not been easy, and there has been a shift in focus for Rev Racing.
This season, the organization has whittled itself down to four full-time drivers from the previous six, but those drivers no longer focus simply on the K&N Pro Series. Now, they’ve expanded into Late Model racing, too, to try and provide more seat time and experience for up-and-coming drivers on their roster. Ryan Vargas, Ruben Garcia Jr. and Chase Cabre represent the three full-time K&N Pro Series East drivers for Rev Racing this season. A fourth driver, Nick Sanchez, will run a schedule of Late Models and Legends for the organization.
“I see those banners on that wall, and I know that I’m held to that standard,” said Ryan Vargas, who is fifth in the East point standings, highest among Rev Racing drivers. “I can be the next Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez. It’s really neat to be able to see that. You see the legacy that this team really does have. It’s a crucial part of NASCAR’s landscape.”
The 17-year-old Vargas, moved to Concord, North Carolina, this year from his La Miranda, California, home to join Rev Racing. Were he not to have made the cut at last year’s Drive for Diversity Driver Development Program combine, he would only be running a part-time Late Model schedule for his family this summer.
Instead, he’s still racing a Late Model part-time — but he’s doing so for Rev Racing while competing full-time in the K&N Pro Series. Not only does he view it as the opportunity of a lifetime, but he’s also been surprised as just how well it’s all going in his first year.
“I think the goals have changed a little bit,” Vargas said. “At the beginning of the season, I wanted to bide my time and try to finish every race. That’s what I did during my rookie year in Late Models (on the West coast), but I think I’ve figured out where I stand. I’m fifth in the standings, which is something I didn’t see happening, to be honest with you.
“I see the East series as one of the most competitive series out there. My goal is to maintain that top-five position. I want to keep improving and I think I can have some podium runs in the second half of the year. If we have a really good run, maybe I can even get that first win.”
Vargas doesn’t have to look far to see proof that a win is attainable. Teammate Ruben Garcia Jr. won his first career K&N Pro Series race last time out at Memphis, dominating the final third of the 150-lap event.
“When I was very little, it was a dream to go race NASCAR in the United States,” Garcia said. “Thanks to the Drive for Diversity program, Rev Racing and (team owner) Max Siegel, that was possible three years ago. I feel like I accomplished one of my biggest dreams. I was thinking, ‘What’s next?’ What’s the next step?’ ”
It’s a question he doesn’t have to ask anymore, now that he can call himself a K&N Pro Series winner. While it took Garcia three seasons to collect that first checkered flag, Hodges hopes the changes the organization has made will speed the learning curve for the next crop of Rev Racing drivers.
He noted the heavy schedules undertaken by last year’s championship contenders, Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland, before they graduated to NASCAR’s national series this season. They spent virtually every free weekend in Super Late Models or some other division as they chased as much seat time as humanly possible.
“We just felt like our drivers were not getting the seat time at just the K&N level that their competitors were getting,” Hodges said. “Our kids were running 15 K&N races a year, and that was all we had on the plate for them. By adding (Late Model races this year), we’ve actually increased the number of races we have by about 40 percent. All the way around, there’s more seat time.
“It’s definitely increased the workload for the guys in the shop, but the benefit has already started to show. The crew that takes care of the K&N car is also crew that takes care of the Late Model. If you look at Ruben — his crew chief, car chief, chief mechanic are all the same on the K&N car as on his Late Model. The learning curve has really sped up.”
That curve will continue its incline in the JustDrive.com 125 at New Jersey Motorsports Park. A former PEAK Mexico Series champion, Garcia has plenty of road racing experience. Also this weekend, Ernie Francis Jr. will join Rev Racing for the event on the 2.25-mile road course.
Francis, 20, is a four-time Trans Am champion with 12 career wins. He won a Trans-Am event at NJMP last season.
“Our road racing cars have always been good,” Hodges said. “Having Ernie coming on this week should elevate our entire road racing program with his knowledge.”
ROAD ACE: Will Rodgers will make his 2018 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East debut this weekend at New Jersey Motorsports Park, where he is the defending race winner.
Rodgers, driving for Jefferson Pitts Racing with backing from Kelly Benefit Strategies, will make two East starts this season. He will also compete at Watkins Glen in August.
A full-time driver in the K&N Pro Series West, Rodgers has made two career East starts and one them both. Both of those wins came on the road courses at NJMP and Watkins Glen.
He won the pole and finished second to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick in the West race at Sonoma last June.
DEBUT: Francis won’t be the only driver making their NASCAR K&N Pro Series debut at New Jersey. Cole Keatts, a 17-year-old from Lewison, Idaho, will pilot the No. 55 Black Rifle Coffee Ford for Jefferson Pitts Racing. Keatts is an offroad trucks racer who also had experience running in the former Red Bull Global Rallycross.
GARDEN STATE: New Jersey Motorsports Park has held only two NASCAR touring series events in its long history, as the road course facility has ties to World War II. Located next to the Millville Airport, an airport that was “America’s First Defense Airport” in 1941, the track sits on 500 acres and has two separate road course layouts.
Noah Gragson won the inaugural East event at the track in 2016.