Conspiracy theorists might wonder why the Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson team was conspicuously silent at the AAA Texas Fall Nationals this weekend, following grumbling about its year-long domination -- and the widespread belief that the new rules designed to hamper them slightly for the sake of parity have no real effect.
Whatever might or might not be happening behind the scenes, the indisputable truth is that neither points leader Eddie Krawiec nor Andrew Hines, winner at four of the previous seven races and runner-up at two more of those, were around for the finals Sunday at the Texas Motorplex at Ennis, south of Dallas.
Conventional wisdom would have put one of "The Hectors" -- Hector Arana Sr. or Jr., on their Lucas Oil Buells -- naturally in the final round. After all, they were the qualifying leaders both days, while the Harleys lagged behind. But they, too, were out of the mix.
Arana's race day was over before it started. He said his bike engine "was purring like a kitten," then it refused to turn over when he got to the starting line for his first-round meeting with Redell Harris. His son gave away his chance to win from the No. 1 qualifying spot, red-lighting against Michael Ray in the quarterfinals. "Sometimes you live by the Tree, sometimes you die the Tree. Unfortunately, this weekend, I died by the Tree."
But Michael Ray surely doesn't care about any of that. And it doesn't matter to him that few paid attention to him as the No. 8 qualifier.
All he cares about is that he won the race, earned his first National Hot Rod Association victory, and the relocation from Memphis to New Braunfels, Texas, to follow his dream worth all of the trouble.
Ray, 28, whose official name is Paul Ray Jr., rode the Matt Smith-prepped Viper Motorcycle Company/Gottspeed Racing Buell to a winning 6.920-second elapsed time at 192.77 mph on the Texas Motorplex quarter-mile, defeating equally hungry six-time tour winner Karen Stoffer, the No. 10 qualifier. She posted a 7.028-second, 190.48-mph pass on her GEICO Suzuki in her first final round of the season.
"All the turmoil that's just been brewing for a year now since the Harleys started their dominating performance and the rule change . . . [to see] a Buell and a Suzuki in the final for the first time in I-don't-know-how-long, I think it just shows that right now if you’re coming out here and putting in the work, you can go home with a win and take a big swing in points, like we did," Ray said.
With due respect to Harley-Davidsons, "It was just the right time at the right place, and I did my job. And (tuner / fellow rider) Matt Smith did his job). I left on Andrew [Hines, in the semifinals], and I just outran him. I'd like to say [the new rule] is a huge help, but it just goes to show that hard work [pays off]. Don't give up, don't cry about the rules, don't complain about the rules. My business and life coach tells me that you can only control yourself, and that's what we did today. Those guys are awesome and to beat 'em is huge."
In snapping the Vance & Hines streak at 11 races, Ray improved from seventh place to fourth in the bike-class standings.
He started racing in 2005 with the Gottsacker family of New Braunfels, near San Antonio, competing in the All-Harley Drag Racing Association's 24" Challenge class.
"I won my first national event here on that," he said, "so it's kind of fitting that I did it here on our Pro Stock bike. I was three-time champion in AHDRA. I just kind of paid my dues, started out riding John Hammock's Pro Stock Buell on a limited basis. As the opportunities came forth, I took advantage of them and didn't let the sponsors down and people who believed in me down when we got here."
The second-generation racer said he was thrilled his parents got to witness the victory Sunday. "My dad really, really worked his butt off for a chance to win one of these Wallys and he never did it. And for me to be able to do it with my mom and dad here . . . If you can count the sacrifices that a parent makes for their kids to be successful and live their dream, it's a fairy-tale ending to a great weekend."
Giving a nod to friend and San Antonio racer Peggy Llewellyn, who won the bike trophy at this race in 2007, Ray said, "It's really surreal, and I don't think it's really sunk in yet that I'm getting to go home with the biggest thing that I've worked my whole life for.
"When we got here this weekend, we knew we had a great bike that could go out there and be competitive, coming off our performance in Charlotte [where he had a modest quarterfinal finish]," he said. "I just knew that as long as I just kept my cool and rode the bike consistently, there's not a better tuner out here when it's hot than Matt Smith. And I think we showcased that today."
As for championship intentions, Ray said with confidence, "I think there's no better time than now to start a run at it. We went from seventh to fourth, and I don't think there's any better team on Sunday to be consistent than our bike. That's what it takes to win championships. I think if I'm sitting here answering these same questions in Reading [two races from now], my response might be a little bit different. But right now I just want to go out and be consistent and then let the points shake out where they're supposed to."
Krawiec increased his points lead to 11 over second-place Hines.
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