NHRA Lucas Oil Stock champ Kevin Helms
Last year, Kevin Helms really wanted to be a national champion. This year, having already won a championship, he didn't stress as much; it didn't seem to make a difference. This season, Helms shifted his B/S '69 Camaro to a second straight national title and became only the second driver to win back-to-back Stock titles since Jerry McClanahan did it in 1973 and 1974.
Helms' second straight title was both similar and dissimilar to his effort last year. The points chase again came down to the last NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event of the year in Las Vegas. Last year, Helms had to win at least three rounds in Las Vegas and won four. This year, he had to go at least six rounds to stay ahead of his closest challengers, Toby Lang and Jeff Hefler, both of whom had to go at least four rounds to keep their hopes alive. In another clutch performance, Helms won the event after Lang and Hefler lost in round three.
"At the Vegas divisional race last year, I was a mess," Helms said. "With the pressure of being in the top 10 so many times and never pulling off the number one, I had a lot of self-imposed pressure last season. This year, I hardly got nervous at the last few races. I had already won a championship, and nobody could take that away from me.
After Lang and Hefler lost in round three, Helms was mostly home free. If he had lost before the fifth round, Gene Mosbek would have had a chance at winning the championship, but he would have had to win the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals to overtake Helms for the title.
"The Las Vegas win was just gravy," said Helms, who also runner-upped in Super Stock behind the wheel of Ronnie Marlow's SS/IA '68 Camaro.
Unlike last year, when Helms won three national events for a perfect points score at that level and didn't win any divisional races, this year Helms went winless nationally and gathered most of his points by winning three divisional races.
"Financially, that doesn't do very well," said Helms, who races for a living, of the pay disparity between winning a national and divisional event.
Actually, that turnaround in winning venues was part of his plan. Helms failed to win the Division 4 title last year, a slip that bothered him because he had won the Division 5 title four times from 1994 to 2000 before he and his wife, Gail, moved from Colorado to Mineola, Texas. His three wins in Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series competition this year gives him an even five division titles and a sweep in the national and divisional standings. His other two divisional wins were back to back in Houston and Douglas, Wyo., and the Douglas win put him in the top 10 for the first time this year - all the way up to number two.
"After I won Douglas, I decided I might have a shot at winning this thing," Helms said.
The former diesel mechanic might have won a national event in Stock - he won Super Stock in Dallas in Marlow's car - had he not been stymied by mechanical trouble for the second of three times in national event competition the week after the Douglas event, in Denver. He had previously suffered an untimely defeat in Houston and would again in Indianapolis.
"In Houston, I had the guy beat, but the shifter fell apart on the run," Helms said. "When I blipped the throttle on the top end, it fell out of gear. I stuck it back in gear but lost by a thousandth.
"In Denver, I pulled into the water box, blipped it a couple of times, and nailed the throttle against the two-step rev limiter, except a fuse had blown and I had no low-side limiter," Helms added. "The engine went up to the high limit, 8,200 rpm. The line-loc is tied into the rev limiter, so I had to wait until the second amber on the Tree before moving my foot from the brake to the gas, which I just matted. I had a .6 light but still could have won if I had braked harder at the finish line, but I didn't because I figured I was going way too quick after that hard leave, and then the other guy broke out, too."
Helms had mechanical gremlins on two fronts at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, a race he won in 1998 and 1999.
"I had a high-rpm miss that wouldn't appear until I stuck in 4th gear and put a load on the engine," Helms said. "Then, in the class final, I broke 2nd gear. In eliminations, I broke 3rd gear in the third round against Al Corda."
Helms competed at 16 events this year, eight national and eight divisional. The best three of his first six national events counted toward his points total, and the best five of his first eight divisional events were tallied. To his opponents in national events, the big number 1 on his window was like a red cape to a bull.
"With the number 1 voodoo thing going on and everybody taking their shots at me, I just assumed I would have a terrible year this year," Helms said.
Helms' second national championship also makes him one of just three active Stock racers who have won two titles. The other two are Jim Hughes (1983 and 1989) and Corda (1986 and 1997).
"In my mind, that puts me up with a couple of legends," Helms said.
It could be argued that Helms' two straight titles were more hard-earned than McClanahan's. Before 1981, the Sportsman racer who won the World Finals was crowned national champion, but Helms had to be consistently good all year to win his titles.
"I never considered that I could win two in a row after last year," Helms said. "I'm very proud to be the first guy to do it with the points system."
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