(Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Rodney Childers will always love late model stock car racing.
The discipline helped prepare Childers for life in the NASCAR Cup Series where, alongside 40 wins at NASCAR’s highest level, he won the 2014 NASCAR Cup Series Championship as crew chief for Kevin Harvick.
That’s why he will always remember his victory in the inaugural Fall Brawl event at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina, an event celebrating its 25th anniversary on Saturday.
TIED TOGETHER: Watch Hickory’s Fall Brawl live on FloRacing
In 1998, Childers was one of many young stock car competitors pursuing their dream of racing in the Cup Series. He spent his Friday nights at the Tri-County Speedway in Hudson, North Carolina, where he quickly became a dominant force.
“This particular season was my first year running late model stocks full-time. My home stretch was actually Tri-County up the road running Friday night,” Childers said. “The thing I remember most about Fall Brawl is that Shane Huffman won a lot of races in Hickory that year. I can’t remember how many, but it was in their teens. I think I had won 10 or 11 at Tri-County.
“One of his guys came into Tri-County one Friday night, it was like the last race of the year, and shut his mouth and said I was afraid to come to Hickory because I knew I was going to get beat. “
Like any good racer, Childers did not shy away from the challenge. He spent the few weeks leading up to the first Fall Brawl in 1998 rebuilding his race car to make sure everything was perfect before heading to Hickory to challenge Huffman’s dominance.
“I did everything I could to do better,” Childers said.
As race weekend approached, Childers was ready. He was quick in practice and qualified third for the main event while Huffman qualified on pole.
Huffman was in control early in the race and Childers followed his tire tracks. It didn’t take long for Childers to realize that Huffman’s car didn’t drive nearly as well as his own.
“We followed Shane for a long time and his right rear tire was smoking a little bit every lap into Turn 4,” said Childers. “My spotter kept saying, ‘I know you see it. His right rear is smoking.’ I knew at that point that I had him because I was just driving and I was still able to keep up with him.”
Childers passed Huffman on a restart and led the rest of the race, becoming the first Fall Brawl winner. It’s a moment he still cherishes.
“I learned a lot that day,” Childers said. “It was a cool race, it was a lot of laps, it was something a lot of us had never raced in a late model before. Obviously winning $10,000 was a big deal back then. It was definitely a big day.”
In the years since Childers won the first Fall Brawl, many other household names have added to the winner’s list. These include 48-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner Denny Hamlin, 2021 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Champion, Ben Rhodes, 2020 NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series National Champion and current NASCAR Xfinity Series competitor, Josh Berry.
“It’s a tough racetrack. It’s tough to win and it’s a race that if people are really good, they want to be in it,” Childers said. “I think that’s why this list stands out. They had a lot of good people racing and wanting to win at the end.”
TIED TOGETHER: Everything you need to know about the Brawl in Hickory case
The Fall Brawl is one of several major late-season events for late-model stock car competitors in the Southeast. It serves almost as a proving ground for many rising stars hoping to follow in the footsteps of Childers, Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., all of whom got their start racing later stock cars at Southeastern circuits.
Childers, who is currently building a late-model stock car for Harvick that the pair hope to debut sometime next year, believes it’s important to support grassroots sport as a whole.
Without this level of sport, Childers said, many current NASCAR stars would never have made it to where they are today.
“There are so many good racers out there who never get an opportunity,” Childers said. “You don’t stand a chance. Since I’m late model stock and Dale is late model stock and Denny is late model stock, it’s a big deal for us. If it wasn’t for that, none of us would ever have made it.
“I want it to succeed and I want short tracks to succeed.”