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Veteran Wheatley really is a rookie

In December, Citrus County Speedway will have its awards banquet for drivers. Rob Wheatley wants to be there to do a little more than just applaud his fellow racers.

Wheatley wants to be able to walk up to the podium and accept an award. Rookie of the Year would be nice, and Wheatley would probably go home happy. But a Rookie of the Year award and the Sportsman points championship would be even better.

Wheatley, you see, has something to prove, and he figures halfway through the season is the perfect time to start moving up and putting himself in position to do a lot of walking on that night in December.

"A lot of people don't believe it, but I am a rookie," Wheatley said. "This is my first year racing in the Sportsman class and I would like to get that Rookie of the Year. I'm trying to make the car a little bit better if I can, just try to get out every week and see what happens. I want that points championship too."

While this may be his first year in the Sportsman class, Wheatley, 40, is no newcomer to the track _ or to racing for that matter.

The Inverness resident first began racing in 1989 in go-karts. After four years of that he kicked off his auto racing career at the Speedway, driving Mini Stocks. That was 1993 and he finished sixth in the points standings. But he took the next two years off and became just a car owner.

This year he picked up the car that Kevin Fults and Herb Neumann Jr. drove to points championships in 1994 and 1995. So while Wheatley shoots for his first points title, the car will be going for its third in a row.

"It's a good ol' car," Wheatley said, "but it's a dinosaur of a car. The body on it is a 1993 Camaro but the chassis and frame line is about five years old."

But don't give all the credit to the car; Wheatley is nothing if he isn't consistent.

He has finished every race but two in the top five this season and has recorded one feature win, a couple seconds, and "a bunch of third places."

He won the annual Dewey Sanders Memorial race and finished no lower than fifth for six straight weeks despite running a Street Stock motor in his car after a new engine exploded in the second week of the season.

"That was tough," Wheatley said. "When you build a motor at the beginning of the season, it should last you all year long."

Wheatley trails leader Doc Batson by 729 points in the race for the championship. The real race, though, seems to be for second as Wheatley and good friend Robbie Yoakam sit just 58 points apart heading into this weekend's Pepsi Sportsman 35 championship race.

All of those figures are based on the Speedway's scoring system, which awards points just for being on the track and DNF's don't affect a driver that much. If you go by NASCAR scoring methods, Wheatley said, he would be leading by almost 200 points.

"The points title is all about winning," he said. "Out here you can win 10 races and get 10 DNF's and still get the championship."

Nevertheless, Wheatley is going to keep letting his crew set up the car and keep chasing Batson around the track until he gets the Rookie of the Year trophy or the points title or both.

"I've got a good crew with Paul, Skip, Nick and Jeremy," Wheatley said. "They bust their hind ends off the track. Even if I don't catch Doc I'm having a lot of fun racing and trying to get Robbie.

"It kind of makes me wonder why I waited so long to get into racing. It's addicting, I'll tell you that."

The Speedway will feature a full schedule Saturday night as drivers compete in Late Model, Street Stock, Mini Stock and Bomber races as well as the Pepsi Sportsman 35 championship race. There also will be a fan particpation race for the third consecutive week.