In a seemingly repeating theme in Cory Eliason’s life, a simple trackside conversation at Calistoga Speedway jarred the door open for a new opportunity.
He was competing with his own car and was struggling to get everything sorted out. On hand was Troy Welty, the car chief for Denny Hamlin, who was in the area that weekend as NASCAR was making their annual June appearance at Sonoma Raceway.
On the way to NASCAR, Welty had served in a crew chief capacity for Roth Motorsports, so he was more than just a curious observer.
Spying Welty in the pits, Eliason was prescient enough to ask him for advice. While Welty was unable to stay for the duration of the event, he would later learn that his assistance had nearly produced a win.
When the word came down that Roth Motorsports was ready to head back on the road and was searching for the right driver, Eliason immediately expressed his interest in the post.
While Eliason can never be certain, he is relatively confident that a good word from Welty was important in Dennis Roth’s decision-making process.
Throwing his hat in the ring, all he could do was wait. With a plan to race in Australia looming, he headed to the airport with an arduous trip ahead of him. As fate would have it, just before he boarded, he got the call he had hoped for from Roth Racing’s Todd Ventura.
All he could do was get in a quick call to Brian Matherly, but he also was desperate to talk with Larry Antaya before the news leaked out. The long, long flight was marked by a mixture of elation and anxiety.
Back stateside, Eliason was prepared to become a committed road warrior and tee it up with some of the best in the business. The lid-lifters in Florida were a bit of a struggle, as he was busy adapting to a new team and new surroundings.
It got a whole lot better when he returned to familiar turf as the World of Outlaws began their early-season California swing. He ran second to Aaron Reutzel at Tulare on March 9, and on St. Patrick’s Day at Stockton he found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It was an outcome that was bound to make one reflective.
As the accolades poured in, Eliason could look back at those days of straightening out bent parts with a grin. He had persevered, and on this glorious night he beat the Outlaws.
No matter what happened from this point forward, his name would be in the record book.
The year was marked by predictable moments of struggle, followed by clear signs of promise. Anyone will tell you it is a grueling deal and it can wear on one physically and emotionally. It was tough enough not to qualify for the Knoxville Nationals, but then some crew members departed the team, notifying him that they were pulling back for a time.
Eliason stayed in the Midwest with Thone Racing and was able to hook up again with Roth Motorsports at the end of the year. If Eliason had lost any measure of confidence, it didn’t show when the Outlaws visited California in mid-September.
A strong podium finish at the Gold Cup at Silver Dollar Speedway was followed by a fifth-place run at Placerville. While the first night of a two-day stand at Calistoga did not go as planned, on night two he survived a duel with Donny Schatz to win again with the Outlaws.
As elated as he was to score another signature victory, he knew that his time with Roth, at least at this point, was largely over. The moment for a heart-to-heart talk with team principals was at hand.
Recalling the moment, Eliason said, “It was all good. I think there was an opportunity to go back. Dennis (Roth) wants an Outlaw championship, that’s the only thing he doesn’t have. The way I looked at it, I was grateful that he gave me the opportunity, but I am a realist. The chances of me winning an Outlaw championship in year two was very, very slim.
“I wasn’t going to be someone who said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the best there is.’ There was no way I was going to be competitive with Donny (Schatz), Brad (Sweet) and (David) Gravel. They offered me a 65-race schedule but, again, I know he wants to win a championship. After we had talked they respected my decision.”
Eliason’s thought process revealed a level of maturity, and restraint, which is sometimes in short supply. Yes, he wanted to be on the Outlaws tour, but he wanted to be in a position to compete at a high level of consistently. More specifically, he felt he needed time to get comfortable at various race tracks around the country and get a firmer grip on what he needed to do to improve as a driver.
Considering his available options, and given that he had already shown he could race with the Outlaws, he felt he had a chance to move into a situation that would provide the right context he needed to fully develop.
By this time, he knew one avenue might be open. At Calistoga, owner Kevin Rudeen approached him and said he would be giving him a call on Monday. Rudeen had raced with the Outlaws with the likes of Shane Stewart and Joey Saldana, and he liked what he saw in Eliason.
“He’s a good young man,” Rudeen said. “I had watched him enough. I liked his work ethic and his temperament. All drivers have a temper, and they are frustrated when they don’t do well, but he handled his well. I also liked his integrity.”
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