Rodney Childers will always love late model stock car racing.
The discipline helped prepare Childers for life in the NASCAR Cup Series, where he captured the 2014 NASCAR Cup Series championship as crew chief for Kevin Harvick in addition to 40 victories at NASCAR‘s top level.
That‘s why he‘ll always remember his victory in the inaugural running of the Fall Brawl at North Carolina‘s Hickory Motor Speedway, an event that celebrates its 25th anniversary Saturday.
In 1998, Childers was one of many young late model stock car competitors who were pursing their dreams of racing in the Cup Series. He spent his Friday nights racing at Tri-County Speedway in Hudson, North Carolina, where he quickly became a dominant force.
“That particular season was my first year running late model stocks full-time. My home track was actually Tri-County up the road running on Friday nights,” Childers said. “The thing I remember most about the Fall Brawl is Shane Huffman had won a ton of races at Hickory that year. I don‘t remember how many it was, but it was in the teens. I think I had won 10 or 11 at Tri-County.
“One of his guys came to Tri-County one Friday night, it was like the last race of the year, and was running his mouth saying that I was scared to come to Hickory because I knew I would get beat.”
Like any good racer, Childers didn‘t back down from the challenge. He spent the few weeks prior to the inaugural Fall Brawl in 1998 rebuilding his race car to make sure everything was perfect before he went to Hickory to challenge Huffman‘s dominance.
“I did everything I could do to it to make it better,” Childers said.
When race weekend came along, Childers was ready. He was fast in practice and qualified third for the main event while Huffman qualified on the pole.
The early portion of the race saw Huffman in control, with Childers following in his tire tracks. It wasn‘t long before Childers began to realize Huffman‘s car wasn‘t handling nearly as well as his own.
“We followed Shane for a long time, and about every lap his right-rear tire would smoke just a little bit off Turn 4,” Childers said. “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 riding and could still keep up with him.”
Childers passed Huffman on a restart and led the remainder of the race, becoming the first winner of the Fall Brawl in the process. It‘s a moment he still cherishes.
“I learned a ton that day,” Childers said. “It was a cool race, it was a lot of laps, it was something that a lot of us hadn‘t done before in a late model. Obviously winning $10,000 was a huge deal back then. It was a big day, for sure.”
In the years since Childers won the first Fall Brawl, many other recognizable names have added themselves to the winner list. They include 48-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner Denny Hamlin, 2021 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Ben Rhodes and 2020 NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series national champion and current NASCAR Xfinity Series competitor Josh Berry, among others.
“It‘s a hard race track. It‘s hard to win at, and it‘s a race that if people are really good, they want to go race it,” Childers said. “I think that‘s why that list kind of stands out. You‘ve had a lot of good people that want to go race and end up winning it.”
The Fall Brawl is one of several late-season major events for late model stock car competitors in the Southeast. It serves almost as a proving ground for many rising stars hoping to follow the footsteps of Childers, Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., all of whom got their starts racing late model stock cars at tracks across the Southeast.
Childers, who is currently building a late model stock car for Harvick that the two hope to debut sometime next year, believes it‘s important to support grassroots racing as a whole.
Without that level of the 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 that never get an opportunity,” Childers said. “They don‘t get a chance. With me coming from late model stocks and Dale coming from late model stocks and Denny coming from late model stocks, it‘s a huge deal for us. If it wasn‘t for that, none of us ever would have made it.
“I want to see it succeed, and I want to see short tracks succeed.”