Slate wins in first career race at Sunny South

Rafe Slate poses in the winner’s circle this past Saturday night after winning a race at Sunny South Raceway in Grand Bay, Alabama. 

PHOTO: Contributed

U.S. Legends racer Rafe Slate made a name for himself over the past couple of years in the state of Georgia but, last weekend, he was the top dog in Alabama.

Slate, who competes for the Eatonton-based Solid Rock Performance Racing team, won at Sunny South Raceway in Grand Bay, Alabama. Slate had never even seen the track, located about 25 minutes south of Mobile, in person, much less drive on it.

He said it makes him feel good knowing he has the ability to visit a track, roll his race car out of the hauler and compete at a high level.

“It's really cool,” Slate said. “It definitely gives you a confidence boost (to know) that you can go to a few different tracks and learn them really quickly.”

Rainfall forced a change in procedures at last Saturday’s race near the Alabama coast.

Normally, the drivers would have had a few practice sessions and then a qualifying run. Last weekend, they only got in one practice run and qualifying was canceled. Instead, the drivers competed in brief heat races to determine their starting order.

Because he had no prior experience with the track, Slate said the format change and track conditions did not affect him.

“We knew it was going to happen,” he said. “I don't think it really changed the way I learned the track because it was just so different. I just adapted to what it was and didn't really think about how the track felt from practice. I didn't really notice there being much of a difference in between when I was testing in practice and the heats.”

Slate started fourth for the race, which combined drivers from multiple Legends classifications, including Slate and his fellow Pro class drivers.

A contentious race ended in a side-by-side finish. Slate beat out Connor Okrzesik, a veteran of Sunny South, by just .018 seconds.

“I felt pretty good,” Slate said. “I knew there was some pretty good competition there because Connor Okrzesik is one of the fastest ones there. His parents actually own the track and he's raced there for six, seven years. He was really fast and gave a really good race and a really good finish. ... I felt pretty confident going in that, as long as I hit my marks and did what I was supposed to do, I could do pretty well.”

The competitive racing was nothing new to Slate, who’s been a Legends driver for the past couple of years. However, Okrzesik brought a stiffer challenge than many of Slate’s other competitors.

A caution caused by drivers from the Young Lions division, a classification below the Pro level, allowed Slate an opportunity to warm up his tires while the track was being cleared.

From then on, he and Okrzesik continued their battle, which culminated in Slate’s first-ever photo finish.

“That was really cool,” Slate said. “It was a lot of fun. We raced really hard. Right before the last lap, we were side by side and I passed him going into (turn) one and he crossed me back over and I just kind of pulled the outside out of there. It got really close. It's a weird feeling sitting in the car thinking you crossed the line first but not knowing, just kind of waiting to hear over the radio.”

Slate was told he won.

His victory at Sunny South continues a hot stretch in recent months. Slate regularly races at the Watermelon Capital Speedway, located inside Crisp Motorsports Park in Cordele, Georgia. Earlier this year, Slate put together three consecutive wins.

His most recent run at WCS, however, resulted in a middle-of-the-pack finish after a last-lap crash.

“That one was an interesting race,” Slate said. “I qualified third and was faster than the leader right away and went straight to the lead and led, I think, 18 out of 20 laps. There was an intentional spin on the last lap – that was confirmed that it was an intentional spin – and it was just chaos from there. I got spun out twice on a restart and got my position back and everybody wrecked coming to the finish line. It was crazy.”

Slate returns to action this Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he’s driven most of his career races.

He is in a good spot as far as the national Pro points standing is concerned; the point had not been updated to include his last two races as of Monday, but it was expected he would be first or just a spot or two below with those results figured in.

The Thursday Thunder series at AMS is scheduled to begin May 31 and run through early August. A strong showing in that series could give Slate a big advantage in the national points and help propel him to a championship.

Slate said he hopes Saturday’s events, which will include two races, will give him a final warm-up at AMS before Thursday Thunder starts up in a few weeks.

“I'm feeling pretty confident going into there,” he said. “I'm hoping to get some top threes out of that. Atlanta's been one of my better tracks, so I'm hoping to go in there and get some good practice for Thursday Thunder.”

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