Trio thrives as fast friends

Three weeks ago, three racing friends were closer than they wanted to be.

They were involved in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s Bullring that made the outer fabric of their normally starched, sharply creased race cars as wrinkled as seersucker.

But no hostile words were spoken afterward in the pits.

Tempers never ignited.

Instead of being flared-nostrils-to-noses close, with venom spewing from their pores like sweat, they worked elbow to elbow on a week’s worth of nights to repair the damage and smooth out the sheet metal.

That’s how it goes for Phil Goodwin, Darren Rollins and Mario Opipari, teammates in the Chargers stock-car division of the Bullring’s weekly NASCAR All-American Racing Series. Tonight’s racing card begins at 7.

The Super Late Models division is the premier category at the Bullring. But most competitors in that class are lapped in camaraderie by the lower-budget Chargers, which is a second-tier class for budget-conscious racers. Goodwin said he built his car for around $12,000.

Goodwin, 38, has been competing in the class for five years. A couple of years ago, he built a match to his 1981 Chevrolet Camaro as a back-up car. He offered it to Opipari to try one night, and Opipari, the current Chargers points leader with two victories, hasn’t left the cockpit.

"It’s the family and friends and competition," said Opipari, who a week ago won his second feature race of the year.

Goodwin, the Bullring’s two-time reigning Chargers champion, said that after the trio tangoed three weeks ago on the track he wanted to "kick the dog and give it up."

But he knew his frustration would be short-lived, lasting maybe an hour. Before long he was needling Rollins and Opipari and absorbing their verbal jabs.

Opipari knows about competition. The 32-year-old who graduated from Basic High School was a minor league relief pitcher from 1996 to 1999. He reached the Triple-A level with the St. Louis Cardinals in his final season.

"In between pitches you can take a break, walk around the mound, collect yourself," he said. "You can’t do that in racing unless the race is under caution. You have to focus for about 15 minutes on the track.

"If you’re on the mound that long, you’ve given up a lot of hits and you’d be gone."

Rollins, 38, has been racing on short tracks half his life and takes blame for causing the "big one" May 26.

"It was one of those racing deals," said Rollins, an engineer at the Flamingo, who has won twice this season.

He and his crew chief, 18-year-old daughter Christine, worked on their 1987 Monte Carlo SS for a week, but a bent frame kept them off the track that following Saturday.

"Since we’ve all been back, we’ve done OK," Rollins said.

Last Saturday night, the three friends combined to win each of their heat races, and then Opipari led the team’s parade across the finish line in the feature race. Rollins placed second and Goodwin third. The trio has won five of 10 features this season.

They don’t have time for anger among them, especially Goodwin and Opipari. The width of a cinder block separates their family-owned automotive repair businesses near Boulder Highway and Sunset Road.

Like most racers at the Bullring, they’re not competing for the money. Each spends about $200 a week to race, and a first-place check is $300.

But as they know too well, a price can’t be put on fun and friendship.

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