Good ol’ boy from Northern Ireland could’ve used shamrock at Bullring

Cokes and hot dogs for $1, a cold beer for $2, an Irishman being mentored by a Daytona 500 winner.

You never know what you might find at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Bullring on a Saturday night.

About an hour before the green flag for the Star Nursery 200 in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West – the old Winston West stock car circuit – I found a young man named Ali Jackson and an older one named Derrike Cope.

Ali – short for Alistair – Jackson hails from Glengormley, County Antrim, in Northern Ireland, the part of the Emerald Isle still ruled by the British. Glengormley is part of an urban area called Newtonabbey, and Newtonabbey is part of a larger urban area called Newtonabbey Borough.

These abbeys and boroughs are about six miles from Belfast, where the Titanic and Van Morrison were born, where the Catholics and Protestants who live there occasionally lob Molotov cocktails at each other.

The people in North Carolina, where Jackson lives now, are enamored of his lilting accent.

"They think I’m from Australia for some reason," he says.

Derrike Cope hails from Spanaway, Wash., an unincorporated area near Tacoma. A lot of people in North Carolina have heard of Tacoma.

Cope wears a jewel-encrusted ring on his right hand that he received for winning the 1990 Daytona 500 when the great Dale Earnhardt got a flat tire.

Everybody in North Carolina has heard of the Daytona 500.

Cope, 53, is on the last lap of his driving career. He has started a program to identify young drivers from nontraditional NASCAR locales and racing backgrounds, to help them climb the ladder much as he did 25 years ago when it was more difficult for an outsider to break in.

Save for Kathmandu or maybe Cleveland, I can’t think of a more nontraditional NASCAR locale than Glengormley of County Antrim in Northern Ireland.

"We decided to have some fun, to maybe give some young European drivers who had Formula One aspirations that had started to look a bit dim an opportunity to showcase their potential over here, to see what NASCAR is about, and see if they possibly could make the transition," Cope said.

Three years ago at this time, when he was 20, Ali Jackson was driving at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Firestone Indy Lights Series for a team funded by 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal and David Letterman. Competing in 11 of 15 races, Jackson finished 16th in points.

Six young leadfoots who finished ahead of him – J.R. Hildebrand, Sebastian Saavedra, Wade Cunningham, James Hinchcliffe, Ana Beatriz and Charlie Kimball – drove in this year’s Indianapolis 500. Hildebrand came within one turn of winning at Indy last year; Hinchcliffe inherited Danica Patrick’s seat and started in the front row this year. Rahal and Letterman’s driver, Takuma Sato, crashed on the last lap eight days ago while going for the win in front of more than 300,000 spectators.

On Saturday night, Jackson drove in a race in front of about 1,500 spectators where the guy driving the track-cleaning tractor had a heck of a time sweeping up the oil dry.

Three years ago, he seemed this close to breaking into the big time. He seems a little farther away now. The goal this year is to get a little seat time in the big stockers and acquire a Nationwide Series license. It’s easier to attract sponsors in the Nationwide Series, Jackson says, but if truth be known, he’s willing to drive anything with four wheels.

"It’s just a big, heavy car where everything I’ve driven has been light and nimble," he said. "But I’d drive a shopping trolley (cart). I just love racing."

He was loving wrestling the big stock car around the tiny oval for about 50 laps, running in midpack, making small moves to the front, turning the wheel this way and that, the way Cope had shown him. Then a fellow rookie dive bombed Jackson from the Firth of Clyde going into Turn 4, turning the latter’s car around.

It came to rest pointing in a clockwise direction. All the other cars were driving counter-clockwise.

This is the luck of the Northern Irish, I guess.

About five seconds later, another car ran into Jackson head on. Radiators were ruptured. Racing fluids were spilled.

Driving at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway must have seemed like a distant memory.

When they finally attached Jackson’s car to the tow hook, the front end was so wadded up you couldn’t read the sponsor logos on the hood of the No. 73 Chevy.

But the one on the rear quarter panel, next to the kelly green shamrock, pretty much summed up the evening of young Alistair Jackson of Glengormley of County Antrim in Northern Ireland.

Celtic Waste, it read.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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