By Phil Whipple. Photo By: Rachel Plant
RaceOnTexas.com Staff Writer
CONROE, Texas — As the popularity of Late Model racing continues to grow in the deep south, drivers from other types of cars are starting to make their mark. Across south Texas, as the focus shifts towards full-fendered cars, several drivers are now showcasing their skills.
For 38-year-old former Sprint car champion Ray Allen Kulhanek, this could be a breakout season in Late Models. Last year, he split his time between a Sport Mod (14 starts) and a Late Model (6 starts). His numbers were strong in the Sport Mod, with three wins, seven top-5's and 13 top-10s.
While he didn't jump into car owner Jose Moran's Late Model until mid-season, he earned one win and four top five finishes. It was, by most racer's standards, a fabulous season overall.
“The Late Model program went even better than I expected,” Kulhanek said. “I have to thank Chris Brown of CBR Shocks for that success, he's the one who got me going with a good baseline and solid setup. There are just so many adjustments you can make; I'm still learning.
“There are also many things you can do in the seat, like changing the way you enter or exit a corner. You can change the attitude of the car from behind the wheel. I feel like I learned a lot in just six races. It helped to have my Sprint car background, so going fast wasn't a big challenge."
As we get closer to the 2021 season opener, Kulhanek says things are coming together nicely.
“I feel like we're more prepared than we were last year,” he said. “I realize we've still got a lot to learn, but we've got a good base to start the season. I've been gathering information which should help us this year. I feel like we should be competitive right out of the box, and that's our goal for this season.”
Kulhanek's racing resume is extensive, to say the least. With well over 250 career wins to his credit, few drivers have matched his trophy collection. From the time he got into a race car in 1997, he was a threat to win.
“I have over 30 wins in ASCS Sprint car competition, which is amazing,” he said as he reflected on those successes. “I won six ASCS Gulf Coast regional championships, and five other track titles to go along with those. And back in the day, I even won a pair of championships in the Hobby Stock class.”
Coming up through the ranks, paying his dues and learning the ropes the right way sure paid dividends.
“My rookie year in Hobby Stock was 1997, when I won 11 features and the championship. In 1998, I won 22 out of 24 features and my second consecutive title. Since that was an entry-level class, they kicked me out and that was that. We really couldn't afford to move up, so I was in limbo for a while.”
With talent to spare that nearly everyone had seen, it didn't take long for doors to swing open.
“There were a few guys around who felt bad for me because they knew we couldn't afford to advance,” Kulhanek added. “But they knew I had talent, so I started getting rides, in all kinds of different race cars. I've been fortunate enough to have great owners despite not having anything but talent to offer.”
That talent carried him a long way, and it runs in the family. The man has auto racing in his blood.
“My grandfather and grandmother both raced,” he said with great pride. “They raced before I was born, but they both were successful behind the wheel. Grandma was a 13-time Destruction Derby champion, and Grandpa won a ton of races in Figure 8 and in other classes. They both were well established.
“Every one of us with my last name has raced at one time or another. Racing is our life, and I even met my wife at a racetrack. We met in March of 2019 at South Texas Speedway, and also got engaged at the same track. It gives me great pride to be carrying on this family legacy of racing. I just love winning.”
Kulhanek has battled it out with World of Outlaws star Aaron Reutzel, and he came away a champion.
“In 2013, our battle for a regional title went right down to the wire,” he explained. “Whichever one of us outran the other on the final night would win the crown. I ended up edging him out, and here he is racing full time on the National circuit. He's very good at attracting sponsors, which is what it takes.”
While his Sprint car career may be on hold, things are actually pretty good these days.
“I have a family to support, so I work a regular full-time job and race as often as I can,” Kulhanek added. “There just isn't much Sprint car racing around the greater Houston area right now, so I'm thrilled to be driving this Late Model for Jose again in 2021 and am going for it.”
The team recently acquired a high-quality and high-horsepower Open motor, one with a solid pedigree.
“We found a well-built engine in our price range that was originally built by Custom Race Engines. It was freshened by Cornett Racing Engines at one time, but it needed some TLC when we got it. I took it apart and found some issues, so I took it over to my engine man and he's going to get it right for us.”
The car that engine is going into is no slouch, either, boys. It's a horse worth betting on, for certain.
“The chassis is a 2018 Rocket XR1, and it's in great condition. Jose is as invested in this deal as I am, but we're also seeking new marketing partners so we can run more SLM races. We're trying to do big things on a limited budget. We have all the right equipment, but it takes funding to go win races.”
Kulhanek may not have the marketing partners his old rival Reutzel has, but he's got several good folks and valued sponsors on board to support his efforts in 2021. And he knows how to provide a return.
“I'm thankful to have some great companies behind me, including Moran Kulhanek Motorsports, CBR Shocks, Smiley’s Racing Products, ID Machine & Fabrication, Jackson Heat & A/C, Hoosier Tire Southwest, DR2 Racing Engines, Day Motorsports, Performance Grafix, Hinchman Indy and Mark Herring Racing Engines. We couldn't do this without their support.
“I also need to thank my fiancé, Chelsea, my two daughters, Bryleigh and Avery, and my entire family. Their love and support means the world to me. I'm working towards another strong season in 2021.”
With that XR1 and new engine being freshened by DR2, the team is ready to tackle the giants.
“We're planning on trying to run some Comp Cam Series races, a few Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series races, and I definitely have one World of Outlaws race on our schedule in September at Dirt on the Rev in Louisiana. We're going into it with our very best effort.”