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LAS VEGAS (Nov. 10, 2007) -- Steve Carlson already has a handful of NASCAR championship rings -- five to be exact -- but it was the one he received Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay that really provided a crowning moment from the 50-year-old driver from West Salem, Wisc.
"Each NASCAR championship is special to me," Carlson said. "But this is, by far, the biggest one yet."
Carlson was honored at the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series banquet as the national champion. Carlson's receipt of the championship trophy from Phil Kurze, vice president of motorsports for series-sponsor Whelen Engineering, and then the championship ring from Jim O'Connell, NASCAR Vice President, Corporate Marketing, completed a night that saw a celebration of champions from across North America.
The show opened with a video tribute from NBC anchor Brian Williams, a devoted fan of short track racing. Brian France, NASCAR Chairman and CEO, took the stage and discussed the importance of short-track racing has -- from track operators and drivers to family and fans -- on every level of NASCAR.
NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track champions were recognized, as were the U.S. state and Canadian provincial champions. Twenty-six of the 28 state and provincial champions were in attendance and introduced alphabetically by state, culminating with Wisconsin state champion Carlson.
Carlson won eight races and had 21 top-five finishes in 23 starts, racing primarily at his home track of LaCrosse (Wisc.) Fairgrounds Speedway. Carlson earned $25,000 as national champion, in addition to his state and track championship earnings.
"One of the most special things about winning this championship is that I did it only five blocks from where I live -- in front of my home crowd," said Carlson, who has also won five titles in the former NASCAR Elite Division, Midwest Tour. "I have one of the most dedicated crews in this business. And I needed each and every one of them to win this championship. They gave so much of their personal time and I appreciated it every week when I got in that car."
Tim Jacobs of Sparta, Wisc., was honored with the Lincoln Electric Car Owner Award, for which he received $5000 and a Lincoln welder. The 38-year-old Jacobs helped convince Carlson to run the season full-time and chase the national championship.
Toby Nuttleman of Bangor, Wisc., was honored with the Lunati Crew Chief Award. Nuttleman received $3,000 for helping spearhead Carlson's title effort.
Emily Sue Steck of LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway was given the Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award, which recognizes the achievements of female and minority drivers. Steck was the LaCrosse Late Model division Rookie of the Year.
Also honored were Connecticut state champion, Woody Pitkat, and Virginia state champion, Philip Morris, who finished second and third in the nation, respectively. Pitkat had nine wins and 27 top fives in 36 starts at Stafford Motor Speedway and Thompson International Speedway. He received $10,000 in addition to his state and track earnings. Morris, the 2006 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion, won his fifth track title at Motor Mile Speedway and had 11 wins and 21 top fives in 27 starts. He earned $5,000 for third, in addition to his state and track earnings.
Joe Zeneski, 44, of Riverhead, N.Y., was announced as the Craftsman Mechanic of the Year winner. Zaneski, who works at Riverhead Raceway, took the stage along with fellow finalists Timothy Evans of Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway and Ray Gourley of Lake Erie Speedway in North East, Penn. The winner was then unveiled when the lid was lifted on the Craftsman Tool Chest, revealing Zeneski's name.
"Wow," said a stunned Zeneski. "I had no idea how big this evening was going to be."
For Carlson, the official coronation capped an incredible week that also included a ride-along on a Thunderbird F-16 out of the nearby Nellis Air Force Base Friday morning. Track operators were also treated to a tour of the base and the Thunderbirds' practice Friday afternoon. U.S. Air Force staff sergeant Josh Gorniak, and master sergeants Adam Pawelek and John Pinksaw attended the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series banquet.
"When I first won the championship, my teammate Kevin Nuttleman told me, 'You have no idea how big a deal this is,' " said Carlson, before pausing to look around the room. "This is really big."