Mitchell Hamlin had never driven in any race before participating in the Oct. 8 afternoon Demo Cross competition at Perris Auto Speedway. His racing debut ended with a victory in the main event.
“It was very unexpected. My goal was to go out there and have fun, but it turns out I won. That was cool,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin, a lifelong Hemet resident who graduated from Hemet High School in 2016, had observed off-road competition but had not personally driven. “I’ve always been around off-road with family and friends and stuff,” Hamlin said. “I haven’t raced.”
Hemet resident Mitch Hoover, who graduated from Hemet High School in 2015, introduced Hamlin to Perris Auto Speedway. “One of my buddies grew up around the track,” Hamlin said.
Hoover also developed the idea of partnering with Hamlin to race at Perris. “He hit up a family friend and that’s how he got the Mercedes and we just started working on the Mercedes,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin and Hoover converted a 2003 Mercedes ML 350 into a racecar. The “H” in car number 1H stands for Hamlin and Hoover.
Demo Cross is similar to a demolition derby in that drivers are allowed to take each other out. It differs in that it is run on an oval track and ends when the remaining drivers have completed a specified number of laps rather than when only one car is running. Demo Cross drivers are not allowed to drive in reverse to hit another driver, although they may back up if an obstacle on the track prevents them from going forward. Another difference is that track personnel place obstacles such as tires, boats, and water barrels on the track for the main event. Debris from cars and inoperable cars themselves add to the original obstacles on the track, and while a red flag to stop the race temporarily may be thrown for safety purposes there are no yellow flag cautions to remove debris or inoperable cars.
Perris Auto Speedway is part of the Lake Perris Fairgrounds. The Southern California Fair takes over that facility in early October but incorporates the track into the fair’s activities. Two Demo Cross races were held Oct. 8: one in the early afternoon and one in the evening. Hamlin drove the Mercedes in the afternoon Demo Cross and Hoover drove in the evening competition.
Heat races as well as a main event take place. Hamlin began the six-lap heat race on the outside of the third row and finished second. “That was unexpected, too,” he said.
The Perris track is a half-mile dirt oval. “It was an experience, a bit hard to handle, especially with obstacles in the final, but in reality it was not that bad and it was really fun,” Hamlin said.
(The obstacles are not placed on the track for the heat races to avoid damaging the cars and preventing their participation in the main event.)
Hamlin began the 20-lap main event on the outside of the fourth row. He gained the lead midway through the race. “It took me a while,” he said.
Jesse Gordon had the lead until Gordon spun out. “I got really lucky,” Hamlin said.
The leader – as well as anybody else – must contend with passing lapped traffic as well as with the obstacles on the track. “I didn’t even know I was in the lead. I was just focusing on where I was going,” Hamlin said.
Gordon was the second driver to take the checkered flag.
“I didn’t know I won until I heard it on the intercom,” Hamlin said. “I found out I won when they were saying on the intercom that 1H won and they told me to go to the front straightaway.”
Hamlin and Hoover worked on the car prior to the day of the race and were joined in the pits Oct. 8 by John Grounds and Nigel Carson. They are sponsored by Send-It Racing.
Hoover finished 13th in the evening main event. Gordon won that race.
The Southern California Fair races were the final Demo Cross events of 2017 at Perris Auto Speedway, but Hamlin and Hoover plan to race in 2018. “Our goal is to compete next year,” Hamlin said. “It was a very fun experience, and I plan to do it again.”