After settling into his new surroundings, Rauch was soon going wheel-to-wheel with a tough group of competitors that promised not to make things easy for him.
Randy Roberts and owner Harry Conklin were a formidable pair and at this juncture were the team to beat. Also in high gear was Dave “Kid” Strickland Jr., who picked up the baton from his father and was still galloping forward.
It was a proud group that drew upon a collectively-shared and deep midget heritage forged at Merchant’s Park in the 1930’s through the heyday of Lakeside, to the present. He acquitted himself well. Rauch scored two RMMRA features and finished fourth in 1990 series points.
Putting a bow on a satisfying year, in late November he scored a USAC National Sprint Car Series win at California’s Imperial Valley Speedway in El Centro.
Sure people had noticed, but the extent to which he had turned some heads became crystal clear the following year when he got a call out of the blue to compete at a televised event at Ventura, Calif.
On the other end of the line was Parnelli Jones.
It seemed P.J. Jones had a previous commitment, so there was a vacant seat. As one could imagine, Rauch admitted that he “was on cloud nine,” although he could hardly believe what had just transpired.
Unquestionably more keyed up than normal, in the end he nearly came crashing down to earth before the action even started.
“A good buddy of mine, who was a cop for several years, helped us on the race car,” said Rauch. “I think we had a suburban at the time, and he went to push us off and climbed over the tail section. I thought we’re going to be fired before we even got on the race track. It was a bit comical, and then it was awesome.”
It was awesome because he went out and won and, as an added bonus, had the chance to spend time with Parnelli Jones.
Rauch would run more televised races but, interestingly enough, it is a race a few weeks following his Ventura victory that has always stood out in Ed Rauch’s mind as one of his son’s best performances.
“Keith was driving for John McLaughlin out of Wyoming,” Ed said. “He had an upright car, but he wanted to run an asphalt race. We just got through running Ventura, but we had a set of wheels and asphalt tires so we went up to Lakeport Speedway.
“Lo and behold, he did well in his heat race, and some of the guys he was racing against had those Hyder Hawk asphalt cars. He was going to start on the pole and Chuck Gurney came over to him. Chuck didn’t know him from Adam. After all, Keith was just a kid.
“So, he says, ‘Keith, let me tell you something. The other guys have asphalt cars and you have a dirt car, so you have got to get a good start. This guy who is flagging never calls the start back, so when you come out of four you have to nail it.’”
That’s just what he did, and he sallied forth and took the checkered flag.
When two or more racers are locked in a struggle for the same piece of turf, sparks sometimes fly. As Rauch got more comfortable racing in and around Denver, there was no question that Randy Roberts was the gold standard.
When the young upstart began to challenge the king for the throne, he found out that Roberts wasn’t that interested in handing over the deed to his turf. In speaking about Roberts, Rauch said, “He was really, really tough, and that developed into a real rivalry. We are really good friends now; it’s just funny how things change over the years.”
This story will be continued in The Keith Rauch Story, Part II, on Wednesday.