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Reading, writing and racing.

Byline: Shawn Miller The Register-Guard

COTTAGE GROVE - On a sunny spring morning, Dallas Zuniga sits in a classroom, his head buried in a business textbook as his daydreaming zones out the professor.

Instead of being arms deep in oil and dirt, dodging piles of tires and tools in his shop, Zuniga often forces himself to dutifully attend the University of Oregon full-time.

The 23-year-old sprint car driver, who recently purchased a house in Springfield with his sister, has prioritized school before racing - an anomaly among his fellow college-age competitors. Oh, and he works approximately 30 hours per week at his parent's house in Creswell, where his car is located.

"I pretty much live each day on a schedule," Zuniga said.

Zuniga plans on applying to the business school this year, but the scholastic aspect of his life can sometimes be a chore. Especially when most of his competition doesn't regularly attend college, instead using that time to make money or work on their car.

However, in the Zuniga family, racing is viewed as a reward and education is emphasized as a top priority.

"I've told him that if academics go down, toys go away just as quick," said Dennis Zuniga, Dallas' father and car owner.

"It's kind of the carrot I hang in front of him."

After spending a couple of years racing go-karts, Dallas began competing in the Limited Sprints series in 2002. He won five races and was named Rookie of the Year at Cottage Grove Speedway - his home track. The following season, Zuniga drove a 360 Sprint and finished in the top 10 in each of his five races he entered in that class.

In 2004, Zuniga raced his first new car and the team began to travel. He won his first heat race at a Northern Sprint Tour event at Medford. However, in 2005, the bad luck began - a recurring trend.

After driving 18 hours to a race in Montana, Zuniga blew his only motor on the first lap of qualifying. At the first race of the 2006 season, Zuniga ended the race upside down. This season, which had been nearly flawless for the first two months, began to resemble the previous two when Zuniga blew up the spare of his two motors with three laps remaining in a main event in late May.

"We put it in the car that night just so we could get a tune-up on the motor, (then) put it back in the trailer so if we ever had something happen, everything would be ready to rock," Zuniga said. "The motor was excellent. It was way better than the one I had been running. The thing blew up with three laps to go in the main event. We had an oil line break."

The out-of-pocket expense to rebuild the motor was approximately $8,000, and they picked up the motor last weekend in Elma, Wash., where Speedweek began with a pair of rained-out events.

Speedweek, hosted by the Northwest Sprint Challenge Series, pits the region's top 360 Sprint car drivers against each other in a seven-race, nine-day stretch. The Cottage Grove Speedway hosts tonight's event, with qualifying at approximately 5:30.

Zuniga currently sits second in the standings at the Speedway, 52 points behind leader and local legend Dale Smith of Cottage Grove. Smith, who has a track-record 76 wins and six championships, has been one of the guiding lights for many of the youth rising through the sport. When Dallas has needed encouragement or someone to get in his face, Smith has been one of the catalysts, Dennis said.

"He's always got his head on straight," Smith said. "He should have won a bunch more races than he has because something always seems to happen, some fluke always pops up."

Although racing hasn't been predictable, Dallas' priorities have been. Which keeps him sitting in that classroom, even when the competition is getting a head start.
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Title Annotation:Sports; Dallas Zuniga pursues his love of auto racing while also going to school full-time at the University of Oregon
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 24, 2007
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