Sunday, October 16, 2011

Two Traditional Autumn Specials In One Weekend

Amazing! I saw 287 different race cars within a ninety-five mile trip this weekend. Yes, I know that you can see that many and more by attending the IMCA Super Nationals in Boone, but to achieve this in Iowa in mid-October is quite noteworthy.

Friday night I made the trip up to the Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa for opening night of the Musco Lighting Fall Challenge. This marked the Silver Anniversary of this event that traditionally draws in a large field of cars and with all four classes boasting $1,250-to-win and $250-to-start purses it was no surprise to see the infield packed with 165 cars. All of the work that goes in to tracking the All Iowa points each year pays off for me at an event like this as it is great to match a name to a car for those drivers that I just never get to see in action during the season, and that was definitely the case here tonight. There were also several names that I didn't recognize as drivers pulled in from all around the upper Midwest to compete this weekend. The Hobby Stock field included Minnesota drivers Guy Kimpton and Dan Eckbland, while South Dakota drivers Brock Hess, Dave Kennedy, Jeremiah Christiansen and Tyler and Tracy Johnson were on hand to do battle in the B-Mod division. After all, with $250 just to start the feature, that is what some tracks pay to win on a weekly basis for these two classes.

This night would be a full show with heats and last chance races in each division to determine eighteen-car starting fields for the main event that would serve as "qualifiers" for Saturday night's main events. Promoters Todd & Janet Staley put an interesting twist on things though when they put forth a unique format making this a "Gamblers Race". With a total of 72 cars starting the four feature races they had 72 envelopes each containing cash with amounts ranging from $700 to $50. Only two of those envelopes had the higher amount while the $50 prize was the most common. The top eight finishers in each race would then have to make a choice at the end of the night. They could either lock in their starting spot in the first four rows of Saturday's A-Main, or they could open their envelope, keep the cash and attempt to qualify again through the heats and Last Chance races on Saturday night knowing that they would start behind the drivers who chose to give back their envelopes. And the cash that was turned back in from the qualified drivers in each division would then be spread evenly across the top eight finishing spots on Saturday. Yes, it was a complicated format, but it was very unique and the turnout for the weekend showed that it was very well received.

After soaking up around two inches of rain two days earlier, the big half-mile was moist and fast allowing for some great racing, but also for some nasty accidents as drivers were very aggressive trying to get qualified for the eighteen-car main events. The show started right on time with the first of seventeen heat races taking the green at 7:30 p.m., but with the numerous incidents including a couple of rollovers that final heat race did not take the checkers until 10:10. Staley's crew, as they always do, kept things moving along at a quick pace, but they can't do anything about the number of incidents created by the drivers and it was obvious that we were headed for a conclusion after the midnight hour. With a commitment to be somewhere early in the morning and another big event to attend on Saturday night, I made the tough decision to head for home following the heat races.

Colt Mather who was flat out flying in his heat race went on to win the Modified feature, Shane Weller picked up the Stock Car win, Cayden Carter was no surprise in the B-Mods and Bill Bonnett walked away with the Hobby Stock win. For details please check out the blogs of my Positively Racing colleagues Kevin Trittien and Dick & Joyce Eisele and for the full story and results, including the details about the three drivers who gave up their starting spots to open their envelope, click here.

I want to thank Todd & Janet Staley and their entire crew for the hospitality that they have shown to this writer over the years, not only here at Oskaloosa, but throughout the Midwest at their USMTS shows. I am always confident that I am going to see a professional and well-run show when I attend one of their events and with this weekend perhaps being their last promotion at Osky I was thrilled to see the full pit area and a solid crowd in the stands on a football Friday night in Iowa. I spoke with driver Mike VanGenderen before the show as he has been rumored as a potential promoter for the facility in 2012 and Mike said that if nobody steps forward to run the track weekly in 2012 that he would not be surprised to see Staley run five or six specials here. And, with the success of this weekend, why not?

I also had a great conversation with one of my favorite Late Model drivers from days gone by, Dan Dickey, who was preparing his son Scott's Modified for the night ahead. I was pleased to learn that Dan is a regular visitor to the Back Stretch and, like him, I do hope that somebody will step in and continue the steep tradition of Wednesday night racing in 2012 at this fine facility.

After spending the day Saturday with my lovely daughter who was back in the area briefly from her studies in Edmonton, I hustled down to the Lee County Speedway in Donnellson arriving just in time for the always fun pre-race trick-or-treating session of "Shiverfest". As always the participating drivers came through in fine fashion as an amazing number of children left the frontstretch with bags full of candy and other treats. I even spotted Stock Car driver Jimmy Lynch and one of his crewmen going the extra mile by getting into costume themselves as Mario and Luigi.

The five division program had pulled in 122 cars and with bright sunshine and a steady breeze the hot lap sessions just before trick-or-treating had already sucked the moisture off the top of the surface. So following a quick spray down by promoter Terry Hoenig, the show took the green flag at a few minutes before five o'clock. The Sport Mod division ran off their three heat races in fine fashion with not a single caution flag and when I noted that fact following the conclusion of the third heat, it was a like a jinx on the rest of the evening. Actually the heats in the other four classes weren't all too bad though as each division had at least one of the three qualifiers that went flag-to-flag and the first of five features took to the track just as the sun completed its daily dive below the west horizon providing for a beautiful backdrop off of turns three and four.

The Sport Mods were up first and for the early portion of the race it looked like they might just go caution free all night, but that string was broken on lap six. The racing up front was very good as Chris Larson and Phillip Cossel slipped by early leader Aric Becker and then proceeded to swap the lead back and forth between themselves in between the numerous cautions. The 25-minute time limit (number of laps, plus five) expired and the drivers would race to the checkers or the next caution, whichever came first. Unfortunately the next caution was just a lap away and the win went to the leader at the time Chris Larson who was driving a car that was purchased a month ago from Jesse Sobbing. A fast car paired with a good driver, and it was no surprise to see Larson in victory lane.

The Hobby Stocks had a similar scenario where the racing up front was intense only to have numerous cautions and one scary red-flag incident interrupt the action all too often. The red flag appeared mid-race when two cars tangled in the middle of the track in turn one and, with nowhere to go, Ethan Thompson went nearly full throttle into the guardrail sending him into a series of wild barrel rolls. When it all ended the car had shed all of its sheet metal and was sitting upside down in a mangled steaming mess. Almost miraculously though Thompson was able to get out under his own power as the one thing that did hold up on his car was the driver compartment roll cage and the ambulance gave him a ride back to his trailer. Awhile later the ambulance was called to the pits during the Wild Things feature though and while I never did hear the details it may have been for Thompson. Once back to racing the battle up front continued with young Tanner Klingele taking on two or three different challengers during the course of the event. Rob Wilsey had raced his way to the front and passed Klingele for the lead just before another caution waved and the signal was given to the drivers that time limit had expired. They would now race to the checkers or until the next caution, whichever came first. On the restart Wilsey and Klingele again raced wheel-to-wheel with Wilsey holding the advantage on the next scored lap, but as they raced into turn one Wilsey got sideways causing the lead pack to stack up with one of the cars sliding to a halt. Wilsey saved his car from the sideways slide and never stopped even though several cars passed him in the process. When one car remained stopped in turn one though the caution waved and this announcer knew that the victory lane interview was going to be interesting. I was already sitting in the stands waiting for the conclusion of the event when all this took place and as the field circled the track a couple of more times under caution before the checkered flag was displayed, I tried to figure out how I was going to handle this unique situation. I never did hear what the official decision was, but when Wilsey was directed to go to victory lane I did my best to explain the apparent ruling. The time limit had been reached and the drivers were shown that they would be racing to either the checkers or the next caution. Since the track rules state that only the car, or cars, stopped when the caution waves are to be penalized, this meant that Wilsey would not be penalized and therefore going back to the last completed lap he would be declared the winner.

Was it right? Going by the rules, yes, this was the correct way to score the finish. Was it popular with the fans? No, not so much, and it was the first time that I can remember doing a victory lane interview where we were being drowned out by a chorus of boos and catcalls.

The four cylinder Wild Things were next up and with the solid level of talent on hand, this was quite a race to watch with two and three-wide action upfront among the top ten contenders. Only a couple of cautions, plus the red-flag period while the ambulance was called back to the pits slowed this one as Bill Whalen Jr. paced the field early before being passed by Adam Gates. Gates was looking to run away with this one, but when a lapped car decided to rub on him a bit that was the break that Todd Nelson needed to reel in the leader. Nelson was flying around the high side and pulled even with Gates, but contact between the two caused Nelson to slap the wall on the back stretch and when he exited turn four his right rear wheel broke loose. Before the caution waved a hard charging Michael Grossman caught the rolling wheel on the front stretch and it literally launched his car into the air coming back down on all fours putting on quite a thrill show for the crowd.. Once back to green Gates held off a late charge from Chuck Fullenkamp to take the win and I was thrilled to be able to conduct a more traditional victory lane interview. That came to a quick close though when one of Adam's young crew members, in his excited run from the pits, tripped over the leg of the inflatable black cat that was nearby and he went sprawling to the ground head first in front of the two of us. Thank goodness the young man sprung to his feet and though quite embarrassed and obviously a bit shaken, he stood proud with the winner for the photo session. So that was "something new" for the memory book as well. I was glad to see the youngster at a full sprint again a few minutes later as he headed back to the pit area!

The Stock Cars were up next and on a night where cautions are the norm, you can usually count on this class to run pretty clean and they came through with flying colors. With only two cautions to slow the field it was Abe Huls taking the win over a hard charging Jeremy Gustaf. For Huls, by his account, it was his first win at the Lee County Speedway since 2009. A surprise to me as it seems like he is always a contender whenever I see him at Donnellson. The Stock Car class had a unique entrant as Jeff Beggs pulled his #54 over from Putnamville, Indiana, for the chance to compete against his brother-in-law Jason Cook. Unfortunately for Beggs though, his powerplant had other ideas as it smoked early and often causing him to drop out from both his heat race and the feature.

The Modifieds were set to round out the show and once again the racing up front was intense early on as James Leffew, Jeff Waterman and Tyler Cale did battle much to the delight of the crowd, the majority of which had stuck around to the final event. The preferred groove was down low and as all three leaders entered turn one they all went for the same general piece of property and contact was made sending Leffew for a spin. Other cars had nowhere to go and the scramble was on with several drivers, including Leffew stopped on the track when the caution waved. No cars were seriously damaged and most were able to drive away under their own power, but as the one or two remaining were being attended to Leffew drove into Cale's car on the back stretch just in front of the pit entrance, then back up and entered the pits where he was promptly met by several agitated Cale fans and crew members. The fight was on and it took a few minutes for the track officials and security personnel to get it under control. It was at that point where I was finally comfortable with the decision that I made nearly a year ago when I told Terry and Jenni that I would no longer be directly involved with this event, as otherwise I would have felt obligated to be over there right in the middle of things trying to restore peace. From what I heard over the radio, I was glad that I was not and I regret that race officials are sometimes put into this position.

Wyatt Lantz inherited the lead once racing resumed and he was being challenged by Ray Cox Jr. who had made the trip down from Maquoketa. Cox was working a higher groove than Lantz and on each restart it appeared that he had a run on the leader only to have Lantz establish himself once again on the bottom. After the fight it seemed like whatever could go wrong would in this one as cautions appeared for parts flying off of cars, a mine tire being punted on to the racing surface and other minor spins. Once again the time limit was reached and following the final restart, with three laps remaining of the scheduled twenty-five, the final caution waved along with the checkers to bring the 2011 racing season at the Lee County Speedway, and likely the tenure of long-time promoters Terry and Jenni Hoenig to a close with Wyatt Lantz taking the win. It was now ten o'clock and as the remaining crowd headed for the gates I thought to myself that while this thirteenth year of Shiverfest may have been frustrating, it was definitely interesting!

Whether or not this will be the last Shiverfest now depends on what happens with the leadership of the track, but once again kids and drivers alike had fun with trick-or-treating, fans saw an interesting mix of local drivers and visitors, and some money was raised to help the individuals and families who are battling kidney disease at the Southeast Renal Dialysis locations in the area. I for one hope that this is an event that lives on somehow, somewhere!

One more weekend of racing to be had in this neck of the woods as Modified driver Brandon Savage sets aside the helmet and puts on the Promoter hat for the Doc 360 Pepsi Nationals at the Scotland County Speedway in Memphis, Missouri, next Friday and Saturday October 21st and 22nd. Here's hoping that this nice autumn weather holds up for at least one more week and that I see you down there!

No comments: