Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Jon Henry Engineers The Summer Nationals Freight Train At Spoon River

For an event where the fastest qualifiers start up front, the heat race action was very entertaining. Drivers still raced three and four wide during the C-Main and B-Main events and anticipation was high for the forty-lap main event as some of the drivers who had used the high line to charge toward the front earlier in the evening were starting mid-pack. But following an agonizingly long thirty minute intermission on a Tuesday night, the UMP Late Model Summer Nationals main event turned into a high-speed freight train around the highbanks of the Spoon River Speedway.

Thirty-nine Super Late Models, thirty-five Modifieds and sixteen Pro Late Models packed the pits on a hot, sunny evening and we knew that with a stiff south breeze the dirt would be flying into the stands that were absolutely packed with race fans. It was the biggest crowd that I have ever been a part of at the Spoon including some of the Tom Knowles Memorial events that were standing room only before the new aluminum grandstand was put in on the turn four side of the front stretch. Despite the conditions that would have sucked the moisture out just about any surface, the track proved very racey during the four Super Late Model heat races.

In the first heat fast qualifier Brian Shirley faded to third from his pole position start early, before storming back to the front riding the high side around turns one and two and then going back to the low groove on the opposite end to win the 10-lap event over Scott Bull and Jason Feger. Hell Tour point leader Billy Moyer Jr. did not qualify well starting ninth on the ten car grid and he finished seventh. In the second heat we had our eyes on Mark Burgtorf who started seventh in the Richard Realty and Auction #15. Seventh was where he stayed for the first half of the race as the veteran driver was the first to try the high-line on both ends of the speedway. But after four laps of riding around the top and not going anywhere, something clicked and Burgtorf became the fastest car on the track. With two laps remaining he was in fifth needing one more spot to qualify for the main event and in those final two laps he drove around both California visitor Nick Bartels and Mike Spatola to finish third behind Billy Drake and Randy Korte. At this point in the night we had ourselves a race track!

Heat three had a great battle for the fourth and final qualifying position between Scott Schmitt and Texarkana’s Duke Whisenant, but when Whisenant hurried it too hard into turn three on lap six he spun his car rather than taking out Schmitt. Following the restart Ohio’s Jon Henry completed his flag-to-flag run to victory over Rusty Schlenk. The fourth heat seemed to really set the stage for an exciting feature as Dennis Erb Jr. introduced us to the middle-groove in turns one and two as he raced his way up from a third row start to finish second in a stacked heat that included winner Shannon Babb and other qualifiers Ryan Unzicker and Brandon Sheppard in the Rocket house car. Arkansas driver Wendell Wallace was one of the five cars that did not transfer from this heat.

The Modifieds were running as part of the Summit Summer Nationals series and their qualifying heats were entertaining as Tommy Duncan, Bobby Allen, Billy Tuckwell and Ray Bollinger picked up wins. The two Pro (Crate) Late Model heats produced some excitement as well as we were introduced to another youngster, Colby Vandenbergh, who is still too young to drive on our city streets, but is able to wheel a race car to the front while new father Brian Crebo won the second heat. That second heat had to be restarted when officials realized that Duke Whisenant had joined the field thinking that it was the Super Late Model C-Main that he had staged a little too early for.

Kathy Jarvis of Park City, Utah, has tried to make the show at all six Summer Nationals events thus far and her night ended early here when she spun during the C-Main that saw Steve Lance Jr. and Frankie Heckenast transfer on to the B-Main. Mike Chasteen Jr. took the win in the Modified B feature and then Jerry Lierly was dominant in winning the Super Late Model B that also saw Mark Voigt transfer on. Moyer Jr., Bobby Pierce, Todd Bennett and Heckenast were added as provisionals and at ten minutes before ten o’clock the field was set.

The 50/50 ticket sellers had been working the large crowd all evening and the track also had some very nice prizes to give away during intermission, but this was all delayed while the money was still being counted. Finally at 10:20 p.m. the Super Late Model feature field was assembled on the track and after a four-wide salute to the fans the green flag waved and everybody, except for the youngster Pierce, went right for the bottom groove. The caution waved on lap five as Mark Voigt slowed with a flat left rear tire and Pierce had moved up from 20th to 14th in the running order, but on the restart he too joined the parade around the bottom. Pole-sitter Jon Henry pulled away from Shannon Babb and Brian Shirley and held a nice lead until he caught the tail end of the field and it wasn’t long until that advantage disappeared. As Henry tried to figure out a way to get past Jerry Lierly there were two occasions where Babb was able to slip his nose under the leader, but Henry recovered nicely both times to maintain the lead.

The caution waved again with nine laps remaining when Todd Bennett stopped on the front stretch and with no more traffic to consider the race was essentially over as Henry cruised to the victory. Babb and Shirley finished second and third while Billy Drake and Scott Bull completed the top five all finishing in the same positions that they had started in. Burgtorf started tenth and finished ninth while Pierce was the big mover doing it all in the first five laps as he finished 14th.

I would have liked to have stayed to see if the Modifieds would have used more of the track, but it was now 10:45 and with a two hour trip ahead before work in the morning I decided to run to the car and pick my way through the maze of the packed full parking lot while the traffic was still relatively light.

I love the Spoon River Speedway as tonight’s heat race action is what I normally see when I make the trip over and I have no clue what makes a track go from being three-wide to nothing just like that. Oh well, hopefully I can see a more active feature when I catch up with the Hell Tour again at Peoria on July 2nd and at Quincy on July 6th.

I am hoping that the weather holds off tonight for the Deery Brothers Summer Series visit to the Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, then on Thursday night I will finally make it down to the Lee County Speedway in Donnellson for the first time this season as Budweiser Night features the Sprint Invaders along with IMCA Stock Cars and Sport Mods. Hope to see you at the races for some mid-week action!

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