Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Real Deal Pulls an Ace

The weatherman finally cooperated Saturday, and we headed out just after 8:00 AM for a three hour trip to Knoxville, Iowa for a full day at the late model nationals. With excellent internet updates, plus several update phone calls from on site friends, we had a good idea of who and what to expect when we arrived. The opening night field featured 64 cars, followed by 62 on friday and 60 on the final night. This was easily the highest return rate in the eight years this race has run. Chances are it would have been even higher, but Georgia ace Dale McDowell left after night one due to the passing of his mother. Jason Utter stayed around as a spectator after crashing his # 31 on Thursday night. Steve Casebolt and Jeremiah Hurst, who had starting spots in C-main rows one and two respectively, also were no shows. The 15 lap event transferred four cars to the B-main, and Kevin Sather outlasted Matt Furman in an entertaining duel to the checkers. Illinois hot shoe Tim Lance and Jay Johnson also moved on to the next race. It was my first chance this season to watch Sather and Lance in action.
Up and coming Tyler Breuning just missed the top four, as Johnson made the late race pass. The 20 lap B-main saw 24 cars take the green flag. West Virginia driver John Blankenship led flag to flag for the win. Wisconsin ace Brady Smith has cut back on his traveling this season, but the former nationals winner was dialed in on Saturday. He started 15th on the grid and charged to a runnerup finish. A total of six drivers transferred to the 100 lap finale, with pole sitter Eric Wells, ninth starting Brian Harris in the Diercks Motorsports # 27H, Denny Eckrich and Frank Heckenast Jr. also moving along. Because the race was sanctioned forthe first time ever by Lucas Oil - which has been the title sponsor since year two - three series provisionals were allowed. I will admit that I am not a huge fan of provisionals, but at Knoxville they are added to the field rather than taking " earned " spots, so in this case I say the more the merrier. A total of 33 cars were set to start the 100 lap A -main!
Before the grand finale, the IMCA modifieds had some business to take car of. Some 40 plus invitations were sent out to modified drivers who had " qualified " by their participation and success in various IMCA races and series throughout the season, along with some past champion spots. 37 cars came through the gate, with the four heat wins going to Jon Snyder, Josh Gilman, Quincy, Il pilot Michael Long, and Luke Wanninger. Chris Abelson captured the B-Main. There has been a lot of back and forth internet chatter about the addition of a second class on Saturday night. While there are good arguments on both sides, there should be no arguing about the quality of the mod racing. The feature event ran with only two cautions, and had lots of side by side action with some " slam, bang " tossed in for good measure. At the checkers, it was Snyder topping Eric Dailey for the $2500 top prize. JD Auringer finished third ahead of Richie Gustin and Jacob Murray. After running away and hiding to win his heat, Long was the first car out of the A when he rolled to a stop in turn one of lap two.
When the green waved to start the 100 lapper, 19 year old Austin Hubbard took off from the outside pole. By lap nine, the leaders were catching the back of the pack, and as Hubbard worked the traffic, polesitter Brian Birkhofer and third starting Scott Bloomquist closed in. On lap 16, eighth starting Don Oneal, making his first visit to Knoxville since 2004, slipped past Bloomquist for third. Three laps late, Oneal moved to second, and on lap 24 he took the top spot with Birkhofer in tow. The first yellow then came out, and the restart had Oneal, Hubbard, Birkhofer and Jimmy Owens leading the pack, while Billy Moyer had advanced six spots to eighth. The real mover at this point was Jimmy Mars, who started 22nd and was now running fifth! By lap 28 Mars had moved to third, but two laps later a spate of caution periods slowed the action for the next 30 laps. Most of these yellows were caused by cars simply slowing on the speedway to get a chance to duck into the pits for tires or suspension work. Like many in attendance, I noted that it seemed to take an unusually long time to reset and restart the field. Was this a direct result of the race now being sanctioned? That seemed to be a question on some minds. On lap 54, Owens moved to the second spot, and six laps later, the " Newport Nightmare " took over the lead. With Bloomquist going a lap down, the running order had Owens in position to take over the series points lead. A long green flag run ended with twelve laps to go when the fourth running Mars stopped in turn two with suspension issues. On the restart, Moyer jumped from seventh to fourth after nearly being lapped before the caution. At the same time, third running Hubbard began to fade as only eight cars remained on the lead lap. The cushion, especially in turn four had become very treacherous, and the front runners seemed to be on the ragged edge every lap, with Oneal really fighting it. With eight to go, Harris, who had come from 28th to seventh fell out of the running. One lap later, Oneal retook the lead from Owens, who had been cruising, but a caution put the Owens back out front. With five to go, Owens hit that turn four cushion wrong, and got sideways out of turn four. Oneal pounced to take the spot, and those last five laps were as good as you could hope to see. 15 year old Tyler Reddick, had been hanging in the lead group all night, and suddenly found the line he wanted . He charged from seventh to fourth, and tried to move around Birkhofer on the high side out of two. Steve Francis took advantage of this battle to slip into second, the highest he had run all race. Birkhofer held on to third, with Reddick fourth. Owens faded to fifth followed by Moyer and Hubbard on the lead lap. Smith advanced 18 spots to finish eighth, with 23rd starting Bub McCool ninth and Bloomquist tenth. The win was worth $40,000 to Oneal, who was behind the wheel of the Moring Motorsports ride. Don also piloted the Moring car to the $25,000 win at the Silver Dollar Nationals in July. At that race, the car was sporting a # 1, while it had Oneals' familiar # 71 at Knoxville.
While some saw disadvantages to the race being sanctioned, it probably resulted in the stoutest field of competitors since the field was limited to 66 entries after the 2005 event. I can be counted among those who wish the entries would be opened up, but I can certainly see the advantage for the track and especially the racers to keep the limit in place. I short, they must be doing something right, as I have not missed a Saturday night finale yet. And Keagan has made this one of two " can't miss " races on his schedule.
We dropped in on the Saturday afternoon auction in time to hear Lynn Richard make the announcement that Mark Burgtorf would be wheeling his # 15 late model in 2012. While Lynn offered no specifics about when and where the new team would be racing, he did say they would be at the nationals next season. Burgtorf had been looking for a motor deal to run the Knoxville show this year, but did not find the right deal. Mark had raced the Richard car earlier this season on at least one occasion. It will be interesting to see how this works out, as Mark has concentrated more on UMP racing in Illnois the last couple seasons, while the Richard car is semi regular on The IMCA Summer Series circuit and at weekly IMCA shows. Of course, Mark is a past champion in these venues, also. So the " silly season " has started before the racing season ends! A rumor making the rounds at Knoxville has the date of the nationals being changed, but we shall see. One fact, not rumor has Toby Kruse taking over as race director at Knoxville, as Ralph " Cappy " Capitani steps down. Congratulations to both men!
It looks as though the weather man may give us another good weekend upcoming, and our choices are night two of the Liberty 100 at West Liberty, i\Iowa, or night two Of the Fall Nationals originally scheduled at Scotland County Speedway in Memphis, Mo., but since moved to 24 Raceway in Moberly, Mo. In a related move, modified racer Brandon Savage will be promoting a two night special at Scotland County on October 21 and 22. And in between, is the final Shiverfest extravaganza promoted by Terry and Jenni Hoenig at the Lee County Speedway in Donnellson, Iowa. Hope to see you at some of these races!

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