July 29, 2018

The Dollar and the Marquis


Jonathan Davenport had a hell of a weekend at I-80 Speedway, picking up $10,000 on Thursday night and $53,000 on Saturday night. - Kyle Ealy Photo


Cedar Rapids, IA – It’s been a while since my last column, May 26, 2014 to be exact. You could say that when I picked up the camera, I dropped the pen. There was a time when I thought about writing a column, but after uploading 400-500 photos, cropping them and finally, posting them on this website, I didn’t have the motivation.
But after this last week of racing, I felt compelled to write about the two great racing events and venues I experienced. So, with a flick of the Bic, here I go…
(For my younger readers, a Bic is a ballpoint pen. It has a little clicky deal on one end and you “flick” it and by magic, a metal ball exposes itself and distribute ink to almost anything. Ideally, it’s best uses are for writing “Kick Me” on a piece of paper and taping it to a co-worker’s back. It can also be used for underlining bible verses.)
On Thursday, July 19, I made my annual trek to Greenwood, NE, and I-80 Speedway for the eighth annual Silver Dollar Nationals. Considered one of the crown jewels of dirt late model racing, this has become the one “must-go” races of the year for me.
As always, I stay with Lee Ackerman, my partner in crime on our sister publication, Midwest Racing Archives. He set me up in his cellar (where he stores pickles, green beans and other garden variety vegetables that can be condensed in a dirty mason jar) with an old cot he stole from the Marines during his basic training days and a rusty Sanka coffee can to crap in. Lee really rolls out the red carpet every year for me.
Usually, Thursday nights for three-day events are meaningless, but this wasn’t the case at I-80. Thursday night’s card included modifieds racing for $1,200-to-win, SLMR Late Models competing for $5,300 to win and the postponed (from May 20) “Go 50" for the Lucas Oil Late Models paying $10,000 to win.
The Modified feature saw a familiar Nebraska name in victory lane, Jordan Grabouski of Beatrice. Grabouski and RC Whitwell dueled it out for most of the race with “Grabbo” just edging out Whitwell at the finish.
The SLMR feature appeared to be Tad Pospisil’s as he led for most of the feature, but Bill Leighton Jr. found an extra burst of power and passed Pospisil with just a few laps left to seal the victory.
The Lucas Oil “Go 50” would be one for the ages. Jonathan Davenport and Scott Bloomquist, two of the heavy hitters in Dirt Late Model racing, going side-by-side for nearly 50 laps with Davenport edging Bloomquist by a fender at the start/finish line.
As everyone filed out, the buzz of the crowd was exhilarating. All three features came down to the wire and left the crowd and me asking, “How can they top that?”
For me, Friday night was a bit of a letdown with double qualifying heats for the Lucas Oil Late Models and the USMTS Modifieds. The racing was decent but not even close to the excitement that was produced on Thursday.With the exception of Davenport and Bloomquist, no one showed me that they were even on the same level as those two during qualifying heats.
But as it is every year at the Silver Dollar Nationals, not everyone shows the hand they were dealt until it’s time to call. That would be the case again…
Let’s dial it back a bit to put Saturday night in perspective…
In 2016, Ryan Gustin blows an engine in his heat, has to qualify for the main event thru the B-main, starts dead last in the 32-car field and much to the shock of the capacity crowd, slices and dices thru the field, and takes the lead. Even though he wouldn’t win the race, it was the talk of the dirt late model world for months afterwards. In 2017, same scenario, different player. Brandon Sheppard also blows his mount, qualifies thru the B-main and ends up taking runner-up honors after starting 32nd.
As someone said, “It doesn’t matter where you start at the Silver Dollar Nationals, you have a chance to win the race.”
The race started with Bloomquist off and running when the green flag dropped. It quickly appeared that “Black Sunshine” was going to make it a runaway but out of nowhere comes the first surprise of the evening, Ricky Weiss. Weiss, who drove almost 700 miles from Headingly, Manitoba, Canada, sped past a surprised Bloomquist on lap 16 and led for the next four circuits, until Bloomquist was able to recover and take over the top spot again. Bloomquist would hold on to the top spot for 20 more laps until a new leader emerged.
Bobby Pierce Jr., who started 28th, rode the high side and methodically started picking off car after car, much to the crowd’s delight. On lap 41 Pierce was on Bloomquist’s bumper and as the overflow crowd was on its feet, Pierce took the top line past Bloomquist on lap 42, much (again) to Bloomer’s surprise. Once again Bloomquist would recover and regain the lead only to lose it back to Pierce five laps later.
With Pierce firmly in command, I could almost sense defeat in Bloomquist. As his car sped by in turns one and two, I could tell from his body language in the car, that he didn’t have the horses to catch the “Smooth Operator”.
Jonathan Davenport (remember him?), who had been driving a steady if unspectacular race, got by Bloomquist as well and started his chase on first place. But as it were, Pierce found a high line to his liking and to me and I’m sure the rest of the crowd in attendance, it was just a matter of clicking off the laps before Pierce claimed his third career crown jewel (2016 World 100 and 2017 Show-Me 100).
But, as Yogi Berra once stated, “It’s not over until it’s over.”
As Pierce slid by me in turns one and two on lap 77, I heard a rat-tat-tat coming from his car. Immediately I thought to myself,” Oh, oh, that’s not good.” It wasn’t…
A blown motor ended Pierce’s night with only three laps to go. It was heartbreaking to see. I can’t imagine what Pierce felt being that close to a $53,000 payday only to see it slip away.

 
Bobby Pierce Jr. sent the capacity crowd into a frenzy coming from his 28th starting position to first place. Unfortunately, Pierce's  night would end three laps from the finish. - Kyle Ealy Photo
 
 

Jonathan Davenport, who really didn’t have a chance in hell of catching Pierce was sitting in the catbird’s seat when Pierce pulled to the pits. Now it was over…
A couple of other drivers who showed nothing on Friday finished high on the scoreboard when the checkers waved.
Jimmy Owens, a former Silver Dollar Nationals winner, hasn’t seen the best of times this year but after starting 17th, garnered a podium finish with Davenport and Weiss. Tim McCreadie, the defending race winner, had a tough weekend and had to win the non-qualifier race, the “Belt Bash” just to get in the 33-car field. However, in the grand finale, McCreadie caught a second wind and finished a respectable eighth. Chris Simpson was the highest finishing Iowan, starting 26th and grabbing a top-10 finish.
The USMTS 35-lap finale was over before it started with Rodney Sanders starting on the pole. Sanders has had I-80 dialed in for several years, winning handily during every appearance, and it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to win again. Former USMTS national champion Jason Hughes made a valiant run at Sanders but in the end, the Happy, TX, pilot pocketed the $8,000 check.
As sluggish as the USMTS portion of the SDN was, I will point out that the officials of the Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model Series take heed on how to run an efficient program. While there was a lot of pissing around between heats and during yellow flags with the Lucas Oil crew, Todd Staley and his USMTS group ran off a snappy program both nights with no time wasted. I overheard a lot of other people making the same comments regarding USMTS’ well-run syllabus and Lucas Oil’s poor time management skills.
Aside from the racing, you always meet interesting people at I-80. One of the highlights for me was meeting Rollie Frink of Davenport, IA. A lot of you old-timers will remember Frink competing weekly during the 70’s and 80’s not only at his home track but East Moline, IL, was well. He was also a regular with the NASCAR Busch All-Stars. Frink is good friends with co-owner Steve Kosiski and comes to the Silver Dollar every year to help out.
Lee and I found him under the grandstands a couple of hours before the races on Thursday. Like everyone else, he was trying to find some shade and stay cool, so we sat down and chatted with him. As it turned out, we would do the same on Friday and Saturday. This was one of those times when I closed the mouth and opened the ears. Rollie had story after story about his racing days, a lot of which you won’t find in print; and some stories just not printable.
I spent most of the weekend hanging out with a couple of photographers, Chris Eiel and Amanda “Teapot” Reitan. If you peruse this website, you’ve seen Chris’ work on here. His passion is drag racing, but he’s been spending quite a bit of time watching cars go around in a circle at I-80 and Shelby County Speedway in Harlan, IA, the last few seasons. Amanda has been the track photographer at I-80 Speedway for three years now and does an excellent job there.
We pretty much took over turns one and two for the weekend, sending the “serious” photographers over to the other side of the track. We had a lot of fun for those three days…sometimes we even remembered to take pictures.
I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend at the Silver Dollar Nationals and I’m ready to do it again next year. Thanks to Lee Ackerman, Chris Eiel and Amanda Reitan for making my visit pleasurable.

 

A great crowd was on hand to witness some great racing at the Fayette County Fair. - Kyle Ealy Photo
 
Wednesday, July 25, took me to another favorite track of mine, the Fayette County Fairgrounds in West Union, IA. The Deery Brother Summer Series was making its triumphant return to the 3/8-mile for the first time in over nine years (June 17, 2009).
Before I left Cedar Rapids I checked the weather forecast and radar just to be sure. While there was rain in the area, it appeared the heavy stuff would be well north of West Union…so away I went.
Upon arriving at the track and walking to the infield, I bumped into a familiar face from faraway. K.C. Rooney, whose originally from Waukon, IA, but has lived in California for the past 20-something years, was in the early stages of his annual two-week “Iowa Racing Trip”. I had met K.C. the first time over 10 years ago at a WDRL race at West Liberty. He too, had been at the Silver Dollar Nationals (how did we not bump into each other there?), pedaled a couple of days of RAGBRAI with family and now found himself in the tiny northeast community. He still had Fairbury, IL and Cedar Lake, WI, on his schedule. What a great vacation…
Along with the IMCA late models, B-modifieds, stock cars and hobby stocks, all sanctioned by the United States Racing Association, were the support group. By the end of the night, however, all four divisions shared the main stage with sterling performances.
The skies were dark off to the north, so track officials started clicking off heat races in apple pie order. No wasted motion here; as soon as the checkers waved on one race, the next line-up was marched out and the green was waving. We were making excellent time but right during the third and final heat for the late models, sprinkles became drops and the rains came. Not a heavy shower, mind you, but a nice steady rain any farmer would appreciate.
After about an hour delay, the blade came out to roll the track back in, followed by the sheep’s foot and finally, a wave of drivers came out to pack the track. Team work will get anything accomplished and this was a sterling example that there is no “I” in team.
The hearty faithful who came to watch some late models and great racing in general stuck it out during the delay and they were all richly awarded with what became an extremely racy surface. After finishing up the late model heat and a couple of hobby stock heat races, the fans in the stands and myself were treated to four very competitive features.
While the late models may have been the marquee, the support divisions made their own headlines with great side-by-side racing and finishes that came right down to the wire.
The late model finale saw Chad Holladay, last week’s winner at Columbus Junction, rocket to the lead at the drop of the green and it looked like the race was well in hand for the Muscatine, IA, pilot. Holladay’s car was a rocket ship and he built a sizeable lead.
But a caution late in the contest bunched up the field and, on the restart, Todd Cooney, who had started eighth, jumped past Justin Kay and Holladay and took over the top spot. Cooney would hold off an always stubborn Justin Kay for the win and the $2,000 check. Not bad for a guy who had his car loaded up on the trailer when the rains came.
It was a family feud of sorts when Brandon and Ryan Maitland decided to keep it in the family for B-modified honors. The two brothers dueled it out for the bulk of the feature event before Brandon pulled away. Ryan would fade in the late going and finish fourth. According to Brandon in victory lane, Ryan won the feature last year, just beating him out for the victory. So, revenge is sweet…even if it’s against you own kin.
The stock car contest was as good as it gets with a familiar name in northeast Iowa racing, Chris Hovden of Decorah, IA, in victory lane. Hovden and another stock car veteran, Tom Schmitt of Independence, IA, ran side-by-side for nearly all of the feature with Hovden winning by a car length. Behind them were Kyle Falck, Dan Jones and Lynn Panos having their own three-car skirmish. And behind them, Brian Mahlstedt, Kevin Donlan and Troy Hansmeier were staging their own three-car fracas.
I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again; the USRA stock car division in northeast Iowa is as good as it gets. I’d put them up against the IMCA guys any day of the week.
 
Three-wide racing was the norm all night at Fayette County Speedway. - Kyle Ealy Photo
 
The hobby stock feature ended the evening and what a show they put on. You could have literally thrown a blanket over the front three drivers, Justin Lichty, Josh Ludeking and Brady Link. Those three juked and jived all over the track and even threw a couple of sliders on each other for good measure. Like the stock car contest, the hobbies were going two and three-wide far back into the field.
 
Lichty, a veteran hobbyist from Waterloo, IA, finally was able to distant himself (but not a lot) to pick the victory. He gave credit to Ludeking and Link in victory lane for running a clean but competitive race.
A special thank you to the fine people of the Fayette County Fair and especially the ground crew who made what was a good track into a spectacular racing surface after an hour-long rain. As Todd Cooney said in victory lane, “You could run on the top, on the bottom or right down the middle if you wanted to, it was awesome!”
Everyone was a winner at West Union on Wednesday night.
 
Thanks for reading…finally after four years,

Kyle