With less than 20 laps gone from last night's Silver Dollar Nationals late model A feature, I had coined an opening line for this blog. Holy Mary Mother of God, in the name of all that is good and right do NOT ever again start more than 26 cars in this race. Then along came Ryan Gustin doing what even those with the most vivid imaginations would never have conjured up.
For several years I have thought of Gustin as a once in a generation talent, but this is his rookie season in a late model. He is gaining knowledge and experience with every lap he races, but no driver does what he did last night. Starting 34th on the grid, Gustin moved to 19th early in the race. OK, that was mainly passing provisionals and drivers who qualified through the twin B features. He would not find passing easy the rest of the race.
Boy was I wrong in my thinking. From 19th to 9th to 5th to 2nd and finally to the front of the best dirt late model drivers in the US. I have been watching racers go fast on Midwest dirt ovals for over 55 years and I have never heard a crowd erupt like the I-80 Speedway erupted when Gustin blew by race leader Jimmy Owens. He excited, he electrified, he e-mazed the huge crowd.
Gustin didn't just pass Owens, he drove away from him. I told Matt if there were no more cautions he was going to win the race. I should not have said that because there was a caution, and it came as Gustin got into the back of the lapped car of Kyle Berck. The collision bent and practically tore the nose off Gustin's car. Gustin tried to continue the race, but as soon as he got up to speed on the restart he smacked the turn one wall, ending his evening. Despite missing a story book ending, Gustin will be on my Top 25 ballot this week.
I thought Gustin would be a factor in big races in a couple of years, but throw away that time table. I suspect his team will have other plans for next season, but if I was the MLRA tour director I would be working hard at recruiting Gustin for 2014, trying to convince him to run a regional tour while also racing in big events such as the Dream, World 100, and Knoxville Nationals.
If I was the MLRA tour director, I would also work hard on recruiting Billy Moyer Jr. to run the 2014 series. Yes, running a regional tour is a step back from a Rookie of the Year season with the Lucas Oil Series, but Moyer Jr. really does not know how to win races yet, and he will never learn how running the Lucas Oil tour. Let him run a tour with comparable talent, win a few races, and then go back to the national tour.
Jared Landers did his best to turn the 80 lap event into the Hillbilly 32. On a restart he managed to take out fan favorite Brian Birkhofer. Whether Birkie came up the track is moot-if a driver gets a car in front going sideways, he needs to lift, especially with 48 laps left in the race. Landers did not. The crowd went berserk, including yours truly. For any Landers lovers from Lincoln, don't bother lobbying to get him on my Top 25 ballot. He can win every big race the rest of the season and I am not voting for him.
His unfortunate move cost Birkhofer big time. Birkie was running 3rd when the incident occurred and it appeared he had something for the leaders. A potential $27,000 pay day was lost, instead the Muscatine, Iowa driver went home with a $1,300 check and a wrecked car. And was angry to the extreme. When pit reporter Ben Shelton tried interviewing Birkhofer, Shelton, the crowd, and everyone watching the DOD PPV, got an earful of colorful language and left no doubt on what Birkie thought of Landers. Hey, I was thinking the same thing and the man didn't just rob me of $27,000.
Instant Karma in the form of the turn four wall did get Landers a little later in the race, but unfortunately he was able to continue racing after pitting. Too bad.
Another driver who will be going on my Top 25 ballot this week is Tony Jackson Jr. He could have gone on weeks earlier, but hey, it is my ballot, not anyone else's. Jackson Jr. was cruising outside the A feature top ten when I started watching Gustin. Next thing I knew he was in the top five and left people wondering where he came from. He finished 2nd to Jimmy Owens. Owens has been solidly in my Top 25 much of the season. I dropped him several spots in the last two weeks, but he is going up this weekend. Jason Feger had been on my Top 25 ballot prior to his tire scandal, and he will be back on this week.
With younger drivers causing much ado, people might have missed Mr. Smooth doing his thing. Billy Moyer started 19th and a last lap pass got him a Top 5 finish. Coupled with his Lakeside Speedway win on Tuesday, his performance at I-80 this weekend will move him up on my ballot as well.
I won't say this was the best race I ever watched, but it was by far the most exciting late model race I have watched in the last ten years. Actually, you would have to go back to the final years of Sunset Speedway to come up with something as exciting as last night.
Changes do need to be made in the event. I did not harp on Friday's late start and even later finish because of the hot weather. But the weather could not have been better last night, the races started even later than Friday, and a finish well after midnight is not a good thing.
First, while Gustin's 34th to 1st charge is what makes a legend, Gustin won't be starting at the end of the field in many more races. There were drivers in this race that simply did not belong in the race-TOO MANY provisionals, TOO MANY starters. If this event is ever going to become one of the must see dirt late model events of the season, the number of starters needs to be cut back. I said 26 talking with Matt on the way home. He said 30. I would compromise on 28, and that is still more than any other big time race starts.
It sounded like Al Belt is willing to increase the purse of the Belt Bash non-qualifiers race to $3,000 to start in 2014. That is the same as an MLRA feature pays, so there is NO reason to be starting 35 out of 55 cars on hand in the feature. I was glad to see Jason Krohn pick up a $2,700 check in just his 7th start in a late model, but there were far too few cars in this race. If there would be 28 in the feature, this race should have 24-28 cars entered, not 16.
The event is at an awkward period in its growth. It really needs more than just late models, and USMTS modifieds is the best class of cars to add. However, a complete program for the mods each night is making for too much of a good thing. Double a regular USMTS purse and make their portion of the event a two day show instead of two separate shows. Saturday's feature would pay at least $5,000 to win-more with the unique USMTS buy-in, and I would not mind seeing the winner's share of the purse go to $10,000 in a two day show. Turn Friday into a qualifying night of 10 heats for the late models and four 15 lap qualifiers for the mods. That is 14 races and 190 laps of racing on Friday. Saturday would be B features in each class, the late model non-qualifiers race, and the 80 lap late model A feature. That is 7 races and 180 laps of racing. This would cut 4 modified heats from Saturday's program, and couple that with actually starting on time and the races would be over before midnight.
-Promoter Joe Kosiski announced that Silver Dollar Nationals IV will pay $30,000 to win and $1,400 to start. That is treating drivers right, but it could be $100,000 to win and only a few WoO drivers would show-yes, that really peeves me. Not one WoO driver was on hand for SDN III, though that series is off for several weeks. If I voted my heart this week, Richards-Lanigan-Clanton-McCreadie-Eckert would be 21st-25th on my Top 25 ballot.
-I got an opportunity to talk with Dirt On Dirt's Todd Turner before the race. I do envy Turner and the other DOD stalwarts. There job is going to late model races. It involves travel, bad weather, not so good concession stand food, and promoters and drivers that can be quite a load, but at the end of the day they are watching races for a living. I wouldn't mind spending January in Arizona, February in Florida, and going to big races the rest of the year as a media member, not a paying customer. No Tony, I do not get into races free. Not as a contributing writer for Dirt Late Model or Dirt Modified magazines, and not as a blogger for The Rest of the Dirt. I can count on three fingers the number of races I have got in on a media pass.
DOD is by far the best auto racing website. Nothing else comes close. For 65 cents a week, it isn't a bargain, it is a steal.
-I also got to meet Heather Lyne, crew chief for the 28 car of Dennis Erb Jr. I did a Dirt Late Model story on Erb and Lyne that I hope will be coming out soon. I enjoyed interviewing Heather for the article; she is truly one of the smartest people in dirt track racing. Even though she is close to being a rocket scientist, Heather was scraping mud and getting ready to load the car and head home for a few days of work on her "real" job and getting the race car ready for an east coast Lucas Oil swing.
-Brian Birkhofer gave a new meaning to "locked and loaded." His car was loaded when fans went into the pits after the races, his trailer was locked up, and his hauler was as dark as his mood obviously was.
-To Jim H, the pyrotechnical wizard. You may want to rethink gas bombs during a drought.
Enough for now. I am sure I will think of other SDN III topics to write about in coming days, but this blog is more than long enough.
Only 362 days to Silver Dollar Nationals IV. Thanks for stopping by.