MUSKEGON, Mich. (July 11) — Billy Moyer assumed command of Wednesday’s 40-lap DIRTcar Summer Nationals feature at Thunderbird Raceway thanks to Brian Shirley’s late-race misfortune. The Hall of Famer then called on his vast experience and savvy to stay there.
The result was a milestone victory for the 60-year-old superstar from Batesville, Ark., who turned back challenges from Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill., over the final circuits to become the first driver in the history of the venerable Hell Tour to reach the 100-win plateau.
“I’m not really a big goal guy or statistics (oriented),” Moyer said after pocketing a $5,000 top prize for his fourth triumph of the 2018 Summer Nationals. “I just let it fall the way it falls, and to be able to (win 100 races) is … like I keep saying, just something I never thought would happen. A hundred races is a lot of races to win on this deal.”
Moyer, whose first career Summer Nationals victory came over 32 years ago on July 2, 1986, at Spoon River Speedway in Banner, Ill., hit the century mark on the grueling series on an evening when he needed both good luck and speed to come out on top. The race’s polesitter lost the lead to Chatham, Ill.’s Shirley on lap two and couldn’t regain it while negotiating lapped traffic through the race’s middle stages, but, when Shirley’s Bob Cullen-owned car began to trail smoke on lap 26, the feature swung back in Moyer’s favor.
After Shirley’s hopes ended on lap 32 as a thick cloud of smoke belched from his terminally-ill engine, Moyer inherited the lead and never relinquished it. Heckenast, 30, kept the pressure on Moyer in pursuit of a second consecutive Summer Nationals victory but lost ground with two laps to go and settled for runner-up money in his family-owned Black Diamond machine, 0.839 of a second behind the winner’s Moyer Victory Chassis.
Nick Kurtz, a 24-year-old from Gowen, Mich., who is in his fourth full season of Dirt Late Model racing, advanced from the 11th starting spot to register a career-best Summer Nationals finish of third in his father’s Barry Wright Icon car. Kurtz reached third on the lap-32 restart by overtaking ninth-starter Rich Neiser of Fruitport, Mich., who finished fourth. Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, completed the top five, rising from the 19th starting spot after using a provisional to gain entry to the feature field because he dropped out of his heat race due to bent right-rear wheel sustained in a scrape with Australian racer Cameron Pearson.
Moyer saw elements from many of his past Summer Nationals successes combine to bring him a historic one.
“It kind of all worked into one there,” Moyer said. “At the start we had a good race going, Brian and I, and it was fun and my ‘ol car was doing everything I wanted it to do and I thought, Ah, I’m gonna be good here. I’ll just wait for the lapped cars and try to keep the tires under me. Then we kind of got to them lapped cars and he got through ‘em better than I did and got a little bit of room on us.”
Then, once Shirley’s retirement thrust Moyer into the lead, he called on everything he’s learned during his spectacular career to keep Heckenast behind him.
“The last probably 15 laps the … I’ve gotta look at it,” Moyer said, shaking his head at his car’s late-race performance. “Something wasn’t quite how it needed to be. We was just able to hang on.”
Moyer’s most important move likely came just before the increasingly heavy smoke emanating from Shirley’s car prompted officials to throw a caution flag on lap 32. He regained second from Heckenast, who has slid past Moyer on a lap-25 restart.
Heckenast understood the significance of that moment when he ceded second back to Moyer while battling visibility problems behind Shirley.
“It started locking up pretty hard there,” Heckenast said of the circular-shaped track’s surface condition as Shirley’s car threw smoke. “And I was on the top and Moyer was on the bottom and we were side-by-side, and I couldn’t see anything (due to the smoke). I couldn’t see the wall or nothing, so Moyer got by me on the bottom.”
Seeking to duplicate his victory in the previous night’s Summer Nationals event at Shadyhill Speedway in Medaryville, Ind., Heckenast pushed hard to pass Moyer over the final eight circuits but couldn’t get it done.
“I kept getting underneath him, but he’s Mr. Smooth, right?” said Heckenast, whose eventful night included a broken left-front tie-rod during hot laps and the flywheel flying off his motor before his heat race (forcing him to need a push-start the remainder of the night). “He wasn’t pinching me off or anything. He was doing his job and keeping me where I couldn’t get a line under him going in the corner.
“He wasn’t as good as me off the corner, but he was better than getting in the corner. I kept getting a nice run off the bottom but I would never get enough getting in because he kept his car so up on the bars like he needed to. I never could get a good, clean line underneath him. When he slipped up I was never there to take advantage, and then with two to go there, I missed the bottom just a little bit and slipped up so I just decided, ‘Well, I’ll just try the middle and see if I can outrun him,’ but it didn’t work.
“I’m really mad at myself because I think I could’ve tried to drive a little harder the last five laps,” he added. “If I drove straighter I might have got him, but starting seventh, it wasn’t too terrible. We’ll take it.”
Shirley, 37, also would have preferred a runner-up finish to his ultimate fate. His race-ending engine trouble — likely a burnt piston, he said — marked the second straight night that he was knocked from the lead by misfortune, following the tangle with a lapped car at Shadyhill that dive-bombed his hopes for a third consecutive series win.
“I knew it blew up,” said Shirley, whose virtually insurmountable lead in the points battle has him on the verge of clinching his second career Summer Nationals championship. “I heard it grenade, but I knew there could only be so many laps left so I was gonna give ‘er hell till she was done. I didn’t know it was blowing that much smoke. I’ve seen ‘em burn down and get the checkered, so if they wouldn’t have pulled the caution out I would’ve let her eat (to the finish).
“Aw, heck, it’s just the way life is sometimes,” he added of his heartbreaking loss. “It’s bittersweet, because we know we’re fast. We’ll get ‘er fixed and we’ll come back. That’s all we can do.”
It’s what Moyer has done countless times in Summer Nationals action over the past three-plus decades, making it possible for him to reach 100 victories. The achievement led him to wax nostalgic in the pit area afterward.
“I never dreamed we could ever do that,” Moyer said of winning 100 Hell Tour events. “I’d just like to thank a lot of people who have been behind me, helping me get to where I’m at. Crew-wise, my dad and mom stand behind me. My girlfriend (Carla Rayburn) and (Uncle) Carl, and Little Billy (his son) has helped me a lot. My ex even helped me way back when.
“And just great sponsors … (the late) Johnny Johnson just comes to mind, and Ed Petroff back in the day helped me. So many back then that helped me to just be able to do what I love to do, and the good Lord looking over me to give me the ability to get it done.”
Moyer believes he won’t be the only driver to win 100 Summer Nationals races — Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., currently stands at 97 career victories — but he admitted that he’s proud he’s won four times upon turning 60 to nail down the milestone.
“I’m sure Shannon will get there,” Moyer said. “He’s a lot younger than I am (Babb is 44). I don’t know where anybody’s at after that (next on the win list is 54-year-old Don O’Neal at 39 triumphs), but at least at 60 years old … I will bet Shannon that one. We’ll see how many he can win at 60 years old. It gets tougher and tougher the older you get in this deal and the competition gets tougher and tougher.”
Notes: Wednesday’s event was the first-ever Summer Nationals stop at the Tom Sprague Sr.-promoted Thunderbird facility. … Just two caution flags slowed the feature. The first came on lap 25 when third-place Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo., and Shawn Reed of Grant, Mich., tangled, leaving Gundaker with left-rear damage (he retired due to a broken axle) and Reed sitting in turn four, though he was able to continue on and finish 11th. Shirley’s smoking car triggered the second caution on lap 32. … Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill., used a provisional to start 20th after pulling out of his heat because he thought he had fouled a spark plug but worked his was forward to finish eighth. … Cameron Pearson, a 19-year-old Australian who joined the Summer Nationals field last Friday night at Farmer City (Ill.) Raceway, ran in the top five for much of the race’s first half before finishing a career-best 10th.
Row 1: Billy Moyer, Brian Shirley
Row 2: Gordy Gundaker, Shawn Reed
Row 3: Cameron Pearson, Rich Bell
Row 4: Frank Heckenast Jr., Brandon Thirlby
Row 5: Rich Neiser, Paul Stubber
Row 6: Nick Kurtz, David Mielke
Row 7: Travis Stemler, Kevin Reeve
Row 8: Eric Spangler, Trevor Gundaker
Row 9: Ryan Vanderveen, Jason Playter Jr.
Row 10: Jason Feger, Rusty Schlenk
Row 11: Bob Mayer, Tom Sprague Jr.
Finish (10 laps; top 2 transfer): Ryan Vanderveen, Jason Playter Jr., Rusty Schlenk, Jake Rendel, Bob Mayer, Tom Sprague Jr., Kevin Nelson Jr., Steven McClees, Rod Laney, Jeramy Lange, Dan Richardson, Drew Wilkerson, Jason Feger.
(10 laps; top 2 transfer)
Row 1: Ryan Vanderveen, Bob Mayer
Row 2: Jeramy Lane, Drew Wilkerson
Row 3: Steven McClees, Jason Playter Jr.
Row 4: Kevin Nelson Jr., Jake Rendel
Row 5: Rusty Schlenk, Jason Feger
Row 6: Dan Richardson, Rod Laney
Row 7: Andy Sprague, Tom Sprague Jr.
Row 8: Chuck Hummer
Shawn Reed pulled off a dramatic upset, overtaking Brandon Thirlby on the final lap to win by a mere 0.222 of a second. Reed nosed ahead for the first time on lap seven and Thirlby went back in front on laps eight and nine before Reed made his triumphant move with the checkered flag flying. David Mielke finished and Trevor Gundaker was fourth in his Crate Late Model.
Finish: Shawn Reed, Brandon Thirlby, David Mielke, Trevor Gundaker, Drew Wilkerson, Jake Rendel, Rod Laney (DNS) Chuck Hummer.
Brian Shirley controlled the action from wire-to-wire, keeping Frank Heckenast Jr. at bay to beat the Tuesday-night winner by 1.541 seconds. Nick Kurtz overtook Eric Spangler for third early in the race and finished in the show position. Tom Sprague Jr., whose father promotes Thunderbird Raceway, spun on lap one to bring out a caution flag.
Finish: Brian Shirley, Frank Heckenast Jr., Nick Kurtz, Eric Spangler, Jeramy Lange, Kevin Nelson Jr., Dan Richardson, Tom Sprague Jr.
Gordy Gundaker led all the way, beating Rich Bell to the finish line by 1.279 seconds. Paul Stubber finished third after his bids to overtake Bell fell short. A caution flag flew on lap seven for debris in turn two; Jason Feger. meanwhile, was scheduled to start from the outside pole but pulled off the track before the green flag because he thought he had fouled a spark-plug wire and "didn't want to take a chance" of hurting his engine.
Finish: Gordy Gundaker, Rich Bell, Paul Stubber, Kevin Reeve, Bob Mayer, Jason Playter Jr., Jason Feger.
Billy Moyer ran away with the prelim, leading from flag-to-flag to defeat Australian Cameron Pearson by a healthy margin of 3.753 seconds. Michiganders Rich Neiser and Travis Stemler also transferred. Summer Nationals regular Rusty Schlenk experienced problems, pulling off the track after one lap due to a bent right-rear wheel from a scrape with Pearson.
Finish: Billy Moyer, Cameron Pearson, Rich Neiser, Travis Stemler, Ryan Vanderveen, Steve McClees, Rusty Schlenk (DNS) Andy Sprague.
Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., was the overall quickest qualifier, turning a lap of 13.092 seconds during the first group to nip Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo., for the honor by 6/1000ths of a second. Both Moyer and Gundaker will start from the pole position in heat races.
Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., was fastest in the second group with a lap of 13.364 seconds, putting him on the pole of a heat. Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, Mich., also landed a pole starting spot with his qualifying effort.
The qualifying session was delayed by a red flag that flew after the first driver on the track, Andy Sprague of North Muskegon, Mich., hit the turn-two wall and required wrecker service. He wasn’t injured.
The DIRTcar Summer Nationals makes it first-ever stop at Thunderbird Raceway under absolutely ideal weather conditions: sunny skies, temperatures in the low- to mid-80s and virtually no chance of rain. … The quarter-mile Thunderbird oval has a modest seating capacity, but there is a drive-in section from between turns one and two to the middle of the backstretch where fans can park their vehicles and watch the races from outside the track. … The evening’s 32-car field marks the first Hell Tour event to exceed 30 entries since the 33 machines were signed in for the June 30 show at Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 in Pevely, Mo. … Eric Spangler of Lake City, Mich., skipped his planned trip to Shadyhill Speedway in Medaryville, Ind., for Tuesday night’s Summer Nationals program because his mother underwent open-heart surgery five days after receiving a recommendation for the operation from her doctor. He said she’s doing well after the surgery so he was able to compete in the first of two Hell Tour events in his home state; he scored a $4,000 victory in Thunderbird’s American Ethanol Late Model Tour feature on May 26. … Australian Paul Stubber’s crewman, fellow Aussie Kye Blight, borrowed DIRTcar director Sam Driggers’s truck to drive over to the nearby Keyser Manufacturing headquarters in Coopersville, Mich., and pick up a new rearend to install in Stubber’s car. … Cameron Pearson, the 19-year-old Australian who joined the Summer Nationals trail last Friday night, was knocked out of Tuesday night’s feature at Shadyhill after a hit he absorbed in his car’s rear wheel resulted in a broken driveshaft.
A two-race DIRTcar Summer Nationals swing through the Michigan begins with a Wednesday-night date at Thunderbird Raceway, a circular, quarter-mile oval near the shore of Lake Michigan that is hosting the Hell Tour for the first time in its history. The track, which is promoted by former Winston Speedway operator Tom Sprague Sr., will present a 40-lap feature paying $5,000 to win.
Thunderbird’s program will be followed by a Thursday-night Summer Nationals show at I-96 Speedway in Lake Odessa, Mich., before the series wraps up for 2018 on Friday and Saturday with the Birthday Race doubleheader at Oakshade Raceway in Wauseon, Ohio.
Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., leads the Summer Nationals standings by a commanding 102 points over Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., who dropped off the tour before Tuesday’s stop at Shadyhill Speedway in Medaryville, Ind., and even larger gap of 217 points over Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill., the highest-ranked driver behind Babb who is still racing on the circuit. Even if Feger were to win all four remaining events, Shirley would effectively clinch his second career title by simply starting one of the features and gaining show-up points for entering the others.
Heat race lineups
(10 laps; top 4 transfer)
Row 1: Billy Moyer, Rusty Schlenk
Row 2: Cameron Pearson, Travis Stemler
Row 3: Rich Neiser, Ryan Vanderveen
Row 4: Andy Sprague, Stephen McClees
Row 1: Gordy Gundaker, Jason Feger
Row 2: Rich Bell, Jason Playter Jr.
Row 3: Kevin Reeve, Paul Stubber
Row 4: Bob Mayer
Row 1: Brian Shirley, Eric Spangler
Row 2: Frank Heckenast Jr., Nick Kurtz
Row 3: Tom Sprague Jr., Kevin Nelson Jr.
Row 4: Jeramy Lange, Dan Richardson
Row 1: Brandon Thirlby, David Mielke
Row 2: Shawn Reed, Drew Wilkerson
Row 3: Trevor Gundaker, Jake Rendel
Row 4: Rod Laney, Chuck Hummer
Billy Moyer (21), Batesville, Ark., 13.092
Gordy Gundaker (11G), St. Charles, Mo., 13.098
Rusty Schlenk (CJ1), McClure, Ohio, 13.180
Jason Feger (25), Bloomington, Ill., 13.366
Cameron Pearson (10AUS), Healesville, Australia, 13.516
Rich Bell (21b), Sheffield, Ill., 13.556
Travis Stemler (2s), Ionia, Mich., 13.651
Jason Playter Jr. (4), Saranac, Mich., 13.711
Rich Neiser (87), Fruitport, Mich., 13.742
Kevin Reeve (45), Hanover, Mich., 13.748
Ryan Vanderveen (23v), Six Lakes, Mich., 13.776
Paul Stubber (31AUS), Bunbury, W. Australia, 14.023
Andy Sprague (1s), North Muskegon, Mich., 14.236
Bob Mayer (42*), Holland, Ohio, 14.573
Stephen McClees (01), Muskegon, Mich., 14.848
Mike Peterson (3), Muskegon, Mich., no time
Brian Shirley (3s), Chatham, Ill., 13.364
Brandon Thirlby (M14), Traverse City, Mich., 13.378
Eric Spangler (27s), Lake City, Mich., 13.624
David Mielke (87M), Gladwin, Mich., 13.649
Frank Heckenast Jr. (99jr), Frankfort, Ill., 13.654
Shawn Reed (07), Grant, Mich., 13.747
Nick Kurtz (79), Gowen, Mich., 13.853
Drew Wilkerson (78), Ravenna, Mich., 14.056
Tom Sprague Jr. (21s), Muskegon, Mich., 14.109
Trevor Gundaker (11T), St. Charles, Mo., 14.322
Kevin Nelson Jr. (0n), Muskegon, Mich., 14.426
Jake Rendel (06), Adrian, Mich., 14.605
Jeramy Lange (02), Muskegon, Mich., 14.883
Rod Laney (75), Kawkawlin, Mich., 15.174
Dan Richardson (8P), Macey, Ind., 15.303
Chuck Hummer (25H), Lyons, Ohio, no time