KANKAKEE, Ill. (June 13) — Brian Shirley isn’t planning on defending his DIRTcar Summer Nationals championship, but his thoughts might change with more outings like he had Thursday night at Kankakee County Speedway.
The 38-year-old driver from Chatham, Ill., kicked off the 2019 Hell Tour in dominant fashion, leading all but the first circuit en route to a dominant $5,000 victory in the quarter-mile oval’s 40-lap feature.
Starting from the outside pole, Shirley was outgunned for the top spot at the initial green flag by front-row mate Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill. But Shirley guided his Bob Cullen-owned XR1 Rocket into the lead on the second lap and raced unchallenged the remainder of the distance to defeat Heckenast by 1.776 seconds.
“A little bit of luck, and the car was just balanced good,” Shirley said of his 20th career Summer Nationals triumph and first in series action at Kankakee, which hosted the tour for the 31st time since 1986. “I got out front and cruised and everything worked our way.
“It’s just hitting the right setup,” he added when asked about his ownership of the race. “You go here, you go there. One night you’re a hero, one night you’re a zero.”
Heckenast slipped to third place when both Shirley and Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, shot past him on lap two, but last year’s Summer Nationals points runner-up regained the runner-up spot from Schlenk on a lap-18 restart and stayed there to the finish in his family-owned XR1 Rocket. He raced nearly a straightaway behind Shirley throughout the A-main’s second half, unable to stick with the pacesetter even after a caution flag on lap 22 tightened the field.
Schlenk settled for a third-place finish in his Rayburn machine after starting fourth. Eighth-starter Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill., finished fourth in his second start with a new MB Customs car and Ryan Unzicker of El Paso, Ill., earned hard-charger honors with an 18th-to-fifth run in his Pierce Race Car.
The only stumble Shirley made in the headliner came when he failed to immediately outrun Heckenast for the lead when the race began.
“On that original start I just pushed a little so I had to get out of the gas and it let him get a good run,” Shirley related. “Once he didn’t come up (to the outside lane), I knew (turns) three and four was better on the top, so I just made a couple good consecutive laps there and we was able to get by him.”
Driving the same battle-tested car he campaigned throughout last year’s Summer Nationals and even flipped earlier this season in February’s Georgia-Florida Speedweeks opener at at Golden Isles Speedway near Brunswick, Ga., Shirley was so superior that lapped traffic was barely a hinderance to him.
“I felt like the car was balanced really well and drove good,” Shirley said. “I was able to be calm because (crewman) Big R showed me that we had a pretty sizable lead. That all helps when you know you don’t have somebody on your butt when you’re trying to get through lapped traffic.”
Heckenast, 30, thought he was primed to score another victory at the track where he captured his first-ever Summer Nationals feature in 2015 after leading the first lap, but he made a lane-choice mistake because the Kankakee surface wasn’t what he was expecting.
“I don’t know what happened,” Heckenast said. “It was so middle-bottom, and then for the feature they rolled that top in and the crumbs just packed in tight. I knew we were gonna be in trouble (with the outside groove becoming faster), but I didn’t think it would last up there. If I did, I would’ve tried to get in front of Shirley, but I thought we were in the right position. Then all of a sudden the top just locked down and it was like, ‘Get to the top as fast as you can.’
“We made a good move on the restart there (to pass Schlenk), but we would’ve liked to win. We didn’t come here to run second.”
Heckenast also had a sentimental reason to crave a victory.
“I really wanted to win for my buddy Billy that passed away, which is terrible,” Heckenast said, referring to former MBH Race Cars operator Billy Vacek, a crewman for Rum Runner Racing and driver Brandon Overton who died in a North Carolina camper fire early Tuesday at the age of 32. “That was really tough on me. I didn’t find out until the day after everybody — I don’t have Facebook — and that was hard.”
Schlenk, 32, was also hampered by the quarter-mile oval developing a dominant outside lane.
“I thought we had a good second-place run going there, but Frankie was good on that (lap-18) restart and I got so tight,” Schlenk said. “I set up for the bottom. I did not expect the racetrack to do that. I tightened the car way up expecting to have to run around the bottom and kind of got stuck on a rubbered-up top, got too tight on the restart and let Frankie around me.
“That’s Summer Nationals racing,” he added. “If it don’t throw curveballs at you, it wouldn’t be Summer Nationals racing.”
Schlenk was happy to get his Summer Nationals off to a solid start. He’s not certain that he will chase the entire schedule for a second consecutive year, but his chances increased slightly thanks to his performance.
“A top three puts me top three in points,” Schlenk said. “I said if we’re in the top three in points going into Joliet (Saturday’s event at Dirt Oval Route 66 Raceway) we were gonna go there, and if we’re not in the top three we’re gonna to Oakshade (Raceway in Wauseon, Ohio) for the ALMS race, the Barney Oldfield … $5,200 to win is pretty hard to pass up at my home track.”
Shirley, meanwhile, remained tilted toward running the entire Hell Tour this year, but he didn’t completely rule it out. What makes it difficult for him to do it again is the fact that July’s final week of the Summer Nationals conflicts with four lucrative Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series events at Midwest tracks that agree with Shirley.
“Honestly, with Granite City (Illinois’s Tri-City Speedway) having those 12s ($12,000-to-win races on July 11-12) and Wheatland (Missouri’s Lucas Oil Speedway) having those 15s ($15,000-to-win shows on July 13-14) … me and Bob (Cullen) talked about it, and the first couple weeks we’re gonna run (the Hell Tour) for sure because of the fact that they’re all close to the house. Then we go into that third week, there’s a couple here-and-there. But that last week … unfortunately, with it being up against those Lucas races, it’s just tough for us to pass them up. We’re good at Granite, the last show we ran at Wheatland we were really successful (a runner-up finish in last year’s Show-Me 100), so I’d hate to miss those races.
“But we’ll see,” he added. “You never say never, you know what I mean? But all I want to do is race and make sure money.”
Three caution flags slowed the event. The first two, on laps six and 18, were for 2018 Kankakee Summer Nationals winner Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., slowing on the track; the first time his car shut off as he ran fourth, and then, after it refired and he fell in at the back of the pack, he was trying to work his way forward when it lost power again just before the halfway point and he retired with apparent electrical woes. Allen Weisser of Peoria, Ill., triggered the final caution, on lap 22, when he spun between turns three and four.
Notes: Shirley tallied his seventh overall victory of 2019. … Kankakee promoter Tom Smith reconfigured the track for 2019 and the difference was noticeable, Shirley said. “It’s definitely smaller,” he analyzed. “We were probably 40 points different on gear bigger. I know we were top-dominant towards the end because it cleaned up, but really, most of the time (in the past at Kankakee), it was really top-dominant all the way up against the wall, but later in the race tonight, I could run the middle and be pretty good. I think it’s worth the effort to try (to change the track). I think it’ll probably race good once they get going more this year.” … After changing to his backup due to a broken driveshaft in heat action, Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., advanced from 16th to as high as sixth before slipping back several spots late in the distance. He ultimately finished seventh. ... Hot off his $125,000 Dream XXV win last Saturday at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., entered Kankakee’s program with his family-owned No. b5. But his night ended due to mechanical during hot laps; without a replacement adapter that connects the power steering pump shaft to the fuel pump, his team crew wasn’t able to make repairs at the track so he scratched from further competition.
Row 1: Frank Heckenast Jr., Brian Shirley
Row 2: Shannon Babb, Rusty Schlenk
Row 3: Mike Spatola, Dennis Erb Jr.
Row 4: Walker Arthur, Jason Feger
Row 5: Bob Gardner, Allen Murray
Row 6: Billy Moyer, Paul Stubber
Row 7: David Jaeger, Gordy Gundaker
Row 8: Lyle Zanker, Bobby Pierce
Row 9: Kevin Weaver, Ryan Unzicker
Row 10: Chuck Hummer, Matt Shannon
Row 11: Glen Thompson, Allen Weisser
Finish (top three transfer): Bobby Pierce, Kevin Weaver, Ryan Unzicker, Billy Hough, Allen Weisser, Matt Shannon, Glen Thompson, Jimmy Miller, Chuck Hummer, Truck Robertson, Scott Robertson (DNS) Brian Diveley, Josh Anderson, Brandon Sheppard.
(12 laps; top 3 transfer)
Row 1: Billy Hough, Ryan Unzicker
Row 2: Brian Diveley, Truck Robertson
Row 3: Chuck Hummer, Jimmy Miller
Row 4: Matt Shannon, Glen Thompson
Row 5: Josh Anderson, Bobby Pierce
Row 6: Kevin Weaver, Brandon Sheppard
Row 7: Scott Robertson, Allen Weisser
Shannon Babb controlled the action from start-to-finish, beating Dennis Erb Jr. by 0.673 of a second. Bob Gardner, Paul Stubber and Lyle Zanker also transferred in a race that saw Brandon Sheppard fail to take the green flag. His mechanical trouble in hot laps proved night-ending; without a replacement adapter that connects the power steering pump shaft to the fuel pump, his team crew wasn’t able to make repairs at the track so he scratched from further competition.
Finish (top five transfer): Shannon Babb, Dennis Erb Jr., Bob Gardner, Paul Stubber, Lyle Zanker, Brian Diveley, Jimmy Miller. Scratched: Josh Anderson, Brandon Sheppard.
Frank Heckenast Jr. led from flag-to-flag to score the win by 0.432 of a second over Mike Spatola, who made a late burst by Billy Moyer and Jason Feger to claim the runner-up spot. Cautions flew on lap two for a turn-four tangle that included Allen Weisser and on the ensuing restart for a left-rear flat on the Kevin Weaver car.
Finish (top five transfer): Frank Heckenast Jr., Mike Spatola, Jason Feger, Billy Moyer, Gordy Gundaker, Ryan Unzicker, Chuck Hummer, Glen Thompson, Kevin Weaver, Allen Weisser.
Brian Shirley overtook Rusty Schlenk for the lead on lap nine and went on to beat the Ohio driver by 0.404 of second. Virginian Walker Arthur placed third with Allen Murray and David Jaeger also transferring. Bobby Pierce led from the start until stopping on the track on lap five to bring out the race’s lone caution flag; he was pushed back to the pit area because “the driveshaft fell out of the car and I don’t know why,” Pierce said.
Finish (top five transfer): Brian Shirley, Rusty Schlenk, Walker Arthur, Allen Murray, David Jaeger, Billy Hough, Truck Robertson, Matt Shannon, Bobby Pierce, Scott Robertson.
Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, was the overall fastest qualifier in the group time trials with a lap of 14.110 seconds around the quarter-mile oval. He will start from the pole position in the first heat.
Other group fast-timers were Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., and Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill.
Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., did not log a lap because his family-owned car experienced mechanical trouble during hot laps and was not repaired in time for qualifying. Josh Anderson of Milford, Ill., also didn’t qualify due to a hot-lap incident that forced him to scratch from the remainder of the evening’s program.
The Summer Nationals opens at Kankakee for the fifth time; the track previously kicked off the series in 2007, '11, '14 and '16. ... Conditions for the lidlifter are not Hell Tour-like: partly sunny skies with a high temperature that has barely touched 70. Winds have been steady throughout the day as well. … Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill., is debuting a new MB Customs car that he spent several days assembling at Jimmy Mars’s shop in Menomonie, Wis. … Hot off his $125,000 Dream victory at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, on Saturday, Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., is taking advantage of an off weekend from World of Outlaws action to run his family-owned No. b5. … Walker Arthur of Forest, Va., has his Kryptonite car in the pit area ready to take his best shot at running the entire Summer Nationals schedule. “We’ve been wanting to do the whole tour since we ran a few races one year (in 2013),” Arthur said. “We’re gonna try to do it all.” … Allen Weisser of Peoria, Ill., is in the pits with his Dirt Late Model and UMP modified. … Allen Murray of San Antonio, Texas, is once again hitting the early portion of the Summer Nationals schedule. … After running the entire Summer Nationals schedule for the first time last year but going winless along the way, Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, is back to attempt a second complete tour of duty. The Rayburn car he’s running tonight is the same machine he flipped in last year’s Hell Tour event at Dirt Oval Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., and again later in the season. … Though Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo., isn’t planning to chase the entire Summer Nationals this season, he’s in Kankakee and riding an emotional high after celebrating the Stanley Cup championship his hometown St. Louis Blues won last night. Gundaker’s teenage brother, Trevor, is also in action in the Crate Late Model class.
After Wednesday night’s scheduled opener at Peoria (Ill.) Speedway was postponed to June 26 by rain, the DIRTcar Summer Nationals kicks off Thursday night at Kankakee County Speedway, a track that has been part of the Hell Tour throughout its history. Tonight’s $5,000-to-win 40-lapper marks the 31st Summer Nationals event contested at Kankakee, which was part of the inaugural series in 1986 and hosted twin events in ’87.
Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., has won nearly one-third of the Summer Nationals races at Kankakee, claiming a record eight victories at the track. The 61-year-old, who is expected to be in tonight’s field, scored his first Hell Tour triumph at the 3/8-mile oval in 1987 and his most recent came in 2014.
Other past Summer Nationals winners at Kankakee expected on Thursday are last year’s winner Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., Mike Spatola of Manhattan, Ill., and Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill., who recorded his first-ever Summer Nationals triumph in the 2015 event.
Group qualifying results
(Heat lineups; 10 laps; top 5 transfer)
Rusty Schlenk (CJ1), McClure, Ohio, 14.110
Bobby Pierce (32), Oakwood, Ill., 14.236
Brian Shirley (3s), Chatham, Ill., 14.348
Billy Hough (33H), Thomasboro, Ill., 14.783
Allen Murray (2), San Antonio, Texas, 14.794
Matt Shannon (15), Bartonville, Ill., 14.94
David Jaeger (13), Slinger, Wis., 15.108
Walker Arthur (87), Forest, Va., 15.424
Truck Robertson (P3), Centerville, Ind., 16.142
Scott Robertson (67SR), Centerville, Ind., 16.556
Billy Moyer (21), Batesville, Ark., 14.191
Frank Heckenast Jr. (99Jr), Frankfort, Ill., 14.193
Jason Feger (25), Bloomington, Ill., 14.233
Mike Spatola (89), Manhattan, Ill., 14.494
Kevin Weaver (b12), Gibson City, Ill., 14.503
Ryan Unzicker (24), El Paso, Ill., 14.523
Gordy Gundaker (11), St. Charles, Mo., 14.746
Allen Weisser (25W), Peoria, Ill., 14.945
Glen Thompson (14T), Buckingham, Ill., 15.612
Chuck Hummer (25H), Lyons, Ill., 16.458
Shannon Babb (18), Moweaqua, Ill., 14.608
Paul Stubber (31AUS), Bunbury, W. Australia, 14.712
Lyle Zanker (9), Cherry Valley, Ill., 14.852
Dennis Erb Jr. (28), Carpentersville, Ill., 15.012
Bob Gardner (4G), E. Peoria, Ill., 15.167
Brian Diveley (11D), Springfield, Ill., 15.328
Jimmy Miller (18M), Highland, Ill., 16.475
Josh Anderson (30C), Milford, Ill., no time
Brandon Sheppard (b5), New Berlin, Ill., no time