PEORIA, Ill. (June 13) — Billy Drake had a hard time believing that his $5,000 victory in Wednesday’s 40-lap DIRTcar Summer Nationals opener at Peoria Speedway was his first on the Hell Tour in nearly 15 years.
“No way, it can’t be that long,” said Drake, whose last Summer Nationals triumph came in a non-points race on Aug. 28, 2003, at Spoon River Speedway in Banner, Ill., two months after his last points-paying win on June 29, 2003, at Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt, Ind. “I must be getting old.”
Time does indeed fly. And for Drake, ending his long absence from victory lane on the grueling circuit threw the 48-year-old driver from Bloomington, Ill., back to his days as a well-traveled, full-time racer who was one of the Dirt Late Model division’s rising stars.
Drake now competes on only a limited basis in a Pro Power Engines-equipped MB Customs machine fielded by Ray Neltner of Peoria, Ill., but the talent that gained him several major wins during the 2000s remains in him. He proved it with a flawless performance at his car owner’s hometown track, setting fast time, winning a heat race and leading the Hell Tour’s 2018 lidlifter from start-to-finish off the outside pole without facing a single serious challenge.
Polesitting former Summer Nationals champion Jason Feger was outgunned by Drake for the lead at the initial green flag and chased his fellow Bloomington resident for the entire distance. But even with five restarts, Feger was never able to draw close enough to make a significant bid for the lead and settled for the runner-up spot, 1.403 seconds behind Drake.
Fourth-starter Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., moved up one spot on the race’s opening lap and ran third for the duration to claim the final podium berth. Billy Moyer Jr. of Batesville, Ark., lost a position when the feature began and finished fourth while sixth-starter Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, Mich., immediately seized fifth place and went on to complete the top five.
Drake, who sat on the sidelines for a couple years after selling his family-owned equipment before Nelttner lured him back into action in 2012, was understandably excited to finally record his 11th career Summer Nationals win. But his modesty showed through as well when he alluded to the quarter-mile oval’s racing surface taking rubber, making passing difficult.
“We’ll take ‘em any way we can get ‘em,” Drake said. “Things went right for us tonight. We were able to win that heat race, which is critical, and got on the front row (for the A-man). Then I think our car was pretty good, but the track kind of got one-lane there so we were in the right place at the right time.”
Nevertheless, Drake ran an error-free race. There were several obstacles that provided an opportunity for him to succumb to the pressure and falter down the stretch — including a length red flag on lap 35 that was displayed because the cars driven by Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo., and Mike Spatola of Manhattan, Ill., became stuck together on the homestretch — but he handled everything thrown at him with aplomb.
“They were making us sweat for it, red flags and yellows and everything else,” Drake related. “You just never know after you have those long reds … you sit there, and you never know what your stuff’s gonna do going into the next corner. Your tires could seal, you could run through some slick stuff and shove, so it’s always a little bit of a risk.”
Once Drake crossed the finish line first, he deflected the praise thrown his way to his team members.
“I’ve got to give these guys credit,” Drake said. “We’ve really worked, we’ve really studied, and we’ve really kind of analyzed all this (Dirt Late Model technology). Ray and Jimmy and Chris Mars, all those guys, a lot of thought goes into this, so I couldn’t do it without all those guys.
“Around here, that’s our big deal,” he continued, referring to the annual Summer Nationals. “It’s huge (to win one). It’s big, especially for these guys (his owner and crew) — it’s their home track. It’s special for them as well and I’m glad we could deliver here in Peoria.”
Feger, 40, conceded that Drake was the fleetest racer from Bloomington on this night, but he left Peoria with a sense of satisfaction. Second place was a positive development for Feger, who has struggled this season and was just four days removed from a qualifying crash during the Dream at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, that he feared had seriously damaged his XR1 Rocket car but in fact had caused relatively minor problems.
“I feel like the last two or three times out we’ve been making some pretty big gains,” Feger said. “We were good tonight. We were able to roll good in the heat race and we were pretty decent in the feature. Drake’s got a lot of laps around here, he runs here about every week, and he’s got a good car and he’s really good here so I knew he was gonna be tough.
“I’m happy with second. I can start digging out of this hole I got myself in and pay some people off and get enough money to go down the road.”
The 37-year-old Shirley, meanwhile, ran quietly in third throughout the feature, continuing his strong 2018 campaign in Bob Cullen’s XR1 Rocket machine.
“We did the best we could do by winning our heat,” Shirley said. “Unfortunately, where the racetrack was (passing at a premium), the redraw meant a lot.
“But all in all, a top five out of the first night, that’s a big goal so that way it kind of sets the precedent for the next nights (of the Hell Tour).”
The lap-35 stoppage for the Gundaker/Spatola cleanup was one of two red flags displayed during the feature. The first came on a lap-10 restart when Allen Murray of San Antonio, Texas, spun out of sixth place between turns one and two — he said he entered the corner too hard and missed the rubber strip — to trigger a multi-car pileup that also included Tony Jackson Jr. of Lebanon, Mo., Charley Hess of Peoria, Ill., Nick Hoffman of Mooresville, N.C., and Timothy Culp of Prattsville, Ark.
Three caution flags also slowed the race. Allen Weisser of Peoria, Ill., triggered the first on lap four. Debris led to the second slowdown, on lap 10, and teenager Matt Shannon of Bartonville, Ill., slowed to bring out a caution on lap 31.
Preliminary notes and results:
Row 1: Jason Feger, Billy Drake
Row 2: Billy Moyer Jr., Brian Shirley
Row 3: Bob Gardner, Rusty Schlenk
Row 4: Brandon Thirlby, Frank Heckenast Jr.
Row 5: Billy Moyer, Todd Bennett
Row 6: Allen Murray, Nick Hoffman
Row 7: Allen Weisser, Timothy Culp
Row 8: Charley Hess, Gordy Gundaker
Row 9: Shannon Babb, Tony Jackson Jr.
Row 10: Ryan Unzicker, Mike Spatola
Row 11: Matt Shannon, Paul Stubber
C-main finish (10 laps; top 4 transfer to B-main): Matt Shannon, Myles Moos, Rusty Griffaw, Charley Hummer, Victor Benedetto, Robbie Bauman, Bill Kettering Jr.
B-main finish (12 laps; top 2 transfer): Shannon Babb, Tony Jackson Jr., Ryan Unzicker, Mike Spatola, Tyler Breuning, Austin Rettig, Brian Diveley, Dennis Erb Jr., Russ Adams, Paul Stubber, Myles Moos, Matt Shannon, Rich Bell, Rusty Griffaw, Kevin Weaver, Charles Hummer.
(10 laps; top 4 advance to B)
Row 1: Myles Moos, Matt Shannon
Row 2: Rusty Griffaw, Victor Benedetto
Row 3: Jay Sparks, Robbie Bauman
Row 4: Glen Thompson, Charles Hummer
Row 5: Jeff Riddell, Bill Kettering Jr.
(12 laps; top 2 transfer)
Row 1: Shannon Babb, Tony Jackson Jr.
Row 2: Ryan Unzicker, Mike Spatola
Row 3: Tyler Bruening, Paul Stubber
Row 4: Brian Diveley, Russ Adams
Row 5: Dennis Erb Jr., Austin Rettig
Row 6: Kevin Weaver, Rich Bell
Row 7: Matt Shannon, Myles Moos
Row 8: Rusty Griffaw, Charles Hummer
Billy Moyer Jr. had no trouble racing to a wire-to-wire triumph over Frank Heckenast Jr. Nick Hoffman and Gordy Gundaker followed in the caution-free race.
Finish: Billy Moyer Jr., Frank Heckenast Jr., Nick Hoffman, Gordy Gundaker, Mike Spatola, Russ Adams, Rich Bell, Victor Benedetto, Charles Hummer.
Jason Feger used the outside lane to grab the lead from Brandon Thirlby on lap four and turned back challenges from Thirlby the rest of the way to emerge victorious. Cautions flew on the original for a turn-one tangle involving Bill Kettering Jr., Matt Shannon and Robbie Bauman and on lap one for Kettering’s spin.
Finish: Jason Feger, Brandon Thirlby, Allen Murray, Charley Hess, Tony Jackson Jr., Paul Stubber, Austin Rettig, Matt Shannon, Robbie Bauman, Bill Kettering Jr.
Brian Shirley raced unchallenged to victory over Rusty Schlenk, who finished nearly a straightaway behind the victor. Todd Bennett and Timothy Culp rounded out the transfers.
Finish: Brian Shirley, Rusty Schlenk, Todd Bennett, Timothy Culp, Ryan Unzicker, Brian Diveley, Kevin Weaver, Rusty Griffaw. Scratched: Glen Thompson.
Billy Drake dominated the action, leading from flag-to-flag and easily outdistancing Bob Gardner. Billy Moyer fought forward to finish third and Allen Weisser took the final transfer spot.
Finish: Billy Drake, Bob Gardner, Billy Moyer, Allen Weisser, Shannon Babb, Tyler Bruening, Dennis Erb Jr., Myles Moos. Scratched: Jay Sparks.
Billy Drake of Bloomington, Ill., was fastest in time trials, turning a lap of 13.505 seconds in the first group to uphold the honor of the local contingent. He has 10 career Summer Nationals victories, but his most recent came in a non-points race on Aug. 28, 2003, at Spoon River Speedway in Banner, Ill.
Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, Mich., was quickest in Group 2 with a lap of 13.543 seconds.
Drake, Thirlby, Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, and Billy Moyer Jr. of Batesville, Ark., will start from the pole position of the four heat races.
Glen Thompson scratched from further action after breaking a transmission during hot laps.
The Summer Nationals opens its 2018 on an absolutely gorgeous day in central Illinois: clear skies and high temperatures in the low 80s. … The Peoria oval sports a new LED lighting system that was recently installed by track management. … Young New Mexico announcer Rueben Mireles is eagerly beginning his first season calling all of the Summer Nationals events. He’s joined this evening by veteran World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series announcer Rick Eshelman, who will head out following Peoria’s checkered for a WoO tripleheader in New York and Ohio. … Hall of Famer Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., enters the Summer Nationals opener sitting four wins away from becoming the first driver to reach 100 career Hell Tour victories. He currently has the first five series events on his schedule. … Racing at his hometown track, Bob Gardner came to the track with his hauler alone. He said he’ll have friends arrive later to provide help, but he only has one crewman lined up to help through the remainder of the Hell Tour’s first week, putting his hopes of chasing the full series up in the air. … Tony Jackson Jr. of Lebanon, Mo., who has the first 11 Summer Nationals shows on his tentative schedule, is receiving pit-area assistance for at least the coming week from former Dream Racing No. 116 crewman Vinny Giuliani. Guiliani left the Crossville, Tenn.-based team along with driver Brandon Overton of Evans, Ga., on Monday. … Allen Murray of San Antonio, Texas, flew in to Peoria this afternoon to meet his team, which is housed at Randy Korte’s shop in Highland, Ill., and maintained by former Billy Moyer Jr. crewman Jason Quirion. How long will Murray stay on the road? “I might be here four or five days or you might see me at Oakshade (next month’s Hell Tour finale in Ohio),” he said with a smile. … Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill., said he “got lucky” when he was involved in a hard crash during last weekend’s Dream at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway. “I thought it was gonna be junked,” he said of his XR1 Rocket car. “But it was mostly sheet metal.” … Timothy Culp of Prattsville, Ark., is plunging into the Summer Nationals after a rough weekend at Eldora. He isn’t running the car he bent up at Eldora this evening, but it is repaired and ready for action. … Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, Mich., said he plans to enter the first and last weeks of the Hell Tour “unless something crazy happens.” Hearing that, one of his crew guys quipped, “If we do keep going, his crewman won’t have a job when he gets home.” … Australians Paul Stubber and Ben Nicastri are in the field. Stubber is racing with a brace on his right hand and tweaking it in an accident two weeks at Tri-City Speedway.
The 2018 UMP DIRTcar Summer Nationals — the grueling series that is scheduled to run 28 races in 32 days — kicks off Wednesday night at Peoria Speedway, a quarter-mile oval in central Illinois that is hosting the Hell Tour opener for the first time. The track’s previous earliest series appearance came in the second event in 2004.
Wednesday’s $5,000-to-win event marks the 18th time that the Summer Nationals has visited Peoria. The circuit is making an appearance at the track for the 15th consecutive year; the only season since 2000 that the Peoria wasn’t part of the Hell Tour was 2000.
Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., is the winningest Summer Nationals driver at Peoria, winning four times (2005, ’06, ’11, ’15). Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., has three victories at the oval (’04, ’12, ’13) while single triumphs belong to last year’s rain-shortened victor Billy Moyer Jr., Bobby Pierce, Brandon Sheppard, Jack Sullivan, Jason Feger, Jeep Van Wormer, Dennis Erb Jr., Ed Dixon, Billy Moyer and Rick Aukland.
(10 laps; top 4 transfer)
Row 1: Billy Drake, Bob Gardner
Row 2: Allen Weisser, Billy Moyer
Row 3: Shannon Babb, Tyler Bruening
Row 4: Dennis Erb Jr., Jay Sparks
Row 5: Myles Moos
Row 1: Rusty Schlenk, Brian Shirley
Row 2: Brian Diveley, Todd Bennett
Row 3: Kevin Weaver, Timothy Culp
Row 4: Ryan Unzicker, Rusty Griffaw
Row 5: Glen Thompson
Row 1: Brandon Thirlby, Allen Murray
Row 2: Paul Stubber, Jason Feger
Row 3: Charley Hess, Austin Rettig
Row 4: Tony Jackson Jr., Matt Shannon
Row 5: Robbie Bauman, Bill Kettering Jr.
Row 1: Billy Moyer Jr., Frank Heckenast Jr.
Row 2: Nick Hoffman, Gordy Gundaker
Row 3: Russ Adams, Mike Spatola
Row 4: Rich Bell, Victor Benedetto
Row 5: Charles Hammer
Billy Drake (75), Bloomington, Ill., 13.505
Rusty Schlenk (CJ1), McClure, Ohio, 13.606
Bob Gardner (4G), East Peoria, Ill., 13.617
Brian Shirley (3s), Chatham, Ill., 13.625
Allen Weisser (61), Peoria, Ill., 13.642
Brian Diveley (11D), Springfield, Ill., 13.656
Billy Moyer (21), Batesville, Ark., 13.657
Todd Bennett (T2), Peoria, Ill., 13.658
Shannon Babb (18), Moweaqua, Ill., 13.734
Kevin Weaver (B12), Gibson City, Ill., 13.789
Tyler Bruening (16), Decorah, Iowa, 13.855
Timothy Culp (c8), Prattsville, Ark., 13.968
Dennis Erb Jr. (28), Carpentersville, Ill., 14.012
Ryan Unzicker (24), El Paso, Ill., 14.028
Jay Sparks (7), Decorah, Iowa, 14.184
Rusty Griffaw (16), Festus, Mo., 14.264
Myles Moos (84M), Lincoln, Ill., 14.297
Glen Thompson (14T), Buckingham, Ill., no time
Jeff Riddell (09), Steward, Ill., no time
Brandon Thirlby (M14), Traverse City, Mich., 13.543
Billy Moyer Jr. (21Jr), Batesville, Ark., 13.719
Allen Murray (2M), San Antonio, Texas, 13.721
Frank Heckenast Jr. (99jr), Frankfort, Ill., 13.748
Paul Stubber (31AUS), Bunbury, W. Australia, 13.789
Nick Hoffman (2), Mooresville, N.C., 13.789
Jason Feger (25), Bloomington, Ill., 13.833
Gordy Gundaker (11G), St. Charles, Mo., 13.880
Charley Hess (40), Peoria, Ill., 14.017
Russ Adams (74), Princeville, Ill., 14.044
Austin Rettig (94), Sikeston, Mo., 14.051
Mike Spatola (89), Manhattan, Ill., 14.097
Tony Jackson Jr. (56), Lebanon, Mo., 14.246
Rich Bell (21b), Sheffield, Ill., 14.260
Matt Shannon (15s), Bartonville, Ill., 14.289
Victor Benedetto (14B), Marango, Ill., 14.456
Robbie Bauman (30Jr), Fairview, Ill., 14.521
Charles Hummer (25H), Lyons, Ohio, 14.958
Bill Kettering Jr. (25K), Pekin, Ill., 15.125