JOLIET, Ill. (June 16) — The Summer of Babb is quickly taking shape.
Conjuring memories of his spectacular DIRTcar Summer Nationals streaks of years past, Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., scored his third straight Hell Tour victory on Saturday night, dominating the 30-lap feature at the Dirt Oval at Route 66.
A four-time Summer Nationals champion, Babb, 44, raced off the pole position to lead every circuit of the grueling series’s first-ever event at the 4/10-mile oval that sits adjacent to Chicagoland Speedway. He was never seriously challenged en route to claiming the $10,000 first-place prize by 2.771 seconds over Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, Mich.
“We had anther good night,” said Babb, who outdueled Hall of Famer Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., for wins the previous two evenings at Kankakee (Ill.) County Speedway and Sycamore Speedway in Maple Park, Ill. “This big old racetrack, the notes we had last year (from running there in an October World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series event) helped us out tonight.
“Starting on the pole helped us out a ton, but our car was really good. I needed to make some adjustments to make it better … it was definitely a handful. I was still too tight, but I’m pretty confident everybody was. It was really tough to get around that place.”
Outside polesitter Mike Mataragas of Sycamore, Ill., finished third in his initial series appearance of 2018, falling one spot short of matching his career-best Summer Nationals performance. Tony Jackson Jr. of Lebanon, Mo., placed fourth to tally his best result through four series stops and Tim Manville of Highland, Ill., completed the top five in his first Summer Nationals start of the season.
After back-to-back tense races with Moyer, Babb was relieved to get a reprieve from his one-time mentor at Route 66. That doesn’t mean, however, his march to the 95th Summer Nationals checkered flag of his career — moving him within one win of Moyer’s all-time leading total — was without moments of stress.
“I think somebody probably could’ve beat me tonight if they was right up there with me and got ahead of me,” Babb commented. “It took the whole racetrack for me to be able to turn honestly. It wasn’t no easy ride.”
Some worry for Babb was provided by Chad Simpson of Mount Vernon, Iowa, who slid into second place with a lap-seven restart pass of Mataragas and appeared to be a formidable foe for Babb. But Babb’s concern with Simpson didn’t match reality as the perennial regional touring series champion lost positions when he slipped high on a lap-nine restart and ultimately finished eighth.
“I knew Chad Simpson gets around here really good and I knew that I was gonna have to probably deal with him at some point,” Babb said. “He’s a tough competitor. I don’t know what happened to him, but I know things got shuffled round and I felt a lot better at the end (without Simpson giving chase).”
Babb also experienced a scare on lap nine when he thought he heard a caution called out by the Summer Nationals race director over the one-way radio to the drivers, prompting him to slow on the backstretch. He realized that the caution wasn’t yet displayed when several cars flashed by him, but officials did put out the yellow flag for Timothy Culp of Prattsville, Ark., sitting in turn two and Babb remained in the lead.
“Hell, there had been cars all over the place all race long and you’re at a high-speed track, so I let off and slowed down off of two,” Babb said. “They all blew by me and stayed in the gas and I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ But we came around the corner and they threw the yellow and squared ‘em back up.”
Babb, who swept the night by proceeding his feature win with fast-time honors in qualifying and a heat-race victory, won three straight Summer Nationals A-mains for the first time since 2011, when he ended the tour with seven wins in a row, including one rescheduled non-point race. Overall it marked the seventh time that he’s won three or more races consecutively on the month-long series.
According to Babb, his XR1 Rocket just might be performing well enough to extend his current streak even further.
“The car is really good,” said Babb, who took over the Summer Nationals points lead. “When they’re handling right and they’re going forward, it’s really nice. I’ve had ‘em before where they don’t go forward and you work on ‘em day and night and there’s nothing that helps ‘em. It’s really good right now. And the Clements engine … we stuck it in there new at the Dream (on June 7-9 at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio) and it’s bad to the bone.”
Thirlby, 31, followed Babb for the race’s finally 19 circuits after he exploded from fifth to third on a lap-nine restart and overtook Mataragas for second on lap 11. He never was able to mount a significant bid for the lead, though.
“I definitely didn’t have anything for Babb,” said Thirlby, who matched his career-best Summer Nationals finish. “I was just hoping with the ruts down in three and four he’d screw up a couple times, but when you’re following Babb around, if he does screw up, it’s minor.”
In addition, Thirlby had to nurse his family-owned machine slightly over the final laps.
“There were probably like seven to go and the (water) temp started going up so I was letting it breathe a little bit more and rolling into the corner in three and four,” Thirlby said. “I seen Babb doing the same thing so I’m thinking he was probably getting hot too.”
Thirlby, who thought the Dirt Oval reminded him of I-96 Speedway in Lake Odessa, Mich., and thus went with the same setup on his XR1 Rocket that he uses at his home-state track, was most enthused about his memorable lap-nine restart move.
“It was pretty wild,” said Thirlby, who started seventh. “There was a caution (early) and I was stuck on the high side and I thought, Oh, s—, because I thought we had to be on the bottom. Then we rolled through there and I passed a couple cars (on the restart), but then a yellow came back out and I didn’t go in there as hard on the next restart and pushed up … so the next time I went in there just wide-open. I mean, I never lifted, and it just took off. I couldn’t believe it. It’s like the sea parted for me and we got to third.”
The 34-year-old Mataragas actually surprised himself with how well he ran to log a third-place finish.
“I felt really good before the first yellow (on lap seven),” said Mataragas, who made just his third start overall of 2018. “I thought I was starting to catch Shannon a little bit, but then the restarts actually hurt me. As I found out now, I was the only guy who had a hard tire on the right-rear. We put a (LM) 40 on and everybody else had 30s, so we definitely made the wrong call on tire. So I’ll take third with this group of guys after not having the right tire on.”
Mataragas said the thrill he gained from placing third mirrored what he felt after his career-best Summer Nationals finish of second to Wes Steidinger on June 14, 2008, at the then Kamp Motor Speedway (now Daugherty Speedway) in Boswell, Ind.
“For me, that was an exciting race (in ’08) because I got to pass Billy Moyer, the guy I looked up to as a kid,” Mataragas said. “I’m just as happy with third tonight.”
Five caution flags slowed the feature. The first came on lap seven for Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill. — the brother of Dirt Oval promoter Sherri Heckenast — who slowed with terminal engine trouble while running third. The caution remained out on the lap-seven restart because the start-line cone was carried onto the homestretch, and then Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., brought out two cautions — on lap eight for a turn-two spin and lap 13 for a blown right-rear tire — that sandwiched the lap-nine slowdown for Culp.
A red flag was needed on the second lap-seven restart when a jam-up caused Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, to slide sideways in turn four, take a hit from Australian Paul Stubber, bounce over the inside berm and flip twice. His car came to rest on its roof and he emerged uninjured.
Preliminary results and notes:
Row 1: Shannon Babb, Mike Mataragas
Row 2: Frank Heckenast Jr., Chad Simpson
Row 3: Brian Shirley, Tony Jackson Jr.
Row 4: Brandon Thirlby, Tim Manville
Row 5: Timothy Culp, Paul Stubber
Row 6: Billy Moyer, Ryan Unzicker
Row 7: Rusty Schlenk, Jason Feger
Row 8: Gordy Gundaker, Nick Hoffman
Row 9: Mike Spatola, Chris Simpson
Row 10: Billy Moyer Jr., Bob Gardner
Row 11: Paul Parker, Austin Rettig
Finish (8 laps; top 3 transfer): Nick Hoffman, Mike Spatola, Chris Simpson, Bob Gardner, Paul Parker, Mark Rose. (DNS) Austin Rettig, Billy Moyer Jr., Jeremy Conaway, Justin Reed, Spencer Diercks.
(8 laps; top 3 transfer)
Row 1: Mike Spatola, Nick Hoffman
Row 2: Paul Parker, Austin Rettig
Row 3: Billy Moyer Jr., Mark Rose
Row 4: Bob Gardner, Jeremy Conaway
Row 5: Chris Simpson, Justin Reed
Row 6: Spencer Diercks
Frank Heckenast Jr. led from wire-to-wire, turning back pressure from Tony Jackson Jr. to triumph by 0.433 of a second over the Missouri racer. Timothy Culp, Ryan Unzicker and Spencer Diercks completed the top five after Chris Simpson experienced mechanical trouble and suddenly pulled to the infield on lap six while running third; Diercks, however, was disqualified afterward for failing to report to the scales, moving Gordy Gundaker into the final transfer position.
Finish: Frank Heckenast Jr., Tony Jackson Jr., Timothy Culp, Ryan Unzicker, Gordy Gundaker, Paul Parker, Mark Rose, Chris Simpson (DQ) Spencer Diercks.
Mike Mataragas led from flag-to-flag for the win, keeping Brian Shirley several car lengths behind him for the duration. Tim Manville passed Billy Moyer for third on lap five and finished there. Jason Feger took the final transfer spot with a late pass of Nick Hoffman.
Finish: Mike Mataragas, Brian Shirley, Tim Manville, Billy Moyer, Jason Feger, Nick Hoffman, Billy Moyer Jr., Jeremy Conaway.
Shannon Babb dominated the action, pulling away from Chad Simpson to beat the Iowa driver to the finish line by 1.287 seconds. Brandon Thirlby briefly challenged Simpson for second before settling third place while Australian Paul Stubber placed a solid fourth and Rusty Schlenk completed the transfers.
Finish: Shannon Babb, Chad Simpson, Brandon Thirlby, Paul Stubber, Rusty Schlenk, Mike Spatola, Austin Rettig, Bob Gardner, Justin Reed.
Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., began his quest for a third straight Summer Nationals win in fine fashion, turning a lap of 15.820 seconds in his group qualifying session that was the overall fastest of the night. The performance puts Babb on the pole for the first of three 10-lap heat races.
Mike Mataragas of Sycamore, Ill., and Tony Jackson Jr. of Lebanon, Mo., were also group fast-timers, giving them pole starts in their respective heats.
Jeremy Conaway of Rochester, Ill., didn’t log a qualifying lap because his car suffered mechanical trouble and was pushed off the track while Devin Gilpin of Columbus, Mo., never reported to the racetrack. Gilpin, who finished fourth in Friday night’s feature at Sycamore Speedway, scratched from the evening’s action after his crew discovered terminal engine problems earlier this afternoon in his Beeman Logging machine.
After the first three events of the Summer Nationals were contested under comfortable temperatures in the low 80s, the heat has been turned up for Round 4 at the spic-and-span Route 66 facility. Temperatures soared into the high 90s this afternoon with a heat index topping 100. … Due to the excessive heat, officials pushed back the scheduled start of hot laps from 5:45 p.m. to shortly after 7 p.m., providing more time for the sun to set and air to cool down. … Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill., whose sister Sherri promotes racing events at Route 66, arrives at his virtual home track following a frustrating outing Friday at Sycamore Speedway. He spun twice during the feature when he had to take evasive action to avoid completely sideways cars in front of him — and after the second twirl, officials didn’t allow him to continue racing. DIRTcar director Sam Driggers apologized to Heckenast for that call during Route 66’s drivers’ meeting, saying that officials mistakenly imposed a two-spin DQ rule that is not in the series rulebook. … Heckenast is one of only two drivers in the field with a Dirt Late Model feature win at Joliet; he earned a $5,000 DIRTcar-sanctioned triumph on Sept. 13, 2017. The other former winner: Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., who pocketed $15,000 for a Hav-A-Tampa Series victory on May 1, 1999. … Coming off back-to-back checkered at Kankakee and Sycamore, Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., is gunning for his first three-race win streak on the Summer Nationals since he ended the 2011 series with seven consecutive triumphs, including a non-point race. Babb has six Summer Nationals win streaks of three races or more in career. … Chad Simpson of Mount Vernon, Iowa, unloaded his Brinkman Motorsports car from an open trailer for his first Summer Nationals start of 2018. While his team’s toterhome has been repaired since it was damaged in an April highway accident, they are still awaiting the word to pick up their trailer. … Mike Mataragas of Sycamore, Ill., is ready for his first Hell Tour appearance of the season after skipping Friday’s program at Sycamore, a track just 10 minutes from his home and 15 minutes from his shop. He bypassed the race in protest of a controversial call officials made that he believed cost him a victory in the previous Saturday night’s feature; after he pulled a slider to shoot ahead of the leader between turns one and two on the final lap and the pacesetter then came to an abrupt stop at the top of the track, a caution flag was thrown and Mataragas was later informed by the track that he had been scored as the last driver on the lead lap as a result of the move. … Tim Manville of Highland, Ill., is making his first Hell Tour start of ’18 after finishing second in Friday night’s weekly show at Tri-City Speedway in Pontoon Beach, Ill. … Spencer Diercks of Davenport, Iowa, repaired the damage his car sustained in a Friday heat-race wreck at Sycamore that ended his night early. As part of his fix his crew replaced the machine’s nose piece.
The fourth round of the 2018 Summer Nationals is a Saturday-night stop at the Dirt Oval at Route 66, a 4/10-mile oval adjacent to Chicagoland Speedway that is hosting the Hell Tour for the first time ever. A 30-lap feature paying $10,000 to win tops the program.
After sitting idle for more than 15 years, the Joliet, Ill., racetrack reopened in 2017 under the promotion of Sherri Heckenast, the sister of prospective Summer Nationals traveler Frank Heckenast Jr. The racetrack had last hosted a major Dirt Late Model event on Sept. 3, 1999, when Bob Pierce scored a $10,000 victory before two shows were contested last season with Heckenast winning a $5,000 prize in September and Chris Madden capturing a $10,000 World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series show in October.
Group qualifying results/heat lineups
(10 lap; top 5 transfer)
Shannon Babb (18), Moweaqua, Ill., 15.820
Chad Simpson (25), Mt. Vernon, Iowa, 15.844
Brandon Thirlby (M14), Traverse City, Mich., 15.927
Paul Stubber (31AUS), Bunbury, W. Australia, 16.205
Rusty Schlenk (CJ1), McClure, Ohio, 16.251
Mike Spatola (89), Manhattan, Ill., 16.282
Bob Gardner (4G), East Peoria, Ill., 16.338
Austin Rettig (94), Sikeston, Mo., 16.348
Justin Reed (11), Camp Point, Ill., 17.289
Mike Mataragas (1m), Sycamore, Ill., 15.883
Brian Shirley (3s), Chatham, Ill., 16.048
Nick Hoffman (2), Mooresville, N.C., 16.094
Billy Moyer (21), Batesville, Ark., 16.164
Tim Manville (33), Highland, Ill., 16.325
Jason Feger (25), Bloomington, Ill., 16.519
Billy Moyer Jr. (21Jr), Batesville, Ark., 16.524
Devin Gilpin (1G), Columbus, Ind., no time
Jeremy Conaway (15), Rochester, Ill., no time
Tony Jackson Jr. (56), Lebanon, Mo., 15.936
Frank Heckenast Jr. (99jr), Frankfort, Ill., 16.024
Chris Simpson (32), Oxford, Iowa, 16.094
Timothy Culp (c8), Prattsville, Ark., 16.123
Ryan Unzicker (24), El Paso, Ill.,16.160
Spencer Diercks (29D), Davenport, Iowa, 16.453
Paul Parker (10), Depere, Wis., 16.565
Gordy Gundaker (11G), St. Charles, Mo., 16.608
Mark Rose (0), Dorchester, Wis., 16.987