MUSKEGON, Mich. (July 10) — Brian Shirley gained a dose of redemption Wednesday night at Thunderbird Raceway — and in the process, he tightened the DIRTcar Summer Nationals points standings even more in his pursuit of a second consecutive Hell Tour title.
One year after seeing a possible victory in the circular track’s inaugural Summer Nationals event slip through his fingers due to a terminally-ill engine that knocked him from the lead with just eight laps remaining, Shirley grabbed the top spot on the second circuit of Wednesday’s 40-lap feature and never relinquished it en route to his series-leading fifth win of 2019 and a $5,000 payday.
In addition, Shirley, 38, of Chatham, Ill., shaved five more markers off the points lead of Oakwood, Ill.’s Bobby Pierce, who rallied from the 24th starting spot to briefly challenge Shirley late in the distance before settling for a runner-up finish, 1.725 seconds behind the victor.
At the end of the night, Pierce, a three-time series champion, sat atop the Summer Nationals standings by a mere eight points over the two-time and defending titlist Shirley with three events remaining on the schedule.
“It’s gonna be fun,” Shirley said of his neck-and-neck battle to the finish with the 22-year-old Pierce. “The good thing is, he’s leading right now, so I don’t have to worry about having that pressure. We’ll just go tomorrow night (at I-96 Speedway in Lake Odessa, Mich.), at Oakshade (Raceway in Wauseon, Ohio, on Friday and Saturday), and do like we did tonight — try and win the race. There’s three long races left and we’ll just see what happens.”
Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill. — the distant third-place driver in the Summer Nationals points standings — finished third after running as high as second and as far back as fifth before reaching his final finishing position with a lap-36 pass of Pinconning, Mich.’s Jeep Van Wormer. Placing fourth was Van Wormer, a Summer Nationals stalwart from 2006-10 who made his first Hell Tour start of 2019, and Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, completed the top five after starting from the pole position, leading the race’s first lap and holding second place as late as lap 18.
Shirley, who didn’t have plans to run the full Summer Nationals schedule this season but decided to tackle the concluding four-race Michigan-Ohio swing due to his strong results in the rain-plagued circuit’s first 14 events, was the dominant force for most of Thunderbird’s A-main. Aside from Schlenk and Heckenast drawing close as he worked heavy lapped traffic at the feature’s quarter mark, Shirley’s only significant threat came from Pierce.
Pierce’s emergence as a contender for the checkered flag was a story unto itself. He had to start 24th in the feature after dropping out of his heat race — a deflating right-rear tire caused him to slow and eventually absorb a hit in his car’s left-rear corner from Jake Rendel of Adrian, Mich. — but marched forward to land in second place with a lap-21 pass of Van Wormer.
When the feature’s fourth and final caution flag flew on lap 26, Shirley’s near straightaway edge was wiped out and Pierce was put in position to pull off a come-from-behind victory.
Shirley, of course, wasn’t surprised that he had to deal with Pierce.
“I figured he could at least get in the top five,” Shirley said. “I had no doubt. He wheels it, so I didn’t think he was gonna run bad.”
Pierce offered a stern challenge to Shirley following the lap-26 restart, diving underneath the leader in turn three on lap 27 and falling just inches short of being scored the leader on lap 28. But Shirley turned back Pierce’s bid and pulled away over the final 10 circuits.
“When he was on the inside of me, I was like, ‘Oh, man, he must have went softer (with tire compound choice) than I did on the right-rear,” Shirley said. “Luckily I got to run with him side-by-side enough there for a lap or two that it got my right-rear heated back up and I could get back in front and hold my own.”
Shirley noted that having a harder-compound tire on his Bob Cullen-owned XR1 Rocket car “almost got me” on the restart, but he managed to stay ahead of Pierce. He felt fortunate that Pierce hadn’t been able to sneak past him; overtaking him might have been a difficult chore.
“He had a softer right-rear so he was gonna fire instantly better, and the way the track is, it would’ve been tough,” Shirley said. “It ain’t easy passing anybody, but you never say never. Luckily it didn’t come to those circumstances.”
Pierce was actually quite upbeat despite falling short of his third Summer Nationals triumph of the season. He knew he had escaped a potentially devastating night after trouble knocked him out of his heat race.
“I ran over something and it went right through the tread,” Pierce said. “I was like, ‘Ah, that’s not good for a points night.’ And we had a lot to fix too. I was trying to finish the race, limp it around and hopefully not finish dead last that way I got a couple more starting positions (for the feature), but I got ran over so we were all thrashing to get that (left-rear corner) fixed.
“Thanks to everybody for getting it all done quick enough so we could get ready for the feature. I knew we had to get to the front to keep our championship chase alive, because if we finished 10th or something, that would’ve be really bad.”
Pierce cracked the top five in just 13 laps, then needed eight more to navigate past Heckenast, Schlenk and Van Wormer to take up the chase of Shirley.
“It was a lot of fun getting through there too, having to dodge everybody going through the pack,” Pierce said. “And it was really rough, so it was making cars go from the bottom to the top and top to the bottom. Guys were all over the place. Luckily I got through there and was fast enough to get to second and even challenge Brian for the win.
“But when I got to him, it seemed like he kind of picked it up better, and as the track went on later in the race, I kind of started fading a little bit and Brian was pretty good.
“I think I just about led a lap, but all in all, it was a good night considering what happened in the heat race,” he added. “That’s what you’ve got to do to win these championships — you’ve got to salvage a bad night, and we did. So on a night like this, with how it went, to get second to Brian, I’ll take that.”
Heckenast, meanwhile, experienced an up-and-down race to a third-place finish. The feature’s fourth starter shot by Schlenk for second on a lap-14 restart, but on another restart two circuits later he slipped all the way back to fifth in the span of one circuit. It took Heckenast until lap 36 to climb back to third.
Racing just one day after celebrating his 31st birthday, Heckenast thought he had a second-place car and, if the right circumstances prevailed, perhaps a machine that he could have driven to his first victory of the 2019 Summer Nationals.
“I wanted to win,” Heckenast said. “I don’t think I was gonna beat Shirley. Everybody was like, ‘Oh, I think you might have won (without the bad lap-16 restart).’ But Shirley never showed his whole cards. Once Pierce showed him he was there, he just took off. That guy’s unreal in clean air.
“I don’t want to say that he was a million times better by any means, but getting to somebody and passing them is two different things.”
Heckenast noted that his decision to take the inside lane of the Delaware double-file restart on lap 16 was second-guessed by some around him, but he felt he was correct in his strategy. He just didn’t execute the restart as well as he would have liked.
“It’s easy for everyone to make the right decisions watching,” Heckenast said. “I’ve been hearing it from my crew guys since I came in, but the bottom was the right choice. I just pushed (in the first corner).
“We’ve been running the same setup since we started this deal and we’ve run fourth to second. We run fourth the last two nights and I wanted to get better, so I tired something on the right front tonight that I had never done. I’m glad I did, we learned a lot, but you can’t go easy in the corner with the car like I did. I just wasn’t used to the way it steers on entry when you come in so straight and boxy.
“I’ll build off that. I’m real happy with the results of the car.”
The race’s three caution flags were caused by Drew Wilkerson of Ravenna, Mich., who stopped on the homestretch on lap two and in turn two on lap 26; Mike Vandermark of Cedar Springs, Mich., who spun off turn four on a lap-14 restart; and Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill., who slowed with a flat left-rear tire on lap 16.
A red flag was also needed on lap 14 when Shawn Reed of Grant, Mich., slammed the turn-four wall head-on and flipped back into the middle of the track. The 50-year-old’s badly damaged Black Diamond car came to rest sitting backward on its wheels, but, despite appearing to be momentarily knocked out upon impact, he said he wasn’t injured.
Notes: Shirley recorded his first-ever win at Thunderbird and his 11th overall victory of 2019. … Schlenk said he bicycled and nearly flipped in turns three and four as Feger slowed to bring out a caution flag on lap 26. The hard return to earth left Schlenk's car with suspension and other damage that hampered his performance the rest of the way. .. Australian Paul Stubber tallied his best Summer Nationals finish of the season with his sixth-place run. … Nick Kurtz of Greenville, Mich., finished seventh, one year after scoring a third-place finish in Thunderbird’s Summer Nationals event. … The evening’s consolation was scrapped after track promoter Tom Sprague Sr. decided to put all 25 of the night’s entries in the feature. … The checkered flag flew on the 40-lapper at 9:29 p.m.
Feature moved up
With track officials opting to start all 25 Late Models signed in, the evening’s consolation race was scrapped and the 40-lap Late Model feature was moved up to first on the schedule.
Following the completion of support-division qualifying, Thunderbird’s track crew was on the racing surface at 8:20 p.m. prepping it for the Late Model A-main and Summer Nationals officials were readying to call the feature field to the staging area.
Row 1: Rusty Schlenk, Jeep Van Wormer
Row 2: Brian Shirley, Frank Heckenast Jr.
Row 3: Jason Feger, Eric Spangler
Row 4: Shawn Reed, Jason Playter Jr.
Row 5: Rich Neiser, Ryan VanderVeen
Row 6: David Mielke, Mike Vandermark
Row 7: Drew Wilkerson, Paul Stubber
Row 8: Jake Rendel, Jeramy Lange
Row 9: Nick Kurtz, Hillard Miller
Row 10: Chuck Hummer, Bill Bray
Row 11: Scott Wenell, Tom Sprague Jr.
Row 12: Andrew Sprague, Bobby Pierce
Row 13: Truck Robertson
Jeep Van Wormer overtook Bobby Pierce for the lead on lap three and went on to win the prelim by 1.653 seconds over Eric Spangler. There was a big development in the Summer Nationals championship battle during the heat as Pierce, the points leader, didn’t finish the race; he began to fall off the pace after leading laps 1-2 and, while fourth on lap five after slowing even more, was hit in the left-rear corner entering turn one by Jake Rendel. Pierce stopped on the track to bring out a caution flag and limped to the pit area.
Finish: Jeep Van Wormer, Eric Spangler, Rich Neiser, Mike Vandermark, Jake Rendel, Hillard Miller, Scott Wenell, Bobby Pierce.
Rusty Schlenk led from flag-to-flag, outrunning Jason Feger to win by 1.171 seconds in another non-stop race. Jason Playter Jr., David Mielke and Paul Stubber completed the transfers.
Finish: Rusty Schlenk, Jason Feger, Jason Playter Jr., David Mielke, Paul Stubber, Nick Kurtz, Bill Bray, Andrew Sprague.
Brian Shirley began his final push for a second straight Summer Nationals title with an impressive heat victory, leading all the way to defeat Frank Heckenast Jr. by 2.718 seconds. Heckenast overtook polesitter Shawn Reed for second on lap five, leaving reed, Ryan VanderVeen and Drew Wilkerson — all Michigan drivers — as the caution-free race’s remaining transfers.
Finish: Brian Shirley, Frank Heckenast jr., Shawn Reed, Ryan VanderVeen, Drew Wilkerson, Jeramy Lange, Chuck Hummer, Tom Sprague Jr., Truck Robertson.
Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., topped the group qualifying session, clocking in at 12.634 seconds to register the overall fastest lap and earn the pole position for the third heat.
Also grabbing pole starting spots with group quick-time efforts were Shawn Reed of Grant, Mich., and Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio.
Weather forecasts were calling for a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms on Wednesday, but the likelihood of rain dwindled as the day went on and the racing program began under sunny skies with the temperature in the upper 80s. … Brian Shirley had initially rated his chances of running the concluding Summer Nationals events in Michigan and Ohio as being quite unlikely — he didn’t plan a full Hell Tour assault after winning last year’s championship — but his success and the rash of rainouts that has shortened the schedule prompted him to complete the series rather than enter Thursday-Sunday Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series events at Tri-City Speedway in Granite City, Ill., and Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Mo. He’s battling for the $25,000 Summer Nationals points crown with Bobby Pierce; the runner-up receives $10,000. … Australian Summer Nationals regular Paul Stubber had planned to spend Tuesday’s off day visiting Lake Michigan with his crew for some R&R, but his involvement in an opening-lap accident in Monday’s feature at Sycamore Speedway in Maple Park, Ill., forced him to return to his shop in Greencastle, Ind., to swap out cars. With the machine he’s campaigned throughout the Summer Nationals sustaining frame damage, he’s finishing off the series with the XR1 Rocket he debuted in last month’s Dream XXV at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. … Billy Moyer isn’t defending his 2018 Summer Nationals win at Thunderbird; he’s staying closer to home to run the Lucas Oil events this weekend. … A first-time 2019 Summer Nationals entrant is Jeep Van Wormer of Pinconning, Mich., who was a Hell Tour stalwart from 2006-10 but now runs a limited schedule with his family-owned equipment.
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 second 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 2019 on Friday and Saturday with the Birthday Race doubleheader at Oakshade Raceway in Wauseon, Ohio.
Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., leads the Summer Nationals standings by a scant 13-point margin over Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., who decided to finish out the Hell Tour schedule with his second straight series title in his sights. Pierce did not compete in last year’s inaugural Summer Nationals show at Thunderbird — a race that saw Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., register his milestone 100th career Hell Tour triumph — while Shirley led the feature until a heavily smoking engine forced him to retire late in the distance.
Heat lineups/qualifying results
(10 laps; top 5 transfer)
Shawn Reed (07), Grant, Mich., 12.776
Brian Shirley (3s), Chatham, Ill., 12.861
Ryan Vanderveen (23v), Six Lakes, Mich., 13.189
Frank Heckenast Jr. (99jr), Frankfort, Ill., 13.324
Jeramy Lange (02), Muskegon, Mich., 13.712
Drew Wilkerson (78), Ravenna, Mich., 13.949
Chuck Hummer (25H), Lyons, Ohio, 14.069
Tom Sprague Jr. (21s), Muskegon, Mich., 14.240
Truck Robertson (P3), Centerville, Ind., 14.617
Rusty Schlenk (CJ1), McClure, Ohio, 13.009
Jason Playter Jr. (4), Saranac, Mich., 13.147
David Mielke (87M), Gladwin, Mich., 13.190
Paul Stubber (31AUS), Bunbury, W. Australia, 13.441
Nick Kurtz (79), Greenville, Mich., 13.695
Andrew Sprague (1s), Muskegon, Mich., 14.096
Bill Bray (94), Spring Lake, Mich., no time
Bobby Pierce (32), Oakwood, Ill., 12.634
Jeep Van Wormer (55), Pinconning, Mich., 12.867
Eric Spangler (27), Lake City, Mich., 13.387
Jake Rendel (06), Adrian, Mich., 13.715
Mike Vandermark (41V), Cedar Springs, Mich., 13.865
Scott Wenell (3), Muskegon Heights, Mich., 13.897
Rich Neiser (87), Fruitport, Mich., 14.218
Hillard Miller (53), Defiance, Ohio, 14.429