QUEEN CREEK, Ariz. — Brian Shirley’s winning debut Saturday at FK Rod Ends Arizona Speedway almost didn’t happen.
When the 38-year-old Chatham, Ill., driver got word that his wife Shannon, who for years has battled a chronic autoimmune condition, had a seizure Friday night, racing suddenly took a back seat.
But assured of Shannon's improvement, Shirley eventually decided to stay around for the opening night of the Keyser Manufacturing Wild West Shootout, and the night ended with an emotional driver in victory lane grateful for his success — and for his wife.
“It’s a little emotional,” Shirley said haltingly, his voice cracking in victory lane. “A lot of people know I struggle racing because of my wife’s illness. She had a seizure last night and I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to be here, and luckily the good Lord let her come home (from the hospital). What can I say, I mean, I’ve just been blessed, blessed with a great team.
“Nobody really understands how it is to be on the road for me. It’s not like, ’Hey, you get to go on the road.’ You know my wife’s back home and that’s all I can, she’s the reason while I’m here.”
Shirley made sure he could call his wife and three daughters with good news after taking advantage of home-state driver Ricky Thornton Jr.'s lap-29 slipup. The sixth-starting Shirley pulled away over the final 10 laps for a $5,000 victory in the 40-lap miniseries opener.
Shirley took the checkers 1.905 seconds ahead of fellow Illinois driver Frank Heckenast Jr. and remains the lone driver with a crack at Keyser Manufacturing's Quarter-Million Challenge that pays $250,000 for a six-race miniseries sweep. The bonus program also pays $100,000 for five victories, $25,000 for four victories or $10,000 for three victories in the Late Model division.
Shirley, beginning the season with an ambitious schedule of winter race through January and February, was glad to get his Bob Cullen Racing team on track after a mediocre performance last weekend in World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series at Vado (N.M.) Speedway Park.
“That was the point of coming out here, so me and Anthony and Aaron and Mikey, everybody could gel. Just like Vado … we had some things and miscues there where we just didn’t do a good job. We worked three days and Anthony took the whole car apart,” said Shirley, who climbed on the back of one of the huge steers in victory lane in celebrating. “Just looking forward to get the races in and some laps and just thankful that the good Lord blessed me.”
While Heckenast gave Illinois a 1-2 finish, Thornton, who dominated the first 28 laps but slipped over the turn-four cushion to open the door for Shirley, ended up third while Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., used a lap-26 restart to race from ninth to fourth. Chris Simpson of Oxford, Iowa, rounded out the top five.
Heckenast was glad to be among three Illinoisans in the top five as he improved seven positions in his Arizona Speedway debut.
“This place is cool. I wish we would’ve run better in the heat and didn’t have to start eighth, but it is what it is,” said Heckenast, who had to adjust to his expectations of the third-mile oval.
“It’s absolutely nothing like the videos. I watched videos and videos and videos, and that had me off a little bit (in Friday’s practice). I don’t know if they changed the track or whatever. It was top-dominant, but I thought there was more of a bottom, every video I watched. But the track was good. They do a great job. The facility is awesome. They got a lot of cool stuff going on they don’t do at a lot of other races. Hell, it’s the biggest bull I’ve ever seen up here.
“I’ll try to get one step better tomorrow. Shirley was pretty damn good, but we’ll see if we can get him.”
Thornton, who was trying to become the Wild West Shootout’s second home-state winner, kicked himself for making a mistake in his Casey Skyberg-owned car.
“I just screwed up. That was pretty much it,” said Thornton, who led by as much as three seconds before halfway. “It sucks to lead that many laps and kind of give it away there towards the end, but you know, we’ll learn from this. We’ve got a really good car. We kind of struggled last week at Vado, so it’s nice to come here and have a good run. I’m kind of looking forward to the rest of the week.
“We kind of left the modified at home just so we could kind of concentrate on this, and I think that probably helped us the most. … I’ve definitely gotta thank Casey for letting me drive this thing.”
The feature was slowed by two cautions, first on the 26th lap when 18th-running Ryan Gustin rolled to a top on the frontstretch and again on lap 32 when polesitter Brian Birkhofer slowed after blowing out a right-rear tire.
The Arizona miniseries continues Sunday with another $5,000-to-win Super Late Model program with modifieds and X-mods on the undercard. Hot laps are scheduled for 3 p.m. MST with racing scheduled for 4:25 p.m.
Notes: Fourteen drivers completed 40 laps. … Cade Dillard of Robeline, La., a winner at last year’s WWS, retired without taking a lap after breaking a right-rear hub during pace laps. … The opening night's fifth heat was a wild one, littering the track with damaged cars. Jay Morris nearly went completely over the wall in turn three and four; his car suffered serious damage. On the race’s final lap, Cade Dillard made contact lapping David Vennard, whose car got into the turn-two wall and then rolled after collecting Nick Deal, whose engine caught fire in the aftermath. No one was injured but feelings were hurt. … The Late Model driver to click off the fastest time trial lap among the six miniseries races gets $1,000 from Premier Waste Services (and each event’s fast qualifier picks up $100 from the fast-time sponsor). … Arizona Speedway’s weekly drivers picked up their trophies at the track’s postseason banquet in the concession area just before Saturday’s hot laps.
Correction: Fixes that Thornton would've been Arizona's second Wild West Shootout winner; Tucson's R.C. Whitwell won 2014's opener at Tucson International Raceway.
Preliminary results and notes:
Late Model main event
Row 1: Brian Birkhofer, Ricky Thornton Jr.
Row 2: Bobby Pierce, Mike Spatola
Row 3: Chris Simpson, Brian Shirley
Row 4: Mitch McGrath, Frank Heckenast Jr.
Row 5: Brandon Sheppard, Jimmy Mars
Row 6: Cade Dillard, Chase Junghans
Row 7: Blair Nothdurft, Ryan Gustin
Row 8: Johnny Scott, Terry Phillips
Row 9: Stormy Scott, Ricky Weiss
Row 10: Earl Pearson Jr., Justin Duty
Row 11: Clay Fisher, Garrett Alberson
Row 12: Cody Laney, Kyle Beard
Row 13: Tony Toste
Consolation race results
(12 laps; top three transfer)
First consolation: Earl Pearson Jr., Clay Fisher, Cody Laney, Tony Toste, Lyndon Bolt, John Cornell, Thomas Hunziker, Kenny Densman, Terry Carter, Dennis Souza, Dan Deibele. Scratched: David Vennard, Nick Deal, Jay Morris.
Second consolation: Justin Duty, Garrett Alberson, Kyle Beard, Casey Skyberg, Allen Murray, Steve Stultz, Richard Wallace, Brian Barrett, James Laing, McLain Beaudoin, Jimmy Whisler, Rick Ortega, Rob Mayea. Scratched: Jason Papich.
Pro Power Dash: Tony Toste, Casey Skyberg, Lyndon Bolt, Thomas Hunziker, Rob Mayea.
Consolation race lineups
(12 laps; top three transfer)
Row 1: Earl Pearson Jr., Clay Fisher
Row 2: Terry Carter, Cody Laney
Row 3: Tony Toste, Nick Deal
Row 4: John Cornell, Lyndon Bolt
Row 5: David Vennard, Thomas Hunzicker
Row 6: Dennis Souza, Jay Morris
Row 7: Dan Deibele, Kenny Densman
Row 1: Jimmy Whisler, Justin Duty
Row 2: Garrett Alberson, Rick Ortega
Row 3: Allen Murray, Kyle Beard
Row 4: McLain Beaudoin, Rob Mayea
Row 5: Casey Skyberg, Steve Stultz
Row 6: Brian Barrett, Richard Wallace
Row 7: James Laing, Jason Papich
Heat race results
(Eight laps; top three transfer)
First heat: Brian Shirley, Mitch McGrath, Blair Nothdurft, Earl Pearson Jr., Cody Laney, John Cornell, Thomas Hunziker, Dan Deibele.
Second heat: Ricky Thornton Jr., Frank Heckenast Jr., Ryan Gustin, Jimmy Whisler, Rick Ortega, McLaie Beaudoin, Steve Stultz, James Laing.
Third heat: Chris Simpson, Brandon Sheppard, Johnny Scott, Clay Fisher, Tony Toste, Lyndon Bolt, Dennis Souza, Kenny Densman.
Fourth heat: Mike Spatola, Jimmy Mars, Terry Phillips, Justin Duty, Allen Murray, Rob Mayea, Brian Barrett, Jason Papich.
Fifth heat: Brian Birkhofer, Cade Dillard, Stormy Scott, Terry Carter, Nick Deal, David Vennard, Jay Morris.
Sixth heat: Bobby Pierce, Chase Junghans, Ricky Weiss, Garrett Alberson, Kyle Beard, Casey Skyberg, Richard Wallace.
Heat race lineups
(Eight laps; top three transfer)
Row 1: Blair Nothdurft, Brian Shirley
Row 2: Earl Pearson Jr., Mitch McGrath
Row 3: Cody Laney, Thomas Hunziker
Row 4: John Cornelll, Dan Deibele
Row 1: Frank Heckenast Jr., Ricky Thornton Jr.
Row 2: Ryan Gustin, McLain Beaudoin
Row 3: Jimmy Whisler, Steve Stultz
Row 4: Rick Ortega, James Laing
Row 1: Brandon Sheppard, Chris Simpson
Row 2: Johnny Scott, Clay Fisher
Row 3: Tony Toste, Lyndon Bolt
Row 4: Kerry Densman, Dennis Souza
Row 1: Jimmy Mars, Mike Spatola
Row 2: Terry Phillips, Allen Murray
Row 3: Rob Mayea, Justin Duty
Row 4: Jason Papich, Brian Barrett
Row 1: Brian Birkhofer, Cade Dillard
Row 2: Stormy Scott, Nick Deal
Row 3: Jay Morris, Terry Carter
Row 4: David Vennard
Row 1: Chase Junghans, Bobby Pierce
Row 2: Ricky Weiss, Kyle Beard
Row 3: Garrett Alberson, Casey Skyberg
Row 4: Richard Wallace
FK Rod Ends Arizona Speedway on Saturday hosts the first of six Keyser Manufacturing Wild West Shootout events highlighted by a $5,000-to-win main event for Super Late Models.
The field of Late Models will be split into six groups for time trials with officials employing combination hot-lap/time trials to set the lineups for six heat races. Drivers start heats straightup by time.
The top three finishers in each of six heat races transfer to the 40-lap main event with the winners redrawing for the first three rows of the feature lineup. Consolation races will transfer three drivers apiece to the 24-car main event.
The Pro Power Dash for Late Model non-qualifiers is also on a card that includes complete modified and X-mod programs.
Saturday’s event is the first of six races over the next nine days at the third-mile oval southeast of Phoenix.
Late Model time trial groups
Driver (car no.), hometown
Blair Nothdurft (76), Sioux Falls, S.D., 15.451
Brian Shirley (3S), Chatham, Ill., 15.701
Earl Pearson Jr. (1), Jacksonville, Fla., 15.704
Mitch McGrath (74), Waukesha, Wis., 15.836
Cody Laney (32B), Torrance, Calif., 15.928
Thomas Hunziker (38), Bend, Ore., 16.152
John Cornell (28), Phoenix, Ariz., 16.172
Dan Deibele (74), Lebanon, Ore., 17.190
Frank Heckenast Jr. (99jr), Frankfort, Ill., 15.638
Ricky Thornton Jr. (20rt), Chandler, Ariz., 15.790
Ryan Gustin (19), Marshalltown, Iowa, 16.026
McLain Beaudoin (17), Lebanon, Ore., 16.246
Jimmy Whisler (28), Otis, Ore., 16.435
Steve Stultz (78), Peoria, Ariz., 16.709
Rick Ortega (24), Las Cruces, N.M., 17.183
James Laing (89), Tucson, Ariz., 17.258
Brandon Sheppard (B5), New Berlin, Ill., 15.137
Chris Simpson (32), Oxford, Iowa, 15.539
Johnny Scott (1st), Las Cruces, N.M., 15.547
Clay Fisher (99), DeWitt, Ark., 15.825
Tony Toste (91T), Pismo Beach, Calif., 15.941
Lyndon Bolt (3x), Rapid City, S.D., 16.538
Kenny Densman (75), Lolita, Texas, 16.622
Dennis Souza (83), Pescadero, Calif., 17.997
Jimmy Mars (28), Menomonie, Wis., 15.502
Mike Spatola (89), Manhattan, Ill., 15.571
Terry Phillips (75), Springfield, Mo., 15.630
Allen Murray (2), San Antonio, Texas, 15.724
Rob Mayea (37), Bend, Ore., 15.857
Justin Duty (15), Mulino, Ore., 16.216
Jason Papich (91P), Nipomo, Calif., 16.262
Brian Barrett (28), Omaha, Neb., 17.857
Brian Birkhofer (15B), Muscatine, Iowa, 15.469
Cade Dillard (97), Robeline, La., 15.503
Stormy Scott (2), Las Cruces, N.M., 15.544
Nick Deal (55D), Walnut, Iowa, 15.557
Jay Morris (77M), Watseka, Ill., 15.890
Terry Carter (6T), Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, 16.344
David Vennard (7w), Edmonton, Alberta, 17.407
Chase Junghans (18), Manhattan, Kan., 15.323
Bobby Pierce (32), Oakwood, Ill., 15.503
Ricky Weiss (7W), Headingley, Manitoba, 15.757
Kyle Beard (86), Trumann, Ark., 15.827
Garrett Alberson (2a), Las Cruces, N.M., 16.064
Casey Skyberg (6), Rapid City, S.D., 16.151
Richard Wallace (7m), Gold Coast, Ore., 17.692
12:30 p.m. - Pit gate opens
2 p.m. - Drivers’ meeting
2:30 p.m. - Grandstands open
3 p.m. - On-track action
- X-mod hot laps
- Modified hot laps
- Late Model (combo hot laps/time trials)
4:20 p.m. - National anthem
4:25 p.m. - Racing begins
- X-mod heats (eight laps)
- Modified heats (eight laps)
- Late Model heats (eight laps)
- X-mod consolations (10 laps)
- Modified consolations (12 laps)
- Late Model consolations (12 laps)
- X-mod feature (20 laps)
- Pro Power Late Model dash (10 laps)
- Modified feature (25 laps)
- Late Model feature (40 laps)