La SALLE, Ill. (May 8) — Garrett Alberson rolled toward a lap-32 restart running third in Saturday’s 60-lap Thaw Brawl finale at La Salle Speedway with an air of uncertainty in his head.
“I seen it started to rain there,” Alberson said, “and I wasn’t sure if the track was gonna be better or worse.”
For the 32-year-old native of Las Cruces, N.M., the precipitation that was falling made him better — much better, in fact. He put his Roberts Motorsports Black Diamond Race Car to the top of turns one and two, surged by Tanner English of Benton, Ky., and race-long pacesetter Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., to assume command and never looked back en route to capturing the 10th annual event that was postponed from its original early-spring date.
Alberson dominated the race’s second half, powering through the spitting rain to beat Shirley, the race’s 2016 champion and runner-up in Friday’s 30-lap preliminary feature, by 1.318 seconds. It marked his first-ever MARS Racing Series triumph and earned him a career-high $12,000 check.
English, who challenged Shirley for the lead during the race’s first half, settled for a third-place finish. Ryan Unzicker of El Paso, Ill., placed fourth after winning Friday night’s 30-lap A-main that opened the weekend and Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill., rallied after making a tire change on lap 33 to complete the top five.
With steady rain forecast to set in over the track by early evening, officials moved the start time of the program up one hour and pushed the show along to bring the Late Model feature out for a green flag at 6:48 p.m. The wet weather was literally on the quarter-mile oval’s doorstep when the race began, but it didn’t become a major factor until the first caution flag flew on lap 32 for debris in turn one.
Shirley, who came off the outside pole to grab the lead from the polesitting English at the initial start, had kept his Bob Cullen-owned XR1 Rocket car ahead of English throughout the feature’s first half. But he couldn’t repel Alberson, who found extra speed thanks to the rain hitting the surface.
“I had a little bit softer tire on than the leaders, and I really think that rain just played into our favor right there,” said Alberson, who started third on a night that began with him setting fast time in qualifying. “They were good on that first run and I was just OK, and it just seemed like that rain brought a little moisture back out of the track and my (Hoosier LM) 30 (compound tire) took right off.”
Alberson had no trouble leading the race from lap 33 to the finish. He wasn’t threatened as he marched to his first victory of 2021 and third win overall since joining the Roberts Motorsports operation last year as a teammate to Jeremiah Hurst of Dubuque, Iowa, who finished sixth in the Thaw Brawl headliner.
“Just thank God, the whole crew,” said the smiling Alberson, who left his position as the crew chief for Black Diamond house car driver Earl Pearson Jr. to compete regionally in the Midwest for Roberts Motorsports. “I’ve just got awesome people behind me and it feels really awesome to get a good win for ‘em.
“It’s been a little bit up-and-down with this car here, but I think that we’re finally settling on something we can race with.”
Alberson, whose previous triumphs for Roberts Motorsports came last year at Sycamore Speedway in Maple Park, Ill. (a $4,000 event in July and $10,000 race in September), proudly held the Thaw Brawl’s championship belt over his shoulder in victory lane.
“It means a lot,” Alberson said of his victory. “I know it’s a little bit smaller of a field (just 17 cars entered the finale), but guys who were here — Tanner, Shirley, my teammate, Feger — they’re just stout guys. You just take what you can get. A win’s a win, and we passed some good cars right there at the end to get it.”
English, 27, was just one driver who hailed the performance of the friendly Alberson.
“We’d like to be two spots better, but congratulations to Garrett,” said English, who was very pleased with the new Clements powerplant under the hood of his Riggs Motorsports XR1 Rocket car. “He’s been in this racing deal a long time, been through the ups and downs, and it’s good to see him win a big race in a good ride. It’s pretty cool to see that.
“We just got to get a little bit better. I feel like we had the right tire choice on (but) I think that’s the first race I ran in the rain … it was pretty crazy, kind of fulfilling my dream to run an F-1 car I guess.”
English acknowledged that Alberson’s tire compound was perfect for the conditions created by the precipitation.
“It’s like he had rain tires on,” English said. “As soon as that hit he took off and he left us there.”
The feature’s two caution flags were displayed on consecutive circuits: lap 32 for debris and lap 33 for Rich Bell stopping against the turn-four wall.