La SALLE, Ill. (April 3) — Bobby Pierce’s first home-state start of 2015 put him back in a winning groove.
Recapturing the form that propelled him to a hot start last season, the 18-year-old sensation from Oakwood, Ill., scored a $5,000 victory in Friday night’s 50-lap Thaw Brawl opener at La Salle Speedway.
“We’ve been in a slump big time,” said Pierce, who entered the Sunoco American Late Model Series doubleheader with just a single top-five finish to his credit in eight 2015 starts spread between February’s East Bay Winternationals and last month’s Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series events in Ohio and Indiana. “Heck, I haven’t won a heat race in so long. Tonight was my first heat win since I-don’t-know-when, so it was a good feeling to finally start winning races again.”
Starting third in a car built by his father Bob, Pierce surged past polesitter Ricky Weiss of Headingly, Manitoba, for the lead on lap four. He was never headed thereafter, but he World of Outlaws Late Model Series regular Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y., provided a stiff challenge following the race’s final restart on lap 31 before settling for a second-place finish, 1.916 seconds behind Pierce.
Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Ill., who won the Thaw Brawl in 2012 and ’14 and captured the event’s preliminary feature in ’13, picked up several spots following the lap-31 restart to reach third place and finished there. Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., slipped backward to fourth from his outside pole starting spot and Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., placed fifth in his first start of 2015.
Pierce dominated the middle stages of the event, building a lead of more than 5 seconds at one point. But a caution flag on lap 31 for Ray Guss Jr. of Milan, Ill., who stopped on the frontstretch, put McCreadie in position to bid for the top spot.
McCreadie, who will celebrate his 41st birthday on April 12, pulled to the outside of Pierce rounding turns three and four following the restart, but Pierce slid in front of McCreadie to snuff out the challenge. Despite battling a car that was gradually losing speed, Pierce never allowed McCreadie to pull alongside again.
Pierce joked about the reason his machine’s performance dropped off slightly following the caution flag, allowing McCreadie to nearly steal the lead.
“I started getting in a rhythm there as the race went on and then the caution came out,” Pierce said. “We got a guy who was helping us tonight and I told him that what happened was, why I got so slow after the caution, was the dust settled back on the race car because he’s been wiping it off all night. I said, ‘That’s what’s been making me fast.’ I had to get the dust back off the car.”
In truth, though, Pierce had to adjust to tire wear and a track obstacles to preserve his spot at the front of the field.
“The car was just great there from the beginning, then I think the left-rear started going away a little bit towards the end and it just got looser and looser and looser,” Pierce said. “And (officials) shoved the (inside) tires out a little bit and kind of screwed up my line a little bit, but they had to do it to make the race a little more interesting.”
McCreadie briefly thought he was going to roll past Pierce to assume command, but the driver of the Sweeteners Plus Rocket ran out of room off turn four.
“He squeezed me,” said McCreadie, not laying any blame on Pierce’s tactics. “He probably didn’t know I was there. It’s part of it.
“I couldn’t get through (turns) one and two as good as I did (immediately after the restart) to get back out there (outside Pierce). I think if I could’ve gave it another shot we might have been able to clear him. I think we had equal cars, but he was just a touch more maneuverable than I was.”
For his part, Pierce was surprised by McCreadie’s challenge.
“I didn’t really know (McCreadie) was up there until I felt him get into me there,” Pierce said, “and I was like, ‘Oh, I better give him some room.’”
McCreadie was satisfied with his runner-up finish, however. It was a much-needed strong run for a driver who made the trip to La Salle because sour weather has kept him far too inactive since February’s Georgia-Florida Speedwells.
“I just think we gotta get where we can circle a little better,” McCreadie said. “We’re having al little problem in the center of losing the right-front, but that’s a good problem to have. I haven’t had that problem in a good bit. I think getting it to steer through he center will help us, and I think that’s a problem that doesn’t take it a lot to fix.”
The race was slowed by three caution flags, including a first-lap incident that saw Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., spin in turn four and collect Jay Morris of Pittwood, Ill., and Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, Mich., and a lap-five slowdown for Chris Simpson of Oxford, Iowa.
Notes: Pierce rang up 16 total victories in 2014, including nine by May 1. … Pierce, who was crowned the ALMS West points champion in 2014, earned his 10th career win on the ALMS tour. The circuit will have one champion again this season after splitting into regions last year. … Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ill., swapped motors following hot laps and missed qualifying. He won the consolation race to transfer to the feature, where he finished 13th. ... Sheppard narrowly topped Shirley at the line to win the second heat and earn the outside pole for the feature. ... Jared Landers of Batesville, Ark., scratched from the first heat, but returned to action in the consolation race. ... Saturday's Thaw Brawl finale boasts a $15,000 top prize for the 75-lap feature.