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Weekly Notebook presented by FK Rod Ends

Notes: Iowa division rookie off to hot start

April 18, 2024, 6:15 am
By Todd Turner
DirtonDirt.com managing editor
Mitch Morris (Full Throttle Photography)
Mitch Morris (Full Throttle Photography)

An accomplished modified racer over nearly 20 seasons, Mitch Morris is making the jump to Late Models this spring. On Sunday evening, the 34-year-old McCausland, Iowa, was on the verge of pulling off a feat of which few dirt racers can boast — winning the first two Late Model starts of his career.

"I was like, I can't believe this is happening," Morris said of leading at East Moline (Ill.) Speedway two nights after capturing his division debut at Davenport (Iowa) Speedway.

As it turns out, Morris fell shy of his unbelievable start when he broke a tie rod amid last-lap contact with eventual East Moline winner Cody Overton, but his first weekend behind the wheel of his full-fendered Black Diamond Chassis was more than promising, putting him atop DirtonDirt.com's Weekly Notebook presented by FK Rod Ends.

"I was honestly just glad to have a car that's competitive and has speed like that, to be able to race with somebody (like Overton) that has speed like that, and to race with Matt Ryan and Andy Nezworski and those guys that have track championships over there, the local boys," Morris said. "It felt good to be able to be out front of those guys all night. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going and just keep our heads down and keep digging."

A Late Model success story shouldn't be too much of a surprise from Morris, who carved out a successful modified career with more than 60 victories from 2005-23. The driver whose father raced stock cars, modifieds and occasionally Late Models took a similar route with a single four-cylinder division as a 14-year-old before moving into different flavors of modifieds. His best seasons came with 14 victories and two track titles in B-mods in 2006, a nine-victory IMCA modified campaign in 2015, 2016's 14 victories that included IMCA-sanctioned titles at Davenport and Maquoketa (Iowa) Speedway.

In 2024, the Eldridge, Iowa, public works department employee decided it was time to try something new. Needing a new car for the season, he elected to switch divisions altogether.

"Just the prices of mods have gone up so much and the pay really hasn't gone up a whole lot over the years," said Morris, whose brother Jake still competes in IMCA modifieds. "For the Late Model, it's just a little bit better start money, the payouts a bit better, everything.

"I just felt like trying something different, just a change of pace. I've been doing the modified thing so long, it's either buy a new mod or venture down a different path."

Not that Morris jumped in with both feet. His family-based racing program at tracks primarily within an hour of home is "definitely on a budget." He's utilizing the same crate engine in his modified from last season and bought a 10-race-old Late Model from veteran Iowa racer Jay Johnson, a car without "anything fancy" that would drastically elevate its cost.

Thanks to technical support from Louisiana-based Black Diamond and Tyson Gheer, the veteran crew chief of multitime IMCA Late Model champ Justin Kay, Morris has found his car more than competitive after winning at Davenport and leading much of the East Moline season opener.

"It feels like we have a good, fast car to start the year. Hopefully it stays that way," Morris said. "Having Tyson, Tyson's become friends with my and my dad and he's just been good to us. We're just new to the Late Model thing. My dad raced them over 20 years ago, but it's a lot different than the modified and just the support from Black Diamond and Tyson Gheer, I think that's really helped us come out full steam ahead."

Adjusting to new rules, dramatically different tires and wheels and new competition, Morris quickly got up to speed with a feature victory at Davenport, and his night at East Moline 48 hours later was looking good when he overtook Matt Ryan before the midpoint of the feature. Morris soon, however, found himself battling with Cody Overton of Evans, Ga., a World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series rookie contender who was piloting East Moline promoter Chuck Hanna's No. 65 entry.

Morris edged away on long runs, but on every restart, Overton was throwing slide job after slide job at the leader.

"We were racing hard. It was dicey through lapped traffic. That's how I took the lead over (Ryan). I just time everything through lapped traffic to get by Matt. We were hard-charging it," Morris said. "Then it was me and Overton after that. On those long runs, I could get away, but on those restarts, he was pulling some crazy slide jobs all the way from the tractor tires all the way up to the wall and I'd cross him over."

Contact exiting turn two on the final lap doomed Morris while Overton took the checkers after an exciting race. But there were no hard feelings.

"You know, it just sucks how it ended, but that's the way it goes," Morris said. "It happens sometimes."

The solid weekend has heightened expectations for Morris in the new division.

"The biggest thing is I just hope to stay consistent throughout the year. I do feel like right now, currently how things are going, I think we can pick off a handful of wins. If things are going right, I would hope to be able to be in contention for Rookie of the Year in (IMCA) Late Models. that would be pretty cool to do that deal," Morris said. "Being the first year in Late Models and they have that Rookie of the Year deal, if something like that happened, it would be pretty cool. I'll just go to each race and run my hardest and see what tallies up by the end of year."

Weekly highlights

• Leading flag-to-flag from outside the front row, former DIRTcar weekly champ Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, outran a deep-rallying Daryn Klein on April 13 at Highland (Ill.) Speedway for his first victory of the season.

Sam Mars of Menomonie, Wis., clicked off his second victory of the season April 12 at his hometown Red Cedar Speedway — and his first Late Model victory at the track — by capturing the Randy Buss Icebreaker Classic.

• In the season opener at Dixieland Speedway in Elizabeth City, N.C., Shaun Harrell of Raeford, N.C., grabbed a $2,500 victory in the Limited Late Model division.

First things first

Recent first-time occurrences at the dirt track:

• Rebounding from a first-lap spin, Tyler Shaw of Mexico, Mo., rallied to lead the final lap April 12 at Callaway Raceway in Fulton, Mo., and nab his first Late Model feature victory.

Ross Robinson of Georgetown, Del., earned $4,000 on April 13 in Super Late Model action for his first career victory at Port Royal (Pa.) Speedway. Robinson led the second half of the 25-lapper and took the checkers head of Colton Flinner.

• Albion, Neb., driver and Late Model rookie Tyler Iverson topped a 10-car field on April 12 at Junction Motor Speedway in McCool Junction, Neb., for his first division victory.

Weekly news briefs

Gondik Law Speedway's KME-sponsored Late Model division received an upgrade to a $25,000 total points fund for 2024 with eight races scheduled, including a $5,000-to-win event on July 26. Pat Doar of New Richmond, Wis., last season collected $6,000 for the title from a $20,000 points fund sponsored by Pat Kapella of KME.

• Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota tracks have formed to create the Titan Clash, an IMCA-sanctioned miniseries for Late Models among several tracks. the next scheduled event is April 25 at Park Jefferson International Speedway in Jefferson, S.D.

David Bilbrey of Crossville, Tenn., among the best dirt racers of his era Cumberland Plateau who was a member of two racing Hall of Fames, died April 12. The longtime driver of the No. 44 sponsored by the family-owned A&B Body Shop was 65. The son of parents who raced, Bilbrey competed at dirt tracks beginning in the early 1980s for more than 20 seasons, racking up more than 150 feature victories and multiple track championships at four Tennessee tracks, including his hometown track. Bilbrey was among the first class of the Upper Cumberland Dirt Racing Hall of Fame in 2008 and in 2023 joined Smoky Mountain Speedway Hall of Fame in Maryville, Tenn.

• Missouri tracks are mourning the passing of super stock racer Jimmy Burrus of Eldon, Mo.

• The first-year Gulf South Crate Racing Association announced this week it will be sanctioned by the Rogers-Dabbs Crate Racin' USA organization for 2024; drivers with the Louisiana-based tour will be required to have a CRUSA membership to compete.

• With its existing press box unusable because of storm damage, I-96 Speedway in Lake Odessa, Mo., is making plans to install a new announcer and scoring tower along with new grandstands later this season.

• Plateau Farms on April 20 will pay $100 to the fast qualifier in the Late Model, modified and sportsman divisions at Wartburg (Tenn.) Speedway.

Upcoming weekly specials

Among non-touring and independent special events coming up for Late Models at dirt tracks around the country:

Paducah (Ky.) International Raceway (April 19): On the undercard of WoO sprint cars, DIRTcar-sanctioned Super Late Models will chase a $5,000 winner’s purse.  

Dixieland Speedway, Elizabeth City, N.C. (April 19): After a successful season opener, the track upgraded the Perry Auto Group Limited Late Model purse to $2,000-to-win and $200-to-start.

Needmore Speedway, Norman Park, Ga. (April 19): A five-division program is highlighted by a $1,500-to-win feature for 604 Crate Late Models. A children's candy drop is planned for intermission.

Lee County Speedway, Donnellson, Iowa (April 19-20): Crates and IMCA Late Models will open the season with the two-day show for the Spring Hooray. Modified, sport mods and stock cars will also be in action.

Dothan (Ala.) Motor Speedway (April 19-20): A multidivision, doubleheader weekend includes a Saturday-only program for 602 Crate Late Models paying $1,222-to-win as part of the third annual Jackie Hughes Memorial.

Beckley (W.Va.) Motor Speedway (April 20): The track opens its season with Late Model Mania, including a $5,000-to-win Super Late Model program on the same card with 602 Crate Late Models of the Red Clay Series (with 604 Crates also in action).

East Bay Raceway Park, Gibsonton, Fla. (April 20): The track running its final regular season puts a $2,000-to-win purse on the line for 604 Crate Late Models.

Fort Payne Motor Speedway, Fyffe, Ala. (April 20): The second annual Legendary Marvin Ford Classic pays $2,500-to-win for Limited Late Models with weekly classes also on the card.

Mitch Morris file

Age: 34 (birthdate April 4)
Hometown: McCausland, Iowa
Family: Mitch and wife Sadie have two sons, Levi (8) and Reed (6)
Occupation: Eldridge, Iowa, public works department
Chassis/engine: Black Diamond/Crate
Sponsors: Affordable Mini Storage, Siefers Concrete Foundation Trucking & Excavating, Affordable Parking Lot Services, Carsten's Floor Coverings, Dirt Stars Racing Products, The Talon Grill, Mitch Morris Upholstery Repair, North Scott Automotive Paint & Auto Body, Steve's Auto Sales, JC Dubil Race Car Parts and Brockmann Stump Grinding
Crew members: Jeff Morris (father), Jake Morris (brother), Matt Morris (brother), John Neilson, Mike Wuesenberg, Jamie Stearns, Spencer Kerr, Brandon Rheingans with support from his mother, Lori Morris
Racing career: After a single season in four-cylinders as a 14-year-old in 2004, Morris has driven different flavors of modifieds over 19 seasons, including a 2016 season with 14 IMCA-sanctioned victories with track titles at Davenport (Iowa) Speedway and Maquoketa (Iowa) Speedway. Overall he as six modified track titles among five tracks. Morris moved up to the IMCA Late Model division for 2024.

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