Youngest Bartels aims for first Western Allstars victory
By Kevin KovacWestern Allstars DIRTcar Late Model Series
Nick Bartels is young, fast and ready to break into victory lane on the Western Allstars DIRTcar Late Model Series. The 21-year-old, third-generation talent from El Segundo, Calif., would certainly love to realize that milestone moment Saturday when the tour makes its lone appearance of 2009 at Bakersfield Speedway.
Racing at the third-mile oval where he launched his dirt-track career in 2005 behind the wheel of a Hobby Stock, Bartels could cement his rising-star status with a triumph in a 30-lap main event that offers an increased $2,500 top prize thanks to sponsorship from Cow-Boy Bail Bonds.
“It would be cool to get my first (Western Allstars) win at the track I started racing at,” said Bartels, whose home outside Los Angeles is roughly a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Bakersfield. “I love racing at Bakersfield because it probably has more exciting racing than anywhere, and I definitely feel like I have the speed (to win) if I can just put 30 consistent laps together.
“But the problem is, it’s one of the most unfriendly tracks for me. I always seem to have some sort of bad luck there, so I’m looking forward to finishing the race more than anything.”
The grandson of 69-year-old Bill Bartels and son of 50-year-old Ron Bartels — both familiar faces in Western Allstars competition — Nick has already visited Bakersfield twice this season for unsanctioned events and was involved in a tangle each night. His misfortune there is a frustrating blight on his otherwise fine 2009 campaign, which includes two top-five and seven top-10 finishes in the eight Western Allstars events.
He’s finished as high as second (on May 9 at California’s Santa Maria Speedway) and no worse than 11th in a series race, putting him fourth in the points standings behind leader Bobby Hogge IV of Salinas, Calif., and former Western Allstars champions Chris Shannon of Merced, Calif., and Mike Johnson of Lompoc, Calif.
In addition, Bartels leads the new-for-‘09 UMP DIRTcar Racing Pacific Region points standings, which combine drivers’ finishes in Western Allstars and Northwest I-5 DIRTcar Late Model Tour events. Bartels made a haul of nearly 20 hours north to enter three Northwest I-5 shows in Oregon surrounding the Independence Day holiday, giving him extra UMP DIRTcar-sanctioned starts that have helped push him to the top of the regional points race.
“I know that realistically, with my skill level right now, it’s going to be tough for me to beat Hogge, Shannon and Johnson (in the Western Allstars points battle) because they’re great drivers and they’re so consistent,” said Bartels, who is in his fourth season of dirt Late Model racing. “At the beginning of the season my goal was to be in the top five in the points, so if I could end up fourth behind them I’ll be real happy.”
The UMP DIRTcar Racing Pacific Region title, meanwhile, is well within his grasp.
“I want to win that regional deal — that’s why we ran more races (in Oregon),” said Bartels, whose best Northeast I-5 Tour finish was a sixth on July 4 at Willamette Speedway in Lebanon, Ore. “Hopefully we can win it for something else to put on my resume.”
Attracting attention is important for Bartels, who has big dreams of making a living in the Dirt Late Model world. He’s currently a student — earlier this year he graduated from El Camino Community College in Torrance, Calif., and in the fall will begin taking business classes at California State University, Dominguez Hills — but hopes to concentrate fully on racing after finishing his studies in 2011.
“College is my backup plan right now,” Bartels said.. “I want to take a shot at racing full time while I’m young. Hopefully I can make some contacts so after I’m done with school I can make a move back East and see if I can make it.”
Bartels has already turned some heads during his short Dirt Late Model career with many impressive runs while learning the ins-and-outs of the division driving battle-tested equipment previously campaigned by his father and grandfather. He races out of the expansive racing stable owned by his grandfather, who operates a huge Harley-Davidson dealership in Marina del Rey, Calif., but hasn’t simply been gifted shiny new cars. In fact, when Nick, who has become known as "Kid Harley," debuts a 2009 Victory Circle dirt Late Model next month, it will mark the first time in his career that he’s driven a brand-new machine.
“I’ve always run hand-me-downs from my dad and grandpa,” said Bartels, whose primary car this season is a 2006 Rayburn chassis. “I feel like I’ve been getting faster and closer (to a win) running my older car, so I feel like I’ll be better still when I get in the new car.
“I’m real excited to run the new car. I’ve spent all my money getting enough parts to put it together and it’s almost a roller now.”
Bartels feels fortunate to have access to a vast reservoir of racing knowledge possessed by his grandfather and father, as well as his grandfather’s full=time mechanic, Chris Laney, and former wingless sprint car champion Mike Kirby of Torrance, Calif., Laney’s brother-in-law who is now a Dirt Late Model driver racing out of Bill Bartels’s shop.
“My dad and my grandpa have taught me everything I know — from working on the cars to driving the right way so you make friends, not enemies, on the track,” said Bartels, whose personal dirt Late Model win list includes four victories at Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway and the 2008 Southwest DIRTcar Racing Association opener at Canyon Speedway Park in Peoria, Ariz. “And it’s great to have Chris around to help me when I have questions and to have a guy like Mike Kirby — who has so much racing experience — with his stuff at our shop.”
Of course, with more experience comes higher expectations for Bartels.
“Last year I was happy to get a top 10 in a Western Allstars race, but this year I’m going out there expecting to go for a top five,” said Bartels, who led the spring Western Allstars event at Santa Maria until a late-race scrape with a lapped car that damaged his car’s rear spoiler and a charging Hogge kept him from reaching Victory Lane. “The biggest difference this year is that I can jump out there and be confident from the start of the night and I’m getting better at passing cars.”