Notes: Wheeler shines following 2-year hiatus
After getting back behind the wheel of a race car for the first time since 2009, Chad Wheeler of Muskogee, Okla., didn't mind going incognito in the Bill and Chigger McMurtrie-owned No. 73 Late Model. Most of the third-generation driver's career, after all, was in a No. 88 modified.
"I kind of liked staying low-profile," said the 27-year-old Wheeler. "I didn't know if I was going to spin out in the first corner or something." | Wheeler wins at Humboldt
No need to worry about any such miscue as Wheeler's driving talents quickly shone through. In just his second start on the Race Brothers Show-Me Racin' Series, Wheeler grabbed a July 22 victory at Humboldt (Kan.) Speedway.
Wheeler was chasing Brandon Hunter in the final laps at Humboldt when Hunter's battery started cutting out, allowing Wheeler to make the winning pass. The victory, in just his third career Late Model start, snapped Leslie Essary's four-race winning streak on the Oklahoma-based series.
"I've lost a lot more races like that than I've won," Wheeler said.
Wheeler carved out a successful modified career over a 10-season span that included an unsuccessful shot at the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series ranks. He eventually scaled back his family-owned team, and after making his first Late Model start in a Terry Phillips-owned Late Model at the 2009 Show-Me 100 in West Plains, Mo., Wheeler made a dozen more starts in his modified before parking his equipment.
Things had gotten busy at his family's Wheeler Metals, his teammate Tate Cole was about to become a father, and plans to step away from racing briefly suddenly turned into two years. "I never really planned on quitting," Wheeler said.
So when the McMurtries came into Wheeler Metals to buy sheetmetal for their race car, Wheeler happened to be working up front, When chatter turned to racing, casual exchanges about Wheeler's interest in driving for the team resulted in him climbing into the car July 16 at Mid-America Speedway in South Coffeyville, Okla., where he finished 11th.
For the Humboldt race, Wheeler strong-armed long-time crew chief Curt Hutchens into coming along, and they "changed every bar" on the MasterSbilt's suspension and "it was fast. The car was really fast," Wheeler said.
"To get into somebody else's car and be competitive usually doesn't happen. They have really good equipment and it just kind of fell into our hands," Wheeler said. "Your rarely see someone sit on the couch for two years and come out and win one, especially for not (having experience in) Late Models."
After the victory, Wheeler will no longer be incognito. The McMurtries, who operate the Ken Essary-founded Show-Me Racin' Series, are putting Wheeler's No. 88 on the side of the car for the next race.
Wheeler's return to racing has also boosted his relationship with 13-year-old niece Hattie, a huge racing fan who stubbornly refused to join other nieces and nephews on sleepovers at her uncle's house unless he was racing. She's back in the fold and was happy to watch her uncle race to victory at Humboldt. — Todd Turner
BECKLEY SCHEDULED TO REOPEN AUG. 5 WITH NEW PROMOTER: Beckley (W.Va.) Motorsports Park, which closed June 21 with former promoter Jim Williams citing low grandstand and car counts, is scheduled to reopen Aug. 5 with new promoter Joe Jackson, The Register-Herald reported. Jackson, a state trooper, has frequently attended the track to watch his son and brother-in-law race. “I’m a little excited and a little worried both,” Jackson told the newspaper. “We’ve got three weeks to work and make the track as fan-friendly as we can.” Among his plans: slightly reduce ticket prices ($10 for adults vs. $12), quicker race programs (ending by 12:30 a.m.), and better track prep (reducing dust). The track will also begin selling beer. “I think people will come,” Jackson said. “I’m not planning to make a million dollars. We just want to keep the track open.” The track's divisions include AMRA Super Late Models and Fastrak Crate Late Models. — The (Beckley) Register-Herald
PAIR OF SOUTHERN TRACKS CLOSE THE GATES: Two Southern dirt tracks announced their closures this week: Tennessee National Raceway in Hohenwald, Tenn., and Little River Speedway in Heflin, Ala. Tennessee National Raceway promoter John Mosier announced Monday the quarter-mile track was closing immediately because of “an unforeseeable illness in the family,” he wrote on the track’s Facebook page. Little River Speedway’s closure was announced Sunday by promoter Wren Goodman, who said he decided to resign because feuding parties at the track prevented him from maintaining safety. “I’m afraid somebody’s going to get hurt,” Goodman said. Anyone interested in leasing the track, which runs a weekly Limited Late Model division, can call Goodman at (256) 452-9390. — From staff reports
BABCOCK CLIMBING INTO LAWRENCE CAR: Jeff Babcock of Wayne, Ohio, is scheduled to pilot the Lawrence Motorsports No. 11 temporarily after fellow Ohio driver Jon Henry decided to climb out of the part-time ride. Henry made infrequent starts in Lawrence's car in 2011 but has decided to stick with his self-owned No. 15 the rest of the season. Babcock, 31, has been out of action from his regular car, owned by Shane and Jennifer Halcomb, because the team has been without a powerplant since mid-June. He's scheduled to make his first start for car owner Mike "Saus" Lawrence on Friday in Sunoco American Late Model Series action at Attica Raceway Park. He’s expected to return the Halcomb ride when the team’s engine is ready. Lawrence’s previous drivers have included Jerry Bowersock and Brian Ruhlman, who both captured ALMS championships for the team. — Dustin Jarrett
SOUTHERN OHIO ADDS $10,000-TO-WIN EVENT: Capitalizing on a schedule change that opened up an attractive date, the newly-reopened Southern Ohio Speedway in Wheelersburg, Ohio, has added an unsanctioned $10,000-to-win event for Friday, Sept. 2, the track announced July 22. The race was announced the same day nearby Portsmouth (Ohio) Raceway Park and the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series announced a Labor Day weekend schedule shuffle that ended with back-to-back series events at Portsmouth on Sept. 3-4. Portsmouth hosts a $10,000-to-win Lucas Oil event on Saturday, Sept. 3, and the $25,000-to-win Hillbilly 100 on Sunday, Sept. 4. — From track and staff reports
ODDS AND ENDS: The NCRA Great Plains Region event scheduled for July 30 at the Great American Dirt Track in Jetmore, Kan., has been postponed until Aug. 27 because of excessive heat. ... Clinton County Raceway promoters announced Friday the Mackeyville, Pa., track was canceling the remaining Late Model and sprint car races from the schedule. ... Alabama's Aug. 20-21 PRO Dirt Car Series weekend at Talladega Short Track and Green Valley Speedway will carry $1,000 in bonus money. The drivers with the best combined finishes will receive $500, $300 and $200. Each race pays $2,000 to the winner. ... The Southern Regional Racing Series has canceled remaining events at Green Valley (originally Aug. 6 and Oct. 15). ... NASCAR driver David Ragan finished sixth in Crate Late Model action July 23 at 441 Speedway in Dublin, Ga. ... Boothill Speedway in Greenwood, La., is scheduled to reopen under new promoter Billy Jack Brutchin. The track doesn't run a weekly Late Model program but hosted the O'Reilly SUPR tour May 6 before closing under previous promoter Jim Burford the next week.