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One of Michigan's best welcomes WoO travelers

August 16, 2011, 5:27 pm
By Kevin Kovac
World of Outlaws Late Model Series
Jeep Van Wormer
Jeep Van Wormer

Jeep Van Wormer is ready for what just might be the biggest weekend of Dirt Late Model racing his home state of Michigan has ever seen.

The World of Outlaws Late Model Series is set to invade the Wolverine State on Aug. 19-20 for a huge doubleheader Friday at Winston Speedway in Rothbury and Saturday at Merritt Raceway — and naturally, Pinconning, Mich.’s Van Wormer feels a special duty to defend his turf against the national tour’s stars.

“Definitely,” said Van Wormer, a 36-year-old standout who has arguably become Michigan’s most recognizable Dirt Late Model driver. “Any time there’s a big show in your area you want to put your best foot forward and show everybody what you can do.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” he added, considering the pair of 50-lap, $10,000-to-win WoO events ahead of him. “There’s never been a weekend like this in Michigan for Late Models. It’s exciting to have a chance to run two big shows without having to drive more than two hours (from home).”

Van Wormer, of course, usually travels long distances from his residence in northcentral Michigan to battle the country’s best Dirt Late Model racers. This weekend the big boys are coming to him, contesting a rich swing that will put Michigan in the rarified air of the division’s national spotlight.

“I hope it all turns out well and we get a gold star for Michigan Late Model racing out of this,” said Van Wormer, analyzing the significance of the inaugural WoO twinbill. “We haven’t had many big Late Model shows up here, so hopefully this will open the door to more in the future.”

A hard charger who is annually a top contender on the UMP DIRTcar Summernationals and in the crown-jewel events at Ohio’s famed Eldora Speedway, Van Wormer knows the level of personal satisfaction and circuit-wide respect that comes with winning a WoO event. He is one of 42 drivers to reach victory lane on the tour since 2004, accomplishing the feat on Sept. 16, 2007, at LaSalle (Ill.) Speedway.

The past WoO success, however, doesn’t mean Van Wormer expects to be listed as a favorite in this weekend’s Keyser Manufacturing 50 at Winston and the Lane Automotive/All-Star Performance 50 at Merritt. He’s confident but also realistic about his chances of winning one for the home team. After all, the 2011 season to date hasn’t been overly memorable for Van Wormer, and it’s not like he owns an especially large experience edge over the World of Outlaws travelers at either track.

“I’d love to say that I feel like I’m gonna go in there and stomp their ass at both racetracks, but I know that’s not likely,” said Van Wormer, whose only previous WoO start this season came on April 29 at Hartford (Mich.) Motor Speedway (he finished 21st after retiring because he hit the wall while moving into contention). “I feel like I’m gonna have a real good chance at Winston because we usually run good there, but I’m going to be as puzzled as the next guy when we get to Merritt.”

Van Wormer has made only four starts at Tom Sprague’s 3/8-mile Winston Speedway over the past five seasons, but he’s been triumphant in two of them (2007 and 2010). He’s visited Merritt even less frequently in recent years, entering just two races there since ’07.

Merritt was once a regular stop for Van Wormer, but that was at the very start of his racing career. He made his competitive debut at the 3/8-mile oval in 1997 in the street stock class, won the division’s championship the following season and ran open-wheel nodifieds there for two more years before moving to dirt Late Models and broadening his horizons to more far-flung tracks.

“I’ve never won in a Late Model at Merritt, but I’ve only run one there about a half-dozen times,” said Van Wormer, who is in his 11th season of Dirt Late Model action. “Really, I wouldn’t say I have any advantage there. When guys come up to me and ask what tire (compound) to run there, I’m not gonna have an answer because I’m going to be trying to figure that out myself.”

Van Wormer comes into this weekend’s doubleheader less than one month removed from his first — and still only — feature win of 2011, the American Late Model Series Lane Automotive 47 on July 22 at Hartford. It’s been a frustrating season for Van Wormer, who campaigns family-owned equipment under the Iron Motorsports banner.

“We haven’t been able to break into that win column very good,” said Van Wormer, who has six runner-up finishes this season. “I feel like we’re headed in the right direction now, though. We had some motor problems early in the season but we got that worked out since we started working with (engine builder) Jay Dickens just before the Dream (in June at Eldora).”

Van Wormer will enter this weekend’s action on the heels of what likely will be a long night of preparation in his shop. He will be away from home on business this week from Monday through Thursday — in his full-time position as an inspection technician for his family’s Bayline Fire Protection Inc., he is traveling to Texas to help complete the installation of a sprinkler system at a Fed-Ex facility — so his race car won’t be touched until he returns.

“I’m a one-man band right now,” said Van Wormer, who doesn't have a full-time mechanic this season. “I’m not gonna have a lot of time to prepare for Winston and Merritt, but we’ll be ready. We’ll have to be if we expect to compete with the guys who will be there.”

Van Wormer will face off with a star-studded field in this weekend’s events, including current WoO points leader Rick Eckert of York, Pa., and former tour champions Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va. (riding a two-race win streak), Darrell Lanigan of Union, Ky. (the tour’s leading winner in ’11) and Tim McCreadie of Watertown, N.Y. (a $5,000 winner at Merritt in 2008).

Among the Michigan drivers expected to join Van Wormer at the two tracks are Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City (fifth in the DIRTcar's weekly standings), Brian Ruhlman of Clarklake, David Hilliker of Midland, Curtis Roberts of Coleman and Eric Spangler of Lake City.

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