Inside Dirt Late Model Racing
Column: Plans derailed, but Wenger forges ahead
McKay Wenger came up with a specific plan to pursue the 2016 UMP DIRTcar Super Late Model weekly championship. Breaking his right wrist in the heart of the summer racing schedule, however, wasn’t part of it.
As the end of July approached, the 29-year-old native of Fairbury, Ill., appeared to be in a solid position to make a bid for the points title. His strategy of chasing wins at several different UMP DIRTcar-sanctioned tracks rather than solely focusing on Saturday-night competition at his hometown’s Fairbury (Ill.) American Legion Speedway — the track where he’s raced regularly since he began driving an open-wheel modified 12 years ago — had kept him atop the national points race throughout the spring and early summer and he was ready to try repelling the late-season rush of UMP DIRTcar Summernationals champion Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., and other circuit standouts.
Then, on the first lap of the July 22 feature at Farmer City (Ill.) Raceway, a hit to his car’s left-front corner jerked the steering wheel from his hands and left him with a broken right wrist. He remained in the race and toughed out a fourth-place finish with pain radiating through his fractured wrist, but after being X-rayed the next morning, he was fitted in a cast that covered his hand and stretched nearly to his elbow and, suddenly, his best-laid points-chasing plans were effectively destroyed.
“It just sucks,” Wenger said earlier this week when asked about his injury. “I wish the whole deal with my arm wouldn’t have happened because I really feel the opportunity to win this (UMP DIRTcar) thing like we were wanting to is right there. Now, it’s just gonna be really, really hard.”
Make no mistake — Wenger is by no means eliminated from contention for the title, which is determined using drivers’ 35 best points nights in UMP DIRTcar-sanctioned events through the season-ending UMP DIRTcar Fall Nationals at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. But his odds, which were already a bit long because he was attempting to buck recent tradition and win the points crown without running the full Summernationals tour, became even worse thanks to his momentum-sapping injury.
When Wenger was injured at Farmer City, he was leading the national points standings. His once-healthy edge had already dwindled away in the face of Pierce’s Summernationals-fueled surge, but he was still positioned to perhaps stave off Pierce’s charge if he could continue adding to the nine feature wins he had under his belt. The broken wrist, however, cost Wenger roughly six to eight starts over the past month — and, in the three races he did attempt with the handicap of a cast on his arm, he didn’t perform up to par. As a result, he’s now second in the standings, 157 points behind the 19-year-old Pierce.
Wenger initially sat out the remainder of the July 22-24 weekend and the following weekend as well; he was a spectator at Fairbury’s July 29-30 World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series-sanctioned Prairie Dirt Classic — an event he actually planned to skip because he felt he had a better chance to gain points by running two races elsewhere. He got anxious to return to the cockpit, however, and he decided to try racing again the first weekend in August with some slight modifications done to his cast and a velcro opening stitched into the arm of his fireproof uniform.
While Wenger logged three respectable finishes — fifth on Aug. 5 at Farmer City, sixth on Aug. 6 at Fairbury and seventh on Aug. 13 at Fairbury — he wasn’t satisfied. His struggles to control his self-owned Pierce Race Car with his grip hampered by the cast prompted him to bypass racing last weekend and pledge not to get back in the car until his cast comes off.
“It was just horrible,” Wenger said of competing while injured. “It’s one thing not racing — that’s pretty tough to handle. But going out there and racing and not being able to do what you usually do in the car was extremely tough, too. I was basically just driving around there one-handed, and I’ve never been a one-handed driver. I know there’s a lot of guys out there who race one-handed, but I don’t have a clue how they do it. I’ve been racing with two hands on the wheel since I was 12 and I couldn’t be competitive enough to win a race running with one hand.
“I tried to go out there and race but it was just real frustrating. My cast is so long and it doesn’t allow me to move my wrist. I got my (right) hand up there on top of the (steering) wheel to where I could kind of hold it straight down the straightaway, but I couldn’t keep up with the steering with just my left arm so I couldn’t run up on the top (of the tracks) like I like to. I am right-handed, and I guess I never thought about how much I use my right hand in a race car. It was just a whole different deal and I wasn’t happy with how it was going. We were running mid-pack, and we got smashed up just about every night being back there.
“It was probably good we did it — it probably kept us in second (in the points),” he added. “But we were just losing too much money every night. You gotta go out and run top three every night at these local shows to make a little money or break even, and running fifth, sixth, seventh the last three nights out, there’s no money for fuel, no money for tires and we’re getting the doors beat off of it every night. Finally, I had to say, ‘This isn’t gonna work.’ ”
Wenger couldn’t even bring himself to take a stab at last Saturday night’s annual Fair Race at Fairbury. He was going to watch his hometrack’s tradition-rich show if it hadn’t ended up getting rained out.
“The Fairbury Fair Race is always a big deal and we actually won it last year,” Wenger said. “My dad called me about (last) Wednesday and was like, ‘Are you sure we’re not gonna race the Fair? How much are pit passes? I’ll throw you some pit passes (to help out).’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ The points came out and you want to go race because you see you’re still second, but I told him, ‘We don’t have any tires or fuel and I can’t figure out what’s worse — sitting out or getting to the racetrack and running half-assed.’ So I decided I wasn’t gonna run it.”
For Wenger, chasing the UMP DIRTcar title was a carefully calibrated challenge from the start, so he simply couldn’t afford any unexpected hurdles that could throw it off kilter. He knew he didn’t have the time nor the finances to run the full Summernationals as most recent UMP DIRTcar champs have done, but he decided to dedicate himself this season to doing everything he could to accumulate points by picking-and-choosing the weekend races he felt would provide him the best opportunity to run up front.
“Since the PRI (trade) show (last December in Indianapolis), basically, we just decided going after the national championship was what we wanted to do,” said Wenger, who is in his fifth season of Dirt Late Model action. “We set some goals, you know? Every year we’ve always just been local racers at Fairbury and Farmer City, and I figured if we could go out and run on more tracks that we would get better and would get the car to go faster. I’m just trying to build up my career and get bigger and better.
“I knew if we could just go out and win 20 races, we’d have an opportunity to probably get five, six, seven, eight second-place finishes, too, and that would give us a good shot at (the title).”
And what would claiming the $20,000 national crown mean to a Weekend Warrior like Wenger who races on a limited budget?
“Well, that would be huge,” Wenger said. “A lot of guys that go after $20,000 might spend $50,000, and I can say right now that we run every week, every night, off of the track earnings from the night before so if we win $20,000 we’re gonna get $20,000. I’m not gonna have to run around and pay a bunch of people off or anything. At the end of the season, if we can get $20,000 in January (at the UMP DIRTcar awards banquet in Springfield, Ill.), that’s a career-changer for us and might even be life-changing for me and what I’m trying to do.”
Over the first four months of the 2016 campaign, all seemed to be going according to plan for Wenger and Co. Though he had to make some hard concessions — like not racing every Saturday night at Fairbury, which brought him plenty of ribbing from some of his local buddies who consider the place sacred — his bouncing around between tracks proved successful. He tallied nine feature wins at five tracks in Illinois (Fairbury, Farmer City, Macon Speedway, Peoria Speedway and Quincy Raceway) and scored a runner-up finish in a trip to Farmington, Mo., helping to thrust him to the top of the national points standings.
“It’s been a grind, working 50 hours a week (at his full-time job with Central Illinois Trucks, a Kenworth dealer in Champaign, Ill.) and racing three days a week,” Wenger said in mid-July while preparing to run a Summernationals event at Indiana’s Shadyhill Speedway that was ultimately rained out. “We get home at 2 o’clock in the morning from Quincy (after racing on Sunday nights) and I’m back up at it at 6 (a.m.) headed to work, but it’s all been worth it.
“We’ve been able to win races at five tracks and we’re getting good experience traveling around and racing under different circumstances and different track conditions. We’ve met a lot of cool people running regular shows at Peoria, Macon and Quincy, too, so it’s been cool to kind of get outside of Fairbury a little bit. We’ve been there for 12 years every Saturday night.
“It’s tough not to be at Fairbury (regularly), but this is something that I’ve wanted to do,” he added. “I set a goal back in January … we’re just playing the format, how we think we should do it, how we can do it. And I’ve been at Fairbury for 12 years, and I feel like I’ve got 12 more. We’re gonna be back at Fairbury. I’m not gonna run for this (national) championship every year, so I’d like to run for it once and see how it turns out.”
Wenger admits it hasn’t been easy convincing the Fairbury faithful that skipping Saturday nights there to race elsewhere is an acceptable practice for a hometown boy who grew up a couple blocks from the track. In fact, he caved in to pressure from his pals and ran Fairbury’s $10,000-to-win MARS-ALMS co-sanctioned event on May 7 rather than stick to his plan to compete at another track — and he ended up failing to qualify while still driving his older 2013-vintage Pierce Race Car (he brought out a new frame soon afterward) and using a Matt Rhyne-built engine that needed to be refreshed, potentially costing him points.
“My friends, they’re pretty tough,” said a smiling Wenger, who led Fairbury’s points standings when he missed his first race there earlier this season. “They watch Lucas Oil (Late Model Dirt Series) and World of Outlaws races and they obviously think that if you’re not (Jonathan) Davenport, you suck, so they’re pretty tough on me. Those guys have all grown up around racing, but they’re still more fans in the stands and every once in a while they’ll try to argue with me on, ‘Oh, how much money is it gonna cost to go here?’ Or, ‘You’re gonna make more money here or there.’ I say, ‘Don’t even try to imagine what our checking account looks like.’
“Like, with like the PDC (Prairie Dirt Classic), I was throwing some finances out to the guys in a (group) text message and I said, ‘I’m gonna be out $500 when I roll into the gate on Friday … I’m gonna have $350 in pit passes and a $100 (plus) World of Outlaws (entry) fee.’ What they don’t understand is, we’ve got the body hanging off our car and we don’t want to go buy 12 new tires — for a race like that, you need new tires. Instead, if I just take the tires I have and flatten out this body with some hammers and take it down the road somewhere (to another track) and maybe win $1,000 or $1,500 and get 70 or 75 points, then that’s what we gotta do. Plus, if we would’ve been able to go out and win or run up front twice that weekend rather than giving up one night at Fairbury (for qualifying), that’s a huge weekend for us late in the season with what we’re trying to do.
“We’ve got plenty of PDCs and Summernationals races to run at Fairbury,” he added. “We’ve run all those big races at Fairbury the last four years with the Late Model and we love it, but it’s just time for us to do something a little bit different.”
Wenger has disregarded the ball-busting and soldiered on this season.
“I’ve got a lot of people who do support what I’m doing,” Wenger said. “I think the people who are saying negative stuff towards us, I think they just don’t understand that we’re thinking big picture and we are thinking about the future. Us racers have got to survive, we’ve got to make money to keep things going, and if I’ve got to sacrifice a few big races at Fairbury to insure I’m gonna be able to run a Late Model for the next 10 years, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.
“We’re always building. We’re starting to get this Late Model stuff rolling. It’s been a lot of trial and error and we’ve learned everything the hard way. There’s just a lot of stuff behind the scenes that goes into me planning where I’m gonna go race and try to think big picture the whole time.
“For it to work out at the end of the year, for us to battle for the championship with a team like Pierce or (Ryan) Unzicker) or (Jason) Feger, I think that’s why UMP finally made this (points) format what it is. It gives a chance for a professional, experienced team and more of an amateur team to go head-to-head for this deal.”
Wenger hasn’t given up on his dream. Not yet. He’s down with a broken wrist, but, if he gets good news Thursday when he visits his doctor for X-rays and he no longer has to wear a cast, he’ll try to make one final push for an unlikely championship.
“I’m really hoping everything’s healing good and I can just go to a brace or something and not have to put another cast on,” Wenger said. “It’s been feeling pretty decent. I’ve been using it a lot in the last week and a half trying to keep working it so it doesn’t get too weak on me. I’m hoping I can get this cast off, wrap it up in some tape and just get in the race car and go.
“I feel like the only way we can win it now is if we get this cast off this week and maybe go 8-for-15 (with wins) or something crazy. We’re gonna have to really take over if we’re gonna win this thing so it’s gonna be tough, but I think I can get adapted back to the car pretty quick and we’re gonna give it our best shot.”
Ten things worth mentioning
1. Did you happen to see this video that up-and-coming Dirt Late Model driver Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo., posted on his Twitter feed last Friday? It shows the 23-year-old in a small boat floating through the flooded infield of his parents Kevin and Tammy Gundaker’s Tri-City Speedway in Granite City, Ill., which was inundated with rain last week. Gundaker proudly noted that the track’s inner lake didn’t prevent last Friday night’s racing program from running as scheduled — in fact, his footage included a look at the fire extinguishers he was delivering to the corner workers before the start of the action.
2. With the WoO tour idle, reigning champion Shane Clanton of Zebulon, Ga., attempted to make his first-ever start in open-wheel modified by traveling to Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. — a track where Clanton won a WoO A-Main in 2007 — for last Friday night’s Grant Junghans Memorial. The event was created to honor the older brother of WoO traveler Chase Junghans of Manhattan, Kan.; Grant Junghans raced modifieds throughout his six-year battle with a rare form of cancer that ultimately took his life at the age of 27 on March 12. Clanton, who has come to know the Junghans family well while following the WoO circuit alongside Chase for the last two years, entered the big-money show (it offered a $10,002 first-place prize and a total purse of over $100,000) as Chase’s teammate driving cars from Grant’s stable. Unfortunately, the event, which drew over 120 cars, rained out shortly after it began and is tentatively rescheduled as a two-day program on Sept. 30-Oct. 1.
3. Another WoO regular, Brandon Overton of Evans, Ga., also had plans to enter the Grant Junghans Memorial in a Victory Race Car from Karl’s Performance in Des Moines, Iowa (Overton runs a Billy Moyer Victory Late Model constructed at Karl’s), but the deal fell through shortly before the event.
4. No formal statement from the management of Eldora Speedway was released in the wake of the five tire-related disqualifications from June’s Dream XXII presented by Ferris Mowers, but anyone who wondered whether Eldora owner Tony Stewart supported the penalties assessed to those drivers (Scott Bloomquist, Jimmy Owens, Gregg Satterlee, Brandon Sheppard and Ricky Thornton Jr.) should wonder no more. Stewart forcefully offered his opinion on tire soaking in a blog under his own byline that appeared in the August edition of Speed Sport Magazine. “When it comes to the big-money races, everybody needs to be on the same playing field,” Stewart wrote. “That’s why there are tire rules to begin with. When it says in the rulebook that tire compounds cannot be altered, anyone soaking tires is blatantly cheating. It’s frustrating to see guys getting suspended and cheating fans out of the chance to see them race. As soon as this round of suspensions came down, we (Eldora Speedway) started getting calls from fans that were mad because those guys weren’t going to be at the World 100 (because of 90-day suspensions from UMP DIRTcar- and WoO-sanctioned events). We didn’t break the rules. The competitors are the ones that did this to the fans. We have to enforce the rules. If you don’t enforce the rules, it’s a free for all.” Stewart also indicated that he believes in the tire-testing procedures used by UMP DIRTcar. “The stupid part about the whole thing is that Scott Bloomquist, Jimmy Owens and some of these other guys don’t have to cheat to win races,” Stewart wrote. “The entire industry is being affected by a small group of people who are making a bunch of money for selling various chemicals that they tell racers cannot be detected. That’s 100 percent wrong because it can be detected, as evidenced by what happened at the Dream.”
5. Brian Daugherty, Keyser Manufacturing’s well-known Integra Shocks technical representative, did some beating-and-banging last Friday night at the Dayton (Pa.) Fair near his home of Punxsutawney, Pa. He entered the fair’s annual demolition derby and was the event’s runner-up for the second consecutive year.
6. UMP DIRTcar standout Ryan Unzicker of El Paso, Ill., took his now-annual shot at ARCA stock-car racing on dirt with Hendren Motorsports last weekend at the Illinois State Fairgrounds 1-mile oval in Springfield and nearly captured the victory he’s come to covet. On a restart with seven circuits remaining in the 100-lap ARCA event, Unzicker was running second behind Josh Williams when contact between the two sent Williams into the turn-three wall while Unzicker continued on. Unzicker then battled for the lead on a final-lap restart with 17-year-old Justin Haley; he raced on the outside of Haley through turns one and two but couldn’t find enough traction to complete the pass and settled for a third-place finish behind winner Haley and runner-up A.J. Fike. “It was our best (ARCA) finish today — that part feels good,” said Unzicker, who plans to run another ARCA show on dirt on Sept. 4 when the series visits the one-mile DuQuoin (Ill.) State Fairgrounds. “But it's disappointing to get so close to the win without getting there. We got stuck on the outside on several of those (late) restarts, got loose up there and lost our momentum. We did the best we could up there.”
7. I must mention last Friday night’s Super Late Model special at Clinton County Motor Speedway in Lock Haven, Pa., the third-mile oval just a few miles from my alma mater Lock Haven University. Dylan Yoder of Selinsgrove, Pa., advanced from the 12th starting spot to capture the 30-lap feature that paid $5,000 to win — the largest first-place prize for a Super Late Model event in the track’s history. Yoder became the last of five different leaders in the very competitive event with his lap-26 pass of Coleby Frye, who had run at the front of the pack from lap 12; earlier pacesetters were Waylon Wagner (lap 1), Andrew Yoder (laps 2 and 6-11) and Jeremy Miller (laps 3-5). A solid 31-car field signed in for the show at Clinton County, which drew praise for its competitiveness from winner Dylan Yoder. “This is an awesome racetrack,” Yoder said.
8. Could Clinton County’s successful Super Late Model program lead to more events for the division in 2017? Word is that’s a possibility. I wouldn’t mind seeing the track join next year’s Appalachian Mountain Speedweek schedule, giving the half-mile-dominated miniseries another bullring to go alongside the quarter-mile Path Valley Speedway Park in Spring Valley, Pa.
9. Best wishes to veteran photographer Larry Burnett of Poquoson, Va., who is scheduled to undergo open-heart surgery this week. The 53-year-old is a familiar face at Mid-Atlantic Dirt Late Model events; just this month, in fact, he shot the three WoO events Delaware, Maryland and Virginia for DirtonDirt.com.
10. I made a trip to Florida’s Disney World last week with my wife. Of course, my racing instincts took over while I sat at a water show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom one night. I couldn’t help counting the rows of seats in the amphitheater-like grandstands in order to estimate how many people were watching — just like I often find myself doing at racetracks to gauge spectator capacity.