Shannon Babb Unstoppable at The Dirt Oval at Route 66
JOLIET, IL (June 16) — Conjuring memories of his spectacular DIRTcar Summer Nationals streaks of years past, Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, IL., scored his third straight Hell Tour victory on Saturday night, dominating the 30-lap feature at the Dirt Oval at Route 66.
A four-time Summer Nationals champion, Babb, 44, raced off the pole position to lead every circuit of the grueling series’s first-ever event at the 4/10-mile oval that sits adjacent to Chicagoland Speedway. He was never seriously challenged en route to claiming the $10,000 first-place prize by 2.771 seconds over Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, MI.
“We had anther good night,” said Babb, who outdueled Hall of Famer Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., for wins the previous two evenings at Kankakee (IL County Speedway and Sycamore Speedway in Maple Park, Ill. “This big old racetrack, the notes we had last year (from running there in an October World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series event) helped us out tonight.
“Starting on the pole helped us out a ton, but our car was really good. I needed to make some adjustments to make it better … it was definitely a handful. I was still too tight, but I’m pretty confident everybody was. It was really tough to get around that place.”
Outside polesitter Mike Mataragas of Sycamore, IL, finished third in his initial series appearance of 2018, falling one spot short of matching his career-best Summer Nationals performance. Tony Jackson Jr. of Lebanon, MO, placed fourth to tally his best result through four series stops and Tim Manville of Highland, IL, completed the top five in his first Summer Nationals start of the season.
After back-to-back tense races with Moyer, Babb was relieved to get a reprieve from his one-time mentor at Route 66. That doesn’t mean, however, his march to the 95th Summer Nationals checkered flag of his career — moving him within one win of Moyer’s all-time leading total — was without moments of stress.
“I think somebody probably could’ve beat me tonight if they was right up there with me and got ahead of me,” Babb commented. “It took the whole racetrack for me to be able to turn honestly. It wasn’t no easy ride.”
Some worry for Babb was provided by Chad Simpson of Mount Vernon, IA, who slid into second place with a lap-seven restart pass of Mataragas and appeared to be a formidable foe for Babb. But Babb’s concern with Simpson didn’t match reality as the perennial regional touring series champion lost positions when he slipped high on a lap-nine restart and ultimately finished eighth.
“I knew Chad Simpson gets around here really good and I knew that I was gonna have to probably deal with him at some point,” Babb said. “He’s a tough competitor. I don’t know what happened to him, but I know things got shuffled round and I felt a lot better at the end (without Simpson giving chase).”
Babb also experienced a scare on lap nine when he thought he heard a caution called out by the Summer Nationals race director over the one-way radio to the drivers, prompting him to slow on the backstretch. He realized that the caution wasn’t yet displayed when several cars flashed by him, but officials did put out the yellow flag for Timothy Culp of Prattsville, AR, sitting in turn two and Babb remained in the lead.
“Hell, there had been cars all over the place all race long and you’re at a high-speed track, so I let off and slowed down off of two,” Babb said. “They all blew by me and stayed in the gas and I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ But we came around the corner and they threw the yellow and squared ‘em back up.”
Babb, who swept the night by proceeding his feature win with fast-time honors in qualifying and a heat-race victory, won three straight Summer Nationals A-mains for the first time since 2011, when he ended the tour with seven wins in a row, including one rescheduled non-point race. Overall it marked the seventh time that he’s won three or more races consecutively on the month-long series.
According to Babb, his XR1 Rocket just might be performing well enough to extend his current streak even further.
“The car is really good,” said Babb, who took over the Summer Nationals points lead. “When they’re handling right and they’re going forward, it’s really nice. I’ve had ‘em before where they don’t go forward and you work on ‘em day and night and there’s nothing that helps ‘em. It’s really good right now. And the Clements engine … we stuck it in there new at the Dream (on June 7-9 at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, OH) and it’s bad to the bone.”
Thirlby, 31, followed Babb for the race’s finally 19 circuits after he exploded from fifth to third on a lap-nine restart and overtook Mataragas for second on lap 11. He never was able to mount a significant bid for the lead, though.
“I definitely didn’t have anything for Babb,” said Thirlby, who matched his career-best Summer Nationals finish. “I was just hoping with the ruts down in three and four he’d screw up a couple times, but when you’re following Babb around, if he does screw up, it’s minor.”
In addition, Thirlby had to nurse his family-owned machine slightly over the final laps.
“There were probably like seven to go and the (water) temp started going up so I was letting it breathe a little bit more and rolling into the corner in three and four,” Thirlby said. “I seen Babb doing the same thing so I’m thinking he was probably getting hot too.”
Thirlby, who thought the Dirt Oval reminded him of I-96 Speedway in Lake Odessa, MI, and thus went with the same setup on his XR1 Rocket that he uses at his home-state track, was most enthused about his memorable lap-nine restart move.
“It was pretty wild,” said Thirlby, who started seventh. “There was a caution (early) and I was stuck on the high side and I thought, Oh, s—, because I thought we had to be on the bottom. Then we rolled through there and I passed a couple cars (on the restart), but then a yellow came back out and I didn’t go in there as hard on the next restart and pushed up … so the next time I went in there just wide-open. I mean, I never lifted, and it just took off. I couldn’t believe it. It’s like the sea parted for me and we got to third.”
The 34-year-old Mataragas actually surprised himself with how well he ran to log a third-place finish.
“I felt really good before the first yellow (on lap seven),” said Mataragas, who made just his third start overall of 2018. “I thought I was starting to catch Shannon a little bit, but then the restarts actually hurt me. As I found out now, I was the only guy who had a hard tire on the right-rear. We put a (LM) 40 on and everybody else had 30s, so we definitely made the wrong call on tire. So I’ll take third with this group of guys after not having the right tire on.”
Mataragas said the thrill he gained from placing third mirrored what he felt after his career-best Summer Nationals finish of second to Wes Steidinger on June 14, 2008, at the then Kamp Motor Speedway (now Daugherty Speedway) in Boswell, IN
“For me, that was an exciting race (in ’08) because I got to pass Billy Moyer, the guy I looked up to as a kid,” Mataragas said. “I’m just as happy with third tonight.”
Five caution flags slowed the feature. The first came on lap seven for Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill. — the brother of Dirt Oval promoter Sherri Heckenast — who slowed with terminal engine trouble while running third. The caution remained out on the lap-seven restart because the start-line cone was carried onto the homestretch, and then Brian Shirley of Chatham, IL, brought out two cautions — on lap eight for a turn-two spin and lap 13 for a blown right-rear tire — that sandwiched the lap-nine slowdown for Culp.
A red flag was needed on the second lap-seven restart when a jam-up caused Rusty Schlenk of McClure, OH, to slide sideways in turn four, take a hit from Australian Paul Stubber, bounce over the inside berm and flip twice. His car came to rest on its roof and he emerged uninjured.
Feature Finish: Shannon Babb, Brandon Thirlby, Mike Mataragas, Tony Jackson Jr., Tim Manville, Billy Moyer, Brian Shirley, Chad Simpson, Jason Feger, Nick Hoffman, Austin Rettig, Paul Stubber, Billy Moyer Jr., Bob Gardner, Mike Spatola, Ryan Unzicker, Paul Parker, Gordy Gundaker, Timothy Culp, Rusty Schlenk, Frank Heckenast Jr., Chris Simpson
Tomorrow the DIRTcar Summer Nationals and Summit Modified Nationals visits Plymouth Speedway (IN) for the fianl event of Northern Kick Off Week. See the complete schedule at the helltour.com/schedule. Follow @SummerNationals on Twitter or Facebook for updates during and between race seasons. The DIRTcar Late Models will be joined by the DIRTcar UMP Modifieds as the Summit Racing Equipment Modified Nationals runs parallel to the DIRTcar Summer Nationals. Information on the Modifieds can be found at modifiednationals.com.