Frank Heckenast Jr. Returns to Victory Lane at Shadyhill Speedway
MEDARYVILLE, IN (July 10) — Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, IL, sure was glad he entered Tuesday night’s DIRTcar Summer Nationals event at Shadyhill Speedway rather than give in to his frustration and step off the grueling month-long series.
Sticking it out, after all, resulted in Heckenast experiencing a dramatic change in luck that landed him a $5,000 victory in the quarter-mile oval’s 40-lap Hell Tour feature.
Racing one day after celebrating his 30th birthday, Heckenast inherited the top spot on lap 16 when series points leader Brian Shirley of Chatham, IL, tangled with a lapped car and controlled the remainder of the distance in his family-owned Black Diamond machine. He beat Rusty Schlenk of McClure, OH to the finish line by 0.930 of a second to lock down his first Summer Nationals triumph since his only previous series win on June 11, 2015, at Kankakee (IL) County Speedway.
“I feel bad for Shirley — that sucks,” Heckenast said of the incident that knocked Shirley from the lead in bitter fashion. “I hate to win like that, but I feel like we’ve had a couple taken away from us on this deal so I guess it all blends together.”
Billy Moyer of Batesville, AR, finished third, falling short in his bid for a milestone 100th career Summer Nationals win. Polesitter Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, MO, placed fourth despite running much of the distance with a broken left-front A-frame on his car and Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, MI, overtook Jason Feger of Bloomington, IL, late in the distance to finish fifth.
Shirley, 37, seemed in control while leading the race’s first 16 laps off the outside pole, but his march toward a third consecutive Summer Nationals checkered flag was derailed — and Heckenast’s flagging Hell Tour fortunes were flipped for the better — due to a scary accident on the 16th circuit. The slowing car driven by Aaron Hubner of Lafayette, IN, crossed into Shirley’s path in turn three, creating contact that sent Shirley spinning into the tractor tire at the end of the outside wall and Hubner flipping wildly over the concrete.
Shirley’s Bob Cullen-owned XR1 Rocket came to rest backwards against the tractor tire while Hubner, who earlier had spun twice in his heat race and again on lap eight of the feature, landed upside down just off the racing surface. Neither driver was injured and Shirley was able to continue racing, albeit from the rear of the field because he was deemed to have been involved in the tangle that brought out the red flag.
Heckenast had a clear view of the crash that ultimately caused Shirley to settle for an eighth-place finish rather than the first three-race Summer Nationals win streak of his career.
“I was pretty close,” Heckenast said. “At the last second the 4 car (Hubner) turned right to go off the racetrack as Shirley actually was moving up to maybe try to go around him or set the car for the bottom. It was just a really bad deal.”
Shirley’s grim fate certainly was on Heckenast’s mind when he had to deal with slower traffic in the A-main’s closing laps.
“When I got the lead and caught the lapped cars, I was like, ‘OK, we either stay on the bottom and Rusty’s gonna get really close to me,’ or, ‘I’m gonna move out here like Shirley and take a chance (to pass them),’” Heckenast said. “I did (get aggressive), and then I come off the corner and they squeezed me in the wall and I was like, ‘Oh, this is dangerous.’”
Heckenast cooled his jets and stayed several car lengths in front of Schlenk, whose best opportunities to overtake Heckenast actually came early in the race when he drove underneath Heckenast several times in a bid for second place. Repelling Schlenk’s challenges then ended up putting Heckenast in position to capitalize on Shirley’s misfortune.
“I gotta tell him thank you for running me clean,” Heckenast said of Schlenk. “There were a couple times he probably could’ve passed me. I was blocking a little bit at the beginning, but at the end I feel like we got a little better.
“We had a good car,” he continued. “I think if I would’ve started in front of Shirley I could’ve outrun him, but when I was behind him I wasn’t gonna pass him. He was pretty good … I’m just really honored to be able to run with him because he’s been running good.”
Schlenk, who turns 32 on July 20, didn’t have quite enough speed in his C.J. Rayburn house car to outrun Heckenast. The first-time Summer Nationals regular was satisfied, however, with his best outing of the 2018 Hell Tour.
“I wasn’t really excited to see Shirley get in that wreck — that was terrible with that lapped car,” Schlenk said. “But I knew it gave us a shot to maybe win that thing.
“We weren’t better than Shirley, but I think we were maybe a little bit better Frankie on long runs. It just seemed like every time we’d get rolling and get the middle working, I’d start working on Frankie, we’d have a caution.
“I’ll take a second though, especially after last night (at Illinois’s Lincoln Speedway),” he added. “I thought we were gonna win it and blew a motor (while leading). We kind of rallied back and pulled the backup car out tonight and came back for a second.”
For Heckenast, his rebound cemented his decision to stay on the road with the Summer Nationals for its final week.
“I’ve been trying to … I don’t want to say quit, but I was definitely negative about it,” said Heckenast, whose car was powered by an older Matt Rhyne-built engine that his sister, Sherri, used during her driving days. “But my crew guys and my mom and my dad and my fiancé and everybody didn’t want me to quit. The (World of) Outlaws (Craftsman Late Model Series) was tough and I never quit it (while following it full-time from 2014-17). I’m not a quitter, and they didn’t want me to quit with as bad of luck as we were having.
“I actually would’ve been good with bad luck, because we’ve had worse than bad luck. We’ve been really fast. We set fast time three nights in a row. It’s just everyone else’s bad luck would get into ours, or we’d break stuff … we’ve been breaking stuff that I’ve never seen anybody break. It’s not because of my crew guys … I feel terrible for them because we’ve had so many DNFs and its nothing they’ve done. It’s just crazy stuff.
“So,” he concluded, “it feels pretty damn good to finally get some good luck.”
Feature Finish: Frank Heckenast Jr., Rusty Schlenk, Billy Moyer, Gordy Gundaker, Brandon Thirlby, Jason Feger, Jake Rendel, Brian Shirley, Paul Stubber, Kyle Cooper, Bob Mater, Darren Wireman, Trevor Gundaker, Cody Fultz, Keith Williams, Dan Richardson, Jordan Danford, Scott Duval, Aaron Hubner, Cameron Pearson
The DIRTcar Summer Nationals will be at Thunderbird Speedway on July 11 for the 2nd round of Champions Week presented by VP Racing Fuels. 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.