WAUSEON, Ohio — When someone suggested to Bobby Pierce on Saturday afternoon at Oakshade Raceway that his third consecutive UMP DIRTcar Summernationals championship qualifies him for a certain nickname, he happily accepted the notion. | Complete Summernationals coverage
“Yeah,” Pierce said with a smile, “I guess you could call me Mr. Summernationals.”
Pierce, 20, of Oakwood, Ill., hasn’t yet reached the legal drinking age, but there can be no doubt that he has emerged as the king of the Hell Tour. He clinched his latest title with three races remaining on the schedule — making him just the second driver to win three points crowns in a row, joining Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Ill. (2007-09) — to prove how adept he has become at chasing the Midwest’s grueling, month-long circuit.
Since debuting on the series as a baby-faced 12-year-old in 2009 and becoming a regular traveler three years later, Pierce has developed into a homegrown star. He has recorded 23 Summernationals victories — ranking him fifth on the all time win list behind superstars Billy Moyer (96), Shannon Babb (92), Don O’Neal (39) and Scott Bloomquist (28) — and finished among the top five in the final points standings for the last five years, preceding his three titles with placings of second in 2013 and fifth in ’14.
Pierce knows he’s evolved into a racer capable of winning crown jewel events (over the past year he’s won the North-South 100, World 100 and Show-Me 100) precisely because he’s spent so many nights tearing around Midwest dirt tracks on the Summernationals.
“It’s a lot of fun running all these races, and running so many races back-to-back, running a different racetrack every night, makes you so much better as a driver and a team,” Pierce said before plunging into Saturday night’s Hell Tour finale at Oakshade. “Your transition from track-to-track, adapting to the conditions, just helps you improve so much.
“That’s what I tell people all the time, ‘You gotta do it at least once. Before you can say you’ve done something, you’ve got to do the Summernationals.’ It’s just a tour all to itself because of how tough it is to go night after night. It’s definitely something you can build on. It takes a lot out of you and your equipment, but if you can just do it one time, it’s definitely gonna help you get better.”
Pierce didn’t put up the dominant, double-figure win total that he did a year ago; he won five times, reaching victory lane June 15 at Kankakee (Ill.) County Raceway, June 22 at Spoon River Speedway in Banner, Ill., July 6 at Macon (Ill.) Speedway, July 8 at Highland (Ill.) Speedway and July 14 at Oakshade. But his remarkable consistency proved he understands how to race hard but still survive and that his on-the-road team — comprised of his father Bob and crewmen Dan Corrin, 24, of Tauranga, New Zealand, and Kyle Hammer, 17, of Clinton, Ill. — performed as a well-oiled machine. He completed every lap of this year’s 25 features, tallying 19 top-five finishes and never placing worse than 10th (Saturday’s Birthday Race at Oakshade).
“That’s what it takes to win it,” said Pierce, who experienced just a single significant engine problem during the hardscrabble month of racing (a broken piston was discovered after his Spoon River win). “Hopefully we can take that momentum and carry it on to races past the Summernationals and turn this into a really good year.”
There’s no arguing the fact that Pierce possesses the talent to move away from the regional Summernationals and compete as a national touring regular with the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series or World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series, but the circumstances would have to be just right for him to join one of those circuits and forego his bread-and-butter Hell Tour.
“We’d probably need to have a big sponsorship come on board and them say, ‘Hey, we want you to do this.’ That’s what it would take (to run Lucas Oil or WoO regularly),” said Pierce, whose ’17 Hell Tour stats included $30,000 in first-place earnings and a combined $31,000 in points-fund championship cash ($25,000 for the overall title plus three $2,000 weekly crowns). “We tried it one year in 2013 (with Lucas Oil) and we ended up dropping off right before Summernationals started. It’s hard, because you’re really traveling. With the Summernationals, at most for us each track is no more than five hours away, so to go do a tour like that (national) definitely takes a lot.
“Plus, all year you have to focus on that, where with this, it’s just a month,” he added. “It’s a hard month for sure — the hardest month you can do — but it’s just a month.”
Pierce doesn’t discourage aspiring teenage drivers from skipping over a regional series like the Summernationals and heading right to a national tour, but he’s Exhibit A of how useful cutting your teeth on the Hell Tour can be.
“I think you just do whatever you can as soon as you can,” Pierce said. “The earlier you start anything, the better you’re gonna be and the more stuff you’re gonna learn right off the bat. If you have the funding to do a (national) tour like that (as an developing teenager), I’d say go ahead and try it. You might not be winning races at first, but it’s something that will be good for you.”
For Pierce, of course, the Summernationals is what’s great. If he continues running it in future years, there’s no telling how many feature wins and championships he’ll ring up.