Still Standing

ATTICA, OH — July 15, 2010 — The miles, the sweat, the frustration and the jubilation that comes with surviving the DIRTcar Summer Nationals Hell Tour will culminate Friday and Saturday with the championship weekend in Ohio.

This tour featuring DIRTcar Late Models is a month-long test of endurance, a test of patience and a test of wills. Simply making it to all 29 scheduled events in 32 days is a true measure of resilience. Making it to the final checkered flag and knowing you have a shot at winning the championship adds so much more pressure to crews and equipment worn thin by night-after-night of abuse on dirt tracks throughout the Midwest.

The Hell Tour kicked off June 16 in Indiana and has wound through Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee before concluding this weekend in Ohio. Nearly 300 drivers have participated, but only nine have competed at every stop on the tour entering the final two events Friday at Attica Raceway Park and Saturday at Oakshade Raceway. Of those nine, reigning DIRTcar Late Model national champion Jason Feger is on top and taking aim at his first DIRTcar Summer Nationals title, which would put him in the company of former champions like Scott Bloomquist, Billy Moyer, Don O’Neal, Shannon Babb and Dennis Erb Jr.

It’s those last two drivers plus Jeep Van Wormer, Ryan Unzicker and Jack Sullivan that Feger will need to hold off if he is to earn his first title this weekend. For Erb to win the first of his three crowns, he supplanted Babb. Now Feger is trying to do the same to Erb.

“A lot of guys have tried to win the Summer Nationals championship and come up short,” said Feger, of Bloomington, Ill. “If we were able to pull this out I think it would be pretty cool to be able to take the national deal away and this deal away from Dennis because he’s such a hard competitor and he’s been so good at it for such a long time. It would be pretty awesome. It would be the first one for Bob Pierce Race Cars, too. It would mean a lot.

“When you’re on this deal, there’s so much competition with Dennis and Babb. They’re really good at all these tracks we go to. This year we’ve been missing Randy Korte and you know he’d be right there, too. This really isn’t Jeep’s area but he’s been around here enough that he runs good at all these tracks. You just really have to step it up. It’s a long month to keep your stuff together. Everybody has had some bad nights. It’s just tough.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re on top of the standings or giving chase, the easiest way to capture the title is to focus on winning each night.

“You just have to go out and do what you can do,” said Erb, of Carpentersville, Ill. “You can’t worry about anybody else. If you’re behind now, you have to concentrate on winning. If you’re leading you can’t really worry about the other guy, you have to still run out hard because anything can turn around here at any time.”

Erb would know, too. Last year he trailed Korte going into the finale at Oakshade in a similar battle to this year’s that also included Babb and Feger. He managed a runner-up finish to Tim McCreadie in the race, and that was enough to clinch the championship by a mere eight points.

“I don’t think there is any science to this at all,” said Babb, a two-time Summer Nationals champion from Moweaqua, Ill. “It’s kind of been whoever breaks, been kind of up and down for everybody. Everybody has had their good nights and bad nights. Nobody knows how this thing is going to turn out.”

It’s that unknown which can be scary, that can prevent even the most confident of drivers from celebrating too soon. A week ago it looked like Erb was in the driver’s seat for a fourth consecutive title, but a flat tire with seven laps to go at Fairbury American Legion Speedway shuffled the deck and put Feger on top.

“I was kind of like, ‘Finally.’ That guy, he’s so consistent,” Feger said. “You very rarely see him break or have flat tires or problems like that. I think that’s the first problem he’s had on this whole deal. I’ve had three or four. Babb’s had three or four. Same way with Jeep. Everybody has had about the same number of bad nights except for Dennis it seems like and he finally had one. That’s how the luck goes. Anybody who runs this many nights in a row is going to have some bad luck, it’s really hard to be Superman.”

Feger is hoping he can avoid any encounters with kryptonite over the final two nights because he knows Erb will keep the pressure building until the final lap at Oakshade.

“You know that guy’s not going to quit,” he said of Erb. “He’s always right there, he’s always so consistent. You just have to try to stay ahead of him, that’s the bottom line. On the Summer Nationals deal, you just have to go. You just have to try to do as good as you can. If you stress out about every little thing it’s not going to work out, especially with the day-after-day grind. We just need to focus on trying to keep this up front, starting with qualifying good, running good in the heat and starting in the front of these things and keeping it in the front. That’s what we’ve been focusing on lately and we’ve been doing a pretty good job of it. I’d still like to get a couple more wins, too.”

Says Erb, “You just have to go out there and concentrate on running good and winning and let the points take care of themselves. We just need to get on a roll and have some good finishes so we can be in the hunt for it.”

For some of the others, winning the championship will be a long shot, but the experience gained is crucial to future success.

“This is our third Summer Nationals, and in our first year we were out to lunch,” said Unzicker, a native of El Paso, Ill., who earned the first Hell Tour victory of his career on Monday night at Spoon River Speedway. “We didn’t know what we were supposed to do. We didn’t know what to prepare for. Last year we came in with a better approach and that definitely helped our game. We gained on it again this year. We’ve only had a couple of parts issues we couldn’t deal with. If it wasn’t for that, we could be possibly right up in the running for the championship. We would definitely love a top five out of the Summer Nationals.”

Sullivan also has stepped up his Summer Nationals program this summer, earning two victories heading into this weekend as he battles with Unzicker for a Top Five finish in the overall standings.

“I’ve been in the top five most of this deal,” said Sullivan, of Greenbriar, Ark., after winning at Peoria Speedway on Tuesday night. “We’ve had a few mechanical problems that snookered us, there have been nights where I just couldn’t hit my tail. But that’s part of the good thing about this tour, there’s always a next night. You can really learn some things about your race car that will help you throughout the year.”

Ultimately, that’s the key for many of the drivers who survive the DIRTcar Summer Nationals Hell Tour, to gain enough knowledge in one month of racing day after day that can be used in an effort to win the DIRTcar Late Model year-long national championship.

“All these racetracks when you go in there are up for grabs,” Babb said. “We’ve learned a lot. This Summer Nationals deal is good for everybody, especially me. I like racing every night. I’ve been trying different setups every night. I’ve learned a few things that will help me next year or if I go back to these same race tracks. I’m happy and satisfied with that no matter how this thing turns out.”

By Saturday night, Babb and the rest of the DIRTcar Summer Nationals followers will know if Feger was able to hang on, if Erb worked a little magic for a fourth consecutive year or if he, Van Wormer, Unzicker or Sullivan was able to sneak in and steal the top prize. Heading into a weekend of unknowns with the championship on the line, one thing is certain: expect high tension and high drama — the Hell Tour never disappoints.