PEORIA, IL — July 13, 2010 — The DIRTcar Summer Nationals Hell Tour isn’t for the faint of heart. Starting June 16, the Dirt Late Model tour has wound its way through the Midwest, not even stopping to catch a breath for 19 consecutive race days.
Very few have what it takes to survive the grueling schedule, much less compete against some of the best racers in the country day after day. Nearly 300 drivers have tried, but only 10 have taken to the track each of the 24 nights heading into the stretch run that begins tonight at Peoria (IL) Speedway.
Defending DIRTcar Late Model champion Jason Feger has a slim lead over four-time defending Hell Tour champion Dennis Erb Jr. Chasing those two for the overall Hell Tour crown to be decided on Saturday at Oakshade Speedway in Wauseon, Ohio, are two-time Summer Nationals champion Shannon Babb, plus 15-time Summer Nationals race winner Jeep Van Wormer.
Hoping to be at that level soon is Brandon Thirlby, a native of Traverse City, Mich. Right now, Thirlby might be better known for racing hydroplane boats than racing DIRTcar Late Models, but he’s looking to change that. He’s an eight-time national champion on water, and now with a week left in the 2010 edition of the Hell Tour, Thirlby has not missed a race on dirt since June 16. He’s battled, made bold moves and learned from some of the best in the business.
He’s 16th in points and knows he has a lot to learn, but there’s no quit in him or his crew, which consists of his brothers. Still, making the adjustments to be successful is a challenge.
“There’s more stuff different than there is the same between racing boats and racing cars,” said Thirlby, who turned 23 a couple of weeks before the Hell Tour started. “I guess go fast and turn left is the only thing that’s same between the two of them. There are so many different changes you can make on these race cars.”
His passion for DIRTcar racing is evident. He’s working on his car, learning how to tweak the setup each night with the help of his brothers. He’s more than just a driver, which makes his effort on his inaugural Summer Nationals run even more impressive, even if he has yet to pull off a Top 10 finish.
“There’s so much you can learn from the people around you at these events,” Thirlby said. “There are 20 of the best guys you’re racing against every night, and I’d say 75 percent of them are willing to give you help every night.”
As much as the battle on the track can be intense, the mental aspect of surviving the grueling Summer Nationals schedule against fierce competitors can also be taxing.
“The big question from everybody is am I getting disappointed,” Thirlby said. “I came into the Summer Nationals knowing where we were as far as Erb and Feger and Babb. You just can’t put yourself with those guys yet, you have to learn from them.”
Every night is obviously a lesson, but he is clearly determined to succeed. After taking two days off next week Thirlby will be back on the water for another two-week run of boat racing. But Thirlby believes this DIRTcar Summer Nationals tour has been the start of something bigger.
“This has been the start of my full-time car racing career,” he said. “From here on out you’ll see me around the United States a lot more.”
No doubt with a positive approach and the confidence knowing he survived one of the toughest tours in auto racing.