WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Michigan Rivals Take on Summer Nationals in Four-Race Tour Finale

One final week remains on the trail of the 37th annual DIRTcar Summer Nationals. A four-race stretch in the state of Michigan is on-tap, pitting the Summer Nationals stars against a tough group of local racers.

Michigan Week schedule:
Wednesday, July 20 – Thunderbird Raceway (Muskegon, MI)
Thursday, July 21 – Butler Motor Speedway (Quincy, MI)
Friday, July 22 – Tri-City Motor Speedway (Auburn, MI)
Saturday, July 23 – Merritt Speedway (Lake City, MI)

Tickets for each event will be available at the gates on race day. If you can’t make it to your favorite track, watch all the action live on DIRTVision – online at DIRTVision.com or with the DIRTVision mobile app.

Here are the drivers to watch for and the storylines to follow this week:

EAST SIDE BOYZ – This week, the Summer Nationals full-timers and Summit Modified pilots go head-to-head with the biggest group of rivals they’ve seen all season. The weekly racers of Michigan make up the DIRTcar Late Model East Region and UMP Modified Michigan Region, and they’re coming for Victory Lane. Below is a projected look at the top local entrants for each venue.

Thunderbird Raceway – This 1/3-mile oval is one of the most exciting tracks the tour visits in Michigan with its almost-completely rounded straightaways and several grooves of racing. Now under new ownership this year from promoter Mike Blackmer, who also owns/promotes Tri-City and Merritt, the track is set to host its fifth Summer Nationals & Summit Modified event on Wednesday. It’s home to weekly DIRTcar-sanctioned Late Models only, though the Michigan UMP Modified crowd is strong and will likely see a solid roster there as well.

  • #4 Travis Stemler, of Ionia, MI, is currently tied for the most wins this season at Thunderbird with two (May 14, May 28). The 31-year-old Anklam Racing pilot ran fifth in last year’s Summer Nationals visit, and qualified third-fastest overall in a field of 42 cars. He’s come close to a win on the Summer Nationals trail before, most recently running third in the season finale last year at Merritt, but still races in search of his first Hell Tour victory.

    Stemler (4) racing Ashton Winger in 2021 at Merritt (Terry Page Photo)
  • #87 Rich Neiser, of Fruitport, MI, last won the track championship in 2020 and currently holds the track points lead with one win, six top-fives and no finishes outside of the top-10 in the nine Features he’s started. His one win came on May 7, where he topped three-time DIRTcar national champion Rusty Schlenk and 24 other drivers in the field that night to bag his first of five total victories in DIRTcar-sanctioned racing in Michigan this season.
  • #50 Greg Gokey, of Buckley, MI, is tied with Stemler for wins at T-Bird this season with victories in back-to-back weeks (June 11, June 18). He currently sits sixth in track points with top-five finishes in all but one of the five races he’s started.

Butler Motor Speedway – Standing as one of Michigan’s fastest 3/8-mile ovals, the long straightaways and sweeping corners of Butler have also come under new ownership for the first time in 29 years this season. Longtime Butler competitor Tim Wilber purchased the track from Denny Donaldson over the winter and brings the Hell Tour back for its third-consecutive visit. It’s hosted weekly DIRTcar UMP Modified racing for several years and is home to many contenders to score a win Thursday night.

  • #17N Dillon Nusbaum, of Warsaw, IN, has raced five times at Butler this season and won three of them – most of any driver. Currently ranked No. 17 in the Michigan UMP Modified region, Nusbaum has two starts with the Summit Modifieds this season; still searching for his first career win.
  • #8C Corey Bevard, of Union City, MI, currently sits second in track points and has the second-most Feature wins with two in local competition this season. He’s the most recent UMP Modified driver to visit Victory Lane, taking the checkers last Saturday in a field of 19 entrants.
  • #45 Robby Henderson, of Angola, IN, is the current track points leader by 21 over Bevard. Though he hasn’t seen Butler Victory Lane yet this year, he is the most consistent driver in among his weekly rivals, posting six top-fives in nine starts and no finishes outside of the top-10.

Tri-City Motor Speedway – Another weekly track for DIRTcar Late Models under Mike Blackmer’s ownership, this unique racing venue features the 3/8-mile dirt track inside of an interestingly shaped half-mile paved track that now serves as the pit area for all teams. “TCMS” made its debut on the Summer Nationals schedule in 2020 before the tour returned last year.

  • #19 Derrick Hilliker, of Midland, MI, currently leads track points by 28 over Eric Spangler with two wins (June 17, July 8) and no finishes outside of the top-five through eight weekly races thus far.

    Marcoullier (6M) passing Heckenast (99JR) for the win at Tri-City (Terry Page Photo, 2020)
  • #6M Dona Marcoullier, of Houghton Lake, MI, brought the entire TCMS crowd to its feet two years ago when he upset the Summer Nationals field in thrilling fashion, passing polesitter Frank Heckenast Jr. for the lead in the closing laps to win his first career Hell Tour Feature. This year, he has not been in weekly action as much with only three appearances since the season started. But he’s still managed to park it in Victory Lane twice, and currently sits second in Allstar Challenge Series points – a series of races between Tri-City, Thunderbird and Merritt.

Merritt Speedway – For the third time in as many years, Merritt will host the final DIRTcar Summer Nationals Late Models event of the season. Standing as one of the most eye-catching venues in Michigan with its grassy infield, spacious pit area and signature Victory Lane backdrop, this 3/8-mile oval is home to both DIRTcar Late Model and UMP Modified racing on a weekly basis.

  • #27 Eric Spangler, the seven-time Late Model track champion from Lake City, MI, is having another great season at his home track with three wins in nine Feature appearances. He’s also the current Allstar Challenge Series points leader by a slim margin of six over Marcoullier.
  • #19 Chad Bauer earned his first career DIRTcar Summit Modified victory last Saturday at Oakshade Raceway and will be among the frontrunners to get his second tour victory this Saturday night. He currently leads track points with three wins, the most by any driver, and is ranked No. 3 in the Michigan UMP Modified region.

GUNNING FOR VICTORY – Only four chances remain for the Hell Tour’s top rookie to get a win. But this week could be his best chance yet.

Payton Freeman has three top-fives in his last five Summer Nationals starts – the longest such stretch over any five-race span this season, showing his consistent improvement. He’ll face the Michigan regulars this week in their backyard, but he’s been racing the Illinois regulars in their backyards this whole season and has worked his way into third-place in the standings as a result.

Freeman at Spoon River (Jacy Norgaard Photo)

99 PROBLEMS – The Summer Nationals stars will face a hungry field of Michigan drivers in their homeland this week, but that also means those weekly racers have to deal with the invaders. One of whom has been a problem for the locals on several occasions – Frank Heckenast Jr.

The former Hell Tour regular and World of Outlaws Rookie of the Year from Frankfort, IL, beat the Michigan clan at Thunderbird two years ago, and nearly did it again the next night at Tri-City before Marcoullier passed him for the lead late. He also finished fourth at I-96 last year and third the next night at Tri-City.

Heckenast is scheduled to attend both Thunderbird and Tri-City this week, shooting for career win #6.