LA SALLE, Ill. — If history is any indication, drivers from Illinois and Iowa will be tough to beat in the $15,000-to-win finale of the March 29-30 Thaw Brawl presented by Hoker Trucking at La Salle Speedway.
Residents of the neighboring Midwest states have owned the featured attraction of the high-banked, quarter-mile oval’s season-opening blockbuster since its inception in 2012. Three standouts from the Land of Lincoln (Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Bobby Pierce of Oakwood and Brian Shirley of Chatham) and two Hawkeye State stars (Brian Birkhofer of Muscatine and Chris Simpson of Oxford) have captured the Thaw Brawl’s Saturday-evening headliner, which has been contested six times.
The only driver not hailing from Illinois or Iowa who has reached victory lane during the Thaw Brawl weekend is Josh Richards of Shinnston, W.Va., who topped 2017’s Friday-night preliminary A-main before Saturday’s main event was rained out and not rescheduled.
Erb holds the distinction of being the only two-winner winner of the Thaw Brawl finale after claiming the $5,000 first-place prize in the inaugural race in 2012 — the only year that a five-figure victor’s check wasn’t offered — and again in ’14 when the payoff rose to $15,000. Pierce and Shirley were triumphant in 2015 and ’16, respectively, to cap perfect $20,000 weekends in which they swept the Friday and Saturday features, while Birkhofer earned $10,000 for grabbing the checkered flag in ’13 and Simpson pocketed a career-high $15,000 for his score in last year’s 75-lapper.
The Illinois/Iowa stranglehold on the Thaw Brawl’s main event is evidenced by another statistic: of the 30 top-five finishing positions in the six big-money finales, only seven spots have been occupied by drivers who live in other states. The highest-finishing non-Illinois/Iowa driver in the Thaw Brawl finale is Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, who was the runner-up last year. Schlenk also earned a fifth-place finish in 2016, while the other top-five interlopers are Ricky Weiss of Headingley, Manitoba (third in ’15 and ’18), Austin Hubbard of Seaford, Del. (fifth in ’13), Scott Bloomquist of Mooresburg, Tenn. (fourth in ’14) and Jared Landers of Batesville, Ark. (fifth in ’15).
Will the superiority of the Illinois and Iowa contingent continue during the 2019 Thaw Brawl, which kicks off with a 50-lap, $5,000-to-win A-main on Fri., March 29, before concluding with the 75-lap, $15,000-to-win feature on Sat., March 30? Erb, Pierce, Shirley and Simpson are all expected back to chase another rich victory as well as other home-state talents like Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, who won last year’s Thaw Brawl preliminary feature, Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Jason Feger of Bloomington, Ryan Unzicker of El Paso and Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, but drivers from other states are primed to challenge them.
With the Thaw Brawl sporting sanctioning from the Michigan-based American Ethanol Late Model Tour for the first time, a bigger representation of Wolverine State racers is expected, including defending AELMT champion Brandon Thirlby of Traverse City, two-time series titlist Dona Marcoullier of Houghton Lake, Eric Spangler of Lake City and Travis Stemler of Ionia. Other notables with plans to enter the weekend include Schlenk, Hall of Famer Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., and Steve Casebolt of Richmond, Ind.
Tickets, reserved motorhome camping spots and VIP parking are now on sale for the Thaw Brawl presented by Hoker Trucking, which also includes complete programs on both March 29 and 30 for the American Ethanol Modified Tour presented by All-Star Performance, IMCA modifieds and sport mods. The American Ethanol Late Model and Modified action will be contested under UMP DIRTcar rules and regulations while the IMCA modifieds and sport mods will utilize IMCA rules. The rain date for the weekend is Sun., March 31, or April 12-13.
DirtonDirt.com will provide live pay-per-view video coverage of the Thaw Brawl weekend for those who can not attend in person.
Izzo has scheduled a pair of pre-Thaw Brawl open practice sessions at La Salle for March 22 and 28, both from 4-10 p.m.
The Thaw Brawl is one of three trips the American Ethanol Tour is set to make to La Salle in 2019, establishing the track as a key venue on the circuit’s 25-race schedule. The series will also sanction the $6,000-to-win Bill Waite Jr. Memorial Classic on Sun., July 21, and the inaugural Fan Fueled 50K on Sept. 27-28, a blockbuster two-day inaugural event that boasts a $30,000-to-win finale and offers the opportunity for one driver to pocket $50,000. Izzo said he will announce details of the Fan Fueled 50K at a later date.
Ticket and camping information and other details about the Thaw Brawl weekend can be obtained by visiting www.lasallespeedway.com or calling the track office at 815-223-6900.
-LaSalle Speedway Press Release
-Photo credit: Jim Denhamer