FARMER CITY, Ill. – One year ago, Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill., entered Farmer City Raceway’s Douglas Dodge Ram Trucks Illini 100 simply hoping to make the main event and gain some momentum toward his rookie World of Outlaws Late Model Series season.
This weekend – with both the 2014 WoO LMS Rookie of the Year Award and his first WoO LMS victory under his belt – Heckenast has his sights aimed much higher as he returns to Farmer City’s quarter-mile bullring for a blockbuster Illini 100 weekend that features separate WoO LMS programs on both Friday and Saturday.
“I would definitely say a lot has changed since last year as far as my confidence and how I approach these big races,” said the 26-year-old Heckenast, who will join a star-studded roster of WoO LMS regulars and an impressive list of regional and local standouts who will compete in a $6,000-to-win WoO LMS event on Friday and a separate $15,000-to-win program on Saturday.
“Last year I went into it praying and hoping to make the race and just get a good run. It almost felt like we were going into it with our back against the wall. Now we go with the goal of running in the top five and maybe even challenging to win it.”
Heckenast has good reason to be more confident in his chances compared to a season ago. He has, after all, spent the past year honing his skills against some of the country’s top Dirt Late Model drivers. In that time, he’s gone from a rookie hoping to stay out of trouble and gain valuable experience to a formidable series contender who regularly runs up front. He proved as much earlier this season with his first series victory on Feb. 14 at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla.
Along with helping to improve his skills and build his confidence, touring with the WoO LMS has also given Heckenast a renewed excitement toward his racing program. He enjoys traveling and racing at dirt tracks around the country. But it’s also nice to race close to home on occasion, as Heckenast will this weekend at Farmer City.
“Anytime we can race an hour and a half away from home is good,” said Heckenast whose only two Illini 100 starts produced a ninth-place finish last season and a 10th in 2012. “To see all the people that support us – fans, family, crew guys, other teams and competitors we’re friends with – yeah, we’re excited to see everyone and hopefully put on a good show for them.”
While Heckenast would like nothing more than to thrill his home-state fans by winning one or both of the weekend’s A-Mains, he won’t let the added pressure of performing well in his home state get to him. Being able to handle the pressure from those expectations and not allowing them to affect his performance is another byproduct of his national touring experience.
“I used to let that kind of pressure get to me some, but not anymore,” Heckenast said. “I’ve learned that there’s times you’re gonna have bad nights. You’re gonna struggle some times and it can happen close to home as easy as somewhere on the road.”
Heckenast will, of course, do all he can to avoid any bad nights at Farmer City this weekend. But if he does happen to run into trouble during Friday’s program, he’ll at least start over with a clean slate on Saturday thanks to the event’s new two-race format.
In the six previous Illini 100s contested, all of which featured a single $20,000-to-win event stretched over two days, drivers who struggled during preliminary action on Friday often found themselves struggling to recover for the remainder of the weekend. That won’t be the case at this weekend’s Illini 100, which for the first time features two separate programs.
“I think it’s way better,” Heckenast said of the new format. “Last year was one and done, so you had only one chance to qualify good and one heat race. If you started the weekend off bad, you couldn’t really get out of it. This year no matter happens Friday, you have another complete night on Saturday.
“You’re going home with two paychecks and you’ve got two chances at having a good night. I’m definitely excited for it. I think the fans will love it and it’ll be better for everybody.”
While Heckenast will have the luxury of racing close to home this weekend, he won’t have an advantage from tons of extra experience at Farmer City. Though the track is within two hours of his home, he’s raced there less than 15 times during his 10-year Late Model career.
The lack of experience at Farmer City doesn’t bother Heckenast, but the fact that he hasn’t won a race there does. He’ll look to change that this weekend with another WoO LMS triumph.
“I probably raced there probably 12 or 14 times and got three or four seconds,” Heckenast said. “I’ve never won a race there and it’s always bothered me that I haven’t got it done. Maybe that’s something we can change at the Illini. It would be a good one to win for sure.”
-WoO Press Release. Photo Credit: Frank Heckenast Website