Sunday morning was damp and gray as Rockford’s 50th National Short Track Championships (NSTC) came to its final day. The track was dried and racing was only delayed by about half an hour. Morning hot lap sessions were greatly needed by the next groups of cars joining the super late models. Rockford’s matriarch Jody Deery welcomed the crowd as she has been doing for decades as the damp air was somewhat cleared when the winds picked up speed. We don’t even want to know what the chill factor was, but it was perfect football weather. Fans were prepared for the weather Sunday, and they certainly got their money’s worth by the time the day was done.
Several of the Must See Racing Sprint Cars found problems and a drivers switched to second mounts before qualifying. Ohio’s Jimmy McCune posted the fastest lap and heat race winners were Michigan’s Jeff Bloom and Indiana’s Brian Gerster. Hoosier State racer Chris Neuenschwander crashed into the wall during practice and transferred to another car by race time. One of the dozen could not get started in the chilly air, so the 50-lap feature began without him. Gerster led from the front row and put most of the field down laps in the nonstop event.
By the halfway mark only four cars were still on the lead lap as Gerster earned his first NSTC title. “This is awesome,” began Gerster, adding, “This is my first time I’ve ever been here. I know this is a stock car track, so I appreciate all the fans coming here. The right rear tire’s got a hole in it. I was just hanging on there. We were a little bit lucky.” Jason Cox came from behind to challenge, but had to settle for second place. “I could see his (Gerster) right rear was going down,” claimed Cox, claiming, “We were getting tighter and tighter. This is only my second time out this year. I have to get back to the gym.” McCune was disappointed on his third-place finish, stating, “We were all right. We missed on the setup and it just didn’t driver very well. You’ve got to work your tail off every race.”
The Super Truck field began with Camden Murphy topping the qualifiers and Michael Raskovic winning the heat. The 35-lap feature began with Chester Ace ahead of Murphy by a scant fifteen points in their season finale. Newcomer Todd Schmidt started inside Ace, with Danielle Behn, Derek Kraus, Kevin Knuese and Rick Corso behind them. The green flag stayed out until the end of the race with Ace leading every lap. While Ace had clean air, Murphy had to work through from the back of the pack. Murphy got up to second place by the checkered flag, but Ace won the series championship as well as the coveted NSTC trophy. Kraus, Mike Corvo and Behn completed the top five.
Murphy came to victory lane to congratulate Ace before the winning interview. Ace claimed, “We definitely did not have the truck when we unloaded. We did it when it mattered and finished how we hoped.” Murphy said, “At this point what happened happened. Starting in the back of the field is tough. We did what we could. We charged today. We tried to make it but that’s all right.” Kraus claimed, “I was just really tight in the center and loose off.” Asked about next year’s plans the young teen answered, “I don’t know yet.”
The much-anticipated 200-lap finale offered the winner $6,000 plus lap money and other contingencies, thanks to various donors. Ty Majeski won the last chance race and the final three were joined by two provisional starters. Twenty-six cars filled the high banks at the beginning of the marathon, during which one 10-minute break gave teams a second chance. Caution laps counted and each caution would give a car his lap back. The deep inversion placed Jerry Gille and Austin Nason in front of Jake Gille, Larry Schuler, Josh Wallace, Ryan Farrell and Brad Mueller, with quick qualifier Alex Prunty in the eighth row. The first lap ended in a caution when a car spun, and Nason took charge on the next green.
Eight laps were complete when a couple cars bobbled and others were caught in the aftermath After 25 circuits Farrell and Nutley had contact, joining the other retirees in the pits. The field was aligned and chose their lanes for the next green. Nason found Schuler and Steve Rubeck behind him at the next start. As Nason encountered heavy lapped traffic, Rubeck found the opening he needed and charged into the lead on lap 77. Eight laps later Papini’s spin forced the next caution, followed by his car suddenly launching over that of Brian Johnson. We were told Papini’s throttle stuck, and he pitted for repairs again. At this point the contest was close to the halfway mark and all were given a ten-minute break.
There were fifteen cars left when the field returned. The green flag was soon replaced with the yellow when fourth-place Schuler spun. Rubeck now had Dan Lensing and Jon Reynolds Jr. behind him. Another green ended with a caution when Casey Johnson and Wallace ended up facing the wrong way at the wall, damaging both and ending Wallace’s day. Nason’s car went to the wall with less than fifty laps remaining, and Rubeck found Reynolds and Johnson his challengers on the next restart. After challenging for many laps Reynolds finally got past Rubeck with 32 laps remaining. Four laps later Rich Bickle Jr. spun and the restart had Reynolds being double teamed by Johnson and Rubeck. With only fifteen laps remaining the final caution of the day was Bickle again, the top trio still fighting for the win.
All eyes were riveted on the front runners to the checkered flag, Reynolds crossing the stripe ahead of the damaged mount of Johnson, with Rubeck right behind. Surviving all the carnage was James Swan, coming from 25th to fourth at the end, with Mueller completing the top five of the dozen finishers. Reynolds stopped in the backstretch to celebrate before coming to victory lane. The Rockford veteran has NSTC wins in the weekly late model and Big 8 Late Model fields, but this was his first in the supers.
“I can’t believe it,” exclaimed the second-generation racer as his father looked on. “I’m so happy for my team,” continued Reynolds, adding, “I’ve been working on this all week. We lost this engine last year. They took their time getting it done. It was perfect. We kept using the (lane choice) cone every caution.” Giving praise to Rubeck, Reynolds added, “He’s a really good driver,” and said of Johnson, “He gave it to me and I blocked the (heck) out of him. I wasn’t going to lose this one.” Johnson was asked how he took his beat-up car to second place, responding, “I’m not really sure how I got up there. All I know is I had to work for it.” Johnson talked about last-minute changes after finding the panhard bar was in the wrong place, laughingly adding, “This was a lot of fun, beating and banging and nobody gets mad.” Rubeck brought the final laugh of the day when stating, “It’s a pleasure to run these races. For a while I thought we were doing qualifying laps.”
So ends the fiftieth anniversary of the event shortly after five o’clock Sunday. There are still a couple more events before the oval caps off its 68th year under the Deery family. Despite buildings encroaching in the surrounding acres, Jody Deery still claims that they will continue to operate as long as she can pay the bills. We are all luckier for that.
– Column by Fay Hendricks, special to Speed51.com
– Photo credit: Fay Hendricks