Once a year, Northeast Pennsylvania’s Late Model heroes get the opportunity to headline the night of racing at Mahoning Valley Speedway. The effort and preparation leading up to Saturday’s annual Pineapple 50 is something that the weekly competitors on the ¼-mile track put a great amount of importance in, and one racer set sail from his peers upon gaining the lead 15 laps in.
Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania’s Mike Sweeney has a multitude of feature wins in the region over more than a decade and leads the 2016 weekly standings as he searches for his first championship at the track, but on this night it was all about grabbing the unique trophy and $1,200 payday.
“We don’t have a lot of big races and we don’t travel so when the special events are here at our track, which are only like two or three a year, we always have them circled on the calendar and the hype is always a little bit bigger,” Sweeney explained to Speed51.com powered by JEGS following his 40th career victory between the Mahoning Valley and Evergreen facilities. “Last year we were able to check off Octoberfast and we really knew that this was going to be our best shot, the way the car has been lately, to win the Pineapple race. We were able to put it all together.”
The event is a tribute to the late George “Pineapple” Ramos Jr., a former driver and car owner to many legendary stars in the area, a couple of which had sons in the 15-car Late Model field on this evening. His son, George Ramos III, was racing as well and ascended from the rear to fifth before power steering issues relegated him to an eighth-place finish. Nevertheless, Ramos was there in victory lane to present the trophy to Sweeney.
“It means a lot to me, about my dad,” Ramos mentioned. “My dad was a true blue racer. He didn’t really race that much, but he was a car owner for many many people, and he was dedicated to the sport. To give it to Mike, it’s a good feeling. I’ve raced against a lot of these guys. He deserved it. He ran a hell of a race.”
Before Sweeney checked out on the field, he had to fight for the top spot after starting mid-pack due to the weekly handicapping the track uses to set the starting order. A side-by-side duel with third-year Late Model driver Jeremy Miller took place for multiple circuits before the now four-time feature winner in 2016 would take advantage of his machine’s better handling on the top side to clear him.
From there, it was all Sweeney who built up more than a half track lead and diced through slower traffic to lap up to fifth place in the final order.
“No complaints when you put on a performance like that,” Sweeney remarked. “We had to wait a couple laps to get (Miller). We were just a little bit free and it seemed like about lap 10 the car tightened up just enough that we could start rolling the outside and get him. We fought fender to fender for a good couple laps that it was kind of hairy. We banged a couple times and he slid up. We were just able to get by and run our own pace.”
While Sweeney was pulling away, the battles on track further back did not diminish. Frankie Althouse caught and eventually made the pass for second, although Miller put up a valiant fight to keep the position. Unfortunately, without a yellow flag for the remainder of the distance the 17-time career feature winner would not be able to run down Sweeney despite the confidence to make it happen.
“Our car was just as good on lap 50 as it was the first few laps,” Althouse commented. “We just waited too long. I ran third place there for probably 15 or so laps and it was probably eight too many. I should have made my move on lap 22 instead of 32, but from where we were four weeks ago to now it’s a complete turnaround.”
The Lehighton, Pennsylvania hometown racer overcame a slow start to the season that stemmed from a bad wreck at the end of 2015 and a severe concussion. The team experimented with some different options with the car early on in the year, but went back to running a conventional setup which has resulted in a feature win and two runner-ups in recent weeks.
Early leader Miller fell to third in the final running order, but remained all smiles following the performance.
“We just got too tight,” Miller admitted. “They were real free through the center and off, and for some reason we get tight about 15 laps in. We’ve got a little bit of work to do to catch them. (Sweeney) was on a rail. We haven’t finished out of the top three for probably about six weeks or so. Sooner or later we’ll get one. We just have to figure out what’s going on.”
Two-time and defending Pineapple 50 winner Paul Koehler Jr. climbed through the pack after making a pit stop during an early caution, but could only advance to fourth place. Pole starter and leader on the opening lap, Jacob Kerstetter, held on to finish fifth, one lap off the pace.
The Late Model competitors continue their pursuit for success with only two weeks off in the final 13 weeks of racing at Mahoning Valley Speedway.
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com
Pineapple 50 Finishing Order:
1 D11 Mike Sweeney 50
2 22 Frankie Althouse 50
3 98 Jeremy Miller 50
4 00 Paul Koehler Jr. 50
5 15 Jacob Kerstetter 49
6 78 Jacob Nemeth 49
7 0 Geno Steigerwalt 49
8 2 George Ramos 49
9 18 JR Roth 49
10 77 Kenny Hein 49
11 14 Chris Anderson 48
12 58 Don Wagner 41
13 42 Robbie Kutz 28
14 54 Paul Effrig 23
15 35 Troy Bollinger 11