The 53rd annual National Short Track Championships roll into Rockford Speedway this weekend. For more than five decades the top names in short track racing have traveled to Rockford, IL for a chance to wear the famous wreath in Victory Lane.
“What makes this event so special to me is the history behind it,” Casey Johnson told Speed51.com. “A lot of the best short track racers throughout the years have found success in the 200.”
“It’s a special event to me because of the family who puts it on,” said Jon Reynolds Jr. “Fifty-three years is quite impressive for any event.”
Names like Dick Trickle, Joe Shear, Steve Carlson, Al Schill and Eddie Hoffman have won the prestigious event and this weekend, five previous winners will attempt to win it again. Two-time winner Rich Bickle (1990 and 2012) has thrown his name in the hat, along with Jon Reynolds Jr. (2015), Josh Nelms (2009), Casey Johnson (2016) and the defending winner, Alex Prunty.
“No Super Late Model races are ever easy to win and NSTC seemed especially challenging for our family,” said Prunty. “Breaking through and being the first Prunty to win was something I really took pride in. It was just our second time racing there and it meant a lot to be able to have the whole family there watching.”
“To win this race is a huge accomplishment,” said Johnson. “My approach has always been to be very patient and not burn up the car. It’s only a four-tire race and in 200 laps it can go away from you pretty fast.”
“This is one of the toughest races to win in the country,” said Nelms. “The history of past winners is impressive and to wear the wreath at the end of the day says it all.”
“Over the thousands of short tracks across our beautiful nation, most all tracks have their ‘Super Bowl’,” said Reynolds Jr. “Any track champion wanted to win the big one at home. The names on the NSTC list are legendary and to be among those names is indescribable.”
Other drivers look to add their name to the list of winners for the first time, including Brian Johnson Jr. Johnson, who calls Rockford Speedway his home track, makes his 20th start in the NSTC this weekend.
He’s come close to winning, owning three top-five finishes, but has never taken the checkered flag.
“Even with really good cars each year, we just haven’t come out on top,” said Johnson Jr. “It’s been a goal I’ve had for years and we’ve worked so hard to make it happen. I have a lot of support in the pits and in the stands, people who’ve followed my career since I was a kid. To finally win one would honestly probably mean more to them than me. Regardless of the outcome, I’m going to have a lot of fun in the process.”
Of course, to win such an event can take any number of things and some drivers aren’t ashamed to admit sometimes it just takes a little luck.
“We prepare our cars well every week running Slinger, so there’s not much different coming to Rockford. It’s very similar set-ups and the RPM band is close, so I was able to get into a rhythm quickly.”
“To win takes patience,” said Nelms. “I’ve never qualified good, but when I won it in ‘09 I started 18th. You need to save tires and keep the fenders on it for 200 laps.”
“To win at Short Track is that typical ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ a lot of times,” said Reynolds Jr. “But being fast and able to pass cars on the bottom enables you to be there when it goes down and with a little luck you survive on top.”
“I’ve learned that luck is a big part of it and it just hasn’t been on our side,” said Johnson Jr. “The ultimate goal is to stay out of trouble and be consistent so you have something to work with at the end. We’re hoping to make the car good enough to have the chance to be a contender and a little luck would be nice too.”
“To win at Rockford it will always take a solid car, but more so a lot of luck,” said Prunty. “So many things can go wrong quickly there it’s never a bad idea to have a good luck charm in the car.”
That good luck charm for the 2016 Kulwicki Development Driver Program winner is a token with a photo and quote from Kulwicki on it and a silver cross.
The NSTC kicks off with open practice Thursday evening and runs through the Super Late Model 200-lap event on Sunday afternoon.
-By Jana Wimmer, Speed51.com Midwest Editor – Twitter: @JWimm22
-Photo Credit: Rockford Speedway