Paules, Althouse, Sweeney, Koehler. Fans that go to Pennsylvania’s Mahoning Valley Speedway have become familiar with these four names at the top of the close-knit Late Model class as they bid for wins week after week. This past Saturday night the division took center stage with double the normal race distance and a $1,200 check going to the first across the line. Needless to say, each was in contention once again with a few more taking turns in the mix as well.
Win or lose, most important of all it was a night meant to serve as a memory of a supporter in the local racing community named George “Pineapple” Ramos, Jr. His son George III races regularly in the division.
“I lost my father a little over two years ago,” said Ramos. “He meant the world to me just like my mother does, and he raced at Dorney Park and he raced here at Mahoning. When he started getting sick I got back into it and it brought a smile to his face. That’s all I wanted to do, to see him smile one more time. But I did see him here tonight.”
The Pineapple 50 came down to a green-white-checkered finish with experienced champion Earl Paules holding off Frankie Althouse for the win, stretching his season-long points lead with his fifth victory of 2014.
“We knew it was going to be (an eventful 50 laps),” said Paules. “The car got too tight there at the end, but I got to the front in a hurry. It’s what you’ve got to do here. You’ve got to win races to get the points so we’re glad we could pull it off again tonight. It’s the best short track racing out there. It’s small, it’s tight and it’s fast.”
Paules, a driver who is typically either appreciated or despised in the stands, took the lead a handful of laps in, but it was during a long green flag run in the middle stages where quite the battle for the lead heated up. A caution flew with less than 20 laps to go, and when the race resumed Althouse had his best shot running all over the back bumper of Paules until another yellow set up the final restart.
Althouse felt like he ran the car harder than he needed to early on, but ended up with the opportunity to move Paules for the lead. The two-time winner in 2014 thought better of it, and earned the respect from the crowd.
“If I wanted to dump (Paules) I would be in victory lane, but what are you going to do,” remarked Althouse. “He gave me a bumper this week. We got tore up last week, so I just told them that they are lucky I’m a gentleman otherwise we would have won. He’s run me clean all year, so I’ve got to run him clean.”
Althouse remains confident in their preparation at the garage in order to make a run for the win despite not having the funds in comparison to some of the top drivers.
“Feels real good considering the money they are spending and the money we’re spending,” said Althouse. “This is nothing special here. We’re one of the only cars not on bump stops, and we just continue to work hard with our stuff and get better every week.”
Paul Koehler, Jr. also took a short-lived turn in the lead as the former track champion searched for his second feature win of the year. Paules and underfunded regular Paul Effrig worked their way to the front shortly thereafter. Additionally, Modified regular Nevin George contended early driving as a teammate to the already two-car team of husband and wife Earl and Danielle Paules.
Koehler was satisfied with the night and brought the car home in third and in one piece. He summed up what the Late Model races usually come down to since the competition is pretty even as well as what they need to work on going forward.
“It’s pretty much who gets to the front first and what lane you’re in,” explained Koehler. “Every week except for one we’ve finished in the top three. The only thing killing us in the points is we always miss the setup a little bit in the heat race and these guys are beating us on heat race points. For some reason we just don’t have it right out of the box.”
The fourth big name had a roller coaster of a night that ended with a fifth place finish, despite crossing the stripe in third. Mike Sweeney, a two-time winner this season and multi-time champion in the region, showed speed but not the result.
“We had a really good car,” said Sweeney. “Got a little impatient there and got into Jeremy (Miller) on the start a couple laps in, and spun him around so we got put to the rear. We worked our way up through there, I think we were fourth maybe, and just got a little out of shape and (Effrig) got us and turned us around the rest of the way. Had to go to the back and try to come back up from the rear again and we jumped that last restart a little bit and picked up an extra spot or two.”
Paul Effrig is the only other Late Model driver that can say he has won a feature this season, and he hauls his operation in on an open trailer. Although the result didn’t show on this night, Effrig was satisfied with being able to keep up with the top talent each week.
“I just got in the wrong groove at the wrong time, and ended up getting caught up in some things and couldn’t make it back up,” said Effrig. “My biggest struggle is I don’t have the funds to put tires on every week with everybody else. Looking for some more sponsors, but you know how that goes with this economy.”
Even George Ramos III had a result to be happy with as he finished fourth, one of his best runs of the season.
“We can’t afford that suspension that those guys have,” said Ramos. “We’re still running a conventional setup. If it wasn’t for my crew chief, I don’t know where I would be. I have great sponsors that stick by me no matter what. Family, friends, couldn’t ask for more.”
Overall, it was the third running of the popular race and Ramos was extremely thankful for promoter Floyd Santee and the Mahoning Valley Speedway staff for putting together the event.
– By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Correspondent – Twitter: @Aaron_Creed