Rockford Speedway’s 49th Annual Short Track Championships began with another warm and sunny day for Saturday morning’s activities. Qualifying filled the afternoon with another 126 entries, with several competing in two divisions. Most of Friday’s late model competitors joined the Big 8 Late Model Series as fourteen of nearly thirty entries were locked into the main event after qualifying. At the end of the line young Austin Nason posted the fastest lap. Announcer Eric Huenefeld harked back to eight years ago when Nason was a child handing out the trophies sponsored by his family’s business, and things have come full circle for the talented driver. Many late model racers competed all three days, while Nason, Casey Johnson, Michael Bilderback and Jon Reynolds Jr. also brought super late models.
Big 8 qualifying races were won by Johnny DeAngelis and Craig Phillips. Jake Gille was ahead in the three-wide finish in the first dash and Dale Nottestad won the second dash. Tom Gille led the final four from the last chance race and three provisional berths filled the feature field. Nason rolled the die to set the feature invert for the 108-lap contest, beginning behind Jake Gille, Nottestad, J Herbst and Dana Czach, with Johnson, Dan Lensing and Steve Dobbratz following. Nottestad shot into the lead right away, only completing five laps before a pair spun. The cone was set on the track and most chose the outer lane behind Nottestad. Nason and Reynolds tangled while vying for the same top seven position on lap twenty, restarting at the back of the pack. The restart saw Czach spin and join them.
Reynolds suddenly stopped after 35 circuits and Jake Gille and Hartline spun before sixty laps were complete. Lane choice helped Bobby Wilberg come from the fifth row to take the lead on lap 61, and an errant car saw the next yellow banner four laps later. Dobbratz ended his top ten run at the wall on lap 69, and the next orbit ended when Reynolds and Mitch Garfield tangled while running in the top six. Bilderback was in sixth place in the spare Adam Peschek car, but dropped out with problems early. Dan Church pitted with a flat tire and Lensing dropped out of third place with fourteen laps remaining. Withstanding another three restarts, Nottestad managed to fend off all challenges in the final stages. With nine laps remaining Phillips and Casey Strese were in the wall and Czach was caught in his second tangle in three circuits. Under the caution DeAngelis and Reynolds also left the track with problems.
Nason had just taken the point with two laps remaining when Edwards was spun and Wilberg was sent to the rear of the field. Edwards was towed to the pits, followed by Wilberg and Reynolds suddenly stopping, perhaps out of fuel with two laps remaining. The flurry of green, white, and checkered flags was followed with a fierce battle for the top spot between Nason, Nottestad and Johnson. They came to the final stripe three abreast in a photo finish, the three black cars a blur. Johnson’s car was ahead of Nottestad and Nason at the line, and the fans erupted in cheers as Johnson spun donuts on the frontstretch. Now the Big 8 point lead, Johnson declared, “I’ve been wanting this for a long time. They were beating and banging, they were roughing it up. I knew there might be an opening.” Asked about running the 200-lap contest the next day, Johnson exclaimed, “I can’t wait.”
Over two dozen super late models began with many-time Rockford champion Ricky Bilderback posting quick time and Reynolds the only other driver in the twelve-second bracket. The fastest sixteen were locked into the next day’s feature. The other seven raced for starting position, with Mikie Breiner ahead of the 15-lap contest. They could relax until Sunday as the remaining divisions completed their events.
The Great Northern Sportsman Series saw several Rockford regulars join the field. Jason Thoma took the bullet trophy for fast time and Howie Ware won the qualifying race. Johnny Robinson II and Dusty Mann won the dashes and all 21 cars started the 50-lap feature. Mann and Doug Bennett shared the front for at the green flag, with Bennett taking the lead. One caution for a minor incident slowed the pace on the fourteenth lap, and Thoma found lane choice a help from his fifth row start. Thoma took the lead on lap sixteen and was half a lap ahead of second place at the checkered flag. Followed across the final stripe by several lapped cars, Thoma earned his second win in two nights.
“It’s amazing,” stated Thoma, adding, “This was incredible. Having my family here meant everything to me. It’s incredible. This track is a racer’s track. I love this place. I can’t wait for La Crosse coming up. It’s going to be a battle.” Matt Lundberg finished second, stating, “It was a crazy start. We’ve got to be happy. Jason had them covered. We wanted a caution and didn’t get one.” Wolf was happy to finish, coming in third. “The way the day started, we broke in practice. The last time we ran here was ’06, I think.”
The Illini Midgets came to Rockford for their season finale, with Patrick Bruns posting the fastest lap in one of the three number 10 mounts. Jimmy Clark Jr. drove his number 10 to a heat win along Jason Allen capturing the second heat. The fourteen cars were set for a 50-lap feature. Scott Koerner and Mike Wallace in the third number 10 started ahead of Erica Ensor, Mike Anderson, Bruns and Clark. Wallace led the way until Bruns got past on lap nine. The first half of the contest was slowed by three cautions for spun cars, but Bruns never relented his torrid pace. Several lapped cars and half a lap separated Bruns from second-place Clark at the end, and Bruns stood atop his cage in celebration. “Thanks to Mike Wallace and his crew,” stated Bruns, “I owe it to him and his team.” Winning this event for the third time in a row, Bruns exclaimed, “It feels great, it feels just awesome. It’s all due to these guys.”
The Mid-American Stock Car Series field also saw double-duty drivers. Bill Prietzel and John Ventrello joined the Great Northern Sportsman field later, and Erik Pierce fielded a super late model. Tommy Knippenberg joined the Mid-American field to capture fast time honors. Cody Clubb, Dan Gilster and Jeremy Spoonmore won the heat races. The 50-lap feature inversion started Chris Storey and Rick Tackman Jr. in front of Kenny Joosten, Ryan Gutknecht, Scott Dunning, Mark Pluer, Jeff Holtz and Prietzel. Tackman took the lead at the green flag, but Gutknecht slid inside him and they both went to the wall six laps later, catching former champions Lyle Nowak and Prietzel in their wake. All four were okay, but their cars were done for the day. Sixteen of the 22 starters were left for the next green flag, and no more slowdowns marred the rest of the race.
At least eleven had dropped out before the halfway mark as Joosten led the race to the checkered flag. The top six were in tight formation to the finish line, with Joosten capturing his first Mid-Am feature of the year. Right behind Joosten were Dunning, Brian Holtz, Knippenberg, Spoonmore and Storey. After delivering donuts to the crowd on the frontstretch, a jubilant Joosten was joined by family members. Grabbing his grandson in celebration, Joosten could not contain his joy. “A couple of times it got real close,” gasped Joosten, “Brian (Holtz) ran me clean. I got a good jump on that restart.”
The Hobby Stox returned to Rockford’s NSTC weekend with a bang, with Chester Williams setting a new track record in qualifying. Mike Meyers edged out Scotty Lemke off the final corner in a rousing heat race finish. Thirteen cars answered the call for the 30-lap feature, with Lemke and Meyers sharing the front row. Meyers jumped into the lead at the start, but things came to a halt on unlucky lap thirteen when Cody Buchs hit the wall and lost a wheel. The benefit of lane choice helped Jimmy Robinson come from the fifth row to the front, taking the lead on lap fifteen. Robinson held off Meyers, Dustin Ward, Williams and Jason Van Hise at the checkered flag.
Capturing his fifth win of this event, Robinson claimed, “We do good here. I didn’t like the lineup. It was dusty dirty on the bottom. I love this place. We struggled all day with tranny issues,” adding his next goal, “I’d love to win a bullet here.” Robinson was the last winner of Saturday night.
Shortly after 11:30 fans went to the pavilion to enjoy the band, visited the drivers in the pits, began their campground activities, or went to bed. We commiserated with many racing friends who had their nights cut short. DeAngelis told of his car running out of water and wrecking his engine, while good friends Nowak and Prietzel hung around their wrecked mounts with car puke spilling out. It was a longer night for some than others. It was the wee hours of the morning and we needed some sleep before Sunday’s finale.
(Editors Note: Fay Hendricks is a long-time racing columnist and periodically will share her racing stories on Speed 51.com)
Photo Credit: Doug Hornickel/FastLapPhotos.com