(Editors Note: Fay Hendricks is a long-time racing columnist and periodically will share her racing stories on Speed51.com)
Alan Kulwicki would have been amused Sunday. Because of him, racers everywhere celebrate their special wins with reverse victory laps just as Kulwicki did decades ago. Dale Earnhardt Jr. did so Sunday at Talladega, while others marked their victories in the same way at Slinger Speedway, one of Kulwicki’s home tracks. Steve Apel was one of them, taking the checkered flag on a backwards tour of the quarter-mile oval after a hard-fought feature win that completed his sweep of the super late model field. While Apel’s day was perfect, others did not fare as well in the super late model division.
After last week’s hard hit and ankle injury, seven-time track champion Lowell Bennett could not work on his damaged car. While Bennett was getting around on crutches, son Braison put in a lot of hours resurrecting a 20-year old car that was sitting idle to get his father back on the track. Jerry Eckhardt returned after last week’s blown engine, only to find carburetor problems before qualifying. Rob Braun’s son RJ was making his late model debut Sunday, but Rob’s car had mechanical issues early. Bennett’s car worked well enough to win his heat. Dale Prunty made his season debut and won his heat, and Apel was the third heat winner after a collision marred the cars of Mike Egan and Jamie Wallace, who was also in his first race of the year. Braison won the semi, but Eckhardt missed the main by one car and still had problems to solve.
Apel rolled the die to put himself behind Tim Lampman, six-time track champion Conrad Morgan, Travis Dassow, Chris Blawat, Egan and Wallace. Lampman led the 60-lap contest for half a dozen laps before a spun car forced the first caution. The field regrouped and chose their lanes for the restart, which was followed by Morgan forging ahead on the outside of Lampman. Morgan edged ahead on the high side as the pair raced in tandem in a classic duel. Shortly before the midway mark Morgan was able to get his whole car ahead and get into the racing groove, leaving a lane open for Apel to maneuver past Lampman. Apel worked inside Morgan to take the point just past the halfway point, but new challengers moved to the front.
Dennis Prunty worked from eighth place to the front, using the outer lane to challenge Apel. Prunty got past with fourteen circuits remaining, but Apel did not give up. Another spun car changed everything. Eight laps were left when the field regrouped a final time, and Prunty’s car faltered at the restart. Apel roared ahead with Morgan following as Prunty recovered for a third-place finish. Lampman hung on for fourth place ahead of Josh Wallace and his father Jamie. Apel took the checkered flag and turned his car around to the cheers of the crowd before coming to center stage.
Chosen to be in the elite Kulwicki Driver Development group this year, Apel’s win was even more special, explaining, “It’s not only the Kulwicki program, but it’s special to me.” Referring to his duel with Prunty, Apel claimed, “I really wanted to race him for the win, but I’ll take it any way I can get it. I was getting so loose off the corners, and I think he knew it.” Prunty later claimed, “It wasn’t bad. I had nothing for him.” Bennett’s day ended early as there were problems with fuel leaks, but Braun salvaged a top ten finish.
The limited late models began with Mike Held posting the fastest lap, followed by Duke Long and Ricky Heinan winning the heat races. The roll of the die put Held in the fourth row for the 40-lap feature. Heinan and Jack Stern began ahead of Brian Holtz, Kyle Chwala, Al Stippich and Alex Prunty. Chwala was not having as much fun as his sportsman racing, beginning his day thrashing to fix a broken part just before qualifying. The feature roared to life with Heinan leading the pack, but a spun car forced a restart after eight circuits. Stern was in the outer lane in the double-file restart, getting the advantage two laps later. It took four more orbits for Held to charge into the lead.
With six laps remaining another spin brought out another caution, with fluid on the track that sent the field to the pits so cleanup could be done. The field came back for the final six circuits and Held held on to post his very first late model victory at Slinger. Held commemorated his moment with a reverse victory lap before coming to the stage. Choking back tears, Held exclaimed, “I’m speechless. I don’t know, I just had a fast car today.” Chwala’s day ended with a second place finish, followed by Prunty, Heinan and 13-year old Grant Griesbach, who was celebrating his confirmation Sunday.
The Area Sportsman had several missing Sunday, but it turned out well for Nick Egan, who posted fast time honors. Adam Peschek won the heat and the 25-lap feature began with Egan in the last row. Nick Ostberg doubled his fun with two race cars Sunday, starting in the front row with Peschek. The green flag waved and Peschek roared ahead and stayed there to the finish. The nonstop contest was the first win for Peschek in this division and the first since a Thunder Stock win here in 2009. Recently Peschek won in his dirt modified at another track, proving quite versatile. Having grown up in racing while his father helped super late model veteran Al Schill, it’s been quite a journey for this winner.
The Slinger Bees began with a new track record set by Carl Benn this week. Paul Reagles, Nick Schmidt and Heather Stark won their heats, and Schmidt led the four transferees from the semi to the feature. The 25-lap main started with Isaac Daniel and Emery Waldron in front of Jake Schraufnagel, Dale Kiley-Schaefer, Benn and Brandon Tackes. Daniel took the point at the green flag, but a spun car regrouped the field after four laps. The next green flag was followed by Schraufnagel taking charge. With five laps remaining a wheel flew off a car and bounced high into the pits, thankfully not hitting anybody. After choosing their lanes for the final restart, the survivors took the next green flag. And then it happened.
Schraufnagel spun along with Benn, taking both out of the front and giving the point to Schmidt. Schmidt gladly held the spot after the final restart and posted his first win of the season. The former track champion was followed across the final stripe by Tom Berens from the seventh row, Tackes, Matt Rose and Jakob Hassler.
The American Super Cup contingent paid another visit to Slinger on Sunday. The tiny machines were led by Derek Doerr in qualifying, with David Cerer winning the heat. The 20-lap feature began with Greg David and Ken Jones in front of Cerer, Doerr, Chris Deren and Andy Forster. The green flag flew and the next time around it was Cerer leading the pack. Seven laps were complete when Doerr took charge, stretching out his lead ahead of the pack. Cerer held on for second place in the cluster behind Doerr, with Forster, Deren and Jones rounding out the top five. It was a special win for Doerr, whose grandmother was here to watch him. Doerr is related to the late Howie Lettow, so racing has been in his family for at least three generations.
There were plenty of specators taking their turns in the eliminations before the Figure 8 finale wowed the crowd. With a wheel rolling off a car on one side of the track, Joe Mueller was taking the checkered flag on the other side. The audience had seen a lot of action before seven o’clock, having spent a toasty afternoon basking in temperatures around eighty degrees. It was a good thing everything was complete before the full moon arrived. Next week everyone has the day off for Mother’s Day, and when we return we will be celebrating Slinger’s annual Alan Kulwicki Memorial night. We think our missing hero was pleased a week in advance.
-Fay Hendricks. Photo Credit: Fay Hendricks