The 2016 short track racing season was full of incredible moments and feel-good stories, rivalries, and great personalities. It’s time that those people and stories and moments are honored in this year’s 51’s presented by JEGS.
Today, we are pleased to announce the winners of the following categories of the annual 51’s presented by JEGS: Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Driver, Comeback Driver of the Year, Best Personality, Short Track Bad Boy, Surprise Moment of the Year, Best Feel-Good Moment of the Year.
Breakthrough Performance Actor
(Rookie of the Year)
When you win the Snowball Derby as a 16-year-old Super Late Model rookie you’re pretty much a lock to win the Rookie of the Year title. Christian Eckes, a native of Middletown, New York, scored the win in one of the most thrilling Snowball Derby finishes of all time, beating John Hunter Nemechek to the line by 0.017 seconds.
In addition to scoring the win in the Derby, Eckes also picked up victories in the Thanksgiving Classic at Southern National Motorsports Park (NC) and the Myrtle Beach 400 at Myrtle Beach Speedway (SC).
Finishing second in the voting was Super DIRTcar Series Rookie of the Year Max McLaughlin. 2016 CARS Super Late Model Tour champion Raphael Lessard came in third, followed by Kodie Conner (PASS South Rookie of the Year) and Billy Moyer Jr. (World of Outlaw Late Models Rookie of the Year).
Most Improved Actor
(Most Improved Driver)
When you score 22 wins in one season like Bobby Pierce did, it’s hard to not win an award like this one. Pierce dominated the DIRTcar Summer Nationals Hell Tour and won the series championship. He also scored a win in the World 100 at Eldora Speedway, by far the biggest win of his young career. Pierce also was in a position to win the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Eldora Dirt Derby before contact with the wall cut down his right rear tire.
Pierce beat out ARCA/CRA Super Series runner-up Dalton Armstrong in the voting. Armstrong scored two wins in 2016 at the Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville and at the Redbud 300 at Anderson Speedway (IN). RoC Asphalt Modified Series driver Tyler Rypkema finished third. Timmy Solomito finished fourth and Danny Creeden finished fifth.
Driver Achievement Award
Comeback Driver of the Year
It had been a few years since Jimmy Blewett ran the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour full time. Blewett returned to the NWMT last year with the famous Mystic Missile for Bob Garbarino. There were many that doubted whether Blewett should be in the ride and how well he’d do.
Blewett silenced those doubters by scoring a victory at Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway and finishing fifth in NWMT points at the end of the year.
Dual Champion Racing Association champion Cody Coughlin finished just behind Blewett in the voting. Coughlin made history in 2016 by becoming the first driver to win the ARCA/CRA Super Series and JEGS/CRA All-Stars Tour championships in the same season.
RoC Asphalt Modified Series driver Mike Leaty finished third in the voting, just ahead of Pro Late Model driver Cole Williams and Super DIRTcar Series driver Tim Fuller.
Everybody loves heading to the race track and meeting their heroes at the autograph sessions or in the pit area. It’s even better when your heroes are fun people. Whether they’re nice or quirky or just enjoyable to be around, there are many race car drivers with terrific personalities.
RoC Asphalt Modified Series driver Andy Jankowiak is one driver that has all of those qualities. Jankowiak is a dedicated racer on a budget who works hard on his own equipment. But Jankowiak is never too busy to turn away a fan or a media member in the pit area.
Jankowiak just edged out the victory in this category over Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series driver Tim McCreadie. Pro Late Model driver Cole Williams finished third in the voting just ahead of two-time NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour champion Andy Seuss and Super DIRTcar Series driver Kenny Tremont.
Short Track Bad Boy
Racing always needs someone to wear the black hat. Racing always needs a villain. That doesn’t mean that this driver is a bad person. It just means that they walk around the track with a swagger, an air of untouchability, and the ability to know that they can intimidate the driver directly ahead of them.
In 2016 no driver was a bigger villain than 2016 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series champion Scott Bloomquist. Between his 15 LOLMDS victories, the win in the inaugural Gateway Dirt Nationals and the famous crotch chop, nobody enjoys wearing the black hat more than Scott Bloomquist.
Second-place in the voting belongs to 2014 Snowball Derby winner John Hunter Nemechek. Four-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Doug Coby finished third in the voting ahead of Super Late Model driver Steve Wallace and SK Modified driver Keith Rocco.
Best Surprise Ending
Surprise Moment of the Year
2016 had plenty of surprises. Surpise winners, surprise announcements, surprise track closings and openings and more.
But the biggest surprise of the year took place at the biggest race of the year, the 49th Annual Snowball Derby. Who could have predicted that wild finish between Christian Eckes and John Hunter Nemechek? Two teenagers threw down in an epic battle over the course of the final 10 laps of the race that was decided by 0.017 seconds at the finish line.
The second-biggest announcement of the year was the decision to move Super DIRT Week to Oswego Speedway (NY). Super DIRT Week needed a home after the demolition of the Moody Mile at the New York State Fairgrounds. The week-long event was supposed to move to the planned Central New York Raceway Park, but with the track not completed in time the event found a home at the pavement track of Oswego. The event went so well that Super DIRT Week will be back at Oswego in 2017.
The announcement of the Short Track U.S. Nationals at Bristol Motor Speedway (TN) placed third in the voting just ahead of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour/Southern Modified Tour merger and the return of the All-American 400 as a Super Late Model race.
Best Feel-Good Moment of the Year
In mid-June, rising NASCAR star and two-time Snowball Derby winner Erik Jones lost his best friend and father, Dave. His father lost a brief battle with cancer at the age of 53 years old. Many young people would go into a shell due to grief after a loss like that. Jones did not.
Jones went to Berlin Raceway in his home state of Michigan and won the Battle at Berlin 251 less than a week with the name “Papa Bear” on the door of his race car less than a week after the passing of his father.
The strength displayed by Jones at Berlin that week clearly resonated with voters as that win finished first in the voting by a wide margin.
The re-opening of Lake Erie Speedway (PA) finished second in the voting ahead of 62-year-old Bill Ashton going to victory lane in a Super Cup Stock Car Series race at Jennerstown Speedway (PA). Christian Eckes’ Snowball Derby win finished fourth in the voting, just ahead of Andy Seuss going to victory lane at the North-South Shootout with new baby, Lyle.
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com