CONCORD, N.C. – With nine A-Mains remaining on the 2014 World of Outlaws Late Model Series schedule, the chase for the national tour’s Rookie of the Year Award remains up for grabs between any of the tour’s three first-year competitors.
With drivers only counting their best 25 points results toward the Rookie of the Year standings, there is still plenty of time for the standings to shake up before the top rookie is crowned and awarded a $10,000 paycheck following the season-ending World of Outlaws World Finals Nov. 6-8 at The Dirt Track at Charlotte in Concord, N.C.
As the tour heads for a Michigan doubleheader at I-96 Speedway in Lake Odessa and Merritt Speedway in Lake City this weekend, Frank Heckenast Jr. of Frankfort, Ill., leads the rookie standings by 236 over Chase Junghans of Manhattan, Kan., 362 points over Boom Briggs of Bear Lake, Pa.
Heckenast Leads the Way
Of the three rookies following the WoO LMS this season, Heckenast has been both the most competitive and the most consistent. Not surprisingly, he has a firm grip on the rookie points chase. Of course, that could change quickly if Heckenast struggles or runs into trouble and Junghans or Briggs hit their stride in the season’s final races.
Heckenast is going to do everything he can on his end to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“I’m not really worrying about the rookie deal, but I know that Chase or Briggs could catch us,” said Heckenast, a 26-year-old second-generation racer. “I know that if I just go out each week and run my best, we should be fine. That’s really how I’m approaching it, just doing my best to be competitive each night.”
After honing his skills at bullrings throughout Illinois and the Midwest, Heckenast has been solid in his first full season of national touring. With 11 top-10 finishes, one top-five and three heat race victories, Heckenast sits eighth in the overall WoO LMS points standings with a realistic chance at gaining another position or two before the end of the year – he’s 44 points behind seventh-place Shane Clanton and 72 points back of sixth-place Eric Wells.
Curiously, Heckenast’s best runs have come at tracks where he has limited experience. His season highlight thus far was a runner-up effort July 24 at Independence (Iowa) Motor Speedway. In just his second appearance at the 3/8-mile track, Heckenast challenged race winner Darrell Lanigan, a two-time WoO LMS champion and current points leader, for the lead throughout much of the race before settling for a career-best series finish.
He also scored top 10s at multiple tracks he was racing at for the first time, including I-30 Speedway in Little Rock, Ark., (sixth), Potomac (Md.) Speedway (seventh), Brown County Speedway in Aberdeen, S.D., (eighth) and Big Diamond Speedway in Forestville, Pa., (ninth).
However, Heckenast has failed to capitalize on races at familiar tracks. He missed the A-Main lineup at the USA Nationals at Cedar Lake Speedway in New Richmond, Wis., and could only muster a 16th-place effort at Fairbury (Ill.) American Legion Speedway’s Prairie Dirt Classic. Both tracks are places he’s not only visited buy had success at in the past.
“It’s been going pretty good, but it’s actually the opposite of what I thought going into,” Heckenast said. “The places that I’ve run good at before like Cedar Lake and Fairbury I’ve actually been struggling. And the places that I thought I’d have a hard time at went really smooth. It’s kind of frustrating because you want to take advantage of the races at the tracks you know.”
While he struggled at major events at Cedar Lake and Fairbury, Heckenast’s experience on the WoO LMS this season has made him more competitive at bigger races. He proved that with an impressive ninth-place effort at Farmer City (Ill.) Raceway’s Illini 100 and a 13th-place result in his first appearance at the Firecracker 100 at Lernerville Speedway in Sarver, Pa.
“We used to go to the big races worried about making the race,” Heckenast said. “Now you come here, and you’re worried about the race. The attitude has changed. We used to roll into the big races and we’re like ‘ahh geez, all the good guys are here.’ Now it’s every night I have to deal with guys like Darrell (Lanigan). That’s only made me better.”
Indeed, Heckenast has shown improvement throughout the season. A recent switch to Club 29 Race Cars, the fledgling chassis brand launched by Lanigan this season, produced a mid-season pick-me-up that included Heckenast’s runner-up finish at Independence. He’s hopeful that his upward trajectory will continue and lead to a breakthrough victory before season’s end.
“When we started this deal, I just wanted to make the races,” said Heckenast, who has made 27 of the tour’s 29 A-Mains this season. “Then we got to the 10th to 15th range. I got in Darrell’s car and it picked us up from like sixth to 10th. Now we’re getting where we’re running from second to sixth in some of these.
“Hopefully we can consistently stay in that second to sixth range or at least in the top 10. I think if we do that, one of these nights we’ll have a few things go our way and maybe be able to pick off a win.”
Along with his eye toward a WoO LMS victory, Heckenast also has his eyes on points. No, not the rookie points. He’s doing his best not to worry about those and is instead concerned with the overall series standings, where he has the chance to pick up two spots before the end of the year.
If Heckenast were able to climb from eighth to sixth, he would match Wells, who finished sixth in winning the 2013 rookie title, for the highest ever points finish by a rookie. A seventh-place finish would match the rookie-year points finishes of Bub McCool (2012) and Austin Hubbard (2010), while maintaining the eighth spot would equal Tim Fuller (2007) and three-time series champion Josh Richards (2005).
“Winning Rookie of the Year was our main goal starting out and I definitely still want to win it,” Heckenast said. “But now we’re looking at the big picture, too. We’re eighth in points, but we’re not too far out of sixth or seventh. It pays more money to run sixth than eighth, and we’ll be set up better next year for provisionals for Florida (where the WoO LMS opens its season each February). We’re trying to get that handled and if we do, I’m pretty confident the rookie deal we’ll work out in our favor as well.”
Junghans Continues Development
Chase Junghans’ rookie WoO LMS season has not only been about learning the ins and outs of racing on a national tour but also continuing his transition from open-wheel modifieds to Late Models. In just his second full year of Late Model competition, Junghans, the 21-year-old driver who competed regionally on the Midwest Late Model Racing Association in 2013, has held his own as he’s made first-time visits to most of the track’s on the WoO LMS schedule.
“I haven’t even seen these tracks before and we’re still running decent,” said Junghans, who’s currently 10th in the overall series standings with one top-five and five top-10 finishes in 25 WoO LMS A-Main starts along with a pair of heat race wins. “I can’t really complain about that. I mean, most every night we’re learning how to race the track, then being on these new tires and all that stuff. It’s pretty much been a learning experience all around, but we’re doing our best.
“Racing with these guys, you make one little mistake and three cars pass you. It can be frustrating, but I think it makes you a better driver. I think I’m 110 percent better than at the start of the year, but I still make mistakes. It’s a big learning curve, but you gotta keep doing it to figure it out.”
Competing on a national tour for the first time has also forced Junghans to adjust to being away from home for months at a time. With the WoO LMS taking him far away from his Kansas hometown, Junghans estimates that he has spent less than 30 nights at home since the tour launched in February. Most of his time has been spent on the road with his Shop Quik Racing team, but he also spends time in Georgia, where his Capital Race Cars are built by fellow WoO LMS regular Shane Clanton and retired driver Marshall Green.
“I try to go home when we have a little bit of off time, but it’s tough being so far away,” Junghans said. “It’s always nice going back and seeing family and hanging out with friends and stuff, and it’s tough missing that sometimes. But I’m used to it now; I sleep better in the truck than I do at home anyway.”
Continuing the adjustment theme, Junghans has also worked to adjust to a new chassis this season after switching to Capital cars late in 2013. That adjustment has been helped by a close relationship with Clanton and Green. Having Clanton, a WoO LMS veteran and former Dream and World 100 winner, as an unofficial teammate this season has been a big boost for Junghans.
“They’ve given me so much help,” Junghans said of the Capital Race Cars organization. “I know it’s definitely one of the reasons I’m running as good as I have been. They help out a ton.”
Junghans has also helped the relatively new chassis brand, which is still expanding after launching in 2011.
“That’s kind of the reason I got one, so I could be more involved with what they’re doing with the chassis and everything,” Junghans said. “Plus not many people have them, so when we have our stuff running good, I like to know that not everybody has our information. I think eventually we’ll get to that point. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Junghans’ main goal for the remainder of the season is simply to continue to improve. Of course, he’d also like to break through for a victory before the year is over. As for the rookie chase? His plan is to focus on performing the best he can each night and see how the points shake out at the end of the season.
“The rookie deal, I’d love to win it. But if you can pick up a win, I think that’s just as good and would mean just as much to me.
“Hopefully we can get running better. We’ve been struggling a little bit, but I think we’ve got somewhat of a gameplan to get things going our way. I’m trying not to worry about the rookie stuff or the points. I’m just trying to get good finishes and get to where we can be in a better position to try and win races.”
Briggs Enjoys Turn behind the Wheel
While 2014 may be his first season competing on a national tour, Rick “Boom” Briggs is no stranger to traveling around the country with the WoO LMS. He did it for two years as the crew chief for veteran racer Chub Frank. Now, after establishing himself as a standout regional competitor over the past eight years, Briggs is getting the chance to follow the series as a driver.
Racing as a teammate to Frank, Briggs has recorded three top-10 finishes in 23 WoO LMS A-Main starts and has one heat race victory. He’s currently 11th in the series standings.
“I guess it wasn’t something I had to do, but I’ve always wanted to do it,” said Briggs, whose best A-Main result so far this season is a sixth-place finish at Lavonia (Ga.) Speedway in early May. “I’m 43 years old; I’m not a young kid. I’m not old by no means, but you always want to do better and go try something. It’s been quite an experience.”
After a number of solid performances in select WoO LMS appearances in recent years, Briggs entered this season with high hopes. However, he’s struggled to find rhythm on the tour and with only one full-time crew member between him and Frank, his performance has suffered from the grind of national touring as the season has worn on.
“We’ve struggled more than I thought we would because we’ve run with the Outlaws here and there before and I’ve had good runs and decent finishes,” said Briggs, whose career highlights include the 2010 championship on the United Late Model Series. “I think it’s just taken its toll now with the help issues. We really just don’t have enough help and it’s showing.”
The extra work and the frustration of disappointing results have indeed taken their toll on Briggs. There have been times that he’s considered calling off his rookie campaign, but he’s stuck with it and plans to continue to do so.
“Just the toll of being on the road and being so much work, I think I’m paying the price,” Briggs said. “There’s times I’ve been ready to go home and call this deal off. But I’m not gonna. Hopefully we can regroup and make a strong run to the end. But either way, I’ve come this far, I’m not gonna quit.
“I went up and down the road with Chub for so long that I knew better to come out here and expect to beat these guys. I just wanted to be competitive and lineup. Yeah, we’ve struggled some, but we’ve had some good runs, too. Overall, I’m happy with how we’ve performed considering what we’ve had to overcome. And I’m enjoying the experience; that’s what counts.”
WoO Late Models – Team Website Photo