Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The best of 2012

Although I didn't log as many miles this past racing season as I do during the course of a normal summer, I made it to a personal best 82 events in 2012 at 20 different tracks. To many that may not seem like a lot, but being committed to three tracks for much of the season, I hit the road as often as I could this past year when time allowed.

The three tracks I visited most frequently included Benton County Speedway (21 events), Independence Motor Speedway (17) and Lee County Speedway (12). I spent eight race nights at Boone Speedway (six of which were during the IMCA Speedway Motors Super Nationals), six at Marshalltown Speedway and three each at 34 Raceway and Southern Iowa Speedway.

My only trip out of state was for the two-day Thunder on the Hill season finale at Thunder Hill Speedway in Mayetta, Kansas. I made single visits to Bloomfield Speedway, Buena Vista Raceway, CJ Speedway, Cedar County Speedway, Dubuque Fairgrounds Speedway, Eldon Raceway, Hamilton County Speedway, I-35 Speedway, Iowa State Fair Speedway, Jackson County Speedway and West Liberty Raceway. I also made my yearly visit to the Jones County Fairgrounds in Monticello for the annual fair race.

During the course of those travels, I witnessed 397 feature events won by 192 different drivers. An additional 10 features were rained out or postponed on nights I visited. The 397 features were held in variations of 14 different divisions, which included Late Model, Modified, Stock Car, SportMod, Hobby Stock, Bomber, Sport Compact/4 Cylinder, Junior Hornet, Mod Lite, Two-Person Cruiser (yes, they still exist in some places), Dirt Truck, 305 Sprint, 360 Sprint and 410 Sprint.

While my data is skewed a little based on the fact that a lot of the races I saw were at the same tracks, I was surprised by some of the trends that developed during the year. Come on, you're not surprised I looked closer at the statistical info, are you? Of course, there were just as many things that didn't surprise me.

Among the non-surprising facts, I saw more features in the SportMods than in any other division. And, when I say SportMod, I don't include B Mods or any other off-shoot of that division. Each of the 74 SportMod features I saw this year were IMCA sanctioned or ran IMCA rules. Among those 74 races, there were 36 different winners. Danny Dvorak won 14 times in events I attended this season, including nine wins at Benton County Speedway in Vinton and five in Independence. Jim Gillenwater ranked second in that category with six wins - five coming at Lee County Speedway and one in Vinton. Racer Hulin and Tyler Droste each earned five wins in those events. I saw Nick Roberts win four times at three different tracks. His biggest win, of course, was at Super Nationals.

In 73 Hobby Stock features, I saw 32 drivers in the winner's circle, but none more often than Scott Pippert. I saw him in victory lane more often than any other driver this season as Pippert won 18 times in events I attended - in Vinton, Independence, Marshalltown and Des Moines. Jake Wenig won six times, followed by Chris Luloff with five wins and Shannon Anderson with four.

Sean Johnson won nine of the 72 Stock Car features I witnessed, the most in that division. I saw Damon Murty win eight times at three tracks and Jason Cook and John Emerson won five times each. In all, there were 31 different winners in those events.

There were 37 different winners in 71 Modified features. Tied at the top with six wins each were Adam Johnson and Richie Gustin. Gustin actually won the first three Modified features I saw this year - each at a different track - including Vinton, Oskaloosa and Marshalltown. Darin Duffy earned five wins, while Josh Foster, Mike Burbridge and Ronn Laurtizen each won four times.

Of the 23 different winners in 57 Sport Compact/4-Cylinder races I saw this year, nobody won more than Nathan Chandler. While Nathan won 12 times in the events I attended, I saw his father, Merv, win 11 times at four different tracks - Oskaloosa, Marshalltown, Independence and Vinton. He was also the track champion at all four tracks, the first driver in Sport Compact history to win four track titles in a single season. Steve Miedke raced to eight checkered flags, while Chuck Fullenkamp was victorious four times.

There were 18 different winners in the 30 Late Model events I saw, however no driver won more than three times. Dean Wagner, Mike Murphy Jr. and Travis Smock each won three times in those events, while Chad Lerch, Denny Eckrich, Jeff Aikey and Tyler Bruening each won twice.

In nine Mod Lite features, I saw Mike Morrill win five times at three different tracks - 34 Raceway, Marshalltown and Boone. I saw no more than three features in any of the other seven divisions, which included 11 different winners among those 11 events.

I've seen on message boards, and even here on Positively Racing, people talking about the most memorable events they attended in 2012. Every time I think about the best races of the season, different events enter my mind, but there are only a few that come to me each time I consider what I felt were the best of the season. In some cases, what I consider the "best" races didn't necessarily mean they were the most competitive. Some of the best races I saw this year rank as the most memorable based on a driver's specific accomplishment. My greatest racing memory this year didn't even have a thing to do with a race.

While it was hard enough to limit the entire season to the 10 single greatest moments, I've attempted to do that here. Beyond that, I even ranked those 10 from top to bottom or, as is the case below, bottom to top. While you can ask me tomorrow and they would probably all be different, my single greatest memory of the 2012 season is at the very end of this blog and that would be at the top of my list regardless when you'd ask me...

10. Friday, May 18 / Lee County Speedway / Jim Lynch gets first Stock Car win
There are those unfortunate souls who live and die based solely on car count. Much like a race car driver who allows himself to feel defeated with a poor draw at the draw table before the races even start, those folks don't realize that you go to a race to, well, race and watch races. There were approximately 10 Stock Cars on-hand the night Jim Lynch won his first career IMCA Stock Car feature at Lee County Speedway in Donnellson. While on paper that may look less than impressive, had you been there that night you'd have seen one of the best races of the year... in any division. Midway through the race, all, and I mean ALL of the 10 cars on the track were in a position to challenge for the win. The entire field ran side-by-side and nose-to-tail for the entire 15-lap distance, often times three-wide. And it was all lap after lap after lap. After jockeying for position throughout the event, which was never slowed for caution, Lynch surged ahead of division veteran Matt Greiner to take the milestone win. Hands down, it was the best Stock Car race I saw this year and, perhaps, in many years.

9. Sunday, May 7 / Benton County Speedway / Patrick Flannagan wins Mod thriller
The IMCA Modifieds always put on a whale of a show on the Vinton quarter-mile. Hell, all five divisions provide quality racing week in and week out in Vinton, but Patrick Flannagan won a thriller early in the season. While exchanging slide job moves with Richie Gustin at the front of the pack, Joe Docekal made a run on the leaders to force a three-car battle for the lead. Although it appeared Gustin had the race won on the back stretch of the final lap, Flannagan powered to the high side with Docekal chasing him through the final set of turns. At the line, Flannagan took the checkers in a photo finish ahead of Docekal.

8. Sunday, July 8 / Benton County Speedway / Hogan Memorial
It isn't as much an individual race that makes the Hogan Memorial stand out year after year, it's the event itself that makes it a must-see every season. The quality of cars that pull to Vinton every year to put on a show in front of a standing room only crowd has made this one of the premier events in the area. The event honors Dick and Janet Hogan, the late parents of IMCA Modified driver Scott Hogan, who were longtime supporters of area auto racing. Thousands of dollars are added to the purse by generous sponsors in all divisions and numerous prizes are awarded to those in attendance. Add to that, the mandatory five minute pit stop on the front stretch during the middle of the 40-lap Modified main event and you have a unique recipe for a marquee event. In case you forgot, Richie Gustin held off Dan Chapman and defending race winner Jerry Luloff to take his first Hogan Memorial win this season.

7. Saturday, May 5 / Independence Motor Speedway / Curt Martin gets memorable win
Curt Martin's IMCA Late Model win on May 5 represents one of the reasons I'm so fascinated with numbers and dates. Sometimes, looking at something from a different angle can give it a unique and more meaningful perspective. Martin's win that night provided that added touch. On that evening, Martin earned the feature win 45 years to the day of his father's first Late Model win, which was also in Independence. It was also 28 years to the day Curt won his first Late Model weekly points race in Independence. While it was Martin's 93rd trip to victory lane in weekly racing alone in Indee, it was likely his most emotional.

6. Saturday, September 8 / Boone Speedway / Nick Roberts wins Super Nationals
The best of the best converge on Boone Speedway each September for the IMCA Speedway Motors Super Nationals. While it takes the right combination of skill and luck to find yourself on stage in victory lane Saturday night, it has historically taken more than 16 years of existence to get you there. For IMCA SportMod driver Nick Roberts, 16 years was plenty as he became the youngest champion in the event's 30-year history.

5. Saturday, August 18 / Independence Motor Speedway / Adam Johnson wins four-in-a-row
The quality of IMCA Modified drivers has been strong throughout the division's history in Independence. Not only has the quality been a constant, the division itself has been a part of the track's weekly program for 30 consecutive seasons, making Independence the longest sanctioned track in the country. Through the years a number of records have been established that seem more and more difficult to break, or even match, the longer they stand. Despite the long odds, Adam Johnson did something in 2012 that hadn't been done in a Modified in Independence in 28 years - he won four consecutive features in the division. Jack Mitchell was not only the last driver to achieve that long of a winning streak at the speedway, he is the only other driver to have accomplished it. His record of six straight wins stands to this day and Johnson became just the second driver in the division to string together four wins. In fact, Johnson became just the eighth driver in track history to win three straight Modified features.

4. Friday and Saturday, October 26-27 / Thunder Hill Speedway / Thunder On the Hill
My lone trip outside the Hawkeye State to catch a race this season turned out to be one of the best decisions I made all year. As I mentioned in my blog a couple months ago, you have to make time to go to Thunder Hill Speedway in Mayetta, Kansas. The entire weekend was filled with exciting racing and thrilling finishes. I'm not going to recap every moment here because it would take too long to relive all the highlights (although Jay Noteboom's win on Friday and Brendon Gemmill's win on Saturday were among the best races of the year). If you haven't already read that blog, be sure to check it out and make plans to attend next year's special. Whether you're a driver or a fan, I promise you will be glad you went.

3. Saturday, June 16 / Independence Motor Speedway / Luloff tops Hobby Stocks, Duffy first to 40
Sometimes, it isn't how close of a finish or how dominant a driver performs that determines where it stands in the grand scheme of things. A lot of times, it's the career-long accomplishments of a driver that helps a specific moment mean more than it would on any other night. For something of that magnitude to happen twice on the same night is remarkable. One of those nights happened this season when Chris Luloff supplanted Chris Wessner atop the Hobby Stock wins list at Independence Motor Speedway and Darin Duffy reached a milestone in the IMCA Modified division.

While all-time wins leaders may change with regular frequency in some divisions or at some tracks, Wessner's name remained at the top of the all-time Hobby Stock wins list in Independence long after he retired. His stay atop that list lasted just a few weeks shy of 17 years. Wessner was dominant in his days behind the wheel, collecting his 20 feature wins in a span of just three calendar years between 1993 and 1996. Luloff, meanwhile, found early success in the division before dabbling in a SportMod, then returning to the Hobby Stock ranks in 2011.

Luloff's pursuit of the wins lead came in impressive fashion as his 21st victory was also his third feature win in a row. After becoming just the eighth driver in track history in the division to string together three straight wins, Luloff added a fourth win the following week to become the fifth member of that exclusive club.

On the same night Luloff eclipsed Wessner's mark, Darin Duffy made a return trip to the top of the track's all-time wins list for IMCA Modifieds. Duffy and Vern Jackson had swapped the top spot on the Modified list a couple of times in recent years and the two entered June 16 tied on that list. Duffy ended the night alone at the top after picking up his 40th weekly Modified win in track history. His third time at the top of the list, as of today Duffy has spent 2,153 calendar days as the division's all-time wins leader at the speedway. That places him third all-time behind Tom Bartholomew (3,556 calendar days as leader) and Jack Mitchell (3,346). It's good to lead that category in the off-season. With the 2013 weekly points opener scheduled for April 27, Duffy's reign will grow to 2,291 by the time the first checkers fly next season. Should he not fall from the all-time wins lead in the foreseeable future, Duffy will eclipse Bartholomew's length of stay at the top of the heap on October 16, 2016 (well, on season championship night that year unless scheduling patterns really change!). Baby steps, Duff, baby steps!

2. Friday, September 21 / Marshalltown Speedway / Noteboom wins HDT thriller
Two drivers I've already mentioned in this blog were involved in what I thought was the best Modified feature of the season. The Friday night portion of the two-day finale of the JR Motorsports Hawkeye Dirt Tour showcased the driving talents of Jay Noteboom and Darin Duffy. Again, I'll let you check out that blog for race details, but suffice it to say, everyone in attendance was on their feet throughout much of that event. Noteboom's win that night moved him into a tie for the series points lead. He locked up the points title the following night in another classic battle with Duffy, who won the finale.

1. Monday, July 2 / Independence Motor Speedway / Aikey wins Deery classic
I've learned through the years that race fans see Late Models a lot like they see Modifieds - they either love them or they hate them. Late Model fan or not, all of us love a great race and those in attendance during the Deery Brothers Summer Series for IMCA Late Models in Independence got more than their money's worth. Not only was it a terrific battle for nearly all 40 laps, but it came down to a pair of Late Model drivers that everyone has come to appreciate watching. The battle between veterans Ray Guss Jr. and Jeff Aikey was followed by conversations that spanned generations of race fans. I recently ran into people who still talk about that night's race. Some said it's the best race they saw all year and others said it's the best race they've seen in many years. I'd have to agree with them. If you weren't there, you should have been. If you weren't there and don't know who won, check out my blog from July 2. I must admit, I have one regret from that night. Before the program started that evening, IMCA Marketing Director Kevin Yoder asked me how many laps I wanted to run the feature. The options were 40 or 50. Oh, what I'd give to relive that race with another 10 laps...

There you have my top 10 for the year. Well, my top 10 on-track memories, anyway.

Although we all have that unexplainable passion to watch cars go in circles, it was something else that stood out to me as the best memory of the 2012 racing season. It had little to do with what we go to see, but everything to do with why we love it. And it wasn't even really one instance that made it so special or important or memorable. It's more like a story that each of us lived or will live at some point in our lives. For some of us, we've experienced a similar story that has an ending all too sad and real. For all of us in 2012, however, it showed us why racing is about family.

Friday, February 18 - Saturday, June 2 - Monday, August 6 - Saturday, September 1
To many, the four dates listed above are just calendar days. To some, it may be a birthday, the day goodbyes were said a final time to a loved one, a wedding anniversary or the date a friend or family member returned from overseas. No matter what the reason, every day and every date has a special meaning to someone. Here's why those four dates outweighed anything that may have happened on a race track in 2012.

Last fall, our racing family in eastern Iowa received news that one of our drivers was battling colon cancer. In his 30s, the prime of his life, Darren Ackerman was forced to fight the biggest battle of his life. Unsure where the following weeks and months would lead them, Darren and his family were offered support from the racing community.

On February 18, a benefit for Darren was held in Waverly and the support from his racing family was unreal. Hundreds of people took the time that night to offer support through their presence, words of encouragement and by opening their wallets. Details are in my blog entry from that evening if you wish to read it. While I won't go into details here, I can say it was an incredible experience and again proved the strength of our racing family.

While Darren made numerous trips to Minnesota for consultations, procedures, surgeries, etc., racing season got underway. A month or so into the season, June 2 was designated Pink Night at the Races as we promoted cancer awareness during the racing program. Darren came to the races that night and shared his story to the crowd during intermission. Those in attendance remained silent and listened as Darren spoke of his fight, then erupted into applause as he concluded his story.

Darren made more trips to Minnesota as he went through the process to beat the cancer. It was during the World of Outlaws Late Model show on August 6 when I ran into Darren's dad, Mark, behind the grandstands prior to the event. He was beaming and in tears as he said Darren defeated the cancer and would be returning home as soon as he was released by his doctors.

On season championship night, September 1, Darren returned to the race track and was behind the wheel of the speedway pace car. He paced all six championship features that night.

Yes, by far the greatest memory of 2012.

I was going to close this blog by talking about the 2013 season, some things that we're working on for Independence next year and the anticipation we all have in the off-season.

I decided against it.

It didn't feel like the right thing to do.

No matter where we are or what we're doing, we always seem to be looking forward to what comes next. When race night is over, we can't wait to start wrenching on the car to see if next week goes better. We go home after the races, get on the Internet and check results from other tracks, assuming we haven't already received texts or tweets or e-mails with that information. When racing season is over, we can't wait for spring to get here so we can get back to doing what we love.

We plan what we're going to have for supper before we even eat breakfast. When it's a weekday, we can't wait for the weekend to get here. After we watch an episode of our favorite show, we can't wait for the following week to see what happens next. After we get the latest smart phone that seemingly does everything, we can't wait for the next version to come out to be amazed at what it does. 

We live in a culture that tells us the here and now is insignificant compared to what may be. We're impatient. We're demanding. The more we have, the more we want. The sooner we get what we want, the quicker we want it the next time.

We rarely live in the moment because we're too busy planning the future. We live our lives in anticipation of what's to come next without realizing and appreciating what's happening now.

Then, at the end of the road, we look back.

We question where the time went, why life is so unfair, why life is so short.

Nearly two weeks remain before another Christmas has come and gone. We're all busy making holiday plans, planning vacations, making shopping lists, buying gifts. I would venture to guess most people reading this have muttered to themselves at least once, "I wish the holiday season was over."

We want to rush through the holidays to hurry into the new year so we can rush some more, plan some more and remain oblivious and unappreciative of the here and now. We rush beyond the present knowing full well that when we get to where we hope to be it still won't be good enough.

I can't speak for Darren and his family, however I would imagine they are looking at this holiday season a little differently than they have in the past... differently than you, differently than me. I'm sure they have a greater appreciation for the opportunity to spend this holiday season together, a holiday many other families may wish they had one more time.

I lost my father to cancer a year and a half ago and he remains in my thoughts every day I'm alive and with every decision I make. Sure, I make the mistake of getting caught up in the moment and planning for things down the road that, in the big picture, don't mean a damn thing right here and right now. I quietly stress about the future and what may or may not happen down the road in my life. Just as often, I kick myself for doing it. We can't expect to live our lives down the road when we don't seem willing to live our lives right now.

Take the time now. Make the time to appreciate all that's around you. Show the loved ones in your life that your time with them now is more important than any uncertain aspect of the future. Don't focus on the materialism of the holidays. Instead of worrying how much money you're going to spend on your family, focus on how much time you're going to spend with them. Don't make yourself miserable over the holidays because you feel you have to make sure everyone is happy with what they get for Christmas. Time together and the love you share has much more value than anything that money can buy. Instead of rushing out of the current year and into the new year, realize and appreciate what life offered you in 2012.

Yes, we have started the schedule for 2013, but that's next year. There are still a few weeks to go in 2012 so let's live them. Racing isn't going anywhere, it will be there in the spring. Until then, let's take the time to focus on the people who enjoy it with us.

Merry Christmas!