Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Grabouski, Mullen, Nichols among winners at Thunder on the Hill

For the second straight year, I made the six hour drive to Mayetta, Kan., over the weekend for the season-ending Thunder on the Hill special at Thunder Hill Speedway. The event, which annually features two complete shows for IMCA sanctioned Modifieds, Stock Cars, Northern SportMods, Hobby Stocks and Sport Compacts, draws a number of the top drivers in the region for increased prize money in one of the final events of the season in the Midwest.

Former IMCA Modified national champion Jordan Grabouski pulled double duty Saturday night and made the evening a sweeping success as he topped both the Modified and Stock Car features. Grabouski, who was pestered late by Scott Drake in the 30-lap Mod main, held on to score the victory. His Stock Car win was a bit more dominant as Grabouski sailed to victory in that 25-lapper by a near straightaway ahead of Perry Misner.

Tyler Frye, who spent Thursday night watching coverage of practice on XSAN, loaded up his #55 Northern SportMod and made the trip from Belleville to Mayetta. He promptly made his way to victory lane as he beat Curtis Dreasher to the checkers Saturday night.

Kent Husted broke free midway through the Hobby Stock feature to drive to victory in that event ahead of former IMCA Super Nationals champ Cody Nielsen. Monte Honas dominated the Sport Compact feature to score the win.

Sunday afternoon's show (more on the event schedule later) offered thrilling racing in all five divisions, which was led by Brian Mullen's trip to the winner's circle in the Modified feature.

Mullen, from Seymour, Wis., held the lead early while Chris Abelson worked the top side into contention. Abelson raced his way into the lead and started to pull away before lapped traffic impeded his progress. Mullen, who remained committed to the low groove up until that point, slipped around the outside of Abelson exiting turn two with around 20 laps complete as Abelson worked the slower traffic.

The lapped traffic briefly allowed the top five to close together, however Mullen pulled away in the waning laps to secure the win. Drake raced his way past Abelson to score runner-up honors for the second straight day. Abelson ran third ahead of David Murray and Jesse Sobbing.

Grabouski appeared poised to sweep the Stock Car division for the weekend, however Mike Nichols, who was not there for Saturday's program, showed up and spoiled his bid at a repeat trip to victory lane.

Grabouski led early while Nichols raced the low groove and kept pace with the leader. Nichols slowly worked into position to challenge for the lead before escaping with the top spot near the midway point of that event. Grabouski closed on Nichols late in lapped traffic, however Nichols held on to win.

Bryan Rigsby won a thriller in the Northern SportMods. After chasing leader Shawn Harker for much of that 20-lapper, Rigsby closed in on Harker running the low groove of the slick, fast oval. Rigsby inched ahead in the final circuits while Tyler Frye, looking for his second win in as many days, raced the top groove into a challenge.

On the last lap, Rigsby and Harker touched, which slightly slowed Harker to the top of the back stretch. Harker was able to keep pace while Frye worked the high side to make it a three-car battle off of turn four. Rigsby held on to win while Frye slid around Harker and onto Rigsby's rear bumper for second at the line as all three drivers finished within a car-length of each other.

Multi-time Thunder Hill track champion Brian Stich appeared well on his way to victory in Sunday's Hobby Stock feature until a rare miscue on his part sent his #21 into a spin exiting turn two on the final lap. Cody Nielsen inherited the point and led the final half lap to score the win ahead of Jesse Vanlaningham.

Monte Honas was the lone driver to sweep the weekend as he walked away with the Sport Compact victory Sunday for his second victory in as many days.

* Complete results from the weekend are available by clicking on the results tab at and video of all the action is at

* Multi-time national Modified champ David Murray suffered engine problems Saturday night and was offered the back-up power plant of Jesse Sobbing to run Sunday's show. Yes, it was the first time Murray ran a crate motor and, after qualifying through his heat, Murray quickly became comfortable with the crate and beat Sobbing to a fourth place finish. Murray admitted afterward that it will take some learning, but it seems likely you can expect Murray to run a crate at events in the future.

* Ponca City, Okla., Modified driver Brendon Gemmill suffered heavy contact from a fellow competitor in Sunday's feature. That contact sent Gemmill hard into a tractor tire inside turn one which in turn sent him into a hard spin to the infield. Unfortunately, he reported that the wild wreck destroyed his race car. It was a tough break for Gemmill, who is one of the nicest racers around.

* Saturday night, Modified drivers were given the opportunity to buy in for the chance to win an increased winner's share. Already billed as $2,000-to-win each night for the Modifieds, drivers could pay an additional $100 to enter Saturday's event for a chance at $3,000-to-win. Grabouski, Saturday's winner, paid the extra cash and walked out +$900 in that transaction.

* The Saturday evening/Sunday afternoon show was scheduled for Friday and Saturday nights, however rain, sleet and snow - yes, snow - moved into the area overnight Thursday and into Friday morning forcing promoters Mike and Pam Conkwright to adjust the weekend schedule. Believe it or not, the weather was beautiful for both race programs. Although a strong breeze forced those in attendance to bundle up for Thursday night's practice, all I wore was a T-shirt and a windbreaker for both race programs. All the insulated clothing, hats and gloves I brought this year after last year's chilly event stayed in the suitcase all weekend... yes, despite snow interrupting the weekend.

* The adjusted schedule only slightly affected the car count. A number of drivers were unable to stick around for Sunday's show, but a few new ones arrived for the final day. Despite the schedule change, the car counts were fantastic both days as many opted to support the event. Among those who were unable to stay both days were Benji LaCrosse and Dustin Boney. Yes, Dustin Boney appeared in his career first IMCA sanctioned Modified event and drove to an impressive fourth place finish Saturday night. This was after he made heavy contact with the retaining wall off turn one during Thursday night's practice, which forced a lot of work for his #22 to be race ready Saturday. A birthday party for his daughter Sunday prevented him from sticking around. LaCrosse had to return to Wisconsin to go to work and was unable to race Sunday.

* As far as the day race Sunday, I asked some folks what they expected concerning track conditions. Surprisingly, there were minimal concerns. Writer Ed Reichert, who makes the yearly trip from Wisconsin, said he'd seen a day race there years ago and Thunder Hill was one of few tracks he would recommend to attend for day racing. He was right. The track was great all day, provided minimal dust and had multiple grooves all afternoon and into the evening.

* The weather forecast and eventual sleet and snow that fell at the track Friday would have scared many promoters. Rather than pulling the plug and calling it a lost weekend, the Conkwrights pushed the show back a day and were determined to get it completed if at all possible. Not only were they unfazed by the inclement weather, their attempts to dry out pit road and the pit area ran like a well-oiled machine. Their crew got into the track equipment and their own personal vehicles to ensure the races would go off without a hitch. As Pam Conkwright said, "We'll lose if we cancel or if we postpone it. We're here to race, so let's race."

* Due to the crazy weather, a number of haulers were unable to escape the pit area Friday, leaving them stranded. Of course, that meant the drivers and crews were stuck there, as well. Throughout the day Friday, photos began popping up on facebook of various race teams that were making the best of their time in their haulers and, if they were lucky, their campers, as the weather moved through. Modified driver Tom Charles and his family and crew were among those stranded in the pits and were forced to make their own entertainment before the pits were dried out Saturday. He later said that he had a TV in the camper, but they quickly came to realize they forgot the remote, leaving the TV out of commission. "Thankfully, we found a card deck," he joked Saturday afternoon.

* Despite Friday's postponement, I had a great time socializing with the Thunder Hill crew at Prairie Band Casino, which is only a couple miles from the race track. If you've never been to Mayetta, it's a "blink and you'll miss it" community a few miles east of the track. Aside from the casino, there's really not a whole lot within 15-20 miles. A number of us stayed at Prairie Band and had a great time passing the afternoon and evening with conversation, stories and the occasional casino game or two. Yes, I spent extended time in a casino and actually came out ahead!

* Thanks to announcer and track writer Bill Grit for letting me call a few races with him over the weekend and for letting me make occasional trips to the booth. Thanks also to XSAN announcer Chet Christner and camera pro Darren Shanley for letting me join them throughout the weekend. I also have to thank scorer Jeni Moore-Baxter for being the target of my sarcastic joking all weekend!

* Speaking of the Thunder Hill Speedway crew, a huge shout out goes to Mike and Pam Conkwright and the incredible staff they have assembled. I've been to a lot of tracks through the years and have met a lot of track workers, but the folks at Thunder Hill are special. I mean it when I say it is the friendliest and most professional staff I have ever seen at a race track. Whether you're talking about the track officials, concession workers, ticket sellers or security, if they work at Thunder Hill Speedway, they do it proudly. They are a top notch staff. Yes, the facility is awesome and the racing is incredible, but it's the people that make the entire experience worth the trip. You rarely see promoters thank their staff both prior to and after a show, but Mike and Pam do that on the track radios and in person every night without fail. And they mean every word of it. They are the definition of racing family. Some folks I spoke with over the weekend said Mike's past experience as a race car driver has given the Conkwrights the benefit of knowing how to run a track. That may very well be true, but I believe they run the track so well simply because they're great people who know how to treat others. The fantastic staff surrounding them is just one indication of that. I know I said this last year, but I'm going to say it again... You have to visit Thunder Hill Speedway if you have the opportunity. You often hear drivers and fans say, "I wish that track was closer to home because I'd be there every week." Thunder Hill Speedway IS that track. I guarantee I'll be back next year.

With 87 race nights in the books for me this season, I'm unsure if I'll make it to anymore this year. I'm still considering Shiverfest at Lee County Speedway in Donnellson this coming weekend, but those plans are still up in the air. I'm also uncertain about the Duel in the Desert in Las Vegas next month, but that is still a strong possibility. If there are any remaining races in your area, please be sure you get out and support a track before the season comes to an end.

As always, thanks for reading.

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