Monday, December 30, 2013

Year in Review: A look back at the best of 2013

With the end of 2013 literally hours away, I've spent some time looking back over my notes from this year's race season. A number of memorable moments - both on and off the track - took place in 2013 and below I have assembled my 10 greatest memories of the season.

Before that countdown, here are a few numbers to put my travels from this year in perspective. I attended 91 events at 19 different race tracks in three states. I witnessed 180 different drivers reach victory lane in 428 feature events in 15 different divisions.

The breakdown of those feature winners, by division, is as follows:

Late Model (17 winners in 40 events): Jeff Aikey, Tyler Bruening (5 wins each); Justin Kay (4); Brian Harris (3); Chad Simpson, Darren Ackerman, Josh Richards, Luke Pestka, Rick Dralle, Rory Metcalf (2 each); Corey Zeitner, Curt Martin, Darrel DeFrance, Darrell Lanigan, Denny Eckrich, Jason Utter, Joel Callahan, Jon Passick, Luke Merfeld, Ray Guss Jr., Todd Cooney (1 each).

Modified (36 winners in 82 events): Ronn Lauritzen (10 wins); Richie Gustin (7); Cayden Carter, Troy Cordes (5 each); J.D. Auringer, Joe Docekal, Kyle Brown, Tyler Droste (4 each); Darin Duffy, Jon Snyder, Mike Burbridge (3 each); Dylan Smith, Jeremy Mills, Jeremy Payne, Jerry Luloff (2 each); Aaron Turnbull, Bill Davis Jr., Brian Mullen, Chase Allen, Chris Mills, Colt Mather, Craig Crawford, Dominic Ursetta, Jason Schueller, Jimmy Gustin, Jordan Grabouski, Kody Scholpp, Luke Wanninger, Ray Cox Jr., Ricky Thornton Jr., Ron Barker, Ryan Ruter, Shawn Kilgore, Shawn Ryan, Steve Stewart, Terry Phillips, Vern Jackson (1 each).

Stock Car (24 winners in 71 events): Damon Murty, John Emerson (11 wins each); Norman Chesmore (7); Donavon Smith, Scott Pippert, Sean Johnson, Steve Meyer (3 each); Abe Huls, Brandon Czarapata, Jarod Weepie, Jason Cook, Jason Hocken, Jay Schmidt, Justin Temeyer (2 each); Bill Osbahr, Brad Pinkerton, Brian Irvine, Cory Stout, David Brandies, David Smith, Jake Masters, Jim Lynch, Jordan Grabouski, Kevin Rose, Kyle Vanover, Lynn Panos, Mike Nichols, Stefan Sybesma, Tracy Gienger, Zach Vanderbeek (1 each).

SportMod/B Mod (37 winners in 78 events): Carter VanDenBerg, Nick Roberts (7 wins each); Danny Dvorak, Joel Rust (6 each); Brennen Chipp (5); Curt Hilmer, Doug Smith, Kip Siems, Tyler Frye (3 each); Curtis Van Der Wal, Sam Wieben, Ty Luellen (2 each); A.J. Johnson, Alex Zwanziger, Austin Kaplan, Brad Iverson, Brandon Smith, Brandon Williams, Brett Lowry, Bryan Rigsby, Bryce Garnhart, Chris Larson, Clint Luellen, Dave Schulze, Dean Abbey, Eric Elliott, Eric Pollard, Jenae Gustin, Jeremy Schaufenbuel, Josh Long, Kevin Hurst, Kurt Moeding, Lucas Lundry, Mike McDonald, Ricky Kay, Rod McDonald, Ryan Maitland, Shane Ebaugh, Timmy Current, Tony Dunker, Travis Peterson (1 each).

Hobby Stock (30 winners in 69 events): Chris Luloff (13 wins); Brian Happel (6); Benji Irvine, Shannon Anderson (4 each); Brandon Pruitt, Eric Stanton, Quinton Miller (3 each); Devin Smith, Dustin Griffiths, Jacob Keiser, Kyle Parizek, Matt Brown, Nick Murty (2 each); Andy Coffman, Andy Stinson, Austin Hauswirth, Bill Bonnett, Cody Nielsen, Danny Thrasher, Eric Larson, Jamie Songer, Jamie Whitaker, Justin Stander, Justin Wacha, Kenny Champ, Kent Husted, Leah Wroten, Mike Hughes, Nathan Ballard, Paul Nagle, Randy Embrey, Weston Koop (1 each).

Sport Compact/4-Cylinder (18 winners in 65 events): Merv Chandler (15 wins); Adam Gates (14); Nathan Chandler (11); Bill Whalen Jr. (5); Brad Chandler (3); Jacob Ellithorpe, Monte Honas (2 each); Aaron Hitt, A.J. Witten, Brandon Dahl, Cory Peters, Dylan Clinton, John Gill, Michael Grossman, Mitch Balik, Nicholas Von Hemurt, Paul Seabrooke, Skip Dunker, Tyler Whalen, William Michel (1 each). 

Mod Lite (7 winners in 12 events): Andy Hennigar, Josh May (3 wins each); Dusty Masolini (2); Charley Brown, Chase Flatt, Greg Rossell, John Griffin (1 each).

305 Sprint (1 winner in 1 event): Donnie Steward (1 win).

360 Sprint (3 winners in 3 events): Jon Agan, Paul Nienheiser, Terry McCarl (1 win each).

410 Sprint (1 winner in 1 event): Ian Madsen (1 win).

Bomber (1 winner in 1 event): Mike Vondrak (1 win).

Street Stock (2 winners in 2 events): Gerald Ward, Jeremy Gustaf (1 win each).

Dirt Truck (1 winner in 1 event): Tony Moro (1 win).

Pit Bike (1 winner in 1 event): Jody Steward (1 win).

4-Wheeler (1 winner in 1 event): Tanner Gipple (1 win).

When it came to compiling the list of my 10 greatest memories from 2013, my first notion was to look back through my notes and pull out specific events that stood out above the others. Before I started sifting through my blog and other notes from the season, I realized that the best memories shouldn't need to be researched. The best memories should automatically come to mind without any kind of prompting.

Instead, I sat down with paper and pen and started scribbling the moments that first came to mind. I reached 10 items in just a few minutes and that's when I first looked through my notes to see if there were any glaring omissions. There were none. Appropriately, the first 10 that I remembered are on the list below.

By clicking on the headline of each item, you can revisit my blog entries of those events - with one exception. The link to the number one memory on my list will take you to youtube.

10. Saturday, October 13 – Lee County Speedway – Fall Challenge
In what was one of the final events in Iowa this season, I witnessed one of the best Modified features of the year. Ronn Lauritzen, Scott Hogan and Kyle Brown all made the trip to southeast Iowa and gave Iowa race fans a terrific end to their season. Not only was the richest payday of Lauritzen's career worth the drive to Donnellson, the emotion shown by his wife Kim after finishing a long season (more on that later) in victory lane was an appropriate way to end the season.

9. Friday, May 24 – Independence Motor Speedway – Open Wheel Shootout
Sprint Car racing made its return to Independence for the first time in nearly 20 years this season when the Brockway Mechanical & Roofing Sprint Invaders Series made its first-ever stop at the 3/8-mile oval. While veteran Sprinter Terry McCarl drove to victory, it was Matt Krieger's breathtaking crash into the turn one catch-fence that had most people talking. Krieger's 360 Sprint Car was dangling on the fence by just the right front wheel as the safety crew debated how to safely bring his ride back to the ground. Look for the Sprint Invaders to return to Independence in April of 2014.

8. Sunday, August 18 – Benton County Speedway – Weekly Program
While any of us can talk about who the best racers are of our generation, we never know who the next up-and-comers will be to keep our sport alive and strong for years to come. On a single night in Vinton this season, 14-year-olds Ryan Maitland and A.J. Witten reached victory lane for the first time in their careers. Both had shown signs of earning their first wins at various times throughout the season and it was on the same night when both finally broke through. I think it's safe to say the future of our sport is in good hands.

7. Sunday, June 23 – Benton County Speedway – Weekly Program 
It had been 31 years since Late Models competed for track points during a weekly program at Benton County Speedway. In what was the first our four visits for the IMCA Late Models this season, Luke Pestka drove to victory. And, as much as people complain about BCS being a track hard on race cars, there was little to no damage to any Late Model this season. Maybe it isn't the track... maybe those guys just know how to take care of their cars a little better without driving through each other...

6. Tuesday, July 2 – Independence Motor Speedway – Deery Brothers Summer Series
There was a huge crowd on-hand for the annual Independence Day holiday visit by the Deery Brothers Summer Series for IMCA Late Models at Independence. The strange thing is, many in attendance didn't realize who won until the victory lane interview. Justin Kay passed Brian Harris in turns one and two in lapped traffic midway through the race, then quickly pulled away by the time the leaders made it off turn four. Not many saw it, though. By the number of facebook and text messages I received after calling the race, it was very apparent. Not only were some confused, a great number were upset. Trust me, Kay won. Also that evening, Leah Wroten became the first female driver to win a feature in Independence since the 1960s. It was the first win for Wroten, who just completed her first year in the IMCA Hobby Stock division.

5. Saturday & Sunday, October 19-20 – Thunder Hill Speedway – Thunder on the Hill
For the second year in-a-row, I made the trip to Mayetta, Kansas, for the season-ending Thunder on the Hill special at Thunder Hill Speedway. While cold temps caused the problems in 2012, it was precipitation that threw the two-day show in limbo this season. When snow, sleet and rain forced the program to be changed from a Friday/Saturday twinbill to a Saturday/Sunday show, a number of us were stranded at the hotel and casino a mile from the race track. Despite the itinerary change and being "stranded" at a casino, the weekend was a great time to catch up with old friends and to make new ones. Oh yeah, click the link above for the details on two great days of racing! I hope to return next fall, as well.

4. Sunday, July 14 – Benton County Speedway - Hogan Memorial
The Hogan Memorial at Benton County Speedway has been a must-see event for years. The quality competition, unique format and incredible support for the Hogan family through lap sponsorships and donations continue to grow the event into one of the biggest and best in the region. In this year's installment, Cayden Carter nipped Richie Gustin at the line in one of the most thrilling finishes in event history. Next year will be the 20th annual Hogan Memorial and, while they will be hard-pressed to match this year's event, I have no doubt the Hogans, their sponsors, family and friends will come through to make it the best yet.

It always gives you a great feeling when you see people come together to help someone in need. That feeling is even more special when it's a member of your racing family. Jen Duffy contacted me about Independence Motor Speedway doing something special one night for Dan Snyder and it turned into an entire race night dedicated to him. Snyder, the father of three Modified drivers and engine builder for a number of racers in the area, has been battling cancer, and an incredible number came out to show their support for him. Many donated money, while others came to the races for the first time in their lives - all to show their support Dan. I honestly can't remember one driver who won that night, but I know one man who was in victory lane after every feature. Yes, it was Dan's night, but in the end, we all won. 

2. Saturday, June 22 – Independence Motor Speedway – Weekly Program
It was a year ago when our racing family came together to support IMCA Late Model driver Darren Ackerman, who was battling colon cancer. Ackerman took off the 2012 season to fight, and beat, the disease. He returned in full force in 2013 and made his first return to victory lane June 22 after his battle with cancer. In victory lane, Ackerman emotionally admitted he didn't know if he'd ever make it back to the winner's circle. Surrounded by friends and family in victory lane, it was a welcome sight to see. It was the first of two wins for Ackerman this year and I'm certain he'll be back many more times in his career. 

1. Friday, September 6 – Boone Speedway – IMCA Speedway Motors Super Nationals fueled by Casey’s – Fast Shafts All-Star Invitational 
When you have the best race of the year, arguably the best race ever, on the biggest stage in dirt track racing, you'd expect it to be the top memory of the year. Todd Shute, Chris Abelson, William Gould, Dylan Smith - the best in the business doing battle in one of the biggest Modified races of the year. I still get chills when I go back and listen to fellow Super Nationals announcers Jerry Vansickel and Chet Christner call the action in the Fast Shafts All-Star Invitational. I was stationed in the infield for that event to do the victory lane interview and I was mesmerized by the action on the track. Corner after corner, lap after lap, it was easily the best race I saw all year. Given the circumstances, where it was, hell, what it was, it was quite possibly the best race I've ever seen. The unique thing about the All-Star race is that the crews and families of the drivers were in the infield. They were watching and living the moment right along with everyone else. Excitement, anxiety, euphoria, heartbreak... all of those emotions were experienced to their extremes in the few short minutes it took to run the race. Was this year's All-Star race was the best dirt track race ever? That's up to each individual to determine. What if I never see a race as good as this year's All-Star race? I'm perfectly fine with that.

There you have it, my top memories from 2013. Yes, there are a number of other moments that come to mind, such as the 300th Stock Car feature in weekly racing history in Independence, Vern Jackson's 96th career win in Independence, the Deery Series/Hawkeye Dirt Tour doubleheader in Tipton, my first trip to the Knoxville Late Model Nationals, the return of World of Outlaws Late Models to Independence and my first time at the Duel in the Desert in Las Vegas, but the 10 I listed stand out the most to me. What are your most memorable racing moments from 2013?

There is one more item to mention before closing the book on 2013. I've never recognized individual drivers on their season-long accomplishments aside from emceeing awards banquets. This year, I want to give extra recognition to one driver who has worked through a lot of personal tragedy and has become a hell of a race car driver in his short time behind the wheel. In effect, my "first annual" driver of the year.

"In Staging" Driver of the Year - Ronn Lauritzen
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, I've seen a lot of drivers win a lot of races this year. Few, if any, have gone through what Ronn Lauritzen has gone through - not just this season, but the last couple years.

Ronn's father unexpectedly passed away in the middle of the 2012 season and his sister died unexpectedly at her work in July of this year. Through support of his family and friends and his passion for the sport, Ronn used racing as his therapy.

I saw Ronn win 10 features this year, although I think he won one or two at Marshalltown Speedway on nights I wasn't there. He finished second in points at all three tracks he raced weekly -  Marshalltown, Independence and Vinton - by a combined 18 points. He won the points title for the Karl Performance Hawkeye Dirt Tour presented by XSAN during the tour's final event during the Yankee Dirt Track Classic at Farley Speedway in September.

Aside from his successes on the track, though, you will not find a greater person or a greater ambassador for our sport. Not only does everyone like the guy, they have no reason to dislike him. Ronn is the first person there to help out a friend or competitor and he's the first to thank the fans in victory lane. Not only does he thank his fans every time he wins, he thanks all fans for being there to cheer on their favorite drivers.

At Super Nationals, Chet Christner and I went to inform Ronn that he was awarded a spot in the All-Star race. One of his competitors wasn't there and Ronn was eligible based on previous criteria IMCA put in place in the instance all 30 drivers didn't make it to Super Nationals. Chet and I didn't come right out and say why we were stopping at his trailer, however we asked him if he had an extra filler panel for his Modified. Without question or hesitation, Ronn grabbed the filler panel and handed it over to Chet. He just assumed someone needed one and was offering his own to help out. He didn't realize we were there to get it lettered like the rest of the All-Star competitors.

When we told him he was in the race, he started smiling in disbelief. His appreciation was genuine.

It's drivers like Ronn and his dedicated crew, family, friends and fans who make racing special to the rest of us. It's that type of person who makes me proud to be a race fan and a member of the racing family.

Ronn, congratulations on an outstanding year and I wish you continued success next season. Thank you for being a class act and part of our racing family.

That will put a close on 2013. I'm sure some of you have started thinking back to what you most remember about the past season. Keep in mind, it isn't always about the racing itself. Much of the time, it's about the people we're with and the stories we can tell of our time together at the track. We have a few more months before we can go racing again here in Iowa. Before we return to the track, however, we have a lot of time to spend with family and friends. For many of us, those next memories will be made Tuesday night as we ring in the new year. Wherever and with whomever you are celebrating, be safe and be smart. Above all else, enjoy your time with loved ones.

Happy New Year and, as always, thanks for reading.