by Bruce Yentes, DIRTcar, & Darlene Miller
In a grueling, 31-race marathon where competitors will visit nine states and log approximately 5,700 highway miles, El Paso’s Ryan Unzicker says you simply can’t beat winning 20 miles from home. Unzicker did just that Saturday night, motoring past Brian Birkhofer of Muscatine, Iowa, with only 12 laps remaining and then charging to the checkered flag in the UMP Summer Nationals main event at Fairbury’s American Legion Speedway.
“By far this is my biggest win,” said Unzicker of his fifth career Summer Nationals victory, a win worth $10,000. “We won that $10,000 at Oakshade (Ohio) last year which was awesome because that was my first $10,000 win. But to win here at my home track, 20-some miles away, means the world to me. We’ve got a lot of fans here and I’ll probably sell out all of my T-shirts. I don’t even know if I’ll have enough.”
Up to that point, Unzicker’s biggest dilemma involved trying to get past Birkhofer, the reigning champion of the World 100, dirt track late model racing’s premier event. With Birkhofer’s car literally slipping away from him in the closing laps, Unzicker finally got the job done after moving into contention for the lead from his fourth starting spot.
“When I’d pick the gas up the car was wanting to kind of tail out and slip up the race track,” Birkhofer said. “I was struggling to keep the car straight and I knew that wasn’t going to get it done with the caliber of guys that were here.”
“I think I caught (Birkhofer) with some lapped traffic,” Unzicker said. “I felt I could hang with him and when I moved up (from the low groove) it freed the car up a little bit and got my momentum going and everything worked out great.”
Birkhofer started the race from the pole position, but relinquished the early lead to outside front row starter Kevin Weaver of Gibson City. With Birkhofer on the inside and Weaver up high, the pair raced side-by-side for most of the first half of a splendidly competitive 50-lap main event. “(Weaver) had the momentum off the top and I had to go in and just kind of rely on corner speed somewhat,” Birkhofer said. “I thought maybe I could get him, because it looked like he wanted to move down but couldn’t because I was there.”
Weaver, indeed, was intent on moving down on the track but was unable to before it was too late. “The high side can be good or it can be your enemy,” Weaver said. “It was good for awhile. I tested the waters a little bit in (turns) three and one, but felt I was a little bit loose so I just favored going back to where I was and it ended up biting me.”
Weaver faded a bit after being passed by Birkhofer for the lead and finished fifth. “All in all, it was a good night,” he said. “We needed to finish. The last couple of nights we haven’t finished so we’ll take a fifth tonight.”
Summer Nationals series points leader Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin and Jimmy Mars of Menomonie, Wis., joined Unzicker and Birkhofer in getting past Weaver and finished third and fourth, respectively. “We started off a little bit slow but the car was just great in the feature,” Sheppard said. “I missed my line a little bit in qualifying and it got us behind a little, but it ended up being good. The car got better the longer we went.”
Defending series champion Brian Shirley finished sixth with Fairbury “regular” Joe Harlan taking seventh. Oakwood’s Bobby Pierce, Shannon Babb of Moweaqua and Chris Simpson rounded out the top 10. Among other “Fairbury regulars,” Daren Friedman of Forrest won a heat race and finished 12th, while Daniel Flessner was 19th. Reigning track champ Scott Bull finished 21st, a spot ahead of Pontiac’s Derek Chandler.