EAST LEROY, Mich.
It was a 10-lap heat race with two of the most exciting drivers in dirt-late-model racing, Matt Miller and Jeep VanWormer, in a hard scrap for the final feature-transfer position.
Ohio’s Miller had it. Michigan’s VanWormer wanted it.
Lap after lap, VanWormer charged his black machine underneath Miller’s familiar No.7, often driving right up against it.
It was that way until the checkered waved.
Sometimes I wonder why we go racing. But on nights like that, I’m easily reminded.
“I like Jeep,” Miller later said, “but he races me like it’s the last lap.”
VanWormer races everybody that way. And he’s not the only one in the sport who does so.
That’s why the full-fendered dirt-track machines are so popular among the legions of fans who visit their favorite track or travel to watch their favorite racing series every weekend.
It’s the high level of competition. That’s all there is to it.
Drivers race hard because they have time and money invested in their chosen venture and they desire the reward of victory. Fans pay their admission fees and watch, then promoters can afford to keep the gates open and pay a decent purse. And that draws more drivers.
“It all works hand in hand,” Miller said.
There’s no arguing the simple fact that dirt-late-model racing has been hit by a soured economy. It’s been hit, but it’s far from being knocked down.
There still are numerous tracks and series offering competitive payouts and well-run shows. There still are enough drivers to fill fields and plenty of fans willing to pay to see it all.
As of this writing, and after attending dirt tracks in nine states this year, I haven’t seen a short field of cars yet except for one regular show at a track that doesn’t historically feature large car counts. I still go there because I like the place.
By mid-May, I’d seen 14 different late-model drivers visit victory lane. Crowds have been solid or better.
The best race was the World of Outlaws-sanctioned Illini 100 at Farmer City (Ill.) Raceway. It was watched by an overflow crowd and it might be talked about for years.
“The fans wish they could have a race like that every weekend, I bet,” said Shannon Babb, who was right in the thick of the hard-fought Illini battle until the end.
Like Miller and VanWormer, Babb is one of those hard-charging wheelmen that keep the sport interesting.
They’re the reason we go racing.
Miller spoke about the different characters in late-model racing. And he’s right. We sure do have them.
From the soft-spoken and shy Jimmy Owens to the eternal nice-guy nature of Ray Cook to the mystery of Scott Bloomquist. From the reserved demeanor of Billy Moyer to the fun-loving Brian Birkhofer to the professionalism and seriousness of Josh Richards and Dale McDowell.
And several hundred others somewhere in between, many of them proven winners and almost all working just as hard to try.
We’ve got more-than-loyal fans who I’ve personally seen around race tracks for more than 30 years.
And we’ve got long-running races and great tracks that would require volumes to record their history.
I’m older than Babb, but we probably both went racing at about the same point in our lives, when we were too young to even know.
He can still remember the sights, sounds and smells that hooked him. I think we’re all that way.
Babb easily explained why drivers race hard and the sport is popular.
“When you go fishing, you wanna catch a fish,” he said. “Same thing with winning a race. I’m the same way; I’ve gotta win.”
Think about those words: “I’ve gotta win.”
Nothing else needs to be said. That’s why we go racing.