ST. LOUIS – West Virginia’s Tyler Carpenter became St. Louis’ new golden boy in one shining moment Saturday night with a stunning victory in the finale to the fourth annual Gateway Dirt Nationals.
Carpenter banked $30,000 for his efforts in arguably the biggest upset win in the four-year history of the Gateway indoor event, beating Brandon Sheppard to the checkered flag in a photo finish after a race he called “beyond a war” in victory lane.
That war took place for much of the second half of the 40-lap late model feature on the temporary fifth-mile dirt oval inside The Dome at America’s Center, as Carpenter led the way out front but had to fend off fierce challenges from both Rusty Schlenk and Ryan Unzicker.
Carpenter’s fiercest fight came with Unzicker, the El Paso, Ill., native who actually slid past him to take the lead on lap 30, charging turns three and four and appearing to have a car capable of winning it all.
However, barely a lap after Unzicker wrestled the top spot away from Carpenter, it was all over for the driver of the No. 24 as he caught a rut wrong going into turn one with nine laps left and flipped on the frontstretch from the race lead.
While Unzicker was unharmed and crawled out of his destroyed race car under his own power, his quest to win the Gateway Dirt Nationals was over.
That turn of events put the race back into Carpenter’s hands, with 2019’s two biggest champions giving chase in Sheppard and Jonathan Davenport, who won the World of Outlaws and Lucas Oil titles, respectively.
Sheppard held serve behind Carpenter on the final restart, while a little further back, Schlenk pulled pitside with engine woes after hounding Carpenter’s back bumper during the first 20 laps.
But though the lead gap ebbed and flowed during the final five revolutions, Carpenter never faltered.
He slowed somewhat coming out of turn four to the checkered flag, allowing Sheppard to get to his outside, but the finish line was close enough that Carpenter took the victory laurels by .216 seconds.
After a winner’s interview during his Friday night preliminary win that won the hearts of everyone in attendance in St. Louis and watching at home, there were no expletives from Carpenter Saturday night.
Instead, there was stunned shock, pure elation and a victory-lane celebration for the ages.
“We did it! My God man,” Carpenter exclaimed. “Oh man, I’m better than a superstar! Check it out. I own the Arch. To have Kryptonite Race Cars in victory lane with my badass crew, all these guys right here, family and friends back home, my sponsors … this is absolutely unbelievable. I can’t believe it.
“People have dreams and man, dreams can come true. This proves it, because this is a true, true dream,” continued Carpenter about the victory. “I’m telling you right now because I’ve come so far … you guys have no idea. I feel like I’m pretty strong at these small tracks and events, but you’re an idiot if you think you can just come here and take home a win. Look at the caliber (of) guys that I had to beat.
“Look who I am and look where I’m at. It can happen! Just keep digging, and you’ll make it, I promise!”
Carpenter then tempered his jubilation to offer a plea for his young niece Mannon, who is battling spinal muscular atrophy, an extremely rare genetic condition.
“I just hope one more miracle comes through, maybe the last little prayer I ever ask in my life, I hope,” Carpenter noted. “This little girl back home, man … it’s one of those impossible deals, but with enough people, we can make it happen. My little niece back home, we’ve got a program called Mannon’s Miracle. We need everybody’s help and support; I don’t care if it’s two bucks. It costs $2.2 million for his medicine, and I promise we can’t afford that. We’ve got insurance but it doesn’t cover it.
“All we can do is pray and hope as a racing family, we can make dreams come true, just like I made a dream come true tonight by working hard and keeping focused and dedicated with a lot of support.”
Sheppard ended with runner-up honors despite coming so close to his first Gateway Dirt Nationals win, while ageless veteran Billy Moyer completed the podium.
Davenport and Gordy Gundaker completed the top five, with Blair Nothdurft, Jason Feger, Chad Zobrist and Tanner English rounding out the nine drivers who made it all the way to the checkered flag.
Tyler Carpenter, Brandon Sheppard, Billy Moyer, Jonathan Davenport, Gordy Gundaker, Blair Nothdurft, Jason Feger, Chad Zobrist, Tanner English, Ryan Unzicker, Bobby Pierce, Rusty Schlenk, Jadon Frame, Allen Weisser, Mike Spatola, Patrik Daniel, Shannon Babb, Scott James, Ricky Thornton, Jason Wagner.