CONCORD, N.C. – There was a point in 2012 when the trajectory of Brian Shirley’s racing campaign basically hung in the balance.
Fortunately for Shirley, his better half was around to push him down the correct path - a path that would lead him straight into DIRTcar UMP Late Model history as just the third driver to win the organizations Summer Nationals Hell Tour and weekly series national points titles in the same season.
Shirley, 31, reached his crossroads in early June after returning to his home in Chatham, Ill., following a disappointing performance in the DIRTcar UMP-sanctioned Dream at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. He won the events sixth heat race and started the 100-lap A-Main from the pole position but failed to capitalize on the opportunity, fading from contention after running second for the first 20 laps and finishing 20th.
Demoralized by a promising Dream run that went bad, Shirley fell into a funk. The start of the month-long DIRTcar Summer Nationals was just days away and he seemingly didn’t care - until his wife, Shannon, gave him a pep talk.
“To be honest, I was so heartbroken over the Dream, my confidence just went down,” said Shirley, who had never before been in position to contend for the $100,000 Dream winners check. “I was down in the dumps for a week or so before my wife kicked me in the ass and told me to get up and go show everybody that it wasn’t an accident that we won a heat, started on the pole and ran up front early.
Shaken from his Eldora hangover by his significant other, Shirley headed out on the Hell Tour in mid-June and promptly caught fire. He authored a spectacular assault on the grueling series, winning the $25,000 title on the strength of five wins, 21 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes in 28 events.
“It was because of my wife that we turned things around for the Hell Tour,” said Shirley, who also later discovered in his shop that his struggles in the Dream largely resulted from an undetected broken right-rear shock on his new Pierce car. ”She gave me the confidence to believe in myself. She made me realize that even though we didn’t do good in the Dream as far as the feature was concerned, there were 80 other people who went home without even making it.”
Shirley experienced some bumps in the road en route to the Summer Nationals crown - his lone DNF of the series at LaSalle (Ill.) Speedway, a pit-area altercation at Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt, Ind., a controversial officials call that allowed him to finish fourth despite slowing to bring out a caution flag at Attica (Ohio) Raceway Park - but, for the most part, he couldn’t have drawn up a better month of racing.
He was a consistently strong qualifier (as evidenced by his amazing 22 heat-race wins) and was seemingly always in the mix near the front of the pack in the features.
Four years after finishing second to Dennis Erb Jr. in a 2008 Summer Nationals points battle that went down to the final race, Shirley clinched his first-ever Hell Tour crown in the next-to-last event at Attica. He beat three-time and defending Summer Nationals champ Shannon Babb by a healthy 70-point margin (1,857-1,787).
A DIRTcar UMP Late Model competitor since 2002 after having his budding career as an American Motorcycle Ass’n flat-track racer cut short by an injury, the often introspective Shirley was almost speechless when interviewed by DirtonDirt.com at the end of his 32-day Summer Nationals odyssey.
“I don’t know what to say,” commented Shirley, who was almost too worn down from the test of man and machine to celebrate his accomplishment following the series finale on July 14 at Oakshade Raceway in Wauseon, Ohio. ”I’m sure tomorrow, once I get home and relax with my family, its gonna sink in that we just ran 20-some nights and did the best we could.”
A side benefit of Shirley’s Summer Nationals success was his emergence as the DIRTcar UMP national points leader. In one month he went from 19th in the weekly series standings to first, putting the possibility of a rare Hell Tour/national points double in play. The only other drivers to win both titles in the same season were Indiana’s John Gill (in 1986, the first year of a Summer Nationals series) and Erb (2007 and 08).
Initially, Shirley didn’t pay much attention to the national points battle. But he also claimed to have not made the Summer Nationals championship a specific goal, so, in much the same way that his continued success on the Hell Tour kept him rolling toward the crown, he gradually became more focused on that $20,000 pot of gold at the end of the national points rainbow.
“Really, neither one of them (championships) was something we set out to do,” said Shirley. “We were just trying to run good and see what would happen. That strategy worked for us with the Summer Nationals, and then with the national deal it was probably in September that we really started looking at it. When we were still leading the points about five weeks from the end, we figured we’d better try and go to a few extra local races to make sure that we got enough nights in to hold on for the championship.”
In a national points race determined using drivers best 35 finishes/points nights, Shirley managed to hold off veteran Kevin Weaver down the stretch. He effectively buttoned up the title with a two-win weekend on Sept. 21 at Kankakee (Ill.) County Speedway and Sept. 23 at Quincy (Ill.) Raceways, setting the stage for his public coronation as champion after his third-place finish in the DIRTcar UMP Nationals on Oct. 6 at Eldora.
“Winning both championships is just kind of the icing on the cake of a great season,” said Shirley, who registered 12 wins (at eight different tracks in Illinois) and 43 top-five finishes in 71 DIRTcar UMP-sanctioned starts and defeated Weaver by 58 points (2,556-2,498). ”To run good enough to be in position to win both of them is a major accomplishment. It puts you up there as doing something that very few people have done and thats real satisfying, a real honor.
The DIRTcar UMP championship sweep served as a ratification of Shirleys burgeoning talent and potent self-owned team, which he launched out of his own shop in 2010 after splitting with noted St. Louis-area car owner Ed Petroff.
“I feel like were growing stronger and stronger,” said Shirley, whose racing efforts are overseen by crew chief Aaron Faugust and supported by such sponsors as Jayco Construction, Skateland South and Kims Auto Body. “Every year we’re putting more cars in the stable and getting deeper as far as having the ammo you need to go out and race against these guys.
“Obviously, when we went out on our own, we only had one car at first that I bought from Petroff and one motor. Everything was one of this, one of that. Now were building our third car and we got three (ProPower) motors. We’ve accumulated more stuff over the last few years to get where we can keep doing what we do to make a living.”
With Shirley now married and a father of two young children (ages five and one), he’s more focused than ever on his craft.
“Having a family, the point of what you gotta do, the task at hand, is a lot clearer than it used to be,” said Shirley. ”The thing youre fighting for and the responsibility you’ve taken on is not just yourself anymore. Theres no room for being selfish. Its definitely put a different perspective on everything for me, and I feel like its made me a better person and a better race car driver.
And with Shirley just beginning to come into his prime, his future looks bright. Hes not making any predictions, but more DIRTcar UMP glory is likely for the driver known as Squirrel.
“I hope what we accomplished this year helps us build a stronger team to where we can compete better in the prestigious crown-jewel races,” said Shirley, whose resume features a $35,000 triumph in the 2006 Knoxville Late Model Nationals at the famed Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway. “But as far as how we approach racing, I don’t have a want or a need to go out on a national tour without financial backing to do it right. We’re pretty happy with what were doing. We get to race close to home for good money, so there’s no need to go elsewhere because were pretty good where were at.”