MARNE, Mich. – Rick Eckert was reminded of another race track as soon as he took his first practice laps around the newly dirt-covered Berlin Raceway on Thursday.
But the defending World of Outlaws Late Model Series champion wouldn’t publicly declare the name of the speedway he likens to Berlin, a well-known 7/16th-mile paved oval that has been transformed into a dirt track for this weekends historic $20,000-to-win Keyser Manufacturing Down & Dirty 100 presented by NAPA Auto Parts.
“I’d rather not say what I think its close to,” Eckert said during a break in Thursday’s open practice session that saw 20 dirt late models tour the unique, D-shaped oval. “I already told (Tim) McCreadie and he’s making all the changes to his car for that track, so I’m not saying what track I think (Berlin) races like.”
Considering the speed he flashed on Thursday, Eckert, 46, of York, Pa., has hit on a solid setup. He turned the fastest lap in three of the four practice sessions - and in the fourth, he timed second-fastest behind WoO LMS points leader Darrell Lanigan of Union, Ky.
Eckert recorded the quickest circuit of the day during the first session, clicking off a lap of 16.673 seconds in his Team Zero by Bloomquist car. He went 17.919 seconds during the second session and 18.103 seconds during the fourth.
“I feel like were where we need to be right now,” said Eckert, who owns 27 career WoO LMS A-Main victories (fourth on the tours win list since 2004) but has never captured a 100-lap race on the circuit. ”The weird thing is, we’ve made some big changes and it hasn’t changed our times much. I dont know if thats because of the line were running or what, but Im happy with how our car is working so far.”
Eckert was impressed with Berlins surface, a one-foot-thick layer of dirt that was applied last week. More than 300 truckloads of clay were spread around the speedway under the watchful eye of Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park promoter Jeremie Corcoran, a former DIRTcar big-block Modified driver who was brought in by Berlin Raceway management to handle track preparation for the tracks first dirt race since 1965.
“They did a nice job putting it on, said Eckert. “It’s smooth - real smooth. Down there in (turns) three and four, where it was shaded all day long, its held some moisture, but everywhere else its dry and slick.
“If they get moisture in the whole thing, it’ll be hold-your-breath all the way around - its a big circle. You carry so much speed through three and four that off of four you pucker because you’re almost gonna hit the wall at the flagstand. It makes you think - you’ve got the wheels turned and youre pushing and pushing, and finally, at the last second, it comes back around there (toward turn one) and then you take a breath again.
“Its definitely an interesting place,” he concluded.
Lanigan, 42, was fastest during the third session with a lap of 18.103 seconds, nipping Eckerts clocking of 18.226 seconds. Lanigan has already won a record 14 WoO LMS A-Mains this season and will bid for an unprecedented third 100-lap tour victory in a single season when the Down & Dirty 100 is contested on Saturday night (Sept. 22).
Eckert was one of three drivers to time among the top five in all four practice sessions, joining Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., and Clint Smith of Senoia, Ga.
WoO LMS Rookie of the Year leader Bub McCool of Vicksburg, Miss., was the lone tour regular not on hand for Thursday’s practice. He will make his first laps at the track on Friday.
A surprise participant in Thursdays hot laps was former NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series champion Johnny Benson, a native of nearby Grand Rapids, Mich., who launched his racing career on Berlins asphalt. He was behind the wheel of Michigan driver Dave Hartman’s full-fender machine.