When one thinks of racers competing for dirt late model national championships, rarely does a driver from northwest Ohio come to mind.
Rusty Schlenk hopes to change that as he embarks on his rookie year with the World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series.
Schlenk, 31, grew up in Jackson, Mich., and has called McClure, Ohio, home for many years. Located west of Bowling Green, Ohio, McClure is a small, farming community not normally associated with late model racing. However, Schlenk has put the tiny town on the map by winning two national UMP late model championships (2010 and ’17).
When Schlenk announced he would pursue the World of Outlaws LMS title, some may have questioned if he was up for all the travel, but Schlenk is used to hitting the road for more than 60 shows each year.
“Really, the World of Outlaws deal is about the same amount of shows and travel we have been doing,” Schlenk said. “The main difference will be the tires. Our tire program/budget has pretty much doubled. I feel we have always been prepared when we go racing, but with this deal we can’t leave any i’s undotted or any t’s uncrossed. So, if anything is different, it is just our attention to detail.
“We have accomplished about everything at the local and regional level there is to accomplish, so we want to take the next step.”
Schlenk began racing quarter midgets as a youngster, moving into street stocks then sportsmen and finally late models 19 years ago. Besides the two national UMP titles, he has won the American Late Model Series crown — a regional late model tour — in 2006, ’08, ’15 and ’16. He has claimed the title at Oakshade Raceway — about a half hour from his home — six times and was the I-96 Speedway champion in 2014.
Along the way, he has won some pretty prestigious races such as the Birthday Race and the Earl Baltes Classic at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway and the Mansfield (Ohio) Motor Speedway Triple Crown.
Schlenk says the biggest issues when traveling with the World of Outlaws will be the additional costs.
“I’m nervous about our engine program. Every other aspect of our program has backup plans for their backup plans,” Schlenk said. “We have four engines but only two of them are satisfactory for big tracks. Keeping up on engines and not having mechanical failures is going to be what makes us or breaks us.
“I’ve been very good at budget racing my entire career,” he noted. “With the help from all of our sponsors and friends, hopefully, I can take the resources they’ve provided and stretch them through the year like I’ve done my entire career. I’m glad I grew up the way I did so I have a good platform when it comes to not overspending and stretching a dollar.”
Late model racing has evolved over the past couple of years with many innovations in chassis design and shock packages. Many say this has driven the cost of dirt late model racing up dramatically and Schlenk agrees.
“I’ve been pretty vocal about this and feel strongly about it,” Schlenk said. “Things have gotten out of hand when it comes to technology and cost. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for innovation and testing but not the way it’s being done today. I was raised without money and learned how to innovate and build things on my own by trial and error. The pull-down rigs, data acquisition, load cells, shock technology, shaker machines, paid engineers, wind tunnels, etc. have almost run the local guy right out of the business.
“One of my main goals this year is to show people you can still be competitive on a small budget and win races with a race car that doesn’t cost $45,000,” Schlenk added. “People are getting discouraged and running away from our sport because the rules makers have allowed things to get out of hand. Hopefully, I can go out and run good nationally and give the low-budget guys some hope for the future.”