EAST LEROY, Mich.
The 91 car finally broke free of the traffic that was hindering its progress. For several laps the black-and-pink machine had been bogged down fighting a furious battle with a number of others, some lapped and some racing for position.
With a clear track ahead, the driver moved his car to the fast outside groove and was flying.
He caught and passed the fourth-place car, then made a daring crossover move down the backstretch to take third. A handful of laps later he outdueled the second-place man in lapped traffic.
With the leader in sight, the checkered flag came down and Jackson, Mich., driver Rusty Schlenk settled for runner-up honors.
His drive to that point had been nothing short of remarkable.
Schlenk might be the best dirt late-model driver you’ve never heard of. By late April, the 23-year-old had already won five races in five different states.
In the races he didn’t win, he rarely finished outside the top five.
Throughout a late-model driving career that already spans 10 years, Schlenk has made plenty of noise on the local and regional level. But he’s yet to shine as brightly on a national stage.
He’s figuring on changing that by the end of this season.
Schlenk’s 2010 goal is to capture the United Midwestern Promoters national championship. He led the early-season points by a comfortable margin.
The top of the UMP standings is a place he’s been before. He’s often led early, but has never been able to win the title for an array of reasons.
For years, I’ve maintained that Schlenk is one of the best pure drivers out there. He has simply done some amazing things with a race car. There are several who have been around this sport much longer than me saying the same thing.
The new and improved 2010 version of Rusty Schlenk appears to be more focused, determined, confident and straight thinking than ever.
And his driving skills have only gotten better.
It might be the needed complete package.
Schlenk is a two-time Sunoco American Late Model Series champion, in 2006 and 2008, and also has captured the tough Oakshade (Ohio) Raceway late-model title twice, in 2005 and 2006.
His late-model win total is approaching 100.
In his efforts to gain UMP points, Schlenk runs his racing program a little differently than some. If tracks in his area are facing weather issues, he’ll load up and haul across three states to race if he has to.
He recently drove north to compete on the non-familiar grounds of Thunderbird (Mich.) Raceway because it was the only place in his entire region that hadn’t been rained out.
After an aggressive and tricky last-lap slide job, he left with the trophy and first-place money.
The UMP national championship is a season-long grind that, at least for the past few seasons, has been won by drivers who run the series’ entire Summernationals schedule.
UMP’s four most recent champions, Illinois standouts Jason Feger, Dennis Erb, Jr., Randy Korte and Rodney Melvin, have been regular competitors on the Summernationals, a month-long tour of the Midwest replete with dust and glory and mud and heartbreak.
As of this writing, Schlenk plans to participate on the full tour for the first time.
It might be what he has to do to complete his national championship dreams.
Schlenk first raced a dirt late-model at age 13. The 2006 season was by far his most aggressive and successful year in racing.
That season, he competed in approximately 60 late-model events, winning 14 times and scoring more than 40 top-five finishes. He finished in the top 10 an astonishing 85 percent of the time.
At his current rate, he’ll top that this year.
It was another night at another race track. The 91 car finally broke free of the traffic that was hindering its progress. It was almost just like before.
With the laps winding down, Schlenk threw his car around the outside and caught the leader. He quickly dived under his opponent, moved back to the top and motored away.
He made the whole thing look very easy.