The Late Model Knoxville Nationals (LMKN) was once again a successful event for us here at Knoxville Raceway. We celebrated our tenth anniversary of the event and it seems to grow in popularity and prestige each year within the Late Model community. To hear how grateful and honored all these teams and drivers are to get the opportunity to race at Knoxville Raceway is very humbling. The Late Model crowd loves Knoxville.
The format for the qualifying nights was interesting with the field being split into two groups for qualifying and heat races (Group A and Group B). 72 cars entered and the first 36 cars in the pill draw were put into group A, and the second 36 cars slated for group B. This made it more fair for time trials with the car drawing 50 or 60 not having to compete for points with the cars drawing 10 or less. The same amount of points were awarded for each set (winner received 200 points, 198, 196, etc.) The teams in Group A were put into their own set of heats, Group B in their own set of heats. Group A was then set for the inside row of the features, and Group B given the outside row. I thought this format worked well and was fair for everyone.
Josh Richards dominated the qualifying nights winning both 25 lap features. On Thursday Richards led the last 18 laps while Friday it was a little tougher and led the last 17 laps. Kid Rocket is good and we have missed him the past two years of the LMKN because of commitments trying to break into NASCAR. Since returning full-time to late models this year he has been having a great season, leading the World of Outlaws Late Model series points and winning 9 times there. He has been successful in prior year at Knoxville finishing second twice in 2010 and 2008, and fifth in 2009.
Thursday nights racing was excellent with Josh Richards winning from the second row, Darrell Lanigan second from row three, and Jason Feger third from row four. Bub McCool and Billy Moyer rounded out the top five. With the Nationals heat race format of inverting eight cars and only the top three transfer to the A-Main, it makes it tough for the drivers to get into a transfer position in only 12 laps. Drivers having to work their way through the B-Main were Eddie Carrier Jr., Jimmy Owens, John Blankenship, Earl Pearson, and former champions Don O’Neal and Scott Bloomquist. Blankenship raced up to eighth, Pearson to tenth, O’Neal eleventh, while Bloomer had a right rear go down after getting up to 15th, had to pit, and finished 20th.
Friday night Richards made it look easy coming from row three to win. Jimmy Owens second from row four, AJ Diemel finished third which is where he started the race, Earl Pearson Jr. finished fourth after starting on the pole, and Tim McCreadie rounded out the top five after starting 21st and running the B main. Coming from the B-Main on this night was Ryan Gustin, Blankenship, McCreadie, Utter, Chad Simpson, and Don O’Neal. Gustin drove up to ninth, Blankenship tenth.
Seven time Knoxville Nationals champion Donny Schatz was in attendance on Thursday night to cheer on his TSR teammate Richards and friend Darrell Lanigan, both compete in WoO late model series. It’s only a matter of time before Schatz ends up in a Late Model at Knoxville, and I look for it to happen maybe next year. He has been successful closer to home in North Dakota winning several races the past couple of years and you can tell he has the itch to race on a larger stage. I don’t see why a TSR team car couldn’t be ready for him to race a few times next year, and why not come to the Late Model Knoxville Nationals if he has an opening in the sprint car schedule.
Saturday night Dale McDowell was on the pole, but Josh Richards and Darrell Lanigan took control of the front of the field the entire distance (McDowell did lead lap seven however). Lanigan led a long stretch from lap 20-83 where he was out to a 3 second lead at one time. As he was driving through traffic the dirty air certainly played a part in slowing him down and Richards reeled him back in and took the lead on lap 84. Lanigan stayed in Richard’s wake and pulled alongside but couldn’t get back by. The fourth caution of the night came on lap 94 when Eddie Carrier Jr. crashed in turn three. On the ensuing restart there Don O’Neal drove a little too hard into turn one and slid up into Jason Feger, causing Feger to go upside-down. The crash took out both drivers and there were some fireworks in the pits afterwards between the two drivers. When the red came out Scott Bloomquist and Dale McDowell made contact, which ended McDowell’s night. It appeared that one of the drivers didn’t see the red light come on. Lanigan then used the restart to his advantage and took the lead entering turn three and held off Richards at the end to win his first LMKN championship. Tim McCreadie survived the crashes at the end to finish third.
Scott Bloomquist and Billy Moyer looked good at times and bad at times over the three nights. Both qualified for the championship feature but neither driver had strong showings by their standards. Bloomer qualified well, third both nights, had to the run B main on Thursday, and his feature finishes were 20th and 11th. Moyer qualified 13th both nights, finished first and second in his heats, and was sixth and 20th in his features. On Saturday night Bloomquist started ninth and finished eighth while Moyer started 14th and clawed his way to fifth.
Defending champion Steve Francis was lucky to be racing this weekend after a crash last week where he injured his back. He finished 12th and sixth in the features on his respective preliminary nights to earn the 22nd starting spot on Saturday. By halfway he was running eighth. On the last restart with six laps to go he was running ninth, but he dug deep and was able to finish fourth with a great piece of driving at the end. Francis has a streak of four consecutive top five finishes now at the LMKN.
Brian Birkhofer was bad on his qualifying nights. Birky qualified 29th and 32nd and didn’t make it out of the B-Main either night where he finished 18th and 11th. He lined up sixth in the C-Main Saturday and won, came from 19th in the B-Main and was running fifth in a transfer position and blew a tire coming off turn four on the last lap and was done for the night, ending his streak of nine consecutive starts in the Late Model Knoxville Nationals. Brady Smith and Jimmy Mars are the only drivers to start all ten championship features.
The feel good story of the Nationals was driver Ryan Gustin who is a local modified racer from Marshalltown who competes full-time with the USMTS series and won back to back series titles in 2011 and 2012. This guy is good, and he had never driven a lap at Knoxville Raceway in his whole life until this weekend in a late model. He impressed everyone with qualifying second on Thursday, had quick time on Friday, and earned enough points to start tenth on Saturday night. I don’t think there is a rookie of the year award yet for the late model nationals, but if there was one, he was the clear winner and top finisher of the rookies entered. If you know local modified and stock car racing, the Gustin name is well known. Ryan Gustin is the brother of IMCA modified drivers Richie, Jimmy, and sister Jenae. The Gustin’s come from a strong blood line of racers with father Dick Gustin and mother Judy, both good drivers in their own right in their day. Judy’s brother is Darrell DeFrance and their father raced as well. On Saturday night Ryan was running in the top ten at times before falling to twelfth when he pulled in on lap 85 to finish the race in 18th. It was an impressive showing for the rookie Gustin.
The LMKN is so much different than anything we see in sprint car racing. In ten years we have nine different champions, only Bloomquist has won it twice. The cars are faster than most sprint car fans understand. The lap times in the features are no different than some 410 features. The sport is highly competitive and I wish we could see the Lucas Oil or WoO LM series’ here more often. I would love to see a WoO sprint/late model double header someday. I think it would be good for both sports to cross promote at the same venue if the sponsors were there to support the purse.
One idea I have for future LMKN events is to run some 410 sprint cars on Saturday night only, an invitational of the top 16 cars in Knoxville points and 4 wild cards to get a total of 20 cars. The infield pit area would be tight, and the sprint car guys might have to unload their trailers, but it would bring in more fans. Sprint car teams and fans always seem to complain that the season ends to early, so why not bring them in and expose them to the late model brand. But I’m thinking 20 cars with 2 heats and a 20 lap feature. Maybe it only pays $2,000 to win and $500 to start, but I think it would be worth a try… maybe.
That’s a wrap on the 2013 season at Knoxville Raceway! I’ll be back with more blogs, interviews, and one other surprise this winter here in the Blog, so keep coming back to the website and the blog over the off-season!
Useless information (I had time this week to count them up). There are 33 light poles at Knoxville Raceway and a total of 304 Musco light bulbs.
The Knoxville Raceway banquet is coming up in November, so keep an eye on the website for details.
Thank you to Knoxville Raceway, Brian Stickel, and the rest of the staff for your support all season. I’ve had so much fun writing the blog this year and interacting with the fans and race teams. Hope to do it all again next year!
*Eric can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @_EricArnold.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Knoxville Raceway.