Season Finale At Manitowoc
by Fay Hendricks
The season finale took two days at Manitowoc Expo, with the final four division champions earning their crowns. Many tales of Friday's mishaps greeted us when we arrived Saturday, forcing some teams to work while others enjoyed their overnight stay. Tight point battles found two or three likely candidates in each class coming into the final night. The full moon did not help. At least the skies were clear as we headed north, escaping the rain that had already cancelled races elsewhere.
The Grand National championship was between Steven Ruh and Ryan Minster, with Ruh winning the first heat. Steven Weber was leading that event, but his car spun after a few laps. The second heat ended with Kevin Naidl ahead of Minster at the checkered flag. The front fence holds the feature inversion wheel at Manitowoc, with a child spinning the wheel following each field's heats. The spin ended on the number eight, which placed Minster in that position and Ruh two rows behind. Donny Kulow and Matt Jackson shared the front row, followed by Brad Juckem and Naidl.
The 20-lap finale saw Kulow lead the first laps, Juckem the next few. Tim Thompson started in the third row and roared into the lead on the sixth time around. Two laps later Kevin Lubach's car spin forced the only caution of the race, and Thompson sped to the finish ahead of Naidl, Juckem, and the rest. Thompson happily drove to victory lane, telling the audience, "The track was outstanding." Asked about his pursuers, Thompson admitted, "I was so nervous." The points were tallied, and it was announced that Steven Ruh earned this year's championship.
The street stock heats were won by Doug Engleking and Brad Laurent after a spin by leader Mike Zitzer. The feature invert saw the wheel land on eight again, placing Jeff Bender and Jeremy Hebel in the front row and point leader Brad Ruh last in the field. Hebel led the opening circuits of the 15-lap feature before Dave Gauger took charge from the second row after four laps. Gauger, whose mother had passed away earlier this year, was emotional afterwards. It was pointed out that the winning car ended up with a broken axle in victory lane, making the win even more special. "This one's for Mom," said Gauger, "She always drove the car from the grandstands. Thanks to all of you fans. Without you, we're nothing." The championship contest ended with Brad Ruh over Engleking.
Al Schlafer and Shane Wenninger won their heats in the sprint car class, Tim Haddy finding mechanical maladies that kept his car in the pits until later. After a long season and engine woes, the championship came down to Ben Schmidt, Jeremy Schultz, and Kyle Marten. The 30-lap feature started Schmidt at the end of the eight-car invert and Schultz in the second row. John Krebsbach and Kurt Davis made up the front row, and Marten was next with Schultz. The field paraded four abreast to the waves of the crowd before getting down to serious racing. Haddy started in the back and took a few laps before retiring for the night, hoping to keep his fifth place in the point standings. Also starting in the back was Randy Brunette, who was racing for the last time before retiring from the sport.
The green flag waved, and Davis was ahead of Krebsbach the next time around. The pace was fast as Davis began lapping cars after seven circuits. Behind the leader Marten, T. J. Luedtke, and Schmidt were fighting for second place, and most of us were riveted on this battle as the race made it to the halfway mark. While negotiating lapped traffic, Marten made contact with a car and damaged his right front steering, the wheel wobbling badly as he slowed. Davis resumed the point, quickly completing the rest of the race and putting two more cars down a lap before the checkered flag. Luedtke, Schmidt, and Schultz followed, then last night's winner Danny Schlafer. I counted only eight cars still on the lead lap at the end.
Schmidt tallied enough points to earn the championship ahead of Schultz at race's end. Winner Davis spun dizzying donuts on the frontstretch, climbing out of his car to applause. "I have to give credit to the crew," Davis began, "I've been working crazy hours at work. The crew did the work on this car." Davis added, "I struggled at this race track. Tonight we tried something new on the car, and it was on a rail." Later Davis proudly posed for pictures with his car Bubbles, telling me this was Bubbles' first trophy.
The late model point chase tightened up between Russ Scheffler and Tom Naeyaert after Naeyaert won the previous night here. Scheffler won the first heat after Pete Parker suddenly drove to the infield while leading. The second heat had an early scare when flames erupted under Justin Schmidt's car, and ended with second-generation racer Paul Parker the winner. Schmidt climbed out safely, but his car was missing at feature time. The 25-lap contest had an invert of six, placing Dakota Geiger and Ron Stroika in front of Scheffler and Paul Parker. The green flag waved, the cars roared around the oval, and the next time around it was Parker leading the pack. After a bit of work it was Scheffler in the lead eight laps later.
Soon lapping the rear of the field, Scheffler held his position in the caution-free contest, crossing the final stripe with several lapped cars between himself and Parker. Stroika ran a very competitive race, ending up in third place ahead of Rick Scheffler, who began in sixth place. Naeyaert, Jim Schmidt and Bob Cullen followed. Scheffler is very familiar to victory lane, telling the crowd, "Hats off to the track prep tonight. It was great racing. Thanks to the fans for showing up. If it weren't for the fans, we wouldn't be racing." Scheffler not only won the last race of the season here, but also the championship.
Shortly after 9:30 the season finale ended and the champions were gathered in the infield for their photos. In the pits there was a sense of ease afterwards, many staying in the afterglow as others headed home early. We found only two of the race winners afterwards, and finally gave up hope of seeing the rest before our long drive home. Our congratulations to all.
Kurt Davis wins Sprint Car finale at Manitowoc. [Fay Hendricks Photo]
Tim Thompson won Grand National finale at Manitowoc. [Fay Hendricks Photo]
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