Five drivers still alive in shootout for IRA Sprint Car championship
By Nicholas Dettmann
Full Throttle Magazine
Two weekends remain in the 2015 Bumper to Bumper IRA Outlaw Sprint Car Series season, starting with two races this weekend.
The first is Friday at Luxemburg Speedway, The Battle by The Bay, and the second is at Dodge County Fairgrounds in Beaver Dam.
Ben Schmidt clings to an eight-point lead over Scotty Neitzel, the 2004 and 2005 series champion. Bill Rose is third, 31 points behind Schmidt. Jeremy Schultz is fourth, 53 points back, and Blake Nimee is fifth, 88 points back.
Those five drivers are eligible to win the championship, making it the closest championship battle in more than 20 years, especially in the last seven years.
“Every spot counts now,” Schmidt said.
The championship is up for grabs this late in the season mainly because of Bill Balog, the seven-time defending champion, doing a part-time schedule this year. Knowing that, the drivers, the crews and the fans were rejuvenated.
“I think everybody knew it could be anybody’s ballgame,” Schultz said.
The season is scheduled to finish Oct. 3 at Plymouth.
“I think they have all stepped up their game,” IRA series president Steve Sinclair said.
Jordan Goldesberry won the series’ most recent event Saturday at Beaver Dam Raceway for the inaugural Scott Semmelmann Memorial.
Schultz had the best points night of the five contenders. He finished second.
“I couldn’t be any happier with how (Saturday) went,” Schultz said. “Wish we could’ve won, but we’ll take second all day long.”
All the other championship contenders finished outside the top-five at Beaver Dam. Schmidt finished seventh, Nimee was ninth, Neitzel was 11th and Rose was 17th.
Balog has undoubtedly been the driver to beat the last seven years of his series dominance. From 2012-14, he won 47 features, including 19 of the 26 races in 2012. His domination didn’t offer an opportunity for parity as he won the championship by an average of 272 points, meaning he had the championship sewn up a couple races before the season ended.
In 2012, there were only five winners. In 2013, there were six winners. The series got a little bit greater parity in 2014 with 10 race winners.
This year, with Balog focusing on the 410 National Sprint League, the series has parity with 17 winners this season in 24 races. Balog has four “A” main victories this season. After him, five drivers have two “A” main triumphs.
“It has definitely opened up a little bit,” Neitzel said.
For Schmidt, the 2011 360 sprint car track champion at Plymouth, being in this position was maybe unexpected.
“Coming into the season, we weren’t really thinking points,” Schmidt said. “Kind of had a good string where we had a win and four second-places in about a month and that kind of catapulted us up to the top of the points.”
Schmidt’s first career victory came May 9 at Beaver Dam to start a solid two-month run. He finished second in four of the next six races. Suddenly, he and his crew were thinking championship.
When you’re chasing a championship, a driver expects to have a few bouts with bad luck, whether it’s mechanical issues or crashes. Nobody could’ve predicted what happened to Schmidt, though.
In a matter of two hours Aug. 29 at LaSalle Speedway in Illinois, Schmidt used all three motors he had.
“The motor never turned over,” Schmidt said. “So we weren’t sure what was up, so we got the spare down, made it through the hot laps and that motor blew up. We got our third motor out and put it in our spare car and that one blew up.”
Again, three engines lost in a matter of two hours.
That night, Schmidt managed only one lap in the “B” main.
“That was a pretty hard night,” Schmidt said.
The problem was diagnosed about a week later after Schmidt sent each engine to his builder in Pennsylvania. There was gravel in the engine and the oil tanks.
Nobody knows how or why the gravel got into the motor. The only thing that is for sure was it wasn’t in there by accident.
“Shock that somebody could do this,” Schmidt said when he learned the details of the problem.
“The racing community rallied around us,” he added.
The actions by the people in the pit area were a combination of people wanting to help out a driver who was victimized in an unusual situation, but to also see one of the series’ best points battles in more than 20 years get settled on the race track.
“We were feeling good,” Schmidt said about the team’s level of momentum going into LaSalle. “We were just coming off a weekend where we had three top-fives.”
Schmidt was fourth at Wilmot on Aug. 21, and fifth at Wilmot on Aug. 22 and Angell Park on Aug. 23.
“Then (LaSalle) happened,” he said.
Schmidt got back on track with a victory Sept. 6 at 141 Speedway in Francis Creek, Wisconsin, in a borrowed race car, but followed that up with a 19th-, 20th- and seventh-place finish.
“It’s kind of nerve-wracking, but at the same time just because we’re in first place in points doesn’t mean we’re racing harder,” Schmidt said. “We’re taking it night by night, do the best we can every night.”
Schmidt and his crew have had their mental toughness tested in the last month.
“That’s for sure,” Schmidt said.
And because of the issues, it has allowed drivers to creep back into the championship picture or have kept them close.
For Schultz, who won his second Wilmot Sprint Car track championship this season (2013) and the 2013 series Rookie of the Year, he stayed alive because of the issues.
Since a third-place finish at LaSalle, Schultz missed an “A” main and had two finishes 18th or worse. But a second-place at Beaver Dam has him back in the hunt.
Nimee has been consistent the last month with nine top-10 finishes in the last 10 races. Neitzel has been up and down with a pair of second-place finishes the last five races, but also three finishes outside the top-10. Rose, last season’s Rookie of the Year, has been like Neitzel, up and down.
“(Winning a championship) was a goal when the season started,” Neitzel said. “But as the season has unfolded, I sure didn’t think we’d be anywhere near the top. We were fast early. We were very inconsistent in the middle. Now we’ve been consistent and those guys have had some bad luck.
“Two of the tracks we have left are not my strong suit.”
One track was Beaver Dam and the other is Plymouth.
Neitzel is a two-time champion, which he hopes can help him close the deal.
“We’ll pick away at it and see what happens,” he said. “It’s not over until it’s over.”
Also for Schmidt, the motivation for him is to win a championship and do so on a home track: Plymouth. He has a lot of sponsors from the Plymouth area.
“It’d be nice to clinch in front of all our sponsors, and friends and family,” Schmidt said.
It’s going to be a battle to the end.
Follow Nicholas Dettmann on Twitter: @dettmann_wbdn