The 43rd annual WinterNationals at East Bay Raceway Park near Tampa provided the perfect excuse for racers and fans alike who were looking for a reason to escape places where sub-zero temperatures were about to invade. Some competitors headed out from their northern homes several days in advance to avoid an impending snowstorm. Warm and sunny conditions can be a spiritual aphrodisiac when race cars are involved.
The first of four weeks of scheduled racing action would invite Modifieds and Street Stocks to the show (Drivers in the other classes would have to wait and endure the conditions at home). A group of 50 Modifieds gathered for a Tuesday night’s practice (Jan. 22), some having been on the property for as many as four days. These drivers were anxious to shake down new rides and kick the rust off old ones. This became the true test if that off-season idea was worth pursuing after all.
The opening night of competition would come on Wednesday. With UMP rules in full effect for local racers and travelers, as well as the local muffler rule, the playing field was about as level as it could get. A healthy number of local racers, who had ended their season only six weeks earlier, would have the benefit of track experience, though that had never really made a difference. Summon the change.
Even though 14 states were represented in the field, the state of Florida would assert itself in a manner never seen before since Modifieds became a part of the WinterNationals in 2000. No one had seen racers from one place finish in all of the top five spots at the end of a Modified feature. In 65 previous races, that type of domination could not be found.
In the record-breaking performance, Clearwater resident Bryan Bernhardt, the two-time defending East Bay Modified champion, would lead the parade of Florida racers with his victory. Like a pied piper, he brought along Ivedent Lloyd Jr., Kyle Bronson, Mavrick Varnadore and Jeff Mathews to claim the top five. The list of Florida racers went on as Phillip Cobb and West Virginia transplant Doug Horton finished sixth and seventh. It was Kevin “Buzzy” Adams of Wisconsin who put an end to the Florida flow.
The second night of racing kept the Sunshine State win streak intact as Kyle Bronson rode the high side of the racetrack to march out front for a convincing win. Bronson, who was fast qualifier in each of the first two nights, barely made the A-main through his heat and started in the 10th row.
It took everything he had to get his Lethal chassis to the front. “The guys worked their tails off,” Bronson told the East Bay faithful and those watching the live pay-per view at FloRacing.com. “It drove like a dream. Once I was able to get close to the front, I could smell it and I wanted the win.”
This time, Florida racers could only get six of the first seven spots as Adams played spoiler with a third place run. Bronson took over the point lead, a critical consideration because only one night remained to lock in the top spots for the Saturday 75-lap finale. The six racers who accumulated the most points through the first three nights would be exempt from heat races and start in the first three rows.
Florida temperatures started to retreat into the low 60s, still much better than the icebox conditions being foisted onto the north. The fans grabbed warmer gear and headed for the grandstands to watch what would happen on night number three. Adams was able to secure the Friday fast time, but, like Bronson before him on both nights, the quick qualifier did himself no favors by drawing an inversion of four.
Once the 30-lap featured gathered on the track, the field struggled to complete a lap. A trio of cautions re-racked the field and the green finally stayed out…for 25 laps. The action was exciting throughout as racers were trying to find the fast way around a track that provided challenges to those who were off the mark on their suspension set-ups. Eschewing his high line antics of the night before, Bronson went to the bottom and found the needed grip to propel himself to a second win on the week. His starting spot in the Saturday feature was secure.
With six drivers committed, there were more than 40 drivers who had heat races that stood between them and a feature appearance. Tennessee’s Lucas Lee, who finished second on Friday and missed the lock by a single point, was clearly on a mission. Lee won his heat to earn the seventh starting spot and stayed within striking distance from the start. As the race progressed, Lee and fellow Tennessee racer Shon Flanary would hook up for strong racing as misfortune visited those who had been strong through the week.
Ivedent Lloyd was clearly the one to beat, but the early race leader retired about a third of the way through. Bronson was done at that point, destined to finish outside of the top 20. About the only Florida drivers left to step up were Devin Dixon and Phillip Cobb, both of whom had early troubles yet rebounded to become a factor.
As the race wore down, Lee stayed strong with challengers coming and going from the picture. Patience through lapped traffic paid deep dividends and the checkered finally waved down on the latest winner to be added to the rolls of Winternationals Final Night champions.
The companion Street Stocks hovered around 20 cars a night, predominantly local racers out to show their talent. While local Dennis Williams would win the first night, Alabama’s Richie Stephens would sweep the remaining three features, including the 40-lap finale. As soon as Stephens wrapped up his victory celebration, he and his team loaded up and left, driving all night to make the show at the National 100 at East Alabama Motor Speedway.
Speedweeks ramps up on Jan. 31 with more racing as more speedways get involved. East Bay hosts Stingray Performance Crate Late Models, Top Gun Sprints and V-8 Warriors. For those who can’t be at East Bay, all the action will be available at FloRacing.com on a pay-per-view basis. Bubba Raceway Park brings All-Star Circuit of Champions back for top quality Sprint racing. It’s just getting started!