Leading into the 2019 edition of the Dirt Late Model Dream, anticipation was at an all-time high. Not since the inaugural event was held back in 1993, was the pre-race buildup at such a fevered pitch.
The sentiments of anxious anticipation were definitely justified for multiple reasons. First, in honor of the 25th running of the event, the winner’s check was increased to $125,000. This made the top prize the biggest in the event’s history. Only the 2001 Eldora Million, paid more to a Dirt Late Model victor at the famed ½-mile oval.
Next, fans and racers buzzed as the first crown-jewel event of the 2019 season came to life. In years past, the annual Show Me 100 in late May at Missouri’s Lucas Oil Speedway, marked the commencement of crown jewel season. However, the well-documented, storm damage suffered by the facility, resulted in the event being canceled for 2019. As a result, Eldora Speedway was left to light the crown jewel torch for this year.
The end result of this pre-race hype led into what will go down as the most memorable Dirt Late Model Dream in history. In fact, the happenings of the weekend left some industry insiders left to ponder whether or not this year’s event may have been arguably the most memorable in the sport’s history.
While the placement in history of the 2019 Dirt Late Model Dream can be argued until the cows come home, there’s plenty of other facts to discuss. With that said, let’s dive into the notebook from the storied event.
More Cars and More Fans
Predicting the number of entries each year for the Dirt Late Model Dream can be a bit challenging. There’s so many factors that affect it. The event has always struggled to match the number of entries of its big brother, the World 100. Even though the winner’s check is roughly double its September predecessor, there’s no competing with the allure of winning a “Globe” at the World 100.
For this year’s Dream, many people thought the car count would be up, and right they were. Ninety-two competitors from across North America converged on the famed oval. This marked a 14-car upswing from 2018, which equates to an 18-percent increase for you mathematicians. It was the highest car count for the event since 2012.
A few factors affected the increase. First, I honestly believe the sheer number of rainouts this year left drivers hungry to race. Furthermore, with so few races competed thus far into the season, it left teams with maybe a little more money available in the budget to travel to a big event.
Added money to the overall purse didn’t hurt the upswing either. With a purse well over $400,000, there was plenty of money to be claimed. Included in the massive purse was a $5,000 rookie fund, which encouraged several first-timers to toss their hats into the ring. More on the fund later.
The fan count also saw an increase. In fact, the event drew record crowds all three nights. The trendsetting turnout found itself rewarded handsomely with countless storylines and great racing.
Did You Hear About Heat Five?
Throughout its history, Eldora Speedway has produced some of racing’s most historic stories with some of the sport’s most prolific drivers. Heat race action on Saturday night immediately made some wonder if there was a full moon hidden behind the clouds. Chaos ensued from the drop of the first green flag, but nothing proved to be more memorable than the happenings in heat race #5.
The story lines which erupted from it are the stuff legends are made of.
The heat had a definitive buzz from the time the heat race lineups were posted. Dirt Late Model Hall of Famer, Scott Bloomquist was positioned on the outside front row following his performance during the preliminary night’s racing. The headline significance was the Dream marked his return to racing, four months removed from a motorcycle accident.
With the winner of the heat race earning the outside-front-row starting spot for the coveted, 100-lap finale, everyone had their eyes on Bloomquist. The eight-time Dream winner didn’t disappoint. He quickly raced to the lead in the heat race, and it seemed he would cruise to victory. However, the story was just beginning.
A mid-race restart saw the green flag immediately replaced by the caution flag. Under caution, Bloomquist was penalized two positions for restarting too early. The Tennessee-racer quickly overcame the penalty and raced back to the lead as the plot thickened. A lap-11 caution set up the most bizarre of restarts.
As the field went back green, a rogue rain shower hit Turn One, causing all of the front runners to careen into the wall. Officials red-flagged the event as the 30-second shower subsided. Bloomquist and many others sustained damage. As a result, officials made the call to allow teams to go to the pit area to repair their cars. While repairs were being made, heat #6 was brought to the speedway.
Roughly 20 minutes later, heat #5 resumed. Bloomquist raced to the apparent victory. However, the scales would tell a different story. His familiar #0 tipped the scales at 2,348 lbs. The problem was the minimum weight is required to be 2,350 lbs. Rules allowed him to try and weigh one last time.
As the Hall of Famer rolled onto the scales, he tapped the brakes, causing the scale to briefly top the 2,350 lbs mark before settling back at 2,348 lbs. Event rules require the weight to be maintained on the scale, and as a result he was disqualified.
He made a valiant effort in the B-Main from the tail of the pack, but ultimately fell short in his bid to make the feature. The end result was a perennial favorite not in the feature, and a story which set social media afire. A definitive new chapter was indeed written in the tales of Scott Bloomquist and Eldora Speedway.
By The Hair Of My Chinny Chin Chin
The Rocket House Car program has been painfully close to crown jewel wins at Eldora Speedway, but has always fallen just short in its bid for glory. On Saturday night, Brandon Sheppard finally shook the monkey from the team’s back and picked up the $125,000 triumph.
While he got the win, it came in gut-wrenching fashion. Sheppard saw his lead rapidly eradicated by 2014 event winner, Dale McDowell, in the closing laps. McDowell made a valiant charge coming to the checkers, but finished 0.056-second short of victory. The lead duo made slight contact crossing the finish line, causing McDowell to spin into Turn One as Sheppard headed for Victory Lane.
For Rocket House Car owner Mark Richards, it was a win which was a longtime in the making.
“It’s been 44 years coming here and racing all the races at Eldora, and this is the first time my personal car has been on stage,” he said. “We’ve built cars that have won here, but for our own car to be here – or one I crewed – is really special to me.”
What A Rookie Crop
With $5,000 in added rookie bonuses on the line, the Dirt Late Model Dream first timers came out in full force. Fifteen drivers embarked on their maiden attempt to tame the high banks of the “Big E.” While Eldora Speedway hasn’t always been known for being kind to rookies, a handful of drivers shined bright in their debut.
Two competitors specifically, rose to the occasion as Ross Bailes and Kyle Strickler opened eyes all weekend.
Clover, South Carolina’s Ross Bailes swept the rookie awards all weekend. He was the top performing rookie on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and was rewarded with $4,000 in total bonuses for his efforts. He finished 13th in the finale.
Modified standout, Kyle Strickler opened a lot of eyes throughout the weekend. He was not only the second-best performing rookie all three nights, he also paced the field in the finale for more than 33 laps. A late-race melee, while running just outside the Top-5 slowed his roll, and he was only able to manage a 14th-place finish in the final rundown.
For Strickler it was still a surreal weekend.
“My entire life I’ve dreamed of coming here in a Late Model, and this weekend, the dream came true,” Strickler commented. “I wish we would’ve had a better finish to show for our efforts, but I’m still so proud of this Wells & Sons Motorsports team and can’t wait to come back in September for the World 100.”
Random Thoughts & Notes
With the exception of the random rain shower during heat race #5 on Saturday night, Mother Nature finally left a major event alone in 2019. Temps were in the 70’s and 60’s throughout the weekend. Hopefully, dry and pleasant weather is a sign of things to come as we go full bore into crown-jewel season.
Jonathan Davenport was the high-point driver for the weekend and spun a “five” on the wheel of misfortune, following Friday night’s action. As a result, he started fifth in the first heat. Despite facing a strong invert, he charged to the win to start sixth in the finale. By lap 26, he challenged Strickler for the lead before tie-rod damage forced him pitside. After fighting an ailing race car, he ultimately retired to a 23rd place finish.
Canada’s Ricky Weiss scored his first-career Eldora win in preliminary action on Thursday night. He backed it up with a third-place finish in Friday’s preliminary feature. He ended prelim action Second in the standings, just one marker behind Davenport. Weiss ran as high as the second spot in the finale before a late-race restart shuffled him back to a Seventh-place finish.
North Carolina’s Chris Ferguson enjoyed a breakout weekend at Eldora. Fergy finished fourth on Thursday, second on Friday, and ended the weekend with a career-best Eldora finish of fourth on Saturday night.
2018 USMTS Modified Champion, Johnny Scott made his first three Dirt Late Model starts of his career over the weekend. He made the feature the first two nights before falling just short of qualifying for the finale on Saturday night.
Each year Eldora Speedway continues adding camping spots to accommodate the ever-growing demand. Officials announced on Saturday night less than 400 spots remain available for September’s World 100.
Saturday night’s 50/50 ticket winner took home a whopping $34,220. Friday night’s winner pocketed over $11,000, which was more than either preliminary feature winner banked for their night’s work.
This wraps up another notebook from another great racing event. I’d love to hear your thoughts on your favorite moment from the 2019 edition of the Dirt Late Model Dream, so please reply with your perspectives!