Notebook: Fourth Annual Gateway Dirt Nationals

It seems like just yesterday when Cody Sommer announced his plans to attend the inaugural Gateway Dirt Nationals. At the time, it was hard to imagine a dirt race being held inside the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis. However, somehow, someway, he made his prophecy a reality. Fast-forward four years, and the fourth edition of the event is now in the history books.

The Breakdown

The fourth running of the Arizona Sport Shirts Gateway Dirt Nationals drew a total of 173 entries in three divisions. Included in the weekend tally was 85 Super Late Models, 38 Midgets, and 50 Modifieds. The Super Late Model entry list was open to all interested competitors, while the Midget and Modified list were invite-only.

Intense racing action at the Gateway Dirt Nationals. (Todd Boyd photo)

Notably, the Midget entry list was down from its season-one debut in 2018. Fifty competitors initially accepted invites. However, the ride-changing, silly season resulted in some entries no longer having rides by the time the late-December event came to life.

Ouch Times Two

Illinois racing veteran Bobby Bittle has battled late-season adversity the past two years. His trials and tribulations were experienced both on and off the track. In 2008, just two weeks before the event, he was struck by a car in front of his race shop. The hit-and-run accident left him with 14 broken bones and 11 broken ribs.

After sitting out the 2018 edition of the Gateway Dirt Nationals, he was eager to return in 2019. Unfortunately, his return would be short-lived. In hot laps on Thursday night, he flipped entering Turn 1 on the 1/5-mile oval. He was uninjured but done for the weekend.

Bobby Bittle flips for the first time in his career. (Todd Boyd photo)

“Until tonight, I’ve never flipped once in my 30-plus years of racing,” Bittle said moments after climbing from his #89. “To see our weekend end so early like this is really disappointing.”

The Kryptonite Kid

Fans in the Ohio Valley region are well acquainted with Parkersburg, West Virginia’s Tyler Carpenter. After this year’s Gateway Dirt Nationals, the entire racing world now knows exactly who he is. In his family-built Kryptonite Race Car, Carpenter completed a weekend sweep of the Super Late Model division.

Tyler Carpenter made several new fans throughout the weekend. (Todd Boyd photo)

He started things by winning his Friday-night heat race in a photo-finish with Tanner English. He followed the thrilling finish with a heat-race interview filled with expletives, honesty, and enthusiasm, which left the crowd roaring.

Later Friday night, Carpenter topped an exceptional battle through lapped traffic to snare a $5,000 win in one of the twin features. The Mountaineer State driver wasn’t finished there. On Saturday night, he turned back advances from multiple drivers before winning in another near-photo finish over Brandon Sheppard to claim the $30,000 check in the weekend finale.

Tyler Carpenter celebrates his coveted victory with his family. (Ryan Roberts photo)

“I feel like I’m dreaming. This just shows that if you believe in anything, you can do it,” Carpenter shared with the massive crowd in Victory Lane on Saturday night. “These guys just kept coming at me. I hated to see [Ryan] Unzicker get upside down, but it gave me a chance to breathe because he was making me work hard for the lead. And then at the end, Sheppy [Brandon Sheppard] was pressing me hard, and I made my mind up that I was going to do whatever I had to do to get this win.”

A $2,000 bonus from COMP Cams sweetened Carpenter’s weekend-take. The added cash came courtesy of a decal program that the Memphis, Tennessee-based company posted for the highest-finishing driver, who was running a special decal package on their spoiler.

T-Mez To The Top

San Jose, California’s Thomas Meseraull, made quite a few fans in his Dome debut. On Thursday night, he completed a wild last-lap slide job on race leader Justin Grant to take the $3,000 Midget Feature win. In Victory Lane, he was bluntly honest about the key to his triumph.

“Justin Grant was really fast, but I was better,” he revealed to the opening night crowd. “I didn’t come here to run Second.”

T-Mez impressed the crowd in his Dome debut. (Ryan Roberts photo)

The 2019 Gas City I-69 Speedway Track Champion ran in the Top 5 early in Saturday night’s $10,000 finale before a mechanical failure sidelined him to a 13th-place finish.

It’s All About The Intros

While there’s a lot of unique aspects to the Gateway Dirt Nationals, the driver intros have taken on their own persona. In fact, drivers have gotten quite creative with their props and signs over the past four years. Of course, some of the most notables to date include Jason Welshan’s digs at Scott Bloomquist, as well as Bloomquist’s entrance with Rico Abreu on his shoulders in 2018.

Shannon Babb received a roar from the crowd with his driver’s intro. (Josh James photo)

For 2019, drivers again brought their A-game for the Saturday night opening festivities. Shannon Babb brought the house down by emerging from the tunnel with his… well… his man marbles in a wheelbarrow. The idea came after many people said the Illinois racer truly had the biggest balls of them all, for the way he runs the cushion at the Dome.

Fan-favorite Tyler Carpenter, came out riding an inflatable horse and wearing a cowboy hat as he embraced his country boy roots.

Tyler Carpenter rode his “horse” for intros. (Ryan Roberts photo)

Fellow West Virginia-driver K.C. Burdette lifted a brutally honest sign over his head, which simply read, “Send Nudes.”

K.C. Burdette got creative with his driver’s intro sign. (Ryan Roberts photo)

Last, but not least, was perhaps my favorite intro. California’s Logan Seavey took a stab at his fendered brethren by bringing out a mallet and a quarter panel. He then got down on the ground and beat the dents out of the quarter panel. The routine poked fun at all of the Late Model and Modified guys who filled the pit area with banging sounds throughout the weekend as they worked to straighten wrinkled body panels.

Yung Money Dominates The Dome

NASCAR star, Kyle Larson, still loves to play in the dirt. We all know that. Over the weekend, he added yet another accolade to his storied resume. The Elk Grove, California-native won his $3,000 Midget prelim on Friday night before dominating the field on Saturday night to score his first Gateway Dirt Nationals title.

Kyle Larson on his way to Victory Lane. (Todd Boyd photo)

“The track had a lot of character tonight with several rough spots, but the track crews worked all weekend, and that’s all you can ask,” Larson noted in Saturday’s Victory Lane. “This is such an awesome event, and it’s such a great thing for our sport. Hopefully, the fans enjoyed it. I know I can’t wait to come back next year.”

Larson marked his eighth victory in nine starts in his custom-designed King Chassis. In the past two months, he won the $32,000 top prize in the inaugural Hangtown 100 as well as his third Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ventura. Veteran Sprint Car owner, Paul Silva, was also on hand to turn wrenches all weekend.

Kyle Larson and his son Owen celebrate in Victory Lane on Saturday night. (Todd Boyd photo)

Final Corner, Final Lap

Indiana’s Derek Losh started from the outside-front-row for Saturday night’s $10,000-to-win Modified finale. He led early in the feature before slipping as far back as the Fourth position. However, perhaps he saved the best for last.

Exiting Turn 4 on the final circuit of the 30-lap affair, he shot to the inside of race leader Kyle Bronson and won a drag race to the line to score the huge win.

Derek Losh and crew relishing their last-lap Modified heroics. (Ryan Roberts photo)

“This is totally unbelievable,” Losh commented in Victory Lane as he absorbed the moment. “We aren’t a professional racing team. We do this for fun on the side. I can’t believe we just won the Gateway Dirt Nationals.”

In four years of the event, there have been four different winners. Tommie Seets Jr. (2016), Ray Bollinger (2017), and Mike Harrison (2018) emerged victorious in previous editions.

Close quarters Modified action during Saturday night’s finale. (Todd Boyd photo)

That’s A Wrap

That’s just a sampling of the happenings and sayings from the 2019 Gateway Dirt Nationals. It was, no doubt, an unforgettable weekend. If you are kicking yourself for not going this year, it’s not too early to start planning for 2020. The mega event is set for December 17-19.

About the author

Ben Shelton

Ben got his start at historic Riverside International Speedway. His accomplished motorsports media career includes journalist, race announcer, and on-air personality.
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