By T.J. Buffenbarger
(May 21, 2019) — When the American Sprint Car Series National Tour finalized their two day show at I-96 Speedway with the Great Lakes Super Sprints I completely rearranged my spring racing calendar to center around it. ASCS had only visited Michigan one other time. Michigan promoters have been content with the local offerings and outside of the World of Outlaws we haven’t had other options in recent years. I wondered for months how two nights of ASCS racing to a largely unknown audience would work?
Fortunately for us, people turned out to watch what turned out to be a spectacular two nights of racing. I-96’s track was in superb condition for two straight nights. The turnout both nights far exceeded my expectations including what I considered to be a huge risk on Saturday night trying an all sprint car program without a safety net of any stock car divisions outside of I-96’s regular night of racing. This could have been a night for a Michigan promoter to book ASCS with their typical litany of back gate filling classes. I-96 avoided that pairing ASCS only with the American Ethanol Modified on Friday and the Lane Automotive Michigan Traditional Sprints on Saturday.
The track surface was so good both nights that ASCS officials gave the I-96 track prep specialist Walt Wisniewski was given a standing ovation as one of them rode by on the grader.
The race teams delivered with intense, spectacular racing for two nights. While the box score will read as a Sam Hafertepe curb stomping of the field both nights (which for the lead it was), but the racing in the preliminaries was cut throat at times. In particular the three qualifiers during the Saturday program were by far the three best preliminary races I’ve ever seen at I-96.
The ASCS and GLSS race officials made sure everything on their end went smoothly and worked so harmoniously that several officials from both entities were already making Thursday night dinner plans for next year’s trip to Michigan. If I had to guess I would put a chance of the ASCS weekend happening again in 2020 as better than 80 percent. The event’s placement is perfect on the calendar taking place before all of the other regional and national touring events in the area take place, giving Michigan fans their first taste of a national touring series this season. Hopefully this is an event everyone can build on for the future.
If the feedback I’ve received from the local audience is any indication fans are hungry to see this event again in 2020.
Due to the number of rain outs with the ASCS National Tour the changes in the point standings all weekend were dramatic. Thomas Kennedy entered the weekend as the point leader, but did not attend the event at I-96. Scott Bogucki left I-96 on Friday as the point leader only to have multiple issues on Saturday that allowed Matt Covington to take over the top position while Bogucki fell to fifth in the standings.
Blake Hahn’s rim riding drive to second position on Saturday was impressive. Hahn was a driver that you had to watch in almost every event during the weekend as he seemingly started at the back of every heat race and was quickly charging to the front. Hahn commented on Saturday his car was improving later in the race on his way to a second place finishing and wished he had 40 laps to work with.
The local drivers showed well all weekend with the ASCS National Tour with Ryan Ruhl in the top five both nights combined with Ruhl, Brett Mann, Jay Steinebach, Dustin Daggett and Chase Ridenour winning heat races or qualifiers on Saturday.
Unfortunately for Ridenour his run on Saturday ended early with major engine problems that forced him to scratch for the night. Mann passed on Saturday to see his son run in the Indiana Jr. High State Track meet.
Ryan Ruhl had the best overall performance by a Michigan driver with ASCS over the two nights with a second place finish on Friday and top five Saturday. Ruhl’s car was popular among fans sporting his new paint scheme inspired by Ryan’s father featuring one of Ruhl and his fiancée’ Courtney ‘s Yorkie on a surfboard riding a wave.
Steve Irwin and Steinebach did double duty with ASCS/GLSS and MTS on Saturday. Both Irwin and Steinbache ended up in the same heat race during the ASCS program. Both drivers had a strong showing in the MTS feature with Irwin winning Steinebach was the runner up. Steinebach rebounded to make both features on Saturday after being unceremoniously punted out of a transfer spot on the final lap Friday.
- Jeff Walker was seen spinning wrenches for Travis LaCombe during the MTS program on Saturday. LaCombe has enlisted in the veteran mechanic to help shorten the learning curve for himself and his father and former sprint car driver Spike LaCombe.
- Harli White’s having Johnny Herrera on her team for coaching and mechanical assistance has seemingly turned her program around 180 degrees. White looked much more confident than when I’ve seen her in the past on track.
- John Carney had a rough end to his Saturday at I-96. After having to thrash to change an engine with assistance from White and other driver sand teams after his qualifying race Carney ended up upside down in the B-Main. Carney did get the car rolling to take a provision start in the feature and finish 23rd.
- ASCS rookie Tucker Doughty had engine issues twice on Friday and Saturday and had to scratch from the B-Main on Saturday.
- Ryan Coniam made a surprise appearance driving this weekend with Brian Kemenah turning the wrenches. Coniam knocked the rust off on Friday to make the Saturday feature where his night ended with fellow Canadian Alex Hill after an incident in turn four.