By T.J. Buffenabrger
(September 16, 2020) — Fourth generation race car driver Tylar Rankin from Coldwater, Michigan made headlines last week picking up the feature win with the Sprints on Dirt series at Butler Motor Speedway on Saturday. When you look at Tylar Rankin’s career statistics to date you will not find a long list of wins. Instead you will find a winding road with a little success in some higher profile moments with the potential of more wins in the future.
Rankin is the grandson of veteran sprint car driver Gerry Hart and the son of the late sprint car driver Jeff Rankin. With that family lineage Rankin ended up with the desire to race, and that desire took him down a unique road that led to Rankin’s first sprint car feature win on Saturday
Like many drivers in the area Rankin cut his teeth in karting.
“When I was four years old I started racing go karts,” said Rankin. “I raced them until I was 12 years old, then I took a break.”
When his career resumed Rankin had the unique opportunity to drive a pavement sprint car on the Auto Value Super Sprints trail.
“When I was about 14 or 15 years old I got an opportunity to drive for Marvin Carmen in the pavement sprint car stuff for about 5-8 shows. I was able to do that for about a year or two kind of sporadically whenever I got the chance to go do it.”
After the short stint in pavement sprint cars Rankin turned his focus back to karting buying his own equipment and traveling to compete all over the great lakes region at karting hotbeds like Owosso, Michigan, Cridersville, Ohio, and other indoor and outdoor venues.
That return to karting led to a feature victory at the Rumble Series in 2016 in the cage kart division. Rankin spoke of his karting win at the Rumble with as much or more enthusiasm than he did of his sprint car triumph
The Rumble is my favorite race of the year because it’s so hard to do good down there. That one weekend when we won the feature everything came together.”
That following season the elation of the Rumble victory from Rankin was countered with the frustration of a short run in the midget car division.
“I purchased a midget because it was ‘somewhat affordable’. I ran that for about half of a season and it was the most grueling, heartbreaking thing with my racing I have ever been through. I fought the engine we got with it and never really got going in the right direction. We ended up blew it up at Gas City during Indiana Midget Week. It was kind of a hard let down. I probably shouldn’t’ have been there in the first place, but I wanted to do it and ended up blowing the motor up.”
After the disappointment of his midget season Rankin turned his focus to assisting his Grandfather, who returned to the driver’s seat after a short absence after his Grandmother Darla had passed away.
“The weekend after we blew the motor up at Gas City I went racing with my Grandpa. He had been running periodically that year. He and my Mom were mostly doing it on their own. I decided at that point to go and help.”
Originally Rankin put his seat in the car for his Grandfather to try a full containment seat for the first time. That eventually led to the start of Rankin’s dirt sprint car career.
“I pulled my seat out of my midget because I ran a full containment seat. My Grandpa had never tried a full containment seat, so I figured that I could put it in the car and he could try and it see how it went. We put it in there one night and I thought he did a lot better than he did the weekend prior.”
After that performance Gerry decided to step away from the driver’s seat. The following Wednesday Rankin received a phone call from his Grandfather asking him if he wanted to take over the driving duties, leading to a handful of starts at the end of the 2017 season.
The opportunity to move into a dirt sprint car did not come without adversity as Rankin and the Hart team struggled with a variety of mechanical issues.
“We of fought a lot of mechanical failures in 2018. We had stuff that Grandpa had for 5-10 years laying around. We started to progressively work our way through it fortunately. Going into 2019 we went a different route and spent some money and bought a motor because we had dropped one of our better engines and could not fix it. We purchased an engine from a guy and had endless amounts of struggles with it and did not get a lot of seat time.”
Rankin and the Hart team persevered and went to work during the off season and solved the gremlins with the new engine. In addition Mark Zimmerman, brother of former Butler track champion Doug Zimmerman, joined team in 2018 and started assisting with the troubleshooting. The hard work as Rankin started to collect better finishes in the 2020 season capped off with his victory on Saturday.
With the Sprints on Dirt series holding their first race of the 2020 season Rankin managed to put everything together drawing the pole position for the main event and having a great start to the main event.
“I was able to get a jump on the initial start which I was excited about because if you don’t start out right you end up stuck behind the eight ball chasing people. The car felt right at the start. From the way it took off to the entrance to the first corner it felt better than it did all night long. Sometimes with a full fuel load its hard to feel that way. We have struggled with a full fuel load all season long. We have been plugging away at it and making sure we put some extra fuel in it early in the night trying to figure out the first 5-10 laps we struggle at but are able to recover from at the end of the race.”
Rankin had to stay calm through multiple caution flags throughout the main event while leading.
“It was hard because there was a lot of caution laps, getting stretched out a bit before getting hit with another caution. I had to change up the restarts a bit, so people were not able to capitalize on them. Then I just tried to hit the marks that we were hammering on every night that I have been working on all year, adjusting as the track changes all night. All the things that come with running hundreds of laps crammed into a few laps on Saturday. “
Even with the laps winding down Rankin used the experience of the challenges the past three years to keep his nerves in check over the final two laps of the feature.
“Throughout the course of the past 2-3 years have been humbling. You just try to not get yourself worked up saying ‘you’ve got this’ because in a lap or a corner it could all be taken away,” said Rankin. “I almost started to get excited with two laps to go, but I had to block it out. I told myself I had eight more corners, do not mess it up.”
That mistake never happened with Rankin picking up the win. Afterwards Rankin felt relief, but also happiness for the people that supported him as much or more than for himself.
“Finally! Finally one time!” Rankin described the feeling of crossing the finish line first. “Coming out of four, I’ve been waiting so long and have lost so many different opportunities to see the checkered flag first, it was so awesome. Not only for myself but everybody that has put their hard work into the car. The sponsores that believed in me and got me to the point I am now in my racing career. I could not have done it without them, and I felt for so long I was not giving them the thing to thank them when you win a race. Like that was justification for everyone’s help to tell then thank you for all the support they have given.”
After all the haulers had exited the racetrack Rankin and his Grandfather finished packing up the race car and headed back to the shop when they made a strange realization.
“The Butler and SOD officials did a good job pushing the night through because there was rain coming and did a really good job of getting the show finished. When we pulled out of the track, which was after everyone else had left, I looked over at Grandpa and asked him what time it was. He replied it was only 11:30. That’s earlier than we normally get out of here!”
Rankin is not the only driver in the family now as his girlfriend Shelby Yeaples, has taken on driving a lightning sprint.
“We got everything ready to go this year with some newer karting equipment and we came across an amazing deal on a lighting sprint we couldn’t turn down. She had been bugging me the entire year she wanted to be in bigger car. Finally, she got her wishes. She has been running a handful of races with Great Lakes lightening sprints that do not conflict with the sprint car. We even took her to Gas City to run with the D2 midgets.”
With the season winding down Rankin looks to make one more start during the 2020 season next Thursday with the World of Outlaws at Plymouth Speedway in Plymouth, Indiana before turning his focus to the 2021 campaign.
“I think we will have a Similar plan for next year running Butler and close to home,” said Rankin. “With Grandpa’s age the traveling stuff is getting harder for him, so we will do whatever makes sense. I’d like to get to travel more though and I feel like I have some of the tools that I could progress in that situation.”