Great Lakes Edition: Notes from an Enjoyable I-96 Double and More

Chad Wilson (#14) and Mike Austrauskas (#3A). (Jim Denhamer photo)

By T.J. Buffenbarger

(June 23, 2021) — Last Friday featured an interesting open wheel double header with the Sprints on Dirt and Great Lakes Traditional Sprints at I-96 Speedway. SOD is back for its first full season under new management while GLTS is going through some changes from their own success.

Mark and Doug Zimmerman along with some officials from Butler Motor Speedway have taken on the challenge of running the SOD series in hopes to bring the series back to prominence in the area along with hoping to give a boost to the sprint car division at Butler, which is Michigan’s only weekly sprint car track and only venue in the area regularly featuring winged 410 sprint car racing. The good news was there was no news. SOD officials turned in a relatively smooth night other than Alex Aldrich’s wild turn off track during qualifying that about landed upside down in the staging area (more on this later), but otherwise put on a good show and was uneventful.

The 21 car field for the SOD program larger than expected boosted by a few stragglers that ventured north from being rained out at other venues. GLTS may have only brought 16 cars, but the quality of those cars were relatively decent with Ohio drivers Drew Rader and Lee Underwood traveling north to complete and several Canadian competitors shut out due to border restrictions.

Other than one hour gap between the last sprint car heat ending at 9:09 p.m. and the first sprint car feature pushing off at 10:21 due to a sprint car dash and some track work to knock down the curb at the top of the track thanks to mother nature intervening earlier in the day. Once again, I-96 produced what is continually the best racing surface in the state that slicked off to a nice cushion most of the night and even had the low line of the track come in during the non-wing feature despite having to push out the infield marker tires due to the rain earlier in the day.

The SOD main event was highlighted with a three car race for the lead through traffic that was interrupted by some untimely cautions. Zane DeVault mixed up restarts to open some distance between himself and Max Stambaugh for the win. The GLTS feature was a highly entertaining affair with Daggett running down Steve Irwin for the victory.

The series worked well together and produced a nice program with two entertaining features. Having SOD and Butler with full fields of cars is important to the entire sprint car ecosystem. While Barry Marlow has done a good job growing GLSS, GLTS, and bringing the GLLS online. Having another party with an interest in the dirt sprint car scene in the state is a good thing if they tolerate each other and do not try to obliterate the other party (See winged pavement sprint car racing in the area).

Notes from I-96 Speedway

• Tylar Rankin made his first start Friday at I-96 Speedway with the Sprints on Dirt after suffering a heart attack in March of this year. Rankin won his heat race, but in the final laps the engine was audibly going sour. Rankin scratched for the remainder of the I-96 program and found out later that there was some damage to the engine.

Rankin plans on putting the team’s backup engine, but that will curtain their traveling away from Butler for a while until the engine damaged at I-96 is repaired. Rankin hopes to have that engine back sometime soon, otherwise is looking for other driving opportunities outside of Butler.

• Jared Horstman ventured north to I-96 after the annual Ohio Sprint Speedweek rain out at Limaland Morotsports Park driving for Chad Wilson. This was Horstman’s second appearance in the Wilson car with the first being last season at Attica Raceway Park. While Horstman’s drive from the back of the field after a spin for a top five finish was a story, it was not THE story this team produced Friday.

Just moments after the conclusion of the SOD feature, Wilson’s team thrashing to get the car ready for the Great Lakes Traditional Sprints feature with Chad exited the trailer in his drivers suit.

Jared Horstman had driven the #14 car during the SOD portion of the program to a top five finish after and early race spin. The GLTS teams went to bat for the Wilson team, and GLTS officials responded that Wilson could tag the tail of the feature if they had the proper tire. After that tire was located the team did as quick of a turnover as possible in the limited time for Wilson to finish seventh.

• Great Lakes Super Sprints regular Chase Ridenour had a strong run going with his 360 cubic inch engine on Friday solidly in the top five until some late race restarts dropped him back in the field. Ridenour plans on trying to take on SOD again Friday at Hartford Motor Speedway. Ridenour’s team, owned by Greg Wheeler, typically has a 410 engine at their disposal, but is currently like many others held up waiting for engine parts.

• Max Stambaugh’s team bounced back from some early adversity having to change a power steering pump shortly before hot laps. Stambaugh’s team made the swap without missing an on-track action.

• Dustin Daggett ended up with his first non-wing feature victory at the track closest to his home Friday at I-96 Speedway. That almost was for not when Daggett sailed the car off turn two spectacularly during his first warm up lap. Daggett cited the rare mistake as driving the car in too hard in the corner, like what he would do with the wing. Daggett minimized mistakes the rest of the night running down Steve Irwin for the victory.

• Ryan Ruhl ran into misfortune while racing for the lead on Friday at I-96 Speedway. Ruhl jumped the cushion and flipped in turn two, writing off the second chassis this season while in 410 sprint car competition with Smith Motorsports. Before that Ruhl was part of a great three car battle for the lead with DeVault and Stambaugh. The Smith team has obtained another chassis and are working to build another car after Friday’s incident.

• The afore mentioned Alex Aldrich incident during qualifying was spectacular to say the least with all four wheels coming off the ground. It was a rough night for Aldrich and former Aldrich racing crew member now driver Mike Kane both ending up on the hook during various points of the evening.

• While a lot of the discussion around Friday’s GLTS program centered around Irwin and Daggett, it also served as another showcase for Keith Sheffer Jr. After a restart Sheffer started to roll the bottom and seriously challenged Irwin for the lead. Sheffer backed up his podium finish on Friday with a second-place finish on Saturday. Sheffer has shown continual improvement and is someone to keep an eye on with or without the wing throughout this season.

• The solid turn out of GLTS cars at Owendale Speedway on Saturday is another good sign for sprint car fans. Owendale, located in the tip of the thumb of Michigan, can be a difficult for traveling series to entice teams to make the trip. 18 cars for Owendale is a decent draw including a surprise in Ohio driver Luke Griffith, who finished third in his first non-wing start.

• It is noteworthy that I-96 Speedway has an actual LIFE EMS Ambulance on site along with the new GLSS/GLTS/GLLS ambulance series promoter Barry Marlow had on site. It was a refreshing change from the sometimes-sketchy track ambulance that is often seen at some Michigan race tracks. Kudos to all the parties involved for having those on hand.

• Mike Austruskas hustled all weekend entering both divisions at I-96 and running the GLTS program at Owendale Speedway. Austrauskas and his team scored a podium finish Saturday at Owendale Speedway.

Other notes around the Mitten….

• Must See Racing hustled to draw 17 cars Saturday night at M-40 Speedway and were incredibly open about promoting their work throughout the week to get cars to M-40 following a poor showing by the Auto Value Super Sprints drawing eight cars at Berlin the previous Saturday. The event took place after rain and power delays which deserves kudos to the all the staff, fans, and teams that stuck out that delay to complete the program.

Unfortunately the Must See/AVSS situation feels more like two people fighting over a corpse with every passing season. It is remarkable how both organizations perception of themselves is so far removed from how they are viewed in the rest of the sprint car world. Reader interest in both series is down to a point where if they did not race in the Great Lakes region the reader interest would not make them a front-page item on the website most weekends. Hopefully, someone realizes that one series is needed with a common goal that does not involve traveling to Idaho and Florida, with a focus on the Great Lakes region and the working men and women that are the core of their race teams.

Ultimately race fans don’t care which tire the teams are on. The teams should make a decision what is best for them and try to move in a positive, unified direction.

• Following the trend of last-minute bookings, Auto Value Super Sprints have added a race this Saturday at Galesburg Speedway.

• Taylor Ferns had a pair of strong runs going two weeks ago at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis before falling out of both races. Ferns had a top five run in a Silver Crown car recently at Lucas Oil Raceway and appears to be taking on a more aggressive pavement schedule for 2021.

• Michigan owned Lane Racing with driver Cap Henry had a strong showing during Ohio Sprint Speedweek finishing fourth in the final point standings. Lane also had a full marketing push for their Michigan based sponsor, Blake’s Hard Cider Company, during a few of the races during Speedweek. Henry and the Lane returns to action Friday at Attica Raceway Park to try and build on the steady improvement the team has had in recent weeks on the All Star tour.