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Late Model drivers get the spotlight at Short Track Nationals

Jeff Birchfield • Updated May 15, 2018 at 7:40 PM

BRISTOL — In only its second year, the Short Track U.S. Nationals at Bristol Motor Speedway is already one of the biggest Late Model racing events of the calendar.

The event, now sponsored by the Rusty Wallace Automotive Group, features six different classes of race cars and five different sanctioning bodies over three nights of racing. Of the 200 drivers already on the entry list, a few will go on to race in one of NASCAR's three national series — Monster Cup, Xfinity or Truck — but most will continue to race on the bullrings across America.

Still, that doesn't take away from the talent that will be at the "World's Fastest Half-Mile" to race Friday through Sunday. Former NASCAR Truck Series champion Mike Skinner led last Saturday's test for the Pro Late Model division with a lap at 15.106 seconds at 127.022 mph.

Originally from California, Skinner is a product of the bullrings, winning three dirt track championships in the Golden State before moving east to win the 1993 Late Model Stock championship at Caraway Speedway in North Carolina.

He sees the Short Track U.S. Nationals as a great opportunity for the weekly racing warriors.

"I think it's important thing for those guys to get the exposure of racing at a place like Bristol," Skinner said. "The Saturday night racers are the roots of our sport and NASCAR wouldn't be here without these late model guys."

Cole Williams is the defending champion of the CRA Pro Late Model race at the Short Track U.S. Nationals. He talked about how it's different coming back to Bristol for a second straight year.

"We came in here last year and the place was overwhelming," he said. "It was big, high speed and you didn't know what to expect. This year, we know what we have."

Williams, 22, made a name in stock car racing circles by winning the track championship at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. He also participated in the Kulwicki Driver Development Program and wears a Mighty Mouse patch on his driver's uniform like former NASCAR champion Alan Kulwicki did.

Now he has the win at Bristol, a place where Kulwicki won twice before his death in a plane crash off Island Road before the 1993 Food City 500 weekend. For the short track racers, Williams talked about what a win at Bristol means.

"For us as a short track team, this is our Daytona 500," he said. "It was like a dream come true to come to Bristol and do something like that for our team."

PLAYING IN THE DIRT

A familiar name was back at the Volunteer Speedway on Saturday night.

Johnson City racer Dale Ball, a five-time champion at the Bulls Gap dirt track, qualified fifth for the Sportsman Late Model feature. He was running fourth when a chunk of mud came up and knocked the belts off the pulleys on his motor, sending him into the pits.

Ball finished 15th in the race which Knoxville driver Zach Sise went on to win.

It was a tough night for another local driver in the Crate Late Model race. Jonesborough's Bobby Mays was running third behind the car of Jensen Ford, which dropped fluid on the track.

Mays got sideways and then was hit by oncoming traffic that caused Mays' car to flip and land on its roof. Mays was able to climb from the damaged car unharmed.

Jason Welshan from Maryville won the Crate Late Model feature, followed by Rusty Ballenger in second and Jonesborough's Tim Byrd in third.

Cory Hedgecock of Loudon won the Steel Head Late Model feature with Barrett Lowe, the grandson of former short track racer Bosco Lowe, coming in second.

Gary Blanken of Russellville scored his third Modified Street win of the season when leader Brad Davis broke his left-front suspension two laps from the finish. Other winners were Lee Merritt of Knoxville (Classic) and Josh Driskill of Newport (602 Street Stock).

Another night of weekly points racing is scheduled for Saturday, May 26.

STRAIGHT TALK

Cherokee Raceway Park has a special Mopar vs. Ford weekend scheduled for this Friday and Saturday. Friday racing at the Rogersville drag strip is open to all makes of cars, while Saturday is Mopar vs. Ford only. The will feature drag racing, car shows and a swap meet.

LOTS OF ACTION

The East Tennessee Region SCCA Autocross had its first event in the parking lot at Smokies Stadium last Saturday.

There are four weekends of SCCA Autocross races scheduled for the parking lots between Bristol Motor Speedway and Bristol Dragway, starting with the first event on June 23.

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