For 29 years, drivers have rolled into Eldora Speedway in early June trying to live out a dream — DIRTcar Racing’s Dirt Late Model Dream with a $129,000 payday. Then, when the Dream ends, The Hell Tour begins.
As tradition has it, many will head off to battle in the DIRTcar Summer Nationals — a 28-race journey from June 14 through July 16 broadcast live on DIRTVision and affectionately known as The Hell Tour by those who have both conquered and succumbed to it. Peoria Speedway will be the first to welcome Late Model contenders on Wednesday.
Seven former Summer Nationals champions are chasing the massive payout this weekend at Eldora: Shannon Babb, Dennis Erb Jr., Jason Feger, Billy Moyer, Bobby Pierce, Brian Shirley, and Brandon Sheppard. Plus, five-time DIRTcar Summit Modified Nationals champion and current World of Outlaws CASE Construction Equipment Rookie of the Year contender Nick Hoffman is also chasing his biggest Dirt Late Model victory this weekend.
Each found their own path to Summer Nationals glory, but they all agreed momentum from the Dream weekend can carry over into the rest of the summer.
“This week is a huge telltale of what’s coming for you, it’s probably one of the toughest weeks of the year, but if you can run good that’s huge,” said Hoffman, who earned his first World of Outlaws CASE Late Model Series victory last month. “The Dream definitely kicks off the summer. This is our first crown jewel for Late Model racing, and I’ve been lucky enough to make this race a couple of times. At first you come here with a goal to just make the show, now I come here with a goal to run in the top 10. The biggest thing is this could set up your whole summer. If you run good here it carries you a long way.”
But three-time Summer Nationals champion Erb warned drivers to be prepared before even heading to Eldora in the first place.
“You got to look at this separate,” Erb said. “If you’re going to go out and run the whole Summer Nationals, before you come to Eldora for the Dream you better be prepared for that. I think you have to look at it totally different. If you come here and things don’t go well, you have to forget about it because you have to focus on what you need to do. If you have a good run here, or anywhere, you can get going and get on a roll.
“When I won the Dream we came back and won some Summer Nationals races, but it was just like another race again. The focus is different. This place here, you have to leave everything here. Things can go well, or things can go bad, but you can’t let that get you down when you’ve got five weeks of racing ahead of you.”
Four-time champion Brian Shirley is a believer in momentum, but he also said a bad night at Eldora doesn’t signify a bad road ahead on the Summer Nationals tour.
“Any time you have momentum, if you come here and you run really well and you’re moving on to 28 days of racing, that momentum is going to be a high that keeps the team motivated to get going and could carry on to that deal where it’s night in and night out,” said Shirley, who was riding a wave of momentum into this weekend at Eldora as the most recent World of Outlaws CASE Late Model winner. “Running good here is going to pick you up and keep you wanting to go race three days after the Dream and then continue racing for 28 days. Any time momentum is on your side things are easier, but this place here is such a different animal. We haven’t won a crown jewel race here at Eldora, but we’ve been so successful on the Summer Nationals so it shows that it doesn’t matter how you finish here.
“For me, when we were successful on the Summer Nationals, it was one day at a time, get through one night at a time and don’t overload yourself about racing for 28 nights in five weeks. It’s just not getting overwhelmed. It’s a grind. You have to take it one day, one week at a time and hope you’re more on the easy side of it. We’ve done the deal where it can wear you out in a week and we’ve done it where it seemed like the month went by really fast. When everything’s going good it’s pretty easy, but when you have those tough nights and the odds are against you it forces you to decide whether or not to keep going.”
Adding further proof to his point, Shirley noted how in 2021 Ashton Winger struggled out of the gate on the tour but kept fighting and wound up second in the championship standings.
“He got off to an awful start, that first week I think they destroyed everything they had, but he stuck it out and stuck it out and probably had two of the best weeks of his career finishing it out,” Shirley said. “There is a reward at the end of the day.”
Winger posted a top-five run Thursday night in his opening round of Dream competition, a boost heading into Friday at a track where he’s still looking for success. While Winger has his sights set on the $129,000 prize Saturday night, he knows he’s stocked and loaded to roll into Peoria Speedway on Wednesday for the 2023 Summer Nationals opener. No matter how he finishes Saturday night, he’ll put it out of his mind quick.
“For me, I leave it here,” Winger said. “There’s just so much that goes into putting yourself in position to be at the front, and having a fast race car isn’t everything here. It’s good to come here and run good but if you run bad it kind of makes you want to quit racing for a minute. If you run good it feels like you’re on top of the world. It’s one of those things you got to leave here. It’s kind of its own animal in a sense.
“The Summer Nationals has been our goal the whole time. I’m loaded down with bodies, front suspension parts, rear suspension parts and we’re going to pick up another motor on Monday. I’m really excited about this year because this is the first year I feel like I’m going to do it right. I have the stuff and I’m prepared to do it. In 2021, I just threw a bunch of stuff in the truck and went and did it.”
A new championship points setup that pays drivers each week rather than at the end of the tour is expected to benefit drivers who may struggle once or twice without costing them a chance at the overall title. Jason Feger, who won the 2010 Summer Nationals title, noted that as a positive for Winger.
“With the new points championship, I feel like it’s going to suit a guy like Ashton a lot better,” Feger said. “He’s a pretty aggressive driver and when you points race for a whole month, one bad night can win you the championship or cost you the championship. Now if you have one bad night, it still resets the next week. It’s definitely going to help some guys, but it’s still a lot of work if you’re tearing up equipment. I guess I always have the mentality you have to know when it’s your night and when it’s not your night. You have to know when it’s not your night to just take the best you can and know you’re going to fight tomorrow, but if you think it’s your night and you have a good car then go for it.”
Bobby Pierce, now a World of Outlaws regular, has won five Summer Nationals championships since 2015, including the past two. He noted that while the Dream can be demanding, there’s nothing at Eldora that can prepare a young driver for what they might encounter on — or even off — the track during Summer Nationals competition.
“You get used to racing on those types of tracks,” Pierce said. “You get used to the heat … well, not really. For a first timer, you just have to keep plugging away. Every night is a new night. There’s always going to be something unexpected. I can guarantee you that at some point during the Hell Tour something’s going to throw you for a loop.
“Two years ago, first week of Summer Nationals we hit a deer heading to the next track and it killed the front of the truck. You’ll be faced with stuff like that more than the typical maintenance on the car. You just have to be as prepared as you can but know that it’s going to be hard. If you can get off a win here or there, or even a good solid run it makes it worthwhile. That’s kind of the big reason to do the Hell Tour, to continue getting better.”
The Dream at Eldora concludes on Saturday with the $129,000-to-win main event.
The DIRTcar Summer Nationals begins next week with races Wednesday (June 14) at Peoria Speedway, Thursday at Kankakee County Speedway, Friday at Tri-City Speedway, Saturday at Fairbury Speedway, and Sunday at Sycamore Speedway. Follow the entire five-week tour by watching all the action on DIRTVision. For more info, visit DIRTcarSummerNationals.com.
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