To say that the Inland Rigging Sprint Car team had a dream season in 2023 is an understatement. Brody Roa won the USAC/CRA championship and Tommy and Christy Dunkel captured the car owner title. Dunkel scored his first-ever sprint car win in a VRA race at Ventura in April. Roa won eight USAC/CRA races and scored another victory in a Southern California Open Comp race at Imperial. Between the two, heading into the Turkey Night Grand Prix, they had 37 starts and rolled the cars back into the trailer all but one time. It was indeed a dream season.
If everything up to Ventura was a dream, the 82nd running of the Turkey Night Grand Prix ended up being a frustrating nightmare for the team. Last week, Tommy Dunkel sat down and reflected on the nightmarish end to the year.
S.D.: The Inland Rigging team came into Turkey Night with high hopes with newly crowned USAC/CRA Champion Brody Roa, and yourself who won at Ventura this season. In addition, you had Eddie Tafoya flying the Inland colors at Ventura where he was fast qualifier in a USAC/CRA race in 2022. You guys were certainly prepared for a big weekend.
Dunkel: We came in swinging for the fences. We thought we had a super good shot between me, Brody, and Eddie Tafoya. We have all had some pretty good success there. We came in there with our heads held high for sure.
S.D.: How did your own night start?
Dunkel: My hot laps were okay. Typical Ventura, super greasy and they threw the green way too soon. I was still okay with it being there were 53 cars or whatever it was (plus 48 midgets). My heat race was good. I started second and fell back one spot but I was on them. I was on first and second showing them a wheel. I was very happy (after) as it was still super one lane on the bottom. I did not want to chance junking my stuff having to physically move people out of the way. When it goes one lane that is what it comes down too. You have to start moving people. We came out of it with a third and it was a fairly stacked heat race.
S.D.: What happened next?
Dunkel: That was heat three. I got back to the pits and got out of my car and got back up there to watch Brody in heat five. That is when disaster struck.
S.D.: At that point, things began to unravel fast with Brody’s crash. What caused it?
Dunkel: The initial start, he had a great start. I think he started 5th and he was up to second. Some people spun behind him on the opening lap. So, of course, they had to rerack them with everybody back to their original spot (for the restart). He was coming into three and I think he expected the car in front of him to stick to the bottom. I wouldn’t say the guy slid up by any means, but he certainly did not hug the bottom like you would if you were running the bottom. Brody just clipped the right rear and that is what sent him for a big ride.
S.D.: It was a scary crash and it was obvious from the time he stopped flipping that he had sustained an injury and he was initially unconscious. What were his injuries?
Dunkel: When he got to the hospital he was very dazed. He was kind of coming and going as far as (knowing) where he was at. He got his bell rung. After some scans, he had a brain bleed. So they monitored him over night. By the morning they had the brain bleed stopped. By mid-morning they were in a position to release him from the hospital. He was very sore and obviously very shaken up but he is home and is well.
S.D.: Brody left for the hospital in an ambulance. You still had a race and possibly two to go. However, you decided to sit out the rest of the night.
Dunkel: Until we knew Brody was stable and okay, I made the decision to stay out of the car. I kind of felt like my head was not right with my driver being injured. If it was the average deal where he was sitting in the motorhome sore, absolutely I would have gotten back in the car. But we were kind of in the dark about how bad his head injury was. So, I decided to sit out.
S.D.: Brody was out at the hospital and you pulled out. You still had Eddie Tafoya Jr. flying the Inland Rigging flag. Unfortunately, somebody else’s faux pas knocked him out of his heat.
Dunkel: It was super cool to help Eddie. I put a power plant in his car. It was unfortunate that he got upside down on Friday night because of another driver’s mistake. The other (who caused the crash) driver came over to my pit and said, ‘man did you see that? That was a brand new left rear tire.’ I was obviously already shook up from the night. I have Brody in the hospital, me not running the rest of the night, and Tafoya upside down because of this driver. And there he is complaining to me about a tire. I don’t want to say I let him have it, but he knows I was not happy.”
S.D.: You pulled out of the Friday night portion of the show. Why did you decide to continue on Saturday rather than throwing in the towel and coming home?
Dunkel: So, we got the green light that Brody was okay and everything was going to be all right. Brody said, ‘Hey, I am good. You guys go out and hammer down and represent the team.’ We as a team decided to race. I knew I was behind the eight ball because I did not run my qualifier (Friday night) but I figured I was okay. I had passed a lot of cars there before. I knew that is what I had to do again.
S.D.: You had to be relieved that Brody was going to be okay and you decided to race. Everything was fine. That is, it was momentarily fine. What happened next.?
Dunkel: We just finished up having breakfast. I told my son Aiden I would be out there in a second. Let’s get the car unloaded and get ready. I was still in the motor home finishing up my coffee and I just heard a crashing sound and blood-curdling screaming. Everyone had come running. What it was, was the tension cables on the hauler door had snapped and the door fell and crushed my son.
S.D.: That had to be extremely frightening when you realized what had just happened.
Dunkel: There was one guy from Jimmy May’s camp who was out prepping their car. He saw the whole thing and came running to his aid. He could not get the door up by himself. Malyssa Perkins was close by and she helped. Enough guys got over there so we could get the doors up and at least get him out from underneath it. He was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. After some scans and things, it was determined that he had a broken back and a broken sacrum. He spent Saturday to Wednesday afternoon at the Ventura County Hospital.
S.D.: How is your son doing?
Dunkel: He is doing much, much better. He is home. They want to see how well he does at home managing his pain. If it gets to be too much, then we will have to take him back. He is standing and he is kind of shuffling his feet to move ever so slowly. It is very positive progress but he has a long road ahead of him.
S.D.: Needless to say with those two guys injured, you decided to pull out of Saturday’s race. That should have put an end to all of the bad fortune, but that was not the case. What happened next?
Dunkel: Saturday night we had one of our guys from Inland Rigging come up to drive our dually and small trailer home because that is what Aiden drives. He came up. His girlfriend was nice enough to give him a ride. We gave them our bicycles (e-bikes) to ride back to the hotel (very close to the track). They were locked in the truck in a locked camper shell and some thieves broke in and cut the locks and stole our not so cheap e-bikes! It just added insult to injury without a doubt.
S.D.: I take it that is going to be the worst racing weekend you are ever going to have, correct?
Dunkel: Yeah, that is done. That is the worst, it is out of the way and we are moving forward.
S.D.: Upcoming is a busy week for you and the team. You are headed back to Indiana for among other things, the USAC banquet where Brody and you will receive your just rewards for winning the USAC/CRA title.
Dunkel: You know what? It has given us something positive to look forward to. To celebrate the championship with the Roa group. It is a nice feather in our cap as a new team together. What the Roa’s have spent so long doing and perfecting. They earned it. I just feel privileged to have the opportunity with those guys and go get a championship as a car owner. Brody and I have been pretty close for seven or eight years now. We are really looking forward to going there, letting loose a little bit, and getting to celebrate.
S.D.: What is the itinerary for your time in the “Hoosier State?”
Dunkel: We are flying out Wednesday night. DRC Chassis, which is the car we run, is having an open house on Thursday. We are going to attend that. With his chassis,’ I want to say we are at 11 wins combined between Brody and I this year. Joe (Joe Devin who owns DRC) is pretty excited to have us there and we are excited to go. Friday is the banquet, and on Saturday we are going to attend P.R.I.
S.D.: Are you already preparing for next year?
Dunkel: We kind of have some big things in the works. We are planning to do as much CRA as possible. Malyssa Perkins and I are working together to put a new series together for 360 cars. It is going to be called the IRSCS (Inland Rigging Sprint Car Series). We are going to run at a handful of tracks. It is going to be open to 360s and 410s. 410s will just have to run a restrictor. Brody and I are going to focus on that series being that we are heavily involved with it. I am still going to run for CRA Rookie of the Year, but it just kind of depends on how the first half of the season goes. Our plan is to hit as many races as we can in the first half of the season and just kind of see how we are both doing. Brody has a new kid (his second daughter who was born earlier this year) and with running so hard as long as he has, he came and did what he had to do. That was winning the championship (USAC/CRA). I know he is ready to go back to just fun racing and run a light schedule. I am going to put Eddie (Tafoya) in a car for our series (in 2024) and he will run his own car in USAC/CRA. I know he wants to win a championship there.
Dunkel and Roa want to thank the following sponsors for making the 2023 season possible. Inland Rigging, Dunkel Farms, United Asset Sales, Osborne Speed & Machine, “Biker” Bruce Fischer, ALR Virtual Services, Burris Racing, Caltrol, Jambo Barbeque Pits, Competition Suspension, K-1 Race Gear, Molecule, Rod End Supply, Driven Racing Oil, Baldwin Filters, and NGK Spark Plugs. If you would like to be a marketing partner with the Inland Rigging Racing Team in 2024, please contact Dunkel or Roa the information at the top of this release.
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