Round And Around: Monday At East Bay Raceway

Why would we leave bitter cold and snow behind, drive a tortuous, trouble-filled trip for days, only to arrive in the Sunshine State? Opening night at East Bay Raceway Park explains it all. Awesome racing, side by side, into and sometimes nearly through each other. The six-night series began Monday with 72 dirt late model racers flexing their muscles, several sitting out the beginning of the week, others licking their wounds from a previous week of hard battles. Every year we make this trek to the Tampa area, and every year we find ourselves forced to manually close our open jaw at the awesome sight. Racing the way it should be, they say, fun and dirty.

Superbowl Sunday was practice night at East Bay, with a large gathering of fans on hand to observe the three-hour session. They, too, return for the action, always curious to see who showed up this time. There were many first-time racers this year, and some had very good luck on the opening races. Several veterans were biding their time until the points counted and the purse got bigger, and there were a few team changes. After capturing the World of Outlaws Late Model championship in 2007 ?The Kentucky Colonel?, Steve Francis, has changed teams, now racing the number 19 machine. Indiana?s ?Real Deal?, Don O?Neal, also runs for a different team owner, but retains his number 71. Randy Korte drove the 81 car of fellow Illinois racer Scott Riggs, while another ?Flatlander?, Brian Shirley, took the wheel of C. J. Rayburn?s mount. West Virginia?s ?Kid Rocket?, Josh Richards, was in a car bearing the number 25 instead of his usual number 1, Tennessee?s Mike Marlar?s mount bore the number 57 this year, and Indiana?s Steve Casebolt returned to his old C9 on the door.

After years of being a stablemate to Billy Moyer, Illinois veteran Shannon Babb showed up this year as a member of the Clint Bowyer race team. Bowyer is one of several NASCAR competitors who keep their hand in short track racing, and we are glad they do. New York?s Tim McCreadie is still in the Richard Childress driver development program, but returned to his roots at East Bay and hasn?t lost his touch at wheeling a mount ?slideways?. Florida?s Earl Pearson Jr. is still racing for Bobby Labonte?s team, but sat out Monday. This year Keith Nosbisch represented his home track after sitting out Speed Weeks for several years. Recently East Bay regulars had voted on using crate engines instead of unlimited power big blocks, and Nosbisch was one of many who found it too costly to keep up before that decision.

West Virginia?s Tim Dohm bested the early quick time of Babb. Even though it was announced that 73 cars had entered, one never made it to the line. Dohm spun the wheel to determine the heat race inversion, which landed on the maximum of three, as each heat would transfer the top three finishers to the main event. Dohm declared afterwards, ?This is the most fun we?ve had all year.? Wisconsin?s Danny Schlieper may not be having as much fun with his recent back problems, but at least he was able to run his events Monday. Less than a week earlier, he was transported by ambulance to seek medical help for his ailing back. The opening ceremonies began on a sad note, when it was announced that Michael England?s father had passed away. After sharing time with his son and watching him race, the senior England had a massive heart attack Sunday night. Our hearts go out to the whole England family and crew from Kentucky.

Six heats followed, setting the first 18 cars into the night?s feature, then three B mains took another six to set the field. No provisional spots would be awarded until Thursday when the points began, but those just missing transfer positions were picked to race in the Strawberry Dash. Only six answered the call for that event, which was won by Georgia?s ?Cat Daddy?, Clint Smith, and placed him at the end of the feature lineup. In former years this event was a bonus for those who missed the main, giving them a chance to win some money and also receive a flat of luscious Florida strawberries. Those missing the main by one car in heat action were Damon Eller, Jared Hawkins, John Mason, Doug Horton, Eddie Carrier Jr., and Freddy Smith. Before the break at 9:00, the announcer came up with the news that the wind chill here was 76 degrees, which the shirtsleeve crowd found amusing. We shouldn?t gloat at our good fortune, lest it disappear. So we will simply enjoy it.

The six heat winners were subject to a random inversion for feature time, putting O?Neal on the pole for the 30-lap contest and newcomer Dave Tyrchiewicz from Canada on the outside. It took a couple tries to get in the opening circuit, catching a cluster of cars before a completed lap and another the next time around. McCreadie took quite a beating right away, and Wisconsin?s Terry Casey dropped out right away. Another tangle on the third lap took a toll, followed by a pair of incidents on the restart. By the time the green flag waved over the fifth circuit, only 15 of the 25 starters were running. The final slowdown was for the spun mount of Francis, a rare sight indeed. The next 21 laps were all green as there were several different lines taken by the competitors. We watched Illinois veteran Dennis Erb Jr. struggle to get inside Kentucky?s Justin Ratliff for many laps, then Ohio?s Matt Miller got past them both on the outside. As the checkered flag was in sight, Erb slid past Miller for second place as the full house cheered him on.

O?Neal claimed his first win for the new team, thanking them all. ?I rode the bottom?, claimed O?Neal about protecting his lead. ?I just hate riding the bottom. That was fun the last few laps. I can?t wait until tomorrow night. I want to thank my Dad. He?s the one who got me started racing.? The race family is a special group, and we think O?Neal was thankful his father was still here after the sudden news of England?s father. At the end of the first night at East Bay there were 14 cars still running, all on the lead lap. The one who began in 25th place, Clint Smith, ended up in the lucky 13 spot at the finish. The show was done before 10:30 as the thermometer dropped to 70 and below. We?re not going to want to leave here.

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