The dirt track racing season hits full throttle in Central Illinois with opening night scheduled for Friday at Lincoln Speedway and Saturday at Fairbury's American Legion Speedway.
However, the dirt racing community is, by and large, most abuzz with next Thursday's reopening of Dirt Oval 66 at the Route 66 Racecway in Joliet.
While the adjacent 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway has hosted NASCAR events each year since 2001 and the Route 66 drag strip has welcomed an NHRA national event annually since 1998, the dirt oval has been silent since a World of Outlaws Sprint Car race was held there in July 2005.
Headlining Thursday's grand reopening will be the POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget Series, and track promoter Sherri Heckenast couldn't have chosen a better grassroots organization to launch the track's rebirth.
Recent POWRI graduates include NASCAR Cup Series points leader Kyle Larson and young Christopher Bell, currently second in points in NASCAR's truck series.
Both rose through the ranks as part of the Toyota Racing Development program, which is heavily involved in the POWRi midget series.
Reigning POWRi champion Zach Daum of Pocahontas is set to defend his title.
"The deal with Toyota is to try to win the championship each year," Daum said. "It's about staying consistent, winning some races and winning the championship again."
At area tracks a year ago en route to the title, "the Dauminator" put on a clinic in conquering the feared high-side cushion in his first-ever visit to Fairbury, consistently blasting off the berm to score a feature win over eventual USAC National Midget Series champion Tanner Thorson of Minden, Nev.
Later last summer at Lincoln, Daum closed out the evening in a blaze of glory when flames began shooting from his motor on the backstretch of the cool-down lap after he had once again outrun Thorson to the checkered flag.
The series will visit both tracks again this year with Illinois Speed Week events slated for June 1 at Fairbury and June 4 at Lincoln. There are also three POWRi events slated for Macon.
In a field chock-full of talented youngsters seeking to punch their ticket into the big time, Daum consistently finds stout competition in the cars fielded by Keith Kunz Motorsports. Kunz is a Springfield native who's built a veritable dirt racing dynasty out of his shop in Columbus, Ind.
"Keith's team is always at the top of the list," Daum said. "It doesn't seem to matter who's in the cars, they go fast. And these are drivers who will stand on the gas and aren't afraid to go fast."
One of those Kunz drivers unafraid to tromp on the accelerator is Spencer Bayston of Lebanon, Ind., who has roots in the Pantagraph area. His father, Brett, was a member of the final graduating class at Chatsworth High School. His grandparents, Gerald and Helen Bayston, still reside in Chatsworth.
Spencer Bayston has yet another Central Illinois connection. At the ripe old age of 18, he now holds the all-time track qualifying record at both Jacksonville and Peoria speedways. Both were set in a MOWA sprint car and both were in the 10-second range at tracks that are accustomed to seeing dirt late models nudge up toward and over 13-second qualifying laps.
"It felt like everything was in fast forward," said Bayston, whose talent and potential has propelled him toward the top of the "next-in-line" list on the path to NASCAR fame and fortune. The famed "March of the Midgets" began with Jeff Gordon, continued with Tony Stewart and a host of others, and thrives to this day with the emergence of Larson and Bell.
As a matter of fact, Bayston was at a Charlotte-area race shop when he spoke with The Pantagraph by phone on Thursday, preparing for an asphalt late model event in the Carolinas this weekend as part of the Toyota development program.
For the most part this season, Bayston will continue in midgets while also upping the ante on the sprint car side with close to 40 of those events on his schedule.
This calendar year has already been a good one for Bayston sprint car-wise. A week after setting the track record at Jacksonville, he followed it up with a main event victory in an Arctic Cat All-Star Circuit of Champions sprint series race at Ohio's Attica Raceway Park. The series is owned by Stewart.
"I think it was probably the most excited I've been with a win because I wasn't really expecting it," Bayston said. "I'm sort of new to the whole sprint car thing."
Bayston's sprint car is owned by Kevin Swindell, who continues to recover from a spinal injury suffered at the 2015 Knoxville Nationals, a World of Outlaws sprint race and dirt track racing's premier event. Last weekend's victory was the first for Swindell as a car owner.
As a driver, Swindell was most noted for four Chili Bowl midget titles. He's also a former winner of the annual ARCA series race held annually at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, providing Bayston with an excellent mentor.
Bayston will be in Joliet on Thursday for the POWRi race. He has dates in Central Illinois scheduled for the June 1 POWRi race at Fairbury, as well as a pair of USAC National Midget Series races at Macon and Lincoln on July 1 and 2.