Although his past accomplishments include a UMP weekly series national title, El Paso's Ryan Unzicker has never enjoyed a season like 2017.

More specifically, the latter stages of 2017 when the dirt late model star went on an incredible tear and was virtually unbeatable race-after-race, week-after-week.

"We're tickled to death with the way the season's ended up," Unzicker told The Pantagraph in early October. "It's been kind of crazy actually."

Through the first four months of the year, Unzicker won just four main events. Over the final eight weeks, victories started to come, kept coming and didn't stop.

There were two streaks of five wins in a row and by season's end the victory total had ballooned to 19. The rampage gave him the weekly series track championship at both Farmer City Raceway and Fairbury's American Legion Speedway. It's also has earned him the nod as 2017 Pantagraph Area Driver of the Year.

Well over a month has elapsed since the whirlwind of success came to a close. It's given Unzicker a bit of time to reflect.

"It's what we're out there to do," he said this week. "We're out there to win. But to put a run on at the end of the year like that is something I'm never going to forget."

And something he will always savor.

Auto racing has a number of inherent obstacles that stand in the way of victory. There's driver against driver, driver against the elements (figuring out track conditions) and driver against machine (getting the car to handle at peak efficiency while optimum power is being produced under the hood).

To have everything fall into place on a single night is key. To have the car run "like a rocket on rails" night after night, as Unzicker did in late 2017, is unique. 

"Sometimes everything just starts to click," he said. "We've got the stuff to do it, but to put it all together is hard to do."

Throughout Unzicker's nearly 20-year career, dirt late models have changed with the advancement of technology.

One constant over the past two decades has been the presence of his wife, Michelle, at his side at the track.

The couple began dating while in high school. Michelle said she had absolutely no knowledge of, or interest in, auto racing when they first started going out.

That changed when she accompanied Ryan on a date to an area racetrack before he began driving. Her introduction to the sport grew into a passion for dirt track racing that continues to this day.

"We would go to the races while we were dating and I just liked it," she said. "Today, I think I love it as much as he does. I love that he races and I'm so proud of everything he's accomplished."

Ryan Unzicker says his wife's moral support is crucial during the down times, times when he's working just as hard — if not harder — than he did during the winning streak, but seemingly getting nowhere. That actually was the case in the first few months of this year.

"She brings a lot of things into perspective," he said. "It's a difficult sport and she keeps me grounded and focused on the positive rather than the negative stuff. It means the world to me that she's able to go, have a good time and enjoy what we love to do."

Michelle has missed "only a handful" of races since the couple has been together. Her brief absence coincided with the birth of their son, Brody, in January 2013.

They began taking Brody to the track as an infant. He garnered instant popularity in the pit area, attention that continues as the youngster now looks forward to attending kindergarten next year.

"He's been able to build his own little fan base," Ryan said. "He's grown like a weed and he just loves being at the racetrack, to go and play in the dirt and watch Dad race.

"Somebody's always wanting to play with him. You know, the racing community, the racing 'family,' is so connected that way and Michelle and Brody have so many friends in the sport."

The family spends an entire month on the road during the annual, grueling Summer Nationals tour, a series that this year completed 24 races in seven states in a span of 31 days.

As the years go by, Ryan Unzicker says it's getting harder and harder for him to get away to race.

He works at RJR Transportation, a family-owned trucking business in El Paso. He arrives at his office around 7 a.m. and works until around 5. He'll then grab a quick bite to eat at home and briefly play with Brody before heading to the race shop to prepare the car for the upcoming weekend.

"I feel like I've missed out a little bit on Brody growing up by working all day and then going to the race shop at night," Ryan said. "I don't know if we can keep doing what we're doing. I do know that I don't want to miss out when he starts playing sports and becomes a young man doing the things that he wants to do.

"I keep saying we're going to slow down, but I'm addicted like every other racer and it's hard to pull away when you've had a great season like we did."

Unzicker has one more event scheduled for this calendar year. He'll pull double duty, racing both a modified and a late model, at the second annual Gateway Dirt Nationals on Dec. 14-16 at the Dome at America's Center in St. Louis.

Bruce Yentes covers motor sports for The Pantagraph and can be reached at byentes@pantagraph.com. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_yentes

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