Finding their way from as far away as California and Canada, the "party hardy" weekend campers began claiming their long reserved spots on Wednesday evening.

By Saturday, they'll have blended in with their fellow fans to fill the grandstands at Fairbury's American Legion Speedway, providing the backdrop for what has become the area's largest sporting event of the summer.

When the 28th annual Prairie Dirt Classic takes the green flag on Saturday night, track promoter Matt Curl expects around 6,500 to have passed through the gates to witness the very best that dirt late model racing has to offer.

The record crowd, accompanied by a record purse with $30,000 going to the winner, promises to make this year's Prairie Dirt Classic the largest dirt late model event ever in the state of Illinois.

"In my wildest dreams, I never thought it would get this big," said Curl. "I'm really proud of where we're at."

Curl, who took over as track promoter in 2013, was quick to credit the support of the Fairbury fair board — as well as the community at large — in helping the event to blossom.

In his first year as promoter and with the encouragement and backing of the late Jim Schahrer, a former fair board president, Curl was charged with adding some pizzazz to the Prairie Dirt Classic, the track's signature event that had grown a bit stale over the years.

Along with then-sidekick Gunner Sullivan, Curl went to work on securing the sanctioning services of the most powerful brand name in dirt track racing. In becoming part of the World of Outlaws national tour, the event has steadily grown each year.

Some stellar finishes in recent years have provided some pop.

In the inaugural 100-lap main event run with Outlaws' sanctioning, local favorite Shannon Babb prevailed in a three-wide, last-lap drag race to the checkered flag.

The 2015 Prairie Dirt Classic was auto racing's version of a right jab countering a left hook, as winner Jonathan Davenport of Georgia and Carpentersville's Dennis Erb Jr. duked it out down the stretch in a fender-bending, paint-trading, "rubbin' is racin'" finish.

This year, all eyes will be on Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin when action gets underway on Friday night.

Sheppard succeeds perennial Outlaws' champion and 2016 Prairie Dirt Classic winner Josh Richards in the Rocket Chassis "house car." He's picked up where the all-time winningest driver in Outlaws' history left off, charging to a commanding lead in the series points standings on the strength of 10 wins, 21 top-5's and 23 top-10 finishes in the first 26 races of 2017.

The 10th win came Wednesday night at Fayette County Speedway in Brownstown.

"You know I got to thank (Rocket) for giving me this opportunity and putting me in this thing and going out on a limb for me," said Sheppard, following the Fayette County win. "It's really worked out in my favor, for sure."

A stout field of the top dirt late model drivers in the nation will be hoping to finally turn the tide against Sheppard at Fairbury.

Along with the Outlaws' "regulars," a number of drivers are expected from the rival, yet peacefully co-existing Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, which has the weekend off.

Among them are dirt late model racing's premier star, Scott Bloomquist, as well as 2014 Prairie Dirt Classic winner Tim McCreadie.

A new format will be introduced in culling an expected entry list of nearly 70 cars down to a 26-car starting field.

Rather than a series of 10-lap heat races being run on Friday to set the front of the starting grid for Saturday's main event, preliminary night action this year will consist of time trials followed by four, 25-lap "World of Outlaws Showdown Features."

"We've always been in search of a cutting-edge experience for the fans and a cutting-edge driver experience," Curl said. "Our thought behind this was to give the drivers a little more money on Friday night."

Each of Friday's Showdown Feature winners will receive $2,500, with every driver in the field earning at least $200.

The top four from each of Friday's "features" will then transfer to Saturday's 100-lap finale. The remainder of the A-Main field will be filled by the top three finishers in a pair of B-Mains on Saturday, with the Outlaws and Fairbury American Legion Speedway also each adding a pair of provisional starters to the rear of the grid.

Action begins Friday with hot laps at 6 p.m., time trials at 6:30 and racing to follow.

In addition to the B-Mains slated for Saturday, a 25-lap Prairie Dirt Shootout for non-qualifiers will be run prior to the main event.

Tickets are $20 on Friday and $30 on Saturday, with two-day general admission wristbands available for $45.

The finale of the 2017 Summit Racing Equipment Modified Nationals also is on the card with the modifieds utilizing the same format both nights.

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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