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Bruce Yentes

Bruce Yentes

It's an event like no other in dirt late model racing, lifting the sport from its rural, county fairgrounds roots and plucking it down in the heart of a major American city.

Included are many of the trappings of a slick sports/entertainment endeavor.

"It's a whole new level for our sport," said Bloomington dirt late model standout Jason Feger. "The driver intros are cool, there's the jumbotron, they're constantly doing interviews and replays. It's entirely different compared to what you see at any other track."

Except for maybe one thing.

"It's just a little bullring, so there's a lot of elbows being thrown, a lot of sheet metal getting tore up," Feger said. 

Feger is one of three area drivers who qualified for last year's inaugural Gateway Dirt Nationals at The Dome at America's Center in downtown St. Louis. This weekend, he's again being joined by El Paso's Ryan Unzicker and Gibson City's Kevin Weaver in attempting to nail down a spot in Saturday's 22-car main event.

Preliminary events setting the feature field were slated to get underway on Thursday night and continue through Friday. Saturday night's 40-lap finale will pay $30,000 to the winner. Tennessee driver Scott Bloomquist won last season's inaugural race.

Unzicker finished ninth a year ago, the highest among the three area drivers. 

"The experience was unbelievably awesome," Unzicker said. "You've got the jumbotron, the whole lower level of the dome was jam-packed and you could just feel the vibe and the excitement. It gave you butterflies every time you went out onto the track. It was definitely a one-of-a-kind type of race."

According to the event's website, last year's Gateway Dirt Nationals drew a crowd of close to 15,000 into the former home of the NFL's St. Louis Rams, who moved back to Los Angeles in 2016.

While a far cry from filling the 65,000-seat facility, the first-year crowd was large by dirt late model standards and provided race promoter Cody Sommer with sufficient optimism to return.

Weaver, who's been banging around Central Illinois bullrings for over 35 years, immediately noticed the crowd that was limited to the seating in the arena's lower tiers, right on top of the action on the track.

"All of those people kind of next to you is a weird feeling and the crowd noise is a lot louder," he said.  "It's totally awesome and I'm just lucky I got to experience something like that."

Weaver got a bit closer to the crowd than he had hoped, hitting a wall and finishing last after retiring early from last year's race.

"I just didn't qualify very well and I was trying a little too hard to get to the  front early," he said. "I hit a bump in turn one and it upset the car and I hit the wall."

Such bumps were prevalent by Saturday's feature. The 1/5th-mile oval, about the size of Macon Speedway, takes about a week to construct, trucking in dirt that's a bit different from what the area drivers are accustomed to.

"It's fluffy and powdery and it doesn't have the grip and traction that the black dirt out of a field would have," Unzicker said. "It's sort of a clay, sandy material that doesn't like to compact real hard."

"I think they'll have a better grip on the track and the track prep this year," said Feger, who also was involved in an early-race accident and finished 16th a year ago. "You've got concrete underneath, so any moisture can't go down and it's got to be hard to get it to dry out.

"You have no wind or sun, so it has to provide a lot more challenges than what they're used to. With a year to learn, it has to be a lot better."

The drivers also have a year under their belt to better prepare. 

"It actually wasn't any worse than some of the tracks around home," Unzicker said. "Dirt is dirt and it's going to give out. It got really choppy on Saturday, so it was hard to drive on. You had to kind of judge where you were at and try to stay out of the ruts. But then again, sometimes you can use the ruts as traction.

"I don't expect much different this year. I think it will still chunk out, but I don't think it will be as bad as it was last year because I think they learned from last year."

Unzicker will be pulling double duty, also competing in the modified portion of the event while being fully appreciative of the opportunity.

"The biggest thing is, it's December and it might be snowing outside, but we're indoors. And we're racing," he said.

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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