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Ryan Unzicker action photo

El Paso's Ryan Unzicker is the reigning late model track champion at Fairbury American Legion Speedway as the track opens for its 72nd season Saturday. A World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series race in late May and the annual Prairie Dirt Classic in July highlight a number of special events on this year's slate.

For much of the past two decades, Pontiac's Scott Drendel has been up to the challenge of any task the Fairbury Fair Board would toss his way, especially those involving Fairbury's American Legion Speedway (FALS).

"I was involved in building the new bathrooms, the fence, helped out with just about anything doing general labor," said Drendel.

After years of also serving as a track official on race nights, Drendel now finds himself moving into the position of race director as the venerable track opens its 72nd season of racing on Saturday night.

Drendel succeeds Matt Curl, who joined the staff of the World of Outlaws Late Model Series in November. He grabs the baton from Curl as FALS anticipates its most successful season in history.

Much of the optimism revolves around the arrival of the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series, which is booked for a midweek event in late May.

Dubbed as "The Greatest Show on Dirt," the nationally touring sprint car series is the largest and most lucrative dirt track racing organization in the world. Its marquee event, the Knoxville Nationals, annually draws tens of thousands of fans to south-central Iowa for a nearly week-long party. The Saturday night main event at Knoxville provides the winning driver and team with a $200,000 paycheck to continue the celebration.

"It's huge," Drendel said. "We've been talking about getting them, here and there, for a number of years. We just didn't have the facilities to do it."

With Curl lobbying the fair board and board president Leroy Rodriguez more than amenable to the idea, up-to-snuff retaining fences — capable of withstanding what can be ultra-heavy contact with a lightning-fast, 900-horsepower sprint car — were constructed paving the way for the race.

A drawback has been scheduling the inaugural event for a single night in midweek. Drendel says that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm surrounding the race.

"They're telling us that the (ticket) presales are going great, especially for a midweek event," he said. "We're real excited about getting them on board. To have both the World of Outlaws sprint cars and World of Outlaws late models scheduled really puts Fairbury on the map."

The Outlaws sprint cars are slated for May 30 and are a banner addition to a season chock-full of special events.

The track's signature event continues to be the July 27-28 Prairie Dirt Classic, a World of Outlaws Late Model Series race that's fast approaching "crown jewel" status in the dirt late model realm.

The annual UMP Summer Nationals race is slated for June 23, with special nights also scheduled at various times for all four of the divisions that compete on a weekly basis.

Adding to a healthy mix of racing disciplines, the POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget Series pays a return visit to Fairbury on July 7, a year after 2016 USAC National midget champ Tanner Thorson executed a last corner of the last lap "slide job to end all slide jobs" on Rico Abreu to win at FALS a year ago.

"Sprint Mania" returns in October with MOWA winged sprints and POWRi Lucas Oil WAR series non-winged sprinters sharing the card.

Aside from the special events, FALS consistently offers a stout field of dirt late models and modifieds in its weekly series events. El Paso's Ryan Unzicker is the defending late model track champion. Jeff Curl, who will also do some late model racing this season, won last year's modified track crown.

Drendel sees the weekly, non-special events as one of the track's strong suits.

"We still have the lowest gate (admission price) and the highest payout (to the drivers) than any track around," he said. "We're pretty proud of that."

Tickets are $10 for Saturday's season opener. Weekly series late models, modifieds, sportsman, street stock and hobby mod classes are set to compete.

In the area: With an early bout of poor weather hopefully behind them, Farmer City Raceway is set to launch its 2018 weekly series racing on Friday night with five classes slated to compete ... Modifieds will be on centerstage on Saturday night at Peoria Speedway, featuring the Gary Cook Jr. Memorial that was postponed from a week ago ... Macon Speedway will host its season opener on Saturday.

On the tube: Fresh off a spectacular Long Beach Grand Prix that had a record crowd of 185,000-plus in attendance, the Verizon IndyCar Series moves to scenic Barber Motorsports Park for this weekend's Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (2 p.m. Sunday, NBCSN). Dwight-native Joe Howard, the senior damper engineer at Ed Carpenter Racing, joined his teammates in victory circle at Barber in 2015. This weekend they hope to be the fourth different team to grab a series win in the first four races of 2018 ... Riverton's Justin Allgaier, featured in this space on Daytona 500 weekend in February, currently ranks in fourth place in the NASCAR Xfinity Series standings as that series moves to Richmond, Va., this weekend (6 p.m. Friday, Fox Sports 1). Budding NASCAR star Christopher Bell, who won the USAC National Midget Series race last summer at Lincoln Speedway, is 14 points behind Allgaier in fifth. 

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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