A pivotal stretch lies ahead for El Paso's Ryan Unzicker as the 34-year-old dirt late model star hopes to nail down a short track touring series title.
Unzicker enters Friday night's Sunoco American Late Model Series (ALMS) race at Kankakee Speedway locked in a tight points battle with Ohio driver Rusty Schlenk. On Saturday, the ALMS series moves to Fairbury's American Legion Speedway for a $10,000-to-win feature to highlight #FALS Fan Frenzy night.
"My top two goals for this season were to win the (DIRTcar) Summer Nationals title and the ALMS series," Unzicker said. "The Summer Nationals were disappointing for us this year, but we have to put that behind us and move on to try to accomplish the other part."
Unzicker's fifth-place finish in the Summer Nationals was as surprising as it was disappointing. He finished second to Shannon Babb in the grueling series a year earlier and had been running exceptionally well in the opening stages of the 2015 season prior to the tour.
"There wasn't one thing that we struggled on," he said. "We felt like we were pretty well prepared, but could just never find the speed that the other guys had."
His preparation before the Summer Nationals campaign included ALMS series victories at 34 Raceway in Iowa and, a month later, at I-96 Speedway in Michigan.
The victory at 34 Raceway was the most lucrative of his career ($10,055) and came on a last-lap pass of hall of fame driver Billy Moyer.
He overtook Schlenk late in the race to claim the feature victory at I-96.
Unzicker enters this weekend's ALMS events trailing Schlenk by just 22 points with a maximum of 80 allowed at each race. Rich Bell, the weekly series points leader at LaSalle Speedway, is 73 points out of the lead in third.
Schlenk (2010) and Unzicker (2011) are both former UMP weekly series national champions. Schlenk also is a former ALMS champ, claiming the series title in 2006 and 2008.
It's unlikely they'll face each other head to head this weekend. The events at Fairbury and Kankakee are makeup dates that were rained out in May. They were rescheduled for this weekend, even though there also were ALMS series races on the slate at a pair of tracks in Michigan where Schlenk is most likely to compete.
Following this weekend, Unzicker will switch gears ... literally. For the fifth consecutive year he'll drive a car fielded by Hendren Motorsports of Gridley in the ARCA series' Allen Crowe Memorial on Aug. 23 on the one-mile dirt track at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.
Accustomed to wielding a 2,300-pound late model, Unzicker will take the wheel of a 3,400-pound ARCA car at Springfield.
"It feels like a big ol' brick riding around," Unzicker said. "The brakes are different, the cars are heavier and you have to get used to the acceleration and deceleration being a lot different.
"You can see it in practice. We're usually the slowest car on the track for the first 10 laps of practice, getting used to the brakes and everything. We don't start pushing until the end of practice."
The 100-mile race also requires a pit stop, an unheard of element in short track racing.
"It's kind of a challenge," Unzicker said. "You see 30 different signs waving around and you have to find your spot and hit your marks and the spots at Springfield are tight. It's not a straight pit lane, either. They're kind of oval shaped and it makes it tougher."
Once stopped, focus is vital.
"You have to give it a little gas to keep the motor running, while keeping the clutch down and the brake on," he said. "If you're not on the brakes the wheels are going to spin and when they drop (the car) down (off the jack) you have to be careful not to kill the engine. It's challenging for a guy who does it once or twice a year."
Unzicker finished 12th at Springfield a year ago and followed with a seventh-place finish two weeks later in the ARCA race at the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds. He'll also compete in a Hendren-fielded car at DuQuoin again this year on September 7.