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It would be easy to become a bit maudlin and wax poetic about the overwhelming passion for auto racing and the undying determination of Gridley's Bill Hendren.

Hendren, however, describes himself as more along the lines of "an old dog that won't give up his bone."

For the 43rd straight year, Hendren, 71, is fielding an entry for the annual stock car race held in conjunction with the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.

This year's Herr's Potato Chips 100 ARCA series event is Sunday (1:30 p.m., MAVTV) with Hendren and partner Brian Smith of Heyworth still seeking a first trip to victory lane.

With El Paso's Ryan Unzicker behind the wheel and a crew of "farm boys, all volunteer," fitting the pieces together in the shop and manning the pits on race day, the group also will seek an elusive win in the ARCA series event on Labor Day weekend at the fairgrounds in DuQuoin.

"It would be nice to win one, to get that off my 'bucket list,'" Hendren said after coming oh-so-close with a third-place finish at Springfield a year ago.

For Hendren, it's always an uphill battle, one he says he would have given up without the support of Smith and a legion of friends and fans from across Central Illinois.

Armed with a single car, a leased motor and a volunteer crew, competing in a pair of "one-offs" against a number of full-time professional racing teams is a tall task.

They were up to the challenge last year at both Springfield and DuQuoin.

Unzicker's third-place finish at Springfield came after a side-by-side battle with eventual winner Justin Haley on a green-white-checkered restart. 

Two weeks later, he led 33 of 100 laps at DuQuoin and enjoyed a healthy advantage inside of the final 20 circuits when mechanical gremlins took their toll.

"I noticed about mid-race that we had a motor that wasn't firing on all eight (cylinders)," Unzicker said. "It didn't seem to hurt us much once we got wound up, but it was a problem on the restarts."

A left front shock also began causing problems and Unzicker faded to fifth at the close.

Hendren took it all in stride, both the excitement of running up front and the disappointment of coming up short at the end.

"I don't get all that excited, to tell you the truth," said Hendren, recalling a couple of near-misses in years past. "We've been in the lead with (driver) Bob Strait before and lost it in the third turn. (Normal's) Ken Rowley led Springfield with two or three laps to go."

The top-fives were an ARCA career-best and a confidence-builder for Unzicker, a former UMP dirt late model weekly series national champion.

When moving off of the weekly series bullrings and onto the one-mile tracks at Springfield and DuQuoin, Unzicker also must quickly become acclimated to racing a car that weighs over a half ton more than his dirt late model.

"Now that I've got more seat time, it's easier," said Unzicker, who will be competing at Springfield for the seventh straight year. "The first few years it took me half the (morning) practice to get comfortable. Anymore, I feel pretty confident, especially after last year."

Unzicker also is in a positive frame of mind heading into Springfield, enjoying a good year in the grassroots dirt late model ranks.

"We really have a bit of momentum built up right now," he said. "What's been key is we've kept the car out of trouble this year. There's been no issue of getting into big wrecks and tearing the car up."

The ARCA race at Springfield will culminate a busy week of racing for Unzicker. He was scheduled to compete in the fair race at Fairbury on Thursday and at Farmer City on Friday.

Saturday night, he'll likely wrap up the weekly series late model track championship at Fairbury before heading to Springfield later that evening.

Bruce Yentes covers motor sports for the Pantagraph and can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @pg_yentes


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