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Ryan Unzicker action 2018

El Paso's Ryan Unzicker (24) battles for the lead with Shannon Babb (18) and Bobby Pierce in last Saturday's Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series race at Macon. Unzicker finished second and has picked up from where he left off last year as the Pantagraph's Area Driver of the Year.

El Paso's Ryan Unzicker seems to have picked up where he left off last season when a rally over the final few weeks of 2017 found him twice going on streaks of five feature victories in a row.

This season he already has a main event win at Farmer City Raceway and, most recently, finished second in the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series touring event Saturday at Macon Speedway.

"We've just found a nice combination that works," Unzicker said this week. "Leaving off a successful year, you still have the confidence and the momentum coming into this year."

Unzicker also has been in the hunt for a win in the two most recent national touring events that he's run.

He was second to New Berlin's Brandon Sheppard in last year's Prairie Dirt Classic World of Outlaws Late Model event at Fairbury's American Legion Speedway, a finish that seemed to ignite a spark in the 36-year old veteran for his late-season splurge.

Last Saturday he was runner-up to Oakwood's Bobby Pierce at mighty Macon.

"First of all, it's an awesome racetrack, one of my favorite places to go in the country," Unzicker said. "It's small (1/5th-mile), racy and always fast and smooth.

"And it's always action-packed. By the time you get out of one corner you have to be thinking about going into the next one."

Unzicker was involved in some action-packed racing with Pierce and Moweaqua veteran Shannon Babb on Saturday. Starting sixth among some of the top dirt late model competitors in the country, Unzicker quickly found himself in the top three with Pierce and Babb and stayed there the remainder of the night, leading for a time in the final 10 circuits.

Pierce was able to get back around him for the top spot before Unzicker made a last-ditch effort for the win in the closing lap.

"On the last corner, I tried to go low and through the middle, but (Pierce's) momentum caught back up and he was able to pass me," he said.

Unzicker believes he's found a sweet spot in his racing program that led to a whopping 19 feature victories a year ago.

"We feel like our program is simple and it works for us," he said, predicting a productive season ahead.

"The car feels really, really good. As long as nothing stupid happens, we should be knocking on the door for a lot of wins again this season."

Gibson City's Kevin Weaver has been tearing around area dirt tracks since before Unzicker was born and finds himself not only able to keep pace, but to continue to star at age 55.

In four outings in 2018, Weaver has a feature win and a second-place finish at Farmer City as well as a victory and a runner-up finish at Fairbury.

A chassis adjustment, so to speak, has helped in his effort to stay up front.

In the not-so-distant past Weaver had been running a tweaked Longhorn chassis, or as he put it, "a Longhorn copy car."

The results were less than he's accustomed to over a grassroots racing career that's covered all or part of four decades.

"We parked it and got the actual Longhorn car out and it feels better than the one we built," he said. "Right now it feels like we've got a pretty decent setup on it."

Weaver says with consistent updates of shock and spring packages, the setups can vary from year to year and as the consummate weekly series racer, he's seen a number of changes in the sport since his early days of Strebeck's salvage yard being his primary parts supplier.

"I'd just go to the junkyard to buy parts for the car," he said. "Back then, I'd get motors from the junkyard, rear ends, frames. I was down there searching for stuff all the time."

What hasn't changed is his ability to win while stretching every dime. In a day of escalating costs, Weaver says he thinks a lot of it is unnecessary.

"You can spend whatever you want to spend and it's always been that way, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to win," said Weaver, who two weeks ago became the winningest late model driver in Fairbury history.

"It's about hard work and understanding what your capabilities are, both yourself and your equipment. Sometimes I think (late model) car counts are down just because everybody thinks you have to have a $40,000 motor to compete. You don't have to have that to get the job done.

"I've come a long way by trying to stretch a dollar as far as I can. That's probably why I'm still racing today."

That, and the enjoyment he gets out of it.

Weaver has been mourning the passing of Cullom's Dick Turner, who died on Saturday. Turner was Weaver's car owner when he won the UMP Summer Nationals title in 2000.

"I've been thinking about all the friends he's made through his years in racing," Weaver said. "He enjoyed it and it's about having good friends, good people around you. That's what it's really about (at the grassroots level)." 

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Bruce Yentes covers motor sports for The Pantagraph. Contact him at (309) 820-3391. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_yentes

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