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Ryan Unzicker action 2018

El Paso’s Ryan Unzicker seeks to win his first UMP Summer Nationals Series crown as the grueling tour got underway this week. The series features 28 dirt late model events in a span of 31 days before concluding in Ohio on July 14.

At the very least, you have to admire their pluck and passion. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the competitors themselves are prone to question their own sanity to even consider embarking on the grueling annual dirt track racing tour known as the UMP Summer Nationals.

This year, it's 28 races in 31 nights. The 2018 tour got underway Wednesday night with Bloomington's Billy Drake taking the checkered flag at Peoria Speedway. It will come to an exhaustive finish July 14 in Ohio.

If running the entire tour, competitors would log about 4,300 highway miles and visit seven states. That's an awfully big "if" because historically no more than a handful of drivers will compete in each of the events.

El Paso dirt late model standout Ryan Unzicker, annually a front-runner in Summer Nationals competition, has three criteria for how long he stays on the Summer Nationals road.

"If I'm not making money, don't have enough help, or we're not having fun we're going back home," said Unzicker, who finished ninth Wednesday.

Financial profit on the tour, like in all of grassroots-level racing, is at a premium. If a driver's not winning a lot of races, or at least in a position to claim some of the bonus bounty at the end of the month, making money on the Summer Nationals tour is next to impossible because of the expense involved.

Pit help can be hard to find because it's overwhelmingly voluntary and crew members have jobs they can't leave for an entire month. 

Hence, much of it boils down to a passion for auto racing and the fun part of racing that primarily keeps drawing drivers back.

For Unzicker, his wife Michelle and 5-year-old son Brody, the Summer Nationals are somewhat like a summer vacation.

"We actually do look forward to going up and down the road together," Unzicker said. "It's fun for us and we all enjoy it. (Wednesday) morning Brody was all excited because it's a race day and he'll get to ride in the hauler. He might not feel that way after a little while, though."

That's because the youngster is beginning to develop interests of his own and is playing T-ball this summer, in addition to being involved in junior golf.

"After Plymouth (Ind., on Sunday), we'll drive back home because he needs to be at golf at 8 a.m. on Monday," Unzicker said. "With the T-ball, he'll have to miss a couple of games and a couple of practices. He said it was OK because he just loves going to the races, but we'll see."

Unzicker said he's committed to the first two weeks of the tour. After that, his schedule is up in the air.

That was pretty much the case last season as well when he ended up finishing fourth in the overall standings.

"We missed like five races last year," he said. "But then some guys got off the tour and we saw where if we returned, we could jump past them in the point standings and possibly finish third. That would have been an extra $7,000 in bonus money that we couldn't have had by staying home."

In the past, Unzicker has led the Summer Nationals standings past the halfway point, but a title has eluded him. He'd like to add that to a 17-year racing resume that includes the 2011 UMP weekly series national championship.

"Every year I keep saying I'm not going to do this, but for some reason I just keep pulling it together and keep running," he said. "The fact that I haven't won it is one of the reasons I keep coming back."

Gibson City's Kevin Weaver (2000) and Bloomington's Jason Feger (2010) are the only two area drivers who have claimed an overall title in the series, which began in 1988.

"Right now our plan is to try and run the whole thing," said Feger, who finished second to Drake in Wednesday night's series opener. "We'll follow it until we have to come home and fix our stuff, or if we don't think we have a chance to win the points or be up front."

Feger heads into this year's tour with an eye on winning races, rather than his second title.

"It's a $25,000-to-win championship which is nice. But you can make way more just winning races," he said. "If the championship falls into place that would be cool, but I'm not going to get too worried about it or lose any sleep over it.

"(The championship) can come down to something as simple as having a flat tire one night or something like that. So you need to focus on just winning races."

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

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