CONGERVILLE — In stark contrast to the way he’ll be spending most of this weekend, Eureka High School’s Tanner Whitten will don a cap and gown Sunday and join the Class of 2011 in a slow walk down the aisle during the school’s graduation ceremony.
“Slow” will definitely not be a part of the equation for him prior to that. On Saturday Whitten, 18, will be piloting a 3,300-pound stock car at speeds approaching 170 mph in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series event at the 7/8-mile Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa.
“It’s a stepping-stone to the (NASCAR) Nationwide series,” said Whitten of the third-tier K&N series that boasts of alumni who include Joe Gibbs Racing’s Joey Logano and reigning Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne. “The competition is really thick.”
The pace in Iowa will be a familiar one to him as most everything Whitten has done over the past few years has been geared toward speed.
He completed his high school studies last December, taking a fast track to his diploma to get a head start on racing on the fast tracks of the NASCAR K&N circuit.
Even his choice of racing disciplines was derived from a desire to reach his ultimate goal of competing in NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup series as quickly as possible.
Growing up outside of Congerville, Whitten had plenty of open space to ride around on go-karts, motorized scooters and 4-wheelers, doing so since the age of 4. After cutting his competitive racing teeth in quarter midgets and the United States Auto Club’s Ford Focus open-wheel series, Whitten began looking for a new challenge.
“We wanted to get out and spread our wings and get into something that was going to really create a challenge and move us forward as quickly as possible,” he said. “We talked to quite a few people and they said (asphalt track) late models in Northern Illinois and Wisconsin was probably the best bet.”
First up was a test at Rockford Motor Speedway to see if he could handle the horsepower and compliance of an asphalt late model. Quickly acing his finals, Whitten was off to compete and ultimately win two features last year at the tracks in the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin that have rolled out NASCAR champions Matt Kenseth and Alan Kulwicki, as well as a host of other competitors on NASCAR’s top rung.
A new car and series means new equipment, including a customized racing seat. Whitten bought his seat from former Nationwide (then Busch) series champion Randy LaJoie and established a relationship with LaJoie.
“After (last) season got over with and we were between a rock and a hard place in what we were wanting to do, (LaJoie) called us and said ‘why don’t you come and run out of our camp?’” said Whitten, who didn’t hesitate to move to suburban Charlotte after a deal was struck with LaJoie to compete in the K&N series in a former Nationwide Series car.
In his most recent outing at Richmond International Raceway, a track on the Sprint Cup circuit, Whitten both qualified and finished 25th.
“We’re struggling a little bit right now, getting me acquainted with the car because they’re so much different than anything else I’ve ever driven,” he said. “There’s a big learning curve with more horsepower and they’re a lot more sensitive than the late model I was running last year. It takes a lot of learning and a lot of patience.”
Motor sports news and notes from around Central Illinois:
• Following last week’s rainout, Farmer City Raceway will host a pair of late model features tonight, as well as two features in the modified class. The make-good features will be staged first, followed by the regular weekly series schedule.
• With tonight’s second late model feature paying $2,000 to the winner, a driver who can win both late model mains will pocket $3,000. The purse also has been bumped up to $600 for the victor in tonight’s second modified feature. The track also will have racing in the sportsman, street stock, hornets and mini-sprint classes. Hot laps are at 6:30 with racing to follow. Grandstand admission is $15.
• Fairbury’s American Legion Speedway hosts its first special event of the year Saturday night, with a battle between drivers from two sanctioning organizations. Billed as the NALMS vs. ALMS Late Model Special, the 30-lap featured event will pay $2,000 to the winner. Cars from the modified, sportsman and street stock classes also will compete. Hot laps are at 5:50 p.m. with time trials at 6:30 and racing to follow. Tickets are $15.
• Reserved seat tickets for the June 25 UMP Summer Nationals race at Fairbury will be going on sale soon. A renewal letter went out via e-mail Monday to those who purchased reserved seats for last fall’s Prairie Dirt Shootout and Prairie Dirt Classic. Those who bought reserved seats for those events will have the first option of renewing their seats for both the Summer Nationals and for September’s Prairie Dirt Classic weekend. More information is available, along with a seating chart, at www.fairburyspeedway.com.
• Lincoln Speedway will have a regular night of racing tonight with competition in the modified, crate late model, e-mod, street stock and 4-cylinder “Wild Things” classes. Hot laps are at 6:30 with racing at 7:00. Tickets are $10.
• El Paso's Ryan Unzicker leads the UMP late model weekly series national point standings heading into this weekend's action. Unzicker, 28, has three feature wins this year and holds a 22-point advantage over Dewayne Kiefer of St. Genevieve, Mo.