Friday and Saturday’s second annual Alaska Dirt Track Shootout at Twin City Raceway in Kenai provided drivers an opportunity to race with no points on the line, and with a contingent of racers from Fairbanks and the Matanuska-Susitna valleys down to challenge the locals, man and machine put on a display for another capacity crowd.
As part of the Progress Days celebration, track points are put on hold for a chance at the $10,000 purse that is dispersed to the top-five finishers across six classes of racing.
The bigger fields do not make the job any easier, howDever, but the drivers wouldn’t want it any other way.
“It’s so cool having these cars from all over the state, these are the fastest cars in the state right here,” said Late Model racer Shawn Hutchings of Soldotna, who spent much of Friday evening chasing Scott Sluka of Fairbanks for the lead. “These are the rock stars from Fairbanks.”
B-Stock ace Keith Jones had to contend with Guy Hamilton and John Clemmons of Wasilla for the victory in the division all night.
“They’re all fast, they’re all good drivers,” Jones said. “I love the competition, this is so much more fun.”
One of the faces seen in the Twin City garage area not typically associated with engines and grease is that of four-time Iditarod and Yukon Quest dog-sledding champion Lance Mackey, who made the switch from dog power to horsepower earlier this year at North Pole Speedway, a quarter-mile paved track outside of Fairbanks. Friday night in Kenai, Mackey powered the white 71 car to a midpack finish in the first Legends heat before swiping the wall and heading off to the garage with damage in the second heat. Mackey was attempting to pry the rubber off the rim of his right front tire in the post-race shakedown with two of his good friends and crew members.
“It was a little love tap with the wall,” Mackey admitted.
Mackey said friend and fellow Legends car racer Al Trettel — driver of the blue 43 car — hooked him up with a ride earlier this year after discussing the venture at a mutual friend’s graduation party at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and it has been green flag racing ever since.
“It’s bumpy, and a little wet in the corners, and maybe a little hard to see,” Mackey said about Twin City Raceway. “I’ve never been with more than eight cars on the track, that’s cool. … I just jump in and race!”
With dog-mushing in the blood and a part of his family — father Dick is also a former Iditarod champion — Mackey has also always had a fascination with hot rods and street cars, but it was the family sport that brought him to national fame.
However, after struggling in this year’s edition of the Last Great Race, Mackey has contemplated retiring from the sport that has nearly single-handedly given him his lifestyle.
With the offer of a race car from Trettel, Mackey said he’s found something new to put his time and energy into, and friends and rivals alike have come out of the woodwork to help him.
“People I’ve never even met are coming up giving me parts or advice,” Mackey said. “It’s kind of the same (as dog mushing), the camaraderie is the same. We’ve got just as much invested in the dogs as these guys do their cars.”
With a plain white car with a blue 71 on the roof, the most distinguishing object on his ride this weekend was a long, gray wolf tail hanging out the back window, which Mackey jokingly said matches his own hair, done up in a ponytail.
“We’ve even talked about painting the car up as a dog, with the (butt) at the back,” Mackey said with a grin. “You know that saying? ‘Unless you’re the lead dog, the scenery never changes.’”
In the Legends division, the white, red and bright orange 88 car of Bryan Barber won the final two races of the evening, to go along with a fifth-place finish in the first heat, but the wins didn’t come easy.
Alex Schwochert won the first heat, piloting the stealthy 22 car, but finished fifth in the second heat before challenging Barber in a racelong duel for the lead in the 12-lap feature. Schwochert tailed Barber for the first eight laps, getting alongside him at times but never completing the pass, before a flat right front tire doomed his chances at the win.
“I went into the turn and it didn’t turn,” Schwochert said.
Schwochert said he believes he ran over an exhaust pipe that came off his car from the previous lap. With less than four laps remaining, the result was clear, as Schwochert abruptly slowed and ended up limping to the finish line in ninth.
“My plan was to wait for (Barber) to make a mistake,” Schwochert said.
The Schwochert brothers of Big Lake — Alex and Andy, ages 24 and 22, respectively — have been coming down to the Peninsula all summer to challenge the likes of Soldotna’s Bryan Barber. After his brother’s tire issue in the late laps of Friday’s feature, Andy ultimately finished second.
Having been racing each other since childhood, whether it be snowmachines, go-carts or bandoleros, the Schwocherts have fueled each other to be the best driver at any track they show up to, and it’s come to fruition this summer as Alex currently leads the Legends season points championship at Twin City with a 19-point advantage over Barber.
When asked what the most challenging aspect of racing is, Andy summed it up simply.
“Getting around him,” he said, pointing to his brother.
The Late Models class proved to be a two-horse race all evening, and even that’s putting it nicely, as Scott Sluka and Shawn Hutchings finished 1-2 in each of the three races, with Sluka notching the sweep.
Hutchings said Sluka, who races with methanol alcohol fuel, had the decided advantage in all three races, and the speed difference was noticeable on restarts, when Sluka was able to gas his 55 machine off turn two and gap the field down the straightaway.
“You can make up a little for lost ground, but when he hooks up and starts pulling those straightaways, there’s not a whole lot you can do,” Hutchings said.
Hutchings races with 112-octane Sunoco racing fuel, which gives his 2,300-pound No. 27 Late Model 550 horsepower, but with Sluka cranking out 650 horses, hanging on was about all Hutchings could do at times.
Even when not having to catch Sluka for the lead, Hutchings was dealing with other problems on track. In the first heat race, Hutchings was caught in a stackup on the start of the five-lap race. Hutchings got on the brakes to avoid a slowing Sean Whitmore, whose Late Model jumped out of gear, and got rear-ended himself.
“I barely got in to him, but the car behind me just lifted me off the ground,” Hutchings said.
In the second heat, Hutchings barely avoided another incident when he was hit from behind by Geoff Clark, driving the 3 machine. Clark ended up spun around in turn one while Hutchings saved himself from spinning.
The scariest moment of the night came in the first heat, when the 71 machine of Bill Magers slid high entering turn one and slammed the wall hard enough to end up on his roof. To the relief of the crowd, Magers emerged unhurt and waved to the crowd.
In the B-Stock division, John Clemmons won two of three races, driving the 01 car, while Guy Hamilton took the other.
In the second heat, Hamilton, Keith Jones and Clemmons came across the line in a three-way battle for the victory. Hamilton led on the final lap with Jones and Clemmons in hot pursuit, and when Hamilton slid up the track in turns three and four, it allowed the other two to get alongside him. All three cars finished within .145 second of each other, with Hamilton claiming the win by .064 seconds over Jones.
In the feature event, it wasn’t long before Jones found himself in hot water. It was on lap two that Jones gave Clemmons a nudge in turn two while racing for the lead, spinning the No. 01 out and earning himself a penalty to the tail end of the lead lap.
“He got a little sideways, and I helped him around,” Jones said, adding that if he got another chance, he would have dove in lower.
Having to restart back in the pack, Jones ultimately fought his way back up to fifth, even though he found himself boxed in behind two other cars that were running side-by-side.
“They were right there, and I didn’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “I was able to get a good run out of (turns) one and two, but I couldn’t run very well through three and four, I kept getting up in the loose stuff. I’m not gonna push the issue and wreck myself.”
Jones won the first leg of the Alaska Dirt Track Shootout in Fairbanks and the $900 that went with it, and said he is gunning for the big prize again this weekend.
Dean Scroggins proved to be the class of the A-Stock field Friday, winning the first heat and feature events, while Jimmy Hale won the second heat to gain valuable weekend points for the money.
In the Sprint car category, there were no faster machines than those of the McDonald family. The McDonalds dominated the evening, with Liam taking the first heat ahead of Tyler McDonald, John winning the second heat ahead of Tyler (Logan and Liam rounded out a top-four sprint car sweep for the McDonalds), and Tyler finally breaking through to win the feature race ahead of Liam.
In the Modified class, Scott Sluka came through with a versatile performance in the feature race, holding off Tim and Robert Jauhola to win his fourth race of the night. Tim Jauhola won the second heat ahead of Sluka, a race that featured a hard crash by Ed Burger. Burger suffered a mechanical failure racing into the first turn on lap two and ran straight on into the wall, crushing the side of his No. 44 car — and the steel fencing — and retiring for the night.