When autumn in Alaska gets dark enough for bright lights to come on, race car drivers turn up the intensity.
Friday night exuded that wild-card feel at Twin City Raceway in Kenai, the unpredictable 3/8-mile dirt track that throws even the best of them for a loop. A-Stock, Legends and two full fields of Late Models and Sprint Cars took to the dirt under artificial lighting set up on the infield grass. Saturday night’s races and demolition derby were canceled due to rain.
The shine of the lights and intimate setting traditionally attracts additional racers from the Mat-Su valleys and Fairbanks areas, making for bigger fields for the two-night event.
Wasilla Late Model racer Jon Jensen explained that when the sun goes down, the track improves.
“This is always the fastest the track is all year,” Jensen said. “We all look forward to coming down for this.”
Among the challengers that travel down from up north are the McDonald family — John and son Liam and daughter Emma — all of whom piloted the mighty Sprint Cars on Friday night.
“We always come down for the night races,” Liam McDonald said. “We love racing down here, you guys have a nice, fast track.”
The Sprint Car races, however, were highlighted by two terrifying crashes by John Mellish and Emma McDonald. Mellish took the first big tumble of the evening in the first heat race while racing two other cars off turn four.
Mellish and Liam McDonald were racing three-wide with another driver when the two touched wheels, sending Mellish up the track and into the guardrail. Mellish’s car took a few cartwheels and eventually landed on its side with a crumpled wing covering the mangled machine.
Mellish said both he and McDonald aimed for a gap on the inside of a slower car and the two collided.
“The next thing I know, weeee!” Mellish said. “We just came together. Nobody’s fault. It was just racing.”
Mellish said as he was unbuckling to get out, a wisp of flames from leaking oil began to stir up and create a smoke cloud.
“The main thing is to not panic,” he said.
Liam McDonald said the collision was a result of hard racing as he was chasing his father, John, through traffic.
“(Mellish) was going around the outside, I was on the inside trying to catch him even more,” McDonald said. “All of a sudden, he had better traction and steered down, and I was sliding out into him and couldn’t stop in time.”
Later in the second heat race, Emma McDonald had her own big moment with a slide into turn one that resulted in her slapping the outside barrier, somersaulting her car once before landing on the wheels. Emma said she just drove it into the corner too hard.
“I was just a little upset about some calls being made on the track and I was being reckless,” McDonald said. “You can’t jump the start so the person in the front has to make it around turn four first, and they weren’t calling it when other people were doing it.”
John and Liam finished 1-2 in all three races, with Liam winning the second heat and John grabbing the checkers in his No. 78 racer in heat one and the 25-lap feature.
The Late Model class saw a triumphant return to Twin City after missing for much of the summer. Al Ulman drove his No. 74 machine to the win in the second heat, but Mike Braddock had the last laugh, winning the first heat and feature race in his No. 82 car.
Wasilla racers Damien LaMountain and Jon Jensen had wild nights, both running into mistakes that cost them victories. In the second heat, Jensen lost control while leading with two laps to go, giving the top spot to LaMountain.
However, LaMountain was on his way to victory on a two-lap dash before spinning out from the lead on the final lap, allowing Ulman by to take the win.
For LaMountain, it was the first time for him in a Late Model racer, and LaMountain blamed his inexperience on his spin.
“Just a rookie mistake, I overshot the corner a little,” LaMountain said. “I should’ve slowed down and walked it through the corner.”
In the Late Models feature, Ulman spun out while leading with eight laps remaining, allowing Jensen to inherit the lead, but it was short-lived. Out front with a comfortable margin, Jensen ended up spinning again with five to go, allowing Braddock to cash in as the winner.
Jensen said the track was tough to handle Friday night.
“It was a rough track, and I just got tired,” he said. “The track was fast, but it was just one of those things where I couldn’t hold a straight line and got into the corner too hard.”
David Kusmider dominated the Legends class with a clean sweep of all three races Friday.
The A-Stock races saw Nikiski teenager Mady Stichal take two of three races, including an impressive feature victory. Stichal ran down race leader Jeremy Herr and passed him with four laps left to secure the win.
Herr finished second in all three A-Stock races, including heat one when he lost to Seward teenager Clay Peterson.