Alex Papini holds off Jerry Gille for thrilling Late Model win

Alex Papini (No. 39), of Machesney Park, Ill., and Rockford Speedway CEO Jody Deery in victory lane. (Photo by Jim Ambruoso)

By Eric Huenefeld

LOVES PARK, Ill. — Under the “Saturday Night Lights” May 18, the stars of Rockford Speedway shined brightest, putting on one of the most thrilling racing programs in recent memory at the famed quarter mile.

Last-lap passes and door-to-door action were common, with every feature race providing its own set of thrills.

The Stanley Steemer NASCAR Late Models again stole the show, with an epic battle between the division’s top two drivers. Three-time track champion Jerry Gille and current season points leader Alex Papini waged war on an epic scale in the 30-lap headliner. Papini, who benefited from a favorable dice roll, assumed the outside front row for the main event. As the race went green, Papini slid past Austin Nason for the early lead. However, Papini wasn’t allowed to stray too far from the pack, as Nason would spin only a couple laps later to bring out the race’s only caution flag.

The stoppage would allow Jake Gille and his uncle Jerry Gille to climb to Papini’s bumper. On the restart, the two Gilles would wrestle for second, with uncle Jerry eventually clawing past nephew Jake. After making the move to second, Jerry Gille would set his sights on Papini. The following 15 laps would provide unbelievable racing between Gille and Papini, with the two drivers trading the lead from corner to corner and lap to lap. Paint was traded and sparks flew, and the large crowd enjoyed every second. Finally, on lap 21, Papini would shake Gille just enough to settle in to the top spot.

Gille would take a couple of more shots at Papini, but as the two toyed with one another, Steve Rubeck made his patented late-race charge, and made himself a contender for the win. Rubeck would never climb higher than third, and Jerry Gille would not be able to edge ahead of Papini. The win was Papini’s fourth Saturday night win, and fifth overall. Jake Gille ended the race fourth, with Jon Reynolds Jr. in fifth.

The Bargain Hunter Sportsmen feature would include bent fenders and bruised egos. Second-year driver Pat Featherston would lead the field to green and assume the early lead. But quickly closing behind him was defending track champion Doug Bennett. Bennett, coming off a frustrating outing two weeks ago, looked hungry to finally get back to victory lane. Bennett would quickly make his move to the lead on lap six, and put some space between him and the rest of the field.

But as the race hit halfway, a wild skirmish would include nearly half of the field and bring out the yellow flag. Included in the mess was six-time track champion Scott Lawver, Daryl Gerke and Howie Ware. Ware’s car received heavy left rear damage and was not able to continue. Lawver and Gerke would eventually return with tattered cars, but both would end the race on a positive note.

On the restart, Bennett was under siege from Matt Lundberg. Lundberg, fresh off a win two weeks ago, would repeatedly look below Bennett for the race lead. With seven laps to go, Bennett would begin to lose the handle of his car, and began to slide through the corners. With five to go, Bennett would snap around in turn two, with Lundberg close by, and the yellow would fly again. This would bring the field to Lundberg, and the ensuing restart was nearly disaster. Multi-time track champion Darrell Garman would take a shot at Lundberg’s lead on the restart, and as the field went to the second corner, Garman would take Lundberg around. Garman would be sent to the tail, while Lundberg would be allowed to retake his spot at the front of the field. Lundberg was never seriously challenged over the final five laps, and took his second-straight win in the division. Featherston would finish a career-best second place. Lawver, with no hood or front fenders, came back to take third, ahead of fourth-place finisher Gerke. John Dietrich also earned a career-best finish in fifth spot.

Nick Cina Jr. is proving he is the man to beat in the Miller Lite American Short Trackers this season. Cina worked primarily from the bottom of the track to move from his seventh-place starting spot to the lead — and eventually to the win — in the 25-lap feature. Cina would make the winning pass on Rachel Sparkman with seven laps to go, but would almost see the move negated a couple laps later in lapped traffic. Despite all the late-race hurdles, Cina would hang on, with Sparkman holding second. Jason Bragg took home third.

Jason Van Hise had a very good night in the Rockstar Energy Drink Roadrunner division. Earlier in the event, Van Hise, the “King of the Roadrunner Challenge Race,” won his second-straight novelty event. Later on, he would dominate the field in the division’s 20-lap feature event. Following Van Hise to the line was Adam Cartwright and Shawn Rickelman. Terrance Robinson, the Roadrunner points leader, advanced from his 20th starting spot all the way to fourth in the final order.

The American Super Cup Cars made a visit to the Rockford Speedway as well Saturday night, with Erle Hoth dominating the night. Hoth took quick-time honors, won his heat and took the 25-lap feature as well. Ken Jones finished second, with David Cerer taking third.

Racing continues Saturday night, June 1, with Metro Medical Car Load Night ($40 per car load until 6:30 p.m.). Late Models, Sportsmen, Short Trackers, Roadrunners, and Roadrunner Smokey Burnout plus Figure 8 to be featured. Racing starts at 7:07 p.m. See

From the May 22-28, 2013, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!