By Eric Huenefeld
Director of Media and Sales, Rockford Speedway
LOVES PARK, Ill. — Victory did not come easy for Alex Papini Saturday night, May 3, at Rockford Speedway.
Papini, who started eighth in the 30-lap Stanley Steemer NASCAR Late Model feature event, powered past three-time track champion Jerry Gille late in the race on his way to the victory on Tractor Town Kids’ Night.
Gille quickly jumped to the head of the pack in the main event, disposing of outside polesitter “Insane” Wayne Freimund on the second lap. Gille then built a comfortable lead in the race’s first 10 laps. Behind him, the balance of the field battled for position. Papini fought through a group of contenders that included seven-time track champion Ricky Bilderback, points leader Jake Gille and “Driver X” Jon Reynolds Jr., the evening’s fast qualifier. By lap seven, Papini found himself in the runner-up spot, leaving the rest of the field to fend for themselves as he made tracks toward the front.
Papini’s process of cutting down Gille’s lead took time, but just past the race’s midway point, the battle was on. Gille was able to keep a comfy gap between him and Papini until five laps to go, when Papini caught Gille and eventually powered to the point in turn three. Despite a couple late challenges from Gille, Papini was able to hold off those advances on his way to the victory, the second-straight Late Model win for the Machesney Park, Ill., native.
Jerry Gille’s efforts were good enough for a runner-up finish, with his nephew, Jake Gille, finishing third. With his finish, Jake Gille was able to maintain his early season points lead. Bilderback, meantime, settled for fourth place, with Reynolds rounding out the top five.
Five-time Miller Lite American Short Tracker division champion George Sparkman ended a long day the right way, winning the division’s 25-lap feature event. Sparkman’s frustrations began early, as the Loves Park resident battled engine issues during practice. The issues were enough to force Sparkman to miss his spot in the qualifying order, allowing him just one timed lap. Sparkman was still fast enough to make the Stateline Staffing Services Fast Dash, but again found engine issues after preliminaries.
Meanwhile, before the green flag could fly for the 25-lap American Short Tracker feature event, defending track champion Nick Cina Jr. encountered trouble. Cina’s race car slid to a stop on the front stretch during pace laps for the main event. The sudden stop was caused by a transmission issue that sidelined Cina for the night. This opened the door for opening-night winner Kelly Evink to have a big night. Evink wasted little time getting to the head of the pack, taking the lead early on in the race, with Sparkman charging hard behind him.
Then, with nine laps to go, Evink suddenly spun in turn two, bringing out the yellow flag. Evink was sent pit side for repairs, and returned to the track at the back of the field for the ensuing restart. This situation left Sparkman, who started the race 11th, in the race lead. Sparkman stayed in front of Tom Gille over the final nine laps, and held on for the victory, his first win of 2014. Sparkman admitted in victory lane that by race’s end, his car was running on less than four cylinders. Behind Sparkman and Gille, it was Evink who finished third, after a frantic charge from the back of the field. Rookie Jason Halbrader finished a career-best fourth, with Dave Lee rounding out the top five.
Dennis Smith Jr. found himself back in victory lane for the second time this season after claiming victory in the Kickstart Roadrunner 20-lap feature event. Smith took advantage of a second-row starting spot and made his way to the lead before halfway. However, the road to victory wasn’t easy for Smith. A caution flag with three laps left put “Bullet” Bobby Frisch and “Ironman” Ricky Nielson on Smith’s bumper, setting up a thrilling dash to the finish among the three drivers. Smith held off all late-race challenges, with Frisch finishing second and Nielson third. Kyle McQuality, who skipped his senior prom at Stillman Valley High School to race Saturday evening, finished in fourth. Last week’s Roadrunner feature winner Shawn Rickelman rounded out the top five.
Upcoming at the track
Treat Mom to a night at the races this Saturday night, May 10, at Rockford Speedway, 9572 Forest Hills Road, Loves Park, Ill.
At 7:07 p.m., it’s “Salute to Mom” night with a full night of racing on Mother’s Day eve, including the NASCAR Late Models, Sportsmen, Roadrunners, Hornets and Winged Women on Wheels — plus the Roadrunner Challenge “Morning Make Up Dash.” A wine-tasting for moms will also be held in the pavilion. Gates open at 5 p.m. Adult admission is $12, with students ages 12-17 admitted for $8, children ages 6-11 admitted for $5, and kids 5 and younger admitted free.
To order tickets in advance, visit rockfordspeedway.tix.com. For additional information, visit www.rockfordspeedway.com or call the Speedway Box Office at (815) 633-1500.
From the May 7-13, 2014, issue