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VINTON — Should the weather provide a window from what’s been a wet and race-cancelling week, the IMCA Deery Brothers Summer Series for Late Models will kick off its 31st season at 34 Raceway in West Burlington — the place where the series debuted in 1987.
Regardless of when exactly, 2017 gets off to a fast start schedule-wise for the $2,000-to-win-per-race series, but after five scheduled races in April, it thins out in a hurry. This season has 14 races on the initial schedule, down from a number typically in the high teens or low 20s historically.
Critics or skeptics have suggested that’s a sign the series and division have fallen on hard times. Even seven-time champion and all-time series wins leader Jeff Aikey said it was, “sad,” because he wants to race as much as he can in the series he’s known for.
Series Director Kevin Yoder would like to invite any of those who see fewer races as a bad sign into the scheduling room with him. It’s easier said than done, he said. And while he acknowledged the Late Model numbers aren’t what they used to be, he said fewer Summer Series races is no reason to panic.
“They would be wrong in the aspect that our membership has been steady. We’ve always tried to balance weekly racing with series racing,” Yoder said. “It’s been difficult. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to sit down and put a schedule together and a lot of people believe the contrary until you put them in the same room and say, ‘Let’s all do this collectively.’ It’s not easy to put a schedule together.
“It’s not something we’re doing because we don’t have interest. It’s not something we’re doing because our membership is alarmingly smaller than it has been in the past. It’s another way for us to try to make the series strong and the weekly racing strong.”
At the end of last season, with some smaller car counts at series events “in areas,” Yoder said, “where we don’t have a big Late Model concentration,” IMCA President Brett Root, Yoder and other IMCA officials held meetings with Late Model racers in the area to listen to suggestions on what or any changes that were needed.
Yoder said IMCA walked away with plenty to think about, and while he wasn’t specific about what was suggested, he said there wasn’t ever anything drastic considered for Late Models. The most significant change, other than a smaller schedule, is Summer Series races also will run for national points, which Yoder said IMCA hopes will increase participation of weekly racers at Summer Series events.
The five races in April are followed by two in May, two in June and then a gap until the Yankee Dirt Track Classic on Sept. 1 and 2. No Summer Series racing in July or August is an outlier from the past, but Yoder said that comes from a few things.
One, he said, there’s “a lot of fair races and midweek specials through the months of July and August for our Late Models to run some other shows and get some other opportunities.” Two, he said, “It’s going to allow our guys to really focus on weekly racing and other fair events and specials, and then recharge the batteries for a nice stretch run in September.”
Aikey agreed with the second part, saying “the way I look at it is maybe more people will try to do a weekly deal,” even if he doesn’t plan to race weekly in a Late Model.
The issue for many Late Model racers running weekly is payout doesn’t often offset the high cost of racing one. With the IMCA Modified division having several high-paying events across the country and locally — including the $50,000-to-win Modified Super Weekend at Farley Speedway — Aikey said that pushed him to buy a Modified and chase big money when not running the Summer Series.
Whether or not that becomes a trend remains to be seen.
“It’s just up to the tracks and the series. I don’t know what they can do. I don’t know what to tell them,” Aikey said. “Weekly stuff doesn’t pay (much). I don’t know what they’re going to do. I don’t race weekly hardly anymore, so I’ll hit specials with (the Late Model). I’ll probably end up running my Modified more than I will my Late Model.”
The Summer Series sees its highest participation in the early and later parts of the season, regardless.
The highest car counts are routinely seen in the April and September races — the April counts because racers are eager after not racing for months and feeling out if they have a chance at the championship and the September counts because of higher payout and prestige at races like Super Nationals, the Yankee and the Liberty 100.
Yoder insisted there “wasn’t really an advantage to making big changes,” at this point as IMCA saw it. He’s confident a shorter schedule might actually increase competitiveness in the series with a higher importance on attending each race.
No matter what — and Aikey was emphatic about this — everyone agrees the competition level to win the Summer Series will be as fierce as ever. Defending champ Tyler Bruening likely won’t run the whole series, so that opens the door for a new champion in 2017 with both returning stalwarts and some new faces.
“We didn’t necessarily see if we made a big change that we’d net 120 extra racers,” Yoder said. “Our guys have what they have. We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for a long time and didn’t see any alternative option that was going to make a real positive change from what we’ve currently got.
“With a couple fewer races on the original release of the schedule, it’s going to increase the importance of making it to those shows to make sure you get an opportunity to race. I think the product on the track is going to speak for itself.”
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