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WEST LIBERTY — It’s always good to be home.
At least it is if you’re Brian Birkhofer, who came to his home track Tuesday night at West Liberty Raceway for “Tornado Tuesday” and the Open Late Model Shootout, and ended up in Victory Lane.
“Birky,” as he’s known to his fans, pocketed $10,000 for his efforts — impressive ones at that. The Muscatine native lapped all but the top seven cars and led by half a lap at one point.
“It’s always fun to (come home),” Birkhofer said amid a throng of fans on West Liberty Raceway’s front stretch after the race. “There’s pressure on me because I’ve had success here over the years, and each year I’m a year older and only race here once a year.
“I just come here and try my best a drive the car hard. There’s always good cars here, there’s always heat. … This is a springboard for us, and obviously 10 grand is 10 grand — that’s a good paycheck.”
Rain overnight in West Liberty left the racing surface “heavy,” or full of moisture, and resulted in a rougher-than-usual race. The drivers didn’t complain, but certainly had to adjust their styles.
For Birkhofer, a combination of the track and how his car was working left him with no option other than to run his car as hard as possible, even when crew members were signaling to ease off with such a big lead.
“If I tried to drive lenient, I’d get tight, so I just had to drive it hard,” Birkhofer said. “I was in a push too much, and I had to bend the car a little bit. It’s things (where) I’ll go home and try to critique them a little better. Hopefully it’ll be better in a couple weeks at Batesville, Ark. or wherever we’re going to be.”
If he can get better than Tuesday night, watch out.
Birkhofer’s prowess on the West Liberty 1/2-mile had his competitors shaking their heads and half-laughing after the race.
It was clear after the first handful of laps no one was going to touch him, even through seven restarts.
“He was pretty much in a class of his own,” said Oxford’s Chris Simpson, who finished second. “We came with the same setup we had here last year (at the Liberty 100) and won that, but Birky wasn’t here. So we’ll have to go back to work.
“I thought I could get up there and at least show nose, but he was too good. He worked on that thing all night.”
With Birkhofer well out front, the best racing was for second, where Simpson battled his brother, Chad and Jason Feger. The challenging track conditions and quality of competition made for exciting racing.
Some recent scuffles on-track among the brothers left no love lost headed into Tuesday night, and there certainly wasn’t going to be much give while racing for position. Ultimately Chris won Tuesday night’s battle, finishing second, with Feger third and Chad fourth.
“I knew people would start diving on me, but it was going to take a lot to get by me there,” Chris Simpson said. “It took me a few restarts to figure out where I wanted to be. The high side was definitely better, but … going into (Turns) 1 and 2 you had to dive through the middle, otherwise the guy on the bottom slid up in front of you.
“Me and Chad kind of went back and forth there for a few restarts until I figured it out.”
While the on-track drama unfolded behind him, Birkhofer polished off a perfect race; one the West Liberty crowd thoroughly enjoyed.
He snapped countless photos, shook many hands and received dozens of slaps on the back from fans and friends. The satisfaction and joy was etched in his face, and gushed about what it meant to have such support.
“It’s so fun,” Birkhofer said. “My wife and kids came over and (raved about) how many friends and fans I had from Muscatine here. To win for them, the fans who wear my shirts, I want to make them proud.
“This track tonight was fun. You had to be aggressive and smooth. This is what I grew up on, and had a blast racing.”
WILD IMCA RACE GOES TO HARRIS
The IMCA Late Model class is, on a week-to-week basis, usually one of the cleanest classes that runs at West Liberty Raceway.
It’s not rare at all for main events to go caution-free. But that was far from the case Tuesday night, as the IMCA guys — running in support of the Open Late Models — went through a wild one.
And in the end, it left one driver frustrated and one elated.
Kyle Hinrichs led the majority of the main event, but was passed on the final restart by Brian Harris, who worked his way up from deep in the field — using the handful of cautions and restarts to his benefit.
“My plan was exactly what happened,” Harris said. “I knew (Hinrichs’) cousin was up there telling him to run the top, so I knew he was going to the top. I just barreled it down in there and drove up in front of him and kind of took off.
“I needed to be out front in no traffic. That’s just the way the car handled.”
Hinrichs had an idea Harris would pull the slide job — a totally legal maneuver, even if the guy it’s done to might not like it — but couldn’t do much about it.
He was frustrated after the race, but still happy to run so well.
“The same thing kinda happened (to me) last week, too,” Hinrichs said. “I saw the caution and then the (scoring) board, and knew Harris was behind me. He’s been known to slide people before, and I didn’t expect any less from him.
“The car is getting better, we’re working on it slowly every week. Hopefully we’ll give it a little more tweaks.”
Hinrichs still is fairly new to a Late Model, and Harris was complimentary of the young driver after the race.
Harris said running on a track like Tuesday night’s version of West Liberty Raceway takes experience. Someday, Harris said, Hinrichs will be the one taking advantage. But it was Harris’ turn this time.
“The way the track was, you had to be on your toes,” Harris said. “(Hinrichs) is definitely getting better. The longer the year goes, the more comfortable everyone is. Everyone’s getting faster and smarter. You can see it as the year goes on.
“It was definitely not a typical West Liberty track, but it was the same for everybody. Where (Hinrichs) is gonna struggle a little bit is he hasn’t seen this many situations with the track being so heavy. But he hung on and got second, so congratulations to him.”
OPEN LATE MODEL SHOOTOUT
1. Brian Birkhofer; 2. Chris Simpson; 3. Jason Feger; 4. Chad Simpson; 5. Dave Eckrich; 6. Gregg Satterlee; 7. Rich Bell; 8. Jonathan Brauns; 9. Billy Moyer; 10. Jason Utter; 11. Nick Marolf; 12. Andy Eckrich; 13. Denny Eckrich; 14. Spencer Diercks; 15. Justin Kay; 16. Justin Mitchell; 17. Jake Meier; 18. Jay Johnson; 19. Wayne Brao; 20. Skip Frey; 21. Luke Zanker; 22. JC Wyman.
IMCA LATE MODELS
1. Brian Harris; 2. Kyle Hinrichs; 3. Tyler Bruening; 4. Kevin Kile; 5. Luke Merfeld; 6. Chad Holladay; 7. Ron Boyse; 8. Curran Beckler; 9. Shawn Mulvan; 10. Jay Chenoweth; 11. Tanner Allen; 12. Joel Callahan; 13. Ray Guss Jr.; 14. Andy Eckrich; 15. Colby Springsteen; 16. Nick Marolf; 17. Sam Halstead; 18. Rob Moss; 19. Nate Bueseling.
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