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WEST LIBERTY — Tyler Bruening stood in his trailer, drenched in sweat and hunched over a work bench — but with a smile on his face after Saturday night’s IMCA Deery Brothers Summer Series for Late Models finale at the Liberty 100.
There was no doubting his joy. He had just clinched his first Summer Series championship.
There also was pain. Bruening has dealt with a severe back issue for more than a week — so bad he had to skip the Late Model Knoxville Nationals because he couldn’t sit in the car.
And even after Jeff Aikey, whom Bruening led by a single point heading into the finale, had to scratch from the main event thanks to an engine issue, the Decorah driver went all out in the feature anyway. Just taking the green flag from 23rd ensured him the title. Back pain and all, he drove to as high as fifth before ending up sixth behind winner Chad Holladay.
He didn’t want to just ride around and accept it, since he couldn’t race Aikey for the title. Bruening wanted to finish off a title campaign the right way, no matter how much pain he’d be in in the morning.
“A switch gets flipped once you get in that seat. You have this plan of going out to ride and finish the race, but you get going and the car is awesome and you just can’t help it,” Bruening said. “My back basically gave out after the last restart and I basically was just hanging on; really uncomfortable in the car. It was a helluva run from the back to the front like that, so we’re happy to come out on top.”
Bruening officially won the title by 19 points over Aikey to take his first Summer Series championship.
Both drivers dealt with a long, frustrating day at West Liberty Raceway on Saturday. Rain forced two programs into one day, and the deluge left the track surface in rough shape — something every racer there acknowledged was a foregone conclusion with all the precipitation. Both drivers had to qualify for the main event through a B-main.
Bruening eventually was forced to take a provisional to make it thanks to a flat tire. Capping off the title the way he did served as a microcosm of the season for Aikey and him.
“I guess, basically, the strongest will survive — I guess you could say,” Bruening said. “We got to be good friends over this year, battled like crazy, and that’s the way I wanted it to go out.
“I feel bad for Jeff and his crew. They’re top notch guys. They work on the car as much as anybody. They deserve to be right where they’re at. We basically just outlasted them.”
Aikey, the all-time series leader in wins (68) and championships (seven), had a beer in hand before the main event even rolled off Saturday night. During his B-main, he said the radiator cap came off and forced water out to the point where it “cooked the engine.”
He’s been through every high and low a racer can go through in his long career, so while the veteran was seriously disappointed with not even being able to race for the title, he resigned himself to his racing luck.
His opponent being a worthy champ, he said, made it just a little easier.
“(Stuff) happens,” Aikey said with a resigned laugh. “I mean, what are you going to do? It’s disappointing; we had a good car. We’d have been there in the feature, but oh well. Bruening is a good cat, I’m happy for him. We’ll be back next year.”
While Bruening finished off his championship run, three other Late Model races — worth a total of $6,000 to the winners — spanned 125 total laps on the half-mile.
All night, it appeared Joel Callahan was the man to beat. He dominated the Iron Man Challenge to start the night, taking $1,000 for that. He also capped the night with the second half of the Liberty 100, edging out Cayden Carter in a hard-fought 50-lapper to take the second $2,500 winner’s check.
The only man keeping him from being perfect was Holladay, who won the Summer Series finale, his first Deery Brothers triumph. Callahan said it was nearly a dream night, but a late adjustment on track was what did him in during the Summer Series feature.
“I’ll take this any day. Even that second race we were really good, the high side just got going and by the time we figured that out, we got up there (too late). Otherwise it would’ve been a real good night,” Callahan said. “We’re pretty happy and I’m pretty proud of my crew. Keith (Simmons) did a great job with the track. I know it was rough, but everybody had the same circumstances.”
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