NORTHERN BOYS BATTLE ROYAL LANDS KELLY IN HOSPITAL  by Jeremy Troiano & Bob Dillner
Van Meter Beats Hoffman in Survival of the Fittest Speedfest Prelim in Lakeland
It was billed as an all-star race between the best Super Late Model drivers from the north, but Friday night’s "North 100" at USA International Speedway (FL) resulted in anything but..

Instead, the race was simply scary and and downright ludicrous.  Eddie Van Meter's victory, perhaps the biggest victory of his career, was overshadowed by several other on-track incidents..
first I couldn’t get out the driver’s side that was up against the wall.  The guy on the radio was just telling me to get the heck out of that car.  The right side door was already torn off so it wasn’t too difficult to get out that way.  I didn’t even unplug the radios; I just got the belts loose and the steering wheel off and went."

Despite the damage and the fire, Ohlman is one of the few that will be back for Saturday night’s features.
Things got scary quick, when several cars got together and a fire quickly broke out.  (Photo sequence by James McDonald - Speed51.com)
“Going into the turn, I saw them get crossed up,” said Ohlman.  “The yellow #15 car (Tedesco) got sideways.  I tried to get slowed down and I didn’t get slowed down in time.  We discussed at the start of this race how all we’d have to do is make it through this race and let everything unfold.  If we made the top-10, then we made the top-10.  If not, then we’ll requalify or run the last chance and do what we have to do.  That’s two races in a row that I’ve gotten wrecked on the first lap by something that was somebody’s fault other than mine. 

“I don’t know if I want to get it back out there or not; seems like luck’s not going my way.”
Once fire crews got to the scene, the drivers were able to get out of their cars.
It was ugly early.  Just yards past the green flag, pole-sitter, Jacob Ryan triggered a multi-car accident heading into turn one.  Ryan, who started eighth after the inversion, got crossed up and spun into the outside wall.  In the chaos that ensued behind him, a number of other cars piled into the mess, including last year's Speedfest winner Charlie Menard, Jeff Fultz, Ryan Tedesco, Robert Ohlman and Pat Kelly.

When Kelly’s car hit the wall, his rear clip snapped, which crushed the oil tank and ignited a huge fireball.  The fire quickly engulfed his car and the machines of Ohlman and Menard.   Menard was able to back his battered #13 out of the fire before bailing out, but Kelly and Ohlman’s cars were engulfed.  Once the fire crew arrived on the scene, the fire was extinquished and Ohlman and Kelly were able to climb out of their rides.

Kelly’s car was destroyed and Kelly himself was taken to the hospital for treatment of second degree burns on his face and hands.  Later, his car was found to have an aluminum bolt-on rear clip.  (Editor’s Note: Speed51.com will have more on this situation later.  Kelly was not available for comment.)

“All I know is that we went down into one and the #19 car (Ryan) went sideways in front of me,” said Tedesco.  “I rolled out of the gas and I thought maybe he’d straighten it up.  Before anything happened, I was hit from behind.  I kept the car off the wall for the most part and I thought we’d be alright but the #54 (Fultz) came in and then they just piled in. 

“At first I was in there beating the wheel because it’s the first lap and we’re out of the race.  Then the flames came and I was thinking ‘I gotta get the heck out of here.’  At
Menard and his team are also planning to fix their battered car.

“Guys are way too anxious on the first lap of a 100-lap race,” said Menard.  “We started in the back and we were just going to cruise.  I just had no place to go.  I just saw guys spinning out.  By the time they got to me, everybody just started piling into people.  I heard one of the guys in the back decided to run over one of the cars in the front and not worry about us guys in the back. 

"We have a backup car, plus my crew says that the damage isn’t too bad.  We’ll be here, plus we have a provisional for tomorrow night (due to his victory last year).  We’re just going to focus on getting the car ready and we’ll back to race tomorrow night.  I guess weekends like this make you appreciate weekends like we had last year.”

In addition to Kelly, both Fultz and Tedesco planned to pack up and head home.  However, early Saturday morning, Tedesco's team decided to load up and head to a local show and fix their car for Saturday's events. 
“We were going into one and the guy that set fast time just turned sideways,” said Futz.  “I don’t know if he got hooked or what.  I asked him but he didn’t know what the hell was going on.  It’s really ridiculous.  It’s just a shame because it’s a 100-lap race and that was the first lap. 

“A lot of fire came into our car and it kind of got the back of my neck a little bit, but I’m more mad than anything.  The car isn’t that bad, it’s just the body.  Guys just need to use their head.

“It’s a shame because this could be a cool race.  You’d think they’d all go into the corner and be smart, that’s what I did.”

Ryan, the night’s surprising pole winner, was able to drive away from the accident and got back into he race and finished 10th, locking him into Saturday night’s show.

“Coming down the front stretch for the green, a couple of guys were dicing and a spot opened up on the bottom,” said Ryan.  “Somebody got a little anxious, I guess.  I stabbed the brakes, but I didn’t really get the tires real hot during the warm-up laps and I had a lot of rear brake in it.   It was an accordion affect.  I don’t know. I saw smoke and I hit the brakes, then guys just scattered in front of me and behind me.”
Robert Ohlman's (top) and Pat Kelly's (bottom) cars were both heavily burnt up.  However, Ohlman will repair his and race again on Saturday. (51 Photos)
Ben Rowe started right beside Ryan and saw the whole thing unfold.  He was one of the thankful ones to make it through the mess.

“It started with the #84 (Scott Mulkern) I think.  I don’t think they wanted to go into the corner two wide. He checked up, then the guy on the outside of me checked up.  I don’t know if it wheel hopped or he just turned left, but I just went through the infield to get rid of it.  It’s too bad because it took out a lot of good cars and that’s not why we’re here.”

After the accident scene was cleaned up and order was restored, the rest of the northern drivers got down to business.   There were a few additional spins and wrecks, but for the most part, things settled down.  Scott Hantz pulled out to a huge lead.  Then Eddie Van Meter put on a catch, stalk and pass show on Van Meter that thrilled the few fans that showed up for the event.  Van Meter then pulled out to a huge lead while the field tried to catch him.

Behind him, Eddie Hoffman was also on he charge.  Hoffman got past Hantz, then set his sights on Van Meter.  As the race came to a close, it looked like it was going to be all Van Meter before a late-race caution set up a three-lap shootout.  Van Meter got the jump on the final restart and picked up the victory, followed by Hoffman and Rowe.  
While Van Meter won, not everyone was so excited.  Hoffman wasn’t pleased with the “jump” Van Meter got on the final restart.

“I got snookered a little bit,” said Hoffman.  “He started in the middle of three.  They said something about a line or something like that in the driver’s meeting.  You do that (what Van Meter did) when you’re leading the race and they’re about to throw the green; more power to you.  We weren’t that far behind and we caught up to him, but he certainly wasn’t going to give up the bottom for a lap or two.  I wouldn’t either.  We just needed more laps.  It appeared maybe we were a little bit faster, I wasn’t sure. It’s hard to pass here.
Eddie Van Meter  picked up the North 100 win.
(51 Photos)
“We’re just racing for tomorrow, so what’s the point of really hammering” asked Hoffman.  “The guys were telling me to get him, get him; do what you have to do.  Second place here gives us a good starting spot for tomorrow so we had to look at the big picture.”

But while Van Meter celebrated in Victory Lane and the rest of the teams that locked themselves into Saturday’s event celebrated making it through the melee, everyone’s thoughts kept coming back to the firey accident.

“I was able to snake right through,” added Hoffman.  “It was a little maze.  Fultzy spun in front of me.  I was able to avoid him and other guys spun and came down.  I turned right and got lucky to be in the right spot at the right time to get by two or three cars.”

“It was a pretty bad wreck from what I’ve heard," added Van Meter.  "I’m glad everyone is basically ok.  It was a rough race out there.  Hopefully, everyone will learn for tomorrow night.”

We'll find out.

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CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY FROM THE SOUTH 100