Walking across the stage and grabbing a hard-earned high school diploma can be one of the proudest moments in anyone's life. Racing on one of the fastest short tracks in the world can be one of the most exciting experiences. Most of us will never have to decide between doing one or the other.
American Speed Association Kwik Trip Midwest Tour Presented by ECHO Outdoor Power Equipment Rookie Michael Bilderback is one individual who is faced with that dilemma. May 16th just happens to be the day when Bilderback is slated to graduate from South Beloit High School. It also happens to be the date ASA Midwest makes its trip to Iowa Speedway in Newton, IA.
"I'll try to get the school to switch graduation dates," joked Bilderback, who has yet to decide which event he will attend.
Although he has yet to dawn the cap and gown, Bilderback possesses the maturity and experience of a long time racing veteran, very similar to last years ASA Midwest Tour Lane Automotive Rookie of the Year, Nick Murgic.
"Michael is another great example of what dedication and a great family racing background will do for a young driver," said ASA Midwest Tour Vice President Steven Einhaus. "You would think that he has been racing super late models for years because I have been hearing his name for what seems like forever."
In his first full year with the Big 8 Late Models last season, Bilderback finished second in points to defending champion Jeremy Miller. He fell short by only one point.
In 2008 Bilderback was teamed with former ASA Midwest Tour competitor Brian Johnson, Jr. Johnson served as crew chief and, under his mentorship; Bilderback picked up a win at Rockford Speedway in the Spring Classic and had two second place finishes at Madison International Speedway.
ASA Midwest fans may remember Bilderback's first effort on May 4th when Miller made a lap last pass to take the win. Bilderback recalled the situation with the type of composure that proves he will be a legitimate threat to all other Rookie of the Year contenders.
"It would have been nice to win [those races at Madison]. I think if we would have won, it would have given us the one extra point we needed," said Bilderback. "But there were so many good guys in Big 8. You just don't know if you're going to show up and be first or fifteenth. It's kind of a roll of the dice," he said.
Perhaps it was that composure at a young age which helped Bilderback find victory lane in his first ever Big 8 start. After multiple championships in Legend cars around Illinois and Southern Wisconsin from age 11 to age 15, Bilderback proved he was ready for the new challenge.
In the final race at the former Lake Geneva Raceway in 2006, Bilderback held off his uncle Ricky, eventual 2006 champion. It was only the fourth time he had ever climbed behind the wheel of a Big 8 racer.
With such great Big 8 Late Model experience in just three years, Bilderback recognized the need to step up to the plate and make a run with ASA Midwest in 2009 with his ultimate goal in mind.
"It's important to realize he's only 17 years old and has been making a name for himself in many different divisions," Einhaus stated. "It is perfect timing for him to make the next step to super late models so he can showcase his talent amongst the greatest drivers in the country, and we are honored that he chose the ASA Midwest Tour."
Bilderback echoed the same sentiments regarding ASA Midwest.
"I feel like I need some more experience in a faster car if I want to get to NASCAR," claimed Bilderback. "Plus, the ASA Midwest Tour has so many good drivers. I'm going to learn a lot."
That type of experience is exactly what ASA Midwest had in mind when drafting up its Rookie of the Year program.
"We have tried very hard over the last few years to continue building our ROY program so that it is attractive to many new drivers that have not toured in a Super Late Model," claimed Einhaus. "This year is shaking out to be one of our finest rookie crops so far, and the reason for that is obvious. The amount of experience and quality of teams in our series is like no other series around. That is why they want to race with us, to learn from the best."
As Bilderback waits for the experiences that are to come, he is also awaiting a very key component of his race team, the new engine. "We haven't dropped the motor in the car yet, but other than that she's sitting there ready to race and so am I," claimed Bilderback.
Bilderback recognized two big changes he expects to face heading into ASA Midwest action. "It's a totally different series than Big 8," he said. "I've got 200 extra horsepower and a different tire, plus the competition is probably twice as hard because there are so many veterans."
However, Bilderback approaches driving with a group of savvy veterans as much as an opportunity as a challenge. He hopes running door-to-door with the elite drivers of ASA Midwest will aid him in becoming an even better driver.
"Just making the race, being consistent and finishing it [are my expectations]," said Bilderback. "Just showing we can finish a race with some of the top guys around here is going to be one of the biggest things to do."
"It would be nice to go out there and win everything but if you're going to go out there and win one then wreck one, that's not showing anyone much. We'll just go out there, make the race and keep the car clean so we can make it to the next race," he concluded.
Thanks to some notes and baseline set-ups left by Johnson while running ASA Midwest, Bilderback feels comfortable taking on the 2009 schedule. He is especially eyeing the second race of the season at MIS, where his late model career began. It also may be a track that owes him a break after two narrow defeats last season.
"There are so many fast guys that run up there so we'll see what they're doing," he said. I think we'll be ready. Hopefully we'll be all set in the car and we'll be good."
As for the first event of the season, the Bronze Race at Dells Raceway Park on Saturday, April 25, Bilderback has planned to attend an open practice on April 11. Time will tell if he is as successful in his first ASA Midwest Tour start as he was in his first Big 8 Late Model start.