Rockford Speedway has been the scene of many memorable events over the years. Throw in names like Joe Shear, Steve Carlson, Dick Trickle, Mark Martin, Rich Bickle, and Eddie Hoffman as previous winners, and one can see how the National Short Track Championship race is such a prestigious event.
The 45th renewal of this annual fall classic would rank up there with the best of them, as Brett Sontag held off a furious late race rally by Eddie Hoffman and a stellar field of cars to capture his first victory in this historic race.
“This is probably my biggest win ever,” said Sontag. “I’ve won a few Bettenhausens (another Midwest classic race) over the years, but just to come to Rockford and win with all the people that have won here over the years, and as rough as this place is, it’s a little bull ring, it’s at the top of my list.”
Calling Rockford Speedway rough would be a huge understatement. Not only can you call it rough due to the older, nearly worn out pavement, but considering the outside groove is the faster way around this tight, high banked quarter mile, passing is always a risky proposition.
Sontag and Jerry Gille led twenty-four other cars and stars to the green flag of the 200 lap main event. Gille would get the early advantage jumping to the lead from his outside front row starting position. The field would form a single file line quickly, as everyone seemed to settle in for the long haul of a 200 lap feature.
Though as race drivers are prone to do, some of them began to get a little impatient with the one groove track. The bumping and banging began in earnest as some drivers wanted to make their way to the front. Sontag would bump Gille’s rear bumper for a few laps before finally rooting him out of the way coming off of turn 4 on lap 21. Gille would get out of shape and before he was able to regain control, the cars of Tommy Pecaro, Steve Apel, and Lowell Bennett would also get by.
The leaders would find heavy traffic on lap 32 as they began to lap slower cars. While Sontag and Pecaro would get through relatively unscathed, Steve Apel wouldn’t be as fortunate.
The race’s first yellow would fly on lap 37 when Apel hit the wall in turn two. Something appeared to have broke in the right front, sending him hard into the wall and ending his day.
Shortly after the green flag, Michael Bilderback and Rich Bickle renewed an earlier battle for fifth place. Bickle had nudged his way past Bilderback before the yellow, and afterwards Bilderback returned the favor.
The yellow would fly again on lap 50 when Nathan Haseleu got turned into the turn three wall when he failed to fully clear Jerry Gille. Haseleu had dove to the inside down the backstretch and tried to move back up the track in front of Gille. Problem was that Haseleu didn’t quite get cleared of Gille and was tapped in the right rear. The pair slid into the turn three wall and blocked the track. Steve Campbell and Dave Feiler were collected and both suffered substantial damage. Campbell was able to return to action minus the right side body work, but Feiler’s day was done with heavy front end damage.
The single file restart was great for Sontag, as he was able to stretch his lead a bit as racing resumed. Lowell Bennett tried to duck underneath Tommy Pecaro coming off of turn four, but he couldn’t hold his line. This allowed Brian Johnson Jr. and teammate Michael Bilderback to get past.
Another yellow flag would fly on lap 82 when Eddie Hoffman suddenly slowed after hitting the wall coming off turn four. Hoffman was still not up to speed as he exited turn two when Chris Wimmer hit him from behind causing him to spin. Hoffman pulled back onto the track just after the field took the green and just in front of the leaders. However, since he was not yet up to speed he would go a lap down.
Sontag would continue to excel on restarts and quickly pulled away by a few car lengths. Pecaro held down the second spot, but was being pressured by the team duo of Johnson Jr. and Bilderback. Johnson Jr., who had set a new track record in qualifying, was trying to make his way to the front when he tried to duck under Pecaro. As is so often the case, a car on the inside has a hard time trying to make it stick, and this was no exception. Pecaro was able to hold onto the second spot and Bilderback would sneak past Johnson Jr. into third.
Now it was Bilderback’s turn to work on Pecaro. However, he was having the same kind of luck his teammate had until he decided to take matters into his own hands on lap 98. Coming off of turn four, Bilderback ducked inside and tried to run Pecaro up the track a tad. Pecaro brushed the wall and came back in front of Bilderback before spinning into the infield. This brought out the yellow and extended the first half by two laps as the official scorers were trying to sort out the running order.
Both Pecaro and Bilderback tried to regain their previous positions. However it was only to be Pecaro who would be sent to the rear. Hoffman was the “Lucky Dog” and was back on the lead lap.
The running order at the halfway break was 1) Sontag, 2) Bilderback, 3) Johnson Jr., 4) Bennett, 5) Bickle. Chris Wimmer, who was in the top ten at the break, was forced to drop to the rear of the lead lap cars due to changing a tire during the break.
The second half began much like the first half with the cars initially holding in single file formation.
Chris Wimmer’s troubles continued on lap 117 bringing out the yellow when he couldn’t turn his car off the track and hit the tire wall at the pit entrance.
A mere ten laps later another yellow came out, this time for a crash involving Wayne Freimund and Billy Knippenberg in turn one.
Sontag would continue to get great restarts and would pull away by a few car lengths. Brian Johnson Jr. seemingly bump drafted Michael Bilderback every lap. Johnson Jr. could get inside of Bilderback every few laps, but just couldn’t complete the pass.
Meanwhile, Eddie Hoffman began to take advantage of his getting back on the lead lap and methodically worked his way back into the top ten. By lap 163 Hoffman made his way up to sixth place and was closing in on the top five.
As the end of the race was drawing nearer, perhaps drivers’ patience was wearing thinner. Everyone knew it was time to go, and the fireworks were about to begin.
With twenty five laps to go, Johnson Jr. bumped his way past Bilderback and into second place. While Bilderback tried to regain control of his car, Lowell Bennett and Rich Bickle both moved past and into third and fourth respectively.
Another yellow flew on lap 182, this time for a spin in turn two by Erik Pierce.
The subsequent restart saw Sontag get a great jump as well as Johnson Jr. spinning his tires and losing ground. Sontag’s lead grew to half a straightaway, while the carnage behind him was soon to commence.
Lowell Bennett tried to get underneath Johnson Jr. over the next few laps, with Bickle glued to Bennett’s bumper. Bickle, the 1990 winner of this event dove underneath Bennett in turn three and spun out Bennett to bring out the yellow with only six laps remaining.
Bennett tried to reassume his third place spot, but was forced to the rear along with Bickle. Both drivers disagreed with that ruling, and while Bennett begrudgingly dropped to the rear, Bickle spun his car hard into the paved infield and stormed off the track in turn three.
As racing resumed, Sontag regained his advantage, while Hoffman pressured Johnson Jr. Hoffman rubbed Johnson Jr. out of the way on lap 196 and into second place. Sontag would keep just barely ahead of Hoffman over the final four laps. Meanwhile, last year’s winner Josh Nelms finally made his presence felt as he climbed into fourth place.
Sontag would beat Hoffman to the line by 3 car lengths, and Nelms would inherit third place as Johnson Jr. spun into the infield coming to the checkers. This allowed Chris Weinkauf and Ryan Carlson to get by and claim fourth and fifth.
Sontag almost thought he was dreaming as he got to Victory Lane.
“This is awesome,”exclaimed Sontag in Victory Lane. “This thing just got up off the corners. I have to thank my crew for helping make this such a great weekend. It’s real tough to pass here. You almost got to dirty somebody up. I sat in those stands last night and watched a lot of cars and a lot of racing and thought “wow”. I talked to Jerry Gille and he told me basically if the guy is on your outside and he’s on your rear tire you just go right to the wall. That’s kind of the rule of thumb here at Rockford. I’m like ‘What? You try that at our track and you’re going to get right reared, but it’s a fun little race track.
Hoffman, who twice made his way through the field and survived being a lap down to finish second blamed himself for his fate.
“The knucklehead driver bounced it off the front stretch wall,” explained Hoffman. “I put myself in that spot. “The crew got me back out there and busted their butts to get things back together after we busted the trailing arm bracket but I did it just like last year charging back to the front (last year to finish third). We need a 300 lapper here again so I can get up there in time. The car just got hooked up as good as it has been at the end there and with 50 laps to go, there’s no points in saving the tires so I just went for it.”
Despite Hoffman’s gaffe, Sontag knew he might face a battle towards the end.
“I was running. I wasn’t idling around I tell you that,” said Sontag. “They were running hard. I was kind of hoping we could just cruise around a little bit and save our tires for the guys at the end. I was watching them in my mirror and they were battling it out. We didn’t pass a bunch of cars, we’re a crate motor. I think we were the only one with a crate motor to make the show on qualifying time. It was a tough deal. It wasn’t just to cruise around. This is a driver’s track. If you can get around here you can go places and win races.”
Following post race inspection, Josh Nelms was disqualified and posted with a last place finish.
Super Late Models ****UNOFFICIAL****
'Budweiser 200' -- 1. Brett Sontag, Joliet; 2. Eddie Hoffman, Wheaton; 3. Chris Weinkauf, Merrill, Wis; 4. Ryan Carlson, Loves Park; 5. Steve Dobbratz, Rio, Wis; 6. Jeremy Spoonmore, Somonauk; 7. Stevie Campbell, Lisle; 8. Lowell Bennett, Neenah, Wis; 9. Brian Johnson, Jr., Machesney Park; 10. Erik Pierce, Lake in the Hills; 11. Tommy Pecaro, Markesan, Wis; 12. Wayne Freimund, Elkhorn, Wis; 13. Michael Bilderback, South Beloit; 14. Rich Bickle, Janesville, Wis; 15. Robert Maynor, Colgate, Wis; 16. Jon Reynolds, Jr., Rockford; 17. Billy Knippenberg, Jr, Plainfield; 18. Chris Wimmer, Wausau, Wis; 19. Jack Kalwasinski, Dyer, Ind.; 20. Jerry Gille, Roscoe; 21. Nathan Haseleu, Pardeeville, Wis; 22. Dave Feiler, Sun Prairie, Wis; 23. Steve Apel, Colgate, Wis; 24. Jeff Weinfurter, Wisconsin Rapids, Wis; 25. Eddie May, Crystal Lake; 26. Josh Nelms, Lockport.