A capacity crowd packed Slinger (WI) Super Speedway Tuesday night to witness the first round of the 24th Annual Miller Lite Nationals and boy did they see a show!
MILLER LITE NATIONALS RESULTS
Slinger Super Speedway, WI
1. Rich Bickle
2. Lowell Bennett
3. David Prunty
4. Al Schill
5. Conrad Morgan
6. Nathan Haseleu
7. Chris Petersen
8. Mike Garvey
9. Brad Mueller
10. Andrew Morrissey
11. Mike Egan
12. Ryan Mathews
13. Eric Fransen
14. Donavan Morgan
15. Tommy Picaro
16. Dick Trickle
17. Dave Feiler
18. Dave Teske
19. Kurt Busch
20. Jamie Wallace
21. Rich Loch
22. Matt Kenseth
23. Scott Wimmer
24. Chris Wimmer
A very determined Rich Bickle led the majority of the event, 192 of the 225 laps on the high-banked quarter mile to be exact, and claimed victory in a car prepared by his long-time friend Scott Ollerman, a regular at the Madison (WI) Int'l Speedway.
"I know you fans got your money's worth tonight; that was a helluva race," exclaimed Bickle following a spirited, gear-grabbin' polish victory lap. "I love this race track and I love the fans!"
Bickle started fourth, grabbed the lead from pole-sitter Kurt Busch on lap 15, then raced his heart out, besting veteran Al Schill on five occasions where they raced side by side five or six laps at a crack, swapping the lead with Bickle electing the outside groove with Schill battling to his inside.
Busch had only been told by his Winston Cup teammate Matt Kenseth that Slinger "is a shrunk-down Bristol." The Las Vegas native led the 24-car
Rich Bickle held off some of the best to win the first round of the Nationals.
field to the green flag and raced very respectively in the top five until he was pushed wide on lap 160. Contact with another car coming off of the 34-degree banked turn two three laps later sent Busch's Ford skating up the track, with a heavy side-slap to the outside wall followed by a wild fence-riding crash, taking down billboard sections with the nose of the car until the right front wheel ripped from the racecar, sending Busch's mount wheel side down abruptly back onto the track in turn three. Busch was unhurt.
The 2000 Nationals champ Lowell Bennett worked past Schill for second and was instantly dogging Bickle for the lead from lap 188 through lap 214, which allowed an advancing David Prunty, Schill and Brad Mueller to close in. Bickle's Wegner-powered Chevrolet was real strong off the corners, exclusively on the outside lane of the track.
"Richie was fighting a tight race car and decided to change the right front shock during the break," relayed Bickle's spotter John Close. "After he got going in the second half, the car was loose, loose, loose, and had to keep the car up top."
The race car Bickle used was one of three super late models owned by Ollerman. After the race, Ollerman related how it all came together.
The legendary All Schill was strong, but didn't have anything for Bickle.
"We didn't have a motor for the car until Friday afternoon. When Richie and I were at Madison for the ASA race, Jimmy Larson and Luke Hoffman stayed at the shop and thrashed on the car," he admitted.
"We never had a Wegner motor in this car before. The plumbing of the engine was a nightmare. We had lots of problems with it and I almost quit a couple times, it was such a bear," he recalled. "We finally finished the racecar at one o'clock this morning."
The chassis Bickle used was a 1995 Lefthander with what Ollerman claimed was a "basic, mid-1980's shock set-up."
The Miller Lite Nationals always features several NASCAR stars. The autograph session line was endless prior to the race, with a crowd estimated at 9,200 race fanatics. Led by defending Nationals champion and current Winston Cup point leader Kenseth, the visiting drivers included Busch, Scott Wimmer (who's late uncle Larry Detjens won the first Nationals crown in 1980), the legendary Dick Trickle (the Nationals only four-time champion), Bickle (who has raced at 171 different tracks in his career, listing Slinger as his favorite), and ASA Racing Series stars Chris Wimmer (in his brother Scott's #25 car) and Mike Garvey (driving Gerry Gunderman's Chevy).
Garvey's front calipers were glowing at lap 20, but he soldiered on to finish 8th after 225 laps. Trickle fought handling problems in Conrad Morgan's back-up car and finished 16th. Busch was awarded a 19th-place finish after crashing a Pathfinder chassis team car to Kenseth.
Winston Cup star and defending Nationals winner Matt Kensenth (left) and Busch star Scott Wimmer (right) both had problems on Tuesday night.
Kenseth raced the same car he drove to victory a year ago and was on the move. On the initial start, Kenseth dropped back to 13th from his 10th starting spot, worked his way to 5th by lap 50 and was coming. A power steering line busted on his Gatorade #17, oiling down his rear tires and sending his racecar in a spin, left side first into the turn four wall. He was bummed he was unable to continue and finished 22nd.
The Wimmer brothers' nights collectively came to a close early due to motor problems. Scott finished 23rd in Todd Thelen's Dodge, with Chris out after 10 laps, credited with 24th.
With a stellar field of 61 cars, qualifying meant a great deal. The 24-car feature field started with the top 14 cars on time inverted, putting Kurt Busch and Mike Egan on row one. Fast timer Eric Fransen and Brad Mueller lined up in row seven.
Two last chance qualifying races to fill the field were run, from which defending track champion Lowell Bennett had to progress through. Two consolation features were also run.
Fransen's quick time was an 11.342 second lap. Nathan Haseleu timed in 18th best at 11.495 seconds on the racey quarter mile oval, to give you an idea how tight the field was.
As much attention was paid to the lead battle that never settled down, the two-wide racing Tuesday night at Slinger was excellent. There was no need for a bump-and-run, as racers gave room to race each other hard and clean. It was truly a joy to watch classic short track late model racing at Slinger Super Speedway.
Fransen was the night's fast qualifier.
The deciding round of the Miller Lite Nationals is scheduled for Tuesday night, August 19th at Madison (WI) International Speedway, with a 225 lap feature. It's not too early to plan to make the pilgrimage, with a planned return of the NASCAR drivers and ultra-competitive local super late model teams.