Saturday, February 2, 2013

TUNDRA 2012 REWIND Article

PORTAGE, Wis. (January 31, 2013) – As an organization, The Unified Northern Drivers Racing Association (TUNDRA) Super Late Model Series had one goal for its second season – to keep growing. Car counts rose through the five-race set, competition became fiercer and interest soared in the Midwest’s newest short track organization.
Mission accomplished.
“I think it’s an amazing series. I promoted it from day one,” said 2012 TUNDRA Titlist Dennis Prunty. Prunty was present at the first meetings which spawned the Alive For Five Super Late Model Series in 2011. He finished second to Kreyer in AFF point standings.
“I had a hard time after the first meeting trying to explain it to people. They weren’t getting it,” Prunty said. “You might not win a $10,000 race, but you’re not spending the money. It all works out.”
It was the likes of drivers such as Prunty, Tom Lichtfeld and Frank Kreyer pushing the series that brought some new blood to TUNDRA in 2012. Even with threatening weather, car counts increased from 25 in Round One to 27 in Round Two to 30 in Round Three, stepped back to 29 in Round Four and topped out at 33 in Round Five. A total of 20 drivers attended all five races.
“It’s really grown. If you look around at the other super lates, it’s the best there is,” Prunty said of TUNDRA. “There are a lot of great drivers. I really think we did something.”
A huge shot in the arm for TUNDRA this season was one of those new drivers. Short track racing legend Rich Bickle was a somewhat surprising commitment to the five-race schedule in 2012. What wasn’t surprising was how he found his way to the front and stayed there most of the season.
Bickle entered TUNDRA Round One on a 13-race winning streak at DRP, dating back to select appearances since 1989. Charging from the middle of the pack in the first 80-lap race of the season, Bickle secured a win and extended his streak to 14. However, it wasn’t an easy cruise to the checkered flag.
To secure the top spot Bickle had to overtake Dalton Zehr, who had won two of four races in the Alive For Five he entered in 2011. Zehr was a certain favorite to capture the first Super Late Model race of the 2012 season.
But on this night, the veteran showed the 21-year-old Zehr a thing or two, but was quick to display respect for the young up-and-comer. “He paid us a really nice compliment by coming down to our pits and telling us that we were going to win a lot of races,” Zehr recalled. “I don’t think he thought it would be this year, against him, but it was cool to be racing him, Prunty and the track champions who came.”
After icing Zehr, Bickle looked to break away from the Round One pack. However, Prunty used lapped traffic to track him down. As he closed in, Prunty found out about Bickle’s streak and used it as extra motivation.
“I didn’t know about the streak going into the races,” Prunty said. “Under caution my brother David was telling me about it. If anyone was going to break it, it was going to be me.”
Prunty could not take the streak away from Bickle at 14, but he found victory lane on the night Bickle was looking for number 15 in Round Two.
A self-proclaimed disappointing 2011 was plenty of motivation for Prunty to find some wins in 2012. He visited victory lane a handful of times at Slinger and finally broke away at DRP in TUNDRA action.
“That was really something for me. We always wanted to win at other tracks,” he said. “You have to be 100-percent focused. I had a lot more time to do the little things in 2012.”
Bickle’s streak was snapped at 14 with some heavy competition in front. With just six laps remaining Bickle had found his way into the top five. A frantic finish saw Tanner Whitten challenge Prunty to the outside while Bickle, Kreyer and Corey Jankowski scrapped for third.
Bickle finished third, then was confronted on the track and in the pits by Jankowski. This rivalry would boil over the next three races and erupt in Round Five.
With a spectacular end to the second TUNDRA race of 2012, a large crowd filled the stands at DRP for a highly anticipated third round. TUNDRA drivers did not disappoint as they packed the pits with 30 entries including former Alive For Five winner Jeff Storm.
Storm certainly made his presence known with a third-place finish in the feature event, but again Bickle and Zehr were the ones captivating the crowd.
At the outset Bickle faded back from a second-row starting position. As he dropped back Zehr moved forward to grab the lead and stretch out his advantage. While it looked as though Zehr was destined to win an uncontested battle, Bickle closed the gap in the waning laps to challenge.
Zehr went on to repeat in Round Four as the point battle started to take shape. Bickle again found a podium in third after a wild race that claimed more than half of the feature starters as victim.
The biggest shakeup in Round Four happened before the green flag ever fell on the 80-lap feature. Corey Jankowski was leading the standings due to his passing points in the first three TUNDRA features. In Round Four he failed to qualify out of the Leo’s Upper Dells Bar Gong Show – the wildly popular last-chance dash race.
Jankowski’s absence opened the door for Zehr, Bickle and Prunty to distance themselves in the point battle. It also allowed for some new faces to hit the podium. A new challenger emerged as five-time Mid-American Stock Car Series Champion James Swan grabbed second in his Super Late Model debut at DRP.
For Swan to come in with a small crew and limited experience and be successful is a testament to TUNDRA Zehr said of the series.
“In all honesty the nicest thing about the TUNDRA series is the friendly competition. From day one it was affordable racing,” he said. “Since then it’s evolved into extremely competitive racing, but has maintained its affordability. In this series I don’t think anyone is outspending anyone. They keep you hemmed up in the tire shed. The cost of getting into the pits isn’t there. Anyone can come and run with a much smaller amount and still rattle the big racer’s cages.”
Swan rattled everyone’s cages again in Round Five with another podium finish, but that was a small sub-headline to the major points battle that was looming going into the final TUNDRA event of the season.
Zehr sat atop the standings with Prunty and Bickle well within striking distance. Another rainy day nearly spoiled the point battle, but officials battled through the weather. Qualifying was completed during the race program and the field was set.
Prunty started up front with the invert and took the lead when Dan Lensing spun solo exiting turn four about a quarter of the way through the race. As Prunty kept focus on what he could control, he had to hope that fate would take care of the rest.
“The only thing I knew was that all I could do was win the race. The rest of it was in everyone else’s hands,” Prunty said. “I had no idea where Zehr had to finish. Honestly coming into that day I didn’t think we had a chance. I thought we were going to end up second. A lot of stuff worked out. It was amazing. It was luck.”
The first victim of fate on the night was Zehr. As he began to make his move through the field he bounced off the outside retaining wall on the front stretch. Zehr’s car was not the same and he could only muster a 12th-place finish.
“Unfortunately we got in a little tangle early in the race and it put us out of the points. All in all we weren’t sour,” Zehr recalled. “We put ourselves in a really good situation and come up just a touch short. It was a really good year other than that.”
With Zehr’s chances erased, attention turned to Bickle as he began to pick off spots through the midway point of the race. Bickle needed help to track down Prunty, but his title chances were still alive.
Whatever life was left in Bickle’s chance to capture the TUNDRA Championship was snuffed out by his new rival Jankowski. Exiting turn four Jankowski came together with Bickle and became airborne, hopping over Bicke’s left rear tire. The two crossed paths as Bickle drove back to the pit area. Nothing more came of the situation on the track, but the disdain could be felt by everyone at the facility.
With his two closest competitors by the wayside, Prunty claimed the win and the crown. Less than 24 hours later, Prunty claimed the Slinger track championship in yet another tightly contested battle with Steve Apel.
“To win two in one year, it’s still sinking in. It’s the best you can do,” Prunty said. “Where do I go from here? I’ve been waiting for phone calls. I guess my number isn’t out there. I guess I’m not going anywhere.”
“The bigger deal to me was that I raced Slinger for 21 years. When you look at the Dells I basically only raced the ten TUNDRA races,” he said. “The TUNDRA (title) really meant something to me. There are only five races; there is no room to screw up.”
While Prunty was able to celebrate his first title, Zehr came up just shy of his. However, he is using his close call as motivation to contend again in 2013.
“It will help us in the next year, especially with fiercer competition,” Zehr said. “We’ll be just as strong this year as last year. All we have to do is string the races together to be a contender in the points again.”
Zehr’s trend can be seen as a mirror to the trend of TUNDRA – young and ambitious with plenty of talent and support to continue growing. The 2012 season in many ways was the next step for TUNDRA to becoming a major player in Super Late Model Series in the Midwest. Reaching out to new venues, attracting new drivers and continuing to keep racing affordable in 2013 will be the plan to keep the series trending upward into the future.
The Unified Northern Drivers Racing Association (TUNDRA) Super Late Model Series was formed in 2011 as the Alive For Five Super Late Model Series at Dells Raceway Park. TUNDRA’s business plan is based on a sustainable program for racers and drivers alike, while still providing high-quality Super Late Model entertainment to fans.
For more information on TUNDRA including news, past results and standings, the 2013 schedule and more visit www.tundrasuperlates.com. Also, interact with us on Facebook (facebook.com/TundraSuperLateModels) or Twitter (@TUNDRAslms)