The First Knoxville Late Model Nationals

The First Knoxville Late Model Nationals
Friday, September 08, 2017
by Lee Ackerman

What dirt late model fans had been dreaming and hoping for finally became a reality when 98 cars from 22 states and a Canadian province checked in at the Knoxville Raceway on October 14, 2004 for the first night of the Stacker2 Xtreme Dirt Car Nationals.

When qualifying had ended, fourteen cars had broken the existing one-lap track record with newly crowned series champion Earl Pearson, Jr. setting fast time at 18.401 seconds. Five heat races were ran with Michigan’s Jeep Van Wormer claiming heat one, Iowa’s Brian Harris heat two, Iowa’s Denny Eckrich heat three, Missouri’s Dustin Mooneyham heat four and Ohio’s Matt Miller heat five.
Illinois’ Darren “the Thriller” Miller won the Dash over Iowa’s Brian Birkhofer , Matt Miller and others. Eddie Carrier, Jr. won the C feature over Chris Smyser. Brian Harris won the B feature over Matt Taylor, Johnny Johnson and Carrier. This set the 24 car field for the Thursday feature.

Darrin Miller may have led all 30 laps of the feature, but he had a battle on his hands throughout the event. Miller grabbed the lead on lap one, when fellow front row starter Brian Birkhofer jumped the cushion in turn four. Immediately Earl Pearson, Jr. came up to challenge Birky for second and this battle which last several laps allowed Miller to open up a good sized lead.

Pearson and Birkhofer battled throughout most of the event for second until Birky came a stop on lap 25. Miller and Pearson came together on the restart and that allowed Miller to break away and Matt Miller to grab second from Pearson. Darren Miller sailed to the win in the $6,000 to win event with Matt Miller, Earl Pearson, Jr. Ray Cook and Denny Eckrich rounding out the top five.

The Friday night show saw much different racing conditions with a drier and slick track with cushion moving to within 15 to 20 feet from the fences. Racing started with some wild action to start off the 30 lap feature. On lap two, the red flag waved for Terry Phillips of Springfield, Missouri who stopped in turn three with heavy damage to his race car, Phillips was done for the evening.

Front row starter Shane Clanton grabbed the initial lead and after the Phillips incident, Clanton again assumed control of the event followed by Don O’Neal, Davey Johnson and Brady Smith. On lap five “the Real Deal” Don O’Neal dove under Clanton in turn four to grab the lead. O’Neal then increased his lead and within several laps he was running away from the field.

On lap 13, the caution waved for a spinning Steve Casebolt. On the restart, the third running Davey Johnson dropped a drive shaft ending his night. On the restart, Clanton who had been running third dropped three spots as his car appeared to be smoking but he held his spot the rest of the way and finished sixth.

The race’s final caution flew on lap 16, when Iowa City’s Matt Furman spun in turn two. As racing action resumed, O’Neal still held the point with a several car length lead over Wisconsin’s Jimmy Mars by lap 20. As race progressed Mars closed the gap and began testing various lines for a possible pass.

On lap 27, the two drivers came upon four cars lapped cars and the squeeze was on. O’Neal drove the cushion with Mars coming in right beside him and this forced O’Neal to strike the fence giving the lead to Mars. Once outfront Mars held the point to the end with fellow Wisconsin native Brady Smith second, Bill Frye third, O’Neal fourth and Justin Fegers fifth.

In heat race action, heat races were won by Fegers, Denny Woodworth, Terry Phillips,Shane Clanton and Kerry Hansen. Davey Johnson won the dash and the pole followed by Clanton, O’Neal, Brady Smith, Pat Doar and Tommy Rowe. Jimmy Schram won the C feature with Phillips winning the B over Mitch Johnson and Mike Smith.

With the large car count for the inaugural Knoxville Late Model Nationals, Saturday night’s program started off with an E Feature. Eddie Carrier, Jr. took the E feature followed by Darren Merieotto, Chris Smyser, Dan Miller and Jerry Schram. The D feature went to David Smith over “Racin John Mason, Randle Chupp, John Henkemeyer and Gary Webb.

The competition got tougher as the program moved into the C feature. Richmond, Indiana’s Steve Casebolt took that event followed by Matt Taylor, Chris Spieker, Randall Chupp (from the D) and Jason Utter. Muscatine, Iowa’s Brian Birkhofer won the B and he was far from done for the evening. Davy Johnson, John Van Sen Berg, Patrick Sheltra and Billy Drake rounded out the top five.

Twenty Five cars started the 100 lap finale and it was Brady Smith grabbing the point at the drop of the green over Earl Pearson, Jr., Denny Eckrich, Don O’Neal and Shane Clanton. Pearson grabbed the lead on lap two and brought Eckrich with him past Smith with Clanton getting by Smith on the next lap.

Darren Miller and Scott James were also on the move getting by Smith with Eckrich pressuring Pearson for the lead. On lap 12 Miller raced his way into second and by lap 16 James was in fourth. The races first caution came on lap 23 with the running order; Pearson, Miller, Eckrich, James, Clanton, Shaver and Birkhofer up from the B.

After another yellow, the green waved on the double file restart and Denny Eckrich charged from third to the point with Birkhofer up to fourth. On lap 27 with Eckrich opening up his lead Miller got by Pearson for second. On lap 31 the caution waved for Shane Clanton who has smacked the turn two wall.
Action continued when the green waved again with Eckrich holding the point until lap 39, when Miller went to the front and brought Pearson with him. Clanton again brought out the caution on lap 40. On the restart Eckrich retook second with Shaver moving into fourth. Several lap later Eckrich jumped the cushion in turn four losing several positions. The racing behind the leader was nothing short of extreme with Pearson second, Shaver third Matt Miller fourth and Birkhofer into fifth.

Two lap later, Birky was fourth. At the half way point it was Darren Miller, Shaver second, Pearson third, Birkhofer fourth and Matt Miller fifth. On lap 51, Birkhofer got by both Shaver and Pearson to take second. Miller maintained a six car length lead on lap 58 when Don O’Neal brought out another caution after hitting the wall in turn three.

Two laps after the restart Matt Miller was up to third with Ray Cook moving into fifth. Shaver, Cook and Pearson started swapping positions until lap 71 when the race was red flagged because of violent contact between Jimmy Mars and Don O’Neal with John Van Den Berg unable to avoid hitting O’Neal.

On the restart, it was Darren Miller, Birkhofer, Matt Miller, Shaver and Pearson. Shaver grabbed third on lap 73 and on the next lap Pearson also got by Matt Miller. Pearson then grabbed third from Shaver on lap 77. Darren Miller continued to maintain a scant .4 of a second lead until lap 84 when he jumped the cushion in turn four handing the lead to Birkhofer.

One lap later, the final caution waved for a flat right rear tire for Steve Shaver. Pearson grabbed second from Darren Miller one lap later with Shaver working his way back to fourth on lap 96 for the final change. At the wire it was Birkhofer, Pearson, jr., Darren Miller, Steve Shaver and Matt Miller rounding out the top five.
In victory lane and existed Birkhofer exclaimed. “This is unbelievable. Darren is a real good friend of mine and I really didn’t know if I could get past him or not. Darren made that little slip coming off turn four and hopped the cushion which gave us the opportunity to grab the lead. I just need to thank all ur sponsors, my crew chief Brian Daugherty, T-Ray and the rest of the guys. Man its awesome to win this race in my home state. The folks here at Knoxville need to be commended for everything they have done for us all weekend. This is a great place to race and I tip my hat off to the track crew. The track was simply racy. You could race anywhere you wanted to.”

So on a cold and chilly weekend in mid-October a tradition was started which is now called the Knoxville Late Model Nationals. A race simply regarded by racers and fans alike as one you do not want to miss.