(Mount Hope, Wv) The skies finally cleared in the deep valleys between the Shenandoah and Greenbriar mountain ranges to allow the Steel Block Bandits Dirt Late Model Challenge to visit the Fastest 3/8ths Mile in the South after Mother Nature halted the two previous attempts. Not only was it a picture perfect Saturday, the temperature was exceptionally comfortable as teams gathered into the small coal mining town of Beckley, West Virginia for the season finale of an eight month journey that encompassed 5 different states and Thirteen tracks.
It was the first trip to West Virginia for the second year series owned and promoted by Jim Long Jr and the final stop on the highly touted #deuceswild tour. Thirty two teams signed in with drivers from five different states were on hand as Long welcomed and thanked them for supporting Joseph Rush and Randy Kinder’s efforts to make Beckley Motor Speedway great again. As the bright afternoon sun glistened off the deep brown West Virginia clay, it was time to get down to business and decide two championships that would be decided on Halloween weekend in the sophomore season presented by Racing for Heroes
With 32 cars signed in, there would be two groups of HGR’s Truck & Trailer Sales, Inc.. qualifying, with the fastest overall qualifier starting on the pole for heat one and receiving $200 from Bryan Sullivan in honor of Ricky Sullivan Jr. The final two cars in Group A saw Zach Milbee knock off Michael Batten with a lap of 13.628 after Batten held quick time until the final two cars. Mid-way through Group B Dustin Mitchell laid down a lap of 13.732 to knock off Kyle Lear who had held quick time. Milbee, the 2022 Steel Block LateModel Series champion becomes the 7th different pole sitter of the year and gets his first Bandit pole after being fastest in hot laps as well. Four heat races were up next to set the top 16 positions for the 50 lap feature.
The Scott Service Company heat race #1 saw Milbee and Derrick Rankin on the front row for the eight car heat that transferred 4 to the big show. Milbee once again flexed the muscle and roared to a commanding win. Tyler Bare was second, Derick Quade was third and Rankin fourth. Batten and Corey DeLancey made up row one for the Hardison Suspension Technologies heat number two as the track started to show the characteristics of an outstanding surface. Batten powers his way to the win over Delaney but the best battle was between Brian Strickland, Josh Tonkin and Samuel Bryant for the final transfer spots. Strickland survives Tonkin’s determination to grab third and Bryant wasn’t able to get past the Parkersburg resident.
Heats three and four were comprised of Group B qualifiers and saw Mitchell and Kyle Lear on row one for the Mega Plumbing of the Carolinas heat three. Mitchell raced out to a big lead and grabbed his tenth heat race win of the season over Lear with Derick Rogers and Patrick Solari transferring with them. Robbie Emory and Cody Wright Racing #11 made up the first two spots of the VP Racing Fuels heat four. Emory used the family horsepower to propel past Wright and hang on for the win in a caution plagued heat. Wayne Bryant and Aaron Carter joined them to fill out the final four to transfer to the $5000 to win feature.
The Motul 8 lap Last Chance Qualifier races were next as the cool October air filtered into the hills surrounding BMS that saw the top three cars from each filling out the remaining spots for the feature other than provisionals to be determined. Clint Hodges H and Samuel Bryant had trouble on the initial start of the first LCQ as race director Joseph Swann brought them back for a complete restart. Bryant gets the jump on Hodges and holds him off for the win bringing Midway, West Virginia’s Shane Greco with them. Ricky Strattis gets the eight lap win in LCQ number two over DJ Garrett and Freddie Dunkin.
The field was set for the first Bandit race ever held on West Virginia soil as Ray Cicereli and Dustin Booth claimed the final two starting spots of the 24 car field. Milbee and Mitchell, the two point leaders of their respective series’ would bring the mixed field of steel block warriors to green as promoter Jim Long Jr opened up the rules packages to allow for several different engine and weight packages to come together for what was a first in steel block racing. Mitchell would call on his 365 cubic inch Ford at the start and use it to muscle past Milbee on the start. Several cautions in the first 10 laps slowed the progression of the event including a spin by Arizona Sport Shirts Rookie point leader Rankin presented by New Point Lighting and Design that relegated him to the rear. Kyle Lear was running in the top five before a solo spin in turn two sent the Maryland driver to the tail.
Up front the action was much like the previous week at Fayetteville with comers and goers dotting the top five. Emory made a valiant charge past Milbee on the high side and settled into Mitchell’s tire tracks. Batten also running in the top five, is a victim of the Beckley stripe and suffers damage to his right rear spoiler that costs him several spots on the next few restarts. Tyler Bare shocks the crowd by staying on the bottom and waiting to show his hand while Milbee and Emory trade second and third in a back and fourth tussle.
Cody Wright, who was second in rookie points going into the night, stays in the top 10 all night as Rankin spins for the second time giving Wright hope for his title chase. Rankin bounces back to finish 12th with Wright behind him in 13th. All eyes were on Milbee, Emory and Bare as they continued to wage a war behind Mitchell who continued to lead. After a late race restart, Emory dove past the Puca, Wv driver off turn four and as the two raced under the flag stand, contact was made sending Emory spinning through the infield ending his bid for his first series win.
A caution flew over over the field on lap 49 setting up a one lap dash to conclude the race, the season and a championship. Mitchell looking confident as ever, pulls away in convincing fashion as Bare and Milbee trade paint for the runner up spot allowing him to pull away down the back stretch. Fist out the window, Mitchell scores the win, nabs his first series championship and his sixth win of 2022. Milbee was second, Bare third, Derick Rogers was fourth and Derick Quade was fifth.
With his young son in his arms, Mitchell described his night, “This is how we wanted to finish it out with a win, I gotta thank Corky Sr, Corky Jr, Rose and all the guys who work on this thing. When asked about the battle behind him- “I’m glad I didn’t have to get caught up in that, Zach showed me his nose a couple times do I knew I had to go. I started using the center to my advantage because I knew that’s where they were coming from and I had to slow their runs, that berm in two was sending him down the back.” On the championship-“This team had a goal and we did what we set out to do, it was a total team effort, I could not be happier with what we have accomplished this year.”
Milbee was thrilled- “That’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a race car! We raced hard, clean and relentless! I wanna thank Jim Long for opening up the rules so these two series’ could finally get together, it was a blast racing with competition like this, I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as we did.” I hate me and Robbie got together, but we were just both going after it.
Bare the runner up in points was equally as happy- “I saved all I could until it was time to go, after I saw Zach making gains on the 32 I decided to try it, we raced hard and I appreciate the lane he gave me. Congratulations to Dustin, Corky and their team, they earned this title and I really enjoyed racing with them. Bare on 23’- “We’ll be back with the Bandits, can we start tomorrow?”
Rookie champion Derrick Rankin was relieved- “That wasn’t what I envisioned for tonight, that’s for sure, everything that could go wrong did, I seemed to be in the wrong place every time. I can finally breathe easier. I’m glad we were consistent for much of the season especially when we hit those rough patches at Wythe and County Line, we had a little comfort zone to fall back on. I enjoyed racing with Cody and the rest of the rookies, we had a good class.”
* Robbie Emory will go into the winter with mixed emotions of what could have been in the last three races but also a lot of momentum to build on in 2023. Emory should easily be a front runner for a title contender next year.
* Kyle Lear bounces back from an early spin to post a seventh place finish.
* Derick Rogers stays in the top five all night and gets an impressive fourth place finish on hometown soil.
*Another top 10 for Batten (8th) as his team completes their first season on the road having found speed and handling in the last three events, they have nothing to hang their heads about.
* Quade gets a top five finish. He too saw his program revamped in the last handful of events. One thing this team overcame in 22 was their qualifying efforts which improved greatly from last season.
* Cody Wright and his team proved they are here to stay this season with several good runs and a ton of learning notes to build on.
* Beckley did not disappoint as three wide racing and board-banging were the highlights of the night as the action kept fan’s heads on a constant swivel.
* The crossover between the two series’ could not have gone much better. Long made improvisions that allowed 365 cubic inch motors, 400 plus Cubic inch motors and 525 crate, as well as 604 crates to run in the same event, something that until Saturday was thought to be virtually impossible. Looking at the top three finishers , Mitchell/ 365, Milbee/ 400 plus, and Bare/ 525 crate the playing field could not have been more even. Hopefully the two top series can get together in the future to produce another incredible event.
* The Bandits finish the season with 8 drivers with perfect attendance which is the highest of any regional traveling series.
NEXT UP: Season complete.
Awards Banquet next Saturday November 5th at the Speedway Club at Charlotte Motor Speedway to honor our champions and top 10 in points.
EP/ Bandit PR