Race Weekend Central

This Weekend in Dirt: RTJ Wins, Knoxville Shines Despite Tug on Superman’s Cape

Dirt Racing’s Winning Moment: Ricky Thornton Jr. led 68 of 75 laps to sweep the Knoxville Late Model Nationals Saturday night (Sept. 16), becoming only the second driver ever to sweep the prestigious event and the first to win 20 races in a single Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series season.

Thornton, who was the fastest car in Knoxville all weekend after sweeping both preliminary features, faced stiff challenges Saturday from both Mike Marlar and Kyle Bronson. However, a hard crash that took Bronson out of the running as he was running down the leader with 16 to go gave Thornton a reprieve from lapped traffic, allowing him to cruise to the win.

2023 KNOXVILLE LATE MODEL NATIONALS RACE RESULTS

Dirt Racing’s Dramatic Moment: There were two moments that pretty much decided the weekend at Knoxville, one on track and one off. On the track, Kyle Bronson’s spectacular high-side charge that saw him running down Thornton came to a spectacular end when the Florida driver went flying in turn 4, flipping at one point as high as the top of Knoxville’s Armco barriers before coming to a rough landing.

Fortunately, Bronson walked away from his totaled racecar. The wreck left Thornton to start up front without concern for lapped traffic and he never looked back.

Off the track, defending Knoxville Late Model Nationals champion Jonathan Davenport overnight became the most unpopular driver in Iowa. Frustrated with a hard crash in Thursday’s prelim, Davenport referred to the famous raceway as “a dump” in expressing his distaste for racing at the famous sprint car venue.

The crowd took notice and let Davenport hear it during driver introductions Saturday night; according to multiple local photographers, the boos rivaled those incurred by Scott Bloomquist and Donny Schatz during their primes.

What Dirt Racing Fans’ll Be Group Chatting About This Morning

Look, JD’s comments about Knoxville were not entirely without merit. The track, like most half-miles in 2023, prove extremely aero sensitive for modern super late models and their massive front noses to race on. Lamenting the affects of aero on late model racing is not an objectionable opinion.

But calling Knoxville Raceway a dump was an unfortunate and inaccurate choice of words that sadly can’t be glossed over (and let’s be clear, Davenport did not back off his comments talking to Flo Racing Friday night).

The reality is, dirt racing has no shortage of racetracks in its ranks that are dumps, sadly in many instances because promoters/owners won’t spend a time on their facilities. Knoxville is the antithesis of this practice. Having made my first visit this weekend, I can say firsthand the facility is absolutely worth the hype it receives. Everything about the facility screams professional and reflects the continual investment the Marion County Fairgrounds have made into the racetrack.

Knoxville may be the “sprint car capital of the world” and not perfectly suited for late model racing. That doesn’t make it a dump. I can’t fault Knoxville’s fans and their house PA announcer taking the umbrage they did for those comments.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that there was some palpable tension surrounding this latest edition of Knoxville’s lone annual late model race. For one, though the LOLMDS did announce that the event would be returning in 2024, the announcement this year was made without a date attached to it.

Where the race will fall on the calendar for 2024 remains to be seen. The earlier editions of this race were run later in the fall than the current September weekend, though that also leads to considerably colder weather (this weekend’s features were all run in pristine upper 60s/low 70s temperatures).

Whatever date this race runs, I can only hope it sticks to the current alignment of being run after Knoxville’s sprint car season finishes. Jamming a late model race in the middle of the track’s weekly sprint car programs will greatly diminish it.

It was also worth noting that the car count this weekend was low. As in the lowest it has ever been in the 19-year history of this race. Forty cars is not bad by any stretch, but it still marks a 16% decline from a year ago and also featured some very notable no-shows, including current World of Outlaws late model points leader Bobby Pierce and defending WoO late model champ Dennis Erb Jr., both of whom raced in the Flo Racing tour event at Fairbury on Tuesday (and finished 1-2 in it). 

Knoxville is hard on equipment. Just ask Davenport. And Marlar told me Saturday that the reason his team didn’t run their well-received WWII paint scheme this weekend because their regular blue car had a larger engine in it. One week removed from the World 100 may be a bridge too far for a field of cars that is continually becoming averse to longer, faster tracks. Just ask West Virginia Motor Speedway.

No, the grandstands were not full. Yes, the crowd at Knoxville was commendable for Saturday’s finale feature. The attendance seen Saturday night was at a level 95% of tracks in the country would kill for, with an energy level that had even veteran MAVTV commentator James Essex throwing fist bumps to everyone within reach in the press box. This was a major event and it felt like one. Jim Croce sang “you don’t tug on Superman’s cape,” but Knoxville Raceway got away with it.

It was very disorienting to see MAVTV’s feed on the raceway video boards but have the Knoxville house PA crew calling the events on track. I’m not sure I’ve been to a race at any other track this season that had a house crew calling a touring series race. I am sure I wasn’t fan of it.

Thornton has won more races in a season than any driver ever. He leads by more than 300 points with three events left in the 2023 campaign. Nothing personal against the guy, but I hope he ends up failing to win the Dirt Track World Championship race at Eldora and loses the LOLMDS title. An injustice that big may actually be enough to end the asinine playoff format that the tour adopted this year.

Dirt Racing’s Hero(es) of the Weekend

Malvern, Iowa’s Justin Zeitner may not have contended for an A-main win, but as far as local ringers go he had a heck of a 24 hours. After qualifying for Friday night’s prelim feature, Zeitner opened Saturday night with a B-main win in LOLMDS competition that saw him hold off defending series champion Tim McCreadie for multiple laps to do so. He then followed that up with a win the SLMR Series support class feature. 

And speaking of McCreadie, an absolutely awful weekend that saw the defending series champ miss Friday’s prelim feature turned around come feature time, with the New Yorker securing hard charger honors in going from 26th to ninth.

Dirt Racing’s Victim(s) of the Weekend

Bronson. See above.

Iowan Tyler Bruening had Knoxville take her pound of flesh after he nearly won last year’s event, ending up on two wheels in a four-car incident that brought out the first red flag of Saturday’s feature.

Bruening did require assistance getting to the ambulance after the wreck but managed to walk back to his hauler under his own power after the ride.  

Up Next: Frontstretch will be back Monday morning (Sept. 25) with coverage of the Four Crown Nationals from Eldora Speedway. Streaming coverage can be found on Flo Racing, except for the World of Outlaws division that will be streamed on DirtVision.

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