NOTE: The opinions and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Speed51.com, its staff, sponsors or supporters.
The first eight years of the North-South Shootout were what an independent show should be. It was a can’t-miss show for many people, especially fans of the groundpounding Modifieds from the Northeast. It was a Modified show, first and foremost. Over the years, many different support divisions jumped on board to make it a show for every kind of race fan.
Most importantly, it was Charles Kepley’s show.
Kepley poured his heart and soul into the North-South Shootout. When he thought the idea up, he remembered the long-gone days of North-versus-South Modified battles at Martinsville. Nobody else had the balls to do anything like Charles did. Modified fans, always the first to complain about just about everything, praised his efforts and turned out in droves for the first North-South Shootouts at Concord. Even when one of the biggest stars of prior North-South Shootout and its inaugural winner John Blewett III passed away, the Modified race lived on in his memory.
The event was a success. It was pretty much all because of him.
When things got too pricy to get into Concord, Kepley announced that this year’s North-South Shootout was moving to Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina – making it the first time in the nine-year history that the race would not be at Concord. Some liked the idea because Concord was a notorious car-eater. Some hated it. That always happens with change.
Then everything came to a halt with the Kepley’s sudden passing this Summer. It was a devastating blow to not just the Modified community, but to the short track scene as a whole. Kepley was one of the few men who wasn’t in charge of a series or a racetrack that still put his own money up to promote an open show. Not many can pull it off. Not many thought the race could be pulled off without him. Some wondered if the show even should go on.
Charles’ son Chad then worked with Renee and Darren Hackett at Caraway Speedway to ensure that the North-South Shootout would, in fact, happen this year at the North Carolina 4/10-mile track. The Hacketts took control of the reins of the event. Some of the longtime North-South officials were not a part of it this year, which was a disappointment. But still, the race went on.
I’m still not sure if the North-South Shootout was a success, now four days after it. I do know that I grew up in the Northeast and enjoy seeing many of my Modified buddies come down to my new neck of the woods in North Carolina for a race.
Most importantly, I know that even on two months-worth of preparation, the North-South Shootout lived on. I’ve only had the pleasure of talking to Charles Kepley a dozen or so times, but based on our three-hour talk of the “good old days” in my office a few years ago, I like to think that the race lived on because he would’ve wanted it to.
Many people complained about low car counts. Some pointed out the cold temperatures keeping some fans home. Yes, the prices were too high – even I’ll agree with that complaint. But the race went on. In a day when historic races, tracks and series are succumbing to the economy, the North-South Shootout was there. That’s what really matters.
I’m glad I got that off my chest. Now, onto more of my take on the North-South Shootout. Some may be suggestions for future Shootouts. Others may just be things I jotted down that bugged or excited me during the day at Caraway.
- I commend the Hacketts for doing what they did in just two months of planning a six-division event at the end of the season. Are there things that could be better? Absolutely. Could things have been worse? No doubt. There was an announcement pre-race for the North-South Shootout returning again to Caraway in 2012. Therefore, I think it’s only fair to them that we see what next year’s race is like before we claim the Shootout as an endangered species.
- That said, I hate when tracks or series don’t have a National Anthem singer for big events. I know every Saturday night it’s hard to do a live version (especially finding someone who knows the words and can sing them relatively in tune), but for big events, get a live singer. It was a shame having to hear it on a tape Saturday.
- Friday’s rain washed out qualifying events, so everything had to be done in one day Saturday. It was a compact schedule that didn’t take long to get behind. When you have six divisions, it’s not out of the question to fall behind, but it got a little too far behind.
- I, like just about everyone else in the CRA pit area, was disappointed with the 14-car Super Late Model roster this weekend. It was a top-heavy field between Kenseth, Blaney, Fultz, Elliott and Pollard, but dropped off a bit from there.
- The closest finish in North-South Shootout came in the Pedal Car race. Mia Hirschman edged out another little girl for the win by about a foot. Matt’s niece’s victory was a good omen for the Modified race later in the night.
- When most drivers complained of the “weepers” from Friday night’s rain all day on Saturday, Ryan Preece did his best to just drive around it. It was fun watching him work the third groove in turn two to get around the wet spot. The damp area eliminated any second groove, so Preece tried his own. It just stunk that the car turned ugly on him to keep him from dicing it up late in the race.
- I’ve never seen a more congested pit road than in the Modified race Saturday night. There’s just not enough room for live pit stops at Caraway. Cars were two and three wide on pit road. Andy Seuss entered the pits as the leader, but lost many spots because he was blocked in by two cars. He could’ve gotten out of the pits sooner, but it would’ve meant probably running over another crew member to do it. I love live pit stops, but not if they mean putting crews and cars in danger.
- Super Late Model fans don’t usually see Chase Elliott or Bubba Pollard crash – let alone crash together. The early tangle between the two, which Elliott took the blame for, was the start of a wreckfest that caused the race to be shortened from 100 to 50 laps.
- Many people on Speed51.com’s Trackside Now and on Facebook have suggested new formats to the race, especially with different divisions in future races. I like the guys at CRA and their racers, but they don’t belong at the Shootout. This was the third CRA race as part of the Shootout. The first was okay, but the last two have been filled with crashes. The fans who have only seen CRA at the Shootout have a bad taste in their mouth, but that's not how most CRA races are. After these two races, I don’t know if any Super Late Model teams would even want to be there, but judging by the reaction I've heard and seen, the Super Late Model experiment at the Shootout hasn’t worked out as well as anyone hoped.
- So, what to do with the Shootout’s divisions? Race announcer Derek Pernesiglio made a good suggestion to me the other day for a USAC Silver Crown National Point event. I like it. The Legends Cars, as much as I don’t like those things, weren’t bad and had a good field with plenty of pit pass sales. They can stay, as can the Tour and SK Modifieds, of course. I hoped there’d be more than 10 USA Modifieds there, but I’m not sure how to get any more. I thought with this being the last-ever USA Modified event (the series will have new ownership in 2012), there'd be a good field for a "last hurrah" of sorts. I was wrong. The Sportsman race was basically a weekly Bowman Gray Sportsman race on a bigger track. Heck, track officials only had names for half of the Sportsman field for the announcers and media. We'll classify that under the "growing pains" section for this race.
- Chase Elliott admitted, via a press release, that he was at fault for the incident that took both he and Pollard out of the CRA race. The kid's 15 and he has won more races than he's made mistakes. That's saying something. But, when reporters try to find out what happened 20 minutes after the crash, he's going to have to be able to speak with them without parents shooing the reporters away as he moves up the racing ladder.
- You have to feel bad for Robert “Bud” Ellis, Jr. He sheared the right-front suspension and tire off his #10 SK Modified in time trials. The entire team hustled to get things rebuilt for the race. Then, he went too high in turn two in the feature and sheared the right-front off again.
- It was pretty special, though, when Kenny Bost won the Sportsman race and Luke Fleming finished second. Both of their cars were sponsored by Jerry Hunt Auto Sales. Hunt passed away just a few days prior to the Shootout. It was a nice tribute by both drivers paying their respects in their victory lane interviews.