Only Pat Dunker himself could have possibly known late Sunday night the emotions he was experiencing. His eyes told a million stories, his smile but one.
Moments before, Dunker had won the sport compact feature, a feat that normally would not attract any major headlines. But on this particular Sunday evening that checkered flag the man they call “Skippy” held was symbolic of more than a race won. Much, much more.
For years, the 40-year-old Dunker has been a fixture of Bullring Nation, positioned in his familiar perch near or at the top of the bleachers, not far from the start-finish line. He yelled, he cheered, he laughed. And he drank adult beverages.
Earlier this season, however, he announced he was going to get a race car. Thirteen years ago, Dunker had finished 20th in the old bomber class, running 11 races. He had not been heard from — on a race track — since that 1999 season, and had only raced sporadically before that. His dirt-track resume listed one heat race victory, “sometime in the late 1990s,” he said.
But on a hot, muggy Sunday night in late July at 8000 Broadway, Dunker arguably became the most popular feature winner of the season. He was truly the people’s champion on this night.
“SKIPPY” HOLDS OFF BECERRA
Dunker had led the 12-lap feature during the middle stages, rallied to regain the lead heading into the final lap and then held off Austen Becerra, who had won the previous four sport compact features.
“Holy crap!” Dunker said in victory lane.
He struggled to find the combination of words. And who could blame him? After all, his victory came in just his fourth night of racing
“I had always wanted to race again, and finally mama (his wife, Steff) said OK,” Dunker said. “I talked with (fellow sport compact driver) Craig Bangert and bought a car off him.”
The rest, as they say, is dirt-track history.
Dunker admitted being a bit nervous on the closing lap.
“I was just waitin’ for Austen to make a move,” he said.
Dunker says this summer will serve as a stepping stone for 2013, when he might be in a sport mod like younger brother Tony is driving. Tony Dunker has been almost unbeatable this season in that series, currently leading the points races at Quincy and Iowa tracks in Donnellson and West Burlington. He figures to be third in IMCA national points when the next update becomes available later this week.
“I couldn’t be prouder of Tony, and it meant a lot when he came to be in the picture with me after winning the sport mod feature,” Pat Dunker said.
Tony Dunker was equally proud.
“(Pat) drove a heckuva race,” little brother said. “I knew he wanted to race again. He had been busy in recent years with the kids and the business (Dunker Concrete) … I know he’s having fun out there, and yeah, I think we’ll have him in a sport mod next season.”
Marissa Roach, a close friend of the Dunkers and their No. 1 cheerleader in the stands, could not stop smiling afterward.
“It was awesome,” she said. “I don’t think anyone has more fun than Skippy does, because … he’s Skippy! It was so great to see him win that race. I think a lot of people are happy.”
ANOTHER BIG NIGHT FOR THE “OTHER” DUNKER, TOO
If not for older brother Skippy’s big night, Tony Dunker would have probably been remembered for producing Sunday night’s most exciting moment. Dunker slid under good friend and sport mod rival Joe Bliven coming out of turn four for his ninth feature victory of the season. From turn four to the checkered flag was the only time Dunker led the race.
“The car stuck good in both three and four, and Joe pushed up the track a little and I was able to get past him,” Dunker said. “(Joe) knew if he slipped once, I’d attack and that’s (what happened).”
Dunker’s season is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends. He’s run 31 features this season, won 17 and finished second in 10 others.
“Maybe once in a lifetime does a racer have a season like we’re having,” Dunker said.
AROUND THE HORN
Late models: Mark Burgtorf won his third feature of the year — and second straight — to help tighten the late model series. Fourth-place finisher Justin Reed regained the points lead when previous leader Jason Perry exited the feature with nine laps remaining with mechanical issues and wound up 10th. Reed (718), Perry (715) and Burgtorf (685) are unofficially the new top three in points.
Modifieds: Michael Long hammered his way to feature victory No. 6, the most in the series. Runner-up Steven DeLonjay, however, took over the points lead when previous leader Dave Wietholder was forced to leave the field following a mixup with Robbie Reed. DeLonjay (879), Wietholder (853), Jared Schlipman (840) and Long (796) unofficially make up the top four in points.
Stock cars: Abe Huls matched Jeff Mueller’s 2008 series feature victory record when he won his ninth of the season. Huls, who led 14 of 15 feature laps, has now led 120 main-event laps this season, more than all other stock car drivers combined.
Hobby stocks: Jake Powers returned to victory lane — and the class points lead. Powers won just his second feature since June 3, but did so on a night when his two chief challengers for the hobby stock championship — Brandon Symmonds and Tanner Klingele — were knocked out of the feature in crashes. Powers (539), Symmonds (536) and Klingele (527) are the unofficial top three in points.
SUNDAY NIGHT FEATURE WINNERS
Late models: Mark Burgtorf, 3rd. (July 15 winner: Mark Burgtorf)
Modifieds: Michael Long, 6th. (July 15 winner: Steven DeLonjay)
Sport mods: Tony Dunker, 9th. (July 15 winner: Tony Dunker)
Stock cars: Abe Huls, 9th (July 15 winner: Abe Huls)
Hobby stocks: Jake Powers, 6th ( July 15 winner: Tanner Klingele)
Sport compacts: Pat Dunker, 1st. (July 15 winner: Austen Becerra)
Fast feature laps
Late models: Dustin Griffin, 70.081 mph. (Fastest lap of the season: Mark Burgtorf, 73.755 mph, July 15)
Modifieds: Jared Schlipman, 64.291 mph. (Fastest of the season: Michael Long, 70. 808 mph, June 17)
Sport mods: Bobby Anders, 63.795 mph. (Fastest of the season: Joe Bliven, 64.804 mph, June 17)
SUNDAY NIGHT HEAT WINNERS
Late models: Dustin Griffin (6th), Jim Moon (4th).
Modifieds: Jared Schlipman (5th), Michael Long (7th), Jake Griffin (3rd).
Sport mods: Bobby Anders (3rd), Tony Dunker (8th).
Stock cars: Michael Larsen (8th).
Hobby stocks: Jake Powers (8th), Tanner Klingele (7th).
Sport compacts: Kim Abbott (4th), Austen Becerra (2nd).
Late model dash winner for pole position: Mark Burgtorf (3rd).
Past dash winners
April 1: Brandon Sheppard
April 8: Dustin Griffin
May 6: Dennis Erb Jr.
May 13: Dustin Griffin
May 20: Mark Burgtorf
May 27: Mark Burgtorf
June 3: Jerry Lierly.
June 10: Dustin Griffin
June 17: Dewayne Kiefer
June 24: Jason Perry
July 1: Late models did not run
July 8: Justin Reed
July 15: Matt Bailey
July 29: Mark Burgtorf
SUNDAY NIGHT STARS
10 stars: Pat Dunker … seriously, who else did you expect?!
9 stars: Tony Dunker, whose last-lap, last-turn pass was the single-most thriling moment of the night — next to “Skipp’s” win.
8 stars: Abe Huls, who tied the stock car feature victory record.
7 stars: Mark Burgtorf, who won his third feature and entered the late model championship hunt.
6 stars: Michael Long, who turned in another stellar performance in the modified main event and now has led the second-most feature laps (114) among all drivers at the track. Only Abe Huls (120) has led more.
5 stars: Jake Powers, who in winning his sixth hobby stock feature looked like his old self again.
4 stars: Jerry Lierly, whose second-place late model finish was his strongest run of the summer.
3 stars: Joe Bliven, who came that close to a sport mod feature victory.
2 stars: Steven DeLonjay, whose strong second-place run in the mods vaulted the defending champ to the top of the series points standings.
1 star: Jared Schlipman, who roared from the back of the mod pack for an impressive third-place feature finish.
10-star recipients this season: Steven DeLonjay 2, Dustin Griffin 2, Dave Wietholder 2, Justin Reed 2. These drivers have all have one: Pat Dunker, Matt Bailey, Jason Perry, Abe Huls, Robbie Reed, Jim Hurley (sprint cars).
Late models: 15 (season average 18.3)
Modifieds: 18 (season average 19.0)
Sport mods: 12 (season average 11.5)
Stock cars: 7 (season average 8.4)
Hobby stocks: 12 (season average 12.9)
Sport compacts: 17 (season average 15.5)
Total: 81 (season average 82.9)
Season high car counts
Late models: 23, May 6.
Modifieds: 24, June 17.
Sport mods: 18, May 13.
Stock cars: 12, April 1.
Hobby stocks: 16, May 13 and June 10
Sport compacts: 18, May 30
Late models: 5 (season average 4.1)
Modifieds: 16 (season average 8.4)
Sport mods: 4 (season average 6.3)
Stock cars: 1 (season average 2.1)
Hobby stocks: 3 (season average 3.3)
Sport compacts: 3 (season average 3.1)