GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Column by Race Chaser Online Correspondent Juston Rosenow — Horvath photo —
At last, the cold of winter and the dreary sight of snow has left the state of Michigan to finally mark the beginning of the 2016 racing season.
The landscape of racing in the state has — what some would argue — been monumentally shifted as tracks have closed, reopened, and changed affiliations.
The biggest news in the state of Michigan was that two West Michigan tracks had teamed up to align themselves into the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series and NASCAR Home Tracks families for 2016.
Berlin Raceway in Marne is set to open for its 64th season this weekend, bringing the aforementioned change into the fold. Track owner Don DeWitt worked with former rival track Kalamazoo Speedway to figure out a way that each track could run in conjunction with each other, with the change to identical sanction, rather than running against each other as they have for many racing seasons.
This brings the area’s biggest question to the spotlight. Who will attempt to run for national points? Who will put themselves into a better position to compete with the New England and Virginia/Carolina stalwarts that have dominated the titles for so long?
Berlin and Kalamazoo each have their respective dominant families, with the Bozells from Kalamazoo and the Sennekers from Berlin. Phil, Andy, and Jeff Bozell seem ready to tackle both tracks for points alongside multi-time Berlin track champion Terry Senneker Jr.
But beyond those choices, four other drivers have seemingly high odds of throwing their names into the mix as well.
Common sense says that the Thomas brothers could make an attempt as they have experience at both tracks, with older brother Tom having come close to winning the Kalamazoo Klash in the past. Scott could lean on him for experience as well if the two decide to make a run.
Three-time Kalamazoo track champion Mike “Bubba” Brooks has experience at both tracks and would be somebody to keep an eye on that could really be a threat to the national points. And last but not least, 2012 Kalamazoo outlaw champion and 2015 Berlin Outlaw champion Brian Bergakker has both the ability to outduel Brooks and the car to outrun everyone by season’s end — so keep eyes on him as well.
Tracks Coming and Going
It’s never a good day with your favorite local treasure closes, and two tracks have seen this unfortunate circumstance with only one of these two able to potentially reopen in the future.
Much has been said about the closing of Cherry Speedway in Fife Lake, Michigan. It’s honestly a sad situation, as the previous owner sold the property with a handshake agreement that the new owner would keep it operating as a race track, with the new owner changing his mind shortly after final closing. The racing community up there came out in arms, but the new owner has stated that he will demolish the race track for another business opportunity.
Onaway Speedway has decided not to open its doors for the 2016 season, with track owner Jim DuBois making improvements to the Northern Michigan facility throughout the year. Citing a need to raise the money to avoid taking on debt, DuBois is working out west this year to complete the projects out of his own pocket.
And while not necessarily going away, Berlin Raceway announced via track president Mike Bursley and the track’s FASTRAXX Radio podcast that Berlin will no longer host dirt shows for the foreseeable future, citing financial losses.
The track has hosted dirt shows for the last four years, with the World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series making fourth consecutive appearances and the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series making two stops in 2014 and 2015.
On the flip side of the coin, it’s rare for tracks to open once closed for a season, but one track will reopen this year when Thunderbird Raceway makes it reappearance on the dirt scene.
The three-eighths mile facility is currently undergoing mandated renovations to be able to reopen on its anticipated May 21 opening date.
Dirt Series in Michigan Continue to Build Upon Success
Lastly, there are two bright spots to look forward to in the dirt world from the Mitten state.
The American Ethanol Late Model Tour comes into the year with more anticipation than ever. The series has grown from 10 full time cars last year to 23 cars this year, with more to come. Defending champion Rich Neiser will set out to defend his title, but has stiff competition from several other top drivers looking to steal the crown away — with Pinconning, Michigan top gun Jeep VanWormer among them.
The Michigan Dirt Cup is also as strong as it ever has been, leading many to believe this may be a breakout year for the tour. Now in its fifth year, several stout drivers will vie for the title, including defending champion David Mielke.
The series has seen strong support from day one, with multiple champions doing well in other dirt modified ventures. Among drivers in that category is modified standout Jacob Poel, who was the inaugural Michigan Dirt Cup champion back in 2012.