In the 1960s, a small group of upstart drivers from Alabama earned a deserved reputation whenever they would pull into the dark, dusty short tracks of the south. Bobby and Donnie Allison, Charles “Red” Farmer, and later on Neil Bonnett would travel throughout the big money races and take away the lion’s share of the purse from the local racers. Their dominance was so pervasive that eventually, whenever they pulled through the pit gates the competitors all knew they would likely lose to that “dang Alabama gang.”
Similarly, when the ARCA Menards Series heads to the state fair circuit in Illinois for its two annual dirt track stops, first at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield and then at the DuQuoin State Fair, the series regulars know they’re going to have to deal with the Illinois Boys, El Paso’s Ryan Unzicker (No. 24 RJR Transportation Toyota) and Springfield’s Kelly Kovski (No. 16 Schnap Sewer Service Chevrolet).
Unzicker is a dirt late model veteran with over 100 career victories while Kovski is a noted modified racer with success behind the wheel as a driver and on top of the pit box as a crew chief.
Kovski finished a career-best second at DuQuoin in 2016 and was poised to make that elusive trip to victory lane in 2017. Then, in February of that year, Kovski’s life took a detour. He was at a modified race working as crew chief for long-time friend Justin Allgaier, and before they rolled out for their feature he stepped to the track surface to watch the winged sprint car main event. Something he’d done dozens, if not hundreds, of times went from routine to disastrous in the blink of an eye. A car flipped wildly down the backstretch, over a fence and into a spectator area.
That area is where Kovski was standing.
Recovery was an arduous process.
But before long, Kovski was on his feet and eventually back to work at Hoosier Tire Midwest. He wasn’t able to return to driving at Springfield and DuQuoin in 2017, but he was able to swap roles with long-time friend Grant Enfinger. Kovski first met Enfinger in 2011 when he served as his crew chief when Enfinger drove for Allgaier Motorsports. The two became friends, and Enfinger returned the favor when Kovski made his two annual appearances as a driver at ARCA’s two dirt tracks, taking time away from his duties as a driver to serve as Kovski’s crew chief. With Kovski on the sidelines, at least as a driver, Enfinger took over the reins behind the wheel. The two combined to win at Springfield, the 16th and most recent win of Enfinger’s illustrious ARCA career.
Enfinger is back on top of the pit box as Kovski continues his quest for his first career ARCA win. Coming off a sixth-place run at Springfield, Kovski is energized headed into DuQuoin even if he says the driver needs to step it up a little on Saturday night in the Southern Illinois 100.
“We seem to take a little time getting up to speed and to get going,” Kovski said. “The driver needs to show up. I own this car with my dad and we get a lot of help from Mike Allgaier, so the last thing I want to do is go out early in practice and tear it up. I didn’t get a lot of practice at Springfield because the track was really wet and muddy early in the day. We just lacked speed at Springfield. We need to come to DuQuoin with something different so we’re going to take a shot in the dark and come with a different setup. It’s going to be more of a traditional dirt car setup and less of an ARCA car setup. It’s going to be quite different.”
The change in philosophy comes after long discussions with Enfinger on how to make the car better. Although he’s contending for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship, Enfinger still takes these two dirt races seriously. Wins on dirt helped turn Enfinger into an ARCA champion, opened doors for him in the Gander Trucks, and he’s contended to win the Truck race on dirt at Eldora in each of the last two years. Getting input and advice from Enfinger is something Kovski doesn’t take for granted.
“Grant’s one of my best friends,” he said. “We go back to when he was driving for the Allgaiers in 2011. We had a lot of ups and downs. We’ve yelled at each other a little. We’ve had a lot of really good times together. I worked with him almost throughout his entire ARCA career. I love that he wants to come back and work these two dirt races. I absolutely know that the Truck deal is a priority but it really makes me feel good to know he wants to be here and he puts as much effort into this as he does.”
As for the injuries he suffered in that 2017 accident, for the most part he has recovered. It might not be back to what he was before the accident, but he has reached the new normal.
“I guess it’s not like it used to be,” he said. “When we were sitting there under the red flag at Springfield, I had all that adrenaline going and I was really focused but as we sat there it kind of caught up with me. It has it’s ups and downs. I always said I wouldn’t ever give up. It might not be perfect but I am definitely not giving up. We moved some things around in the car to make it more comfortable and it’s helped a lot. The Venturini Motorsports cars are really tough right now. They have a great lineup of drivers and some really good equipment. We need to get our car a little better but I think we can go out there and compete with them.”
The Southern Illinois 100 on the Magic Mile at the DuQuoin State Fair is set for Saturday night August 31. Practice starts at 2:30 pm CT, General Tire Pole Qualifying is slated for 5:30 pm CT, and the race is set for 8 pm CT. The race will be televised live on MAVTV; ARCARacing.com will have live timing & scoring, live chat, and live track updates for registered users.