The Illinois boys – Springfield’s Kelly Kovski (No. 16 Schnap Sewer Service Chevrolet) and El Paso’s Ryan Unzicker (No. 24 RJR Transportation Toyota) – are headed to DuQuoin to carry on their momentum from their last appearance in the ARCA Menards Series at Springfield. Both spent the entire day among the top ten throughout the first of two annual dirt track races on ARCA’s 20-race schedule, with Kovski flashing across the stripe in sixth and Unzicker finishing ninth despite a last-lap spin off of turn four.
Both drivers are noted dirt track experts. Kovski has years of experience racing dirt modifieds throughout Illinois, while Unzicker is one of the Midwest’s top dirt late model competitors. They know how to get around a dirt oval as well as anyone, but the fact that both are still hunting for their first series victory shows just how hard it is to transition from the purpose-built modifieds and late models to the heavier, bulkier ARCA cars. It also highlights just how competitive it is at the front of the field in the ARCA Menards Series.
“It is really tight at the front of the field for these ARCA races right now,” Unzicker said. “It doesn’t really matter if some of these young kids have any dirt experience or not. They are really talented and they’re going to pick up on it really quickly. Sometimes all they need is a 30-minute practice session and they’re set.”
ARCA’s two traditional dirt races have always been a challenge for those without a lot of dirt experience. Over the years, the dirt has allowed drivers who didn’t have a lot of success on pavement to find a path to victory lane. Dirt specialists like the late Dean Roper, Billy Thomas, and Bob Hill have all scored victories on the Magic Mile at the DuQuoin State Fair. But to prove Unzicker’s point, drivers like Parker Kligerman, Grant Enfinger, and Austin Theriault have scored wins in ARCA’s dirt races without a lot – or any – previous dirt track experience.
“It can be a challenge for them when the track is wet and heavy and we’re really moving dirt,” he said. “But come race time, the track has taken a lot of rubber and it has really slicked off. It’s almost like you’re on pavement then. You aren’t out there sliding around. You are driving it like it’s an asphalt car.”
Unzicker didn’t have the day he was looking for in his first ARCA Menards Series appearance of 2019 two weeks ago at Springfield. But that doesn’t temper his optimism for his next run at DuQuoin on Saturday night.
“We had a great car in practice,” he said. “We were the fastest by far all day long. We had made some changes that worked really well for practice and qualifying when the track was still tacky, but when the feature started they didn’t work at all. They weren’t anything we could undo on a pit stop so we were stuck with it. I think when we get to DuQuoin you’ll see what we’re really made of. I always had better results at DuQuoin than I do at Springfield anyhow. It’s only two weeks after Springfield so I am already used to the car and the driving style. I don’t have to readjust to it after a year away from it.”
Unzicker recently won his 100th career late model feature and won the season championship at Fairbury American Legion Speedway. With all that success, why does he take time away from his late model and continue to chase that ever-elusive ARCA Menards Series dirt victory?
“We’re missing a couple of big late model races to be at DuQuoin on Saturday night,” he said. “With Springfield being on a Sunday and DuQuoin having been on a Monday for so long, it was pretty easy to fit these two races into our schedule. We didn’t usually have to miss too much with the late model. But the move to Saturday night at DuQuoin means we’re going to miss a couple of late model shows we usually would have been able to make. But I always want to broaden my horizons as a driver. I am really blessed to be able to race with my team and Hendren Motorsports. We’re competitive with the big teams. We don’t have all the resources of some of those other teams. But I think we can do it. I really would like to think we can go to DuQuoin and pull one off.”
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 scheduled for 5:30 pm CT, and the race will go green shortly after 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.