The UMP Summernationals has become an event that has grown by leaps and bounds. The multi-week, multi-race concept sends racers scurrying throughout the Midwest, racing in a different town at a different track night after night. It's the 21st century answer to the barnstorming days of old.
For a racer in the Midwest, the commitment to travel is a formidable one. For a racer in another region, the idea of competing in a series like that gets cost prohibitive in a hurry. Consequently, racers in the Southeast would find little opportunity in pursuing the Summernationals title. It wasn't from lack of desire, but from a practical standpoint.
Well, if you can't get Mohammed to the mountain, bring the mountain to Mohammed.
Ray Cook put his racing on...
Ray Cook put his racing on hold for two weeks to spearhead the first Southern Nationals.
That idea was the gist of a conversation between chassis builders Keith and Tader Masters and North Carolina racer Ray Cook, who was asked why the idea wasn't tried in the Southeast.
"We wondered if it would work," Cook recalled. "I had promoted a race last year on Thursday night, so we proved that racing in the middle of the week could work."
The seed was planted. Cook decided to take the tentative first steps to see if something like this could work. "I decided that if it was going to work, I was going to need 10 people," Cook said. "I started talking to different ones and asked them what they would think about it. After that, I decided to do it."
It stayed easy. "I got the first six right off the bat," Cook continued. "I thought, Well, there's nothing to this. It took three weeks to get two more."
Jeff Cooke competes at Crossville...
Jeff Cooke competes at Crossville Raceway USA.
The idea came to light late in the '05 season, which worked against the idea. "Some of the tracks already had their schedules planned. We decided to go ahead with eight tracks."
The tracks were in place, but what about the drivers? They were not accustomed to mid-week shows, let alone back-to-back mid-week programs. Could Cook get enough racers to make it worthwhile for racers and promoters? What about fans? Would anyone come out for a show like this on a Tuesday night in the Southeast?
The fans were warding off...
The fans were warding off the temperature with umbrellas, which were not needed for rain.
For the racers, the decision was made easier. As a racer himself (who put his own racing on hold for more than two weeks), Cook knew what was important to the racer. "Because of the race structure, the payoff, and the laps involved, the racers were all for it," Cook said. "We figured it from a racer's standpoint, but we had to make it so it worked for the promoter. One of the things wrong with a lot of the races is that the purses are top-heavy. It's all on top and there's nothing left for the others. There are only a few who do it right."
Cook set his payout, and there were no secrets. Full-page advertisements in publications such as National Dirt Digest listed the pay for each position, giving drivers essentially a window to the bank. The majority of the races were $3,000 to win with $300 for Last Place. The series finale offered $5,000 and a minimum of $500 to start.
Anthony White was victorious...
Anthony White was victorious at Scenic (Tennessee) Raceway.
In addition to a fair purse, there was a point fund that offered cash for the Top-5 drivers. The champion would get $5,000 of the $11,800 offered. In addition, any driver who attended all series races and did not finish in the Top 5 was offered $500 at the end of the trail.
"Our format was racer-friendly," Cook continued. "We didn't run any heat races, so that means drivers didn't run as many laps on their equipment. We'd lock in the Top 12 to the feature and then have two or three consies. The cars qualified out of the consies and it gave everyone a chance to put on a show. The consies meant something, and it sped up the program because you don't want things to take all night."
The tracks often included a local division to fill out the program and give new fans a sample of the racing at the local track's weekly shows.
The pieces were all put into place to start the eight-race series on Thursday, July 21 at Lavonia Speedway in Georgia. Mother Nature had other ideas. The opener was cancelled by rain showers, and the tight schedule left no chance for a make-up. It was on to Modoc (South Carolina) Speedway for the Friday event. The Tri-County Race Track in North Carolina held the third show before an off-day on Sunday. The series heated up on Monday with an event at Winchester (Tennessee) Speedway, staying in Tennessee the following night at Baxter's Tennessee Motor Speedway. Another mid-week breather geared the teams for the stretch run, a Tennessee trio that encompassed Scenic Raceway, Crossville Raceway, and the $5,000-to-win finale at Tazewell Speedway.
Series announcer Ozzie Altman...
Series announcer Ozzie Altman interviews Billy Ogle Jr., who won the $5,000 series finale at Tazewell (Tennessee) Speedway.
The Lavonia rainout proved to be the only weather-related bump in the road. The remaining races were contested, and nine drivers made all seven races. The results show a parity record that will likely never be equaled.
"We had seven races that had seven different winners using seven different chassis," said Cook at the conclusion of the series. "Jeff Cooke won the series championship. He did it with a different chassis, and he didn't win a race, so you could say we had eight winners with eight different chassis. After four races, Hoosier had won two races and American Racer had won two, so it was close there, too." Hoosier ended up winning that battle with five victories.
In assessing the series' inaugural foray, Cook was cautiously optimistic that this wasn't the last version. "I thought it was successful," he said. "Consider that we didn't start this until two months before. We didn't have a lot of time to seek out sponsorship, so we've kinda laid the groundwork.
"Most everybody liked the format," he continued. "It gave them a break in the middle of the week. We looked for tracks that are good on equipment, and we had a fair tire rule."
Second-generation racer Jake...
Second-generation racer Jake Knowles had a strong showing in the series and will be one to watch in the future.
Cook would like to change a few things for the next go-round, always mindful of maintaining the balance to benefit racer, promoter, and fan.
"I'd like to see half the shows pay $5,000 to win," he added. "I'd want them all to do that, but I know some tracks couldn't justify it. I'm hopeful that we'll get more cars next time. Some guys couldn't do it because they had planned vacations or couldn't get off work. It's hard to find a good time of year for it. This year, we were up against the Modified race at Batesville, and that may get moved next year. We've had a few tracks say they want to get involved next year. I believe all of the tracks this year made money. Tazewell has said it wants to be the last date every year, so that's set."
While he performed the task admirably, Cook doesn't want to become a full-time promoter. He jumped back into his race car shortly after the Southern Nationals, scoring a Top-5 at the North-South 100. A former Show Me 100 champion, Cook can still race and that's what he wants to do. Still, he's been willing to step up and help fellow racers with his promotional work, and the dirt Late Model world is better for it. The Southern Nationals are a prime example of that.
Series champion Jeff Cooke...
Series champion Jeff Cooke (99) battles with series runner-up Eddie Carrier Jr. (28).
Good crowds were on hand as...
Good crowds were on hand as the series rolled through the Southeast. At Tazewell, the crowd came early to get the best seats for the series finale.
Kelly Hamrick is the championship...
Kelly Hamrick is the championship car owner.