We're finally here, the beginning of our 2012 Tour of the Midwest that will stretch from Lower Michigan through Illinois, Wisconsin, Upper Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, across the Dakotas, to Montana, down through Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and then across Kansas for our final races. It will be a full four months on the road and will cover a lot of territory.

Yes, we missed quite a few racetracks and a few states, but there was no way to squeeze it all in within this short-track-rich chunk of America. So, we picked and chose those tracks that would represent a cross section of short track racing in the U.S.

Our first two tracks here in Michigan were asphalt tracks at Berlin Raceway and Kalamazoo Speedway. From our camp at the KOA in Coloma, Michigan, just east of the shoreline of Lake Michigan, it was only a short drive to both. It all went very well. Here is a summary of what we saw.

Berlin Raceway

Since our race schedule began as soon as practical after our bus participated in the Hot Rod Power Tour, we just happened to be at Berlin Raceway for the fourth annual Rowdy 251, one of the bigger events held each year there. It featured an appearance by Kyle Busch of NASCAR Sprint Cup fame and about 39 other very good teams. Teams came from as far away as Daytona Beach to race this event. Ben Kennedy, a young and upcoming driver from Daytona tested his skills as well as Chase Elliot, who would make a late race charge and finish Second. The race was sanctioned by the CRA Super Series, a division of the Champion Racing Association, and that crew did a great job tech'ing and running the show. All events were on a strict time schedule and the racing was mostly clean. Berlin is a 7/16-mile high-banked track that began operation as a dirt track back in 1950. This year, a partnership named DBD Ventures, led by Don Dewitt will manage the track. Mike Burlsey and Kurt Dietrich will co-promote the raceway each week and Kurt was my contact for our visit.

The track is located inside the Berlin Fairgrounds, not unlike many tracks we have been to in the Northeast and will be visiting this year. As such, there is plenty of parking and the grounds are kept up nicely. Families are used to coming to the Fair each year and this helps attract them to the races, in my opinion. As for the races, about 40 Late Models showed up to race in the long event. It was divided into two segments where after 125 laps, the teams could pit and change all four tires. Once the second 126-lap segment got under way, the teams were allowed to again pit under green or yellow, for two more new tires. All of the lead lap teams opted to do this during a late race caution. The other event that evening featured the Top Speed Fabrication Modifieds and they put on quite a show. There was fighting and clawing for position throughout the field. The leader for most of the race was Adam Chase and he had to endure several restarts after cautions to hold on for the win. He drove a very smart race being careful not to make any mistakes.

Whether it was the Modifieds or the Late Models, the key to success here is tire management, not that you don't need that at any track. It's just that here, the track is slick, the cars really don't go straight much, and according to locals, you almost never are able to go to full throttle. Kyle Busch won the Rowdy 251, the third time in a row for this special event, and used superior tire management to do so. In qualifying for the feature, I couldn't hear him lift the throttle going into Turn 1. He set and held fast time for a while until Johnny VanDoorn came out and bested him by several thousandths. Still, I could hear Johnny lift going into the turns. In the race, the officials pulled an invert of 16 cars putting Johnny in 16th and Busch in 15th starting positions. Kyle ran fairly hard staying in the Top 5 and VanDoorn led most of the first half. Coming out at the start of the second half, the No. 12 car of Tim DeVos took off and led the next 70 laps till Kyle, followed by Johnny VanDoorn, passed him. All during that second half, I watched as Kyle could have made a pass attempt on DeVos, but didn't. Lap after lap, DeVos ran the second groove with Kyle and Johnny on the bottom. I could sense that Kyle could have run side-by-side and come out ahead after a few laps, but that would have hurt his tires and maybe ruined the finish for him.

So, he patiently waited till Tim's tires went away and pounced. There is a lesson here for every driver. Patience and throttle modulation are the keys to winning most times. As we've seen over the course of this Tour, the top drivers seem to be the ones with the patience and experience that puts them in the lead at the end of the race. DeVos faded to 10th while Chase Elliot, who also managed his tires well, charged past VanDoorn for Second late in the race. During the race we witnessed a repeat of the type of wreck that we featured a few years ago where a Late Model ran into the end of the Turn 3 wall. The back straight at Berlin is open to the outside with no wall or other restraining structure. So, a car can run off the track and into the end of the wall surrounding Turns 3 and 4.

At the end of the wall are a series of huge construction tires that do a great job of absorbing the energy of a race car going 100-plus mph. In the race, Kenzie Ruston had worked her way up to sixth by lap 203 in the event and got pushed off the back straight and into the tires at near full speed. She quickly emerged unhurt and gave an interview minutes later. I'm sure the safety equipment she wore attributed to the lack of injury and she was able to return to racing the next week. I credit CRA for that. Here is a quote from its rule book: "A capable form of head & neck restraint must be used. A strap-type neck restraint is mandatory for CRA Super Series for all tracks." The race crowd for this Tuesday night race was huge. The entire length of the grandstands was full to 90 percent capacity. Several local businesses participated in the events giving away T-shirts and gifts to the kids and proving that it takes a community participation to help make a racetrack successful. We felt very welcomed here and the fan base was loyal.