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NATURAL BRIDGE — There’s a new look to the championships races in all six divisions at the Natural Bridge Speedway this season, and Saturday night drivers began their pursuit of an opportunity to participate in the season-ending BIG 8 Points Shoot-Outs in all six divisions.
Prior to the 3rd Annual Ben Cross Memorial Races, which will be held at the Bridge’s 3/8-mile dirt track on Saturday, Aug. 6, each of the drivers holding one of the top five positions in points in each of the six divisions will begin to accumulate points again, starting with eight points in the bank. All other drivers will begin again with zero points.
Despite the chilly breeze, the large throng on hand for opening night saw some outstanding races, both by familiar faces in familiar places and familiar faces in new places. Reigning Late Model champion Gerald Wolfe Jr. of Covington dominated the field as he ran away from his competitors from the drop of the green flag.
Last year’s 4-cylinder titlist, Ronnie Martin Jr. of Buena, demonstrated that his step up to Pure Stock was a wise move as he won the pole with a win in his qualifying heat and then led flag-to-flag in the feature, holding off a strong challenge from Spout Spring veteran Ricky Mayberry in the late going.
Four veterans put on a stirring battle for the fans in the 25-lap Street Stock feature with Lexington’s Troy Fitzgerald holding off defending Street Stock champion David Brogan of Buchanan to earn the checkers.
Gladstone’s Richard Wells took the lead in the Sportsman feature on the second lap and led to the checkered flag. Mike Cromer of Durbin, W. Va. matched his son Michael’s victorious effort of last season by surging to victory in the 4-cylinder feature.
The four players in the Street Stock drama: Brogan, Fitzgerald, Clifton Mays and forever young Tom Guthrie started third, fourth, seventh and ninth on the field, respectively. By the end of lap 1, Fitzgerald ran second trailed by Brogan, Mays and Guthrie. By the end of lap 7, the quartet was running the same order in positions one through four. By lap 10, Mays had dropped from the top 5. Guthrie had moved into third, and Skye Reynolds had surged into fourth, but Mays was not done.
Just a couple of laps later, Mays had bolted back into the top 3 and was all over Brogan’s back deck and momentarily passed the reigning champion at one point. As the battle raged behind him, Fitzgerald was able to lengthen his lead and pull away for the win. Brogan finished second, trailed by Mays, Guthrie and Reynolds.
Two rookies, Martin and Lexington’s Greg Higgins, won the respective qualifying heats and started on the front row of the 25-lap Pure Stock feature. It took several efforts to get the race underway, and then the feature was red-flagged when Fred Giles’ ride rolled on to its side on the front stretch. Giles was unhurt, and his car was quickly righted, cleared, and racing was resumed.
Martin led from flag-to-flag, but he faced challenges from Pure Stock veterans throughout the feature. Amherst’s Seth Whorley pushed him hard for the first 15 laps before fading to a fifth-place finish. As Whorley faded, Lexington’s Coray Brown began to put intense pressure on the Buena Vista driver, but Martin was equal to the challenge. Mayberry started ninth in the starting grid, but as the laps wound down, the Spout Spring veteran continued his surgical move through the field until he was right on Martin’s rear bumper by lap 21. On lap 24, Lee Brook passed Brown for third and began to pressure Mayberry, but Martin blocked Mayberry, and Mayberry did the same to Brooks as they exited turn four and headed for home. Brown finished fourth and Whorley earned fifth.
Shawsville’s Damien Wilson posted the fastest qualifying lap to eke out the Late Model pole slot over Gerald Wolfe Jr., but Wolfe moved quickly to the front, grabbing the lead before the completion of lap 1. It proved to be a lead the veteran Covington champion would never relinquish. Such grip and power was Wolfe’s machine able to muster that it had lapped half the field by just past the 35-lap feature’s halfway point.
Later in the event, Wolfe lost a bit of ground as some of his competitors gained back some earlier lost ground.
The battle for second raged between Ricky Knight of Gladstone and Lexington’s David Sibold with Knight coming home second and Sibold grabbing third. Concord’s Bobby Thompson posted a fine fourth-place showing, and pole-sitter Wilson rolled home fifth.
Any Car feature victory Jamie Wright mirrored Pure Stock winner Martin’s earlier achievement – winning his qualifying heat to earn the pole and then winning his feature in flag-to-flag fashion. Jason Bryant, who won the other qualifying heat and started beside Wright on the front row, challenged the Lexington driver early on before being forced from the race by mechanical problems. Lexington’s Derrick Ayers rolled home second behind Wright. Rounding out the Any Car top 5 were Roseland’s Jamie Campbell, Lexington’s Scottie Hostetter and Brian Newton.
Gladstone’s Richard Wells took the lead on Lap 2 and was dominant thereafter in surging to victory in the 25-lap Sportsman feature. Two drivers with apparent top 5 finishes, however, were disqualified after failing to meet post-race weight requirements. Ken Nelson, who started on the pole, ran second to Wells through the first 16 laps before falling back. Quite a battle took place between Buena Vista’s Chris Barger and Joe Jenkins of Spout Spring for third and fourth for much of the middle portion pf the race. A spin involving Nelson and Barger sent both to the rear on lap 18, leaving Wells followed by Jenkins, Danny Hylton, Shad Cooper, last year’s Pure Stock champion, and Earl Brooks, who had recovered from an early wreck. Brooks passed Cooper late in the race, and the cars finished in that order.
However, Jenkins and Brooks were disqualified as their cars proved to be too light when they were taken to the scales for post-race inspection. Thus, the final official top 5 was: Wells, Hylton, Cooper, Barger and Michael Nelson.
The opening night was capped off by an exciting 4-cylinder event in which the elder Cromer exacted payback over his son, who copped a feature win at the Bridge last season. Cromer took the lead early in the feature and controlled the event to the checkers.
The gates will open Saturday at 4 p.m. Hot laps will begin at 6 p.m. with racing scheduled to begin at 6 :30 p.m. This week’s show will feature a Twin 20 Any Car feature plus regular features in all other divisions.
Natural Bridge Blast From The Past (30 years ago): On Opening Day in April 1975, Rockbridge County farmer Bussy Walters captured the season-opening 35-lap Sunday afternoon Modified feature at the Natural Bridge Speedway. Donnie Campbell of Shenandoah made a daring late-race pass to finish second. Buck Harris of Stuarts Draft ran third. In his debut, Tommy Bare finished fourth. Ted Kehrer came home fifth.
Allen Mayberry moved into the lead on the first lap of the Limited Sportsman 30-lap race and was never headed, scoring a commanding win over second-place Wayne Farrish. Mayberry was followed closely in the early stages of the race by Jackson Dudley and Don Hart, but gradually extended his margin to nearly a straightaway. Dudley was just beginning to close the margin when Garland Cash’s Chevelle climbed the first-turn fence. He followed the act by taking his car through the fence in the middle of the first and second turns.