As July closes for the World of Outlaws CASE Construction Equipment Late Model Series, one of the most highly-anticipated events on the 2023 schedule awaits the Series in Central Illinois.
The 33rd Prairie Dirt Classic at Fairbury Speedway is July 28-29, boasting a $50,000 payday to the winner and continuing the Summer of Money for the World of Outlaws.
Three-time and defending race winner Brandon Sheppard, Brian Shirley – a two-time Prairie Dirt Classic Shootout winner – and Germfree Rookie of the Year leader Nick Hoffman – a multi-time Modified winner at Fairbury – described what makes Fairbury and the Prairie Dirt Classic a fan, and driver, favorite.
What makes Fairbury different from any other track in Illinois?
Hoffman: “There is a lot of small-town racetracks that we go to. But it’s just like the whole town gets around it. You just see all of the golf carts riding around, going up and down the streets to get groceries, food, whatever it is. And it’s just a whole different feel. I grew up around Illinois and never really went to Fairbury as a kid. I feel like it’s only blown up, maybe in the last 12 years. There are just so many people and literally campers in people’s front yards. It’s just a different feel. It’s obviously a big party atmosphere, and I think the fans see more of what us drivers do there than anywhere. I feel like 90% of the fans at Eldora don’t really come in the pits, and I feel like all of the fans at Fairbury end up coming into the pits at some point.”
Sheppard: “Fairbury is different because of the atmosphere. And the town is very involved. You don’t see that a lot anymore. They’re proud of it. They’re proud of the racetrack. You don’t see that anymore. It’s kind of small. We’re all kind of jammed in there. It’s completely packed wall-to-wall.
“It’s a fun place to go. Anyone you ask where they want to go next, it’s Fairbury. Everybody talks about it, and it deserves it. On top of everything I just mentioned, the racetrack is one of the best. It can be track record speed, or it can be slow and slick. And no matter what, the track is still racy, and two lanes of racing most of the time. Very rarely do you see that place one lane. It’s tough to keep racetracks like that anymore. The cars are so fast, and we’re very fortunate to have a place like that to be able to race at. Being in Illinois so close to my home, there’s no complaints from me, that’s for sure.”
Shirley: “It’s got the community and the town, and all of the people in the town love it. For this race, they go over the top as far as going about everything. It just seems like it’s amped up another level when it comes to the [Prairie Dirt Classic].”
How would you describe your past experiences at Fairbury?
Hoffman: “In the Modified, I’ve had some really good success. I’ve won the PDC in a Modified and had heartbreak. The (DIRTcar Summit Racing Equipment) Summer Nationals Modified championship comes down to PDC. One year, I was leading the points and blew a tire at Oakshade [Speedway]. I would’ve clinched the points at Oakshade. I blew a tire leading, and it brought it all to Fairbury. Mike Harrison had to win the championship and beat me. He passed me with three or five to go, winning the race and the title. So that was like complete devastation for me. So, I’ve had ups and down.
“On the Late Model side, I got to drive for Barry Wright last year, got in the show, and ended up with a DNF. I drove there for Scott (Bloomquist). That’s where I made my debut for Scott in the #0 car. I made the show, and I think we ran 18th or something. I feel like I get around there OK, but it definitely doesn’t fit my style.”
Sheppard: “When my dad raced, I didn’t consider [Fairbury] one of the local tracks because it was two hours away, or an hour and 45 minutes away when there were five or six other tracks within an hour where we could go. When my dad started slowing down racing, we started venturing out a little bit, and we found ourselves in Fairbury a lot because they had a lot of good racing and a good racetrack, and it was hard on me for a long time. It taught me a lot growing up because it was always elbows up, and stuff happened really fast. You had to make moves on the racetrack a lot faster than what you did at your normal racetrack. So, it’s like the ultimate elbows-up deal, and it was tough on me for a long time.
“I remember in 2010 for a fair race they had. It was just a $1,500-to-win race on a Wednesday. We were in the lead, checked out, and shook the gear out. So, I was like, man, we really want to win there. Then, we went on to win a few and now winning the Prairie Dirt Classic three different times. It means a lot to me because I went with my dad some growing up, and it’s close to home, and just the atmosphere and the people. There are guys that cook for us every time we go there and treat us well. We have a lot of good friends from there that I’ve made over the years. It’s just a fun place for me.”
Shirley: “It seems like it’s either good to me or bad to me. I don’t know what it truly takes to win there night in and night out. We’ve won big races there. We’ve run good there. We’ve run good in a couple of these races in the prelims and DIRTcar Summer Nationals and stuff. But to truly win the big race, I just feel like I don’t have that good of a reading on the racetrack as far as I need to be setup-wise.
How do you approach racing the Prairie Dirt Classic, knowing it’s a two-night format?
Hoffman: “You just have to test and make sure your stuff is good for the final night. That’s the biggest thing. Make sure you have your short-track package, and you make sure you’re ready to blow the deck out, it’s just what it takes. It’s whatever it takes to win that $50,000.
“Bobby Pierce and Brandon Sheppard, those guys are by far the best at running the top, and I’m not a guy that can get up there great like they can. I just have to make sure my stuff is good enough to get around the bottom and run the top too when I need to. You’ll see a guy like Dennis Erb Jr., and Tanner English, they’ll marry themselves to the bottom and be good down there. So, it’s almost like you have to pick one or the other.”
Sheppard: “It’s kind of like all of these big crown jewel races used to be. We used to go to a majority of the crown jewel races and Qualify and Heat Race on Friday and run [Last Chance Showdowns] and Features on Saturday. That’s pretty much what it is, except the Heat races are a little longer. I kind of consider it the same as them. That’s the way I go about it, anyway. It doesn’t really affect us too bad.”
Shirley: “I just go there and try to do the best I can that night, and where the chips fall is where the chips fall. Then, you get up the next day and figure out whether it was a good or bad day. Even when it’s a good day, you’re working and trying to get better. We just take things day by day.”
How do you feel about your chances there?
Hoffman: “I’m more comfortable than I’ve ever been in a Late Model. So, this is obviously my first solid opportunity in a full-time ride. I haven’t ran any Modifieds this year, so I’m very comfortable jumping right into it and confident that I can get it done. So, I feel like we’ll be pretty good. Getting back to racetracks I’ve had laps at before and running well that’s the biggest thing for me. Ponderosa, I made laps there, but we sucked. We’re testing this weekend, going to make sure our ducks are in a row, and make sure we’re good for next week.”
Sheppard: “I feel really good, honestly. We’ve been there three times and finished second, third, and fifth. We haven’t finished outside the top five. We’ve learned a lot there, and our car gets better every time we race it. We’re learning a lot on it, and we’re steadily growing with this thing. I’m feeling pretty good about it.”
Shirley: “I always feel like I can win. To be honest, I always feel like Fairbury is either good to me or bad to me. If all the cards fall the right way, and everything falls right, and the track conditions are more my style, we could win the race. I’m not going into the race thinking I couldn’t win. It’s just how well you execute everything and putting yourself into the right position. Obviously, if you put yourself in the front and start in the first couple of rows, it’ll be easier for you.”
The World of Outlaws CASE Construction Equipment Late Models battle at Fairbury Speedway in the 33rd Prairie Dirt Classic, July 28-30—two nights of action with a $50,000 winner’s payday along with lap money on Saturday.
For tickets to the Prairie Dirt Classic, CLICK HERE.