His 200th victory was worth wait for Stuhler

MOTOR SPORTS

November 17, 1996|By Stan Dillon | Stan Dillon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Gary Stuhler of Westminster reached a milestone in his career last Sunday. The 40-year-old late-model driver recorded his 200th career victory by leading every lap in the 100-lap Octoberfest at the Hagerstown Speedway.

Stuhler has come a long way since he won his first race at Lincoln Speedway in 1975.

It was appropriate that Stuhler won his 200th at Hagerstown, which he considers his home track. He has won 77 races there and taking the win Sunday before a large crowd was a great way to end the season.

But like all milestones in any sport, picking up that one more win, that one more hit or home run to get to the next plateau, seems to take a little longer.

"Our last win was at Winchester [Va.] Speedway back in August," said Stuhler. "We kept thinking every week that this would be it. We had several good runs at Pittsburgh, Eldora and Pennsboro Speedways, but we started too far back in some. Then I began to wonder whether I would get the win at all this

year."

Stuhler started the two-day Octoberfest weekend by winning his qualifying event, then the dash by the top four qualifiers to earn the pole-position for the 100-lap event.

Stuhler, who struggled at times during the past season with his new team, quickly pulled away from the field at the beginning of the race. With his old car owner, it would have meant an easy win, but no one knew what to expect Sunday. There have been a couple times this season that Stuhler was unable to keep the lead from the pole.

Although Stuhler led from the start, it wasn't an easy victory. Runner-up Rick Eckert of York, Pa., was able to catch him twice in lapped traffic. Early in the race Eckert pulled even, but Stuhler managed to hold the lead.

"I'd rather be running second in lapped traffic, especially the way the track was," said Stuhler. "The guy in the back has the advantage. My biggest concern was getting boxed in behind a slower car like I was at Delaware International the previous week. The track was a one-lane strip which I was never comfortable with. When I went to the outside of the strip, I lost traction. It was like a sheet of ice."

Lapped traffic was a problem early in the race, and an overheating motor kept his attention the last 60 laps.

"It started running warm, so I ran a moderate pace to see if I could figure out what was wrong," added Stuhler. "The car still ran OK and then the crew motioned me on to do what I needed do."

And that's what Stuhler did as he picked up his pace and was never challenged the final 20 laps.

Stuhler pocketed $10,000 for the victory. While Stuhler has won several 100-lap, $10,000-to-win events over the years at Hagerstown, including the inaugural event in 1989, it was his first big victory with his new car owner, Dale Beitler of West Friendship.

It was a year ago at this time that Stuhler was approached by Beitler to drive for him. Stuhler had been driving for Ronald Hays of Middletown since 1986. Hays and Stuhler had combined to become one of the winningest teams in late-model racing.

When they raced close to home, they won three track championships -- two at Winchester and one at Hagerstown. When they went on the road, Stuhler could race with any of the professional full-time drivers. Together, Stuhler and Hays won more than 100 races. Five times Stuhler had more wins in the Northeast than any other driver. In 1993, he had a career-high 25 wins. Last year, Stuhler again led all late-model drivers with 14 feature wins. What made his record so remarkable was his winning percentage. Stuhler accumulated his wins as essentially part-time driver.

He missed three weeks when he broke his leg in an accident and there were other weekends his team didn't race because of the health of his car's owner. It was this uncertainly that led Stuhler to switch teams. It was a difficult decision, but Stuhler wanted to travel to big races outside of the area. With Beitler, he felt he would have that opportunity.

As Stuhler expected, the team struggled during the season trying to find the right combination. They looked strong one week and weak the next, but never never gave up. With each race they learned more about each other and the car. Finally, it all came together with last Sunday's victory.

Now Stuhler is eager to start on his next 200 wins when the 1997 season begins in February.

Results

Mason-Dixon Dragway: Russell Barefoot of Mount Airy was runner-up in Class I competition last weekend. Jake Fleming of Union Bridge won the street class. At 75-80 Dragway, Darren Eash of Woodbine won Class I and Don Leonard of Mount Airy was a semifinalist. In Class II, Steve Dustin of Westminster was a semifinalist and Mickey Kappes of Westminster was a quarterfinalist. Phil Doonis of Westminster was a semifinalist in street cars.

Hagerstown Speedway: Al Shawver Jr. of Finksburg won the consolation race in the small-block modified division last weekend.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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