2022 Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals

Michigan Upstart Claims Underdog Win At Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals

Michigan Upstart Claims Underdog Win At Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals

Cody Bauer's underdog victory Friday night at the Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals was a cause for celebration for racer and chassis builder Rusty Schlenk.

Dec 3, 2022 by Robert Holman
Bauer Scores One For The Underdogs At Gateway

ST. LOUIS, Mo.— Rusty Schlenk was one of the first people to greet Cody Bauer in victory lane Friday night after the Farwell, Mich., driver won the 25-lap Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals preliminary feature at The Dome at America’s Center.

When the unheralded 29-year-old Bauer climbed from the roof of his Domination Race Car after celebrating his stirring $5,000 victory, Schlenk, the Michigan native, racer and car builder who now lives in McClure, Ohio, was eager to give Bauer a hug.

Schlenk was happy with Bauer’s performance for much more than just the common bond of their shared Wolverine State roots. The Domination Race Car that Bauer was steering came from Schlenk’s Ohio shop where he builds the unconventional swingarm-style chassis. Consider it a victory for the little guys. Not only because neither Bauer nor Schlenk played center on their respective high school basketball teams. Not only because the swingarm rear suspension made famous by late Hall of Fame chassis builder C.J. Rayburn is rarely used nowadays. But also because Schlenk’s fledgling chassis business doesn’t come close to producing as many cars as bigger competitors like Rocket or Longhorn.

“Seeing a Domination Race Car in victory lane at the Dome driven by one of my customers is just as awesome as when I parked it there myself,” an ecstatic Schlenk said. “It was a huge win for team Domination.”

Indeed the temporary fifth-mile oval inside the Dome where the world champion St. Louis Rams used to play NFL football is an equalizer, giving underdog race teams a realistic shot at competing toe-to-toe — or more accurately quarterpanel to quarterpanel — with the sport’s elite drivers who dare enter the arena.

Schlenk knows exactly what it’s like to emerge from a car in victory lane in front the approving fans in the Dome. In 2018 he outran Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., and Dennis Erb Jr. of Carpentersville, Ill., to win a $5,000 Gateway Race of Champions. The special 20-lap event also featured the likes of Scott Bloomquist, Billy Moyer, Tim McCreadie, Brandon Sheppard, Shannon Babb and Bobby Pierce.

That was the last time one of Schlenk’s self-designed machines won in the special indoor event. Bauer, then 25, wasn’t even competing in the division at the time.

Rusty Schlenk “got me where I am. He’s got my program running top notch,” said Bauer, whose hauler is parked beside Schlenk’s in the convention center adjacent to the Dome which serves as the pit area for the event. “I think we ran 25 or 26 races this year and we have 16 top-fives. We’ve been consistent, just only have the one win. Having (Schlenk) here to be able to explain to me what I need to do to get the car to do what I want it to do is huge. Because he knows exactly what to do to make it do what I want and that’s huge.”

Bauer credits both Schlenk’s advice as well as the car’s design with his success. It’s unconventional of course, but it works for him.

“I started in 2019 with (a Rocket) XR1 and we ended up going a different direction and switched over to Rusty’s stuff in 2020 and man it’s been pretty good,” Bauer said. “I started off running his stuff and I think the third night out in my new car I won. I got my first feature win three or four nights out in his car and we’ve been fast since then. Him helping me has definitely been what’s helped me out the most in my career no doubt.

“I’m on a swingarm and a pull-bar (suspension) which is kind of unheard of nowadays in Dirt Late Models, but I think the pull-bar works better on the short tracks. We get off the corner a little better I think than a lot of them liftarm cars do and I think that’s honestly just coming from the pull-bar itself. These Domination cars have been good, even up home where we won that $10,000 earlier this year. Obviously that was my career biggest. I mean, to come here, you know, that was the only one I’ve won all year, and then to come here and win this, I will take those two wins and not win another race all year.”

Ironically, Bauer’s five-figure payday in the Allstar Performance Challenge Series event at Merritt Speedway in Lake City, Mich., back in May was aided in part by Schlenk’s demise. Bauer, who started from the pole that night, took the lead on lap 11 after Schlenk tangled with a slower car. Inside the Dome on Friday night, Bauer needed no such luck. He led all the way from the outside front row before turning back a late charge from polesitter Garrett Alberson of Las Cruces, N.M.

“It’s huge you know … 54 of them and you have quite a few big names up there that we beat tonight,” said Bauer after winning ahead of Georgian Wil Herrington and Texan Tyler Erb. “I think that was awesome. I’m still at a loss for words honestly. Our car’s been good all night right out of the box. I’m still in disbelief honestly, but we’re going to enjoy it and hopefully get a good draw tomorrow and try and go for the big one.

“We come here with expectations obviously of making the show and trying to go and win and I feel like a lot of this race is obviously on luck, too. Everything just panned out for us tonight and I couldn’t be more excited for my team, myself and all my family that put in the work to get us here.”

The victory puts Bauer in great shape heading into Saturday’s 40-lap, $30,000-to-win finale. Not only is he guaranteed to start his second straight Gateway Dirt Nationals without having to worry about Saturday’s prelims, but he will start no worse than sixth, a substantial improvement from last year’s 14th-place starting spot. Bauer joins Herrington and Erb, along with Thursday’s top three trio of Bobby Pierce, Ryan Unzicker and Tanner English in a redraw to determine their feature starting positions.

“It’s huge you know. Even if we could have just made the top three it was going to make it a way easier day for us (Saturday) and that was honestly my goal going out there,” Bauer said. “Obviously I wanted to win and gave it my all there at the beginning to get the lead and it worked out. Then I was just maintaining, trying to be smooth, not make any mistakes and it managed to pay off.

“I’m really hoping to get a front-row (starting spot). That’s what I’m really hoping for. That’s what we got tonight and luckily we were able to hammer the top side the first couple laps and get out in the lead. That’s what led to us winning the race. I was just trying to be smooth and on the defense and not get too crazy up on the wall beating the spoiler out of it and it just paid off. The yellows fell where they needed to and everything fell in place. It was just meant to be.”