2023 Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals

Thursday's Gateway Notes: Hoffman Stars As O'Neal's Weekend Ends Abruptly

Thursday's Gateway Notes: Hoffman Stars As O'Neal's Weekend Ends Abruptly

Nick Hoffman's statement win, Hudson O'Neal's premature end, and Gordy Gundaker's save headlined opening night at the Gateway Dirt Nationals.

Dec 15, 2023 by Kevin Kovac

Winning Thursday night’s 25-lap preliminary feature to kick off the Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals certainly excited Nick Hoffman. But it didn’t satisfy him.

Hoffman wants more from his trip to The Dome at America’s Center. A lot more.

Like a $30,000 victory in Saturday’s 40-lap Super Late Model finale.

“That's probably the most pumped up I’ve been for a race (win) in quite a long time,” Hoffman said upon returning to the pits following his $5,000 triumph. “I was able to win a prelim here in a modified, but there's nothing like this. Everybody comes here to watch Late Models, right?

“Still, you know, Saturday night’s all we're here for.”

A 31-year-old native of Belleville, Ill. — just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis — who now resides in Mooresville, N.C., Hoffman has his eyes on the big prize of a weekend that he considers one of his favorites thanks to his deep ties to the area. He established himself as a favorite to nab it with his flawless opening night performance, driving his Tye Twarog-owned Longhorn Chassis to a sweep of the program with overall fast time honors, a heat win and a dominant flag-to-flag victory off the pole in the A-main.

Hoffman noted that “everything went our way all night” as he locked himself into Saturday’s headliner. It allowed him to “sleep a lot easier for the next two nights” and spend Friday’s preliminary program relaxing at his merchandise stand and in the stands with no worries about making the show hanging over him.

The fifth-mile oval constructed on the concrete floor of the Dome was a perfect fit for Hoffman, who mastered its smooth, black conditions to beat Jason Welshan of Maryville, Tenn., by a comfortable margin of 2.959 seconds.

“That was pretty cool,” Hoffman said. “I mean, (event promoter) Cody (Sommer) came up to me and was like, ‘Man, you stunk the show up.’ I was like, ‘Dude, you gave me a racetrack to race on. Like, that's what I'm good at, is that, you know, black, slick and slow (surface).’”

Sommer, of course, is more than the organizer of the Gateway Dirt Nationals to Hoffman, who has an especially close relationship with the 36-year-old who is also a native of Illinois. They go back a long way — back to when Hoffman was a teenager just starting his racing career — and remain tight.

“Cody is one of my best friends,” said Hoffman, whose best finish in two previous Gateway Dirt Nationals starts came in 2021 when he finished third driving a Scott Bloomquist Racing car in what was Sommer’s last race as the Hall of Fame driver’s business partner. “Everybody kind of knows that I'm very close with Cody and he's done a lot for me in my career — more than anybody will ever understand.

“Cody Summer worked for me when I was 16 years old, and I hadn't won anything. I sucked, you know … I was just a modified guy just trying to make a living. And he got laid off from his job, and he came to work for me for nothing, like never got paid, but he got me hooked up with a lot of relationships that I still have today.

“I can't thank Cody enough for everything he's done,” he added. “Obviously when I was with Sweet Bloomquist there on that deal (running Bloomquist’s car for part of the 2021 season while Bloomquist was sidelined), Cody was the reason I was there.”

Not surprisingly, Hoffman is a dedicated supporter of Sommer’s promotions.

“I’ve ran his races since day one in the Indy Invitational (midget indoor race) and all his races here,” Hoffman said. “This is just a hell of an event. People are naysayers on the Internet. They want to talk trash about it. But you just got to be here and you got to enjoy it.”

O’Neal’s short weekend


WATCH: What caused Hudson O'Neal's Gateway Dirt Nationals to come to an abrupt end.

Hudson O’Neal of Martinsville, Ind., came to the Gateway Dirt Nationals with high hopes after putting together a one-off deal to run one of Pennsylvanian Boom Briggs’s Rocket Chassis machines. The effort went for naught, however, thanks to a weekend-ending crash during Thursday’s hot laps.

The 23-year-old star whose million-dollar 2023 season in the Rocket house car included the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series championship and a World 100 victory slammed the turn-one wall after completing his two practice circuits, inflicting rearend damage that was significant enough to sideline him for the remainder of the event.

“We took the checker, I got on the brakes hard and just locked the motor up,” O’Neal glumly said in the pit area after changing into street clothes and watching his battered No. 71 roll into Briggs’s enclosed trailer. “You just slide, and I backed into the fence.”

The contact was heavy. Replays show the rearend of O’Neal’s car contacting the concrete and snapping around upon clipping one of the metal poles that protrude from the barrier to hold the catch fencing. He limped back to the pits, but his crew for the weekend — Briggs’s crew chief Shane Winans along with Rocket1 team members Austin Hargrove and Joel Rogers — quickly determined that the damage was too heavy to be repaired and O’Neal scratched from further competition without even logging a qualifying attempt.

“A lot of work, a lot of time, a lot money down the drain,” mourned O’Neal, whose preparations for the weekend included producing two new T-shirt designs for sale (one sporting the look of Briggs’s beloved Busch Light and another a Christmas-themed Rocket1 shirt).

According to Winans, the car will need a new rear clip.

“It literally looks like when he got up into the wall, the T-bar caught the fence and it just ripped everything out from underneath it just about,” Winans said. “I’m telling you, it’s killed bad.”

It marked the second straight Gateway Dirt Nationals that O’Neal exited rather abruptly. Last year, in his last start with Roger Sellers’s Double Down Motorsports, he was involved in a preliminary night heat-race tangle with Tyler Carpenter of Parkersburg, W.Va., that prompted him to retaliate under caution and draw a disqualification from action for the remainder of the evening. He didn’t return for Saturday’s finale because his car was too badly damaged.

At least this time O’Neal’s weekend didn’t end amid a fiery pit-area scene that saw security involved to prevent O’Neal and Carpenter supporters from clashing physically.

“Carpenter just walked by and said, ‘I didn’t do it!’” Hargrove quipped when O’Neal’s 2022 incident was mentioned.

Gordy survives a scare


WATCH: Gordy Gundaker puts the Gateway Dirt Nationals into words.

Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo., saw his hopes for the Gateway Dirt Nationals weekend flash before his eyes when he absorbed a direct hit to his car’s left-side door from Luke Bennett of Ethel, La., on an opening-lap restart during Thursday’s fourth heat.

“It whipped me around fast,” Gundaker said. “He bounced off the (inside) wall and he pile-drove me.”

The 31-year-old driver went spinning in turn two, but he was able to get his Longhorn car pointed in the right direction and drive away without stopping as several car stacked up behind him to draw a caution flag. He retained second place in the running order after his broken door was straightened by officials and went on to finish in the position, moving him on to the 25-lap feature and ultimately a sixth-place finish.

Gundaker acknowledged that he might have wanted to exact some revenge on Bennett, who continued on to place third in the heat before winning a B-main and finishing 16th in the feature. But he kept his wits about him and it paid off with an outing that sets him up well for a Saturday heat.

“That’s the deal here,” Gundaker said, explaining how a driver needs to fight the temptation to retaliate over perceived on-track slights. “You have to just deal with the chaos and get in the show.”

Odds and ends

Defending Gateway Dirt Nationals champion Tyler Erb of New Waverly, Texas, experienced a miserable opening night. He appeared to finish second to Nick Hoffman in the first heat, but he was penalized three spots when officials discovered that his scoring transponder was incorrectly positioned on the front bumper of his car rather than the mandated right-rear corner. (The close finish showed Erb ahead of Hoffman on the scoring monitor because his transponder was farther forward.) Forced to run a B-main, Erb retired early due to a flat tire. … Mike Harrison of Highland, Ill., who won the Gateway Dirt Nationals modified finale in 2018, finished fifth in the prelim feature in his first-ever attempt at the Late Model position of the event. The 49-year-old driver lost fourth place on lap 18 to Freddie Carpenter of Parkersburg, W.Va. … After being outdueled for victory in the sixth heat by Jadon Frame of Decherd, Tenn., Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., made the largest advance in the feature with his slow-but-steady move from the 12th starting spot to a seventh-place finish. … Kyle Hardy of Stephens City, Va., registered an eighth-place feature finish in his first career start at the Dome. … Rusty Schlenk of McClure, Ohio, won a heat but slipped from the fifth starting spot to a 10th-place finish in the feature after sustaining body damage. … Myles Moos of Lincoln, Ill., who won a preliminary feature in 2021, saw his hopes go south on lap one of the first heat when contact from Tyler Erb between turns one and two sent him spinning out of second place. His eighth-place finish left him out of a B-main and had him contemplating whether he will race on Saturday.