2021 Castrol® Gateway Dirt Nationals

Tyler Carpenter Returns To Gateway Aiming For Dome Defense

Tyler Carpenter Returns To Gateway Aiming For Dome Defense

Tyler Carpenter has been waiting nearly two years to defend his memorable victory in 2019’s Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals at The Dome at America’s Center.

Dec 1, 2021 by Kevin Kovac
Tyler Carpenter Returns To Gateway Aiming For Dome Defense

Tyler Carpenter has been waiting nearly two years to defend his memorable victory in 2019’s Castrol Gateway Dirt Nationals at The Dome at America’s Center. After last year’s blockbuster indoor event in St. Louis, Mo., was canceled by Covid-19 restrictions, this weekend the wispy-haired driver from Parkersburg, W.Va., finally gets his chance to return to the site of his monumental upset triumph.

Not surprisingly, the loquacious 30-year-old “can’t wait to get out there and see everybody,” he said while making final preparations for the three-day racing extravaganza that includes split-field $5,000-to-win qualifying programs Thursday and Friday and Saturday's $30,000-to-win finale.

Carpenter will, of course, receive plenty of attention throughout the Gateway Dirt Nationals, which was launched in 2016 by promoter Cody Sommer and is now ready for its fifth running after a one-year hiatus. His exploits in 2019 on the track (winning a preliminary feature as well as the headliner) and off of it (his emotional, unfiltered interviews in front of the big crowd) made him an instant Legend of the Dome.

“I’ve got a lot of pressure on me,” Carpenter acknowledged when asked about how his reputation will now precede him to St. Louis. “I’ve got people texting me and calling me, like, ‘Dude, we’re gonna go out and watch you win. You’re gonna go kick their ass.’ ”

While shaking his head in amazement over being considered one of the favorites in the Gateway field, he continued, “What they don’t know is I’m nervous as hell just about making the race. People say, ‘You can win,’ and this and that, and I know we can do it. But I don’t go there expecting to win. I hope to make the race, and then once we’re in that freakin’ thing we’ll give it our all from there.”

Make no mistake though — Carpenter goes to the Dome with full confidence that he has a legitimate shot at winning the ultimate prize. His largely self-owned effort — an operation based around the Kryptonite Chassis that he builds with his father Freddie, 50, and older brother Chris, 32 — is modest compared to the sport’s heavyweights, but the temporary fifth-mile track on which the Gateway Dirt Nationals is contested provides a stage that makes the incredible possible for Carpenter.

“I’m always pumped for that race,” Carpenter said. “Before I ever went to it and ran that thing, I seen the first year (2016) they had it and I just saw it as, like, an equalizer track. It’s just a fun, little bullring where you’re just able to get out there and compete with the best of ‘em. About anybody can go out there and run good.

“You can eliminate all the technology. Obviously it takes a little bit of talent — you gotta be aggressive in all the right spots — but you just don’t have to have your car severely balanced. You just gotta get up on the wheel and get after it there, and that’s what I love about it.”

Carpenter didn’t enter that inaugural Gateway Dirt Nationals in ’16, but he’s participated in every one since then. He finished second to Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., in the 2017 finale and ninth in 2018’s headliner before sweeping both nights two years ago.

The Dome has become Carpenter’s World 100, the one race with a giant payoff and a huge crowd that he knows he can win despite his shortcomings in finances and engine program. It’s a show that’s simply right in the wheelhouse of the small-track specialist who makes his living running the hardscrabble ovals around his Mountaineer State home.

“The biggest thing is, all my life I’ve competed on quarter-miles or smaller three-eighths, and that place just kind of suited me immediately,” Carpenter said of the Dome’s tight, physical layout. “Watching that place, I knew that was gonna be my cup of tea.

“That particular track is basically what I’ve been raised on. I kind of grew up on little hole-in-the-ground tracks — not to call the place a hole-in-the-ground, but it’s small and you don’t know what you’re expecting. You just know it’s a little bullring, and you don’t know if it’s gonna be rough or slick or heavy. You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. I’ve been around that all my life around here, so being a littler version, a smaller team like mine can go in there and compete with the bigger names and look like you can be amongst them guys.

“Hell, yeah, I want to go to Eldora (Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio) and run good and battle for the lead there (in the World 100 and Dream), but realistically, that’s not gonna happen any time soon. I think, honestly, I have equipment good enough. My motor program might not be nowhere near them (national) guys, but as far as the cars, suspension, the components I’m running, I feel like they can’t be much better than me there. It’s just the technology, how they’re going about things. Them guys go testing all the time on them big tracks and they just go at it as if they have no worries, and we can’t.

“But this right here (the Dome track), it’s just an equalizer,” he added. “Most racers like us will say the same thing — we can go out there and compete and run door-to-door with guys like (Jonathan) Davenport and (Billy) Moyer and (Scott) Bloomquist, and realistically, when you’re out there on their home turf (bigger tracks), or what they’re used to and what their cars are built for, hell, you’ll be lucky to run a B-main. It just feels good to be a part of them guys for once. I probably get the same kind of jitters (running at the Dome) that them guys do if they start on the pole of the World 100 or something. I feel like that just being there, because I feel like I’m able to compete with ‘em.”


VIDEO: Tyler Carpenter discusses his return to the Gateway Dirt Nationals. 

The super-charged Dome atmosphere has a way of overtaking Carpenter as well. Racing in front of the largest crowds that Dirt Late Model racing will see all year, at a modern venue with big-time amenities, puts him in a special place.

“To me, and not just because I go there and run good — honestly, a guy never knows if they’re gonna go there and win the freakin’ race or get 10th in the B-main — but when you go there, everybody feels like they’re somebody. You know what I’m saying?” Carpenter said. “It doesn’t matter if you come there pulling your car with a tow-dolly … nobody sees that (because the pit area isn’t visible to the spectators).

“Everybody has their moment rolling out on that track, and no matter if they’ve ever accomplished anything, you roll out there and you feel like you’re part of them guys. You get out there and you’re a superstar.

“I can’t even hardly explain it,” he continued. “It’s just the coolest thing in the world. Obviously I’m well liked by some and disliked by others, but it doesn’t matter. You’re just highlighted … your name is just highlighted when you go out there, all eyes are on you. It’s crazy. It just feels like … I don’t know, you watch them wrestling shows or whatever and it’s like that, just a lot of hype for you.”

The hoopla surrounding the Gateway Dirt Nationals certainly hit Carpenter in the face like a stiff prairie wind when he reached victory lane at the Dome for the first time in 2019. He found himself completely swept up in the moment upon capturing that year’s $5,000 preliminary feature — even more so than when he came back the next night to claim the richest triumph of his career in the 40-lap finale.

“To be dead honest with you, I was more pumped the first race I won there, the $5,000-to-win race, because it feels like it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Carpenter related. “Racing in the Dome is so … it’s not like you can be cautious and just run a good race and get out to the lead and mind your own and just hit your marks. You never know what’s gonna happen. You never know what your next move is. You just kind of got to make a move before you even think about it, because if you think about it, it’s too late.

“I felt like that $5,000-to-win race was the biggest thing I ever did in my whole life. I was so pumped that night. Granted, the second night was just absolutely crazy that I won — by far the most money I ever won — but to be honest, even though all of us racers worry about money, I was more excited the first night I won than when I won the 30. I think the $30,000 race I was pumped because I did it again — Pierce is the only who did something like that — but the first night it was more of, ‘Holy crap! I actually won here!’ Then it hit me that, ‘Dude, this is 30-thousand freakin’ dollars I just won!’

“The first night it didn’t matter if it was 200 (dollars) to win, I was gonna be like, ‘Holy s---, I just beat all these guys!’” he said. “It was almost like a dream come true of some sort.”

The R-rated words that tumbled from Carpenter’s mouth over the public address system (and internet stream of the race) after his preliminary feature win were a part of that dream. He was so high on adrenaline, so excited to win, that he just let loose when interviewed (“Man, look at this f----- crowd!” Carpenter crowed, before punctuating his off-color statement with a Ric Flair-like, “Woo!”) without even realizing what he was saying. Carpenter later apologized to anyone he offended with his comments (he also famously said he “didn’t come here to f--- around” after beating Tanner English of Benton, Ky., in a hard-fought heat race), but his reaction was so real, so unscripted, that it actually burnished his image among fans.

Carpenter understands how much notoriety he’s gained from his unforgettable weekend at the Dome.

“I’ve kind of been popular in my area, just kind of a hometown hero-type stuff,” Carpenter said. “But me winning that race out there, it kind of put me not where them (national) guys are at, but amongst them guys. I’m talked about kind of like I’m a big name under the table.

“By no means do I try to toot my own horn — hell, I don’t care about that stuff — but I’ve took notice. I was pretty known before and thought I was pretty popular, but after I won this race, so many people now know so many things that I’ve done. I know it’s the stupid things I say and how I performed out there, but when I give interviews and stuff I don’t do it to create hype. Hell, to be honest, I wish they’d keep that microphone away from my mouth until I chill out a little bit. I just free style. You never know what the heck I might say. That’s why they ought to give me a minute to come back down to earth.

“Hell, people, fans, talk to me more about my interviews than my wins. People congratulate me for my accomplishment there, but everything I hear is about my interview: ‘Dude, I can’t believe what you said. That was awesome.’

“But I didn’t do that to try to make me earn a name for myself, you know what I mean?” he added. “Hell, to be dead honest, when I said that, it didn’t even register what I said until I got back in the pits. Then I was like, ‘Man, I just messed up. What the heck did I do out there?’ ”

Can Carpenter thrill the Dome again this weekend? He enters the event having experienced a relatively quiet 2021 season (his usual output of 20-plus victories has shrunk to a dozen wins at 10 tracks as he’s struggled with engine trouble), but he has one of his newer Kryptonite cars ready for action (complete with a new body and wrap) and is especially enthused about the powerplant he’ll have under its hood. He’ll make his first start using a steel-block modified motor built by Mullins Race Engines in Mount Olive, Ill.

“I had a guy talk to Chad (Mullins), and then Chad told me to call him,” said Carpenter, who will race in Thursday’s preliminary program while his father and brother (a first-time Dome entrant) are scheduled to race on Friday. “I just broke a motor at Richmond (Ky.) for that $20,000-to-win race (on Oct. 9) when I was running second with four laps to go and it was the last one I had (he estimated he’s broken a dozen motors in varying degrees of severity this season), so I was gonna have to do something (for the Dome). I wasn’t sure what route to take or what to do, but we were running out of time so we discussed it and we kind of agreed on a steel-block.

“With his modified program, Chad builds a helluva motor. I’ve ran his motors in modifieds for guys before and never had an issue with ‘em. They’re strong, and it’s good, smooth power, a helluva power band. And like he said, his stuff is super lightweight and the aluminum (open competition Late Model) motor doesn’t hardly weigh much less than his steel-block package. It’s definitely a different engine deal for me, but me and Chad talked and we feel like this is what I need to run good out there. He said he built that thing for some yank to get me up off the corner and that’s what the place is all about it.

“A steel-block ain’t nothing but just a little heavier motor. Everybody talks about, ‘Man, I can’t believe you’re running a steel block against these guys.’ Well, it’s just a little bit of (additional) nose weight, and at times, to be dead honest, I think a little nose weight will make the car better, steer better.

“I grew up running old junk steel-block motors, but since I’ve been running aluminum motors I have not really gone back to a steel-block to have to compete with open motors. But I feel like we’ll be alright. That’s part of the deal where the (Dome) track is an equalizer — you don’t have to go out there super balanced and get all your weight and your percentages right. You’re just kind of running down there real quick, turning and jumping on the throttle. There’s not a whole lot of throttle control or anything. You just have to be super conservative but super aggressive at the same time … it’s a weird combination.

“And we agree that it kind of eliminated any kind of possibilities. Like, I don’t have no reverse mount oil pump. I don’t have the oil tank and all the oil lines and the cooler. I eliminated a lot of possibilities that may or may not go wrong or things that could happen out there. The wet-sump motor has all the oil in the oil pan, and you just let ‘er eat. That’s what (Mullins) said: ‘Just focus real hard on the fuel pressure, make sure the idle pressure’s good, and let that son of a bitch eat.’ I said, ‘Hell, I can do that.’ ”

Carpenter paused, and then added: “Anything can happen, but it just feels good to know I’m running a motor built by a guy who’s confident about his piece. All we can do is let ‘er eat and see how it turns out.”

Ten things worth mentioning

1. Does Carpenter have a plan in his mind for Saturday night’s driver introductions at the Dome if he makes the feature field? “To be honest, I don’t know … but this year, I want to do something different,” he said. “I don’t know what it will be, but something to create a little more hype. Heck, with me you’ll never know what it might be, but I’m looking forward to it.”

2. Carpenter’s T-shirt sales should be strong during the Gateway Dirt Nationals thanks to his previous Dome success, so he’s bringing some fresh designs to peddle on the facility’s concourse and at his trailer. One is St. Louis-centric with his car depicted passing through the city’s famed Arch. The other is “just for all the a------- on the internet,” he said; it sports the quote he often uses to browbeat his online detractors: “Keyboard Warriors … beating them buttons.”

3. Speaking of the St. Louis Arch, the trophies earmarked for the Gateway Dirt Nationals winners will once again be miniature reproductions of the landmark that sits a few blocks away from the Dome.

4. Bobby Pierce, the only two-time winner of the Gateway Dirt Nationals finale, will keep the Scooby-Doo theme on his car for this week’s event but is changing up the color scheme. Gone is the blue-and-orange combination; in its place is a Christmas red-and-green (plus holiday-dressed Scooby-Doo characters). Pierce’s father, Bob, is certainly pleased to see the blue gone from the car; he said during last month’s Duel in the Desert at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that he’s never been a fan of the color blue because he seemed to be plagued by bad luck when he drove blue machines himself.

5. Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill., will enter the Gateway Dirt Nationals as a newlywed after marrying his fiancee, Mikala, on Nov. 20 in Springfield, Ill. The Sheppard nuptials was, of course, attended by several of his Dirt Late Model buddies, including Rocket Chassis house car crewmen Danny White, Austin Hargrove and Joel Rogers; drivers Brian Shirley, Jason Feger, Tyler Erb, Chase Junghans and Jose Parga; and Pro Power engine builder Bill Schlieper.

6. Sheppard’s ride for the Dome is the XR1 Rocket No. 15 owned and normally driven by World of Outlaws Sprint Car star Donny Schatz of Fargo, N.D. B-Shepp piloted Schatz’s Dirt Late Model in the 2019 Gateway Dirt Nationals, finishing a close second to Carpenter after his last-lap bid fell short.

7. While still looking for his first victory in the Gateway Dirt Nationals finale (he proceeded his runner-up finish with runs of third, 18th and 19th from 2016-18), Sheppard is one of just five drivers who has started the Saturday-night headliner in each of the blockbuster Dome event’s four editions. He’s joined on the list by Pierce (finishes of fourth and 11th sandwiching his wins in 2017 and ’18); Chad Zobrist of Highland, Ill. (sixth, sixth, 21st, eighth); Gordy Gundaker of St. Charles, Mo. (11th, 12th, eighth, fifth); and Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill. (19th, seventh, 15th, 17th).

8. With more than 120 Dirt Late Models on Gateway’s pre-entry list, it appears this year’s car count will top the century mark for the first time. The event has drawn slightly decreasing fields in each of its four runnings, going from 97 cars in 2016 to 94 in ’17, 93 in ’18 and 86 in ’19 for an average turnout of 92.5 cars.

9. In the wake of veteran car owner Larry Garner’s October announcement that he was shutting down his Blount Motorsports operation, the Maryville, Tenn.-based team’s longtime crew chief, David Bryant, revealed on Facebook that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent surgery in early November and his wife, Jenni, reported that the operation went well and he is expected to make a full recovery. Bryant’s Facebook message also offered kind words toward Garner for his 12 years of employment with Blount Motorsports. “The opportunity that Larry has given me has been a wonderful experience and I will always appreciate his loyalty to me,” he wrote. “I’m also thankful to all the drivers and crew I have had and especially to Donald Mcintosh, who is like a son to me. To see him as a young kid parked beside me, and to become the racer I knew he could be, is my proudest accomplishment in my 38-year career (in racing). Not sure what my next step will be, but racing is still my passion. That might mean helping my ‘kids’ that I love so much Crate race or just being a fan I look forward to more time with my wife, Jenni, who I have put through so much living this lifestyle and my son Logan, who is now in college. My goal is for more family time, racing or not.”

10. Smoky Mountain Speedway is mourning the recent passing of assistant manager and promoter Dustin Dunlap, who died unexpectedly at the age of 38. "Dustin worked behind the scenes, but you could always find his smiling face at the pit gate every event," the track posted on its Facebook page, adding that "not only is he irreplaceable at Smoky Mountain Speedway but he was also a true friend, avid race fan, and big part of our family. He was one of the good ones."