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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The foundation for NASCAR Whelen All-American Series was firmly established during its first five seasons, 1982-86. Maybe surprisingly to some, four of the first five series national champions drove dirt Late Models. Only second year champion Mike Alexander of Franklin, Tenn., drove a pavement car, a Late Model to the title.
Inaugural champion Tom Hearst of Muscatine, Iowa (1982), David Into of Hardeeville, S.C. (1984), Doug McCoun of Prunedale, Calif. (1985), and Joe Kosiski of Omaha, Neb., (1986) all drove full-fendered cars on dirt. The four championships were spread from the East Coast to West Coast. Only Hearst and Kosiski had a chance to cross paths from time to time.
Kosiski’s 1986 national championship was hard earned. Kosiski, then 30, and Roger Dolan, then 50, had matched each other win for win for much of the season. In the end, the two and Kosiski’s younger brother Steve had tied in points toward the regional championship. Joe Kosiski won the regional and national title by two feature wins more than Dolan, 29-27.
The closeness and outcome of 1986 point race was encouraging but stinging to Dolan. He felt his racing years were numbered but he also knew, based on his 1986 performance, he could contend for the national title.
Dolan and his car owners, Larry and Penny Eckrich decided they would again put a 100 percent effort into trying to win the national title in 1987.
Dolan, of Lisbon, Iowa, had won 300 features over 18 years before joining the Eckrich team. Larry was known to have the best equipment and sharp knowledge in dirt Late Model circles. He hired Dolan as his driver in 1981. Between 1981 and 1987, they won an estimated 100 features together.
Roger Dolan rolled off 33 wins en route to the 1987 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship. NASCAR Archives
In 1987 alone, Dolan won a series record 33 features, surpassing the national champion record of 31 set by Alexander in 1983. Dolan also posted 53 top fives and 58 top 10s in 64 starts en route to the national championship. Steve Kosiski tied Dolan in NASCAR Central Region points, so the regional title was decided by number of feature wins, which Dolan won 33-22.
“We had worked so hard and come so close a year earlier, it felt like a bigger achievement when we won the championship in 1987,” Dolan said.
“About half way through the year, it looked like we were going to do well in the point race. Some of the guys in other areas of the country were having their problems. We didn’t ease up. We kept at it.”
Other regional champions in 1987 were Bob Fox (Pacific Coast), Steve Peles (Northeast), Mike Love (Southeast), Robert Pressley (Mid-Atlantic) and Carl Trimmer (Sunbelt).
Having accomplished his quest for the national championship, Dolan left the Eckrich team for 1988. Dolan wanted Eckrich to keep racing for championships, but he no longer wanted to compete on a full time basis.
Eckrich went on to win four more regional championships in succession through 1991, first with Dale Fischlein and then three with Ray Guss Jr.
Dolan continued to compete through the 1990 season and then retired from driving. His son Ryan, 45, is a longtime successful dirt Modified driver in Iowa and surrounding states. Dolan video records his son’s every race, and the video is reviewed on a weekly basis.
Dolan has not been in an active pit area since he climbed out of a race car for the last time.
“I served my time,” Dolan said of opting out of the pits. “I don’t work on cars either.”
He cites the level of intensity he experienced in the pits for so many years as his reason to avoid that environment since retirement.
“They were all about winning races. That was their commitment. The intensity was very high,” Ryan Dolan recalled of his dad and the Eckrich team in 1987.
Ryan tipped that earlier this month, his dad, now 75, made some laps in a race car for the first time since 1990.
“Dad wouldn’t tell you this,” the younger Dolan said. “We took some Modifieds out to test last Thursday and he got into one of them. The cars are so different today and I think he was thrilled to feel the way cars drive now. As a race car driver, I think he’s still got it. Dad’s a tough cookie to read, but I’m pretty sure he enjoyed himself.”
The 1987 national championship trophy remains on display at Eckrich’s Precision Performance race shop in Cosgrove, Iowa.
At 50, Dolan became the six year old series’ oldest national champion in 1987. In 1988, Robert Powell of Moncks Corner, S.C. became the series youngest titlist at 23.
Robert Powell was just 23 when he celebrated his 1988 championship. NASCAR Archives
Powell was part of a highly successful racing family. His older brother, Charles, was a national championship contender in 1984 before his season was cut short by injury. His father Charley was a star of southern dirt Late Model racing in his day. To stay in the business when he retired from race car driving, Powell bought the .400-mile dirt oval of Summerville (S.C.) Speedway in 1975. In all, the Powell brothers won two NASCAR regional championships each.
Changes in the dirt racing business in the mid-1980s brought Powell to a decision to pave his race track for the 1987 season. Dirt Late Models were still the top division at the newly paved track in 1987. In 1988 conventional pavement Late Models became Summerville’s top division. Robert Powell got “hooked-up.”
Powell did most of his racing in 1988 at Summerville, but also made some starts at Myrtle Beach Speedway and Anderson Speedway. He compiled a record of 23 wins and 30 top-fives in 31 starts.
Racing fulltime at Summerville was problematic for the youngster, since his dad owned the track.
“I had to walk a very narrow line,” Powell said. “I was protested after a race early in the year. Normally we used a computer that could measure the engine’s legality in about 15 minutes. Instead I had to tear the engine completely down – a four-hour job. But when it proved legal the protesters were finally satisfied.”
Winning percentage became a factor in determining the national champion in 1988 and Powell’s was a strong .741. Northeast Region champion Glenn Gault was runner-up in the 1988 national ranking with 22 wins in 37 starts and a winning percentage of .594. Other regional champions included Fischlein (Central), James Cline Jr. (Sunbelt), Pressley (Mid-Atlantic), and Ed Sans Jr. (Pacific Coast).
Larry Phillips won a record five NASCAR Whelen All-American Series championships racing his Late Model in the Midwest. NASCAR Archives
In 1989 a star dirt Late Model driver decided to shift his attention to pavement racing. Two Missouri dirt tracks frequented by Larry Phillips of Springfield, Mo., had just been converted to pavement surfaces. Phillips was not familiar with the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, but a dirt racing friend suggested he give it a try.
Phillips last raced in 2001 and passed away in 2004. But in 1989, Phillips learned to like pavement racing. It was 1986 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion Joe Kosiski who pointed Phillips toward NASCAR weekly racing.
“Joe Kosiski talked me into doing this while we were standing in the pits in Barberville, Florida in February 1989,” Phillips said in the fall of that year. “He knew NASCAR weekly racing was new in our area and said I should consider it very seriously. “
By spring, Phillips had built a couple of new asphalt Late Models and went racing in Lebanon and Bolivar, Mo. By season’s end Phillips had won his first of five NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championships.
The 47-year-old compiled a racing record of 23 wins, 25 top fives and 27 top 10s in 27 starts and won the championship with a winning percentage of .851. Word of Phillips title spread quickly.
“I called Larry to congratulate him,” Kosiski said. “I told him he’s never seen anything like what was going to happen to him at the banquet. He’s one of only eight people in the world (at the time) to wear that weekly series championship diamond ring. We talked for about 20 minutes and I think he still didn’t realize how big of a deal this really is.”
Kosiski defined Phillips with ease: “Larry is a hard core racer and that’s all he knows. He’s a different breed.”
Guss Jr. was the Larry Eckrich’s third different driver in three years, and he rewarded the powerhouse dirt Late Model outfit with its third consecutive and fourth overall NASCAR Central Region championship. With a winning percentage of .716, Guss placed second in the final national ranking for 1989. Other regional champions included Jimmy Hatchell (Eastern Seaboard), Kevin Nuttleman (Great Northern), Paul White (Sunbelt) Bobby Hogge (Pacific Coast), Bob Pressley (Mid-Atlantic) and Jan Leaty (Northeast).
The first eight years of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series produced national champions from seven states. Only South Carolinians could claim two national titles with Into in 1984 and Powell in 1988. The short track stock car racing bedrock of North Carolina had yet to deliver a national titlist. Some observers said the state had so much competition that no driver could win enough races to become national champion.
“I’ve heard the comment from several people that there’s too much competition, too many tracks and too many cars for the national champion to come from the (NASCAR) Mid-Atlantic Region, but we did it,” Prestwood said at the end of the 1990 season.
Despite the tough competition, Prestwood, then 31 from Lenoir, N.C., established a new NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion’s win total to 35, up from 33 set by Dolan in 1987. His overall record for the season in 40 starts was 35 wins, 37 top fives and 37 top 10s.
Like Dolan, Prestwood had a calm demeanor outside his race car and a pure competitor behind the wheel.
Like Dolan’s ace team owner Larry Eckrich, Prestwood had the services of an ace crew chief in Mike Lawrence, his brother-in-law. Prestwood raced two different cars for two different car owners. One car was for Tri-County Motor Speedway in Hudson, N.C., on Fridays and Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway on Saturdays. The wrinkle was that Prestwood and Lawrence had not planned to run a full schedule at either track in 1990.
“After the first part of the season we knew we had something special going.” Prestwood recalled. “We had done so well we said ‘there’s no sense in stopping now. We saw we were in the hunt for the national championship so we went for it.”
Until 1990, Prestwood was racing Late Models while also becoming competitive in the NASCAR Nationwide Series as an owner-driver.
He made 42 series starts between 1986 and 1989. His career best finish of third came at Hickory in 1987. He ran his final NASCAR Nationwide Series race in 1990. His series record included six top fives and 10 top 10s in 43 starts.
Prestwood also won his third Hickory Late Model championship in 1990. His fourth and final title there in 1995. He also won four track championships at Tri-County, his last in 1990. Before 1990, Prestwood had placed in the top 10 in points of the tough Mid-Atlantic Region twice. He placed 10th in 1984 and fifth in 1986. Prestwood competed into the late 1990s before retiring from racing.
Other regional champions in 1990 included Mike Wallace (Mid-America), Dave Pletcher (Eastern Seaboard), Jeff Hinkemeyer (Great Northern), Steve Peles (Northeast), Jeff Silva (Pacific Coast), Guss Jr. (Central), and Bo Rawdon (Sunbelt).
Noticeably absent from the Mid-America Region point standings was 1989 national champion Larry Phillips. Wallace, the youngest of the three NASCAR racing Wallace brothers, won the region’s championship and the track championships at the Lebanon and Bolivar tracks. Phillips had dominated all three point standings a year earlier. Wallace and Phillips had an early-season disagreement that resulted in Phillips not competing full time at either track. He finished deep in the top 10 of each track’s standings and 17th in regional standings with a three-win season.
Phillips rebounded in 1991 and cemented his place in NASCAR Whelen All-American Series history by becoming the first driver to win a second national championship.
There were changes in Phillips’ racing efforts and the series structure in 1991. NASCAR introduced the Competition Performance Index (CPI) formula to compare regional champions’ records to determine the national championship. The formula included winning percentage, average number of cars in each feature race and percentage of available races started.
Phillips was joined by a new two man crew in 1991. James Ince, a 22-year-old farmer, and longtime friend Raymond Hammer were turning the wrenches and burning the midnight oil in the race shop with Phillips.
Phillips also decided to make the weekly 200-mile one way haul to two Kansas City-area tracks in 1991. He raced at Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., and I-70 Speedway in Odessa, Mo. He produced a 32-win season that included 15 at Lakeside, 13 at I-70 and four closer to home at Lebanon.
While his 1989 championship season was a learning experience in the ways of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, he said he focused on winning the national title in 1991.
“We tried much harder to win this championship this year,” Phillips said. “I’m getting close to the end of my career and I may never have this opportunity again. I wanted to do it one more time in 1991. Winning the championship a second time in the series’ 10th season makes it even more special.
“If anyone says being in the race for the national championship isn’t hard on their nerves, I wouldn’t believe them,” Phillips said.
“Sure I’ve been up in the middle of the night setting valves, rechecking things and making sure things were right while it was quiet and the phone wasn’t ringing… I’d rather be a racer and have tension than be sitting at home in an easy chair. Being a racer is all I ever wanted to be.”
Johnny Rumley placed second in the final national ranking and won the NASCAR Late Model track championship at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va. He also competed at Lonesome Pine Raceway in Coeburn, Va., where he finished second in track points to Jeff Agnew.
Other regional champions in 1991 included David Rogers (Sunbelt), Eddy McKean (Great Northern), Jerry Marquis (Northeast), Guss Jr. (Central), Ron Bradley (Pacific Coast), and Sean Graham (Eastern Seaboard).