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Chasing the Checkered Flag
A talented lineup of local drivers is revved up and ready to claim the crown at the Montana 200, the state’s premier race
Super Stock racer Lance Gemmrig blurs past onlookers watching the Saturday night race at Montana Raceway Park. - File photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
Ten years have passed since a local driver celebrated in Victory Lane at the preeminent motorsports race in the state, the Montana 200.

That could change this weekend.

The 23rd installment of Montana Raceway Park’s hallmark event — beginning Thursday, July 18 and culminating with the main event on Saturday night — features a talented lineup of local drivers, including a few familiar names that consistently vie for one of the most lucrative purses in the Pacific Northwest.

Kalispell’s Alex Lessor, Agni Howell and Bodie Morton are once again among the field of contenders behind the wheel. More than 40 racecar drivers are expected to line up for qualifying on Friday in the highest class of stock car racing vehicles, the Super Late Models.

Racing fans can expect plenty of action atop one of the best high-banked short tracks around. The Montana 200 annually attracts competitors from as far away as Quebec.

“When you compete in the Montana 200, you know right where you rank in the northwest,” said Howell, one of the top local drivers who regularly chases the checkered flag at Raceway Park.

This year’s Montana 200 has more than $50,000 up for grabs, including at least $15,000 to the winner. Other cash prizes will be awarded for fast times and heat victories on Friday and Saturday.

“Kalispell is well represented and possibly has a winner in the mix,” said Rick Crawford, Raceway Park’s director and a longtime NASCAR auto racer.

Washington drivers have hoarded the Montana 200 trophy over the last decade.

Jeff Jefferson of Naches led wire-to-wire at last year’s race, becoming just the fourth driver in 22 years to win the signature event multiple times. Jefferson also won in 2006.

Gary Lewis of Snohomish consistently earns his way into the main event and won a record four consecutive titles between 2007 and 2010. Other Washington drivers to leave Kalispell as champions in the last 10 years are Shane Mitchell of East Wenatchee, B.J. Tidrick of Yakima and Christian Roeder of Eprata.

Montana’s last 200 champ was Ken Kaltschmidt of Marion in 2003. Ryan Wells of Hingham placed second last year. The only racer from Kalispell to win the 200 was Bob Schweigert in 1992, the second running of the event.

Judging by the summer’s action up to this point, the Flathead Valley could regain the crown this year.

Lessor, 32, won the Canadian/American Shoot-out at Raceway Park last month and was runner-up at the G.E.T. Rich at the Montana Gold 212. Lessor leads the Super Late Model point standings with 168. He qualified for the main event of the Montana 200 last year but was pinned against the wall near the race’s halfway point, ending the race at 23rd. He finished third in the point standings in 2012.

Howell is riding a hot streak dating back to last season and hopes to break through for his first victory at the showcase. He’s placed third in five consecutive events, including the G.E.T. Rich and Firecracker 125 at Raceway Park. He ranks third in the local Super Late Model points standings with 143.

“I’m due for a win,” he said.

A pit crew pushes a racecar onto a scale during a pre-qualifying inspection before taking a practice run for the Montana 200 at Raceway Park. - File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

Howell moved into Super Late Model racing in 2003 and was named Rookie of the Year. Only twice since then has he failed to qualify for the Montana 200 main event. Last year he was one of only two Montana drivers to place in the top 10 after 200 laps, earning ninth.

Howell may have fate on his side this year. Both the main event and his birthday are Saturday. He’d like to celebrate both.

“I know that I can win, it just hasn’t worked out. The cards haven’t fallen in my favor yet,” he said.

Morton, 37, is another familiar local driver and known as one of the valley’s best. Morton is ranked fifth in the Super Late Model point standings this summer. He’s also had similar success in the Super Stocks, winning a 50-lap main event at Raceway Park in June.

Morton has placed in the top 10 at the Montana 200 five times and his best finish was fifth in 2009. Last year, Morton’s night ended after a collision with Lewis on lap 167 and he finished in 15th place.

“He’s always a tough competitor and a good qualifier,” Crawford said. “He should be ready for that event.”

Other racers to keep an eye on this weekend are 16-year-old Whitefish up-and-comer Giles Thornton, Kalispell’s Dave Garber and Troy Schweigert, Ronan’s Cory Wolfe and Don Staggs of Yellow Bay.

Thornton, whose family owns Raceway Park, recently teamed up with Crawford for a NASCAR event in France. The pair appeared at a two-day pro series race as part of NASCAR’s expansion into Europe.

Garber ranks ninth in the points standings and placed 11th at last year’s 200. Wolfe ranks fourth in the standings and won the Montana 200 in 1994.

“I’ve seen some good racing every weekend,” Crawford said about the competition at this year’s races. “You’ve got to be on your game all weekend long. That’s why the fans come here, too. They want to see that tension and competition and action on the racetrack. It will be all of that at the Montana 200.”

To purchase tickets or for more information about the Montana 200, call 257-7223 or visit www.montanaracewaypark.com.
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