By Ken Bruce
It has not been a typical season for DIRT Hall of Famer Craig Von Dohren in 2023. By this time last year, the Oley, Pa., driver had visited victory lane a total of 14 times, including 10 wins at Grandview Speedway. Coming into Saturday’s Forrest Rogers Memorial race at Grandview, Von Dohren had only won twice in 2023, which included one at Grandview and one at Big Diamond Speedway. Surely not in the way the team drew it up. While still in the middle of a close points race at Grandview with Brett Kressley, Von Dohren just hasn’t had the speed he showed last season on his way to the 13 wins and the championship.
But when it comes to big money races, you can bet Von Dohren and his team will step up their game, and that came into play at both Big Diamond Speedway on Friday in the running of the “Prelude to the Coalcracker” and on Saturday at Grandview as they hosted the “Forrest Rogers Memorial” race. Both races presented a healthy $10,000 payday each. Right in the middle for the win at both races was Craig Von Dohren. Von Dohren was leading and pulling away at Big Diamond, only to have something break in the rear of the Dave Dissinger No. 88X with less than 20 laps to go. Saturday night at Grandview, Von Dohren was able to close the deal and win the Forrest Rogers race after a spirited duel with Kevin Hirthler.
“We did need that win,” said Von Dohren after the race. “We have been struggling a lot this year. Rainouts have hurt us; guys are getting better on coil springs. We are still on torsion bars here, but the writing is on the wall for us to switch, but not just yet. But we’ll take it; it was a good win for the team and for everyone involved.”
Starting 14th on Saturday night, Von Dohren steadily worked his way towards the front and had a fantastic race for the top spot with Kevin Hirthler. The two raced side by side for laps until Von Dohren was finally able to clear Hirthler for the top spot. Once in front, Von Dohren pulled away to garner the much-needed win for his team.
“Kevin was just running the top there, and I knew I couldn’t pass him up there,” explained Von Dohren. “I knew I just had to concentrate, hit my marks on the bottom, and try to take advantage of the restarts. Not that he was jumping by any means, but my car wouldn’t go. I am not sure what it was, but it just wouldn’t go, so he kept starting earlier and earlier and even earlier on that last one, but I was able to time it just right, and I was able to stay even with him. I don’t know if he shoved the nose a little bit in four, but I was able to get in front of him, take his lane away, and then get to the bottom because that’s where our car was working, and if someone was good enough to go around, so be it. I didn’t want someone passing me on the bottom.”
After breaking while leading at Big Diamond on Friday night and not running the way they think they should at Grandview, the Forrest Rogers race was a good boost of confidence for the team and for the driver of the No. 30 as well.
“It was a good win for us tonight and for everyone involved with this team,” mentioned Von Dohren. “I kind of was a little down on myself the past couple of weeks, and I just wasn’t doing a good job. So, I took a little time to myself this week. My birthday was last Sunday, and I received 56 text messages, and I didn’t respond to any of them except the one from my son. I texted Bruce (Brueche) on Tuesday and said, please don’t take it personally, but I just needed to clear my head. I am not done yet; believe me!”
The gap between teams at Grandview seems to get closer and closer each year. This year, there have been a total of 15 modified features, with 10 different drivers visiting victory lane. Mike Gular leads the way with four wins, followed by Brett Kressley, Doug Manmiller, and Jeff Strunk with two wins each. Single victories have gone to Eric Biehn, Brian Hirthler, Nate Brinker, Ryan Watt, Jared Umbenhauer, and until Saturday, Von Dohren. Compare that to 2022, when there were 25 total modified features run with 9 different winners, with Von Dohren (13) and Kressley (5) accounting for 18 of the 25 wins. Of course, rainouts have hurt the total number of races run this year, but the stats do not lie; the competition is about as tough as it gets this year at Grandview.
“It’s so tough anymore, and it is so close out there,” stated Von Dohren. “It is not about who has the fastest lap, but who has the fastest 10 laps, and it is crazy just how competitive it is anymore, and you have to catch some breaks along the way. I haven’t had any breaks all year, but tonight we got some help in some places. I bounced off the backstretch wall at one point, and I thought we were finished, but the air stayed in the tires, and we got the win.”
With Saturday’s feature consisting of an extra 15 laps, I asked Von Dohren if tire conservation was part of his plan for the 50-lap feature.
“Not really, because you got to go here,” mentioned Von Dohren. “If Brett (Kressley) gets ahead of you or Jeff (Strunk), you know Jared (Umbenhauer) is fast, and you just never know here. The track tonight was a typical 76er track. You know, when we used to have those halfway breaks at the 76er, the track was done, and it became a follow-the-leader race, and it kind of got that way tonight, so you have to get there (to the front) before the track goes away and hopefully pick the right line on the restarts and make it work, and tonight we did that.”
Hirthler Reflects on Solid Second: In what could be considered a down year for Kevin Hirthler, Saturday night’s race could be the catalyst for Hirthler going into the final races of the season, including the Freedom 76 race, in less than a month.
Hirthler looked very strong on Saturday night, coming from starting ninth to taking the lead early on. A very fast Eddie Strada took the lead away from Hirthler, but unfortunately for Strada, his turn with the lead didn’t last very long as the No. 33 had motor troubles, ending his night. Hirthler inherited the lead after Strada’s misfortunes and looked to be on his way to the big win until a late race yellow allowed Von Dohren to make a bid for the win. Hirthler and Von Dohren had a scintillating battle for multiple laps, racing side by side with each other until Von Dohren was finally able to clear the No. 117, forcing Hirthler to settle for second.
“Unfortunately, we had one restart too many tonight,” said Hirther after the race. “When that last yellow came out, I wasn’t sure where to restart—the top or the bottom—with Craig (Von Dohren) next to me. I was able to restart outside of him what felt like five or six times before but was probably only two or three times, and I was able to hold him off and hit my marks. I started really thinking about where I wanted to enter the corner versus where he was going to enter the corner. I didn’t want to enter too wide and leave the bottom open for him and open myself up for a slider, and then on that last restart with 10 to go, maybe he timed it just perfectly. He went a tick before me, and I should’ve just sat and not gone and forced them to pull the yellow back out and regroup the field, but I didn’t and went with him, and I caught the cushion wrong and threw the nose, and he was able to sneak by me.”
It was obviously disappointing to finish second in such a big race, but Hirthler talked about his admiration for the driver who beat him on the night.
“I have been admiring Craig and the way he drives for a lot of years, and he taught me a lot of stuff early on in my career. I used to go help him on the dirt series when he needed help, and he has been one of my idols here at Grandview for pretty much my entire career. I have always liked Craig; he is a great guy, and I told him that if I had to lose to anyone in the pits, it would probably be him. Congratulations to him; he ran a great race and ran me clean, and I can’t say that for everyone in the pits, but everyone does not drive the same way. I am happy with finishing second, a little disappointed that we didn’t win, but from how we’ve been running and how the car’s been feeling, I feel like tonight we really pulled things together and the car performed well.”
The year hasn’t gone the way the team would have drawn it up, but they are starting to find their stride late and at a time when the big money races come into play.
“Yeah, we started off the year with a used engine, as parts are still really hard to get, and we have been transitioning from using Dave George engines to Murry Racing Engines, and Jeff has been great to us in getting stuff back to us. I know he is very busy and under the gun, and making that transition from one engine builder to the other just got us a little behind. Every engine builder does something different, and you build the setup around the engine, so we kind of chased our tail around a little bit early on. This is a brand-new car we have, and it only has a few races on it, and we are just now starting to get stuff straightened out and start rolling.
“Some of that is on the driver as well; I didn’t drive good some nights when we had a good car, and I took myself out of contention to win races. Whether it be bumping an inside yuke tire or pushing the issue when I shouldn’t, I have to take the responsibility for that and apologize to my guys because, at the end of the day, they work hard at this too. When I have a good car and do not perform the way I should have, I feel bad.”
Coming into Saturday, not only the car was good, but Hirthler found himself in a good place mentally after returning from vacation.
“I am just coming off a week on vacation, and I think that helped me as well tonight,” said Hirthler. “I had a long week to sit and think on the beach and just unwind, gather my thoughts, and think about things I have done wrong throughout the year behind the wheel. It was good to get all that stuff straight with myself, come into tonight with a clear head, and make good decisions. I was not stressed out worrying if the car was ready to go because of the rainout last week, so I think all that plays a factor into how we ran tonight.”
If Hirthler can keep his car running like it did on Saturday night, that first win of the year could be coming very soon, and who knows, that win might be the Grandview Grandaddy of them all, the Freedom 76 on Saturday, September 16th.
If you have any comments or questions, I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter (X) @dirtracefan25.