SULLIVAN: The All Star Dilemma

Patrick Sullivan

A recent telephone call with Bert Emick and his lovely wife Brigitte was predictably a pleasant affair. I have never been shy at expressing my affection for this couple, and I am certainly not alone in my admiration for them.

Among the industry leaders I have interacted with, few have been as even-handed, and even fewer have exhibited greater integrity.

For so long the All Star Circuit of Champions was their baby and, honestly, the drivers who followed the tour were their family. Anyone who has ventured into leadership in this sport knows how difficult it can be.

Racers are highly competitive beings, often with healthy egos, and some have an innate persecution complex. Fully mature racers are a blessing, and the more of them you have under your tent, the better life is.

Invariably, however, you will encounter those who are less fully developed. They require instruction and nurturing, and they will test the most patient of souls.

Bert and Brigitte went about their business cheerfully, and weren’t prone to air their dirty laundry for public consumption. Along the way, they built the All Stars into a top-flight club.

Once they stepped away, one can imagine that they still felt a measure of pain when things were not going well. It’s only natural to hope that something you built will last.

When Tony Stewart took over the All Star Circuit of Champions, I suggested that he contact Bert and Brigitte for their insights. I doubt Tony did. That prediction is not born of malice, it is just that I know for a time he was pulled in a million directions.

This I can tell you. I have talked to Tony a few times over the last couple of months, and I have found him to be as relaxed as he has been in years. We’re old friends, but for long stretches I could only have a conversation with him once or twice a year. Everyone wanted a piece of his time.

When I think back, I recall an interaction in the infield tower at the Terre Haute Action Track. He was nearby when I slipped him a copy of the race program and asked him to sign it.

Then, just as he likes to needle others, I added, “I need you to sign this now, because pretty soon you will be too big to talk to me.”

Without missing a beat, he turned and said, “That pisses me off, because when I am through with this crap I’m going to come back and race sprint cars and midgets.”

In the recess of my mind I was thinking, “Yeah, sure you will.” Guess who was wrong?

I was surprised when Tony purchased the All Stars, but at the time I was glad that he did. Sitting here right now, I am even happier that this transpired.

As the season dawned, the lineup was outstanding. Obviously, Aaron Reutzel has been the class of the field with the All Stars, and it is high time that the Texan is recognized as one of the elite drivers in the nation.

Young Brock Zearfoss improves every day, and any series can benefit from having the presence of a veteran like Paul McMahan. The additions to the club’s stated traveling teams included ASCS standout Sam Hafertepe Jr. and Gettysburg, Pa., star Danny Dietrich, who has been one of the best in the east.

One additional driver who has impressed is Zeb Wise, who is paired with youthful Sam McGhee. Yes, Zeb did well in USAC midgets, but he has taken to winged racing like he has been doing it for years.

Finally, fans still get to see Tony mix it up in a sprint car. All of this said, we have all been here before. Sometimes you are hyped up for a concert, an interesting film, or a sporting event, only to be disappointed in the final product.

At the moment, we have had a big build-up and we sure hope things can continue. However, there have already been some moving parts.

I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I’m fidgety when it comes to watching a streamed racing event. I have been in an official capacity for so long that I often feel the need to be doing something. There are also times when I just need a break.

However, by the time the All Stars rolled in to Park Jefferson I was primed to watch.

No one was surprised when Aaron Reutzel won the opening round. Same song, new verse. On night two, I audibly groaned when Aaron wrestled the lead away from Austin McCarl. That’s not a statement about Aaron, it’s just the normal sentiment of a fan that wants to see a new winner.

Then, a funny thing happened. While I might have given up, Austin didn’t.

Showing a tenacity that has been a hallmark of the McCarl family, Austin went elbows-up, got to the bottom, and nailed down his first series win. By any standard it was a heck of a race. It was also important for the rest of the field to recognize that Reutzel could be beat.

As soon as the race was over, I checked the schedule and could not wait for the next round on the red clay of Lawton Speedway. In one of my visits to Lawton years ago, tornadoes were dancing on the horizon, so I have been there when the wind was howling.

Looking at my screen, I sent a text to All Star announcer Blake Anderson asking if a storm was coming. Within seconds he wrote back saying, “Yes, a big one.” Darn.

There’s your first good sign. I was looking forward to the event and was disappointed that it was postponed. Then came the next night at Red Dirt Raceway in Meeker, Okla. By now, most fans know what unfolded. The race itself was an endorsement for both the series and the race track.

About the time Anderson yelled “Hold my Beer,” I was slack-jawed.

It was total mayhem. This time, it was good for the series that Reutzel beat Kyle Larson in a fair fight. It reinforced that the top dog of the All Stars can run with anyone, anywhere. That speaks to the overall quality of the product.

How good was the race? Even the staunchest non-winged sprint car fans acknowledged they had just watched something special. It is the kind of race that fans drive hundreds of miles hoping to see.

Just as Bert and Brigitte first did years ago, Tony took his club west, and now he was steering it south. He was taking a chance to capture new fans, create renewed interest, and make others want to invest in his product.

I congratulated him by text after Park Jefferson, and he wrote back saying, “I’m proud of what we have built. I have a great group of officials, and teams.”

Tony had the right to be proud. Then perhaps economic realities, spurred by the coronavirus, took root. The All Stars went to Port Royal, Hafertepe Jr. wasn’t there, and Zearfoss and Dietrich decided it was a good time to stay put in the Keystone State.

I’m not blaming these guys, I am just a little disappointed for the All Stars.

It’s a very old story. Tony now faces the same dilemma every traveling series has confronted for years. Here is the central question Tony must wrestle with: How far from their home base will my participants, and their checkbooks, travel?

I know Tony will do everything he can to figure this out. He’s just that tenacious. I also hope that Bert and Brigitte Emick are smiling too. This iteration of the All Stars is built upon the foundation they established years ago, and the health of the group matters to them.

I still think the right guy is in place to steer the All Stars forward. There are just always going to be bumps along the way.


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