Monday, August 13, 2018

Looking Back at My Trip to the Berlin 251

Kyle Busch at the 2011 Rowdy's Revenge 251
Berlin Raceway announced last week that due to a poor entry count, the 2018 running of the Battle at Berlin 251 would be canceled. The race was scheduled for Monday, August 13th. The reason seems to be attributed to the pure abundance of racing in the area combined with teams preparing for championship runs late in the season. Although being one of the higher paying events of the year, many teams could not justify the trip for the Monday night special event in Marne, Michigan.

“This is unfortunate and something that we have never experienced before, but we just can’t hold an event like this with 10 or 11 cars.” said Berlin Raceway General Manager Nick Mesman. “Not only us here at Berlin but our sponsors, spectators and fellow competitors have very high expectations for this event and we felt it wasn’t fair to our fans nor our sponsors and racers to experience anything less.”

The cancelation of this marquee event for this year brought back memories of when I was on the grounds for the Battle at Berlin’s predecessor event, the Rowdy’s Revenge 251, in 2011. That year, the event was plagued with bad weather, and the race was postponed to the following day.

Brian Ickler at Berlin in 2011.
For those that are unaware, the Rowdy’s Revenge 251 got its name from the event’s promoter, Kyle “Rowdy” Busch and his car number 51. Busch had two super late models entered into the race, one for himself and one for fellow Kyle Busch Motorsports driver, Brian Ickler. Naturally, both were fast.

There was a who’s who of super late model drivers in attendance as well. Johnny Benson, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, and Ryan Blaney just to name a few. Suffice it to say with talent like Johnny VanDoorn, Brian Campbell and Bubba Pollard racing, the field was stacked.

Stepping back a bit, the lead up to event was interesting for me. This was the first time I was attending a race outside of the Deep South. For the event, my primary duty was as a photographer for By this time I had covered the Snowball Derby, The Rattler, and several smaller events in my region. Although a rookie, I was now really part of the team and ready to tackle the challenge of a new venue.

The first day was the practice day and, as most are, was very busy. It was also eye-opening. I had never been to Berlin Raceway before, so being at a new track, around new people and not having the familiarity I was accustomed to having on my home terf, was interesting to say the least. I quickly found my groove, however, and was soon introducing myself to anyone and everyone. At first I looked for people from my area that had also made the trip, like Hunter Robbins and Allen Karnes. I then began familiarizing myself with the faces of drivers I’d never seen in person before, and it wasn’t long before I was darting from spot to spot looking for the best photo I could get.

Berlin Raceway is a tad on the odd side with its layout. The racing surface as a slight kink coming out of turn two, and the pit entry is in the middle of turns one and two. The way the pits are laid out, cars are pitted on both sides of three lanes as well as a side lane perpendicular to the rest. The traffic flow was odd, but manageable as long as you paid attention to where you were going.

I began finding the spots to get the best speed shots around the track and soon found myself next to the guard rail on the backstretch shooting photos beside Dave Blaney, who was spotting for and working with son Ryan and the family run super late model team.

Dave Blaney spots for son Ryan at Berlin in 2011.
Dave was awesome to hang around. Just like anyone else at the race track, he was consumed with doing whatever it took to go faster, but also gave a healthy dose of smartass comments along the way. Whatever the young Ryan was doing on track at that moment was starting to irritate Dave, but instead of getting angry, he just made fun of the boy instead.

The biggest story I was a part of on the initial day was young Erik Jones, who had crashed his primary race car and was preparing the backup. Looking back, I really had no idea how many future stars I was surrounded by. In the moment, they were merely the racers of the day. Today, I realize I was helping to document the early portions of their careers.

The next day was supposed to be raceday, and started out promising. While the skies were threatening, the mood at the track very optimistic. The first part of the day progressed as scheduled. Rounds of practice all leading up to qualifying then feature racing.

Midway through the day, I had the privilege of getting to experience what was not only the highlight of my trip, but a career highlight as well. I got to have lunch with Kyle Busch and the Kyle Busch Motorsports crew!

Myself and one of my colleagues were invited to join the team for burgers that they were cooking in their pit. It was purely coincidental and totally awesome. On the surface, it was just a group of bubbas eating some burgers in their pit area, but looking back, it was much more.

Many people dislike Kyle Busch for all the antics he has been a part of throughout his career. He is the sport’s most polarizing driver. His fans are diehards and his haters hate him harder than perhaps any other driver. He is criticized constantly for doing exactly what is expected of him; winning anything and everything by any means necessary. Many of the negativity surrounding Busch is warranted, but in that moment, on that day, all I witnessed was a group of racers doing what racers do and enjoying every minute of it.

Kyle was candid with us, even though we were members of the same media that tends to sensationalize anything he does. He didn’t hold back. He was relaxed, and even fun to be around. Granted, I’m sure that this event being his race, with his name, and being the race’s odds on favorite to win, played heavily into the Las Vegas native’s demeanor. But my is this.My While most effectively saw an asshole, in that moment I saw just a regular dude trying to eat a hamburger and go on to win a race later on that day.

To this day, when I watch Kyle Busch, I think back on the day I got to eat lunch with him. It was an awesome experience for me and will most likely always allow me to be able to see him from both sides of the coin; the true diehard racer, and the media-sensationalized/fan hated bad boy of NASCAR. It's an interesting perspective to have that most will never enjoy.

With lunch over, the day continued -- again as scheduled… until super late model qualifying. That’s when mother nature decided that she would add in her two cents, or in this case -- buckets and buckets of rain. The skies finally opened up and would not relent, leading to the cancelation of the remainder of the day’s schedule with a postponement to the next day. For me, that was the worst possible news I could receive.

With non-refundable plane ticket back to Pensacola, I had no choice but to head back while most of the crew remained to cover the race on the next day. My Rowdy 251 was over.

Kyle Busch celebrates winning the Rowdy's Revenge 251 in 2011.
I returned home in time to be able to listen to the radio broadcast of the race that evening. I was annoying, but as a whole the experience was awesome. Kyle Busch went on to pick up the win in the race adorned with his name, besting Johnny Benson. Busch had battled with Johnny VanDoorn throughout the bulk of the event, which was thrilling to listen to on the radio broadcast.

Jumping back to the present day, this year’s running of the event has been canceled. It wasn’t mother nature’s doing, but instead a plethora of racing in the surrounding area, such as the Kalamazoo Klash, Dixeland 250 and a myriad of regional and track championship runs. Berlin Raceway plans to resume the running of the Battle at Berlin 251 in 2019 and beyond.

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