“Many will start fast, few will finish strong.”

Gary Ryan Blair

In the central east coast short track racing region, the season ends with a series of premier events that bring out some of the best racers in the region and beyond. And so that brought us to historic Hickory Motor Speedway this past weekend for the 2023 Fall Brawl. It also brings a four time Fall Brawl winner to the speedway, this year driving the # 62 Kevin Harvick Incorporated machine, back to a track where he had so much success and to much fanfare. Josh Berry is known as ‘Mr. Hickory’ for a reason, and as he heads into 2024 a full time NASCAR Cup driver, his visit to this race as well as being on the roster for the South Carolina 400 at Florence Motor Speedway on November 18th is an indication that he hasn’t forgotten where he came from. And while the Late Model Stock portion of this event is worth the attention it receives, there are also three other features on the night that makes this a fan favorite event, including a 100 lap feature for the local Limited Late Models, a championship crowning season finale for the Carolina Pro Late Model Series, and a thirty lap feature for the popular Street Stocks.

The 26th running of the Fall Brawl at Hickory Motor Speedway also features a bevy of young talent in a season where the newer generation has been nothing less than sensational. Due in great part to the veterans before them who have and are shaping the sport’s future, the saying becomes more and more evident that to be the best, you have to beat the best, and what we know for sure is that the young drivers in the region are great students that have proven time and time again that they are up for the task. As a short track racing fan, it’s a great thing to see. Like any other sport, the competitors of tomorrow are shaped by the champions of today. Who comes out on top this week? Let’s take a closer look at the 2023 Fall Brawl from a track that’s known for being ‘The Birthplace Of The NASCAR Stars’.

HERITAGE FINANCE COMPANY STREET STOCK FEATURE

Cody DeMarmels in the # 12 sets fast time for the Street Stock division with a lap of 16.166 seconds. Starting alongside on the outside pole will be veteran Gary Ledbetter Jr in the # 4 with the # 55 of Johnny Reynolds rounding out the top three. Hickory Motor Speedway flagman Scott Herman looks over the old school field, likes what he sees, and we’re green to kick off the Fall Brawl! DeMarmels gets a flawless launch on the start and is able to clear for the lead on lap one. Ledbetter Jr won’t let him go easily though as he stays on DeMarmels’ back bumper, waiting for any mistake to be made. Ledbetter Jr peeks under DeMarmels multiple times, but just can’t get a run as now he has a problem! He comes to a slow and brings his machine to pit road, ending his day prematurely. That gives Reynolds the second spot but here comes the # 21 of Drew Cox, diving under Reynolds and taking the spot. Cox puts down some really impressive lap times, but it’s not enough to get near the # 12 as Cody DeMarmels grabs the victory over Cox and Reynolds.

PARAMOUNT AUTO GROUP LIMITED LATE MODEL FEATURE

With a fantastic lap time of 14.985 seconds, young phenom Tristan McKee in the # 7 puts it on the pole in the Limited Late Models. Starting second will be the 2023 Tri-County Speedway Limited Late Model champion Trey Canipe in the # 5 followed by the # 24 of Bryson Ruff, Casey Pierce in the # 71, and 2022 Blue Collar Racer Of The Year Kyle Barnes in the # 00. Herman gazes over the stacked field, approves the formation, and we’re racing! McKee clears coming out of two as Ruff and Pierce battle hard for third. Pierce holds the top with authority but it’s not enough as Ruff holds the position with Pierce slotting in line behind. The frontrunners quickly run into lap traffic, causing some close calls and allowing Barnes to get around Pierce for fourth. Traffic continues to hinder the pack, allowing Canipe to sniff McKee’s back bumper, but he can’t make a move quite yet. The caution flies for the first time shortly after with the # 22 of Rob Westergard and the # 13 of Mark Johnson getting into an incident on the backstraight. After the first choose of the night, McKee will remain your leader followed by Canipe, Pierce, the # 21 of Landon DeVaughn, and Ruff. Canipe sticks to the outside of McKee, but McKee is able to clear coming out of four. DeVaughn and Ruff duel for fourth with Ruff gaining the advantage on the inside. Ruff uses that momentum and looks under Pierce, sliding into third. And now there’s trouble in two different spots, with the # 28 of Bub Haney spinning in four while Tyler Ashley in the # 98 and Westergard wreck out of two. After the bedlam is cleared, McKee will continue to lead followed by Canipe, Ruff, Pierce, and DeVaughn.

McKee and Canipe are dead even for the lead, maybe even trading a little paint in the process as McKee barely clears. DeVaughn dives under Pierce and muscles his way around for fourth as McKee looks to distance himself from the pack. DeVaughn’s car has come to life late in this one as he now fights beneath Ruff, breaking into the top three. Canipe still tries to keep himself in the running, but here comes DeVaughn, using lap traffic to his advantage and taking second away. But it’s too little, too late as Tristan McKee will grab the biggest win of his career in the Fall Brawl. DeVaughn gets a fantastic finish in second, Canipe comes home third, Ruff gets fourth, and Pierce rounds out the top five.

CAROLINA PRO LATE MODEL SERIES COOK OUT 100

The # 57 of young Max Reaves lays down the quickest lap in qualifying of 14.816 seconds, but he draws a seven after qualifying, reverting him to the inside of row four. Holden Allen in the # 94 will roll off on the point with Max Price in the # 5 alongside. Hayden Mowery in the # 55 will start third, # 6 George Phillips fourth, and the # 71 of fan favorite Katie Hettinger will round out the top five. The crowd is on their feet and the drivers are ready as Carolina Pro Late Model Series commentator Terry Radford calls them to the finish line and we’re racing for one last time in 2023! The start is called back however, but the second time around is good as Allen will clear at the conclusion of lap one. Trevor Sorel in the # 77 moves up into fourth with Limited Late Model winner Tristan McKee in the # 7 breaking into the top five. Phillips wastes no time, diving under Price and taking the spot with ease. And in the blink of an eye, Phillips is around Allen, leading his Setzer Racing And Development machine around Hickory. Phillips starts to create a gap as the middle of the pack is a hornet’s nest with Mowery and Hettinger trying to move their way back up. Price now looks on Allen, trying to end his season strong and he’ll take second away. Also trying to make his way through the field is E.J. Tamayo in the # 10, who’s locked in a fierce battle with Kyle DeSouza in the # 1 for the final spot in the top ten, with Tamayo taking it. Beckham Malone in the # 23 moves into the top five by McKee as now the caution flies for the first time as debris has found it’s way on the race track. Phillips will line up on point for the restart followed by Price, Allen, Sorel, and Malone.

Phillips gets a strong restart but there’s trouble behind as Allen and Sorel make contact, sending Sorel around and collecting Jacob Courage in the # 33. That will end the night for both Sorel and Courage as now Price comes down pit road with a major overheating issue! That’ll take the second place runner out as Phillips will once again line up first followed by Allen, Malone, McKee, and a reemerging Hettinger. Phillips gets a fantastic restart as now Allen has some sort of issue, falling like a rock to the back of the pack and to pit road. That’ll give Malone second followed by McKee, Hettinger, and Reaves. Phillips starts to gap the field yet again as now McKee has a problem! His smoking machine will come down pit road moving Hettinger, Reaves, and Mowery up one position. Phillips comes to two to go, looking to cap off an amazing season but Malone gets together with the lap car of Tony Cosentino in the # 11 out of turn four, bringing the caution out! It’ll be a mad dash to the finish with Phillips leading, now followed by Hettinger, Reaves, Mowery, and a great run from DeSouza. Herman anxiously looks over the field, gives the thumbs up, and the green flies! They’re locked in a dead heat for the lead and now Phillips spins out of turn two! The race is turned on it’s head as the dominant driver is out of contention. Hettinger will restart in front, looking to become the first female Carolina Pro winner. Reaves starts second, looking for redemption from the last Hickory race. Mowery starts third, looking for the upset. DeSouza starts fourth and would love to visit Hickory victory lane. And Tamayo, a staple of the tour who started fourteenth, is fifth, looking for his first career win. The green will wave one last time as Hettinger gets a great launch and clears Reaves. Reaves gives it all he’s got, nearly spinning out of four coming to the white, but it’s not enough as Katie Hettinger will make history and wins at Hickory! Reaves grabs second followed by Mowery, DeSouza, and a fantastic run for Tamayo. And coming home ninth, George Phillips locks up the 2023 Carolina Pro Late Model Series championship in an absolutely amazing season.

LATE MODEL STOCK FEATURE

Making his debut in the Kevin Harvick Incorporated # 62 Ford, Josh Berry qualifies on pole with a scorching lap of 14.646 seconds. Starting second will be 2023 Hickory Motor Speedway Late Model Stock champion Kade Brown in the # 23 Matt Piercy Racing entry. Starting third will be fan favorite Gracie Trotter in the # 2 followed by the # 57 Carroll Speedshop machine of Connor Zilisch and the # 15 of veteran Ryan Millington. Herman looks over the competitive field, approves the lineup, and we’re green for 200 laps of high octane Hickory action! Berry gets the slight edge off the start but it’s Brown who gets by on the outside. The middle of the pack gets stacked up as the # 151 of Grant Davidson has an issue, bringing his machine to pit road with irreparable problems. Millington scoots by both Zilisch and Trotter for third as Berry begins to conserve tires. The # 88 of Doug Barnes Jr now grabs fourth as Trotter falls back a bit. Millington now takes second from Berry with Barnes Jr following through. Skyler Chaney in the # 17 moves up to fourth with Berry rounding out the top five with Zilisch right in line in sixth. Chaney dives under Barnes Jr and captures third, leaving Barnes Jr to deal with Berry. They finally single file out after twenty straight laps of white knuckled racing. The caution flies as Akinori Ogata in the # 14 spins out of turn two. Lining up for the restart will be Brown in first followed by Millington, Chaney, Barnes Jr, and Berry. Millington gets a great jump and takes the lead as Barnes Jr takes third from Chaney, bringing Zilisch along with him as Berry falls to sixth. Now Brown is back on Millington’s bumper and retakes the top position after a handful of laps. Behind them, Zilisch takes third away from Barnes Jr as they near the halfway point.

Barnes Jr gets a challenge from Chaney, but holds on for the time being. Chaney is now under fire from Taylor Satterfield in the # 40 but holds his ground in fifth. Berry starts to show his muscle, passing the duo of Satterfield and Chaney, setting himself up for a strong run in the second half. The caution flies as we reach the 100 lap mark, allowing the teams to come down pit road for adjustments and repairs. After all is said and done, Brown will restart first accompanied by Millington in second, Zilisch third, Barnes Jr fourth, and Berry fifth. Who wins the prestigious Fall Brawl? The green flies and we’re back underway! Brown improves on his last restart, clearing Millington as the # 15 machine now fights with Zilisch. Zilisch will grab the spot with Millington slicing into third. Zilisch now looks on Brown and dives to his inside, almost making contact! Brown somehow hangs on as Berry breathes down the back of Barnes Jr’s neck. Barnes Jr holds tough but Berry rides the inside as smooth as silk, grabbing the fourth position. Berry, who seems to be the fastest car on the track at the moment, now sets up Millington, but Millington won’t give up the bottom. No problem for Berry though as he powers to the outside and gets around, setting his sights on Zilisch. Back in fifth, Barnes Jr has a mechanical issue, ending his night prematurely and giving Satterfield the position. Lap traffic starts to become a nuisance for the frontrunners, but they get through without incident as Kade Brown, in a career year, will win the 2023 Fall Brawl. Zilisch comes home second in a great run followed by Berry who comes up just short in a late charge, Millington gets a solid fourth, and Satterfield rounds out the top five in his R&S machine.

MY TAKE

It’s important to finish strong in anything you do. It’s true not only for the central east coast short track racing region itself, but also for the competitors that make it so special. Building momentum in any competition sport is important. That was on full display this past weekend at Hickory Motor Speedway. In unusual fashion, three of the four races were won with the victor leading nearly every lap. Almost unheard of in a premier event of this magnitude. And the one that wasn’t was a history making run. A redemption of sorts as Katie Hettinger shakes off an unfortunate set of circumstances coming to the end of the 2023 season and wins her first Carolina Pro Late Model race in the closing laps becoming the first female driver to win on the tour. Cody DeMarmels, Tristan McKee, and Kade Brown were untouchable in their efforts, guaranteeing their momentum at the cusp of the season heading into next year.

Ah, but social media was ablaze. There’s no secret to the fact that Kade Brown’s win wasn’t popular with some. It all stems from what some felt was a questionable call from the speedway earlier in the year. It’s one of the reasons we say it’s best not to run a car at a family owned track. Some will always question it in that situation, especially if a championship is achieved. We get it. But, we’d also like to point out that Kade Brown was also the Late Model Stock Champion at Florence Motor Speedway last year, and has had big wins this year including the Orange Blossom Special at Orange County Speedway over one of the best Late Model Stock drivers in the country and a top ten at Martinsville in the ValleyStar Credit Union 300. So, say what you will but to try and take away from the ability we’ve seen from this young driver is probably letting your emotions get the best of you. Yeah, we know that might not be a popular statement for some, but we have to tell it like it is, and the truth is that Kade Brown has been one of the best Late Model Stock competitors in the region this year. All that said however, he’s slated to run full time on the CARS Tour next year. It’ll be the toughest test Kade Brown has faced in his career. Out of the five races run on the series this year his highest finish was second. But anyone paying attention knows that if you can make it on that tour, you can make it anywhere. Drivers like Josh Berry are proof of that. Truth is that in great part the CARS Tour is molding the future superstars of the sport. What Brown can accomplish on of the most competitive Late Model tours in the country remains to be seen for sure, but it’ll definitely be one of the things to keep your eyes on in 2024.

And speaking of finishing strong, this week’s Short Track Report Blue Collar Racer Of The Week nod goes to a young driver that displayed absolute tenacity and determination in his racing efforts this past weekend at the Fall Brawl as a brawl is just what he had. Starting fourteenth in the Carolina Pro Late Model field, E.J. Tamayo came into the race still trying to get a feel for his new # 10 machine. But during the race, he constantly moved forward, battling with several drivers throughout the event. And when the race came down to the two restarts at the end, E.J. Tamayo found himself crossing the line in the top five with a fifth place finish in the season finale. Congratulations E.J. and the Tamayo Cosentino racing team on a tremendously determined effort and one that we couldn’t deny for this week’s Blue Collar Racer Of The Week! And congratulations also goes out to the 2023 Carolina Pro Late Model champion George Phillips on a tremendous season. Yes, again, the youth of the region has been strong this year and it’s good for the sport itself. It ensures for healthy competition for years to come. The veterans were taught by drivers that took them to another level, so it’s true for the youth in the sport today, as they will one day be the veterans shaping an entirely different generation. You have to step up and finish strong if you want to make it in this sport. And man have the youth in the sport learned that lesson. ‘Till next time, as always, See You At The Track!

(Race write ups by Joshua Weatherman. Intro and My Take written by Billy Weatherman. 2023 Copyright SHORT TRACK REPORT)

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