‘The Most Prestigious Race’

By Beacon Staff

When the largest motorsports event in the state celebrates its 20th birthday, a big spectacle can be expected. And judging by the number of registered racecars, this weekend’s Montana 200 will be among the biggest spectacles in Montana Raceway Park’s history.

Justin Rody, Montana Raceway Park’s general manager and promoter, said more than 40 drivers had signed up as of last week for the 20th Annual Coors Light Montana 200, and more were expected to register. Drivers are coming from California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Canada and Montana.

The race is held at Montana Raceway Park north of Kalispell, with qualifying rounds on July 16 and July 17 before the main event, which begins at 9 p.m. on Saturday night.

Two legend class racecars make their slight ascent from the pit onto the Montana Raceway Park track during a Saturday night race.

“It’s one of the largest pre-race lists that we’ve ever had and we still have drivers calling,” Rody said last week. “It’s pretty neat to have drivers from all over the U.S.; it’s not just the Northwest anymore.”

Montana Raceway Park is one of two asphalt racetracks in the state, Rody said. The other is the Mission Valley Speedway in Pablo. And while the track holds races throughout the summer, the granddaddy of them all is the Montana 200. With an annual attendance of 5,000 spectators or more, Rody said it’s the biggest motorsport event in the state.

This year figures to be one of the biggest in the race’s history. Part of that may be due to the 20-year landmark, but much of it is simply a product of steady growth, Rody said.

“It’s developed into a show and people talk about it and guys want to be part of it,” Rody said. “It’s a big event now and we’re really excited about it.”

Also, this weekend’s race is benefitting from a heightened sense of drama. For one, several past winners are signed up and driving well coming into the race. Secondly, the high number of racers battling for only 24 spots in the main race makes for an intriguing two days of qualifying.

And lastly, the whole field is trying to end an historic run by Gary Lewis of Snohomish, Wash., who has won a record three straight titles.

“He’s on a high podium there,” Rody said. “It’s going to take a lot to knock him off, but there’s a lot of competition coming in.”

One of the drivers looking to end Lewis’ streak is Bodie Morton of Kalispell. Driving in his sixth Montana 200, Morton finished fifth last year and has been performing well in other races this summer.

Morton believes his No. 77 car, a grey and black Chevy Monte Carlo with an orange stripe, could be poised for a victory lap.

Super Stock racer Lance Gemmrig blurs past onlookers watching the Saturday night race from the pit area at Montana Raceway Park. Gemmrig won the race earning his first trophy ever.

“If you’re running up in the front you never know what’s going to happen,” Morton said.

Other registered drivers from Kalispell are Agni Howell; Wrango West; Mark Owens; Alex Lessor; Billy Salmonsen and Troy Schweigert. Cory Wolfe of Ronan is also registered, along with a number of drivers from other parts of Montana.

Owens won the event in 1995 and Wolfe was champion in 1994. They finished right behind Lewis last year and are expected to compete for the title again.

“If Lewis would have screwed up once one of those guys would have had it – a local boy would have got it,” Rody said.

The cars driven at the Montana 200 are Super Late Models, the top division of racecars at most asphalt tracks. “They look almost like an older cup-style car,” Rody said, with 500-horsepower motors and fiberglass bodies. The chasses are usually homemade, often by the drivers themselves. The Super Late Models get up to speeds of 80 to 90 miles per hour, Rody said.

Qualifying for the Montana 200 begins at 7 p.m. on Friday to determine the first 12 of the 24 spots. Those 12 drivers then run a heat to determine their starting positions, followed by a 40-lap consolation race to establish starting positions 13 through 18.

The final six positions are set on Saturday in a 40-lap, last-chance qualifying race. Rody said the last-chance race starts at 6 p.m., earlier than in past years.

The purse for the Montana 200 is the biggest in race history, at $15,000 for the winner and up to $20,000 if the winner also sets the fast time, claims the trophy dash and takes the qualifying heat race.

The checkered flag flies as two hornet class racers approach the finish line during a Saturday night race at Montana Raceway Park.

Morton said the Montana 200 is the most revered race of its kind in the Northwest.

“I’ve been to the Idaho 200 and that’s a good race, but this is the most prestigious race,” Morton said. “It’s a little more intense. You get a few more of the tour guys and because of the big guys, this one’s even hard to make the race.”