Chasing the Checkered Flag

Local racers hope to return Montana 200 trophy home at July 13-15 race

Notable losing streaks are found throughout the sports world. The Chicago Cubs waited 107 years to win a World Series. The Red Sox suffered for 86 unbearable years before bringing a championship trophy home to Boston. And the entire city of Cleveland wallowed for more than half a century waiting for one of its three major professional teams to win a title.

Just up the road from Kalispell, there’s another sports drought 14 years in the making. Since 2003, no driver from the Treasure State has won the Flathead Valley’s Montana 200, one of the premier motorsport races in the Pacific Northwest. But this year, local drivers are optimistic that one of them will keep the trophy here at home.

“It would mean so much and really help the sport locally if someone from Montana won it,” said Agni Howell, 46, of Kalispell, who is one of the men hoping to win the race.

Now in its 27th year, the Coors Light Montana 200 is the signature event at Montana Raceway Park, located along U.S. Highway 93 between Kalispell and Whitefish. The Super Late Model race attracts dozens of the region’s top racers vying for thousands of dollars in prize money, including a $15,000 purse for the overall winner. The three-day event, this year running from July 13-15, usually attracts more than 4,000 spectators daily.

Howell got into motorsports in the 1990s and started racing Late Models in the early 2000s. He said he started as a spectator but quickly got swept up into the excitement of racing.

“I got a lot of speeding tickets in my younger days,” Howell said, laughing. “I got chewed out by the cops so much in my 20s that I got into racing so that I could legally speed.”

After two races this season — the Charlie Thorne Late Model 100 on June 3 and the Miller Lite Late Model 100 on June 17 — Howell is currently in second place among the dozen drivers guaranteed to appear in the Montana 200. The race has space for 24 competitors, with 12 spots reserved for drivers who perform well in qualifying races ahead of the big weekend. The other 12 spots go to drivers who compete in heat races on July 13 and 14. Last year was the first time Howell earned a spot among the top 12, but despite that placement he failed to finish the race after being sidelined by a mechanical issue with 40 laps to go.

This year, however, Howell is feeling good about his chances, and said he and his vehicle are ready for a winning performance.

“I’m racing better than I ever have,” he said.

If Howell, or any other Montana racer, wins the Montana 200, it would be the first time a Montanan has taken the checkered flag since Ken Kaltschmidt won it in 2003.

Montana Raceway Park General Manager Giles Thornton agreed that having a Montana winner would mean a lot for the sport locally and perhaps drive additional interest. Thornton is no stranger to the sport — he raced for eight years, and his family owns Raceway Park and its quarter-mile-long track.

“The Montana 200 is an amazing race, and it always has a really exciting atmosphere,” Thornton said. “This is our biggest event of the year, and it’s really a must-do event for drivers in the Pacific Northwest.”

The Montana 200 kicks off on Thursday, July 13 with practice runs at the track. Admission is free that day. On Friday, July 14, the action continues with heat and qualifying races. The Montana 200 green flag waves on July 15 at 8 p.m.

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