Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – ST. LOUIS, MO – Thursday’s preliminary night of the Gateway Dirt Nationals couldn’t have gone any better for 2023 World of Outlaws Late Model Dirt Series Rookie of the Year Nick Hoffman.
Hoffman set overall fast time in qualifying, easily won his heat race and simply obliterated the competition in the 25-lap Late Model feature to score the $5,000 payday and show everyone he’s one of the favorites to win the main event on Saturday night.
“This is one step out of the way,” Hoffman said. “Saturday night’s the big one. That’s the one we’re going after.”
After the entire night’s action, you’d never know Hoffman had competed, and won, on a 1/5-mile indoor dirt track with a Late Model. As good of a night as he had, the weight off Hoffman’s shoulders, knowing he’s guaranteed to start Saturday’s $30,000 A-main, means so much.
“It feels so good to just run in the top three and make sure we’re locked in,” he said. “Obviously, this is home for me so this is bad ass. All of my family is here, my friends, so many fans in the crowd. I just wish my kids were here to celebrate with us.”
It’s that hometown feel that made Thursday’s win so special for Hoffman.
“That’s probably the most pumped up I’ve been for a race in quite a long time,” he said. “I’ve been able to win a prelim here in a Modified but it was nothing like this. Everyone comes here to watch Late Models. This is just unbelievable.”
When it’s your night, it’s your night and Thursday night belonged to the driver of the NOS Energy Drink Tye Twarog Racing #9.
“Everything went our way, all night,” he said. “I was really worried about my pill draw because I was like the last car to go out in group A (of time trials). Typically here, that’s a bad deal and we were able to lay down a really good lap and get quick time.”
From there, Hoffman knew he had a car that could contend for the win.
“Timing well just set up our whole night and gets your confidence really high,” he said. “Then, from that point, I was like, there’s no way I’m going to lose this race.”
His night was aided by the luck of the draw, as after his heat race win, he was able to secure the best seat in the house for the main event.
“To be the first guy to draw and draw the one, that’s unheard of for me,” he said. “I’m terrible at drawing. I’m just really pumped up for what we were able to do tonight. Saturday night’s what we’re here for but this will definitely help us sleep better the next two nights.”
Right before the feature, officials did track prep to try and give the racers the best surface possible. Starting on the pin, was Hoffman nervous that he’d made the right changes for what he’d be facing?
“I didn’t make any changes all night to be honest,” he said. “This Longhorn Chassis with Bilstein Shocks, those guys dialed me right in. The biggest thing was, though, with the little bit of rework on the track, if I could get into the corner and clear a guy, slide across and control the race, it was going to be pretty tough to pass me.”
Hoffman had a plan.
“That was my biggest goal, to make sure I got a good start,” he said. “I wanted to clear him (Jaden Frame) getting into turn one and I was able to do that. With a track fast like this, it was going to be tough to pass and I felt like my racecar was going to get better as the track slowed down and it showed.”
Ironically, the car Hoffman is racing is one that didn’t exactly have the best of luck, up to this point, during his first season with the Twarog team.
“We tore this car up earlier this year,” he said. “I was able to fix it and make it good enough to run here. Nobody wants to bring their best stuff here so we put this thing back together and obviously, it’s really good.”
Having been a part of the Gateway Dirt Nationals each year except for 2022, Hoffman and his team believe they may have found something with the specific Longhorn Chassis their competing with.
“Tye’s like, we’re going to run this thing, and if it runs good, that may just be our indoor car,” he said. “It might be a deal like the Chili Bowl where you have an indoor car and an outdoor car and this thing’s pretty good so far.”
Almost instantly during the 25-lap feature, Hoffman had built up a decent lead but encountered lap traffic. However, nearing the midway point of the race, the yellow flag came out for the 81 of Jack Riggs who slowed.
That re-racked the field but, more importantly, got Hoffman away from having to deal with the back-markers. How important was that to his chances at winning?
“The way the race track was early, I was pretty fast so I knew I was going to get to lappers pretty quick,” he said. “There was no way around it. After the caution, once the track slowed down, we made about 10 laps and it took me longer to get to those guys. Hats off to the lap cars because they left me a lane and were able to make passes clean.”
From there, until the finish, Hoffman kept his eye on where his closest competitors were.
“I just watched the video board and kept a decent distance,” he said. “That way, if I got into trouble, I could get out of it.”
While he wants the big trophy and check on Saturday, Thursday’s prelim win ranks right up there on the all-time list for Hoffman.
“This is just so awesome,” he said. “This is right up there with any of my wins in general but we’re still after the big one on Saturday.”