Gary Stuhler is back on track.
Last weekend, late-model drivers on the STARS (Short Track Auto Racing Series) circuit invaded the Williams Grove and Hagerstown speedways. With more than $30,000 in prize money on the line, more than 40 drivers from nine different states and as far west as Michigan competed.
When it was all over, Stuhler of Westminster went home with the lion's share of the purse by winning at both tracks.
Stuhler has been hot this year. If any local driver was going to take itall, Stuhler was the favorite to do it. He had won feature events at Hagerstown and Winchester (Va.) speedways and is leading in points at Hagerstown.
On Friday night at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pa., Stuhler turned in the fourth-fastest lap in time trials.
Then in the six-lap -- for the six fastest qualifiers, Stuhler thrilled the crowd of more than 7,000 with a daring inside move to pass two cars on the final lap for the win. It was a race fans will be talking about the rest of the year.
In the feature, Stuhler dropped back to third at the start of the race, then meticulously worked his way into the lead on lap 13. For the rest of the 25-lap race, it was all Stuhler as he pulled away to take the win by three seconds over Charlie Swartz of Ashland, Ky.
Because this was the STARS' first visit to Williams Grove, Stuhler had an advantage over the visiting drivers. Although late models only race at the Grove three times a year, Stuhler had 13 career wins, including one last year, going into Friday's race. Stuhler credited his past experience on the track for the win.
"I knew if I picked the right tire I would be OK," said Stuhler, 38. "I think I had harder [compound] tires than the others and it paid off."
By the time that Saturday night's race at Hagerstown rolled around, Stuhler was very confident. Now he was taking on STARS on his home track, where he had won two weeks earlier and placed second the week before.
His confidence wasn't hurt a bit when he turned in the fastest time of the night over 43 cars. Then he finished third in the --.
Starting in the third spot, Stuhler had the lead by the 10th lap and dominated the rest of the race.
He ran away from the 24-car field, and when the checker fell 40 laps later, Stuhler was in front of second-place Donnie Moran of Dresden, Ohio, by six seconds. He picked up $8,000 for 75 laps of feature racing in two nights.
"It was a good weekend. It was one of the better ones I had," said Stuhler. "I was pretty pumped up for the weekend. After winning Friday night, I was pumped up even more. I really like racing these guys."
Big weekends are not new to Stuhler.
In 1986, he made his mark in racing at the Pennsylvania Motor Speedway in Pittsburgh by winning the Gold Cup Series race.
Since that race in Pittsburgh, Stuhler went on to become the winningest driver in the northeast. For the next four years, he averaged 19 wins a season. His talent propelled him to more than 100 wins, two track titles at Winchester and one at Hagerstown.
With all of his success, fans expected Stuhler to continue his domination. But the 1991 and 1992 seasons were off years for Stuhler. Instead of winning 20 races a season, he was down to 10.
Still he had more wins than any driver except Nathan Durboraw at Hagerstown. It wasn't that Stuhler was doing that badly, it was just that Durboraw was putting together two great seasons erasing records that Stuhler had established the year before.
Then to make matters worse, the owner of Stuhler's car, Ron Hayes of Middletown in Frederick County, had kidney failure and has had to spend a lot of time on a dialysis machine.
Over the winter, Hayes had a successful kidney transplant. This year has been a turnaround.
"Speedy [Ron Hayes] is feeling better, the team's a lot better," said Stuhler. "He was really sick. We were really concerned about him more than racing."
If there was any doubt that Stuhler had lost it, last weekend proved once again that he is one of the best drivers in the country.