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Brawl in the fall

As the cars make their way into turn three on the cool, crisp October night, thousands of fans hold their breath as the silence of the night is exploded with revving engines producing enough horsepower to cause a minor earthquake.

That noise just might pale in comparison to the screams let out laps later by the winner of the feature event.

That's what a $5,000 payout and the title of Fall Nationals champion is all about.

Hundreds have tried to win the weekend event at RPM Speedway in Hays during past seasons, but only five drivers have earned that distinction.

It's a crown that has to be earned, and a little luck doesn't hurt. But the reward at the end, well, let's just say it's one of the best a modified driver can earn in the U.S.

And winning the title at Fall Nationals quickly goes on any driver's resume of accomplishments.

"You put that type of money up to win, and you're going to get really good cars," said modified driver Jordan Grabouski of Beatrice, Neb. "When you win a race like that, it's something you don't hang your head in shame on. I think no matter who wins that thing, you have to earn it."

Fall Nationals VI kicks off Oct. 11 with a test-and-tune for IMCA hobby stocks, sport mods, stocks and modifieds. That Thursday night also features sport compact heats and the feature, which offers $300 to win.

On the following two days, that's when the action heats up the cool night. Hobby stocks begin their battle for the $1,000 prize, while sport mods ($2,000) and stocks ($3,000) also are competing for one of the largest payouts ever.

The capping event Saturday night after features in the three other classes is the $5,000 payout for the modified A-main winner. It's one of the five largest payout weekends for IMCA racers.

"It's taken off not only for the track but us as well," said Brett Root, vice president of operations at IMCA in Vinton, Iowa. "Over the years, it's becoming one of our signature events. We break things down nationally and on a regional-style basis, and it's a big event on both levels."

The number of modifieds competing has increased from approximately 35 in the first year to more than 80 last year. It's one of the largest shows in the country, perhaps second to only the IMCA Super Nationals in Boone, Iowa.

"We were hoping it would be one of the biggest events in the Midwest," said Wade Porter, treasurer at RPM Speedway. "We had big dreams and high hopes it would turn into something like this. ... Hopefully we'll draw 100 mods and 70 stocks one of these years."

Fall Nationals has grown in social circles as well. Now, many of the top drivers in the nation journey to Hays for the weekend of races, and many of those drivers ink the date on their calendars when it first is announced many months in advance.

"There's guys around here in eastern Iowa that schedule to go to races at Super Nationals and Fall Nationals in Hays,"  Root said. "Not everyone can go to Hays, but it seems to be a race that fills a bulk of the needs to a lot of drivers. They look at what the community gives, what there is to do outside of racing."

One of those drivers is Grabouski, last year's IMCA national champion who also won RPM's Fall Nationals.

"I think it's definitely getting up there as one of the more prime events to go to every year -- along with the Super Nationals and Duel in the Desert," Grabouski said. "Fall Nationals is one we put on our calendar as one we're going to. It sticks out in my mind as one of the big shows at the end of the year."

Duel in the Desert, which takes place in November in Las Vegas, pays $7,777 to the modified winner. But that event features only modifieds and sport mods. Fall Nationals features five classes, while Super Nationals features six -- the same five as RPM, along with late models.

"You've got some big names there,"  said modified driver Dylan Smith of Osceola, Neb. "When you put the money out there and good cars start going, it draws more good cars. You only get better by the level of competition."

Smith has won some big races in his lifetime, and he's even a past IMCA national champion. In August, he won the Mod Mania event at RPM, a night that featured NASCAR greats Kenny Schrader and Clint Bowyer.

But a win at Fall Nationals has eluded him through the years.

"It would be great," Smith said about winning the crown. "I came down there and won the race this summer, and we qualified for Super Nationals and got the car in there. I think we've got the car good, it's just I need to be up on the wheel and go do it."

No driver has won more than one title at Fall Nationals. Russell's Jeremy Zorn won the inaugural modified event in 2007, and Galva's Jerry Phillips followed that up with a win the next year.

David Murray Jr., a four-time IMCA national champ, won the race in 2009. Will Brack of Mead, Colo., won in 2010, followed by Grabouski last year.

"There's a lot more guys, and a lot more quality guys,"  Murray said. "Guys aren't going to drive eight hours if they don't think they have a chance at winning it. Everybody shows up pretty well from out of state. If they show up from a long way away, they're a pretty good shoe or they're not going to come."

Johnny "The Jet" Saathoff came within an eyelash of taking the checkered flag. In 2010, the Beatrice, Neb., driver led the majority of the race, only to have his transmission break on the final lap.

That allowed Brack to move into first for the win. When he drove into victory lane, his right-rear tire went flat from abusing it during the feature.

"At the end of the year, you know you're going to have the best of the best there," Saathoff said. "The track has been real racy, and I know they're trying to do even more to make it racier. You have to have your game on, that's for sure."

Saathoff has attended the event frequently, even missing out on a race closer to his home to battle for the big bucks in Hays.

"Real good pay,"  he said. "There's some other races around, but I think we're going to actually drive the extra distance to go because it is a better show."

Porter has been instrumental in getting the word out about Fall Nationals. When he and other RPM officials attend Super Nationals each year, they are busy handing out posters touting the event. They're also busy spreading the word about what the track has to offer.

"It's one of the races at Super Nationals people talk about," Root said. "Wade talks to a lot of people, helps promote the event up there -- which is smart."

Track officials also are quick to come up with post-race activities to keep drivers around the track as well.

"At Fall Nationals, they treat you so well down there," Smith said. "They have things to do after the races, and it's just a fun event. There's a lot of good cars that come down. You want to go down there so you can race against the best."

The best arrive in droves for the event, and officials quickly expand the pit area to the north of the normal facilities to accompany the growing number of drivers in each class. As the years have gone on, that pit area has expanded more and more.

"We love coming there,"  Grabouski said. "It seems like it's the right time of year. Porter and all the guys at the race track do a nice job putting on the show. We've had really good luck there, just hadn't been able to really clinch the big one. I had ran third and second and seventh and third again.

"We've had really good luck there. One year, I led nearly the entire race --  just never been able to put it together. It was more of a monkey off our back to finally put it together and win the darn thing. I love that place, and I love that race track. It's fun. We look forward to going there."

While many big name drivers from outside the state take to the track, many regular drivers are thrown into the mix as well. Winning an event like Fall Nationals can make a driver's career.

"With those guys coming down here, those are some big-name guys," said WaKeeney's Travis Sherfick.

"That would be almost like winning the Super Nationals, in a way. Kind of a little, mini Super Nationals. I'm not saying we have all the competition, but we have guys that have won Super Nationals that will be here."

Each year, it becomes harder and harder to win the event as the number of drivers and quality of competitors grows.

And as the event grows in popularity, it continues to put the Hays community in the spotlight for that cool, crisp weekend in October.

"It's one of those deals where there's going to be a bunch of cars -- a bunch of good cars,"  Murray said.

"The track is going to be racy. It's going to be one of them deals where you're going to have to draw good and have everything going. You'll get a chance or two to get there, but you have to capitalize on them. That speaks for the cars and level of competition that will be here."

NICK SCHWIEN

nschwien@dailynews.net