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NICK SCHWIEN â ¢ Hays Daily News A group of sport compacts battle through the first turn during a heat race earlier this year at RPM Speedway in Hays.

Compact clash

The darkness of the June night set in, and Art Herzog and Michael Smith were up to their usual post-race activities.

The two sport compact drivers were swapping stories and shooting the breeze.

It's a scene that plays out nearly every night the two do battle on the track.

"We battle each other, but we have fun doing it,"  Herzog said. "We cuss each other every once in awhile, more so out on the track. But when we come into the pits when racing's done, it's like a big family."

"It's a good thing they don't have radios in the cars at times," Smith joked. "They'd have to do a lot of bleeping out at times."

Welcome to the sport compact class, where the cars might not be as fast as the other regular four IMCA divisions that run at RPM Speedway in Hays and WaKeeney Speedway, but they provide just as much excitement.

The class, once classified as an entry-level division to get drivers involved in the sport of dirt-track racing, has evolved into something bigger. Now, racing veterans are sticking around in the division to get the thrill of racing while not having to break the bank every weekend to make it out on the track.

There are a few young guns as well, including recent Hays High School graduates Kirk Pfannenstiel and Kiowa Higdon. Drivers must be at least 14 years old to run the front-wheel drive cars.

"It's not as expensive as all the other classes," Higdon said. "You really can get into this class as a beginner."

But track promoters and tech personnel know just because the sport compacts usually run the first heat races and feature of the night, there's not going to be any slacking off from the drivers and their competitiveness.

Instead, it's quite the opposite. The intensity often rivals the ballyhooed modified and stock divisions.

That oftentimes can make things interesting on the track.

"I still have a brain fade," Herzog said.

"Everybody does,"  Smith said.

"I know Michael does, and everybody does,"  Herzog said. "We think the track's better than it is, and we'll drive it in too hard and tag somebody a little bit. But we pretty well know it wasn't intentional."

"Art and I have swapped paint many a time for several years,"  Smith said.

"Then we'll go over to each other's pits and apologize," Herzog said. "I don't do it intentional, and I know Michael doesn't do it intentional."

"I don't like to work on my car all the time," Smith said. "I like to put it in the garage and be able to relax. I don't want to work on it day after day."

The sport compact class has seen growth the last few seasons, especially in northwest Kansas. In the IMCA ranks this year, there are 415 licensed drivers in the division, an increase of 24 from last year at the same time. There are 41 sanctioned tracks that run the class.

RPM Speedway was the only track in the area to regularly run the compacts. In 2013, WaKeeney added the class a few nights. This year, the speedway added the class full-time.

"There's just not a lot of tracks out there that run us,"  Smith said. "There are if you want to travel. North Platte races every week, but that's a three-hour drive. And Salina is an outlaw class, and a two-hour drive. It just kind of sucks for us to not get to race that much any more."

"I'm glad they brought us on full-time this year,"  Herzog said. "They ran us half-time last year, and when they said they were bringing us on full-time, I was happy."

Four drivers won features at RPM in 2013, including Herzog, Mitch Bolton and Daniel Dembowski. Monte Honas was the cream of the crop, taking home 10 feature wins in Hays.

The four-race schedule at WaKeeney in 2013 yielded four winners -- Herzog, Dean Herzog, Honas and Smith.

This year, the division at Hays and WaKeeney has belonged to Higdon, who has won half of the races at RPM (4) and several more at WaKeeney.

"It's great because just having one track at RPM wasn't enough for us to get a chance at national points," Higdon said.

Higdon was 17th in national points prior to last weekend's races throughout the country. He was followed closely by Smith, Herzog and Pfannenstiel.

Higdon was the leader in state points through June 22, 14 ahead of Herzog and 25 ahead of Pfannenstiel.

"I think people are really surprised," Higdon said. "They aren't used to seeing an 18-year-old go out and have success and have a fast car."

Higdon's success also has brought controversy. He won the sport compact feature June 7 in Hays but failed post-race inspection by IMCA officials for having an illegal trailing arm. That boosted Smith to the top spot.

Higdon's since rebounded to win two in a row at Hays, both in convincing fashion.

There's been grumblings from more than a few people in the stands and community that Higdon might be using illegal tactics.

"It's just a thing," Hidgon said. "People start winning, and then others get jealous. People don't like winners, I guess."

A night after being disqualified in Hays, he had the issue fixed and won at WaKeeney.

Honas went through the same grumblings last year when he dominated at Hays.

That's not limited to only one class of racing, though, if one driver begins to dominate.

It's the rules that have drivers saying the front-wheel drive cars are one of the most competitive classes of IMCA racing.

"I guess everybody running stock," Herzog said.

"You can tell the ones who are running stock, and the more experienced drivers," Smith said. "That's the ones who are out towards the front. But you can tell the ones who have more money in it than the rest of them. When they get out front, there's no way to catch them."

"That's just the way it is," Herzog said. "You just have to put up with it and move on to the next one."

The class, similar to others, is like a family -- albeit sometimes with disagreements.

"I think racing is pretty much like a big family,"  Smith said. "Everybody gets along with everybody, for the most part. If anybody needs help, I can guarantee at least one racer or two is going to be over that."

Case in point: When a driver needs a tire changed during a race, several crews rush to help -- no matter if it's the car they've been helping with or not.

"I've helped about everybody I can think of at least one time or another,"  Herzog said. "Everybody pitches in if they need something. And I've helped some of them that everybody asks why I keep doing that. If I didn't do that, we wouldn't be racing. They wouldn't race, and then I wouldn't race. Why not?"

By NICK SCHWIEN

nschwien@dailynews.net