NICK SCHWIEN â ¢ Hays Daily News Clay Money leads Ben Kates and Austin Carter during a Northern sport mod heat race Sunday at WaKeeney Speedway.

NICK SCHWIEN â ¢ Hays Daily News Kaid Calhoon lifts the left front off the ground while powering through turn four Sunday at WaKeeney Speedway.

Sport mod surge

A lot can change in 10 years. In racing circles, there's even more truth to that.

One of the biggest changes is the number of drivers and the level of competition in IMCA's Northern sport mod class.

Now, the class has turned into a crowd favorite at many tracks in the United States.

"I knew it would be growing,"  said Trenton Kleweno, a sport mod driver from Hays. "But every year I've been in it, it just seems like it gets tougher. Everyone is buying new cars every year. It's almost like a modified, without the motor. I didn't think it would be at this level, but I knew it would be pretty competitive."

Kleweno's assessment might not give the class justification. IMCA touts the sport mod division as one of the fastest growing in the county.

And the numbers back that up.

In 2005, 84 drivers purchased licenses and competed for IMCA championships at four tracks, according to the sanctioning body. Three of those tracks were in Iowa, while the other was in Nebraska.

Last year, the number of licensed drivers in the class ballooned to 1,310. IMCA crowned champions at 71 tracks in 14 states.

"It's getting huge,"  said Tonganoxie's Ben Kates, who just finished up a western Kansas swing during the weekend at Hays' RPM Speedway and WaKeeney Speedway. "And it's getting affordable for the people. A lot of people, they look at the A-mods and say it's way too expensive and can't do that. Then they look at the sport mod division, and it's so much more affordable. That's helped it blow up, and it's good for racing because it helps get more people into it and brings more cars to the track. I love the division."

The biggest difference between the sport mod and modified classes is the size of the motor. The smaller motor in the sport mod can make it more affordable for some drivers.

"It's the affordability. That's the main thing," Kates said. "It's a really competitive class. You have a bunch of good drivers. Look at Clay (Money). He's younger than I am, and I'm only 18. He won (Saturday) night. You have different age groups from 15 to however old. They're all good drivers and great competition."

While the talent level was minimal the first few seasons, it since has skyrocketed. And dirt tracks in western Kansas showcase some of the nation's best in the class.

That includes Clay Money. The high school student at Hill City won his fair share of races last year and started the 2014 campaign by winning the second night at the Sunflower Classic on Saturday in Hays.

"I think it's how the competition is starting to get,"  Money said about the sport mod popularity. "Fans are liking the better racing. Then everyone else is starting to like it and trying to get in it."

IMCA doesn't have official numbers yet for the 2014 season as far as licensed drivers in the class are concerned. But the sanctioning body added a track in Oregon this season, proving the class continues to grow in popularity.

To some, though, the class wasn't a popular choice when it first started. Many of the division's races were marred by constant wrecks and drivers trying to wheel the car like they stole it compared to getting a good feel for it.

Austin Carter was one of those who had those thoughts.

"I never really paid much attention to it,"  the Beloit driver said. "I really didn't care about it. Never thought I'd be in one. I'd watch them wreck, and I'd be like, 'Oh, I don't want one of them. I'll never have one.' Now, I have one and am fixing it every week."

Carter toiled in the stock car class and had success. But it didn't have the right feel for him.

"I drove a buddy's and realized how much fun it was,"  Carter said. "I decided it was worth giving it a try. I talked to (Brandon) Blochlinger, and he though it was worth it. He convinced me to get one and found one for me. I tried it, and I liked it."

Carter's been in his sport mod since.

"The A-mods are just so expensive, and I wasn't satisfied in the stock car with suspension and everything," Carter said. "I tear up a bit more in the sport mod, but you have the suspension so it's a lot more fun to drive and out there competing in because of how tough it is to drive one of these."

Still, Carter was not immune to the criticism he received after switching during the season.

"Guys always give me crap for going from a stock car to a sport mod, saying I moved down a class, just want to tear stuff up and there's cleaner racing elsewhere,"  Carter said.

"They're right at times. But this fits me. It's more fun to me in this class. You'll sacrifice a little bit more money and tearing stuff up to have more fun."

There's still the occasional fender-benders and mishaps. But that's true in any class at times.

"It's always been fun," Kleweno said. "Except for a few squirrels out there, it's always been a fun class to run."

RPM Speedway officially added the sport mod class in 2009. In five seasons in Hays, no driver has repeated as track champion, or won multiple titles.

In 2009, Brian Conness won the inaugural crown, followed by Clayton Wilson the next year.

In 2011, Brian LaRiviere won the title and national title as well. He finished with 33 total wins that year and added track titles at WaKeeney and Minneapolis.

Jake Krone won the RPM title in 2012, and Tyler Frye won it last year.

The parity at the top of the class is what makes each night special, according to the drivers.

"There's (Blaine) Walt, Krone, Frye, (Daniel) Gottschalk, Money,"  Carter said. "You just never know. It depends on who gets through the field fast enough and gets that line. That's all it's going to come down to all year long. ... With any of those guys getting there first and have any shot of pulling away a little bit, you're not going to run guys like that down. They're just going to be gone."

And when the drivers travel to states far away, they find themselves facing the best competition in the country. Most of the time, it's drivers from their own backyard.

"It's getting pretty tough," Money said. "Once we went out to Vegas and saw what was out there, we saw all the main Kansas people were out there in the main show. Then once we get back here, it's pretty much the same people running every big show. It's definitely getting tougher every year."

At weekly shows, it's become a toss-up as to who might walk away with the win. Each year, more drivers are capable of making the trip to the winner's circle.

"I remember the top five cars used to be competitive," Kleweno said. "Now, it's probably to 10 or 15 around Hays and WaKeeney. You have to have your (stuff) ready to go every night. You can't miss on much."

While it might not be an A-mod they're running, drivers have to have their A-game to compete -- no matter what track or what state.

And especially in western Kansas.

"It is kind of funny,"  Kleweno said. "You do like to race against other guys, but it always seems we do get together somehow -- and we're always up front. I think we have the best racers around here in our class."