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A NEW ERA: Matt Curl, Jonathan Clayton Driving MARS Late Model, New Modified Championship into Future

Josh James Artwork

21-race Late Model schedule starts April 28 at Brownstown and the 20-race Modified slate starts April 7 at Tri-City

The Midwest Auto Racing Series is set for a new era in 2023, ushered in by an all-new team with a wealth of knowledge and resources.

Fairbury Speedway Owner/Promoter Matt Curl purchased the MARS Super Late Model Racing Series in December and hired former DIRTcar Track & Events Coordinator Jonathan Clayton to lead the organization as Series Director.

Together, the duo has executed a complete rebranding, assembled an all-new, 21-race Late Model schedule, signed new presenting sponsors, and for the first time in the series’ 24-year history – spawned a DIRTcar UMP Modified counterpart that will operate adjacent to the Late Model championship.

With a significant change over the course of a few months, departing from the Late Model-only schedule that last operated under previous owner/promoter Tony Izzo Jr, Curl said his past conversations with drivers in the area was a big catalyst in his move to acquire the series and mold it into its current form.

“We really listened to a lot of drivers over the last year,” Curl said. “They really wanted to be a part of something not crazy like the six or seven-hour trip out east or south or whatever, but something that they can rely on that would provide just a little bit better resources. The Modified division is very competitive and [getting to be] just as expensive as Late Models.”

Curl conducting a drivers meeting as World of Outlaws Late Model Series Director in 2018 (Ken Kelly Photo)

In seasons past, drivers were sometimes forced to make long trips out to tracks in states such as Arkansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Western half of Missouri to compete for the points championship. The 2023 schedule was designed to be more cost-effective, easing the travel demand with the rising cost of parts and other equipment.

In working on the new schedule, Clayton said working around the current Late Model and Modified landscape in the region – as opposed to scheduling races on top of and competing with opposing series – was a key component of first-year success. The schedule also features only one weekday event – Tuesday, July 25, the only $10,000-to-win race on the calendar – making MARS the tour of choice for any racers with full-time jobs.

“[The new MARS] is tailored more toward the working guys,” Clayton said. “That’s why we’ve worked so hard to not have events during the week. For year one on the schedule, we were able to have a 20-race deal where we don’t race during the week at all.”

A great deal of the working-man racers under the DIRTcar banner are the weekend UMP Modified racers chasing points at local tracks. The Midwest has been without a year-long, 20-race Modified series for drivers to compete with for several years, which MARS now provides with healthy purses at each event, a Rookie of the Year bonus, even a $5,000-to-win championship points fund.

“We want to help raise the awareness of Modified racing,” Clayton said. “By paying $2,000-to-win and $250-to-start every night, we hope that we’re supported with drivers and the fans so these racetracks can see just how important the Modified division is.

Clayton, a World of Outlaws & DIRTcar Racing employee since 2016, has committed to directing MARS in 2023. (Jacy Norgaard Photo)

“We feel like with the Modified racing we have here in the Midwest – it’s just as good as anywhere in the country, and we really wanted a platform to showcase that on.”

Though the Modified side will demand its fair share of attention, Curl and Clayton have doubled up on their efforts to upgrade the Late Model operation. The low-travel schedule, upgraded standard purse for positions third through 10th, and restructured points fund are a reflection of these efforts to keep car count rising at each event and help get drivers up-and-down the road.

“We want to tailor to these guys that are going to run the Series,” Clayton said. “As a Series Director, I hate the regional series that is coming to your town, putting on a show and the promoter asks who all is coming, [and the response is], ‘Well, we’ve got two guys that are running the whole deal.’

“I’m trying to be better than that. I’m trying to have a series that’s got seven-eight-nine-10 guys that have run every show, so the promoter knows who we’re bringing to these racetracks.”

At home, Curl’s efforts with Fairbury’s weekly racing program will continue alongside leading MARS management. When he finalized the purchase of the track before the 2019 season, he set out a list of long-term goals for the facility and has since met each of them over four race seasons. He’s got a similar list for MARS, which he hopes will propel the two tours into the future and set the standard for regional dirt track racing.

“I really want them to give the series a full chance at what we’re trying to build,” Curl said. “We’re definitely not putting everything that we have out in this first year because we want to make it sustainable for a long time to come.

“Having a nice, 20-race, tight-box, regional series like MARS – I think as we grow, they’re going to see the growth with it.”

The MARS Late Model Championship powered by FK Rod Ends and the MARS Modified Championship powered by Summit Racing Equipment will begin their brand-new ventures in the Midwest dirt track racing scene this spring. The inaugural Modified championship kicks things off with its first events at Tri-City Speedway in Pontoon Beach, IL, Friday-Saturday, April 7-8; the Late Models begin Friday, April 28 at the newly renamed Brownstown Bullring in Brownstown, IL.

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