© St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2002
With a flashy new paint job and dramatically-timed return to his old No. 10 car, Pinellas Park's Mike Birk Jr. claimed the checkered flag in the Tommy's Radiator Mini Stock Championship at Sunshine Speedway on Oct. 5.
Aside from being the biggest Mini Stock race of the season, the event marked the first night of competition since the loss of a track fixture -- Figure 8 driver Roy Kenneth Larson, who died the previous Monday.
Larson was 47 and among many members of his family to compete at Sunshine. More than one of the Larson clan participated in the Mini Stock Championship, and others boasted sponsorship by one or more companies owned and operated by Larsons.
Larson, proprietor of Larson's Tree Service, began racing Figure 8s at the speedway as a 14-year-old, and he was gifted a final lap on the morning of Oct. 4.
His casket was loaded into the bed of the track's official red pace truck, which was followed by a 50-car procession through the quarter-mile oval's four turns. Ronnie Larson, driver of No. 88, started on the pole position in the 50-lap feature, inside of Doug Hopper's No. 15.
Birk, in his original machine for the first time since wrecking it and switching to No. 5 earlier in the season, began the race in fourth place. He was directly behind Hopper and outside Michelle Mongold's No. 6 vehicle.
Shining brilliantly under the track lights, Birk's black No. 10 stormed out of the start to settle in behind Larson, the leader after one lap. Birk posed an immediate threat to Larson, passing the No. 88 in Lap 2 before receiving an ill-timed yellow flag -- the result of a blown engine farther back in the field.
Birk did not have position on Larson at the start of the lap. Birk was forced to restart from behind Larson, a station Birk maintained for two laps and never revisited.
After the pass, Birk put some distance between himself and the rest of the pack before getting mired in traffic near Lap 15. Dennis Valdez of Tampa seized the opportunity, positioning his No. 40 behind Birk and giving the 18-year-old points leader his only competition. The packed field -- 24 racers -- stretched around the track in a continuous loop, providing Birk and Valdez with something of an obstacle course.
The scene resembled a high-speed police chase. Birk and Valdez skillfully darted in and out of the relatively slower lap traffic, as each attempted to block the other with an unexpected move or perfectly-timed pass.
Birk eventually made contact with one of the slower cars, which he said loosened his steering. Valdez attempted to capitalize, applying intense pressure on Birk, who was arcing high and wide through the speedway's notoriously tricky turns.
Birk caught a break, however, when the battle-weary No. 40 failed to accelerate for Valdez in a restart with less than 10 laps remaining.
The mechanical problems dropped Valdez to sixth, but he was disqualified after declining to tear down his engine for a protest by the seventh-place finisher.
Valdez noted the small size of the sixth-place prize money relative to the amount of work necessary to prepare for inspection.
Danny Smith, No. 72 of St. Petersburg, took second and was followed by Pinellas Park's Rick Litka (No. 82). Birk, who nabbed the points lead from Valdez earlier in the season, credited the win to patience and knowing the right pace to maintain.
"I got out in the lead early," Birk said, "but I didn't want to push it too hard. That's one thing I've learned. "But toward the end," Birk said, nodding and smiling slyly, "I pushed it a little harder."
NOTES: Jeff Scofield (No. 7) took the victory in Saturday's Super Late Model feature. He was followed by Dave Pletcher (No. 75) and Mike Hinegardner (No. 15).
-- First place in the Open-Wheel Modified division was secured by Dan Partelo in his No. 9 car. Aaron Dreher (No. 17) and Darren Jackson (No. 7) completed the top three.
-- Jack Boswell (No. 59) headed up the Figure 8 class, leading Robbie Hage (No. 74) and points front-runner Cliff Rousseau (No. 3) to the finish.
-- Tom Phelan (No. 17) triumphed in the Outlaw Late Models. Robert Crisp (No. 2), who tops the division's standings, trailed second-place finisher Pete Coon (No. 27) to the checkered flag.
-- The Mini Stock title was captured by Rick Beineke in his No. 93 machine. Randy Foote (No. 35) and Mike Birk Jr. (No. 10) finished second and third, respectively.
-- Dave Ochsenwald (No. 61) ended a drought by taking the Street Stock win. Abbie Haugh (No. 42) placed second, and Troy Meredith (No. 7) was third.
-- Chris Larson (No. 58) won the Enduro feature. Trailing were Scott Mizener (No. 70) and the 1x of Bernie Gamache.