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Desire to beat best sparks perennial winner

By LOGAN NEILL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


For the past two seasons, Citrus County Speedway's Sportsman division has pretty much belonged to Mike Veltman.

Afterall, back-to-back championships coupled with 22 feature wins makes you a daunting competitor in anyone's book.

At this point, many people ask, does Veltman have anything left to prove to himself? The 30-year-old Lecanto driver has an answer for that: Most definitely. With a host of up-and-coming division rivals such as Sport Wilson, Chris Hooker and Jim Smith awaiting him every Saturday night, Veltman sees his role as a competitor renewed.

"It's a completely new challenge this year," Veltman said. "I feel I'm up against some of the best drivers who have ever raced at the track. If anything, it's made me even more determined to win."

It comes as no surprise to find the affable veteran known to fans as "Magic Mike" casting another spell on the division. After five feature events, he's scored one victory and three top-five finishes, tying him with Rex Struble for the points lead.

"It's a good place to be this early in the season," Veltman said. "But you have to be realistic. This is probably going to be a tough fight all the way to the end of the season."

Veltman's success the past two seasons has been nothing short of phenomenal, at least some of that can be credited to a shortage of viable challengers. Major rule changes in the class in 1998 sent many drivers to the Late Model ranks. With fewer than 10 cars showing each week, there even was speculation at one point that the speedway would drop Sportsman altogether.

Meanwhile, Veltman, a former Street Stock and Bomber champion, lit up the quarter-mile circuit in his orange No. 55 machine. In 1998, running a partial season, he scored seven victories. The following year, he increased his win total to 13.

"Being champion, you're the guy with the target on your back," Veltman said. "Guys like Rex and Sport are smart drivers. They'll work hard every week to make their cars go fast. We're going to have to work just as hard to stay out in front."

Veltman credits his crew chief and brother, Dave, with being the answer man when it comes to race day. And though he has battled since early in the season to find the winning setup for his car, Veltman thinks the shock and spring adjustments his brother made last week enabled him to grab his first win of the season.

"Like a lot of guys, we were pretty frustrated, Veltman said. "With the new wider corners in the track, we just couldn't seem to find anything that really worked. Finally, it clicked. I'm much more comfortable running high and low, and that's going to help get me to the front."

Veltman says he's happy to see the Sportsman division on the rebound. Short of finding a financed ride in a Late Model, he plans to stay in the class for years to come. "I think we put on a great show for the fans every week."

Citrus County speedway

WHAT: Short-track stock car races featuring the M. Dominique Sportsman 30-lap event, Late Models, Mini Stocks, Street Stocks, Hobby Stocks, Street-Legal Junkers, plus the return of Figure 8 and the 911 racers.

WHERE: 2 miles south of Inverness on U.S. 41.

WHEN: Grandstand gates open at 4 p.m. The first heat race is at 6:30.

ADMISSION: Adult general admission, $10; seniors and students to age 17, $8; children under 10, $2; under-12 child admission with paid adult, free; pits, $20.

INFORMATION: (352) 726-9339.

Points standing

LATE MODEL: 1. John Chance (110), 2. Billy Bechtelheimer (107), 3. George Ingole (104), 4. Tim Sharrone (99), 5. Herb Neumann, Jr. (91).

SPORTSMAN: 1. (tie) Mike Veltman, Rex Struble (188), 3. Sport Wilson (186), 4. Mark Dominique (172), 5. Chris Hooker (158).

STREET STOCK: 1. Travis Nichols (232), 2. Wes Wilson (219), 3. Harley Wilson, Sr. (214), 4. Victor Stanley (189), 5. Ernie Reed, Jr. (181).

MINI STOCK: 1. Frank Coleman (181), 2. Richey Powers (169), 3. Rob Wheatley (161), 4. (tie) Mark Sowell, Mike Moore (156).

HOBBY STOCK: 1. Richie Smith (268), 2. Brandon Johnson (221), 3. Roy Perkins (211), 4. Art Brueningsen (210), 5. Kreg Belcastro (194).

FIGURE 8: 1. (tie) Bob Hage, Peanut Higgenbotham (102), 3. (tie) Darryl Hage, Charlie Meyer (88), 5. Scott Knight (84). -- LOGAN NEILL

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