HAMPTON — Langley Speedway management believes this year's Hampton Heat Late Model 200 will be the biggest yet, with more cars and fans than ever. If their predictions are right, the seventh edition of the Heat — set for Saturday — will continue a pattern of growth that reached legendary status a year ago.
That race featured at least 6,000 in attendance, although some insist 7,000 crowded into the nearly 65-year-old facility, along with a record 30 cars and a victory by former Late Model national champion Peyton Sellers. Langley promoter Chuck Hall says you ain't seen nothing yet.
"This race continues to grow because of Langley Speedway's solid partnership with the City of Hampton and the popularity of the event with visiting drivers trying to knock off our weekly stars," Hall said. "It's a combination that has produced great racing in the Hampton Heat year in and year out, and makes the race a big draw for the fans."
Below are five reasons why this year's Hampton Heat could build on that momentum.
1. C.E. Falk is back
Winner of four of the past five Langley Speedway Late Model titles, and the only two-time winner of the Heat, Falk resides this year in the Charlotte area, where he works on a Sprint Cup car. He'll be on the starting grid for the Heat on Saturday and it would be a surprise were he not to contend for the checkered flag.
2. All of the other past champions are back, too
Nick Smith, who won the inaugural Heat in 2008 and then won the pole the next year, joins 2009 winner Woody Howard and '10-11 winner Falk in leading the Langley contingent attempting to protect home turf. Outsiders winning Late Model races at Langley used to be unthinkable until Martinsville's Matt Bowling (2012) and Peyton Sellers (2013) did it in the Heat the past two seasons.
The return of all five champions, and a host of drivers from other tracks, is expected to swell the field to more than 30 cars.
3. Gaulding debuts in Heat
The 16-year-old from Colonial Heights has been a popular attraction at Langley since winning a Legends national title on the track four years ago. Labeled recently by NASCAR as one of its future stars, Gray Gaulding ranks third in the K&N Pro Series East standings and has finished in the top 21 in all three Camping World Truck Series starts.
4. Local stars seek breakthrough
Greg Edwards and Matt Waltz have dominated the Late Model division this season, hogging 13 of 14 checkered flags this season. Their competition has often been close and entertaining.
Edwards has the advantage in points, 348-345, while Waltz has an 8-5 edge in victories. What neither has is a Hampton Heat victory, but form and home-track advantage make them the favorites Saturday.
Casey Wyatt, Mark Wertz, Connor Hall and Brenden Queen are among the other Langley drivers with potential to snag their first Hampton Heat trophy. Eddie Johnson, a past Langley champion from the Richmond area, is always a force in big races, and it would surprise few if five-time track champ Danny Edwards Jr. were to contend for his first Heat crown.
5. Other big names to watch
Local star Brandon Gdovic and Boston native Kaz Grala bring the experience of running regularly in the top 10 of the prestigious K&N Pro Series East. Paige Decker and Devon Amos have run often at Langley this season as part of the NASCAR-affiliated Rev Racing diversity team.
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.