Since then, a good long two-wheel run isn't enough. A great wheelstand is now defined as brutal, out of control, and climaxing in a monstrous collision with the wall or pavement. The crowd wants cars to twist under the torque of their engines, bounce off their rear bumpers, and then slam down so hard that their oil pans would flatten.
"We were hoping it would flip over," says Leideker. "I wanted to be the first." But when Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, banned Leideker's Chevette from its wheelstand competition, he retired the car in 2010. "They didn't want a purpose-built car in their event," he chuckles from his Michigan shop. "I still got it here out back all wrecked."
Though he had won the Byron competition in 2010, Brian Ambrosini and his nitrous-fed '72 AMC Gremlin stake out Saturday pit space well away from the track on one of the far fields. "We need to show some respect for the champion!" Leek shouts. "We need to move him up here, closer to the tower!" And soon Ambrosini's trailer is parked next to the small control building.
"Most of the family worked at AMC," explains Ambrosini, 47, who had come in from Kenosha, Wisconsin. Though he had won $20,000 in 2010, much of that money was consumed in fixing the damage to the traffic-cone-orange Gremlin.
The run that won Ambrosini the 2010 championship had the Gremlin going near vertical and riding on its rear bumper, then pirouetting on its right-rear corner until the car headed into the retaining wall. It came down hard, crashed into the wall, and rolled. What's not to love about that?
Ambrosini was the odds-on favorite entering Sunday afternoon's runs. In fact, most of the 33 entries were returning veterans including Jeff Wild in his '70 Buick GS 455 convertible, Larry Jeleniewski in his '69 Plymouth Barracuda, and Jason Schubert in a pink '78 Oldsmobile Cutlass. The most serious challenge, it was generally assumed, would come from Canadian Rob Lacroix and the 2006 Pontiac Sunfire he used to take the overall win in 2009.
Compared with previous years, the 2011 edition of the championships was low on spectacle. Lacroix was never in control of his Sunfire during the first round, and its tail smacked the right wall hard. And Ambrosini's Gremlin, running last in that first round, failed to achieve escape velocity. It was enough to have the crowd rumbling in disappointment, and many of them left.
Still, the second round had its attractions. Kyle Smalley's '48 Jeep pulled its front wheels off the ground despite wearing off-road tires. Chris Pirkola's '39 Willys Overland street rod looked like an egg about to crack open. Wild's old Buick made a solid run, and A.J. Fiorelli's '68 Barracuda leapt for the sky impressively. The crowd was thinning by the time Ambrosini came out with his Gremlin for the day's final run.
Anticipation was high as Ambrosini's AMC approached the line. And when the light went green, the car clawed skyward. But it wasn't staying up, and Ambrosini feathered the throttle to keep it high. Then it slammed to the ground hard and broke a tie rod and sundry other front-suspension pieces, sending the car into the right wall. When the Rambler engineers were designing that suspension way back when, repeatedly slamming it into the pavement after a wheelie likely wasn't in the testing regimen.
The motorhomes were funneling through the exits even before the judges could make any awards. It's the spectacle that matters, not the competition. But J.D. Drissel and his '86 Mustang took the stock-class win ($10,000) while it was decided that Ambrosini and Lacroix would split the overall win ($10,000 each). That should be enough for them to fix their cars and return next year.
Byron Dragway isn't really near any interstate, and it takes effort to find it. There are no "Welcome Race Fans" banners from beer companies on the grounds; no sponsorships from fast-food outlets are painted on the walls; and M&K Embroidery of Stillman Valley, Illinois, gets prime placement for its signage. Big-time sports in America are often overwhelmed by the commercialism that sponsors them. But that's not Byron.
Right now, this sort of wheelstand competition is in a sweet spot. It's not so big that it shows up on cable TV and not so small that it doesn't feel like a real event. It's only a matter of time, though, until some TV producer gets a wheelstander reality series on the Discovery Channel or the contestants learn some showbiz and start appearing in capes and funny hats. After that, wheelstanding will be the Monster Truck Jam.
Sweet spots, after all, don't last forever. And heaven isn't really on Earth.