In 2016, the IMCA Northern SportMods staged one of the most exciting battles for the Iowa State Championship in years. It even spilled over into the National championship battle. I expect that trend to continue in 2017.

IMCA's Northern SportMod division stole the show for me in 2016, and I see that trend continuing this year. Seven of the top 10 in the final IMCA National Points were 'Hawkeye Hotshoes', and two of those drivers battled until the very last weekend for the national championship.

Tony Olson (Cedar Rapids, IA) and Tyler Soppe (Sherrill, IA) found themselves fighting with Kyle Prauner (Norfolk, NE) for IMCA's Northern SportMod National Championship. In the end, Olson edged Soppe for the national crown thanks to his three track championships. Soppe closed out the season second with two track championships and less than 10 points back of Olson.

Nick Meyer (Whittemore, IA) earned three track championships, but I think his average car count totals hurt his national championship bid (lower than what Olson & Soppe faced), but that shouldn't diminish the accomplishment of three titles. Clinton Luellen (Minburn, IA), Matthew Looft (Swea City, IA), Doug Smith (Lanesboro, IA) Jared VanDeest (Holland, IA) were the other drivers who landed within the top 10.

Throw in names like Johnathon Logue Jr. (Boone, IA), Jake McBirnie (Boone, IA), Joey Schafer (Waterloo, IA), Ben Chapman (Clarence, IA), Curtis VanDerWal (Oskaloosa, IA), Carter Vandenberg (Oskaloosa, IA), and too many other drivers to mention, and you have a long, long list of drivers who are huge threats to win where ever they unload their hot rod.

Yes, this class takes some flack because there are some nights where the yellow flag waves more than green flag does. That's more of a product of up-and-coming drivers trying to learn the ropes. It should not take away from the creme that rises to the top. This class is loaded with talented drivers, but what made it such a popular class over the years?

"I love the Sport Mod class," Olson admitted. "There's never a dull moment, we always have a lot of great competition no matter what track we go to, and I'm lucky to get to race side-by-side against some of my best friends every week."

Tyler Soppe (Photo: Bucky Doren)

"I agree 100-percent," Tyler Soppe responded when asked about the competitiveness of the Northern SportMod division. "That's why I'm not in a big hurry to move to the Modified (division). Both (SportMods & Modifieds) have very competitive drivers. Where I run weekly, places like Farley and Dubuque, everyone is stepping up their game. It's so tough. You have to have good equipment. to be competitive."

"I do believe that this class will be just as competitive, if not more, this up coming season," Meyer proclaimed. "I don't know for sure, but I believe of those 7 drivers only one moved up (Luellen) and is no longer in the class, so you have a lot of the same talent returning this season. You will also see some new names winning more races and catching people's eye as well"

A big reason for this competitive nature is the rules package. The SportMod class sees some great battles on the track because of that fact. It's designed to be an economical way for a lot of talented drivers to get into an open wheel type of car.

Brett Root, president of operations for IMCA feels that the common sense approach to the rules package has helped the division grow. Consistency in the rules since the NSM class was introduced in 2005 has helped as well.

"We haven’t changed any major rules in the division during its 12 year existence," explained Root. "We do that for a reason. Rule changes can create more problems than they resolve if not done correctly."

Root was quick to point out that the drivers themselves also play an important part in the class's competitiveness.

"Many come from the go-kart rankings," Root continued. "The SportMod is their first full-size race car they are competing in. While that proves to be challenging for some, those racers who are especially talented, really shine in this division. That’s what you’re seeing around Iowa."

Olson has to keep "#TeamT23" on top of things in order to keep running up front. He knows that any driver can win on any given night. "That's what makes it so great. Each driver has to stay on top of their game at all times to stay running up front."

(Photo: Bucky Doren)

As the class becomes more competitive, the economic battle enters the equation. Root stated that as the division grows in popularity at nearly every track, it creates a challenge for IMCA.

"Those who want to turn SportMods into Modifieds by changing rules or attempt to turn the SportMod division into a Touring division," Root cautioned. "It’s crucial the economics of the division do not get lost in the popularity. That’s usually when divisions begin to lose their luster or start their demise."

Root continued explaining that IMCA has stuck to its position, and they do so for very valid reasons. The president of operations for IMCA expressed that if a SportMod racer wants touring events, "buy a mod." The Modified is designed for a driver with that mentality.

"There are still plenty of opportunities to race SportMods all across the U.S. at special events that pay increased purses, but that’s not the primary focus or purpose of this division. It never has been and never will be within IMCA," Root went on to say.

Root told me that It’s an economically limited division for a reason. When anybody loses sight of that, it will quickly get lost in its purpose. As other sanctions change transmission rules, rearend rules, carburetor rules, engine rules, etc, the line between limited mods (SportMods) and Modifiedss, gets very blurry.

"We are going to stand our ground at IMCA and keep these divisions separated rules-wise, at every corner," admitted Root.

That being said, money will be still be spent. Controlling it, or at least trying to curb it, is the challenge. I maintain that this is still an 'entry level' class. Maybe a 'springboard class' is a better phrase, but I'm not so naive to think that teams won't spend money. Money is like water. You write a rule to dam up the flow, it will just find another path. So far IMCA sticking to their guns has helped.

"Last year was the first year that I was in a brand new race car," Soppe admitted. "We had a new (Larry) Shaw Race Car, and that's what we did again for this year. "

As I said, money will be spent, but there is a difference in what I call 'smart money' versus just spending to spend it. Just because a driver has nice things, doesn't necessarily mean he's spending it to spend it. As a driver starts making headlines, he catches the eye of manufactures/suppliers. The two parties talk, and a product sponsorship is born.

Nick Meyer (Credit: Nick Meyer via Facebook)

Meyer sees a lot of talent competing in the SportMod division. "A lot of these guys have the talent to be a front runner in a Modified or even a Late Model, but they may not have the funds or the support needed to get there. This is the closest and best possible way to maybe get noticed and get the help and support needed to get to the next level."

A great example of that is Brett Moffitt (Grimes, IA) who parleyed his SportMod ride into winning the 2015 NASCAR Rookie of the Year. He is currently racing a NASCAR Truck for Red Horse Racing.

Who knows who might be next. It will be fun to watch and see if it happens again.