ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – William Byron remembers watching the battle between Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones as they fought for the win in the 2016 edition of the Slinger Nationals.
“I remember seeing the banking and how (the track flowed). You can race side-by-side for lap after lap is pretty cool,” Byron said. “It’s definitely one of those tracks that promote side-by-side (racing).”
It was an epic battle between a now NASCAR Hall of Famer and a rising NASCAR star in the final laps of a 200-lap main event at Slinger Super Speedway, about a 40-minute drive north of Milwaukee.
Kenseth was leading with two laps to go with Jones offering several challenges for the lead. Jones inched ahead of Kenseth as the leaders crossed the start-finish line for the final lap. Then, going through turns 1 and 2, Kenseth got underneath Jones, got into the left-rear quarter panel of Jones’ car and it sent him slightly up the track. Kenseth surged ahead on the bottom and went on to take the checkered flag for his seventh Nationals title.
He added his record-extending eighth Slinger Nationals title in 2019, which was his last appearance at Slinger.
Kenseth has announced his intention to go for a ninth Slinger Nationals championship next week.
“The Slinger Nationals has long been one of my favorite races. It goes back to when I was a kid,” Kenseth said in a press release from Slinger Speedway announcing Kenseth’s commitment to the race. “I remember guys like Bobby Allison, Neil Bennett, and Mark Martin coming to race in the Nationals and taking on the big names in Wisconsin, like Dick Trickle and Joe Shear. It always has been and still is a must-see event and one of the biggest short track races of the year.”
The 43rd Slinger Nationals will be July 12.
Byron said he’s excited to compete in the Nationals, but also to get a chance to race Kenseth, a Hall of Famer, on the very track he cut his proverbial teeth at.
“I’m really excited,” Byron said. “I’ve never run Slinger before. I’m looking forward to going out there. I hear it’s a fast race track.”
Luke Fenhaus is the defending race champion. Previous champions include Ty Majeski (2018 and 2020), Bubba Pollard (2017), Rich Bickle Jr. (1992, 1996, 2003 and 2013), Kyle Busch (2011), Mark Martin (1984) and Alan Kulwicki (1981).
The Slinger Nationals will be on the heels of the NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta two days earlier. It’ll be a busy two-plus days for the 24-year-old out of Charlotte. No worries, though for Byron.
“I’m excited for it,” he said.
Byron is looking for that elusive marquee late model victory. He’s competed in the All-American 400, the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown, the Snowball Derby (twice) and the Winchester 400. In the 2016 Snowball Derby, he started on the pole, but got involved in a multi-car crash with less than 50 laps to go. He finished 22nd.
With a grueling NASCAR schedule, it’s often hard for drivers like Byron to take the time out of his rare free time and race. Their free time is precious. In 2016, Chase Elliott was slated to compete in the Slinger Nationals, but a late schedule change prevented him from doing so. He still attended the event and participated in the VIP fan events and autograph sessions. At that time he said he hoped the schedule worked out he could give it a shot. Unfortunately, that hasn’t come to fruition for Elliott.
Byron said he’s been able to compete in a few extra late model races of late. He’s grateful for that.
“It’s nice to go race other things when you have more time,” Byron said. “Try to best use the time and make myself better and improve possibly, and I think that’s the best way to do it.”
Another motivation for trying the Slinger Nationals stems from his last couple of trips to Wisconsin. He’s certainly taken note of the passion the race fans have in the upper Midwest.
“They’re really passionate about short-track racing,” Byron said. “So it’s cool to go and support those tracks.”
When he does get the free time and chooses not to spend it in a race car, Byron doesn’t do yoga or hiking to relax and mentally refresh. Instead, he builds LEGO sets.
“I’ve got a lot of LEGO sets that I’ve built, mostly in the offseason,” Byron said.
This hobby started only a few years ago when he was gifted a LEGO piano set.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s peaceful.”
One of his most challenging LEGO building projects was a Titanic, a set of more than 9,000 pieces. Byron didn’t spend every day on it and took him a couple months to complete.
He’s also built some Star Wars sets, a James Bond car, the Batmobile, the Manchester United stadium and more.
“It’s nice to do and put your mind to something,” Byron said.
He added, “I realized it’s a hobby I could do in the offseason that would be fun. That was kind of the biggest thing; finding something to do in the offseason.”
Byron also likes to see something he’s worked on go from a foundation to completion. Byron said he’s looking forward to what LEGO releases next to see what his next offseason project will be.
He enjoys seeing his completed projects on display, which are scattered through his home rather than in some kind of a showroom.
“They’re kind of scattered all over,” Byron said with a smile.
Getting that mental reset, Byron said, is an important part of being a competitor at the highest level of his profession or sport.
“Our season is so long, any time you can get a couple weeks to put your mind to something else helps you refresh for the next year,” Byron said. “You try to spend a couple weeks in the offseason to just think about something totally different than racing.”
But turning laps in a late model is also fun.