Ashton Winger grew up in racing. The 21-year-old racer’s father, Gary Winger, has long been a fixture as a shock specialist and in other functions in Dirt Late Model pit areas around the country. So, it was almost a given that the Hampton, Georgia native would himself find a place to fit in within the racing world.
That place has come as a driver. And while Winger has experienced success in the past, 2021 has served as somewhat of a breakout year as much of the country has had the opportunity to observe his talents on display outside of his home region. The rising star has won a total of twelve feature events over the course of this season. And perhaps most notably, seven of those victories came on the DIRTcar Summer Nationals Series which is held primarily in the Midwest during the heat of summer.
Winger ultimately earned attention nationally after he placed second the final standings behind Bobby Pierce on the series that has earned the moniker of ‘Hell Tour’ because of its grueling schedule. The result of his performance in the Summer Nationals went a long way toward allowing the talented pilot to step away from his own team in order to drive for newly formed North Carolina-based Brodnax-Shaker Motorsports managed by longtime racer G.R. Smith.
The young driver is by-and-large happy with how his season has gone, particularly after being thrown a curve ball just before the start of the campaign.
“The second half, for sure,” Winger told InsideDirtRacing.com when asked if he was pleased with his 2021 season. “The first half kind of threw us for a loop. I lost my ride a couple of days before Volusia started and I had to throw my own deal back together. We had the stuff to go down there and we had a lot of people step in, but I wasn’t prepared to go. But then we got to clicking there and we won a race around home and then we won one of them Hell Tour races. G.R. and everybody stepped in and made this deal possible for us. It’s been an awesome year and hopefully it’s a year I can someday look back on and can say that I found home.”
Winger was the 2020 World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series Rookie of the Year while driving for car owner and racer Billy Franklin. And he intended to again tackle that tour in 2021 with the same team. However, that ride went away as the season was about to begin leaving a void that the young driver hoped to fill on his own. But those plans were nixed when an overwhelming number of mechanical troubles quickly put a damper on his hopes of competing on that national touring series.
“When I got down to Florida and had some trouble, we were initially going to do the World of Outlaws deal again because they raised their pay and obviously with the show-up money and everything, it was going to be a deal where if I didn’t have any trouble I thought I could do that deal on my own with the stuff I had,” Winger explained. “I had some money saved up then I went to Florida and I smoked everything we had and I decided to back up and punt. It ain’t about the money to me, it’s about getting better.”
His new plan called for finding a way to race as often as possible to gain valuable experience. The Summer Nationals, with its grueling schedule, provided that opportunity. And more, he was able to go toe-to-toe on a nightly basis with acknowledged Hell Tour titans Bobby Pierce and Brian Shirley.
“I don’t see any way you get better except by racing every night so we went and did that deal,” Winger stated. “I struggle on red clay and there’s a couple places with red clay on that Hell Tour deal. And I can run one or two good laps on the cushion at Fairbury but I can’t run 50 like Bobby and Shirley and some of those guys. I really just want to get better and I didn’t really realize that along the way we’d hit some race tracks that fit my strong suit. We got better and by the end we got rewarded by going to some race tracks that were good for us. I think the biggest appeal point of that is you race every night and whether you win or you run twentieth, nobody cares the next day because there’s another race. That’s something I hope to do a little more prepared than I was. I really wasn’t prepared to do that so I just kind of went and raced and the first two weeks was literally hell, that’s why they call it the Hell Tour, but there at the end things started clicking for us and going our way. That all led to this deal with this team.”
While Winger agrees that 2021 has been somewhat of a breakout season for him, especially due to the fact that he has raced so often outside his home region, he believes that this is really just a progression that began a few years ago.
“I feel like every year since 2019 people have said it’s a breakout year, not so much last year, but ’19 and this year really stick out in my mind as years that I feel like I progressed and took the next step,” he declared. “Honestly, I think I’ve always had stuff capable of being competitive in my area.”
The results have shown that he can not only be competitive in his home area but elsewhere. The wins on the Summer Nationals tour were then combined with a WoO Late Models feature victory at Senoia(GA) Raceway and later a weekend sweep of Southern All-Star Dirt Racing Series events at that same track against fields that included the likes of Brandon Overton, Ricky Weiss and Shane Clanton.
“I won that Outlaws race at Senoia,” he recalled. “When the Outlaws came to Senoia before, I had stuff capable of winning, but I wasn’t there yet. I went last year on the road and got a taste of the real world. At the beginning of this year, I got humbled with everything that happened. This crew has made it to where I can race every single night with the best guys. To me, it’s all about the people around you. I’ve been racing Late Models for a few years now and I’ve never went anywhere thinking I couldn’t win but it’s just a matter of having the right people in place. But as far as the progression thing goes, everything has just come together at once. I’ve gotten better stuff and more people too. The first few weeks of this deal we had three guys in the shop plus me. People don’t realize the manual labor part of it.”
Winger hopes this opportunity with Brodnax-Shaker will last for a long time.
“Georgia is always going to be home, but as far as the racing world goes, I feel like I have found my sanctuary. I’ve got a really good foundation around me and I’m excited for everything to come.”
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