---- — By Shawn Wood
For The Daily Item
MINERSVILLE -- Tonight's first-ever "Prelude to the Coal Cracker" for 358 modifieds will be the next-to-last opportunity drivers will have to get their cars dialed in for the 37th Coal Cracker race on Sept. 1.
Current points leader Craig VonDohren, of Oley, has five wins on the season, including a 4-for-4 clip in 30-lap features at Big Diamond this year.
Tonight's 30-lap feature pays $4,000 to win.
VonDohren, who last won the Coal Cracker in 2007, leads Jeff Strunk of Mohnton by 106 points. Meme DeSantis of Temple is third, while defending Coal Cracker winner Doug Manmiller of Shoemakersville is fourth and one-time winner Frank Cozze of Win Gap is fifth.
Bob Emerich won the inaugural Coal Cracker as a 50-lap feature in 1979.
Strunk was the first driver to win the race in consecutive years (1996, '97).
To date, with no race held in 1983 nor 2005, no driver has ever won the event three years in a row.
Since 2006, Duane Howard has won the event three times. He's the leading winner of the event with six wins; his first came in 1998.
Traditionally, the season at Big Diamond has ended on the last Friday of August, but this year the track, which began the year racing on Sundays, is retiring to Sunday racing and extending the season and title fight to the end of September.
Manmiller, who won the 2010 track championship without posting a win, won last week's one-on-one match race for 358 modifieds.
"The season has been decent; we've had a win here," he said. "When we won our title in 2010, we finished every lap."
Manmiller and Strunk raced go-karts at Shellhammers Speedway in Shoemakersville.
"I raced go-karts for 15 years and traveled the East Coast with the World Karting Association," Manmiller said.
Last year's win in the Coal Cracker was something the 20-year veteran had been striving for.
"We've been close the last couple of years and with running at Big Diamond on a weekly basis, it's a race I've been waiting to win," he noted.
Manmiller, who grew up in Reading, took the lead on lap 21 of last year's race and led the final 51 laps of the 72-lap feature despite mother nature's attempt to rain out the final few laps.
"It got a little harried out there with the rain," he said. "We had a pretty good car and we were running second before we took the lead. Even after the mid-way fuel stop, the car was still very good."
Manmiller has one win at Grandview Speedway this season, his Saturday night track, where he is fourth in the point standings. He started his modified career in 1994 and Grandview was the first track he raced at.
Looking for his first win in the Coal Cracker is Shawn Fitzpatrick of Pottsville.
Fitzpatrick -- who is 13th in the 358 modified points -- appeared to be on his way to his first-ever win a few weeks ago when he jumped the cushion on the final lap and finished second.
It's not the first time that Fitzpatrick has finished second at Big Diamond in his career.
"I have the distinction of losing the closest racing in the history of the track by eight-thousands of a second back in 2006," he said. "It's been a pretty tough year as we built a new car at the beginning of the year and we switched from alcohol to gas. We qualified well for last year's Coal Cracker and ran in the top five for the better part of the race and finished seventh."
Fitzpatrick's brother Tim races in the sportsman modified ranks at Big Diamond where he is 10th in the points, and another brother, T.J., is 10th in the roadrunner division.
Retiring 410 sprint car driver Fred Rahmer of Salfordville, who was 99 career modified wins, won the Coal Cracker in 1985. He is one of 19 drivers to have won the event at least once.
Billy Pauch Jr. informed The Daily Item that he and his father Billy Sr., the 2000, '01 and '02 winner of the Coal Cracker, will be racing this year. The race pays $10,000 to win.