For the majority of his 20-year racing career, when Jesse Stovall thought of Billings he immediately thought of legendary modified driver and Monett Speedway Hall of Famer Rex Merritt.
The two annually battled for supremacy among the modified crowd at tracks across southwest Missouri in the early 2000s.
“I never thought I would live in Billings with Rex Merritt. But here I am,” said Stovall, who indeed moved from his native Cape Fair to Billings several years ago. “There’s quite a few racers and race fans here.”
Stovall has joined Merritt and other Billings area racers the likes of Brad Looney, Shawn Strong, Bob Barnett and Lexy VanZandt to give Christian County race fans plenty of locals to cheer for.
Stovall, who was a classmate at Reeds Spring with Ozark basketball coach Mark Schweitzer, has found Billings much to his liking.
“We have awesome neighbors,” the veteran late model racer said. “I can start my race car at 2 in the morning and nobody gets mad, or when I drive in at 3 in the morning after getting home from the races, nobody says anything. It’s been a dream come true here.”
Stovall will have late nights this weekend, as he competes at Tri-City Speedway in Granite City, Illinois, for the Napa Know How 50 on Friday and returns home to Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland on Saturday for the 13th Annual Diamond Nationals.
Stovall is fresh from a victory at the the Salina Highbanks Speedway in Pryor, Oklahoma, but is seeking further confirmation he and his team have emerged from an early-season slump.
“It’s always good to win. But you want to win at places you have a hard time winning at,” Stovall said. “I wouldn’t call Salina a hard place for me to win at. I’ve had a lot of wins there. At Salina, I’m typically always going to get a good finish at that place. I’m looking for the next step to make things flow fluently.
“If we can go out and run good with the Lucas bunch, then I’ll be satisfied that we’re back again. If we can run top-10 or top-five, I’ll say we’re good.”
Stovall has uncharacteristically been outside the top five often this season, as engine problems have plagued him.
“It’s been tough,” he said. ‘We started out really good. We won our first time out and ran a couple top-threes the next two nights. But we got into a slump. We tried a new motor combination that didn’t work out. We’re still working on it. I think there is a lot of potential for it in the future. But it didn’t work out now and slowed us down.
“We put a different motor back in and had some issues. It was a compounded problem. We couldn’t get our feet under us, it seemed like. We went to Eldora (Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio) and thought we were good again. But we completely melted a motor down to junk.
“It’s been a work in progress trying to get back to where we were,” he added. “If you were going to grade our year, I’d give it a C- and almost a D. It’s not been the well-oiled machine I usually run.”
Stovall gained much-needed momentum two weeks ago by winning the ARMI Freedom Classic at Salina. He took the lead with 17 laps remaining and never relinquished it.
The fact Stovall emerged from his slump at Salina didn’t surprise him.
“I’ve been there with a bunch of different cars and that place just fits me,” he said. “I can get around there really good. I’m not afraid to get up there in the cushion. I don’t know if guys are afraid or what the deal it is, but it seems other guys don’t want to get up in the cushion as far as I am to get it done. That place can be intimidating. But I don’t worry about it.”
Noting the race season is a marathon and not a sprint, Stovall is optimistic 2019 can still be the kind of year he’s accustomed to.
“There’s a lot of racing left this year, some really good racing is fixing to rip off here soon,” he said. “We’re in the process of building a new motor. Hopefully, we get it done and run it toward the end of the year to see what it’s all about.”
Stovall and his crew chief, Tony Rogers, are in their element building motors at Stovall's race shop adjacent to his home. With the shop all but completed, he won't be leaving Billings anytime soon.
"When I was racing out of my parent’s shop, I dreamed of having a race shop," Stovall said. "I’m very proud of it. I built this from the ground-up, with a little sweat and labor from my family great friends. I put in all the tools, machines, brakes, benders and drills and presses. Everything in here has come from dirt racing. It’s pretty awesome I’ve been able to build my own little empire here.
"We have lights, air conditioning, heat and satellite TV — this is the ultimate race car shop I wanted," he added. "Hopefully, one day when I’m all done racing, I can come in here and build me some hot-rods and have a place to hang out as I get old."