by Kevin Oldham

KO's interview with the Hurst Brothers is

KO's interview with Phil Poor is

 

Volume 20, Number 14

Fight to the Finish (Part II)

Picking up where I left off in my last installment, lately there has been an overall unwillingness on my part to accept the fact that this racing campaign is all but over.  It just doesn’t seem that long ago when week after week, I was waiting for the weather to break so that outdoor activities could finally commence.  In my mental struggle to embrace another changing of season, I had to remind myself that there is no sense in worrying about something that is out of my control.  Thoroughly enjoying a second half of September consisting of significant United States Auto Club contests at Eldora, Kokomo, Gas City, and Lawrenceburg, I guess we might as well go out with a big bang in this fight to the finish. 

Familiarity and tradition serve as my modern-day security blanket and in the continual search for comfort, there’s no way I would ever skip a September stop at Eldora Speedway while traveling this highway to hibernation mode.  A trip to the Big E in this ninth month means only one thing in my world:  the Four Crown Nationals.  A smorgasbord of enticing open wheel entertainment filled with multitasking from the world’s bravest wheelmen, at the minimum it takes my mind off the fact that serious alterations to my routine and mindset are just weeks away.   Always enjoying a look back in time at the event’s previous winners to stoke the embers of a smoldering memory bank, this 37th Four Crown Nationals weekend would be my 32nd, only missing one (1986) since my initial exposure.    

To relieve this year’s congested Saturday schedule, USAC Silver Crown cars would practice and qualify with the World of Outlaws on Friday.  As always, the champ dirt cars served as the fourth and final crown in a dizzying array of activity that also included practice, qualifying, heat races, semi-features, and features for USAC midgets, USAC sprint cars, and the All Star Circuit of Champions winged sprint cars.  The winged warriors even needed a pair of trophy dashes, with the number of Saturday racing contests totaling 20.  Some may disagree, but it is still my opinion that the current slate for Saturday is far too full, as a seven-plus hour show and Sunday morning finish has now become the norm.  Unfortunately, the lateness of hour once again resulted in many heading for the exits rather prematurely.  Sadly those people missed out on a Silver Crown finale that wound up being one of the best races in the history of the event.  Choosing not to visit the concession stand and limit my liquid consumption so there would be no need to visit the restrooms, call me Four Crown crazy, but I just didn’t want to risk missing any of the on-track action.     

Even with the open wheel overkill, the Four Crown is a must-see, as USAC and Eldora are such a rare pairing these days.  One of only two annual USAC weekends at the Darke County speed plant, back in my earlier days of fandom it wasn’t uncommon for the Speedway sanctioning body to schedule as many as six Eldora dates in a season.  A long-standing partnership that has survived since 1962, the Four Crown reminds me of just how much better the action is on a half-mile when you eliminate aerodynamic aids from the equation. 

Still glowing over some of the most awe-inspiring Four Crown contests in recent memory, even the BeFour the Crowns Showdown and its World of Outlaws finale contained edge of your seat action that assisted in digesting the painful reality of Greg Hodnett’s previous night incident in Susquehanna.  Still numb to the news, I have no idea how to process yet another high-profile tragedy, as there have been far too many these last few years.  Angry that this sport continues to take and take until I cannot take any more bad news, no matter how many kneejerk reactions will attempt to make cars and tracks safer, it’s still a ridiculously dangerous sport that chooses no favorites.  That doesn’t make it any easier to accept, as ever since he was a late 1980s sprint car newcomer, Greg was someone I completely admired and respected.  Leaving behind loved ones and a legion of fans and friends, sad doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

Taking up Tom Percy’s generous offer to camp on Friday and Saturday evening, for the second time this year I joined Trevor Valentine and Doug Kililea as guests in the “Grey Wolf”.  Thursday evening’s unfolding of the horrific Hodnett news was a bitter pill to swallow, but being around racing folk the next two days made it a little more bearable, easing the pain with a slightly improbable first-ever Eldora triumph by former central Pennsylvania participant Brent Marks.  Brent’s third career WoO score was no fluke, as he flexed some serious muscle all night.  Just eighth-best in his qualifying flight, Marks was the only one from the heat races to earn a dash starting spot who did not begin from the front row.  Opening the feature from the inside of row two, he stayed true to his top shelf tactic and hung with heat winners Logan Schuchart and Kraig Kinser.  Following a lap 14 stoppage for Daryn Pittman’s turn two tumble, Marks and Schuchart exchanged the lead three times on the 23rd tour, with Brent’s fourth corner sweep propelling him to P1.  It was at this point when the bright blue Pete Grove 70 belonging to 13th-starting Dave Blaney began to make some serious noise.  Struck with a surge of adrenaline as the 1995 WoO champ stole second from Schuchart, his third turn dive underneath Marks with three laps left briefly awarded him the premier position.  However, Brent once again defended his position by threading the needle between his nemesis and the fourth turn concrete, driving away to score a highly emotional victory over Schuchart and Greg Wilson.  Starting all the way back in 23rd, Wilson was once again a bottom-feeder, employing the same strategy as his 2015 WoO win during the Four Crown weekend.  Blaney backed up to fourth while outside front row starter David Gravel gathered fifth.  Scoring sixth was Kraig Kinser, who claimed the first heat, started the feature from fifth, and operated as high as second in his DRC chassis.  Quickest qualifier overall from the second flight (12.987), Hunter Schuerenberg scored seventh.  Sheldon Haudenschild, Rico Abreu (from 21st), and Jason Sides (from 17th) earned eighth, ninth, and tenth. 

Perhaps the biggest Friday shocker was the lackluster performance of 2018 Kings Royal winner Donny Schatz.  Timing tenth out of 20 cars from the second qualifying flight, Donny missed the cut by one spot in both heat four and the Last Chance Showdown, nearly collecting the turn one wall in that LCS.  Relegated to cashing in a provisional pass, the Minot Missile could only collect 13th at the end of 30.  Jacob Allen (joining Schatz in the 13th row), recent Calistoga WoO winner Cory Eliason (Thone 59), Brady Bacon, Randy Hannagan (May 71M), and Buddy Kofoid (making his Eldora debut in the Neumeister 11N) were a few names looking from the outside-in.  Indy Race Parts czar Bernie Stuebgen brought a pair of 71s for Parker Price-Miller and Gio Scelzi and although both showed supreme speed in flight A (Scelzi was quickest while PPM was 4th), their feature fate was not as fortunate.  Parker lost a left rear wheel while Gio was involved in the Pittman skirmish, suffering frame damage at the right rear fuel cell mount. 

Out of the Silver Crown contingent, Shane Cottle (Williams 81) was the qualifying chart-topper at 16.764 seconds.   Jerry Coons, Jr. made it an all Maxim front row for the second race in a row.  Just by signing in, fifth fastest qualifier Kody Swanson copped his record-setting fourth series championship, putting him in a league of his own as Jimmy Sills and Bud Kaeding each own three.   

Camping at the Club E remains one of the greatest of escapes I can ever envision.  But, when Tom, Trevor, and Doug wanted to call it an evening fairly early on Friday, I wasn’t ready to follow suit.  Friday was the last official day of the summer season and waking up to chilly Saturday morning temperatures, fall had definitely arrived in more ways than one.  After obligatory stops in Ansonia (for a Whistle Stop breakfast along the CSX double tracks) and Greenville (Walmart for Tom, McDonalds for Doug, and Maid-Rite for me), we were back at the campsite in plenty of time to tour a packed pit area containing 24 midgets, 39 USAC sprints, 41 All Stars,  and 23 Silver Crown chariots.  

The USAC sprint car cast contained quite a few notable Eldora wingless sprint car virgins, namely Jacob Wilson, Jason McDougal, and Dakota Jackson.  Paragon king Josh Cunningham even made the journey, his first since the Mopar Million.  After wounding his Silver Crown engine at Du Quoin, Joe Liguori only brought his sprint car, receiving some key coaching from living legend Jack Hewitt when Jack was not critiquing the bold graphics on Dick Mahoney’s machine.  Mahoney’s man was Mike Burkin, who wound up three spots shy of A-main status while Liguori was ninth in his heat and a semi-feature no-show.  Next door to Mahoney was car owner and metallurgist Jim Simon, who on October 30th celebrates his 60th year of employment at Collins Aerospace.  Scotty Weir strapped into the 22s but missed the feature by one position.  Richmond’s Brandon Whited made a rare Eldora appearance but could only earn eighth in the semi.  The same could be said for Bill Rose, whose Four Crown history goes all the way back to 1985 when he was wheeling a USAC late model.  Rose’s first ride in George Kissel’s DRC chassis resulted in an 11th place semi-feature finish.  While encountering long-time Eldora employee Larry Boos who just two weeks prior had his kidneys flushed, I also heard from Eric Gordon, the 1991 Four Crown Silver Crown runner-up who is scouting a Chevy engine for his son Jake, already laying claim to a former long wheelbase Benic/Goodnight Maxim. 

Four Crown history is flooded with heroic efforts from a laundry list of legendary names.  Although they were already winners in 2017, Tyler Courtney and C.J. Leary cemented their status in the Four Crown fraternity with some extra special 2018 efforts.  Boldly flirting with the fence all night long, Courtney’s conquests in the midget and sprint portion allowed him to enter an elite group of men who have mounted multiple victories in one day/night.  This association boasts a bevy of bad-ass members including Steve Kinser (1981), Larry Rice (1985), Rich Vogler (1986), Jack Hewitt (1991, 1996, 1997, 1998), Tony Stewart (1995), Dave Darland (1999 and 2004), J.J. Yeley (2001), Tracy Hines (2006), Kyle Larson (2011), Chris Windom (2013), Christopher Bell (2015), and now Tyler Courtney.  Overtaking teammate Justin Grant on a lap 10 midget restart to lead the rest of the distance, Tyler took advantage of a second lap sprint car restart to slide leader Robert Ballou, staying out front for the remainder of that affair as Clauson-Marshall Racing went two for two.  Courtney’s chances of sweeping all three USAC open wheel divisions seemed highly likely given his Silver Crown score in 2017 with the same Hans Lein DRC.  However, his concrete climbing between turns one and two and eventual upside-down excursion kept him from joining an even more exclusive league. 

As for last year’s sprint car winner C.J. Leary, his early engagement with Courtney for the second spot in the sprint car feature resulted in backstretch concrete contact and a scary spin in front of the field.  Coming out of it clean, that incident failed to rattle his chain, using the next 29 laps to march through the pack to score a scintillating runner-up finish.  Already earning stud-status for such a stout performance, C.J.’s eventual Silver Crown score (back in his family owned DRC) shot him into another stratosphere.  The lead position officially exchanged hands eight times in 50 laps, but unofficially I have no clue as to just how many times Leary and Kevin Thomas, Jr. inched ahead of one another.  In the overall realm of this racetrack and event, I am also unable to offer an accurate description of just how thrilling it was to watch Leary’s high-wire act, reminding me of those good old days when Jack Hewitt ruled the roost.  If my memory is correct, those final 20 tours were the most exciting that I have ever experienced in Silver Crown competition as the lead duo were unrelenting in their attack of one another.   Eighth-starting Leary would inevitably bang the boards (six times I counted) and lose the lead to middle man Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Fox 56), but somehow he would find a way to dig even deeper to pass him back, wearing out the right rear bead lock and the Jacobs ladder as the miniscule cushion had been pushed all the way to the wall.  Equally enthralled was my grandstand neighbor Cale Seitz, a Celina, Ohio open wheel addict with whom I exchanged several high-fives afterwards.   

Countless Four Crowns share space in my memory bank for various reasons, but never do I remember more thrilling on-track action than this one.  Aided by highly improved surface conditions over last year, the features were indeed fantastic.  But early on, five of the seven USAC sprint and midget heats were won from sixth, with the other two taken from fifth and second.  Quick qualifier Justin Grant (15.607) sprinted from third to first on the final lap of his sprint car heat while C.J. Leary needed far less laps, surging from sixth to first in the span of four corners.  After Jason McDougal was overtaken for first in his heat, he pounded the first turn concrete but somehow survived to take third.  The sprint car semi-feature was claimed from seventh by Dickie Gaines, who used a last turn, last lap lunge to squeeze past ninth-starting Shane Cottle for the win.  After clocking fifth fastest in qualifying, Jacob Wilson hung on for the final transfer.  A special shout-out goes to the sprint car squads of Tyler Courtney and Brady Bacon, each of whom had to thrash to exchange engines before heats were held. 

The Four Crown crunch for time resulted in midget qualifying being conducted during hot laps.  Any potential for time savings went out the window when Chris Baue spun in the turn three groove and left Rico Abreu with no time to react.  Center punching Baue at full song, Abreu took an extremely hard shot and once extricated, had to be helped down the banking.  For the second year in a row, Rico left the premises via ambulance but would return to watch the remainder of the event.  It is not my place to preach, but perhaps the group qualifying process should be reconsidered, especially when novices and those with equipment inequities are attempting to make their debut at such a daunting venue as Eldora.  Speaking as a well-informed fan in the stands, single car qualifying is much more intriguing and dramatic but for those not so enthralled, it conveniently serves as a break to visit the concession stand or bathroom.  Benefitting from Gary Stanton Mopar SR-11 horsepower, Tyler Courtney wound up clocking quickest at 16.475 seconds. 

Unfortunately, the Abreu accident served as an appetizer of Four Crown incidents.  Still active with his broken leg, last year’s Four Crown winner Spencer Bayston took a nasty ride through turn one during the feature event.  After exchanging a pair of sliders/crossovers with second place Tyler Courtney, Bayston nearly made contact in turn one but slid sideways and connected with the cushion instead.  Tempting fate with similar contact two laps earlier, this time he was not so lucky.  Somehow, Spencer emerged from the wreckage relatively unscathed, taking a trip to a local hospital where he was later released. 

Thankfully the USAC sprint car feature did not result in any inversions, but concrete contact was quite common.  First up was Leary, miraculous that his second lap wall slap and resulting spin did not result in colossal calamity.  Next was Robert Ballou, who while battling Justin Grant for second mimicked Leary’s miscue on the backstretch.  Unlike C.J., Robert was unable to restart.  In the waning stages, Grant closed on leader Courtney by aggressively attacking turns one and two, smudging the letters from his right rear Hoosier.  But, he too became victim to that turn two exit, spoiling an all-too-certain podium placement.  Silver Crown calamity came in the form of David Byrne and Tyler Courtney cartwheels.  As for the All Stars, Frankie Nervo mauled Mitch Harble in his heat and suffered a big spill.  Entering Eldora just 16 points out of the lead, Carson Macedo junked Joe Gaerte’s 3G in turn four while operating in fifth, essentially sewing up the crown for Aaron Reutzel.  After Cory Eliason’s meeting with the turn one wall, Reutzel slid Parker Price-Miller for first place through the south end of the speedway, leading the last 16 laps to garner his ninth All Star win of the season and second-ever score at the Big E, having won an NRA Sprintacular feature in October of 2016. 

Top-five midget feature finishers beyond Courtney included Justin Grant, Logan Seavey (from 13th), Kevin Thomas, Jr., and Tanner Carrick (from 12th).  Sixth through tenth contained Holly Shelton, Tucker Klaasmeyer (from 15th), Ryan Robinson, Jason McDougal and Brady Bacon.  Hats off to Isaac Chapple, who manned the middle lane to secure his best USAC sprint car feature finish of third, trailing only Courtney and Leary.  KTJ again finished fourth while 2013 Four Crown sprint car winner Chris Windom was fifth.  Chase Stockon, Dave Darland (from 14th), Nick Bilbee (from 19th), Dickie Gaines (from 16th), and Brady Bacon (after suffering a flat on lap 13) scored sixth through tenth.  Although Reutzel ruled the All Star roost, the Indy Race Parts tandem of Parker Price-Miller and Gio Scelzi (from 11th) completed the podium.  Travis Philo (from 15th) and quick qualifier Cole Duncan (12.845) were fourth and fifth.  Sixth through tenth included Dave Blaney (from 18th), Brady Bacon, Ryan Smith (McGhee 11), Max Stambaugh, and Shawn Dancer.  Ending of course with the sterling Silver Crown show, after Leary and Thomas came Cottle, McDougal (Dyson 9), and Swanson.  Coons, Grant, Bacon, Kyle Robbins, and Wilson rounded out the top-ten.  The only one to compete in all four classes, Bacon earned top-ten finishes in each one. 

Despite a highly memorable Four Crown Nationals, I still owned a melancholy mood upon my Sunday morning exit.  Fall was permanently the air, easily able to count the remaining contests in this racing campaign.  Nonetheless, I hope to make my final run to Rossburg for the World of Outlaws on Sunday October 14th. 

Five days after Eldora, the Kokomo Sprint Car Smackdown finale arrived for the third and final time.  Finally graced with great weather after ridiculous amounts of rain on August 25th and September 9th, of course the big buzz between the Four Crown and the Smackdown was the news of Robert Ballou’s suspension from USAC contests and a trio of tracks after his war of words with Eldora Speedway owner Tony Stewart.  Despite the numerous warnings Robert received from the sanctioning body regarding the tone and content of his social media rants and at-the-track interviews, he refused to back down.  Not wishing to add any further fuel to the fire by offering my opinion, I honestly do not know all the facts behind the suspension, but I suspect that there is more to the story as the punishment sure didn’t appear to match the reported crime.  The bottom line is that USAC and the other parties involved did what they felt was necessary to get their point across.  Constructive criticism is never an easy thing to deliver or receive, but if there is a lesson to be learned here, it’s that these words are far more effective when delivered with tact, thought, care, and respect, not to mention in the proper setting.  It is my belief that racing always needs a villain, so I’m hoping we’ll eventually get to see Mr. Ballou back where he belongs.  At the end of the day, the whole thing equates to even more negative energy that confirms my sour stance on the confluence of the racing world and social media.  Can we just go back to the days when all venting was done face to face or through letters to the editor in National Speed Sport News?

Kokomo kicked off a massive three-day slate of USAC sprint car racing in the Hoosier state, proving that the show can indeed go on without any one of us.  Arriving to find grandstands that were much emptier than I would have expected for such a significant event, I had to ponder the impossibility of attendance for so many who had traveled from afar in late August.  Sprint car count was respectable for a Thursday night, especially the BOSS portion that attracted 31 machines.  However, aside from the top-eight who were locked into the 40-lap, ,000 to win and ,000 to start finale, USAC racers reporting for heat races numbered just 16, losing a whopping 13 cars from the August 24th show.  No semi-feature became necessary when Matt Westfall scratched after being stricken with food poisoning.    

But as is always the case with Kokomo Speedway contests, quality trumps quantity.  The 25-lap BOSS feature was a barn burner with Wapakoneta, Ohio’s Mike Miller making the winning move underneath Cincinnati’s Michael Fischesser while the white flag was waving.  A 2002 Lawrenceburg Speedway and 2014 BOSS champion, Miller collected a ,500 check for his initial Kokomo appearance.  An extremely competitive and gratifying contest, the first seven machines were tightly bunched for the entire grind, with a plethora of position swapping occurring throughout the field.  The two-time and defending BOSS champion, local boy Dustin Smith immediately moved from third to first but was quickly overhauled by Fischesser, eventually settling for the show position in his new DRC.  Tyler Gunn galloped from 12th to gather 4th while 2018 Paragon champ Jake Scott found fifth.  Steve Irwin, Andrew Prather, 2018 Waynesfield champ Dallas Hewitt, Cole Ketcham (from 17th after bagging the B), and Bill Rose rounded out the top-ten.  Although the results did not show it, Travis Hery and J.J. Hughes had some great runs going before encountering issues.  Hery was inside of the top-five when he spun on lap 15 while Hughes worked as high as third before slicing a right rear tire.  Paul Dues (feature) and Luke Harbison (hot laps) accounted for the only two red flags of the evening.  Recently reinstated by World Racing Group after a failed substance abuse test from July, Justin Peck (Burton 04) found the wall in his heat and ended his evening.    

The box score of the USAC finale appeared to be dominated by Justin Grant, who after emerging as the winner of the highly entertaining King of the Hill match races started from the front and stayed there for the duration.  However, the box score failed to show that he had heavy pressure the whole way, first from outside front row starter Dave Darland and then fifth-starting and defending Smackdown winner Tyler Courtney.  One single caution came at the three-quarter mark for Chris Windom’s flat right rear tire, with that lone yellow keeping the Ione, California native honest as the final dash to the checkered had Courtney pull even on at least one occasion.  However, Justin and his Maxim/Claxton steed had too much speed to be denied his time in the limelight, alternating between low (three and four) and high (one and two) lanes on the multi-groove, lightning quick surface.  Sunshine closely followed in second while C.J. Leary landed third from tenth, gathering a 0 bonus for hard charger and B&W Auto Mart Passing Master honors.  Jason McDougal continued to impress with a finish of fourth while Brady Bacon settled for fifth.  After his flat tire, Windom rallied to score sixth while Dave Darland backed up to seventh, victim of a pinhole in his right rear tire.  Tyler Thomas, Chase Stockon, and Kevin Thomas, Jr. completed the top-ten at the 10:32 PM checkered flag. 

In this fight to finish the USAC campaign, Tyler Courtney leapfrogged Kevin Thomas, Jr. as the point leader, holding a slim margin of seven points going into Gas City.  Chris Windom was still third, but a black cloud continued to rain on his parade as he was now 58 points in arrears.  Having struggled in the sprint car ranks since the middle of last year and feeling rather low after a string of September engine failures, I felt great for Grant, who tallied his first-ever Kokomo USAC triumph and second sprint score of the year.  Clearly, 2018 has not gone as planned for the Grant/Topp Motorsports pairing, but there’s nothing like a ,000 score to right the ship.  The season is far from over in K-town, as the Kokomo Klash comes on October 19th.   

While readying for work on the Friday morning after Smackdown, I received a live video notification originating from Gas City I-69 Speedway.  Touting his Inaugural James Dean Classic which now fell under USAC sanction, promoter/operator Jerry Gappens was being interviewed from the racetrack on Fort Wayne’s ABC morning news, as track lighting shone brightly on Matt Goodnight’s machine.  Never have I been witness to such a promotion for a sprint car race, so excited to see the positive exposure given to this venue and the sport.  Perhaps Jerry’s promotions have begun to pay dividends, as by the time I arrived at the speedway a Sprint Week sized crowd was on-hand, helped by the fact that the weather was downright delightful.  The Gas City grounds were buzzing with energy, such a shame that this was their last event of the season.  But with an excellent surface, some extremely close competition, and a sprint car conclusion well before 10 PM, Gappens and Gas City mounted some serious momentum heading into 2019. 

Working only a half day allowed just enough time to make a first-time stop in Fairmount for the annual James Dean Festival.  Hoping to catch more than just a glimpse of some incredible automobiles, I managed to find a parking spot just south of the closed-off downtown streets, meandering my way through a show containing hundreds of incredibly cool classics and customs.   Intrigued by an exhibit showcasing James Dean’s first car (1949 Ford) and a Minneapolis Moline tractor owned by his family, I thoroughly enjoyed everything about the event and would easily make time to return in the coming years.  Fairmount is a neat little town filled with all kinds of treasures, including a top-notch restaurant and brewery (Grains and Grill/Bad Dad Brewery).   

A fine field of 33 USAC sprint cars were showcased at this James Dean Classic, with all the usual suspects accounted for.  With seating slightly cramped, I watched qualifying from outside of turn four with Merrillville Al Longiny.  Searching for redemption with his recent run of rotten luck, Chris Windom wound up topping the charts with a 11.988 lap, getting it done just three cars from the end of the line.  Although his Smackdown showing was no doubt disappointing, Isaac Chapple rebounded with sixth-quick time, also impressing in his heat race win from fifth.  The other three heats were won from the front row, which included Lima’s Dustin Ingle.  Justin Grant spoiled his fifth-quick qualifying time by failing to make it through his heat, but he rebounded with a semi-feature score.  Garrett Abrams and Shane Cockrum were the first two to fail to make the feature cut, noteworthy that they were 2018 track champs at Lawrenceburg and Lincoln Park.

Speaking beforehand with legendary car owner Paul Hazen, I congratulated him on his 2018 Gas City championship with newcomer Clinton Boyles.  Over the years, this I-69 Speedway has been very kind to the Columbia City resident, taking the first two titles in 1987 and 1988 with Tony Elliott and annexing another with Thomas Meseraull in 2010.  In attempting to keep track of Paul’s lengthy list of career accomplishments, I am certain that he owns at least 16 track championships in the sprint car ranks, split between Jim and Tony Elliott, Louie Mann, Jon Stanbrough, Meseraull, and Boyles.  Feature wins are much more difficult to determine, as so many went undocumented.  I have dates for 180 triumphs, but between Jim Elliott and Louie Mann, Hazen believes there should be at least 70 more.   Providing potent equipment to a long list of celebrated chauffeurs, the one stat Paul is most proud of is his role in Robbie Stanley’s 1992 USAC championship.  In this push to get Paul’s name on the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame ballot, I would hope that the panel members would come to realize just how much influence he has had on the sport over the last six decades, winning with a myriad of veterans while also mentoring so many to legendary status.       

Watching heats and feature action from the turn three bleachers alongside Lafayette’s Joe Higdon, I unfortunately missed out on the James Dean themed activities occurring in the main grandstand and concrete concourse.  However, as a hardcore sprint car colleague, I was quite satisfied to see the surface held up nicely for the 9:30 PM green flag.  With Jason McDougal and Isaac Chapple holding front row seats, Chapple immediately turned to the bottom and found first place.  An MSCS winner here in May, fourth-starting Kevin Thomas, Jr. stole second from McDougal and shadowed Chapple for the first 25 laps.  Interrupted by separate spins for Dallas Hewitt and Tony DiMattia, the final ten tours went uninterrupted as Thomas finally made his top shelf tactic work, inching ahead on the exit of turn two to lead the 26th circuit.  Restarting fifth after that final caution, last year’s Sprint Week winner C.J. Leary also made hay on the high side, immediately circling Windom and using the last two laps to power past McDougal and Chapple.  On the final go-round, the latter two locked horns as they approached turn three.  Jason spun his Daigh/Phillips 71 and attracted Josh Hodges, but Isaac somehow extricated himself and crossed the line behind Chris Windom and Chase Stockon.  But with Thomas and Leary taking the checkered while the yellow flag was flying, USAC’s split scoring allowed Chapple to produce his second podium in less than a week, pimping Windom and Stockon.  Yellow laundry was swapped for red when Dallas Hewitt dumped on the east end.    

Hot and cold in this fight to the finish, KTJ collected his sixth USAC sprint car victory of the season and snatched the point lead from Tyler Courtney, who had a definite off evening.  Courtney qualified 17th and won his heat race but had to begin the finale from 17th.  After passing a bunch of cars early, an over the cushion expedition in turn three threw it all away.  Winding up where he started in 17th, Tyler now trailed KTJ by 37 points.  With split-scoring reverting to the last scored lap for those not receiving the checkered flag (and those not involved in last lap incidents), sixth through tenth place finishers included Dave Darland (from 12th), Kyle Cummins (from 18th), Grant, Tyler Thomas, and Clinton Boyles (from 20th). 

Sad that a fantastic Friday had to come to an end, Saturday’s spectacular weather spawned even more energy and enthusiasm.  A lot to see and do before leaving for Lawrenceburg’s Fall Nationals, I was unable to exit Indy’s north side until 4:45 PM.  I tried my best to make up for lost time and covered the 107 miles (plus one fuel stop) in just 95 minutes, arriving as qualifications commenced.   Missing an extremely rare Chris Windom time trial tumble, after reverting to a backup Baldwin DRC/Claxton combo the Canton, Illinois charger came out at the end of the order for one lap, claiming the 20th best time in a field of 26.  After hustling from the sign in shack to the turn two bleachers, I was able to observe C.J. Leary’s clocking of quick time (13.877).  All the usual suspects wound up in the top-six, which for the second night in a row consisted of Isaac Chapple.  Tyler Courtney was also included, but that did not come without work and worry as the Clauson/Marshall/Newman crew was forced to swap engines before hot laps ever began.  Much like Windom, Brandon Spithaler (Gagliardi 77) and Justin Peck bounced through turns three and four but did not invert. 

After Dave and Kim Rudisell bestowed the honor of “Legend of Lawrenceburg” to the retired Jon Stanbrough, only three heats were held.  But, just like qualifications, they served up their own share of drama.  Leary and third-quick qualifier Brady Bacon were bold in their surges from sixth, using high-side heroics in the latter stages.  Tyler Courtney suffered a flat left rear tire, spoiling a certain feature start near the front.  On the final lap of that same heat, second-quick qualifier Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Chris Windom connected for fifth, with KTJ snagging the spot.  Like Courtney, Chapple was unable to capitalize on a superb qualifying time, having to come through the 11-car semi-feature.  That semi sent seven more men to the finale, with Nick Bilbee nipping Minnesota’s Brian VanMeveren for the final ticket.  Tony DiMattia, Garrett Abrams, and 305 racer Frank Rodgers trailed Big B.   

Needing just 30 laps to decide who would cash the ,000 Fall Nationals check, Dave Darland and Smackdown stud Justin Grant held front row seats for a hotly contested finale.  Grant held his ground and came away with the lead as they exited the first two corners.  Sixth-starting C.J. Leary gained two positions on the first round but titled on two wheels at the start of the second.  Flipping and landing on all fours, C.J. later complained of soreness in his back and neck.  X-rayed and tested the next day, Leary’s Twitter feed claimed that he was cleared for the following weekend’s contests in Kansas and Missouri.    

Restarting with just one lap in the books, fourth-starting Bacon now sat second and seized the day with a dynamic diamond of the first set of corners.  Shot out of a cannon down the back chute, he was thus able to beat Grant to the opposite end.  Justin immediately retaliated with a slider through one and two, but number 99 answered with a clean crossover.  The top two proceeded to put some distance between themselves and third place Darland, who at the one-third mark had to contend with a Tyler Courtney slide for life.  Dave drove down the bank and was able to retain the spot, soon to be followed by the lone caution caused by Brandon Spithaler.    

With the scoreboard indicating that 19 laps were left, Grant immediately showed his hand with a turn one overtaking.  Bacon’s inclination was to return fire but JG still reached turn three first.   Meanwhile, Courtney had already corralled third as Darland drifted to sixth.  Justin would extend his advantage as the war for second and third was waged between Bacon, Courtney, and 19-starting Chris Windom.  In the final six circuits, Bacon rapidly reduced the distance to Grant’s rear bumper courtesy of lapped traffic.  Giving it all he had with his inboard brake rotor glowing, Brady’s unexpected last lap bike between turns one and two sealed the deal.  In the span of one weekend, Grant, crew chief Mark Shambarger, and Topp Motorsports completely turned their year around, tallying their second ,000 bounty in three days.  Finished by 9:45 PM, Bacon, Courtney, Windom, and Thomas took top-fives.  Darland, Andretti, Stockon, Chapple, and Hodges represented the second half of the top-ten.  Looking to Terre Haute on October 12th after Lake Ozark and Lakeside were washed out, Thomas holds a 37-point advantage on Courtney.  Windom is still third, needing to make up 62 points. 

Now that October has occurred and less than a handful of outdoor contests remain on my calendar, I have accepted the fact that it’s time to start thinking about modifying my mindset and routine.  No longer feeling stress for what is out of my hands, I am thankful to have witnessed so many meaningful events in this month of September.  Remembering my 1992 Jac Haudenschild t-shirt that so boldly stated “go big or go home”, hopefully I will be able to absorb even more action in Terre Haute, Haubstadt, Eldora, and Kokomo, as I would much rather go big until it is time to go home.     

 

 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 13

Fight to the Finish

Since joining the working world some 24 years ago, the flipping of my Paul Oxman Sprint Car Racing calendar to the month of September remains an all-too-alarming event.  Replacing the stress and dread of performing well in school with the fleeting feeling of freedom in this rapidly declining summer season, this sunset on yet another racing campaign offers zero time for reflection as this last full month is chock full of highly-anticipated annual events.  Basking in a blanket of warmth in this fight to the finish, most often the climate and conditions are favorable but as we have been so unapologetically reminded by the weather Gods, there are always exceptions to the rule. 

Due to an increasingly hectic work schedule, exercise routine, mid-week events, weekends filled with travel, multiple birthday parties, and the overall desire to give my brain a break, I have clearly fallen behind on my September blogging.  Rewinding back to the beginning of the month, it all began with an early alarm clock and my first-ever excursion to Auburn, Indiana for its famed Labor Day Weekend classic car auction conducted by RM Sotheby’s.  This aspect of the celebrated Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Festival came courtesy of my father-in-law, whose key connection came with primo passes and a golf cart.  Eyeing some excellent equipment with much more realistic pricing than Barrett-Jackson and Mecum, I even observed former Dave Darland car owner and auctioneer Brent Earlywine handling the main microphone and doing this thing.  Giving the accompanying swap meet a look and deliberating over the purchase of several old signs, for once I was able to exercise some willpower over my issue with impulse buying.   Ending the day with a stroll around the DeKalb County courthouse square where numerous Auburn boat tail speedsters, both real and reproductions, served as eye-candy, I’d definitely come back another year, perhaps even to place a bid.   However, I sadly doubt that a Grabber Blue 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302 formerly owned by Bill Elliott will come across the block once again.  Selling for ,850, I would have gladly sacrificed many possessions to own this dream ride. 

Riding four hours the next day to Du Quoin, Illinois for the traditional Ted Horn 100, with my nephew handling driving chores I was able to focus on finishing my most recent blog.  Leaving an hour earlier to allow time for a stop in downtown Du Quoin at St. Nicholas Brewing Company, the ambience and romance of this ancient hotel along the famed Illinois Central “City of New Orleans” route was undeniable.  As usual, Du Quoin’s Magic Mile in the evening hours was spectacular, thrilled and satisfied that the primary groove for the 100-mile finale was on the outside wall rather than along the rail in the rubber. 

Equally pleased that two-lap qualifications made its return to the program, two-time Little 500 champion and noted asphalt expert Jacob Wilson surprisingly clocked the quickest lap at 30.214 seconds, well off the 29.138 record set by Tyler Walker back in 2004.    A fine field of 38 made the call, offering the first Du Quoin semi-feature in over a decade.  This last chance affair served as a heartbreaker for Steve Buckwalter, whose long haul from the Keystone State was wasted with a DNF while operating in second. 

With the feature event taking the green at 8:54 PM local time (nearly 10 PM Indy time), rather than look at my watch and worry about the time we would arrive home, I soaked up the scene as outside front row starter Jerry Coons, Jr. led the first six laps in Gene Nolen’s 20.  Coons gave way to fourth-starting Brady Bacon (Klatt 6), whose Beast-Ford combo rocketed past on the outside of turn two to lead the next 28 laps.  In his second race of driving a DRC for Mickey Meyer, third-starting C.J. Leary also made some early noise after collecting second from Coons and breaking away with Bacon.  A lap 16 turn three tumble for J.C. Bland (snapping a rear axle) saw Coons pit, with Jerry having to work extra hard in his eventual return to the top-ten.  The second and final stoppage came on lap 35 when rookie Austin Mundie mauled the turn one concrete, flipping all the way to the inside guardrail where trigger-happy photographer Chris Pedersen refused to flinch.  Serious incidents were the norm on this Sunday, as hot laps began with a bang when Chris Fetter crashed Craig Dori’s former Beast, aided by contact from another competitor. 

Bacon was the best early on, but clutch problems prevented him from restarting after that Mundie miscue.  Handing the lead to Leary, the Greenfield gasser and 11th-starting Tyler Courtney set a blistering pace for the next fifty tours.  I cannot adequately describe just how much of a treat it was to watch these two aggressively attack the thinning cushion, burping the throttle on turn one entry while   canvassing the concrete perimeter.  Forgetting that Silver Crown affairs favor endurance, after a lap 86 slip in turn one Leary mysteriously slowed, later learning that he was running out of fuel.  Sunshine slipped into first with 13 to go, but his time up front was only good for seven circuits, as he too had issues with fuel consumption.  Clearly, running the top-side of a one mile oval takes more than 75 gallons of fuel to make 100 miles, made worse when there were no caution flag periods (just two reds).  Leary and Courtney’s balls-out, rim-riding antics ultimately bit them in the end, with C.J. somehow coasting to seventh while Tyler was a DNF.    

Employing a more conservative strategy of running a lower line and slower pace, Springfield winner Chris Windom might have been the tortoise versus the pair of hares, but in the end he wound up sweeping the Illinois miles in Gene Nolen’s Maxim/Tranter.  Firing from fifth, Kevin Thomas, Jr. scored second in Galen Fox’s 56, finding out their Eagle chassis was supplied by longtime Foxco customer Don Fike.  Local favorite Shane Cockrum cruised from 14th to 3rd, with Justin Grant and last year’s winner Kody Swanson (from 12th) making due with top-five finishes. 

As is the case with 100-mile contests, heavy favorites fell to the wayside.  1990 winner Jeff Swindell (Swanson 21) exited on lap 10, credited with 30th place.  1997 victor Russ Gamester was next, joined by   2008 winner Brian Tyler (Galas 12) on lap 18.  After charging back through the field to obtain a certain top-ten, Jerry Coons, Jr. finally gave up the ghost with 12 to go, still searching for that first Southern Illinois score.  After starting 16th and operating in the second half of the top-ten, 2007 winner Shane Cottle was also eliminated in the final ten tours.  As a result of such attrition, David Byrne, Austin Nemire, Joey Moughan, and Kyle Robbins captured finishes of sixth, eighth, ninth, and tenth. 

Traditional one-mile Silver Crown contests seem to be the best places to bump into long-time racing groupies.  Formerly calling the Chicago area home, a culture-shocked Russ Creason was located in the turn one stands.  Now hailing from Carbondale, he reluctantly punches the time clock at a Rural King.  In those same open stands, I also encountered Paragon photogs Kevin Plummer and Dudley Green, former sprint car star Robbie Rice, and USAC super fan John Nolan, who formerly made overnight Du Quoin drives all the way from Darlington, South Carolina.  Carrying on the proud tradition of his father Randy, when not fighting fires Drew Mortland also finds time to make the expedition from East Alton.  Former promoter and school teacher Brian Thompson was even on hand, undoubtedly capturing some spectacular crash footage of Fetter and Mundie as he enjoyed a spot along the inside rail between turns one and two.   

A 4 AM Indy arrival from DQ made Labor Day a non-event for yours truly but after a rare Tuesday trip to Bonge’s Tavern to enjoy an excellent meal with Bryce Townsend’s New Zealand tour group, the much anticipated Driven2SaveLives BC 39 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was finally available for consumption.  Several weeks removed, I’m still in awe of this event, particularly for the incredible action on Wednesday and the teamwork and effort involved in recovering from Thursday’s multiple rain showers.  Working full days in the office and relegated to being a paying customer, even though I was forced to miss half of hot laps on opening night I was clearly not alone, parking next to 16th Street Speedway opening night winner Brian Gerster and walking in with former Indianapolis Raceway Park GM (now a Senior VP at Don Schumacher Racing) Mike Lewis.  As much as I loved everything about this event, if I could change just one thing, it would be pricing.  and tickets, plus on-site parking, seemed far too steep for just a midget show. 

Such a rare opportunity to witness an opening night at a brand-new venue, I admit that my first impressions were way off base, as I was initially concerned by the tight confines and rough surface present in the final six practice sessions.  Any concerns went out the window after track preparer Reece O’Connor worked his pre-heat race magic, packing the imperfections with his trusty water truck.   Reece’s relentless pursuit of perfection paid huge dividends once the racers finally figured out how to navigate those paperclip corners, as my Indy expectations for excitement were easily exceeded.  

The massive list of 118 entries was reduced to a realistic 110, with Wednesday’s 12 heat races and singular Australian pursuit completed by 10:38.  The two biggest things I will always remember about that opening night were:  1) the electricity generated from all that IMS ambience, and 2) all those oohs and aahs emanating from the grandstand, undoubtedly from fans who have never previously observed short track open wheel action.  Each one of those 12 heats had something for everyone, beginning with a dramatic spin and win in the first heat from Tyler Courtney which was immediately followed by a heat race victory from Keith Kunz Motorsports newcomer Maria Cofer.  Using a passing points format to line up Thursday’s qualifying races, Alex Bright ended the opening night on top after nailing a win from ninth.  Several others claimed victories from fifth and seventh, impressed by second place performances from Zeb Wise, Brian Karraker (only his second midget drive), Terry Babb, Korey Weyant, Brayton Lynch, and Travis Young, as each came from deep in the field.  The volley of sliders between Steve Buckwalter and Jason McDougal got the crowd going, worked into a frenzy after a last turn, last lap pass for the win by Tyler Thomas.  Fifteen-year-old Zeb Wise wrapped up the evening with a dramatic win from 18th in the 25-car Stoops pursuit, sliding Alex Bright while accepting the white flag.  Wearing the same numerals as Clauson, Wednesday’s finale could not have been scripted any better. 

With everyone raving about Wednesday, how could Thursday even come close to topping such an outstanding opening night?  As rain continued to fall while impatiently waiting at the intersection of 25th and Georgetown, my wife and I seriously doubted that we’d see any action whatsoever.  I was feeling some serious stress that those tickets would go to waste, as the listed rain date was the following day – a day that I was scheduled to be at work.  The grim weather forecasted for Friday and USAC’s hectic weekend schedule meant that the only available window would be Thursday evening, if they could even get the track in operable condition.  Frequent twitter updates eventually influenced our entry, promising midgets on the track by 8 PM.  Behind the scenes, I had zero clue as to just how daunting that challenge was.  The second set of showers between 5 and 6 PM made the grounds and racing surface a muddy mess, so much that any sane operator would have pulled the plug and waited for another day. 

As principals in the construction of this venue and operation of this event, Levi Jones, Reece O’Connor, and Scott Petry (an excavation expert who also had three cars entered) had their backs firmly placed against the wall.  Aided by a bevy of USAC officials who worked their tails off, some excellent equipment donated by Westside Tractor, and Petry’s gallop back to Greenfield to grab additional skid-steer loaders, cars were indeed on the track around 8, requiring two hours of wheel packing and hot laps just to be ready for the scheduled eight qualifying races.  Already announcing that multiple E and D mains would be scrapped, eventually the C and B mains had to go bye-bye as well, as noise and curfew ordinances had IMS President Doug Boles on the phone, promising that the races would be over any minute. 

Forced to call an audible, USAC officials determined that the top 24 points producers after Thursday’s eight qualifying races would compete in the 39-lap finale.  I’m sure the decision disappointed many of the competitors who needed those alphabet soup contests to make the main event, but there was no way that racing could be conducted until the wee hours of Friday morning.  Speaking as a fan in that tightly-packed main grandstand, I’m glad that I got to see any kind of a finale.  Concluding at a weary 12:25 AM, the majority stayed to see seventh-starting Brady Bacon (FMR Beast/Toyota) beat tenth-starting Chad Boat and pole-sitter Kevin Thomas, Jr. (leader of laps 1-30) in a thrilling three-car free-for-all.  26 cars competed on the tiny track, with front row starter Tyler Courtney settling for fourth as NASCAR star Christopher Bell charged to fifth from 17th.  Alex Bright, Justin Grant, Holly Shelton, Jerry Coons, Jr., and Ryan Robinson were credited with top-ten finishes in this initial Indy outing. 

Impressed with the enthusiasm of the fans and participants, the extreme effort from principals and series officials, and the overall entertainment value offered by IMS midgets, I was ecstatic to read Robin Miller’s Racer.com report that this first-time event was deemed a home run.  Hoping that it at least becomes an annual event and helps make the Brickyard week a little more sustainable, although Boles squashed the idea of a Night Before the 500, naturally I wonder if this dirt bullring will get utilized more than once a year.  Measured at 1,200 in distance some ten feet beneath the outside wall, Levi Jones says that USAC sprints currently run at smaller venues, so sprint cars could be a possibility.  However, a big part of me hopes that the BC39 is the lone event held each year.  Creating another IMS tradition, it also builds big-time anticipation and elevates midget racing to another level.     

In this September weather anomaly, the remainder of the USAC events scheduled that weekend were of course awash, moving Gas City to September 28th and Kokomo’s Smackdown conclusion to September 27th.  However, the wait for USAC sprint car action was only temporary, as Friday the 14th found me traveling west on I-70 to Terre Haute’s Jim Hurtubise Classic.  Frustrated by the ridiculous amounts of rush hour congestion in the fast lane of this supposed superhighway, unfortunately road construction around exit 7 cost me hot laps.  Catching qualifying for the slim 24-car field with former midget and sprint car competitor turned flagman Steve Parkes, just three heats, a 30-lap feature, and a short field of modifieds resulted in a respectable 9:45 PM sprint car conclusion.   

After the Sprint Week letdown of which I was highly critical, to promoter/operator Bob Sargent’s credit these last two Terre Haute surfaces (including August 12th) were completely up to snuff, offering moisture and a substantial cushion the entire evening.  At the end of it all, BC39 winner and fifth-starting Brady Bacon remained white hot.  Capitalizing on an early yellow flag and a subsequent sixth lap C.J. Leary turn three/four bobble to lead final 25 feature laps, Brady laid claim to his fourth USAC sprint car conquest of the season.  Bacon had to execute perfection in in his time up front, as he was heavily pursued in this fight to the finish by first heat winner and quick qualifier Robert Ballou (19.621), who just so happened to debut another chassis massaged by BOSS builder Flea Ruzic.  Never faltering, the superior setup applied to Bacon’s Triple X chassis by FK shock constructor Matt Hummel allowed him to set the fastest lap of the race on circuit number seven (20.550).  Winning Indy the previous Thursday, becoming a father for the third time on Monday, and taking Terre Haute the following Friday, it was a whirlwind but highly exciting nine day stretch for the two-time USAC sprint car king. 

Afterwards, both Bacon and Ballou noted that their rides were a tad on the tight side, as the track only began to blow off in the second half of the feature.  Trailing in third was Chris Windom, salvaging a decent point night as he gained a few on Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Tyler Courtney.  Biking and bobbling a few more times, C.J. Leary landed in fourth.  And, after cutting a tire on his qualifying lap and forced to start the feature from 12th (even though he timed 7th), Thomas took fifth.  Positions six through ten were populated by pole sitter Shane Cottle (Goacher 5G), Tyler Courtney, Chase Stockon, Stevie Sussex (Dutcher 17), and 17th-starting Jason McDougal (Daigh/Phillips 71).  Like KTJ, Courtney had a far too eventful evening, slowing and stopping around lap 14 after a nozzle line came loose.  Quick infield work from his crew allowed him to restart from the rear and soldier home 7th, albeit a far cry from his THAT tallies in May and July.   

Others having issues at the Action Track included third heat winner Dave Darland, who after starting eighth encountered issues under the hood when his power plant puked its oil contents midway through.  Darland overtook Nick Bilbee on the final lap of the heat thanks to a slice in Bilbee’s right rear tire, unable to be seen from my infield vantage point as I stood alongside Eric Burns.  Turned by Bill Rose three laps into the feature, while Nick was sliding backwards into the turn one wall he was blasted by Josh Hodges, the contact requiring servicing by DRC’s Joe Devin.  With sore ribs and a ruined racecar, the only consolation for the welder/fabricator was the comfort from family and a cold Miller Lite.  After suffering engine issues for the third race in a row with his Topp Motorsports Maxim/Claxton, I could sense some serious dejection within the voice of Justin Grant as he was making the post-race walk to his personal vehicle.  The lone competitor unable to make the call for the feature event was Nate McMillin, whose heat race entanglement with Jarett Andretti ended his evening.

Traveling to and from Terre Haute on my own, the same could be said for my lengthy Saturday haul to Haubstadt as my nephew had to excuse himself for a sudden sickness.  Allowing me to leave a little earlier than planned and employing my usual 465-231-67-57-50-241-41 route, I nervously calculated that I had just enough time to make a first-time stop at a one-of-a-kind, out-of-the-way eatery:  Ohana Hilltop Tavern in Hazelton, Indiana, which is just a few miles off route 41 and not too far from the world-famous melons that are still sprouting in Decker, Indiana.  Learning about the place via a Jonathan Vennard Facebook post, the simple fare from this mom and pop establishment did not disappoint, as manager Lucy Adkins won me over when she advised that her steaks and chops are supplied by Haubstadt’s much-heralded Dewig Meats.  Always a sucker for a flavorful ribeye, I chose the ten-ounce version with sides of German potatoes (appropriate for Gibson County) and buttered corn as I caught the end of the Notre Dame/Vanderbilt game with a few Hilltop regulars.  Ten ounces seemed more like 16 and as my first and as only true meal of the day, it hit the spot.  Leaving enough room for one of Lucy’s homemade desserts, I decided on coconut pie but wondered about the myriad of other options.  I guess I’ll just have to come back another time.

After my meal had vanished and my tab was taken care of, for posterity purposes I snapped some obligatory exterior photos.  Turning to the north, I couldn’t help but notice that State Road 56 made a hard right at another eating establishment (White River Inn), observing some overgrowth and a dead-end sign.  Astonished that I had finally arrived at the abandoned U.S. 41 bridge over White River, it’s a place that I had always wanted to visit since my first trip to Haubstadt, as for years I mistakenly believed this was an old railroad bridge (visible from the current highway).  Built in 1923 but closed to all traffic for a few decades, I hope to come back when I have more time to explore.       

Sacrificing a prime parking spot on the U.S. 41 side of Tri-State Speedway for that Hilltop stop, this ,000 to win Haubstadt Hustler already had a huge crowd on-hand, forced to park way outside of turn two, not far from the Helfrich pond.  Feeling the magnitude of the event due to the slow pace with which I waited in line to find my spot, it’s hard to imagine that it has been ten years (2008) since this first Haubstadt Hustler was hosted, remembering signs of Southern Indiana farmers in support of Barack Obama on that long-ago journey.  Ten years gone, the Hustler still draws strong numbers at the front gate and the back gate, as 36 sprinters signed in for duty.  MSCS rules again reigned supreme, offering a format very similar to Kokomo Speedway’s standard shows.  Timed hot laps lined up heats that inverted the fastest four.  Those four heats transferred the top-four, but the top-two would redraw for the first eight feature starting positions.  The other two finishers from each heat were lined up according to their finish, in order of their heat.  As an example, Kyle Cummins finished third in the first heat and earned the 9th starting position while Robert Ballou (fast qualifier for the second evening in a row, but in a different car from Friday) finished third in the second heat and earned the 10th starting position.   The final six starters came from the semi-feature.  

Ending a 15-race dry spell in the USAC win column, just as he did in April national point leader Kevin Thomas, Jr. wrenched victory from the hands of C.J. Leary, tallying his third Hustler honor since 2013.  Exactly like April, Leary appeared to have the dominant car from the get-go.  Qualifying quickest for his heat, C.J. spun while avoiding an errant Donny Brackett, yet still came back to claim second to Brady Bacon in a photo finish.  Drawing the outside pole for the 40-lap finale, the Greenfield grenade gathered the lead from pole sitter Kent Schmidt on the second circuit and led through lap 36.  Similar to the spring showdown, the third-starting Thomas used lapped traffic in the waning stages to pull even and ahead with a low-side launch off turns one and two.  Up front for the final four tours, it was good enough for Kevin’s fifth series win on the season and a 21-point advantage heading into Eldora’s Four Crown.   Not without drama, Kevin was unable to avoid post-race calamity as his Mean Green Hoffman 69 DRC piled into a pair of lapped machines that had spun (Isaac Chapple and Chet Williams) and blocked the middle of the track between the first and second corners.  Although second place Leary managed to avoid the mess, third place Jason McDougal could not. 

A brand-new venue for Jason, despite the incident his night was incredibly solid, starting eighth and shadowing his landlord the entire distance.  Meeting the 21-year-old for the first time thanks to car owner Carla Phillips, I was impressed with the kid’s humble nature, as he mentioned that his primary reason for arriving in Indy earlier this year was for a real job (he welds part-time for JRS Fabrication).  Landing top-notch rides in all three USAC disciplines, he was tabbed to drive Chris Dyson’s bad-ass Beast Silver Crown car at the Four Crown, also scheduled to run a Reinbold-Underwood 19 on the upcoming west coast swing. 

Although he did not win like the last time, Dave Darland enjoyed another excellent Haubstadt outing with his fourth-place feature finish, as Scott Benic has him feeling comfortable and confident on this tacky paperclip.  Out of a three-car Briscoe-Pottorff-Reinbold stable led by Brady Short, Carson Short (no relation) was the only one to earn a feature berth, flogging from 15th to 5th in the CBR Maxim.  Chad Boesfplug (Reinbold Spike) and Josh Hodges (Pottorff Maxim) finished eighth and ninth in the semi-feature and were unable to utilize provisional starting spots.   

Positions six through ten showed Tyler Courtney (putting four wheels in the fluff to advance ten spots), Robert Ballou, Chase Stockon, Kyle Cummins, and Donny Brackett.  After qualifying quickest for his heat and winning it from fourth, fourth-starting Chris Windom mysteriously slowed on the sixth lap and was immediately pushed to the work area.  Breaking a stud in the left front control arm, his Baldwin bunch was unable to enact repairs by the time the field restarted.  Windom would eventually return two laps later when Kent Schmidt and Stephen Schnapf met in turn four but was only able to salvage 17th, losing more ground in his quest to defend his national championship. Still just 54 points in arrears of KTJ, Big Daddy was planning to pounce at the Four Crown.      

After his Terre Haute tally, Haubstadt was anything but a cakewalk for Brady Bacon.  Climbing an errant wheel on an unlucky lap 13, Brady bounced upside down but was somehow able to return, collecting 14th place pay.  In addition to bigger names like Boespflug and Hodges, others failing to make the feature cut included Dakota Jackson, Stevie Sussex, Chase Hayhurst, and Shawn Arriago.  Just his third time in a sprinter, Hayhurst is of course son to former Haubstadt mainstay Gary Hayhurst while Antioch, California visitor Arriago was here to pay tribute to the recently deceased sprint car supporter Jim Fuchs.

Always a treat to take in a Tri-State show, driver introductions, pre-feature fireworks, and animated announcers truly made this feel like a special evening.  Still a comfortable 80 degrees at 8:15 PM, I was on the road by 9:40 PM local time.  After making one stop in Fort Branch for both car and body fuel, I was pulling into my driveway at 1 AM, still reasonable in the realm of late-night drives.  I hope to do it all again on October 13th for the MSCS/Powri Harvest Cup, a season-closing contest paying ,000 to win. 

Continuing my next column with the second half of September in this fight to finish 2018, the high points from Eldora’s Four Crown Nationals, Kokomo’s Sprint Car Smackdown, Gas City’s James Dean Classic, and Lawrenceburg’s Fall Nationals will be covered.  Stay tuned for those details. 

 

 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 12

Unfinished Business

After losing the first three weeks of the 2018 Indiana outdoor open wheel calendar to the terrible trifecta of ten inches of snow, frigid temperatures, and relentless rain, one would think that the weather Gods would have given the racing fraternity a free pass for the remainder of the campaign.   Although conditions in late April, May, June, and July have mostly been favorable, I have still missed my share of shows as wet weather inevitably occurs on Fridays and Saturdays rather than Mondays and Tuesdays.   Ultimately reminding me why I never got into the business of operating a dirt track, the ugly four letter word even returned in August, a month that’s traditionally hot, humid, and dry.    

Wishing to stay close to home on this third week of August despite an enticing 43 car entry list for Springfield’s Bettenhausen 100, I still felt a nostalgic need for speed.  Choosing instead to attend unsanctioned events in Bloomington and Lawrenceburg that honored Indiana sprint car titans and bitter rivals Bob Kinser and Dick Gaines, this pair of extremely special events would attempt to satisfy my never ending desire to go back in time.  Set to be Bloomington Speedway’s final event of the season, unfortunately the aforementioned wet weather spoiled the first annual Bob Kinser Memorial, rescheduled for August 31st.  Although Lawrenceburg Speedway did manage to get their 15th annual Dick Gaines Memorial completed, it wasn’t without its share of stress for promoter/operator Dave Rudisell, as Mother Nature challenged both he and his staff with a monsoon about an hour before hot laps were ready to roll.  Fast forwarding to Kokomo Speedway’s Sprint Car Smackdown, I even found heavily saturated grounds upon my arrival on Wednesday August 22nd.  The first three evenings went off without a hitch, but ridiculously stiff Friday winds prematurely parched its normally soaked surface, requiring razor sharp precision from the racers and forgiveness from front stretch fans who were subjected to such unusual sandblasting.  However, torrential Saturday storms similar to 2014 and 2016 flooded the grounds and moved the finale to September 9th.  That rescheduled Bob Kinser Memorial for the 31st of August was subsequently called off despite a valiant attempt by the Bloomington staff to get the show in.  Choosing to wait out the BKM decision at Janko’s Little Zagreb at 6th and Morton, Rachael and I encountered the omnipresent super fan Chris Jockish.  After a late afternoon bridging of State Roads 67 and 37 via Paragon Road to dodge I-69 construction congestion, I soon realized that such a strategy was no longer appropriate as my entrance to State Road 37 was completely cut off.  Remembering a June 1991 journey from a rained out Bloomington All Star show to a standard winged Paragon program (yes, Paragon ran opposed to Bloomington on Fridays), we used Paragon Road to watch Bob Kinser beat Allen Barr, perhaps one of the last times I saw Bob win.  Just like the transfer of Paragon Speedway power and Jon Stanbrough’s retirement, my inability to fully utilize Paragon Road was yet another end of an era. 

So aside from the events surrounding the Indianapolis 500, it certainly feels like the rest of 2018 has been an uphill battle against Mother Nature.  As a result of her wrath, the middle of August resulted in an inordinate amount of unfinished business for both participants and patrons.    

Despite Springfield’s Silver Crown contingent and Putnamville’s ,000 to win Midwest Sprint Car Series, the Gaines Memorial still managed to attract 23 sprinters, with Chase Stockon (Hoffman 69), Paragon champion Jake Scott, Isaac Chapple (Pedersen 4P), Jake Gordon, Daylan Chambers, Stevie Sussex (Dutcher 17), Jarett Andretti, and Robert Ballou serving as deviations from the Lawrenceburg norm.  Perhaps a similar ,000 to win and 0 to start purse was the added incentive for such attendance, but the homage to one of the sport’s all-time greats was the sole reason that Steve Thomas made the long tow from Ludlow, Illinois.  As an impressionable 18 year-old in his second year of competition, Steve raced in the same 1977 Champaign, Illinois feature in which Dick Gaines had his career-changing crash in Karl Kinser’s lightweight number 11, remembering the white blur of the Gaines tail tank soaring through the air.  Gaines and Steve’s father Al were close friends, and as long as there’s a race in honor of Dick and Steve has a car, he says that he will be there to support it.  Speaking of the senior Thomas, he finished 13th the evening prior in Lincoln, Illinois.  83 years young and set to turn 84 on August 25th, Mr. T. had a stent replaced in early June, otherwise he would have raced many more times in 2018. 

The term unfinished business and the Dick Gaines Memorial is an automatic association for Dick’s son Dickie, who finished second in the inaugural running way back in 2004.  That’s his best result in the event’s 15 years, also taking fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and ninth.  Back in John Soudrette’s DRC, tonight he also enjoyed the assistance of Jared Fox, with whom he partnered for a solid 2008 season consisting of six victories, a Bloomington track title, and a surge from 16th to 3rd at the Four Crown.  Fox noted that his ride across U.S. 50 with Gaines was quite hairy, as Dickie was running late as usual.  Thankfully, the 40-minute delay to the start of hot laps allowed both to decompress from the drive, allowing Dickie to refocus his energies on winning this all-important battle.   Qualifying third in his timed hot lap session and scoring a heat victory from second, Gaines would later draw the third starting position for the 25-lap finale.  Would fate finally intervene and allow him to finally take home this coveted trophy?     

Producing Indiana Sprint Week’s number one time trial performance at The Burg, Nick Bilbee would also clock the quickest overall time (13.802) from the three hot lap/qualifying sessions in his family-owned DRC, easily winning his heat from fourth.  After connecting with Tony McVey while leading the last Lawrenceburg outing and requiring the services of Pat Giddens to repair his one race old DRC chassis, Joss Moffatt was the quickest in his group (13.972), boasting that this particular piece was easily the best non-wing car he’s ever had the pleasure of piloting.  Robert Ballou topped the charts in the final group despite bouncing into the turn one wall on the final lap, also going on to claim a heat race win.  After qualifying third in that same group, McVey biked and blasted the turn one wall as well. 

In between heats and the feature, for the fourth time this season I was entertained by a lengthy conversation with 1988 Lawrenceburg track champion Leon Thickstun, who says he has not towed a car to this track since the late 1990s.  Admitting that it would take a miracle for his machine to run in the top ten on tonight’s heavy surface, Leon still loves a place like Paragon where his ,000 engine (assembled by Scottsburg’s T.J.’s Machine) is adequate, claiming yet another track championship in 2018.  Thus continuing his successful legacy of grooming young drivers, in the last two decades the Nashville resident has directed the championship winning efforts of son Rocky Thickstun (now a New Orleans fishing guide), Steve Rone, and current driver Jake Scott.  Brothers Brandon and Travis Spencer have also been heavily advised, with Brandon’s skills showing significant improvement in 2018.  Reminiscing about Leon’s head-first dive into the sprint car spectrum in the early 1970s, he was so confident about his abilities that he took out a ,000 bank loan to finance the purchase of one car and all the necessary equipment from Dizz Wilson.  A far cry from today’s spendy sport, at the end of that first season his savings account showed a positive balance of ,000.  Co-owning his current Spike chassis with wife Karen, the two of them met while employed at Cummins in the late 1980s.  Achieving a variety of degrees from Duke, Virginia, and Butler, even though she is employed as a music professor at Butler and is passionate about the arts, she has also acquired a taste for the entirely different world of sprint car competition.  Recalling those days in which they were dating, Karen’s indoctrination to the sport came right here at Lawrenceburg, where Leon impressed with a rare clean sweep of an evening.  A true Indiana treasure who has countless stories to share, any time spent with Thickstun is indeed well spent.

Originally planning on competing at Gas City and Montpelier (BOSS wing), Mt. Vernon High School senior Jake Gordon dropped out of his heat race after continued poor performance from his power plant.  Mostly magneto related according to his famous father, the annoying issue has plagued the team three times since early June, one of them when Mr. Little 500 was wishing to compete against Aaron Mosley in an August 4th clash at Lincoln Park Speedway. Relaying his frustration while swapping a fuel pump, Eric even incurred mag maladies in his recent Silver Crown start at Salem.  Unfortunately the fuel pump was not the issue, as Jake was one of the first to pull to the infield after the feature took the green flag.  A few days after Lawrenceburg, the Mopar engine and former Hoffman Auto Racing USAC championship winning Triple X chassis were up for sale on the internet, with Jake confirming that both were traded to Scott Benic for a Dave Darland backup machine that will be available later this year. 

The action-packed 25-lap finale to this Gaines Memorial was worth its weight in gold.  Wild, thrilling and unpredictable, the edge of your seat affair featured some big-time bounces, bike rides, banging of wheels, and a squeeze play or two, supercharging my psyche for the hour and forty minute drive home.  Indianapolis’s Nick Bilbee led the first 13 laps from pole position in his family owned DRC but outside front row starter Jarett Andretti found a way underneath in turns three and four on lap 14.  Jarett was able to construct a full straightaway advantage and was clearly on his way to victory before a caution came on lap 23 for a stopped Danny Teegarden.  Restacking the deck for a three lap shootout, second place and sixth-starting Robert Ballou suddenly had new life.  With Donnie Gentry now spinning sockets on his DRC, Andretti showed supreme speed on the top but chose to go low on the final circuit, allowing his opponent to build some high side momentum.  Robert got a great run off turn two and circled Jarett through the exit of turn four to score the shocking victory.  Career win number seven at The Burg, Ballou’s second Gaines Memorial victory in consecutive seasons made him the only two-time winner in 15 years.

Point leader Garrett Abrams, Bilbee, and Dickie Gaines took third through fifth, each one surviving numerous bikes, bounces, and scrapes.  Gaines operated as high as second and looked to be running down the leader on lap 12 until a turn three rut spoiled his shot.  Aside from the winning pass, the most jaw-dropping move of the race came when Bilbee, Gaines, and Ballou fanned three-wide on the front stretch while negotiating lapped traffic.  Although contact between Nick and Dickie sent the former into the front stretch wall, thankfully the incident was not more serious.  Chase Stockon (Hoffman 69), Stevie Sussex (from 13th), Isaac Chapple, Joss Moffatt, and an impressive Dustin Webber landed sixth through tenth at the 9:33 PM checkered flag.  Afterwards, many including Bilbee and Chapple noted that they were far too tight for the unusually heavy conditions. 

The inability to finish the finale to Kokomo Speedway’s seventh annual Sprint Car Smackdown was a big-time bummer, silencing the momentum that had been bubbling to the surface since Wednesday.  Unfortunately we’ll have to wait until the 9th of September to see whose name is scribbled on the ,000 feature-winning check, wondering if the fireworks will be equally intense some two weeks removed.  Reflecting on the three nights spent in Kokomo, upon reading the final results from Wednesday and Thursday one could surmise that it was business as usual, as winners Chris Windom and Tyler Courtney have seen the most success of late.  But for Friday’s victor Tyler Thomas, it was all about redemption and taking care of some unfinished business from one year ago.   

Fresh from his Springfield Silver Crown score, Windom started his Smackdown in fine style by qualifying quickest in his group, winning his heat from fourth, and leading all 27 feature laps from his pole position redraw.  Wednesday’s win would be Chris’s sixth at this speedway in 2018 and tenth overall in the sprint car realm, continuing what could be considered another “career” year.  After claiming the fourth heat and redrawing an outside front row feature start, Tyler Courtney chased the Baldwin DRC/Claxton the entire distance.  Just when you thought Sunshine was ready to pounce, twice he hit a rough spot in between turns one and two and upset his Clauson/Marshall/Newman Spike/Rider, ultimately costing him the win.  Justin Grant started third and finished in the same spot while Dave Darland drove from 9th to 4th.  Brady Bacon fell from 4th to 5th.  Positions six through ten were populated by Robert Ballou, C.J. Leary (from 11th), Shane Cottle (Goacher 5G), Kevin Thomas, Jr. (falling from 6th), and Jarett Andretti. 

“Get Your Ass to Kokomo” night (#GYATK) offered free pit passes for drivers (thanks to All Star Performance), generous incentives for first-time Kokomo traditional sprint car participants, and an allowance for American Racer rubber, influencing an impressive back gate assembly.  Front and back stretch grandstands were heavily populated as well thanks to free admission.  Speaking of those first-timers, I counted 14 who were accepted the GYATK challenge, which offered a top prize of ,500 cash (0 less if they were not an organ donor) thanks to the O’Connors, Rob Goodman, and assorted benefactors including Tim Clauson.  Additional cash and prizes were also available for the second and third best performances from Kokomo novices.  When it all shook out, Bloomington, Paragon, and Lawrenceburg regular Braxton Cummings wound up with the big money after finishing 13th in the B-main.  Former modified chauffeur Dustin Webber finished one spot in arrears from Cummings and collected 0, a set of gauges, and a pair of Chalk Stix torsion bars.  Cap Henry made a rare appearance outside of the winged world in Chad Wilson’s 14 and after battling power steering gremlins hauled in 0 and a pair of Chalk Stix.  Pennsylvania’s Carmen Perigo was running away with the GYATK challenge until spinning from 6th in the B, costing him not only a feature starting berth, but also some cash.  Additional GYATK challengers included Luke Harbison, Rick Rhodes (Frederickson 58), Jeff Nanny, Korey Weyant (Liguori 44), Brandon Spencer, Buddy Lowther, Jackson Slone, Adam Wilfong, Evan Mosley, and Pat Giddens.  Even though they were not eligible for the bonus, additional fresh faces such as Josh Cunningham, Jake Scott, Matt Cooley, David Hair, Dallas Hewitt, Colin Parker, and Paul Dues made the event feel like a Sprint Week from the 1990s.  Smackdown prizes were too many to mention, but on this evening Hoosier Tire did award the highest non-transfer from the B and C-mains a new Hoosier right rear tire, so long as they were already wearing Hoosiers on all four corners.  A special event paying zero USAC points, Kokomo’s format and rules applied. 

Beginning hot laps about an hour later than normal (6:45 PM) for a massive 54 car field, no support classes and very few breaks allowed the program to move at a rapid pace.  Six hot lap/qualifying groups, six heats, and one each C, B, and A-main were finished by a respectable 10:32 PM.  Only one inversion was observed on opening night, as Matt Westfall landed on his lid after connecting with heat race lapper Bryar Schroeter while battling for a final transfer with Chad Boespflug. 

Wednesday’s C and B-mains might have provided the best racing of the week, highlighted by  Carson Short’s (Briscoe 5) surge from 15th to 1st in the C-main, even more impressive in his 19th to 2nd B-main massacre.  The battle for runner-up rights to Wednesday’s B was just like an Indiana Sprint Week round, with a handful or more engaged in some rather cutthroat combat. 

Joined in my night two journey by Dave Argabright and seated alongside Aaron Mosley, son Evan Mosley, and Rollie Helmling, we enjoyed some outstanding heat races from the new back stretch bleachers.  LPS promoter Joe Spiker was even spotted in those new stands, giving me a wave.  The best of those heats involved a Timmy Buckwalter/Jason McDougal slide fest and although both made the main, the battle was further punctuated by Buckwalter’s post-race pounding of turn two concrete and his resulting inversion. 

As simple and appropriate as a third consecutive Tyler Courtney USAC sanctioned Smackdown feature victory sounded on night number two, the end result was anything but automatic.  Third best in time trials, third in his heat, and firing from fourth in the 30-lap finale, Courtney spent the early stages engaged in a three-wide tussle with Tyler Thomas and Darland.  Sliding to second by the seventh lap, Sunshine scoured the top shelf of the wider and slicker surface and eventually tracked down pole sitter and race-long leader C.J. Leary.  Two consecutive cautions for Kevin Thomas, Jr. (flat right rear while operating in 7th) and a Dakota Jackson/Isaac Chapple entanglement gave Tyler ample opportunity to make a bid for first.  Immediately going for the gusto after the green laundry was displayed, Courtney captured P1 but faced some serious heat through three and four, where Leary overcooked the corner and rode the wall.  C.J. would fall to fourth as the final caution came for a Buckwalter/Ballou get-together.  The final sprint to the finish was quite chaotic, as second place Justin Grant mauled second corner concrete and overextended the cushion on consecutive circuits, falling to fourth as Leary lunged for second.  Grant had just enough in the tank to fend off a determined Windom, as the two pulled out all the stops in their last lap brawl.  Courtney crossed under the checkered flag at 10 PM, leaving Leary, Bacon (from 8th), Grant, and Windom (from 10th) in his wake, nailing down a series leading 8th win of the season.  Darland was as high as second but slipped to sixth.  Jason McDougal, Kyle Cummins, and a pair of Thomases (first Tyler, then Kevin) were seventh through tenth.  

Thursday’s sprint car contingent shrunk from 54 to 35, as the GYATK challengers and American Racer contingent did not return.  Justin Grant enjoyed a 0 bonus for qualifying quickest in the Topp Motorsports machine (12.643), with Dakota Jackson claiming a new right rear tire for the 13th best time thanks to Roger and Barb Tapy.  Friday’s field grew to 37, adding Joe Liguori, Gabe Griffith, Dustin Smith, and Cole Ketchum while subtracting Josh Hodges (losing his last engine) and Chad Wilson. 

After parking his number 98 mid-way through Sprint Week, Chad Boespflug signed up for Smackdown duty in the Reinbold/Underwood 19 out of Arizona.  Relegated to 19th on Wednesday, he timed 8th on Thursday but became the meat in a Dave Darland/Carmen Perigo sandwich during the fourth heat.  Flipping high and hard and initially landing on the front end, the jolt not only did serious damage to the driveline, but it also jarred Chad’s head and left him feeling less than stellar on Thursday night.  Taking a short stroll on his bike mid-day on Friday, he felt the same symptoms and was suddenly unavailable for action.  Although Parker Price-Miller was listed in the number 19 for night two, the car never attempted a qualifying lap. 

Friday saw the reemergence of the family-owned 77 belonging to 2002 Kokomo Speedway champion Dustin Smith.  Although Dustin already had an engine in his possession, the brand new DRC chassis was purchased by his father Bob, who at 71 years of age had managed to stay away from racing since 2009.  Taking Monday and Tuesday as additional vacation days to complete the assembly on the car, Dustin finished a few odds and ends on the car Wednesday and Thursday.  It’s hard to believe, but Smith has been racing sprint cars since 1994, which is an eternity in the current sprint car community. 

Similar to Sprint Week, Tyler Thomas toiled in Tony Epperson’s white deuce, but this time they had a new Maxim chassis prepped for battle.  Tyler also arranged for a set of Advanced Racing Suspensions gas shocks to be delivered by Bobby Barth, who agreed to assist normal mechanic Gary Ooley.  Their Wednesday outing was cut short after a sterling sixth to second heat race run, showing terminal smoke signals on the final lap.  After a run back to Indy to install a 15 year-old Justin Henderson World of Outlaws engine (twice a Kings Royal starter), they returned to clock fifth fastest in Thursday time trials.  The Okie was unable to take advantage of an outside front row feature start, dropping to 9th at the conclusion because of frustrating fueling issues that only became evident when letting up on the loud pedal.  After timing fourth in Friday qualifications, former Epperson employee Hunter Schuerenberg advised on fuel settings for the heat race in which Thomas took third.  Firing from grid number four for the Friday finale, after an immediate advancement to the runner-up position Tyler bided his time on a tricky track that flipped five in turn two, as the outside concrete served as the cushion in vintage 2005-2007 Kokomo fashion.  One of those inversions just so happened to involve leader Robert Ballou on lap 16.  Despite receiving heavy pressure from the last year’s Smackdown champion Tyler Courtney, Thomas kept turn two wall whacking to a minimum and held on for his first career USAC sprint car score, a victory that should have been his last August.   T-squared received some key coaching from Bobby Barth and Gary Ooley under one of those early red flags, advised to drive straighter at corner entry to preserve an already blistered right rear tire. 

Courtney, Grant, Bacon (from 9th), and Darland (from 10th) completed the first five finishers from night number three.  Leary, McDougal, Windom (recovering from a rare lap 11 spin), Stockon (from 17th), and Short (from 16th) scored seventh through tenth.  After C.J. Leary’s driveshaft pulled out of the rear end in his heat, crew chief Davey Jones and several helpers rushed to ready a backup car for the semi-feature.  C.J. Leary charged from 20th to 7th but still needed a provisional to access the A.  Starting 22nd and finishing 6th, the Gunslinger indeed had both barrels blazing.   

Punctuated by four red flags and two yellows, Friday’s calamity-filled feature delayed the start of the post-race Flying Toasters concert.  The first of those reds was started by Paul Hazen pilot Clinton Boyles, who collected Shane Cottle and influenced Isaac Chapple’s scattering of turns one and two photogs.  Without the services of Donnie Gentry for this weekend, Jarett Andretti performed second corner acrobatics while operating in third that also collected the luckless Kevin Thomas, Jr.  Stevie Sussex was the final flipper, ending his eventful evening as car owner Mike Dutcher had to revert to a backup machine for the feature after incurring engine difficulties following their second place heat race run.  

Car owner Tony Epperson was all smiles afterwards and for good reason, as you’d have to go back to the days of Epperson-Lester and Eric Gordon when Tony last took top honors in a USAC union.  Ooley mentioned it was his first USAC win in 24 years and for Barth, it was the first time he’s worked on a car other than his son’s since the Tony Stewart Racing days, dating back to 2009.  Bobby was equally enthused that his employer’s shock absorbers were attached to the TQ winning ride of Tate Martz.     

Friday qualifications were topped by Kevin Thomas, Jr. (12.740), who appeared more than ready to right his sinking ship during the feature.  Winning heats in all three Smackdown showings, his finale performances were not up to his usual standard:  9th on Wednesday, 10th on Thursday (recovering from a flat RR), and 14th on Friday (after his flip).  Still, Kevin accumulated the sixth most Smackdown points and was just 23 points shy of first in the national standings.       

Par for his recent course, Robert Ballou endured an eventful three evenings in Kokomo.  Starting with Wednesday, due to the fact that his fuel injection nozzles were not adequately tight, he was unable to post a qualifying time.  Working extra hard in his heat, Ballou battled from 9th to 2nd, later scoring sixth in the feature.  Rear-end shifter issues were encountered in his Thursday heat but after quick repairs were made, he was able to earn an A-main pass.  However, an expected top-ten feature finish was spoiled when tangling with a slowing Timmy Buckwalter.  A solid sixth place qualification effort on Friday was put to good use when leading the first 16 feature laps, but the resulting flip might have killed his venerable 2006 Maxim chassis that was already 8 inches out of alignment in the front.  Although Robert isn’t known for having the best appearing equipment, the numerals on this particular machine’s tail tank were prudently painted by Reading, Pennsylvania’s Paige Davidheiser, who specializes in fire truck graphics and hand-laid 23 karat gold leaf letters and numerals.  Owning a mutual friend in Tom Buch, Davidheiser is a die-hard wingless fanatic who has previously applied his handiwork to equipment belonging to Donnie Kreitz, Jr. (sprint cars and Busch Grand National) and modified kingpin Kenny Brightbill. 

Much like Indiana Sprint Week, the Smackdown normally produces several special combinations but this year, there were few, if any, surprises.  Perhaps the biggest shocker was that Thomas Meseraull didn’t have a ride outside of his own double-zero.  Injuring an engine and taking 22nd on opening night, T-Mez was absent from on-track activities on Thursday on Friday.  Speaking as a fan, that’s a sad state of affairs, as Thomas is one of those drivers who is always worth the price of admission.  For a guy who’s won the last two Kokomo Sprint Week rounds, how can he possibly not have a ride? 

One of Meseraull’s former options was Chase Briscoe Racing, which fielded a pair of Maxims for Logan Seavey and Carson Short.  Seavey was five spots shy of making Wednesday’s A-main while Short crashed in his heat and had to come from the rear of both the C and B-mains just to make alphabet soup.  After his 19th to 12th performance on Wednesday, Carson copped 14th and 10th place feature finishes on Thursday and Friday.  Seavey did not look like the same world-beater who landed on USAC podiums at Bloomington and Haubstadt in April, finishing just 15th and 11th in Thursday and Friday’s features. 

The most anticipated combination making its debut at the Smackdown was that of Jason McDougal and Daigh/Phillips Motorsports.  Jason fell one spot shy of A-main status on opening night, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort.  Timing 12th on Thursday, McDougal already had fans frothing at the mouth after his heated battle with Buckwalter.  Elevating from 11th to 7th in Thursday’s A, Jason nearly duplicated his Thursday performances on Friday.  Once again qualifying 12th and coming from 11th to 7th in the A, the only difference from one night to the next was a heat race win sans cutthroat sliders.  Needless to say, Jason’s car owners were ecstatic and energized by the results, planning a Labor Day weekend triple play at Granite City, Pevely, and Kokomo.  Their Pevely and Kokomo victories were particularly encouraging, as it no doubt pulls Steve and Carla back into a more regular mix of entrants. 

Scotty Weir’s lengthy association with 60-year B.F. Goodrich employee Jim Simon continued in this year’s Smackdown.  Jim was slated to finally make it to the track on Saturday and in his absence the team placed 14th, 13th, and 16th.  Dakota Jackson subbed for Kody Swanson in the Rock Steady Racing Mach 1 and although the results weren’t quite what they wanted, it was good to see the soon-to-be Cummins employee getting a look from car owners.  Making all three features but only able to finish 18th, 17th, and 17th, a Friday heat race wall-climbing/fence-hanging excursion in corner two eventually inverted the 3R.    

Sunday September 9th is rapidly approaching, leaving heat races and consolation affairs for those not locked into the finale, King of the Hill two-car match races for the top-eight points accumulators from Thursday and Friday programs, plus a completely separate offering of BOSS wingless sprint cars.    Those eight men vying for their feature starting spots include Courtney, Grant, Thomas (Tyler), Bacon, Darland, Thomas (Kevin), Windom, and McDougal.  All gates are set to swing open at 2 PM while hot laps are set for 5.  Even if we’ve lost the momentum from those first three nights, when such big money and bragging rights are on the line at this locale, high drama is almost a given.  I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait! 

Aside from the Saturday morning Smackdown deluge, unusual August weather continued when a jacket became requisite attire on both Wednesday and Friday.  With those stiff Thursday and Friday winds blowing, sadly they were also representative of the impending changing of season.  Already into September as I finish this piece on the ride down to Du Quoin, this is indeed the waning stages of my open wheel agenda.  But with life’s uncertainties and so much unfinished business from that skittish start to the season, I can’t help but feel some anxiety.  Anticipating wintertime’s loss of freedom and inability to engage in these frequent mental vacations, the attempt to absorb as much awe-inspiring action as humanly possible in these last few weeks is of course business as usual.  Crossing my fingers and toes, I can only hope that Ma Nature will be kind enough to allow it.    

 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 11

End of an Era

Quite content to enjoy their isolated existence, open wheel addicts aren’t the most open to change.  At an early age, racing quickly became a way of life for these folks, happily spending their best years completely absorbed and unwilling to make allowances for anything that might interfere.  Despite the one-track mind, there comes a time when the thrill has gone.   Once that shocking realization occurs, what might be the next move?  Is it gradually unwinding that interest, to the point of being able to eventually walk away with no regrets?  Or, is it simply quitting cold turkey?  As I have unsuccessfully tried on more than one occasion, any extrication from the racing world is no simple task.      

For the longest while, any random stroll through a sprint, midget, or Silver Crown pit area could easily identify individuals who had been a part of the scene for decades upon decades.  However, as time rolls on, such a feat becomes increasingly difficult, as one by one attrition has quietly taken its toll on the docket of long-time legends.  The statistics will back up the notion that there just isn’t the same longevity in the current crop of participants, whose passion is quickly pummeled by the almighty dollar and the skyrocketing costs to compete.

The thought of retiring even more Indiana icons over the course of one August weekend is not only unimaginable, it’s earth-shattering, completely rocking my world.  Feeling like we reached a definitive end of an era, after August 12th of 2018 we would no longer be able to enjoy a Paragon Speedway sprint car contest hosted by Keith and Judy Ford, nor would we be able to witness Jon Stanbrough in competition.  The exits of these key members of the Indiana sprint car community permanently alters the landscape, infiltrating my resulting Monday morning commute with some sobering thoughts.  Who will be next?  And, how much longer am I willing to stick around when my idols have all but left the building?  Secretly, I have always concluded that once guys like Stanbrough, Dave Darland, and Shane Cottle have called it quits; that would be my signal to move on to something different as well.  Thankfully, Darland and Cottle are still going, so that buys me some time.  But, it’s only temporary, as nothing lasts forever.    

After all these years, what else can I possibly write about Keith, Judy, and Jon?  For the last 32 years, the Fords have kept the little guy alive by providing him a place to race, revolutionizing the sport with the multi-feature format back in 1995 that also served to save the track from sprint car extinction.  Keith’s racing days go back much further than 1986, and in a 2002 interview I conducted for an unpublished Sprint Car and Midget article, he stated, “My conviction is that you need to cater to the smaller guy.  I was always a small guy.  I couldn’t afford to race.  I did it.  Probably shouldn’t have but I did.  I didn’t have what the other people did.  I guess that’s why when I won or run good with my own stuff I felt rewarded.  Back then, there was nobody to cater to the little guy.  If you wanted to run, you had to run with the hotdogs and grow up fast.”

Beginning his driving days in 1968, Ford fought in one of the toughest eras ever, duking it out with hall of fame headliners Dick Gaines, Bob Kinser, Sheldon Kinser, Butch Wilkerson, Bobby Black, Calvin Gilstrap, and Larry Miller on the rough and tumble South Central Indiana Racing Association circuit.  Building and maintaining his own car and engine, assisting in the day-to-day operations of the SCIRA, and working full-time for General Motors, Keith was a top-five contender on an extremely limited budget.  Qualifying quickest and winning several trophy dashes along the way, he even defeated an extremely young Steve Kinser on one occasion.  Satisfied to know that he was a candidate to take the reins of Karl Kinser’s number eleven after Dick Gaines got hurt and cherishing a charge from last to 9th in a 150-lap World of Outlaws outing at Paragon, Ford hung up his driving gear for good after the opportunity arose to purchase the speedway at the end of 1986.

A rollercoaster ride over these last 32 years, Ford weathered the storm when weekly winged sprint car racing nearly put him out of business.  Although he endured endless criticism for his 1995 format change to traditional sprinters, lower purses, and multi-features, he enjoyed an outstanding 12-year span when sprint car counts hovered right around 50.  But, what goes up, must come down, as the rotten economic times of the late 2000s dramatically slashed his number of participants.  In addition, several people who did come to race, particularly in his stock car classes, literally drove him nuts, as he told me seven seasons ago.  Hanging on as long as he could, Keith confessed in June of 2018 that this would be his last year to operate the speedway, as it was finally time to do something different. When the world seems to be changing with every second, I still marvel at the fact that a place like Paragon Speedway has somehow survived, as pure as the day when the Fords were first handed the keys to the property.   

Back in ’02, Keith Ford was quick to thank his family and especially his faithful companion Judy, emphasizing, “She’s supported the track, my ideas, and stands behind me 100%.  I really couldn’t have done it without her.  I take care of the dirt and the equipment and she takes care of everything else.  My family, my two daughters, my two sons-in-law, and grandkids – it’s just been a family mom and pop operation.” 

Eight weeks ago, I sweated through a muggy Johnson Memorial at Paragon Speedway, a special event that was ironically claimed by Jon Stanbrough.  Sprint car triumph number 188 in a career that spans to 1989, my attendance at Jon’s final score was rather appropriate given that I was there for his first, skipping my younger sister’s high school graduation to experience the May 31st, 1991 Non-Winged Sprint Car Classic at Bloomington.  Paragon was quite the contrast to B-town, which required a police escort upon exiting the grounds after incidental contact with Bob Kinser resulted in a near riot. 

When counting quarter-midgets, mini sprints, and late model stock cars, Stanbrough’s racing years numbered 38.  Oddly enough, the very first time I witnessed such Hoosier lightning came on May 2nd, 1986:  a USAC late model stock car bout at the paved Jeffersonville Sportsdrome Speedway.  Just 18 years old at the time, Stanbrough finished 14th against some stiff competition:  winner Billy Moyer, Charlie Sentman, old school NASCAR veteran Charlie Glotzbach, C.J. Rayburn, Bill Kimmel, and Ray Godsey, to name a few. 

Perhaps the two most significant things that come to mind when mentioning Jon Stanbrough’s name are the manner in which he conducted his business and the ultimate respect he earned from everyone.  In the comfort of close friends, Jon enjoys cracking jokes and sharing funny stories, owning a uniquely sharp sense of humor.  But to outsiders, he is extremely quiet, polite, and reserved, so hard to approach in those early days.  Whether he is among friends or strangers, once he dons his driving gear and straps in for battle, nothing will break that steely-eyed stare of the most serious game face you will ever encounter.  Sure, there might have been some occasional squabbles and rubs with his fellow competitors, but they were few and far between.  At the end of the day, when Jon was confident and on his game, whether he was the underdog in the Hazen 57 or favorite in the Fox 53, there might have been no one more difficult to defeat. 

Other than those first and last victories, many Stanbrough sprint car moments stand out.  First introduced when he was a welder/fabricator for Bob East, I remember one of his very first sprint car outings in the spring of 1990 at Eldora when he finished 7th.  Just into his second season, I recall his 1991 CRA Midwest Tour, showing well against such studs as Jack Hewitt, Bubby Jones, Ron Shuman, Lealand McSpadden, Richard Griffin, Billy Boat, Rip Williams, Brent Kaeding, and Frankie Kerr.  Wheeling his own ’85 Gambler, his one-lap USAC record around the old Lawrenceburg layout in 1992 stood for seven summers.  He eventually found work with the Law Brothers, winning almost immediately at The Burg’s USAC sanctioned Robbie Stanley Memorial just days after his friend’s passing.  Also claiming a pair of 1996 Paragon USAC rounds in just 21 days for the Laws, after two sub-par seasons (’97 and ’98) with John Davis, it’s hard to imagine that he was ready to hang it up for good, but it nearly happened. 

After some serious soul searching, he returned in his own ride for 1999, befriending the Frankfort tandem of Chris Hoyer and Josh Uitts who no doubt raised his spirits considerably.  At the end of ’99, three solid showings with Paul Hazen set the stage for a career-changing four and a half seasons that were accompanied by 37 thrilling triumphs.  Their first came at the Kokomo Speedway, a place that Stanbrough had previously despised.  Quickly becoming the king of K-town, he and Paul proved to be equally potent at Terre Haute, winning five times which included the 2002 Tony Hulman Classic.  An absolutely golden 2003 season saw them take 19 feature wins, even slaying the almighty J.J. Yeley in high-profile USAC action at Eldora and Lawrenceburg.   In the middle of ’04, he would indulge in a brief Hoffman opportunity but found better chemistry with Roger Tapy and Jim Whiteside, winning 13 of his 15 2004 contests in the Truckers 10.  A less than satisfying 2005 season resulted in just four victories, but two of them came in his initial outings with Steve and Brad Fox.  Beginning a magical six-year span in 2006, in what was originally planned to be a limited effort until inventory and or funds were depleted, they wound up posing with the first place trophy 96 times, which also included an August of 2015 victory lane reunion in Lawrenceburg.  If you do the math, that’s an average of 16 tallies per season for this talented trio, all of whom attended the same high school in Avon, Indiana.    

Since the start of 2003, Jon captured 158 of his 188 wins, truly a staggering statistic.  His best season was 2007, when he won an amazing 30 times which included a sizzling June streak of seven in a row.  Aside from those aforementioned years of ’03, ’04, and ’07, he tallied 21 wins in ’06, 13 in ’08, 11 in ’09, and 20 in ’10.  Even after the dream team disbanded at the end of 2011, Jon still enjoyed solid seasons with Bruce Leer and Danny Roberts (7 wins in ’12) and Mike Dutcher (8 wins in ’14).  Returning to his own ride for ’15, ’16, and ’17, even if the wins were scarce, that didn’t make them any less sweet, especially that last one with the Wingo Brothers.  Thirty-five times he was a USAC sprint car winner, twice claiming its Indiana Sprint Week crown (’06 and ’10).  Four times a Hoosier Auto Racing Fan Club Driver of the Year (’04, ’06, ’07, and ’10), he was the King of Indiana Sprint Series champ six times (and its all-time leading winner), not to mention twice a Midwest Sprint Car Series title winner and twice a Kokomo Speedway champion.   All those accolades are great; but knowing how Jon is such a serious student of the sport, the respect from his fellow competitors simply meant so much more. 

Stanbrough is truly a throwback to the earlier days of sprint car racing when real men let their on-track results do the talking.  The ultimate class act, he was never one to brag or boast.  Winning never changed him and even when he did not taste success, he was still gracious for every opportunity.  An excellent fabricator much like a Don Brown or Jerry Weeks, he was easy on equipment, wisely knowing when he could take a risk and when to settle for second-best.  As far as drivers and personalities go, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to, and that certainly applies to Jon.  Feeling so fortunate to be in his inner circle for so many years, I rued the day when I would have to endure his exit, but who can blame him for feeling the need to do something different?  Becoming a grandfather and a father (for the second time) at the age of 50, what more did he have to prove on the racetrack?  Always thinking big-picture and trying to do the right thing, that is Jon Stanbrough in a nutshell. 

Knowing well in advance that this particular August weekend would be my last to enjoy a Ford/Paragon pairing and a Stanbrough showing, naturally I had to be at both outings to soak it all in one last time.   Sweltering under some bright Morgan County sunlight on a late Saturday afternoon (August 11th), 32 sprint cars gathered for this finale to the Ford era at Paragon Speedway.  A slightly somber mood was cast over the pit area, as nobody truly knew if anyone could save their speed plant.    

A weekly gathering place for families like the Cunninghams, Scotts, Johnsons, and Hairs, for this season finale five Cunningham cars were fielded.  Father Buddy brought a trio for Andrew Prather, David Truax, and Arin McIntosh, who had only run one sprint car contest since her October 2008 accident at Lawrenceburg.  McIntosh would be wheeling an extremely rare 39 inch 2004 Gambler, acquired all the way from Nebraska and just four races old.  A six-time track champion and perhaps the track’s most recognizable name, Josh Cunningham brought his own DRC, with protégé and rookie Jeff Nanny pitting next door in an older Stealth.  Prior to the evening’s action, Josh was extremely laid back and enjoyed a few laughs with Jake Scott, calling him the Paragon People’s Champ and the High Side Hustler.  Still winless here in 2018, Cunningham commented that he wanted to go out on a high note, as he’s only been shut out of the Paragon win column in 1999 (his rookie season) and 2002. 

Three generations of the Scott family were in attendance.  Long-time driver and former fielder of five Paragon entries himself, patriarch Glenn Scott was here to soak up some Southern Indiana ambience one final time.  Glenn’s son Jake was here to compete, as was his grandson Jackson Slone, son of another former competitor Josh Slone.  The elder Scott still commutes from Morgantown to Chicago for his General Manager position with Mitsubishi, looking to retire early next year.  Describing the relevance of these grounds, he called it a place where a normal guy could actually run a sprint car feature.  If Josh Cunningham is the recent “King” of Paragon, then Jake Scott is the “Prince”, having claimed three track championships and in a position to take his fourth after this evening’s proceedings.  Now employed by CraftMark Bakery in Indianapolis, the former Marian University football player has two young sons:  Lucas (5) and Jhett (1), having nervously coached Lucas’s team to a win earlier that day over Beech Grove.   Just another regular guy, Jake says that Paragon has its rightful place in the sport. Coming here just for fun, despite the limited purses he said he’s earned nearly ,000 in winnings this season.  As always, Scott was steering a Spike chassis for the legendary Leon Thickstun, a two-time track champion and long-time Paragon fixture who has mentored many to additional titles.  Leon’s wife Karen is co-car owner of the red number one, still employed as a music professor at Butler University. 

Parked just across the aisle from the Johnson family was the father/son combo of Dennis and Kevin Chambers, who have been racing for 35 years.  Dennis noted that despite Johnny Johnson being in the hospital the previous day (kidney issues), that couldn’t keep the 86 year old from this Ford finale.  Johnny’s son Randy was making his final drive, yet another noteworthy moment as the Johnson family played a key role in keeping the speedway operational.  Enjoying a lengthy conversation regarding Bloomington Speedway, I learned that Dennis literally grew up next to the track at the corner of Walnut and Fairfax, now living behind the speedway on Schact Road.  With his father working at the speedway selling tickets, it was only natural to find work there for himself, picking up bottles as a kid and later serving as general manager.  A two-time AMSA mini sprint champion, son Kevin has competed there in mini and full size sprints.  Following the family course, granddaughter Cindy has of course joined the ranks, anxious to get behind the wheel of the black and yellow 18. 

Next door to Chambers was Palmyra’s Troy Link, who after all these years still maintains his sprint car avocation when not tending to details of his dump truck firm.  A business boasting three trucks and two drivers, unlike his father, Troy noted, “I’m not a trucker”.  Identical to my last conversation on June 16th, the talkative veteran wonders why he continues to compete, as the rewards just aren’t the same.  Nevertheless, he was here for this final Paragon production and had recently purchased ,800 in Hoosier tires, noting that it was time to finally make the switch from American Racer.  Planning on mounting them to a newer Maxim raised rail chassis, he remains a diehard Ford fanatic, one of just a few sprint car contestants who can boast such a claim.  Commenting that tonight’s engine block was new in 1993 while the heads originated from 1986, he owns two newer Ford engines acquired eight years ago from Kevin and Danny Miller, strong runners in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.  Still feeling fortunate to feel young enough to strap into his 2000 Dynamite chassis, if he had just one more wish, it would be to take a trip in any high-profile military aircraft, preferably an F-15, F-18, or B-29 bomber. 

When Keith Ford changes from his customary white work t-shirt to yellow track official polo, you know it’s time to get serious at Paragon Speedway.  For this final fling, the standard format was in effect that allowed everyone to race in one of two features.  But before those finales, four ten-lap or ten minute heats would be held (the time limit actually expired on heat four).  Braxton Cummings, Andrew Prather, Josh Cunningham, and Pat Giddens were the winners, and that third heat was easily the best of the bunch, as fifth-starting Cunningham fanned three-wide with Brandon Spencer and Kevin Chambers to steal the third heat victory with a thrilling last turn, last lap sweep.  Making the long journey from the hill to the pit area to snap a photo of the feature lineups, I also captured a rare photo op with Keith Ford and Dennis Rose, the latter being a longtime Paragon participant in his familiar number 270 sprinter, always powered by a Buick.  Paragon’s annual sportsmanship award is named in honor of Dennis’s uncle Bob.    

On this special evening, a pre-feature intermission allowed fans an opportunity to walk the track, get up close to some equipment, and meet several of the drivers.  Most milled around the front stretch, where Keith and Judy were awarded a rather unique parting gift:  the hood from Drew Tarr’s car!  Nearly anyone and everyone had the opportunity to sign the hood, which also contained a special message in big and bold graphics:  “Keith and Judy Ford – 32 years of fun – ParagonSpeedway.com”.  Although Judy was tearing up, Keith appeared to be basking in glow.  However, both were touched to see that so many acknowledged their efforts. 

Being able to walk the full length of the track, it was the first time I had done so since the morning of November 5th of 2005, which was prior to my first-ever Paragon sprint car laps.  As I looked down that long front stretch I also remembered that same view from the cockpit.  With every lap, the machine dared me to drive it in deeper and although I managed to spin out several times during my second session (on an extremely slick surface), I nonetheless had the time of my life. 

After the fans returned to their hillside perch, I had to hustle from the backstretch to front to catch those twin features alongside my nephew, his wife, and their young son Graham.  Beginning first heat winner Cummings and Jim Tribby from front row seats of the first 25-lapper, Braxton led through the first corner before sliding too far sideways through the second.  Such a slip allowed fourth-starting Josh Cunningham to bolt to first while third-starting Steve Hair and fifth-starting Brandon Spencer also found a way underneath.  The rest of the race was dominated by the rim-riding Cunningham, whose rear inboard brake sparked like it was the Fourth of July.  Despite a pair of cautions, Josh made it look like child’s play in claiming Paragon victory number 51, relieved to be able to maintain a 15-year streak of victories on his backyard playground.  With the track just starting to rubber-up in the waning stages, Steve Hair, a hard-charging Parker Frederickson (coming from 7th), Arin McIntosh (from 9th), and Brandon Spencer took top-five finishes.  Positions six through ten were taken by David Hair, David Truax, Dave Peperak, Jeff Nanny, and Tribby.  Truax was the only one in the second half of the top ten to not spin.  In his winning interview, Josh mentioned the winning move actually came the previous night in his garage, when he broke out his tape measure and got a few more things figured out on his nearly new Ranard’s Collision Center DRC chassis.

Much like that first feature, the second was completely dominated by Bowling Green, Indiana’s Daylan Chambers, nephew to 2000 Lincoln Park and Tri-State track champion Eric Burns.  Blasting off from the outside of the front row, he quickly circled pole sitter Ben Knight and never looked back.  Three cautions kept Chambers honest, but third-starting Pat Giddens never had an answer, forced to watch as Daylan did some celebratory front stretch donuts.  Andrew Prather started sixth and finished third in a chassis of his own design, with tenth-starting Jake Scott (forced to start there after winning two features in a row) and Troy Link rounding out the top-five.  After a pair of heat race spins, Jackson Slone smoothed out in the feature, finishing sixth after starting ninth in his 305 Race Saver sans wing. Randy Johnson ended with a credible seventh, as Knight, Anthony Leohr, and Brian Cahill rounded out the top-ten.    Even though the surface attracted even more rubber, the racing was actually more intense in the second contest.  Prather, Link, and Scott went at it hot and heavy, counting six times that the fourth position changed hands between Troy and Jake.  At the end of the night, Scott scored his fourth track title, edging Andrew Prather by six points.  Brandon Spencer, Steve Hair, and Randy Johnson were third, fourth, and fifth in the season-long standings. 

Upon completion of the companion vintage sprint car feature, I was extremely slow and deliberate in my steps down the hill, aiming for the amber illumination of the tiny ticket booth.  After reaching the parking lot and noticing all the stars up in the sky, I couldn’t help but recall an unusual Brent Goodnight Paragon Speedway anecdote from 1983 regarding Johnny Parsons, Jr.  According to Brent, JP casually gazed into the heavens above and oddly observed, “It looks like it would be a nice night to die!” 

Having no thoughts of concluding my life on this overly bittersweet evening, I must admit that a part of my sprint car soul managed to expire with Keith and Judy’s exit.  My lone hope is that this particular end of an era simply signaled the beginning of another.  But regardless of who takes the reins, I will forever associate this historic hillside with Keith and Judy.  Two outstanding representatives of Southern Indiana, thankfully they were also some supreme custodians of Indiana sprint car history, doing their part to keep that little guy involved.   

The next day, Jon Stanbrough closed the book on an absolutely stellar career with a rare Sunday outing in Terre Haute.  With sanction from the Midwest Sprint Car Series, this meeting attracted an impressive 30 chauffeurs from seven different states.   Perhaps even more rare than the Sunday date was the fact that the surface was old-school heavy, only beginning to blow off midway through the 25-lap, ,000 to win feature.  Given the appearance of Tri-State Speedway’s Tommy Helfrich, it was entirely appropriate that the Action Track dirt was finally in tip-top shape, a huge improvement over Indiana Sprint Week. 

Also appropriate was the site where Jon chose to call it a day, as Terre Haute was one of the first places where the world got a glimpse of what a rejuvenated Jon Stanbrough was capable of accomplishing.    Scoring second to an omnipotent Jay Drake in the daytime finale of the 2000 Non-Wing World Championship, later that same season Jon twice triumphed at the Action Track.  Firsts not only for himself, they were similarly meaningful for car owner Paul Hazen.  After digging through my records, I counted 12 Terre Haute triumphs for Stanbrough, 5 of them falling under the USAC banner.   Particularly meaningful for me was his 2002 Hulman Classic victory, as I own the helmet he used in that event. 

Jon’s final drive started out like those good old days.  After qualifying third in his group and finishing second in his heat, he was able to redraw fifth for the main event.  In between heats and B, I finally had a chance to catch up with the man of the hour, busting out my trusty digital recorder to ask Jon Stanbrough a few final questions.  Here’s how the conversation went.

KO:  How and when did you know that it was time to do something different?

JRS:  I think I knew two or three years ago, but didn’t really want to admit it.  And then when I hooked up with these guys (Wingos), I knew over the winter that this was going to be it.  We had motor issues several weeks ago and wasn’t sure what was going to happen.  I had a couple of opportunities to run for some other people, but I really wanted to run this car because I had some sponsors that came on this year.  So we rented a motor from Ryan Freeland, who works for J&D Performance and it worked out good.  Like I said, I’m comfortable in this car and I have all the sponsors on it.  So, I had all that time to ponder what I was going to do.  We had maybe a handful of shows on our schedule anyway and there wasn’t anything big.  I thought, ‘Let’s just do it at Terre Haute and call it good.’

KO: Did that Paragon win in June kind of seal the deal, allowing you to wrap this up sooner? 

JRS:  No, not really.  If we hadn’t have broken the motor at Bloomington, I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have changed my mind.  But that definitely persuaded me to do what I’m doing tonight.  I’m glad that we’ve run as good as we have all this year.  I think the worst finish we’ve had was seventh.

KO:  I recall that Bloomington race in late May where you started on the front row and fell back to seventh.  Even that wasn’t a horrible night, as you held off KTJ to make the redraw. 

JRS:  That was the night. 

KO:  Thinking of Terre Haute, when you got into Paul Hazen’s racecar, it became a very special track for you.  Was that the tipping point for Terre Haute?  Or, did you always like Terre Haute?

JRS:  I have always liked Terre Haute.  But, either I didn’t know how to set my car up, or I wasn’t driving it right, or both.  Obviously when I got into Paul’s car, I had a little more driving experience and obviously he had a helluva lot of experience with the racecar.  It just came together.  Everywhere we went, it gave me a lot more confidence just being with him, especially at Kokomo.  I’d never won a race at Kokomo and truthfully, I was pretty intimidated by it.  But, I knew his car had won a lot of races there so when we went, it just worked. 

KO:  So that time with Paul, would you say that changed your career?  After the John Davis deal, you were ready to hang it up, right?

JRS:  Yeah.  1999 I drove for Paul – I think two times.  We made a deal over the winter to go for the next season.  If it wasn’t for Paul letting me run his car, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.  Definitely – a lot of thanks to Paul.

KO:  Is there one win that stands out as your biggest?  Would it have been the Hulman Classic in 2002?  Would it have been beating Bob Kinser for that first one?  You won a ton with the Fox Brothers, including some big money shows.  Is there one that really stands out? 

JRS:  There are so many of them that mean so much to me.  It is hard to pinpoint one.  For sure, the very first one that I ever won at Bloomington, obviously it was a great win.  But then all the drama that went along with it, people still remember that.  Not that I would ever forget it, but it’s hard to forget that at all, with all the people that know what went along with it. 

KO:  What did Bob Kinser say after that race?  Did he come down afterwards?

JRS:  He didn’t say anything.  He came walking over, because at that time, you had to run weight on the car if you had an aluminum motor.  We were at the scales, and here he comes walking over.  He walked right up to me and actually, he did say something.  He asked me if I hit him on purpose.  I said no.  He took a swing at me and that’s all that ever happened.  It was like a riot there.  The crowd that was around, obviously they were all on his side.  I had a few other people say some things to me.  And then we finally got back to the car and got loaded up.  We actually had to have a police escort out of Bloomington.

KO:  Man, that’s pretty memorable!  So from start to finish, when you started running quarter midgets, how many years has it been?

JRS:  It’s 38 years this year.

KO:  So as they say, you’ve been there and done that.

JRS:  Yeah.  I know I gave some races away and didn’t win every race that I wanted to win.  But, I won a lot and I’m satisfied.  I don’t have any regrets.  Maybe there’s a little bit of disappointment at the ones that I lost or gave away, but I don’t have any regrets.  All the people that I’ve met, all the sponsors I’ve had, and all the places I’ve gotten to go – none of that would have happened if I wasn’t racing.  So, it’s all been good.

KO:  And tonight, it felt pretty good in the heat race?

JRS:  Yeah, it was good.  Hopefully we can go forward in the feature, get a good finish tonight, and walk out of here with our head held high. 

KO:  I guess that’s about all I’ve got.  I’m still wondering how you close the book on such a great career.

JRS:  I don’t know.  You can think about it and maybe you’ll figure it out in a couple of months. 

KO:  Alright.  I’ll leave it at that. 

Inverting the fastest four qualifiers from the three timed hot lap/qualifying sessions, Dave Darland (Goodnight 36D), Justin Grant (Topp 4), and Chris Windom (fastest overall at 20.071) were the best of the bunch.  Serving as a sign of things to come, Donny Brackett took a huge ride to the concrete wall through turns three and four, perilously connecting with the top of the blocks.  Thankfully Donny exited ok but his was the first of four big flips.  After bicycling big time, Dave Darland’s heat race tumble through turn two twisted his Maxim frame and left the driver both shaken and stirred.  B-main victor Garrett Aitken (by an impressive 5 seconds) took a trip over the turn one wall seven laps into the main event.  Prior to that, Stanbrough’s Wingo teammate Travis Berryhill bounced into an inversion but would later restart.  Brandon Mattox, Grant, and Windom were heat winners. 

Tough B-main luck kept local boy Brandon Morin out of the A, showing serious smoke while operating inside of the top-five.  Morin’s misfortune turned into a nice surprise for low buck racer Tony Main, who scored the final feature transfer spot. 

With a four-wide feature salute offered at two minutes until 9 PM, Carson Short (own 21) and Chris Windom held front row seats.  Knowing just how strong Chris has been at the Action Track over the past few years, most would have just handed him the trophy and check without any resistance.  However, if it were that simple, we’d have no reason to pay money to watch. 

Although Short served as the early pilot dog, shortly after the Berryhill blunder Windom would procure P1 with a west end slider.  Behind the Baldwin 5, Robert Ballou had already advanced to third from his seventh starting spot and quickly stole second from Short.  After Aitken’s acrobatics, it only took one lap for Robert to rule the roost before one final caution waved for Shane Cottle (Goacher 5G), who had flattened a left rear while fighting for a top-five.  The last 18 laps went uninterrupted, with Ballou blasting his way around the top to secure his third win of a difficult 2018 season.  Speaking with his crew chief Jimmy Jones, Jimmy noted that this was their usual 2006 Maxim that wore a pair of twin-tube, double-adjustable CSI shocks on the rear.  The same car that’s been clipped five times, its front end was moved over eight inches after a Bloomington Sprint Week inversion, forcing the team to make hasty repairs in Tommy Helfrich’s barn for the ISW finale.  Always having to work hard for his wins, on this outing Ballou encountered throttle linkage difficulty in combined hot laps and qualifying.  Thus unable to turn a time and requiring him to toil from tenth to third in his heat, he somehow survived a big-time bike ride in turn one. 

Windom settled for second while ninth-starting Chase Stockon scored third.  Short was shuffled back to fourth while Stevie Sussex reunited with Mike Dutcher to find fifth from tenth.  Justin Grant, Jon Stanbrough, Daron Clayton, Isaac Chapple (from 13th), and Koby Barksdale secured sixth through tenth. 

In a special post-race front stretch interview with Jason Adams, after fighting back some genuine tears Stanbrough was able to regain his composure.  He apologized to his team for going the wrong way on the setup, far too loose for the racing surface that resulted.  Still, he noted that it was a good night overall, as he didn’t tear anything up and was able to finish the feature in seventh.  With a long line of well-wishers coming out to the front stretch to offer their appreciation, I was one of them, providing a handshake and a hug for so many outstanding memories.  Feeling the weight of the occasion, I too became choked up with emotion.  There from the beginning when he was the low-dollar underdog, I completely understood just how special all those years were when he was considered the favorite.   Despite my attempt to be unbiased, I’m not afraid to admit that this guy was one of my all-time favorites.  Going one step further, he was also one of my heroes, completely admiring the way in which he handled his business both on and off the track.     

Ever since I can remember, the concept of change was something I never could quite embrace.  Becoming a routine-oriented individual very early on in life, any alteration to my world was completely upsetting, needing lengthy periods of time to adapt.  Having been a sprint car fanatic for more than three decades, naturally I have grown accustomed to all of the people and places that made the Indiana scene quite incredible.  Foolishly believing that all of this could last forever, the mere suggestion that three key individuals from my beloved pastime would suddenly conclude their careers in one weekend seemed not only preposterous, but also devastating. 

This is indeed the end of an era and whether I was prepared for the sudden departures of Keith and Judy Ford and Jon Stanbrough, it simply didn’t matter.  They had already determined that the time was now to make a major change in their lives and given their current status, it seemed like a logical time to do so.  Eventually, I will have to make that same difficult decision but for now, the thrill of staying involved has not gone away, not yet at least.    

 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 10

Moving the Needle

There is little question that the net result of fanatically following short track open wheel action for the last 33 years has dulled my senses, as these days it takes something extraordinarily special to get my heart racing.  Fondly recalling the plethora of personalities and the endless talent and ingenuity that have been wiped from the sport, it may sound cynical, but no amount of facts or logic can convince me that today’s buttoned-up, money driven, politically correct scene is superior to the innocence of yesteryear. 

Indiana Sprint Week is no exception, as I often long for the unbridled enthusiasm that came with the first ten years of USAC sanction, especially those early editions in which 60 to 70 car fields, pressure-packed non-qualifier races, and a hefty assembly of local and west coast talent seemed to be the norm, completely capturing my attention.  However, such a sentiment should not imply that the current version of Sprint Week is no longer significant, intriguing, or entertaining.  Annually scheduling vacation time and revolving my anal-retentive routines around this grueling exercise in insanity, it has continued to do its part to make me feel that life is worth living.  However, like so many things at my age, overexposure has taken its toll, shocked by the miniscule impact this 2018 edition had on me.           

For someone who eagerly anticipates its arrival, savors each minute, and considers this the absolute zenith of my calendar, how can such a statement be possible?  Did I still have a pulse?  What could have happened to moderate my mood so dramatically? 

Except for a rainy first Friday and Saturday, weather was thankfully not the issue, as the remainder of 2018 Sprint Week conditions were picture perfect.  Car counts increased to an average of 41 and crowds swelled to record proportions, giving good vibrations about modern day affairs.  And then there was the arrival of week-long guest Steve Lafond, who brought an endless dose of energy, enthusiasm, and positivity.  Combined, all those items would indicate that everything was right with my world as of 5 PM on July 19th.  Unfortunately, one major item was missing. 

As they say, if you don’t have your health, then what do you have?  The number one kicker that spoiled my Sprint Week was an illness that I contracted in the pressure-packed days leading up to the series opener.  After finishing my assignments on late Thursday afternoon, I was utterly exhausted and drained, summoning just enough strength for our annual Sprint Week kickoff at Bonge’s Tavern in quaint Perkinsville.  Even though I was down, I was not completely out, as I still managed to hit every race plus the obligatory stops at some of Indiana’s most excellent eateries and brew pubs.  Unfortunately, when you feel like lying in bed all day long as I did on the first several days of my summer vacation, even the best racing, world-class cuisine, and ultimate feeling of freedom cannot be fully appreciated or enjoyed.  And now that Sprint Week and my summer break are in the rearview mirror, I truly feel like I got robbed.  Back to work and still not feeling 100%, good health is one of those things that is taken for granted all too easily. 

Much like the movement of the tachometer when the overly exuberant Lafond stands on the gas in our rental car, Sprint Week has always moved my needle in a similarly positive direction.  But this year, enthusiasm and energy was not felt until the Haubstadt finale when an awesome surface, tense heat races, a frenetic semi-feature, an amped-up announcing team, some parade lap pyrotechnics, and a surprise winner made this feel like a momentous occasion.  Adding to the excitement for that finale was a first-time trip by Bryce Townsend’s Motorsport Tours, as the group of New Zealanders simply raved with regard to everything about Tri-State Speedway. By that seventh and final race, I was feeling halfway human, albeit with far too frequent coughing fits and big-time blows of the nose that could fill a facial tissue.  So, was it my poor health that was clouding my perspective on my favorite time of the year?  Was burnout finally becoming an issue?  Or, was the overall quality of racing, intensity, and drama simply lacking?  I expect Saturday’s rainout and Monday’s off day also had something to do with just how long it took to catch the fever, plus the fact that the series did not start in its usual locale.  Even if I can’t put my finger on what it was, I still maintain that Sprint Week wasn’t packing the same punch as usual.        

After all these years, Indiana Sprint Week expectations are of course abnormally and unreasonably lofty, so it is only natural to feel some amount of disappointment when cutthroat action and barnburner finishes fail to take place.  Most features were won in dominating fashion, as three of the seven races had the victor leading all 30 laps, with two more pacing the final 28.  But as I was so astutely reminded by veteran observer Brent Goodnight, not every evening can be epic.    

Yes, there is more to Sprint Week than the on-track product, as a bulk of that undeniable atmosphere is derived from the throngs of people who come from lands afar just to caravan in their campers.  Until this year, I’ve never seen the parking lots and grandstands in Terre Haute, Putnamville, Bloomington, and Haubstadt so jammed for a traditional sprint car contest.  Along the way, I lost count of how many from the west coast stopped to talk to Steve.  I encountered quite a few interesting individuals as well, some of whom I had not seen or spoken to in years.  Off the top of my head, there was Plymouth announcer Scott Stine, former Madison, Indiana sprint car shoe Eric Davis, ex-Eric Shively crew member Kevin Bodine (father to up and comer Cole Bodine), Leon Kinser (father to Jordan and second cousin to Karl), Kentucky sprint car standout Hud Cone (here to assist Mark and Kyle Cummins for the final half), hall of famer Galen Fox, Leon Gentry, and Mat Neely (who has raised two daughters and one son while operating four enterprises from his Robinson, Illinois home).  Despite my illness, my spirits were raised after seeing and speaking to so many, but it also made me miss the days when I knew literally everybody in the pit area. 

Extremely consistent in qualifying, heat race, and feature performances, the end result had Chris Windom capturing his second Indiana Sprint Week crown in seven seasons for car owners Kenny and Margo Baldwin and chief mechanic Derek Claxton.  Owning a 21-point advantage over Kevin Thomas, Jr. after the Haubstadt conclusion, Chris’s average feature finish was an amazing 3.29.  (As a reference, back in 2003 J.J. Yeley scored top-fives in all eight races and averaged a feature finish of 1.625.)  Securing three runner-up placements (Plymouth, Putnamville, and Haubstadt), one third (Bloomington), two fourths (Lawrenceburg and Kokomo), and one sixth (Terre Haute), his biggest mountains to climb came at Lawrenceburg and Terre Haute, where he started features from 15th and 14th.  Drawing second to last for a sub-par Terre Haute qualifying surface, after Claxton swapped headers to cut 50 horsepower and minimize wheel spin, they could still only muster the 17th best time.  Otherwise qualifying in the top-ten on five occasions, Windom impressively earned feature transfers from all seven heat races.  Aside from a feature scrape with A.J. Hopkins at Putnamville, he never put a wheel wrong, even surviving a deflating right rear tire in the Kokomo feature.  And, thanks to Claxton’s solid setups and iron clad maintenance schedule, the car was on the money when it needed to be, with zero mechanical issues.  Having competed in these contests since 2007, Windom joins Randy Kinser (1988), Gary Trammell (1990), Bob Kinser (1991), Tony Elliott (1999), Levi Jones (2004, 2008, and 2012), Robert Ballou (2015), and Brady Bacon (2016) as those taking this title without the benefit of a feature win.  It can be said that a championship without wins may not move a fan’s needle, but it still gets the job done and that’s just par for the course for this potent combination.  “Big Daddy” now leads the national points by a scant eight markers over KTJ, with Tyler Courtney falling from first to third, some 54 in arrears.   Envisioning some drama-filled outings involving these big three at Kokomo’s upcoming Smackdown, I’m already licking my chops at the mere mention of that event. 

Coming seven laps from claiming victory in the Haubstadt finale, it is nearly impossible to comprehend how Windom is still winless in ISW action since Terre Haute 2011.  Even more surprising was the fact that this year’s biggest winner Kevin Thomas, Jr. was shut out of victory lane as well.  Heck, if anyone would have predicted that these two would be held without a win during Indiana Sprint Week, I would have told them that they needed their head examined.  Averaging a feature finish of 4.71, Thomas was also consistent, amassing two runner-ups (Lawrenceburg and Bloomington), one fourth (Putnamville), two fifths (Kokomo and Terre Haute), one sixth (Haubstadt), and one ninth (Plymouth).  Qualifying inside of the top-six on six occasions (quickest in B-town and The Haub), his lone outlier came at LPS where he was still ninth.  Aside from slightly lower feature finishes than Windom, KTJ’s heat race runs paled in comparison, having missed the transfer in the first three shows.  Recalling a Plymouth incident with Robert Ballou that nosed him into the back stretch concrete; that certainly set a negative tone for the week and required a semi-feature thrash.  With Thomas and crew chief Davey Jones parting ways in the weeks leading up to ISW, Brad Alexander called the shots on Kevin’s Hoffman Auto Racing/Mean Green DRC, just as he did when Kevin hauled the Bridgeport rocking chair home in 2017.  It wasn’t a bad week by any means, but given how much Kevin has become accustomed to winning, I’m sure he had to be hugely disappointed with his lack of success, leading just two feature laps (Terre Haute) all week. 

Feature winners Dave Darland (Putnamville and Haubstadt), C.J. Leary (Bloomington), and Tyler Courtney (Lawrenceburg and Terre Haute) took third, fourth, and fifth in the final Sprint Week standings.   Positions six through ten were procured by Chase Stockon, Brady Bacon (opening with the win in Plymouth), Justin Grant, Thomas Meseraull (collecting again in Kokomo), and Carson Short.  Eight men started all seven features without the aid of a provisional, namely:  Windom, KTJ, Darland, Leary, Courtney, Stockon, Bacon, and Short.  Four more made all seven A-mains, but needed a provisional.  They included Grant, Robert Ballou, Timmy Buckwalter, and Isaac Chapple. 

After taking a win and a third in the first two outings, Bacon led the points entering Kokomo.  But, a 12th place finish in K-town would yield the top spot to Windom.  Winning two of the first four races, Tyler Courtney led the standings after Terre Haute but a serious qualifying flub at Lincoln Park (31st) put him behind the eight ball, starting and finishing 21st despite winning the LPS USAC union a few weeks ago.  Handing the lead baton to Windom after Putnamville, just call Chris the closer, as he knows how to get the job done when the heat is on. 

The highest car count of the week came at Lincoln Park, where a fine field of 47 assembled.  With entries numbering 42, the biggest surprises came at Terre Haute and Haubstadt.  For TSS, that was their largest Sprint Week roll call since 2007.  The lowest accumulation of 37 came at both Plymouth and Kokomo.  In chronological order, feature checkered flags were waved at 10:44, 10:22, 10:39, 10:19, 11:02, 9:46, 10:46 (Central time), with all tracks respectful of Sprint Week patrons by only offering one support class.   Finished well before 10 PM, Bloomington definitely gets the nod for the most efficient outing. 

Looking at those having a solid Sprint Week, let’s begin with Dave Darland.  Wheeling his usual Goodnight owned Maxim/Claxton wrenched by Scott Benic, Dave’s Indiana Sprint Week experience was truly a roller coaster ride.  Starting strong with an eighth to third romp in Plymouth, he was second quickest in Lawrenceburg qualifying, enjoying a sniff of the feature lead before fading to sixth.  Topping the Kokomo qualifying charts, he missed his heat race transfer and could only advance one position in the feature, settling for another sixth.  Terre Haute essentially took him out of the running for his fourth ISW title after finishing 10th, one lap down to the leader.  Despite qualifying 14th at Lincoln Park, Diamond Dave earned the outside of the feature front row, rim riding around the completely slicked off surface.  Leading all 30 tours, the tally resulted in a record-setting 6th USAC sprint car score at this 5/16ths of a mile paperclip.  Baffled in Bloomington after winning there in April, he could only collect 15th after a poor qualification performance.  Rebounding with the most awe-inspiring run of the week in Haubstadt, The People’s Champ timed fifth and hounded leader Chris Windom for the first 23 laps.  Launching a lap 24 bomb through turns one and two; that pass sent him to the front stretch for feature winning photos.  Admittedly one of this worst tracks, this was the first time Darland had triumphed at Tri-State since May 1st of 2005, when he mauled an MSCS field with Jeff Walker.  Taking two wins and a third in points, it’s good to know that the three-time Sprint Week king still has the touch, upping his ante to 20 Sprint Week scores.  Staying out of the saddle while consulting with Josh Hodges, Jon Stanbrough, who says his career-ending drive will take place at an MSCS meet at Terre Haute on August 12th, is next closest with 16.  Just for comparison purposes, modern day mainstays have a long way to go to catch Dave, as KTJ has 5 wins, Ballou 4, Bacon 3, Leary 3, Courtney 3, Cummins 2, Stockon 2, Meseraull 2, Grant 1, and Windom just 1. 

Similar to Darland, C.J. Leary had a mixed bag of Sprint Week showings in his DRC/1-Way, but it was a better week than many could boast. Providing the biggest buzz at the Plymouth opener when Davey Jones appeared with Donnie Gentry to create an absolutely all-star crew, when you throw in C.J.’s father Chuck, Leary Construction was actually a three-headed beast.  Setting a new one-lap record in that initial round, they missed the mark come feature time and only earned eighth.  Third quick at Lawrenceburg and embroiled in a brutal battle for the big banana with Courtney, a last lap bounce backed him up to fifth.  Advancing from 14th to 9th at Kokomo, falling from 4th to 11th at Terre Haute, and scooting from 17th to 7th at LPS, the Gunslinger blitzed a Bloomington field to lead all 30 tours.    Once again showing strong at Haubstadt, after starting 10th C.J. sprinted to 5th, well within earshot of the leaders.  Leary was one of three men who made all seven feature transfers through his heat. 

Tyler Courtney clearly left a lot on the table with his fifth place points finish.  Sailing from 12th to 5th at Plymouth, two evenings later he boldly held back Leary for the Lawrenceburg win.  Scoring 7th at Kokomo after starting 12th, he led all but the first two laps at Terre Haute, again fending off a late race charge, this coming via a last lap turn one lunge from Robert Ballou.  In the driver’s seat to take the ISW title just as he was in 2016, unfortunately it all unraveled with the sub-par qualifying and feature performance at Lincoln Park.  Had he not come from 8th to win his heat, Tyler would have started on the pole of the C-main.  Finishing 5th from 9th at Bloomington (after biking in his heat race and connecting with Robert Ballou in the feature) and plummeting from the pole to 9th at Haubstadt, much like Indiana Midget Week (2017 and 2018), Sunshine just hasn’t been able to cash in his championship chips.  Perhaps such a painful ending to Sprint Week will offer serious motivation to claim the season-long title. 

Examining some others who enjoyed a quiet yet respectable week, Chase Stockon qualified in the top-ten on six occasions (quickest in Terre Haute), led the first 15 laps at Plymouth, and scored a 2nd at Kokomo and 3rd at Haubstadt.  Sub-par showings of 13th at Lawrenceburg and Terre Haute kept him from climbing further in the standings.  Sporting sponsorship from Haubstadt’s Dewig Meats, Chase transferred through his heat race in all seven outings.  Campaigning his own Triple X with wrenching from Matt Hummel and support from the Tony Elliott Foundation, 2016 Indiana Sprint Week champ Brady Bacon was five for seven in top-ten qualifying performances, topping the charts at Lincoln Park.  He backed up his Plymouth win with a 3rd at Lawrenceburg, 4th at Terre Haute, and 6th at Bloomington.  Kokomo (where he was turned on the 2nd circuit), Putnamville (where he was also turned while operating around 7th), and Haubstadt resulted in outside top-ten finishes.    

Despite a couple of blips in the radar, Justin Grant had a solid week of feature performances with Topp Motorsports.  Finishing 3rd (Kokomo and Terre Haute), 4th (Plymouth), 5th (Putnamville), and 6th (Haubstadt), he advanced nine spots at the Burg and seven at THAT and LPS.  One of those blips came at the Burg, where he biked from the 6th spot on the second to last lap of the semi-feature.  Another came in Bloomington, where he tumbled in trying to avoid a Ballou/Courtney dustup.  Now that he and crew chief Mark Shambarger appear to be on the same page and gathering momentum, perhaps the former Kokomo cowboy will return for the Smackdown.

Several others enjoyed some noteworthy Sprint Week stats.  Carson Short was one of them, making every feature on his own merit.  Earning a pair of sixths at Plymouth and Putnamville, he spun into the Lawrenceburg infield while operating in 4th and tumbled over the turn two bank in Bloomington.  Timmy Buckwalter opened some eyes, making five of seven A-mains without the aid of a provisional.  Buckwalter qualified fourth at Kokomo and finished 8th at the Action Track after starting 15th.  Isaac Chapple made six of seven A-mains before popping a provisional at Haubstadt.  Firing from the pole at Plymouth, after qualifying 33rd at Kokomo Chapple chugged from 9th to 4th in his heat and earned a 0 bonus from ISW photographers in honor of the late Rex Staton.  As already mentioned, Josh Hodges received valuable guidance from two-time Sprint Week champion Jon Stanbrough, making six of seven features and scoring three-top ten finishes, saving his best run for last (8th at Haubstadt).   And, Shane Cockrum operated equipment for Mike Dutcher (who also had Jerry Coons for three shows), Daigh/Phillips Motorsports, and Tony Lawrence, making three of the four features he attempted. 

Thomas Meseraull had another event-filled Sprint Week in Chase Briscoe’s 5.  Opening 10th at Plymouth and suffering a DNF at Lawrenceburg, another convincing Kokomo Speedway victory offered a glimmer of hope for a Sprint Week title.  However, those plans were spoiled by a sub-par 16th on a tricky Terre Haute skating rink.  The next night at Putnamville, he had just taken the white flag for his heat race after stealing the final transfer.  But, he hooked the cushion a tad too hard in turn two.  Landing his Maxim on its lid, he missed the semi-feature cut by two spots.   Finishing 4th at Bloomington and 23rd at Haubstadt, his Sprint Week ended on a sour and sore note after climbing a wheel and launching into the turn four catch fence, one of the hardest tumbles of the week.  Win or lose, T-Mez always manages to move the needle.   

Several special Sprint Week chauffeurs were expected to peg the excitement meter, but most of their plans fizzled out far too early.  Napa, California’s Joe Stornetta, Jr. joined forces with Tom Miller and Robin Dawkins, qualifying 16th and finishing 17th at Plymouth.  However, the pairing proved short-lived after a massive Lawrenceburg qualifying flip into the turn one wall folded the 4M.  Making his USAC sprint car debut with a third at Putnamville on July 6th, Jason McDougal would have to wait until Lawrenceburg to make his second USAC sprint start in Shawn Krockenberger’s 21K.  Surging from 7th to 2nd in his heat, he would only score 17th later.  Credited with 19th at Kokomo and an impressive 7th at Terre Haute (from 13th), Jason’s threading of the needle in his Putnamville heat race squeezed him into the front stretch concrete.  The violence of the ensuing gymnastics called a premature end to his Sprint Week, set to take the controls of the Daigh/Phillips 71P at Gas City on the 17th.   Tyler Clem made his second Sprint Week showing, this time behind the wheel of Rick Pollock’s 21.  Missing the first three features, his Terre Haute heat race tumble bent the right front torsion tube, absent from the final three shows.  Tyler Thomas found work in Tony Epperson’s Spike chassis for his first ISW attempt.  Making five of the six features he attempted, although Thomas’s best finish of 8th came at Kokomo, he was second quick at Putnamville and had elevated from eighth to third before a flat right rear tire deflated his winning drive.  Last but not least, three-time Sprint Week victor Daron Clayton picked up a two-race ride with Kent Schmidt, taking on his two best venues in Terre Haute and Haubstadt.  Fed a wheel by Tyler Courtney and taking a big-time ride in his Terre Haute heat, his lone feature appearance came at Tri-State, where he wound up 14th.

Noteworthy one-off Sprint Week appearances came from Nick Bilbee (Lawrenceburg), A.J. Hopkins (Putnamville), and Kendall Ruble (Haubstadt).  Operating at his usual Saturday night haunt and flying beneath the radar, Bilbee qualified quickest, spun in his heat, but still came back to claim a feature transfer.  Pulling to the infield early on, Nick was credited with 22nd.   Finishing second in a July 6th USAC bout at Lincoln Park, A.J. Hopkins hoped for more at his lone Sprint Week stop.  Qualifying sixth and operating as high as second in the feature, a late race slide job from Windom sent him over the bank and back to 5th, recovering to claim 3rd in Jeremy Ottinger’s black and green machine.  Who knows what would have happened had the contact not occurred, as A.J. seemed to be the only one owning an answer for Darland.  Winged Race Saver veteran Kendall Ruble made his first USAC feature event in his initial outing, replacing an anemic 305 with a Rich Brannan bullet.  Kendall held back a fierce pack of five men in an insane semi-feature, eventually earning 15th in the A.  In that semi, Critter Malone (from the C-main) and Robert Ballou were included in that six car scrum, both spinning while coming to the white flag. 

Under the spotlight for seven races, Indiana Sprint Week has a way of humbling even the best.  Case in point:  2015 series champ Robert Ballou.  Sprint Week emphasizes consistency in qualifying, heat race, and feature performance, and only twice did Robert time inside of the top-ten, highlighting his titanic 2018 struggle.  Qualifying 27th at Plymouth, Ballou started the feature 22nd and was up to 9th before spinning, winding up 18th.  Timing 21st at Lawrenceburg, in true Sprint Week fashion he surged to 7th, earning hard charger money from B&W Auto Mart’s Bill Wever.  Again qualifying poorly in Kokomo (24th), he wound up making the feature but was the first out after a second lap flip.  Second from ninth at Terre Haute, Robert made it quite exciting with a last lap slider for first that came up short.  Behind the eight ball yet again after Putnamville qualifying (34th), after claiming second in the C he was one spot shy of the final transfer in the semi after starting 16th, needing a provisional to finish 14th.  Beginning 10th and ending 8th at Bloomington, his Haubstadt performance was hindered by yet another sub-standard qualifying result (29th).  Spinning in the semi while battling for the final transfer, a second provisional pass allowed a feature finish of 22nd.  As they say in this game, qualifying is everything.   

Twice a Sprint Week winner in consecutive seasons, after his Bloomington win on Friday July 13th, Kyle Cummins had hoped to rekindle some of that same magic in 2018.  Unfortunately, it just wasn’t meant to be, missing the first two features at Plymouth and Lawrenceburg, also failing to make the cut at Terre Haute.  After qualifying 14th and propelling from pole position at Kokomo, he led two laps but fell to 11th.  Earning two more 11th place finishes at Putnamville and Bloomington, his LPS effort was noteworthy in the number of positions he advanced:  11.  Ending the week on a positive note at his home track in Haubstadt, Kyle qualified 6th and finished 7th.  Such late week momentum continued to the following weekend when Cummins claimed his third win of the season in a WAR round in Wilmot, Wisconsin, a venue with rare proximity to his car owners Chuck Eberhardt and Fred Zirzow. 

Indiana Sprint Week was far from kind to Shane Cottle.  Beginning the series as pilot of the Daigh/Phillips 71P, by the fifth stop he was reuniting with longtime friend Jason Goacher, the Anderson, Indiana car owner who aided Shane in becoming a household name in the wingless sprint car world.  Besieged with mechanical issues at both Plymouth and Lawrenceburg in the 71P, he was actually running 4th at the Burg when he locked horns with Justin Grant.  After a disastrous last month, the Cottle/Phillips combination was ancient history after the Burg.  The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence, as Cottle and Goacher were a long way from making main events in Putnamville and Bloomington.   Finally figuring things out in Haubstadt, they made the feature but appropriately ended Shane’s week from Hell with a DNF.            

Several others had Sprint Week results that failed to make the mark.  Passing on Putnamville, Jarett Andretti made four of the six features he attempted, but his best finish of 15th (Plymouth) was a far cry from his supreme performance in last year’s series.  Scotty Weir only made three of seven main events in the Gass 17, highlighted by an 8th place effort at Lawrenceburg.  Splitting time between Mach 1 chassis belonging to Hank Byram and Brian Karraker, Silver Crown stud Kody Swanson made just two six finales.  Dakota Jackson’s initial run at the entire Sprint Week slate was a nightmare.  Competing in just two of seven features, he ended his week upside down in the Haubstadt semi.   Clinton Boyles made just one of five main events.  Piloting Paul Hazen’s 57 at Plymouth, Kokomo, Terre Haute, and Putnamville, he earned a shot in the Reinbold/Underwood 19 at Haubstadt but was unable to stick it in the show.  Matt Westfall made his first substantial Sprint Week appearance in a long while, making just two of six shows in the Ray Marshall 33.  Brandon Mattox and his Fitzpatrick Autosports squad needed the majority of Sprint Week to hit their stride, but Brandon appropriately put the car in the Putnamville feature after holding back a huge semi surge from Robert Ballou.  Unfortunately, that was the lone main event appearance for this pairing of Americans and Aussies. 

Back in the day, a stout west coast Sprint Week presence moved my needle.  These days, the impact of Brody Roa, Jake Swanson, and R.J. Johnson was light years away from that of Griffin, Kruseman, Cline, Kirby, Faas, Gaunt, Rutherford, and Sherman.  Roa’s 9th place finish at Lawrenceburg was the best of the USAC-CRA bunch, making four of the seven features which also included a 10th at LPS.  Swanson made three of seven features, with two 12th place finishes (Lawrenceburg and Terre Haute).  Despite earning   valuable track time during Indiana Midget Week, Johnson started just one feature in his Reinbold/Underwood 19, bagging a 19th at Bloomington.         

Indiana Sprint Week continues to find a way to tear drivers and teams apart, but in keeping with my 2018 theme, even the implosions were not as frequent or fiery.  As already mentioned, the combination of Shane Cottle and Daigh/Phillips Motorsports (with backing from Roger and Barb Tapy) was terminated after just two rounds.  Daigh/Phillips skipped Kokomo and went with Shane Cockrum for Terre Haute, but did not compete the rest of the week as a result of complications with one of their cars and engines.  Operating his own number 98 for the first three rounds, Chad Boespflug finished 19th, 20th (after propelling from the Lawrenceburg pole), and 17th (after using a provisional at Kokomo).  Before making the trip to Terre Haute, he pulled the plug on Nine-Eight Motorsports, at least for now.  Hopping into a second Reinbold-Underwood Spike on Wednesday, it was renumbered 11P for Cam Pottorff, who had his Maxim ready for the rest of the week.  Finishing 14th at the Action Track, 8th at LPS (after earning the pole), and 12th at Tri-State, Chad came up spot shy of Bloomington’s main event. 

Those late 1990s/early 2000s Indiana Sprint Week editions featured a massive number of low buck, local Indiana players who had a huge love for the game.  Still longing for those days, they weren’t exactly dead in 2018.  An excellent reference was the effort and enthusiasm of 2001 MSCS rookie of the year Travis Thompson, who strapped into Brandon Maddox’s ride and made it to every one of the seven stops.  His reason for doing so:  he had never before campaigned the full Indiana Sprint Week slate because of limited funds and equipment, viewing this as a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Grounded in his goals, it was to simply get better each night, as he had not been in a car in over six years.  Travis and his wife are in the process of building a new house, but once that house is completed, a sprint car is next on the list.  Currently in pieces, once the machine is ready to roll his ambition is equally simplistic.  Serious but smiling, he noted, “I just want to be the new Aaron Mosley and run Putnamville every week.”  Although Travis was C or B-main material each night, he never crashed and even looked like he might move on from Bloomington’s C before scaling the cushion between turns one and two.  Given how good he looked at Bloomington, he did indeed accomplish his original goal.  Honestly, I admire a guy like Thompson who had the guts to run down his dream under the bright lights of sprint car racing’s biggest stage.   

Harley Burns and his father Eric towed two cars from Brazil to the Terre Haute Action Track.  Eric was once again in Bill Gasway’s Stealth while Harley had a completely different car than usual.  Harley and a group of six men consisting of his grandfather, PDF Supply, Youngblood Farms, and Steven O’Dell purchased a coil-front Twister chassis that that had been sitting in Dusty Wright’s garage for the past seven years.  Buying the car for next to nothing, they want to take the running gear and apply those components to a recently purchased chassis from Levi Jones.  As for Eric, his aluminum block engine finally came to life at the Action Track, but not before tossing a connecting rod out of the bottom end in hot laps.  Harley gained his first tours around the Action Track but felt far more at home at Lincoln Park.  Even though he was essentially fed to a pack of hungry wolves, like Thompson he chose to play an active role in Sprint Week rather than sit in the grandstands.     

Even though I’m STILL dealing with the aftermath of my illness, I can think a little more clearly now, surmising that each Sprint Week stop did have its share of special moments even if the usual aura was not evident for most of the week.  My first-ever trip to Plymouth Speedway came with a rather stressful drive up U.S. 31, delayed twice for construction and requiring a slight detour due to some serious stoppage around State Road 28.  Ultimately rewarded with a rare defeat of Mother Nature, a tip of the fedora goes to the track crew, USAC, and the competitors for pulling together.  We were indeed fortunate to get the show completed as those ominous clouds dumped their share of precipitation all afternoon and evening.  Not enough for a downpour, it was just enough to keep the surface moist until the start of the feature.   Enjoying the outstanding grandstand vantage point alongside Valparaiso’s Rob Goodman and Lafayette’s Joe Higdon, I learned from announcer Scott Stine that the seating for 3,400 formerly existed in Charlotte, Atlanta, and Daytona (backstretch) while the press box was once Bill France’s suite.  As for the lighting, it was Goodman who noted that it arrived from Illiana.  Although the surface did manage to get slick and blow some feature dust, the racing was still respectable.  No question – Plymouth is a work in progress and has tons of potential.  I’m ok with it being on the Sprint Week schedule, but I still feel that a weekly wingless venue like Gas City also deserves a date.         

After Friday’s doubtful forecast and Saturday’s washout, Sunday’s outlook for Lawrenceburg was also iffy.  However, promoter/operator Dave Rudisell made the difficult decision to move forward, putting in the effort to make racing a reality.  Despite starting with a choppy surface that required an extensive rework, “Rudy” was rewarded with the best feature battle of the week when C.J. Leary and Tyler Courtney slugged it out over the final few laps with six bold exchanges.  I know the majority of drivers dislike the dip going into turn one, but from my vantage point in Section B (row 15), I’m not sure if there is a more awesome view in all of racing.  Watching qualifications from the edge of my seat as these bad-asses either dodged the hole or drove straight through, it helped me develop a whole new respect for these cowboys.  Brave is indeed an understatement. 

Kokomo Speedway’s Tuesday reschedule nixed our second appearance at Bonge’s Tavern, where we missed a rare opportunity to sample Chef Tony Huelster’s homemade cherry pie.  Had there not been a special toast in honor of the late Rex Staton, we would have undoubtedly attempted the double, as Tony’s pies are absolutely out of this world.  As it was, Steve and I knew where we needed to be and although Randy Jones couldn’t make it again, Steve Remington could, reminiscing with Rem about Rex and my open wheel indoctrination.  Taking part in two separate toasts, on one of them I offered that Staton represented the absolute epitome of hardcore concerning racing fandom and photography.  As I stated in my last piece, racing got a lot less interesting with Rex’s passing.      

WRTV-6 Sports Director and Indycar Radio Network reporter Dave Furst made a special Kokomo Speedway appearance to piece together an Indiana Sprint Week story for that night’s newscast, noting how he learned about the Indianapolis 500 through his many childhood trips to Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt.  Furst was not the only racing dignitary on-hand on Tuesday, as Robin Miller and Doug Boles also roamed the grounds.  Truly passionate about auto racing and its unique personalities, I enjoy everything produced by Dave.  Simply put, he “gets it”.   

As for Kokomo’s Sprint Week product, once its upper half was ripped apart and redone after mostly single-file heat races, the usual balls-to-the-walls action returned for the B and A-mains.  That of course allowed Thomas Meseraull to attack from the top side, which is never a bad thing.  In speaking with Jarrod O’Connor prior to the playing of the national anthem, he noted how he and his brother Reece had purposely prepared the track to give the middle and bottom lanes a much better shot in 2018, as last year featured far too many runaway affairs around the rim. 

The biggest takeaway from Terre Haute might have been the racetrack itself – on my shirt and in my eyes, ears, nose, hair, and every possible human crevice.  Come feature time from my front stretch vantage point, I had a hard time viewing dark colored cars through turns one, two, and four, even missing Robert Ballou’s last lap lunge with his white bodied Maxim.  I’m hardly an expert on dirt, but Indiana Sprint Week is the number one showcase for wingless sprint car racing.  Wouldn’t a reasonable person want to provide the best possible surface for the best possible racing when the biggest crowd is watching?  I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or nitpick, as I distinctly remember when there was no racing on these grounds in the late 1980s.  But, my question is, was that the absolute best that Bob Sargent and his crew could do in giving us a good racetrack?  From his home base in the middle of Illinois, Bob is ridiculously busy with so many speedways that there is simply no way to give this place the attention it so desperately needs and deserves.  But, when the qualifying draw ultimately determines the evening’s outcome, something needs to change.  It might sound crazy, but perhaps he should give his former partner Gerry Olson a phone call, as Gerry enjoys working the dirt and probably still lives in the area.  The other item I’ll remember from the Action Track is watching Ballou inch closer to Tyler Courtney.  Providing that one brief moment of excitement, I was honestly expecting more of that type of stuff from the entire evening.  

Even though Lincoln Park’s feature surface reverted to one lane and was equally slick as the Action Track, at least it offered a large ledge to lean on.  Sprint Week ambience had just begun to be felt on this fifth stop, as the concrete concourse was bursting at the seams with hardcore fans having a great time.  With 11 of the top 17 qualifiers missing heat race transfers to the feature, that gridded 17th-quickest Chad Boespflug in the number one starting spot - easily the deepest USAC has gone to produce a pole sitter since they went to this format several years ago.   LPS Sprint Week offered a little bit of everything:  thrills, spills, controversy, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.  Although I would have loved to have observed additional feature overtaking via a two groove track, the ridiculously cutthroat slide jobs did keep me entertained. 

Traffic congestion and road construction was a serious issue all the way from Carmel to Bloomington.  After a stop at Bargersville’s Taxman Brewing and arriving with 45 minutes to spare, somehow Steve and I still managed to find a parking spot.  Sitting high atop turn four, although we were too far away to get pelted with red clay from the heavy surface, I was thankfully able to hear Dr. Pat Sullivan’s tributes to Sheldon Kinser (yes, this was the Sheldon Kinser Memorial, a race I have attended all but twice since 1989) and Rex Staton (“Heard THAT!”).  Feeling fortunate that our sport has someone as passionate as Pat to offer such sentiments, his presence on the microphone makes those stressful Friday afternoon drives well worth the hassle.  Even though Bloomington’s surface offered two grooves, C.J. Leary was far too fast to catch from his pole starting spot, making the race for first a non-issue. 

Already mentioning just how much I enjoyed the Haubstadt finale, there is no question that my improved health changed my Sprint Week spirits.  However, it is also important to note at just how much a Hud Cone autograph on the back window of our dusty and dirty rental car and a pair of Dewig Meats bratwursts did wonders for my mood.  Often accused of being a perfectionist much like track operator and promoter Tommy Helfrich, perhaps it is my German heritage that is to blame.  But, my obsessive compulsive qualities make me appreciate the fruits of this man’s labor that much more.  A trip to Tri-State is always a special occasion and this time, it was extra special.  Tommy, his staff, and Dave Darland’s drive all played a part in salvaging my Sprint Week.    

Having had my annual physical a few days after the completion of my summer solstice, my doctor surmised that I was dealing with a virus, which could last anywhere from two days to an entire month.  No matter what it was, it just shouldn’t be allowed in the summer, especially while on vacation, as I was here for a good time, not a long time (borrowing those words from a recent Robert Ballou t-shirt).  Keeping me in a complete fog for the better part of ten days, it effectively killed my enthusiasm for the one time of the year that I cherish and savor most.   However, my memories of this particular week will forever revolve around the glowing positivity of that one last race.  Even if something might have been missing in this 2018 Indiana Sprint Week, it reminded me that a nearly perfect evening of sprint car action might just be the best medicine known to mankind, eventually moving the needle to where it should have been from the start.     

 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 9

Status Changes

“One minute you’re a hero.  The next minute, you’re a zero.”

I can instantly remember when I first heard those words, spoken by the extremely hardcore and humble Doug Wolfgang on TNN’s Hidden Heroes television program from late 1987/early 1988 that featured Fred Grenoble, then a mechanic for car owner Bob Weikert.  Ever since the airing of that program, Doug’s statement has stuck with me, popping into my head on more than one occasion during this recent action-packed holiday week of Indiana sprint car combat. 

Despite the plethora of open wheel options, I limited my intake to a pair of Kokomo Speedway contests that ultimately bookended a Friday night United States Auto Club Indiana Sprint Week preview at Lincoln Park Speedway.  On each one of these evenings, it just so happened that the major players endured their fair share of ups and downs, significantly changing their status from one night to the next or over the course of a few hours.    

Beginning with an unusual Tuesday treat of Kokomo Speedway sprint cars and fireworks, Chris Windom was the odds-on favorite to take home the trophy, having scored in four of the five 2018 meetings prior to this affair.  In case you are wondering, Chris’s lone blemish came on May 6th when he finished fourth to Kevin Thomas, Jr., who collected the King of Kokomo crown.  On this Fourth of July eve, Windom qualified for the front row of his heat, finished second to C.J. Leary, and redrew the fourth starting spot for the 25-lap main event, looking like he could easily make it five for six.   But, as Mr. Wolfgang so aptly reminded, hero to zero can happen in a heartbeat.          

Thomas Meseraull (Whitney 00) and first heat winner Dave Darland (Goodnight 36D) would share the front row and much to my surprise, Darland would fall to fifth fairly early.  With the cushion well off the wall, the middle to low lanes were the way to go, as Meseraull’s Hawk chassis ruled the roost.  It only took a few laps for Windom to wave his magic wand, early apexing the third corner to secure second in his trusty DRC/Claxton combo.  Working lap ten, Chris’s third turn diamond instantly translated to front stretch momentum, motoring through the middle of one and two to overtake T-Mez for top billing.  Third heat winner and fifth-starting C.J. Leary (family 30) made a Meseraull connection in corner three and shot to second, bringing eighth-starting Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Dooling-Hayward 63) in tow.  Heavy into lapped traffic, the lead trio remained bumper to bumper, but Kenny Baldwin’s chauffeur proved that he is indeed human when he scaled the turn four cushion while lapping a pair.  Thus leaving the door wide open for his two pursuers, Kevin quickly seized command before Mooresville, Indiana’s Ben Knight looped his number 16 in the second corner.

Just six laps remained when green lights reappeared, and KTJ was up to task by putting distance between himself, Leary, and Windom.  The leaders had already slipped beneath the white flag when seventh-running Meseraull spun in the fourth corner, resulting in a rare one-lap shootout.  Kevin cut a perfect circuit to nail down his second Kokomo sprint car score of the season.  Leary, Windom, Darland, and Cottle (Shane) collected top-five coin, with Cottle’s tour from 12th in the Phillips 71 extremely impressive after crushing concrete on an extremely slippery initial lap of qualifying.  Second heat winner Jarett Andretti, Scotty Weir (from 14th in the Gass 17), Clinton Boyles, Isaac Chapple, and Aaron Farney secured positions six through ten.  Not quite a zero but no doubt disappointed was Windom, who clearly let one slip away.  Perhaps even more dejected was last year’s track champ Justin Grant, who was the quickest from hot lap/qualifying session number one and finished second to Dave Darland, setting him up for the feature redraw.  However, immediately after the heat race checkered flag flew, the engine in his Topp Motorsports machine imploded and called a premature end to his outing, continuing his hugely frustrating season.         

While KTJ was answering Rob Goodman’s questions from BC’s victory lane, I observed the fact that crew chief/mechanic Davey Jones was not part of the celebration with Brad Alexander, A.J. Parker, and Jason McDougal.  Curious to know more but having committed myself to the grandstands the entire evening as my wife Rachael, oldest brother Greg, and his daughter Ana were in the house, I was unable to satisfy my inquiring mind.  Doing some digging in the Lincoln Park pits three days later, I learned that Thomas and Jones had parted ways at some point after the June 24th Darland Memorial. 

While most exited after the 10:10 PM sprint car completion I made a rare decision to stay for not only a lengthy pyrotechnics display, but also a modified and hornet feature.  Offering an edge-of-your-seat, cushion-crushing slide-fest involving Zeke McKenzie and eventual winner Dylan Woodling, I hate to admit it, but the race for first in the mods was actually more entertaining than the sprint cars!   As for the hornets, a last turn, last lap pass by Chris Hillman over Josh Gamblin served as a thrilling conclusion to an already satisfying evening, made even better when I was stopped by a westbound Norfolk Southern freight train on U.S. 31.  I might be an old soul at this stage of my existence, but certain things like trains make the little kid come out.    

Working a full Friday and arriving to a packed house in Putnamville for this USAC segment of the Bill Gardner Sprintacular, it was indeed an eventful evening involving all kinds of movement along the hero to zero spectrum. Playing the leading role in this storyline was Tuesday night’s star Kevin Thomas, Jr., who tempted fate all night long.  Nearly spinning on his first lap of qualifying, he recovered nicely to time seventh-best.  In his heat, he cranked his car completely sideways and used the infield to escape a spinning Isaac Chapple, setting him up for an outside front row feature start alongside Hurst brothers hired gun Jordan Kinser.  As if he was special ordering a Whopper at Burger King, KTJ was having it his way in the finale, handily leading the first 22 laps.  Scaling the right rear of Chapple in turn three fairly early, he somehow survived the skirmish and resumed his torrid pace, about to put a lap on Darland, Ballou, Bacon, and Windom two-thirds of the way through.  However, Kevin’s luck would soon run out after clipping the curb at the exit of turn two.  Flipping and landing his Mean Green DRC on all four wheels, despite his ability to restart he was saddled with an unsavory 16th, losing his point lead to eventual winner Tyler Courtney who tallied his fifth USAC sprint car feature win of 2018.  I can only imagine how disgusted Kevin felt afterwards, only intensifying the pressure to perform during Indiana Sprint Week.  Hero to zero…it happens to even the best of them. 

Qualifying fourth, winning his heat from sixth, and starting the feature from fifth, Courtney had to hustle to get past Tony DiMattia, Jordan Kinser, and A.J. Hopkins.  Once in second, he could occasionally cut into Kevin’s lead, but we’ll never know if he would have gotten close enough to take a swipe.  In the right place at the right time, although he was a sprint car winner here in September of 2012, Tyler finally bagged a big one at the facility that was once operated by his grandfather.  Former mini sprint combatants were assisting on the winning Clauson-Marshall-Newman Spike, as Rossville’s Cole Bodine and Kokomo’s Kevin Smith work with Tyler Ransbottom and Tim Clauson.  Tim is one busy man these days, as in addition to heading up midget and sprint assaults, he still holds down a full-time gig outside of racing.  Son of former Eric Shively crew member Kevin Bodine, Cole Bodine is taking a page from Tyler Courtney, as he is putting in his time at the Clauson Marshall shop in Fishers to earn valuable, high-profile midget seat time, subbing for the injured Zeb Wise in this week’s USAC tour of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri.  A high-quality kid who comes from good stock, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Cole, who nearly won the tour finale in Sweet Springs, Missouri.     

Five times a Lincoln Park producer in limited 2018 outings for Jeremy Ottinger (who celebrated his 47th birthday the day before), A.J. Hopkins qualified fifth, transferred through his heat, and started the feature fourth, ultimately chasing Courtney to the 11:30 PM checkered flag.  Representing the best-career USAC outing for A.J., he reinforced the notion that he has what it takes to compete with the national tour regulars.  Wishing that he and Jeremy would run a few more races outside of Putnam County, can Hopkins put it all together on the Thursday night of Indiana Sprint Week?  

Compared to his landlord Kevin Thomas, Jr., house guest Jason McDougal wound up on the opposite end of the hero/zero horizon.  Qualifying 28th fastest from a field of 37 in Shawn Krockenberger’s 21K, Jason escaped a huge incident in the semi-feature to surge from 12th to 2nd, more than good enough to earn the 22nd starting spot in the 30-lap main event.  Methodically moving through the pack on a tricky track, he was already up to fourth at the time of KTJ’s red flag.  McDougal manufactured one more spot in the final eight laps to land on the podium in his initial USAC sprint car outing.  It’s certainly been an eventful season for the Okie, who officially ended 2017 with three victories at the Tulsa Shootout, becoming the first to score more than two golden driller trophies in one evening.  Finding work in the Petry Excavating midget vacated by Thomas, he made his first appearance in Krockenberger’s sprint car on June 1st at Bloomington.  Although he was slated to run the car on several more occasions, rainouts and scheduling conflicts have limited his previous runs to Lincoln Park (6/23) and Bloomington (6/29).  One wonders:  could he be the next big thing in short-track open wheel racing? 

Entering the premises just in time for two-lap qualifications, I stood behind Greencastle’s Tracy Pickens, a former socket spinner for Kevin Thomas, Bill Rose, and J.J. Yeley.  Operating on a character-filled playing field capped by a thick upper lip and underscored with a bumpy bottom, qualifying proved to be a handful for so many of the national heroes, ultimately making them look like zeroes at least for the time being.  Notables like Justin Grant (19th), Robert Ballou (21st), Dave Darland (24th), Chad Boespflug (25th), Chris Windom (27th), Jarett Andretti (30th), and Kyle Cummins (31st) each had issues which of course meant there were some surprises filtering into the top-15, including quick-qualifier and three-time 2018 LPS winner Carson Short (12.467), Kody Swanson (2nd), Tony DiMattia (6th), Jordan Kinser (9th), Brandon Mattox (12th), Kent Schmidt (13th), and Brian VanMeveren (15th).  For the second night in a row, Minnesota attorney VanMeveren enjoyed the assistance of Mike Gass and Phil Poor, the long-time USAC and All Star Circuit of Champions title winning mechanic. 

So many of those big names could not recover from their qualifying woes.  Boespflug biked in the B-main and owned no more provisional passes.  Debuting a new Triple X chassis, Cummins broke a rear end in his heat and called it a night.  Jousting side-by-side for the final transfer on the final lap of heat two, Andretti connected with DiMattia at the start/finish and snap-rolled atop the concrete blocks down the remainder of the front chute.  Although his DRC chassis and assorted components were a write-off, the car’s construction did its job, allowing its pilot to walk away.  Grant won his heat from the front row but wound up 19th after starting 15th, reversing his fortunes in a big way the next night with a huge ,000 MSCS score at this same stop.  However, one of the biggest stories on this evening was how Windom, Darland, and Ballou salvaged their evenings, finishing 4th, 7th, and 9th after starting 21st, 20th, and 17th, respectively.  If the race were five laps longer, Chris could have been contending for a feature win, proving that he and Derek Claxton are more than ready to contend for their second ISW championship.  It is hard to believe that Chris and Derek have not claimed a Sprint Week win since Terre Haute 2011. 

After Courtney, Hopkins, McDougal, and Windom came Jordan Kinser, the Bloomington Speedway star who enjoyed his best USAC outing to date.  Thomas Meseraull made his way from 13th to 6th in the Briscoe 5.  As already mentioned, Darland and Ballou were 7th and 9th, sandwiching Brandon Mattox.  Josh Hodges took tenth while Brady Bacon bagged 11th after needing new left rear rubber after the second circuit. 

An unusually long night for current Lincoln Park standards, it reminded me of the old days from the early ‘90s when I was stuck in the grandstands and subjected to an overdose of stock car craziness.  With four support classes (D2 midgets, modifieds, street stocks, and bombers), a half hour delay for a fan emergency and ambulance switch, and a vital track rework prior to the A-main, that allowed me plenty of time to catch up with individuals that could only be found in the pit area, having made a wise post-qualifying decision to upgrade my general admission ticket with a donation to Jill and Joe Spiker’s back gate.  Watching the heat races while staring into a bright orange disc, I was at least entertained during the ambulance delay by stories from ex-L&N/CSX railroad employees Joe Higdon and Arba Richardson, both of whom crewed on trains that passed through Putnamville on the old Monon mainline.   

It was in the pits where I initially encountered Jim LeConte, the ex-Danville GM foundry employee and United Sprint Association official who entertained with several outstanding Doug Wolfgang/Gary Stanton stories from the early 1980s.  Dave Conn of J&D Performance was also on-hand, tending to customers Kent Schmidt, Jeremy Ottinger, and Jarett Andretti, even digging in to assist in the deconstruction of Andretti’s annihilated equipment.  BOSS chassis constructor Flea Ruzic was assisting Jimmy Jones and Robert Ballou yet again, noting that Robert’s 2006 Maxim had been clipped for the fifth time:  four performed by him and one by Joe Devin.  This worn out piece is the only car with which Robert finds comfort, so Flea is toying with the idea of building a brand-new machine and stressing the tubing before delivering it to the Mad Man. 

Congratulating Tim Creech on his heat race win, this was the very first USAC feature that Tim had ever made.  Involved in an early incident with Brent Beauchamp and credited with 21st, Creech has enjoyed some solid showings at LPS thus far in 2018, loving his DRC chassis that he says is not only easy to drive, but easy to work on.

Bumping into 2001 MSCS rookie of the year Travis Thompson, Travis was tending to another Terre Hautian in Brandon Mattox, who is embroiled in a battle for his first MSCS title.  Last operating a Mattox machine five or six years ago, Thompson is pondering the possibility of returning to action with a full-on assault of Indiana Sprint Week in Brandon’s normal number 28.  The reason being: Mattox excitedly scooped that he would be piloting another DRC for Fitzpatrick Autosports, a group of Australians he met during last year’s ISW.  One week later, the new combination debuted 11th at Gas City but had their pristine piece seriously damaged in a Haubstadt tumble.  As of the time of writing, Joe Devin is making repairs, so it will require quite a thrash to be ready in time for Plymouth. 

2000 LPS and Tri-State track champion Eric Burns was making a rare USAC appearance in Bill Gasway’s Stealth while his 16-year-old son Harley would be making his first attempt in Doug Rolison’s Stealth.  Optimistic as always despite suffering through a miserable outing when his new-for-2018 aluminum engine refused to operate at full song, Eric’s evening turned from bad to worse after a B-main connection with Brian VanMeveren.  Set to be a high school junior this fall, Eric’s offspring was struggling with his power plant as well.  Quite an interesting story regarding the method in which Harley’s 305 cubic inch steel block Chevy was acquired, it was left abandoned under a tarp at Eric’s rental property along U.S. 40 just west of Brazil.  With plans of upgrading Harley to a 400 cubic inch steel block, they recently purchased a newer chassis from Levi Jones, who spent nearly four hours advising the teenager on the ins and outs of the sport.  Midway through his second season, Harley has been quietly honing his skills as he hustles a grossly underpowered machine, looking forward to the benefits of even more power, but newer hardware as well. 

Sunday’s closure to a long holiday week came in Howard County for the Kokomo Klassic, a race with roots that reach back to the Bill Lipkey era of track ownership.  Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Klassic always managed to attract some of the sport’s biggest names.  2018 maintained that tradition, especially with the pre-race festivities organized by Josh and Shannon Spencer.  Josh single-handedly contacted a large group of legendary drivers, mechanics, car owners, announcers, and writers, most of whom showed up to mingle and sign autographs.  Although I was on the list, I certainly did not feel worthy of scribbling my name alongside so many heroes.  Stepping away from the table to gather my own list of signatures which numbered around 50, it was quite an impressive array of hall of fame talent, a rare opportunity to reacquaint myself some who I have not seen in months, years, or even decades.  Rare sightings included Jack and Jody Hewitt, Steve Butler, Gary Fisher, Kent Evans, A.J. Anderson, Brandon Petty, Mark Clark, Michael Burthay, Jeff “Auggie” O’Banion, Terry Pletch, Mike Mann, Greg Stephens, Kelly Kinser, Todd Kelley, Mark Caldwell, and Allen Barr.  I won’t go through the entire list of who was here, but it was truly a step back in time to see all of the smiling faces.  Even after getting seriously banged up from a Gas City tumble in mid-June, Tom Davies was present and in great spirits.  Brad Dickison, Pat Sullivan, Tony Jarrett, and Tony Ploughe were full of so many colorful stories, I could have listened for hours on end.  All of these outstanding personalities reminded me of why I became so addicted to this sport in the first place.  I sincerely hope this becomes a permanent thing – as it serves as such a vital link between the past and present. 

As for the on-track activities, 24 traditional and 24 305/602 winged sprint cars were in attendance and in true Kokomo Klassic tradition, big names like Chris Windom, Kevin Thomas, Jr., and Robert Ballou served as the central characters.  C.J. Leary (own 30), Kyle Cummins, Scotty Weir (Gass 17), Justin Grant, Jarett Andretti, and Josh Cunningham were welcome additions.  Rather surprisingly, Dave Darland did not have a ride, no doubt a sign of the times when true car owners have become so scarce. 

Renewing his Kokomo royalty, Chris Windom would qualify fourth, win his heat, and redraw the third feature starting position, setting him up for another productive Sunday evening.  Tracking down Robert Ballou with 13 laps remaining, although lapped traffic would allow Ballou to close in the waning stages, it would not prevent the Flying Illini from collecting his fifth Kokomo feature win in seven attempts.  However, it was a far from simple task for his Baldwin bunch, as a push rod issue in hot laps/qualifying mandated an engine change prior to heat race action.  Directed by crew chief Derek Claxton, the swap was completed in about 15 minutes. 

Kevin Thomas, Jr. came from ninth to claim third, quite an eventful evening for similar mechanical reasons.  Slowing during hot laps/qualifying, Kevin and his Brad Alexander led squad were also working feverishly under the hood before their heat race, honoring assistance from Steve Fox and Brian Cripe to troubleshoot the issue and reset the timing on their Gary Stanton engine. 

Starting fourth and finishing fourth was C.J. Leary, his final test and tune prior to Indiana Sprint Week.  Reliable sources say that the recently departed Davey Jones will be joining Donnie Gentry and Chuck Leary on the Leary Construction crew for this seven race series.  Beginning from the outside of the front row after his huge win the previous night in Putnamville, Justin Grant briefly raced for first before a turn three bike ride rendered him fifth, which is exactly where he wound up.  Positions six through ten were claimed by Shane Cottle, Cummins, Isaac Chapple (after a solid run from sixth to second in his heat), Weir, and Andretti (who had Kyle Dautrich tending to his magneto after hot laps/qualifying).

Jay Waugh and Braydan Willmington added some Aussie flair to this Kokomo Klassic.  Having resided in the Hoosier state since May 23rd, Jay’s number 99 was assembled by Northern California’s Steven Tiner.  Keeping his equipment at Landon Simon’s shop and living with Chris and Amy Simon, on this adventure Waugh was focused on winged activities, hitting all of the Ohio Speedweek stops.  Sprinkling in some wingless outings including a 14th place finish on this Sunday, he returns home right before Indiana Sprint Week, a series in which he competed in 2014.  Just twenty years of age and a veteran of the midget and 410 winged sprint car wars, Braydan Willmington debuted Davey Ray’s DRC chassis with a fifth at Gas City on July 6th, backing that up one week later with a fine fourth at Gas City and a third in Montpelier midgets.   Winning the B-main at Kokomo and collecting 16th, he appeared to be quite comfortable in just his second ever wingless sprint car start, noting that “it’s way more fun than a winged sprint car and just like a big midget.”  Before he exits the country on July 22nd, the exciting Willmington will make his USAC sprint car debut at Plymouth, following up with another Montpelier midget effort on the 21st. 

Watching Kokomo heat and feature action with Lapel sprint car rookie Evan Mosley, despite getting a late start to the season the 18 year-old has continued to improve and impress.  On Friday July 6th, Mosley started 19th at Gas City and worked his way up to third, but a last lap issue sent him back to 6th.  One night later, track regular Willie Tackitt snatched victory from Mosley’s hands on the final lap in Charleston, Illinois, the same place where he debuted fourth in early June.  But on the following Friday, Evan opened even more eyes on an old school cowboy surface at Gas City, scoring yet another second thanks to a solid setup from sprint car legend Tray House.  Only his seventh showing, could a feature win be just around the corner?     

Fast forward to Friday July 13th and my drive to Bloomington Speedway’s Summer Doubler was truly a nightmare, requiring just under two hours thanks to I-465 congestion and State Road 37 restrictions.  Speaking of nightmares, it’s been that kind of a season for Kyle Cummins and his Eberhardt Zirzow Racing team.  Although they nailed down a Bloomington feature win on Friday, April 13th, this year has turned out to be a huge test in patience and persistence.  In late May, they switched chassis and shock combinations from DRC/CSI to Tripe X/Benic.  Just as they began to make some progress, a Bloomington blown right rear tire caused a costly crash on June 15th, wiping out a car and numerous components.  Taking some time off to regroup, Kyle and his father assembled a new Triple X and in its fourth outing, it became a Bloomington winner on yet another Friday the 13th.  Three months between wins, this was a rather significant change of status for the pride of Princeton, Indiana.

From third starting position, Cummins claimed the first heat and after drawing the pole for the 25-lap feature, he took full advantage to lead every lap around the infield tires, admitting afterwards that it was a nerve-wracking ordeal to run the bottom and hit his marks.  On the slicked off surface that offered the thinnest of cushions, fifth-starting Robert Ballou, Jeff Bland, Jr., 11th-starting Isaac Chapple (quickest from qualifying), and ninth-starting Andrew Prather scored second through fifth.  Solidifying sixth through tenth at the 9:29 PM checkered flag were Josh Cunningham (originally slated to start 20th), Jadon Rogers (from 15th), Jordan Kinser, Scotty Weir, and Michael Koontz. 

By virtue of his two previous feature wins, track point leader Kinser started 10th but suffered a flat right front tire after an incident with Daylan Chambers.  Towed to the pits where Jeff Bland’s Waltz Racing crew not only offered a new wheel and tire but changed it as well, this was a true sign of sportsmanship as Bland and Waltz were second in points.    

The race for first was a forgone conclusion, as Kyle was the class of the field.  Behind him, it was a completely different story as third-starting Brandon Morin was doing his best to fend off the ferocious foursome of Scotty Weir, Robert Ballou, Chad Boespflug (Pottorff 11P), and Bland.  The five of them battled high, low, and through the middle, with positions changing nearly every corner.  Working lap 18, Weir finally wrenched second from Morin’s grasp while Bland smelled blood in the water, attempting to squeeze underneath the number 98 at the bottom of turn three.  The resulting spear bounced Morin into an inversion that also collected Boespflug.  Once back to green, Weir tried to pick the pockets of Cummins but a late race bobble spoiled his podium placement.

A quality-filled field of 26 sprinters raced for double points, which unbelievably was the second to last regular show for wingless sprint cars.  The Bob Kinser Memorial on August 17th serves as the finale, a date that’s already circled on my calendar.  This evening’s Bloomington contestants also included Jon Stanbrough, Jake Scott, Kody Swanson, Travis Berryhill, Dakota Jackson, and Bradley Sterrett (Burton 04).  Missing qualifications altogether due to the lengthy drive, I failed to witness Jon Stanbrough’s single set of corners in the Wingo 77, immediately exiting with engine issues.  Suffering through a recent rough stretch, Jackson bagged the B but was forced to scratch from the A. 

A rather abbreviated tour of pit lane began and ended in Buddy Cunningham’s pit.  Buddy detailed his chaotic cruise from Spencer to Bloomington in which he was involved in an accident in front of McCormick’s Creek State Park on State Road 46, severely damaging the pickup that he used to tow Andrew Prather’s self-constructed chassis.  His first street accident in nearly 40 years of driving did not deter his quest to compete, arranging for another vehicle to tow his trailer the rest of the distance. 

Meeting up with Dan “Dirtfan” Hetser as the national anthem was playing, we headed over to the hill to catch a trio of entertaining heat races.  The best of the bunch was heat two, where a wet towel was tossed over the top-seven.  Situated just in front was 1996 Lincoln Park Speedway sprint car champ “Auggie” O’Banion, who discussed his plans of traveling to Canada to purchase a wingless sprint car for his son Shane (named after Shane Carson), who currently competes in flat track motorcycles.   

Staying after the sprint car conclusion for a special “Heroes and Hornets” celebrity race and the 305 Race Saver feature, it is worth noting that the sprint car contingent was well represented in this hornet happening that required its competitors to be newcomers to the front wheel drive machines.  Sprint shoes included Anton Hernandez, Tyler Waltz, Bradley Sterrett, Josh Cunningham, Jake Scott, Danny Holtsclaw, Buddy Cunningham, and Ethan Barrow, with the rest of the field made up of modified and street stock standouts.  The 22 contestants were gridded based on the amount of money raised for St. Jude’s Hospital.  Tenth-starting Sterrett would wind up the winner while Jake Scott (4th) and Josh Cunningham (5th) were the next best sprint car finishers.  The event raised a healthy ,836, punctuated by a massive tumble from Bill McCarty.  Jeff Wimmenauer was the fourth and final leader of the 305 feature, coming from 11th to score his second win of the season. 

Returning to Doug Wolfgang’s hero to zero statement from TNN’s Hidden Heroes episode from the late 1980s, I seem to recall that Kokomo, Indiana photographer Rex Staton made an appearance on this program while mingling around the Wolfgang/Weikert pit at Eldora.  Assisting in the babysitting of my nephew’s son and watching the 35th Kings Royal from the comfort of my basement couch, I shockingly awoke to the sad and sobering news of Rex’s passing on Sunday morning.  Along with the Little 500 and Knoxville Nationals, the Kings Royal was one of the few events that Rex would never miss, so the fact that he wasn’t at Eldora is testament to just how poor his health was.  Spending some quality time with him prior to the Indiana Midget Week finale at Kokomo Speedway in early June, although he did photograph the Little 500, this was the first time I had seen him all year long.  Having spent the better part of 2018 in the hospital, Rex was so happy to be back in his element, even if it was just for a short while.  Like so many of the sport’s most intriguing personalities, my introduction to Staton came through photographer Steve Remington and knowing him for the past three decades, I’m not sure if I have ever encountered anyone who had as much pure passion for the sport, sacrificing nearly everything in the name of racing and photography.  Echoing Randy Jones’s comment that Rex lived life on his own terms, he could care less of what others thought of his world, one of the last of those free spirits left in our fraternity.  I readily admit that I will never be able to match his lifelong devotion and for that, I’ll forever hold him in the highest regard.  Happy to have considered Rex a friend, I’m saddened by the fact that his passing represents yet another permanent exit of open wheel racing’s most intriguing individuals.  Gone but never forgotten, may you finally rest in peace Rexy.   

Thrashing in my final few days of work before a long-awaited Indiana Sprint Week respite, I’m looking forward to my own change of status.  Removing myself from reality for a solid ten days, in addition to sleeping in, indulging in only the best of food and drink, and spending quality time with the closest of comrades, I look forward to observing which racers will rise to the occasion to become heroes and which ones will be humbled to zeroes during this grueling stretch.  As they say, let the games begin!   

 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 8

Special Shows

As I have stressed so many times in these past 20 years of covering traditional sprint car competition, the overall outlook on a national basis depends heavily on the health of the local scene, particularly in the state of Indiana where the spotlight shines brightest.  This is a sprint car state, so many of our venues need substantial car counts to lure fans into the grandstands.  In addition, sanctioning bodies such as the United States Auto Club and Midwest Sprint Car Series must have local competitors to bolster their rosters.  With a definite decline in the number of local competitors in these last ten years, Indiana oval track operators are now required to do more than just swing open the gates to enjoy a successful evening, as both the fans and racers are demanding quite a bit more than they used to.    

As far as unsanctioned events are concerned, the most common method of boosting front and back gate receipts is to offer a special show with a fancy title and a substantially larger purse.  But as we have all observed, so many times that fails to bring the bulk of the cars, making it even more difficult for operators to justify those types of programs.  Thankfully, even after so many failed experiments, the special show manages to survive, recently covering a prime example with Paragon’s Johnson Memorial and following up with two more:  Kokomo’s Darland Memorial (named for Bob and Joan Darland – Dave’s parents) and Gas City’s Jerry Gappens, Sr. Memorial. 

It’s hard to believe that we are nearly halfway through the Midwestern traditional sprint car calendar, as it seems like the bulk of the year has consisted of cancellations caused by an overly moody Mother Nature.   Hereby presenting an opportunity to reflect on 2018, if one were to simply examine feature wins and United States Auto Club points, the takeaway would be that this year has once again been all about Kevin Thomas, Jr.  Tallying ten feature victories (5 Indiana unsanctioned, 4 USAC, and 1 MSCS) and maintaining a 38-point margin in the national standings, at times he has been unstoppable, claiming four victories in a row and sweeping an entire Indiana weekend in early May. 

But lately, there has been one rather painful thorn sticking from Kevin’s side, quietly stealing his thunder and spoiling his bid to make 2018 even bigger than 2017 and 2016.  If KTJ is the sprint car equivalent of Superman, then defending USAC sprint car king Chris Windom is his Kryptonite. 

Recently charging to his second consecutive USAC Eastern Storm championship, Chris copped two wins and three additional podium placements in the grueling six-race stretch.  And despite Kevin’s victory in Bridgeport, New Jersey, “Big Daddy” managed to match his every move.  Although overall Eastern Storm winners have gone on to claim the national championship in 8 of 11 seasons, it’s not a given, expecting a supreme dog fight between these two and many more (Tyler Courtney) with the pressure-packed Indiana Sprint Week looming on the horizon.  After trumping Thomas to claim his fourth win in five Kokomo Speedway outings at this most recent Darland Memorial on June 24th, it is safe to say that Windom and his chief mechanic Derek Claxton are warming up at just the right time.       

Chris and Kevin have been near the front of every Kokomo sprint car feature this year and this particular bout was more of the same.  Thomas was quickest in the third qualifying group and stole a heat race win from Windom when Chris climbed the massive mound of clay beneath the turn two concrete.  With the ,000-to-win, 30-lap feature redraw gridding Kevin second and Chris fourth, it only took the Alabama annihilator six circuits to mount enough momentum to zip past second heat winner, pole sitter, and four-time track champ Shane Cottle (Phillips 71).  Five laps after Thomas took the point, Windom somehow found an opening underneath of Cottle at the turn one entrance and slipped into second.  Halfway through and with heavy congestion ahead, Chris continued to dwell downstairs and substantially cut into Kevin’s cushion.  While both encountered three-time Indy Speedrome champion Ted Hines, Windom worked his magic and picked Thomas’s pockets.  Trying high and low, KTJ intensified his attack in the Dooling 63 and inched closer with every lap, but it was not enough to prevent the reigning national champ from parking Kenny Baldwin’s DRC/Claxton-Mopar on the front stretch once again.  The green-to-checker finish of this edge-of-your-seat affair came at an astonishing 8:44 PM, with daylight evident for most of my homeward journey on the extremely choppy U.S. 31. 

Claiming win number seven on the season, Windom’s victories, consistency, and uncanny ability to upset the apple cart of guys like Thomas, Justin Grant, and Kody Swanson are certainly no surprise, especially when considering just how long he’s been playing this game.  His first contest at Kokomo came all the way back in May of 2005 when he was just 14 years of age and now that he’s 27 and claimed two Little 500 trophies and USAC national titles in Silver Crown and sprint cars, his eyes are firmly focused on bigger prizes.  Having missed out on the driver development opportunities that were oh-so-common in that ’05-’07 era, the sad part about big league racing these days is that no matter how much talent Windom has to offer, it still requires funding of some sort to get the deal done.  Eventually making seven ARCA stock car starts from 2011-2015 (debuting third at Springfield) and four NASCAR truck attempts in 2017 (19th at Eldora, DNQ at Bristol, 32nd at Martinsville, and 26th at Homestead), despite his Indy Lights practice crash at Indianapolis, he is expected to make another oval attempt later this season with the same squad.  Another Eldora truck engagement is planned as well, aligning with an even better team than last year’s MB Motorsports.      

Driving a DRC chassis after destroying his 2006 Maxim at Weedsport, Robert Ballou started third and collected third, well within earshot of the lead tandem.  Dave Darland (Goodnight 36D) was quickest in his qualifying session, won the first heat after a brief slide-fest with Clinton Boyles (Hazen 57), but drew the sixth starting spot for the feature.  Although mysteriously absent for sprint car portion of the Indiana Midget Week finale, just like the dynamic duo Dave has been a consistent Kokomo contender in 2018.  Finishing a respectable fourth, he returned to his early season form but was completely blinded by the sunlight, unable to rip the lip through turn one.  That same condition was confirmed in Windom’s winning interview, explaining why he operated exclusively around the bottom.  After pacing the first five laps, Cottle had to settle for fifth.  Sixth through tenth included Brent Beauchamp (Olson 34), Jarett Andretti, Isaac Chapple, Boyles, and Kody Swanson (Byram 3R). 

Sunday weather was simply gorgeous, ideal for a pair of 40th wedding anniversary celebrations:  one prior to my Kokomo Speedway arrival for Jerry and Sarah Spencer and one pre-heat race for Michael and Janet Harrington’s renewal of wedding vows.  Once arriving at the north end of the City of Firsts, remnants of the heavy rain from Thursday and Friday left the speedway grounds heavily saturated.  The recently installed parking lot drains did their job, but Chris O’Connor Naranjo noted that quite a bit of water had to be pumped just to be prepared for Sunday, especially underneath the grandstand.   Sunday’s crowd was solid, but I wanted it to be overflowing, especially with the larger purse paid out.  My rationale for attending had much to do with the fact that USAC was off this weekend, expecting an all-star cast.  With 30 sprint cars in the house, my expectations were clearly met and then some.  I just wish more people were here to join me, as we need local racing and these special shows to survive and thrive.        

A pre-race tour of the pit area observed Brian Cripe calling shots for Colten Cottle (fourth the previous evening at LPS) while the nomadic Slide Job Bob (Robert Brown, Jr). was hard at work with Tony DiMattia. Jimmy Jones was still tending to Robert Ballou’s inventory, noting how he brought back a 2007 Maxim from New York that will require quite a bit of fabrication time to be ready for Sprint Week battle. 

While fastening a right rear wheel cover, Paul Hazen noted that he has two DRC chassis in his stable once again after repairs were needed to one after an early season incident at Lincoln Park.  However, he only has one engine available, one which will unfortunately have lots of laps once Indiana Sprint Week opens.  To make it through the entire week with his young hot shoe Clinton Boyles, Paul says the ideal situation would be to find a willing sponsor who has an extra engine that he or she would be willing to loan.  As you may recall, Matt Goodnight stepped up to the plate last season.  Hopefully someone else does the same in 2018.  Extremely happy about chassis constructor Joe Devin’s recommendation on Boyles, Paul says that he pretty much just has to block the car at the shop and Clinton will drive it, not needing very many at-the-track adjustments.    

Brent Beauchamp made a rare Kokomo appearance in Jeff Olson’s Spike chassis, as Sunday nights are not easy given he still has to drive back to his new home in Columbus, Ohio where he sells steel and his wife is enrolled in a two year residency program for pharmacy at Ohio State University.  Formerly an air traffic controller with one of my older sisters, Olson says that retirement is sitting well with him, able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.  Former sprint car competitor Ed Hassler ably assists Olson, just as he has the last several seasons. 

Chris “Critter” Malone was elbows-up in his second place B-main blast, making only his fourth start of the season and first outside of Haubstadt.  One of a few who is willing to compete with and without a wing, after all these years Critter is still employed by Howerton Racing Products, noting that “someone has to do the work”.  I can vividly recall the first time I saw Malone in action:  the 1989 Hut 100 conducted late in the season at Lawrenceburg Speedway, a race that Rich Vogler dominated in the Wilke 11.  Yep, that’s been some time ago.    

If ever there was a team that embodied the working man’s spirit of the late Bob Darland, it has to be the 4P belonging to Scott Pedersen.  With son Ryan on the wrenches as always and engine constructed by his father Red, they might not own a ton of money, a four-wheeler, or a fancy hauler, but the product they put on the track is still premium.  With C.J. Leary again in the saddle, the Greenfield gasser qualified quickest from the second group but missed the feature redraw after finishing third.  Opening in eighth, unfortunately a broken nozzle line caused him to exit stage left on lap five, forced to watch the balance of the contest from the infield.  After a lengthy Eastern Storm excursion, “Diamond” Donnie Gentry enjoyed a night off while C.J.’s father Chuck assisted.  Much like Dave and Bob Darland in the early 1990s, the Pedersens serve as the local underdog and a serious threat to national squads looking to pilfer Indiana bullring purses.  Expecting a breakthrough win from this combination, read on in this article as I discuss just how such a prediction became reality. 

The Darland Memorial was Aaron Davis’s ninth sprint car appearance in his rookie campaign.    Despite his huge horsepower deficit to the big dogs that was overly evident in Kokomo hot laps and heats, the 22 year-old nearly made the main event in a 49-car Lincoln Park field the previous evening.  Guided by veteran sprint car tuner Mike Fisher, Mike is the uncle of Aaron’s father Jeff and has been twisting wrenches on race cars for the past 55 years, assisting in the efforts of his brothers Ron (starting at Armscamp Speedway in the 1950s) and Don, nephews Gary Fisher and Scott Fisher, a young Jerry Gappens, Jr., Tray House, Mark Clark, and Tony Main, to name just a few.  The following Friday in Gas City, I became fully acquainted with this extensive family tree, which also includes Jeff’s two older brothers Boyd and Jerry.  As for Aaron’s outing in Kokomo, all did not go well in his heat race as he lost an O-ring on an oil galley plug, resulting in most of the oil being blown out of the engine.  At the same time, a timing cover bolt came loose that extended all the way to the water jacket, forcing all of the water out as well.  Calling it an early evening, thankfully no major damage was done and Aaron was back in action five days later when he started 10th and finished 13th at Gas City.  Back on June 8th, Aaron enjoyed his best outing of the season with a solid seventh place finish.  Like the Pedersen 4P, the Davis 11 is a pure and passionate representation of the local Indiana sprint car scene, and we need more of these types of teams coming out of the woodwork to keep this thing alive.    

While on my way up to Kokomo’s front stretch grandstands for the heats, I observed former USAC champion car owner and current Jarett Andretti sponsor Jeff Stoops engaged in conversation with his former sprint car mechanic Phil Poor, who was here to help Isaac Chapple.  Just a few rows up from Stoops and Poor was Steve Fox, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s served as a primary foe in both winged and wingless circles.  Speaking of Andretti, he once again guided by his father John, who was set to begin additional treatments upon receiving the disappointing news in late May that his cancer had come back.  Here’s hoping all goes well with John and he continues to maintain a positive attitude, as I know from my own family’s experience that attitude and outlook is half the battle. 

Spending the remainder of my Sunday evening alongside former sprint car shoe Josh “GQ” Slone and his son Jackson, Jackson is a Noblesville High School student and Race Saver rookie utilizing a 2016 raised rail DRC chassis, the last machine that Steve Kinser drove competitively at Lebanon Valley Speedway in August of ’16.  Powered by an ex-Cale Stinson (son of Jimmy) 305, Jackson has performed well in limited 2018 outings, already laying claim to a couple of top-ten finishes at Bloomington. 

Kokomo Speedway’s next two contests will be conducted over this holiday week. On Tuesday the 3rd, fireworks will not only take place on the track, but off as well, as the massive post-race display always attracts a big crowd.  Thanks to the efforts of Josh Spencer, the following Sunday’s Kokomo Klassic will offer an impressive array of legendary participants who plan on signing autographs.  Both evenings are guaranteed to be a great time, so call a friend and help ensure that their rear ends arrive in Kokomo. 

Saving my next racing adventure for Gas City I-69 Speedway’s Jerry Gappens, Sr. Memorial, I only wish I had the luxury of a helicopter to shuttle me from Allisonville Road and I-465 to State Road 22/U.S. 35 and Interstate 69.  Leaving work at 5:40 PM and twice slowed by heavy congestion (lastly for a minivan that had burned to the ground at the Fairmount exit), in between the stoppages I was “on the gas”, miraculously arriving in time for sprint car hot laps.  However, instead of sweating through my t-shirt so early in the evening, I chose to stay cool in the comfort of the track office’s air conditioning, chatting with several of Jerry’s family members who are so vital in its operations.  Jerry’s sister Barb manages the track office while her husband Mick tackles any outside projects/emergencies.  Assisting Barb with wristbands and insurance waiver sheets on this evening was Diana, who is a close friend of Jerry’s mother Opal.  Encountering enthusiastic multimedia intern and BSU telecommunications student Rachel, I also had the pleasure of acquainting myself with Jerry’s girlfriend Cheryl, who as it turns out is the mother of a young lady (Allison) who is dating a close college friend of my nephew.  Yes, it is a small world and as I have always maintained, the most enjoyable aspect of racing is sharing conversations with all of the parties involved.  After enjoying a brief discussion with these I-69 staffers, I get the impression that they love what they are doing, hoping that they quickly hit a huge home run.     

For this Star Spangled Spectacular featuring an added fireworks extravaganza, a significantly larger crowd was on-hand compared to my previous appearance on May 4th, giving hope that there are people still interested in an evening of motorsports entertainment.  After all practice sessions were complete, surface grooming was being conducted as oven-like heat baked a slick but smooth playing field, a huge departure from previous weeks when “heavy” was the word of the day.  While a tiller and water truck slowly circled the oval, promoter Jerry Gappens, Jr. was putting his public relations skills to work, interviewing patrons over the PA system and handing out door prizes.   Although the sprint car payout for this contest might have been standard (,090 overall with ,500 to win, ,000 for second, 0 for third, 0 to start, and 0 tow money), as Jerry has stated, there are no “regular” shows at Gas City.  Heavily catering to the fans to make each night special with the aforementioned door prizes, interviews, and special intermission entertainment, just like I witnessed on May 4th, tonight offered a kids coin toss on the front stretch.  With a seemingly endless line of youngsters streaming out of the stands, they would engage in a scrum to see just how many of the 0 in coins (spread out on a tarp) they could gather. 

While surface preparations were finalized, I attempted to make my way around the pit area.  Only making it as far as Paul Hazen’s 57, I asked Paul if the surface changes would alter his usual setup, as he and chauffeur Clinton Boyles were going for their fourth victory in a row on these grounds.  While conversing, Hazen offered formal introductions to Dave Stensland, Sr. and Jr.  Dave Jr. is still a Hazen backer in the form of his Fort Wayne, Angola, and Auburn, Indiana practice:  Physical Medicine Consultants.  Dave Jr. excitedly discussed details of restoring Paul’s 1993 Stealth chassis that claimed 19 victories with Jon Stanbrough, the same car they had purchased and utilized when winning their first feature with Steve Ott.  The racing roots of Dave Sr. reach back to the late 1940s and early 1950s in New Jersey’s famed Gasoline Alley, recalling his influential interactions with hall of fame mechanic, car owner, and driver Roscoe “Pappy” Hough, who ironically originated from Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Before fielding a sprint car for such notables as Dave Darland, Thomas Meseraull, Jac Haudenschild, and Bryan Clauson, Dave Sr. did a little driving of his own, steering a stock car at several New Jersey ovals.  One of Dave’s former drivers was also Mike Fedorcak, the master fabricator who he first met when both were working second shift at Fort Wayne’s International Harvester, also a former Hazen employer.  Most remembered for his Munchkin midgets from the late 1980s, Mike also crafted his own sprint car in the early 1980s, one that Dave still owns.  Although Dave Jr. also supports Thomas Meseraull’s 00, he and his father have stepped away from car ownership after selling to Brad Wyatt.  

Meeting retired Kroger advertising assistant Kevin Kotansky in the grandstands, we watched three sprint car heats, three modified heats, and a pair each of thunder car and compact heats.  With the sun still high in the sky, surface conditions still appeared to be slick as Garrett Abrams, Shane Cottle, Matt Westfall claimed wins, but more than one lane was workable as evidenced by 2013 track champion Scotty Weir.  Making his first appearance of the season in the Gass number 17, Weir toured the top to take the lead from his fifth starting spot, only to lose it with a spin two laps later.  Scotty scooted back to third while Westfall claimed the win from seventh in the Marshall 33. 

With 21 cars on-hand, Gas City’s sprint car count outnumbered Bloomington and Boswell (MSCS).  A majority of the competitors came from north of Indy, but a few headed west from the Buckeye state while one driver even made the long haul from the southern half of the land of Lincoln (although his car came from Ohio).  The best indicator of sprint car health is the addition of newer names, and this Gas City field contained quite a few:  Aaron Davis, Clinton Boyles, Evan Mosley, Bryar Schroeter, Jack James, Adam Wilfong, and Luke Harbison.  All are either brand new or at least fairly new to the full-size sprint scene.    

Prior to the start of the 25-lap Gappens Memorial, the namesake’s oldest son gave a short, tear-filled tribute to his father who passed away in October of 2012.  Gappens was a 33-year employee of Delco Electronics and an avid sports enthusiast, coaching football and baseball in the Tri-Central school system where a scholarship exists in his name.  Sharing a special bond and a fondness for motorsports with Jerry Jr., Jerry Sr. was a supermodified/sprint car competitor, an operator of the Terre Haute Action Track (resurrecting a dormant facility in 1990), and a track preparation expert at Evans Kokomo Speedway. Before sprint cars were pushed, several Gappens family members gave the traditional “Gentlemen Start Your Engines” command.  Now that’s what I call passion personified…

Shortly thereafter, the 21-car field aligned with Abrams and C.J. Leary (Pedersen 4P) sharing the front row.  A sign of things to come, Leary stepped upstairs to lead the initial lap after boldly going three-wide with third-starting Matt Westfall and Abrams.  Once out front, Leary immediately pointed to the bottom and paced a pack containing Westfall, fifth-starting Shane Cottle, and sixth-starting Clinton Boyles.  Having won here on multiple occasions in the early 2000s, Westfall patiently waited to pounce on his prey, making his move within the first five laps when C.J. slipped at the exit of turn two.  The Greenfield grenade immediately reverted to his high-side heroics to briefly regain the premier position a couple of laps later.  However, Matt’s extensive Gas City bottom-feeding experience was better suited to the slippery conditions.  While the top-two waged a wheel-to-wheel war, seventh-starting Shane Cockrum was suddenly in the lead picture, exclusively operating around the infield tires.  Leary eventually gave up on his top shelf tactic but could not contain Cockrum, who slipped into second as the lead trio began to encounter lapped traffic.  As congestion intensified, Shane tapped the rear bumper of the leader while C.J. again explored his options up top.  Just as things were getting juicy, Noblesville’s Luke Harbison slowed atop turn four to cause the lone caution, leaving a four lap shootout to determine the winner. 

Westfall led Cockrum and Leary back to green and as Shane searched for an opening, C.J. gave the middle and top grooves another go.  Leary inched ahead of Cockrum and while coming to take the white flag, the Benton, Illinois fire chief suddenly moved to the middle and caused Leary to commit to the top.  Fanning three wide on this final tour, C.J.’s backstretch momentum allowed him to circle both Shane and Matt through the final set of corners to steal the feature victory in rather dramatic fashion.  Westfall settled for second while Cockrum collected third.  Cottle and Boyles rounded out the first-five finishers.  Dallas Hewitt (from 18th in the Keen 18), Weir, Abrams, Isaac Chapple, and Tyler Hewitt secured sixth through tenth at the 9:43 PM checkered flag. 

Elated to escape with this first win of a frustrating season and score the first-ever sprint car feature win for car owner Scott Pedersen, Leary cut a celebratory turn three donut on the cool down lap.  As for the crew, it was pure pandemonium, as Scott, his son Ryan, mechanic Donnie Gentry, and Chuck Leary were sharing hugs and high-fives in victory lane, a long-time coming for that initial success story.  My nephew Danny hustled to join them for front stretch photos, having been best of friends with Ryan for the last two decades and insisting that the Pedersens contact Leary about driving their car back in 2015.    

An improbable and stunning ending on such an old-school, dry-slick surface, this sprint car victory for the Pedersens was significant for several reasons.  First and foremost, it proves that the little guy operating on a shoestring budget still has a chance, needing just a good-handling car, a solid engine, and some well-seasoned experience and talent.  Based out of Greenfield, the Pedersen effort also offers prime evidence that one does not need a fancy truck and trailer to tow short distances, as Scott and Ryan pull their non-decaled DRC chassis with a normal Chevy pickup and a circa-1958 A.J. Watson constructed open trailer, purpose-built to carry Indy roadsters of that era.  A true throwback to simpler times, their engine is carefully constructed with high-quality components by Scott’s father Red, who has decades of winning engine building experience.  Red, along with his sons Scott and Chris, were part-time Silver Crown participants in the late 1980s/early 1990s with a Lloyd Shores chassis.  Dusting off the Silver Crown car for a few more attempts in the 2000s, Scott entered the sprint car arena in 2011 after purchasing a former Pace Motorsports machine for Josh Clemons.  Offering rides to guys like Scotty Weir, Dickie Gaines, Jon Stanbrough, Tyler Courtney, Brian Karraker, Max McGhee, and Dave Darland among others, they have been knocking on the door for quite some time.   

Their big win is also a lesson in why it’s so important to never give up in chasing your dreams, as it took seven years of several bent chassis and boxes of mangled bolt-on components to get to this point.   Friday’s victory was far from a walk in the park, as the 4P did not obtain any hot laps when fuel failed to reach the engine.  With all lines removed, it was an all-out thrash just to present for the second heat.  After their second-place finish, all those fuel lines were found to be clogged and engine temperature excessive, requiring yet another thrash to clear the lines and attempt to diagnose the problem.  The same symptoms existed post-feature as well, with Scott believing that a faulty fuel bladder was the culprit.  With the driver sticking to his top-side guns, C.J. subscribed to the same never-say-die attitude as his car owners. 

Leaving the track feeling that the local Indiana sprint car scene is still alive and well, this Pedersen production must also provide some hope to the rest of the little guys out there.  Truly a race and evening to remember, I’m sure Jerry Gappens, Sr. would have easily approved of this special show.   

Moving into a busy first week of July, Kokomo (7/3 and 7/8) and Lincoln Park USAC (7/6) are already on my calendar, but additional wingless sprint car options exist on the 5th (Anderson), 6th (Gas City) and 7th (Lincoln Park MSCS).  Although the season may be halfway over, thankfully there’s still a large portion of meat left on the bone, anxious to take that next flavorful bite.      

 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 7

Names and Places

As is the case with most anywhere you travel in this state, Hoosiers are quite proud of our people and our past.  South of Indy on State Road 67, I was recently reminded of that fact when spotting the “Welcome to Mooresville” sign.  Hailing itself as the home the Indiana state flag, Paul Hadley created the design that was adopted on May 31st of 1917, well over a decade and a half before the town’s most notorious native John Dillinger started robbing banks.  Between Mooresville and Martinsville, 67 becomes John Wooden Way, named of course for Martinsville’s coaching legend who claimed 10 national college basketball championships over a 12 year span at UCLA, amassing an utterly amazing winning percentage of over 80%.  Shrinking from four lanes to two beyond Martinsville, upon reaching Paragon the original version of State Road 67 takes us through the center of the tiny town that claims just 659 inhabitants.  Once home to a majestic high school constructed in 1920, these days all that’s left is a rather pedestrian elementary institution that is consolidated into the Martinsville school district.  Just past the elementary school, old road 67 becomes the Edd Sheppard Memorial Highway, named in honor of the Paragon Speedway creator and National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inductee. 

Carving a racing facility from his own farmland in 1954 and sowing the seeds of Southern Indiana sprint car racing, Sheppard’s flair for promotion made Paragon one of the Midwest’s premier places to race in the ’60s and ‘70s.  Luring big-name drivers with tow money, hosting frequent post-race parties, and stuffing bills into drivers’ pockets, Edd effectively ended Saturday night squabbles for cars and stars.  A prime location where nearly every member of the Kinser clan and Dick Gaines honed their craft, Sheppard’s vision remained intact after his premature passing in December of 1971, as the family continued to host races through Easter of 1977.  Harry Redkey was next in line but failed to enjoy the same amount of success, eventually losing the track through a tax auction.  Longtime sprint car combatant Mike Johnson took the reins for seven seasons before selling to Keith and Judy Ford, who have done their part to proudly maintain this Morgan County tradition for the last 32 years. 

Ford’s early sprint car offerings were primarily winged, but as the years progressed the winged fraternity demanded higher purses to cover skyrocketing equipment costs.  With car counts dwindling to nearly nothing, for the 1995 season Keith made the bold decision to return to the wingless world and start catering to the little guy.  Dropping the winning payout from ,000 to 0 and offering every competitor an opportunity to start a feature for 0, many like 1984 track champion Kevin Thomas were outspoken in their criticism of the concept.   Despite the naysayers, the idea was a huge home run, as car counts rose exponentially over the next decade.  In the early 2000s, sprint car assemblies averaged right around 50 and sometimes reached into the 70s, requiring as many as three features per evening.  Unfortunately, all of that changed after the economy tanked in 2008, as there are fewer of the little guys trying to chase their sprint car dreams.  Paragon Speedway has not been immune to the decline in local sprint car competitors, as their first contest of the 2018 season attracted a miniscule meeting of 17.       

Owning a desire to retire to a more peaceful and stress-free existence, Keith and Judy Ford have casually attempted to unload the property for the last six to eight years.  Officially on the market at the moment, a scant eight races were scheduled for 2018, not yet wishing to sever those mighty 64-year-old racing roots that are firmly entrenched on this beautiful slice of Southern Indiana. 

Although I have not attended too many auto racing venues outside of this state, I suspect that you will be hard pressed to find such a pure, unfiltered auto racing experience as Paragon Speedway.  There are no gimmicks and creature comforts are minimal.  There is no scoreboard.  There might be some speakers hanging off the light poles that will offer the best of The Eagles while surface preparations are finalized, but there is no state of the art sound system blasting your eardrums.  There are no flame throwers or pyrotechnics exploding at the end of heat races.  Although there is the occasional airplane ascending from the accompanying air strip, there is no intermission entertainment or light show on the feature wave lap.  When you plop down your money at this ticket window, what you receive in return is the traditional on-track product and that gorgeous western horizon.  If you forgot your blanket or lawn chair, you can choose to plant your buttocks on those all-too-familiar wooden planks, or move higher up the hill to the more modern aluminum bleachers.  Heck, if you get there early enough, you can even watch from the back of your pickup truck from the shaded area just outside of turn one.   The bottom line is that Paragon is truly an homage to simpler times, when automobile racing was a mainstream form of entertainment. 

Ever since Keith Ford implemented his unusual wingless sprint car program in 1995, Paragon has been home to all ends of the sprint car spectrum.  There are the young up and comers, searching for valuable seat time.  There are the middle-aged budget-minded racers, looking for a place where they can have fun, run up front, and maybe pocket a little cash along the way.  And last but not least, there are those in the twilight of their careers, gaining their need for speed at a venue that’s a little more laid back than usual.    

Here to absorb the 28th annual Johnson Memorial on a sweltering 94-degree day, as expected Hoosier pride is still evident on this piece of real estate.  This contest not only celebrates the memory of the late Mike Johnson (former racer and Paragon possessor), but also Mike’s older brother Johnny, who competed here from 1954 to 2013.  By the time I started to religiously follow sprint car racing, Mike had come down with cancer but was still a regular Paragon competitor.  Winning a consolation race in what would be his final ride before his unfortunate passing in the late 1980s (’88 or ’89), he was wheeling a machine normally operated by his nephew Randy.  Gleaning that tidbit from Mike’s son, while I was dripping with sweat car owner Dave Hurst kindly introduced me to Mike Johnson, Jr.   Mike, Jr. recalled many a day spent up on the hill when he was heavily involved in the manual labor aspect of maintaining a facility for his father, digging countless holes to insert fence posts.  Noting just how active the facility was in his era, motocross races were held on Fridays, sprints and late models were Saturday mainstays, and Sundays saw special shows conducted.  So busy in helping to run the racetrack, despite an overwhelming desire to race a sprint car, Mike Jr. never enjoyed such an opportunity.      

Mike Johnson was one of Dave Hurst’s all-time favorite drivers, and one of Dave’s cherished memories is one particular Paragon outing in the late 1960s when much to the dismay of mechanic Dizz Wilson, they mounted a double-diamond Firestone tire on the right rear (supplied by Mike Smith’s Speed Shop).  Blistering fast, they nearly stole a win from Gene Henson’s nail-head Buick but had to settle for second.  Mike enjoyed quite a bit of success in the Hurst-mobile, claiming the 1969 Kokomo sprint car championship, winning several Eldora Speedway shows, and enjoying several trips to the Knoxville Nationals.  Fresh from their Bloomington success story the previous evening with Jordan Kinser, Hurst Brothers Racing still hungered for their first-ever Johnson Memorial trophy.  Team publicist Dan Hurst reminded that the sport’s two most tenured car owners scored on the same night, as 80-year-old Paul Hazen was victorious at Gas City.  Paul has owned sprint cars since 1968, but Dave’s car ownership duties began in 1965.  Turning 81 on July 19th, Dave has actually been intimately involved in this sprint car business since 1964.   

Now 86 years of age and happily able to escape from his Lyons, Indiana nursing home room to take in tonight’s festivities, Johnny Johnson confirmed that it had been just five years since he last strapped into a sprinter.  Rumored to have been on these same grounds when the track was first cut, he was a Paragon competitor from day one, utilizing a rusted out Ford coupe acquired from a junkyard for just .  One of Johnny’s more interesting claims to fame is that he was the final winner on Bloomington’s old half-mile layout, operating a Hudson with a stubborn trunk lid that refused to latch.  Despite that trunk that was often half-open, he nearly lapped the second-place competitor.  

It wouldn’t be Paragon if a Johnson family member was not in action and rather apropos on this evening, a pair of them readied for battle.  Johnny’s son Randy was set to make his final appearance in this event, operating the orange-bodied Maxim chassis.  Johnny’s grandson Brian Cahill manned “Johnny’s Toy”- the ex-Allen Barr/Doc Black reverse-tube Competition Welding from the early 1990s.  Both would race in the same heat but did not fare so well, as Brian spun and was promptly t-boned by Jake Henderson.  Although Randy and Brian failed to make the main event through one of two consolation affairs, Brian was able to pace the feature field while Randy took a promoter’s option and tagged the tail.  

Arriving early enough to take an extensive tour of pit lane, although I was nearly melting from the extreme heat, it was a highly enjoyable experience.  Speaking to quite a few names that can only be found in this sprint car sanctuary, nearly everyone had an interesting story to tell. 

First up was Clinton, Indiana veteran Dave Peperak, one of those aforementioned racers who at 64 years of age is in the twilight of a colorful career.  Operating a three-year-old Triple X chassis for the second time this season (choosing Charleston for his debut), after a brief chat I learned that Dave’s familiar number 77 was powered by a unique 348 cubic inch steel block Chevy.  Topped with ancient -8 Brodix heads, the engine began as a 350 cubic-inch block (bored 4 and 1/8ths of an inch) and was fitted with a 3 and 1/4th inch stroke crankshaft from a 327.  After operating go-karts and motorcycles in his youth, Peperak’s sprint car career commenced at the tender age of 18 in 1972, noting that racetracks didn’t allow you to race these beasts if you were any younger.  A USAC regular by 1976, he set a one-lap record at Terre Haute in 1980 and of course won his lone feature on ABC’s Wide World of Sports in 1981 at Eldora, all in a machine he and his sponsor/car owner Don Robertson had constructed on their own.  Speaking with much reverence regarding Robertson, Peperak even recalled going through the 1983 Rookie Orientation program at the Indianapolis 500 in equipment provided by the Clinton gravel pit proprietor who passed away shortly thereafter.  Although Dave failed to crack the code for tonight’s lone A-feature format, I gained a small bit of satisfaction from watching him climb through the cage yet again.      

At the opposite end of the sprint car spectrum are youngsters Evan Mosley and Jacob Gordon.  Both sons of traditional sprint car talent from the 1990s (Aaron and Eric), both earned their racing stripes in mini sprints over the last several seasons.  The 17-year-old Gordon is set to be a senior at Mount Vernon High School and is actually a year younger than Mosley, having accumulated quite a few traditional sprint car laps last year (Paragon, Lawrenceburg, and Bloomington) and this season as well, belting into a 602 cubic inch winged sprint at Plymouth.  Wearing Aaron’s old black Simpson suit and a retro 1989 Jeff Gordon Molds Unlimited t-shirt underneath, 18-year-old Evan, a recent Lapel High School grad and third generation racer, successfully debuted his sprint car with a fourth place finish the previous Saturday in Charleston, Illinois.

A racing reunion of sorts, Evan’s grandfather Chuck Mosley was on-hand to observe, a sprint car racer in his own right as he remembered opening many an Indiana season on Easter Sunday on these same grounds.  Up to nothing these days, Mosley once operated Boles Chevrolet in Pendleton, Indiana as well as another Boles GM dealership in New Castle before selling aggregate for Beaver Materials.  Back in his Boles days, Chuck maintained the former Rex Kirtley/Sheldon Kinser Silver Crown car that Willie purchased back in 1987, the same chassis that Tray House used to set quick time at the Phoenix Checker Classic in October of ’87.  Mark Alderson destroyed the car at the Hoosier Hundred in 1989, but it was later retrieved and restored to its glory days by Billy Throckmorton. 

Long-time Mosley team member “Diamond” Dave Bromer was spotted in the pit area, as was Mike “Deuce” Thompson.  Thompson was pitted next door with Tyler Kendall, extending his Glen Niebel affiliation as Matt (Tyler’s father) and Mike were both disciples of the Mt. Auburn motor maestro.  Kendall’s former Gene Nolen Spike was used to score sixth in the second heat and fourth in the second semi-feature. 

Steve Fox and his nephew Brayden lent additional hands to Mosley’s former Irish Saunders JR-1 chassis purchased and donated by Eric Gordon, who is also Evan’s employer at his plastering company (Red Line Systems) for the second summer in a row.  Powering the black and gold beauty was an aluminum block Chevy purchased at a significant discount from Ray Kenens, Jr., the only aluminum block Ray ever owned.  Evan’s father Aaron first earned his nickname of “The Outlaw” at this location back in 1995/1996, as after winning his share of features he decided to race elsewhere, only to return again.  Before Evan heads off to college, the plan is to get him as many laps as their limited budget allows, focusing on Gas City Fridays.  Owning very limited spares, if the machine stays in one piece Aaron hopes to give it a go at Putnamville and perhaps the Four Crown. 

The second of three machines wearing Red Line Systems on the hood was Jake Gordon’s black and white 41, a Triple X chassis that Brady Bacon drove to the USAC sprint car championship for the Hoffmans in 2016.  Propelled by Mopar muscle, Gordon’s father got the engine for nearly nothing, as a Lexington, Kentucky modified racer needed cash very quickly and was willing to part with the piece for a meager ,500.  Jake failed to start the Charleston feature last Saturday after encountering an issue with the magneto.  The third entry showing Red Line Systems lettering was Scotty Hampton’s black number 51, a former Greg Staab coil-front Competition Welding owned by Fortville’s Ted Slinkard that had been previously piloted by Brent Turner (Ted’s grandson) and Jake Gordon (a few times last season).  As you know, Hampton finished fifth in this year’s Little 500, also owning a Lincoln Park Speedway sprint car championship (2015) with Jeremy Ottinger.  Slinkard has long been involved in open wheel ownership, most remembered for fielding a Speedrome midget for Terry Goff in the early 1990s.

Both Mosley and Gordon found themselves in the first heat.  Evan spun in turn three while attempting to slip underneath Howard McCormick, having to settle for a sub-par ninth while Jake ended two spots better.  Stuck in the same semi-feature, Gordon galloped from seventh to second, nearly stealing a win from Adam Wilfong via the top shelf through three and four on the final go-round.  Gordon later got 13th in the feature.  Mosley moved from ninth to fourth in the B, just two spots shy of a feature transfer.  Paragon is the perfect place for these two sprint car tyros to get some crucial seat time and with so much outstanding racing DNA existing between the two of them, it will be tons of fun observing their progression. 

These days, one rarely sees 66-year-old Palmyra resident Troy Link in action, but the odds increase if you wind up in Paragon or Putnamville.  Unloading a non-downtube year 2000 Dynamite chassis after destroying his much newer Maxim here a year or so ago, Troy has another raised rail Maxim ready to roll.  As loyal as ever to the blue oval brand and American Racer rubber, Link still is powered by an aluminum Ford engine, proving that such a thing is indeed possible as Donny Schatz and Tony Stewart Racing use a Shaver Chevy while wearing Ford decals on their hood.  Troy and his father Ember have always had Fords bolted between their frame rails, even going back to their ex-Karl Kinser/Sumar Racing Indy roadster that both father and son piloted at different times in their careers.  Speaking of that shortened roadster, Troy won a semi-feature with it at Chandler but literally cut the car in half in an accident, eventually piecing it back together to finish fifth behind Dick Gaines at Lawrenceburg.  Lewis Klug of Cincinnati is the current owner of the car, restored to its former Sumar status. 

Troy does not compete as often as he used to, especially after his father passed away in 2011.  Just three days shy of his 91st birthday, Ember was a long-time dump truck driver, perhaps the oldest in Indiana to own an active CDL at 90 years and 2 months.  On this evening, Troy was questioning his sanity for making the 88 mile drive to race in over 90 degree heat, not feeling as young as he used to.  Seriously considering loading up despite drawing the pole for heat four, he slid back to seventh in the heat and was sixth in the B.  Although this wasn’t his best showing, much like Peperak it was a treat to see him still active. 

A few cars down the way, 1996 and 1998 Paragon champion Leon Thickstun was here with a triumvirate consisting of three-time track champ Jake Scott (the winner on May 12th) and Nashville, Indiana brothers Brandon and Travis Spencer.  All three young men are in outstanding shape but even at 80 years of age, their mentor Leon still looks like he could get the job done, mentioning how he used to stay in racing shape by playing 50-60 basketball games in the off-season.  One rather interesting fact about Thickstun:  he is the last man to make a winged World of Outlaws feature with a wingless sprinter at Kokomo, with the series changing its rules immediately thereafter.  On this evening, veteran sprint car mechanics Mike Dutcher and Joe Perry attached Mike’s Momentum Racing shocks and dialed in Brandon’s Maxim.  Surging from seventh to fourth in the third heat, Brandon began from outside of row eight and earned 10th in the feature.  “Touchdown” Jake claimed third in his heat, started 12th in the feature, and was running as high as seventh before spinning atop turns three and four, having to settle for 15th at the finish.  As for Travis and his split-bar (front) Maxim formerly belonging to Joey Saldana, he was last in his heat but toiled from ninth to fifth in his consolation contest. 

Former Bloomington Speedway modified king Buddy Cunningham brought a pair of machines, one for newcomer David Truax and another for Andrew Prather, who over the years has scored second in Paragon points on a pair of occasions.  Andrew’s ride for tonight was a chassis he constructed 12 years ago at the tender age of 19.  Having crafted four of these machines back in the day, this one had only been “tabbed” three years ago.  Receiving power from a Cunningham mill, Prather ran second in his heat and sixth in the feature while Truax took 10th in first semi-feature.

With NHRA racing in Bristol, Tennessee, I was somewhat surprised to see Jon Stanbrough here as his Wingo Brothers Maxim is normally only available on NHRA off-weekends.  Jon was just as surprised to see me, commenting that he has always enjoyed racing at Paragon and would be here more if the payout was better.  Twice a Paragon USAC winner in a three week span in July of 1996 for the Law Brothers and twice triumphing in a Johnson Memorial, Stanbrough mentioned that this might be his final opportunity to compete here, thus signaling that he could be done with driving at the conclusion of this season.  With Chris Hoyer absent, Kevin Price was the primary wrench spinner on the Scorpion Security Products number 77.    Collaborating on setups with Stanbrough and assisted by Chuck Rodee, it was quite the memorable evening for Price.  Jon took full advantage of his outside front row starting spot in heat four to lead every lap around the bottom, just nipping an aggressive Aric Gentry for the win.  Redrawing the pole position for the ,400-to-win finale, the Silent Gasser hugged the inside line the whole way and was never headed, claiming what I believe to be his 188th sprint car score. 

Jon faced early threats from second heat winner and fourth-starting Daylan Chambers, who had his hands full holding off a ferocious attack from first heat winner and sixth-starting Jordon Kinser and six-time track champion Josh Cunningham, who had finished second to Kinser in that first heat and drew the outside of the front row.  Cunningham immediately fell back to fourth but clawed his way back to third, using the top side to battle under the same blanket with Kinser and Chambers for the entire distance.  It was a great scrap for second, but the trio just never got close enough to Stanbrough to offer a serious threat.  Jon was followed to the 10:48 PM finish by Chambers, Kinser, Cunningham, and Gentry.  Sixth through tenth included Andrew Prather, third heat winner Ethan Barrow, Chris Phillips, Scotty Hampton, and Brandon Spencer.  

It was quite the full day for Josh Cunningham, who had earlier given the pre-race invocation and officiated a funeral ceremony for Ellettsville’s Nancy Hetser.  In a shocking bit of news, I learned that Nancy passed away on Monday June 11th in Springfield, Illinois while on a racing excursion with her husband Dan, with whom I have enjoyed many a meeting and racing conversation over the last decade.  Mother of Trent (employed by Speedway Engines) and Kelli, I was introduced to Nancy for the first time while exiting the Tony Hulman Classic no more than a month ago.  With Nancy’s abrupt passing and just now reading of Jason Johnson’s tragic accident at Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, I can’t help but get chills and feel immense sadness for both families.  Sending me an e-mail just two days after the ceremony, Dan so sagely reminded:  “Today is a gift.  Tomorrow is not promised.”   Oh how those words are so true. 

Despite the high heat on this particular Saturday, after my highly-satisfying stroll down pit lane, I spent the balance of my evening with a pair of first-time Paragon visitors:  my wife Rachael and my nephew’s soon-to-be nine-month-old son.  While on my way up top, I managed to encounter former car owner and all around sprint car super fan Rodney Reynolds, who was here to cheer on 14th place finisher Drew Abel.  Like me, Reynolds feared that this could be one of the last opportunities to catch a race on these hallowed grounds.  The balance of the 2018 Paragon Speedway racing schedule shows June 30th (fireworks), July 14th (Dave Peeden Memorial), July 21st (King of Indiana Sprint Special), and August 11th (champions night).  I feel like I need to come back one more time this season. 

There are few things in life more peaceful than Southern Indiana sprint car ambience, and nowhere is it more evident than Paragon.  The white fencing protecting the parking lot from old road 67, the old barns that reference its agricultural roots, the tiny ticket booth and steep climb up the hill, the infield pond, the adjacent grain elevator seen in so many of the same John Mahoney shots from the 1970s, and even the swarm of insects gathering around the lights on warm summer evenings – all those aspects offer such a refreshing feeling, knowing that some things just have not changed, no matter how many years have expired.  Feeling good for Jon Stanbrough, Kevin Price, and the Johnson family on the ride home, I continued to play the mental game of putting names with places.  Paragon’s list is quite lengthy, as nearly every member of the racing fraternity has turned laps here.  It’s such an integral piece of sprint car history, crossing my fingers that the place finds a new buyer who treasures its past and comprehends its current relevance.  Echoing Dan Hetser’s words, this particular Saturday was a great gift, speaking with so many of the down-home racers who openly shared their remembrances of this Morgan County institution.  Although Paragon Speedway’s tomorrow is not promised, let us hope that it comes with more than just memories.    

 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 6

Powerful Stuff

Bigger is often better, but when it comes to the degree of entertainment generated by various racing disciplines, nothing could be further from the truth. 

At one end of the spectrum is the once 800-pound gorilla of NASCAR.  I say “once”, because the size of that gorilla is rapidly shrinking.  With the recent and slightly shocking news of the France family considering an exit from their empire, the news is not so surprising when the plummeting television ratings, disappearance of longtime sponsors, and dismantling of grandstands offer an accurate reflection of big-time stock car racing’s state of affairs.  With a mass exodus of its biggest names, a further alienation of fans by constantly changing race formats, and a completely sterile on-track product, it is going to take a ton of fresh ideas and unique personalities to make the sport interesting again.    Honestly, I just don’t see it happening – ever.     

As crazy as it may sound, at the other end of the continuum is midget car racing.  Multi-day events such as the Chili Bowl, USAC’s Indiana Midget Week, and POWRi’s Illinois Speed Week are always expanding, either in number of evenings or fan and car counts.  Like a tiny Altoid mint, the mighty midgets pack a powerful punch – curiously potent but still remaining a niche among racing aficionados.  With their hyperactive pilots scratching and clawing for every inch of real estate and high-pitched, high-dollar engines screaming for mercy, races are rather brief, the action is often chaotic, and the overall atmosphere quite intoxicating.  Having found a way to survive since the 1930s, perhaps today’s demand for midget racing could be attributed to its limited supply.  With all of the above qualities, it should be come as no surprise that midget madness seems to be on the upswing.   Now if we could just get more quality, sanctioned shows scheduled in Indiana outside of Midget Week, I’d be a bit more satisfied. 

After a six race in five day stretch of events surrounding the Indianapolis 500, even with Memorial Day to rest and recover, energy levels were without question depleted before Midget Week ever commenced.  Attempting to ready myself for another six-day marathon of late nights and early mornings, it’s amazing what I’m willing to endure to immerse myself in this action.  Making it a little easier on my body and brain by only working half days on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, that Wednesday morning after a late night in Montpelier was once again brutal, arriving home at 12:45 AM.  (A special thank you goes out to Kevin Kotansky for doing the driving.) If only the promoters would heed my plea and offer just two classes of cars, it would make my life so much easier.  At some point I will have to face the facts:  Indiana Midget and Sprint Week are only ideal for vacationers, clearly not suited for working class folk.  However, my fear of missing out will never permit me to be sensible and stay home on one of these nights. 

Fourteen years in the running, Indiana Midget Week remains one of the racing’s best kept secrets.  Crowds are respectable, but unlike Indiana Sprint Week or the Chili Bowl they are not sellouts, making it easier for late arrivers like myself to find a seat.  Aside from Montpelier and sometimes Gas City, there might not be the same amount of star power as Tulsa in early January, but there’s just something so appealing about watching these machines navigate my home state bullrings, so much better than an indoor arena as proper banking, cushions, and multiple grooves make for magnificent back and forth battles.  As much as I am a true-blue sprint car fanatic, after all these years I am a firm believer that this series could survive on just midgets alone.  With the sprint cars often running their feature last (Kokomo was the lone exception in 2018), they aren’t able to put on a proper show due to subpar surfaces, leaving some foreigners believing that wingless sprint cars are actually quite boring.  To counter that, those fans need to come to Indiana Sprint Week.  Nevertheless, I would imagine that midget and sprint car doubleheaders remains a draw for the majority, so why mess with a good thing? 

Perhaps my senses are dulled with so much sprint car racing in this state, but the sight of something so different is indeed powerful stuff.  Unfortunately for this year’s edition of Midget Week, such a rare treat was ruined twice by that dreaded four letter word:  RAIN!  With all that awesome weather surrounding the 500, of course we had to get wet at some point.  Gas City and Bloomington’s IMW rounds were victimized, feeling bad for Gas City promoter Jerry Gappens as this was his biggest event of the season before being awarded a September 7th USAC sprint car date in the days that followed.  Bloomington was an even bigger bummer, especially given the stressful rush hour drive that I endured after leaving work at 5 PM.  Missing all of sprint car hot laps, I arrived just in time to see midgets warm up, getting through half of the qualifying order until the ominous clouds let loose.  A quick decision to pull the plug allowed me to make the most of my evening by gaining a booth at Janko’s Little Zagreb in downtown Bloomington (6th and Morton), where I dined alone and savored every bite of a juicy and infinitely flavorful 20- ounce ribeye steak.  This being my first time to visit Janko’s since May of 2010, had there been a guest joining me in this impromptu excursion, I would have undoubtedly shared a world-famous spicy meatball appetizer.   

As it was, four races were better than none.  But, just as it felt like the series was finally starting to gather momentum, I was once again saying goodbye to a large contingent who were on tour with Bryce Townsend, officially counting 21 New Zealanders and 2 Aussies.   Although I failed to put my name on the prestigious Kiwi Tour Sweepstakes trophy for the fifth time, the final points for this tenth anniversary contest proudly proclaimed Ian Riley as its winner.  Some 0 USD richer, Ian will be fielding a New Zealand midget for Tyler Courtney this coming off-season, also assisting Chris Windom in his Kiwi debut while supplying an engine for Michael Pickens.  Tyler’s father Tony graciously played host to Townsend Tours all week long and after a few more hot dogs were consumed at Courtney’s Kokomo compound, the two Ford vans piloted by Townsend and Alf Bidois were headed back to Indy, unfortunately not to be seen again as my plans to meet up in Macon less than one week later were spoiled by Saturday storms.

Each one of the four Midget Week rounds had its moments, and the races seemed to increment in excitement.  Although Montpelier was too dusty for my liking and the feature event contained six cautions, Kyle Larson stole the show with a clean sweep, registering new one and ten lap records and a convincing feature win in which he led the final 21 tours.  Perhaps as much as Kyle’s cleanup, the cutthroat sliders involving Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Dooling 63), Larson (Kunz 21K), and later Tanner Thorson (Lamar 3c) will be remembered most.  Going back to watch the highlights a few days later, the action was quite intense, aided by the sizeable ledge that defined the slicked off top shelf.  Despite the dust, a low lane was also evident, one where Tyler Courtney toiled from 14th to second in his usual Clauson-Marshall Spike/Stanton SR-11.   Pole sitter Logan Seavey was in the mix all night and took third in his KKM Spike/Toyota, with Jerry Coons, Jr. (Petry/Goff 25) and KTJ claiming fourth and fifth.

After the Gas City gusher, Lincoln Park Speedway’s stop was also threatened by inclement weather, somewhat miraculous that both midget and sprint features were completed.  Although sprinkles began to fall during the midget main, thanks to some relatively clean preliminaries those midgets were offering a four-wide salute at an ultra-efficient 9:25.  With Tanner Thorson and Chad Boat beginning from the front row, although the box score would show Thorson leading the first 16 tours and Boat the final 14, it was anything but boring or academic.  In the middle stages, the two exchanged first place seven times in four laps, with Boat fending off a hard-charging Justin Grant (from 11th) to score his first Midget Week win.  Courtney completed the podium with Zeb Wise and Thorson gathering fourth and fifth.  It’s a good thing that the action was tame early, as five cautions and one red led to a longer than usual feature.   

After the previous week’s instant classic involving Robert Ballou, Kevin Thomas, Jr., and winner Tyler Courtney, I had high hopes for Bloomington’s Midget Week battle.  Midgets are without question the perfect size of automobile to attack the short and narrow circle of red clay, so pleased to see that the surface was absolutely spot-on for hot laps and the 12 cars that took qualifying times.  Crossing my fingers for a rescheduled date along with Gas City, I won’t hold my breath but remain hopeful something will be worked out.  As I stated earlier, Indiana bullrings just don’t offer enough top-notch midget madness. 

As always, Lawrenceburg felt 10 to 15 degrees hotter than home and just like the air temp, the battle for Midget Week supremacy was turned up several degrees from Thursday.  Each year I preach that Lawrenceburg is the true showcase for this series and an absolute must-see.  Once again, my statement continues to ring true.  Like Lincoln Park, the box score looked fairly boring, as pole sitter Tyler Courtney paced the first 21 tours, with fast qualifier Spencer Bayston coming forth to lead the final nine.  However, the middle stage was quite spectacular as a four car fight broke out for first, bringing Chad Boat and Justin Grant into the mix.  Grant briefly led when he dove underneath Courtney in turn three, but his night would soon end after making a concrete connection on the other end.  After bouncing to a stop through turn two on the first circuit, seventh-starting Tanner Thorson restarted from the rear and was up to fifth at the time of Grant’s upside down excursion (lap 22).  Blasting outside of Boat while exiting turn two and cutting across his wake while entering three, in one fell swoop Thorson aggressively angled underneath Courtney and swiped second.  Pulling even with Spencer through three and four on laps 27, 28, and 29, on the final lap Tanner got too tight along the cushion in one and two and would have to settle for second.  Boat, Courtney, and sophomore Keith Kunz combatant Tanner Carrick completed the top-five.

Kokomo’s finale was undoubtedly the craziest of the week, offering drama so thick that you could literally slice it with a knife.  Seven drivers were eligible to claim their first IMW crown, with Tyler Courtney leading Tanner Thorson by 19 markers as the feature went green.  After Chad Boat reverted to a backup and started from the rear, that moved Kevin Thomas, Jr. to the pole and Tyler Courtney to his outside.  As predicted, Courtney would lead the first ten laps around the bottom of the completely slicked off surface.   So uncharacteristic of Kokomo, stiff winds from the southwest wreaked havoc on the playing field that required a complete rework after heat races were completed.  However, all that water and tilling would only last a short while, as the winds refused to relent.  Looking to sew up the series crown that got away from him here last year, Sunshine eventually yielded to the high-side heroics of Thomas and Jason McDougal, as a thick cushion still existed below the outside concrete and served as the preferred line for the final third of the event.  After some disappointing performances in his first three Midget Week outings, McDougal was in the hunt in the same Petry Spike/Toyota that Kevin used to collect a pair of February Ocala honors.  Although Kevin would wind up leading the rest of the distance, those last 20 laps were anything but dull. 

Prior to Thomas taking the lead, a rather key moment came when Spencer Bayston and Zeb Wise had a meeting of the minds for fourth.  Bayston’s left rear and Wise’s right rear tires were flattened, but both returned to battle.  Just before Ryan Robinson’s red flag at lap 13, 15th-starting Justin Grant had moved into a position to pounce.  So effective against the ledge, JG quickly disposed of Courtney and McDougal and had his sights set on KTJ.  But after crushing that curb in four, calamity was just around the corner after he lost second to a turn one McDougal slider.  In the same breath, ninth-starting Logan Seavey attempted to capitalize and made contact with Grant, forcing him above the cushion, into the wall, and on his lid for the second night in a row.  In the process, Courtney and Thorson were swept up in the lap 25 incident.  All three returned to action but for Tyler and Tanner, their hopes for the Midget Week trophy were flushed down the drain.

After one more Thorson spin, the final five laps suddenly had Seavey and Bayston licking their chops.   Seavey immediately disposed of McDougal for second with a slider through one and two, pulling to Thomas’s rear bumper as they prepared to take the white flag.  Like a quarterback telegraphing a pass, Logan’s turn one slide for life was crossed over by Kevin, but the Sutter, California kid wasn’t done.  One more grenade was tossed through three and four, but Seavey just didn’t have enough mustard on the hot dog to inch past Thomas.  After overcooking the cushion in the final corner, he handed second to Bayston, who had more than enough points to secure his first Indiana Midget Week championship.  With all racing activities complete by 10:19 PM, McDougal and Tyler Thomas completed the top-five.  For the race winner, it was his first USAC midget triumph since 2015, awarding redemption for a spin at Lincoln Park (where he qualified quickest and finished 16th) and a loss of power steering at Lawrenceburg (taking 10th).   

After finishes of seventh, sixth, first, and second, defending national champion Bayston built a 12 point Midget Week margin on Courtney, who finished 15th and was forced to swallow a bitter pill for the second year in a row.  Boat sailed from 22nd to 9th in the Kokomo finale and scored third in IMW points, but his 13th place showing in Montpelier did the most damage.  Seavey, Thomas, Thorson, and Wise were fourth through seventh in the standings, averaging feature finishes of 5.5, 8.0, 7.75, and 7.5, respectively.

Thorson was without question the most spectacular competitor of the series, looking like he had so much to prove after losing rides with both Keith Kunz and Joe Dooling since the end of last season.  Speaking as a fan, thankfully his legendary sprint car owner Clyde Lamar came to the rescue with a Spike/Stanton-Mopar SR11 that was assembled in just three days, debuting with a thrilling opening night joust in Montpelier that set the tone for the week.  Battling back and forth with Boat for the win at LPS, he came so close to another at Lawrenceburg after his early race caution, pulling off an insane and nearly impossible pass of Boat and Courtney.  Even more dramatic was Tanner’s Kokomo heat race war with former teammate Ryan Robinson.  After body-slamming Robinson for the final transfer in turn four, Ryan returned the favor by moving Tanner up the track in turn two.  Thorson duplicated the maneuver in turn four, only to lose the spot one lap later with a half spin through four.  I did not rush to the pits afterwards to see if anything escalated, but 25 or 30 years ago a black eye or bloody lip would have resulted from such an on-track exchange.  Tanner continued to turn up the heat by claiming the opening two rounds of POWRi’s Illinois Speed Week. 

Justin Grant had a rough week according the final results, but the lone solace is that he ran up front every night.  Beginning from the outside of the front row at Montpelier, after a brief duel with Kyle Larson he would spin from contention on lap nine.  Also tangling with Brayton Lynch, he wound up a sub-par 17th.  Elevating from 11th to 2nd at LPS, he had the lead for a short while at Lawrenceburg before pounding the wall between turns one and two and landing upside down.  He ended up in the same position at Kokomo after surging from 17th to 2nd.  Despite the misfortune, like Thorson he was a ton of fun to watch. 

Rico Abreu had a massively disappointing Midget Week and aside from qualifying quickest at Kokomo, he was never a feature contender.  Starting 5th, 12th, and 16th at Montpelier, LPS, and the Burg, he was scored 9th, 8th, and 7th at the end of thirty tours.  After failing to make his heat race cut at Kokomo, his Speedway Engines Toyota took a dump during the semi and forced him to watch from the sidelines.  After claiming the national championship and Midget Week title in 2014 and yet another Midget Week honor in 2015, this just wasn’t the same aggressive Abreu that we’ve grown accustomed to.  One has to wonder just how much that Four Crown accident from last year has affected him, as I feel like he should have at least been a front runner, especially at The Burg.  I miss the old Rico!

I also expected more out of Brady Bacon and his Bob East/Brad Noffsinger led Beast/Toyota, but spins from the top-five at Montpelier and Lincoln Park relegated him 12th and 11th.  Scoring 6th from 9th at Lawrenceburg and 6th from 13th at Kokomo, aside from qualifying 15th at Kokomo he was good early on, just not good enough later.    

As for the companion sprint car shows, with the exception of Kokomo it was all Kevin Thomas, Jr.  Winning Montpelier from fifth, Lincoln Park from fourth, and Lawrenceburg from second, had it not been for a heat race engine issue at Kokomo, it could have been a clean sweep for his DRC/Speedway combination.  Finishing fifth from 20th in the finale, it was still a rather impressive showing for Kevin and his Dooling-Hayward 63 squad, as the driver and his crew of Davey Jones and Brad Alexander have not lost their touch. 

In his three wins, KTJ did face a little bit of competition.  At Montpelier, he endured an early battle with Matt Westfall (Marshall 33) and R.J. Johnson (Reinbold/Underwood 19) before sliding Joe Stornetta for the lead, his job made much easier when second-running Brady Bacon caused a caution after slipping over the edge of turn two.  Playing huggy pole through one and two, Johnson could hang with KTJ until the middle of the backstretch, but Kevin would always manage to scoot further away.  With the checkered flag waving at 10:59 PM, Thomas and Johnson were chased by Westfall, Stornetta, and Thomas Meseraull (in a second Reinbold/Underwood ride). 

Johnson and C.J. Leary (Pedersen 4P) began from the front of the Lincoln Park sprint finale.  Riddled with four yellows and two reds, R.J. led early from the bottom lane before third-starting Darland (Dutcher 17) circled him through one and two.  Fifth-starting Brandon Mattox made the middle and bottom lanes work in his DRC, moving past Darland on two occasions.  After consecutive stoppages for Johnson and Stevie Sussex (Burton 04), Brandon soon had his hands full with the black and silver 63.  Trying high and low, Kevin could not find a way past the Terre Haute terror.  Thomas eventually earned the premier position with a slide job through turns one and two, laying claim to his seventh sprint car victory of the season.  Mattox, Bacon (from 8th), Darland, and Leary secured second through fifth at the 10:37 PM conclusion. 

At The Burg, Jordan Kinser (Hurst 70) and KTJ were front row mates, and by no surprise Thomas took the initial lead as the groove was against the cushion way up top.  Kevin led all 25 laps, but I’m sure he had no clue about the threat that lurked from behind in C.J. Leary, who started seventh in the Pedersen DRC.  Although fifth-starting Brady Bacon (Hoffman 69 OT) operated in second for the bulk of the affair, he was upended by Leary after a lap 14 restart for a Michael Fischesser spin.  Clearly cutting the gap to Thomas, with five laps left C.J.’s over the cushion excursion through three and four cost him dearly, as mud messed with his steering linkage and allowed Bacon to steal second.  After claiming third, Leary and his crew of Scott Pedersen, Scott’s son Ryan, and Donnie Gentry were left wondering “what if”.  Meseraull and Jarett Andretti rounded out the top-five.  With just a modified main event remaining, sprints were shuttered at 10:19 PM. 

Tyler Hewitt and Justin Grant (Topp 4) were front row starters for Kokomo’s sprint car contest.  Grant took full advantage of his outside starting spot and pounded the top, facing an almost immediate threat from sixth-starting Chris Windom.  Windom had disposed of fourth-starting C.J. Leary and quickly tossed a turn two bomb in the direction of Grant.   One lap later, C.J. also slid Justin in the same spot, but a Bryar Schroeter spin negated the move.  Operating exclusively against that thick upper lip, Windom and Grant ruled the roost, but behind them Thomas had already advanced from 20th to 6th long before the crossed flags were displayed.  Grant’s Maxim appeared the handle the ledge a little better, slipping past Windom through turn two before nailing the cushion on exit, thus allowing Chris to cross over.  Launching a similar attack through three and four, Justin prevailed until lapped traffic reared its ugly head.  With nearly everyone traversing the top, disposing of those back markers with desperate sliders became the norm.  Windom worked his second place position to his advantage when Justin was suddenly slowed by the congestion.  After rolling the bottom through four, Chris’s lengthy drift from the bottom of one to the top of two awarded him a lead with five laps left.  Windom won his third Kokomo contest of 2018, defeating Grant, eighth-starting Shane Cottle (Phillips 71), Leary, and Thomas. 

In addition to the twin car attack from Reinbold/Underwood Racing, Charles Davis, Jr. added some additional Arizona flair to the companion sprint car shows in his Massey Motorsports number 50, making a mad dash across the country after competing in a two-night show at Canyon over the Memorial Day weekend.  It has probably been over a decade since I last encountered Davis, remembering a few appearances at Kelly’s Pub Too on Monday night Racin’ with D.O. radio shows.  Tenth place finishes at Montpelier and Putnamville were his best results.  Missing such an extensive and influential west coast presence for Indiana Sprint Week, I neglected to ask if the Arizona visitors would be back in a month and a half. 

Digging deeper into my Midget Week notebook, new sprint car names/combinations were encountered at Montpelier.  One of them was 15-year-old Troy, Ohio native and former mini sprint star Korbyn Hayslett, who made his fifth sprint car appearance of the season.   Another was St. Paul, Minnesota attorney Brian VanMeveren, who had competed several times at Lincoln Park in 2018.  With his DRC chassis housed and maintained at Jon Stanbrough’s Brownsburg shop, JRS ally Chris Hoyer often serves as Brian’s at-the-track help.  Also on Tuesday, Dave Darland made his first appearance of 2018 in Mark Hery’s 40.  The collaboration was short-lived however, as engine issues were encountered in hot laps.  Later in the week, Dave drove the Dutcher 17 at LPS and Paragon (for the Chuck Amati 68), the Briscoe 5 at Bloomington, but oddly enough, did not have a ride for Kokomo.  Are you serious?  What is this world coming to?   

An examination of Midget Week car counts showed that the midget high came on opening night at Montpelier (36), with the traditional low occurring at Lawrenceburg (24).  Including Bloomington, midget populations averaged 30.  Multi-car squads were all the rage, with Keith Kunz Motorsports bringing as many as nine at Montpelier and eight for the rest of the series, often accounting for one-fourth and sometimes one-third of the entire field. Clauson/Marshall and Petry/Goff each hauled three entries to the track.  Tucker/Boat, Alex Bright, and FMR brought two, but the FMR double for Brady Bacon and Kyle Craker was only applicable at Montpelier.  Midget Week is usually an international on-track affair, and this year’s lone representations came from Argentinian Damian Lopez and 16-year-old New Zealand F2 midget star Max Guilford.  Damian drove a BOSS/Chevy for Casey Shuman, earning a few practice laps just a few hours prior to his Montpelier debut.  As for Max, he was  making his full-size midget debut for A.J. Felker after gaining some seat time two weeks prior at Christchurch.  Midget Week was no doubt the toughest time to make their U.S. debuts, as both Lopez and Guilford were mired in the semi-feature on each one of their outings.

As for the sprints, 33 was the high car count at Lincoln Park while 21 was the low at Montpelier, averaging 27.  With midget rides virtually non-existent, sprint car drivers doing double duty were limited to Kevin Thomas, Jr. (all week), Brady Bacon (Montpelier, LPS, and Lawrenceburg), Logan Seavey (Lawrenceburg), and Justin Grant (Kokomo).  C.J. Leary’s Gray Automotive midget ride lasted through the middle of the Montpelier semi-feature, when Matt Moore (the third Petry/Goff pilot) made contact and sent Leary soaring through the air.  The landing completely wiped out the white number 11.    

Speaking of nasty spills, dirt late model gasser Hudson O’Neal teamed with Jake Neuman at Lincoln Park and slammed the turn three cushion in his heat.  Flipping and coming to a rather abrupt stop, both O’Neal and Neuman would not be seen the rest of the series.  Operating a second machine from the Tucker/Boat stable, Zane Hendricks also dumped hard at Lawrenceburg, his third and final upside down excursion of the week.  Ryan Robinson and Justin Grant inverted their midgets twice during the four night stand. 

Finishing this Midget Week summary on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I can’t help but recall just how short the span of time was in which I had to enjoy this diversion from the sprint car norm.  Living vicariously through those on tour with Bryce Townsend, I had to watch highlights of the first three nights of POWRi’s Illinois Speed Week to see what I had missed.  All that noise and all those breathtaking, ruthless overtaking maneuvers are certainly something you just have to experience in-person to truly appreciate how special and exciting this brand of action is in overall realm of motorsports.  Hoping to calm my fear of missing out with another trip to Macon, just like Gas City and Bloomington’s washout, unfortunately one cannot count on Mother Nature to be agreeable at all times.  With such a short supply of midget racing around my neck of the woods, I feel as though demand is at an all-time high, no doubt a good problem to have considering the troubling issue that some mainstream motorsports offerings are currently encountering.  Although some want to believe that bigger is always better, when it comes to amount of entertainment generated from automobile racing, no other form packs a meaner punch than midgets, especially noteworthy for this one week in Indiana.  Ultimately leaving me wanting for more, it’s some seriously powerful stuff. 

 

 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 5

Hot Hands

After just one journey, the chosen few who have joined me in my Indianapolis 500 excursions might just make other plans for the following year.  Other than witnessing the race, one of my primary desires is to get in and out of the track as quickly as possible with the least amount of resistance.  But to achieve that goal without VIP status, that necessitates parking as far away as possible which of course guarantees a longer walk than most would prefer.  That’s fine when you’re full of energy, the morning temps are cooler, and when the weather happens to be cooperative.  But after the race is over, that same one and a half mile stroll seems infinitely longer; hundreds of thousands of us herded out of the facility like hot and sweaty livestock.    

Reaching 30th, 34th, and 38th street represents appreciable milestones on that return.  Experiencing such a mixed bag of feelings along the way, naturally I am both relieved and content that the weather allowed me to witness yet another 500, unquestionably the highlight of my racing campaign.  But with that walk also comes quite a bit of sadness, realizing that I will have to wait one more year to be enveloped by the electricity and heavy emotions that always come with Indy’s tradition-rich pre-race festivities.   Even though Kokomo’s Indy Double (coming in a few hours), Indiana Midget Week (coming in a few days), Indiana Sprint Week, Kokomo’s Smackdown, and the Four Crown Nationals are dates I eagerly anticipate, once we finally reach my vehicle it truly feels like the season is on a downhill slide. 

It might have only been the second hottest 500 on record, but 93 degrees did feel a tad uncomfortable while baking on aluminum bleachers, so hot that the metal button on the left side pocket of my shorts was literally too hot to touch.  A veteran of 33 of these contests, the nearly unbearable race day heat seemed like a normal Indy from the mid-to-late 1980s.  Such a sauna seemed appropriate in the culmination of a week in which the hottest hands in racing continued to make their mark.   Aside from Ed Carpenter claiming the pole, James Hinchliffe’s qualifying miss, and Danica Patrick’s retirement, Indy’s month of May belonged to Australian Will Power, becoming the first to sweep the Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 in one month.  Joining Power in the too hot to touch category were Tyler Courtney and Kody Swanson, both of whom starred in the week of Indy’s short track open wheel contests.    

Filling five days with six races and unencumbered by weather concerns, it was an enjoyable yet hectic time, only using four hours of paid time off on Friday afternoon in order to reach Bloomington Speedway’s Josh Burton Memorial.   Starting the stretch with a post-work 90 minute dash to the famed Tony Hulman Classic at the Terre Haute Action Track, the next afternoon required only five miles of travel from my Castleton employer to the Indiana State Fairgrounds for the Hoosier Hundred.  After a Bonge’s Tavern feasting that included a group of 15 from Bryce Townsend’s Motorsport Tours, it was off to yet another Little 500 in Anderson, hard to believe such a wild event celebrated its 70th running in 2018.  And finally, despite the heat exhaustion, Sunday also included the obligatory Kokomo double-dip, continuing a personal tradition that dates to 1992.   Naturally, I could have also included Lawrenceburg’s World of Outlaws outing on Memorial Day, but I needed some amount of rest before the six day grind of Indiana Midget Week began. 

Still a relative newcomer to the sport, Tyler Courtney nearly swept all three of the dirt sprint car races I attended, starting with his first Action Track triumph and Hulman Classic rifle, a rather unique trophy tradition that dates to the race’s 1971 origins.  Starting from the outside of the front row and leading lap one, Tyler then trailed Chase Stockon for the next 20 tours before a timely stoppage occurred on lap 21 for a flipping Jadon Rogers.  Rogers was tumbling from the top of turn four and appeared ready to swallow second place Courtney.  Tyler took evasive action, sliding seriously sideways to connect with just a glancing blow via the right rear wheel and tire.  The ensuing restart saw the Clauson/Marshall/Newman Racing Spike no worse for the wear, as Sunshine slid Showtime and led the last nine laps.  His third USAC sprint car triumph of the season was his first since Ocala in February.   Kevin Thomas, Jr. came on strong in the late stages to secure second.  Pole sitter Shane Cottle initially dropped to sixth but recovered to procure a podium spot in the Steve and Carla Phillips owned DRC.  Chris Windom whisked from 10th to 4th while Stockon fell to fifth.  C.J. Leary, Robert Ballou, 15th-starting Justin Grant, Brady Bacon, and Chad Boespflug represented the second half of the top-ten, exiting the arena at 9:30.    

After surviving a late-race scrape with Jerry Coons, Jr. and scoring a third in Thursday’s Hoosier Hundred, Courtney’s Bloomington bash was far more dramatic and pressure-packed than Wednesday.  Beginning from the outside front row in the MSCS sanctioned affair, he endured a constant barrage of bullets fired by Robert Ballou and Kevin Thomas, Jr., overtaking Ballou through the final two corners to escape with the ,500 top prize, a 0 bonus, and yet another trophy in the form of a rifle.  This fifth annual Burton Memorial was easily the most thrilling stop in my 2018 campaign, watching from up top with longtime Kokomo cohort “Coach” Randy Moss, who was in route to the Little 500 from his Florida fortress.  Reliving so many memories from the past two decades, Coach and I had the time of our lives, so impressed and satisfied by the hardcore combat we had just witnessed. 

Immediately reaching for the sky with a wheel stand and snatching the number one spot from fellow front row starter Jon Stanbrough (Wingo 77), Courtney’s initial threat came on the second circuit from Ballou, who pulled even on the back chute before diving underneath in turn three.  A slight push of the front end of his nearly new DRC chassis prevented Robert from ruling the roost.  After separate early cautions for Braxton Cummings and Brandon Mattox (with assistance from Frankfort’s Brian Cripe), the last 18 laps were worth their weight in gold. 

The top-three of Courtney, Ballou, and Jeff Bland, Jr. played bumper cars through the south end and allowed KTJ to seize the lead, literally shot out of a cannon in his Dooling/Hayward 63 DRC as he flew from fourth to first in the span of two corners.  While Thomas was sinking his teeth into the meaty cushion of red clay, Courtney plugged and chugged around the bottom and quickly regained the premier position.  Just as lapped traffic became as thick as Interstate 69 construction congestion, Bland would exit after bashing the berm in four.  Tyler aggressively threaded his way through the back markers, making some breathtaking moves.  Some of them included occasional contact, thus allowing Thomas and Ballou to stay close.  Yet another bobble from Kevin cost him second place and set the stage for an epic ending between Courtney and Ballou.  Over the last few laps, Robert was relentless, eventually slipping underneath the Priority Aviation number 7 while accepting the white flag.  Entering turn one, Ballou somehow squeezed into a hole between a lapper and the infield marker tires, exiting turn two with the lead.  However, Sunshine refused to wilt and drove deep into three, overhauling the Mad Man on the outside to hit ultimate pay dirt.  An upset KTJ accepted an unsavory third while ninth-starting Thomas Meseraull found fourth in his own Hawk chassis, earning a ,000 bonus from B&B Auto Brokers.  Aided by Robert Brown, Jr., flying Illini Carson Short started 12th and finished 5th.   Positions six through ten belonged to Stevie Sussex (Burton 04), Stanbrough, Kyle Cummins, Brandon Morin, and Shelby Van Gilder.  Contested on a legitimate three groove surface, this was indeed a feature to rave about and salivate over!    

Sunday’s stop in Kokomo was tailor-made for another Courtney connection, but sometimes fate intervenes and manages to spoil a Cinderella story better suited to NASCAR.  After making heavy contact at the start of the first heat with fellow front row starter Kevin Thomas, Jr. (leaving an angry KTJ with a flat left rear and a last place finish), Courtney ran second to Dave Darland in that heat, redrew for a feature starting birth of third, and dueled wheel-to-wheel for the first seven feature laps with the rim-riding hometown hero.  Eventually inching in front, Tyler then mimicked Dave’s top-shelf tactic in turns one and two.  Still going low in three and four, Sunshine began to pull away from the People’s Champ and was headed for three sprint car scores in a row before tagging the rear end of Matt Goodnight at the exit of turn four.  Spinning and lightly tipping over on the front stretch, as fitting as it would have been to have the Clauson/Marshall/Newman Spike running up the ramp on a night honoring Bryan, it just wasn’t meant to be. 

After some front stretch fisticuffs involving Courtney and Thomas crew members (boiling over from the heat race contact), Darland restarted in first and had Windom, Shane Cottle, Josh Hodges, and Thomas in his wake.  With adrenaline still coursing through my veins after the sight of the scuffle, the last six laps of this weekend finale were supercharged with excitement.  Chris Windom’s Wild Week had been anything but, missing out on his Indy Lights Freedom 100 debut after crashing in Tuesday practice.  Fourth on Wednesday, 13th on Thursday, fifth on Friday, and sixth on Saturday, Chris was more than prepared to pounce when Dave climbed the cushion in three.  Darland recovered to toss a successful turn one bomb, but Windom returned the favor on the next lap to lead the rest of the way, cooling off Courtney’s hot hand.  Cottle, Darland, Thomas (up from 15th), and Hodges chased the Kenny Baldwin DRC/Claxton to Brian Hodde’s checkered flag.  Positions six through ten were populated by Tyler Hewitt, Joe Stornetta, Jr., Isaac Chapple, Matt Goodnight, and Adam Byrkett. 

Speaking of hot hands, the week of Indy might as well be renamed the week of Swanson:  three big races, three tracks, and of course one winner.  The Alt-Witzig engineer did not compete at the Hulman Classic, instead beginning his week with the Hoosier Hundred and his quest to tie Al Unser’s record of four wins in a row.  Opening his Thursday evening in grand style, Kody topped a 38-car qualifying field with the quickest lap in his DePalma owned Radio Hospital Maxim, led as always by legendary mechanic Bob Hampshire. 

Swanson’s time of 33.522 seconds was sadly such a long way from Johnny Parsons, Jr.’s one-lap record of 31.379, set all the way back in September of 1995.  I understand the one-mile oval’s issue with too much sand and not enough clay, but just once I’d love to see an honest effort to properly prepare the Indiana State Fairgrounds surface for more than one groove, as you just can’t expect to produce a respectable playing field in less than one day’s time.  Don’t get me wrong – I was ecstatic over the outstanding car and fan count, so thankful to see this race survive and thrive.  And, perhaps I am too picky and my expectations are far too high for a slightly heavy set of hot laps and qualifying session, but I do fondly remember some lightning fast surfaces here from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.  Can we ever hope to return to those days, or are we forced to settle for less than stellar surfaces from here on out?    

Stepping off of my soap box, after the first Hoosier Hundred consolation contested since 2006 (which claimed Bill Rose and Kenny Schrader as two of its casualties), Swanson beat Shane Cottle to the inside rail and played rabbit for the first 28 laps.  Unusual in that Swanson normally pours on the coal in the last half of the event, true to form Kody yielded to the pressure of fifth-starting Brian Tyler, who appeared hell bent on capturing his first Hoosier Hundred.  Tyler led the next 27 tours in the Bob Galas Beast, putting significant distance between himself and Swanson.  Even after a caution for Kyle Robbins, BT again built a big margin before disaster struck the 1996 and 1997 USAC sprint car champion.  Apparently, a piece of broken brake rotor from Chris Windom’s car caused him to miss the turn one inside groove, quickly auguring into the outside concrete.  Talk about the agony of defeat…

After that, no one could muster a serious challenge to Swanson’s supremacy, as the Zionsville, Indiana transplant ruled the remaining 45 laps to equal Al Unser’s 1970-1973 mark of four Hoosier Hundred wins in a row.  Requiring pavement-like precision in navigating the Indy mile’s narrow groove, Swanson’s best lap was the 98th, topping his qualifying mark with a 33.372 second tour.  Benton, Illinois fire chief Shane Cockrum simply didn’t have enough to challenge Kody and would be forced to settle for second.  Tyler Courtney, Shane Cottle, and 18th-starting Johnny Petrozelle filled out the first five finishing positions.  Jacob Wilson (from 21st), Joe Liguori, David Byrne, Dave Darland (from 28th in Bill Rose’s backup Beast), and Austin Mundie (from 24th) were scored sixth through tenth in the attrition-filled event. 

After leading the final 99 laps the next evening at Indianapolis Raceway Park’s Dave Steele Carb Night Classic, Kody collected his 22nd career Silver Crown series triumph, his third in a row in 2018.  Kody’s only real competition came from his younger brother Tanner, who qualified quickest and took the ,000 challenge to start from the rear and attempt to win.  Although Tanner got close, he could not defeat big brother, who cashed a cool ,000 paycheck.  Kody is just one win away from tying Jack Hewitt’s series leading record of 23 wins, intact since 2000. 

And then, there was Anderson’s Little 500.  Winning this event for the Hoffmans in 2016 and coming so close last year with Gene Nolen, Swanson was back with the same Nolen-owned Beast/Tranter V-6 combination, a team led by longtime Hoffman mechanic Dan Launderville.  Most everyone, including myself, had already suspected he’d sweep the weekend, making us appear to be geniuses.  However, it is rarely that easy at Anderson.  But, if Swanson is around at the finish, the odds are strong that he will find a way to win and starting from the inside of the second row, it was already looking good before the green flag was ever waved. 

An unbelievable field of 50 entries reiterated the continued resurgence of this event.  Adding quality car and driver combinations each year, 2017 winner Kyle Hamilton failed to crack the starting lineup in his Klatt Enterprises Beast after suffering driveline issues in Thursday’s qualifying session, then crashing on his Friday attempt.  After finishing seventh in the previous day’s Freedom 100 at IMS, tall and lanky Davey Hamilton, Jr. would start from the pole.  Davey Jr. would be flanked by Daleville’s Aaron Pierce and Bobby Santos, both looking for their first win in this event.  Hamilton and Pierce set the early pace, with Aaron (wearing Aristocrat Products livery) taking the top spot on lap 27.  Pierce led all the way to his first pit stop on lap 241 but once again, he was snake bitten.  Encountering engine issues that were attended to on that stop, he lost four laps and returned to battle without a hood in place.  Aaron eventually retired on lap 388.  Around the midpoint, Hamilton also had issues and was officially out as well.  So much for the rabbits!    

The Little 500 is indeed a survival of the fittest, as prime contenders are always eliminated for one reason or another.  Two-time winner Brian Tyler was the first out, tossing his steering wheel in disgust as smoke billowed from beneath the hood of his Contos 44 after just 41 laps.  A winner in 2008 and a perennial contender, Shane Cottle was swept up in a lap 97 incident.  Second in 2014 and third in 2016, Jerry Coons, Jr. lost a wheel just after lap 100 and was out of action shortly thereafter.  Nine-time winner Eric Gordon started 19th in the Hoffman 69 and as usual, began to move forward after the first 100 laps.  Up to fifth at the time of his first pit stop (lap 172), immediately thereafter he pulled to the infield with a broken driveshaft.  Forced into the backstretch wall around lap 300 by another machine, an irate Bobby Santos flung his helmet at the perpetrator.    

All those contenders were finally filtered down to just three men:  Shane Hollingsworth, Jacob Wilson, and Kody Swanson.  Nolen comrades Swanson and Hollingsworth’s first pit stops came early (lap 146) while Wilson came in for service around the halfway mark, losing an extra lap after a push truck ran over his left rear wheel.  Once Hollingsworth pitted for the final time on lap 303, Swanson served as the pilot dog, staying out for over 100 laps longer than his teammate.  Due to the old rubber, Kody’s performance dipped dramatically, allowing Wilson to not only get his lap back (lap 327), but completely circle Swanson again (lap 382).  Without the aid of caution, Kody took matters into his own hands on lap 411, admitting afterwards that he intentionally spun between turns one and two so that he could pit and have an honest shot at winning.  Wilson took full advantage of the pause and made his final pit stop as well.  In the resulting chaos that saw Swanson pass the pace vehicle, Kody lost two laps while Jacob only dropped one, putting Hollingsworth back out front when they went back to green flag conditions on lap 422. 

I still don’t know if that pass of the pace vehicle was legal, as I could not find anything in the rules that discusses pace car protocol, but Wilson Brothers Racing did file a formal protest the day afterwards, believing that Swanson had pitted when the pits were closed.  As is so often the case in this race, second place always seems to have a case for why they believe they won.  Right or wrong, to my knowledge the final results have never been overruled.   Officiating and scoring this event is indeed a nightmare, offering so many opportunities for discrepancies and disputes.  I’m just glad that I’m up in the stands as a fan and not in the booth making calls that could alter the outcome.    

As it was, it only took nine laps for Kody to get back one of those laps and with the aid of caution on lap 431, it only took 19 more for both Wilson and Swanson to be on the same lap as the leader.  In one of the best late race battles I have ever witnessed here, Jacob and Kody went at it hot and heavy for the next 25 tours, slicing and dicing in and out of traffic.  Swanson even connected with front stretch wall on lap 459 but was undeterred, wrenching second from Wilson on lap 470.  Eight laps later, he yanked first from Hollingsworth’s hands.  With Shane’s handling continuing to go south, by lap 495 he was one lap in arrears.    

At the end, nothing could stop the hot hands of Kody Swanson, scoring his second Little 500 win in three years and first for car owner Gene Nolen.  Wilson’s bid for win number three will have to wait another year.  Hollingsworth was happy to finish on the podium, coming oh-so-close to his first score.  Tampa’s Mickey Kempgens found fourth, five laps behind the leader.  Morristown’s Scotty Hampton soldiered home fifth in Jerry Powell’s Beast, some seven laps down.  Positions six through ten were claimed by Brian Gerster, Caleb Armstrong, Kenny Schrader, and Shane Cottle. 

Digging into my Indy 500 weekend notebook, Terre Haute saw just 23 USAC sprint cars take time, still surprised with the low car counts evident at early 2018 USAC sprint car contests.   One benefit of the limited assembly of equipment meant that all machines started the feature, allowing for an appreciated early exit.  Dry for qualifying (KTJ was quickest at 20.574) and the heats but watered heavily for the feature, the track was fast in the first half, coming in just in time for Courtney to make his winning move.  

As for the Hoosier Hundred, I already mentioned Kenny Schrader missing the show in the Dennis McQuinn 14.  Had Schrader made the cut from the consolation, it would have been his first Hoosier Hundred in 33 years.  Kenny did manage to win the companion modified event, with hopes of racing the Crown car once again at Springfield and Du Quoin.   

Given the surprising names finishing in the top-five and top-ten, of course that implied that a majority of notables encountered issues.  “Iceman” Coleman Gulick was out on lap five.  Two-time winner Jeff Swindell pulled his Mark Swanson 21 pit side on lap 11.  Russ Gamester coasted to the back stretch opening just before lap 25.  Kevin Thomas, Jr.’s highly-anticipated debut in the Galen Fox 56 resulted in a premature conclusion on lap 37.  C.J. Leary was done around the halfway mark while recent Sumar Classic winner Justin Grant exited on lap 67, operating in 7th.  Brady Bacon had just stolen sixth from Grant before blowing up on lap 77, having moved from 27th starting spot in the Terry Klatt/Bob East ride.  And finally, 2011 and 2012 HH winner Jerry Coons, Jr. attempted to dive underneath Tyler Courtney at the entrance of turn three on lap 89.  Making heavy contact, Coons went for a rather wild ride but was able to walk away. 

My trip to Bloomington was a little more scenic than usual, requiring about 20 more minutes after choosing to bypass anticipated State Road 37 traffic jams.  So instead of 37, I used 67 to Gosport, following a long line of cars along the tight and twisty County Line Road.  Exiting on State Road 46 between Spencer and Ellettsville, I finally made it to B-town in nearly two hours.  80-year-old Leon Thickstun was just ahead of me in the line for pit passes, asking him if he had enough cash to purchase Paragon Speedway after pulling a pair of crisp twenties from his wallet.  Walking in tandem with Brandon and Travis Spencer, both young men pilot sprint cars owned by Leon, as their father had raced many years alongside the Nashville, Indiana legend.  A veteran of eight Little 500s and a hired gun for Glen Niebel’s sprint and champ cars, Thickstun even tested the famed number 20 when Bob Frey couldn’t make it back from Wickenburg, Arizona.  Having last strapped into a sprinter seven seasons ago, he is happy to leave the driving to the Spencers and Jake Scott, recalling that he was the first one in the 13-second bracket at Bloomington the week before Calvin Gilstrap was killed in 1976.  Also remembering that he had also asked Gilstrap to climb in his car that fateful evening (as he was not feeling up to par), Calvin chose to pilot Cecil Beaver’s number 57 instead.  As the story goes, Calvin set quick time on his first lap of qualifying but crashed on his second, as the chromed roll cage collapsed upon impact in turn three.  He would perish just a few days later in a Bloomington hospital.   

Rather fitting, two-lap, single car qualifying would be held at this Josh Burton Memorial in honor of Calvin, with a top prize of ,000 awarded by Eddie Gilstrap Motors.  Jeff Bland, Jr. (Waltz 18) topped the 26-car field in this special session, a deviation from the norm for this Midwest Sprint Car Series sanction. 

Upon my initial walk up the hill, I spotted noted photographer Tim Aylwin with camera and large lens in hand, standing in the grass on the upper level.  Later, Tim was shooting from the flag stand, which I’m sure had to be a uniquely spectacular view.  Wondering if any of these shots will make the Paul Oxman sprint car calendar, although the content contains far too many winged sprint cars and typos, I have purchased one every year since 1986.  Bumping into Kyle Cummins car owner Fred Zirzow, he mentioned that the team has sold its only DRC chassis, now exclusively using Triple X.  CSI Shocks have also been swapped for those built by Scott Benic.  My first time to see Jon Stanbrough in action this season, Jon finished second in the first heat, just nipping Kevin Thomas, Jr. for the final redraw position. Commenting on the fatigue that he’s been feeling since his daughter’s early April birth, Stanbrough stated that without the nap he enjoyed on the ride down to B-town, there would have been no way he could have raced on this evening.  JRS was joined in this journey by his usual posse consisting of Chris Hoyer, Kevin Price, and Chuck Rodee. 

Given the early Sunday morning alarm clock for the next day’s Indianapolis 500, I am normally in a hurry to exit Anderson’s Little 500 once the checkered flag has fallen.  This year’s 10:16 PM completion finally allowed for an exception to my rule, as I chose to head to the front stretch to congratulate long-time sprint car crew member Sam Brooks on his induction into the Little 500 Hall of Fame. 

A nine-time winner of this event, eight of Sam’s nine victories came with Eric Gordon, the same guy he first met in the summer of his senior year of high school while employed at Central Hardware on East Washington Street in Indianapolis.  That year was 1986 and the two instantly connected.  Although Brooks had no idea what a sprint car was, he would soon find out.  The two have literally been the best of friends since that summertime gig and through good times and bad, Sam has been there to support him in every way, shape, and form.  Now employed by Gordon at Red Line Systems of Indiana, during Little 5 week the two of them ran the business from Anderson Speedway, as Eric was of course returning to battle in the Hoffman 69 while Sam tended to the tires on Jacob Wilson’s 07. 

Why wouldn’t Brooks abandon the Wilsons and assist his buddy in his return?  The answer is simple:  Sam is one of the most fiercely loyal human beings you will ever encounter.  Wanting to show his continued appreciation to the Wilson family for giving him an opportunity after Gordon retired, the sad fact is that back in 2014, no one else needed his help.  Winning his most recent Little 500 with Wilson Brothers Racing (2014), on May 26th of 2018 Sam came oh-so-close to his ultimate dream day:  a hall of fame induction and triumph number ten.  With sweat still gleaming in the bright lights along the front stretch, Sam was honest in his assessment that he was heavily disappointed in finishing second, especially troubling when questions existed about the outcome.  Owning an almost unreasonable expectation of winning in every Little 500 outing, despite his depression he was already thinking about the 2019 event the day afterwards.  Just like his longtime friend and boss, to say that this man lives, eats, and breathes this race is an understatement.   

Although wins still mean the most to him, Sam was completely humbled by his induction, never expecting to receive such an award.  What stands out most to him is the fact that of the 109 men who are inducted, only one is officially listed as a “mechanic”.  Sam Brooks is that lone mechanic and enjoying this once in a lifetime opportunity to bask with him on his day of honor, making an exception to my rule offered far more memories than an extra thirty minutes of sleep.  Take a bow Sam…you earned it!   

After a late Sunday afternoon stop at home to change my shirt and cool off, the 45-minute jaunt to Kokomo came quickly.  Surprisingly accompanied in this racing marathon by my wife, unfortunately only 16 sprinters battled for the ,000 top prize in BC’s Indiana Double, undoubtedly impacted by MSCS at Haubstadt, hot weather, and the upcoming six day stretch of sprint car contests that accompany Indiana Midget Week.  As always quality reigned over quality, and the usual heavy hitters were joined by Tijeras, New Mexico’s Josh Hodges, whose DRC bodywork was adorned in a throwback Ron Shuman/Gary Stanton scheme.  After debuting the previous evening in Charleston, Illinois, Windfall, Indiana’s Aaron Davis finally made his Kokomo sprint car debut, which also saw the long-awaited return of late 1990s competitor Charlie Sarver.  Despite starting an hour later to allow travel time for Indy 500 attendees, we were still on the road before 10 PM. 

In the last decade, the week of the Indianapolis 500 seemed to signify infinite worry about impending wet weather, always attempting to ruin events that only come once a year and hold huge amounts of significance.  But this year was altogether different, as some unusually dry weather allowed for a magnificent six-race stretch that only grew hotter with each day.  Free to fully enjoy and savor each one of these outings, some outstanding performances were witnessed.  Weary from a week filled with early mornings that followed exciting evenings, although the mile and a half return walk from the 500 in high heat might not be a noteworthy fitness feat, it was still significant in that my primary train of thought did not have to do with the downhill slide of this racing campaign.  Rather, the heat sent me back the mid-1980s when all Indy 500s seemed this way, as it was that point in my life when I reached an appropriate age to comprehend the enormity of this event.  Call me a little sentimental and perhaps a little crazy from this heat wave, but even after that dreadful walk I still feel the same about Indy as I did in 1985.  Such a magical experience, there truly is nothing else like it in the entire world. 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 4

The Great Escape

It 5:00 on a Friday afternoon.  No, I’m not at the bar, tilting back beverages in honor of completing another hectic and highly stressful week of work.  Rather, I’ve been on the road for about an hour and with no time for delays, I need sixty more minutes to arrive at my intended destination, as that is when the green flag is set to wave on hot laps.  And if anyone knows me, they are aware of my feelings about missing hot laps.   

Unable to relax, I have been hustling all day long, heading into work one hour earlier so that I could leave one hour earlier.  Ever since I graduated from Ball State University in 1994 and joined the working world, this has been an all-too-familiar feeling on Fridays from April to October – never enough vacation days and never enough time to get where I need to be.  Although it was now the weekend; that failed to relieve the heavy load I’ve been carrying these last few weeks, already worrying about Monday morning.    The distinct possibility of arriving late and/or earning a speeding ticket was only increasing my angst, leading me to wonder if the struggle was indeed worth it.  After all these years, why was I willing to continue to place myself in this pressure cooker, just to watch cars go around in circles? 

On this occasion, the answer was quite simple.  It could only be attributed to my long-standing allure for Eldora Speedway, the singular location that cemented my hardcore hunger for sprint car competition.  And, when the United States Auto Club is the sanctioning body of record, the attraction is only magnified.  Once a common occurrence, these days a USAC/Eldora union is only a twice a year type of thing.  Friday was the first half of the fourth annual Let’s Race Two weekend, once again pairing the best of both sprint car worlds:  USAC’s traditional and the World of Outlaws winged varieties. 

Offered on Mother’s Day weekend, as the seventh of eight kids I spent most of my youth in the presence of my beloved mother, as my father regularly worked 80 hours per week to pay for all those offspring.  Much like Mom-time, any excursion to Eldora is equally familiar, comfortable, and cherished.  But after losing my mother to colon cancer some seven years ago this month, with her absence my childhood home and family life just has not been the same. Thankfully, some places still exist that allow me to feel at ease and having been a regular attendee since October of 1985, the Big E is indeed one of them. 

Thinking of no better way to escape the rigors of life than to be cloaked in Eldora comfort, the indescribable feelings generated from visiting this mystical mecca are unlike those generated from any other dirt track.  Tucked away in the serene, fertile farmlands of Western Ohio that frequently exude the fragrances of nature, all these years later it is still such a startling presence when stumbling upon it. 

Getting back to my frenetic Friday afternoon, my grand plan was to meet up with Chesterland, Ohio’s Tom Percy, who graciously offered a sleeping spot in his camper for two evenings.  Spending the better part of two days away from reality, I had two goals in mind:  1) to relax and 2) have a freaking good time!  Joining Tom on this trip would be two first-time Eldora attendees and overall nice guys:  Trevor Valentine and Doug Kililea. 

So difficult to express to Trevor and Doug just how significant Eldora Speedway is to the overall landscape of automobile racing, one need only to observe its list of alumni to grasp just how hallowed these grounds are.  In the track’s early days, Indy 500 talent like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Jim Hurtubise, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Gary Bettenhausen, and Pancho Carter chose to risk life and limb sharpening their skills on these treacherous banks.  To this day, it’s is still one of the prime places to prove that you own the bravery and talent required to reach the next level.  In my early years of attendance, I observed real men like Sheldon Kinser, Jack Hewitt, Rich Vogler, Larry Rice, Steve Butler, Steve Kinser, Doug Wolfgang, Sammy Swindell, Jac Haudenschild, Rick Hood, Kenny Jacobs, and Kevin Huntley run the wall with perfection.  So bold and yet so precise, I couldn’t help but be in awe, as they were all worshipped and still serve as my own benchmarks for badassery.    

The rash decision of band leader and Eldora ballroom owner Earl Baltes to carve a dirt oval into the accompanying hillside was big, but even bigger was the awarding of a United States Auto Club sanctioned sprint car contest in 1962, as USAC was the world’s premier sanctioning body.  56 years and 196 races later, here we were on Friday, May 11th, with the milestone 200th USAC sprint car race set to occur in 2019.  Since 1978, the World of Outlaws have held a similar number of events at the Big E, counting 167 “A” features.  When adding preliminary events, one could calculate that the number of World of Outlaws events exceed that of USAC.  Either way, Eldora was tailor-made for sprint cars, whether you prefer them with or without aerodynamic aids.   

Finally arriving at my intended destination with just minutes to spare, after changing out of work attire I would only miss a few laps of that first hot lap session, jogging to see whose engine I could hear screaming for mercy from the sign-in booth.  Turning out to be Chase Stockon, under overcast skies I was more than pleased to see the surface colored dark chocolate, allowing for the application of unlimited horsepower.  This signified that ample moisture had been applied, clearly evidenced when several USAC chauffeurs explored the 15-second bracket during practice.  Eleven men would clock beneath 16 seconds in qualifications, with Kevin Thomas, Jr. going out first and eventually winding up with quick time in his Hoffman 69 DRC/Speedway.  Despite the dampness, Thomas’s 15.318 was still a long way from the 2006 record of Jerry Coons, Jr. (14.712).  Third in the qualifying line, Cole Duncan’s Fisher powered Maxim  (Neumeister 12N) was the best of the WoO bunch at 12.879, fairly close but still shy of Craig Dollansky’s 16-year-old record (12.707 seconds).  Six Outlaws were under 13 seconds on Friday.   

After Landon Simon and Michael Fischesser encountered issues, only 22 of the 24 USAC entries took time.  Being such a died-in-the-wool Eldora/USAC supporter, that’s a massively disappointing car count, even with Gas City and Bloomington offering competition for cars.  I can understand some Indiana guys staying home, but where were all of the Ohio based racers?  Saturday’s count wasn’t much better at 21 but had opposition from Lawrenceburg, Haubstadt, Paragon, and Putnamville.  World of Outlaws assemblies were more consistent at 37 and 36 over the two days.  Regarding the lowly USAC figure, are Indiana and Ohio car owners just not fond of Eldora and its additional safety regulations, USAC’s entry fee, running against the big dogs, or the added costs of staying overnight in a hotel? Whatever it was, no consolation race was needed on Friday or Saturday, and I cannot remember that ever being the case for an Eldora/USAC sprint car pairing.  In this disappointing era of specialization, Brady Bacon was the lone soldier to engage in both battles.  

As Tom and I attempted to explain to Trevor and Doug, heat race action is one of the biggest differences between USAC and World of Outlaws racing.  USAC inverts the six quickest while WoO begins the fastest up front.  As is to be expected, each one of the Friday and Saturday Outlaw heat race winners came from the front row while Friday’s USAC winners came from the first or second row.  With early conditions much more slippery on Saturday, USAC heat winners exclusively came from the third row, thus proving my point.  However, even with the WoO’s pro-qualifying format, on Friday both Kerry Madsen and Brad Sweet started six and finished second, allowing them to participate in the all-important trophy dash that set the first four rows of the feature.  Without question, the best heat race of the weekend came with the World of Outlaws on Friday, when heat three front row starters Logan Schuchart and Eldora’s favorite son Jac Haudenschild exchanged four slide jobs for first.  Celebrating his 60th birthday on April 7th, it’s hard to imagine that Haud is 35 years older than Schuchart, but Friday night he showed no signs of slowing down.  Jac claimed that heat and drew the outside front row for the dash, finishing second to Cole Duncan.   

Opening night heat race misfortune came on both sides of the sprint car equation, as USAC’s Tony DiMattia cracked the turn one concrete and violently tumbled down the bank while WoO’s Greg Wilson duplicated DiMattia.  Thankfully, both walked away from their wreckage, which isn’t always the case here.  For Tony, it was two consecutive crashes after his Kokomo calamity the previous Sunday.   Big names missing the Outlaw feature transfers from Friday’s heats included Bacon, Saldana, Stewart, Kinser, Abreu and Pittman.  Finishing beyond fourth in the B, Stewart, Kinser and Pittman each had to cash in provisional passes to participate in the opening night A-main.  So did Jason Sides, whose engine gave up the ghost during qualifications. 

Robert Ballou found himself blasting off from Friday’s USAC feature event pole position, exercising a brand-new DRC chassis supplied by sponsor Jimmy Crawford and his Twister X enterprise.  2013 Four Crown sprint car stud Chris Windom would flank Ballou.  A five-time Eldora victor, Robert rocketed to the lead on lap one.  While Brady Bacon was bolting from eighth to fourth and clearly benefitting from running the B-main in his winged car, the Mad Man successfully crossed over a turn one, second lap slide job from Windom and eventually earned a little bit of breathing room.   Justin Grant was on the go in his Topp Motorsports Maxim/Gaerte, gaining six spots in the first five laps, looking for his third win in four years at this very event.  By lap eight, third place Bacon stole second from Windom with a successful turn one slide and just three laps later, number 99 had completely closed the gap to the leader.  The lead duo moved away from third by the halfway mark, with Bacon officially snatching the premier position four laps later with a low-side lunge off turn four.  With Ballou’s setup going way too loose, it was all he could do to secure second place. 

At the conclusion, Brady built a full straightaway lead to lay claim to his second-ever Eldora USAC triumph, lapping up to 10th place at the conclusion.  Thanking supporter Gene Franckowiak for the use of his engine in his victory lane interview, it was a hometown win of sorts for BB, who bases his operations 15 minutes west of here in Union City.  Windom, Grant, and KTJ completed the first five.  Tyler Courtney, Stockon, Dave Darland, C.J. Leary, and Kyle Cummins collected sixth through tenth. 

Thanks to their top-two finish in the dash, Duncan and Haudenschild (Jac) shared Friday’s WoO feature front row.  Immediately heading to the attic in his own Triple X chassis, Haud would lead the first 11 laps, having to deal with a double-file restart on lap six after Hunter Schuerenberg spun in turn four.  With Donny Schatz now to his inside, Jac quickly adjusted his corner entry to thwart any bottom-feeding frenzy.  While Haud and Schatz were fighting tooth and nail, sixth-starting Aaron Reutzel threw his hat into the lead ring.  Lofting an electrifying two-for-one grenade at turn three of lap 12, Aaron advanced from third to first in an instant.  Jac countered in turn one, but Aaron returned the favor in three.  Just after Schatz stole second, Reutzel scaled the thinning cushion between turns one and two.  Pancaking concrete, flying high, and crashing to a bitter conclusion, it was all over for the All Star Circuit of Champions point leader.  Although he defeated NRA forces here in October of 2016 and topped a WoO war in Tulare, chalk this incident up to Eldora inexperience.   

Schatz narrowly missed involvement in the Reutzel rumble and was rewarded with the lead.   Leaving a healthy 17 laps remaining, Donny’s drive to yet another victory was interrupted by a second red flag period, this one involving David Gravel, Carson Macedo (Coomer 21), Rico Abreu, and Joey Saldana.  Perennial Eldora underdog Gary Taylor (Gorby 57) briefly held second before Brad Sweet swooped in.  In the late stages when surface grip was gone, last year’s Friday night winner Logan Schuchart found his rhythm around the bottom.  Earning nothing more than a sniff of Schatz’s tail tank, Schuchart simply didn’t have enough to overtake and had to settle for second in his Shark Racing Triple X.  At the end, the driver of car number 15 collected his 12th victory at Eldora and 7th in this young season, extending his point lead.  With the winner exiting his usual J&J/Shaver to the sounds of boo birds, he was followed to the line by Schuchart, Sweet, Jac Haudenschild, and Duncan.  Taylor, Sheldon Haudenschild, Jason Johnson, hard charger Daryn Pittman (from 26th), and Kerry Madsen completed the top-ten. 

Despite yet another predictable production from your WoO winner, Friday night action was more than satisfactory in both divisions, enjoying the old-school Eldora surface early on and the efficient program that concluded at 10:19 PM.  With on-track action virtually non-stop, there was no time to ponder the intense anxiety that had burdened me earlier in the day.      

My Saturday morning alarm clock came in the form of the rising sun, blinding me with warmth around 7 AM.  Unlike my normal Saturday mornings back home, this time I had no gym to get to, no yard to mow, and no car to wash.  On a brief holiday, it actually felt damned good to get away from the same-old, same-old for once.  Thanks to the mindful conservation of our water reserves, all four residents of “Hotel Grey Wolf” had enough to shower and make ourselves presentable for simple breakfast fare at Ansonia’s Whistle stop, a proud sponsor of Little Haud last year.   After we were done eating and preparing to enter Tom’s King Ranch F-150, like a little kid I was excited to hear the bell from the adjoining railroad crossing.  Snapping a photo of a thundering westbound CSX freight train crossing 118, these same tracks roll by an awesome new establishment where I’ve enjoyed an excellent brunch, that being Fortville, Indiana’s Taxman Brewery.

While we were in the area, I pleaded with Percy to pull a little further south to Greenville’s Maid-Rite, as this would be my first sack of loose meat sandwiches in exactly one year.  Saving them for Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, after returning to the camp site I was able to put the finishing touches on my previous week piece for Hoseheads while everyone else was lounging.   With several hours to kill before Saturday hot laps, we were once again off to explore some additional attractive Western Ohio offerings.  Fifteen minutes northeast through Cassella and St. Rose, our first stop was the Moeller Brew Barn in Maria Stein, another tiny town which proudly proclaims itself as the hometown of former MLB pitcher Cory Leubke.  Situated in a small industrial park, the steel building resembling a bar had windows opened to the neighboring farm.  Choosing to sample a flight of Dirt Track Kolsch, Blackberry Wheat, Wally Post Red Ale, and Bourbon Barrel Sour, rather appropriate that the Dirt Track Kolsch was my favorite of the four. 

Through Chickasaw and Carthagena to Coldwater, upon the sage advice of my nephew our next stop was Tailspin brewery, housed in an old dairy barn where I enjoyed an incredibly satisfying G-Loc Doppelbock Blonde Ale and some friendly conversation with local folk.  Looking up information on Carthagena, l learned that the village was started in 1840 by Harrison County, Kentucky’s Charles Moore, an African American who owned 160 acres.  For over 100 years, Carthagena contained a substantial population of African Americans and the land where their school once stood was purchased by the Missionaries of the Precious Blood.  Still the site of the visually impressive Saint Charles Seminary, it is an imposing presence easily seen from miles away.  Enjoying this further exploration of western Ohio, the sight of so many church steeples, silos, and immaculate homesteads served as an additional calming influence on this brief but great escape from reality. 

Finally awarded enough time to make my way to the pits prior to Saturday’s action, long-time Hoffman Racing V.P. of Operations Dan Launderville was here to help with Brady Bacon’s dual pronged attack.  When asked when and where I can see the Hoffman 69 O.T. back in action, Dan noted that Bacon will be in the Triple X/Mopar-Claxton for Friday and Saturday of Indiana Midget Week.  Launderville, Jeremy Perdue, and Mark Ashbrook will again assist Kody Swanson’s Little 500 effort with car owner Gene Nolen.  Meanwhile, the return of Eric Gordon in the Hoffman 69 will be guided by long-time sports car/endurance racing crew chief Kevin Doran, whose Cincinnati oval track racing roots run deep. 

While curiously inspecting the World of Outlaws artillery to identify chassis/engine/shock combinations, I asked Tony Stewart Racing crew member Brad Mariscotti if their Ford engine project was still in the works, and he confirmed that to be the case.  TSR still uses Ron Shaver Chevrolet power, as does the Rudeen Racing 26 wrenched by Rob Hart, who noted that Shaver was actually here to sort out the issues they’ve been having matching engine characteristics with the preferences of its pilot Joey Saldana.  Speaking of engines, co-car owner Fred Zirzow (EZR Racing) explained that his driver Kyle Cummins would be wheeling a Triple X chassis on Saturday as the camshaft profile of the Claxton engine installed in that car seemed better suited to Cummins than the one in Friday’s DRC.  As it was, the team’s feature finish improved by one spot on Saturday.   

Stopping to say hello to old friend Bill Rose whose Eldora roots date back to the mid-1980s in a USAC late model, it was great to see him back in his familiar number six wingless sprinter, a DRC chassis with Charlie Fisher power.  After watching his new Maxim Silver Crown car in action at Terre Haute with Chris Windom behind the wheel (Windom worked out a deal to drive Bill’s number 66 after blowing his engine in hot laps), Rose is excited to get back behind the wheel for this Thursday’s Hoosier Hundred.

Hurrying back to the campsite for a quick bite (grilled chicken, broccoli, and tater tots), on-track activities were ready to resume promptly at 6 PM, as it was announced that the show would be pushed to completion as quickly as possible to in an attempt to avoid approaching storms.  In an outstanding cooperation between track staff, sanctioning bodies, and teams, hot laps, qualifying, seven heat races, 1 trophy dash, and 1 B-main would be completed by 8 PM, with the pair of features taking the final checkered flag at 9:07 PM.  Once again, the literal non-stop racing completely took me away from my worries, not even allowing for a bathroom break or trip down t-shirt row.  Joined in Section I by my oldest brother, dad, and two nephews, the majority of Oldham family members agree that there is something so soothing about a springtime Eldora appearance, mandatory for one’s mental health.    

As expected for this second showing of the weekend, surface conditions turned slick fairly soon.  Eleventh in the qualifying line, David Gravel’s 12.910 second lap was best in the winged world, with only three machines clocking beneath 13 seconds.  USAC hot laps and qualifications came after the Outlaws and C.J. Leary’s 15.940 could not be topped, the only one in the 15 second club.  Just like KTJ on Friday, C.J. was first in line.   Sixth quick in Dan Pace’s 44, Eldora newcomer Joe Stornetta was a thrill a minute all weekend long, showing no fear as he extended over the cushion and flirted with the fence in his qualification performance.  After finishing second in his heat, Stornetta was set to start from the pole for the feature, assisted for the second weekend in a row by Frankfort, Indiana’s Brian Cripe.    

With everyone making the USAC A-main, the only drama for feature transfers came in the WoO B, as Daryn Pittman would overtake Trey Starks for the fourth and final transfer while taking the white flag.  Big names missing from Saturday’s outlaw A included Gary Taylor, Greg Wilson, Jac Haudenschild, and Cory Eliason, as poor qualification performances ruined their evening. 

The USAC sprint car finale was up first and just like Friday, Chris Windom fired from the outside of the front row.  But, it would be third starting Kevin Thomas, Jr. getting the jump to turn one, sliding the entire front row through turn two to lead the first three tours around the expansive half-mile.  A second lap red flag for seventh-starting Justin Grant ended his evening, and the ensuing restart saw Joe Stornetta tag the turn four wall, dramatically cartwheeling to the bottom of the banking.  With the front half of the frame cleaned off at the radiator, thankfully Joe was ok after the incident.  So bold in his initial attack of Eldora, I was hoping Stornetta would not suffer such fate.  But as so many have learned over the years, you just have to respect the concrete.

One lap after going back to green flag conditions, Windom’s turn one slider on Thomas would prove to be the winning move, as Thomas’s turn one try on lap five was no good.  With surface conditions smooth and slick leading to a thin cushion, they completely favored Windom’s extensive Eldora experience and the setup applied by Derek Claxton.  Operating exclusively on top, Chris immediately drove to a full straightaway advantage as his nearest pursuers were engaged in heated combat. 

Third-starting Chase Stockon’s lap seven slider on KTJ secured second.  Going low in three and four to block the bottom, Stockon was turned completely sideways by Thomas, who momentarily regained his runner-up status.  Fifth-starting Tyler Courtney was also in the mix and attempted a big-time bomb on Thomas through three and four, only to tag the wall in the process.  What was a three car tussle for second soon expanded to five, as Bacon and Ballou joined the party.  Stockon returned to second in the middle stages but had to contend with Courtney, who finally snagged the spot with 11 laps to go.  Although Sunshine managed to cut into Windom’s massive margin, it was too little, too late for the Clauson/Marshall/Newman throttle stomper. 

The defending series champion would win his first USAC contest of the 2018 campaign and second in Eldora USAC sprint car chronicles, leading Courtney, Stockon, 10th-starting Bacon, and Ballou to the finish.  Sixth through tenth consisted of Thomas, Leary, Westfall, Cummins, and Dallas Hewitt.  Windom left only eight cars on the lead lap at the finish, a truly dominating drive from one of the exclusive few Eldora masters. 

After being rained out in Granite City and Pevely on the 18th and 19th, next up for Chris is the craziest week of his career.  Starting on Monday, he practices at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an Indy Lights car.  On Wednesday afternoon, he practices for the Little 500 in Anderson before heading off to the Terre Haute Action Track for Wednesday night’s Tony Hulman Classic.  Thursday is absolutely insane, as he practices and qualifies the Indy Lights car, qualifies for the Little 500, and races in the Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.  Friday is the Freedom 100 at IMS, also competing at IRP in the Carb Night Classic for Silver Crown cars.  Saturday is of course the Little 5, wrapping up the weekend with dirt sprint car action at Kokomo in the Indiana Double.  That’s five different race cars at six different tracks, wondering how he’ll handle the logistics of traveling to and from each venue.  A daunting challenge in the spirit of Bryan Clauson’s Chasing 200 Tour, as a fan watching from afar it should indeed be fun to follow. 

After qualifying third, winning his heat from the pole, and winning the dash from the outside of the front row, another Donny Schatz World of Outlaws A-main victory seemed rather imminent on Saturday.  However, it took a little bit of work, as his heat race and dash nemesis Parker Price-Miller would lead the first four laps from the pole, attacking the top shelf like a true veteran.  But as usual, Schatz could stick his TSR 15 anywhere he wanted, going low through three and four to lead lap five.  Two cautions would impede Donny’s drive, first for Sheldon Haudenschild’s turn four wall contact that folded his front axle and second for Spencer Bayston, who connected with Logan Schuchart late in the going. 

Similar to Friday, third-starting Schuchart was the only one in Schatz’s league, getting close enough to nearly pull off a pass through thick traffic on two occasions.  Each time, Donny somehow threaded the needle and worked the congestion to perfection, winning his fourth feature in his last five starts, now numbering eight on the season.  Schuchart again settled for second, with Aaron Reutzel, 15th-starting Kraig Kinser, and Tim Shaffer rounding out the top-five.  PPM, Kerry Madsen, 17th-starting Brad Sweet, 22nd-starting Ian Madsen, and 24th-starting Daryn Pittman took sixth through tenth.   Ohio fans clearly aren’t happy seeing the same winner night after night, awarding Schatz with another healthy dose of boos.  In these last dozen years, the World of Outlaws scenery has changed very little; wondering how the other teams can stand to lose on such a regular basis to one driver and team.  The question is, who is going to step up and serve as a consistent threat to Donny’s dominance?  Right now, I don’t see anyone being able to fill that role. 

An eventual return to the campsite caught the never-ending parade of haulers leaving the premises, as so many of the teams were on their way to Haubstadt, Indiana for Sunday night.  Although it sprinkled a bit off and on during Saturday night’s racing, the big storms that were expected never arrived.  Heading to bed at a reasonable hour only to awake early on Sunday to shower and pack belongings, after my farewell was extended to Tom, Trevor, and Doug, I walked inside the speedway grounds to have one last look before I departed.  Encountering longtime Eldora caretaker Larry Boos who was engaged in an extensive cleanup of the grounds, I thanked him for his efforts, commenting that no matter how much this place has changed, one thing that hasn’t is the special place it holds in my heart. 

Unlike the Friday afternoon drive over, the early morning Sunday return home was done at a leisurely pace.  Nobody was on the road, spotting so many tending to their yards while the weather was cool and comfortable.  Eyeing signs for tiny towns that I have always wanted to explore off the U.S. 36 path, Crete (birthplace of People’s Temple cult leader Jim Jones), Arba, Bloomingport, Carlos, Modoc, Mooreland (birthplace of Wilbur Wright), and Honey Creek are just a few.  Interestingly enough, Honey Creek was once home to Thane Houser, an old-time Indy car builder, driver, relief driver, mechanic, and riding mechanic.

But, in these last 33 years that I have been coming to Eldora, I rarely, if ever, have the time to deviate from the norm as my mind is always racing, forever focused on traveling to and from this ultimate destination for speed, drama, and excitement.  There is something to be said about those unique feelings experienced when pulling into the Eldora Speedway driveway.  All that history and all that anticipation floods the brain and completely overwhelms my system, sending me into an entirely different state of mind.  And on that rare Sunday morning drive, I couldn’t help but recall so many of the several hundred Eldora visits I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, comprehending the ultimate impact this place and its creator have had on my existence.  Far from finished with this relationship, I am already craving that next great escape. 

 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 3

Spring Cleaning

It’s almost unfathomable to comprehend, but the calendar has already flipped to May and like a light switch, the warmer weather that Hoosiers have been longing for has finally arrived.  Now that it finally feels like spring, yards and mulch beds are being tended to, patio furniture is being uncovered, and grills are being fired up on a regular basis, all while clean freaks crack their windows and perform their rigorous indoor chores.  In a similar fashion, the opening rounds of the Indiana sprint car campaign have also seen its share of serious clean up, especially if your name is Kevin Thomas, Jr.      

Because of an overly damp and wintry March and April, through Sunday May 6th only eight Indiana sprint car evenings have been available.  By no surprise, Thomas has been the biggest winner, beginning 2018 just like he ended 2017:  in utterly dominating fashion.  A winner of five features thus far, since April 28th KTJ, crew chief Davey Jones, and solid assistant Brad Alexander have literally been unstoppable.  Utilizing DRC chassis and Speedway Engines in his Hoffman 69 (USAC) and Dooling/Hayward 63 (local), Kevin has lit up the scoreboard in Haubstadt (USAC), Gas City (MSCS), Plymouth (USAC), and Kokomo (unsanctioned), the latter three consisting of a weekend sweep.  Discussing Haubstadt’s thriller in my last edition, for this first weekend in May I could only make it to Gas City and Kokomo, the first time for such a Friday/Sunday combination since May of 2016. 

My primary motivation for performing a Friday afternoon suicide mission through northeast-side Indy rush hour traffic was to sample an entertainment offering from newly anointed Gas City I-69 Speedway promoter Jerry Gappens, Jr.  The 23-year Speedway Motorsports Inc. executive and Sharpsville, Indiana native left his nearly eight-year post as General Manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway in October of 2015, boldly stepping out on a limb to lease the facility from Jack Himelick for an undisclosed number of years, starting in January 2018.  A true racing renaissance man, Jerry has literally done it all in the sport.  A one-time Indiana sprint car racer, he mentored under Chris Economaki as the assistant publisher at National Speed Sport News, assisted his father (also a former sprint car chauffeur) in the operation of the Terre Haute Action Track, served as an on-air personality for ABC Sports, and was schooled by Humpy Wheeler to eventually become the Senior VP of Events and Marketing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. 

All that time with Wheeler obviously rubbed off, as Jerry has implemented several fresh ideas to separate his promotional efforts from the rest of the pack.  From his aggressive marketing (airing television spots during March Madness), to his wide variety of racing offerings (Soccer Moms, school buses, and trailer races), to his highly interactive intermission entertainment (on May 4th he had a slew of kids scrambling for 0 in nickels spread out on a tarp), Gappens not only hopes to attract hardcore racers with one of the highest weekly sprint car purses in the state, but also capture the imagination of the casual fan as well.  This being the third event of his campaign, reliable sources informed that sprint car counts, crowds, surface conditions, and overall efficiency were where they needed to be for his first two outings.  I can attest on this particular Friday that surface conditions and efficiency were excellent, only wishing that more racers and fans would have joined in the fun.  

After escaping my Castleton employer at 5:30 PM, despite gridlock around the Deer Creek exit and an emergency pit stop near Lapel, I miraculously managed to make the 60-mile trek in just over an hour.  You’ll never know who you’ll run into while in route, as I encountered sprint car rookies Evan Mosley and Brayden Fox at the I-69/SR 13 Rickers convenience store while tending to a wayward Weather-Tech bed liner.  Both former mini-sprint stars and third generation racers, Mosley (son of Aaron) is set to make his 410 wingless debut at Paragon’s next scheduled show while Fox (son of Brad) has operated a winged sprint car a numerous times since his debut last fall.  Just like their fathers, Brayden doesn’t say too much while Evan is extremely outgoing, the latter stating that he hopes to make traditional sprint car racing great again. 

Arriving as the headlining machines were preparing to hot lap and qualify, 20 fire breathing beasts battled for the winning sum of ,000 in this initial Gas City appearance by the Midwest Sprint Car Series.  I honestly expected a few more players, especially since Bloomington only had winged 305s running.  However, two hours to the east, Limaland was hosting a rare wingless sprint car show which was captured by Landon Simon.  Although their count was far more slim, this did indeed keep a handful or so away.  But, much like a Sunday night in Kokomo, quality reigned over quantity.  Either way, it was another solid outing from Gappens, whose hand I finally had the pleasure of shaking.  First impressions mean everything and having initially encountered his sister and mother in the front office, their extremely pleasant and friendly demeanor set the tone for an awesome evening. 

The three timed hot lap sessions lined up each heat and inverted the fastest four, with Chase Stockon’s 12.888 second circuit topping them all.  Observing fairly routine heat races from the turn four lineup chute with 81 year-old Merrillville Al Longiny, we saw wins come from first (Clinton Boyles in the Hazen 57), fourth (Brady Bacon), and third (KTJ).  MSCS rules redraw the first two finishing positions to determine the feature lineup and with this evening’s inversion turning out to be zero; that meant Paul Hazen’s newly hired gun would blast off from the pole position. 

After the heats, I had a chance to catch up to Hazen for the first time in 2018.  Recently turning 80 years young, he noted that he had recently suffered a hernia while finishing the assembly of his two DRC chassis in March.  Upon the advice of car constructor Joe Devin, Hazen met and eventually hired Boyles, whose number one objective in 2018 is to learn these Indiana ovals.  Son of midget racer Joe and brother to Jessica (who is married to Hunter Schuerenberg), Clinton was named the 2016 National Sprint Car Hall of Fame wingless rookie of the year on the strength of three first-year feature wins in the Missouri-based WAR series.  Having claimed one of those wins in just his fourth career outing, Boyles is obviously a quick study, as evidenced by his Gas City score one week from this particular evening (May 11th).    

While heats for the two support classes were rolling, I observed veteran Illinois car owner Rick Pollock spinning sockets for Tony DiMattia, stopping to say hello to a beaten and battered Brian Cripe who was spending his first evening with Napa, California’s Joe Stornetta, Jr. 

I also spent some time with C.J. Leary, who hails from the same city (Greenfield, Indiana) that spawned his local ride:  the Scott Pedersen owned DRC.  While Scott, son Ryan, and Donnie Gentry were strategizing on feature offset and stagger, C.J. relayed the story of how he struggled to complete the final 2/3rds of the Haubstadt feature with a broken steering wheel and bent Jacob’s ladder.  Mentioning how much of a handful it was to deal with the wheel folding down on him while attempting to navigate the corners, one of the three spokes broke away from the outer rim on the eight-year-old wheel.  A second spoke was also on the verge of breaking and had that happened, he would have actually been holding the outer rim while the final spoke was attached to the steering gear.    Having never been a fan of Haubstadt, he’s looking forward to his next trip, as these last two appearances have resulted in absolute rocket ships to drive.    

With no B-main necessary, the I-69 30-lap finale was ready to roll by 8:35 PM.  Beginning Boyles and Bacon from the front, Bacon’s outside attack through one and two allowed him to take the point.  For 25 of the 30 tours, it was an all-out Bacon-fest, as the two-time USAC sprint car king eventually opened up a full straightaway advantage in his own number 99 Triple X.  Early on, Boyles tried hanging with him but soon had his hands full with second row starters Shane Cottle (Phillips 71) and Kevin Thomas, Jr. once lapped traffic came into play.  Boyles and Cottle connected while overtaking Aric Gentry and one lap later, a bobble from the 57 allowed the 2004 and 2009 track champion to advance to second.  However, it was only a matter of time until KTJ came calling, staying up top to take sweep past Boyles and Cottle.  Still a long way to go to catch the leader, Thomas must be living right as a timely caution came with five circuits remaining, instigated by a Stornetta/Stockon turn four entanglement. 

With no lappers between first and second, it was an entirely new race as Kevin immediately applied pressure with his top-shelf tactic.  Brady stayed true to the bottom as the lead duo were suddenly engaged in exciting wheel-to-wheel combat for the next three tours.  But, once Bacon altered his line to fly high in turn one, Thomas immediately diamonded the corner to pilfer the premier position.  Despite one last lunge off turn four, Brady had nothing for the Alabama assassin, who advised that this was the first race for a new DRC chassis.  Done in the daylight at 8:47 PM, chasing Thomas and Bacon were Cottle, Boyles, and second-week winner Thomas Meseraull.  Marion, Illinois’ Carson Short started 19th and scored an impressive sixth.  Seventh through tenth were Robert Ballou, Isaac Chapple, C.J. Leary, and Chase Stockon, who came from the rear after his lap 25 incident.   

Smooth and tacky all night long, Gas City’s surface was in prime shape, blowing off just enough in the late stages to offer two true lanes.  The efficient evening was made even more satisfying when realizing that Fairmount’s Grains and Grill was open until 10 PM.  Just ten minutes away, I saddled up to the bar and ordered one of their own Bad Dad Brewery creations:  the Bloody Harry IPA.  An east coast style hazy IPA, it is brewed with blood oranges, mentioning on their menu that its fruity notes consist of tangerine and slightly tart raspberries.  (Make my day punk!)  Having only eaten at Grains and Grill on one occasion, I was thoroughly impressed and have always wanted to return.  On this late night, I caved into my humongous craving for their ridiculously delicious house burger:  an eight ounce patty simply grilled and topped with bacon jam, fried onion, and white cheddar cheese.  However, I must come back for “Kevin’s Tenderloin” (G&G’s chef’s name is Kevin), which consists of their house cut Indiana raised pork loin pounded and hand breaded, topped with sharp white cheddar cheese, Applewood smoked bacon, and house potato salad.  Are you hungry yet? 

All in all, it was a highly satisfying Friday evening leaving me wanting more, so I encourage everyone to get “On The Gas” and get to Gas City for one of their upcoming programs.  May 18th shows sprint cars, UMRA TQs, and mod lites.  Dark on Friday the 25th, they host the second stop of Indiana Midget Week on Wednesday the 30th.  Consecutive Fridays in June include “A Salute to the Kinsers” (GLSS winged and local wingless sprints headline on June 8th), the “Jack and Jiggs Classic” (sprints and D2 midgets on June 15th), the “Jerry Gappens Sr. Memorial” (sprints and UMP mods on June 22nd), and the “Star Spangled Spectacular” (sprints and UMP mods on June 29th).  Go to to review the full year’s schedule of events.  The season finale arrives on September 28th. 

Staying busy on Saturday with non-racing activities, I obviously missed a thrilling Plymouth USAC finish involving Robert Ballou and Kevin Thomas, Jr.  Hungering for more with the arrival of Sunday’s unsanctioned King of Kokomo thirty-lapper paying ,500 to win, despite windy conditions, the fans were blessed two-fold:  one - the weather was much better than forecasted and two - the all-star 30-car congregation that populated the pits was sure to be another barnburner.  You’re damned right if you say I’m lucky to live less than an hour away.    

Continuing to don his apron with broom and dust pan in hand, KTJ absolutely cleaned house on Sunday.  From the second group, he posted the top time of all at 13.068 seconds, won the second heat from fourth, drew the pole for the feature, and promptly paced the field for all 30 tours.  Superior in his attack of the cushion through turns and two, Kevin was able to keep sixth-starting and first heat winner Dave Darland in his wake.  Dave (Goodnight 36D) had immediately surged to third and became embroiled in a heated battle with second starting and third heat winner Justin Grant (Topp 4), exchanging the runner-up position four times in two laps via a volley of sliders.  Interrupted only for a lap seven red for Tony DiMattia, despite Darland’s gain from diamonding the south end of the speedway, every time Kevin would add to his advantage with a smoother sweep of the north.  The People’s Champ did what he needed to do to hold back the advances of Grant, who settled for the show position.  Defending USAC champ Chris Windom started seventh and collected fourth place funds, with eighth-starting Kyle Cummins (EZR 3C) finding fifth, dampening his Eberhardt-Zirzow DRC chassis with Benic Enterprises-tuned Pro shocks for the first time this season.  Carson Short started and finished sixth and was chased by C.J. Leary (Pedersen 4P), Thomas Meseraull, Logan Seavey (Briscoe 5), and Jarett Andretti.  So hard to take my eyes off the battle for the lead, I tried to keep at least one eye on the scrum for sixth on back, as a handful of guys were going at it hot and heavy for the entire distance.  As I like to say, it was just another Sunday night in Kokomo, treated to an exciting feature filled with the country’s top talent, exiting extremely satisfied around 9:30 PM. 

Other than DiMattia’s dump, the only other serious calamity came at the start of the third heat when pole sitter Stevie Sussex (Burton 04) had an intimate encounter with fellow front row mate Justin Grant.  Sussex inverted directly in front of my backstretch grandstand spot, introduced to the opposing vantage point courtesy of track ambassador Brent Goodnight.  After an extensive surface revamp from Reece O’Connor, a 15-car B-main saw local boy Parker Frederickson pound the rear of Stratton Briggs as Brian Hodde was waving the checkered flag.  In that 12-lap dash, Clinton Boyles topped 12th-starting Sussex, 13th-starting Joe Stornetta, Matt Goodnight, and 9th-starting Tyler Hewitt. 

Kokomo’s next event is BC’s Indiana Double on the Sunday night of the Indianapolis 500, featuring wingless sprint cars.  One week later, June 3rd is the highly-anticipated Indiana Midget Week finale, offering local wingless sprint cars as well.  One week later, it’s Kids Night and the Dave Crow Classic, again highlighted by unsanctioned wingless sprints. 

After the weekend sweep and four wins in a row, the question remains:  can anyone stop the extensive Indiana spring cleaning exhibition being conducted by Kevin Thomas, Jr.?  With USAC backing courtesy of Richard Hoffman’s Mean Green money plus local support from Joe Dooling and Brodie Hayward, funds, inventory, and quality of components do not appear to be an issue.  Completely clicking with setups being applied by his dynamic duo of Jones and Alexander, just like a 100-car freight train, this combination will be difficult to stop.  With the recent announcement of Thomas’s assumption of driving duties of Dooling’s 63 midget, the sky appears to be the limit at the moment. 

Unless it’s my two vehicles, I have to say I’m not a huge fan of spring cleaning, as it always seems to be an arduous chore.  But when you’re dominating the Indiana bullring scene, it has to be an entirely different story.  Just ask KTJ, who is at the top of his game and absolutely loving life while he’s busy cleaning up. 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 2

Triple Treat

Pick just about any sport and the factor of three causes quite a stir.   

Hockey’s hat trick, baseball’s triple play, and basketball’s three point shot are prime examples, as are horse and auto racing’s Triple Crowns.  Speaking of the latter, the most significant and sophisticated version consists of the Indianapolis 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Monaco Grand Prix.  Such a rare feat, after all these years Graham Hill is still the only one who has claimed all three contests.  Indy car’s Triple Crown (500 milers in Indianapolis, Pocono, and Ontario/Michigan/Fontana) is once again extinct, but Al Unser’s 1978 sweep is still an impressive accomplishment some 40 years later.  Closer to home, we all know that entry into USAC’s exclusive Triple Crown club requires championships in each of its premier open wheel divisions.  Six men have done the deed, but 23 years after the fact it is still unfathomable how Tony Stewart managed to take three titles in one singular season, as back in 1995 USAC’s midget, sprint, and Silver Crown divisions had several scheduling conflicts that forced Tony to pick and choose which shows he would have to miss.         

Although this final weekend of April 2018 may not be remembered in the same manner as any of the aforementioned titanic triples, race-starved Hoosier open wheel fanatics were finally feeling satisfied, as the combination of picture-perfect weather and a trio of home state USAC events was noteworthy. Selfishly speaking, this was a rather significant triple dip, leading off with a Bloomington battle that introduced the wild world of automobile racing to my nephew’s seven-month-old son.  Perched high atop turn four while wearing ear muffs, Graham was awake and alert from hot laps to feature conclusion, making for a fifth generation of the Oldham family who has been unfairly influenced by the intoxicating audio of ear-piercing engines.  Wondering if he will actually enjoy this activity as he grows older, I speak from experience when stating that even if you are into other things, racing has a way of creeping into your system. 

My wife Rachael and older brother Chris were along for the ride on Friday, beginning the evening with a pre-race meal at Nick’s English Hut, where I painfully tested my parallel parking skills in a Ford Raptor on Kirkwood Avenue.  Capping a truly fantastic day with Dave Darland’s rim-riding feature win, the emotional score was his first in USAC sprint car circles since November of 2016 and 60th of his career.   After starting second, Darland stayed upstairs for the entire distance but lost the lead on two separate occasions to pole sitter and bottom-feeding Chase Stockon.  Adjusting his attack of the gargantuan cushion entering turn one and the fine line that existed in three and four, Dave slowly rebuilt momentum on the otherwise slicked-off surface to reclaim the number one spot from Chase on lap 13, never to be headed.  His second win in as many weeks in the Scott Benic wrenched Goodnight Racing Maxim/Claxton, Dave appears as confident and relaxed as I’ve seen him in years.  Many people may not realize, but the “Big Dog” Maxim chassis that Dave is driving is a three inch longer wheelbase than the standard configuration.  Whether or not it makes a difference, it’s all about being in the zone with driver comfort and confidence and given his solid run the next night in Haubstadt, I’d say that Darland and Benic might have something.  High-fiving photographers after his victory lane interview with Pat Sullivan, the People’s Champion was trailed by Chris Windom, Logan Seavey (up from 15th), Chad Boespflug, and C.J. Leary.  Jeff Bland, Jr. (Waltz 18), Stockon, Brady Bacon (from 13th), Napa, California’s Joe Stornetta (Pace 44), and Tyler Courtney rounded out the top-ten. 

A truly efficient evening paired with support from RaceSaver 305s and super stocks, Bloomington’s headliner checkered at an ultra-efficient 9:15 PM.  Walking back down the hill to the parking lot, I couldn’t help but stop to say hello to B&W Auto Mart’s Bill Wever, eyeing an incident-filled Race Saver finale captured by 12th-starting Ryan Tusing (Huntley 26), who stole a win from Luke Bland with a late race overtaking.  

The next day, my nephew took a day off from daycare and joined me in a journey to Tri-State Speedway, where Kevin Thomas, Jr. ran down quick qualifier (13.252) and first heat winner C.J. Leary to claim yet another USAC union at this high-banked quarter-mile paperclip.  While C.J. manned the middle groove, KTJ explored the high line, eventually threading a thin needle between the front stretch wall and Leary to lead the final four laps.  A big recovery after scaling the turn three bank at Bloomington to finish 16th, Saturday’s victory would be his first in Mean Green 69 livery, extending the Hoffman Racing legacy even further.   After Leary received a body slam from Dave Darland on lap nine, he miraculously drove the rest of the distance with a broken steering wheel and a folded Jacobs ladder, with his eight year-old steering wheel actually bending down when attempting to turn the car in the corners.  Ultra-wide, tacky, and racy all night long, action was edge-of-your-seat, old-school Haubstadt and simply spectacular, with three of the four heat races won from sixth starting spot.   Thomas and Leary were trailed by Logan Seavey, Dave Darland, and outside front row starter Justin Grant.  Chris Windom, Robert Ballou, Kody Swanson (the pole sitter who led the first 12 laps), Carson Short, and Chase Stockon scored sixth through tenth.  For Ballou, it was a big recovery after qualifying 24th and starting 20th, using his backup machine after crashing with Dakota Jackson on Friday.  31 cars assembled in southwestern Indiana, an excellent figure that outdrew both Lawrenceburg (Dickie Gaines took the ,500 win) and Putnamville.

Sunday’s Sumar Classic was a worthwhile diversion from the Pacers-Cavaliers finale, keeping me from obsessing over the dread of an upcoming stressful week of work.  Impatiently sitting through nearly an hour’s worth of hot laps for the 29-car corral that promptly began at 4 PM, the afternoon sun and excessive circuits burned up an initially decent surface.  After a rare Silver Crown consolation race and a 15-lap modified feature, the Sumar finally took the green flag at 8:08 PM, with the second half of the 100-lap feature being played out on a rubbered-up, one groove surface.  Far from ideal conditions for a hardcore fan who craves a cushion, despite the five cautions and two red flag periods (Joss Moffatt and Jacob Wilson), the feature action was actually quite eventful and entertaining, as the top spot was officially exchanged seven times between five different drivers, namely:  Jerry Coons, Jr. (1-10), C.J. Leary (11-35), Justin Grant (36-69), Shane Cottle (70), Grant again (71-76), Kody Swanson (77-83), and Grant (84-100).  For Grant, this was his second career Silver Crown score, redemption for two years ago when he had the car to win this same Sumar Classic.  

Many times, the Terre Haute feature lead was exchanged several times a lap, proving once again that USAC racing can make lemonade from a sack of lemons.  The most significant moment of the contest came on lap 84 when Cottle’s turn three suicide slide from third to first speared Swanson’s left rear.  The contact ended Shane’s evening while Kody’s DePalma 63 squad was forced to swap rubber, driving through the field to eventually claim second.  A complete rollercoaster of a Sunday for Swanson, his Bob Hampshire-led bunch exchanged engines after hot laps and did not take a qualifying lap.  Relegating them to the consolation race in which they began last (12th) and finished 2nd, they eventually rolled off 18th for the finale.  Despite my disdain for rubber-down conditions, after reviewing the video highlights a day or two later, the frustration and struggle was indeed worth it.   The final results had Grant topping Swanson, quick qualifier Tyler Courtney (recovering from an early spin in the Lein 97), Chris Windom (jumping into Bill Rose’s 66 after hot laps), and C.J. Leary.  Positions six through ten were taken by Shane Cockrum, Jerry Coons, Jr., Joe Liguori, Johnny Petrozelle, and Neil Shepherd (after starting 23rd). 

Going back through my weekend notebook, Friday’s Bloomington battle offered 28 USAC machines, happy with the number but truthfully hoping for more.  Perhaps the most surprising entry came from North Carolina’s Johnny Petrozelle, who was in the state for Sunday’s Silver Crown chores but brought his sprint car for Friday and Saturday too.  Winged or wingless, dirt or pavement, Petrozelle can be seen racing just about anywhere.  Johnny’s best result from the weekend was ninth at Terre Haute after missing both Friday and Saturday features.  Saturday, he was in a position to claim the final transfer from the semi-feature until Tyler Thomas’s last turn, last lap effort removed them from contention.

Taking quick, informal strolls through Bloomington and Haubstadt pit areas, I spotted Brady Short turning wrenches on Logan Seavey’s Briscoe Racing number 5.  So odd not to see him in action at his best two speedways, each night Short was occupied on the car so I didn’t have a chance to ask how many times we’d see him behind the wheel this year.  For now, his focus is on getting Seavey to the front, accomplishing just that this weekend.  The defending POWRi midget champion, Logan had only raced a sprint car at Bloomington on one occasion (last August) and had never raced at Haubstadt, but you’d never know it as he was fast, aggressive, and patient, most evident at Bloomington where he picked off many cars early around the bottom lane. 

Making it an official start to the racing season by saying hello and shaking hands with Bloomington, Indiana’s Dan Hetser not once but twice this weekend, I also had a chance to catch up with North Vernon, Indiana car owner Hank Byram, who suffered a heart attack five weeks prior.  A fairly serious ordeal in which he had 100% blockage, luckily Hank’s wife was home at the time and was able to rush him to the hospital.  Manning the four-wheeler at Bloomington and Haubstadt, Byram said he’s feeling fine, attending physical therapy sessions three times a week for the next eight weeks.  Tim Spindler is still turning wrenches on Hank’s Rock Steady Racing Mach 1, and the team still looks solid with new driver Kody Swanson.  Utilizing a Bloomington provisional after missing the feature transfer by one spot to Stevie Sussex (Burton 04), they began from Haubstadt’s pole and led the first 12 laps, one of the rare times for Kody to make a Tri-State appearance. 

Kyle Cummins and his Eberhardt-Zirzow Racing team endured a frustrating weekend.  After breaking a spark plug in Bloomington qualifying, Kyle timed 18th and wound wind up 14th in the main, far from meeting their elevated expectations after winning a local feature on April 13th.  As for Saturday’s results at his home track, he qualified fifth but couldn’t make any moves in his heat after unhooking the sway bar from his DRC chassis.  Relegated to the semi-main, he made the cut and would eventually start the 30-lapper from eighth.  But, an early incident would send him on his side, restarting to claim a sub-standard 18th. 

Tyler Thomas and his Michael Dutcher Motorsports team had an eventful weekend for sure.  After qualifying quickest at Bloomington (10.954), Tyler finished 12th after starting 7th.  Eighth-fastest on Saturday, everything unraveled in their heat after a last lap slide job from Chet Williams.  Tyler attempted an immediate crossover but the two locked wheels, with Williams winding up on his side.  After Chet was righted, an angry Tyler promptly fed him a wheel while idling under caution and was ordered to the pit area by USAC official Levi Jones.  After a few heated words were exchanged between the two teams, the drama was far from over for Thomas, who spun in the semi-feature and was forced to rally from the rear.  A last turn, last lap lunge at Johnny Petrozelle resulted in contact that kept both from earning feature starting berths.  Thomas popped a provisional pass but could only muster 22nd in the main. As noticed in Lincoln Park Speedway results the next Saturday, Justin Peck occupied the seat in the 17GP. 

While making the Haubstadt rounds, I learned that Frankfort, Indiana’s Brian Cripe would be assisting Dan Pace and his driver Joe Stornetta at the following weekend’s events.  While speaking to Cripe’s entourage that consisted of son Kevin and Rodney Reynolds, we observed Chad Boespflug and engine builder Jeff Claxton’s last minute thrash to troubleshoot the under the hood issues.  After qualifying seventh on Saturday, Chad missed the heat race cut and dropped out of the semi-feature while operating in second.  Boespflug and Claxton were unable to solve the mystery, as the number 98 failed to take the green flag after using up a provisional pass.

The Sumar Classic represented a respectable field of 29 entries that contained some interesting combinations, with many names from the past appearing in the pit area.  Two-time Silver Crown champion (2012 and 2013) and former Sumar Classic winner Bobby East was tending to the pristine Beast chassis belonging to long-time endurance racer Chris Dyson.  In addition to his father Terry, Neil Shepherd had long-time Tray House mechanic Chuck Castor spinning sockets on Neil’s new DRC while across the aisle, House was calling the shots on Travis Welpott’s DRC.  Once Chris Windom climbed into Bill Rose’s Maxim after punching a hole in the block of his Nolen Racing 17, I observed the assistance of veteran Bloomington and Paragon speedway competitor Buddy Cunningham.  As he’s done the last few years, former midget racer and longtime Indycar mechanic Dennis LaCava directed Justin Grant’s drive in the Hemelgarn DRC/Ford, with assistance from former Ray Kenens helper Jeff Lanam.  Current Kevin Thomas, Jr. crew chief Davey Jones presided over the entry from Binghamton, New York’s Coleman Gulick, with the brand new Mach 1 chassis sporting “Nut Up and Out Ball ‘Em” on its sides.  Nut Up and Out Ball ‘Em is a new sportswear company brought to life by the Iceman himself, Coleman Gulick. 

Having only attended one prior racing event in 2018, three races in three days pushed me closer to being in “race shape”, as energy levels and enthusiasm always seem to be greater when auto racing options are available and exercised.  Three separate drives to and from home resulted in 12 hours of windshield time but along the way I enjoyed some rather outstanding racing, not to mention an extra-special family moment on Friday, a gorgeous Saturday afternoon drive down 67/57/50/241/41 (with a brief stopover in Washington at Mason’s Root Beer stand), and a relaxed Sunday afternoon spent in solitude at the Action Track.  Although not quite as rare as I initially believed, this USAC Hoosier weekend triple was still a treat, once again reminding me of the fortunate feeling that comes from living in this epicenter of incredible open wheel activity.   

   

 

 

 

 

Volume 20, Number 1

Back in the High Life

Over time, a significant amount of hot air has been expelled when speaking of Indiana weather inconsistencies.  But, the truth is, people have had a legitimate reason to start a conversation with this subject these last few weeks.   Weird, wacky, bi-polar, or whatever you want to call it, more often than not this spring season has been cold and wet, shaking my head as I wonder if we might just be transitioning from winter straight into summer.   

Feeling like it was ice ages ago, Saturday, October 21st of 2017 was my most recent racing outing and after enduring an unusually painful off-season punctuated by a second bulging disc in my lower back and far too many stressful weeks at work, I patiently awaited the commencement of the Indiana open wheel calendar for the sole purpose of feeling alive once again.  Unfortunately, someone forgot to remind Mother Nature that it was time to switch gears, as my March motorsports outdoor activities on the 23rd, 24th, and 31st were nixed well in advance due to unfavorable forecasts.   Proving that this harsh weather was no fluke, the first full weekend in April wasn’t any better, as the 6th and 7th were also a no-go.  No doubt the oddest spring season that I can remember, ten inches of wet, heavy snow blanketed certain sections of the Indy area on March 24th.  Only needing a couple of days to completely melt, once again a few more inches of accumulation came on consecutive Sundays:  April 1st (Easter) and the 8th.  I can’t tell you how unusual it was to use a brush and ice scraper on my car so late into the year, and after missing out on another big Saturday (April 14th) in which all five Indiana open wheel options were washed out, snow was once again an issue on Monday April 16th. 

Somehow, Indiana raceaholics earned a rare reprieve from all this insanity on Friday April 13th, with both Kokomo and Bloomington Speedways opening for 2018 business.  Choosing the Kokomo Grand Prix’s mouth-watering menu of USAC midgets and unsanctioned sprints as my initial outing, never have I started my season in K-town, always associating openers with USAC at Eldora.  But ever since the Big E gave up on hosting Midwestern lid-lifters, North Vernon, Brownstown, or Lawrenceburg have played the part.  Looking back through Excel spreadsheets showing my accumulation of racing contests, April 13th is the latest date for my first event.  As they say, there’s a first time for everything. 

Exiting my employ at 5 PM on a Friday, my nephew was along for the ride, arriving just in time to hear the heavenly hum of midgets warming motors.  Since becoming a father to son Graham Frederick last September 18th, Danny’s anticipation for live automobile action has been infinitely greater than mine, so he too was loving this sudden respite from reality. 

As I begin my 20th consecutive season of authoring articles for Allan Holland, with pen and paper in hand I made the climb to my usual section B vantage point.  And much like the lovable accountant Norm Peterson from Cheers, it felt fantastic to encounter all those familiar, friendly faces who knew my name.  The positive feelings generated from finally getting out of the house and doing something different were just so surreal, as all night long I was unable to comprehend that this special day had actually arrived.  Not only was it the first race of the year, but as an added bonus it just so happened to be a midget and sprint car doubleheader at Indiana’s baddest bullring.  Go ahead and pinch me now, because life doesn’t get much better than this. 

Blessed with a quality-filled field of 34 midgets and 23 sprints for this ideal twin-bill, double-dippers included Kevin Thomas, Jr., Tyler Thomas, Dave Darland, C.J. Leary, Brady Bacon, and Chris Windom.  Perhaps the most surprising sight was KTJ’s sprint car:  a Dooling/Hayward 63 which a few weeks ago had been mothballed for financial concerns, as per the team’s press release.  However, this particular piece appeared to be a DRC chassis, not the Spike that the team’s former shoe Brady Bacon flogged in Florida.  Arriving as cars were on the track and without any downtime to investigate, at the minimum I learned that this collaboration is only applicable for non-USAC unions.  Of those doing the double, special midget appearances came from Windom, Leary, and Darland.  Windom was once again wheeling a Baldwin Spike-Ford, but a half-spin in his heat resulted in a centerpunch from Justin Grant, ending his evening earlier than planned.  C.J.’s Topp Motorsports Beast was powered by a Honda that was constructed by Topp Performance Race Parts (formerly Gaerte Engines), with plans to sell the piece as an affordable alternative to Toyotas, Mopar SR-11s, and Esslingers.  Not the best advertising for their new product, Leary failed to crack the feature lineup.  In a second BT Machine Spike/Esslinger, Darland needed the B to make the A, tipping over but returning to collect 13th.     

Having caught a little of the Du Quoin opener online, I was at least familiar with a few of the new-for-2018 midget combinations in this ultra-healthy accumulation.  Seven of the 34 came from the Keith Kunz corral, led by defending series champ Spencer Bayston.  Also returning to the KKM fold were Ryan Robinson, Tanner Carrick, and Holly Shelton, with DQ winner Logan Seavey, Tucker Klaasmeyer, and Sam Johnson serving as new additions.  Bayston and Seavey are more than capable of claiming their share of the limelight, but the fact that the other five are still unproven commodities gives hope to the rest of the competitors.  Clauson-Marshall Racing again carried three cars, with Angola, Indiana teenage sensation Zeb Wise joining Tyler Courtney and Justin Grant for the national tour.  Five pairs of entries came from Petry-Goff (KTJ and Jerry Coons, Jr.), FMR (Brady Bacon and Kyle Craker), BT Machine, Tucker-Boat (Chad Boat and Zane Hendricks), and Alex Bright (with Andrew “Layser”).  Continuing a deuces wild theme, both Davey Ray (Chase Jones and Matt Moore) and Rusty Kunz (Thomas Meseraull and Brayton Lynch) oversaw entries from two separate squads. 

The sprint car side of the ledger enjoyed its usual assembly of stout contestants, missing the Spencer 66 (Josh officially retired and sold his equipment), Hazen 57 (Paul’s driver Clinton Boyles was in his family-owned ride), Topp 4, and Clauson-Marshall-Newman 7.  Trevor Kobylarz and Rod Colburn made long hauls to serve as surprise additions, with everyone earning A-main passes.  

Continuing the trend of Kokomo Speedway improvements since the O’Connor family took control for the 2004 season, the most noticeable change from 2017 was the addition of state-of-the-art Musco lighting, replacing the poles and structures installed during the Kent Evans era.  Offering a completely fresh perspective on the playing field, the bright lights showcased massive cushions on both ends, enhancing the track’s action-packed bullring theme.  Pre-feature for both sprints and midgets, a spectacular light show was offered as drivers slowly circled the speedway, with the LED bulbs on the six poles flashing on and off in psychedelic succession.  Much like my trip here in May of 2005 when the current layout was introduced, the upgraded lighting made me feel like I was visiting this place for the first time.  Unaware of the cost of this particular project but knowing it wasn’t cheap, between last year’s back stretch grandstand erection and these lights, it is comforting to know that the O’Connors are willing to heavily invest in their facility.  Signaling to me that they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, if you are a diehard fanatic like me, then that’s certainly a good thing.       

Thoroughly enjoying the thrilling finales for both classes, the heats were quite entertaining too, particularly the midgets.  Justin Grant’s run from the rear to third after his incident with Chris Windom, the crossover volleys between KTJ and Courtney (exchanging pleasantries afterwards), and the final turn, final lap overtaking for fourth by Bayston over Darland proved that Kokomo is made for midget racing.  Watching these preliminaries with the original Kevin Thomas, Kevin relayed that his former car owner Hank Byram had suffered a heart attack over the off-season.  I wasn’t able to make it to Brownstown the next Friday to see if he was in the pit area with his driver Kody Swanson, but here’s hoping Hank is enjoying a speedy recovery.  Speaking of health concerns, KT’s former midget car owner D.O. Laycock (both winners of the 1997 Kokomo Wolverine Midget Nationals) was at a routine doctor appointment on Friday April 20th but soon learned that he desperately needed a pacemaker and defibrillator installed.  Thankfully, the procedure was successful and Laycock made it home the next day, but he missed the Lincoln Park Speedway opener.  Sometimes, there is more to life than racing… 

But in getting back to Kokomo’s Grand Prix, absent of this type of entertainment for six months, I was back in the high life again.  The same could be said for feature winners Chris Windom (sprint) and Tyler Courtney (midget) as they returned to their lofty perches in the open wheel ranks.  For reigning USAC sprint car king Windom, it was his first Kokomo sprint car victory since July 3rd of 2017 and first sprint car score of any kind since September 15th of last year, once again working the pedals for Kenny Baldwin.   

Beginning with the 25-lap sprint conclusion, pole sitter Kevin Thomas, Jr. beat fellow front row mate Windom to the top of turn one, but Chris countered with a surprise turn three slider that was immediately returned by a KTJ crossover.  Fourth-starting Dave Darland (Goodnight 36D) used the bottom of turn one to bag second, only to give up the spot to Big Daddy one lap later.  As the top three worked in close proximity, third-starting Bacon (fast qualifier at 13.172 in his own 99), fifth-starting Boespflug, and sixth-starting Jarett Andretti quickly joined the party to make it a six car congregation up front.  While Brady applied heavy heat to Dave, Chris did the same with Kevin.  Near the halfway mark, the lead tandem toiled in thick traffic, soon seeing a Windom toss a north end bomb that was quickly crossed by the Alabama assassin.  Wheel-to-wheel at the line with 11 to go, Chris caressed the gnarly cushion and snagged the premier position for good.  After Adam Byrkett clipped a turn four infield marker tire and inverted, a four lap dash saw Windom successfully fend off a ferocious Thomas to claim opening night honors.  Bacon stole third from Darland on the final go-round, as Andretti rounded out the first five.  Positions six through ten included Boespflug, Tony DiMattia, Tyler Thomas (Dutcher 17), Cottle (Shane) and Cottle (Colten). 

As for defending Smackdown champ Courtney, after missing the feature at the Du Quoin opener, he was back on top of the USAC world with this Kokomo collection after having claimed two of three USAC sprint car opening rounds in Ocala.  Tyler began the midget feature fifth after clocking second-best to teammate Justin Grant (Justin’s 13.154-second lap was just off Rico Abreu’s record of 13.009.).  Terrific tyro Logan Seavey led the first nine laps from his outside front row start in the Kunz 67, initially dipping and diving underneath Kevin Thomas, Jr., whose turn three/four first lap slider exceeded the massive berm and dropped him to fifth.  Seeing red after a lap one incident involving Gage Walker, Chase Jones, and Matt Moore, Seavey paced the field until ruby bulbs burned for Dave Darland and Jerry Coons, Jr.  Restarting Seavey, Bayston, Courtney, Boat, and Grant, Bayston’s turn one grenade launch opened the door for Courtney in turn three, stealing the top spot with a slick slider.  Immediately turning to the bottom of turn one, Sunshine ruled the next two tours before a relentless Seavey swept past in turn three.  Feature intensity amplified from red to white hot for the next pair of circuits, as Tyler and Logan exchanged the premier position on five separate occasions.  Courtney’s crossover of a Seavey slider through turns three and four wound up sealing the deal, leading the last 18 laps.  But, it was far from simple task, first having to avoid a scary backstretch tank-slapper from Chase Jones and then a green-white-checker finish after a Tyler Thomas revolution.  Tyler held off a hard-charging Chad Boat to take the 10:05 PM checkered flag, who elevated from eighth and made big gains in the final third of the contest.  After starting seventh, last year’s Grand Prix sweeper Brady Bacon settled for third, with Bayston and Grant rounding out the first five finishers.  Scoring sixth from 12th was Zeb Wise, who topped throttle-stomping Seavey who backed up to seventh.  Thomas Meseraull charged from 16th to 8th, with Ryan Robinson and KTJ claiming 9th and 10th.  If Kokomo’s Grand Prix is any indication, with Logan Seavey being a full-time competitor in 2018, I expect massive doses of midget excitement this season.   

As is always the case with an excellent evening of racing action, gratification is only temporary, thoroughly disappointed that my craving could not be satisfied with a second helping of Saturday Grand Prix action.  Kokomo’s next event occurs on Sunday May 6th, with a trifecta of sprints, midgets, and hornets accounting for the King of Kokomo.  Knowing that my next weekend (April 20th and 21st) was committed to a wedding of two close friends, I’m crossing my fingers in hope that the weather holds out for an upcoming USAC weekend triple in Bloomington, Haubstadt, and Terre Haute.  Savoring such a brief encounter of being back in the high life, it’s only natural to yearn for a longer stay. 

 

 

 

Volume 19, Number 14

End of the Line

Given enough time, transformation is all but inevitable for even the most stubborn, change-averse individuals.    

I offer living proof of such a stance, as for the longest period I was the pickiest eater known to mankind.   Remembering as a six-year-old my refusal to try turkey at Valparaiso’s legendary Strongbow Inn, I recall my ridiculous request for a McDonald’s hamburger and French fries instead.  These days, I still suffer from the occasional fast food craving, but my current day quest for sampling the most unique, high-quality offerings from mom and pop eateries shows just how much my culinary choices have expanded.   

Likewise, having grown up under the influence of a father and three older brothers who were well rooted in road racing (Can-Am, Trans-Am, and Formula 5000) and the Indianapolis 500, after exposure to midgets, sprints, and champ dirt cars in my impressionable teenage years my auto racing interests soon evolved as well.  Aside from the 500, short track open wheel stuff became the only action that moved my needle.  Decades later this remains true, but an overexposure has no doubt diminished my passion, so much that the recent season-ender at Tri-State Speedway didn’t invoke the same level of despair that it would have some ten or twenty years prior.  Although I do not relish the forthcoming freeze, stress of the holiday shopping season, and preparation for year-end tasks at work, the end of the line for outdoor racing action did not imply the end of my world.  As I have matured, much like my move away from a McDonald’s menu I have found numerous ways to fill my free time with non-racing activities.    

But, no matter how hard I try to back down from a full-fledged auto racing agenda, my last seven months have completely revolved around satisfying my need for speed.  However, it’s much more than a racing fix that is gratified, as each one of these 54 evenings I spent away from home in 2017 has done its part to maintain my sanity and provide for a positive spirit, truly treasuring these mini-vacations from my accountant mindset.  However, to fully appreciate and ultimately miss this all-encompassing endeavor, I must endure an extensive hiatus.  That hiatus officially began when I awoke to bright sunlight on Sunday morning October 22nd, several hours after I completed the lonely three-hour tour from Haubstadt, with satellite radio serving as my only companion. 

When reviewing the 2017 slate, although by now it seems to have expired in just a heartbeat, it was in fact a long road traveled.  As much as I was not ready for my racing calendar to commence, the rainy return from that initial Brownstown attempt was one that I will not soon forget, stunned and sickened by the tragic news of Dave Steele’s incident.  After losing Greg Staab earlier in the month, as a husband and father to three little ones Steele’s abrupt departure was especially difficult to comprehend and process.  After that incomplete opening round, one by one these jam-packed weekends managed to vanish into thin air.  Early April conditions were surprisingly dry, not missing any of the extensive action until the final weekend of the month.  Despite some strong storms in the days leading up to the Indianapolis 500, thankfully all events were run except for the Hulman Classic and Hoosier Hundred.  A grueling but memorable one-day ride to and from Knoxville for USAC sprints and National Sprint Car Hall of Fame induction ceremonies was immediately followed by Indiana Midget Week, which without utilizing vacation days simply wore me out.  Attending only three contests between Midget Week and Sprint Week, (Paragon’s Amati, Brownstown, and Kokomo), unusually wet weather tried to put a damper on my favorite time of the year.  A post-Sprint Week sprinkling of special excursions to Liberty and Waynesfield added seasoning to a late July/early August itinerary and before I knew it, the four fabulous days of Kokomo’s Smackdown had arrived.   Labor Day weekend’s journey to Du Quoin was followed by the Speedrome’s 3-Hour World Figure 8 and a trio September USAC weekends that of course included the Four Crown.  Since then I have counted down to this very conclusion, so here I am discussing these final flings.  Some 68 balmy degrees at race time for Friday’s Kokomo Klash, the continued warm weather is what made the season’s end not seem fathomable.  Other than a few shows in April and May, I was never layering up with heavy clothing on a regular basis.  Selfishly speaking, who says global warming is a bad thing?        

If there had to be an end of the line for these outdoor activities, I can think of no better venues in which to put an exclamation point on 2017.  Attending a pair of programs at arguably the nation’s top two bullrings, the speed plants in Kokomo and Haubstadt are unfortunately separated by some supreme distance:  221 miles or 3 hours and 34 minutes of windshield time, which is a lot for the long and tall Hoosier state.    Counting this as my 14th Kokomo appearance of the season due to its close proximity, the Klash has quite often served as the end of the racing line since its 2007 inception. 

And as expected, Kokomo’s pit area collected a massive amount of machinery, 127 machines on Friday and more than double that figure for Saturday’s stock-car exclusive (264).  As for Friday, I focused on the 35 sprints and 23 midgets in attendance, loving the damp yet smooth surface that early on held a hue of dark chocolate.  After a 5:20 PM exit from my Castleton employ, while changing into dirt track attire along the old Pennsylvania Railroad Chicago to Cincinnati mainline, I listened to the first of four group hot lap/qualifying sessions that lined up heat races, this time straight-up. 

With fast guys beginning up front, sprint and midget heat races were essentially runaways, with all but one winner coming from the front row (Chris Windom).  However, the action beyond second firmly held my attention.  Especially noteworthy was a super-stacked first heat in which Tyler Courtney, Chad Boespflug, and Shane Cottle sliced and diced for third, ultimately sending Shane to one of two B-mains.  Ted Hines made the most of his rare appearance with a ninth to third surprise in heat two, which had 2014 Klash conqueror C.J. Leary leading until his 1 Way Technologies power plant went up in smoke, ending his evening and necessitating a swap in time for a Tri-State tow.   David Hair’s horrendous fourth heat sprint car crash represented the first of two Friday red flags.  A shining representative of a shoestring racer, Hair was setting up for turn three but scaled the cushion and kissed concrete, with the resulting rebound returning an extended set of gyrations that crushed the front half of his nearly-new mid-tube CS-9 chassis and expelled an immense amount of methanol from its tail tank.  Prepared to do double-duty with his midget, David was otherwise ok but was forced to spend the rest of his night readying the tattered remains for transport.  

Dallas Hewitt (Keen 18) was the second to spill, unable to avoid a first lap fracas in the first sprint B that was easily claimed by four-time track champion Cottle, who put a half-track distance between himself and Matt Goodnight.  With veteran socket spinner Scott Benic continuing to call the shots, Goodnight grabbed five spots to edge BOSS big shot Dustin Smith for the other A-main ticket.  Travis Hery and Lee Underwood escaped with the remaining two feature spots from the second B. 

The four sprint heat winners were Dave Darland (Hery 40), Chris Windom, Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Kyle Cummins (own 3c) and with the zero inversion format, they would occupy the first two rows for the 25-lap finale.  Slick to a thin cushion in one and two and with the preferred lane up top on both ends, it came as no surprise that Darland would dominate the majority of the affair, as these conditions favored his usual high-side heroics.  However, the key word was majority, as much like Waynesfield’s Jack Hewitt Classic he would lead all but the final corner of the final lap, choosing to follow Jadon Rogers around the top side of turns three and four while Tyler Courtney (Topp 23) early-apexed with the now-patented diamond maneuver.  Tyler just nipped him at the line to steal the victory, his third in a row at this high-banked bullring after tallying the final two Smackdown features.   The late-race overtaking continued Dave’s close-but-no-cigar theme this season, having won his share of features (six) but also losing several for assorted reasons.  Yet another barnburner of a Kokomo finish, I’ve lost count of just how many since the 2004/2005 reconfiguration can be categorized in this manner, but it’s a lot.  It’s no wonder so many out-of-towners plan their time off around this speedway’s schedule, giving us more than ample reason to make return trips.  I imagine we’ll all be getting our asses to Kokomo in 2018, correct? 

Courtney opened ninth and immediately stormed to fourth, becoming one of four foes in the bitter yet highly entertaining battle for runner-up rights.  Using all avenues to obtain second, in the final five laps he eliminated the gap to Darland’s rear-bumper, making up some serious ground in the final two tours.  While Double-D had to swallow the bitter second-place pill, Cottle again put his incredible talent on display with his surge from 17th to 3rd.  Just as I had written in 2003 before he landed the Monte Edison ride, I maintain that Shane is one of the most overlooked, underrated chauffeurs in any discipline.  Windom and Thomas completed the first five finishers.  Jarett Andretti, Scotty Weir (Gass 17), Cummins, Tyler Hewitt, and Boespflug bagged sixth through tenth.

As for the 25-lap midget main event, after such a sterling sprint car performance it was all Shane Cottle, securing his second Kokomo Klash midget victory for Wisconsin’s Bill Ecker.   Over the years, this combination has always shown speed at this exact event and when they’ve managed to finish they are indeed effective, having also claimed Klash hardware in 2013.   Leading the entire feature distance around the infield marker tires, Shane’s only threat came in the form of a pair of caution flags.  On both occasions, the 2005 and 2006 Indiana Midget Week champion had no problem putting distance between himself and second place, serving up a clean sweep of the evening’s proceedings after qualifying quickest and winning his heat race.  The battle behind Cottle was considerable, mostly involving third heat winner Zeb Wise (Clauson-Marshall 39), Chris Windom (Baldwin 5), second heat winner Justin Peck (Arnold 43), Jerry Coons, Jr. (Petry 25), and Gage Walker.  With ten to go, Wise spun through three and four but would battle back to earn a respectable finish.  Top-five finishers behind Cottle were Walker, Windom, a late surging Landon Simon, and Coons.  Peck, Chett Gehrke (from 14th in Don Moore’s 10), Wise, Kyle Simon (teammate to Landon), and Nick Speidel rounded out the top-ten. 

While mini sprints and thunder cars carried out their heat races, I seized my second to last opportunity to roam the pits and encountered quite a few names from the past.  78-year-old hall of fame mechanic and two-time USAC sprint car champion car owner (1974, 1976) Steve Stapp might have been utilizing a walker to get around, but that didn’t stop the former driver from strapping into a sprinter earlier this year at Putnamville, much to the dismay of his daughter Susannah.  You just can’t keep such a strong racing spirit down for long, as evidenced nearly six years ago when Steve miraculously survived a collision with a freight train in Brownsburg, Indiana.  Tossed from his RV some fifty feet and winding up with a pair of broken legs, broken ribs, and a punctured lung, one would have thought that could have been the end of the line for Stapp’s racing involvement, but nothing could be further from the truth when he became a 2017 Silver Crown fixture with rookie driver Joss Moffatt.   Having bumped into the Big Bopper earlier this year at a Pete Rose Live event in Carmel, Indiana, he talked in detail about his high school days in Southern California when he played baseball with pitching great Don Drysdale.  There are few people who have a sharper memory or more colorful stories than Stapp, so naturally I take every opportunity to listen to him speak.  

Former KISS coordinator and long-time track scorer Dawn Moss was hobbling around Kokomo with the aid of a small cart after a recent toe amputation.  Through family and marriage, she has been around racing for her entire existence and even though her involvement may have decreased, of course you cannot keep her entirely away, re-emerging these past two seasons by working the Terre Haute Action Track pit gate for Bob Sargent’s Track Enterprises.  One may boast about their dedication to drive, wrench on, or watch sprint cars, but Dawn truly takes the cake as more than once she has been forced to hitchhike from her Speedway, Indiana home just to work the booth at Terre Haute!  Now the proud owner of a Toyota Yaris, despite the health scare she is back in business and doesn’t have to take such a dangerous route to arrive.       

Now 79 years of age and just four years removed from the seat, “Hurryin” Hank Lower was spotted near Paul Hazen’s 57.  Cautioning that he wasn’t quite done with his racing endeavors, thanks to friend Fred Otterbein the northern Indiana legend was able to locate, purchase, and restore his square tube modified from the 1970s in which he claimed three track titles at Butler Motor Speedway (1977-1979).  The four-time Sprints on Dirt champion (1982, 1983, 1986, and 1994), one-time HOSS champion (1997), USAC feature winner (Butler 1990), and World of Outlaws quick timer (Lakeside 1991) has been winning in his old modified at Angola, Butler, New Paris, and Winchester, competing with groups based out of Ohio (VAR) and Michigan.    

Demotte, Indiana midget campaigner Kurt Mayhew was unfairly introduced to the sport by growing up on a property adjacent to Illiana Speedway in Schererville, Indiana.  I knew Mayhew had been involved in midget racing for as long as I’ve been a fan, but when asking just how long he’s been squeezing through the roll cage, Kurt commented that it was 43 years ago (1974) when he first earned the opportunity to pilot his brother’s midget at Little Springfield, towing all the way to Sandusky, Ohio for his second outing not long after.  Piloting his 2014 DRC/Jim Stewart Honda to an 11th place finish in Friday’s feature, these days Mayhew is a Badger series regular, having scored two series wins in 2016 (Farley, Iowa and Sun Prairie, Wisconsin) while on his way to an outstanding second-place points production.  Although his best effort in 2017 has only been a third, the fact that he has stayed loyal to a sport that has chewed up and spit out its fair share of competitors is no doubt amazing.  Kurt’s lone Kokomo help came from Shelby, Indiana’s Tim Argus, a former Dave Fuhrman assistant whose passion continues to burn bright.    

Another highlight from this Kokomo curtain call was getting to speak with long-time Ludlow, Illinois sprint car combatant Al Thomas.  Celebrating his 83rd birthday in August, “Mr. T” was in action on Friday, driving his ex-Jim Whiteside/Truckers 24-Hour 2003 Dynamite chassis powered by a Foxco Chevy.  Having retired from the trucking industry in 2005, Thomas still chooses to spend his days at his shop, tending to his sprinter, old car collection, and lawn mowers when not consuming cups of coffee with his legion of friends who love to stop by and chat.  Like many people his age, Al receives medical exams from various doctors and each time they give him a clean bill of health, providing proof that if one stays active, it's the best way to stop the inevitable rust from forming.  Although it’s been a while since I’ve seen him in action, more often than not he stays close to home when racing, unaware that he had scored a feature win in the 2016 season at Charleston, Illinois just prior to his 82nd birthday.  Happily reconfirming his status as the strongest handshake in racing, I’m convinced that there is no end of the line for Al Thomas.  

Slightly shocking was the best way to describe my reaction when it was announced over Kokomo Klash loudspeakers that this could be Josh Spencer’s final race in his 15-year sprint car career.  When asking Josh if this was indeed the truth, his response was a definite “maybe”.  As I enjoyed a slice of J. Edwards cake courtesy of team benefactor Frank Daigh, Spencer’s reasoning was completely responsible and unselfish:  he wants to spend more time with his 2 ½ year old son LeLand and doesn’t want the young lad’s desires to revolve around his own racing routine.  Uncertain if he wants to step away from the sport entirely, he also doesn’t want to just be out there.  So for now, he’ll keep his equipment just in case there is a change of heart over the off-season.  As for this final Kokomo performance, it started off on an extremely strong note – quick time for the fourth session and a second place run in the heat.  Before firing from the outside of the fourth row for the feature, Josh was honored for his season-long second place Kokomo Speedway points standing, a proud accomplishment given the level of competition that pulls through these gates.     Although his feature finish failed to produce the proper fairytale ending, if this was truly the end of the line for Josh then it was still a solid and memorable outing.  In this city of firsts that has previously been blessed with an abundance of local sprint car participation, in these tough economic times when car counts remain a challenge, it would be a big blow to permanently lose the Spencer 66.   But as they say, all good things must come to an end. 

Post-Kokomo, I would once again be going solo to Haubstadt, the second such time in five weeks.  Slightly agitated by a late start to my trip and a sore lower back after lifting a trio of bulky tube televisions for recycling, listening to a replay of Tom Petty’s 67th birthday celebration for the entire three-hour tour served as some soothing medication for the mind and soul.  Equally pleasing on this overcast afternoon was the Southern Indiana scenery, as the fall foliage was in full bloom while endless fields were being feverishly harvested.  Maintaining a steady pace on state road 67 through Paragon, Gosport, Spencer, and Freedom, once past Worthington’s congregation of power lines I angled southwest on 57.  Over the nearly new White River bridge at Newberry, after Elnora and Plainville came Washington, home of four Indiana Mister Basketballs (Steve Bouchie and three Zellers) and Mason’s Root Beer Stand, where I could not only stretch my legs, but suck down a delicious butterscotch shake.  West on U.S. 50 to my favorite two-lane twisty, 241 zigged and zagged through Monroe City, Iona (still boasting a population of 20), and Decker, dodging combines, tractors and grain trucks before being halted by a northbound CSX freight train, the first time for such a sighting in the ten years of traveling this route.  Needing twenty more minutes to reach the Helfrich farm and Tri-State Speedway, I arrived just as 27 Midwest Sprint Car Series machines were warming engines for this final 2017 Indiana outdoor open wheel installment, the ,000 to win Harvest Cup. 

Surprised that several heavy hitters from the previous evening stayed home, this particular cast of characters was slightly unusual in its non-standard names.  The list included:  Chase Briscoe (his first sprint start since Brownstown in June), Tyler Thomas (Dutcher 17), Jared Fox (his first wingless 410 cubic inch drive in several seasons), Steve Thomas (father Al stayed home), recent Charleston winner Mitchell Davis, Kokomo’s Parker Frederickson (twice a Charleston winner in ‘17), and Rochester’s Dave Gross.  With the speedway’s surface extremely greasy for combined hot laps and group qualifications, Chet Williams clocked the quickest overall time at 13.518.     

Now calling Mitchell, Indiana home, Brady Short and car owner Cam Pottorff had already locked up their third consecutive MSCS title, eliminating the possibility of any championship drama.  “Sweet Feet” joins Kyle Cummins as a four-time MSCS master, the most in the 16-year history of the series.   Although his 2017 feature win total of seven (including one MSCS score at Brownstown) is down from years past, Brady remains the man to beat in the southern half of the state after bagging his record-setting seventh Bloomington track championship.    

Three heats were held under light precipitation, with Chase Stockon, Kyle Cummins, and Carson Short claiming wins from either the first or second row.  Due to four yellows, two reds, and several of the unfamiliar competitors not wearing one-way radios, heat races took much longer to complete, with restart lineups further complicated by the MSCS double-file restart routine.  Inversions involved Kent Schmidt and Collin Ambrose, with Kent crushing a spun Brandon Mattox while Collin climbed Ben Knight and made heavy contact with the backstretch wall, trashing his chassis in the process.  Lapping three cars in his heat, this was Cummins’s last ride in Hank Byram’s 3R, as he will be joining forces with Wisconsin’s Chuck Eberhardt and Fred Zirzow for 2018.  Byram noted that Kody Swanson would be his chauffeur of choice for next season, missing out on an opportunity to get acquainted at Brownstown’s recent Fun Fest due to the lingering effects of Swanson’s Four Crown concussion. 

Because of the stacked first heat containing Stockon, Briscoe, KTJ, C.J. Leary, Brady Short, and Tyler Thomas plus the limited passing opportunities on a lightning fast surface, both Short and T. Thomas were relegated to B-main status after beginning from the fourth row.  Of course they wound up taking two of the five last chance transfers, with Brandon Mattox narrowly edging 2017 MSCS rookie of the year Kendall Ruble for the final spot despite an oil leak/fire and a ragged setup that tilted on just one wheel. 

Before I headed to the front stretch side to catch this final feature with Decatur, Illinois entrepreneur Dan Clifton, I shared a brief conversation with BOSS chassis constructor Flea Ruzic, who was here to tend to Robert Ballou’s requests.  Inquiring about the most unique aspect that sets his piece apart from the competition, Ruzic commented that his chassis is constructed with military grade seamed steel tubing instead of the usual low-grade chromoly.  As I learned, seamed tubing is slightly more expensive, but it’s 20% stronger and does not fatigue.  Capitalizing on that strength, BOSS chassis are allowed to be designed a bit differently and as a result weigh less than their counterparts.  It should be interesting to see who jumps on the BOSS bandwagon for 2018.    

A feature inversion pill of zero aligned the 30-lap finale in the exact order of heat race finish, with the first three rows consisting of Stockon, Cummins, C. Short, Thomas, Jr., Williams, and Donny Brackett (who utilized a coil-over shock on the right rear).  Twice a Tri-State MSCS victor in 2017, Stockon got the jump while Thomas toured three-wide for second on the back chute, successfully sliding Cummins for the position.  However, C.J. Leary literally came out of nowhere to seize the runner-up spot on the second lap, having started seventh.  With lapped traffic coming into play on the sixth circuit, Leary was ready to pounce at any moment.  Aiming for the bottom of turn one on lap seven, a supreme launch off the second corner propelled C.J. to the premier position.  The lead duo would play a game of cat and mouse through traffic the rest of the distance, as Leary built a full-straight advantage on more than one occasion, only to have it erased while negotiating the back markers.  “Showtime” could never take full advantage of those traffic jams thanks to a miserable understeer that reared its ugly head through turn two.    

At the end, it was Leary landing in victory lane for the seventh time in 2017.  Stockon, Cummins, Thomas, Jr., and Briscoe (from 10th) were top-five finishers, with Williams, rookie Stephen Schnapf, Ballou, Brackett, and Brady Short (from 17th) taking sixth through tenth.  Going caution-free, the thirty-lap distance on the tacky track was covered in just over six minutes, with Leary preparing to put Ballou one lap down at the conclusion.  C.J.’s dominating drive was truly impressive, especially given the fact that he did so much damage around the middle to bottom grooves, which have never been his preferred plan of attack.  Clearly dialed in by his Henderson, Kentucky crew chief Donnie Gentry, it’s amazing to note that in all his years of competing at his home track, Donnie had never been victorious at Tri-State Speedway.    

With a feature finish coming at 9:14 PM local time, given the earlier than normal hour I happily agreed to cap my season with a post-race celebration courtesy of the extremely generous Mr. Clifton.  The destination of choice was the Fort Branch, Indiana institution better known as Sandy’s Pizza, which has consistently been a huge supporter of Tri-State Speedway.  In the 23 years that I have made this long haul, I’ve never visited Sandy’s, nor have I ever had the pleasure of sampling their specialty.  Truth be told, I loved everything about the place, especially the décor of old gas and oil signs and its proximity to the same active railroad line that had earlier halted my Haubstadt advance in Decker.  With a gigantic sausage and pepperoni pizza pie taking up the entire table, our group of five, which included Mt. Zion, Illinois 600cc mini sprint racer Michael Brummit (a winged and non-winged winner this year at Coles County) was well nourished for the long ride home and had more than enough to box up for extended enjoyment.  The company, conversation, and cuisine were truly fantastic, necessitating a return visit next season. 

After completing my return voyage around the same 2 AM hour, home base was officially the end of the line for this racing campaign.  Subsequently enjoying a few more unseasonably warm days, it seemed rather appropriate that by the middle of the next week the weather would immediately turn cold, especially now that my schedule had finally calmed down.  This flip of the light switch was a distinct reminder of just how good I have had it for the last seven months, thankfully granted a substantial amount of freedom to come and go for which I am eternally grateful.  Now that it’s November and daylight is in rapid decline, that final weekend of racing action seems like such a long time ago. 

It’s been over four weeks since his passing, but I’ve still got a lot of Tom Petty playing through my headphones.  Especially enamored with his 1991 album Into the Great Wide Open, the fifth track is entitled The Dark of the Sun for which my favorite line is:  “Give me hope.  Give me comfort.  Get me to a better place.”  Ever since I was a little tyke, I never was a fan of straying too far from home but by the time I was a teenager, I had attracted an itch to soak up the addictive atmosphere of a dirt track date, which led me anywhere and everywhere.  But no matter how far I traveled, my preference was to return to the familiarity of my humble abode as soon as possible.  Allowing me to fully reboot and refresh, I always feel much more calm, confident, and complete after an evening’s sleep in my own bed.  Now that there are no more racing dates on the calendar, such a season-ending alteration of desire, drive, and taste is not at all a bad thing, as at the end of the day, it keeps me grounded in the one place where I have always wanted to be.  So even though transformation may indeed be inevitable when given enough time, one obvious exception to this rule is that there will never be a better place than home.   Never! 

 

 

 

 

Volume 19, Number 13

Learning to Fly

What’s amazing is the nearly impenetrable bubble we live in during the heart of racing season.  Isolated from nearly everything that occurs in everyday society, it takes quite a significant piece of news to penetrate that protective cocoon. 

After enjoying a frenetic final Friday and Saturday of September highlighted by thrilling United States Auto Club sprint car contests in Montpelier and Lawrenceburg, a Sunday to unwind felt so right, topped by a special excursion to Sundae’s Homemade (79th and Fall Creek) for Apple Pie ice cream in the early evening hours.  Yeah, you know it is fall when the calendar flips to October, but also when such special flavors are featured at Sundae’s.   

But, by Monday morning that bubble was burst with the senseless news of the Las Vegas country music concert massacre.  The fragility of life was further emphasized after a text message was received in the early afternoon hours regarding the stunning news of Tom Petty’s status, making for the worst day that I can ever remember for the music industry.  Just 18 days shy of his 67th birthday, Tom would pass later that evening, literally on top of the world and his craft after completing his 40th anniversary tour just one week prior.   Also learning that we lost engine building genius Robert Yates to cancer, October 2nd hasn’t been a great day in recent years, feeling a distinct chill when recalling that this was the second anniversary of losing USAC champion and Indiana icon Tony Elliott. 

A couple of years ago I managed to run across Tom Petty’s exclusive channel on Sirius XM and gave it a good listen. His deep tracks and quirky sense of humor made a distinct impression, allowing me to develop a true appreciation for the man and his talent.  Although I never met him in person or took the time to attend one of his shows, after becoming a loyal listener it felt like I lost a friend, as his music has served as a faithful companion in my many travels, especially when my nephew was along for the ride.  Hearing endless tributes on the way home from work, it was simply too hard to hold back tears.  Sure his skills as a singer, song writer, guitarist, and producer will be missed, but it was all of those anecdotes from his peers that allowed me to fully comprehend the depth of this loss.  So authentic and pure, Tom never forgot his roots, generously giving back to the industry by continually lending his expertise and awarding opportunities to those needing that one big break.  All these years later, he was still the same crazed teenage fan of rock and roll’s origins, never once losing his lifelong passion.       

A resulting five day bout with depression was drowned in massive amounts of melodies supplied exclusively by Tom Petty Radio.  I would be lost without such a soothing of the soul, consistently serving as the best medicine for pulling me through the most difficult days.  Guiding me through the grind of recurring accounting activities, music also motivates me to complete the most physically demanding cardio sessions.  Always lost in lyrics, they often serve as the source for article themes and while trying to link Montpelier and Lawrenceburg, “Learning to Fly” clearly hit the nail on the head, thanks in part to a tip from Petty fanatic Daniel Michael Oldham.   

“Well I started out down a dirty road

Started out all alone

And the sun went down as I crossed the hill

And the town lit up, the world got still

I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings

Coming down is the hardest thing.”

Having been at this sprint car game long enough to be considered veterans, Montpelier and Lawrenceburg victors C.J. Leary and Kevin Thomas, Jr. took their lumps in their learning curves but would eventually hit pay dirt.  In their process of learning to fly, Leary was a Lawrenceburg champion in 2013 and landed in victory lane after several significant 2014 shows while Thomas tallied his first USAC score in 2012 and produced double-digit wins with Mike Dutcher in 2013.  But, Kevin’s 2014/2015 seasons failed to match 2013 and Leary encountered issues duplicating his 2014 breakout season.  “Coming down” was indeed the hardest thing for both, so difficult to regain that same lofty status.  Despite the adversity, these two gunslingers had no plans of backing down, as they continue to be working on something big regarding their careers.  Scratching and clawing their way back to the top, a second half of 2017 reunion with former crew chiefs (Donnie Gentry for Leary and Davey Jones for Thomas) sent them flying as high as ever, currently riding huge waves of confidence.  Despite their recent success stories, they must be careful not to let this lightning in the bottle escape, as this sport can be so humbling – up one minute and down the next.       

Leary started third and ran sixth for the majority of the 30-lapper at Montpelier, Indiana.  Turning up the heat in the late stages by leaning against a substantial ledge, he surged from third to first on the breathtaking final lap after threading the needle between Chris Windom and Kevin Thomas, Jr.  Late-apexing three and four and clipping the cushion just right, his seriously shocking score was the fifth under USAC sanction in 2017 and second in a row after claiming Eldora’s Four Crown Nationals.  Starting the season with Jeff Walker at the helm, all five of his victories have come since July when Donnie Gentry took over.  Having enjoyed limited success in their brief 2016 collaboration with Shane Wade, this combination has proven even more potent this time around, doing all of their damage with a DRC chassis, 1 Way Technologies engine (built in Washington, Indiana by Scott Gerkin), and a set of gas Pro shocks.  Leary noted afterwards that this particular chassis hadn’t won all year, with Gentry adding that this car demands a cushion in order to be effective, the same line of attack that best suits his driver.  Looking forward to the next night in Lawrenceburg (his favorite place to race), C.J. claimed that winning Montpelier was like “icing on the cake”. 

While Leary was basking in the glow, KTJ had to be miffed in failing to tally yet another triumph.  Having rode the rim to circle Windom as he received the initial white flag, just as Kevin was about to take the checkered some untimely red laundry was displayed for Kyle Robbins (the fourth such occurrence on Friday).  This led to a green/white/checkered attempt similar to Kokomo’s Smackdown finale and this time around, it would be Windom with the turn four surprise while coming to take the white, having successfully slid Thomas.  But, Chris could not keep his Baldwin DRC on the bottom of turn one, allowing Kevin to dive beneath and reclaim first.  However, as the Alabama bad ass drifted high upon corner exit, an unrestricted middle lane was opened for the lunging Leary, producing one of the most dramatic and unbelievable finishes of the season.   Becoming an absolute winning machine in 2017, Montpelier proved that Thomas is still human.

“Well, some say life will beat you down

Break your heart, steal your crown

So I’ve started out for God-knows-where

I guess I’ll know when I get there

I’m learning to fly, around the clouds

But what goes up must come down.”

Quick qualifier Dave Darland (up front for two laps) and Robert Ballou chased Leary, Windom and Thomas to the 9:41 PM checkered flag on the chilly Friday evening, the second USAC sprint car contest at this 114 year-old facility.  For Ballou, Friday’s feature was a winding road after falling from 9th to 16th fairly early.  Sixth through tenth included Tyler Courtney, pole sitter Chase Stockon, Josh Hodges, Thomas Meseraull (Dutcher 17), and Colten Cottle (from 20th).    

Saturday’s Lawrenceburg Fall Nationals was a complete role reversal for Thomas.  Third quick from qualifying and firing from the outside of row two for the ,000 finale, he employed the outside lane to squeeze past Leary, Ballou, and Grant to lead by the back stretch.  Although the box score shows that Kevin was up front for all thirty tours, he did face some serious challenges along the way.  The most serious threat came from quick qualifier Dave Darland, whose Goodnight 39 was glued to a surface that was clearly to his liking:  slick to a thin cushion on both ends.  After starting sixth, Dave was up to fifth by lap two, third by lap four, and second by lap nine.  With Thomas maneuvering through thick traffic at lap 12, just one lap later Darland had completely closed the gap.  Prepared to pounce, the People’s Champion suddenly slowed on the back stretch, victim of a broken u-joint.   Like the air being let out of a balloon, one could sense the level of disappointment suddenly experienced by the large assembly of fans.   

Justin Grant inherited second but succumbed to C.J. Leary on lap 20.  With five to go, KTJ again had to deal with traffic and completely lost his large advantage.  Clearing Joss Moffatt in turn three with two to go was key for Kevin, as C.J. had to wait until turn one to do the same.  The end result was traditional sprint car triumph number 16 of the season for Mr. Thomas while Leary had to settle for second.  After a rough night on Friday in which he lost an engine in qualifications and flipped in the feature (finishing 21st), Grant’s third place had to feel like a victory, still ahead of Windom in the national point standings by 45.  Pole sitter Ballou endured early contact from Leary and found fourth while Tyler Courtney again charged hard, surging from 16th to 5th.  Brady Bacon, Chris Windom, Josh Hodges, Jerry Coons, Jr. (from 20th in Shawn Krockenberger’s 21), and Jon Stanbrough (from 19th) populated sixth through tenth place positions. 

It’s been quite a September for Kevin Thomas, Jr., finding victory lane three times in California and twice in Indiana, those latter two totaling ,500 in winnings.  After being booted from the Buffalo Wild Wings winged sprint car in late March (having scored one win in six outings), KTJ clearly made some world-class lemonade from a sack of lemons, turning the adversity into a career year.  The most dominant traditional sprint car shoe of the last two seasons, he has most certainly learned to fly for fairly long periods, but as Petty reminded, he ain’t got wings (not yet at least).  Enjoying a fairly successful Knoxville Nationals debut for Bernie Stuebgen, could he go the way of Bryan Clauson and venture into that territory once again?   Either way, you know you’re the top gun when USAC official Levi Jones yanks your magneto, magneto box, and takes a right rear tire sample for further examination. 

Delving into details, Montpelier attracted 28 machines while Lawrenceburg’s ,000 winning carrot could only count on 24, the latter receiving competition from Fremont BOSS (K to win) and the final points night at Lincoln Park.  Regarding the low turnout of Lawrenceburg competitors, the same old adage holds true:  the more money an Indiana promoter pays to win, the less cars he gets in return.  The reality is that there are more little guys than big guys and they’ll end up going where they feel they can be competitive.  With Jarett Andretti suffering an engine failure in qualifying and hot lap flip victim Aric Gentry doubtful (he made repairs in time for his heat), no semi-feature was necessary.  Of the 28 at Montpelier, 18 dipped underneath the track record set last April by Brady Bacon.  Isaac Chapple was one of them, timing an impressive fifth fastest and later scoring a semi-feature victory.  Isaac is still guided by Frankfort’s Brian Cripe who after all these years still enjoys needling me.  Truth be told, I enjoy giving it back to Brian, and it’s good to see a familiar face in a mostly foreign pit area.    

Another familiar face who learned how to deal with life’s ups and downs a long time ago is David Lee Darland.  Proof of his longevity exists with the fact that he’s attempting to win a national USAC feature for the 25th straight season. Still shining like a diamond in the sunlight, although Dave won with the USAC Southwest sprint car series earlier this season and enjoyed a highly successful July and August on a local level, he has yet to score with any of the three USAC national series in 2017.  A streak that dates back to May of 1993 with his initial triumph in the Hulman Classic, how cool would it have been to see him extend it with a third Hulman Classic victory?  Currently in a groove with Goodnight Racing and mechanic Scott Benic, many might remember Dave’s success in Benic’s 2B during the 2008/2009 seasons.  And, of course there was the memorable 2010 season with Goodnight and mechanic Brian Cripe that was so unexpected.  Benic, Goodnight, and Darland reunited at Montpelier and Lawrenceburg where they were quickest qualifiers and contenders to win, leading a pair of laps at the former and chasing down leader KTJ at the latter.  After the Lawrenceburg DNF, Darland appeared upbeat while the rest of his squad was a little on the perturbed side, observing a hungry Benic exhaling with an expletive while Goodnight noted “a cheap ass part got real expensive”.   At 51 years of age, it’s great to see Dave giving the toddlers a run for their money. 

After enjoying an excellent start to the season in Florida and in the Midwestern openers of April, aside from a few evenings of exception (Brownstown No Way Out 40 was one, the September Terre Haute stop was another) it’s been nothing but a nightmare for Chad Boespflug.  Since the end of April, nearly everything else has changed in his world, including a job switch (he’s now selling trailers for Capitol Renegade) and complete crew member turnover for his Mean Green Eberhardt-Zirzow/Hoffman bunch.  With his lone consistent help coming from Robert Brown, that black cloud of misfortune continued to rain down at Montpelier when he was unable to keep his machine running in the early stages, finally getting one lap at the end of the qualifying order.  Believing the issue to be a mag box, it turned out to be a clogged fuel filter.  After winning the second heat and elevating from 18th to 8th in the feature, with three laps left he was unable to avoid clobbering Shane Cottle who sat sideways in turn three.  Timing 12th at Lawrenceburg where former Hoffman Racing principals Richard and Rob Hoffman were on hand (Rob was in motorcycle gear), he and Shawn Westerfeld connected on the second lap of the feature, shearing Chad’s right front wheel from the axle.  Although it is often said that what goes up must come down, Boespflug must wonder if the opposite holds true.      

Michael Dutcher Motorsports (with assistance from Perkinsville’s Joe Perry and New Carlisle, Ohio’s Jack Morrow) continued its 2017 driver rotation on this final weekend of September with Thomas Meseraull and Shawn Westerfeld climbing through the cage.  After qualifying 13th at Montpelier with Meseraull, a mysterious misfire had the team switching to a backup machine for the heat race.  Forced to start from the rear, they earned a feature pass, thus enabling them to get their time back for the feature in which they ultimately collected ninth place money.  With T-Mez moving to Stan Courtad’s Hawk for the Fremont BOSS battle (which wound up being his sixth score of the season), Guilford, Indiana gasser Shawn Westerfeld got the call for his hometown Lawrenceburg Speedway.  The 2014 track champion timed tenth, scored sixth in his heat, and as previously mentioned banged wheels with Boespflug early in the feature event and retired in 22nd.  Having already piloted the number 17 at Brownstown in June, Shane Cottle was the wheelman at the Tony Hulman/Don Smith Classic in Terre Haute, running up into the top-five early before an unfortunate DNF.   

Expecting everything to be the same when we wake up the next morning, how many times are we reminded of how good we once had it, having taken even the most average days and basic aspects of our existence for granted?    After enjoying a highly satisfying weekend of excellent fall weather, a pair of exciting Indiana sprint car outings, and a peaceful Sunday to recharge batteries, an unforgettable Monday reminded that the best times are all too brief. 

Wishing now that I would have sacrificed an early May event at Eldora for that 40th anniversary Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers date at Deer Creek, sadly there is no way to rewind and do it all over again.   If there’s anything that I gathered from my week-long inundation with music, it that we’ve somehow got to appreciate each day regardless of circumstances, because it could all be gone in the snap of a finger.  Thankfully, music is one of the few things that stands the test of time and right now, it’s the closest thing I have to a security blanket.  Still immersing myself in all things Petty by continuing to explore his extensive catalog, it’s been a huge source of comfort.   Kindly reminded in “Learning to Fly” that coming down might just be the hardest thing, it is a rather normal aspect of life, and we simply have to find a way to deal with it and carry on.    

But wait, there’s more…

Despite so many October options in the first two weekends of the month, Terre Haute’s combined Tony Hulman and Don Smith Classic would wind up as my first, making for the third to last outing of my 2017 outdoor agenda.    Last October’s Terre Haute finale was one of those rare races that will remain in my memory bank for an extended period, demanding my return despite an enticing offering at Eldora that could have included another evening with comrade Tom Percy.   I was seemingly on auto pilot as I wandered west on I-70 and for the second year in a row, it was an amazing day of awesome Indiana weather.  Sunny and a cozy 83 degrees at 6 PM with little to no humidity, shorts and a t-shirt were mandatory attire.  It sure didn’t feel like the middle of October nor did it feel like racing season was rapidly winding down, unable to grasp the concept that it would all be over in just seven days.    

Continuing with the same theme from Montpelier and Lawrenceburg, Kevin Thomas, Jr. was still soaring above the clouds and had zero intentions of coming back down to Earth.  Robbed of a win at the Action Track four weeks ago after running out of fuel, on this occasion he would not be denied, adding a further exclamation point to an already unbelievable campaign that now contains 17 wingless wins.  Although he had already reached Terre Haute’s promised land (2013 Indiana Sprint Week), this one was extra special because of that rich Hulman Classic history that dates back to 1971.  With Winchester rifles awarded to the winning driver and car owner, it’s one of the few USAC traditions that has managed to survive so much turnover.  I just wish this race offered the same national television coverage and purse as it did back in the 1970s.

There’s something to say about confidence, as right now it’s almost impossible to stop the speeding KTJ freight train.  Qualifying second and starting the feature fifth, he quickly cracked the whip to take third, soon snatching second from pole sitter Jarett Andretti after a lap eight restart for a slowing Robert Ballou (Kevin apologized in his post-race interview for contact with Jarett).  Ballou was victim of a faulty magneto according to seasoned sprint car mechanic Jimmy Jones, as the parts failure ruined Robert’s shot at taking three Hulman Classics in a row. 

Near the halfway mark, Mr. Thomas began to turn up the heat on leader and outside front row starter Chase Stockon, who was in search of his first USAC score since Terre Haute’s Indiana Sprint Week round of 2016.   Just as Kevin began to make some noise, so did Dave Darland, who qualified quickest for the third outing in a row in Gene Goodnight’s 39.  Dave started sixth, dropped to seventh, but began picking off cars one by one as the surface started going slick. 

Things began to get even more interesting as lapped traffic entered into the equation.  Suddenly in close proximity on lap 19, Stockon would get around one of those lappers and instantly build a gap.  But, once Thomas was free that advantage was erased.  After Darland heaved a turn three haymaker at Windom for third (lap 21), he was able to reel in the top two to create a three car corral for first.  Thomas’s turn three slider on Stockon had him blowing through the cushion in four, allowing Darland to pull even and slingshot to second through the middle of one and two.  Chase’s new lease on life was short-lived when Brazil’s Dylan Shaw blasted the turn four concrete and tumbled, going red for the second time in the evening (Chet Williams inverted in the semi after eighth-quick Tyler Hewitt spun in front of the field).  Shaw was making his first USAC feature appearance after a dramatic last turn, last lap semi-feature sweep of Isaac Chapple.    

Leaving a five-lap dash to determine the winner, after being in the basement for this entire 2017 campaign, would Stockon finally return to the main level?  Would Darland extend his streak of USAC national feature wins to 25 years?  Or, would Thomas pull another rabbit out of the proverbial hat?   

KTJ drew first blood by immediately dive-bombing Darland upon corner one’s entry, launching unsuccessful attacks on Stockon on both east and west ends the next time around.   Lap 28 was the ultimate turning point and although Kevin’s slider through one and two was immediately countered, his unrelenting attack was rewarded with the premier position at turn three.  Windom and 13th starting Brady Bacon also dusted Darland, who fell victim to a heavily blistered right rear Hoosier.       

Although Thomas’s right rear was also tattered, he held off Action Track expert Windom for the big score.  Making it a DRC chassis podium sweep, Stockon’s third place showing was his best in quite some time.  Bacon and Darland rounded out the top-five at the 9:35 PM checkered.  Tyler Courtney (in a two-race old Maxim), Justin Grant, C.J. Leary, Kyle Cummins (his own 3c), and Jerry Coons, Jr. (Krockenberger 21) secured sixth through tenth. 

Using the early evening to head to the pits, I observed a second consecutive Levi Jones request for a right rear tire sample from Thomas’s car.  Next door to the winning Jeff’s-Jam-It-In Storage DRC was Darland’s Goodnight ride.  In addition to the lack of straightaway grip because of ruined right rear rubber, veteran mechanic Scott Benic added that his setup was a tad off (right rear loose), believing that he needed to be more aggressive for feature tweaks despite being spot-on for qualifying and heat action.  Still, the number 39 post-race mood was far more upbeat than Lawrenceburg.  Feeling good about being contenders to win in each of their three outings, the positivity allowed me to ask if a continuation of this combination was possible for 2018.  No firm answer was given, but it wasn’t ruled out either.  Darland’s west coast ride will be Josh Ford’s 73 wrenched by Jimmy May. 

Thirty-one cars made the call for this final Midwestern outing for USAC’s sprint car division, bolstered by unusual appearances from Joss Moffatt (his initial sprint car drive at Terre Haute), Michigan’s Joe Bares (assisted by Jeff Walker), 15-year-old Jadon Rogers (making his USAC debut), Patrick Budde (still powered by Ford), Chet Williams, Nate McMillin, Arizona’s Stevie Sussex (Pollock 21), Lawrenceburg regular Tony McVey, and the aforementioned Shaw.  Truly a blast from the past, I encountered former Britt Tool bandit Gregg Dillion and Ray Morgan Motorsports throttle stomper Travis Thompson, who continues to assist Cory, Indiana charger Brandon Mattox.   

With perfect weather, a larger than expected car count, a massive crowd, an early ending, and an edge-of-your-seat finish, the evening was made even better by some solid surface preparation by the Track Enterprises crew, said to have spread a mysterious white substance before the feature.  It was great to see the huge half-mile retain moisture for most of the night, as evidenced by a pair of qualification laps in the 19-second bracket, not to mention some exciting heat race and semi-feature battles for the final transfer.  It also felt good to spend time with Lafayette’s Arba Richardson, a retired CSX railroader and a devoted Dave Darland fan who was enjoying his first race of the season, still recovering from a 16 day stay in the hospital for a bout with pneumonia and MRSA, amongst other ailments.  Having met “Arb” many years ago in the Kamp Motor Speedway parking lot with his long-time co-worker Joe Higdon, the stories these two generate from days of working the old Monon main line from Michigan City to Louisville certainly add to the allure of any evening spent at a race track. 

It was a big week for Jon Stanbrough, who celebrated his 50th birthday with a select group of friends a few days early at Sarah Fisher’s Speedway Indoor Karting, also using the occasion to announce that he was becoming a father to a baby girl for the second time (wife Melinda is due next April).  An equally big outing came here at the Action Track, set to be the final showing for his number 81.  Undecided about his 2018 plans, the possibility exists that he could run for another squad, but the recent and rather unexpected news of the baby might just be the determining factor, as Jon has never been one do to anything that did not demand some serious thought.  

It’s rather unfortunate that all endings aren’t of the fairytale variety, as during hot laps a connecting rod shot through the bottom end of Stanbrough’s Charlie Fisher mill that was on loan from Indiana Underground’s Terry Riggs, leaving a huge puddle of oil while parked in the pits.  Clearly that’s not the way the 2002 and 2007 Hulman Classic winner wanted to go out, but the two-time national wingless driver of the year certainly had nothing to prove in this endeavor.  Having long ago earned everyone’s respect, the soft-spoken fabricator always preferred to let his on-track activities do the talking.  Mounting so many impressive seasons, so many of them came with underdog squads.  Having witnessed his dramatic first feature win at Bloomington in June of 1991 in which he touched wheels with Bob Kinser and had his trophy smashed to pieces, his road to Terre Haute 2017 was a long and winding one, gaining his first big break with the Law Brothers (1994) but nearly retiring altogether after a dismal 1998 with car owner John Davis.  Hall of fame worthy for his statistics (I count 187 feature wins), the best of those seasons came after 1998, piecing together some awe-inspiring campaigns with Paul Hazen (19 wins in 2003), Roger Tapy (double-digit victories in 2004), and of course Steve and Brad Fox (30 wins in 2007).  Taking a pair of Kokomo track titles (2003 and 2006), twice he was an Indiana Sprint Week (2006 and 2010) and Midwest Sprint Car Series champion (2012 and 2013), nailing down six King of Indiana Sprint Series titles (2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2012).  I’ve said it so many times before, but they just don’t make sprint car drivers, and human beings for that matter, like they used to.  Born in the same year of perhaps the best model year of Chevrolet’s Corvette (1967), just like a ’67 Sting Ray Jon Stanbrough will forever be revered as an all-time classic.    

With plans of heading to Kokomo and Haubstadt to essentially put the wraps on my 2017, sadly a Sunday night in Wayne City, Illinois for the Jason Leffler Memorial is not in the cards with work awaiting on Monday morning.  Nevertheless, I plan on making the most of both outings by choosing some appropriate traveling music and ultimately savoring some mouth-watering dirt track action.  Whether it is the first race or last, just like they say on all of those GEICO commercials, “It’s what you do”.     

 

 

 

 

 

Volume 19, Number 12

Indian Summer

I have always had a love-hate relationship with September.

In my youth, its arrival meant that the serenity of summertime had sadly become ancient history. Bringing with it the drudgery of never-ending homework, it also heaped upon me tons of pressure to perform on tests and quizzes. Now as a middle-aged man, September simply means it’s time for football, declining daylight, and memorable end-of-season racing events, counting down to the empty feelings experienced at the mid-October outdoor open wheel curtain-closer.

If September weather happens to be warm enough to be considered an Indian summer, naturally I’m still stuck in a June/July frame of mind. So, with the recent rash of 90-degree days in the first few days of fall, one could say that I am in no way ready to pack up my t-shirts and shorts and put the wraps on this year’s racing agenda.

I began this last full month of the season with a ride to Du Quoin, Illinois for the Ted Horn 100 USAC Silver Crown contest at the picturesque one-mile circle of soil. I say ride because my nephew (a.k.a. Ironman) did all the driving just like he did in our June journey to Knoxville. After finding a Pineapple Whip along the midway, much to our disappointment the surface took rubber early into the 100-mile grind, moving the groove way down from the outside concrete. Kody Swanson gift-wrapped a third Silver Crown championship with his first victory in this event since 2010. Just like last year, Jeff Swindell came close to glory until Swanson turned up the heat in the waning stages, reminded of how successful his chief mechanic Bob Hampshire has been in this discipline over the last 31 years. Swindell’s superb showings make me wish that additional Outlaws (his older brother, Kinser, Wolfgang, and Blaney) would join him in these endurance contests.

A MOWA/POWRi Spoon River double was originally on my agenda for the next weekend, but my initial visit to those high banks was put on hold when my nephew needed to stay closer to home, as his wife was expecting to give birth to their first child at some point this month. Not wishing to make the late night return on my own, the desire to do something different resulted in our first sampling of the Indianapolis Speedrome’s Three Hour World Figure 8 Championship. So impressed with the extensive improvements to the 76-year-old facility thanks to new owner Kevin Garrigus and track President Jonathan Byrd, other positive aspects included the humongous crowd, huge purse (K to win), and old-school atmosphere. It was indeed an entertaining evening, enthralled with the sophisticated equipment and fearless competitors, many of whom refused to lift while approaching the crossover. In those three hours, I was shocked to see that no one was t-boned as they met in the middle, with the winner ultimately being determined in the final five minutes. Introduced to a whole new world that I had no idea existed, this diversion was truly an eye-opening experience.

Back to my usual sprint car stuff on Friday the 15th, a post-work dash across interstate 70 to “The Hut” only cost me hot laps and a handful of cars from qualifications for the Jim Hurtubise Classic, arriving to enjoy the remainder of the 27-car USAC contingent tripping the timing loop. Robert Ballou came out 18th and even with rapidly deteriorating surface conditions produced the top time (20.477) in his BOSS chassis, such a rarity for Robert. While Jon Stanbrough strutted his Terre Haute talent in tenth, Brady Bacon (Dooling/Hayward 63) produced one of the slowest times (21.986) thanks to a clogged nozzle line, adding insult to injury when I later read that his time was disallowed.

Fresh from California Sprint Week were Chad Boespflug (sixth) and Kevin Thomas, Jr. (eighth), both operating under the guidance of new crew chiefs. Boespflug had ex-KTJ crewman Robert Brown, Jr. calling the shots on his Mean Green Maxim while ex-Boespflug chief Davey Jones was now dialing in Kevin’s Jam-It-In Storage DRC with CSI’s Brad Alexander. In years past, Jones and his son Dalton had worked with Thomas, interesting to note that Kevin and Davey were embroiled in a pit area altercation at last year’s Tri-State Sprint Week stop. These intense competitors either have short memories or are extremely forgiving.

Gaining his annual Terre Haute fix was 2000 Tri-State and Lincoln Park track champion Eric Burns, who timed 26th in Bill Gasway’s old Stealth that sported 20-year-old leftover parts and steel block power underneath the hood. The same machine I piloted last October in an open track play day at LPS, this time the engine was way off song, spoiling any real fun that could be had. Eric’s 15-year-old son Harley was on-hand to assist and observe, having encountered his own engine issue at the recent King of Non-Wing contest in which a broken piston punched a hole in the block. After selling his bomber earlier this season, Harley became a first-year sprint car competitor at both Putnamville and Paragon, logging laps in Doug Rolison’s Stealth that also dates back a couple of decades. Many people might forget, but Eric Burns was just a few laps shy from becoming a Hulman Classic winner in 2001 before being overtaken by Tracy Hines.

Aside from the equipment that Burns brought to battle, vintage open wheel hardware was on-hand to take a few leisurely laps around the legendary half-mile. Phil Poor towed his 1989 Stoops Gambler from his Anderson, Indiana home to take part in the festivities. Firing his pristine machine for the first time in a long while after being on loan to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame/Museum in Knoxville, Iowa, the detail that went into Phil’s restoration was second to none, able to retrieve many of the car’s original parts and thus making it extremely period-correct. Back in 1989 the Terre Haute Action Track was rampant with weeds and had not been active since May of 1987, a month in which Phil swept both USAC races with driver Steve Butler.

With heats won from fifth (Chris Windom), fourth (KTJ), and third (Chase Stockon), Justin Grant and Jarett Andretti were the only ones from the quick six who failed to take a heat race transfer. Because of Justin and Jarett’s dilemma, Kevin Thomas would propel from the pole of the 30-lap finale, joined on the front row by Scotty Weir (Gass 17). For the first 26 laps, it appeared that Kevin would keep his hot streak alive, having claimed three of the six California contests. The only one who could hang with him was Ballou, but a cut right rear tire ruined Robert’s evening and put the action on pause with just four laps left.

After the lengthy caution for Ballou, it became a tale of two races, with the final four tours altogether different than the first 26. Action turned hot and heavy, rife with cutthroat sliders, contact, and a rather nasty ending for one competitor. After his mentor’s misfortune, fifth-quick qualifier Aaron Farney sat second on the restart and was the immediate recipient of a Chris Windom slide job, not once but twice as an Isaac Chapple stoppage influenced the third amber illumination. On that second slider, Windom flew past Farney and pulled even with Thomas, driving his Baldwin Brothers DRC deep into turn three and past the nose of Kevin’s car. KTJ was unsuccessful in his attempt to cross over and by the time he reached turn two, he mysteriously slowed. Farney was unable to avoid rapping the rear of Thomas, leading to backstretch calamity that claimed just one casualty, that being the Hazen 57 of Shane Cottle.

One final restart with three laps left saw the 9K run completely dry of fuel. Kevin coasted to the front stretch infield pit entrance, victim of a thirsty “Godzilla” engine (as per Davey Jones), a 25-gallon fuel cell, and some lengthy yellows for Ballou and Chapple. Boespflug jumped at the chance to steal second from Farney in turn four, followed one lap later by a similar maneuver involving 16th-starting Tyler Courtney. On the final go-round, Justin Grant forced his way underneath of Aaron (with contact) at the entrance to turn three for the fourth position. The wheel banging was far from over, as the two would meet again on the expansive front stretch. Locking wheels on a half-mile rarely results in a happy ending, as Aaron was the unlucky one who rode out a wicked flip to the inside concrete guarding the infield pit exit. The Brookston, Indiana charger was carefully extricated from his mangled Maxim and had to spend the night in a local hospital, released the next day.

The bottom line is this: the ruthless racing witnessed at the conclusion leads me to believe that if this activity is not curtailed, someone is bound to pay a far heftier price. Back in the days of Jack Hewitt and Bob Kinser, these things would have worked themselves out with a black eye or bloody nose, but we’re a long way from those days with so much police interference.

Windom tallied his third consecutive USAC Terre Haute triumph dating back to last October. Boespflug, Courtney, Grant, and Farney rounded out the top-five. Chase Stockon (from 12th), Brady Bacon (from 22nd), Weir, C.J. Leary, (from 18th), and Dave Darland (Dutcher 17) scored sixth through tenth on the slicked off surface that offered quite a bit of overtaking in the late stages.

Terre Haute’s next event is Saturday October 14th, with the running of the Tony Hulman Classic. Hoping for equally nice weather as last year, some damp dirt would also be welcomed, as promoter/operator Bob Sargent always seems to be working from behind on race days to offer some semblance of a surface.

Instead of staying overnight, I headed east for another Saturday morning routine of barber shop, gym, and yardwork, on my own in this next Haubstadt adventure. Aiming for a first-time visit to Bo-Mac’s dairy bar in Shoals along the way, while on the west leg of 465 my MINI’s GPS advised that the fastest route was State Roads 67, 39, and 37 to U.S. 50, requiring a painful single lane path south of Martinsville as I-69 construction had recently ratcheted up. Feeling some stressful sweat with the slow-going on 37, I began to feel better south of Bloomington, especially when eyeing a classic 1950s convertible at the Oolitic stoplight. Could its driver have been the one and only Karl Kinser?

Stepping on the pedal on the gorgeous tree-lined U.S. 50, I had just enough time to make a pit stop for a strawberry malt and Bo-Mac’s Rox Burger, a double-cheeseburger topped with an onion ring that was named for Jug Rock, the country’s largest free-standing table rock formation east of the Mississippi that is found near the east fork of the White River, just west of Shoals. Also hoping to take the scenic route to U.S. 41 via State Road 241 and Decker (I recently enjoyed a world-famous Decker melon for the first time – no doubt the juiciest I have ever experienced), I was advised to take the yawn-inspiring I-69 to State Road 68 if I had any hope of finding a place to park at Tommy Helfrich’s Tri-State Speedway. Even with 30 minutes to spare, I was forced to park in the modified pit area, so for once I was thankful to have heeded the advice of new-fangled technology.

A humongous crowd was already on-hand to witness the ,500 to win Haubstadt Hustler, with the ,500 addition to the top prize coming from sponsor Unique Breedz. The tenth running of this event would once again feature a co-sanction from USAC and MSCS, with the latter format reigning supreme. Timed hot laps arranged heat races with the fastest four inverted and while normal MSCS meets could invert as many as 12 feature starters, this one only selected six. 0 was available to the quickest overall qualifier (Kyle Cummins – 13.624 in the Byram 3R), with Roger and Barb Tapy awarding the 13th fastest (Chet Williams) a new Hoosier right rear tire.

A hot and humid day/night more reminiscent of late July, Indian summer was in full effect for this final fling before fall’s arrival. Recalling my most recent Tri-State trip when Kyle Cummins shocked Kevin Thomas, Jr. with a last turn, last lap pass to steal the Sprint Week win, it was only appropriate that the highest paying first place prize in the Hoosier state would involve these same two.

After Thomas Meseraull and Chet Williams won the first two heats from the first and second position, it was also rather appropriate that Kevin and Kyle would claim the third and fourth heats from the third and fourth positions. Clearly the quickest two cars from preliminaries, they were set to start the 40-lap main event from the second row but when C.J. Leary shot to the lead and suddenly slowed, that awarded Cummins a front row seat.

I fully expected Kyle to lead all 40 laps and although he did pace the first three, it would be Kevin who would stay out front for the majority, gaining the advantage with a low-side launch off turn two on the fourth lap. Officially up front for the final 37 circuits, KTJ was kept honest by six more cautions involving Short, Ruble, Cottle, Stanbrough, Jackson, Darland, Stockon, Hodges, Brackett (a front row starter), and Chapple. Just as he did in July, Cummins was finally able to shake his tight condition with under ten to go, finding increased speed when stepping upstairs. The final restart left just two laps to determine who would take the cake, truly a dejà vu experience for this dynamic duo as Cummins immediately pulled the trigger on a turn two slider that collected too much cushion and allowed Thomas back by. Almost scripted, the final two corners of the white flag lap were once again extremely dramatic. Kyle literally came out of nowhere to slide Kevin through three and four but in a reversal of roles from July, this time it was Thomas who crossed over and nipped Cummins at the line. Unable to locate a larger fuel cell in time for this 40-lapper, Thomas ran out of fuel for the second night in a row, this time coming after the 9:47 PM checkered flag had fallen.

Surging from sixth, Thomas Meseraull trailed the tandem in the Chase Briscoe Racing 5. Local boy Chet Williams fired from fifth and maintained fourth for the entire grind, perhaps his best effort to date. After being unable to take a time in his heat, Tyler Courtney scored a heat race transfer and flew from 14th to 5th in the finale. Sixth through tenth included hard chargers Chris Windom (from 16th), Brady Short (from 21st and after involvement in the second caution), Robert Ballou (from 18th), C.J. Leary (involved in the first caution), and point leader Justin Grant.

Brady Bacon’s sub-standard weekend continued at The Haub when he was two semi-feature spots shy of cracking the A. Utilizing a provisional, he was unable to move forward and was credited with 18th. It had been a couple of years since Scotty Weir strapped into a sprint car for both Terre Haute and Haubstadt, having last competed at both venues with Jeff Walker in 2015. Although he earned 8th at the Action Track, he was one spot short of A-main status at Tri-State.

While operating in a transfer position in the second heat, Brian Karraker bicycled into a big-time flip, landing in a precarious upright position between the boiler plate wall and the billboards just beneath the scoreboard. Requiring the use of Helfrich’s 1970s Ford boom truck to retrieve BK’s battered machine, despite a destroyed chassis Karraker was otherwise unharmed in the incident. I would venture to say that few, if any tracks have such equipment on-hand to handle such an issue.

With the largest wingless sprint car crowd that I can remember, how ironic was it that sprint car racing’s one and only King of the Outlaws was actually in the house? Steve Kinser noted to my nephew at the King’s Royal that he “doesn’t get off the property much” these days, so naturally it was great to see Steve at Haubstadt, sitting just a row beneath me for the feature. With wife Dana selling various Kinser apparel in the parking lot, even with such a crowd Steve was not pestered for autographs or pictures, spending the bulk of his time affectionately caring for his grandchildren.

One final Haubstadt note: in a world where customer-friendly aspects are too often ignored, I feel extremely fortunate that a place like Tri-State Speedway still thrives. I am confident in my assessment that there are few other dirt tracks in this country, if not this world, where the ownership is so concerned with so many small details. The facility always looks immaculate, the restrooms are always clean, the concession stands consistently provide solid options for snacking, and the quality of the racing surface is never a question. I know some people gripe about Tommy’s tractor show and his never-ending quest for the perfect surface, but I will say this: I have never once had to worry about a lack of effort from the Tri-State staff when making the long drive to visit. More often than not, the feature action is well worth the distance traveled, as evidenced by last-turn, last-lap overtaking in my previous two trips. Other than starting earlier so Indy folk could arrive home sooner, who could ask for anything more?

Two days after Tri-State, my nephew became a proud papa to Graham Frederick Oldham, actually allowing me to hold him in my arms less than one day after the little guy entered this world. That was quite an eye-opening, impactful, and overwhelmingly heartwarming experience for yours truly, gaining a greater understanding of what is really important in life. However, just three days later while Danny was the responsible one tending to baby and wife, it seemed odd that I would be the one heading to Eldora’s Four Crown Nationals weekend to camp overnight and soak up event atmosphere with Cleveland chum Tom Percy. In due time, I’m sure the Oldham family Eldora tradition will extend another generation when Graham will be entering through the front gate with his father, great uncles, and perhaps great grandfather. I’m quite certain that he’ll grow to love this place like all of us Oldhams do.

Although Four Crown Nationals history dates back to 1981 when former USAC official turned car owner Johnny Vance convinced Earl Baltes to roll the dice on what was then a bold concept, I was formally introduced in 1985, which also happened to be my initial indoctrination to this palace of speed. With Johnny’s recent passing, I couldn’t help but get a little choked up when a new Johnny Vance Four Crown trophy was unveiled at this year’s opening ceremonies. Some 30 years ago, I vividly recall buying an Aristrocrat Products t-shirt out of the trunk of Johnny’s Cadillac in the Four Crown pit area, unbeknownst at the time of his influence on this very event.

Aside from 2003 when the Mopar Million took its place, I have only missed one of these classics since 1985, choosing the competing Winchester 400 in 1986 as I was then a hardcore ASA fan. With oh-so-many fond memories generated in the last 32 years, naturally the Four Crown remains near and dear to my heart, a tradition that makes the struggle of September something to look forward to. Given that Eldora hosts only one other USAC weekend on their calendar; attendance is vital to my happiness and satisfaction.

Once again, the Four Crown weekend would feature separate Friday/Saturday programs. As has been the norm since 2007, Friday’s top billing was the World of Outlaws while Saturday offered the obligatory standard of USAC’s midget/sprint/Silver Crown divisions along with the All Star Circuit of Champions. 2016 was the first year since 2006 that four features would be run on one evening, both becoming marathons for completely different reasons. 2006 rain delays resulted in features concluding around 6 AM. As for last year, heat racing began at an ungodly 10 PM after a two hour surface revamp, ultimately concluding at 2:49 AM.

In an effort to condense the program and prevent a repeat performance, Eldora management announced some minor tweaks to this year’s Saturday format. They included: eliminating midget qualifying (lining up by the draw and using heat race passing points), cutting All Star time trials to just one lap per car, slashing five laps from the All Star feature, and pitting Silver Crown cars outside of the track. Slated to start Saturday hot laps at 4:30 PM (hot laps were later changed to 5:40), would these changes shave off enough time to end earlier and allow for requisite surface maintenance? As soon as I read the news of the adjusted schedule I knew that they wouldn’t have a huge impact, but that didn’t stop me from attempting to enjoy every single Four Crown moment.

In addition to my first time to camp here since the year 2000, many things stood out in this 36th Four Crown Nationals weekend. First and foremost, my statistically focused mind focused on the dominating feature drives all weekend, beginning with Tim Shaffer’s wiring of the field in Friday’s “BeFour the Crowns Challenge”. Tim led all 30 laps in the Rudzik Excavating Triple X to earn his fourth career World of Outlaws Eldora achievement. On Saturday, all four winners were first-time victors in some way, shape or form. It all started with Spencer Bayston, who propelled from the pole position and reached the top of turn one first. Piloting the Keith Kunz Motorsports IWX sponsored Bullet by Spike/Toyota, Spencer controlled all 25 USAC midget feature laps for his initial Eldora score, collecting a cool ,000. After winning his heat and the trophy dash, Brady Bacon bolted from his pole starting spot to an immediate advantage in the All Star Circuit of Champions 25-lapper, never letting up as he secured his first-ever All Star win in the Bacon Marshall Motorsports Triple X. Not to be outdone, outside front row starter Tyler Courtney beat pole sitter Kody Swanson to the top of turn two and paced all 50 USAC Silver Crown tours in Hans Lein’s pristine DRC, his first-ever win at Eldora and first in Silver Crown competition. The lone feature that offered any overtaking up front was the USAC sprint car tilt, which saw third-starting Justin Grant split Chase Stockon and Robert Ballou to snatch the lead by turn one. However, eventual winner C.J. Leary claimed the premier position on lap two and held back Brady Bacon for his first Eldora triumph, having given away a May 2015 USAC win on the last lap to Justin Grant.

A second 2017 Four Crown memory will be the summer-like weather, with its sweat-inducing temperatures the hottest ever felt at this event. With the thermometer reading 92 degrees when arriving on Friday afternoon, the opening night surface was surprisingly wet for such scorching conditions, enough that Shane Stewart’s quickest qualifying time of 12.899 seconds came dangerously close to Craig Dollansky’s 2002 track record of 12.707. With the surface staying solid all throughout Friday evening, that certainly gave hope for a superb Saturday. Unfortunately, the combination of a 120-car contingent, more 90-degree temps, and the second day on the soil took its toll. Super-slick conditions finally attracted rubber and created a one-groove parade during the latter half of the USAC sprint car feature. Even with the less than desirable conditions, I actually found the racing to be entertaining, especially the early stages of the USAC sprint car finale that featured the top-six cars fitting under a blanket, also offering a fierce fight for second between Grant and Bacon.

Truth be told, the smooth, slick, and ultimately rubber-down conditions failed to provide the old-school Eldora experience that veteran fans so desperately desire, but it’s also unreasonable to expect them to wait out an extensive surface revival on an already lengthy evening. Although the top and bottom grooves were scratched during Saturday’s opening ceremonies, even without extensive maintenance the idea of sending the non-camping patrons on the road in the wee hours of the morning is far from ideal. In its current form, the one-day Four Crown format is a no-win situation that only offers one sensible solution: spread it out over multiple days so we can get back to the basics of enjoying a balls-out Eldora on-track experience, the very thing that brought all of us here in the first place. Eldora already offers a world-class big screen scoreboard, the most amazing pyrotechnics show, fan-friendly admission and concession stand pricing, a full-service bar, and undeniable atmosphere. Such an inviting, intimate setting, the only thing left to improve upon is the racing itself.

For the first 25 years, except for rare issues with rain, Four Crown activities spanned over two to three days. No doubt necessary in those early days due to massive car counts, these last two years have certainly seen no shortage of equipment, attracting 126 (2016) and 120 (2017). To Eldora’s credit, they did manage to run extremely efficient programs on both Friday and Saturday. Friday concluded at 10:10 PM and despite Saturday’s numerous wall-bangers and flips, all festivities ended at 1:13 AM on Sunday morning, 1 hour and 36 minutes sooner than 2016. The difference essentially equates to last year’s two hour surface revival. However, with the impossible task of practicing and qualifying 120 cars and running 17 different racing contests, there just isn’t enough room in the schedule for rain delays, serious accidents, or surface revamps. I am extremely passionate about the Four Crown Nationals and Eldora Speedway and hope that my comments aren’t construed as harsh criticism. I simply want to see this event survive and thrive for decades to come, hoping that someone in a key position sees this and agrees that action must be taken.

A third major aspect of this 2017 Four Crown involved the massive crashes coming on Saturday. Beginning with hot laps and qualifying for the 36 USAC sprint cars in attendance, due to the slim margin for error on both ends there were ample opportunities for right rear wheels to become ruined by unforgiving concrete. In time trials alone, Nick Bilbee, Josh Hodges, and Austin Nemire made significant contact but did not turn over. Once was apparently not enough as Nemire later cracked concrete in the same spot in turn one during Silver Crown qualifying. Both times, his squad made necessary repairs to return to battle.

Whether the surface is heavy or slick, All Star Circuit of Champions hot laps showed how serious Eldora accidents can be. Tyler Esh caught the backstretch wall exiting turn two and helicoptered down the banking, promptly drilled in the cockpit by Dane Lorenc. Transported to Dayton due to the need for a trauma unit, Tyler had bleeding on the brain, a bruised lung, and a cracked T1 vertebrae. Eventually air lifted to Lancaster, PA, although he did not require surgery, he’ll have to wear a brace for three months. 2017 FAST 410 champion D.J. Foos was the only other All Star to spill on Saturday after climbing concrete between one and two.

Even Eldora experts had their issues, as evidenced by 2013 and 2016 Four Crown midget maestro Rico Abreu catching the turn one wall at the start of the second midget heat, barrel rolling several times. Rico was able to exit under his own power but his accident was anything but tame, calling it quits for the rest of the evening as he was eventually transported to a local hospital for an overnight stay. Sporting some seriously black eyes a few days later, he tweeted that he was taking time off to properly recuperate. The only other major midget miscue came in the finale, when second-running Justin Grant was attempting to track down Bayston but caught the wall between turns one and two, pirouetting down the bank.

Silver Crown crashes were far more spectacular and serious. After heats for sprints, midgets, and All Stars were completed, the champ dirt cars finally qualified but did so on a seriously slick surface, far more treacherous than USAC sprint and All Star sessions. A razor thin cushion was available in one and two, but the wall was the only thing to lean on in three and four. Joss Moffatt was the first to pancake the perimeter in three and four. As previously mentioned, Nemire again got the wall in one and five cars later, Patrick Bruns pounded concrete in one, cartwheeling and landing upside down with engine screaming. Bruns was transported to Greenville for a foot fracture and cut that required some stitches, with surgery scheduled on Monday in Dayton.

The first of two Silver Crown feature crackups came when C.J. Leary attempted a two-for-one slider on second place Dave Darland (Phillips 27) and the lapped machine of Aaron Pierce through turn three. Leary’s right rear wound up being the weapon that propelled Pierce into the outside wall. C.J. would soon retire with a flat right rear. After shedding tears while graciously accepting his third Silver Crown championship, early in the feature Kody Swanson flirted with the fence in the same spot as Bruns, Abreu, and Grant. Such flirtation eventually bit him in a big way on lap 32, going for a rough ride in his DePalma Maxim. Kody was thankfully ok but his machine had certainly seen better days. Previous to Eldora, his worst Silver Crown finish all year was fourth.

A fourth aspect ascertained from this year’s Four Crown involved the continued showcasing of the most bad-ass, versatile talent known to mankind. It all started in 1981 when Steve Kinser subbed for an injured Rich Vogler and claimed both sprint and Silver Crown contests from the rear for Johnny Vance. Years after, such mastery at multitasking became the ultimate Four Crown honor and tradition. Larry Rice doubled-up in ’85 as did Rich Vogler in ’86, Hewitt in ’91, ’96, and ’97, Stewart in ’95, Darland in ’99 and ‘04, Yeley in ’01, Windom in ’13, and Bell in ’15. Of course we all know that the only men to triumph more than twice in one night were Hewitt in ’98 and Kyle Larson in ’11. Back when late models and modifieds served as the fourth class, Jack Hewitt was the most willing to climb through the window of one, racking up a jaw-dropping 19 wins in this event alone. Dave Darland’s seven scores sits second on the list.

In the spirit of Dew-It Hewitt, Brady Bacon was the only one finding rides in all four classes, even finishing 24th in Friday’s outlaw feature. Bacon’s best Hewitt impersonation ended with solid Saturday showings: third (midget), second (sprint), first (All Stars), and fifth (Silver Crown – from 18th in the Gormly 199). The fact that true car owners are dying on the vine makes duplicating such foursome feats a tall task.

A fifth and final major takeaway from this 2017 Four Crown was the massive crowd on Saturday, without question the largest I have ever encountered for this contest. I said the same thing last year and despite the long night in 2016, they came back in even greater numbers one year later. Having already rehashed this year’s difficulties, will the fans be as forgiving for an even more impressive assembly in 2018? Let’s hope so.

Friday’s BeFour the Crowns World of Outlaws war attracted a field of 42 and as I am always amazed with the current WoO format, qualifications clearly means everything. Dividing the field in half for two qualifying flights, the heat races offer no inversions, starting the fastest straight up. With the aid of a lightning fast surface, the end result was that every single racing event, except for the C-main, was claimed from the pole position. From the four heats, the front row starters finished in the exact same position, moving them to the all-important dash. Aside from qualification performance, the luck of the draw in the dash inversion ultimately determines the winner. The inversion of four placed Tim Shaffer and Jason Johnson on the front row. Shaffer scored the win while fourth-starting Shane Stewart secured second.
Stewart attempted to hang with Shaffer in the finale until shredding a right rear tire on lap 13, causing the second and final caution of the feature. Donny Schatz restarted second and whittled away at the Steel City Outlaw’s lead, nearly pulling even around the bottom of turns three and four in the final three laps. But, it wasn’t enough to shoot him underneath the 2010 Knoxville Nationals victor. Behind Tim and Donny were Joey Saldana (Indy Race Parts 71), Jason Johnson, and David Gravel. Brad Sweet (from 11th), Rico Abreu, Brent Marks (from 22nd), Chad Kemenah (from 19th), and Jac Haudenschild made up the second half of the top ten finishers. Abreu had been operating in third until cutting a right rear tire on the final lap. Parker Price-Miller was 17th in his debut drive with Destiny Motorsports, beating out Cap Henry (Neumeister 11N), Tony Stewart, and Spencer Bayston for the final feature pass from the Last Chance Showdown.

Saturday’s population of 120 machines was subdivided into the following classes: 18 midgets, 36 sprint cars, 23 Silver Crown, and 43 winged All Stars.

After his seventh to second heat race romp, Bayston’s beat down was his third USAC midget triumph of the year that also included a big Belleville bash. Indiana Midget Week champion Shane Golobic snatched second place from Dave Darland’s grasp, with Dave dropping one more spot after Brady Bacon took third from seventh. Darland settled for fourth in a second BT Machine Spike/Esslinger, topping ninth-starting Tanner Thorson. Sixth through tenth in the 17-car lineup included Holly Shelton (from 13th), Chad Boat, Tanner Carrick, Tyler Thomas, and Alex Bright.

USAC sprint car qualifying saw Brady Bacon clock quickest (16.893), using the low groove in three and four. Never before do I remember an Eldora fast qualifier utilizing anything but the top shelf, but I suppose there is a first time for everything. Dave Darland (Hery 40) also dove low in three and four and was the only other to operate in the 16-second range, remembering how 30 years ago quick time was in the low-16s. In an incident-free A-main, Leary’s late race turn one slider on lapper Tyler Thomas secured the win over Bacon, pole sitter Robert Ballou (who was extremely open, honest, and critical of the surface in his post-race interview), Kevin Thomas, Jr. (from 10th), and early leader Grant. Scotty Weir (Simon 22s), Chris Windom (from 15th), Thomas Meseraull (from 18th in Stan Courtad’s 9x), outside front row starter Chase Stockon, and Matt Westfall (from 21st) were sixth through tenth. Bill Rose was 19th in George Kissel’s 320 while Dave Darland dropped to 22nd after beginning fifth.

First heat foes Rico Abreu (14.669) and Joey Saldana (14.759) were the quickest two qualifiers in the entire All Star field. Fully suspecting these two to fight for top dog status in the 25-lap finale, once Abreu was absent for his heat that expectation was thrust solely upon Saldana. Joey went old-school with his breathtaking ride around the rim to conquer heat one. Tagging the wall between three and four during the dash, Saldana scored second to Brady Bacon and surprisingly fell to fourth at the start of the feature. Back up to second through three and four but again back to fourth by the flag stand, Joey again smacked the wall several times in the first two laps and was never a factor for the win. Underdog Bryan Nuckles started third and finished a strong second, operating a lane lower than Bacon and occasionally showing his nose. Yet another virtual unknown in the winged 410 world scored third, that being All Star rookie Max Stambaugh. Lee Jacobs elevated from 11th to fourth while Hunter Schuerenberg scooted from 13th to fifth. Sixth through tenth included additional unlikely suspects Dan McCarron, last year’s winner Ian Madsen, Saldana, Caleb Armstrong (from 22nd), and John Garvin.

In the Silver Crown closer, although ,000 victor Tyler Courtney was never seriously threatened, things got a bit too close for comfort on the final few laps when Chris Windom and Shane Cottle pulled to within a couple of car lengths, as Courtney’s right rear rubber appeared ready to give up the ghost at any moment. Dave Darland operated as high as second but fell to fourth at the end, with Bacon making the big blast to fifth. Sixth through tenth included Grant, Schuerenberg, David Byrne, Ballou (Klatt 6), and Jerry Coons, Jr.

No, it may not have been the mind-blowing Four Crown I had been thirsting for in this sweltering Indian summer, but that did not mean I could not find a way to have a great time. Enjoying both nights in the grandstands and around the campground, I spent some long-awaited quality time with my good friend Tom as we joked, laughed, and shared interesting observations about life and racing. No matter how long the evening extends and how parched the playing field, it’s still the Four Crown and it’s still such a special event showcasing some amazing talent. USAC racing at Eldora is unfortunately an endangered species and no matter how everything plays out, I will still want to be a part of it, continuing my long-standing September tradition.

As I finally finish this piece after dragging my feet for the last two weeks, although the temperatures and weather are still respectable, perhaps it is coincidental that the passing of the Four Crown and a slightly rare Indian summer have occurred at the same time. With just a couple of September shows and some random October outings remaining, fall has been flung into my lap, with the countdown to hibernation mode becoming an all-too-real thing. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to worry about homework, tests, quizzes, and the worry of waking up with a pimple on my face, but all these years later the love-hate relationship with this ninth month continues. As much as I love the specific racing events that are associated with this time of the year, I truly hate the thought of turning the calendar one more time. A change of seasons means a change of feelings, one that I’m not quite ready to deal with yet.

 

 

Volume 19, Number 11

Contents Under Pressure

At some point in our past, we have all been advised to refrain from shaking and then opening containers filled with carbonated beverages. If you were anything like me however, your curiosity eventually got the best of you, dying to experience the cheap thrill that came from the ensuing explosion of showering soda that inevitably made a mess of everything in its path.

Kokomo Speedway’s Sprint Car Smackdown is analogous to that shaken can of Coca-Cola. A four-day festival of highly-concentrated on-track activity, after three consecutive evenings of its prickly participants being prodded and poked, by the time the Saturday feature is about to unfold the Smackdown lid is more than ready to burst from the accumulated energy bubbling beneath.

Such was the case in this spectacular sixth edition, truly living up to the humongous hype and then some. Swelling in intensity with each successive slide-job, the ,000-to-win 40-lap finale was capped by a final two tours that contained some of the most cutthroat competition known to mankind. Prior to those last pair of laps, the Saturday finale was dominated by the cushion-crushing, throttle-stomper Tyler Thomas, who commenced from the outside of the front row thanks to a runner-up finish in the King of the Hill contest. A relative newcomer to the Indiana sprint car scene, Tyler literally stunk up the show for the first 39 laps in Michael Dutcher’s Maxim, appeared headed to a rather significant initial USAC sprint car score. However, just as he was about to take the checkered flag, an untimely caution for a spinning Brady Bacon put his celebration on ice. Much to my surprise, with 39 laps in the books USAC officials reverted to lap 38 to create a green-white-checkered finish, a new rule that has apparently been in effect since July. Unknown at the time, I had a hard time understanding how there were two laps remaining. I must be completely honest: although it may simplify the procedure for race endings and assist in thrilling finishes, I cannot say that I am in favor of such a rule, simply because it reeks of NASCAR manipulation a bit too much. Again, that’s just my opinion, which won’t change anything. Thankfully, the 2017 Smackdown will ultimately be remembered for the exciting ending, not the fact that a new rule allowed for it to happen.

Winner of Wednesday’s #GYATK feature (worth ,000 plus another 0 for being an organ donor) and Saturday’s 0 B&W Auto Mart King of the Hill contest, defending Smackdown boss and second-place performer Kevin Thomas, Jr. immediately pulled even on the ensuing restart but didn’t generate enough steam to pilfer P1. Once again receiving the white flag, TT was unapproachable in his final turn one attack. But, behind him was a completely different story, as a Chris Windom second place slider was followed by rare KTJ cartwheels that did serious damage to his Jeff’s Jam-It-In Storage sponsored DRC, enough that a new chassis had to be assembled before departing for his California Sprint Week tour.

Because of Kevin’s gymnastics routine, once again we were sent back in time (to lap 38) for a second attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, with Windom now applying the heavy heat. While T. Thomas tagged the wall between one and two, Chris pulled the pin and lofted a bomb to briefly seize the lead. The Oklahoma native immediately returned the favor in three while Friday’s feature winner Tyler Courtney bombarded the bottom to squeeze into second. Serving as the meat in a Tyler sandwich, Chris instinctively cranked his Kenny Baldwin DRC/Claxton to the left and somehow slipped beneath both to lift the lead at the white flag. Big Daddy attempted to seal the deal with another slider but like a telegraphed pass from a quarterback, TT intercepted and turned down the hill, pulling even at the entrance to the back chute. Too close for comfort, Thomas ramped over Windom’s left front while Courtney landed the knockout blow, sending the orange crush into the spin cycle as Chris’s front end had completely folded. The defending Silver Crown champion was none too pleased with the outcome, angrily tossing his steering wheel in the direction of Thomas, requiring USAC officials to remove the errant object from the Griffin’s Propane/Indiana Underground Maxim/Fisher before going back to green.

Re-racking for a third attempt at the final two lap dash, Thomas took off far too early between turns three and four, so surprised that the start was not called back. However, the Collinsville, Oklahoma native made the mistake of restarting from the top side, ultimately leaving the bottom wide open for second place Tyler Courtney who seized the day with a slick slider through one. TT tilted on two wheels in three, ready to rally with another first turn heave. Courtney clearly had other thoughts and boldly circled past, resulting in his second-consecutive victory of the weekend, his first career Kokomo conquests. Robert Ballou rounded out the podium while Scotty Weir (from 13th) and Dave Darland (from 15th) were fourth and fifth. Positions six through ten were populated by Justin Grant, C.J. Leary, Jarett Andretti, Chad Boespflug, and Chase Stockon.

Similar to that shaken soda, as the cap was loosened and its contents suddenly ready to spew, so too was the rage within Windom. After having heated words with Dutcher at the entrance to turn one, once the checkered flag was waved Chris headed straight for Thomas, landing a few blows to the still-seated driver. As fireworks were shot into the sky, all kinds of anger erupted near the black number 17, as Windom, several crew members, and officials (both Kokomo and USAC) were seen scuffling and rolling around in the dirt. How Chris ever made it onto the track in the first place is beyond me, but nevertheless it certainly added to the insanity of this scintillating Smackdown ending. If this wasn’t considered the most important event in traditional sprint car racing by now (outside of Indiana Sprint Week), these high emotions elevated it into another stratosphere. People will always pay for the potential for drama and this race has proven that such a possibility always exits.

While Tyler Thomas and Chris Windom were swallowing bitter pills and experiencing the dreaded agony of defeat, that elusive thrill of victory was being savored by Tyler Courtney, a worthy winner who kept his nose clean for the entire affair and ultimately came through in the clutch. However, the four-day stretch was anything but a walk in the park for Sunshine and his Topp team led by crew chief Mark Shambarger. Most of their Smackdown was actually a meat grinder, having to stressfully diagnose engine issues early on Saturday evening. Hustling from 13th to 5th on Wednesday’s saturated surface, Courtney began Thursday’s feature from 16th but flat right rear rubber just past the halfway mark saddled him with a finish of 17th. Second quick thanks to his first lap of Friday qualifying before two-wheeling his Maxim/Topp-Gaerte into turn four concrete, it took a small army (including personnel from Clauson-Marshall Racing and Sam McGhee Motorsports) to replace front and rear axles, numerous radius rods, and all four shocks just to be ready in time for the second heat. Missing the transfer after a stirring joust with Justin Grant, a B-main blast slated him seventh for Friday’s finale. Only ten laps were required to finagle first from Hunter Schuerenberg, with Tyler widening the arc of his low-side launches to withstand a blistering attack from 18th-starting Brady Bacon and the almighty KTJ. Batting .500 on the week was indeed a sweet reward for all that Smackdown indigestion, as Sunshine celebrated his fifth USAC sprint car victory of the season in the grandest style imaginable.

I’m still shocked that Tyler Thomas didn’t come away with the ultimate Smackdown prize, but to be perfect on three consecutive green-white-checkered restarts is no easy feat. However, since joining forces with Mike Dutcher in the first weekend of August, he’s literally been the man to beat. Opening 8th at Haubstadt’s Hoosier Sprint Nationals, one night later he was top-five material at the Bob Darland Memorial. After sweeping an MSCS weekend at Shady Hill and LPS, he was absolutely on fire at Bloomington’s Leon Gentry Classic. Clocking quickest, winning his heat, and building a half-track advantage in just eight feature laps, his lone mistake cost him big when scaling the massive turn four ledge and spinning. Until that miscue, Thomas was in a league of his own, much like he was for the first 39 laps at Kokomo’s big-money finale. Unfortunately for this potent combination, they could not cash in on either occasion.

Although their Smackdown week didn’t exactly go to plan, TT truly stood up in the seat, thrilling fans with his rides on the razor’s edge, attacking lethal cushions like there was no tomorrow. Involved in an early incident in Wednesday’s feature, after a right rear tire was swapped he still charged back through the field to earn 11th. Second-quick in Thursday time trials, a broken rocker arm in his heat relegated him to B-main status. Starting the A-main from seventh and operating as high as sixth, a cracked wheel in the late stages resulted in a 14th place finish. Tyler topped time trials on Friday (12.754), started sixth, operated as high as second, but settled for fourth. Fourth in points heading into Saturday’s finale, after claiming two of three King of the Hill match races but losing out to Kevin Thomas, Jr., I’m quite certain that many expected the Alabama assassin to lead laps 1-40. Although he didn’t win, Tyler laid it all on the line and made a massive impression.

Similar to a mini-Indiana Sprint Week, so much happened over the course of these four Smackdown days that it’s difficult to quickly summarize the remainder of events. Thankfully free from weather after last year’s near miss with the infamous Wednesday tornado, it was definitely chamber of commerce weather in K-town, warm during the day but cool at night, not only requiring sweatshirts/jackets but long pants as well. Long pants in late August – are you kidding me?

Colossal crowds on Wednesday and Saturday and the impressive assembly of campers automatically added even more flavor, but I once again noticed that reserved seating rows, especially on Thursday and Friday, showed far too many open spaces. My hope is that the incredibly dramatic ending on Saturday helps fill those gaps in 2018, wanting to see this thing grow to epic proportions.

Enjoying healthy car counts for all four shows despite Saturday competition for sprint cars coming from Putnamville, Paragon, and Waynesfield, with Wednesday’s American Racer tire option and incentives available for new competitors, naturally the opening night car count of 44 was the best of the bunch. Thursday and Friday each attracted 38 while Saturday still showed 36, not bad given the normal attrition that occurs due to blown engines and upside down excursions. Car counts would have been slightly better had it not been for Wednesday issues involving Corey Smith (engine) and Clinton Boyles (barrel rolling big-time in his heat). Shane Cottle broke a camshaft in that Wednesday opener, but Matt Goodnight came to car owner Paul Hazen’s rescue with an engine loan for the second time in a little over a month. Even with fresh power, Cottle’s luck wasn’t much better: 21st on Thursday (after losing a right front wheel), 18th on Friday, and 22nd on Saturday, commenting that the difference in power between his usual Kercher mill and the Claxton loaner was enough to require a change in how he attacked the Kokomo quarter-mile, evidenced by his pair of spins over the course of three days.

Smackdown pit sightings included legendary Outlaw wrenches Deuce Turrill (Spencer 66) and Scott Benic (Goodnight 39), enjoying reflective conversations with both about the late ‘80s/early ‘90s racing scene. Former sprint car competitors Kevin Thomas, Joe Roush, Brandon Petty, and Ande Possman were in the house, as was ex-Possman/Jeff Walker crew member Jason Hartmann. Former car owners Terry Riggs and Tracy Potter were roaming, as were brothers Brad and Steve Fox and Monticello’s Mark Batcheldor. Batcheldor and the Fox boys are in the process of getting the band back together to field a winged 410 for Brad’s son Braden.

Notable Smackdown absences came from Jon Stanbrough, Leon Gentry Classic winner A.J. Hopkins (in the defending race winning ride of 4J Racing), and Jeff Bland, Jr. Stanbrough was on-hand to observe the action, noting his racing absence was influenced by a desire to make it to the end of this Farewell campaign with his own equipment, fearing Kokomo calamity might infringe upon that. Reminding me that he’s been doing this for over 30 years now, he just wants to back away from a busy racing schedule.

A pre-race favorite to take home the big prize, Thomas Meseraull took tenth in Chase Briscoe’s Maxim on opening night but was unavailable the rest of the weekend after his frightening tumble into the turn one fence during Thursday qualifications. Soon speaking with Thomas and noticing that he wasn’t his normal self, team leader Kevin Briscoe made the call to load up on Thursday. Meseraull’s concussion-like symptoms were re-evaluated on Friday and did not improve, leading to the complete scrapping of Smackdown plans. T-Mez told me on Friday that he was suffering from a seriously sore neck, experiencing pain even when he attempted to swallow water. Convinced by Briscoe that there was too much to lose by trying to race at less than 100%, the soon-to-be father of two was assured that he still had the ride and no one else would be in the car for the balance of the weekend. The fact that Kevin cared enough to offer such assurance proves that Thomas is in a very special situation.

Just minutes before Wednesday hot laps commenced, Briscoe arrived after an overnight trip to Reading, Pennsylvania where he had just purchased a fresh Rider engine from Gene Franckowiak. Needing a backup bullet after Leon Gentry Classic hot laps, the damaged piece was the same one recently rehabbed from the Bob Darland Memorial. In Kevin’s run to Reading, that same engine was once again deposited at Charlie Fisher’s Columbus, Ohio compound. Although only one car was entered for the Smackdown, Chase Briscoe Racing fielded a pair of machines at the Gentry (August 18th), the other for California outlaw karting king Logan Seavey. After Meseraull encountered engine difficulties, he graciously swapped seats with Seavey and sat out the evening. Making what may have been his first wingless sprint car start, Logan was an early caution in his heat but went from tail to transfer, also sprinting from 12th to 5th in the feature. After such an impressive debut at Bloomington, could Seavey be the next to make a big splash on Hoosier soil?

Wednesday’s overflowing field was bolstered by those who hoped to capture the incentives available to first-time Kokomo competitors, not to mention those loyal to American Racer rubber as their MC-3 right rear was legal for this lone contest. American Racer is rumored to be an option for weekly Kokomo competition next season, with pit side scuttlebutt pondering that USAC might also considering a similar move, both hoping to bolster car counts as so many have been turned off by the four-corner Hoosier rule. Proof of such a stance was that every one of the American Racer contingent chose not to return on Thursday.

A trio of Paragon regulars showed well on Wednesday, namely Pendleton Heights Industrial Arts teacher and American Racer dealer Travis Welpott (assisted by open wheel legend Tray House), recently crowned track champion Josh Cunningham (a six- time champ now), and “Touchdown” Jake Scott (a three-time champ). Noting that he only competes where his tires are legal, Welpott won the sixth heat and drew the outside of the front row for the feature but quickly became entangled with Tyler Thomas. Cunningham caressed the cushion and claimed third in his heat, steering an old Stealth chassis that looked to originate from the early 2000s. Although Scott could not crack the A, he was in the hunt for a heat race transfer. Paragon proponent David Hair didn’t fare so well, but he showed off his new CS-9 chassis, a departure from his homebuilt four-coil creation.

Smackdown Wednesday was my first time to speak to Tray House in nearly a decade. House was three years removed from a serious 2014 neck surgery that reversed a 1999 procedure needed after a nasty Putnamville spill that effectively ended his driving days. Throughout this latest ordeal, Tray learned that the older surgery was botched quite a bit, finally getting a clearer picture as to why he was in such pain for all those years. Since this most recent procedure, Tray’s doctor has severely restricted his activities, so much that he’s had to abandon his self-employment as a brick mason. Now choosing to spend the majority of his time piddling on Larry Contos owned sprint cars, due to his limited mobility two weeks are often required to complete tasks that used to take just one day. When quizzed about his son Cole’s racing endeavors, any future plans are on hold after riding out a wicked tumble earlier this year at Lawrenceburg. Living a full life as a new father and CPA at the Indianapolis-based firm of Somerset, even though Cole desperately wants to get back in the seat, the reward of such risky business may not be worth it.

Three of the four first-time Kokomo competitors made out like bandits on Wednesday. For finishing ninth in the B, Chet Williams earned a 0 bonus, with another 0 tacked on by Tim and Diana Clauson for being an organ donor. Using a 305 cubic inch knife in a gun fight filled with 410s, Colin Parker earned an extra 0 for being the second-highest finisher in his initial Kokomo foray. Ben Phillips was the third best and took home a new Hoosier right rear.

Kevin Thomas, Jr. was Wednesday’s USAC special event winner, leading the final 21 laps to take top honors on an extremely saturated surface that proved hard to pass. Fourth from eighth on Thursday, he was third from ninth on Friday, accumulating the second-most points from the two preliminaries. So rare to see him crash on Saturday, Brad Alexander still leads this squad, but longtime car owner Jeff Walker not only donated dollars but lent a hand as well. Now fourth in national points, he’s still only 178 points out of first after missing many early season events.

After leading the first six laps on Wednesday, Chris Windom was schooled by a KTJ topside sweep and collected second, his best finish of the week. So close to claiming Saturday’s big score, Chris may have been feeling a bit of pressure to perform when car owner Kenny Baldwin chose to stay home on Friday and Saturday. Believing his team should be a factor to win every evening, Kenny was extremely upset over their Thursday performance when they could only collect ninth from 15th. Struggling again on Friday (taking 10th from 13th), a win in Saturday’s third heat earned him a grid position of 11th. After 15 laps had been recorded, Windom had only overtaken one but by lap 28 he was up to fifth, taking two more positions in the final five laps. Currently 93 points out of first in national points, with 11 races remaining Baldwin need not panic just yet.

Coming to the white flag, Robert Ballou wrenched third from Dave Darland on opening night, finding the bottom lane to his liking after beginning tenth. Ninth to third on Thursday and 21st to sixth on Friday (Ballou was one of 15 drivers docked one qualifying lap after being late for wheel packing), he started seventh on Saturday and was up to second before clobbering concrete in corner two, settling for the show position. Extremely complimentary of his new BOSS chassis, after missing the first few months of the season it looks like Robert is truly back.

Dave Darland’s fourth place finish on Wednesday was his best result in the four day festival, certainly a surprise given the amount of excellence achieved since manning Mark Hery’s DRC/Claxton full-time. Saddled with unsatisfactory qualification runs on Thursday (19th) and Friday (22nd), he could not crack the top ten on either night, finessing from 15th to fifth on Saturday when the fast way around was up on the wall. Since 1993, Darland has won a USAC national event each season, wondering if he’ll find a way to keep the lengthy streak intact in these final few weeks.

As previously mentioned, Tyler Courtney elevated eight positions on Wednesday to find fifth while C.J. Leary scored sixth from 11th. Speaking of C.J., he began from Thursday’s pole position and made the most of the situation by leading all thirty tours, enduring three cautions to fend off fourth-starting Brady Bacon. Again a solid qualifier on Friday, Leary launched from fourth to first in the span of two corners but after reaching turn one for the second time tilted on two wheels and tasted concrete. Even with the incident, his points from Thursday and Friday locked him into Saturday’s A-main in which he fired from fourth, ran as high as third, but settled for seventh. C.J. has been with quite a few crew chiefs over the last several seasons, but lately he has performed best with Donnie Gentry at the helm, responsible for all four of his USAC scores. Given just how much input C.J.’s father Chuck has on the team’s operations, I have to imagine a great deal of their success can be attributed to the fact that Donnie and Chuck see eye to eye on most things.

Despite second place finishes on Thursday (from 4th) and Friday (all the way from 18th) that accumulated the most points, Brady Bacon could not capitalize on Saturday and still has not claimed a USAC sprint car contest at Kokomo. Starting his Smackdown with a lowly last place finish on Wednesday, his Matt Hummell-led crew actually had to swap engines after their Thursday heat race. So effective in his Friday march, many expected the Dooling/Hayward 63 to be a factor come Saturday night, but they were off just a tick and were never contenders. Bacon was at best a sixth place car when midway through his right rear tire began to lose air pressure. Heavy contact with Josh Hodges mandated a swap of that same right rear, but he uncharacteristically spun in turn four on laps 29 and 40, producing 20th place pay.

Several endured roller-coaster rides in this four day stretch, namely Hunter Schuerenberg, Kyle Cummins, Scotty Weir, Jarett Andretti, Justin Grant, and Chad Boespflug. Schuerenberg was paired with Brady Short on the Reinbold/Underwood squad from Arizona, led by former driver Andrew Reinbold who stands a towering 6’ 7” tall, making him the world’s tallest sprint car chauffeur. Despite 13th and 11th place efforts on Wednesday and Saturday, Hunter was able to adapt to the Spike/Wesmar with fifth place performances on Thursday and Friday, leading eight laps on the latter evening.

Back in Hank Byram’s Mach-1 for the week, the Cummins report card showed 8th (from 16th), 7th, and 7th on the first three nights. Starting sixth on Saturday, he was operating in that same spot until his right front tire went flat during the KTJ incident, later scored 16th. After sub-par showings on Wednesday and Thursday, 2008 track champ Scotty Weir rebounded with ninth and fourth place finishes in the Mike Gass Maxim. Eleventh on Thursday and Friday, Jarett Andretti book-ended his week with seventh and eighth place efforts.

National point leader Justin Grant’s Smackdown series began in a bad way after making Wednesday contact with Schuerenberg while coming to the green. Rather than deal with a back of the B-main assignment, Sam McGhee Motorsports loaded up and headed to the car wash. Despite qualifying quickest and starting sixth, Thursday’s ending wasn’t much better when Justin’s front end folded after intense combat with Bacon and KTJ, ending up 22nd in the final rundown. Falling from third to eighth on Friday but salvaging the week with a 12th to sixth sprint on Saturday, Justin is still in the driver’s seat for the national championship.

As for Boespflug, he was 21st on Wednesday, sixth on Thursday, 16th on Friday (using a provisional after losing a left front brake line in the B), and ninth on Saturday, continuing the rash of inconsistency that has plagued this team all year. Could wearing the number 69 be the curse for CB? Other than losing crew member Bryan Stanfill (Bryan was twisting wrenches for Mario Clouser), the car number and sponsor are the only things that have changed from 2016 to 2017.

Those frustrated over the four day stretch included Brady Short, Josh Hodges, Chase Stockon, Kody Swanson, Isaac Chapple, and Logan Jarrett. Short missed Wednesday’s feature and despite 12th place performances on Thursday and Friday, he was overtaken for Saturday’s final feature ticket on the last lap of the semi-feature by Marion’s Tyler Hewitt. Brady’s consolation prize was 5. Before his dramatic sweep that earned him a cool grand, Hewitt began Friday’s feature from the outside of the front row but could only cop 21st.

Hodges had his best finish of tenth on Thursday, but his Saturday prize for elevating from 18th into the top-ten was denied after both he and Bacon banged wheels. Stockon’s tenth on Saturday was his lone highlight, still struggling to find the handle on his DRC chassis/Pro Shock combo with finishes of 14th, 16th, and 15th.

Du Quoin Silver Crown stud Kody Swanson had a slightly bumpy ride in Tony Epperson’s Spike, highlighted by an excellent eighth on Thursday. Failing to make Wednesday’s feature and flipping on Friday, Kody rebounded by sticking the white deuce into Saturday’s main event, placing 13th.

As for Chapple and Jarrett, they seemed to suffer the same fate. On Wednesday, both failed to find their way into the feature event. In Thursday’s semi, Chapple (with backing from Elwood’s Tin Plate Fine Food and Spirits) boldly attempted to squeeze beneath Jarrett in turn three for the final transfer on the final lap. Unfortunately both wound up going for a big ride, requiring serious thrashes on Friday. Chapple’s DRC chassis was transported back to Joe Devin’s Gasoline Alley shop for numerous repairs, allowing him to crack the A-main code on both Friday and Saturday. Jarrett’s DRC also required some major work by as many as four men, with Logan’s father Tony having to haul ass in the truck and trailer just to arrive at the track a few minutes past 6 PM, still needing to attach a rear bumper and two shocks. Logan’s Smackdown struggles continued with a 13th place run in Friday’s semi and another inversion on Saturday. Likewise, Chapple’s finale ended on a sour note after being roughed up by Tyler Thomas, literally scaling the fence in turn two before flipping.

After failing to make Thursday’s cut, English export Tom Harris spectacularly won a Friday heat and was later credited with 19th in the A. Embroiled in a battle for Saturday’s final transfer from the semi-feature, he landed on his lid at the turn one entrance after an unsuccessful game of squeeze play with Mario Clouser. Even with the incident, Tom had to be happy with the massive improvement enjoyed since embarking on this sprint car journey two short seasons ago. If he is able to make gains in qualifications, could Harris contend for a win in another year?

In conclusion, the vigorously shaken can of soda better known as Kokomo Speedway’s Sprint Car Smackdown might now be residing in the recycle bin, but the sticky residue resulting from the explosion of extreme emotions at the end of Saturday’s main event still remains. For the fourth time in six years, Mount Kokomo erupted with serious Smackdown drama, proving once again that it might be too much to ask its competitors to be on their best behavior when faced with the pressure of four consecutive evenings of intense combat. Although the racers might be the ones popping the bulging top and making a mess of things on-track, the fans are the ones who stand to benefit the most; so privileged to witness the release of such unbelievable energy. Wondering if there will be another eruption, twelve months might be a long time to wait until Sprint Car Smackdown number seven unfolds, but that’s plenty of time for the pressure to build once again.

 

 

Volume 19, Number 10

Still Got It

Out with the old and in with the new.  Well, not so fast… 

Just when you thought a changing of the Indiana sprint car guard had all but occurred, a pair of grizzled veterans managed to lay that theory to waste.  

As an ardent viewer of assorted television sitcoms in my most influential years, Happy Days was one such program I enjoyed watching with any one of my seven siblings.  Remembering Ralph Malph cracking a joke and stating, "I still got it”, I was reminded of such exclamation when longtime sprint car studs Shane Cottle and Dave Darland nearly swept Indiana's local scene for the last weekend in July, cleaning up at Liberty, Paragon, Putnamville, and Kokomo.  Unlike Ralph, Shane and Dave didn't attend these venues for the amusement of others, but rather for racing matters that they still take quite seriously.  The fact is, these guys still have what it takes and for someone in the same age range as these two, it feels good to know that they are more than relevant in what is widely considered a young man’s game.

So difficult to convince my spouse that I need to be gone three nights a weekend when it's not Indy 500 week, USAC’s Indiana Midget Week, or USAC’s Indiana Sprint Week, I chose Liberty and Kokomo as my first two contests since Sprint Week's conclusion, skipping a trifecta of Saturday July 29th options claimed by Cottle (Paragon’s King of Indiana Sprint Special), Darland (Lincoln Park), and Jordan Kinser (Lawrenceburg BOSS - in the Hurst 70).  Darland's victory was especially noteworthy as this was the 30th Putnamville Clash, a race he won all the way back in 1987 when it was known as the Wabash Clash.  That contest paid the same ,000 to win in '87 as it did in '17, and both editions involved interesting back stories. 

In '87, Dave did not have a ride when he showed up to the track, borrowing a fire suit, shoes (several sizes too small), and car from competitor Jamie Casey, beating such big names as Bob Kinser, Steve Butler, and Tray House.  This time, Dave's original plan had been to pilot Mark Hery's machine at Lawrenceburg for a BOSS battle.  However, a broken crankshaft while leading Liberty moved him to Mike Dutcher's Maxim, requiring Mike to figure out a way to get the car to Putnamville after his Sprint Week accident trashed his toter while in route to the same speedway.  Corey Smith kindly loaned his truck and trailer on Saturday while on Sunday, Perkinsville's Joe Perry came to the rescue, offering the use of his Dodge pickup and old-school open trailer for the short tow from Cicero to Kokomo.  Back to the Clash, Darland held back Jeff Bland, Jr. (Waltz 66) and Thomas Meseraull (Briscoe 5), admitting the next day of his relief when the race had finally ended.  Although his triumphs may also not be as frequent as he would prefer (winning with T-Mez at LPS in April), despite such adversity Dutcher still has an overwhelming desire to race and win.  I can't help but admire such drive and passion, as the absence of equipment to pull his trailer wasn't going to stand in the way of a win. 

Friday’s launch for Liberty eventually reached a renamed Route 44 Speedway, as the former Union County Speedway was reopened under new management in 2017.  My fifth visit since 1991 to this rather remote setting tucked into the hills of East Central Indiana, it was also my first since a spectacular BOSS bash from 2014 involving winner Logan Hupp and Kevin Thomas, Jr.  Another scheduled meeting from Aaron Fry’s Buckeye Outlaw Sprint Series was reason enough to roll the dice on the unproven commodity of a new ownership group hosting a sprint car special for the first time.  The risk of another late night (hot laps weren’t due to begin until 7 PM) obviously didn’t impact my decision.  In the last decade, as fans we have become quite spoiled and jaded by such efficient programs and solid surfaces offered at the usual Indiana bullrings.  So often, those are primary reasons why I rarely step out of my comfort zone.

Nonetheless, the lure of Liberty and the notion of seeing something different was too much to overcome.  Tackling the massive grade at the track's entrance, I have no idea how so many tow rigs can climb such a steep hill.  But, they obviously got the job done as an impressive assembly of 35 sprint cars made the Friday night flight for just ,500 to win.  All those sprinters were joined by modifieds and a scant few modified lights and hornets. 

Truth be told, it’s a good thing that I didn’t have to be anywhere early on Saturday morning, as the suspicion of a late night became reality almost immediately.  Route 44 staff believed that the presence of the world-renowned Lawrenceburg Fire and Safety Crew meant that an ambulance would also be part of their arrangement.  Thus, sprint cars had to wait for a meat wagon to arrive before hot lapping and because of the delay, the first heat wasn’t pushed to the track until 9:15 PM, that coming after the completion of a make-up hornet feature.  In my younger days, I would have been both angry and vocal on having to wait so long for sprint car satisfaction.  As I have matured, so has my patience and tolerance for missteps, using the down time to grab lawn chairs, don additional clothing due to an unusual wind chill, talk with a few racers, and knowing there would be no way to reach Connersville’s Pizza King before closing time, take a trip through the lengthy concession stand line.

Thankfully a righteous racing surface was prepared for this lone sprint car appearance of 2017 at Route 44, with a massive cushion in play on both ends all night long.  Such a primo playing field played right into the hands of Dave Darland, who naturally salivates at the sight of a cushion.  Ironically the USAC Triple Crown champ had never raced at Liberty before, slated to pilot a midget back in 2008 before USAC pulled the plug on the Tony Barhorst promotion.  Nine years later, Dave brought longtime wrench Brian Cripe to assist car owner Mark Hery with his two DRC/Claxtons, the other assigned to Mark’s son Travis.  Both Hery and Darland began from the front row of heat two, sweeping the top two positions which guaranteed a feature redraw for the first four rows.  After numerous attempts were made to address the crackle in Darland’s engine, these teammates would once again align themselves in the same row (two) for the 25-lap finale. 

Michael Fischesser, Kyle Simon, and Matt Westfall claimed the other three entertaining heats from either the first or second row, with Aaron “Mid Air” Middaugh drawing the pole alongside Simon (Kyle).  Kyle’s cousin Landon was unable to fire for either his heat or B.  Prior to the feature, the drive of the night undoubtedly belonged to local boy Brandon Whited, who in his first race of 2017 scaled from seventh to win the second of two consolation affairs.  Other than Landon Simon, the two most notable names missing the Friday night main included Travis Welpott (spinning before a Garrett Abrams T-bone) and Ted Hines. 

With B-mains complete by 11:11 PM, unfortunately the modified A had to be run first, proving with their nearly hour-long finale that they are still a support class (because as Merrillville Al Longiny joked, they "hold up the show").  Pushing sprints at 11:59 PM, they didn't get the green until 12:16 AM, delayed for a Matt Cooley warm-up mishap.  As for that A, it had a confident Dave Darland's name written all over it, twice seizing the lead from Middaugh thanks to a lap two caution for Kyle Simon's tour of the spin cycle.  The rim-riding Darland was truly in a league of his own, taking to this unfamiliar track like a duck to water.  Unfortunately at lap six, it all came to an end when he pulled to the infield, victim of a broken crankshaft in his Claxton mill.   At the same time, a yellow for a Tony Main spin restacked the running order, which suddenly showed fifth-starting Shane Cottle as the leader.

Although Shane is a master of most low grooves, the top side was truly the way to go.  Except for rare instances while negotiating lapped traffic, Cottle looked more like a 21-year-old by allowing his right rear to take a bite out of such a chunky cushion.  Playing it safe by not forcing the issue with back markers in the waning stages, Shane's prudence allowed sixth-starting Fischesser (Mr. Excitement) to close to his rear bumper on more than one occasion.  Not to be denied, the cool-under-fire Cottle would pull away in the final two tours and claim his fourth victory of the year (number five came on Saturday) in Paul Hazen's 57, celebrating by climbing atop the roll cage at an ungodly 12:28 AM.  Fischesser was impressive in his scoot to second while Muncie's Cole Ketcham was also sharp in his march from ninth to third.  Justin Owen and Matt Westfall finished fourth and fifth.  Pennsylvania's Carmen Perigo, 2012 BOSS champ Dustin Smith, Middaugh, Chad Wilson, and hard charger Garrett Abrams (up from 21st) scored sixth through tenth.

Despite such a trying show and the 2 AM arrival home, I still enjoyed myself rather immensely, happy that Cottle and Hazen could prove that they still have "it" as well.  There’s just something so special about a BOSS event, as the laid-back atmosphere and healthy competition amongst budget-minded racers always makes for an unpredictable evening, reminding me of how local sprint car racing used to be in the '80s and '90s.     

After Cottle’s Saturday success, could he make it a weekend sweep with a win at Sunday night’s Kokomo Klassic?  You’d probably have to go back to his days with Edison Motorsports in order to find a weekend in which he’s won more than once, but given how well he and Hazen have run at Kokomo, such a feat was indeed a distinct possibility given their sudden boost in confidence.  Shane was one of 22 sprint car chauffeurs vying for the ,000 top prize. 

Darland was another, rejoining Hery Motorsports who installed an ancient yet stout -12 headed engine between the frame rails of the same machine that was in-line to take Friday’s feature.  Engine tuner Jeff Claxton said the mill was older than all of Dave’s kids, for which Dave noted his youngest is 24.  That 12-headed power plant proved more than adequate early on, as the People’s Champ was fastest in his qualifying session while also pulling off a final lap pass to steal a heat win from Colten Cottle.    

After sitting out all of 2016 following a wicked August 2015 Sheldon Kinser Memorial crash, Kent Christian was making his first Kokomo start in quite some time, hoping to show that he still had some ink left in his fountain pen.  Steering a DRC chassis wearing his usual number 1, Christian commented that this was the first new car he has ever acquired, often constructing his own chassis from his Clayton, Indiana shop.  Doubling his pleasure by squeezing into Craig Dori’s Ellis-Ecotec midget, KC was one of 15 midgeteers going for the gold. 

With USAC regulars active in Moberly, Missouri, yet another weekend win for Cottle and Darland seemed like a distinct possibility.  However, Kokomo Sprint Week winner Thomas Meseraull got the call to drive Mike Dutcher’s 17 and stood a great chance of spoiling Shane and Dave’s Sunday night plans.  A Kokomo winner back in September of 2015, Max McGhee was yet another who could cramp their style.  After a frustrating beginning to 2017, lately Max has been dipping his toes into winged waters.  More than ready to show that he still has the stuff to win, he was back with his own Maxim.  Aided by veteran wrench Jim Forman, Max was quickest in the first qualifying session and finished second to Meseraull in the first heat.     

Setting up for yet another thrilling 30-lap finale, the feature redraw contained a top three rows of second heat winner Shane Cottle, Billy Cribbs (quickest in the second qualifying session), McGhee, Darland, Meseraull, and the other Cottle (Colten).  After an 8:30 PM wave lap, four-time track champion Cottle hammered the top and briefly held the point, making me believe that he might just pull off the rarest of rare:  an Indiana weekend triple. However, Max McGhee dove low in three and found big-time bite, leading as they crossed the stripe for the first time.  A few laps later, Max tilted on two wheels through turn two but somehow brought his black 17 back to earth.  In his wake, a huge scrum ensued for first, as Darland threaded a thin needle to take the top spot in three.  Shane secured the lead on the front stretch, but an outside sweep through the second corner propelled TPC to P1.  Second through fourth was hotly contested, with McGee slipping by Cottle, who reached for the sky and allowed T-Mez to take third.  The hot and heavy action was put on pause when a Travis Hery inversion illuminated red lights.  In the process of achieving his PhD at Ohio State University, thankfully Travis and his ride appeared none the worse for the wear.     

Restarting with 21 laps left, Darland was still the leader, but McGhee seemed quite motivated to score the W, applying immense amounts of pressure.  The top two nearly collided at the entrance to the back chute and still jousting side by side at the line, Max pulled off a rather polite slide job through the north end, only to be immediately countered at the entrance to the south.  Jumping on the bike again in turn one, Max slowed and caused a caution to fly with six laps left, learning later that his ride had run dry on fuel.   

Darland was untouched the rest of the way, topping Meseraull, a pair of Cottles (Shane, then Colten), and Logan Jarrett.  Brian Karraker (from 12th), Josh Spencer, Cribbs, and Lee Underwood secured sixth through tenth. 

Much like Dave Darland did the Kokomo sprint car deed on Memorial Day, so did Monrovia’s Justin Peck in the companion midget main event that played by Montpelier Motor Speedway rules but was also sanctioned by USAC's Midwest Thunder division (D2 cars competed for USAC points).  A recent All Star winner in Macon, Illinois, Justin was in a league of his own on this banked bullring.  Stabbing and steering Kenny and Reva Irwin’s Spike, Peck easily won his heat and completely obliterated the feature competition, leading all 20 laps from the pole in his green-to-checker romp.  Peck’s premium production left just four cars on the lead lap, one of them being Greenwood’s Chase Jones who was a half-track in arrears.  Colten Cottle claimed third while Justin Dickerson drove to fourth.  Five-time Eldora Speedway modified champion Scott Orr occupied an ex-Bill Rose Spike/Brayton combination in fifth, the first as one lap down at the 9:10 PM checkered. 

Although Cottle could not follow up his fantastic final weekend of July with an equally awesome initial weekend of August, Darland did manage to keep the momentum rolling in a big way.  Both worked in Waynesfield, Ohio and Kokomo, Indiana for the Jack Hewitt Classic and Bob Darland Memorial, and both outings paid a cool three grand to win. 

2017 was the first-time for the “Hewitt” to fall under sanction, as the BOSS brigade attracted 43 sprinters for its ninth running.  Much like Liberty, nearly everything was dominated by Darland – everything but the one lap that pays.  Once again manning Mark Hery's DRC/Claxton, Dave was quickest in his combined hot lap/qualifying session, fanned three-deep on the first lap to score a convincing heat race win, and rocketed from his outside front row feature starting spot to earn an early full-straight advantage, tackling the top like there was no tomorrow.   

Dave’s fellow front row mate was Drew Rader, a thirty-year-old Findlay, Ohio concrete worker who won his first-ever sprint car feature at Waynesfield on June 10th.  Winner of the fourth heat, Drew fell to fourth in the early stages but was clearly in attack mode for the second half.  Dialed in for diminishing traction, the Rader 74 whisked past Scotty Weir (quickest overall from qualifying in the Simon 22) and Matt Westfall to wrench third and second.  While Darland oddly chose lower lanes to navigate the unruly congestion, Rader railed the top, completely closing the gap when Double-D glanced his right rear off of Dallas Hewitt.  On the white flag lap, Drew deviated from his norm by bombarding the bottom, pulling even as the two combatants dueled wheel to wheel all the way to the checkered flag.  Gaining some great bite off the bottom of the final corner, Rader moved up and rubbed nerf bars with Darland, inching him out by .005 seconds.  Drew’s second career feature victory was indeed one of the biggest upsets I’ve witnessed in quite some time, quite a shocking slaying of one the sport’s all-time greats.   Anyone that’s ever dreamed of driving a sprint car has to envision such a landmark victory.  A dream come true for Rader, if you happened to be in attendance that is indeed a name you’ll remember from now on. 

Saturday night regular Kyle Simon scaled from 13th to take third while Westfall and Weir settled for fourth and fifth.  Sixth through tenth included Dustin Ingle (from 16th), Dustin Smith, Carmen Perigo, Cody Gardner, and Luke Hall.  First heat winner and 10th-starting Shane Cottle was a distant 13th, involved in the only caution of the contest when Dallas Hewitt spun at the top of turn one.  Cottle and Silver Crown stud Kody Swanson (Wolters 21) had nowhere to go and connected with Jack’s nephew, eventually eliminating Swanson from the feature equation. 

Aside from Rader, Darland and Cottle, Hewitt and Swanson also scored heat victories.  A pair of B-mains were bagged by Tyler Hewitt and Dane Lorenc, with the New York native strapping into a wingless sprinter for the first time as teammate to Matt Goodnight.  The most serious incident of the evening came in the second heat when Steve Little (“The Quiet Riot”) and Paul Dues made contact in their scuffle for second, shooting Steve into the turn three fence.  Although it took a while for fence repairs, Little exited under his own power.  Notable names missing the "Hewitt" finale included "Chocolate" Chad Wilson, Matt Cooley, co-point leader Justin Owen (no right front shock), Goodnight, Travis Welpott, and 2014 BOSS champion Mike Miller (blown engine).   

In terms of on-track success, Kokomo Speedway's Bob Darland Memorial has traditionally been a thorn in Dave Darland's side, having claimed this contest only once in his career prior to 2017.  Enduring a similarly frustrating season this year as last, despite losing his Phillips Motorsports USAC sprint car seat for the rest of the season Dave’s campaign took a turn for the better post-Sprint Week.  Every single time he’s climbed through the cage, whether it be hot laps, a heat race, or feature, he’s been a force to be reckoned with.  Against a Sprint Week-like field, Bob's son was clearly up to the task, highly motivated to capture the win after letting one slip through his fingers the previous evening.

In addition to the usual suspects, the stacked field of 27 sprint cars contained Grant, Windom, Boespflug, Ballou, Leary, Meseraull (CBR 5), Cummins (Pollock 21x), Weir (Gass 17), Andretti, Thomas (Tyler - in the Mike Dutcher Motorsports 17), and Bilbee.  Windom also doubled his pleasure in the midgets, as did Kent Christian, who once again shoehorned himself into Craig Dori’s 38 special.  The midget contingent totaled 21, battling for bragging rights in yet another USAC Midwest Thunder meeting that invited all types of inventory, with equipment propelled by production-based and motorcycle engines along with the almighty purpose-built pieces.  Cast in overcast skies, Kokomo clay started an ideal dark chocolate in color and stayed that way for the entire program.  As a result, the action was epic and heart-pounding!  Pinching myself the entire time, I remain thankful yet thrilled that such outstanding entertainment is less than an hour from my front door. 

The all-time King of Kokomo was on his game from the start in the Hery Motorsports DRC/Claxton, qualifying quickest in his group, scoring second to Tyler Thomas in his heat, and redrawing fourth for the 30-lap feature event.  Dave would eventually claim the ,000 top prize in the 30-lap finale, but it was far from a slam dunk, as up-front intensity achieved its usual, white-hot Kokomo standard. 

Outside front row starter Chris Windom spent the most time as pilot dog, leading 19 laps while pushing pedals in his usual Kenny Baldwin DRC/Claxton combo.  Fellow second row starter Chad Boespflug (own 69) gave Darland all he could handle for the runner-up slot in the early going, counting seven position changes in just four tours.  With a healthy cushion in play, Darland drove it far too deep into turn two’s accumulation, falling to third just before the first of three cautions came for Logan Jarrett, who looped his new DRC in three and four.  Logan was the source of the second slowdown a few laps later, setting the stage for a 12-lap showdown. 

After Windom showed a bit of smoke, Boespflug seized the day with a cordial slider through the second corner.  Bringing Darland and Ballou into the lead mix, a few laps later the hometown hero climbed the curb through the north end and allowed the Mad Man to briefly snatch second.  Eyeing flag man Brian Hodde’s display of just one hand with extended fingers, suddenly it was time for Diamond Dave to get real.  Ripping the lip in typical Darland fashion, he applied heavy heat while Chad alternated high and low.  Boespflug’s sideways slip through three and four would wind up serving the lead on a silver platter.  Leaving just a couple of laps left, Robert Ballou seemed equally motivated to take the trophy as he breathed down his nemesis’s neck while the white flag flew.  Although Robert’s path around the bottom became blocked and appeared to seal his second-place fate, Jarett Andretti suddenly slowed in turn four and caused one final caution.   

In that final one lap blast, there would be no fight for first as Ballou’s right rear tire lost air pressure and allowed for Boespflug’s bolt to second.  However, feature drama was still not finished as Nick Bilbee sat sideways in the middle of the second corner just as Darland came charging out of turn four.  This time Hodde had twin checkered flags flying, signifying that the son of the late Bob and Joan Darland took top billing in his family’s race for the first time since 2008.  Celebrating with turn four donuts, the Lincoln legend who now calls Atlanta, Indiana his home was clearly ecstatic.  So happy to be on top of the sprint car world yet again, when interviewed by Rob Goodman you could hear just how much this victory meant to him.      

Boespflug, Ballou, Windom, and Tyler Thomas secured hard-fought top-fives.  The second half of the top ten contained Grant, Cottle (from 16th), Cummins, Weir (from 18th), and Leary.  Leaving little to nothing on the table, all feature contestants were engaged in hardcore, cutthroat Kokomo combat.  That’s something you’ve just got to love. 

After such a sterling showing to end the month of July (two wins and a third), Shane Cottle’s fortunes soured after August had advanced.  Involved in an early Waynesfield feature caution to eventually claim 13th, he was forced to the infield in Kokomo qualifying, finishing one spot from a feature transfer in his heat.  Burying the competition in the B, he advanced nine positions from his outside row eight feature start.  All was not lost however, as another Mansfield mauling on August 12th allowed both he and car owner Paul Hazen to pocket ,000 after claiming the BOSS portion of the Great Lakes Dirt Nationals.  Their sixth win of the season was the fourth on Buckeye soil, third under BOSS sanction, and second in a month at Mansfield.  

One early Kokomo casualty included quickest qualifier Thomas Meseraull (12.899), who pulled to the infield while leading his heat.  Quizzing team leader Kevin Briscoe as to the verdict, it was a rocker arm shaft pulling up that allowed the push rods to fall out.  CBR’s Sprint Week winning engine was constructed by Columbus, Ohio’s Charlie Fisher and Briscoe plans to have Charlie repair this particular piece (starting life with TSR, then Brady Bacon, then Paul Kistler) in time for the Kokomo Smackdown weekend.  Kevin also commented that he hoped to have a third engine to add to the team’s rotation.   

As for the midgets, the 20-lap finale boasted heat winners Justin Peck (Irwin 7k) and Chris Windom (Baldwin 5) as front row starters.  First heat winner Ray Seach and second heat race flipper Anton Julian were two of three cars unable to make the feature call.  In a contest littered with four yellows (two from Ohio’s Alex Watson) and two reds (Justin Dickerson and Jon Watson inverted), surprisingly enough Peck could not repeat for the second week in a row despite showing supreme speed. 

Windom was the first to find the bottom to his liking and quickly picked off Peck, who lap after lap pounded a treacherous top that proved to be his undoing.  Just past halfway, Justin tilted on two wheels through turn four and climbed the front stretch wall, sinking to sixth.  All race long, the trio of Windom, fifth-starting Chase Jones (aided by Isaac Chapple), and Peck were the cream of the crop and that’s what the end result showed, with Kyle O’Gara moving from 12th to 4th and Aaron Leffel advancing five spots to 5th.  Given that Aaron was operating a USAC-spec Midwest Thunder midget, he earned top billing in their press release. 

Now that Dave Darland is hotter than a firecracker, Kokomo Speedway focuses its attention on its Sprint Car Smackdown weekend.  The sixth running of this high-profile production begins with a bang on Wednesday August 23rd (#GYATK Night) with a free general admission program that consists of sprint cars only, showing up on USAC’s schedule with special event status.  Thursday and Friday are full USAC sprint shows paying ,000 to win, with the highly entertaining King of the Hill match races and the mammoth ,000 to win feature concluding on Saturday.  Winged 600cc micros (Thursday), Montpelier style midgets (Friday), and UMRA King of the TQ midgets (Saturday) serve as the undercard. Pit and grandstand gates open at 3 PM each day. 

At the ages of 45 and 50, hardcore racers Shane Cottle and Dave Darland might be two of the elder statesmen in today’s youthful sprint car scene, but lately these big-time bad-asses are showing little signs of slowing down.  Despite recent years when feature victories have been hard to come by, a refreshing twist of multiple weekend wins for these two may have given new life to an Indiana scene that so many had assumed had already undergone a changing of the guard.  Proving indeed that they’ve still got it, perhaps the saying should be:  out with the new and in with the old. 

But wait, there’s more…

Wrapping up this blog with a report on the Midwest Sprint Car Series and its August 12th "Return to Putnamville", car owner Mike Dutcher continues to prove he's still got it, enjoying a second-half resurgence and a second consecutive weekend victory with his most recent hire Tyler Thomas.  Topping a slim 17 car contingent on Friday in Medaryville, Indiana (Shady Hill), Mike and Tyler also slayed a surprisingly slim 21 car assembly on Saturday.

Qualifying second-best in his group, winning his heat from third, and starting the 30-lap feature from sixth, after a caution for a second lap Brady Ottinger spin Thomas tackled a gnarly cushion and reaped the rewards of such a risky endeavor, flying from fourth to first in just one lap.  But, in order to park the Griffin's Propane Maxim on the front stretch, he was required to endure restarts after four additional amber illuminations.  Three of those four were of the double-file variety and each time he was up to the task, fending off the advances of previous week LPS victor Brent Beauchamp (Olson 34) and Brady Short. 

Beauchamp led the first two laps but fell to third after the restart for that initial pause.  The only one to have anything for T-Squared, B-Squared ran him down in a 14-lap green flag stretch.  After an over the cushion expedition in turn four, Beauchamp earned a reprieve when Kyle Cummins, Brandon Mattox, and Aaron Farney congregated in turn two.  A failed slider on the leader was followed by another launch over the ledge in three and four.   A.J. Hopkins (Ottinger 4J) had nowhere to go when Beauchamp reentered the playing field, climbing over car 34’s front end and spinning to a stop.  Beauchamp was never the same after the incident.

The eventful evening of four-time 2017 LPS victor Hopkins was also a story.  Quickest in his qualifying group, A.J. spun off the top of turn four while operating second in his heat, falling just one spot shy of the top-two redraw.  Starting seventh in the finale, he spent a majority of the feature battling with Robert Ballou.  The two were initially embroiled in a fight for fourth and made contact in turn four.  Then came A.J.’s caution and although Ballou was not involved, he pulled to the work area.  After restarting ninth and tenth (MSCS rules allow lead lap cars to restart ahead of lapped traffic), they once again connected on the back stretch, the heavier contact causing Hopkins to perform a mid-air pirouette.  Although Hopkins had to settle for tenth, he was quite the show, as no one hustles a car harder at this venue.

So confident in leaning against that ledge, once removed from a single-file lap 27 restart Tyler Thomas constructed another full straightaway advantage, nailing down his third sprint car feature victory of 2017 and fourth of his career.  Trailing Thomas were MSCS point leader Brady Short, Beauchamp, Ballou (his second race in a new BOSS chassis), and Jamie Williams.  Aaron Farney, Matt McDonald (from 20th), Jon Stanbrough (Wingo 77), Brandon Mattox, and Hopkins were scored sixth through tenth at the 9:19 PM conclusion.  Koby Barksdale started outside the front row, led briefly, but was credited with 18th.  Daron Clayton had a night to forget in the Burton 04, suffering a flat right rear in his heat and snapping his left front wheel at the start of the feature, listed as the last place finisher.  Lincoln Park Speedway hosts sprint cars for the next seven Saturdays, with a special Friday night show on September 22nd that includes the UMRA King of the TQs, mods, super stocks, bombers, and you guessed it:  sprint cars. 

September 22nd is also the date for Bloomington’s recently announced special non-points event:  a double-feature for traditional sprint cars and RaceSaver winged 305s.  Both divisions will run similar programs and the fastest from each group qualifying session will not only earn 0, but will automatically transfer to the main event (with a redraw taking place of those fastest qualifiers).  Multiple 15-lap qualifying races will be conducted for the remaining starting positions.  Inverting the finish of the first 25-lap feature, the second will see 30 laps.  Points will be tabulated for both races and the highest accumulator after the pair will earn a ,000 pay day (,200 for RaceSavers).  Anyone claiming both ends of the double will earn a ,000 bonus (0 for RaceSavers).    With an open tire rule in effect for traditional sprinters, in an even more interesting twist both traditional and RaceSavers must run the same right rear tire in both features.  All in all, it sounds like a lot of fun.    

With a multitude of Indiana sprint car options in Bloomington (Leon Gentry Classic), Lawrenceburg (Dick Gaines Memorial), Putnamville, and Paragon, Saturday is also Springfield’s Tony Bettenhausen 100 along with POWRi midgets at Macon.  Decisions, decisions…

 

 

 

 

Showtime - Chase Stockon’s finished ninth at Gas City and here at Bloomington, his best ISW efforts.

Comeback Kid – Enjoying a strong second half of the series, Chad Boespflug’s best finish of Sprint Week came at Bloomington, scoring second.

Volume 19, Number 9

Bargain

By the time I get around to writing these racing blogs, the subject matter is more than old news, it is ancient history in the realm of today’s social media blitz.  Perhaps that’s why I’m always in a reflective mood.  I’m always writing about the past, after all.  

When realizing that 2017 represented the 30th Indiana Sprint Week, naturally I couldn’t help rewinding to the past, thinking about those days when this time of the year suddenly became the center of my universe.  Without a doubt it was 1997, one year after Kokomo, Bloomington and Paragon promoters Kent Evans, Mike Miles, and Keith Ford met at the Waffle House in Martinsville to discuss adding USAC sanction to this series that randomly alternated between winged and wingless varieties from 1988 to 1995.  Evans’s vision of emulating the All Star Circuit of Champions Ohio Sprint Speed Week came to fruition in 1997 and the expansion from three to seven rounds attracted all of the SCRA stars from the west coast, recreating the fabled CRA Midwestern tours that I loved so much.  Such a tantalizing prospect coerced me to skip Eldora’s Kings Royal for the first time in 1997 and due to consistent conflicts, I haven’t been back since. 

Forced to keep normal work hours for ’97 Sprint Week, this was when I skipped my one and only date since USAC has taken control.  Hauling ass just to arrive home at 1 AM on Thursday morning from a late night in Terre Haute, I had no choice but to bypass another extended evening in North Vernon, missing Kevin Thomas’s premature retirement after flipping in qualifying, another quick time from Richard Griffin (he was quickest qualifier at 6 of 7 stops), and Kevin Doty’s victory in Steve Chrisman’s 25.  Not wishing to make that mistake again, from that point forward my vacation time always revolved around Sprint Week.  As a kid, my two and a half months of summer break was the most sacred time of the year.  But, now that I only have three weeks to spare from my daily grind, this precious time is cherished infinitely more, so much that when I know the end is near, I get that same sick feeling in my stomach as I did when dreading the first day of school.     

With Campbell, California photographer and close friend Steve Lafond staying as my Sprint Week guest for the ninth summer in a row, that dreaded haul to Haubstadt signals that same sorrowful feeling when we know we’ll have to end our respite from the realities of life.  Steve was at the wheel for the three hour tour when I was bestowed the honor of playing DJ, selecting drive time tunes from his iPhone.  The moods generated from said music made for one of our most memorable journeys, with one of the first selections being The Who’s Bargain.  Always in search of a theme for these blogs, more often than not it is influenced by a certain song that strikes a chord.  Listening to Bargain a few days later to pull me through the doldrums of my return to the working world, it reminded me of the countless sacrifices endured each year for the opportunity to bask in these ten glorious days of fun, freedom, fellowship, food and beverage, and fantastic sprint car entertainment. 

I'd gladly lose me to find you, I'd gladly give up all I had.  To find you I'd suffer anything and be glad.

I'd pay any price just to get you, I'd work all my life and I will. To win you I'd stand naked, stoned, and stabbed.

I'd call that a bargain, the best I ever had.  The best I ever had!”

Although I’m not quite sure if I’d stand naked, stoned, and stabbed just for seven sprint car contests, this is a special time of the year that always generates memories.  2017 was no exception, maintaining its claim as one of the best bargains of my entire existence.  Despite the fact that three of our racing excursions (Gas City, Terre Haute, and Putnamville) and our lone off day were impacted by rain, the notion that we were on vacation was not lost. 

Figuring out ways to make the most of each day, after the opening night Gas City gusher we made stops in Fairmount (Bad Dad Brewery), Noblesville (Deer Creek Brewery), and Fishers (FoxGardin Family, managed by former USAC regional midget champion Scott Thoman).  On the Tuesday off-day, we not only paid a visit to the new Clauson-Marshall Racing headquarters in Fishers, but we made our second excursion to Bonge's Tavern in Perkinsville, which rain or shine is always guaranteed to be an outstanding evening.   After the Action Track’s torrential downpour, we found our way to the ancient Terre Haute Brewing Company (second oldest brewer in the country) where former flagman and on-track competitor Steve Parkes was encountered on his way back home to Gary.  Interestingly enough, THBC, with its taproom dating back to the 1800s when it served as a warehouse for the original brewery, is located next to longtime sprint car entrant Hannig Construction.  Having over-ordered for Thursday's pre-race feeding at Fat Dan's Deli in So-Bro, I was in no shape for another search for unique food and beverage after Thursday's Lincoln Park deluge, so we headed for home base, with I-465 slowed by flooding from the heavy downpour. 

Despite the plethora of good times encountered, while brunching for our Sunday farewell, I still could not comprehend how the sands of time had somehow slipped through our hands so easily once again.  Always wishing that the clock could somehow slow down during this highly anticipated interlude, there are never enough hours to savor Sprint Week. 

Given that it took nine trips to achieve six of the seven rounds, this 30th edition will go down in memory as the wettest on record, such an odd occurrence as July has traditionally been one of the driest months in the Hoosier state.  As much as I have downplayed such claims from the media, perhaps we are in the midst of a fundamental climate change?  When it wasn’t looking like rain, of course it was sweltering hot, as evidenced by a 94 degree arrival in Terre Haute.  The odd weather certainly had a slightly negative impact on the series, as the rescheduled rounds for Gas City and Putnamville suffered with much smaller car counts (32 and 24) and crowds.  Unfortunately ending on a whimper rather than a roar; that makes two years in a row that the rescheduled finales failed to pack a proper punch.  Thanks to Ma Nature, Sprint Week was unable to build any kind of momentum in 2017, but by no means did that mean I didn’t have a good time.  The fact is that expectations for excitement are always high for this Super Bowl of traditional sprint car competition, so it’s easy to be disappointed when things don’t quite go to plan.  

2017 will of course also be remembered for the cementing of Kevin Thomas, Jr.’s status as an upper echelon traditional sprint car chauffeur, finally laying claim to the Indiana Sprint Week title that eluded him in 2013 and 2015.  Driving his family-owned DRC/Speedway combination with limited backing from David Abreu and Jeff Walker, key crew help came from Brad Alexander and Robert Brown, Jr.  Thomas was clearly the most consistent Sprint Week performer; on his game for qualifications, heat races, and features.  His worst time trial effort was 10th (Lawrenceburg); otherwise he was inside of the quick six on each evening, twice qualifying quickest (Kokomo and Putnamville).  Earning feature transfers from each one of his heat races, that statistic was in serious jeopardy at Haubstadt when he suffered a flat left rear tire on the opening lap.  Thanks to a front stretch fence scaling and sprint to the work area by crew member Brown, he was able to assist Alexander with the swap and allow his driver to make an impressive run from the rear to take the win.  Thomas’s average feature finish was 5.33, scoring seventh at Kokomo, third at Lawrenceburg (from 9th), 14th at Gas City (turned sideways early), first at Bloomington (leading the last 28 laps by riding a blackened rim just beneath a colossal curb), second at Haubstadt (losing by a last corner, last lap pass from Kyle Cummins), and fifth at Putnamville.  That fifth at LPS was indeed a hard-fought nail-biter, needing to finish eighth if second-in-points Robert Ballou happened to win.  Actually dropping to eighth early after climbing cushions and wheels, Kevin regained his composure to claim the crown, overcoming his fear of losing the championship in the last race (that happened in 2013). 

Foreign Flavor - Ryan Bernal was one of two west coast drivers adding flavor for 2017 Sprint Week.

After starting the season with a brief defection to the winged world, once KTJ returned to familiar turf the end results have been so similar to 2016, nailing down nine feature victories this season.  Climbing a daunting sprint car mountain since 2007, it’s been a very long journey for the Alabama native who in those early years struggled mightily.  But with this Sprint Week title, he’s now effectively reached the summit.  The only thing left to accomplish is a national championship and after missing the Florida rounds in February, he’s currently fourth in the standings, some 161 points out of first which is not completely out of the realm.

Thomas’s nearest Sprint Week championship contender was Robert Ballou, who actually enjoyed a better average feature finish (4.83).  What ultimately cost Robert the title was qualification performance, as only twice he timed inside of the top-six as opposed to KTJ’s five.  Comparing heat race finishes, while Kevin made the cut each time, Robert missed it once (Lawrenceburg), with Ballou bagging three heat race wins to Thomas’s one.  As for feature finishes, he blasted from 22nd to 10th at Kokomo (coming from 9th to 3rd in his heat), landed fifth at Lawrenceburg, and led five laps at Gas City, settling for second after banging wheels and exchanging gestures with Chris Windom.  The last half of the series saw him finish fifth at Bloomington, sixth at Haubstadt, and pace the final 29 tours in route to the win at LPS.  Reverting to a pair of older chassis for this six race stretch, although not quite returning to 2015 ISW and national championship form, the Mad Man is inching closer. 

Last year's Sprint Week stretch served as the time to take notice of Tyler Courtney, who shocked the world with his win from the rear at Gas City and led the points until an untimely Bloomington tumble.  Though not as spectacular in 2017, he and his Topp Motorsports team led by Mark Shambarger showed signs of consistency, taking third in points with their Maxim/Claxton combo thanks to an average feature finish of 6.67.  Ironically, Tyler's two poorest performances came where he was best last year:  Lawrenceburg (12th) and Gas City (11th).  Timing inside of the top-ten three times, his other feature finishes included a fourth at Kokomo, eighth at Bloomington (from 14th), and two strong performances of third and second at Haubstadt and Putnamville.   Given such solid showings in this year's Midget and Sprint Week marathons, it’s only a matter of time until Sunshine takes home one of these titles.  

In only his fourth outing in Chase Briscoe's Maxim/Fisher, Thomas Meseraull began the series with a huge bang in Kokomo, snatching the lead from pole sitter Carson Short on the ninth lap and crushing the competition with a four wheels above the cushion exhibition.  Harkening back to the early days of its reconfiguration, Kokomo was a true cowboy track for Sprint Week’s opening round, no one more willing than T-Mez to take his car to its ultimate limit on such a challenging surface.  After claiming Kokomo from the seventh starting position (the furthest of any in 2017 ISW), he finished seventh at both Lawrenceburg and Gas City, leading 18 laps at the latter until exceeding the thin cushion immediately after a lap 20 restart.  Thomas was just  13 points out of the series lead when heading to Bloomington, where an outside front row feature start signaled a potential Sprint Week title, as ten times previous the Bloomington winner went on to take the crown.  However, a poor initial start allowed both Robert Ballou and Kevin Thomas, Jr. to pull alongside on the back chute.  Resulting contact from KTJ folded Meseraull’s left front wheel, relegated to a lowly 24th place finish that whisked his Sprint Week title hopes out the window.  Fifth at Haubstadt and 11th at LPS, thanks to his qualifying prowess (four times in the top-six), he was able to accumulate the fourth most series points.  There’s no more of a crowd-pleasing driver in all of sprint car racing than Thomas Meseraull and no matter the price of admission, it is one of life’s best bargains.    

2011 ISW champ Chris Windom had a fairly quiet series with mechanic Derek Claxton and the Baldwin 5, as his average feature finish of 7.50 was only good enough for fifth in the standings.  Only once did Chris qualify inside of the top-ten (Gas City), which of course meant he had to pass his share of cars come feature time.  Beginning 14th and finishing 9th at Kokomo, he elevated from 11th to 6th at Lawrenceburg.  Briefly leading at Gas City from his eighth starting spot, an untimely 360 degree spin by Tyler Thomas relegated him to third on the resulting restart, winding up in that same position at the end.  He was again on the move at Bloomington, strutting from 13th to 7th which briefly vaulted him into the national point lead.   Not able to advance from his 11th starting position at Haubstadt, he ended ISW with a 16th to 9th Putnamville production.  Despite missing heat races at Gas City and Bloomington due to magneto related issues, he remains in the hunt for his first national sprint car crown, some 23 points behind Justin Grant as the series turns its attention to an end of July weekend double in Kansas and Missouri. 

C.J. Leary’s breakout performance with back-to-back wins was another 2017 ISW takeaway, the first time anyone has won consecutive Sprint Week shows since Bryan Clauson did it when closing out the 2013 series.  Jeff Walker started the year calling the shots for this operation, but for one reason or another the combination failed to click and the two groups parted ways.  Donnie Gentry agreed to assist during Sprint Week, having won with the Greenfield gasser last August during the Smackdown.  Applying gas Pro shocks to all four corners of the Leary Construction DRC, Gentry’s change in philosophy resulted in a renewed chauffeur.  C.J. was immediately competitive at Kokomo, qualifying seventh and finishing eighth.  Third in Lawrenceburg time trials, Leary was so sharp at his best venue (2013 track champ), easily winning his heat and leading the final 28 tours, his nearest pursuer (Brady Bacon) a full straight in arrears.  Clocking fifth fastest and starting from the outside of Gas City’s front row, after a caution with ten to go C.J. tip-toed around a thinning top shelf to lift the lead from Ballou.  Despite losing the advantage to a bottom-feeding Windom, a timely caution put him back out front, able to hold on for the win in the final five laps.  Leading Sprint Week points entering the second half of the series, those last three shows were hardly a bargain after substandard showings of 20th, 12th, and 20th.  Crushing the turn three cushion and inverting in that Sunday finale, C.J.’s end result of sixth in points was hardly indicative of how well he ran. 

Curb Service – Just before the feature, Bloomington’s curb looks quite substantial.

Seventh through tenth in the Sprint Week final standings included Chad Boespflug, Dave Darland, Brady Short, and Justin Grant.  ISW was essentially a nightmare for national championship contenders Boespflug, Grant, and Stockon, as all three had to utilize provisionals fairly early which essentially eliminated them from Sprint Week title contention.  After 2007, Sprint Week points have not been awarded to provisional starters. 

Chad Boespflug's Sprint Week championship hopes vanished quickly.  Beginning with a disappointing 15th at Kokomo, for the second year in a row he missed the show at Lawrenceburg and had to cash a provisional pass just to take part in the feature for which he finished 19th.  After a pair of flubs, his finishes in the final four contests represented a huge improvement and allowed him to achieve an average feature finish of 8.50.  Hustling from tenth to fourth at Gas City, he started first and finished second at Bloomington, fell from fourth to eighth at Haubstadt, and settled for third at LPS after leading the initial lap.   Qualifying is key for ISW success and in the opening two outings, Chad’s struggles started when he clocked 20th and 13th.  In his final four shows, the worst he timed was tenth.  Qualifying might only be one-third of the battle at a USAC union but as KTJ proved, those qualification points are crucial.

Despite enduring a difficult season in his return to Phillips Motorsports, 1998, 2001, and 2007 Indiana Sprint Week champion and all-time ISW feature winner (18) Dave Darland enjoyed a solid opening two rounds, giving hope for a record-tying fourth series title.  Qualifying fourth and finishing sixth at Kokomo, Double-D clocked quickest at Lawrenceburg and claimed a respectable fourth in the feature.  Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse for the final four rounds.  Starting 7th and finishing 12th at Gas City, the loss of power steering was to blame for the end result.  Beginning 15th and ending 11th at Bloomington, for once Haubstadt was going well as Dave was fifth fastest from time trials and was operating in 10th when he lost a set of rear end gears on the final lap, dropping him to 21st in the rundown.  The dreaded black cloud of mechanical gremlins that has plagued this squad over the last several seasons reared its ugly head again at Lincoln Park, as an engine let go in hot laps and called a premature end to the 2017 campaign for this sprint car combination (Phillips and Darland will run the last three dirt Silver Crown contests).  Luckily, Dave was able to scrounge a ride in Mike Dutcher’s backup, starting 17th and soldiering home 10th.  Earning eighth in Sprint Week points was hardly a bargain for The People’s Champ, not to mention Steve and Carla Phillips who have sacrificed so much to field a competitive piece.  

Normally staying in the Southern half of the state for the rest of the year, Bedford’s Brady Short branched out a bit and appeared at all six Sprint Week stops, averaging a feature finish of 11.0 which was good for tenth in points.  Short’s best showing was saved for the Lincoln Park finale, when he started 10th and earned a sniff of the lead until fading to fourth after the red flag for C.J. Leary.  Qualifying was again an issue for Brady, who started 20th at Kokomo, 12th at Lawrenceburg, 22nd at Gas City, 22nd at Bloomington (driving up to 10th in the A), and 14th at Haubstadt. 

After national point leader Justin Grant opened his Sprint Week by qualifying second at Kokomo, his previous month of struggles seemed to be a thing of the past.  Unable to crack the top four in his heat, unfortunately the rear end in his Sam McGhee Motorsports Maxim picked the worst possible time to fail:  the semi-feature.  Forced to pop a provisional right off the bat just to keep his national title hopes intact, he could only muster a 21st place finish at his best track on the tour.  Starting third at Lawrenceburg, a turn four slip cost him dearly, falling to 14th at the end.  Gaining hope with a 13th to 8th gallop at Gas City, Bloomington was a big-time struggle after starting 21st and finishing 16th.  Back in business at Haubstadt where he was the quickest qualifier, a fourth place finish was his best of the series.  Justin completed the ungodly grind with a sixth at LPS, still able to hold a slim margin over Chris Windom in the national standings and keep that championship dream alive. 

Another USAC regular enduring a Sprint Week nightmare was Fort Branch’s Chase Stockon, who averaged an uncharacteristic feature finish of 12.67.  Topping the qualifying charts at Gas City, on two other occasions Chase actually clocked inside of the top-six.  The one race he would like to forget was Lawrenceburg, where he timed 30th but also endured mechanical issues, having to pit before starting the semi-feature.  Finishing four spots shy of a transfer, he had to cash a provisional pass.  Stockon’s feature struggles were notable, falling four spots to 13th at Kokomo, three spots at Gas City to 9th, and five spots at Putnamville to 12th.  Unfortunately his other three showings weren’t much better, as he advanced one position at Lawrenceburg to 22nd, gained two at Bloomington to 9th, but stayed constant at Haubstadt (15th).  Chase has yet to score a national feature win in 2017, instead claiming two MSCS contests at his home track in Haubstadt.         

Celebrating his farewell tour as a full-time competitor in 2017, Jon Stanbrough's Indiana Sprint Week success is well-documented:  twice a Sprint Week king (2006 and 2010) and number two in all-time series victories (16).  This time around Jon split time in his own retro-decaled Spike chassis (crewed by Chris Hoyer, Kevin Price, and Chuck Rodee) and Jimmy and Mike Wingo's Maxim.  Unfortunately, each night's outcome failed to satisfy hardcore fans of the Silent Gasser, especially the ones who loudly chanted “King of Indiana” during his victory lane interviews of 2010.  Appearing for all six of this year’s shows, Jon was able to crack the A-main code for just three contests (16th at Lawrenceburg and Haubstadt and 21st at Putnamville).  Missing main events at Kokomo, Gas City, and Bloomington, such a performance is extremely uncharacteristic for one of Sprint Week's all-time studs.  Getting behind the eight ball because of poor qualification performances (33rd at Kokomo due to magneto issues, 28th at Bloomington, and 22nd at Putnamville), he did manage to time respectably at Lawrenceburg (15th), Gas City (12th), and Haubstadt (10th).  His Gas City feature miss was the biggest shocker of all, as his most recent Sprint Week success came here in 2014 and 2013.  If 2017 is indeed a farewell to this particular king, I will most certainly remember him for the days when not only he was an underdog in Paul Hazen’s 57, but also for the days when people complained that he was winning too much.  Long live the king…   

Out of the 73 different drivers competing in 2017 Indiana Sprint Week, only nine men made all six main events without the aid of a provisional, well within the normal range as lately the number has been between six and ten.  The nine notables making this year’s Sprint Week Dean’s List were:  K. Thomas, Ballou, Courtney, Meseraull, Windom, Leary, Darland, Brady Short, and Josh Hodges.  Brady Bacon, Kody Swanson, and Brody Roa were not present for all six shows, but they made each main event on their own merit.  Boespflug, Grant, Stockon, Ryan Bernal, and Jarett Andretti make all six main events but employed one provisional pass in order to do so.  The highest car count of the week was Kokomo's 45, with the lowest being Putnamville's 24.  For the six shows that ran to completion, the average car count was a little over 36. 

Big Daddy - Shown at Gas City where he earned his best finish of the week (3rd), Chris Windom was 5th in series points.

Last year’s Sprint Week offered far more drama and intrigue in terms of feature action, dramatic finishes, first time winners, and number of different winners.  The majority of 2017’s events (Kokomo, Lawrenceburg, Bloomington, and Putnamville) were runaway wins.  Gas City was one of two exceptions, offering several different leaders (Shane Cottle, T-Mez, Ballou, and Leary) and a nail-biting finish, not only for the outcome on the track but for beating the imminent stormy weather that was rapidly approaching.  USAC and the O’Connor operating team pushed the sprint car feature to completion at an amazing 8:51 PM, undoubtedly a Sprint Week record.  Gas City was also the only event where tempers even attempted to flare, as Ballou and Windom banged wheels while battling for the lead and exchanged heated gestures under caution.  At no point in the six race span did I witness any pit area altercations, which makes me wonder if the volume on Sprint Week intensity has been unintentionally turned down.    

Tommy Helfrich's Tri-State Speedway was another exception to the 2017 norm of so-so features.  Commencing third, Kevin Thomas, Jr. led the first 29 laps, chased all the way by outside front row starter Kyle Cummins.  Reuniting with Hank Byram for a Sprint Week run, Kyle had installed his own engine in the Rock Steady Racing Mach 1 and enjoyed a fine fifth place at Kokomo.  Struggling at rounds two, three and four, after missing the main at Bloomington a deeper inspection identified a bent rear end, suspected after Lawrenceburg wall contact.  In that Haubstadt 30-lap hustle, both Thomas and Cummins had operated around the bottom lane until the first caution flew for a lap 28 Donny Brackett spin.  On the ensuing restart, Kyle tried to slip underneath of Kevin but there was no budging of the Alabama assassin.  KTJ was apparently headed to a second consecutive Sprint Week score until yellow lights were lit for Darland's DNF.  Setting up a two-lap dash to the checkered, Cummins was convinced he needed to try something different.  Driving it deep into the cushion of turns one and two, he suddenly pulled even with the leader.  Using his newfound momentum to shoot to the bottom of three, Kyle's path was keenly blocked by Kevin.  With the white flag waving once again, Kyle dug deep and hauled it harder into one and two, building even more momentum as they approached the south end.  Cummins initially chose the high line while Thomas toured low.  But, once the leader turned to the top through four, Kyle quickly diamonded the corner and was able beat him to the finish.  The partisan Tri-State crowd literally went nuts, as they love the Pride of Princeton and aren’t afraid to show it.  Such an electrifying moment, sprint car finishes don’t get any better than that, undoubtedly the highlight of my 2017 Sprint Week.        

Already mentioning the two biggest thrills, there were also a few nasty spills along the way.  In the six race span and also including Terre Haute hot laps, only four inverted.  Isaac Chapple's turn three bike and resulting flip into Terre Haute concrete was far from tame, having to spend the night in the hospital with a concussion and some severely bruised lungs.  Owning a serious set of red eyes, Isaac was actually on-hand and in good spirits at the Putnamville finale.  A chain reaction incident in Bloomington's semi-feature had Brandon Mattox absorbing an errant right front wheel from Kyle Cummins.  Mattox then connected with A.J. Hopkins (Ottinger 4J) who proceeded to perform an end-over-end tumble through the fencing that guards the parking lot.  Hopkins landed between a concrete barrier and a pair of spectator vehicles, extricated and transported to a local hospital for observation.  A.J. was sore but otherwise ok.  Rounding out the slim flip count, fifteen year-old Tyler Clem tumbled in his Haubstadt heat while C.J. Leary nailed the turn three cushion at LPS and ended his week on his lid. 

Given the age of this information, there's no need to provide results from each Sprint Week stop.  However, some special performances should be noted, including Brady Bacon's elevation from 11th to 3rd on a "king of the cowboys" Kokomo surface.  Finishing second at Lawrenceburg and fifth (from 11th) at Gas City, Bacon (Dooling-Hayward 63) only ran three races but averaged finishes of 3.33.  California's Brody Roa had to go home after Haubstadt and although his week was generally less than stellar in terms of feature finishes (averaging 17.40), his 8th place effort at Lawrenceburg shined brightest.  Troy, Ohio’s Lee Underwood made only one Sprint Week appearance but he certainly made it count.  Qualifying ninth best at Bloomington, Lee started the feature eighth and quickly found the bottom lane to his liking, working up to second before falling to fourth.  For a while there, I thought we might have another Sprint Week upset like in 1997 (Brad Fox) and 2001 (A.J. Anderson).  Like Underwood, Jeff Bland, Jr. also made just one Sprint Week appearance, that also coming in B-town.  With former ally Daryl Tate spinning sockets on the Waltz 66, Bland started 12th and finished 6th.  After an outstanding Sprint Week debut last year, Tyler Thomas appeared at five of the six shows in Jerry Burton's 04 and made three features, placing on the podium at his team's home track in Bloomington.  Credited with 20th at Haubstadt, Donny Brackett’s B-main blast from 14th to 3rd had to be highly encouraging, especially after riding out two wicked tumbles at Haubstadt (April) and Brownstown (June).  Brackett was wheeling the same Eagle from Brownstown after Donnie Gentry straightened the front half of the frame.  Speaking of the Gentry family, Aric qualified 8th at Haubstadt but failed to make the B-main cut.   

Shane Cottle only competed at half of the programs, beginning from Gas City’s pole to score a sixth place finish for legendary car owner Paul Hazen.  When speaking to Hazen prior to Thursday’s round, he wished to express his appreciation for the extremely kind gesture offered by fellow competitor Matt Goodnight.  Paul was down to just one engine after his best bullet failed while leading a Kokomo heat race.  Skipping Lawrenceburg, it was after the Gas City feature that Goodnight, who suffered engine problems of his own on Monday, loaned his remaining engine to Hazen with no strings attached, even offering a car if he needed it.  Post-Bloomington, Hazen skipped Haubstadt and aimed for Mansfield on Sunday, earning a ,000 payday with The Throttle. 

Sprint Week has a habit of chewing up and spitting out sprint car squads.  2017 remained true to form when Phillips Motorsports exited after Putnamville hot laps.  With zero top-ten runs, Hunter Schuerenberg and Pace Motorsports also exited after Bloomington.  Veteran open wheel wrench Rob Hart, who recently noted that he's worked with over 200 different drivers and teams in his career, left Jarett and John Andretti's team on Tuesday, having worked with them since the Brownstown opener in March.  Former Andretti assistant Kyle Dautrich got the call to come help at the initial Putnamville program before the rains came. 

Gettin’ Dirty - Spraying clay at Lawrenceburg, Brady Bacon’s three ISW appearances resulted in finishes of third, second, and fifth.

Mike Dutcher Motorsports also endured quite a bit of drama during Sprint Week, but it wasn't actually on the race track.  Hollister, California's Ryan Bernal was Dutcher’s driver of choice and having been back here a couple of years ago for Josh Ford, many expected big things from Bernal.  Mike's week turned from frustrating to terrible when he became involved in a chain reaction highway accident while driving the truck and trailer to Putnamville on Thursday.  The toter-home portion of the tow rig was damaged beyond repair, rendering Bernal rideless until Mike Gass came to the rescue on Friday.  By Saturday, Dutcher was able to retrieve his trailer thanks to an assist from Pennsylvania car owner Tom Buch, loaning his toter-home for the final two programs.  As it was, Bernal's best finish of the week came at Haubstadt, where he started from the pole and wound up ninth.  Ryan's other results included an 11th at Kokomo (after starting 2nd), 13th at Lawrenceburg, 22nd at Gas City (nosing into the turn four guardrail after taking a provisional), 14th at Bloomington (after qualifying 2nd), and 13th at Putnamville.   

Two weeks removed from my annual zenith, now that the weather has finally calmed down my instant recollections from Sprint Week 2017 were the relentless performances of KTJ and Mother Nature, as both had a huge impact on the outcome of the series.  The unfavorable forecasts most certainly tested my faith and patience, but lucky for me I had Lafond along for the ride.  Spending ten days in close quarters with any individual might drive one to insanity, but the fact that both he and I genuinely enjoy our time together is proof that our friendship goes much deeper than racing.  In addition to sharing great conversations and a similar sense of humor, we both lust after fine automobiles, enjoy eclectic rock and roll music, have an insatiable need for speed, and are constantly striving for perfection in whatever we do.  Such commonalities are reasons we don’t end up strangling one another by the end of the week. 

Oh, and there’s also our unending hunger for outstanding meals at one-off restaurants that make our Sprint Week tour such a satisfying thing.  Kicking it off in fine fashion with a Thursday trip to Bonge’s Tavern, this continues to be our most anticipated day on the entire calendar.  Like little kids on Christmas Eve, we’re both grinning from ear to ear in anticipation of the unbelievable food, thrilling racing action, and great times that lay ahead, not thinking about the painful ending that always comes far too quickly.  In addition to the other places I already mentioned, our pre-race feasts at The Local (Westfield), Wagner’s Village Inn (Oldenburg), Pizzology (Carmel), Friendly Tavern (Zionsville), Taxman Brewing (Bargersville), Napolese (Indy), and Open Society Public House (Indy) were all awesome. 

Over the years, Indiana Sprint Week has unfairly raised the bar in our expectations for enjoyment.  So naturally when things don’t go to plan, it becomes so easy to become disappointed, disillusioned, and just a little bit stressed, as evidenced by this most recent 2017 edition when outside factors attempted to get in the way of good times during our precious summer escape. 

Putting things in perspective on that normally dreadful drive to Haubstadt, we certainly could have it a lot worse than missing a few races to rain and having to go back to work.  Thankfully, we still have our health.  We have our freedom.  And, we have the opportunity to make each day better than the last.  Even in 2017, it’s safe to say that Indiana Sprint Week still holds a magical power of enhancing every aspect of my existence.  For the small price of admission on each one of the seven nights, I’d call that a bargain, the best I ever had.

Hang On - Jon Stanbrough’s best qualification effort of tenth came at Haubstadt. He scored 16th in the A-main.

Packed House - Kokomo’s Sprint Week crowd was undoubtedly the largest in the track’s history.

People’s Champ - Despite a DNF at Haubstadt, Dave Darland earned eighth in series points.

Game Changer - Thomas Meseraull was in-line to take the Sprint Week point lead at Bloomington until contact from KTJ ended his night.

Big Ride - The most dramatic incident of the week involved A.J. Hopkins, who took a ride all the way to Bloomington’s parking lot.

Perfect Formation - Four-wide at Bloomington is such a fine sight!

Calm Before The Storm – Just before he rode out a nasty turn three flip, Isaac Chapple hustles his car through the east end of the Action Track.

Pride of Princeton - Kyle Cummins was Mr. Excitement at Haubstadt, winning with a last turn, last lap pass of KTJ.

Doubling Up - C.J. Leary took his second Sprint Week win in a row at Gas City.

Satisfaction - Track owner Tommy Helfrich and winner Kyle Cummins appear to be happy campers.

Second Best - 2015 ISW champ Robert Ballou averaged feature finishes of 4.83, scoring second in series points.

Silent Gasser - Two-time Sprint Week champ Jon Stanbrough already has his game face on at Bloomington.

Solid Showing - Brody Roa made all five Sprint Week features he attempted, earning a best finish of 8th at Lawrenceburg.

Sunshine - Tyler Courtney claimed third in ISW points for the second consecutive year.

The Champ - Kevin Thomas, Jr.’s lone Sprint Week win came at Bloomington. Eleven times the Bloomington winner has gone on to claim the ISW crown.

Too Short - Brady Short was one of nine men to make all six features without taking a provisional.

Winning Combination - The championship winning Sprint Week squad of Brad Alexander, Kevin Thomas, Jr., and Robert Brown, Jr. celebrate in Bloomington’s victory lane.

High Hopes - Seen at his hometown Kokomo track, Dave Darland started the week strong with finishes of sixth and fourth.

High Note - Tyler Courtney’s best two Sprint Week outings came in the final two shows at Haubstadt and Putnamville, scoring third and second.

King of Kokomo - Thomas Meseraull kicked off Sprint Week in fine fashion, completely dominating Kokomo’s feature.

Lord of Lawrenceburg - C.J. Leary killed the competition at The Burg, beating Brady Bacon by a full straightaway.

Mad Man - Robert Ballou’s return to USAC racing certainly adds color and excitement.

Mood Lifter - Justin Grant’s best Sprint Week effort came at Haubstadt, qualifying quickest and finishing fourth.

 

Volume 19, Number 8

Summer Dazed

While lounging in my lawn chair from Paragon Speedway’s grassy hillside during the recent Chuck Amati Classic, the impact of Indiana’s 2006 adoption of daylight savings time once again became clearly evident.  Gazing into that expansive western horizon during the quickly concluding stock car preliminaries, I suddenly realized it was already 9 PM, shocked that evening hours were rapidly dwindling despite skies that were just barely beginning to darken.  While the second of two sprint car B-mains had already taken the green flag, Keith Ford, a former SCIRA sprint car competitor, Indiana State Trooper, and the track's owner/operator for the last 31 seasons, decided it was high time to finally flip on the switch for the lights.  

Going back to my teenage years when I became so enthralled with the sprint car scene, I’ll never forget some rather lengthy evenings spent in the grandstands at places like Bloomington, Paragon, and Putnamville, waiting out class after class of back gate heaven just to sample another sprinkling of sprint car entertainment.  Looking back on that influential era, the surest signs of Indiana dirt track summer evenings were the slippery slopes from the formation of evening dew and the attraction of an entire population of insects to the illuminations emanating atop each light pole.  Nowadays, with significantly smaller fields of support classes and darkness that does not descend until 9:30 or so, those old-fashioned summer evenings from my youth are effectively a thing of the past. 

Taking a stroll around Paragon Speedway’s 63 year-old facility, it’s such a shock to realize that so little has changed in the decades that I've been coming here, impossible to fathom how such an antiquated form of entertainment still exists in an age when almost everything else centers on smart phone technology and instant gratification.  Mr. Ford continues to offer his rolling piece of real estate for sale, but I wonder who else would be willing to come forth with the cash, endure the constant criticism and complaints, and shoulder the humongous risks involved in keeping such an age-old tradition alive.  Much like drive-in movie theatres, will rustic and rural race tracks like these continue to become a thing of the past?  While admiring Keith's fascinating collection of Paragon signs from the '50s, '60s, and '70s displayed in the concession stand (I loved the hand-painted pieces showing the one-lap track record and season-long points from 1971 and 1972), I couldn't help but feel nostalgic and wish that time would stand still for once.  Thankful that the opportunity still exists to soak up this kind of atmosphere, in order to keep it rolling all we can do is support it as often as possible.        

Paragon's most significant contest of their 2017 season attracted healthy attendance, encountering so many of the hardcore sprint car faithful from the other Hoosier haunts.  While USAC was away on their Eastern Storm, 31 sprinters aimed for the Amati Classic's ,000 top prize.  The additional coin attracted Jeff Bland, Jr. (own 38), Kent Christian (in a new for 2017 KC chassis), Brady Short (Pottorff 11P), birthday boy Max McGhee, Shane Cottle, Ethan Barrow, Brandon Maddox, Travis Welpott, Bill Rose, Jon Stanbrough (own 81), and Jadon Rogers (wearing the number 66 donned by Amati in his Daryl Tate days).  Former Fourth of July 1999 LPS sprint car winner Ande Possman was spotted in the stands with his father Fred and brother Jamie, boldly predicting a 1-2 feature finish by Rose and Welpott.  If Ande came through on his prediction, the reward would be as many beverages he could handle at Big Woods in downtown Speedway, the last place I had actually encountered Possman nearly one year ago.  Wishing myself that it was 1999 all over again, despite the presence of Rose, Stanbrough, and Troy Link, so much has changed with the Indiana sprint car scene.  Bumping into Joyce Stanbrough before the sprint car feature in which her son would begin from the pole, I still find it difficult to deal with the fact that this is Jon’s last season as a full-time competitor, watching him beat Bob Kinser to win his first feature at Bloomington’s Non-Winged Sprint Car Classic in June of 1991.   That seems like yesterday but in fact it was 26 seasons ago.     

Once it came time for the field to align two by two for the 68 lap finale, it was finally pitch dark in rural Morgan County.  With another summer evening in full swing, as tradition would have it the bugs were back in force, buzzing around those light poles like there was no tomorrow.  In addition to wondering where all those insects come from, the more time appropriate question was, could anyone stop Brady Short from becoming a three-time winner of the Amati?  With Short starting from inside of row two, I expected an uphill battle for the rest of the field. 

As is normal for most higher-paying Paragon productions, several of the lower-buck Saturday night loyalists stayed away while the outsiders swooped in to steal the big money, with Indiana outlaws stealing all four heats and the feature.  While the sun was still high in the sky, heats were hailed from third (Bland and Barrow), fourth (Short), and fifth (Stanbrough), leaving Paragon top talents like Josh Cunningham and Jake Scott (winners of the last 7 track championships) to scoop up remaining transfer spots.  June 3rd winner Kerry Kinser was the lone competitor to land on his lid, unable to make the call for the twin consolation affairs a little later.  Despite the evening’s domination by the big names, locals Charlie Belden and Ben Knight bagged both B-mains.  Littered by six cautions, Knight was actually one of them, coming back to claim a win after a Jadon Rogers spin cost himself and recent ISU grad Daylan Chambers feature starting berths.  Greenville, Ohio’s Josh Cooley was also the cause of a caution but was able to tackle a tricky top shelf to take a transfer. 

As for the answer to that question about who could stop Short, outside front row starter Shane Cottle rose to the occasion and then some.  Having tumbled down the backstretch in 2015 while battling for the lead with Stanbrough in this very event, Shane wrenched the premier position from Jon on the initial lap and never looked back.  Rarely wavering from the bottom lane, “The Throttle” led all 68 laps to take the win in Paul Hazen’s 57, hot on the heels of putting fifth-place Stanbrough a lap down as he flashed underneath the checkered cloth.   In a contest encumbered by only two caution flags, Short never was a factor for first.  Having to settle for third behind his buddy Bland, both Brady and Jeff were rarely on the same straightaway as Shane.   Max McGhee and Stanbrough rounded out the first-five.  Rose, Christian, Ethan Fleetwood, Cunningham, and Aric Gentry gathered sixth through tenth place funds. 

On the way home, it occurred to me that I have never witnessed Paul Hazen’s famous 57 sprint car winning at Paragon until this very evening.  Landing in victory lane after a Lima BOSS battle earlier this month, at 79 years of age Hazen somehow still finds a way to not only field a competitive sprint car on a limited budget (social security income), but also to win.  Normally towing a sprint car by his lonesome self from his Columbia City home to Indiana ovals two and three times a weekend, who else at 79 has the energy and enthusiasm to drive several hours home late in the evening (and early morning), arise a few hours later to wash the car and perform the requisite maintenance, only to load it back in the trailer and do it all over again? 

Starting his racing career as a Warsaw Speedway stock car driver all the way back in 1957 and claiming Warsaw’s 1965 modified championship, after suffering a serious racing injury he determined that it was wiser to hire someone else to handle the driving chores.  Switching to sprint cars for 1968, Jim Elliott was his first chauffeur and ever since, he’s never had a reason to look back.  Except for rare seasons in 1990 (going to work as mechanic for Larry Contos), 1991, and 1998, a number 57 sprint car owned by Hazen has been a regular Indiana pit area fixture.  A couple of years ago, I had written a recommendation to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame regarding Paul’s credentials and the possibility of getting his name onto the ballot for induction.  Although I am not one of the voters, I know how convoluted the process is, tweeting after the Paragon win that I hoped the panel was paying attention to this win. 

For their benefit, let me again reiterate the statistics I know that make Hazen Hall of Fame worthy.  I have documented dates of 172 feature victories, but in a January 2010 interview I conducted with Paul, his conservative estimate was in the 200-plus range, as we all know just how shoddy recordkeeping is of historic sprint car stats.  Victorious as a sprint car owner in each of the last six decades, ten of the documented 172 victories fell under USAC sanction (’87 Four Crown, ‘02 Hulman Classic, and ‘03 Eldora were his biggest), twice winning live, nationally televised events (’87 Santa Fe and ’03 Lawrenceburg).  As an owner, he’s tallied 15 Indiana sprint car track championships with drivers Jim Elliott, Louie Mann, Tony Elliott, Jon Stanbrough, and Thomas Meseraull.  One fact many people do not know is that Hazen played an integral role in Robbie Stanley’s 1992 USAC championship run, providing Robbie’s dirt ride for the last half of the season.

A list of Hazen’s hired guns is a literal who’s-who of the sprint car fraternity.  Here’s a rundown of 58 men who I know have piloted Paul’s 57:  Jim Elliott, Don Hewitt, Louie Mann, Rocky Fisher, Ed Angle, Mark Caldwell, Richard Jackson, Chuck Mosley, Butch Wilkerson, Tony Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Tony Ploughe, Tim Bookmiller, Gary Fisher, Larry Rice, Steve Imel, Kevin Thomas, Robbie Stanley, Brad Marvel, Tim Champlin, Johnny Parsons, Stevie Reeves, Kent Christian, Tray House, Dave Darland, Russ Gamester, Brian Tyler, Bill Tyler, Tony Jarrett, Joe Roush, Brian Black, Mike Mann, Sheldon Kinser, Jr., Derek Davidson, Aaron Mosley, Bill Rose, Ted Hines, Jay Drake, Tracy Hines, Jon Stanbrough, Jason Robbins, A.J. Anderson, Casey Shuman, Bryan Clauson, Kevin Briscoe, Billy Puterbaugh, Josh Spencer, Matt Hardin, Bryan Stanfill, Marc Arnold, Critter Malone, Shane Cottle, Shane Hollingsworth, Thomas Meseraull, Travis Welpott, Jon Sciscoe, Scotty Weir, and Chad Boespflug.  I would imagine that there are more, but that is indeed quite a list. 

With all those wins, championships, hall of fame hires, and longevity of competitiveness, why shouldn’t Paul be in the Hall?    

After rain outs at Kokomo (June 18th) and Terre Haute (June 23rd for USAC’s Tony Hulman Classic) came the arrival of Brownstown Speedway’s MSCS meeting and completion of the March 25th No Way Out 40.  Given that it was already June 24th, unfortunately that also meant that summer days and the month of June were disappearing at a far too rapid rate.  Featuring four other classes of competition (TQ midgets, 305 RaceSaver sprints, crate late models, and pure stocks), those rather frustrating, far too lengthy summertime racing evenings of old were relived once again, no doubt getting my worth of on-track action as the MSCS sprint car checkered flag did not arrive until 11:52 PM.  Naturally, the four other classes had yet to conduct their features by the time I bailed but it’s a good thing I exited when I did.  Once reaching Indy’s south side, I was already feeling extremely groggy, barely making it home in one piece.    

All of those extra classes resulted in plenty of double-dipping.  Chase Briscoe debuted a new sprint car squad consisting of himself and Thomas Meseraull.  In addition to his new number 5 (taking 21st in the A), Chase climbed through the window of a crate late model for the first time, winning a heat race and finishing fifth in the feature.  Like Chase, Steven Godsey did work in a late model and sprinter, but quite the contrary, Steven was making his sprint car debut.  Dakota Jackson, Ethan Barrow, and Kendall Ruble strapped into traditional and winged 305 sprinters. 

Even though Chad Boespflug was the leader at lap eight back on March 25th, a complete restart of the No Way Out was ordered by track officials.  Such a call allowed Brady Short to return to the outside of the front row despite an off-track excursion on lap one of the original start.  With 17 of the 20 machines returning, the smaller than expected field was further reduced when Dave Darland immediately inverted Mark Hery’s 40 in turn two.  The unfavorable restart decision did nothing to deter Boespflug, who immediately slid front row foes Bland and Short in turn two and wound up leading all forty tours.  Chad had to endure one caution and another red, the latter for Kyle Robbins who had earlier spun during the combined hot laps/qualifying session and was clipped by Donny Brackett, who dumped hard down the back stretch. 

In the waning stages, second position served as the hot seat as one by one, Short, Bland, and C.J. Leary surrendered the runner-up position through turn four in successive laps.  Tyler Courtney, Shane Cottle (starting 17th after replacing Ryan Bernal in Mike Dutcher’s 17), Leary, and Short finished second through fifth.  Justin Grant, Bland, and Nate McMillin also survived to see the checkered.  For Boespflug, victory circle was quite a welcome sight, as he and his Mean Green team have been struggling to return to their early season form for the last two months, hauling home a whopping ,500 for their triumph.    

With hot laps and qualifying for the regular MSCS show already being conducted before the big 40-lapper (Carson Short was quickest of all at 13.323), I failed to understand why another two groups of sprint cars were sent out to hot lap after the feature concluded.  Resulting in ridiculous dust clouds, a complete rework (water and sheepsfoot) was now mandatory.  Rather than being besieged with boredom from watching a tractor show, I took a leisurely stroll through the fairgrounds parking lot where I encountered two-time All Star champ Kevin Huntley.  “Pup” was here to lend a hand to a 305 competitor and echoed my sentiments when noting how it was going to be a very long night.    

All that downtime must have turned the sprint car natives restless, as yellow flags were unfurled nine times in the resulting four heat races.  Countless cars overextended a thin cushion and some rather rough driving was displayed in what turned out to be completely cutthroat contests.  In the blue Waltz 66 for the nightcap after toiling in his own 38 for the 40-lapper, heat three left Jeff Bland hot under the collar after being shoved into a turn four marker tire, this occurring after an awkward attempt at an initial start.  The fourth heat had five cars scrambling for second:  slicing and dicing with a few roots and gouges thrown in for good measure.  Max McGhee (4J) was the cause of two cautions while Tyler Thomas (Burton 04) was shoved off turn four and into the front stretch concrete.  Although both men were motivated to make the main, Tyler took second while Max was one spot short.  New for 2017, the MSCS double-file restarts definitely did not help with the road rage, as the old adage of cautions breeding cautions rang true.  The sprint B moved four more to the A, but Justin Grant and Thomas Meseraull were notable no-shows.  Bland blasted from 12th to third while Travis Berryhill (Wingo 77s) held off a snarling pack for fourth. 

As for Brownstown’s 25-lap A-main, the MSCS invert was 8 which meant Tyler Thomas and Brady Short would hold front row seats.  Unlike the previous week in Paragon, this time Short could not be stopped in his quest for yet another victory on familiar turf.  Working the pedals in his usual Cam Pottorff Maxim/SPEC, Brady beat Tyler to the top of turn two and that was all she wrote.  A green to checker romp for his fourth victory of 2017 was worth ,000, with the lone incident occurring on the final lap when Thomas, who had been operating in second and third for the majority of the affair, was turned sideways just past the flag stand.  Tyler was promptly pounded by Dakota Jackson, who literally had nowhere to hide.  In the confusion of the checkered flag, green lights eventually turned red when Dakota rode out a tumble that decimated his DRC.  One of Thomas’s crew members added to the drama by attempting to get a piece of Jackson and had to be forcibly restrained by track officials.  

Tyler Courtney scored second yet again, this time from seventh.  Shane Cottle tallied third, also for the second time this evening.  Up from ninth, Jon Stanbrough (Wingo 77) limped home fourth with a flat right rear tire but was able to hold off fifth place Bill Rose.  Sixth through tenth included Carson Short, Boespflug, Darland, McGhee (from 17th), and Barrow.  Special thanks goes out to Rich Winings, who graciously kept me entertained in the grandstands for the entirety of the evening. 

Rained out of Friday options yet again on June 30th (LPS USAC and Kokomo All Stars), rather than pointing to Putnamville, migrating to Macon, or hauling to Haubstadt, I chose to spend some quality time at home on Saturday and Sunday given that the fuse for Indiana Sprint Week lights on July 7th at Gas City.  Thus, my lone racing intake on this extended Fourth of July weekend wound up coming at Kokomo on Monday the 3rd.  Reading about Kevin Thomas, Jr.’s eighth win of the season at Lincoln Park, Kyle Cummins’s first of the year at Haubstadt, and Kyle Larson’s incredible start to PA Speed Week, after eyeing some enticing USAC midget video from Macon I was more than ready to absorb some open wheel action of my own. 

The bridging of the gap between Midget Week and Sprint Week concluded with Kokomo’s fireworks extravaganza, as a triple card of sprint cars, modifieds, and hornets preceded the requisite pyrotechnics, gathering a rather significant crowd of casual fans.  With Sprint Week starting just four days later and several contestants competing in a Springfield, Illinois USAC midget bout, a short field of 19 sprinters was not a shock.  What was a shock was a Kokomo sprint car contest going off without Paul Hazen’s 57, no doubt spending this time prepping for the 7 race in 9 day marathon.  With the later than normal 6:45 PM start to hot laps/qualifying delayed by a pop up rain shower (Rain, at Kokomo?  Come on, you’ve got to be kidding!), an already saturated surface was made even more wet and stayed that way the entire evening.     

The old-school heavy surface resulted in a rapid run of racing contests, as the two heat races and 25-lap sprint car feature contained zero caution flags.  Even the 33-car modified field conducted four heat races free from calamity (the feature did have at least one incident however).   I read on-line about grumblings from veteran fans regarding the feature redraws on the front stretch concrete.  One thing to keep in mind:  with such intimate involvement from younger fans who earn the rare opportunity to cement relationships with drivers, this small investment in time is a must-have to insure a future fan base for our sport.  Getting to hear from the drivers and watch them interact with the paying customers, I actually enjoy such candidness. 

Continuing the theme for each one of the sprint car feature events I witnessed since the close of Midget Week, pole sitter Chris Windom inched ahead of outside front row starter Matt Westfall at the exit of turn two and led every lap in Kenny and Margo Baldwin’s DRC/Claxton, a crushing blow to the competition in which he lapped all the way through fifth place.  Working the top shelf in one and two and the bottom of an extremely narrow three and four, Chris’s job became so much easier when outside row two starter Kevin Thomas, Jr. (winner of heat two and the last two Kokomo contests) retired the Gass number 17 to the infield on lap three.  Even if KTJ would have remained in the fight, it is doubtful if he would have had anything for Big Daddy, as Chris was clearly in the zone come feature time thanks to a spot-on setup from crew chief Derek Claxton. 

Windom’s seventh sprint car score of 2017 came at the expense of sixth-starting Jarett Andretti, who was a full straightaway in arrears at the conclusion.  Isaac Chapple, with aid from veteran wrench Brian Cripe, started fifth and took third.  After beginning from the front row, Matt Westfall was the last car on the lead lap, with Marion’s Tyler Hewitt rounding out the top five. 

Muncie’s Cole Ketcham finished sixth in his first Kokomo appearance since early April, having sat out the bulk of the season because of engine issues encountered in that Kokomo opener.  Unfortunately for Cole, an under-the-hood issue reared its ugly head immediately after Monday’s checkered flag, going up in another costly ball of flames. 

English Formula One stock car standout Tom Harris, showing spectacular flumes of smoke while impressively holding off Chris Windom to win heat one, scored seventh in his Beast chassis after starting third, preparing for his annual Sprint Week onslaught.  Ted Hines, Matt Goodnight, and birthday boy Josh Spencer rounded out the top ten finishers.  One word of note for Sprint Week fans, the new Kokomo backstretch bleachers are now open, allowing for even more patrons to pour in come next Saturday.  My favorite day of the year, the juices are already flowing when thinking about Sprint Week at Kokomo. 

Done with the sprint car feature by 10 PM but deciding to wait out modified and hornet finales for fireworks, it was the first time in a very long while that I have actually done so.   Observing a large portion of the city of Kokomo’s population congregating along Davis Road for the light show, as a result of the congestion I was forced to wait out the extremely long line of traffic to turn left on Morgan Street.  Rather than be annoyed, in a rare festive mood I decided to roll down the windows and soak up the sounds of a traditional summer evening, as the bullfrogs were having a field day along the old neighboring Pennsylvania Railroad mainline.  Sending me back to days of old but also making me appreciate my current existence, if those sounds aren’t the surest sign of summer, then I don’t know what is. 

 

 

Volume 19, Number 7

Marathon Man

It’s a notion that's been beaten to death for the last 19 years in these columns, but it bears repeating one more time.  No one goes to greater lengths to fulfill a fix than racing folk.  No one!        

Case in point:  who else would be willing to arise at 4:45 AM on a Saturday, drive (or ride in my case) six and a half hours to the middle of Iowa to watch sprint cars go around in circles, only to immediately turn around when it was all over and arrive home at 7:30 AM on a Sunday? Already weary from such a grueling expedition, two days later who else would also be crazy enough to start a six day stretch of racing events while simultaneously logging 40 hours with one's employer?  Requiring bold moves through rush hour traffic just to catch qualifications, an equally energetic pace was mandatory on return trips to maximize precious hours of shuteye.  Repeating such a procedure might be the definition of insanity and to do it four days in a row, let alone six, is absolutely unfathomable to any outsider.  

However, given that this was all undertaken to accommodate USAC Indiana Midget Week, suddenly it all should seem understandable and acceptable.  If you’re an open wheel freak, you’ll do whatever it takes to be there in the flesh and for a large contingent of Kiwis and Aussies, it involves a rather pricey trip halfway around the world.  To be completely absorbed in that chaotic atmosphere of screaming inline four cylinder engines, there is simply no substitution for the real thing.  

But what about sleep?  Well, apparently that's an entirely optional aspect of Indiana Midget Week.  As I continue to burn the candle at both ends, my biggest fears regarding this series, for when I am not on vacation, have always revolved around the possibility of late nights during mid-week programs and the exhaustion that ensues for weeks afterwards.  Even on the most efficient evenings, the fact of the matter is that sprint and midget doubleheaders simply take a long time to complete and any additional class of cars are completely unnecessary, especially in the first few shows when car counts are highest.  Unfortunately this year, the latest nights were Tuesday through Thursday, as Montpelier, Gas City, and Putnamville ran midget features first but checkered their sprint car finales at 11:19, 11:05, 11:03, still respectable but not ideal when another 75 to 90 minutes of driving was required. 

Cursing and prying myself out of bed from Wednesday through Friday when that alarm clock buzzed way too early, Midget Week is indeed a world class grind, requiring the utmost of endurance to make it through those Tuesday to Friday programs.  Ten times tougher on the crews who have to drag the trucks and trailers to and from the track, wash the equipment, perform routine maintenance, mount and demount tons of tires, and deal with the pressure of six consecutive race meetings, just like Ohio Speed Week and Indiana Sprint Week, Indiana Midget Week is one of the truest tests of mental and physical strength.  But, at the conclusion of all that effort comes the possibility of some significant rewards, as it has to be infinitely satisfying to claim a Midget Week championship, let alone win at any one of the six stops. 

Beginning with Montpelier, a parched and tightly packed surface mandated a full one hour track rework after sprint heats were completed at 8:30 PM.  When combined with the extra offering of modifieds, this meant extending well past an 11:00 PM curfew, as those mods still had B and A-mains to complete by the time I exited.  Without that additional class and the track rework (it still ended up taking rubber for midget and sprint features), it would have been an early evening, something infinitely appreciated by those few working folk who were crazy enough to attempt all of the Midget Week outings.  Arriving home at 12:50 AM and starting this series under distress for the second year in a row, I seriously need more vacation time in order to accommodate a racing habit that is still far too healthy for a high profile accounting career.  Otherwise, I may be resigned to picking and choosing like a normal human.   

Track owner Jack Himelick again entrusted his I-69 Speedway to the O’Connor family for just two 2017 shows, with Indiana Sprint Week being the other of course.  Given the track's inactivity dating to July 2016, surface preparer Reece O’Connor had his hands full with several soft spots on Wednesday.  Requiring a slight amount of downtime to tend to those troublesome areas, six red flags for flips slowed an otherwise efficient evening.  Dumping Andrew Felker during qualifying, Brady Short in his sprint heat (unceremoniously debuting a Reinbold/Underwood Spike), Tony Main in his sprint heat, Brad Kraus in the midget C, Ryan Greth in the midget semi, and Chance Morton in the midget main, countless tilts on two wheels or less could have led to even more red lights.  Obviously without those aforementioned stoppages, Wednesday would have ended earlier as well.  Thankfully the O'Connors continue to cater to their open wheel faithful by simply scheduling sprints and midgets on these special shows.  My own worst enemy, I stopped in the pit area for a brief bit of congratulations to the winning midget car driver and owner, further delaying my Carmel arrival to 12:45 Thursday morning.  On an emotional high from two thrilling features, obviously my judgment was ruled by my heart and not my head!  Either way, Gas City needs more races scheduled.           

Despite a massive curb that wasn’t the most conducive to midget right rears, Lincoln Park Speedway track owner/operator Joe Spiker had the foresight to keep it in place on Thursday.  This not only saved time but ended up pegging the excitement meter in action-packed midget and sprint main events.  LPS was one of four Midget Week stops to offer a third class of competition (in addition to Montpelier and Lincoln Park, Bloomington and Lawrenceburg were the others) selecting self-starting winged mini sprints over the usual modifieds.  A miniscule amount meant only two heats and one main event, but unfortunately a lengthy red flag during their feature (won by Rico Abreu) spoiled what was destined to be the earliest IMW exit at this locale.  Here's a proposition to all promoters/operators:  if there must be a third class, why not make it a feature-only event?  Still riding high on adrenaline from that incredible conclusion to the midget main, my arrival home from night number three was a commendable 12:10 AM, which isn't far off my usual routine. 

Just my luck, the earliest Midget Week endings occurred when resting hours weren’t as crucial, with Bloomington and Lawrenceburg concluding at 10:54 and 10:25.  Needing to say goodbye to friends from far away but still hit the road at a reasonable hour, Kokomo wrapped up the series at an appreciated 10:26. 

Having focused on just how tough and tiresome Indiana Midget Week can be, what will be most remembered from this version was the thrilling racing action enjoyed every single night.  Filled with so many dramatic ups and downs and so much intrigue, two weeks later I'm still buzzing about it. 

Last year’s series called a consistent yet winless Bryan Clauson as champion for the third time despite a sweep of feature wins by Keith Kunz Motorsports.  Even with the fairly consistent beat downs by the Kunz clan, Midget Week continues to grow in popularity, now nearly reaching Sprint Week proportions with front gate gatherings.  With news that Rico Abreu and New Zealand’s number one export Michael Pickens would be competing in all six rounds of this 13th edition, lofty expectations rose even higher when Kyle Larson confirmed he’d again be available for the first two.  For the first time in a long while, parity was a distinct possibility as the KKM Spike-Bullet/Speedway Toyotas have not been dominant with its current crop of full-time chauffeurs (Tanner Thorson, Spencer Bayston, Ryan Robinson, Holly Shelton, and rookie Tanner Carrick).  Adding to the mix a talented Clauson-Marshall Racing trio of Tyler Courtney, Justin Grant, and Shane Golobic in Spikes powered by Stanton Mopar SR-11s, Kokomo Grand Prix king Brady Bacon (whose Beast/Stanton Toyota was under the guidance of former CRA studs Bob East and Brad Noffsinger), Chad Boat, Alex Bright, Tyler Thomas, Petry-Goff teammates Dave Darland and Jerry Coons, Jr., and four-time USAC Western States midget champion Ronnie Gardner (in Jerome Rodela’s King/Pink Toyota), this made Midget Week even more interesting, enticing, and ultimately intoxicating.  Truth be told, it lived up to all of the hype and then some. 

Convinced that this was the best-ever series in its fairly short history, the parity between the Keith Kunz/Clauson-Marshall super teams and the other notable single-car entries was easily evident given that nine drivers were still eligible to claim the week-long title when the series switched to the Kokomo finale.  Entering that final round, the spread between first place Michael Pickens and ninth place Chad Boat was only 57 points.   As it turned out, the gap was widened to 79 but even that final evening featured a roller coaster ride of unpredictability. 

Given that I was once again seated with Bryce Townsend’s group from New Zealand as I was administering their 9th annual Kiwi Tour Sweepstakes, the feature endings from Gas City and Putnamville were clearly the most memorable given that their homeland hero Michael Pickens reached victory lane.  Gas City was great, as Pickens led the final four laps in his Seamount Racing King/Graham Racing Development Toyota after starting 11th, docked two rows for missing the call for feature staging.  Already irritated after having to come through the semi, the penalty only intensified the aggression within the 34 year-old.  His Gas City feature was the equivalent of a bar room brawl, as every corner of every lap involved some sort of a scrap for position, able to confidently execute every one of his moves thanks to a near perfect setup from car builder and crew chief Justin Insley. 

As good as Gas City was for the flag waving Kiwi contingent, Putnamville’s ending was even better, as Pickens and Lebanon, Indiana’s Spencer Bayston exchanged the top spot five times in the last two laps. Read that again:  I said FIVE TIMES!  Honest to goodness, that LPS conclusion might have been the most memorable I have ever witnessed in my entire thirty-plus years of regular racing attendance.  After starting sixth and operating in or around that position for the first 16 laps, Pickens put all four wheels over the chunky cushion in turn one, using the momentum gained to drive down the hill and through the slick middle lane of turn two.  One by one, he managed to surge past Rico Abreu, Brent Beauchamp, Alex Bright, and Chad Boat, with a final caution at lap 25 setting the stage for the epic slip and slide/dip and dive duel to the finish.  Once “Slim” gained enough ground through one and two to finally seize the lead, he pulled a similar attack out of his hat at the third turn, using it on the final two tours.  Slipping sideways above the cushion in turn one on the final circuit, the application of that turn three tactic was truly a shocker, stealing a win that should have belonged to Spencer.  I can’t even begin to describe the rush of adrenaline that surged through my veins when the checkered flag flew on Thursday.  Sleep or no sleep, you only live once and you live for races like this one.  It was simply awesome!   

Speaking of Bryce Townsend’s Speed Sport Tours, he and his group again accounted for a large majority of Midget Week's international flavor, also making a massive impact on my Midget Week mindset.  Including Bryce, a dozen absorbed both Powri Illinois Speedweek and USAC Indiana Midget Week, a figure that was surprisingly down from previous years.  Prior to midget mayhem, a small group even assembled for Indy 500 week and several took it all in, which amounted to a staggering 18 race in 19 day extravaganza that also included stops for various sightseeing opportunities.  A dream come true for so many of these first time visitors, the incredible success enjoyed by Pickens (four wins in 11 outings) only added to the allure, creating unforgettable memories that will undoubtedly bring them back at some point in time.   Meet so many friendly guests for the first time, I certainly hope we can meet again very soon. 

When thinking of that incredible run by Michael Pickens, it’s amazing to think it all started with a random Facebook post by Townsend, proposing that fans pony up some dollars to help send Pickens to the states for both Illinois and Indiana midget weeks in his usual Seamount Racing ride.  Michael and team manager Justin Insley took the ball and ran with it, gathering over 350 supporters, each of whom were listed on the side of the car.  Cindy Elliott and the Tony Elliott foundation were notable supporters and with a minimum donation of , the total amounted to ,000 New Zealand dollars, helping to offset the massive travel and operating expenses for the two week tour.  Through further funding by car owners Brett and Leigh Morris and their loyal sponsors, the entire trip became reality.  All in all, it was a pretty neat deal.     

A world class effort from such a small squad (just one car, two engines, and three crew members), they certainly had their ups and downs, winning the Powri Illinois points on the strength of two wins, one second, and one third (two wins should have been three if it weren't for a less than tidy last turn/last lap Lincoln lunge from Logan Seavey).  Opening Indiana Midget Week with two wins (his third and fourth career with USAC) and a second, despite a sub-par ninth at Bloomington (expecting the track to rubber-up) and an early feature spin and scrum at Lawrenceburg, they were still in the driver’s seat to claim the crown up until the point of an all-timed hot lap flip at Kokomo.  With countless teams coming to their rescue and exuding the true spirit of "speedway", the car made a miraculous return for qualifications.  Unfortunately its Sunday speed was simply lacking, falling to third in the final standings after a seventh place conclusion.  From my vantage point, Michael Pickens and his Seamount squad ultimately made Indiana Midget Week 2017 extra special.  Let’s hope he can return next year to make even more memories.   

Any additional thoughts of 2017 Indiana Midget Week must automatically include Lawrenceburg.  Despite being washed out last year, the Burg has become the showcase for midget madness thanks to its features being consistently filled to the brim with breathtaking slide jobs.  This year was no different and in fact, it may have been the most thrilling main event in the history of the series.  Never before in my life have I witnessed as many sliders, crossovers, and assorted attempts for first than this particular contest, which involved the most likely of suspects (Rico Abreu) and least likely (Holly Shelton).  With my eyes locked on the battle for the lead, naturally I missed the beehive of activity going on throughout the field, as I can only imagine just how insane it was beyond the top three positions.    

Thanks to a cushion that was pushed to the wall of the skyscraper banking, the action was both fast and furious.  The wrath was officially unleashed when pole sitter Ryan Robinson promptly lofted a bomb at fellow front row mate Holly Shelton through one and two.  As was commonplace this entire battle, Holly would regain command with a drive down the hill to the back chute.  Things remained calm up front until a lap ten yellow, but immediately after that is when sixth-starting Spencer Bayston slid past Shelton through the east end.  Of course she would immediately return the favor but all that action opened the door for Rico Abreu, who had started tenth but was making quick work of the field with titanic two-for-one tosses.  While Spencer continued pull alongside for first; that would leave the door wide open for Rico, as they proceeded to swap second six times before a flat left rear for Dave Darland put the action on ice at lap 21. 

That’s when things began to get REALLY interesting.  Bayston immediately slid Shelton in one, but Holly crossed over in two.  Bayston did the deed again in three, only to have her return the favor in four.  With the top three extremely tight, Holly (low) and Spencer (high) were dueling for the same real estate as they approached turn one.  The lead duo touched wheels and nearly took out the top three in one fell swoop, but somehow everyone averted disaster.  Well, not everyone, as the big-time bump left Bayston with a bum left rear.  Having to swap the wheel and tire, he stormed from the rear to eighth.   

Seven laps were left to determine if Holly could make history as the first female to claim a USAC national event victory.  Could she somehow perform the impossible task of holding back Abreu, the sultan of Lawrenceburg sliders?  Truly an edge-of-your-seat affair, those last seven laps simply sizzled.  Shot out of a cannon, Abreu’s turn three slide for life was countered, but Shelton would climb the cushion in one and two.  That allowed another turn three attack, but not before a dip and dive sent Abreu back to second.  Rico then pulled the pin on a turn one grenade, but Holly tossed it right back into his lap.  One lap later, yet another costly bobble by the leader in one and two allowed another overtaking in three, but like a hotly contested ping pong match the volley was yet again returned.  Rico's winning move would eventually come through one and two on lap 28, as for the first time Holly could not cross over.  I counted at least eight times that she was able to fire back, but she just didn’t have enough mustard on the hot dog to get this one done.  Unable to contain a second place assault from Tanner Thorson, nevertheless her third place performance sent the crowd into a frenzy, as they offered a genuinely enthusiastic standing ovation for a job well done.  In all sincerity, I was thoroughly impressed with the young lady, gaining a new respect for not only her talent but her ability to keep cool under the most stressful of situations.  This was truly a race for the ages and when penciling in dates for next year, trust me, this is one that you won't want to miss.  The third time in a row that Abreu had reached an Indiana Midget Week victory lane in Lawrenceburg, amazingly this was KKM's first USAC conquest of 2017.  

The performances from Pickens and the lights-out Lawrenceburg feature might be the details I will instantly recall from 2017 IMW, but the big picture will show that this year was just like last in that the title came down to the wire, with the champion once again chalking up his crown to consistency rather than feature wins.  Perhaps the most understated of the Clauson-Marshall convoy, Fremont, California's Shane Golobic flew beneath the radar all week but was up front when he needed to be, taking the title by a mere six points over teammate Tyler Courtney thanks to a Kokomo quick time and a late race overhaul of Sunshine.  Unable to wrangle a W but averaging a fine finish of 4.83, he scored sixth at Montpelier, earned eighth at Gas City, and secured sixth again at Putnamville, ending the series with excellent finishes of third at Bloomington, fourth at Lawrenceburg, and second at Kokomo.  In order to get those results, he had to work extra hard on most evenings after beginning 14th, 16th, 8th, 3rd, 16th, and 6th, respectively.  Perhaps the most amazing story of Golobic’s Midget Week title run was his sterling Friday performance despite having spent the better part of the day in an emergency room receiving intravenous fluids, this after suffering from the stomach flu.  Some ten years removed from an Indiana summer in which he won a sprint car feature on the old quarter-mile Lawrenceburg configuration, Shane is not only a long-time friend of the Clausons, but he’s also cut from the same mold, about time that he would finally earn some high profile recognition outside of the NorCal winged scene. 

Post-Kokomo, the mood had to be bittersweet in the Clauson-Marshall camp, elated to have earned the top prize but naturally reflective.  Spotting Tim Clauson soaking up the peaceful post-race scene with Rico Abreu at Kokomo’s first corner, Tim told me last year that Bryan had specifically requested that his team be kept intact and for his father find a way to keep racing if for some reason he were no longer around.  Topping the Keith Kunz Motorsports juggernaut in such a grueling war is no small feat, so Tim and his trusty troops should indeed take a bow and feel a humongous sense of pride with what they accomplished.  Given the headaches of tending to multiple cars on one evening, the inherent logistical challenges of traveling to and from six different racetracks, and the drastically different layouts, surface conditions, and setups required, I'd say a Midget Week title might just be tougher to claim than the elusive Chili Bowl driller.   

Comparing Midget Week results for Clauson-Marshall Racing to Keith Kunz Motorsports, both teams won two races, both had two top-five points finishes, and both also had one points finish from sixth through tenth (Grant was seventh and Thorson was eighth).  Interestingly enough, both CMR and KKM took seven podium placements in the six races, with both teams sweeping podiums at Bloomington (CMR) and Lawrenceburg (KKM).  The only advantage the Kunz cars had on Clauson-Marshall came with quick times from qualifications, as KKM had three (Larson took two and Tanner Carrick one - the latter at the Burg) while CMR had one (Golobic).  But, the big difference was that CMR took the top two spots in the standings.    

On the strength of his first two USAC national midget victories and three more top-fives, Tyler Courtney accumulated the second-most Midget Week points.  Finding Montpelier’s high road through one and two to his liking before it took rubber, Courtney led the final 25 tours and was clearly the class of Tuesday’s field, no better way to bounce back from a massive Knoxville flip just three days earlier when he nearly launched his Topp 23 onto highway 14.  After timing in 12th, he flogged from 11th to fourth at Gas City before an untimely engine issue forced him pit side.  Exhibiting some true mettle by hustling from 20th to 3rd after timing 25th at Putnamville, Sunshine exorcised his Bloomington demons with his second win of the week.  Scooting from seventh in a hurry by employing middle and top lanes on severely blackened red clay that so many thought would tear tires, he built a half-straightaway lead over his two teammates and set a new USAC thirty lap record in the process.  Fifth from eighth at the Burg, Tyler led a total of four feature laps at Kokomo and dueled side by side with winner Bayston in the final 12 lap dash.  Yielding the runner-up spot to a bottom-feeding Golobic with three laps remaining, that one position ultimately cost him the title.  Despite such a bitter pill to swallow, Courtney continues to impress in his rapid rise to the upper echelon of USAC talent.  Midget Week was prime example of how he’s in it to win it more than ever before.         

Leading the Midget Week standings by just one point entering the Kokomo finale, Michael Pickens could ill afford any slip-ups with so many breathing down his neck.  Biking into the concrete and flipping through turns one and two during hot laps, the resulting thrash to simply get the car on the track may have cost him the title after he could only qualify 11th.  Able to advance four feature spots to seventh, his 19th place at Lawrenceburg ultimately did him in, winding up 20 points in arrears in third.    After timing in third, fourth, first (without hot laps at LPS), and fifth in the first four outings, qualifying outside of the top-ten at both Lawrenceburg and Kokomo seemed out of place, as did his two major incidents.  Such a competitive mini-series in 2017, in order to claim the title of Indiana Midget Week champion, mistakes had to be minor.      

Finishing fourth in the standings was Rico Abreu, one of two KKM cars to claim victory in what can be considered an odd run of races for midget racing’s juggernaut.  Starting features from 10th, 5th, 3rd, 10th, 10th, and 4th, Rico’s respective feature finishes were 14th, 4th, 4th, 8th, 1st, and 6th, commenting in Lincoln Park’s mini sprint victory lane that his setups had been far too loose for his liking.    Leading 13 laps of a thrilling Gas City feature, he may have only paced the final two at Lawrenceburg, but they were enough to maintain his lofty label as best on the big tracks.  With a pair of Indiana Midget Week titles (2013 and 2014), a USAC national title (2014), and a pair of Chili Bowl victories (2015 and 2016), Rico’s midget racing bar has been raised so high in recent years that anything less than a win or a championship is sub-standard.  If anyone would have predicted just one win in six outings, no one would have ever believed it. 

Amazingly with just one USAC national win to his credit before 2017 Midget Week, Spencer Bayston was oh-so-close to gaining number two at Putnamville and Lawrenceburg.  Sealing the deal with a dominating performance atop Kokomo's tempting yet treacherous cushion, Spencer led 16 Lincoln Park laps before having his pockets picked through the final corner. Up front for one Lawrenceburg tour before suffering a flat left rear after contact from Shelton, he led the first ten Kokomo laps, lost the premier position to Courtney for two laps, regained the lead for seven more, lost it again for two, and then reaffirmed his stance atop the scoreboard for the final nine.  Three sub-par qualification efforts hindered his week, but in addition to the Kokomo triumph he also scored 10th (MMS), 5th (Gas City), 2nd (LPS), 16th (B-town), and 8th (Burg), good enough for fifth in IMW points.

Sixth through tenth in the standings included Brady Bacon, Justin Grant, Tanner Thorson, Chad Boat, and Alex Bright. 

Boasting the only Beast chassis in the field, Bacon enjoyed the best time trialing average of the week at 3.67, but those superb starts did not translate into equivalent feature finishes for various reasons, coming home 4th, 2nd, 8th, 6th, 16th, and 5th.  Slated to start 5th at Lincoln Park, Brady had to pull to the work area before the start, thus requiring a run from the rear that eventually earned him 8th.  After Pickens had his Lawrenceburg issues, BB was primed to take the Midget Week point lead until he mysteriously slowed on lap ten, saddled with a DNF.  Nursing a sick Toyota power plant for his Sunday heat, a swap of cars and resulting run from the rear of the semi to 4th helped salvage his week.  Had it not been for the problems at LPS and the Burg, the Midget Week standings could have been vastly different.    

Seventh in points but owning the fifth best average finish (6.67), had it not been for a Gas City two wheel tilt from 3rd to 15th, Justin Grant may have been in the running for the series crown as well.  After qualifying disappointments at Montpelier (third from the end of the line on a worn out surface) and Lincoln Park, he toiled from 12th to 7th and 13th to 5th, respectively.  Solid in qualifying the rest of the week (6th, 3rd, 4th, and 2nd), he scored 2nd at Bloomington, 7th at Lawrenceburg and 4th at Kokomo (where he reverted to a backup machine for his heat). 

Defending national champion Tanner Thorson had an up and down week with finishes of 8th, 3rd, 20th, 15th, 2nd, and 9th.  Leading 12 laps in two spurts at Gas City, he was the one that Pickens passed for the win.  Winning last year at Lincoln Park, Tanner had a forgettable outing at the same venue one year later.  Timing 21st and spinning on lap ten of the feature, the crushing blow received from Ronnie Gardner ended his evening in 20th.  Bloomington was far from a picnic as well, qualifying 14th and finishing 15th.  Stout at the Burg and beginning from a Kokomo pole, Thorson hung around the top-five for the majority of the finale but mysteriously fell to 9th. 

No one passed more feature cars in Midget Week than Chad Boat, earning him 9th in series points and the week-long B&W Auto Mart Perseverance Award from benefactor Bill Wever.  Qualifying 19th, 17th, 9th, 1st (Bloomington), 13th, and 20th, his Lawrenceburg time was nullified when he weighed one pound too light at the scales.  Still searching for speed early in the week with finishes of 11th and 12th, the final four outings showed vast improvement:  7th, 5th, 10th (from 22nd), and 8th (from 18th).  

Rounding out the top ten in Midget Week standings was Alex Bright.  Unable to capitalize from feature pole position placements at the first three outings, his finishes of 5th, 11th, and 9th were unfortunately the highlights of his mini-series, leading 4 laps at Montpelier and 12 at Putnamville.  The wheels fell off the former IMW cult hero in the second half, ending his week 20th, 21st, and 11th. 

Speaking of heroes, Kyle Larson certainly made a splash at his only two Midget Week outings.  The quickest qualifier at Montpelier (new track record) and Gas City, surprisingly Yung Money could only muster a third place at Montpelier and spun from the cushion once reaching 2nd place at Gas City, proving that this winning machine is indeed human. 

Scouring my notebook for noteworthy Midget Week performances, Ronnie Gardner made all six features, his best outing coming at Gas City where he nailed 9th from 18th.   Tyler Thomas also made all six with his Spike/Esslinger combo, but the best he could do was 6th at Gas City.  Chance Morton made just one feature, but he did it in style after climbing from C to B (15th to 5th) to A, ending his stellar run with a turn one tumble.  2007 Midget Week champ Jerry Coons, Jr. made all six features in his Petry-Goff Spike/Stanton Toyota, tallying a pair of 10th place finishes and a fine fourth at Bloomington after leading the first 17 laps.  Jerry’s teammate Dave Darland made five of six main events, but the best he could do was 13th (Lincoln Park), unfortunately never on pace the entire week.  Brent Beauchamp made just two Midget Week starts (Gas City and LPS) but he made them count, qualifying in the top-ten on both nights.  Scored seventh at Gas City, he was inside of the top-five at LPS with under ten to go before suffering a flat left rear. 

Midget Week car counts topped out at 41 for Montpelier and Gas City and dipped to a low of 25 at Lawrenceburg, averaging 34.5.  Sprint cars have always been a part of the Midget Week equation, but the minimal purses resulted in minimal car counts, ranging from 31 at Gas City to 20 at Montpelier and Lawrenceburg, averaging 23.3.  As much as I love midget and sprint doubleheaders, after 13 years I tend to think midgets could actually stand on their own.   

Speaking of sprints, several of the six main events were actually memorable despite being dealt less than desirable surface conditions after the midgets completed their portion of the program.  Kokomo was the only one to offer the sprint feature first. 

With rubber down conditions and just one spin for Parker Frederickson, Montpelier's sprint feature only took ten minutes to complete.  Brady Bacon started Todd Keen's DRC from the pole and held off Chris Windom (Baldwin 5), who was close to overtaking on three occasions.  Kevin Thomas, Jr., Shane Cottle, and Isaac Chapple rounded out the first five.  Having watched him in action at Knoxville just a few days prior, Aussie Gary Rooke made his first Indiana appearance of 2017 in 16th, commenting to Gary that it's not officially summertime in the Hoosier state until he is encountered in a pit area.  Also competing at Williams Grove as a part of Eastern Storm, it was a dream three week span for Rooke. 

At Gas City, Bacon again began from the pole and led early, only to lose the premier position to a bottom-feeding Shane Cottle on lap 8.  With both top and bottom grooves going away, the high side was the best option thanks to a healthy curb that still existed on both ends.  Bacon leaned on that ledge to circle Cottle through one and two on lap 16, with Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Gass 17) doing the same to Shane through three and four on lap 24.  The third and final caution came on the white flag lap and set the stage for a two lap shootout between Bacon and Thomas.  With white flag waving once again, KTJ hauled it into one and overextended the cushion, diamonding that east end.  The resulting momentum shot him side by side with Bacon on the back chute.  After the two banged wheels, Kevin quickly tossed a turn three bomb that registered, shocking the world with an unbelievable ending.  Bacon, Cottle, Justin Grant, and Robert Ballou (from 9th) rounded out Wednesday's top-five finishers.     

Featuring a front row of Brady Short (using the day to make Spike chassis repairs) and Chris Windom, Thursday's sprint car finale was definitely worth the wait.  Short initially led low in the blue 19, but Windom would quickly be rewarded with the top spot, employing the same turn one attack as midgeteer Michael Pickens.  After an early spin for Matt McDonald, fourth and fifth place runners Chad Boespflug (Hoffman/EZR 69) and Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Gass 17) bumped bars on the back stretch and eliminated defending track champ Shane Cockrum and Lee Underwood.  Later, both Tyler Thomas (Burton 04) and Boespflug shot past Short, with Tyler and Chad exchanging sliders/crossovers for second.  Windom's advantage equaled a full straightaway on T-squared, who soon fell to fourth after biking over the turn two ledge.  Tyler also took it too far into three and came to a rest, causing caution number three.  With six laps left and despite two lappers between himself and the leader, Chad quickly chased down Chris.  Entering turn three on the 23rd lap, Windom bobbled and suddenly slowed, leaving number 69 with nowhere to go.  After exiting the car and surveying the damage, CB narrowly escaped injury when Tim Creech spun into the scene and clipped the Mean Green machine.  Leaving three laps to determine a winner, although Kevin Thomas, Jr. attempted to duplicate his last lap Gas City heroics, he was unable to get the job done.  After Windom and KTJ came C.J. Leary (from 16th in Scott Pedersen's Spike), Shane Cottle, and Short.

Compared to my other two trips to Bloomington in 2017, the dry-slick Midget Week conditions were night and day different.  Of note, Alex Bright made his sprint car debut for Pennsylvania car owner Rick Kaylor, who provided a sharp looking CS9 mid-tube chassis numbered 13K.  Bright boasted tenth place feature finishes at Bloomington and Lawrenceburg.  B-town's slick conditions proved to be a handful for some, as A.J. Hopkins spun twice in his heat while Michael Koontz flew straight off turn four and into the earth embankment.  The sudden stop was a very hard hit, so the beaten and battered Koontz skipped the midget semi feature.    

After the 305 feature, the forthcoming traditional sprint car finale would unfortunately be conducted under rubber-down conditions.   Bland and Chapple shared the front row but it wouldn’t be long until Jeff and his Bedford buddy Brady Short (from inside row 2) took off and hid from the rest of the field, quickly constructing a full straight advantage on Max McGhee.  Hurst brothers hustler Jordan Kinser manned the middle and scooted from seventh to third.  With under five laps left, Bland and Short hooked along the front stretch, with the miscue allowing Kinser to steal second from Sweet Feet.  Offering a turn four rub to Jordan at the two-to-go signal, Brady would seize the spot.  Short then swept to the outside of Bland as they dipped under the white flag, stealing the lead as they entered turn one and bagging his 100th sprint car feature victory in the Reinbold/Underwood 19.  Kinser recaptured second while Bland had to settle for third.  Ethan Fleetwood found fourth from ninth while McGhee maintained fifth.   

Lawrenceburg pre-feature sprint car drama saw Justin Grant tangle with Dickie Gaines in turn three, dumping his McGhee number 11 and calling it an early night, as the onset of Eastern Storm would come in just three days.  In that same third heat, Logan Jarrett caught fire, scratching him from further Saturday action (although he would return for a hometown Kokomo bout on Sunday). 

As for Saturday’s feature, Kevin Thomas, Jr. drew the pole in his own number 44 DRC chassis.  Serving an immediate turn one slide job to fellow front row mate C.J. Leary (family 30), Kevin was quickly in command.  Fifth-starting Dave Darland (Hery 40), who topped Thomas to win his heat on a last lap surprise slider, exchanged second with Leary five times before a timely caution for Tony DiMattia set the stage for a first place showdown.  Back to green, Dave beat Kevin to the top of turns one and two, but Kevin would successfully cross over.  Darland did the same thing in three, but the Alabama assassin again returned the favor.  Thomas would not be headed the rest of the way, chased to the checkered by Darland, Leary, Nick Bilbee, and Jordan Kinser. 

Wrapping up in Kokomo, heat race intrigue had asphalt expert Aaron Pierce racing hard for fourth but cracking Kokomo concrete and inverting.  In replacement of the machine he destroyed at Knoxville, Tyler Courtney tried out a new Maxim in anticipation of Eastern Storm and won the first heat.  But in order to preserve equipment, he withdrew from the feature and apologized to the large crowd on hand.   

As for the sprint car finale, Brady Short and Shane Cottle would share front row honors.  Three laps in, Isaac Chapple and Logan Jarrett locked wheels and tumbled, continuing the rotten run of luck for Logan.  Back to green conditions, Shane would lead his nephew, who soon became embroiled in a battle with sixth-starting Kevin Thomas, Jr., back in the Gass 17 for the third time this week.  Thomas soon took second but climbed the cushion in two and fell to fourth.  After yet another yellow at lap ten, Brady launched low and rocketed past Colten for second.  Continuing to go low, Short would actually lead the pack at the halfway mark, but not for long as the "original" Cottle captured the keys to the basement in turn one.  With a handful of laps left, KTJ occupied third but was far from finished, even after climbing the cush in turn two.  Circling Short, Thomas dove under Cottle through one and two and pilfered P1, making it two in a row at Kokomo and three wins during Midget Week.  Short secured second on the last lap while Cottle dropped to third.  The younger Cottle was fourth while Dave Darland drove to fifth.  Still competing at Kokomo, Montpelier, and Gas City every chance he can get, Josh Spencer earned eighth from 12th. 

What a blur this month of June has been, literally flying by while I have attempted to document the details of these last few weeks and somehow catch up on rest.  Beginning with a one day trip to Knoxville, Iowa for the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame induction ceremonies and accompanying USAC sprint car contest, it was a highly enjoyable deviation from my summertime norm, watching and listening as idols Tony Elliott, Dave Darland, and Dr. Pat Sullivan were honored and inducted into the hall, spending a couple of hours soaking up the magnificent museum exhibits, and then kicking back to watch the racing action with former car owner turned Kokomo Speedway owner/operator Kent Evans.  Sure, the race for first was non-existent as Justin Grant walked away, but Tyler Courtney was truly the show before flipping from third, challenging the curb like there was no tomorrow.  Visually pleased by the slide-fest for fifth between C.J. Leary and Chris Windom, the ultimate highlight was hearing the oohs and aahs from the large crowd, perhaps not used to such daring overtaking maneuvers, especially so early in the evening.  A true iron man, a special thank you goes out to my nephew, who willingly offered to do all of the driving both to and from.   Oh - to be young again!

As for Midget Week, it too was well worth the sleep deprivation.  Trying to encompass every detail and emotion in this article has been nearly as daunting as completing the week of races without vacation time.  So much excitement, so many stories, and so many surprises were jam packed into the six day span that I get exhausted just thinking about attempting it all over again next year.  In the end, it was a highly memorable journey that reached its destination in the Kokomo pit area where for the fourth time in nine years, by complete luck of the draw I was crowned Kiwi Tour Sweepstakes champion!  Entering the final night eight points behind the leader, of course it doesn't look good when the scorekeeper/treasurer pulls a rabbit out of the hat and miraculously wins once again, but as an honest accountant bound by a strict code of ethics, there's no way that I would risk my license for the small amount of glory gained.  When viewing the photo snapped with the trophy (an Aaron Fike Beast chassis nosepiece), from the gleam in my eyes and ear to ear grin on my face, despite my weariness I sure do appear to be happy. 

Wrapping up the tour with a Monday night Rick's Boatyard Café sendoff for Bryce Townsend in which I finally got to meet the infamous Doc Tyler and listen to some fabulous stories from both he and Davey Ray, in the end the marathon of Indiana Midget Week might have once again subtracted a year or two from my life, but I suppose I can get all the rest I need when I'm dead.     

 

 

Volume 19, Number 6

500 Fever

Despite growing up under the influence of gear heads, one might be surprised to learn that for the longest time, auto racing was not my preferred pastime.  Early on, baseball and basketball were the two things that mattered most but priorities would soon change once my oldest brother began work with ESPN's Indy-based Speed Week staff in 1984.  Ultimately, my change in preference can be pinpointed to the pre-race pageantry and festivities leading up to my first Indianapolis 500 of 1985.  Truly a life-changing event, the enormous weight of this sacred ceremony flipped the switch, becoming the root cause of what would quickly become an incurable addiction to all forms of motorsports. 

Prior to 1985, I had endured countless IMS Pole Day outings but being far too young to appreciate the significance of the occasion, I can honestly state that I never looked forward to them.  Even though I would often hear announcer Tom Carnegie bellow "It's a newwwwwwwwwww track record", I never got too excited until rookie Teo Fabi surprisingly stuck his Forsythe Racing Skoal Bandit March/Cosworth on the pole in 1983.  From then on, I was completely enthralled with record-setting timing light tangos but once the 1997 IRL stock block formula eliminated any possibility of a new track record, I completely lost interest in qualifications but never the event itself.  Even if Indy and big-time racing is still light years away from 1985 significance, for me the 500 will always be a big deal for the simple fact that race day always moves my needle. 

With month-long mayhem now condensed to just two weeks, the associated short-track activities have likewise been squeezed into a limited timeframe, with the days leading up to the Indianapolis 500 now making one of the most diverse, hectic, and satisfying weeks of the year.  Formerly conducted on the first weekend in May, Terre Haute’s Hulman Classic, a tradition dating back to 1971, is now the lid lifter for 500 fever.  With roots reaching back to 1953 and once the second most significant contest on the Championship Trail, the Hoosier Hundred takes place on Thursday, a variance from the former Hulman Hundred held on Fridays.  Sadly, Saturday's Night Before the 500 midget mainstay at IRP has morphed into an asphalt Silver Crown chore contested on Friday.  But, it’s good to know that some things don’t change, as Anderson's Little 500 continued for the 69th time in 2017.  Naturally, weekend dirt sprint car options are aplenty in Bloomington (Josh Burton Memorial), Putnamville (MSCS), Haubstadt (MSCS), Kokomo (BC's Indiana Double), and Lawrenceburg (WoO).  Daytona may bill itself as the world center of racing, but it has nothing on Indianapolis, especially in this magical month.   

Owning four 500 tickets but only having two takers (myself and my nephew), I extended an invitation to Campbell, California’s Steve Lafond, as his bucket list has always included Indy.  The lure of the Hulman Classic, Hoosier Hundred, Bloomington, Little 500, and Kokomo, along with a pair of visits to Perkinsville’s Bonge’s Tavern, were added bonuses, making for a quality-filled quest to satisfy a serious need for speed.  Monday’s Lawrenceburg WoO war was also discussed as a possibility if enough energy existed. 

Hoping to share this jam-packed week with a first-timer, of course Mother Nature had her say in the matter.  Heavy all-day rain on Wednesday not only took down Terre Haute, but it also rendered the Indy Mile unworthy of Thursday activity thanks to a sloppy mixture of sand and clay, nixing such a rare opportunity for a heavy Hoosier Hundred surface.  Taking a peek at the extended forecast through Monday, the rest of the holiday weekend was in serious doubt as well, stressing me out beyond belief.  If there was one thing I was reminded in these six days, it was to only take a look at the forecast one day at a time, as Indiana weather will change with infinite frequency.  Why I chose to subject myself to such premature misery is beyond me, as there’s nothing more foolish than fretting over something that’s completely out of my control. 

Working half days from Wednesday through Friday to preserve precious PTO, after the Hulman Classic call Steve and I hustled to the IMS museum to absorb an outstanding A.J. Foyt exhibit.  In awe of A.J.'s assembly of midgets, sprints, champ dirt cars, front engine roadsters, rear engine Indycars (including the tub from his 1990 turn one Road America accident), sports cars, stocks cars, engines (I loved the original 4-cam Ford V-8), artwork, trophies, and other memorabilia, I enjoyed every aspect of this extensive inventory, wishing that the 1967 LeMans winning Ford GT-40 Mark IV and 1983 Daytona 24 Hour winning Porsche 935 were also present. 

Bumping into three-time MSCS champion Alex Shanks who now assists in the operation of Patty Bateman’s Silver Crown chariot (to be piloted on Thursday by Casey Shuman), Alex noted that his fellow Bateman Racing team members purchased an Indy brick in honor of their recently deceased driver and were using this rainy afternoon to stumble upon it.  Alex introduced me to Randy’s wife Patty, who wiped away tears while commenting that she remembered celebrating a wedding anniversary at this very museum just a few short years ago, adding that one of her husband’s final wishes was for her to keep the racing team intact.  Emotional yet resilient, Patty has indeed had a rough go of late, having lost her brother just one month after Randy passed.  Just like Indy 500 week weather, I'm sure Patty would agree that when it rains, it indeed pours. 

Because of Lafond's Tuesday flight schedule scrambling, Wednesday's trip to Bonge's Tavern was the first of the week, no doubt the best-possible scenario for any racing rainout.  As always, the food, service, and atmosphere were incredible, enjoying an excellent morel mushroom appetizer and New York Strip Stroganoff entree for the first time.  Thursday morning's overcast skies yet absence of precipitation gave hope for that elusive heavy Hoosier Hundred, but while lunching at the nearby Pint Room we received the shocking news that it was not to be, instead hustling in anger to Anderson Speedway to catch Little 500 qualifications.  Even on a high-banked asphalt surface, traction was impacted by the previous day's deluge, as weepers on the backstretch continually wreaked havoc.  Chilly and windy conditions also contributed to the difficulty in warming up tires to proper temperature.  Qualifiers get three shots at taking the green flag and the early theme had car after car waving off attempts in the mid-11 second bracket, only to find out on their final run that the surface actually slowed down.  Fifteen cars would lock in from Thursday's two hour session, resulting in a front row of Caleb Armstrong, Kyle Hamilton (Klatt 5), and last year's winner Kody Swanson (Nolen 4), all in Beast chassis.  C.J. Leary served up a pleasant surprise in 4th (Fordyce 4) but the biggest news was the inability of Aaron Pierce, Brian Tyler, Tony Stewart (Hoffman 69), and Ken Schrader (Armstrong 99) to register a top-15 time.    

While I worked my final hours before the big weekend, Steve joined my nephew for some crazy Carb Day camaraderie.  Reconvening in Bloomington for the Josh Burton Memorial, we were finally able to catch a real race thanks to beautiful Friday weather.  A stacked field of 35 sprinters boasted visitors such as Andretti, Ballou, Boespflug, Cottle, Cummins (Pollock 21x), Darland (subbing for Chris Windom in the Baldwin 5), Leary, Mark Smith (Byram 3R), Stanbrough (Wingo 77), Sussex, and Thomas (KTJ), all vying for a ,090 feature purse paying ,504 to win and 4 to start.  The extra four dollars to start and win were of course in honor of Josh Burton’s numerals, with the Jerry Burton Masonry DRC piloted tonight by Okie Tyler Thomas, who already has a Kokomo Speedway score in 2017.   It’s hard to believe that four years have expired since Josh’s passing at this very venue on this very evening before the Indy 5.

Under overcast skies, much like April's USAC union Bloomington's surface started heavy and actually ended the same.  Inverting the fastest four from timed hot laps (Tyler Thomas, Stanbrough, Ethan Barrow, and Lee Underwood were quickest), heat race overtaking was sacrificed in favor of a fantastic feature.  Each of the four heats were won from the front row (Leary, Shane Cockrum (Paul 24), Kyle Cummins, and Brandon Maddox), with the fourth row being the furthest anyone traveled to take a transfer (Hunter O'Neal). 

Passing became plentiful in a pair of B-mains, taking three out of the first and two out of the second, the odd number occurring because C.J. Leary lost a power plant in the process of his heat victory.  The continuation of a hugely disappointing season thus far, Leary was slated to start from the feature pole position.  Darland, Sussex, and Boespflug moved on from the first while fifth-starting A.J. Hopkins and Jarett Andretti annexed the final feature transfers from the second.  Andretti ousted Shane Cottle, slipping underneath the 1992 AMSA mini sprint champ who always excels around the bottom. 

Firing Cockrum and Cummins from the feature front row, the outside of rows six, seven, eight, and ten contained Thomas (Kevin), Short, Darland, and Boespflug.  Offering four different leaders in Cockrum, Cummins, Jordan Kinser (Hurst 70), and KTJ, the top was treacherous in turn one as evidenced by a pair of dances with disaster by the pride of Princeton, Indiana.  Cummins circled Cockrum for the lead through three and four fairly early but bounced through turn one’s choppy cushion and erased his advantage.  Rebounding for yet another three and four sweep of Shane, Kyle clipped that same tricky turn one cushion and bounced into a spin on lap 12.  Cummins quickly called it quits on the restart, right before a three car scrum dumped Barrow, Bland, and Cole Smith, also leaving Mark Smith spun.  While under red, Kevin Thomas, Jr.’s Pace 44 caught fire on the front straight.  Kevin unbelted and frantically tried to get the attention of safety personnel, but it would be photographer Chris Pedersen arriving first with an extinguisher. Kevin was able to restart from the sixth position.   

At the crossed flags, Jordan Kinser blew past Cockrum at turn three and collected the lead.  One lap later, Tyler Thomas and fourth-running Robert Ballou tangled at the bottom of turn two, sending Ballou to the infield grass and edge of the track to influence one final caution, under which he expressed his appreciation to A.J. Hopkins. 

KTJ restarted fourth and quickly disposed of Maddox, Cockrum, and Kinser with some high-side heroics.  Restarting fifth from an original start of 17th, Hopkins proved that his B-main blast was no fluke, aggressively attacking the top to secure second.  Tyler Thomas took an eventful third place after a final restart of eighth.  Both leading laps, Kinser settled for fourth while Cockrum collected fifth.  Sussex, Stanbrough, Darland, Short, and Ballou were sixth through tenth at the 10:20 PM checkered flag, only the third Bloomington show of a water-logged 2017 campaign.  After Brady Short's first win of the season on June 2nd, Bloomington's next bout is this coming Friday for the fourth stop of Indiana Midget Week. 

Saturday was of course all about Anderson’s Pay Less Supermarkets Little 500.  Notified by text message of a mid-day sellout, it’s the first time in my 26 years of attending that I can remember such a thing.  Thankfully, I had a trio of tickets thanks to 43-year Kroger marketing assistant Kevin Kotansky, who has always been so generous in extending such a benefit to this accountant who only pretends to write about racing.  Retiring from the grocery giant immediately after this event, Kotansky was heavily involved in Kroger’s philanthropic and community affairs and if he had to go out, he might as well have done it in such grand style.  Obviously thrilled to wave the green flag to the field of 33, one could easily discern that this lifelong racing fanatic was having the time of his life. 

But before the unleashing of Little 500 fury, Steve and I were able to dine at Perkinsville’s Bonge’s Tavern one more time, bringing Rob Botts and a group of nine New Zealanders led by Bryce Townsend.  All twelve of us occupied the back room and this time around, I chose the much more manageable surf and turf as my entrée, with the highlight of the meal undoubtedly being chef Tony Huelster’s dessert made especially for our group:  strawberry rhubarb pie.  Completely going out of his way to grab some fresh rhubarb from a friend earlier in the day, Tony went above and beyond to fulfill my special request from Wednesday.  Although I may not be an official connoisseur of excellent eats, I have to say that piece of pie was one of the best things I’ve ever devoured in my life.  No joke - it really was that good!  And to top it off, they actually had dump cake (my all-time favorite up to now), so I was obliged to take a piece of that home too!  Much like a trip to the Indy and Little 5, any excursion to Bonge’s is extra special and if you have not been, what are you waiting for? 

Getting back to Anderson, parking was unusually challenging thanks to the sellout.  Scrounging to find a spot west of the track and on the opposite side of a very active CSX railroad line, thankfully my vehicle was unscathed upon return.  Forced to sit in our assigned seats in section B on the front stretch, unfortunately this wasn’t my preferred turn one vantage point, mentally noting that I’ll have to order seats for next year.  Elated for track owner Rick Dawson that the race was a sellout, undoubtedly the additional crowd came to see Stewart.  Kenny Schrader was just a bonus for veteran fans who haven’t seen him in a midget, sprint, or Silver Crown car in ages. 

It’s always an agonizing thing to summarize something as frenetic as the Little 500, as far too much happens over the course of these three hours, not to mention the fact that I hate taking notes as the action unfolds.  But in the simplest summary imaginable, albeit in a completely different ride, last year’s winner Kody Swanson was once again the man to beat but lost the race on pit strategy.  Swanson snagged the lead from Shane Cottle (Contos 14) around lap 285 and stayed out front until lap 468, when he became the caution he so desperately needed in order to make his second mandatory pit stop.  That caution came when Cottle was exiting pit road at the entrance to turn one just as Kyle Hamilton was preparing to overtake Swanson for the lead.  Kyle wound up being the meat in a three car sandwich and connected with Kody.  A resulting tour of the spin cycle removed Swanson from contention, as he lost a pair of laps in the process of being pushed off and then pitting.  Hamilton had pitted during the most recent yellow on lap 351 but Swanson and Santos chose not to.  The subsequent lengthy green flag run of over 100 laps cost Kody and Bobby dearly, as they had last pitted for fuel and rubber on lap 194.   

In the final 26 lap sprint, Santos was able to get back on the lead lap while Swanson expressed his displeasure with Hamilton by ramming his rear bumper on lap 496.  At the conclusion, only Hamilton and Santos had completed 500 laps, with Tony Stewart soldiering home third in his maiden Little 500 voyage, two laps in arrears.  Swanson settled for an unsavory fourth, also two laps behind.  Floridian Mickey Kempgens collected fifth and was three laps behind the leader.  Pole sitter Armstrong, Scotty Hampton (Powell 59), Cottle, two-time winner Jacob Wilson, and Schrader (12 laps down) rounded out the top-ten finishers. 

After starting 21st, Stewart’s finish of third looked good on paper, but he was at best a fifth to tenth place runner, first falling a lap behind on 355 and losing yet another on 396.  Saving his best for last, he turned up the heat in the final 100 rounds and got aggressive while taking back one of those laps from leader Swanson.  Aided by an all-star crew that consisted of nine-time winner Eric Gordon, the question is:  will Stewart and the Hoffmans do it again next year? 

The Little 500 is always a race of what-ifs and buts, with so many contenders falling by the wayside.  Inside row two starter and race rookie Austin Nemire climbed a wheel on lap 29 and pounded the turn one wall in the Sam Pierce Racing 16.  Perennial contender Shane Hollingsworth and his Nolen 20 nearly swallowed a Nemire wheel, taking him out of contention with an early pit stop.  Brian Gerster led some laps but was out on 226.  After reverting to a backup car in order to qualify, two-time winner Brian Tyler showed smoke and retired on lap 255.  Jerry Coons, Jr. was out on lap 262, spinning after his front end was folded from contact with teammate Kody Swanson.  

A throwback to carefree times when racing was much more dangerous and far more interesting, the fact that the Little 500 still survives and thrives could have something to do with the notion that fans need something real and exciting to fill the void.  Having their senses dulled by the same-old, same-old, this race is anything but that.   I fell in love with the Little 5 a long time ago and all these years later, the flames are still burning bright. 

If one were to solely have relied on the dreadful weather forecasts for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, the belief that the greatest spectacle in racing would become the greatest spectacle in raining would have been reason enough to sleep in on Sunday morning.  Even as late as Saturday night, the prediction for Sunday showers still loomed large, enough that many, including myself, had given in to the idea that the race would be conducted on Monday.  However, much to my surprise, Sunday dawned sunny, with meteorologists suddenly guaranteeing that the 500 miles would be completed without fail.   With such sophisticated technology allowing accurate, to-the-minute predictions of when rain will fall, how could something so certain all of a sudden be so wrong? 

At this stage, I don’t need any explanations.  This felt like a gift from above and suddenly all was right with the world.  Even better, the race and everything that comes with it did not disappoint one bit.  Kicking off such a special day with several of the vintage A.J. Foyt cars being driven around the oval (Tony Stewart and Davey Hamilton were a pair of pilots), I was thoroughly in awe of the 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles” helicopter exhibition in which a pair of helicopters lifted into the sky a dozen or so linked-together troops who had swooped down earlier to deliver the green flag.  The playing of Taps stirred emotions and drew tears as it always does.  However, the supercharging of emotions to an all-time level came courtesy of Indiana University school of music alum and Chicago Blackhawks performer Jim Cornelison, as he was entrusted with the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana.  Words cannot describe just how incredible Cornelison’s rendition was, hoping that the Speedway will lock him in to become a new tradition.  And last but not least, I was so happy to hear Tony George give the command to start engines.  Just like his grandfather, I’m hoping that this too becomes the new normal at IMS.  Raceday is all about the details and just like the 100th lap tribute to Bryan Clauson on the scoring pylon, Indy always delivers. 

If all the pre-race stuff wasn't amazing, then there was the on-track product.  Passing was plentiful all day, with the 15 different leaders becoming a new record for the race.  So impressed with Andretti Autosport's race day speed, I was certain that either Hunter-Reay, Alonso, or defending winner Rossi would win.  Unfortunately, each had issues that cost them a shot.  Scott Dixon's flight into the fence after launching over Jay Howard's left rear was as scary as I have seen in my decades of attendance.  So lucky to walk away with just minor injuries, the crash capped off an up and down week of cheating death after Scott and Dario Franchitti were robbed at gunpoint at a 16th Street Taco Bell the same night of capturing the pole position.  As always, Dixon handled each adversity like a pro.  Helio Castroneves's outside turn three overtakings in the final sprint to the finish were truly breathtaking, enough to convince me that we'd have another four-time winner.  The last of those passes involved a fearless Takuma Sato, who regained his composure to strike gold at turn one's entry a few laps later.  In a role reversal of 2012 when he was doing everything he could to squeeze underneath Dario, Takuma had to step it up to fend off the advances of the cagey Brazilian.  It's always great to see a first-time winner of the 500, especially when the driver is overcome with genuine emotion like Sato.  The only downside to the day was that the rain that was forecasted did finally arrive, just as we had completed the drive to Kokomo Speedway for Sunday night's BC Indiana Double.  Moved to Monday, obviously any shot at landing in Lawrenceburg was nixed, as I wanted to once again bask in the glow of Bryan's post-500 victory one year prior, especially after watching and reading the various tear-jerking pieces produced by ESPN to commemorate the impact of Clauson's organ donations.

So odd to be back in Kokomo on a Monday afternoon, 27 sprint cars competed for a double purse (,800 to win) and double points, joined by a very slim cast of ten midgets.   Those 27 sprinters represented a who's-who of Indiana's best, with Jon Stanbrough (Jimmy and Mike Wingo 77), Max McGhee (family owned 17), Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Gass 17), and Dave Darland (Hery 40) serving as surprises in their respective rides, joined for the first time this year by local Logan Jarrett in his usual 29.  Bumping into Stanbrough assistant Kevin Price, he was still glowing from his tour around Indianapolis Motor Speedway early on Carb Day morning.  Taking seven or eight leisurely laps, Price had the pleasure of piloting a front wheel drive Miller/Offenhauser.  Now owned by Frankfort’s Billy Miller who operates Goodwin Funeral Home, this particular piece was actually driven to a second place finish in 1946 by rookie Jimmy Jackson.  1946 happened to be my father’s first 500. 

With cars on the track before 5 PM, the entirety of this BC double was conducted in daytime conditions.   Thankful to have remembered to slap on some sunscreen for the second straight day, those harmful rays were not only of zero concern for my skin but also for surface conditions, as Reece O’Connor’s clay only turned to dust during the B-main.  Justin Grant posted the top time from three group hot lap/qualifying sessions (12.758) while Justin Peck (Irwin 7k) was the best from two midget (13.557).  Inverting the fastest four as usual, the trio of sprint heats were hailed from either the first or second row by Chad Boespflug, Dave Darland, and C.J. Leary.  The all-important second spot guaranteed a redraw and some dandy battles ensued between Jarett Andretti and Max McGhee (heat one) and Tyler Courtney and Robert Ballou (heat three).  After falling to fifth in heat two and struggling with the handling on his Maxim, Justin Grant had to have given up on the idea of that redraw.  However, a red flag for Parker Frederickson allowed him to discuss in-car shock adjustments with crew chief Sam McGhee, who was barking out orders from the concrete concourse.  Grant would eventually grab two spots after the restart, indicative of how this combination continues to click at a high level.  In addition to Frederickson, Stevie Sussex (Dutcher 17) dumped in the first heat while attempting a turn four sweep of Stanbrough.  The younger Frederickson was not finished, landing on his lid once again in the B.  Said consolation was claimed by  Chris Windom, who had a right rear go down in his heat.  Sussex returned and made the main, as did Tim Creech who kept the still-rusty Jarrett out.  Somehow surviving a concrete kiss between one and two, Peck would win the first midget heat while May 7th winner Davey Ray snagged the second. 

With a complete revival in order for the A-main, the final event of my week of 500 fever would turn out to be wet, wild, and wicked fast.   Dave Darland and Tyler Courtney drew the front row for this thirty-lapper but given the 2017 success of sixth-starting Justin Grant, I’m not sure just how many would have picked either to win from the front.  As it turned out, Dave led all but one lap and scored his first win at Kokomo since August 29, 2015.  Remembering intense USAC championship battles between Darland and Clauson in 2012 and 2013, I also recall a rather significant statement from Dave regarding Bryan at the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum Sprint Car 101 session held last December at Hoosier Tire Midwest.   Dave mentioned that records are meant to be broken and he fully expected and wanted his to be shattered by Bryan.  Just writing that once again gives me goose bumps, but those words immediately came to mind as he parked it on the victory ramp on Monday.  The win was Dave's first of 2017, hoping to build momentum to add one more year to his streak of consecutive seasons with USAC triumphs that dates back to 1993. 

The win was anything but easy for Darland, as Tyler Courtney would give him a run for his money.  With the top four of Darland, Courtney, Andretti, and Grant mired in heavy traffic with 13 laps left, Sunshine used Tyler Hewitt as a pick and circled The People's Champ at the exit of turn four.  The lead was short lived however, as Dave immediately served a successful slider through one and two.  Launching similar bombs to get through turn one congestion, they seemingly aided Darland in sealing the deal.  Never advised to count chickens before they hatch, a late race flip from C.J. Leary bunched the field for a two lap sprint to the finish.  Courtney would inch extremely close coming to the white flag but when preparing to pull the trigger on a titanic slide for life through one and two, Tyler's Topp Motorsports Maxim tilted on two wheels, allowing the Mark Hery owned DRC/Claxton to escape with the W.  Courtney returned to earth and collected second while Grant gathered third.  Andretti and Ballou rounded out the first five while Windom (up 10 spots), McGhee, Cottle, Boespflug, and Tony DiMattia earned sixth through tenth place money.

The accompanying 20-lap midget battle was won by pole sitter Justin Peck, who led every lap despite imminent threats from Davey Ray and 14 year-old Clauson-Marshall Racing protégé Zeb Wise.  Wise once again showed no fear in attacking Kokomo's top shelf, slipping over the cushion between turns one and two on more than one occasion.  Ray launched one final bomb in turn one on the last lap but couldn't repeat his earlier May success.  Seven cars finished the affair with the top three of Peck, Ray, and Wise the only ones to complete all 20 tours.  Jimi Quin and Logan Arnold rounded out the top-five. 

Still dragging after a same day ride to and from Knoxville, Iowa for National Sprint Car Hall of Fame induction ceremonies and the USAC sprint car contest, (my nephew - a.k.a. "Iron Man" - drove the entire distance), I decided to skip Kokomo Speedway's June 4th outing (claimed by Kevin Thomas, Jr.) to rest up and prepare for Midget Week, which concludes in Kokomo on June 11th.  Planning ahead, please be sure to get there early, as there will most certainly be a packed house on hand with backstretch seating still not available.     

By now, it's mid-day Wednesday, several hours removed from a lengthy evening spent in Montpelier, Indiana and a 12:50 AM arrival at my abode, only to be waken far too soon by a 6 AM alarm clock.  The cumulative effects of a bustling Indy 500 week, an insane one day excursion to Knoxville, and the onset of Midget Week, all while attempting to arise for work every week day, might just be the death of me.  Some say that you can sleep when you're dead, and I guess they would be correct, as nothing is going to get in my way of these all-important weeks of racing insanity.  Thinking back to a statement made by my sister in-law many moons ago, she claimed that I'm not just a racing fan, but rather a "fanatic", perhaps implying that something is a little off in my mental make-up.  In my own defense, all I can do is shrug my shoulders and blame my condition on 500 fever, an affliction I've been dealing with since 1985.  Still under the influence in 2017, it is truly a hard habit to break. 

 

 

 

Volume 19, Number 5

Night and Day

Indiana weather, the effectiveness of a balm (as per fictional Seinfeld attorney Jackie Chiles) and the fourth dessert on the Bonge’s Tavern menu.  What these three things share with dirt track racing is that each are impossible to predict, particularly so for surface conditions and the quality of action that results.  

Impacted by an infinite amount of variables, from one day to the next the same venue can as distinctly different as night and day.  This was indeed the case at the third running of Eldora Speedway’s Let Race Two that once again featured the best of both sprint car worlds:  the traditional variety of the United States Auto Club and the winged wonders of the World of Outlaws.  These top two sprint car factions are naturally dissimilar in their thought processes, rules, and procedures, but equally opposite were their Friday and Saturday surfaces and the overall competitiveness of the two evenings.  Come to think of it, would you expect any less of a variation from such a volatile, edge-of-your-seat coliseum as the Big E?  

With a brisk wind blowing out of the northeast, Friday’s hot lap and qualifying conditions were unquestionably arid, so much that time trials resulted in some sub-standard chart-topping performances:  Brady Bacon’s 16.960 with USAC (driving the Dooling-Hayward 63, he was the only one in the sixteen second bracket) and Jason Sides’s 13.842 with WoO.  The quickest without the wing but slowest with, sadly Bacon was the only one to perform double duty all weekend, highlighting the fact that there is still a large body of water that exists between these two sprint car islands, hoping that one day more will be willing to bridge the gap like the old days.  The majority of the 31 car USAC assembly clocked in the eighteens, far too slow for one of the fastest, most demanding, and exciting ovals in all of the world.  Sides was also the only winged warrior in the thirteens on Friday, as the balance of the field landed in the mid-to-high fourteen second range, times that would have been top notch 30 years ago.  Thankfully revived with some liquid love for the heats, that application of H2O was also sufficient for consolations and features. 

And how about those Friday features?  Offering multiple grooves, extremely close competition, and the opportunity for underdogs to shine, this was actually some of the most entertaining Eldora action enjoyed in my lifetime.  Perhaps to be expected after post-qualifying track prep, Friday’s four USAC heats and semi-feature were all won from the front row.  The same could be said for all but one of Friday’s four WoO heats, dash, and B-main (Shane Stewart won a heat from third), definitely not a shocker as winged overtaking is generally only prevalent in the B and A-mains.  Interesting to note is the fact that WoO heat races start straight up by qualifying time, putting the utmost emphasis on time trial performance.  The only wrinkle available in the Outlaw format is the trophy dash inversion, which determines not only the key starting spots for the feature, but more often than not, the winner.  Meanwhile, USAC inverts six for their heats and feature, which often times jumbles things up and produces a plethora of winners.  Perhaps I’m a bit biased in which format promotes better racing, but in my opinion the answer is as clear as day. 

Friday’s slippery conditions proved to be the great equalizer, as the USAC feature was won fifth by Justin Grant, who slid past Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Pace 44) at turn three's entrance on the tenth tour.  KTJ came back in the late stages and nearly returned the favor, having to settle for a podium which was his best-ever Big E result.  However, the real highlight of the evening was the humongous pack containing the first ten machines slicing and dicing under one snug blanket for the last dozen or so laps, with no way to know who was going to come out on top.   Shane Cottle, who had never previously visited Eldora's victory lane and was looking to provide Paul Hazen his first Eldora USAC trophy since 2003, actually snatched the top spot from Grant as they entered turn three on lap 17.  Justin inched ahead at the stripe and quickly slammed the door shut in turn one.  Cottle would eventually slip a few more spots to sixth, but his mastery of the middle lane reminded me of that '03 win by Stanbrough when he shocked world-beater J.J. Yeley with a similar strategy.  Ultimate underdog and blue-collar hero Dallas Hewitt, nephew to Eldora’s favorite son and all-time USAC stud Jack Hewitt, started tenth but came on strong late, inciting a rush of adrenaline in this author, reminiscent of when I realized his uncle might just sweep the '98 Four Crown.  Also looking for his first win at Club E after coming so close in last October’s BOSS bash, Dallas shadowed Justin in the late stages in his Kaser-Seeling 16, making a last minute bid in turn three on the final circuit.  It wasn't to be for Hewitt, but he is indeed knocking on the door to that elusive Eldora triumph.

Following Grant, Hewitt, and Thomas to Friday’s USAC checkered were 21st starting Chase Stockon and Thomas Meseraull, the latter having to hold his Stan Courtad 9x in gear with one hand and drive with the other during the heat and B).  Cottle, Ballou, Bacon, 17th-starting Tyler Courtney, and Chris Windom were sixth through tenth.  Five-time Eldora sprint car winner Dave Darland was scored a sub-par 16th.  Coming out three cars from the end of qualifying and timing a solid sixth, last year’s Let’s Race Two Saturday winner Chad Boespflug started fourth but mysteriously backed up to 17th.  After another disappointing performance on Saturday when he earned 11th, Chad lost even more ground to Grant in season-long points, some 66 in arrears. 

Friday’s WoO feature was also won from fifth by Logan Schuchart, grandson to the great Bobby Allen whose Shark Racing squad smartly operates on the tightest of budgets.  Scrapping with early leader and dash winner Jason Johnson and Shane Stewart, Logan led lap nine but relinquished the top spot to Stewart after a restart for a frightening red flag incident involving Travis Philo and Jac Haudenschild.  Three laps after that restart, Schuchart reacquired the premier position by slipping underneath Stewart at the bottom of turn two, launching so strong off that corner the entire evening.  Holding on for his fourth career Outlaw victory and first at Eldora, this was Logan’s second score of 2017, clearly making the point that he is one of the most talented chauffeurs on the tour.  Logan’s uncle Jacob Allen (Bobby’s son who is actually two years younger than Logan) also notched his best-ever Eldora effort in eighth.  Perhaps it was just my imagination, but while listening to the pitch of the Shark Racing engines for qualifying, they did not appear to be as crisp and hard-hitting as their competitors, but they still timed third and fourth.  I have to wonder if they were intentionally detuned by their team leader for the slick surface, but I’d have to ask Bobby to know for sure.  Nonetheless, Shark Racing was on its game for Friday.    Logan was chased to the conclusion by Stewart, ninth-starting Brad Sweet, seventh-starting Donny Schatz, and Jason Johnson.  Sixth through tenth included David Gravel, Sides, Allen (from 12th), Daryn Pittman, and Kraig Kinser (from 21st).  Wing or non-wing, it’s always great to see the little guy score on such a big stage. 

Even under slick conditions, a much-tamer Eldora Speedway still showed its fangs on Friday.  As I had alluded to earlier, Travis Philo had connected with the turn four concrete and soon folded his front end in turn one.  Philo bounced off the turn one wall directly into the path of Jac Haudenschild, who had absolutely nowhere to hide.  The Philo machine connected with the right side roll cage of Haud’s chassis, as the two became intertwined while executing vicious sets of gyrations that also involved a late-arriving Caleb Helms.  Jac’s number six wound up on its side with its engine screaming at ungodly RPMs, eventually tossing connecting rods and shooting flames out of the bottom end after being starved of lubrication.  Completely writing off both cars not to mention the most costly component for Haud’s car owner Jamie Miller, it was an extremely ugly incident requiring hospital stays for both pilots, each of whom skipped Saturday proceedings.  Bumping into Miller at Greenville’s Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop on Saturday afternoon, he commented that his driver was still banged up, adding that an off-season shoulder surgery was aggravated in the crash.  Thankfully, both drivers survived to race another day, but it was yet another cruel reminder of how savage and heartless the Big E can be.    

With much warmer temperatures but less wind, Saturday started infinitely more damp, as the top qualifying time for the USAC brethren (Brady Bacon – 15.541) was 1.419 seconds improved over Friday while the number one time for the WoO (Tim Shaffer – 12.915) was .928 seconds better.  It’s important to note that Shaffer’s sizzling circuit was just .208 seconds off the all-time record owned by Craig Dollansky, set all the way back in April of 2002.  Saturday heat results were similar to Friday, as all three USAC heats were claimed from the outside of the front row while all four WoO heats, the dash, and B-main were won from the inside of the front row.  However, Saturday’s features were altogether different.  With an old-school cushion guarding the concrete, large attachments were necessary to caress this curb, undoubtedly the preferred lane in the USAC affair. 

Dominated by early leader Chris Windom and eventual winner Robert Ballou, after being out of the saddle since Labor Day weekend and being cleared to race on Thursday, the Mad Man was making just his second start back from his neck surgery.  Returning to battle at the most daunting venue on the schedule, Ballou worked the bugs out of a brand new Eagle chassis on Friday, scoring a conservative yet respectable seventh.  On Saturday, he was back to his dominant form from two years ago, starting fourth and boldly threading the needle between lapper Corey Smith and the concrete wall in turn one while keeping pace with Windom.  An equally ballsy move was made to capture the lead, as Robert again put his car in an almost impossible place, this time between Chris and the turn four wall.  Flawless on the cushion and as sharp as anyone could have ever imagined, he pulled away to jaw-dropping, convincing victory, his fifth career with USAC at Eldora and seventh overall, having bagged an unsanctioned show in 2010 and a BOSS battle in 2015. 

Saturday’s USAC field lost 8 cars:  some to Lawrenceburg, some to Fremont, and one (Meseraull) to a winged Atomic affair.    Finishing behind Ballou and Windom on night two were Bacon, 11th-starting Justin Grant, and Tyler Courtney.  Positions six through ten included Stockon, Stevie Sussex (looking solid in his first Eldora weekend in the Dutcher 17), Darland, Scotty Weir (Simon 22), and Aaron Farney (also showing nice form on both nights).  Grant’s Saturday was no doubt different from Friday, as he and crew chief Sam McGhee were put through a stress test in qualifying after a throttle stuck at turn three while coming to green, leading to a spin and wall contact that chucked a rear bumper.  Coming back out at the end of the order for one lap, his time was third best but by USAC rules, he could start no better than the inside of row six in the feature.  Undaunted in the challenge, the 2015 Let’s Race Two Saturday winner scaled seven spots and salvaged his evening in grand style.  Dallas Hewitt and Landon Simon both inverted on Saturday, with Hewitt’s crash far more severe after bicycling cage-first into the turn one catch fence during the first heat.  A night-and-day difference from Friday, Dallas had to take a ride to the local hospital where he was diagnosed with a concussion and possible hand injury.  Eventually heading back to work by Wednesday, the banged-up Hewitt has to hope for better 2017 luck after destroying two cars so early in the season.  

Saturday’s World of Outlaws contingent was down six from Friday and just like the USAC union, the high side was generally the way to go.  Thanks to a bit of luck when the Craftsman Club Dash inversion was selected as six, current kingpin Donny Schatz propelled from the pole and promptly won.  And, in perhaps the most predictable result of the weekend, he led all thirty tours of the finale for his ninth win of the season and tenth career at Eldora, able to put his Arctic Cat Tony Stewart Racing J&J wherever he wanted and still make hay.  Formerly known as “Tequila” in his less dominant days, Schatz easily outdistanced defending All Star champion Chad Kemenah, whose Saturday was altogether different from Friday when he was three spots shy of making the show.  Rico Abreu could only claim 15th on Friday but rebounded to take third, this after falling from 9th to 13th at the start.  Had Shane Stewart not climbed the wall on lap 20 and caused a caution, a quickly closing and fourth-running Abreu might have been able to use lapped traffic to his advantage to make a bid for the lead.  Brad Sweet finished fourth while Jason Johnson found fifth for the second night in a row.  The other half of the top-ten included Schuchart (from 13th), Kinser (from 12th), Joey Saldana (recovering from a 16th on Friday), Shaffer, and Sheldon Haudenschild (who started 2nd). 

Having circled this event on the calendar a long while ago and eagerly anticipated its arrival for the mere fact that I’d get to spend two rare evenings observing, joking, and bench racing with Chesterland, Ohio resident and fellow sprint car enthusiast Tom Percy, Eldora Speedway’s Let’s Race Two was blessed with nearly perfect weather, decent car counts, and a healthy turnout of fans staying the night in their campers and motorhomes.  Producing a pair of highly entertaining programs under polar opposite conditions, no matter if the surface is slick or heavy or the sprint cars sprout wings or remain traditional, after all these years Eldora is still such a fantastic place to be a fan, in complete awe of this kind of activity.  Sad to leave these grounds knowing that the next time I can catch wingless sprint cars here is for the Four Crown Nationals in September, my only request is:  please add more dates like the old days!  Until then, a June 17th All Star Circuit of Champions Ohio Sprint Speedweek event will have to do.  

 

 

 

 

Volume 19, Number 4

Crowning Achievement

Time flies when you're having fun. 

Although such a statement is worn thin from overuse, it is indeed true when you consider just how many years have expired since Jim O’Connor and his family made the bold decision to completely reconfigure their Kokomo Speedway just one year after the acquisition from Mark Owsley.   Made for midgets back in 1947, this narrow, pancake-flat, paperclip of a quarter-mile morphed into a mini-Eldora, completely opposite of its original intent.  Requiring quite a bit more horsepower but rewarded with multi-grooved, cutthroat competition, the Sunday night of 2017’s Memorial Day weekend will not only commemorate Bryan Clauson’s unforgettable Indy 500/Kokomo doubles, but it will also celebrate a dozen years of unbelievable activity at this revamped speed plant. 

Rewinding back to 2005 for a bit, the first event at the nearly-new facility was delayed about a month due to continued construction and lousy springtime weather.  Shane Cottle was the initial winner and so eager to experience something altogether different and historic, I actually skipped an Eldora USAC union to absorb this affair, recalling the comments of so many veterans who echoed the same sentiment:  this was no longer your father’s stop-and-go Kokomo.  The second race was a wild World of Outlaws war, featuring a torrid three-way tussle between Steve Kinser, Jason Meyers, and eventual winner Kraig Kinser, undoubtedly the most memorable winged race I’ve witnessed in the last 12 seasons.  Just five days after the Outlaws skipped town, a KISS contest was next.  Leaving me breathless after yet another intense fight for first, Mat Neely triumphed over an aggressive Justin Marvel.  Marvel maintained that he was so elbows-up in those waning laps that he was “punching out his right side arm guard” in the process.  In the weeks that followed, even more racers embraced the challenge of the new and improved Kokomo, offering so many cutthroat sliders, over the cushion expeditions, and concrete kisses to effectively create a big-time buzz, ramping up expectations that more often than not were either met or exceeded.  Kokomo suddenly became the place to be on Sunday nights, the one place a racer wanted to win because all eyes were now watching with keen interest.  Twelve years later, very little has changed.   

Although the air was officially let out of the once-proud King of Indiana Sprint Series balloon after 2015, the O’Connors continued to offer an early-season royal occasion with their King of Kokomo bout, first conducted in May of 2016.  Kevin Thomas, Jr. would climb the stage in the Ottinger 4J and don the crown for his second victory of a young 2016 season, filling the balance of the year with a baker’s dozen of conquests.  In 2017, the ,500-to-win King of Kokomo competition was originally scheduled for April 30th but thanks to a moody Mother Nature, had to be moved to May 7th.  After nearly two complete weekends of washouts, both racers and fans were chomping at the bit to get back in the swing of the season.  Attracting a robust contingent of 35 sprint cars and an odd assortment of 31 midgets operating on Montpelier rules (both standard and USAC sanctioned “D2” machines were welcome), perhaps such a stellar car count makes a legitimate case for limiting the supply of events.  Although the back gate was strong, the front was anything but, as extremely chilly and windy conditions left far too many open spaces from my vantage point.  Hot or cold, count me as one who has serious issues with passing up any Kokomo convocation. 

Just like that KISS contest 12 years prior, the overeager racers were still punching out their right side mud guards, cowboying their cars over a character-filled surface in search of elusive Kokomo success.   The record rainfall that flooded most of the state also left a serious impression on this piece of prime racing real estate, as random pockets of moisture sent countless contestants on wild rides.   One of those who was unaffected by the challenging conditions was Collinsville, Oklahoma’s Tyler Thomas.  After winning his heat from the outside of the front row, Tyler drew the pole for the thirty lap finale and never looked back, claiming his first-ever Kokomo Speedway feature victory in grand style.  Better known for his midget madness, Thomas joined Jerry Burton’s team last June and promptly won in his second outing at Putnamville, also laying claim to Sean Buckley’s Indiana Sprint Car Series title.  Doubling up on the weekend after claiming a Powri midget production at Grain Valley, Missouri, make no mistake about it:  this win was easily the most significant of his career.  Noting afterwards that although a USAC triumph is his ultimate goal, this felt like a USAC win and clearly meant the world to him, perhaps on the upswing of that daunting sprint car learning curve.  Also adding just how worn out he was from the grind; that certainly came as no surprise, so perhaps he was aware of just how much pressure he had been receiving from Tyler Courtney and Justin Grant.  Say what you will, but TT's flawless performance made him look like an old pro at this sprint car game, aided by a perfect setup on his DRC chassis and a set of dialed in shocks that could handle the holes.    

In search of his fourth Kokomo sprint car triumph in a row, Grant had to settle for second after starting eighth.  Although his pair of Powri weekend midget results were less than satisfactory, JG did manage to register yet another sprint score the previous evening in Wheatland, Missouri, his sixth of the season in the Sam McGhee Motorsports Maxim.  All signs point to this combination as being the one to beat and when counting midget wins, Justin has earned eight victories in 2017.   What a year it's been for Justin!

For the majority of the feature, Grant duked it out with fourth-starting Tyler Courtney (Topp 23), who also was a Wheatland winner (midgets) and appeared to have the fastest car on Sunday night.  Unfortunately for Sunshine, he also suffered from some untimely miscues, one of them coming in turn three with less than a handful of laps remaining while operating in second.  Tyler then exceeded the turn two cushion with two to go, allowing Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Hodges 74) to sneak by for third.  C.J. Leary surged from 15th to 5th and pocketed an extra 0 in fan-donated hard charger coin.  Max McGhee, Chris Windom (from 14th), fourth heat winner Shane Cottle (recovering from an early race bike ride), Jarett Andretti, and Thomas Meseraull scored sixth through tenth. 

Meseraull was in his own double-zero, aided by employer Danny Drinan who of course had one of his rear sway bars attached to the unpainted Hawk chassis.  Winning the first heat from sixth, as expected T-Mez was both spectacular and fast.  Drawing the outside of the front row for the feature, he was a heavy favorite to win before a big-time bobble in turn two sent him back to fourth.  Spinning in turn three after contact from a lapper (the only caution of the feature), his run from the rear in the final 13 laps would have been something to see had my eyes not been affixed to the three-way fight for first.   

Required to line up heat races by the blind draw after a transponder issue cropped up in hot laps, Kokomo diehards had to be highly entertained by the resulting action.  As mentioned, Meseraull won his from sixth but in addition, KTJ secured a redraw position with a last turn, last lap Andretti overtaking in heat two.  Tyler Courtney and Max McGhee battled for the win in a closely contested heat three after starting fourth and fifth.  And last but not least, how could you not be thrilled by the final heat's photo finish between Shane Cottle and Justin Grant?  I’m usually not a fan of blind draws, but this evening was clearly an exception. 

Speaking of exceptions, how odd was it that the king of Kokomo did not even make the King of Kokomo feature?  Dave Darland made his debut in Scott Pedersen’s new Spike chassis and after taking the early lead in heat three, this marriage appeared to be starting off on the right foot.  Unfortunately, things went downhill in a hurry once Dave tilted on two wheels in turns one and two.  After that point, The People’s Champ could not find enough comfort to push the car to its limit on the character-filled playing field, missing the B-main cut by one.  Look for Darland and Pedersen to give it another go fairly soon.   

Another individual having a less than satisfactory evening was longtime car owner Jim Simon, who used this King of Kokomo to debut a brand new, wedge caged, five-bar, standard Maxim for hired gun Scotty Weir (that's more than a mouthful of options for one sprint car chassis).  With freshened Claxton power breathing beneath a Highland fiberglass body, unfortunately an electrical gremlin prevented an A-main transfer from the B, requiring additional troubleshooting before the following weekend’s Eldora USAC double.  Now 82 years young, Simon is still employed at United Technologies (formerly BF Goodrich) in Troy, Ohio, where in his 58th year as a full-time employee he would promptly punch the clock at 7 AM on Monday morning.  Excited to show off his new car, new trailer, and his bag of high-tech zip ties, not many 82 year-olds have this level of energy or enthusiasm.   Here's hoping that those gremlins were eliminated and the Simon double-deuce will enjoy an outstanding Eldora double-dip.   

As earlier mentioned, midgets were also on the card for a 0 to win 20-lap feature.  17 of the 31 machines were powered by purpose-built racing engines, but the remaining 14 fell under USAC’s Midwest Thunder Midget umbrella due to their production-based or motorcycle power plants.  Combining both classes in the same heat races was a rather eye-opening endeavor, as their massive speed discrepancy was completely magnified at this venue.  Much like a Porsche 962 prototype knifing through a field of Mazda RX-7s at Daytona, standard midget chauffeurs were required to be on their toes at all times.  This was especially true in the feature as six of the D2 machines made the cut.  After a lap five spin by pole sitter and leader Chris Windom eliminated second place Jerry Coons, Jr. (Petry 25), outside front row starter Davey Ray inherited first place and fended off ferocious charges from Colten Cottle and a fearless 14 year-old from Angola, Indiana named Zeb Wise to take his first-ever Kokomo victory.  Gage Walker and Dave Darland (Gray 11) rounded out the top-five at the 10:29 PM checkered flag when the temperature dropped to a bone-chilling 41 degrees.  Windom recovered to secure sixth while the rest of the top-ten consisted of Justin Dickerson, Cole Fehr, Logan Arnold, and Tyler Nelson. 

Having notched victories all over the globe with the sport’s premier car owners, although this win may not have awarded the big money or glamour of a Midget Week showing, it was still a special score for Mr. Ray for the simple fact that it took place at Kokomo, which so often provides some of the most intense midget action anywhere.  Davey's victory celebration was that much sweeter after overcoming quite a bit of heat race drama, as the landing from a massive bike ride shoved the left side nerf bar into the rear tire, requiring a difficult drive after a red flag for a tumbling Tate Williamson. The Davenport, Iowa native somehow held on for the heat win, ultimately allowing him to redraw for the first eight feature starting spots.  

A red flag for Nick Hamilton left six laps to determine a winner.  After the stoppage, third place runner Zeb Wise suddenly became a serious threat by continuing to operate around the bottom.  In one fell swoop, a low side launch off turn two had him wheel to wheel for first place, but the top shelf tactics of Ray and Cottle were simply too much to overcome.  My initial opportunity to witness Wise in action, the Clauson-Marshall Racing protégé was quite the show, providing many positive impressions.  First mixing it up Jerry Coons, Jr. and Dave Darland for the lead in his heat, Zeb would have won had it not been for a two-wheeled tour.  Firing from 12th in the finale, a first lap, turn four over-the-cushion excursion did not defeat him, back up to seventh by lap five and licking his chops in third at the lap 14 red flag.  Not the least intimidated by such heavy competition nor the legendary venue, I’m looking forward to seeing how Wise matures in this first season of midget madness.  

Taking 12th in the midget feature was Aaron Leffel, who was best in class for the lower rung D2 doodlebugs.  Next in line was "Nuclear" Nick Corea, driving Craig Dori's 12 year-old Ellis chassis propelled by a Chevy Ectotec.  As the hardware provider for my lone outing as a sprint car competitor (2003 Gas City mechanic's race), it's a wonder that Dori still has the enthusiasm to field a car after I returned to the pit area in fourth place, albeit with a damaged tail tank and rear bumper.  Those same USAC Midwest Thunder Midgets will serve as the lone support class for the next Kokomo event on Friday May 19th, when the All Star Circuit of Champions pays a visit.  As  you may already know, both Tony Stewart and Rico Abreu will be in action, so the rare opportunity to catch both of those drivers live and in-person should be worth the price of admission.  Reserved seating for the top ten rows of the grandstand are available now for .  Check out www.kokomospeedway.net or https://tickets.ticketforce.com for more information.   After the All Star date, four consecutive Kokomo Speedway Sundays start with the May 28th homage to Bryan Clauson's Indiana Double.  June 4th is Kids Night, June 11th is Indiana Midget Week, and June 18th is Family Night. 

Still hard to comprehend how the last 12 years have expired so quickly, perhaps it has something to do with the ability to completely escape from reality during those countless summertime Sunday nights spent at Kokomo Speedway.  Initially not in favor of the massive changes made to the Speedway in 2005, it only took one sampling of the action to change my opinion.  Ever since the reconfiguration, more often than not I'm happy to make that familiar drive up U.S. 31.  That in of itself is not a crowning achievement, as I am not alone in this sizzling love affair.  However, for anyone fortunate enough to make that drive up the ramp into Kokomo's victory lane, that is indeed a moment to be savored and cherished, as that is truly a sign that you not only laid it all on the line, but also had the talent and equipment to defeat the best in the business at one of the most demanding venues in all of motorsports.  As Tom Petty once said, it's good to be king.     

 

 

 

 

Volume 19, Number 3
Southern Man
There's more than corn in Indiana.
Naturally I’m a little biased since I’m a native Hoosier, but for anyone who envisions my homeland as boring, fertile farmland, they have obviously never visited the southern half of the state. Of course there are still those requisite green and golden fields that seem to span the horizon, but there are also the limestone laden hills, valleys, lakes, streams, rivers, waterfalls, and acres and acres of lush wilderness that exude so much beauty. In a word, this area is stunning and if I wasn’t so anchored to the modern conveniences common to the Indianapolis suburbs, somewhere around Bloomington would be my choice of where to eventually pitch my tent for good.
It’s not often enough that I get to explore the twisty two lane highways common to Southern Indiana, but whenever there is a sprint car contest scheduled south of the central city, that’s a prime time to leave a little earlier to tour some of those less traveled paths. As much as I enjoy the racing action at my intended destination, it’s just as much about the journey. So whenever my nephew joins me, we usually include a stop at some unique eatery, brewery, or significant structure to soak up some local culture, further extending our Hoosier roots and ultimately making for a memorable experience that feels more like a mini-vacation, truly liberating us from our mundane existence.
This second consecutive USAC weekend double sent me south to Bloomington and Haubstadt and although I had to fly solo on Friday in order to meet up with Danny and his wife Courtney who had a hillside lawn chair awaiting, his suggested alternate route to avoid agonizing State Road 37 construction was right on the money, as I was not only able to arrive in time for hot laps, but also enjoy some gorgeous vistas and explore some previously unseen areas of Monroe County. Virtually unaffected by traffic down I-65 to State Road 46, once entering the eastside of Bloomington I turned south on 446 and followed the fairly complex route suggested by my car's navigation software. Ultimately angling southwest from that 46/446 intersection, I eventually wound up on the street that straddles the pit area of Bloomington Speedway. Dumping me out onto Fairfax Road and literally requiring an immediate right into my usual entrance, it was the very first time of being bound for this venue that I have not used 37.
Excited to have endured such a stress-free stroll, when speaking of feel-good, positive energy, there may be no place in the world where more optimism abounds than an Indiana dirt track's opening night of the season. Such overwhelming positivity was clearly evident at Bloomington Speedway on Friday April 14th, as its pit area was packed to the gills with 83 sprint cars of various sizes and engine displacements while the opposing hillside was crammed with fans of all ages, everyone brimming with excitement and enthusiasm, so happy to be kicking off this grand old speed plant’s 95th year of existence.
The previous week’s washout resulted in a 2017 Bloomington Speedway opening act featuring the United States Auto Club traditional sprint cars, its stout 34 car field accompanied by 20 of Bloomington’s own RaceSaver 305 cubic inch winged sprint cars and 29 MMSA wingless mini sprints. Especially noteworthy were those 305s, its largest assembly to date with numerous new entries and even more forthcoming.
With so much electricity in the air, the only thing that could have made this evening even more special was the on-track product. And thanks to Bloomington's youthful surface groomer Henry Bryant, that action definitely delivered, as Henry prepared a tacky, two-grooved masterpiece that helped produce one of the most thrilling features witnessed in recent memory. As a veteran fan of this quarter-mile of red clay for more than three decades, I can honestly state that the USAC main event was indeed that exciting, the kind that keeps you coming back for more.
In the last three Bloomington outings, USAC’s wingless warriors have eclipsed the one-lap track record. Given the smooth playing field that oozed with grip, it was quite surprising that the trend did not continue. However, new 10 and 12-lap records would be set a little later. Fast qualifier at this event last year, C.J. Leary topped the charts with a sizzling 10.771 second circuit, just a tick off Chad Boespflug’s 10.737 mark set last July. The top-eight qualifiers of Leary, Chris Windom, six-time track champion Brady Short, Chase Stockon, Isaac Chapple, Josh Hodges, Nick Bilbee, and Stevie Sussex (Dutcher 17) clocked underneath 11 seconds, such an amazing feat given the huge amounts of horsepower and absence of aerodynamic aid.
Cast in overcast skies and comfortable conditions that barely required a sweatshirt, after the opening ceremonies in which Dr. Pat Sullivan gave tribute to the recently deceased 1984 Bloomington Speedway sprint car track champion Greg Staab, unfortunately such a lightning-fast surface would not allow for much heat race overtaking, as winners Brent Beauchamp, Tyler Courtney, Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Tyler Thomas all came from the front row. With USAC’s feature inversion consisting of the quickest six qualifiers who transfer through their heat, only two of the top-ten qualifiers would make the cut (Windom and Hunter Schuerenberg). Claiming this event in 2013, USAC’s all-time sprint car feature winner Dave Darland might have only timed 14th best but given that he was the sixth-fastest to reach a heat race transfer, that was good enough for the pole position for the thirty lap finale. In that record-setting semi-feature, Jon Stanbrough stormed from 12th to sixth, proof that passing was possible. Aaron Farney, Sussex, Dakota Jackson (Waltz 66), Landon Simon, Kody Swanson (Epperson 2), and Chapple were the notable names failing to crack the A-main.
Flanked to Darland’s right on the feature front row was Chad Boespflug, who continues to co-own his team with Chuck Eberhardt and Fred Zirzow but adds backing from Mean Green and wears the familiar number 69 donated by Cincinnati’s famed Hoffman Auto Racing team. Once green lights glared, Boespflug leaned on the healthy turn two cushion and bolted to the lead, slowed almost immediately by a Hunter Schuerenberg stoppage after a Short connection. In the three laps that were run, recent Lawrenceburg victor Chris Windom had climbed to third and after the restart, he diamonded turn two to briefly reach runner-up status. After he and Darland swapped second two more times, the bottom-feeding Windom was still a half-straight behind the leader.
By the one-third mark, Chris had cut the lead to a car-length as Chad began to negotiate lapped traffic, allowing Darland, Kyle Cummins, and Chase Stockon to close the gap as well. The order remained the same through consecutive cautions for Hodges and Max McGhee but before the final yellow flag was waved for the shredded left rear rubber of Darland, Windom had worked the moist bottom to rocket past Boespflug.
Leaving eight laps to decide Bloomington’s lid-lifter, after pacing the field for the first 21 laps Chad suddenly had time under that caution to regain his composure and develop a plan of attack to reacquire the number one position. That plan involved pounding the substantial cushion that still guarded the top shelf, building momentum with each successive tour. By lap 27 he was even with Windom, who still stayed loyal to his low side launches. One lap later, Chad inched ahead at the exit of turn two, but Chris still lead at the line. Again CB had the advantage down the back chute, just enough to officially lead as the white flag waved. Hustling his Maxim/Claxton combination through the south end, Boespflug had just enough mustard on the hot dog to beat Windom to the top of turn four, securing his first career victory on these hallowed grounds.
The nearly wide open, side-by-side clinic that Chad and Chris exhibited in those last eight laps was truly one for the ages, such a thrilling way to begin Bloomington’s 95th year. After suffering so much early season adversity that included a Lawrenceburg flip and a tornado that tore through his Fort Branch property, Chase Stockon had to be thrilled with third. Justin Grant started 12th and finished fourth, good enough to retain his national point lead. After resetting the eight-lap heat race standard, Kevin Thomas, Jr. stormed from 20th to take fifth in the Pace 44, earning him a crisp 0 dollar bill from B&W Auto Mart. Positions six through ten were taken by Short, defending track champion Jeff Bland, Jr., Cummins, Beauchamp, and Bilbee.
The 20-lap RaceSaver feature was led flag-to-flag by Santa Claus, Indiana’s Ryan Tusing, his task made so much simpler when feature favorite Dakota Jackson pulled pit side after a grinding lap one, turn one crash swallowed four cars, two of which included John Paynter, Jr. and Throckmorton Racing’s Brian Gerster, who happened to be celebrating a birthday. After acquiring second from Jared Fox, mini sprint master Andy Bradley attempted to keep the leader in sight but spun into the infield grass just past halfway. At the checkered flag, Tusing had constructed a half-track advantage on defending track champion Fox, lapping up to sixth place in the process. Kerry Kinser, 16 year-old fourth generation racer Brinton Marvel (who claimed a heat win), and Kendall Ruble rounded out the top-five. Middletown, Ohio’s Rod Henning brought the 2017 opening evening to a conclusion with a win in the MMSA feature.
After the rain out on April 21st, Bloomington’s next event is on April 28th. Although wingless sprints are part of the program, modifieds are highlighted with the running of the J.B. Robinson Memorial. In action on the four Fridays in May, the action begins on the 5th with a regular offering of wingless sprints, RaceSavers, and super stocks. The winged 410 MOWA sprints come calling on May 12th. Fan Appreciation Night and general admission is on May 19th while the Josh Burton Memorial takes place on May 26th.
Returning to Indy's north side for usual Saturday morning chores, we were back on the road again by 2 PM. Dan-O occupied the passenger seat and charted our course for a pre-race feast at Jasper, Indiana's Schnitzelbank Restaurant, which was a first for both of us. It might have been out of the way, but it allowed us to catch the conclusion of the Pacers/Cavaliers game, soothing our post-game sorrows with some authentic German cuisine and home brewed suds (Schnitz) while celebrating our family's heritage in style. The route to Jasper involved roads numbered 67, 39, 37, 50, 150, 231, and 164, spotting so many properties of racing royalty along the way. I forgot just how picturesque U.S. 50 is from 37 to Shoals, bypassing Jug Rock and Bo-Mac’s Drive Inn, where opening day was jam-packed. At some point, I’m going back for Bo-Mac’s, and for another look at the spectacular view of the White River Valley while exiting the west end of town, the latter being the highlight of my weekend travels. Again, little gems like these can only be found in the southern half of Hoosierland.
After our overindulgence, 231 continued to take us south to Interstate 64, whisking us west until intersecting with U.S. 41. Just a few miles south of Tri-State Speedway, a road sign signaled that it was a mere 279 miles to Chicago. In this age when highway 41 is filled with far too many stoplights through Terre Haute and northwest Indiana, that’s one long haul for sure.
Leaving 30 minutes to spare until sprint cars circled Tom and Loris Helfrich’s pride and joy, I found 31 machines signed in for this USAC/MSCS co-sanction. No doubt that was a more than respectable number, especially given the gatherings at Lincoln Park and Lawrenceburg and remembering that this exact contest two years ago only drew 24. I counted approximately 11 MSCS regulars for 2017, one of them a newcomer in Evansville’s Tyler Rust. Unfortunately for Tyler, his Tri-State introduction was a rude awakening to the reality of this sport, landing his freshly decaled machine on its lid in the semi-feature.
Jarett Andretti started Saturday in style. So rare that someone first in the USAC qualifying line winds up being number one by the end of the order, such was the case as Andretti’s lap of 13.383 seconds could not be topped. I didn’t spend much time in the Bloomington or Tri-State pit area, but I did notice veteran World of Outlaws chief mechanic Rob Hart wearing an Andretti Autosport shirt, with Rob apparently becoming a recent addition to the squad. Taking third in his heat and sixth in the feature, it’s just a matter of time until a USAC triumph becomes reality for Andretti. Last year’s Haubstadt Hustler victor Kyle Cummins was the odds-on favorite to take the win yet again, and his second best time of 13.400 would set him up for that possibility. Unfortunately any chance for Kyle's repeat was ruined when just after gaining third from Justin Grant, contact with a lapped car in the final five laps caused him to spin, promptly piled into by Hunter Schuerenberg and Isaac Chapple. After last year’s Sprint Week win, it came as no surprise that Marion, Illinois’ Carson Short would clock fifth fastest, but given the recent Tri-State struggles of Justin Grant, Chris Windom, and Chad Boespflug, not many would have picked them to qualify within the first six spots. Dave Darland is another who has consistently had issues with negotiating these tight and tacky turns, but he was ninth in time trial results. And, how about local boy Chet Williams posting a time of 13th? Brady Short’s sub-par 21st only meant he’d have to work even harder come feature time, as his stampede from 20th to 4th earned him bonus money from KSE Racing Products and B&W Auto Mart.
Saturday heats saw much more overtaking than Friday, as winners Stockon, Boespflug, Leary, and Windom stormed from second, fifth, second, and sixth, respectively. Fighting a very tight setup on his Mach 1 chassis, Kyle Cummins was the only one of the quick-six who failed to make the heat race cut. Dave Darland was infinitely more disgusted than Kyle after his heat, as a spin while racing with Carson Short left him resting in the middle of turns one and two. Seconds later, Kent Schmidt center punched him in the left rear wheel and angered beyond belief, Double D tossed his steering wheel, unbelted, and proceeded to offer Schmidt a piece of his mind. Dave must have known the extent of the damage, as his Phillips Motorsports crew had a thrash for the ages to get ready for the B, having no backup car to resort to. Needing to replace essentially every bolt-on part from behind the motor plate, after the previous night’s tire issue and the Lawrenceburg flip, car owners Steve and Carla Phillips had to wonder why they submit themselves to this kind of punishment. Lady Luck has been no friend to the Phillips camp in 2017.
As if things couldn’t get any worse for the Darland/Phillips combo, Dave was moved back two rows from his original semi-feature starting spot. Not to worry though, as the People’s Champ would take the fifth of six transfers in this contest claimed by Cummins. Isaac Chapple, Brandon Mattox, and Dakota Jackson were the first three to miss the feature cut. Chapple, Jackson, and Brandon Morin used the plethora of provisional passes to take part in the thirty lap finale.
Setting the stage for another outside front row starting spot for Boespflug (beginning alongside Schuerenberg), could this result in carbon copy of Friday? Chris Windom, Chad's number one nemesis since Terre Haute's October 2016 Midwestern finale, obviously had other ideas. Although Chad would lead the first three laps, Chris mimicked his every move, executing an awfully tight slide job through the exit of turn two to steal the premier position on lap four. The rest was indeed history, as Windom would pace the final 27 tours to claim his second series victory of the season. The box score may have made it appear awfully easy, but Chris still had to endure four cautions, one red flag, and a weave through lapped traffic to hold back the red-hot Chad, who provided a genuine threat for the entire distance and whose lap five slider after a Josh Hodges yellow was crossed over. The final of those four amber illuminations resulted in a one lap dash to the checkered, but Windom gained a great launch from the lower lane of turn two to fend off any attack from the Hanford Hornet, ending his string of disappointing performances in this southwestern corner of the state. Windom and Boespflug were chased to the checkered flag by fifth-starting Justin Grant, who like Windom had previously dreaded making the haul to Haubstadt as nothing he did here seemed to work. Brady Short needed ten more laps to be a contender for the win, but his fourth place showing from the tenth row was still impressive. Of no relation to the Indiana Stone Works son, Carson Short corralled fifth. Andretti, Aaron Farney (from 14th), Max McGhee (as high as third in the 4J Racing DRC), Kevin Thomas, Jr. and C.J. Leary (from 19th) were scored sixth through tenth at the 10:06 PM conclusion.
Out of those four cautions and one red, the most serious of incidents involved a titanic front stretch feature tumble from Donny Brackett after he climbed the wheel of another competitor, needing several minutes to catch his breath and regain his composure so that he could eventually exit through the roll cage and wave to the crowd. After his qualifying time was disallowed, Donny started from the rear of his heat to take the final transfer, giving him high hopes for a decent feature finish. One can only imagine just how sore he was on Sunday morning while reexamining the remains of his racing inventory. After watching that crash unfold right before my eyes, I am once again reminded of just how violent sprint car racing can be.
Tri-State Speedway’s next outing is Saturday April 29th, with the World of Outlaws making their annual visit and it’s sure to be a thrilling affair. A pair of May dates at TSS include the first of two 2017 MSCS/MOWA sprint car doubleheaders on Saturday the 13th (Sunday July 2nd is the other) while the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend, ,000 to win MSCS sprints are joined by modifieds and MMSA mini-sprints.
As always, any evening at the Class Track ends far too soon, believing that all of their sprint features should be a minimum of forty laps in length. Nonetheless, it remains a highly enjoyable destination for sprint car entertainment, as there is never any doubt about surface preparation or effort due to the simple fact that its caretaker takes pride in every single thing he does (Who else has the lights on in December and is constantly working his dirt?). All that attention to detail often results in drama-filled finales, effectively charging my batteries for that long ride home via the forever lonely Interstate 69. Wishing that Tri-State Speedway was an hour closer in proximity or at least placed in the same time zone as the rest of the state, about the only way that wish can come true is to become a Southern Man and make that move to the Bloomington area. Given my current comfort level with life in general, that’s highly unlikely to occur so for now, I’ll just have to make the most of these journeys and soak up all the scenery I can.
But wait – there’s more!
Unable to make the call for USAC’s sprint car debut in Plymouth, Indiana, I had planned on an April 22nd Montpelier meeting until wet weather impeded on those plans. Believing that Lincoln Park Speedway would be the biggest benefactor after Lawrenceburg pulled their plug, I made a last minute decision to head west for a local program but was slightly shocked to find such a miniscule assembly sprint cars and fans once arriving at the usual 6 PM start time. My first time on these grounds since I piloted Bill Gasway’s old Stealth in an open practice last October, the 19-car contingent contained a few heavy hitters, and naturally those guys would be factors at the 25-lap feature conclusion.
Offering four different leaders in pole sitter Brent Beauchamp, Brady Short, Justin Grant, and finally 12th-starting Kevin Thomas, Jr., the amount of overtaking up front plus Kevin’s late race grab of first from Grant (immediately after the fifth of six caution flags) certainly justified the three hours I spent on the concrete concourse hiding from the wind and slightly chilly temperatures that felt much colder than 52 degrees. That brisk wind wound up polishing the lower regions smooth and slick while the top side retained its usual character, allowing KTJ to make up six spots very early by flying high through three and four. Nearly everyone, including Kevin, played huggy pole through one and two, as the high road was simply too treacherous. Fifth-starting Short manned the middle lane for a bit, seizing the lead from Beauchamp on the ninth lap. But, it would be ninth-starting Grant who warmed the souls of the hearty sprint car fans with his top shelf tactics on both ends, making it work despite the somewhat cowboy conditions. Hoping to gain some Putnamville experience due to the simple fact he’s recorded so little of laps here, Justin looked like an old pro when he hustled past Short with seven laps left, ready to sail away to yet another 2017 victory until Tyler Thomas toured the spin cycle with four to go.
With KTJ up to second after a half-spin from Short in turn two, Kevin’s Pace 44 somehow found traction around the bone-slick bottom of turns one and two, allowing him to take command from Justin who suddenly slipped back to third. A sixth and final caution with two laps remaining gave Grant a shot at redemption, circling Sweet Feet on the final lap but running out of time to catch the Alabama Assassin, with the first two finishers sharing an in-depth conversation on the back stretch just before Kevin's victory lane interview. Done by 9:22 PM, Short, Beauchamp, and defending track champ Shane Cockrum (Paul 24) were third through fifth. Max McGhee (involved in the first caution), Jarett Andretti (operating as high as 2nd), Oklahoma’s Koby Barksdale, Tim Creech, and Tyler Thomas took sixth through tenth. LPS is back in action this coming Saturday (April 29th) with sprints along with the American Modified Series. On each and every Saturday in May, traditional sprint cars will be the featured attraction in rustic Putnamville, Indiana, including a May 27th MSCS ,500 to win special event.
Already penciling in Kokomo’s regular season opener for this Sunday (April 30th), although I won’t be able to make it to Bloomington on Friday, Saturday plans could involve Haubstadt WoO or Lawrenceburg’s King of the Midwest special. To steal a line from car owner Mike McGhee, please support your local dirt track, as there are numerous options this coming weekend. Without this kind of action existing, I know for a fact that I would have very little or no interest in auto racing at all. Let’s do our part to promote and preserve what’s left.

 

 

 

Volume 19, Number 2

Twice as Nice

Once is great, but twice is even better.

In the aftermath of the recent Kokomo Grand Prix, there is no doubt that's just what Justin Grant, Brady Bacon, and open wheel fanatics would want you to believe. Originally scheduled for a Friday/Saturday, extremely wet grounds after torrential Thursday rain combined with Friday’s prediction of frigid evening temps shifted activity to a more sensible Saturday/Sunday. With a decent forecast finally on the horizon for this historically weather-plagued event, the reality of two consecutive evenings of USAC national midgets and local sprint car competition had those enthusiasts in heaven, even more special given the fact that these were the only two classes the entire weekend, serving as a dream doubleheader for the opening rounds of Kokomo Speedway’s 70th birthday season. Without tin tops, mud cabs, hornets, or any kind of fendered buzzkill, who could ask for anything more? As an added bonus, all action was completed no later than 10 PM each evening, leaving plenty of time to roam the pits and socialize afterwards. A baseball twin bill and two scoops of ice cream are wondrous things, but back-to-back evenings of sprint and midget doubles are hard to top, especially in K-town.

So difficult to win any race on Indiana’s baddest bullring, the thought of taking two in a row on the same weekend was mind-blowing. Well, Justin and Brady had little time to prepare their brains for such a feat, as Grant swept sprint car features in the Sam McGhee Motorsports Maxim/Foxco while Bacon bested stellar fields in the Bob East and Brad Noffsinger wrenched Beast/Stanton-Toyota midget financed by Frank Manafort.

So fitting for Justin Grant, his 2017 has been all about the double. During the week of the Chili Bowl, twice he was gifted with fantastic news, first coming when his wife Ashley gave birth to twins and the second coming when Tim Clauson requested his services to round out a six-car Clauson Marshall Racing super team. Making the most of the opportunity by winning the Friday prelim, he led laps in Saturday’s 55-lap finale but had to settle for a podium placement. USAC’s first feature winner in 2017 sprint car and midget action at Ocala, Florida and Du Quoin, Illinois, he started Saturday’s Grand Prix sprint car feature from fifth, this after qualifying quickest (12.710 seconds) and being narrowly nipped by Dave Darland in his heat. Darland was driving Justin’s former Mark Hery mount for the second time this year, surging to the lead almost immediately after circling pole sitter and first heat winner Matt Westfall, whose engine sounded sick from the start of hot laps. After the second caution for Cole Ketcham’s terminal smoke signals, Grant had already gathered second and proceeded to shadow his mentor for the next 15 laps, interrupted by a Travis Hery twirl with ten to go. Darland used every trick in his extensive Kokomo playbook to stay out front, one of which included the early apexing of turn three. Otherwise known as the "diamond", that was the move Justin has made famous and of course it turned out to be his winning move once again, pulling the trigger a tad bit earlier than Darland as the two chauffeurs looked like synchronized swimmers in turn three of lap 19. Although Justin managed to beat him to the stripe, Kokomo’s all-time leading feature winner wasn’t finished, serving a timely turn one slider that warranted a turn two crossover from the former Ione, California resident. Grant would lead the rest of the way but in the final two tours, eighth-starting Brady Bacon (Dooling-Hayward 63) and sixth-starting Chris Windom worked their way past Dave, whose power plant encountered enough issues to render him rideless for Sunday’s sprint. While the hometown favorite had to swallow a bitter fourth place pill, Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Pace 44) finished fifth. C.J. Leary, Aaron Farney, Tyler Hewitt, Isaac Chapple, and Matt Westfall were scored sixth through tenth.

As Justin aimed for victory lane, steam poured from beneath the hood, suffering a punctured radiator that pegged the temperature gauge for the final five laps. After a radiator swap and routine maintenance from father Mike and his 17 year-old son Sam who continues to amaze with his sharp mechanical skills and tenacity, their recently reworked Foxco Chevy (an ex-Randy Hannagan/Tracy Hines mill) lived to race another day, topping Sunday’s timing charts with yet another 12.710 second lap. Again claiming second in his heat, this time to Brady Bacon, the feature redraw positioned him on the outside of the second row for the 25-lap finale. Saturday’s Lincoln Park MSCS victor Thomas Meseraull (Dutcher 17) landed the pole position and held the early advantage but exactly like Saturday, Justin quickly made his way to second after inching past Aaron Farney. A front stretch tank-slapper from T-Mez allowed Grant to close the gap, seizing the day with a high-side swipe through turn four of the tenth tour. Behind him, Bacon continued his surge from sixth, lifting third from Shane Cottle and second from Meseraull with half the distance still remaining. Five laps later, Brady was breathing heavily down Justin’s neck, politely sliding him through turn two but of course Grant would not go down without a fight, offering an immediate crossover in yet another carbon-copy of Saturday. After Meseraull mysteriously slowed from third with four to go, the resulting caution would restack the deck, obviously in favor of Bacon. Although Justin may not have had the fastest sprinter on Sunday; that suddenly became a moot point once Brady banged the cushion and packed his right rear wheel with mud. The resulting vibration was serious enough to prevent him from putting up a fight and at the checkered flag, your top-five contained Grant, Bacon, Cottle, Thomas, and Farney. Jarett Andretti, Windom, and Leary were sixth through eighth, the last cars on the lead lap. Going two-for-two in the Grand Prix, Justin’s Kokomo sprint car streak is actually three when counting his Kokomo Klash victory last October. The question is, can he make it four in a row when Kokomo reconvenes on April 30th?

The sprint car side of the Grand Prix ledger might have been supremely smooth for Mr. Grant, but the midget side was anything but. Seventh-fastest in Saturday qualifying in his Spike/Stanton-Mopar SR-11, he won his heat from fifth in dramatic fashion by virtue of two last lap passes on Tucker Klaasmeyer, starting the thirty-lap feature from seventh. Justin's Clauson Marshall Racing teammate Tyler Courtney bicycled in turn one and flipped to the top of the track on lap nine, landing a crushing blow to Grant's hood as he tried in vain to dodge the tumbling machine. Waltzing back to the pits and believing he was finished, once the tattered bodywork was taped Justin jumped back in and returned to battle, resulting in a sixth place finish that kept negative national championship points implications to a minimum. As for Sunday, he was the quickest qualifier at 13.081 (just off Rico Abreu's 2013 mark of 13.009), took third in his heat, but again had early issues in the feature after spinning in turn four. Unable to rebound this time, his 20th place finish dropped him from second to fifth in the standings, some 48 points behind leader Bacon.

After playing sprint car bridesmaid both nights, midget madness was a complete role reversal for Brady. Last winning on these grounds in May of 2012, interestingly enough he was also the only one in Saturday’s midget field who had collected a Kokomo USAC midget main previous to this weekend, that coming in 2006 (his career first). Both of Bacon’s Grand Prix scores required him to work hard for his money, leading the first 12 laps and the last seven on Saturday after firing from fourth. Quick qualifier Spencer Bayston (13.318) scooted from sixth to seize Saturday's lead after he and Brady initially traded the top spot three separate times. Once amber bulbs illuminated for Davey Ray, a final 12-lap dash ensued, including an insane lap 24 in which the lead duo swapped the premier position three more times before the Baconator ultimately showed Bayston where the beef was. Saturday's top-five also consisted of defending series champ Tanner Thorson, Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Brown 7), and Jerry Coons, Jr. (Petry-Goff 25), creating a Toyota sweep of the top-five by engine builders Gary Stanton (1st and 5th) and Speedway Engine Development (2nd, 3rd, and 4th). Sixth through tenth included Grant, Chris Windom, Tyler Thomas (up from 20th), Dave Darland, and Ryan Robinson. For Darland, his Gray Auto group, led by TQ titan Terry Goff, had to swap a right rear under a lap 9 caution. Initially unable to make the call, they earned a reprieve for the Courtney/Grant red. Chad Boat ran up front for half of Saturday’s finale but faded to 11th.

On Sunday, Bacon quickly flew to fourth from his tenth starting spot. Eventually snatching the premier position on the 13th tour from defending series champ Tanner Thorson, this came after a rash of four early yellows. Enduring one more caution, B-squared built a full straight advantage by the end, topping Thorson, Tyler Courtney, Sunday arrival Rico Abreu, and Kevin Thomas, Jr. Bayston scored sixth after a lap ten tour of the spin cycle while Darland, Clauson Marshall Racing's Shane Golobic, Ryan Robinson, and Holly Shelton secured seventh through tenth place money. National championship contender Chad Boat started from the pole and led the first six laps. Unfortunately, Sunday’s result was worse than Saturday, as a DNF rendered him 19th.

Speaking of Courtney, twice was not always so nice in his weekend double, thankfully ending on the highest of notes after enduring quite a bit of Saturday/Sunday adversity. With his Topp Motorsports Maxim sprinter sitting silent for this twin bill, he limited his madness to midgets, fourth quickest from Saturday time trials in his Clauson Marshall machine. After impressively winning his heat from sixth, too much bite from a moist patch in the middle of turn one sent him tumbling all the way to the top of the bank where he landed on top of his teammate. Armed with new ammunition for Sunday, he was seventh in qualifying but had issues in his heat, spinning atop turn two and later bouncing through that same turn one spot that bit him the night previous, bending the shaft of a right front shock. However, Sunshine was undeterred in his quest for feature success. Beginning outside of the front row alongside Chad Boat, yet another rough ride through turns one and two mired him in eighth for much of the contest. Eventually smoothing out by adjusting his line, his last 13 rim-riding laps offered a glimpse of what could have been, embroiled in a back and forth battle for second with Tanner Thorson before settling for third.

After being scooped up by close confidant Coby Smith from Indy’s airport at 4:18 PM, an 80 to 90 mile per hour sprint up 421 allowed Rico Abreu to arrive just in time to suit up and get situated into one of six Keith Kunz Bullets. Winning his sixth career World of Outlaws main event the previous evening in Queen Creek, Arizona, a one hour delay in Denver cut things extremely close on time and that ensuing hustle to make Kokomo hot laps truly exemplified his Sunday struggle. Cracking the concrete between turns one and two on his first qualifying lap, a helicopter ride down the banking resulted in no time being registered and placing him behind the proverbial eight ball for the rest of the evening. Starting last in his heat, he dramatically secured second with a final turn, final lap sweep of Justin Grant and Ryan Greth. Firing from the outside of row 11 for the finale, he came on strong late to take fourth, making up most of his time by diamonding the south end of the speedway. Enjoying yet another crowd-pleasing Abreu assault, I look forward to more of the same in 2017, as NASCAR’s loss is short track open wheel racing’s gain. Reminding me of how budding superstar Bryan Clauson lost his NASCAR ride with Chip Ganassi in 2008 due to sponsorship issues, with Rico suddenly facing a similar scenario, how cool would it be to see him find his way to the Indianapolis 500 as well? I know that Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles is a bona-fide dirt track fan, wondering if he is thinking along the same lines.

Although Grand Prix sprint car fields were modest at 19 and 22, midget accumulations were stout at 35 and 30, with Sunday subtractions coming from Shane Hollingsworth (mysteriously slowing from the lead in his heat), Tony DiMattia (showing serious smoke in his heat), Billy Wease, Brad Kraus, Cole Fehr (showing even more smoke than DiMattia during the B), and former Eldora modified bad ass Scott Orr. Five drivers (Windom, Grant, Bacon, Thomas, and Darland) did the double on Saturday, but only four did the deed on Sunday, again offering a clue as to just how hard it is to find willing car owners offering drives in each division.

Happy to see healthy midget car counts once again, as many as six Kokomo Grand Prix entries came from Keith Kunz Motorsports. Keith and his longtime ally Pete Willoughby brought Speedway Toyota powered Bullets by Spike for returnees Tanner Thorson, Spencer Bayston, Ryan Robinson, and Holly Shelton, joined this year by Tanner Carrick, yet another baby-faced Northern California outlaw kart standout. Three top-notch Clauson Marshall Racing entries are masterminded by Tim Clauson, as the talented trio of Shane Golobic, Tyler Courtney, and Justin Grant offer the biggest threat to the Kunz juggernaut. Three more machines came from the combined Gray Auto/Petry-Goff stables for Dave Darland, Jerry Coons, Jr. and Greenwood, Indiana’s Chase Jones. To offer an idea of just how much the midget manufacturing scene has changed over the last two decades, out of all those Grand Prix entries there was just one Beast chassis in the field, that of course belonging to winner Brady Bacon. Sunday's field of 30 consisted of 16 Spikes, six Bullets by Spike, three BOSS, and one each Beast, Hyper, DRC, CBI (Chad Boat), and Felker.

Speaking of chassis manufacturers, two consecutive evenings of Kokomo Speedway competition had to have those parts vendors salivating, as the abnormally intense competition at this speed plant tends to swallow chassis and bolt-on parts whole. Saturday only saw one car upside down but Sunday reverted to its usual status, starting in qualifying with MIT graduate and Ohio State mechanical engineering PhD hopeful Travis Hery. After Abreu’s qualifying spill, Kyle Robbins lost his brakes at his heat race’s conclusion, sending both himself and Matt Goodnight on their lids. Max McGhee (4J Racing) also dumped in turn three and four during his heat, swallowing Landon Simon in the process. The midget consolation saw Tucker Klaasmeyer and Blair Julian inverting in separate incidents, bringing Sunday’s flip count to seven.

With such efficient evenings and the only breaks coming with pre-feature intermissions, time to roam the Kokomo pit area was few and far between. Mopar SR-11 engine builder and longtime chassis manufacturer/team owner Gary Stanton was assisting Tim Clauson on Saturday. Another notable Kokomo attendee was 2015 USAC national sprint car champion Robert Ballou, who was once again guiding Brookston, Indiana sprint car competitor Aaron Farney. Out of action since his Labor Day weekend incident at Calistoga, Robert’s resulting surgery to repair the burst fracture of his C7 vertebrae was performed by Dr. David Schwartz of Ortho Indy, leaving him in a neck collar up until the Friday of the Chili Bowl. Finding out on April 19th how much longer he needs to heal before getting back into a racecar, his best hope is to return by the end of May or in early June. Off of work for 21 weeks, he’s back punching the time clock for employer Scott Ronk seven days a week.

Driving home after Saturday night’s conclusion via 931, despite the darkness I was still able to notice that Lynn Reid’s Kokomo Honda sign was down. Using Sunday daylight hours to confirm this to be true, although his trucks and trailers were still on the property, the showroom was void of inventory, parts, and merchandise. The former Indy car mechanic and open wheel car owner was of course best known for mentoring the racing career of his son Boston, who is now enjoying a successful Charlotte, North Carolina career in real estate after his NASCAR dreams were dashed in the mid to late 2000s. Interestingly enough, Boston’s former sprint car owner Bill Davis was spotted in the Kokomo stands. After a lengthy career in politics in which he was a state representative from 2005 to 2013, Bill was also the Executive Director of the Office of Community and Rural Affairs in addition to spending time as the District Director of the office of Congressman Marlin Stutzman. Recently moving from Portland, Indiana to Fort Wayne, although he is no longer intimately involved in racing, the longtime President of Limestone Products, Inc. is now a licensed real estate auctioneer and real estate broker with The Stutzman Strategy Group.

As previously mentioned, Kokomo’s next race is April 30th, with the King of Kokomo sprint car contest accompanied by modifieds and hornets. One week later, the May Mudslinger offers traditional sprints with midgets and hornets while Friday the 19th sees the All Star Circuit of Champions come to town, featuring a rare 410 winged sprint car performance by the one and only Tony Stewart.

Showing my age by recalling the Doublemint chewing gum slogan of doubling your pleasure and doubling your fun, rather than chomping on a stick of gum and enjoying just a few minutes of satisfaction, I’d much rather absorb any midget and sprint car doubleheader for a several hours, with the resulting long-lasting effects of such excitement positively impacting my mindset for the coming work week. However, rather than just one night of a world-famous double-dip, the Kokomo Grand Prix generously offered two. Twice as nice, who could ask for anything more?

 

 

Volume 19, Number 1

Here I Go Again

Today's younger set might want to make you believe that 1987 was back in the Stone Ages but for this sentimental soul, thirty years ago might as well have been yesterday.

One of my favorite years from my extensive memory bank, 1987 was when I first became an uncle. Also the year that Indiana University last won a national championship in men’s basketball, it was the same year when I learned to drive (legally). Perhaps of most significance is the fact that 1987 is when I first considered myself a certifiable sprint, midget, and dirt champ car nut, anxiously awaiting the arrival of my weekly copy of National Speed Sport News while realizing that a diet of one race per week was simply not enough.

Naturally my 1987 outdoor agenda commenced with USAC sprint cars at Eldora Speedway, which happened to be the same evening that Indiana took on UNLV in the Final Four. While my oldest brother captured video of Tom Bigelow's new track record of 16.063 seconds, I also had my eyes on the game via his portable black and white Zenith television. Riding high after the Hurryin’ Hoosiers shocked the Runnin’ Rebels with a run and gun strategy of their own, I could finally focus on the Big E bonanza, remembering Bud Wilmot's blinding B-main crash and Rich Vogler's fence flirtation in Johnny Vance's deuce, leading a thrilling trio of Steve Butler, Jack Hewitt, and Keith Kauffman (Sloan 1s) to the checkered. Twenty days after Keith Smart's last second shot silenced Syracuse, the first offspring from an Oldham sibling arrived on Easter Sunday.

Once school let out and my driver's education course was complete, July and August were sprinkled with solid memories, recalling Doug Wolfgang's dominating drive at the Eldora Ohio Speed Week finale, a Jac Haudenschild Kings Royal surprise, and a Jeff Gordon Bloomington score on his 16th birthday weekend. I ended my summer in Springfield's turn one tower, captivated as Jack Hewitt sliced his way through the field to set a 100 mile standard that still remains relevant. After a late summer introduction to the airwaves, by the time I boarded a plane for Manzy's Western World and PIR's Checker Classic in late October, Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again had climbed to the top of the charts, better known for the accompanying MTV video featuring Tawny Kitaen skillfully sprawling across the hoods of two Jaguars. Back when music, racing, and life were far more fun and carefree, ahhhh, those were the days indeed!

Fast forward thirty years and Indiana University just hired their fifth head coach since the days of Robert Montgomery Knight, my soon-to-be 30 year-old nephew announced that he was becoming a father, and after a six month wait, I was once again needing to feed an unhealthy racing addiction. Appropriately commemorating my thirty year sprint car addiction with some vintage Whitesnake, once again I was flying solo to Brownstown, Indiana, going down the only road I’ve ever known. But as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

To remove the cobwebs that had begun to cloud my head during this six month sabbatical, there was no better cure than a timely dosage of sprint car competition and racetrack acquaintance renewal. As Neil Young noted, rust never sleeps, so the lubricating effects of Brownstown’s No Way Out 40 couldn’t have come sooner. The number one benefit of springtime was quickly becoming reality after an hour and forty minute commute to the Jackson County Fairgrounds, where it was an unseasonably warm 78 degrees. Such a surreal experience when that first green flag of the season waved, was this actually happening, or was I still mired in the muck of annual audit hell and a horrendous Hoosier hoops season?

Unfortunately Mother Nature had other intentions of allowing me maximum enjoyment, shortening a forty lap feature to just eight and spoiling a pit pass purchase. Annexing an outside front row starting spot after Brady Short botched turn one on the original start, Chad Boespflug (Hoffman/EZR 69) had just grabbed the lead from Jeff Bland, Jr. by circling the top of an extremely slicked off quarter-mile. But because the skies opened up, he will have to wait until June 24th to see if he can cash that ,500 check. The same evening as an MSCS meet, it will be interesting to see just how many return.

Just 31 sprinters made the tow for the 0 to start affair, as the lower than expected turnout was no doubt influenced by the impending wet weather and Mansfield, Ohio's ,000 lid-lifter. If you stayed home, naturally you didn't miss much, with Brady Short clocking quickest (13.392 seconds) out of the four timed hot lap groups that set heat race lineups. For the second Brownstown bout in a row, Short had a teammate in Hudson O'Neal, the 16 year-old son of dirt late model legend Don O'Neal. Unfortunately for Hudson, he only enjoyed one spectacular lap of practice before breaking a rocker arm on Cam Pottorff's recently freshened engine. Cam was more than a tad miffed with the motor malaise, this just after cutting a check for ,300 earlier in the week to rebuild that same mill. Despite being down 30 horsepower to his teammate at last October’s Fun Fest feature, O'Neal was running second to Sweet Feet before a late-race run off the track relegated him to third, none too shabby for his sprint car debut. Although Hudson may not have extensive sprint car plans in his future, the 16 year-old Martinsville, Indiana native (dubbed the "New Deal") is competing full-time alongside his father in the Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model Series in 2017, having scored 16 times last season while getting his feet wet.

Starting each heat straight-up, Jeff Bland, Jr. (own 38), Short, Justin Grant (McGhee 11), and Boespflug were the winners, enjoying a wheel-to-wheel joust between Grant and C.J. Leary and a thrilling rim-riding expedition by Ryan Bernal (Dutcher 17). Five-time and defending Paragon Speedway champion Josh Cunningham caught fire in heat three and immediately pulled to the infield, bailing from his ride while the observant Lawrenceburg Fire and Safety squad, led by Bobby Gompf, were immediately on the scene to douse the invisible flames. Singing eye brows, shoe laces, a shock cable, and an Outerwears pre-filter, Cunningham's Hinchman uniform kept him safe, allowing him to compete in the B-main (11th to 7th) after borrowing a suit from Jeff Bland, Jr. Much like the NHRA safety safari, perhaps Gompf and his crew should be on the USAC payroll to attend all events.

Tyler Thomas (Burton 04) bagged the B after beginning ninth, hugging the infield marker tires of the suddenly-parched circle as if this were the Indianapolis Speedrome. Asphalt expert Aaron Pierce snagged the third of four B-main transfers in his slightly vintage coil-front creation but did not take the feature green flag, instead heading to the hospital where he was diagnosed with diverticulitis that required next day surgery.

Chris Hoyer was spotted in the Wingo Brothers pit area, assisting with Jon Stanbrough's debut in the flashy number 77 Maxim wearing red chrome paint. Hoyer kindly introduced me to 64 year-old Speedway resident Chuck Rodee, another friend of Jon's who just so happens to be the son of the 2-time Indianapolis 500 starter and midget car maestro who bears the same name. Before Chuck Sr. perished in a 1966 Indy qualification attempt, he earned Fort Wayne indoor midget titles in 1955, 1957, 1958, and 1966, also taking third in AAA national midget points in 1955, second in 1956 (now USAC), fourth in 1961, and third again in 1965, eventually enshrined in the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame. Although Chuck the son never raced, he has lived in the Speedway area since his family made the move from Chicago in 1956, working the month of May for Tony Bettenhausen's team in 1985.

Dodging raindrops and attempting to catch up on NCAA scores on the return home, by the time I hit I-465 some rather alarming text messages started to arrive, asking if I had heard the news regarding the demise of Tampa, Florida open wheel icon David Steele. Having barely enough time to process the loss of longtime friend Greg Staab earlier in the month, how could such a thing even be possible? Was this all just a bad dream that I would soon wake up from? Or, were they just false rumors similar to the Danny Drinan ordeal from Springfield 1992 when I was made to believe he had actually passed away. Either way, this rash of cruel information had to stop.

Once I had time to properly investigate the claims, the finality hit like a ton of bricks. How in the world would his wife Lynn and their three young children be able to handle such a tragedy and eventually move forward with their lives? How in the world would his mom, dad, and sister process the news? Yeah, you can always say that he died doing what he loved, but I get tired of hearing that, as it offers zero comfort for those hit hardest. Why did this have to happen? For that, unfortunately we will never know.

At 42 years of age, Dave had long ago made his mark on the world of open wheel racing with his 60 USAC victories (14th on the all-time list), trio of TBARA titles (1995, 2005, and 2009), and pair of USAC Silver Crown championships (2004 and 2005), also scoring a Southern Sprint Car Shootout Series title in 2016. Eight times he mined Copper World Classic gold. Twice he was the lord of the Little 500 (1996 and 2009). Twice he was Turkey Night king (2001 and 2003), also producing a Night Before the 500 win in 1998. Having pulled up his Indy stakes to permanently return to his Tampa roots midway through the 2007 season, he redirected his focus towards expanding his father’s fabrication business and beginning his new endeavor: Steele Performance Parts. A veteran of Indy Car and NASCAR wars in his younger years, Dave was only racing for fun these days, so proud of the fact that he recently produced his 100th win in his home state, eclipsing so many of the names he grew up idolizing.

First introduced at the 1992 Little 500 in which he finished 5th, although he was 25 laps behind winner and childhood hero Jim Childers, the barely 18 year-old scored rookie of the race honors. Slowly testing USAC waters from 1993 to 1995 with "Captain" Jack Nowling, when Jack asked Jeff Walker to take Steele under his wing, Jeff quickly obliged, allowing the kid to camp out at his self-storage facility near Westfield. Opening with a win at Lakeside, setting a new world record for sprint cars at Phoenix International Raceway, and eventually finding fourth in 1996 season-long points, my one memory of David that still stands out is from the '96 pre-race Little 500 festivities. Working on his bleeders while conversing with photographer Max Dolder, Steele noted how his knees were extremely sore after crashing at the Hoosier Hundred earlier that day. Playing through the pain, he began from the pole and went on to dominate the event, leading 308 laps and setting the stage for a monstrous, record-setting career that made him a future hall of famer. Leading in 9 of his 16 Little 500 starts, of course he should have won more times than twice, but he’s near the top in all other race statistics. Tied with Frank Riddle for the most poles (5), he is second in top-five finishes (10), tied for third in top-ten finishes (10), third in laps led (1,589), fifth in laps completed (6,993), and tied for eighth in career starts. Suffice it to say, the month of May just won’t be the same without David, who continued the rich Florida tradition at the Little 5 and whose presence made this a truly special event.

In recalling all of the open wheel asphalt experts I have encountered, I considered Steele to be the absolute gold standard, equally adept in midgets, sprints, and champ cars on tracks big and small, both steeply-banked and pancake flat. Extremely humble, hardworking, and forever hands-on, he knew every nut and bolt on his racecars and aside from Tracy Hines, he had few, if any equals when it came to desire, mechanical skills, and pure driving talent. Although he openly admitted his hatred for dirt competition, in his early days of his USAC career I was convinced that he was indeed well-rounded, offering a strong performance at his first Terre Haute Hulman Classic, aggressively attacking a heavy Eldora while qualifying the night after his first Little 500 score, and showing some occasional flashes of brilliance, including a 2006 Silver Crown win at Springfield that was yanked after a post-race weight infraction. Hooking up with nearly all of the sport's top owners, who wouldn't want to give the kid a chance given his unique ability to qualify quickest, win the feature, and still manage to take care of the equipment? Most certainly his career highlight came at the inaugural USAC Twin 25s midget contest at Indianapolis Raceway Park during Formula One weekend of 2002. Winning the first midget feature and coming from the rear of the second to collect the big score, a ,000 bonus netted him over ,000 in winnings in just one night. When he was on his game, no one was harder to defeat than David.

Sadly, all good stories must come to an end and Steele's swan song came much sooner than anyone could have ever imagined. Strangely starting well back in a Southern Sprint Car Shootout Series event at Desoto Speedway in Bradenton, Florida on March 25th, he immediately swept to the top side of the track but climbed a wheel. Spinning to the outside wall in turn one, the left side of his machine connected with the concrete. There have indeed been so many accidents appearing far worse than this one, but just like the infamous Dale Earnhardt incident, this too proved to be fatal for all the wrong reasons. In a Robin Miller written article for Racer Magazine that has since been pulled from the internet, Miller's interview with safety pioneer Bill Simpson claimed that Steele could have survived the crash had he been using a full-containment seat (with a left side head rest). For someone as meticulous and knowledgeable about racecar construction as David, he clearly had his reasons for not running one and when the sanctioning body does not mandate these modern safety measures, it is left up to the driver to decide what works best for him. It should be noted that the same Southern Shootout Series immediately concocted a rule that made full containment seats mandatory.

Nevertheless, it's an infinitely sad story that once again serves as a painful reminder as to the dangers of racing and the fragility of life. Still attempting to digest and comprehend such a huge loss, of course I will always have my fondest memories of David, especially his legendary Anderson backstretch top fuel burnouts before qualifying that provided such a huge thrill for yours truly. His loss immediately reminded me of how much I miss early-season USAC pavement pounding at such places as Winchester, Salem, and Anderson. Much like that style of racing, now that the Man of Steele has exited stage left, you truly don't know what you've got until it's gone. May you rest in peace Superman, knowing that your excellence will never again be equaled.

Back to The Burg for USAC’s traditional Midwestern opener on April 1st, a racing season doesn’t officially begin in my books until this event is contested. Even though it’s not Eldora, Lawrenceburg is as close as it gets. One of the nicest facilities in the nation, although it may only be listed as a three-eighths mile, the skyscraper banking generates half-mile speed, not for the faint of heart or engines short on horsepower. Missing this meeting last year when I was in Ireland, I had been very much looking forward to renewing my tradition of attending these openers, as 2016 never felt right by starting without me.

Eager to get on the road and head to the track, I completed my Saturday chores early and actually arrived in Dearborn County with time to spare, finding a long line of trucks and trailers waiting to get signed in at the back gate. Apparently I was not the only one eager to get the season started, as when I arrived I found car owner Dan Pace’s trailer stuck against a set of concrete posts that guarded a fire hydrant. Several sources revealed that Pace had obtained his pit pass and pulled out of line but in his rush to get to the front, he swerved left to avoid Chase Stockon’s hauler. The resulting contact with those posts flattened multiple trailer tires and actually bent the middle of three axles. While Dan dealt with the police and figured out how to get the trailer unwound from those posts, the team, assisted by defending midget champion Tanner Thorson, unloaded the car and pushed it to the pit area, to be driven for the first time by Kevin Thomas, Jr. I can’t imagine that such embarrassing drama is the way they wanted to ring in the New Year, but Kevin didn’t let it phase him one bit, qualifying sixth and finishing eighth in the feature.

Rainy days leading up to the opener did not deter track operator Dave Rudisell’s efforts to make this a go, rewarded with sunny skies and much more favorable weather on Saturday, a stark contrast to the date I missed last year. The end result was a sticky surface that required several efforts to widen but come feature time, drivers had to decide if they were operating downstairs or climbing up top to work in the attic. Because three of the quick six qualifiers (Justin Grant, Landon Simon, and KTJ) failed to transfer from their heat, that meant Chad Boespflug (9th quick) and Chris Windom (8th quick) would fire from the front row, renewing their Terre Haute grudge match from last October.

Despite a bottom lane that was much smoother and still offered plenty of bite, Windom chose the slightly choppy and much more unpredictable top shelf, rarely varying from that tactic. Having to grit his teeth and ride the brakes while entering the corners, the decision proved to be the winning move of the night, as Chris led all thirty tours to produce his first USAC sprint car victory at The Burg. Opening 8th and 16th in Ocala, Windom was quickly rebuilding Midwest momentum after a thrilling triumph last weekend in Mansfield. Driving the Kenny and Margo Baldwin owned DRC/Claxton led by chief mechanic Derek Claxton and his assistant Billy Grace, Chris was never seriously challenged, bolting to a full straightaway lead early before a lap eight caution for Carson Short.

Tenth-starting Hunter Schuerenberg (Motsinger 2) charged hard early, advancing seven spots in those eight laps. Immediately blowing past Boespflug to secure second, Hunter had his sights set on the lead before bicycling in between turns one and two. Snap rolling his Roof Bolt Express Eagle several times, this king-sized crash made me wonder just how sore he’d be for Sunday’s Sumar Classic. Hunter’s tumble was the sixth of the night, as Cooper Clouse first took a ride in qualifying, followed by a B-main double-flip by Matt Goodnight (who enjoyed mechanical assistance from Scott Benic) and Riley VanHise, followed by yet another twin tumble on the first lap of the feature by third row starters Dave Darland and Chase Stockon. Not as violent as Schuerenberg's incident, the Darland/Stockon incident was no picnic either, as damage was extensive to both rides. Stockon was a heavy favorite to win after sprinting from sixth to first in his heat.

The next 17 laps saw Windom weave through traffic, his inboard brake rotor glowing from aggression. Boespflug had his hands full with a high-flying Grant, the point leader and quickest qualifier (13.251 seconds in the Sam McGhee Motorsports Maxim) who had to start seventh. Both stayed within sight of the leader, their hopes intensified by a caution for Shane Cottle with four laps left. Although Chad was able to pull even on the final restart, Chris once again was able to drive away. At the conclusion, Windom held off Boespflug and Grant, with a consistent Jon Stanbrough following the bottom to finish fourth while Landon Simon also looked good in fifth. Last year’s Fall Nationals winner Josh Hodges scored sixth from 11th, Shawn Westerfeld was seventh, KTJ earned eighth, Jarett Andretti nailed ninth from 13th, while Shane Cottle recovered to take tenth from 21st.

One name you won't find in the Lawrenceburg top-ten, let alone the feature results was C.J. Leary. Clocking the quickest lap in hot laps, as everyone knows, hot laps pays nothing. After taking a two-wheeled tour of turn three on his first qualifying lap, the night was never the same for C.J., qualifying 28th out of a 35 car field. Seventh in his heat and relegated to the rear of the semi-feature, Michael Fischesser (wearing number 44 for his hero Greg Staab) scaled his right rear tire, requiring a rubber swap that again sent him to the rear. Leary just didn't appear comfortable enough to make any bold moves on the lightning fast surface so with no provisional passes, the Jeff Walker led squad had to load up early. Kyle Cummins was yet another early casualty, finished after hot laps due to a broken exhaust valve on his Rock Steady Racing ride.

All in all, it was an exciting Midwestern opener and for the next seven Saturdays, Lawrenceburg plays host to wingless sprint car action, highlighted by an April 29th unsanctioned event dubbed the "King of the Midwest", paying ,500 to win. On May 20th, Aaron Fry's BOSS series is featured, with the World of Outlaws invading on Memorial Day (May 29th).

Sunday April 2nd dawned bright, sunny, and warm, a perfect day for my first Sumar Classic since 2008. I'm almost ashamed to admit that, but aside from being out of the country last year, my only excuse for not attending these last nine years were disappointing car counts and the poor quality of cars and competitors. Selfishly speaking, as a paying customer I just didn't feel that this race was a good bang for my buck, such a difference from the late 1990s and early 2000s when a Silver Crown show contained an all-star cast of cars and competitors. But, with 35 cars pre-entered this year, looking down the list of drivers and equipment I most certainly had a change of heart, ecstatic that the series was regaining the momentum previously lost by the Gold Crown and Ignite Ethanol debacles.

This edition of the Sumar was an afternoon/twilight show and with hot laps set to start at 3:30 PM, a Fishers departure of 1:30 was required when Speedball requested a reprieve from his reclining chair to spend the afternoon alongside his son and grandson. Mentioning to my wife that we'd be home fairly early as racing was scheduled to begin by 5:15, I made a rookie mistake, completely forgetting the number one lesson learned in the last thirty years of hardcore race chasing: dirt track racing is extremely unpredictable. Never imagining that Terre Haute would turn into a nearly six-hour endurance affair, I would finally arrive home by 11 PM, just in time to catch the end of the titanic Cubs/Cardinals opener on TV.

Suffice it to day, it was a very long day with less than ideal surface conditions but as a veteran fan, of course I understand that there will be days like these, especially for an extremely rare afternoon show that ultimately requires constant track maintenance, made even more imperative as track operator Bob Sargent clearly had his preparations challenged by the rain that fell on Vigo County earlier in the week. Sure, I would have preferred that the majority of my time would have been spent watching racecars attack the Action Track rather than watch equipment slowly circling the speedway. And, I would have much rather have witnessed these big cars bouncing off the outside concrete instead of idling around the inside rail of a bone-slick surface, but in the end I was still thankful for the rise in car count and the solid attendance, happy to be spending an afternoon in wonderful springtime weather and in the company of fellow diehard Silver Crown fans like Sullivan, Illinois’ Wendell Smith.

I would imagine most of Sunday's healthy attendance came from longtime fans who are willing to endure most anything to catch this kind of action in person. In the interest of keeping this racing alive, I just wonder if it wouldn't be wiser to start the show a couple of hours later, possibly cutting out a large percentage of the surface maintenance, making the on-track action more thrilling, and condensing the program considerably. Taking a page out of Du Quoin’s shift to nighttime conditions, that race is infinitely more exciting than it used to be when it was conducted during daylight hours. Unless the conditions and circumstances are perfect, you just can't expect to have a decent daytime dirt track race in this modern era of massive tires.

Stepping off my soap box and in the theme of Here I Go Again, Chris Windom's win on Sunday only reinforced the notion that much like he left off 2016, Big Daddy was back in a big way to begin the 2017 Midwestern dirt track docket. Starting ninth and snatching the lead from Kody Swanson at the halfway mark of the 100-lap affair, Chris captured his third Silver Crown win in a row, his third consecutive triumph since Mansfield. Interestingly enough, the Gene Kazmark 92 that he piloted was the same Maxim/Wallace-Mopar machine he won the last two Silver Crown contests in 2016 that ultimately propelled him to the championship, as previous owner Fred Gormly retired from ownership duties.

Despite the disappointing surface, the race really wasn’t all that bad, featuring four different leaders. 2015 Sumar winner Shane Cockrum shot from fourth to lead the first lap in his Hardy Boys Racing Maxim, actually employing a middle to outside groove that hadn’t been used all day. Shane paced the first 18 laps before last year’s winner C.J. Leary quickly worked his way into the conversation for first place from his fifth starting spot, immediately taking third from pole sitter Kody Swanson (23.599 seconds) and second from outside front row starter Casey Shuman (Bateman 55). A low-side launch off turn two on lap 19 landed last year’s winner in first, but only for a brief while as Swanson caught his second wind, finding the higher lines of the damper west end to his liking. The two-time series champ and 2014 Sumar stud had the lead by lap 26, immediately stealing the bottom lane at turn one’s entry. Kody was out front for the next 24 tours but would soon have his hands full with the eventual winner, who had started ninth and patiently worked the bottom on both ends to perfection. Leary eventually worked his way back to second and whittled the gap to Windom in the waning stages, nearly pulling to his rear bumper with ten laps left. Chris never wilted under the pressure and reconstructed an insurmountable advantage, taking the 8:39 PM checkered flag over Leary and Swanson. Nolen Racing teammates Hunter Schuerenberg (from 11th) and Jerry Coons, Jr. (from 16th) found fourth and fifth. Positions six through ten were claimed by Brady Bacon (Martens 48), Dave Darland (from 20th in the Phillips 27), Damion Gardner (from 19th in the Klatt 6), Dakota Jackson (who started from the rear in the third Nolen entry), and Joss Moffatt (making his first series start in the Williams-Wright 32).

A few interesting Sumar side notes: both Bacon and Gardner raced the previous night in Perris, California and took red-eye flights to Indy, making me feel that this series is still significant enough to warrant such a weary effort. Six of the top-ten finishers utilized Maxim chassis, with 11 out of the 31 on-hand representing the brand from Springfield, Illinois. It’s definitely good to see some chassis diversity in this division, as Bob East has been the dominant constructor since 1991, also crafting some successful Challenger chassis in the late 1980s that waged war against all those Watsons, Stantons, Oz-Cars and Gamblers. Although a Mopar won the race and a Toyota took second, aside from the Ford of Damion Gardner, Chevrolet power plants took the rest of the top-ten spots. With 24 starting spots open to the 31 cars on-hand, that meant a Silver Crown last-chance race had to be conducted for the first time since the 2008 Four Crown Nationals. Mach One chassis maker Mark Smith won that consolation race in Mal Lane’s sharp-looking Maxim, yet another new entry to the series that featured several new names and faces. Selfish in my desire to see this series return to the all-star casts common in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s, although I still want to see more top-notch talent, this race was a huge step in that direction. Terre Haute’s next event is the MSCS meeting on April 30th, with the USAC sprint car Hulman Classic set for Wednesday May 24th.

Finishing this article as I await night number two of Kokomo’s Grand Prix, weather permitting I am anticipating next weekend’s USAC sprint car double at Bloomington and Haubstadt. Looking ahead to the next two months, an extremely hectic racing agenda awaits, which again reminds me of that oh-so-familiar lyric from Neil Young, noting that it’s better to burn out than it is to rust. Those words mirror my spiritual mentor Greg Staab, as he most definitely and proudly lived life on his own terms, always following his heart and pursuing his passion with class and dignity no matter how heavy the burden he was forced to carry. Thirty years running, I’m still hoping for another national championship from Indiana University and still longing to chase midget, sprint, and dirt champ car tail tanks across the Midwest. From 1987 to 2017, here I go again…

 

 

 

 

Greg Staab Q&A article from March of 2009, as Greg lost his over three year battle with cancer today. No one was more positive, hard-working, and likeable than Greg. A true inspiration not only for his racing success, but his ability to overcome so much adversity in recent years (having lost everything, including his girlfriend, pets, and racing memorabilia in a house fire on New Year’s Eve 2015-2016).

 

Loving Every Minute of It – The Greg Staab Story

 

For the average working stiff who grinds out a mundane forty-plus hours fifty-two times a year, waking up on Monday morning to do it all over again sure gets old rather quickly.  Some new responsibilities or a scant pay raise may add a little bit of life for a few days, but a job is just that and in reality, we’re all working to settle our debts, aiming for the weekend when we can truly enjoy what life has to offer.  Sure, one should be thankful to have an outlet to earn a wage in such bleak economic times, but that sort of reminder isn’t the most comforting when having to consistently deal with overwhelming workplace demands. 

 

In such a drab, dull existence, weekend variety is the ray of light that provides a pulse.  For couples who have children and can land a babysitter for an evening, a rare night on the town can certainly serve as a refreshing oasis in the desert of family responsibility.  For those unattached, the sky is virtually the limit on what the weekend can bear. 

 

It could be a date with a beautiful woman, enjoying witty banter over drinks and dinner.  It could be a two day getaway to Chicago or Cincinnati, where the thrill of the big city awaits.  It could even be time spent at home lounging in sweatpants in front of the television.  And for those of us afflicted with the racing bug, our dream weekend might consist of chasing sprint cars to Bloomington, Eldora, and Winchester.  Regardless of how one chooses to spend his or her hours from Friday evening through Monday morning, it’s a welcomed break from the ball and chain and it helps recharge our batteries. 

 

When faced with the most unenviable tasks, while counting to ten, taking deep breaths, and reverting to our own happy place, how many of us have daydreams dominated by flying mud, slide jobs, and screaming engines?  Refuting the theory that variety is the spice of life, those outside of the “scene” cannot fathom how anyone would want to spend six months of their year sitting on hard pine benches, inhaling exhaust fumes, dodging dirt clods, squinting through irritating dust, and dining on fast food.  Time consuming and all-encompassing, it’s not for everyone.  Do addicted shoppers, gamblers, or golf players partake in their activity more than fifty times a year?  Can they afford to?  Suffice it to say, racing folk are infinitely passionate about their weekend preference and unlike the daily grind, such repetitive behavior never seems to lose its flavor. 

 

One such passionate soul who has pursued his motor racing madness with unequaled fervor is Cincinnati, Ohio native Greg Staab.  An only-son who was raised on the banks of the mighty Ohio River in the blue-collar burg of Anderson Ferry, located just three houses down from the Staabs was the Rose residence, home to Greg’s childhood pals Pete and Dave, Pete of course going on to make quite a name for himself in major league baseball.  Probably interrupting some sporting event in the backyard, Mr. Rose first took his two boys and their neighbor friend to Lawrenceburg Speedway in 1958.  Completely in awe of the spectacle that was automobile racing, from that point on it was all over for Greg, as motorsports completely consumed his existence since that fateful trip to the track. That’s a lot of weekends devoted to just one activity, wouldn’t you say?

 

But with all sincerity, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.  Simple, resolute, persistent, and to the point, that’s the German influence in Mr. Gregory J. Staab.  Absolutely certain of what he liked at an early age, for fifty years he chased those boyhood dreams, setting and achieving seemingly unattainable goals when considering his humble beginnings.  Unfazed by society’s norms and doing what he wanted to do, he did so in a fashion that made his mother and father proud.   

 

Soon after that initial taste of auto racing, both Greg and Dave Rose had their own go-karts for Milford Speedway competition.  Absolutely inseparable, by 1967 they moved up to the late model stock car division at Lawrenceburg Speedway.  Staab handled the driving chores and ultimately produced championships in 1969 and 1970, the first of many to come in his storied career at the Dearborn County speed plant.    

 

Just two years later, a chance midget opportunity came courtesy of Tom Dickinson at Illinois’ Grundy County Speedway, albeit in some rather antiquated equipment.  Battling a 103 degree temperature, Greg failed to make the cut but thankfully another offer was extended by Norm Powers for the following weekend.  Qualifying and finishing fourth against a stout AMRA field proved that he could do this and his dream of reaching the Indianapolis Motor Speedway suddenly didn’t seem too far fetched.    

 

In the early 1970s, the road to Indy still began with the United States Auto Club midget division so naturally the Staabs pooled resources to purchase some hardware. Hitting the road when USAC’s midgets crisscrossed the country, the grueling slate rivaled any rock band’s North American World Tour.  Underfunded and inexperienced, Greg honed his skills by dueling night after night with men like Pancho Carter, Johnny Parsons, Tommy Astone, Jimmy Caruthers, Sleepy Tripp, Mel Kenyon, Rich Vogler, and Steve Lotshaw.  Despite the humbling experience of struggling to make features, in the same breath it was the time of his life, getting to see all corners of the country while enjoying unequaled camaraderie. 

 

Battling uphill for a handful of seasons, a 1977 Salem thumb and shoulder injury provided a pause and allowed the family unit to re-evaluate priorities.  Nearly void of sponsorship and necessitating an endless supply of dollars to keep up with the latest in engine technology, the travel-intensive schedule also did not allow time for a proper income producing position.  Forever grounded in blue-collar work ethic, Greg made the bold but suddenly sensible decision to stay closer to home and resume a Monday through Friday job, eventually landing a position as a mechanic with the City of Cincinnati’s Municipal Garage in October of 1979, punching the same time clock for 25 years. 

 

Full-scale racing dreams did not have to be abandoned however, as the Queen City’s proximity to Indiana dirt tracks allowed him an opportunity to sample the previously unexplored society of sprint cars.  Sleep deprived and elbows-up in oil and grease, just how many Monday mornings did he have visions of the upcoming racing weekend?  Fueled by his insatiable racing desire and long before the days of Red Bull, sprint car racing gave Greg his wings. 

 

Early into his sprint car career Staab’s talent caught the eye of Dayton, Ohio businessman Tom Stenger.  Finally afforded the resources and personnel to excel against the best of the best, not surprisingly the decade from 1978 through 1988 was Greg’s most productive. Racking up 56 feature victories in that time span, 19 came in a mind-blowing 1984 campaign where his win total was fourth highest in the nation.  Along the way, he nailed down an impressive array of track titles, five of them at Lawrenceburg Speedway (’82, ’83, ’84, ’85, ’87) and one at Bloomington (1984). 

 

Owner of numerous awards to commemorate his accomplishments, during the Stenger era Staab was named driver of the year by the Cincinnati Auto Race Club (’82, ’87, ‘89), the Buckeye Auto Race Fans (’83, ‘89), and the Dayton Auto Racing Fans (’83).  The dream of competing at 16th and Georgetown nearly came true in 1983, invited to drive for the Rattlesnake Racing Team out of Pensacola, Florida.  Unfortunately, funding never materialized and outside of his days of working as a crew member for Hoffman Auto Racing’s 1979 and 1980 “500” efforts, Indy was alas, still just a dream. 

 

Readjusting goals yet again and having accomplished everything he could at The Burg, he returned to the USAC trail full-time in 1988 and wound up a solid second in the national sprint car standings.  Nursing a deflating right rear tire, he dramatically held off all comers to steal his first career national victory at Indianapolis Raceway Park, televised live to the world on ESPN’s Thursday Night Thunder.  Close enough to sniff a national championship, in the years following 1988 he isolated all energies to achieving that goal.  A USAC loyalist through and through, unfortunately he never quite reached his goal, rewarded with points finishes of fourth (’89), third (’90), seventh (’91), thirteenth (’92), eighth (’93), seventh (’94), and sixth (’95).  Tenth in ’85 points, eight out of eleven years he would wind up inside of USAC’s top ten, a feat in of itself.    

 

Even more amazing is the fact that he did it while holding down that full-time job with the city of Cincinnati.  In 1986 alone, he managed to compete 86 times while staying in the good graces of his employer.  Combine day-time duties with racecar maintenance, a rigorous and religious workout regimen, and the travel required to race and what you have is one dizzying schedule.  How many kids from today’s world could keep up with such an agenda?    

 

Making 177 USAC sprint car starts through July of 1996, while in action at Paragon, Indiana another competitor’s wheel entered his cockpit, seriously injuring his left humerus and thus requiring the services of famed racing fixer-upper Dr. Terry Trammel.  Somehow recovering from serious spills at Lakeside (’91) and Salem (’77), he made yet another bold decision to hang up his driving gear for good after the Paragon incident, earning him the coveted Emma Ray Award for Courage from the late Joie Ray. 

 

Strong-willed and stubborn, it only seems logical that the man who devoted his entire existence to auto racing would find a way to stay involved.  Reinventing himself, he teamed up with young Cincinnati charger Joey Kerr to campaign a USAC sprint car effort for 1997.  Not to be undone, he also took over operation and promotion of his beloved Lawrenceburg Speedway from 1997 through 2000, saving the place from extinction.  Burning the candle at both ends and literally running on fumes for those four years, Staab got very little sleep when dealing with the headaches and stress of running a racetrack.  And yet, he still managed to faithfully punch that clock for the city of Cincinnati.  After splitting with Kerr, he still managed to field a sprint car as well, earning a Lawrenceburg Speedway sprint car championship with Jason Setser behind the wheel of his familiar yellow number 44. 

 

Along the way, he befriended fellow competitor Johnny Heydenreich, annihilating I-74 asphalt to maintain Johnny’s Silver Crown car that was based out of Indianapolis.  And for a brief while, he was even employed at Tony Stewart Racing before he landed his dream job with the United States Auto Club, heading up the national sprint car division for 2006.  Finally, after two decades of desiring such an address, he packed up his belongings and made the move to Indianapolis.  Nearly everything he had ever envisioned was now reality and things could not get any better. 

 

Unfortunately, life is never perfect as a shift in USAC management and philosophy eliminated his position midway through 2008.  Disappointed but undaunted, like a chameleon he changed colors once again and adapted to the environment of the day, joining Darryl Guiducci’s Team Six-R Racing.  Having the time of his life, he couldn’t be any happier, continuing to do what he wants to do, all these years later.  Now sixty years old, he’s spent all but ten of his years heavily involved in motor racing.  How many of us can maintain that level of devotion for that many years, in any chosen field?  It’s simply amazing. 

 

Even with his one-track mind on automobile racing, variety and some level of balance is still key to Greg’s life.  He enjoys baseball and football.  He is heavily involved in physical fitness.  He is an avid fan of music.  He also loves animals, nursing his diabetic feline friend Ralph.  On the racing front, he’s kept things interesting by competing as both a driver and a car owner.  He’s promoted and operated a racetrack.  He’s served as a mechanic and a crew chief.  He’s mentored young drivers.  He’s even served as a series official, working with other track owners to develop schedules.  Still setting goals, he remains as passionate and focused as the day he began racing go-karts with his lifelong buddy Dave Rose, who also moved to Indianapolis and shares the same address just west of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Since being introduced to auto racing at Lawrenceburg Speedway in 1958, he has been there, done that, and enjoyed it, loving every minute of it. 

 

As has been said a million times, racing is full of so many unique personalities who keep things extremely interesting.  But among that cast of characters, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone as dignified, classy, well-liked, and positive as Greg.  You’d also be hard pressed to find anyone as relentless and resilient, knocked down so many times only to get back up, dust himself off, and stay intimately involved in the activity he loves most.  One of the hardest working men I’ve ever known, the blue-collar racer is a true go-getter, consistently making the impossible seem possible.  Honored and privileged to have had the opportunities to chase his dreams for so long, it is because of passionate people like Greg Staab that sprint car racing has managed to survive and thrive through the years. 

 

Perhaps he hasn’t accomplished everything he has wanted in terms of feature wins and national championships, but he still beams with pride when thinking of where he has come from and what he’s been able to get done on pure desire.  If there were ever was a category for premier ambassador on the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame ballot, Mr. Staab would be a landslide winner. 

 

Regardless of whether or not he makes the Hall of Fame, he is still living the dream, now combining work with his lifelong obsession.  Not having to worry about the stress of maintaining a fleet of trucks on a tight budget or supervising the work of others, he still enjoys getting his hands dirty and tinkering with mechanical equipment.  But, instead of daydreaming about his weekend racing during those work hours, he is literally living the dream.  I have to say, I’m more than a little envious.   

 

Many a special thank you is extended to the generous souls of Dave Rose, Keith Wendel, Gene Marderness, John Mahoney, Jackie Litchfield, Kevin Eckert, and Danny Laycock, as each one went out of their way to dig through the archives to provide valuable information, stories, statistics, and timeless photographs that added so much color to an already vibrant story and career.   And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank “The Dog” himself, Greg Staab, for so eloquently answering three and a half hours of questions.  Putting his memory to the test, he passed with flying colors. 

 

So without futher delay, please sit back and enjoy the recount of a mid-January afternoon conversation I shared with Greg, one of the most interesting and entertaining stories I’ve been able to put into words thus far.  It’s a long road, so beware - you might have to complete the reading in more than one sitting.  Enjoy! 

 

KO:  You have had a long standing love affair with motor racing and I know of few people who have remained as fiercely passionate and upbeat about the sport through the years.  Cincinnati isn’t a huge racing town, so what got it started for you?

 

GS:  In 1958, I was neighbors with the Roses.  The name Pete Rose would be synonymous with the baseball player.  It was his father, his brother, and himself.  His father took me to Lawrenceburg Speedway in 1958 and it was completely over with for me.  From that point on, I was locked in and this is what I wanted to do at age eight. 

 

KO:  As a kid, did you attend any midget races at the Cincinnati Race Bowl or were you too young?  That track went away in the late 1950s or so.  Did you go to any races there? 

 

GS:  I can remember being there.  I can’t give you any details, but I believe my father and my uncle Charlie took me there one time or maybe more.  I can remember seeing the place.  I can remember it being in Evendale.  I know exactly where it was.  I could take you to the spot where it was.  But I can’t remember a whole lot about the things that were going on.  I might have even been younger than eight at the time. 

 

KO:  Evendale?

 

GS:  Evendale - not too terribly far from the GE jet engine plant. 

 

KO:  Were there any other racetracks you attended as a kid?  Other than Lawrenceburg and the Race Bowl, there weren’t too many choices in the Cincinnati area.  Was it just being at The Burg that got that bug started? 

 

GS:  Shortly after that, there was a racetrack in Glen Este, Ohio that had quite a bit of stock car racing and the sprint cars would go there occasionally.  And then my mom and dad would take me to that occasionally and we’d get to see sprint cars run there on a Sunday night. 

 

KO:  You mentioned Pete Rose’s younger brother Dave.  You’ve known him nearly your whole life and he is currently your Indianapolis roommate here on west 16th, not too far from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  While growing up, how close did you live to the Rose family, two houses down or three houses down?

 

GS:  We were three houses down from the Rose family.  We moved there in 1953 and from that point on, I’ve been around Dave and his brother for most all of my life. 

 

KO:  So did you play any backyard sports with those guys?

 

GS:  Oh, we did everything!  We played baseball.  We played football.  We did it all.  We did the whole thing.  I did little league baseball.  I didn’t do football because it was too tough for my father to get me to practices and so forth.  Yeah, I did a lot of sports. I was not as gifted as those guys were but we did a lot of sports.

 

KO:  So talking about Pete Rose, were you able to stay in contact with him when he was at his peak in baseball?  Obviously Pete Rose was HUGE and he was a busy guy, in demand all of the time.  Were you still able to maintain any contact with him? 

 

GS:  We did.  We did.  We remained friends for years.  I’d see him when he was in town when I lived in Cincinnati.  Just recently, we had dinner with him in Las Vegas.  He signs autographs at the Field of Dreams at Caesar’s Palace Mall in Las Vegas and Dave, Dick Jordan, and I had dinner.  It was a very, very cordial, warm dinner.  It was a great time.  We had a great time with him.  Yeah, we’re still good friends. 

 

KO:  Was he able to keep track of your racing even when he was winning World Series games?  Was he always interested in your racing? 

 

GS:  He did to a point.  Obviously he was preoccupied with his life and what a great, great career he had.  He kind of new what was going on with me.  He also knew when I got hurt, so I guess he was keeping fairly close tabs whenever there were any injuries. 

 

KO:  So you’ve known Dave Rose since you were about three years old, but did you ever lose touch with him throughout the years?

 

GS:  David moved to Tampa.  David moved to Boca Raton.  But we always kept in touch.  There might be a month or six weeks where we wouldn’t talk, but it was always pretty close. 

 

KO:  Since you lived very close to the Roses, you would have grown up in the Anderson Ferry area of Cincinnati, not Western Hills like many would want to believe.  You went to high school in Western Hills.  Talk a little bit about your community of Anderson Ferry and what it was like growing up there in the ‘50s and ‘60s. 

 

GS:  Anderson Ferry was down on the river, right near the Anderson Ferry which still runs today.  The ferry boat is a shortcut across to the airport for a lot of people who can cut out going downtown to go to the bridges to get to the airport.  You can just jump across on the ferry boat and shoot to the top of the hill and the airport is right at the top of the hill.  It was a basic, low or mid-level blue-collar area I would say.  Everyone worked.  Everyone had daily jobs.  Everyone worked and strived very hard to get ahead and keep their heads above water.  Work ethic was a big thing in the area.  Dave Rose still has an incredible work ethic.  Pete obviously has a work ethic.  Mine’s pretty good where I come from.  We work pretty hard.  It was just a blue-collar, hard-work area and you were taught as a kid to learn how to work and create things for yourself.

 

And I picked a sport that was very difficult to get into.  With the grace of my mother and father, who were the best in the world, and I miss them terribly, but they got me a go-kart and a go-kart progressed onto the next level into stock cars.  We didn’t have a lot of money but we just kept trying, trying, and trying and eventually it worked out to be a pretty good ending of a pretty good story, really.  From no money and a blue-collar area to what I ended up doing, I’m pretty proud of it. 

 

KO:  Dave told me that you guys would have been considered “river rats”.  Was flooding ever an issue for your home?

 

GS:  Flooding was an issue in two years.  The water got across the road and that was when we’d all get together and get our ball bats and go down towards the railroad tracks and club the rats as they came across.  When the rats would come across, our main sport was killing rats before they could get to our house. Or my dad would sit in the front yard with a .22 and pop them when they tried to come up in the yard.

 

KO:  So they were pretty big?

 

GS:  Yeah.  And there were a lot of them too. 

 

KO:  Wow!  So what’s that neighborhood like in 2009 compared to growing up? 

 

GS:  Like any neighborhood, the blight has taken effect and it has deteriorated to the point where it’s nowhere near as nice as when we had it.  I’m sure everyone understands that, that they’ve seen the same thing happen with their areas or a lot of areas.  It’s nowhere near as nice as it was when we were there. 

 

KO:  So is your house still there that you grew up in?

 

GS:  It is.  It is for a fact.  And it had a long-standing history.  It’s a huge stone house and it can be seen for miles on the Ohio River.  You can see it standing out on the hill compared to all the rest.  That’s pretty much the way it was.  It was a blue-collar area without a lot of money and we actually rented the second floor for, oh geez, twenty-nine years I believe it was.  Nobody could afford to do anything different.  So, that’s the way that was.

 

KO:  Did you have any brothers and sisters and what did your dad do for a living?

 

GS:  No brothers or sisters.  I was an only-child which right away people are going to think, wow, spoiled brat but guess what?  It wasn’t that way at all. 

 

My father worked for the C&O Railroad.  He retired from the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad after 33 years of service.  He started out as an operator and then he became a yardmaster, which puts the trains together.  And he moved around from Spring Grove, Kentucky to across the river to Cincinnati and then back over to Covington.  Every night he’d be in a different place putting trains together as a yardmaster. 

 

KO:  With your dad retiring from the C&O, it’s kind of ironic that your house is so close to the C&O, or B&O, tracks that ran through the middle of Speedway.  You could probably hit a baseball or golf ball from your house to the old tracks.  I guess the railroads aren’t necessarily dying, but it’s kind of sad to see all that infrastructure go away.

 

GS:  They still use it a lot, if you’re paying attention out on the road.  When we go out west, you’ll see the huge trains out through New Mexico and Arizona – great big, long trains with lots of cars – front-end pushers and back-end pushers…

 

KO:  I know Dave Rose enjoyed baseball and geared his life towards becoming a baseball player.  Did you have any aspirations other than racing?

 

GS:  After eight years old, that’s all I cared about.  That’s all I wanted to do.  The nuns would catch me drawing pictures of sprint cars in between papers in the books and it probably took away from some of my education but racing is all I ever wanted to do.  And to this day, it’s really what I want to do. 

 

KO:  To my knowledge, you were an employee for the city of Cincinnati for many, many, many years until you retired.  When did you start working for the city?

 

GS:  October 27th, 1979. 

 

KO:  So what was your position when you started and what was it when you stopped? 

 

GS:  I started out as a mechanic’s helper and moved up to a mechanic.  Then I moved up to crew chief and then became an assistant supervisor before I left and retired at 25 years and 55 years of age. 

 

KO:  Ok!  Other than at Lawrenceburg Speedway when you were running that joint, did you have any other jobs outside of racing?

 

GS:  I did in fact.  I had many, many jobs because when it came time for racing season, I was gone to go racing and that job was gone.  Except for one – I worked seven years for the Kroger Company at the Gold Crest Candy Company - making candy.  I was a candy cook.  I was a candy enrober operator.  Everything we had to do to make every kind of candy, I did it.  You name a candy and I can tell you how it was made.  We made it.

 

KO:  Wow.  And that was owned by Kroger, huh?

 

GS:  Kroger Company – it was under the Gold Crest label and I think they moved it down south near Atlanta or someplace and capitalized on cheaper labor. 

 

KO:  In talking to Dave Rose, I learned that you both were racing karts at about age 12.  Is that when you first started?

 

GS:  That is a fact.  I started at eleven years old racing go-karts at Milford Speedway with David.  Gary McCabe, Eddie Fowler and some other friends of mine, we all had karts around that time.  The go-karts went from ’59 to ’63 and there were a couple of years in there where I didn’t have anything to do and couldn’t get anything going.  In ’67 or ’68, we put our first stock car together. 

 

KO:  So in those karting years, who did better, you or Dave?

 

GS:  Dave didn’t get a lot of help from a lot of people.  I did better than Dave but Dave had the potential.  He was going to win his first race he was ever in.  The chain came off the kart.  Yeah, he was a gifted driver actually when he was young.

 

KO:  So he did everything good, huh?  We were talking about him earlier from one of your pictures, having all the talent…

 

GS:  Well, when God gave out the talent, he gave it all to David.  And he gave Pete the work ethic.  David had God-given talent - to burn.  He could out run you.  He could out hit you.  He could knock you down.  He could hit a ball farther.  He could do all of it.  He was just gifted by God up above. 

 

KO:  He was a bad-ass huh!

 

GS:  Pretty much. 

 

KO:  So your yellow number 44 – did you choose this color and number on your own or were you influenced in any way by some other driver or car, maybe one that you were drawing pictures of?

 

GS:  Ironically, the number 44 came from Jim Bob Luebbert and Tom Soudrette.  Jim Bob runs Speedway Monogramming up here, the same guy who went on to run USAC sprints and moved on through the ranks also.  That’s where the number came from. 

 

And for some strange reason, I was at Salem Speedway or Dayton Speedway and I saw George Snider’s gorgeous yellow number 22 car that he built back in 1970 or ’71 and it just took me completely out of my mind and I had to have a yellow racecar with a number 44 on it.  And that’s exactly the way we went from there.  I chose the number and the color just jumped up.  That bright yellow was just beautiful to me and that’s why we did the yellow 44 thing.

 

KO:  And in later years, your gold or silver leaf lettering and stuff like that, that’s probably where it came from?

 

GS:  Snider’s car had yellow with silver leaf numbers on it – it was just incredible to me.

 

KO:  And I’m sure the numbers weren’t staggered.

 

GS:  Mmm, MMM!  Mmm, MMM!

 

KO:  At Kelly’s Pub one of the other nights, I recall Dave Rose talking about one of your stock cars you raced – it was a ’66 Falcon body placed on a ’56 Ford frame.  Doing a little further research I found that you were the 1969 and 1970 Lawrenceburg late model champion, which I’m sure was a feat in its day because I imagine there were some stout guys competing.  Was the stock car deal a successful endeavor? 

 

GS:  One of those seasons was an abbreviated season because of a problem with the fair board.  It was a short season with seven races or something and we did well in several of them and it ended up being that way.  But, what it did Kevin was let me know whether I could do this or not.  Everyone doubts themselves to a point and even I was doubting myself whether I could get out there and do this after watching some of the things that I’d seen.  And this proved to me that I could go do this thing and I enjoyed the heck out of it. 

 

KO:  Some of the guys you raced against, perhaps Shane Mugavin’s dad?

 

GS:  Father John.  John Mugavin.  Oh geeze…Don Wilbur.  Pat Patrick.  Rodney Combs.  On and on and on.  Chuck McWilliams later on.  There’s just a billion.  Gene Petro.  A lot of the guys who were around back then were really fast. 

 

KO:  So other than Lawrenceburg, would you run a place like Florence?

 

GS:  Tri-County!  Tri-County Speedway. 

 

KO:  When it was dirt?

 

GS:  When it was dirt, it was THE class place of the racing areas around here.  It was so far ahead of its time.  It had bathrooms in the infield and a nice driver’s lounge upstairs.  It was NICE!  And we would run a Wednesday night there and a Saturday night there, two nights a week.  And I learned a heckuva lot running that half-mile with that little Falcon.  It stepped me on up to go to the next level. 

 

KO:  So if Tri-County ran Wednesdays and Saturdays, did The Burg run Fridays?

 

GS:  That was during the time when there were problems with the fair board.  There was a contract issue and I’m not real sure what it was about. 

 

KO:  Did you have some feature wins in the stock cars?

 

GS:  Second, third, second, third, fourth, fifth…we just didn’t have the money to have the big 300 cubic inch Ford truck engine.  We had a little 240.  Everyone else had the 300s and the 292 inch Chevrolets.  I was a little bit outclassed on the horsepower on that big racetrack but we gave them Hell with what we had.  We eventually got a 300 and they of course stepped it up too but it was just a progression.  It was a very good learning experience to run that racetrack. 

 

KO:  With the smaller engine, it probably taught you to be smooth… you couldn’t afford to ease up and you had to be precise.

 

GS:  Momentum was a big issue there and like you said, there wasn’t enough power to pass these guys.  You’d creep up on ‘em and get to them and once you got to them, it was very difficult to pass them because you didn't have enough power to go by.

 

KO:  Doing a little research again, 1972 was the first year I saw you listed in USAC midget points.  Was this indeed your first year for midgets? 

 

GS:  I got to run a car at Grundy County.  A fellow by the name of Tom Dickinson had a car.  He had an Offy-Kurtis.  My dad allowed me to run with Tom up there and we went to Grundy County and I ran the pavement one time and missed it.  I had a 103 fever and tried to run the car up there that night the very first time.  And then the following week we went to McCutchenville, Ohio at an AMRA race with Norm Powers.  I ran against the likes of John Tenney and Les Scott and Jack Calabrase.  People like that.  I qualified fourth.  I made the dash.  And I finished fourth in the feature, my first time on dirt with a midget back then.  I knew then that I could do it.

 

KO:  You had to be pumped.

 

GS:  I knew then that I could do it.  I was wound up! 

 

KO:  Making the jump to midgets instead of sprint cars -  was that just the natural progression in those days?  You had to start off in midgets and that’s unlike today when kids can race sprint cars at tracks where they let ‘em run before they are of proper age. You had to learn somewhere and midgets were the place to learn?

 

GS:  Midgets were the place to learn and even after running them for seven years, I still had a great, great difficulty in getting a ride.  I was 31 years old, check that, 29 years old before they even let me get in a sprint car.  They said I didn’t have enough experience.  And I’d already run six or seven years of USAC midgets! 

 

KO:  Man!  It was a different world.

 

GS:  People were hardcore back then and they didn’t want just anyone sitting in their racecar. 

 

KO:  Too many guys getting killed…

 

GS:  Oh, it was much more lethal than it is now.  There’s no question.

 

KO:  Safety just wasn’t even a consideration.

 

GS:  Um-hmmm.  

 

KO: So who did you purchase your first midget from?  I’m sure you have some interesting stories.  I’m curious about the chassis and engine combination. 

 

GS:  The first midget came from a fellow from Pennsylvania by the name of Wayne Woodward.  We drove to York, Pennsylvania to take a look at it and when we got there, the pictures of the car that he sent us weren’t the car we were looking at.  The description of the car wasn’t the car.  The trailer wasn’t the trailer he described and we were pretty much stuck. But dad talked him down on the price and we grabbed this old car and brought it home.  It turns out that the car had a devious past and I’m not going to get into that…

 

We took it and put it back together, completely rebuilding it with Mel and Don Kenyon’s help.  Dad built a Chevy-II four cylinder engine for it, which was a pretty good engine at the time.  That next year, the Sesco came out and made the Chevy-II obsolete.  That comes full circle again later.  Once I got my Sesco, the VWs came out and made that Sesco outdated.  So then shortly after that, the Cosworth came out and made the VWs outdated.  So this thing becomes a long, roundabout thing and I was out of the midgets by then anyway.

 

KO:  It just ends up being a lot of money that you spend and prices a lot of people out I’m sure.  So the Kenyons, you said they helped you out but were there any other guys along the way who were invaluable as far as advice?

 

GS:  Bob Higman was good to me.  Mel and Don Kenyon – I can’t say enough about them.  There were times I’d drive up to Don’s shop, take my welding helmet with me, and take a day off of work just to sit and watch him weld, to learn how to TIG weld.  And I’m not the best TIG welder.  I’m not Billy Puterbaugh.  I’m not as good as these guys they’ve got here.  But I learned to put these cars together and they won’t fall apart.  I put my front end together for the sprint car at Winchester and it never fell off so I guess we did ok.

 

KO:  Yeah – that’s a lot of force on that right front!

 

GS:  But Don took very good care of me.  There were times when we had money problems and they waited on their money and they waited until we could get it.  They were very good to me over the years and Don taught me a lot.  And Mel taught me a lot on assembly.  He was very, very hard on me.  He was very point blank about things.  He told the truth and it paid off because we assemble a pretty nice racecar now. 

 

KO:  Tough love from Mel?

 

GS:  I’d say that’s a good one! 

 

KO:  Looking at your USAC points finishes, I’ll read off the stats.  115th in ’72, 28th in ’73, 14th in ’74, 16th in ’75, and 14th in ’76 (also competing sporadically in ’77, ’78, and ’79).  Judging by the numbers, this looked like a tough series to find success. Were you a full-time competitor, chasing the entire deal in ’74, ’75, and ’76? 

 

GS:  Pretty much.  We had one sponsor one year, I believe it was ’76.  ’75 or ’76.  It was the Scio Cabinet Company.  Mr. Bob Riggs from up in Ohio, he helped us out a bit, spent a little money, and bought us a few items.  It made all the difference in the world.  I was never able to crack the top-ten because of money.  We worked very, very hard at it and as you can see, I didn’t let up.  But it taught me an unbelievable amount about racing and cars.  It came back to do me a better deal later on. 

 

KO:  Chasing the USAC midget tour back then, I cannot imagine that you had a full-time job when you were literally crisscrossing the country, but did you have a full-time job when you were doing that?  Did you try?

 

GS:  I did most of the time.  I worked for Don’s Crankshaft Company for two of those years, ’75 and ’76 I think it was.  Or ’74 and ’75.  And Don would let me go racing whenever necessary.

 

KO:  What’s Don’s last name?

 

GS:  Kemper.  And Don’s Crankshaft Company is now defunct and everyone has pretty much gone to different areas and Don passed away several years ago.  It made a difference.  He let me do that.  And if I didn’t have a job, jobs were easy to get back then.  You’d just go get another job.  It was no big deal.  You’d walk in, put your application in, and a few days later they’d call you.  It isn’t like today.  It’s tough now. 

 

KO:  When you traveled the country, who was your primary help? You had told me earlier that you went through a lot of guys because it was a grueling schedule.  From your scrapbook, I saw that your dad helped you out a lot but when you’re up and down the road, hauling all the way to Denver or Salt Lake City, who were some of the guys you remember helping?

 

GS:    Timmy Martini from Cincinnati went with me quite a bit.  Bob Noppert went with me quite a bit.  And Rick Schwarm, who lives in Tampa now, or Fort Meyers, he helped me a ton many years ago.  But basically it was my dad and myself.  Dad was a rock.  He would plan his vacation time.  He’d get the schedule.  He’d pre-plan his vacation time of when he could be off.  He would hit as many races as he possibly could.  I think he only sent me out on my own in the first few years for like six races total. 

 

KO:  Is Timmy Martini any relation to Denny Martini?

 

GS:  Brother. 

 

KO:  Talk about some of the names from the USAC midgets you had to race against on a regular basis.  When I was looking through those stats from Kevin Eckert’s website (), it was amazing to see some of the guys you went head-to-head against.  It was just such a different time back then compared to now.  I’m not sure why, but the quality of competitors seemed so much stronger in your era.  Who were some of those names?

 

GS:  I can load you up on names.  Pancho Carter.  Johnny Parsons.  Tommy Astone.  Jimmy Caruthers.  Danny Caruthers.  Well, Danny was gone by the time I got there.  But Jimmy Caruthers was still around.  Sleepy Tripp.  Bobby Tripp.  Danny McKnight.  Uh…geeze.

 

KO:  Rich Vogler?

 

GS:  Rich Vogler.  I’ve been to Rich Vogler’s house.  We’ve worked out of their yard before.  We’ve traveled with them.  Steve Lotshaw is a very close friend of mine.  Mike Gregg became a close friend of mine.  Jimmy Beckley from Denver became a close friend.  So many people that if you sit there for a few minutes and think, but those are the ones that I got to know.  I got to know Rick Goudy.  I got to know Wally Pankratz from out there.  Just all the west coast guys…Leigh Earnshaw from the East.  And Ken “Mister” Brenn from the East.  There’s a lot of relationships you build over the years just by doing the USAC midget schedule.

 

KO:  Who did you like to race against? 

 

GS:  Steve Lotshaw was quality.  Mike Gregg was quality.  You could run against those guys. Some of the other guys would hit you and knock you out of the way.  I wasn’t used to that nor could I afford to have that.  You couldn’t afford to have your stuff bent up.  They all ended up being great racers and that proves it right there. 

 

KO:  Who did you NOT like to race against?  Who were some of those who ran into you?

 

GS:  You had to watch Rich when you were around Rich.  He would whack you on the way by.  Rich would not intentionally do it but it would happen and then you’d be sitting there with a bent racecar.  And if you saw him coming, you’d kind of give him a little extra room because he’d slam you. 

 

KO:  Anybody else you remember like that?

 

GS:  Not really.  Not in the midgets.  There wasn’t too many.  There wasn’t a lot of that.  Well, safety equipment wasn’t anywhere near what it is now.  So you couldn’t afford to be that way.  You had to watch your ass because you could get hurt in a heartbeat in these things and it isn’t like it is now with the seats and head and neck restraint devices and everything. 

 

KO:  Plus with the number of races you went to, you’re way out in the middle of nowhere and trying to repair cars would be tough. 

 

GS:  Precisely.  And you can’t always find a garage to fix a bent tubular chassis you know?

 

KO:  At the bigger races like the Hut Hundred, some even bigger names would come out like Foyt, Gary B., etc.  At the time when you were just trying to make the show, could you appreciate the legendary talent that you raced against?

 

GS:  Absolutely.  You’d just be overwhelmed because generally the Hoosier Hundred was the day before.  And you went up there and licked your chops, watching the Silver Crown cars.  Back then they were called Champ Dirt cars. And you watched those guys run those cars and they’d come to the Hut Hundred the following day.  You’d see George Snider.  Tom Bigelow.  Pancho.  You’d see Johnny Parsons.  Jan Opperman.  A.J. Foyt would come over and run.  There’s just all big names would come over and run like you said. Don Holley was a guy from California that I could remember reading about.  Don Holley, he ran flat-track motorcycles, was running for Gus Sohm and he came to the Hut Hundred. 

 

And the Hut Hundred was much tougher.  Much, much tougher to make back then.  I only made two I believe. 

 

KO:  You were saying that 80 cars would show up for 33 spots. 

 

GS:  And the same thing for Ascot Park at Turkey Night.  You’d go out there and there would be 80 racecars.  I never did make a Turkey Night race.  Never. 

 

KO:  So you’d have to qualify within a certain range?

 

GS:  If not, you’re on the trailer.  You didn’t get a C-main, B-main – none of that stuff.  It was either what you did or what you didn’t.  The Hut Hundred was very, very difficult to make. 

 

KO:  Go hard or go home!

 

GS:  Um-hum. 

 

KO:  No provisionals either.

 

GS:  It wasn’t even heard of.

 

KO:  My gut tells me that the USAC midget scene in the ‘70s might just have been a fun time.  Of course it was harder than hell to make those shows, but what was it really like? 

 

GS:  It was hard work.  It was educational.  You got to befriend a lot of people and create a lot of great relationships.  The competition was absolutely incredible.  You really didn’t know who was going to win each night.  It was very, very competitive. 

 

KO:  Some of the characters…who were they and how much fun was it being around those people?  Traveling from city to city in a caravan, I’m sure there were some jokesters in there.

 

GS:  Oh you know it.  Billy Engelhart – I got to be really good friends with him.  Steve Lotshaw was pretty much a case.  He had a dry sort of sense of humor and we just had a great time with Stevie Lotshaw and his father Dick.  They were great people.  They treated me good and I’ll never forget those days either.  They were probably the best. 

 

KO:  Talk about the stark differences between the midget scene back then compared to now.  Money, equipment, resourcefulness, ingenuity of the racers, and the camaraderie.  Back in the ‘70s, money and equipment weren’t as big of a factor.  The resourcefulness and ingenuity – this was more prevalent back then compared to now.  Camaraderie -  especially bigger back then compared to now.  Was that the reality?  People talk about how good things were and they look at them now and things aren’t horrible, but there’s quite a big difference.

 

GS:  We all had a great level of camaraderie back then.  As I said, I stayed at Vogler’s house.  I stayed at Mike Gregg’s house.  We all just got along good and it was a lot of father-son things, kind of like it is now.  But I guess the main difference is now all the cars are cookie-cutter cars.  Back then, there were the LTC cars.  There were the Edmunds cars.  There were the Higman cars.  There were five or six different manufacturers of cars and five different motors.  You didn’t have to have one specific thing.  Now, it’s a cookie-cutter situation.  You have to have this or that, whatever is hot at the time.  It could be the Toyota.  Nowadays it could be the Mopar.  You don’t know.  It could be the new Chevrolet.  Back then it was a little bit like that but the cars were different.  You could have a Benson.  George Benson, up in Northern California, built one heck of a pavement car, probably THE best pavement car that was built back then.  But he would only build like five a year and the west coast guys would grab ‘em up.  So you’d go out west to run Roseville or San Jose and the Benson cars would just blow you away.  And it’s not that way anymore.  It’s one particular car.  Cookie-cutter cars have kind of changed that part. 

 

KO:  I miss the days of seeing some of those Badger midgets.  Donnie Jones had one around here.

 

GS:  Rollie Lindblad.  Very good.  Rollie Lindblad built those and they were similar to a supermodified.  They were a one-of-a-kind deal and they worked great.  If you didn’t have one, they were going to go by you.  They were going to beat you. 

 

KO:  This was like mid-to-late ‘80s and he was still running a Chevy II in the thing.  But the engine was totally offset on the left hand side of the car and Jones was blowing by everybody on the high banks.

 

GS:  John Parsons ran one for Lockhard.  Lockhards had one too.

 

KO:  One of your first forays into car ownership came on October 20th, 1974.  Lloyd Ruby finished 11th on the Pocono ¾ mile in your midget.  According to Eckert’s site, it was a 00 to win show won by Pancho Carter.  Other names in the race included Billy Vukovich, Jimmy Caruthers, Johnny Parsons, Johnny Rutherford, A.J. Foyt, Jim McElreath, Roger McCluskey, Wally Dallenbach, Steve Krisiloff, your man Ruby, and Bobby Unser.  Wow!  What a show!  Any thoughts on that race and Lloyd Ruby? That sounded like a neat event.

 

GS:  Lloyd was great to work with.  That whole scene was a great, great show.  I don’t know why more people didn’t show up to watch it.  It was very poorly attended but it was very, very brutally cold in the Poconos that year.  It was horribly cold.  We would have went better.  I didn’t know what was wrong.  He kept talking about the car moving around.  There was a broken birdcage on the car from a flip I had the week before at Terre Haute and I didn’t know it.  So it had pulled the studs out of the hub.  I could have made it better but I couldn’t find it.  I couldn’t tell what it was.

 

Yeah, it was a great time and we got paid handsomely to go there.  It was a good experience.  It was a great time.

 

KO:  So was that just a stand-alone show? 

 

GS:  They ran sprint cars also because I remember seeing Seymour’s car pitted right next to us.  I think that’s the two classes they ran.  They might have run something else.

 

KO:  I remember in the mid to late ‘80s they still ran midgets there on the front straightaway and up pit road.  Or did they run behind pit road?

 

GS:  There was an actual three-quarter mile, if I’m not mistaken, on the inside of the Pocono two and a half.  I think that’s pretty much what they used.

 

KO:  Another unusual event I noticed in your records included a fifth place finish at Trenton in August of 1976, the second of a two day show.  You trailed Billy Vukovich (Pool 9), Billy Engelhart, Doug Craig, and Steve Lotshaw.  Midgets on a 1.5 mile paved oval – how treacherous, twitchy, and fast were they?

 

GS:  If anyone remembers the old Trenton track, it had a dog-leg in the backstretch.  You actually turned right and we had never done that before.  These cars weren’t set to do that.  And it took quite a bit of bravado to figure out how you’re going to go through this dog-leg flat-out, the opposite way.  You had to change the shocks a little bit and the car around just a little bit to get it to work but I was particularly proud of that fifth place finish up there.  That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and I can remember going down the straightaway and you can barely hear the engine run.  And the poles are going by (Greg is making sound effects – shu, shu, shu) as fast as you can see.  That thing is geared so high to run that huge racetrack.  But it was a great time and we did quite well obviously.  And the day before, I was going to do good too.  There was a two day show.  I believe they had the Indycars there.  That was a Friday-Saturday and I think they had Indycars there on Sunday.  It was the neatest thing I’ve done. 

 

KO:  That sounded fun!  Pucker-up on that big track.

 

GS:  Oh yeah!  Oh yeah!  But look at the names you’re running against.  I was right up in there and that made me feel really good about that.

 

KO:  In the two weeks following Trenton, you raced at IRP, Little Springfield, Denver, Boise, Salt Lake City, and Pikes Peak, finishing 2nd to Larry Patton at the Salt Palace.  Was that an indoor race? 

 

GS:  Indoor show in August at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City!

 

KO:  It must have better hotter than you know what there.

 

GS:  Bad…really bad.

 

KO:  Did they have the A/C on in there?

 

GS:  Yeah, I think they did.  The night before, I was going to win it and I tried to take somebody out and I took myself out.  I believe I tried to take Sleepy out as a matter of fact to win it and this one here I elected to run second.  I had him passed one time and a yellow took it back.  And it could have been my first and only USAC midget feature win. 

 

KO:  But you did it the class way.

 

GS:  I backed off and ran second.

 

KO:  So did you do all the shows in that swing?

 

GS:  Oh yeah.  Every one of them.  Oh yeah.  Every single one of them.

 

KO:  That sounded like a pretty awesome swing there.  It appears that the midget schedule was almost reminiscent of a World of Outlaws schedule with all the traveling.  How grueling was that for an owner/operator? 

 

GS:  Pretty tough.  We had a camper on the truck and we slept in the truck.  We didn’t get rooms a whole lot.  Once in awhile we’d get a room or we’d use somebody else’s room when they were done with it to shower.  But you know what?  Looking back it was one of the greatest times I’ve ever had in my life.  It was great.

 

KO:  You got to see a lot of stuff I’m sure.

 

GS:  Mount Saint Helens.  I was in Washington state before it blew its cork.

 

KO:  So did you get any kind of tow money to do that or was gas just that cheap back then? 

 

GS:  Gas was 75 cents a gallon back then and you didn’t even care about it.  All you wanted to do was race and you hoped that you made enough racing.  Plus, we did occasionally smuggle a little Olympia beer and Coors beer back from the west and make five bucks a case on that so we’d make our gas money back! 

 

KO:  Sounds like a little Smokey and the Bandit deal!

 

GS:  Oh, whatever it took!  We had to do what we had to do.

 

KO:  In that timeframe, did you have a ton of vacation time or were those the days when you took a hiatus from work and looked for a job when you came back?

 

GS:  In ’73, I quit the Kroger Company candy plant because I was going to be a professional racer.  Whatever!  And then in ’74, ’75, and ’76 they were all just sporadic jobs and Don’s Crankshaft was in there for two years.  I worked at a grain elevator in 6 and 7.  Again, they were just hit and miss jobs. 

 

KO:  So with all the different places you raced with the midgets, there had to be some trips that still stand out as memorable.  You talk about that as being one of the best times of your life.  Are there any you remember more than others?

 

GS:  Absolutely.  The Pacific Northwest tour started out at Provo, Utah.  Then from Provo, Utah to Boise, Idaho.  From Boise, Idaho to Spanaway, Washington which rained out.  From Spanaway to Olympia.  From Olympia to Tenino Speedway, which you could see Mount Rainier right in the distance.  Across the Juan de Fuca Straits to Victoria, British Columbia.  Raced at Victoria, British Columbia, come back across to Skagit Speedway, which still runs to this day.  Down from Skagit and down to Denver, finished up in Denver and came home.  That was a terrific two and a half to three week trip that I will never forget as long as I live.

 

KO:  Unbelievable!  Wow!  I guess I will leave it at that because I’m sure there are others you can think about too but that sounds pretty dramatic.

 

GS:  Yeah.  That was the greatest one. 

 

KO:  What about unusual places to race?  You raced on mile dirt tracks at DuQuoin, which may have been dusted out, and Syracuse.  What about any other oddball joints that seem strange compared to now?  I remember seeing midgets on the mile at Springfield but at DuQuoin, they must have been fast there.  Syracuse?  They must have been fast there too.

 

GS:  Indianapolis Mile.  My first USAC midget race was on the Indianapolis Mile, which we had engine problems that night.  I didn’t qualify or even get to race.  That’s where the first one was, the mile there. 

 

Yeah the Trenton thing was pretty much the capper on that deal. 

 

KO:  You didn’t know you were going to have to run a road course!

 

GS:  But you’ve got to remember, Dayton, Salem, and Winchester were always a blast too with a midget.  That would scare the pants off of anyone. 

 

KO:  Are there any places you miss racing at?  I remember you mentioning Olympic Stadium in Kansas City was always a place you enjoyed.

 

GS:  Olympic Stadium had gooey black river gumbo from some place out there they found.  And even on a hot day, they’d water it and it would be so tacky that you couldn’t spin a wheel.  And for some reason, it worked for me.  I did ok there in my car one night.  We were pretty close to winning my first feature there too.

 

KO:  You didn’t break any rear ends on that sticky surface?

 

GS:  No.  I ran out of tear-offs.  I could barely see what I was doing.  It was so black and gooey.  But that place had a history with the Weld brothers, Tiger Bob Williams, Carl Williams, Jay Woodside, Ray Lee Goodwin and all those guys used to run that racetrack and I was just tickled to death from history to be able to run on a track where those guys ran.  You know?

 

KO:  So was it really too dusty that day at DuQuoin?  I saw in Eckert’s results that it just said “DUST”.  Was the show cancelled?

 

GS:  Yeah.  They shut it down.  It was just horrible.  Terrible. 

 

KO:  And people think about tracks being too dusty today.  It’s always been an issue when you try to run during the day. 

 

GS:  Yeah.  It was very difficult.  You couldn’t see anything.  And it wasn’t good for the cars.  It was just a real bad deal.

 

KO:  You mainly chased USAC midgets but there were a ton of other sanctioning bodies in the ‘70s.  Did you score any midget feature wins outside of USAC, like maybe with CORA?

 

GS:  I did.  As a matter of fact, they took it away because they wanted to cube check our engine and my dad wouldn’t let them cube check our engine because he had to go to work that night.  And he just refused and they took the win away from him. 

 

KO:  And where would that have been?

 

GS:  That was at Lawrenceburg. 

 

KO:  Man, you had to be upset to say the least.  Heartbroken?

 

GS:  I know I won it.  I finally won a midget feature.  It hurt.  But that’s ok.  I know in my heart that we won it. 

 

KO:  The USAC records still show you competing sporadically with the midget group from ’77 to ’79.  Did you already transition to sprint cars in that timeframe? 

 

GS:  I was injured at Salem pretty badly in ’77.  And that’s when we pretty much quit running.  I had Roger Rager in my car shortly after that.  I wanted to move on.  I had my training ground time.  It was time to move onto sprint cars one way or another.  I kind of sat out a year and ran some late model stock cars around Lawrenceburg and started getting into sprint cars down at Lawrenceburg.  I caught the eye of Mr. Tom Stenger in Dayton and he elected to start helping us out and get a car.  And we got a car and it got better and better from that point on. 

 

KO:  The midget series was very competitive with a ton of talent but the local sprint cars in Indiana featured some tough hombres too.  On a regular basis, you raced wheel to wheel with Dick Gaines, Bob Kinser, Sheldon Kinser, Bobby Adkins, Butch Wilkerson, Louie Mann, Randy Kinser, Kelly Kinser, Tony Solomito, Bernie Graybeal, Allen Barr, Kerry Norris, Danny Milburn, Bobby Black, Marvin Deputy, and Larry Martin.  How bad-ass were these guys?

 

GS:  All bad-ass!  Dick Gaines, Butch Wilkerson, Allen Barr, Bob Kinser…nobody has a clue unless they’ve seen it or done it or been around it or watched them do it.  It was just a very competitive, good bunch of guys, wouldn’t tell you a whole lot, and wouldn’t teach you a whole lot because they knew you were going to come try beat ‘em with it.  But it was a great, great time actually. 

 

KO:  Back in ’79, I see that you ran 6th against the Outlaws at New Bremen.  Steve Kinser, Dub May, Lee James, Rick Ferkel, and Doug Wolfgang finished ahead of you, with Sammy chasing you.  The next year, you ran 9th against the Outlaws at the same track.  When you ran sixth, was that a wingless show? 

 

GS: It was.  Back then the Outlaws bounced back and forth from day to day.  You didn’t know what it was going to be until however it was advertised.  Yeah, that was quite an enjoying day that day.  Wolfgang, Swindell, myself, and I believe Ferkel traded third, fourth, fifth, and sixth back and forth for I don’t know, ten or fifteen laps.  Finally, Wolfgang started cutting down through the infield and started kicking up rocks, gravel, dirt, and grass – kind of distracted you for a minute and I lost one spot to him but I think we would have run fourth that day if it hadn’t been for that. 

 

KO:  As a local racer, was your equipment up to par with those guys?  Did they have the stout engines and the lightweight cars like today? 

 

GS:  They had the lightweight cars and all the good engines and I had an 1840 pound Bob Trostle car that Frank Hollingsworth from over in Illinois sold us.  It was a big, old heavy .120 wall car and it worked really well.  I wish I had a big picture of that…I had a picture of that someplace but it went away.  That was one of the better days.  Those guys raced hard.  It taught me a lot just running with those guys, how hard you’ve really got to run with them. 

 

KO:  To see a local racer do that, except for central PA, Knoxville, or northern California, you’d never see that today.  Was it easier to do that with those guys back then or was it still a pretty big feat?

 

GS:  By no means was it easy.  I felt extremely gifted when we rolled out of there that day with that good of a finish because of the people we were running with.  You had the names you were naming and there were about five more that were there.  I beat some pretty significant people that day and it really felt good to accomplish that, you know?  This isn’t all about an ego thing with me or an “I’m better than you” type thing.  This is about accomplishing something, setting goals, and going after it.  Here I am running against some of the best guys around and heck, I’m able to stay with them and beat some of them.  And I’m feeling pretty good about that, thinking that some day I’d catch somebody’s eye and get a ride. 

 

KO:  And be able to keep chasing that dream…

 

GS:  Oh yeah!  Exactly.

 

KO:  I found that you ran second to Fred Linder against the All Stars at Charlestown, Indiana on May 14th, 1982.  The next night, you won a sprint car feature at Lawrenceburg.  I know recordkeeping for local Indiana races is not that good. I’m wondering if May 15th of ’82 might have been your first-ever sprint car feature victory.  Maybe you got another one or two before that? 

 

GS:  That was the first sprint car feature win and I knew when I rolled out of Charlestown, after running second in an All Star show, I knew that we were going to do really well the following night.  I just had a feeling that this was going to be it and it was. 

 

KO:  What memories do you have of that first sprint car win?  Obviously the drive across the bottom half of Indiana that night from Charlestown back to Cincinnati you were feeling good, but what do you remember from that actual night when you did get the win? 

 

GS:  We had finally gotten a Gambler chassis car that was able to compete with Kerry Norris.  Kerry Norris was the hot shoe back then.  And we actually were able to have a car that could run with him and I don’t know where he finished that night but we won and he didn’t.  To have a car that works so well, with so little effort, after trying to get that heavier Trostle car to do what we did with it, (which it ended up in Tampa Bay, by the way, running a pavement series down in Tampa Bay)…the Gambler chassis made all the difference in the world and that’s exactly why we won.  The night before wound me up.  We ran second against the All Stars, you know?

 

KO:  It’s amazing what confidence can do.

 

GS:  Oh, it was incredible! 

 

KO:  In June of ’82, you won a local feature at Kokomo, beating Kelly Kinser, Bob Kinser, Louie Mann, and another one of those bad-asses, Bob Christian.  Kokomo has always been a demanding track and I would guess it was no different back in ’82.  With its rich racing history and all the big names that have rolled through the pit gate, becoming a winner there had to be special.  Do you have any memories of winning at Kokomo for the first time? 

 

GS:  I did and I also had a shot rear bumper from the guys pounding on the back of it trying to knock me out of the way.  I’ll probably need to point it out too that from 1979, October and on now, from anything we speak of from this point, I’m working a full-time job with the city of Cincinnati.  So that Sunday night we ran at Kokomo, we won, I had to be back at work the next morning at 6 AM. 

 

KO:  And we were on different time with Cincinnati back then.


GS:  We lost the hour coming back.  Yeah, it was very difficult physically and mentally to be able to keep this up from that point on.

 

KO:  Did it feel like a significant feather in your cap by winning at Kokomo, more so than at Lawrenceburg because it was a track that you may not have raced at nearly as much? A guy from Cincinnati coming in there to beat the Indiana guys, it seems like Kokomo has always had that local flair, so did it feel extra special?

 

GS:  There’s no question.  It felt good to go there and beat those guys at their track.  Any time you do that, you’ve accomplished something because like you said, they’ve got their local group that are really, really tough to beat.  And those guys were tough to beat.  I have to remember who Kelly Kinser was running for at the time, but he and somebody else just pounded the rear bumper clear off my car just trying to knock me out of the way and for some reason I was able to muscle past it and keep on going. 

 

KO:  Were you running huggy pole then?

 

GS:  Yeah.  Oh yeah.  There was nothing else really.  There was nothing out there to play with.  I could hear people back there trying it, but obviously they weren’t making it work. 

 

KO:  Some people loved the old Kokomo.  A lot of people hated it.  How did it suit your style?

 

GS:  It didn’t matter.  A racetrack was a racetrack. And after you’ve run as many racetracks as I’ve run and as many states as I’ve run, you didn’t even pay attention to it.  You didn’t cry about the tracks like a lot of them do nowadays. 

 

KO:  Without question ’82 was your breakout season, winning at least six times - once at Kokomo, once at Lincoln Park, and four times at Lawrenceburg.  And success continued into 1983, finding a pair of July Bloomington victories, three more at The Burg, and some second place winged efforts at Eldora and Findlay.  What were you doing differently in ’82 and ’83 compared to before?  I know you talked about the Gambler chassis.  Was that the main thing or were there some other things?

 

GS:  The Gambler chassis was the main thing.  And it was a learning process for us to learn.  Because we were non-winged guys, we didn’t run the wings all the time.  So consequently, we didn’t exactly know how to go about setting them up and how the guys do it.  And the winged guys all had better engines than we did.  That second at Findlay you were talking about - that was great!  Nobody gets it.  But that was a really great feeling because you had the Keegans and you had all the Northern Ohio guys who went to Findlay on Sunday night.  Then again, I had to tow home.  A three hour tow to get home and go back to work the next morning at 6 AM. 

 

KO:  Grueling! Did winning change you in any way? You were used to doing things the hard way and not having the success.  Winning can sometimes change a person – obviously adding some confidence – but did it change you any other way you think?

 

GS:  I liked it!  It made me even more determined to do it and sometimes I got a little bit over-focused and didn’t think about the people around me.  They were being affected by my drive and determination and I probably should have been a little bit more user-friendly with some of the people around me.  Male and female. 

 

KO:  Winning is a focus and if you’re getting it done, you want more of it.  I can understand that.  For the most part, you’ve primarily driven your own stuff.  I saw your name listed in Bud Doty’s number 50 in the midgets. 

 

GS:  Yep.  Bud’s a friend of mine.  Has been for many years.  Kevin was a little young guy at 12 years old when I went to race for his father in Wichita and Olympic Stadium.  I remember Kevin, I think he was 11 or 12.  And then Kevin came up and did quite well before his demise but yeah, the Dotys were great people.  They treated me nice.  I stayed at their house and they had a special bedroom for the drivers and it was just a really nice thing with those people. 

 

KO:  You were the man!  So on July 17th, 1982, for Eldora you landed in the Gingerich 72.  Was this Kokomo’s Fenton Gingerich? 

 

GS:  Absolutely.  With Jim McQueen wrenching.

 

KO:  Interesting.  So I’ve heard he could be a hard guy to drive for.  And I guess for that matter, McQueen maybe a little harder with both of those guys being kind of crusty.  Can you confirm the speculation? 

 

GS:  Yep!  Sure enough.  That was not one of my finest hours.  We did ok.  They wanted more.  They wanted better.  They wanted to win.  I was not used to the things that Jim was doing.  I could have adapted to them over a period of time but Jim was one of the best mechanics ever around here and I just didn’t catch on quick enough and I only got to run two races with them.

 

KO:  How did you land that deal?

 

GS:  It came open.  They fired somebody and my name popped up because I was winning at Lawrenceburg and winning at Kokomo and doing ok at Eldora.  My name just popped up.  In racing, there’s a list that goes on.  Like right now, there’s a list of five guys that you want to drive for you.  Robert Ballou, Jesse Hockett, Casey Shuman, Daron Clayton two years ago, Jon Stanbrough, Dave Darland.  There’s your list nowadays.  Back then there was a list also.  It was Randy Kinser, Greg Staab, Kerry Norris – that type of thing.  And I was on that list.  I happened to get that chance to do that ride. 

 

KO:  So other than Doty and Gingerich, up until ’82, I know you spoke about getting to drive Tom Dickinson’s midget, but was there anybody else in your early midget and sprint car days that you got to drive for? 

 

GS:  I did.  There was a fellow by the name of Troy Wagner in Cincinnati.  He was a friend of mine back then and still is.  He got a car and it was an old Bobby Allen car.  And we stuck it together and ran ’78 with it – right after I came back from being hurt.  I think it was ’78.  We ran it quite a few races and it was an ok car to learn in.  I learned quite a bit out of the deal.  It was a short-term deal but nevertheless, we went racing with them. 

 

KO:  Back in those early sprint car days, you mentioned hooking up with Tom Stenger Ford.  I remember seeing that on your car for years and years but how did that relationship with Tom start out? 

 

GS:  There was a lady in Cincinnati who was president of CAR – Competitive Auto Racing Fan Club.  It was Georgeann Stemler.  I don’t know if she’s still around or not but I sure hope so.  She met Tom somewhere and Tom mentioned he wanted to get his name on some sprint cars.  Georgeann gave me his phone number.  I called him.  I went up and met him.  We arrived at a fifty dollar per race deal if I made a feature in the first year.  He saw the potential there and it blossomed from there.  And my greatest years were with Tom Stenger. 

 

KO:  How long did that relationship last?

 

GS:  Ten years.  From 1978 to 1988.  We had ten great years and a lot of championships. 

 

KO:   Any thoughts about Tom Stenger that stand out?  The type of guy he was?

 

GS:  Gruff.  Tough.  Heart of gold.  Do anything for you but on the outside you just thought he was the toughest bastard to ever walk the face of the earth.  Big guy.  Kind of gruff guy.  But a great, great person who along with my father got me to where I’m at right now. 

 

KO:  Given that he had a Ford dealership, did he ever want you to run Ford engines in your sprint car?

 

GS:  We did.  As a matter of fact, “Ohio” George Montgomery, the drag racer, built a cast iron 410 Ford and we tried to run it a couple of times.  We ran it at Granite City, Illinois and we ran it at Lawrenceburg.  We won a heat race with it at Lawrenceburg with a wing on and it had a lot of horsepower but you could feel it was heavier because of the cast iron block.  There weren’t any aluminum Ford blocks back then.  We ran Hinsdale – Santa Fe Speedway.  We were going to run a TV race with it one night and something broke in the valve train on it and we didn’t get to run it but just a few laps. 

 

But the Ford ended up being ok.  Casey Luna ran one when they finally came out with an aluminum block.  But the weight disadvantage was a problem. 

 

KO:  So other than Michel Tire, which I saw on some of your midgets, Stenger Ford, and Don’s Crankshaft, I don’t recall too many sponsor decals on your cars.  Who were some of your other supporters over the years?

 

GS:  Jerry Scarlato from Cincinnati, Ohio.  He and his brother Greg are names around the Cincinnati area.  Greg has four Popeye’s Chicken places down there.  They’ve been friends of mine for years.  Greg Scarlato had the Italian Inn downtown across from the City Hall.  He helped me out quite a bit to get me to some of the races out west.  He paid my travel expenses to go out to California and such. 

 

Mr. A.J. Esterkamp from the Western Hills area has been a lifelong friend.  I’ve known him since I was about eleven.  He gave me great assistance over the years by helping me physically and financially to get the cars to the track and he was thoroughly involved in my racing up until just a few years back.  He ended up being an official at the speedway.  He worked with Glen Niebel for awhile and helped Glen.  He’s a genuine racer and he’s a good person. 

 

KO:  Do I still see that Esterkamp name on some Lawrenceburg Speedway billboards?

 

GS:  Yes.  Very same one. 

 

KO:  Speaking of Stenger though, was that his car that you drove to fourth at the Silver Crown portion of Eldora’s Four Crown in October of ’82?  I think you said you might have been laid up in the hospital in October of ’82. 

 

GS:  It might have been ’82.  I’m pretty sure it was ’83.  Anyway, that was Tom’s car.  We started dead last and ran ‘er up to fourth.

 

KO:  It says Ron Shuman won.  Steve Kinser was second.  And Kenny Schrader in third.

 

GS:  Schrader was right out ahead of me. 

 

KO:  And you came from the back to do that!

 

GS:  Yep. 

 

KO:  In the Data Processing Solutions number 71. 

 

GS:  Exactly.  Ironically, there’s some history to that.  That car is the exact same car Jan Opperman was hurt in at the Fairgrounds when it was the Longhorn 48.  And that car ended up just about taking me out at the Fairgrounds because I flipped it when Charlie Ledford bought it and Glen Niebel was wrenching it.  I just about bought it on that one.  Knocked five of the six cage points off of it when I turned it over at the Fairgrounds. 

 

KO:  The Silver Crown deal was prestigious back then and I would guess that it was kind of a clique.  You had to be a big name to get one of those rides.  How hard was it to attract Silver Crown owners in the early 1980s?  Was gaining a Silver Crown ride a priority for you?

 

GS:  It was a rung on the ladder – yes.  That’s all I really wanted to do – was keep moving up and moving up.  Obviously the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the final goal, which never happened.  But, I came close to that too.  The Silver Crown cars – that’s what I wanted to get into.  Tom gave me a break but for some reason he kept me off the miles with it.  He’d let me run the short tracks though.  To this day, I don’t understand why that was but that’s neither here nor there. 

 

He put Butch Wilkerson in it for the miles or he put someone else in it for the miles.  He put Barry Camp in it at Nazareth.  I’d just come off finishing fourth with it.  The following week, he put Barry Camp in it. 

 

KO:  A hard guy to figure out I guess?

 

GS:  And you don’t bother.  You just do what you’re told. 

 

KO:  As long as you can have the ride the next time it becomes available…

 

GS:   Yeah, you don’t question it. 

 

KO:  1984 – what a year!  19 wins!  Eckert has 18 but I’ll go with your 19 because stats can be hard to come by.  All I have to say is WOW!  These days, you hear guys like Jon Stanbrough, Tony Elliott, Dave Darland, Jay Drake, and J.J. Yeley having those types of years and they are cemented into memory.  Either way, that is a dominating year.  According to Eckert’s website, I found 11 scores at Lawrenceburg, 3 at Lincoln Park, 3 at Bloomington, and 1 at Twin Cities.  Rarely did you ever finish outside of the top-five in the stats I found.  Can you nail down a reason why you were so dominant? 

 

GS:  Preparation and another Gambler chassis.  It was a 1984 Gambler.  It was a brand new car and it was a very good car.  Our preparation and everything we’d learned, where we’d broken items, every mistake there is to be made on a racecar, I’ve made it.  And I’ve worked really, really hard in those years after that not to make those mistakes again.  I think that made the difference and I’m pretty sure that sums it up, really.

 

KO:  Was it car, engine, driver, crew or was it the whole combination? 

 

GS:  I had a phenomenal crew.  I had Andy Martini.  I had five guys and everybody had a specific job, which lightened my load considerably.  One guy did fuel.  One guy did tires.  One guy did chassis.  Me and dad took care of the engines.  And another guy took care of the truck and trailer.  We had a great group of guys and that was a great time!  That was also the year we went to California for the Pacific Coast Nationals with the first car sitting on the roof.  I carried it out on top of the roof of the trailer.  No one had ever seen that done before. 

 

KO:  Did you come up with that on your own? 

 

GS:  We were the first ones as far as I know.

 

KO:  I remember seeing Outlaw guys who would put the chassis and body up on the trailer in ‘87.

 

GS:  This is a complete car, engine and everything! 

 

KO:  Oh WOW! 

 

GS:  (Laughing)

 

KO:  Unbelievable!

 

GS:  Yep.

 

KO:  Why doesn’t your name come up when people mention dominant years?  When I did my research, I just found this out.  I didn’t even know about it because I didn’t start following racing, hard core, until about 1985.  Nobody ever really talks about that time, you know?  I don’t know if there’s a reason why that’s never brought up, but I’m just kind of curious.

 

GS:  I don’t really know Kevin.  I wish I had an answer for that.  I think that they feel that the competition wasn’t as tough back then.  Everyone in their own little era thinks that their competition is the toughest.  And if they don’t think it wasn’t hard back then, they needed to trade spots.  You know?  That could be part of it. Age is another thing.  People are starting to get older.  Their memories aren’t as sharp.  Fortunately you and I have some stats here.  I have a fairly good memory even though I’ve got “dain bramage” from all the concussions and head injuries and stuff but I can still remember a lot of things that really jump out. 

 

KO:  Toward the end of ’84, did you feel like King Kong? Did the ladies swoon over you because you were a huge winner? 

 

GS:  I wouldn’t go quite that far but it made you a little more popular than normal, let’s put it that way. 

 

KO:  Did you make any money that year or was it still expensive and a break-even deal at best?

 

GS:  No, that year, that racecar made money and I’m not going to go into details but yes, it did.  Enough to go to California and Manzanita and pay for that out of what we made. 

 

KO:  On August 16th of 1984, I see that Rick Hood drove your car to a 3rd place finish at Eldora.  With all the success you had that season and the possibility of winning at Eldora, which I’m sure would have been a big deal to you, what made you give up your seat? 

 

GS:  Completely political move.  Ricky was chasing points and the Fortunes were good people and they needed a ride.  They broke theirs and I got out of the car to let him do that.  I caught a lot of hell from a lot of people for doing it.

 

KO:  But I would guess he would have appreciated that.

 

GS:  I would think so.  It stands out in people’s minds when you do things like that.  I’m sure it does. 

 

KO:  You already mentioned this but at the end of ’84, you made the long tow out to Ascot and Manzy.  How much of an eye-opening of an experience was that tow out there?  You’d already done these tows before with the midgets but the California sprint car scene had to be different than the midget scene.  An eye opener?

 

GS:  Culture shock!  When you see Dean Thompson, Bubby Jones, and Lealand McSpadden doing this thing and you think you’re good, you’re not even in the same ball park as those guys when you go out there.  Incredible experience…watching Dean Thompson run Ascot was worth the price of admission!  I’d pay just to walk through the pits to see that.  He was that good.  Bubby was right behind him, better than him some nights.  Bubby was great. 

 

Yes, you’re right.  It was a culture shock.  We missed the A-main by one car.  I was first alternate for the Pacific Coast Nationals and I missed Manzanita by two cars.  I was the second alternate at Manzanita.  People can laugh about that all they want but it was very, very difficult to make those races. 

 

KO:  I imagine Indiana drivers back then were straight and smooth.  They liked to run the bottom.  But those west coast guys, were they that much faster and braver than the Midwestern guys?  Or was it just a style that you had to get used to? 

 

GS:  It was a style that they did every week.  They ran Ascot, what 35 times a year, 39 times a year?  They knew their racetrack.  They knew the Manzanita track.  I’d been around Manzy a lot in a midget, but never a sprint car.  The first time out there at Manzanita, I won my heat race right out of the box, the first night, which made us feel pretty good.  But, it was a point accumulation thing and I missed that one by two cars.  It was just a great experience.

 

KO:  So did you adjust your driving style to the west coast or did you keep doing what you were doing all along? 

 

GS:  What you needed to do was free your car up to slide like they did.  They had special cars with the engines down and forward.  And the fuel tanks were down and forward where the car would lighten up.  They had different chassis torsion tube heights where the cars would slide on purpose.  It was intentionally done that way so they could get in the corner harder. 

 

But we learned a few things.  Roger Newell, who was later killed at Ascot, and Bill Pryor, from Donovan, helped me out a ton back then and got me going better that night at Ascot.  We got better as the thing went on.  In other words, if I could have stayed there and learned it, I could have gotten good at it.

 

KO:  So did you like backing it in?

 

GS:  I loved it.  I did.  I absolutely loved it.  There were some experiences that happened on that Ascot trip that we don’t have time to go into now but it’s a great experience.  Anybody that missed Ascot Park missed one of the neatest things going – ever! 

 

KO:  That’s exactly where I was going with my next question.  Are there any wild Ascot stories to tell that won’t get you into trouble?

 

GS:  I can.  I can for a fact.  We went out and they used to register your muffler reading on the scoreboard when you’d go out to qualify.  If you were loud, you had to correct it right away or you didn’t get to run.  We were working on our mufflers and all of a sudden the crowd was gasping…and roared…and everybody screamed.  I looked up and I saw this double-zero car go flying by and then pretty soon you hear this “chink, chink” crash metal noise. 

 

Well, everything is quiet and a few minutes later and they announced it was Stanley Atherton in Bill Hicks’ car.  Everything was quiet again.  Stanley was out of the car, moving around.  Everything was quiet again.  A few minutes later, if I can think of his name, the announcer at Ascot…

 

KO:  Bruce Flanders?

 

GS:  Bruce Flanders came over the P.A. and I will never forget this as long as I live.  “Will the owners of a Toyota pickup truck, da-da-da-da-da license plate, the owners of a gold Ford Thunderbird, and the owners of a blue Lincoln,” and he gave the license plate number and paused for a second, “please report to the parking lot.  Stanley Atherton just customized your cars for you.”

 

He flew out of the racetrack, into the parking lot, through the fence, knocked a big shark bite looking chunk out of the fence, and bounced off these three cars and annihilated these three cars apparently.  So that’s an Ascot story I’ll never forget.  I just saw Bruce Flanders, who still announces at Irwindale for Turkey Night.  I just saw him a few weeks ago when we were out there. 

 

KO:  It seems like you and D.O. Laycock occasionally discuss a wild Phoenix pool party from the mid ‘80s.  I’m wondering if it was it on this trip. 

 

GS:  Youuuuuu got it!  Actually, I believe it was on the ’83 trip, but at any rate, yeah, we walked up to the pool and we didn’t have a way to make a cooler for the beer.  And everybody was having a good time.  It was Brad Noffsinger, Stan Atherton, their wives, all my crew,  D.O., and some other people he was with.  He went out to the trailer, grabbed an old tire, filled the tire up with ice, and made his cooler out of an old right rear tire!

 

KO:  Very nice!

 

GS:  VERY nice!  And we walked up to the pool and there were some people in there that didn’t really have all of their clothes on.  So I backed away from the pool pretty quick!  We backed away and went back to the beer cooler instead! 

 

KO:  So some of those guys without their clothes on were drivers?

 

GS:  OH YEAH! 

 

KO:  Any of them we talked about previously?

 

GS:  OH YEAH!

 

KO:  Any guys that won championships?

 

GS:  Uh huh!  Uh huh! 

 

KO:  But we don’t need to name any names, do we?

 

GS:  No, no names.  You can be creative with it. 

 

KO:  I think I’ve got an idea.  But you guys still talk about that party.  That was just a good time, huh?

 

GS:  We did quite well that night.  It was pretty much fun and everybody had a good time.  We got to know people we didn’t know before.  It was just a great time.  When you go out there back then, you were much better received for some reason than you are now.

 

KO:  And you got a long-tow award from Manzy?  You got a plaque for that.

 

GS:  I have gotten a couple of those.  Yep.  We got the furthest tow award from Manzanita – I think three times we got it. 

 

KO:  Interesting.  So no wonder you like driving out there!

 

GS:  Oh, it’s just good people.  And they treat you well.

 

KO:  This is kind of going on a tangent, but I had to throw this question in there somewhere.  Dave Rose told me that Kevin Doran, famous for managing Al Holbert’s IMSA GTP championships for all those years, used to work on your racecars.  Kevin even built his own Grand Am cars in recent years before selling out to Dallara.  If this is true, when was that?

 

GS:  It’s even deeper than that.  He helped me with the midget actually.  In ’75 and ’76.  But it goes a little deeper than that.  His father had a dirt late model. They were famous with their dirt late model and they requested me to drive it several places for them.  I ran it at Florence.  I ran it at Brown County.  I ran at Portsmouth, Ohio for them.  I did ok with it.  I drove the wheels off of it, as fast as it would go.  And I learned the newer style late models as we went on in ’77, so it was different than me doing it ten years earlier, or eight years earlier. 

 

But yeah, Kevin is a friend of mine, has been a friend.  I’ve been a friend of the family for years.  I see his brother around once in awhile.  His brother was driving for awhile.  I think he was running ASA maybe, for awhile.  I see Kevin occasionally and we exchange stories.  He’s got his deal going on the east side of Cincinnati, over around Milford or something.

 

KO:  It seems like he sold his car building deal to Dallara.  In that Grand Am series, only so many car builders can be in it.  But were you able to teach him something about racecars or did he teach you about racecars?

 

GS:  It was a give and take.  He was very adamant on the way he wanted things done and I was very adamant on the way I wanted things done and we had an impasse.  We ended up dealing with it.  Once he taught me what I needed to know, I was good and he thanked me for learning what he learned too.

 

KO:  So did his dad own and operate the Tri-County track which became Queen City?

 

GS:  He did for a fact.  After Mr. Redwine had it, his father was the promoter there.  You’re exactly right. 

 

KO:  In 1985 you opened up with a TBARA win at East Bay in the Ledford car.  Was that Charles Ledford? 

 

GS:  That’s it!  Charlie Ledford Construction from Tarpon Springs, Florida. 

 

KO:  How did you end up with that ride and was it your first win with a wing?

 

GS:  Tom Stenger and Charles Ledford were close friends because they went to the Copper World at Phoenix and Tom helped sponsor Jimmy Haynes, who ran for Charlie.  Jimmy Haynes was killed at Phoenix International and they needed a driver to fill in.  Tom recommended me to Charlie and I got the ride and immediately produced for him.  I ran the Fairgrounds for him.  I ran East Bay for him.  I ended up winning the Florida State Championship at Volusia County in 1986, on the half mile.  I beat Rick Ferkel, Jack Hewitt, and a whole bunch of people who were running down there that night. 

 

KO:  We were at the same racetrack in 1986, at the fall All Star race at Woodstock, Georgia and you were running the Ledford car down there.  You took your car down with Mike Bowling too?

 

GS:  I said we’re going down, we might as well take my car.  It’s sitting there ready to race.  And Mike ran my car at Woodstock.  Dixie Speedway.

 

KO:  The Ledford deal was in April of ’85.  About a week later, I remember I was writing a term paper and I couldn’t go.  But you ran second to Rickey Hood on a Sunday afternoon at Eldora.  I recall lots of third and fourth place finishes there after that second place run.  But how bad did you want an Eldora win on your resume?

 

GS:  In the absolute worst way I wanted a win at Eldora.  That’s what I told Robert Ballou the other day.  I said, “You don’t have any idea how cool it is for you to win that many races in that short of a time at Eldora.”  It’s hard to do!  It’s a very difficult place to race at.  Always has been.

 

KO:  Compared to your monumental 1984 season with 19 wins, there were not as many wins in ’85.  Were there any significant changes made to your program over the winter that caused you not to win as many shows? 

 

GS:  Actually, that’s the year that Lawrenceburg banned aluminum blocks.  In ’85, that was the year that they banned aluminum blocks.  They seemed to think that was the only reason we were winning, because we had an aluminum block, which we only used three times because we didn’t understand how to make the car work with the lighter engine.  They banned aluminum blocks because certain people said that was the reason we were winning.  I only ran it three times and I only won with it once.  It was hard to make the car work.  It was jumpy.  It was very different.  So that following year, Mr. Stenger and my dad got together and they built two 434 inch small blocks that worked pretty well when we won our features at Lawrenceburg and we won another championship at Lawrenceburg. 

 

KO:  Excellent!  Moving onto ’86, you were finally dethroned as Lawrenceburg champ.  1982, 1983, 1984, and 1985 you were a title winner there.  I didn’t know about your Bloomington championship in ’84 until today.  Were there any other championships that I missed?

 

GS:  No.  That’s it.  1986 was interesting because I pretty much took myself out of that.  It was my own stupid fault.  If I really wanted to win it, we probably could have worked a little harder and won it but I elected to go to another USAC show one night when there was a Lawrenceburg race.  I think it was at Eldora as a matter of fact.  And rather than go to Lawrenceburg that night, not the night of the championship, I went to Eldora instead.  I missed the show and that would have made the difference.  If we’d have had a decent night, we’d have won again. 

 

KO:  One year later though, you regained your throne with another title in ’87 so that made you a five-time champ.  Was there any satisfaction from being the big dog at The Burg? 

 

GS:  It is, but it puts a certain stigma over you that you have a hard time shaking.  They say that you can’t go fast at other places and being the stubborn German that I am, I had to go prove that it was not true.  As the record shows, it was not true.  We could do other things you know. 

 

KO:  Were they all wingless championships in that timeframe or did Lawrenceburg switch to wings at some point?  I’m guessing ’82 through ’85 were all wingless but I don’t know if they switched to wings in ’86 or ’87.

 

GS:  ’87 was wings. 

 

KO:  Interesting!  So you got one on your resume with wings.  A little diversity.  So what was the local scene like down at The Burg in the mid-1980s?  Now, it’s quite a bit different with the bigger track but when Tom Wieck had it, there were certain guys that ran down there and I’m sure in the mid-‘80s there was a core group of racers too.  Was it still a fun time?  What was the scene like?

 

GS:  It was a fun time.  When you’re on top of things like we were, you become disliked.  Everyone wants to see you do good in the beginning, and then they dislike you later because you’re winning too much.  I could not believe in 1974 that I heard them boo Dick Gaines.  In ’74, he came back from winning the Knoxville Nationals and people were booing Dick Gaines.  I’m going, “Wow, how does this work?”  Here’s a guy that’s the baddest in the country, how could you possibly think anything bad about the guy who just won the biggest race in the country?  And the same thing happened to me.  People were disliking what we did.  Accusations flew, and they weren’t true, about this and that.  It just wasn’t true.  It got old and that’s another reason why I decided, “Ok, we’ve done all we can do here.  It’s time to branch out and go do the USAC thing.”

 

KO:  What did racing at Lawrenceburg teach you that you took on the USAC trail?

 

GS:  Seat time.  Lap after lap after lap.  No matter what you do in auto racing, the more seat time you have, the better you are.  And it taught you how to win.  It taught you how to prepare a car to win.  It didn’t teach you setups for Eldora or setups for New Bremen or Winchester or anything like that.  It taught you how to go about setting those cars up and the procedure you have to go through to make them work. 

 

KO:  In one of your early season 1987 Lawrenceburg winged victories, you beat a very young Jeff Gordon.  At the time, did you seem him as a special talent or was he just another racer? 

 

GS:  To be very honest with you, I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to Jeff until a couple of years later.  He went back to Bloomington and won a lot of races at Bloomington I believe in that time span.  I became friends with his father later.  His father and I are best of friends at this point still.  It’s just a different situation.  I didn’t pay attention.  I was too preoccupied with trying to make my own deal work, which was very hard. 

 

KO:  Back in ’87, did you think that 15 or 16 year old kids were too young to get into sprint cars?

 

GS:  I never really gave it much thought.  The only time that came up was recently, when there’s so darned many of them.  Now they are everywhere.  There’s just a ton of them.  It doesn’t dawn on you until you realize there’s so darned many of them out there right now. 

 

KO:  So in ’87, it was mostly winged racing in your brand new 1987 Gambler, which was a revolutionary car at the time with those down tubes.  That was a good-looking piece by the way.  I have a picture of that car wheel-packing at Terre Haute and that was one sharp car.  I really liked it.  So kudos on that.

 

GS:  Well thank you!

 

KO:  Were there any other significant differences with that chassis over the previous Gambler models, other than the down tubes? 

 

GS:  You had to learn to make it work a little different because of the down tubes.  That stiffened the chassis up and you had to run different torsion bars with it in the front and you had to learn that.  It took four or five times out to learn exactly what you needed to do. 

 

KO:  Were you able to switch back and forth with that car?  It seemed like it was pretty versatile.  I thought I saw it on dirt with and without a wing and also on asphalt.  How much did you like that car?

 

GS:  I liked it a lot.  I liked it a whole lot.  The ’84 was good but the ’87 was as good or better.  I liked it a whole lot.  That’s the car we converted to asphalt and we actually won that TV race with, which we’ll come to later.

 

KO:  Again in the fall of ’87, you hauled out to Ascot and Manzy, this time running 10th at Manzy.  There might have even been a race for you on the Phoenix mile with the champ car.  At least that’s why I was out there.  You must have been hooked on those west coast excursions.  Was it easier this time than in ’83 or ’84? 

 

GS:  Yes it was.  We had better power plants.  We had a Ron Shaver engine at the time.  Mr. Stenger enabled us to get this Shaver engine and it made all the difference in the world.  The California trips were just the shit.  They’re just great. 

That was the highlight of the year.  You worked all year, started planning way in advance to go do the Pacific Coast Nationals and the Western World.  That was the greatest thing.

 

KO:  How about those west coast trophy girls?  I seem to remember the name of Leslie Bremer.

 

GS:  Leslie Bremer!  Ha ha! 

 

KO:  I daydreamed about her when I was sitting in high school class.  People were paying attention and I was thinking about Leslie Bremer and Open Wheel magazine.  So how about those west coast trophy girls?

 

GS:  I asked questions and tried to track her down, her history and where she’s at in California this last trip I was there.  And the story I got was that she became a born-again Christian, then she became an exotic dancer, then she became a grandma and after that, nobody really knows where’s she’s at right now.  But she was the all-time best and you are correct about that! 

 

KO:  So that was almost a single-handed reason to go out to the west coast, wasn’t it?  An attraction…

 

GS:  They do things with a much nicer, greater flair in Southern California than they do back here for some reason.  And you know you try to have that carryover back here and it doesn’t always work that way.  But there’s just something about out there – there’s a little more showmanship involved.

 

KO:  There you go!  They have nice looking racecars and nice looking trophy girls.  

 

GS:  Yes they do!

 

KO:  So moving onto 1988, I found victories at The Burg, the ,000 to win wingless show at Bloomington and of course, the now world famous USAC score on Thursday Night Thunder at IRP on ESPN.  I believe you used a McCreary right rear tire that night.  Steve Butler was a bad ass there that year and you beat Kevin Huntley in the Hoffman car for the win.  Any significant memories of that evening? 

 

GS:  That evening was absolutely nothing but pure desire on my part to win that race.  We had been issued an American Race Tire/McCreary by John Summers to try for the evening.  And it felt ok early and he requested we leave it on.  There was no specific tire rule at the time.  Well I believe Bob Frey and Rich Vogler took each other out or something to that effect, which eliminated two of the better cars.  And our car came to life about two-thirds of the way through the race and I just caught Kevin Huntley and just drove right by him.  Well, little did I know the right rear was going flat and that’s why the car hooked up so hard.  So if you ever watch the TV film of this thing, I’m running cross-ways and sideways and every which-a-way.  The tire was going down badly and was nowhere near inflation-wise of where it should have been.  And that’s why the car picked up so fast and that’s why I was running sideways at the end.  I wasn’t going to back off for nothing.  I didn’t care.  I was going to win this race and we won it and it was one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me in my life.  It’s like the epitome of what we’ve worked to get to do.  I know it’s just sprint cars.  It’s not the Indy 500 but it was a great, great thing and I’ll never forget it. 

 

KO:  Did you feel like you had a USAC monkey on your back up until that point? 

 

GS:  I did and I really thought that it would open a few eyes to some other owners who may give me a shot in their cars later.  But it never really panned out that way.  I was still stuck with the individual role of doing it on my own and trying to finance my own deal.  But it was a great experience.  I’ll never forget it.

 

KO:  When people talk about Greg Staab, do you think they primarily remember you for that TV win?

 

GS:  Actually, that’s part of it but the Lawrenceburg championships seem to be the highlight.  I’ve got another stat that I’m particularly proud of that I can’t prove but I think is accurate.  I believe 9 out of 11 years we ran in the top-ten in USAC points.  You might want to research that.

 

KO:  Okay.  Yeah, I can check that. 

 

GS:  It might be 8 out of 11 years.  But I don’t think anyone’s ever done that before and that’s pretty consistent with the way we raced a lot.

 

KO:  Okay, well I’ve got some figures here.  Second in 1988, 4th in 1989, 3rd in 1990, 7th in 1991, 1992 was 13th, 8th in 1993, 7th in 1994, and 6th in 1995.  I’d have to go back and see what was before 1988.  Let’s see…1985 you were 10th, 1986 you were 16th and 1987 you were 18th.  So that makes 8 out of 11 years in the top-ten in USAC sprint car points. 

 

GS:  That’s A LOT of races.  That’s A LOT of races if anybody tallies those up. 

 

KO:  For sure.  That’s a good stat.  Any more on that – that you want to touch on?

 

GS:  That’s one of my proud things.  Of course the national feature win, which a lot of people win bunches of races, but this was particularly hard for me to do because we financed this on our own.  It was Mr. Stenger, my dad, and myself.  It was very hard to do this sport and we adapted to the pavement and the American Race Tire.  In fact, we rolled that car out of victory lane that night on a flat tire.  The right rear was down.  So it was a great time.  It finalized everything that I’ve done and I’m very happy with that. 

 

KO:  That season of 1988, USAC brought pavement sprint cars back for the first time since the early ‘80s.  Something seemed so right about that series when thinking about it now.  There was lots of participation with converted dirt cars and at IRP, the racing was simply spectacular.  I was a dirt guy and loved dirt, but that racing opened my eyes to pavement.  In your opinion, can pavement racing ever get back to that excitement level or is there just no hope because the cars are too technical and too hooked up?

 

GS:  I don’t have a real honest answer on that.  I do know that ’88 was very exciting racing with us running the pavement.  I liked it a lot.  Of course I kind of cheated too.  Vogler, myself, and a couple of us guys had run midgets on the pavement so we had a rough idea of what was going on with it.  Some of the other people didn’t.  But that’s just the way it is.  We had a leg up on them for a short period of time.  But, the problem I’ve got now is that Raceway Park won’t even take a USAC sprint race.

 

KO:  Yeah.  They say they can’t make money on it. 

 

GS:  I can’t comprehend why that is but it is.  They wouldn’t take one from me when I was working with USAC.  They won’t take one now and I really can’t get it together in my mind as to why that is.

 

KO:  Well, Kevin Kotansky, from Kroger, who has worked with IRP on sponsorship for a long time, he says that they can’t make money on it.  But, he and I remember back in the day, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, that they always had a title sponsor for that race.  To me, if they get a title sponsor, maybe they can afford it.  Maybe they just don’t have the personnel there at IRP to get that job done?

 

In my opinion, 1988 was just a great time and provided some great TV.  I thought it made the series look pretty good. 

 

GS:  I think it advanced sprint car racing.  I think it helped sprint car racing – those Thursday Night Thunder shows and Saturday Night Thunder shows to be placed when they were, in basically prime time, and people enjoyed it.  They looked forward to watching it. 

 

KO:  I recall a USAC sprint car race at Eldora in June of ’88 when you finished 4th.  At the time, that was billed as the last wingless USAC sprint car race on dirt.  What were your feelings about USAC going to exclusive winged sprint car racing on dirt?

 

GS:  I thought it was preposterous.  I thought it was ludicrous.  To this day I can’t figure out why they did what they wanted to do.  Just basically for car counts, that’s what they were looking for.  I know it was.  But, I didn’t like it a bit.  I had a preference of non-winged racing.  When I started racing go-karts, they didn’t have wings on them.  And that’s what I wanted to be – a good non-winged sprint car driver.  I didn’t care about the wings.  I did it because it was a necessity.  And yeah we won some races with wings.  But I didn’t care for it as much – just my personal feelings. 

 

KO:  From the late ‘80s all the way through ’96 you faithfully followed the USAC sprint car series as one of the little guys, the owner-operator without much sponsorship help and having to work a full-time job.  So it was a tough deal.  In that range, you had some decent point finishes and we’ve already talked about that.  Second in ’88 was a big deal that I’m sure you were very proud of.  Fourth in ’89 and then third in ’90.  For a low dollar guy like you, how much was a championship on the brain? 

 

GS:  Every minute of every day, every day of every year.  I wanted a championship.  I wanted to be number one so bad but knew I didn’t have the finances to do it.  I tried everything in the world I could.  My desire level was at a max.  My determination level was at a max.  I couldn’t do any more.  It was like watching Pete Rose sliding into home plate head-first…I wanted to do this just as bad. 

 

KO:  So championship was on the brain, every minute of every day, but how proud were you of those solid points finishes, especially 2nd in ’88, 4th in ’89, and 3rd in ’90.  There were still some guys who you were racing with that had money, the Hoffmans being a perfect example.  Jeff Stoops, Johnny Vance – there were some guys in that series that had some dough.

 

GS:  It was difficult and I’m so proud of the finishes we did have.  If you look at these records, as many races as we ran, I believe it was in 1986 that I ran 86 races and kept a full-time job.  This is a feat.  Can you imagine some of these guys nowadays trying to run 86 races a year and work an eight hour a day job?

 

KO:  No, it doesn’t happen.  For the guys that do work, they might work a halfway job but nothing full-time.  Not to harp about the pride in your points finishes, but how proud were you? 

 

GS:  Incredibly proud.  I’m so proud of my second place finish ring that it’s my Super Bowl ring.  It’s my wife, my kids, my cars, my house I never had, my nice clothes I never had, the new cars I never had.  That’s wrapped up in that ring.  That may sound silly, but it’s a fact. 

 

KO:  Well, it’s what you wanted to do from when you were a kid.  So there you go.  Was it easier following the sprint car trail compared to the midgets?  Even though you still held down a full-time job, there wasn’t nearly the traveling involved.  Was it easier?

 

GS:  Much easier because of the locale of the racetracks you run.  You run Bloomington.  You run Eldora.  You run Findlay, Winchester, Salem, IRP.  It kept it within travel range to where you could go do it and still keep the job that I had.

 

KO:  Back when USAC dirt races were winged, what did you think about all the cherry picking from World of Outlaws and All Star guys?  I’m sure you had an opinion about it at the time. 

 

GS:  It pissed me off!  But that’s what they do for a living and I accepted that and that’s the way it is.  They do it to put food on the table and they do it for a living and that’s fully acceptable.  I envy them. 

 

KO:  So did you welcome or dread that kind of competition when you were going for a championship, especially in a day when there were no provisionals?   

 

GS:  It only made you a better racer but it could hurt you in the long term points standings.  To run against those guys you automatically became sharper and better than what you were doing.  But it also could hurt you points-wise if you got knocked out of the show by a Danny Smith or a Steve Kinser that came in to cherry pick or a Doug Wolfgang because they finished ahead of you in the heat race and you didn’t make the feature. 

 

KO:  You were picked to drive the famed Leader Card number 7 for A.J. Watson at the Hoosier Hundred of 1989.  You might have even driven it at Springfield the race before.  What kind of an honor was this for you? 

 

GS:  Incredible – Kevin.  That was one of the highest honors I’ve had to this day.  They asked me to hot lap it at Springfield because I believe Tom Bigelow was supposed to run it.  He got tied up on an airplane problem from Pocono and couldn’t get down there in time.  They stuck me in it to hot lap.  We went out to hot lap and this racecar was the most incredible feeling thing I’ve ever sat in my life.  It stuck.  It moved.  You turned the wheel, it turned.  You pushed the throttle, it went forward.  It was the greatest car I’ve ever felt.  And I was actually able to flat-foot the thing around the Springfield mile and I’ll never forget that as long as I live!  And we were the quickest car in practice that day. 

 

I came in and the cam drive broke on the water pump.  I could have fixed it because I knew how to fix it.  But A.J. Watson was with Bigelow, he wasn’t there.  So his helper guys, they somehow got a hold of him and they wouldn’t let me fix it.  So it got parked that day. 

 

Then I think we qualified 6th or 7th with it at the Hoosier Hundred.  I pulled out on purpose because I couldn’t see.  That was the night it was very wet, very muddy.  The sand was getting in my eyes and rather than crash the man’s beautiful racecar, I pulled in and he thanked me for it!

 

KO:  Wow!  I remember a lot of plugged up radiators that night.  A lot of overheating.

 

GS:  A lot of engines broke that night because of that.

 

KO:  So you wound up 30th at that race but you did manage to run 12th in it at DuQuoin.  What was it like working with A.J. Watson and have you figured out what made his car different than any other champ car you’d previously driven? 

 

GS:  He’s just a shrewd, sharp man.  His cars were the best.  That was the nicest feeling champ car I’ve driven to this day.  And it was just incredible.  Everything worked well.  You asked him to do this or that and he’d do it.  We tossed a few things around and I probably could have gotten a little bit better finish for him that day with a softer tire but for some reason, I was able to run softer tires than most people.  He probably went with his previous experience with the throttle stompers that chewed the tires off of them and we could have done better for him I think.  As it was, we parted friends and still are friends.  I still see him at El Rodeo for lunch every once in a while. 

 

KO:  Up until that point, was that THE career highlight, other than the USAC sprint car win?  I know you have done a lot of things that you’re proud of, but getting to drive for A.J. Watson, just thinking of the guys he has worked with, is incredible.

 

GS:  Exactly.  That’s probably one of the highlights.  I’d say that’s probably in the top two things that ever happened to me because it was a great honor and he was respectful for what I was doing too.  It was really neat.

 

KO:  Later that year, you competed with the All Stars at Orange County Speedway in Rougemount, NC, a quick little 3/8ths mile paved circle.  I think Jeff Gordon ended up winning but what was that like? Were you dizzy?

 

GS:  That was different altogether.  With a winged pavement car, I’d never done that before.  And that was a whole new experience too with how fast the corner speeds are and how fast you enter the corners with the thing.  I understand he was down there testing before we ever got there. 

 

KO:  But definitely a fast little joint.

 

GS:  Oh yeah.  And that’s where we learned to eat fried bologna sandwiches too, with pickles on them. 

 

KO:  Pretty good?

 

GS:  Very good.  Very good.

 

KO:  Do you still make them up here?

 

GS:  I don’t fool with it!  It’s not in my diet.  You know about the diet thing. 

 

KO:  The next year, you wound up third in USAC sprint car points, yet another thing you were proud of.  You collected fourth place finishes at Eldora, Winchester, and Wilmot, Wisconsin.  I know you liked Wilmot, but why?

 

GS:  I adapted to Wilmot for some reason.  It was just like an automatic.  We rolled in there and I believe we were third or fourth quick and we did well in the heat race and finished fourth in the feature with the potential to run second or third.  It was a close race.  I just liked the Wilmot racetrack.  I don’t know why.  There’s places you fall into that you adapt to and that happened to be one of them.  It’s like me with Grand Rapids – Berlin.  I love, love Berlin!  Some people adapt to certain places and it’s just one of those deals.

 

KO:  Also in ’90, you drove a midget for the first time in a long while for Eddie Griffith.  You also drove in a CRA race at Mesa Marin not too long after Billy Vukovich III was fatally injured there.  Earlier that year, of course Rich Vogler was killed at Salem.  Danny Milburn wasn’t too far after that.  Did you have any concerns about pavement safety at that time?  The cars were getting faster and pavement was no longer the series that USAC thought it would be in ’88 when they brought it back with a lot of converted dirt cars.  Were there things that worried you at the time when those guys died?

 

GS:  Any time you lose a friend like that, it bothers you.  But I wasn’t real concerned with the safety.  I just decided that everything and anything we could do to upgrade our belts and our head restraints and things like that…and this was before arm restraints.  There’s quite a bit of things that have come along since then.  But no, I really didn’t pay much attention to it.  I was too focused to try and do well at the races.  I probably should have been more knowledgeable of it but I wasn’t. 

 

KO:  In ’91, you were fourth at Berlin and I seem to recall several top-fives for you there in the years that followed.  In talking to Eric Gordon last year, I know he mentioned how much he loves that place and it wasn’t always because of the track itself, but also the fans up there who seemed so into the USAC deal.  Why did you like racing up there?

 

GS:   It was a track that I adapted to very quickly.  I don’t know why.  I can’t explain but maybe it was a go-kart thing years ago.  We raced another go-kart track that was smaller but similar to that design – a D-shape.  It was kind of like that.  The other thing, like you said, the fans were incredible.  It was just an incredible show of fan support up there.  They were hanging out of trees and hanging up on tree limbs and watching races from up above in the trees nearby.  And the place was just packed with people who shared a terrific amount of respect and enthusiasm for us. 

 

KO:  That had to make you feel special. 

 

GS:  Oh, it was great!  Great! 

 

KO:  Obviously the significant lowlight of 1991 was a Lakeside accident in September.  Thinking of Vogler, Vukovich, and Danny Millburn, who I’m sure was a friend of yours since you were his teammate at Eldora in the Silver Crown wars back in ’82, it seems like so many accidents had been happening on pavement.  And not too long after your accident, that’s when Wolfgang got burned at the same Lakeside track.   What happened with you and how devastating were the injuries? 

 

GS:  I went to pass Steve Butler in the Hoffman car on the outside in a heat race and the lights went out for me.  The car spun around backwards.  I apparently spun the left side of the car into the wall, hit my head on the concrete wall and it gave me a closed head injury and a shoulder separation on the left side.  The rest of it, I was just beat up in the other areas of my body.  But the head injury was critical and they didn’t know if I’d make it through the night or not. 

 

They were getting ready to drill my skull and take the pressure off because the brain was swelling so badly and for some reason on the second cat scan they caught that the swelling had stopped.  They saw it and they didn’t have to drill the proverbial hole in your head.  I spent several days in the University of Kansas Medical Center and after that I was flown home by Rod Urish, who volunteered from the Jayhawk Fan Club, to fly me home in his private plane.  I had no way to get home.  All my friends had to go back to work and everybody left.  I was pretty much in the hospital there by myself.  He flew me home and some people met me there at the airport and took me to my mom’s house and it took several weeks of trying…I broke my jaw.  I broke three teeth off flush with my jaw on this side.  It took several weeks to get myself back together.  That one was tough.  That was very difficult.

 

KO: So definitely your hardest crash?

 

GS:  Oh, no question about it! 

 

KO:  When were you able to get back to work after that accident?  That was in September. 

 

GS:  I was off ten days or nine days.

 

KO:  Still pretty groggy when you got back?

 

GS:  I was fuzzy for six months.  I’m not going to lie about it.  It was not good.

 

KO:  Your injuries didn’t keep you from being a car owner.  I remember that Stevie Reeves, Terry Shepherd (3rd at Four Crown), and Leon Thickstun (in a winged show at the end of the year at Paragon) piloted your equipment.  

 

GS:  That was the night we lost the car in a cornfield. 

 

KO:  Wow!  I forgot about that!  Did it come off the trailer? 

 

GS:  It came off the trailer on route 44 between Paragon and Shelbyville.  It ended up out in a cornfield and mowed down a bunch of corn stalks and sat out there in the field.  A Martinsville policeman found it with his alley lights on the top of the thing. 

 

KO:  I can’t believe you towed that way because I’ve been that way when it was light out, between 37 and 135, and that’s super tight and twisty…and at night?  You were brave.

 

GS:  It was a shortcut for us to cut down to Shelbyville. 

 

KO:  Had you even given any thoughts to retiring as a driver when you suffered those injuries? 

 

GS:  A lot of people wanted me to but stubborn German, pig head…I still had some things to prove.  I wanted another ring. 

 

KO:  Did watching those guys race your car, especially Terry Shepherd, motivate you to get better?    

 

GS:  Not really.  Terry’s been a great friend of mine for many years.  He just about won the Four Crown.  If we hadn’t broken a rocker arm that day, he probably would have won the Four Crown in my car. 

 

KO:  Man, that would have been awesome! 

 

GS:  That was a good racecar.  But no, I just wanted to race.  I still wanted to race and that was what I had to do and nothing stopped me from it.

 

KO:  By 1992, USAC returned to exclusive wingless racing. 

 

GS:  Yay! 

 

KO:  I’m sure you were happy and relieved. 

 

GS:  Oh yeah.  There was nobody any more happy than myself.  We were able to adapt back to that pretty quick because we were pretty good at it anyway.

 

KO:  For ’92, you hooked up with Carmel, Indiana’s Larry Fritz, a guy who specializes in repairing Jaguars – Just Jags.  The best finish I found was a 3rd at the Sheldon Kinser Memorial.  Were you fully recovered from your injuries by the time the racing season started in ’92?

 

GS:  Yes.  The reason for the split…Larry Miller was the other car.  It was a combination car owner thing there.  It was Larry Miller from Dayton and Larry Fritz from over there.  I tried to get them to coincide on the numbers so the points would turn out right for everybody.  Back at Eldora, the opening race, I led it for a little while and caught Frankie Kerr and passed Frankie Kerr.  We did ok right out of the box with those guys and then the thing got kind of cut back and the money ran out on both parts at the middle of the season and it didn’t really pan out at the end of the year like it should have. 

 

KO:  So you never got a Jaguar out of the deal?

 

GS:  No!  Heavens no.  He repaired them.  He didn’t just hand them out!

 

KO:  So for ’93, you did your own pavement sprint car deal and your own Silver Crown deal.  I remember that Silver Crown car, at least when you first got it a few years before, it was an Oz-Car and had that reverse gear in it.  I remember you backing it out of your pit area at Eldora.  I always thought that was kind of cool. 

 

GS:  I wanted to put a back-up beeper on it, like off of one of our garbage trucks that the city had.  I was never able to get it done. 

 

KO:  That was unique.  I don’t know that many people had the reverse gear on those cars.  But anyway, on the Indiana bullrings, you hooked up with Commiskey, Indiana’s Law Brothers. 

 

GS:  Very good.

 

KO:  I think you mentioned that they had a 430 cubic inch small block which had to be quite a horse on those short tracks.  Any thoughts about racing with the Law Brothers?  Any memories? 

 

GS:  Great people.  Great to deal with.  We had fun.  I darn near won the Bloomington thing when Cary Faas beat me with only just a few laps left.  I was hoping to win it for them and it didn’t quite happen but it ended up where we ran second. 

 

KO:  But what does it mean to you when you hear that guys like that are hanging it up for good after 2008? 

 

GS:  It’s a sign of the times.  I believe Roger is retired now and Vic is retiring soon or already has.  It’s just a sign of the times and the economics produce racecars that cost more than the guys can afford to run.  You know?  It’s very expensive to run these things nowadays.  They probably won’t be the last one we hear happen. 

 

KO:  July 16th of 1993, you just mentioned it.  You finished second to Cary Faas at Bloomington which would have been an Indiana Sprintweek show.  Faas hadn’t been to Indiana that long but he gassed it up and showed people a way…you saw it when you went out to the west coast…a lot of people hadn’t seen that style coming back to Indiana.  But if I remember right, Faas passed you on the bottom to win.  Is that true? 

 

GS:  Full crossways, full right lock, complete full Ascot slide right in front of me and on around and he was gone!  Just that quick.

 

KO:  Did you say that there was a lesson learned in that deal? 

 

GS:  I used one of my tricks.  I watched the lights.  I saw him coming.  And I saw him try it the lap before.  So I gave him enough room to where if he tried to come through there he didn’t take us both out.  And you could see the shadows in the lights at Bloomington…you can just glance at the shadows getting in the corner, look down at the shadow and you could see another car coming.  And I spotted him coming and gave him room to go.  Again, I wanted to finish.  I didn’t want to end up in a ball and of course I wanted to win, but this guy was faster than me.  What are you going to do?  There comes a point when you say this guy is faster, there is nothing you can do about it.  And he went on by me and he got the win that night.

 

KO:  It was almost a resurgence of sorts.  You had some good runs with the Law Brothers that year and maybe it rejuvenated you just a little? 

 

GS:  Not only that, but they were both good mechanics.  They both took care of their cars.  They had been doing it for awhile and they’re just good guys.  They knew what to do.  And they had good racecars.

 

KO:  1994 was rocked by the death of Robbie Stanley at Winchester in May. Any thoughts on racing with Robbie? 

 

GS:  I wasn’t that close with Robbie.  There was an age difference there between he and I but I was good friends with the family.  I was friends with his mother and father.  From traveling with them and being around them, you don’t have a choice but to be friends with people like that. 

 

Robbie was good.  He was very good.  It was very unfortunate to how that happened, for him to meet his demise. 

 

KO:  What do you think he could have gone on to do had that not happened?  I’m not sure he would have had the great opportunities down south, but do you think he would have scored a few more USAC championships? 

 

GS:  I’m sure.  I’m sure of that or possibly with the Indiana connections he had, he might have even been able to do an IRL thing.  At the time, Tony George was running Ed Carpenter in quarter midgets and I’m sure they were running Robbie’s father’s quarter midgets. 

 

KO:  Throughout the early to mid-1990s, you were a solid top-ten guy, night in and night out.  Were you content with this or did you feel a need to improve? By then, things were getting pretty costly for an owner/operator to succeed.  Knowing you, I’m thinking that you wanted to improve on that.

 

GS:  That’s a pretty accurate statement.  You got to the point where you saw, no matter what you did or how you went about it, you couldn’t improve your finishes because those cars were better than your car, which boils down to economics and I didn’t have the money to compete with those guys.  Just plain and simple.

 

KO:  Despite the increase in costs and need for testing on pavement, which seemed to become prevalent in the early ‘90s, USAC racing seemed pretty healthy in that era.  There were plenty of cars, lots of TV exposure, and all kinds of ingenuity was abound with different chassis, especially on pavement.  Looking back, were there better times for USAC than the early ‘90s?

 

GS:  The ‘70s were really good.  ’74, five, and six, for the USAC sprint division, that was really good.  I’d say ’72 and on up, ’72 to ’76 was great.  There were some good times in both eras.  It’s just hard to say.  But like you said, we had cars.  We didn’t have a problem with car counts.  It is what it is and economics dictate everything in our sport.  I hate to say that.  I hate to keep throwing back on that.  It sounds like I’m using it as a crutch but it’s just the bare-bones truth. 

 

KO:  July of ’96, we’ll fast forward onto that.  You had an on-track incident with Mark Cassella at Paragon.  What all did it break? 

 

GS:  Broke my left humerus on my left arm.  The car came into the cockpit and hit my arm and I ended up in Methodist Hospital with Dr. Trammel’s bunch.  They put me back together with a six inch piece of tubing with nine screws in it. 

 

KO:  So that’s still in there?

 

GS:  Oh yeah.  The bone has grown around it.  I saw the X-ray of it about five years later.  They did a great repair.  Cold weather is a bitch because you can feel that cold piece of steel in there sometimes.  But they did a great job and I got great treatment at Methodist.  I don’t think anybody could ask for anything better.  And that was a time when there was a realization that you’ve gone as far as you can as a driver in this sport.  There are other avenues you can pursue to still stay involved in the sport.  You can’t beat these kids with their money coming in.  You can’t beat the kids because they’re probably better than you now.  It’s called diminishing skills.  Diminishing skills happen with people and being able to be intelligent enough or brave enough to recognize that they’re happening to you…

 

KO:  That takes some balls.

 

GS:  Yes it does.  And there are people out there, some of them are friends of mine, that really need to take a second look at their skill from ten years ago to their skill from now…and say ok, I’m not as good as I was.  But I can do other things.  I’ve got a ton of knowledge.  I can do other things.  That’s precisely where we went from that point. 

 

KO:  In the latter stages of ’96, you decided to team up with another Cincinnati-area racer, an up and comer named Joey Kerr.  You ended ’96 together and planned for a full assault on USAC for 1997.  So other than debating about staggered numbers on the tail tank, what prevented you two from doing better?  I think the kid had some talent.    

 

GS:  Joey is a great guy.  He is a great fabricator.  He’s gone on to build some custom motorcycles that he’s nationally known for right now.  People here don’t know that but he’s tremendous at building these custom motorcycles. 

 

Joey had a different way of doing things.  You move into a group of people and they have a way of doing things and they don’t feel like your way of doing things is exactly like it should be done.  So it’s differences of opinions.  I took Joey to the Phoenix mile, he’d never been on a mile in his life, and with Tom Klein building the engine for us, he got up to seventh or eighth in the Desert Star Classic, and he’d never even seen a mile before.  And he was going forward and the engine expired – burned head gasket. 

 

It was a parting of the ways.  Joey wanted to go one way and I wanted to go another and it just didn’t go any further.  We’re still friends to this day and I respect his abilities a ton. 

 

KO:  This was a busy time for you.  In addition to car ownership and your full-time job with the city of Cincinnati, in the winter of ’96 you decided to take over the reins of the legendary Lawrenceburg Speedway for ’97.  What made you want to take on such a challenge like that? 

 

GS:  A love affair with that place that I had.  I loved the place from the time I was a kid.  I saw that it was not being maintained or taken care of like it should have been.  I thought a shot of new blood like myself may be able to resurrect it and make it more user friendly, make some changes and do some things like that.

 

KO:  What unforeseen issues existed with that position that caused you great stress?

 

GS:  Well your best friends call you four letter words within two weeks of running the racetrack.  You get M-F’d by your best friends because you have to be the decision maker.  You’re now the bad cop and there’s nothing you can do about it but move on and stand your ground.  And I’ve had toe-to-toes with people – that’s the way it’s going to be and this is the way we’re going to do it.  And in my heart I felt that I was doing the right thing, you know?

 

KO:  So anything else with The Burg that caused you headaches?

 

GS:  The floods.  The floods.  And the more floods!  (Laughing)  Being down in the sump hole, hooking the pumps up…  It’s an incredible physical amount of work involved in doing that.  Allen Barr came in, and he’s one of the best in the world on a grader.  He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever met.  And he taught me how to water the racetrack and he taught me how much water to put on the racetrack.  He did the grading because he was better at it than me.  He volunteered to come over and do it.  We had a great relationship with it.  The first two years, I flat-out sucked at preparing a racetrack.  After I understood how to do it and what to do, trying different things, there’s a combination you have to arrive at, and we found that combination.  The final two-three years, it was a good racetrack, all the time.

   

KO:  I can only imagine the amount of hours you were putting in a week.  You had your normal job and then working at the racetrack…you still had a racecar with Joey Kerr and then you did your own sprint car again.  From ’97 to 2000, did you get any sleep whatsoever? 

 

GS:   Not a whole lot.  It was really hard.  We kind of left Joey going – he moved over here (Indy) and Steve Stapp took him under his wing and they kind of did things together.  And I really didn’t get a whole lot of hands-on with that deal, which is probably another reason why had I been around more with him, maybe, maybe not, he might have done better.  Who knows because he didn’t have a lot of guidance.  A young kid just going out and doing it, it wasn’t fair to him. 

 

But the racetrack consumed my life.  The racetrack consumed me for four years and I’d learned a ton.  I still would do it again but under different circumstances because I enjoyed it that much. 

 

KO:  So how did you stay sane throughout those years?  You’re a pretty positive, upbeat guy, always seeing the glass half-full, but how did you stay sane when friends are calling you names and accusing you of this or that or whatever?  How do you live with that?

 

GS:  You become very callous to it.  You also have a firm way of looking at things.  If you are a firm believer and doing what you’re doing is the right thing to do, you stick with it no matter what.  And somehow that converts back to respect from the competitors.  If you have a rainout that night and you’re halfway through a feature and you tell them they’re going to be the first event next Saturday night, that’s what you’re going to do and they respect the fact that you’re telling them the truth. 

 

KO:  Eventually you had to give up the deal so what was the deciding factor there?

 

GS:  Oh, there were some other people coming in with promises that they were going to do this and that and the city government looked at it as a positive for them and they chose his contract over mine. 

 

KO:  But you would have kept on doing it had the city not changed their direction?

 

GS:  We had just gotten it turned around and just had gotten it where it was beginning to make money as opposed to losing money every night, which most nights it did except for special events.  I just did get it to where it was turned around and start to break even.

 

KO:  Were you glad to get away from being the guy running the show there or was there some regret in having to step away?

 

GS:  It started out being very regretful and after seeing how it was run later it was even more regretful.  But there’s a bit of relief involved.  I mean physically, I don’t think I could have done it anymore like I was doing it.

 

KO:  So what did it teach you about racing and racing people? 

 

GS:  There’s definitely two sides to everything.  There’s definitely two viewpoints.  Even though they respect you as a racer, they may not respect you as a promoter.  People have a false interpretation of promoters as they’re all thieves and crooks.  These guys work their butts off.  Jiggs Thomason, Mike Miles, these guys are all friends of mine.  Keith Ford.  They work their ass off to make this work, you know?

 

KO:  Those guys take a lot of financial risks every time that they have a show because there’s money that goes out before you even get any people in the gate. 

 

GS:  Jared and Reece up at Kokomo, those people work their behinds off.  And hard work is where it’s at. 

 

KO:  If you could have done something different with the racetrack and if hindsight is 20/20, what would you have done?

 

GS:  Well now, the Lawrenceburg city is upgrading the thing so much that I wish I would have had my bathrooms nice like they are now because they couldn’t even take care of the bathrooms for me back then.  But right now, there’s a bit of money to play around with down there that they can improve their properties.  That would have helped a ton. 

 

KO:  When somebody with money gets excited about a project, it’s amazing what they can do.  But it all comes down to money again. 

 

GS:  Absolutely.  Argosy’s tax contributions down there are making a world of difference in the city of Lawrenceburg. 

 

KO:  Question number 81, but who’s counting?  You’ve done everything in racing from driving, to car ownership, to duties as a mechanic, to toiling as a chief mechanic/team manager, to racetrack promoter/operator, to sanctioning body series organizer/official.  Is there something that you haven’t done?  What about announcing? 

 

GS:  I leave that to the likes of Rob Klepper and people like him.  There are gifted people on the mike that say and do the right thing and have the proper voice for it.  I realize where I don’t belong and I think that’s one of them. 

 

KO:  So that’s something that you haven’t done but is there something you haven’t done that you want to do?  I don’t know that there’s anything out there that’s left.

 

GS:  I’m open for suggestions if anyone wants to get ahold of me.  I’m not opposed to going back to running another racetrack for some people again, some day.  But it would have to be on my terms and it would have to be somewhat convenient because I don’t want to have to drive seventy miles a day to go to the event and do that. 

 

KO:  So after your Paragon injury in ’96, you plugged many a driver into the seat of your number 44.  A short list contains Tyce Carlson, Eric Gordon (you won some races with him in ’98), Kenneth Nichols, Joey Kerr.  How about Rust-O-Leum (Rusty McClure)?  Then there’s Mike Mann (3rd at Kokomo Sprintweek 1999), the legendary Allen Barr, Jason Setser (who won a championship for you down at The Burg), Critter Malone, Chris Coers, Johnny Heydenreich, Wil Newlin, Matt Westfall, Jeff Harris, Don Droud, Jr., and Mat Neely.  One of the names I forgot to put down on this list is Cary Faas!  Danny Smith, Terry Shepherd, Lealand McSpadden, Kenny Jacobs, and Dave Darland drove your champ car.  I don’t know that you can nail down one guy, maybe it’s a few guys, but who out of this group did you really enjoy working with?  You probably enjoyed working with all of them, so maybe I’m putting too much pressure on you.

 

GS:  Terry Shepherd was great.  Jason Setser probably was the most underdeveloped natural talent of the whole bunch that I’ve ever seen.  We’re not measuring him against Lealand McSpadden, but I pride myself in giving…because I was subjected to such late years of being allowed to get in a sprint car, and no one would let me get in a sprint car, that I went way out of my way to let these young guys get a ride.  Critter was one.  Chris Coers.  Jason Setser.  Jason Setser was an incredible talent until he had his injury at North Vernon in one of the Keith Kunz-mobiles. 

 

But they were all great!  Lealand was great to work with.  Kenny Jacobs was fantastic.  I mean I really can’t single one of them out.  But the most talent I’ve seen was Jason Setser.  He never sat in a sprint car before and won the first night out.  You don’t have that.  That just doesn’t happen.

 

KO:  That’s a once in a blue moon type of deal.  And is he still driving late models? 

 

GS:  I don’t know.  He lost his father two years ago I believe and I don’t know what he’s doing right now. 

 

KO:  But you ended up winning a Lawrenceburg track title with him in 2000, which I’m sure was special since you’d done it as a driver and then you did it as a car owner, while you were running the track.

 

GS:  Well of course I caught hell for that too.  We supposedly set the races up. 

 

KO:  People would say, “Oh, he’s got a good draw.  He’s starting on the pole!”

 

GS:  Exactly.  I heard that over and over again.

 

KO:  People always want to list excuses, some how, some way.  But we should say something about that.  Winning a title as a car owner, when you look back and think about it now, what does it mean to you?

 

GS:  I had to stay low key because I didn’t want it to look like it was fixed in any way.  It wasn’t.  There was no way anything was out of line.  I wouldn’t do that.  I’m not that kind of person.  But he (Setser) was just a good race driver.  I think he won three features that year with that car. 

 

KO:  I think he got a win at North Vernon in your car somewhere along the way too.  Obviously that title was a good feeling. 

 

In the years following your relinquishment of Lawrenceburg, you spent the majority of your racing time assisting Johnny Heydenreich’s Silver Crown effort as the crew chief.  Were you indeed the crew chief?

 

GS: Pretty much. I’d drive over from Cincinnati and maintain it.  I’d take care of it and go to the races with them.  Sharon Bank was the owner.  Stephanie, my girlfriend at the time, she and I would take care of things.  And my friend Vern would help me.  We took care of the racecar and I’m very, very happy with some of the great finishes we had with that car.  I pride myself on the car finishing those races.  And he did finish. 

 

KO:  The hundred mile races…I remember Eric Gordon talking about that with Phil Shuler – all the maintenance that you’ve got to get done.  The parts only last for a certain amount of time and you’ve either got to rebuild them or replace them.  So obviously you already knew that stuff.

 

GS:  And Eric Gordon is another great one.  He drove for me and he won several features for us too.  And he is another great race driver…an underrated guy who should have went further and didn’t.  The two people who stand out in my mind, in our group, that didn’t get to go any further, were Brian Tyler and Eric Gordon.  Brian is making a good living now down south but these two guys are great.  In fact, I’m very happy that I get to help on Brian’s car now. 

 

Yeah, the Silver Crown thing with Johnny, we came close to winning a couple of races and we should have won a couple of races.  But woulda, shoulda, coulda, it didn’t happen.  And now I’m focused.  I want to win a Silver Crown race as a mechanic now.  I haven’t done that yet and I want it in the worst way. 

 

KO:  It sounds like it could happen.

 

GS:  That’s “goal-oriented me” speaking right now but that’s what I want.

 

KO:  So is it possible to give an estimate of how many times you traveled back and forth from Cincinnati to Indy’s 21st Street and Country Club Road?  Do you have any idea?

 

GS:  I have no idea.  Sometimes it was twice a week back and forth.  But I have no clue.  You were riding by there seeing my car there all the time.  You know it’s a fact! 

 

KO:  Oh yeah!  I lived pretty close to there so I always saw what was going on at Heydenreich’s place. 

 

In the process, you must have logged many miles on your big Mercedes sedan?  I'm assuming that’s the car that you drove.

 

GS:  It was my white one that I eventually sold down the road.  I put a ton of miles on it and now I’ve got the blue one and it’s got 230,000 miles on it.  So yeah, they’re a pretty reliable vehicle. 

 

KO:  I know Pete Rose became a Porsche man because of insistence from brother Dave, but here I always thought you were a Ford man.

 

GS:  I was a Ford truck man.  I got to realize that the Mercedes piece is such a tough and durable piece that I like ‘em.  Plus, they go along with my German heritage.  It’s just an overall good deal for me and I’ll probably have one until the day I die, somehow.

 

KO:  So you like German food then?

 

GS:  Yes I do! 

 

KO:  Any good places in Indianapolis other than Rathskeller?

 

GS:  I haven’t been there yet.  We have a couple in Cincinnati that I’m familiar with but some of them have closed because they were in the ghetto areas, the riot problems and so forth.  Nobody would go down there and eat anymore.

 

KO:  Before you took your job with USAC, you worked for Tony Stewart Racing for a few weeks.  I don’t know how long of a time period that was.  I seem to recall a busy Toledo/IRP weekend thrash that you were involved with.  Did you see anything with Tony Stewart Racing that might have surprised you with the current state of affairs of the sport?      

 

GS:  (Thinking and sighing) They wanted for nothing.  They had everything and anything they wanted.  It was really refreshing to see that because I know how hard I worked.  Sometimes I would have to drive up here from Cincinnati just to get bolts and nuts for my racecar because Cincinnati wouldn’t even have it…a grade A bolt and nut or an aircraft bolt and nut.  Or a head gasket or an intake gasket.  I couldn’t get them in Cincinnati.  I had to drive up here to Galen Fox’s and get the parts up here.  So to see these guys have their parts right on the shelf, and everything right there, was very refreshing.  That was very cool.

 

KO:  The right way to do it.

 

GS:  Absolutely. 

 

KO:  Anything else that might have opened your eyes there?

 

GS:  There were a lot of people involved, a lot of people hanging around there a lot.  Tony Stewart’s an interesting guy and people flock around him.  He wasn’t around there that much.  In fact, I don’t recall seeing him in the shop but one time.  I wasn’t there that day.  I had a dental appointment. 

 

But it was interesting.  I worked for Larry Curry.  Larry brought me in to help the guys out.

 

KO:  Another Cincinnati guy. 

 

GS:  We were rookies with the Hoffman Indycar team in 1975. 

 

KO:  I’ve got a Hoffman Indy garage sign, number 79.  It was a backup car.  It has Larry Curry’s name on it but I didn’t see Greg Staab’s name on there. 

 

GS:  Well, Greg Staab was just a parts washer at the time.  But yeah, I was with those guys for a couple of years at the Speedway.  I learned a lot just by doing that too. 

 

KO:  Your move to Indianapolis was a big deal for you but certainly a long time coming. I’m sure a lot of people pleaded with you to move up here since you drove up here so much.  How long had you considered such a move and what finally pushed you over the edge to get it done?

 

GS:  Probably since I was 20 years old I wanted to live up here but I had jobs in Cincinnati.  I had my parents in the Cincinnati area.  And I had to stick with them.  There was no way I could move up here then.  Steve Stapp gives me the devil to this day because I didn’t move up here years ago.  But that’s just the way it is and I’m here now and I’m a happy dog about it.  I like it! 

 

KO:  Shortly after the Stewart deal, you started working for USAC.  I don’t know if it was the end of ’05 or the beginning of ’06, basically after Jason Smith announced he was leaving.  Was that in ’05?

 

GS:  Um-hmm. 

 

KO:  When you first started that job, did you feel like you were in heaven?  I remember you said that it was your dream deal.

 

GS:  It initially started out with the Laredo-Go, which is a Mercedes world record run, that Rollie needed some help with because nobody could go down there and stay 30 days in Laredo, Texas for this Mercedes-Benz diesel run.  It was really good and I got along with all the guys good.  Rollie saw an opportunity for me to go to work with USAC and utilize what I did know.  Jason was still there but it was my dream job, yes it was.

 

KO:  It seems like you said that was something you dreamed of doing once you retired from racing, either as a driver or a car owner.  Was that true?

 

GS:  When Gary Sokola was sitting in his seat in 1990, I said, “I want to sit in that seat some day.  I want that job.”  And I got it. 

 

KO:  So could life have possibly gotten any better for you?

 

GS:  Um, it was difficult there.  There were some difficult items.  It’s a hard job.  You catch more grief there then you do as a track owner.  And you’re constantly having to answer to people there.  It’s a pretty tough job but I liked it.  I loved it.  And I’m better for it.

 

KO:  You worked very hard at getting your schedules out early.  You also developed sprint and midget schedules that really appealed to USAC’s hardcore fans while also working to take the series to new places where they hadn’t been in a long time, Pennsylvania in particular.  With the midgets, you developed relationships with other sanctioning bodies to bolster the schedule, especially on dirt.  What were your goals in creating your schedules? 

 

GS:  Originally I wanted to go to 50 races with the sprint car division.  I was told I shouldn’t do that.  That was way too many races.  The USAC thing, there was such a constant controversy with the midget groups, back and forth.  I wanted to try to mend that, try to fix that.  Let’s get this taken care of.  We’re all grown men here.  Let’s make this work somehow.  I tried hard to make the POWRi thing work.  I tried with the Badger bunch.  It just was very, very difficult.  There were so many obstacles thrown at me that every time you had a goal or a plan, you’d have an obstacle thrown at you.  It was kind of strange.  So it turned out that a lot of it worked and a lot of it didn’t, but the Pennsylvania thing started out at three races and now it’s gone to five last year.  It could be more if somebody wanted to pursue it.  I’m no longer there to do that, so that’s entirely up to them.

 

KO:  What places did you want to take USAC to that you weren’t able to get done?

 

GS:  We came up short on the pavement a lot and I couldn’t understand why. I worked hard to get a third show into Winchester, which we got done. 

 

KO:  I remembered you said you wanted to go to a place like Mobile or Pensacola. 

 

GS:  I went to Mobile in person.  I went to Pensacola and Mobile in person, and had it within a few dollars, we’ll say, of bringing in a sponsor, and having both of those places locked in.  They both wanted us and they both were enthusiastic about having us but they wanted a sponsor brought along to help defer their expenses.  Both of those places are fantastic paved racetracks.  Incredible places.  And I went down in person and visited both tracks and it looked like it was going to be a done deal and it didn’t quite work out. 

 

KO:  You seem to be the type of guy to not sit still, continuously working to improve whatever it is that you’re involved with.  Maybe it’s that German heritage again.  Can you share with me your vision for the USAC sprint car and midget divisions?  I know you said 50 races, but was there a thought that maybe if a big enough sponsor could be obtained that this could be a full-time traveling series, where these guys could make a living off of it?  Or did you just want to focus on providing good racing? 

 

GS:  The thought of a full-time traveling thing is kind of off-beat because you have to have a sponsor to cover some of that, which we didn’t have.  I believe that fifty races is not out of the question.  This year’s schedule has 42 on it.  If you could get to Pensacola and a few more like that, bang, you’re at 50.  So it’s not out of the question to have 50.  I was told that we were cutting the races back and I didn’t know they were going to pursue this as heavy as they did.  This schedule is a very impressive schedule. 

 

KO:  This could be controversial, but were you concerned about your position with USAC when Kevin Miller was hired as President? 

 

GS:  Any time you see a new leader come in, there’s always a ray of worry.  There’s an element of worry.  When he started chopping heads at first, of course the worry increased.  I thought I was pretty stable with it and I thought I had done a good job with it.  I still feel very confident that I was doing the right thing.  I just didn’t fit into the program that he has.  And that’s fully understandable.  I accept that.  It’s not a bad bit of light on either party.  But I wish I could have stayed there to help out.  It didn’t happen that way and we’ll move right on. 

 

KO:  How much did the culture change from when Rollie was running things to when Kevin came in? Of course headcount was reduced, but was it a completely different culture?  Rollie had been a long-time car owner with USAC.  He knew the way things were run there before and he represented a continuation of the way things were done.  Did the culture change that much with Kevin?

 

GS:  It did.  It did in fact change.  The education part of it for Kevin was to learn exactly what everyone did, and to learn how this whole game worked.  I respect that Kevin has a major job to do and I respect him for his insight on the way he wanted to go about it.  It’s just two different paths and two different ways of going about it.  He brought in Jason Smith and Jason McCord.  Jason Smith knows what to do.  He knows how to go about it.  He’s very, very good at it.  Jason McCord has picked it up and he’s done very well too. 

 

KO:  Did you miss working with Rollie Helmling?

 

GS:  Rollie and I are great friends – have been great friends for years and I see him all the time.  Yeah, it was different.

 

KO:  It seems like he might have given you more leeway.  He knows that you’ve been around the sport and you know what you’re doing.  You’ve worked as a promoter.  Maybe you were given more room to work under Rollie’s leadership?

 

GS:  He gave me the sprint division when Jason left and said, “Here, run this like it’s your business.”  That’s exactly what we did and it worked.  It was working out pretty well I thought.

 

KO:  I enjoyed those years.  I’ll say that as a fan.  To me, I don’t know how it could have gotten any better as a fan from Indiana. 

 

GS:  Thank you!  That’s quite a compliment.

 

KO:  But that’s just my perspective as a fan, not to be blowing smoke up your ass.  This is my passion.  This is what I enjoy most from life.  I know I was enjoying it immensely when you were in charge of it.

 

So going back to the beginning of 2008, when did you find out that your job was in jeopardy? 

 

GS:  In May I believe it was, Kevin had reviews and my name was last on the list of reviews.  I knew right away there was something up because when you’re last on the list, that means everyone’s gone out of the building and it’s time to get serious. 

 

KO:  So that’s how you found out then – knowing it was a closed door meeting?

 

GS:  Correct. 

 

KO:  What reason were you given?  Can you even discuss that?

 

GS:  He cited a lack of passion for the sport and I had to question that one a little bit.  And my work ethic, he said I didn’t do anything back there in the office all day. 

 

KO:  Wow!  We just talked about that and it leads into my next question.  Kevin Miller claimed that you didn’t have enough passion for USAC.  But given your history with the organization that dates back to the early ‘70s, traveling with them all over the country, supporting them through thick and thin, especially when they didn’t have a ton of cars, and being a staunch USAC supporter, how badly did that anger and frustrate you? 

 

GS:  It was just a big question mark.  Where would this come from?  How could this be?  It was just a tough pill to swallow.  And then they kept me around for a little while, having a few things here and there to do.  It was bitter disappointment when you base your life around something and then something like this comes in and changes.  But I’ll move on and I’ll do just fine.  I’m very happy doing what I’m doing right now.  VERY happy with it!  I’ve got a great bunch of people to work with and it’s just a great time. 

 

KO:  Given Mr. Miller’s future plans for USAC, other than a few more pavement shows, the 2009 schedule looks a lot like the one you built despite the notion of them wishing to cut back on the number of races.  It looks a lot like the ones from 2006 to 2008.  But what’s your opinion on the current state of affairs for USAC?  Are they in trouble? 

 

GS:  I really don’t know Kevin.  I don’t know.  One thing you hear is the economic situation but apparently the Calistoga promotion went really well as I understand it.  They did a nice job on that out there.  So those are the things they need to do if there’s an economic problem.  You need to do more of those. 

 

KO:  Do you ever see a day in the near future when there might not be a USAC? 

 

GS:  I guess at this point, anything is possible.  With the economics the way they are and rumors of the building being knocked down and the street change down there, that would be the perfect time for something drastic to happen.  I don’t know.  It’s hard to say.

 

KO:  If you were in charge, what changes would you enact immediately or over a period of time to help save USAC from extinction?     

 

GS:  (Ponders for a bit) A little bit more user-friendly approach to the history of USAC.  It’s being pushed aside now due to the computer age and they’re appealing to the younger people.  There are still A LOT of old USAC fans out there.  Not because I’m older…

 

KO:  Well, I’m becoming an old USAC fan and I’m 37. 

 

GS:  Exactly.  The computer age is being pushed onto the scene heavily right now.  This is a good thing, but I wouldn’t short change the older people, 37 and older, who still enjoy a good USAC race at Winchester.  They don’t all have computers.  They don’t all live by the computer age.  And this seems to be bypassed right now and I feel for those people. 

 

KO:  You’re working for a Silver Crown team right now.  Of course three years ago they went to the new style cars for the pavement but now that the older cars are back the car owners aren’t coming out to support it like in the past.  What’s causing that?  What’s wrong with the Silver Crown series?  Not that there is anything particularly wrong, but why aren’t the owners coming out to support it?  Maybe you don’t have the answer?

 

GS:  I don’t have a true answer, but I have a feeling.  I may be wrong, but this is my opinion and I’m allowed to have this opinion.  I feel that for years and years, Silver Crown teams and cars, families, people, they had these cars and they went to the races.  It became a way of life.  Well the other change came in with the new cars and those cars, the older cars, were yanked away by the new car.  Now these people have found a way to fill that void on a weekend of Springfield, on a weekend of DuQuoin, on a weekend of the Hoosier Hundred.  They have now got a cottage on the lake.  They’ve got a trailer on the lake some place, ball games to go to or they’ve got another way to fill that void.  And I think that void is being filled by other items now in the entertainment area.  They may go to King’s Island.  They may go to the Gulf Shores.  They may go to the gambling boat or the casino.  Who knows!  But I’ve got a theory that the people who have gone away have gotten their feelings hurt by the elimination of their racecars they had a passion for and they found other ways to fill that void for the weekends.

 

KO:  That very well could be.  It reminds me of baseball.  In ’94 when they had the strike, I was a hardcore Reds fan.  I haven’t really followed it since then.  That’s when I started hitting the racing hard.  I found other ways to spend my time and here I am.  I haven’t gone back. 

 

GS:  My point exactly!  I’m sure that’s happened to several.  I can’t name a team.  I can’t tell you exactly who would be involved in a change like that, but I bet you that has happened.  That would be my opinion.

 

KO:  Next question – kind of a different area - if another wingless sprint car organization, doesn’t matter who it is, came into the Midwest, paid a larger purse and didn’t demand entry fees from its car owners, you think it could it overpower USAC? 

 

GS:  USAC is a very, very strong name.  USAC has the numero uno, on the pedestal name.  That’s going to be very hard to overpower.  You may become very popular.   And you may produce a fast and efficient show that pays more and is more user-friendly to the racers and the fans, but you still have that USAC emblem.

 

KO:  So you’re confident that the name still has some clout?

 

GS:  Unless they anger more people, they’re going to be the number one group. 

 

KO:  So throughout the mess of 2008 and losing your full-time status with USAC, you still jumped in to help the sanctioning body whenever possible.  Did you have any other job offers after the USAC deal that you can divulge?  Who were some of the people who contacted you about your services? 

 

GS:  Yeah, there was a call that came from down in the southwest from Tommie Estes to call Emmett Hahn to branch out and bring the TNT Tour up to the Midwest which still hasn’t really been dropped completely.  I went to 80-something races and 70-something races and then 77-something races, three years in a row.  I’m kind of recovering from all the USAC races right now.  So I don’t know if I really want to work that hard and go back to doing a big deal but it’s not out of the question.  I’m supposed to see Emmett, but I never did get to talk to him out west.  Eventually we’ll talk.

 

KO:  Any other people?  Any other interesting names that called you?

 

GS: No, not really.  Or none that I can talk about anyway.

 

KO:  That’s fair!  We want to keep this on the up and up and not burn any bridges because I know you have so many years left in the sport.  This piece is to promote you and not slam anybody else. 

 

Now you are working for the big man at Jet Star Trucking, Darryl Guiducci, who is also the big man at 6R Racing.  What is your current position with the team and how did you decide that it was the place for you?

 

GS:  They were short on help and it’s really not a paying position.  They take care of you in going to the races and they take care of your expenses and so forth but I’m the crew chief on the 19 car that Mike Murgoitio and Kody Swanson drive.  I maintain it.  I work out of the shop up there and I help them.  It’s not a paid position by any means but they’re good people.  Darryl is an extremely outgoing ambassador for the sport.  He’s one of the best people the sport could possibly have.  It’s just really neat to work with Darryl and Chuck Castor and Bernie Hallisky.  We’ve got a pretty good team going there.  I’m very meticulous with my work.  I like to have cars finish races.  They say I’m too slow and they laugh about it being slow.  Well, I’m slow because I want this to work.  I don’t want something falling off of it, you know!

 

KO:  One thing that stands out when I think of Greg Staab is his positive outlook on life.  With very few exceptions, you never seem to have a bad word for anybody, always taking the high road.  Where did this come from? 

 

GS:  If anybody out there is listening and knew my father, my father could go to a tree and get a conversation out of it.  He was pretty much like that all of the time.  He was 90 percent in a good mood all of the time.  I’ve watched him.  I’ve watched other people I’ve been around in my life that are similar to that.  I’ve had some pretty good role models. I’ve had the work ethic role model with Pete Rose, watching him work.  My father was a very hard worker.  I had some other bosses who were very good workers.  Tom Soudrette, who started helping me out in my beginning racing years, his grandson Jason is running at Lawrenceburg now, he taught me a lot.  Claude “Buster” Lowther, who ran with Jimmy Davies in the USAC midgets for years, he was hard on me too but he also taught me a lot about life.  I’ve had several people who have been influential in casting my personality – mainly my father.  My mother was a great mother, but she didn’t have quite the outgoing approach to things.  I’ve got a lot of people to thank for that. 

 

KO:  From a personal standpoint, I don’t ever recall a marriage being associated with your life.  Have you ever been married?

 

GS:  No sir.  No marriages for me. 

 

KO:  Married to racing?

 

GS:  I am what I am and that’s what I am.  I don’t see any reason for that (marriage) right now. 

 

KO:  The nickname of “The Dog” – I’m curious how you got that because I started seeing it on your cars in the early ‘90s.  Was that given to you by one of your female acquaintances by chance?

 

GS:  Steve Stapp! Steve Stapp started calling me The Dog because I’d crawl up anywhere and go to sleep.  I was just like an old dog and he threw the dog thing on me. 

 

KO:  And then you started lettering your racecars that way.

 

GS:  Well, if you’re going to call me a dog, I’ll put it on the racecar!  But it was funny.  It was fun to play with.  Steve Stapp started that shit.

 

KO:  But it stuck!

 

GS:  Yeah!  And I’m ok with that!  In most circles of socialization, dog means you can go around and hump anything and anybody.  Well, I don’t think that’s really where the nickname was going, but there may be a little bit of that in there.

 

KO:  In the sprint car fraternity, I don’t know of anyone else who has been more religious when it comes to exercise and pumping iron than you.  No matter how late of a night it was after the races, no matter if you’re away on business in California, you’re always at that gym pumping iron early in the morning.  Has it always been that way? 

 

GS:  In 1985, my friend A.J. Esterkamp bought me a membership to the health club in Cincinnati called Covedale Sports Center.  I immediately saw a difference in ’85 that I was not falling out of the racecar anymore.  I was stronger than people.  I was doing better in longer races.  Sitting straight up for thirty laps, it was making a difference.  I did it all my life anyway.  And from ’85 and on I really, really worked at it.  I’ve backed off lately because I’ve been sick.  You know for a fact that I’ve been after it and I always have. 

 

KO:  So what’s your routine?  Weights only or cardio too?  What do you like to do there?

 

GS:  It’s off and on.  I’ll start cardio here in about a month – heavy – before racing season starts.  I’ve backed off of it now because of my knees, hips, and feet.  But normally just weights…free weights – pretty extensive.  I do pretty well for a sixty year old guy.  You won’t see too many people lifting like that.

 

KO:  I just ran into an eighty year old guy at the gym today.  He was still pumping iron and he told me it makes him feel young.

 

GS:  It feels good!  It’s kind of an adrenaline rush I guess. 

 

KO:  You may have already answered this but I just want to be sure to get this down - what’s the most entertaining racing story that you can tell without getting anyone in serious trouble?  You’re a guy that’s been around racing for a long time and we both know racing people know how to have a good time, laughing and joking.  I don’t know if there’s one racing story that stands out and involves you…

 

GS:  Actually the car falling off the trailer coming from Paragon that night was one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever done.  It scared the hell out of me at the time, but that made it to UPI, United Press International.  It made it all over the country – about me losing a racecar and it ended up in a cornfield at four o’clock in the morning.  It was spooky at the time because there’s my life, my money, my cylinder heads, my engine!  Everything I owned – GONE!  Those Southern Indiana boys don’t play.  They’ll take that shit and hide it and you’ll never find it.

 

KO:  So how fast did you know that it was off the trailer?

 

GS:  I drove all the way to Shelbyville – pulled into the Bigfoot Station to get fuel and noticed that the racecar wasn’t on the trailer when I got out to put fuel in the truck.  I told the girl I was with – “Hey, the racecar’s not back there!”  She said, “Oh quit joking around!”  I said, “I’m telling you now!  The racecar’s not back there!” 

 

We backtracked.  I went straight to the Martinsville police station.  A Martinsville cop came out, turned on his alley lights, driving up route 44.  There were my four-by-fours laying there that I shoved under the car to keep the car from bouncing.  I said, “Those are my four-by-fours.  That thing’s around here somewhere.” 

 

He said, “How do you know those are your four-by-fours?” 

 

“It’s because I put them together. I nailed them together and this is my stuff.” 

 

He said, “Ok.  If you say so.” 

 

So he turned the alley lights on and started shining them out in the field.  As we crest the top of the hill, you could see the corn stalks mowed down and there’s our racecar sitting out there in the middle of the field.

 

KO:  That was kind of a crazy night.  It seems like down there at Paragon, there was a fire or something like that. 

 

GS:  And a storm.  There was a helluva storm.  That’s why the thing didn’t get tied down.  I was trying to keep from getting soaking wet and I didn’t tie it down properly. 

 

KO:  There WAS a storm coming!  It was simply a strange night.  They even had an Australian pursuit race that night.  About every weird thing that could happen took place. 

 

Moving on, can you tell me what one thing is the best thing that’s happened to you because of racing?  Is it the friends, the respect – what’s the best thing?  And you can take all the time you need to think about that.

 

GS:  Two things.  I set goals.  I accomplished a lot of goals.  Even though they were small goals for some people, I accomplished those goals.  Championships at Lawrenceburg.  USAC sprint car driver – didn’t win a championship, but I came close.  National TV win – that was beyond any goal.  That was beyond what I thought I could ever make.  I’ve overachieved by a mile from what I thought I could ever do. 

 

The other one is the respect factor all across the United States.  If I was in Atlantic City right now, I could walk into the Atlantic City trade show right now and there’d be 50 to 100 people who would know who I was.

 

KO:  Go out to Phoenix and it would be the same way?

 

GS:  Skagit, Washington.  Southern California.  And that’s a really, really good feeling to know that many people respect what you’ve done, even though it’s not world-beating and it’s not a Formula One championship, it’s a respect level.  I hadn’t seen Doug Wolfgang in years and he had that terrible head injury…he actually remembered me at Atlantic City last year when he was with Dave Argabright.  I hadn’t seen him in 15 or 18 years.  So that’s kind of neat.

 

KO:  So did you ever own an enclosed trailer for your racecar?

 

GS:  I have never owned one.  Mr. Stenger owned several enclosed trailers.  And we had ‘em in the ‘80s.  But I have never owned one myself – no. 

 

KO:  It’s just a question I had.  I remember seeing your open trailer at Williams Grove…even in ’96 it was rare for people not to have an enclosed trailer.  I would guess the last time you towed out to Manzy, which might have been 2002 with Matt Westfall, did you borrow one for that trip?

 

GS:  I borrowed Tom Burkey’s trailer to go out there.

 

KO:  It’s always good to have that when you’re making the long tow and having to stay in a motel.

 

So if you had an all-time favorite venue, could it possibly be Lawrenceburg Speedway? 

 

GS:  My favorite racetrack?

 

KO:  Yeah. 

 

GS: I’ve done so many of them Kevin, it’s hard to say.

 

KO:  Maybe there’s not just one…a top three?

 

GS:  A top three.  Berlin.  Winchester.  Ascot Park. 

 

KO:  Awesome!

 

GS:  Ascot Park!  Maybe not in that order, but I had to come up with a dirt track out of the deal.

 

KO:  So Ascot just had everything?

 

GS:  Including Leslie Bremer! 

 

KO:  Exactly!  It was definitely the place to be.  It was always a place I wanted to go to but I never had the chance.  It still bothers me to this day.  When I was on my honeymoon out in California, I found where Ascot was and I got some of the dirt that was still there.  Nothing had been built on it.  I brought it home in a baggy.  I still have it.

 

GS:  I got to see the Spruce Goose.  I got to see the Queen Mary.  I got to see Mount Saint Helens.  Mount Rainier.  I got to be on top of Pikes Peak.  There’s just so much shit I’ve done, just all from racing.

 

KO:  Is there a favorite win?  The TV deal at IRP has to be at the top because it was so special.  You know, maybe there were some other wins at The Burg or Florida…

 

GS:  The Volusia County win was good.  That state championship thing was fantastic.  The Road Runner 50 at Putnamville in 1983 or ’84 where I beat everybody.  They were all there and I won that.  That was good because I went with no crew.  I ran a winged show at Chillicothe, got back from Chillicothe and nobody wanted to go.  They were all worn out – too tired.  Got back too late…yadda yadda.  I stayed at the garage all night, set the car up, called Rickie Hodgkiss, my friend, and said, “You want to go to Putnamville with me?”

 

He said, “Hell yeah I’ll go.  Who’s all going?” 

 

I said, “Nobody.  I don’t have any help.”  He and I went and we KICKED THEIR ASS!  It was NEAT!  Including Vogler.  Including Larry Rice.  I think Ron Shuman was there.  They were all there.  It was an afternoon show.  I started on the front row.  I muscled my way into the lead and I didn’t give it up for nothing. 

 

Those are good ones.  The TV race was of course a good one. 

 

KO:  Hell, maybe some races you didn’t win were also memorable?

 

GS:  The Toledo race.  Sprint cars.  1990 or ’91.  Jeff Bloom, me, and Gary Fedewa exchanged spots. 

 

KO:  Hey, how are you doing?  (As Greg’s cat hops up onto the table directly in front me.)

 

GS:  That’s Ralph.

 

KO:  Hey Ralph! 

 

GS:  Ralph’s the diabetic cat.  He gets a shot of insulin every morning at 7. 

 

The three of us exchanged third, fourth, and fifth spot and we never touched, thirty laps, never touched!  Swapped, traded, passed, passed, boom, pass – never touched! 

 

KO:  That’s kind of hard to do at Toledo because it’s kind of narrow.


GS:  The three of us just grabbed each other in one huge, three-way hug afterwards.  It was one of the neatest races I’ve ever done.

 

KO:  Anything else you can think of?  I can’t think of anything because I wasn’t around to see a lot of the stuff in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. 

 

GS:  As petty as it may sound, a heat race win at Ascot one night – I won a heat race out there and beat Shuman and all those guys one night too.  That stands out.  Even though it was only eight laps, I did it!

 

KO:  That HAD to be a highlight when that’s one of your favorite places, you’re a long way from home and you’re out there racing against some studs.

 

What about this question…is there one person in racing you respect the most?  Maybe there’s not just one but several? 

 

GS:  Wow!   

 

KO:  A guy like Tom Stenger was a guy that you admired.  A.J. Watson?  You mentioned him.  Maybe the guy from Don’s Crankshaft, Don Kemper?

 

GS: There’s ten names.  You couldn’t single one out.  It would be unfair to the rest of them.  I don’t know.  Tom Stenger would be one.  A.J. Watson would be another.  Ronnie Shuman would be another.  You got that one on there too, the best driver you raced against?

 

KO:  Oh…we’re getting there.  I think I skipped that question, or at least the question of favorite guy to race against.

 

GS:  Not favorite – BEST!  I say Ronnie Shuman is the best non-winged race driver.

 

KO:  He was a money racer.  He would finish and finish up front.

 

GS:  He was the best.  That’s my opinion.

 

KO:  That falls into the respect deal obviously. 

 

GS:  Yep.  Yep.  How many Turkey Night wins?

 

KO:  Eight?  I think…he’s done it all.  Raced with the World of Outlaws and had some success there.  So he’s the best guy you raced against.  How about your favorite guy to race against?  It could be anyone from the midget days like Steve Lotshaw.  Sprint cars – down at The Burg…

 

GS:  Leon Thickstun or Kerry Norris or Danny Milburn.  Geez, that’s tough!

 

KO:  A lot of guys hated racing against Jack Hewitt because he was so hard to beat.  Tray House talked about that.

 

GS:  WOW!  That’s hard.  That’s another hard question.

 

KO:  Maybe it’s too broad of a question because there were so many?

 

GS:  Yeah.  It encompasses so many. 

 

KO:  So we talked about your favorite win, your favorite guy to race against, the person you respected the most in racing…so we can leave it at that.  You’ve had a career that’s spanned many decades so it’s hard to nail down just one. 

 

Moving on, is there one thing that pains you the most about the current state of affairs of short track racing?

 

GS:  Economics have not been addressed properly to get things in order to help corral the expenses so more people can do it, if that makes any sense.

 

KO:  It does.  Back in the day, you could still make up the difference with smarter setups and driver skills.  There’s a lot more access to equal stuff now whereas maybe there wasn’t before.  It’s just come down to credit card racing.

 

GS:  Our sport’s always been a money sport but it’s far more prevalent now than it ever was before.  It took me four years of racing sprint cars to get my first set of Carrillo connecting rods.  And I slept with them.  I put them in my bed with me.  It took me, phew, everybody else already had aluminum blocks and it took me an extra three years to get an aluminum block.  And we had to take one of C.K. Spurlock’s broken ones, bring it back home to get it fixed, to get our first one.  And then they outlawed it! 

 

KO:  So the money situation and not really addressing it is your beef.

 

GS:  Mmm-hmm.  The DT-3 tire thing, in the Midwest area, I thought was going to help a lot.  And I think it did, but then it created a situation for a lawsuit where Hoosier and McCreary were suing each other. 

 

KO:  You mentioned the deal out at Ascot when Stan Atherton flew out of the park and landed on some cars, but was that the wildest thing you’ve seen happen at a racetrack? 

 

GS:  Pretty much stands out.  If anyone asks me, that’s the one that pops up.

 

KO:  I just wondered if anything else stands out as being semi-crazy.  Dickie Gaines almost flipping up into the stands at Bloomington.  That’s going up and I don’t know how that happened. 

 

GS:  There was a time in 1987, maybe, that we started running a west coast race at Ascot.  We came down for the green and ran into the corner and everybody’s pulling tear-offs because it was gooey and tacky and nasty.  I saw something fly up and thought it was a tear-off, no big deal.  I came off the corner and when we got to the backstretch, it’s red.  Everybody slowed down and parked at the end of front stretch, up by four.  Here’s Richard Griffin.  He’s stuck up in the fence, higher than Dickie Gaines ever thought he was going to be, in turn one, hanging like this (gesturing) out of the car, knocked out cold.  He flipped from the flag stand, all the way down, and got snagged in a cable where the front axle caught it and hung it in the cable. 

 

So I walked down there.  They’ve got a bucket loader coming in and they’re going to pull him out.  It’s going to take forever to get this mess cleaned up.  I walk down and I’m standing there next to Jimmy Oskie.  And he’s standing there like this with a drink in his hand and a ham sandwich.  He looked at me and said, “Staab, if I knew it was going to take this damned long to clean up, I’d have brought two ham sandwiches!  I would have brought you one!” 

 

Just crazy.  Crazy!

 

KO:  Has there ever been a time that you’ve been burned out on racing? 

 

GS:  At the end of every season everybody gets burned out on racing.  Everybody gets wore down and everybody gets burned out and it’s only a short time burnout.  The difference I had was with Cincinnati.  Up here, everybody keeps racing and keeps on racing.  Back in Cincinnati, I was the only one that did that, so I kept on racing.  I had a goal to get one car done, rebuilt and ready to go by Turkey Night.  By Christmas, I’d have the other one done.  Rebuilt, blasted, painted, everything done.  I pretty much met those goals every time I did it.  I never stopped.

 

KO:  You were setting those goals, even when it wasn’t racing season.

 

GS:  Christmas day I’d catch hell because I would work on the racecars in the morning for a couple of hours. 

 

KO:  Do you think you’ll ever get tired of racing?

 

GS:  I don’t think so.

 

KO:  It hasn’t happened yet, even with the burnout factor every year.

 

GS:  The injuries.  The job differences.  The race track going away at Lawrenceburg.  This is my life.  It’s what I do. 

 

KO:  I saw a video on You Tube of you driving a replica vintage Shaw Sprinter at the Hoffman fish fry.  How cool was that thing?

 

GS:  It was very cool!  And if I had belts on, I would have pushed the throttle and got ‘er sideways, but I didn’t have belts on at the time. 

 

KO:  Was there an Offy in that?

 

GS:  That was a flathead V-8 Ford. 

 

KO:  Even though that thing wasn’t “real”, I wonder if you’d driven a car like that anywhere before.

 

GS:  No.  The closest thing to that was that Offy midget that Tom Dickinson had – that Kurtis Kraft Offy midget. 

 

KO:  So how did that car feel?  I don’t know that you were able to get it up to speed.

 

GS:  It felt good!  It spun the wheels and it did a little jiggy-jaggy.  In fact, they were supposed to let me run it around Winchester at the Old Timer’s Weekend this fall.  But it’s got wire wheels on it so I have to be real careful with it. 

 

KO:  So you just drove it around their parking lot?

 

GS:  It’s a pretty big area.  They’ve got a big area, a big spread.  I took it around a little bit.

 

KO:  So speaking of the Hoffmans, they’re from Cincinnati and you’re from Cincinnati.  How come you two never hooked up? 

 

GS:  I was on their radar screen a couple of times to drive for them.  The way they do their drivers is that they put them up on a board and they list their plusses and minuses.  And I fell down in flat places like Terre Haute and Granite City and I stood out in short tracks and Eldora.  And there were highs and lows and I didn’t meet their standards. 

 

KO:  That’s an interesting way of charting potential drivers.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of that but I guess if you have to pick somebody, there have to be pros and cons.

 

GS:  Sure.  It’s just like it took them two years to put Jerry Coons in their pavement car. 

 

KO:  Yeah.  He did alright in the midgets on pavement.

 

GS:  Yeah!   He won at Salem.  He could win.

 

KO:  So of course with a career that has spanned so many years, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if there are any regrets for things that you didn’t accomplish that you wanted to.  Is this even the case?  You’ve been pretty thankful for what you could accomplish and you have mentioned that you never dreamed you would have gotten this far.  Still, were there any regrets for things you didn’t get done yet?

 

GS:  I wanted the national championship for the sprint cars.  When I realized it was within grasp, I wanted number one.  I couldn’t get it.  I got number two.  Pete Rose gave me hell about that in Vegas when I showed him my number two ring.  He said, “What’s this?  Number TWO ring?  Take that and get it out of here!”  He was on my ass about it. 

 

To me, that’s a great accomplishment.  Not to Dave Darland.  He has a lot of rings.  But he’s been a full-time racer for 12 to 15 years.  I was a worker and living in Cincinnati.  It’s very difficult to do a sport that you’re on your own with in a town where there is no racing.  So I’m very thankful and as far as regrets, there’s one or two years I shouldn’t have chose the routes on cars I was driving and so forth but it’s the way it is and I made a mistake. 

 

I do want to win a Silver Crown event as a mechanic.  That’s THE goal in my mind, right now, burning, BURNING. 

 

KO:  So you pretty much answered my next question and we must be on the same page – about the things that you still want to do in racing.

 

GS:  At sixty years old do I still have goals?  Am I goal oriented?  Absolutely!  Positively! 

 

KO:  So how is life in Indianapolis?

 

GS:  I love it!  I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

 

KO:  What was your main reason for getting out of Cincinnati?  I know we’ve partially covered this, but was it all the riots, crime, and crazy stuff going on there or was it just that you wanted to be around racing people?

 

GS:  Poorly run town.  Poorly, poorly run place.  It’s poor on its maintenance of its streets.  It’s poor on its city government.  The attitude of its people is negative -  95 percent of the people are negative and down-trodden at all times.  And it’s just such a very, very negative, not such a good place at all.  And a lot of crime.  A lot of crime. 

 

KO:  Racing has always been on the brain for you but as far as anything outside of racing, do you follow baseball, football, or anything like that?  Bengals?  Reds?

 

GS:  I wanted to see the Bengals have a good season but it isn’t going to happen anytime in the near future with Mike Brown running it. 

 

KO:  They are not spending the money like they should be?

 

GS:  They won’t spend the money.  They let three really good players go this year.  And they’re all playing on other teams.  Tomorrow I’ll be glued to both playoff games.  You won’t be able to drag me away with a tractor, but yeah, I’m a football guy.  Always have been.  I played football for years.

 

KO:  So you like their stadium down there?  I’ve been to it a couple of times.

 

GS:  I haven’t gotten to go to the new one yet.  I’m waiting on Rico from Fatheadz who told me he was going to take me to a Colts game this year.

 

KO:  I just wondered about the Bengals’ stadium. 

 

GS:  Oh!  I haven’t been to that one yet.  I’ve been to Riverfront many times when it was there.  I haven’t been to the new Paul Brown yet either.  I don’t care about it. 

 

KO:  So are you a Colts fan now that you’re in Indy?

 

GS:  Pretty much!  Pretty much!  I really like Tony Dungy but now he’s gone so that leaves the new guy Caldwell…

 

KO:  There’s only one Tony Dungy. 

 

GS:  Personality – he had a great personality.  He’s a good person.

 

KO:  People like working for him. It’s kind of hard to replace that.  But I just wondered what other stuff you liked to do.  Racing has been a big focus but of course there’s always some other outside interests that get you going.  I have an interest in railroads, different things like that.  You mentioned your dad worked for a railroad, so I didn’t know if you liked that too? 

 

GS:  I did.  I used to have the model trains – the Lionel train sets and all that stuff.  Racing just became the focus.  I had to give up baseball for racing.  I had to give up football for racing.  I had to give up hockey for racing.  I played hockey for awhile – goaltender obviously – what else would I have been?  I played center and guard in a 165 pound semi-pro football team for three years and I’d knock you down!  I enjoyed knocking people down.  That was great! 

 

KO:  Anything I missed that you wanted to discuss?  My last question is people to thank in racing, which I am sure you have some that we may not have touched on.  But is there anything I missed on your career that we didn’t talk about that you want to discuss? 

 

GS:  Probably the go-kart years – they were kind of bypassed in our conversations. 

 

KO:  I wondered about the success there because there aren’t records of that out there for public consumption, but we can talk about that.

 

GS:  It’s hard to say but there was a group that raced in Harrison, Ohio.  They had a paved track. 

 

KO:  I saw some pictures in your scrapbook of Harrison. 

 

GS:  One night, a USAC midget show at Richmond got cancelled.  Some of the USAC midget cars came down to the go-kart track, pulled out in the parking lot and there were three of them, on open trailers – just BEAUTIFUL racecars!  And that was another thing that got me wound up – was to drive one of them someday. 

 

But the go-kart track was good. It taught me a lot of stuff and they took time to teach you.  It was pretty cool. 

 

That’s really it.  We’ve covered pretty much everything.  You’ve done a helluva job. 

 

KO:  I’ve just tried to pick things out of my memory and then I read through the results on Kevin Eckert’s site.  I clicked on the results to see more details and was able to figure out more questions to ask. 

 

But what about people to thank?  I know you had your guys Noppert, Schwarm, and Martini.  Tom Dickinson.  Tom Stenger.  Don Kemper. 

 

GS:  But the problem is most of ‘em are dead!  Tom Soudrette of course.  My father Stan Staab of course was instrumental in guiding me the right way. 

 

KO:  It seems like Don Lambert from Kokomo…he was hanging around you for many years.

 

GS:  He was another great help of mine!  A.J. Esterkamp was another great help.  Don Wilbur and Marvin Goins from Dayton flipped over backwards to help me out.  There’s a group in Dayton who really bent over backwards to help me out because they met me through Tom and they liked the way I went about things.  They liked the way I raced.  Don Wilbur was exceptionally good to me. 

 

KO:  It seems like you know a lot of people in the Phoenix area and I don’t know if you stayed at a lot of people’s houses out there.

 

GS:  Bob DeYoung, he lives in L.A. right now.  He’s from Phoenix.  He’s one of the great helps.  He helped me a ton.  Tom Klein, he helped me out years ago with the engine thing out there.  Ron Shaver helped us with the engines.  Earl Gaerte helped me with the engine thing.  There’s been a lot of people who have contributed to that.  C.K. Spurlock at Gambler Chassis many years ago…I don’t know where he’s at now or what’s he’s doing, but he was Kenny Rogers’ business manager and he helped us out a ton down there.  Floyd Bailey at Gambler helped us a bunc