Check Out These Other Pages At Hoseheads
Bill W's Knoxville News Bill Wright
KO's Indiana Bullring Scene Kevin Oldham
From the Grandstand Ron Rodda
Wagsworld Ken Wagner
Keeping Track Dino Oberto
Tri-State Outlook Duane Hancock
Runnin The High Groove Paul KuyawaHoosier Race Report Danny Burton
Dirt Divas Camisha MillerCentral PA
by Kevin Oldham
KO's interview with the Hurst Brothers is HERE
KO's interview with Phil Poor is HERE
Volume 18, Number 9
Staying focused has been quite the challenge this past month, as my mind has been continuously rewinding to the night of August 6th, still seeking answers to make sense of something that just does not seem real or right. These diversions essentially put my life on pause, wondering how it would ever be possible to enjoy racing with the same desire and intensity as before. Even though a thrilling Knoxville Nationals finale provided a brief pulse, despite the fact that Kokomo Speedway’s four day Smackdown was looming, it was no doubt difficult to muster up my usual enthusiasm for this epic event.
However, the weekend prior to Smackdown contained two key moments that altered my outlook. One was a live listen of Chris Nunn’s captivating call of Bloomington’s final points paying contest, with Chris’s account of Justin Grant’s surprising victory encapsulating the sheer drama and excitement that can be found at any dirt track across America. A second was a thoughtful e-mail from Tim Clauson that made all the difference in my mood and motivation. Relaying a story in the aftermath of Jason Leffler’s tragic 2013 incident, son Bryan had told his father several times that if something similar ever happened to him, he hoped that the racing community could find a way to continue to keep his beloved sport alive, not so much in his memory, but in his honor. Thanks to Chris and Tim, they gave me real reasons to keep pressing on with my passion, providing the internal fortitude to overcome those sorrowful shadows that had darkened my soul.
Owning a goal of obtaining some semblance of closure, by mid-day Wednesday I was Kokomo Speedway bound for the Bryan Clauson Celebration of Life and accompanying USAC special event. So impressed by the turnout of fans, racing dignitaries, and the amount of green, white, and black in the grandstand, tears began to flow after early speeches from Kokomo Speedway’s Jarrod O’Connor and Tim Clauson, who spoke of the massive impact his son’s organ donation had on his family’s hopes and future. In addition, Bryan’s mother Diana made her mark on my emotional well-being. In response to the onslaught of grasshopper sightings since her son’s passing, she offered an explanation of the spiritual meaning of the insect, stating, "When the grasshopper appears to us, we are being asked to take a leap of faith and jump forward into a specific area of life without fear. Grasshoppers can only jump forward - not backward or sideways. So when a grasshopper shows up, he could be reaffirming to you that you are taking the right steps to move forward in your current situation. Or, it could be that he is telling you to go ahead and move forward, getting past what is hindering you."
Very heavy stuff, during Friday’s feature one literally flew into and off my chest while I was wearing my Parked It t-shirt. First instinct advised that it was just a dirt clod, but in the split second that I saw something green going in the opposite direction, I was absolutely shell-shocked, as this was a first-time occurrence for me, anytime, anywhere. Both Bryan and I shared the same love for this place so if I ever needed a sign to get on with living my life, this was it.
Had I chosen to drown in my sorrows and stay in hiding for this particular week, sadly I would have missed the most important aspect of the sport that has kept my interest alive for thirty some seasons. That aspect is of course the people, and you won’t find a better bunch that religiously follow this stuff. Who else would dodge the most deadly weather conditions to celebrate the life of Bryan Clauson? With tornadoes touching down just a few miles south of the track, the majority of the large throng rode out the first storm and attempted to dodge the raging river that flooded the only areas available for cover. Once the torrential rain subsided, the Clauson celebration continued but 90 minutes later we were once again chased off by dark clouds and another round of potential twisters. Devoted or just plain crazy, there are no more passionate people than racing folk and all four days of the Smackdown came with conversations that would have cost me hundreds of dollars in professional therapist fees, pushing me closer to the heart of this bullring scene. Whether it was Jarrod O’Connor, Richie Murray, Kevin Bledsoe, Steve Parkes, Jerry Davis, Brent Goodnight, Bruce Wyatt, Dave Roach, Dave Argabright, or Kent Evans, I instantly gained comfort from their company, justifying my own feelings while also processing what they had to say about the current state of affairs. In the end, it was good to know that I wasn’t alone in my thoughts.
So resilient in their refusal to bow down to Mother Nature, a tip of the cap goes to this O'Connor family which of course operates the Kokomo Speedway, as they might just be the most strong and stubborn people I know. Digging deep after Wednesday's flooding (it rained every day during the 2016 Smackdown), after hours and hours of pumping, sweeping, and scrubbing by Thursday afternoon the facility was primed and prepared for racing, hard to find signs of the significant mess that was left 24 hours earlier. However, despite an extremely unfavorable forecast for Friday evening, an even bigger victory came when they pressed on regardless of the weather and in the process manufactured a minor miracle. Steady showers during the initial wheel packing session and a green-filled radar delayed festivities by over two and a half hours. Once cars returned to the track to hot lap and qualify (in and out of light rain), heats were finally ready to roll at 10:25 PM. Such a monumental task would not have been possible without the cooperation of teams who burned countless gallons of fuel, scraped tons of mud, and wasted stacks of tear-offs in making the surface race-ready. Even as spotty rain served as an imminent threat, the entire program was completed by 12:10 AM. Exhibiting that gotta-wanna-win attitude that has made believers of so many fans and racers alike, the 100% effort exerted by this family and their loyal staff is why Kokomo Speedway remains so popular some 11 years after they revamped the legendary facility. If they are willing to give it a shot, then I better get my ass to Kokomo, because I might just miss something significant.
As with any racing tragedy, the closing of one door is also an opening for others. After losing Rich Vogler at Salem in July of '90, '89 All Star champ Robbie Stanley jumped ship from the winged world and became the big man on the USAC sprint car campus until his untimely passing at Winchester in May of '94. After Robbie left, guys like Tony Stewart, Page Jones, Kenny Irwin, and Andy Michner were immediately thrust into national spotlight. But, Bryan Clauson was not just the face of the United States Auto Club like so many of the aforementioned talents. Extremely popular with fans and earning the utmost respect from his competitors, he linked all aspects of open wheel racing across the world, whether it was midgets, traditional sprints, Silver Crown, winged 360, winged 410, and even the Indianapolis 500. His absence leaves an impossibly huge hole to fill as he raised the bar of on-track success and off-the-track decency to a level that may never be approached. Despite the impossibility of equaling his achievements and his undeniable aura, this is a rare opportunity for someone to assert themselves as the heir apparent. It will not happen overnight and it may not even happen in the next five years, but in due time, someone will take a huge step forward because history has shown that someone always has.
Could that next ambassador be Brady Bacon? There is no question that the 2014 USAC sprint car king and 2016 Indiana Sprint Week champ holds the same versatile skill set, as evidenced when he nearly chased down Rico Abreu for fifty grand in the winged portion of Brandon, South Dakota’s Rock and Roll Gold Cup. If not Bacon, could Chad Boespflug be that next guy to step up to a whole new level? Definitely not a winged guy and still learning the midgets, he does own the charisma and has certainly picked up the pace in his USAC sprint car performances since pairing with Eberhardt-Zirzow Racing and crew chief Davey Jones, spectacularly carting home $60,000 from the same Badlands bout after sweeping Saturday and Sunday affairs. If not Brady or Chad, could that heir apparent in USAC circles be Kevin Thomas, Jr.?
Leading 65 of 100 feature laps over three Kokomo Smackdown contests, Kevin added his name to an elite list by notching the titanic $10,000 score on Saturday. Up front for all 30 of Thursday’s feature for another $5,000 payday, these triumphs were number ten and eleven in a superb season that has seen this 4J Motorsports squad separate themselves from the rest of the pack in the wake of BC’s untimely exit. Aside from Clauson’s incomparable season containing 14 wingless 410 victories, Thomas’s tally of 12 (after the September 2nd Bryan Clauson Celebration of Life) is quite impressive given he joined the team in mid-to-late April. Kevin collaborates with team co-owner Jeremy Ottinger on setups and their DRC chassis/Speedway Engines combo is almost always effective, but as strong as this team has performed, especially at Kokomo where they have claimed five feature wins, a Smackdown crown, and now a track championship, they are not immune to off-nights, struggling through the Friday portion of the Smackdown when they started 11th and finished 16th.
Backing up to Thursday, Kevin qualified seventh but earned the pole when quick-qualifier Thomas Meseraull (13.205 in the Dutcher 17) missed the transfer from the first heat. After an early feature caution caused by a Cole Ketcham log jam, KTJ needed 15 laps to construct a full-straight advantage on Dave Darland, seeing that gap completely evaporate after a Logan Jarrett stoppage. This proved to be no problem for the Cullman, Alabama conqueror, clearly the class of the field as he went untouched the rest of the way. Eighth-starting Chris Windom did come on strong in Kenny Baldwin’s DRC/Claxton, working the bottom to steal second from Darland and cut into Kevin’s commanding lead. Darland procured the final podium placement while front row starter Chase Stockon, after engaging in an intense warfare with Windom, secured fourth. In the same Sam McGhee Motorsports Maxim as his winning Bloomington debut, recent newlywed Justin Grant gathered fifth. Sixth through tenth came second-quick Robert Ballou (in a new Eagle chassis), Brady Bacon (with caved-in tail tank), Meseraull, Tyler Courtney, and C.J. Leary.
Getting back to that freaky Friday filled with wet weather, C.J. Leary finally shook that USAC sprint car monkey from his back by leading all thirty laps for his first national sprint car score in the Amati Racing DRC. After so many close calls over the last three seasons, Leary’s long-awaited win came in his 140th career start. After qualifying ninth-best, C.J. benefitted when Logan Jarrett, Cole Ketcham, Jon Stanbrough, and Chris Windom could not transfer through their heat, resulting in a front row start alongside pole sitter Thomas Meseraull. Three times in the first 15 laps, Leary launched his right rear tire over the gargantuan cushion in the middle of turns one and two, allowing Meseraull and fourth-starting Tyler Courtney several looks at the lead. However, C.J. was simply flawless in the second half, aided by a bike ride from Sunshine and a slowly deflating left rear on Meseraull. T-Mez and Courtney still hung for second and third while Shane Cottle collected fourth, up from 12th after missing the show on Thursday when a mag went bad on the Hazen 57 during the B. After opening 13th on Thursday, Chad Boespflug settled for fifth. Windom, Jarett Andretti (from 14th), Grant, Logan Jarrett, and Ballou (from 21st) represented the second half of the top-ten. Logan and Robert bumped bars as they ducked under the checkered, exchanging heated post-race pleasantries before pointing their machines back to the pits.
With no weather concerns for Saturday evening, after fields of 45 and 44 I was surprised that only 30 cars came back for the finale, especially with the opportunity to earn $1,000 for cracking the A-main code. Thursday and Friday combatants Landon Simon, Jerry Coons, Jr., Mario Clouser, Dustin Smith, Corey Smith, Matt Westfall, Chad Wilson, Stuart Brubaker, Casey Shuman, Clinton Boyles, and Shawn Miller were absent for the third show. Those missing the cut from Saturday’s B included Brian Karraker, Tyler Hewitt, Isaac Chapple (aided by Jason Goacher), Josh Spencer (after repairing Friday B-main damage), Joe Bares, and Tim Creech. They were joined on the sidelines by Hunter Schuerenberg, whose Tony Epperson engine expired in hot laps after a connecting rod attempted to exit the oil pan, this coming one night after the same mill expelled oil at the feature conclusion. A proven Kokomo winner who prefers to step upstairs and play in the attic, Hunter’s misfortune was also a big blow for the fans, who rarely get to watch him go topless these days.
Bloomington Sprint Week winner Brent Beauchamp was a pleasant addition to the Smackdown field on Saturday, a wise move for Brent and his car owner Jeff Olson as Kokomo attrition takes its toll by the final night. Olson was recently honored for his lengthy tenure as an air traffic controller, forced into mandatory retirement as my sister who works alongside Jeff will see the same fate in a few years. Brent took one of nine feature transfers from the three qualifying races, one of which claimed Cole Ketcham as the weekend’s worst crash after cracking back stretch concrete. Jerry Coons, Jr., Zach Daum, and Kyle Robbins were the only others to invert from Thursday through Saturday, a low number for Smackdown standards.
Speaking of Schuerenberg, a few years ago he tied the knot with Jessica Boyles, the daughter of midget veteran Joe Boyles and sister to 20 year-old Clinton, who attempted the first two nights of the Smackdown in a potent piece from Seth Motsinger. A 2016 wingless sprint car rookie with Casey Shuman’s WAR series, the young Boyles has been wheeling Jack Hockett’s 75 which contains a 360 cubic inch power plant, often going up against fields filled with 410s. Earlier this year, Clinton’s sprint car debut at Grain Valley, Missouri was a huge success, winning his heat and charging from 11th to second in the A, soon hitting pay dirt in his fourth feature (Winston, MO). Also scoring at Lakeside Speedway from 10th, he has only been outside of the top-five twice in WAR action, suffering flat right rear tires on both occasions. A go-kart and micro-sprint graduate who made a dozen starts in his dad’s ’97 Stealth/Esslinger midget, Boyles was once a top high school soccer defender but after attending two years of college, the Greenwood, Missouri native chose to channel his efforts towards sprint car racing. Although his Smackdown and 410 debut did not go as planned (9th in Thursday’s B and unable to take a time on Friday), he still has three wingless wins in his first season. A definite contender for national non-winged rookie of the year honors, regardless of how the voting turns out, the big-picture shows a bright future for this natural talent.
Thursday and Friday preliminary performances accumulated points, with the top-eight producers locked in for Saturday’s eagerly-anticipated King of the Hill showdown. These two-car, three-lap match races realigned the first four rows of the 40-lap finale, without question the most exciting and entertaining aspect of the entire weekend. Meseraull, Grant, Windom, Leary, Boespflug, Courtney, Thomas (Kevin), and Stockon made up this elite eight with Meseraull (over Stockon), Boespflug (over Leary), Courtney (over Windom), and Thomas (over Grant) moving on after round one. The Courtney and Windom war saw the lead exchanged three times on the final lap, with the bottom-feeding Courtney reaching the line first after a thrilling, side-by-side sprint to the finish. In the second round, Meseraull manhandled Boespflug and Courtney clobbered Thomas, setting up a thrilling final round that saw Sunshine strike gold despite a last-lap, four-in-the-fluff surge from his counterpart.
Bryan Clauson’s fiancée Lauren Stewart waved the green laundry for Saturday’s finale, as former BCI team member Courtney shot to the initial advantage before an odd caution flew for T-Mez on lap two. The Griffin’s Propane Maxim/Fisher made head-on contact with turn four concrete after shearing a pitman arm bolt, the early exit a big-time bummer as Meseraull is unquestionably the most exciting chauffeur when a cushion is in play. Four laps after the restart, KTJ swept outside of Courtney through three and four and would never be headed, but it was far from easy as Kevin had to be flawless after a lap 14 red for Robbins. First having Boespflug breathing down his neck, Windom joined the party for the final ten tours as the lead trio negotiated heavy traffic. Navigating a tricky top shelf in one and two while bombarding the bottom in three and four, in the latter stages Kevin changed lanes on the south end and made all the right moves, executing an absolutely flawless 40 laps. After Kevin, Chad, and Chris came Darland (from 10th) and Kyle Cummins (from 12th). Grant, Courtney, Bacon, Leary, and Tyler Thomas (from 18th) took sixth through tenth place payouts.
Kokomo Smackdown attendance definitely did its part to help me move forward, as did the Bryan Clauson Celebration of Life rescheduled for Friday September 2nd. Aided by free driver pit passes made possible by generous donations from All Star Performance, a slightly open tire rule (an American Racer MC-3 was allowed on the right rear), and all kinds of monetary rewards, 47 drivers signed in, nine of them being first-time Kokomo Speedway competitors. Those nine did battle for the $1,000 top prize in the Get Your Ass to Kokomo Challenge, awarded to the highest finishing driver who had never previously competed at Kokomo Speedway. As a consolation, a $500 carrot was dangled to the second highest finishing driver making his Kokomo debut while a new Hoosier right rear tire was up for grabs for the third. Those nine included Cole Smith, Josh Cunningham, Cody Clarkson, David Hair, Jared Chastain, Ben McMurray, Matt Cooley, Hunter O’Neal, and Cole House. Recently completing his collegiate studies to resume his racing dreams, Cole House actually made his sprint car debut at Kokomo. Cole is the son of former USAC, All Star, and Kokomo Speedway standout Tray House, steering an ex-Larry Contos/Shane Cottle Chalk chassis.
The house was of course packed with the free front gate admission, as the large turnout was treated to an evening free from support classes. Starting the program an hour later to allow rush hour drive time for the working class, the chilly night sadly felt like fall was already here, requiring not only a sweatshirt but long pants for the first time since mid-May. Dividing the field into groups of six, times from the combined hot lap/qualifying sessions lined up heats, with Justin Grant’s 12.957 lap good enough to claim Jerry Shaw’s $200 top prize for quick time. While many USAC regulars were off to Calistoga for the Louie Vermeil double, interesting pairings for the night included Aaron Farney in the Dutcher 17, Brady Bacon in the Keen 18, Max McGhee in the Pedersen 4, Casey Shuman in the Dakus 75, and Jake Scott in the Tarr 3x (an old 2K4 Stealth).
Just like normal Kokomo Sunday nights, the fastest four from each session were inverted, allowing heat race wins for Dave Darland, Kevin Thomas, Jr., Jerry Coons, Jr., Jarett Andretti, Tyler Thomas, and Tyler Courtney, all coming from either the first or second row. Redrawing the top two finishers for the feature inversion, those battles for second were the best of the night, highlighted by bold moves from Brady Bacon and Max McGhee. A pair of 12 lap B-mains moved six more to the 24-car, 27-lap finale. After failing to finish his heat, Shane Cottle’s charge from 15th to 2nd was the biggest B-main highlight. Claimed by Travis Hery and Tony DiMattia, the twin consolations saw their share of calamity with incidents involving Drew Abel and Kyle Robbins (K-Rob crushed concrete for the second night in a row), Jared Chastain, Paul Dues, and last but not least, Jamie Frederickson and Josh Spencer that bent many parts on the Spencer Special.
After a full front stretch driver introduction in which Tim Clauson shook hands and embraced each one of the feature starters, after green fireworks were shot into the sky another Clauson family member waved the green as Bryan’s mother Diana did the deed. Even though Tyler Courtney picked the pole, it would be outside front row starter Tyler Thomas earning the advantage into turn one on the sticky surface. Starting third was Smackdown winner Kevin Thomas, Jr., who followed T-squared for two laps before making his winning move through the second corner. Fifth-starting Dave Darland was also on the move early, fanning three-wide with the two Tylers to snag second. Hot action for fourth through eighth involved Coons, Grant, Thomas, Bacon, and Andretti, soon adding 20th-starting Shane Cottle to this mix. The mid-to-late stages saw Courtney and Grant turn up the heat in the scrap for second, as Justin relieved Dave of the runner-up slot just before Tyler Thomas looped the Burton 04 underneath the flag stand.
With six circuits remaining, two lapped cars separated Kevin Thomas and Dave Darland, enough of a margin that Kevin would not have to worry about the win. Truly déjà vu for KTJ, he took his third Kokomo triumph in four nights which earned him a $3,000 paycheck, a one-of-a-kind BC Forever trophy (complete with die cast car), and the honor and prestige of parking it in BC’s victory lane yet again. Not only that, but his team pocketed $630 for the “Can’t Thank the Guys Enough” award, allowing them to dine in style afterwards. Grant gathered second after a bold, late-race loop of Darland entering turn one. That pass earned him $1,500 plus $630 for the BC Badass award, $200 for the pass of the night (from photographer Steve Lafond), and the aforementioned $200 for quick time. Darland settled for third place and its posted $1,200 payout. After opening eighth, Bacon bagged fourth while Shane Cottle cruised to fifth from 20th, earning him an extra $630 for being the hardest charger. Coons, Andretti, Courtney, Josh Hodges, and A.J. Hopkins scored sixth through tenth.
One day later, my first true racing adventure since BC’s passing sent me to Du Quoin, Illinois for the 64th Ted Horn 100 USAC Silver Crown contest, providing proof that I was indeed making forward progress. Working on this article on the four hour haul while my nephew once again handled driving chores, after we passed a broken down Bill Rose along I-57, we made our own stops for fuel in Mount Vernon and loose meat hamburgers in Christopher, Illinois, to my knowledge the only other Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop outside of Greenville, Ohio (Greenville still gets my vote). Squeezing into the Southern Illinois State Fairgrounds just in time to catch hot laps, the switch to Saturday night meant battling a big crowd that unfortunately came out for fair food, amusement games/rides, live music, and a demolition derby, as the Silver Crown crowd should have been bigger.
Bolstered by a field of 35 machines and some big names from the past including 2008 winner Brian Tyler (in a Bob Galas Beast) and 1990 winner Jeff Swindell (in a Mark Swanson Maxim), Du Quoin under the lights once again did not disappoint and maintained my stance that this one-mile layout is my favorite of the three remaining. Even though the race track was not up against the cushion or on the wall like last year, even along the rail and in the rubber the action was just as exciting and intense. Fully expecting a dominating evening by point leader and 2010 Ted Horn 100 winner Kody Swanson after he set the night’s qualifying standard at 31.932 seconds (well off Tyler Walker’s 2004 mark of 29.138 seconds/123.550 MPH), Kody led the first 15 laps in his usual DePalma 63 Maxim wrenched by Bob Hampshire but would have to settle for third for the second year in a row. Pleased to see Gene Nolen bring three cars to Du Quoin, it was disappointing to see two of them load up early, as Hunter Schuerenberg crashed in hot laps while Dakota Jackson encountered engine problems in qualifying.
It’s always a surprise when Kody Swanson has to take a back seat to anyone on the dirt miles, but tonight it would be 55 year-old Jeff Swindell and championship contender Chris Windom, whose stirring duel was truly one for the ages. Starting fourth, Swindell first swept to the outside of Swanson in one and two on lap 15 but was unable to complete the pass. One lap later, a similar maneuver in turn three found him in first, a position he would hold for the next 21 tours before ninth-starting Windom came calling. For five laps, Chris was all over Jeff and using a lapped machine as a turn three pick, Windom dove underneath at the entrance to turn three to lead lap 37, up front for the next 27.
With tire wear a concern for all competitors after a black groove reared its ugly head early, those worries intensified when fifth place Justin Grant shredded a right rear on lap 58. Regardless of the potential for ripping rubber, Swindell cranked up the heat and worked over Windom at the bottom of three at lap 64. But, Chris refused to quit and provided all kinds of pressure three laps later. When “Gentleman Jeff” swung too wide in turn four completing lap 69, after a side by side front stretch duel Swindell boldly dove for the inside of turn one and slammed the door as the two banged wheels. Under the next caution for Jacob Wilson, the two exchanged gestures and swerves after the near-miss. On the ensuing lap 75 restart, Windom might have lost serious ground but a timely yellow on lap 82 for fourth place Shane Cottle conveniently closed the gap. Five laps later, Chris pulled alongside the leader on the front chute and at the ten to go signal, the top-four (also containing Swanson and Bacon) operated within close proximity. One final pause for last year’s hero Aaron Pierce further thickened the plot, as the pride of Canton, Illinois was clearly ready to pounce. On lap 97, he made his move to the inside in three, only to slide up and be countered by Jeff’s crossover in four. One lap later, turn three again provided the place to pass, as Chris chose the outside and made it stick for good.
The first Ted Horn 100 win for “Big Daddy” trimmed a 13 point Swanson advantage to 10 as the series heads to its Four Crown finale. Noting afterwards that his Jamie Moyle constructed Toyota power plant was blubbering in the late stages, Swindell would have to settle for second but was truly the star of the show. Had he won, I can’t imagine a statistic in which anyone in this series has gone 23 years between wins. Trailing third place Swanson was Casey Shuman, who started 21st in Randy Bateman’s Beast and assumed the position after wild last lap joust between fifth place Shane Cockrum and sixth place Brady Bacon, who had virtually no hot laps and scrambled to ready his ride for qualifying after encountering early mechanical difficulties. Seventh through tenth included Jerry Coons, Jr., Brian Tyler, race rookie Joe Ligouri, and David Byrne.
After starting 33rd and finishing 13th, Bill Rose had quite the drive, but that was only half the story. On the way to the track, Rose had a trailer tire blow out, which was no small feat to fix. Noticing them stranded along Interstate 57 somewhere between Effingham and Mount Vernon, the driveshaft of their ex-Roger Tapy tractor had also kicked out and punched a hole in the rear end. Initially believing that their day/night was over, Heartland Towing and Recovery came to the rescue and let Bill borrow one of their trucks. This allowed them to make it just in time to get a qualifying attempt at the end of the order, but this was a car that had not seen a racetrack all year. Gaining a push start because of clutch issues, half a lap later a blown water line resulted in an incomplete lap, slating them 33rd. Tweeting to me the next day (@therealbillrose), Rose wished to thank the folks at Heartland for taking such good care of him, also allowing the use of their truck to make the haul back home to Plainfield, Indiana early Sunday morning. Knowing Bill for as long as I have, this is almost par for the course, as his thrashes to get to races usually offer some sort of an odd adventure.
Waking up on Sunday morning to the shocking news of Robert Ballou’s broken neck from his Calistoga crash, that’s the second time in one month that a four-plus hour ride home for yours truly resulted in a highly unfavorable report of a racing injury. As of Labor Day, Robert had yet to be operated on but had been transported to a hospital in Stanford. By Tuesday, good news was finally received, as he would amazingly be released without requiring major surgery. Expecting a lengthy recovery time, we all hope and pray that everything heals properly. Once again, this is a bitter pill to swallow as the hits keep on coming for USAC and open wheel racing, but thankfully it wasn’t any worse.
Wrapping up Labor Day weekend with Kokomo’s Vince Osman Memorial, this final Sunday night of the season was just like any other weekly show at Indiana’s baddest bullring. Action-packed and exciting, would you have expected anything less?
Starting off the evening in the usual calm fashion, as the evening progressed so did the intensity. Two clean and green hot lap/qualifying sessions for the 20-car field resulted in quick time coming from Jarett Andretti in his Harding Group DRC, but one of the two heat races offered a photo finish (Tyler Thomas over Dick Gaines Memorial winner Josh Hodges) and a heavy flip (married the previous day, Jamie Frederickson jumped a wheel and junked his car, breaking the frame on the right front corner).
Capped by another exciting 25-lap feature that took the green at 8:16 PM, the high-intensity, incident-filled finale offered a front row of Josh Hodges and Chris Windom, with Josh and Chris sharing the lead on the first two tours of the quarter-mile. While going for fourth, Logan Jarrett flipped after smacking the concrete in three and four. Thankfully, Logan would exit under his own power. After the restart, Windom, Hodges, and Coons went at it like a pack of starving dogs eyeing a fresh piece of meat, highlighted by a Hodges two-for-one turn three lunge that clipped the left front of Windom. Chris spun to a stop and was drilled by birthday boy Dave who was celebrating his 50th, so hard to imagine him reaching this milestone as it doesn’t seem that long ago when he was just a local up-and-comer. Josh cut a 360 degree donut and continued, as did Darland.
Promoting Coons to P1, after a Tyler Thomas spin from fifth Darland was the man on the move, slicing through the back of the pack like a hot knife through butter. One of the cars encountered in his rage was that of Mike Gass. After some incidental contact exiting the fourth corner, Gass rode out a nasty front stretch tumble that nearly landed Darland on his lid as well.
Leaving 14 laps to determine the final Sunday night stand, Hodges and Shane Cottle briefly provided some stress to Coons, but it wasn’t enough to unseat the Triple Crown Champ as he was so strong around the bottom in Monte Edison’s Crume-Evans Insurance Spike. Waiting until September to reach victory lane for the first time in 2016, Jerry was trailed by Cottle, Hodges, Darland, and Andretti. Tyler Thomas, Ted Hines, Lee Underwood, Brian Karraker, and Dustin Ingle (wrenched by Brian Cripe) scored sixth through tenth.
Done by 8:48 PM, despite racing in Calistoga Kevin Thomas, Jr. collected Kokomo’s track championship, as Jerry Coons, Jr. needed to win his heat and the feature in order to tie. Taking third in the first heat, Jerry came up just short. With this event serving as the swan song for Sean Buckley’s Indiana Summer Series, Tyler Thomas was crowned the champion, no doubt an impressive achievement as Tyler took the reins of the Burton 04 in the latter part of June, his first attempt in a wingless sprinter.
After finally receiving the positive news regarding Robert Ballou’s condition, staying focused has been a bit easier, helped by the fact that my hectic post-Labor Day workweek has not allowed my mind much time to wander. Thinking back to how I felt one month prior, the recent encouragement to continue this thirty-plus year pursuit of open wheel wandering has certainly been a huge boost to my overall outlook. Even more influential were the stories shared on a stormy Wednesday in Kokomo, Indiana, especially the one from Diana Clauson regarding the spiritual meaning of the grasshopper. Doing some serious soul searching on the opening two nights of the Sprint Car Smackdown, my initial encounter of this green insect came midway through Friday’s feature. As shocking of a revelation as I’ve ever had in life, the experience of that grasshopper flying into and away from me was truly a wakeup call. Whether it was a coincidence or a sign from above, it pushed me to make an honest attempt to quit sulking and move forward. Recalling my favorite line from The Shawshank Redemption, it was Andy who quietly advised Red, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice…you can get busy living, or you can get busy dying.” For the last three decades, my idea of living that has involved hoping, dreaming, and trying to remain optimistic and positive, an attitude heavily influenced by the sheer joy, happiness, and satisfaction achieved by frequently attending short track open wheel events. To instantly give that up would be the equivalent of dying, so for now, I think I'll choose the alternative.
Volume 18, Number 7
Forced to take the good with the bad, the first few days following Indiana Sprint Week’s conclusion always offer an extreme reminder to the realities of life. Rising once again to the annoying sounds of an alarm clock and returning to the responsibilities of work, then there is the endless attempt to squeeze in doctor/chiropractic appointments, visits to the gym, household chores, and endless writing assignments, each one adding to the weight of my everyday existence. Initially depressed that my vacation had expired, after a few days I manage to get used to this grind once again, but when you throw in last minute thrashes for thoughtful birthday gifts and sentiments for my wife and father, the stress begins to register.
Never in my wildest dreams, however, did I ever envision a more difficult reality to deal with in my post-Sprint Week depression than the loss of Bryan Clauson. There is just no way to ever prepare for the gut-wrenching despair and absolute emptiness that comes with something so permanent. Losing my mother to colon cancer on May 23rd, 2011, the original stage four diagnosis came in June of 2010, so I had nearly a year to process the fact that she would soon be gone. Even though the two days leading up to her death were the worst of my life, I will never forget the crushing blow that came on that fateful Monday morning when my younger sister called to let me know of the inevitable news. I was completely powerless, no possible way to influence the end result. She was not coming back.
Driving into work on Monday August 8th and attempting to locate the Clauson/IMS press conference on my phone, the text message I soon received from my nephew confirmed my worst fears when first laying eyes on the Belleville crash video. He was gone, and once again, there was nothing I could do about it. Pulling into the parking lot and shutting off the engine, although I had been worried sick all day Sunday, that same feeling from Monday, May 23rd of 2011 washed over me. Stunned, numb, and nearly breathless, I actually had to get out of my vehicle, fight the onslaught of tears, and head into work. How in the world could I process such utterly devastating news and expect to be productive? Somehow digging deep to reign in my emotions, it was not only a long day, but an excruciatingly long week, my only therapy coming from e-mails, texts, and phone conversations with concerned friends. Attempting to explain why my life had been forever altered, no, I was not a family member or close friend to Bryan, but we were extremely friendly when interacting with one another over the past 14 seasons. Feeling a mutual respect between us that had been developed early on, this dated as far back as 2003 when he was just gaining laps at Kokomo Speedway in an underpowered 360 cubic inch sprinter. Enjoying a front row seat to watch him mature into an incredible racing talent but more importantly an even more amazing human being, it is times like these that I am yet again reminded about the dangers of getting this close to the competitors. Sprint and midget racing’s supreme benefit is to allow for such intimate interactions, cementing relationships for life. Unfortunately, you just never know when a particular conversation might be your last.
Respecting and admiring every aspect of Bryan’s existence, unfortunately I never took the time to tell him this in person, so enamored with his 2016 Circular Insanity/Chasing 200 tour that brought attention to and promoted all forms of open wheel competition, uniting the unique factions of fans in the process. So proud of his Indy double where he led three laps and finally finished the 500 for the first time, after he claimed victory in the Kokomo sprint car nightcap I was literally glowing, believing this to be one of the most special achievements in all of motorsports. Completely at the top of his game and convinced that his winged pursuits actually improved his wingless endeavors, I can honestly say that Bryan Clauson was only getting better with age. On pace to break nearly all USAC records in just a few more years while at the same time becoming a formidable foe in the winged world, the sky was virtually the limit with BC.
First remarking about his uncanny car control with his 2004 Lawrenceburg Dick Gaines Memorial victory, he will be forever revered for his supreme skills and immense amounts of success, rarely having any rubs with his fellow competitors. A definite role model, he led by example, helping and encouraging those who he routinely defeated night in and night out. Always positive, easily accessible for autographs and interviews, and never complaining about track surfaces or fellow competitors, he was quietly humble when he won, often giving credit to his crew for busting their butts. Gracious and congratulatory in defeat, Bryan represented everything that was right with racing and this world. Reading story after story of all the wonderful things he did for fans, friends, fellow racers, and charities (he was a heavily involved in Autism Awareness), topping them all was the mid-week news that he had donated his organs so that the lives of five others could be saved, ultimately inspiring me to become a donor as well. Exhibiting maturity well beyond his years, he was the ultimate in class acts who did things the right way. He was just such an outstanding young man on all levels and even though he had already amassed 112 USAC wins, 4 USAC national championships, 3 USAC driving championships, 2 Indiana Sprint Week and 3 Indiana Midget Week titles plus victories in nearly all of the signature events (Chili Bowl, Turkey Night, Belleville, Hut 100, Four Crown, Oval Nationals, Western World, Kokomo Smackdown, etc.), it's mind-blowing to think that at 27 years of age, he still had so much left to accomplish.
Leaving a humongous hole, there is no possible way to fill this kind of void any time soon. Whether it be fan, fellow racer, crew member, anyone from Indiana, or anyone from the open wheel short track scene, Bryan was carrying every one of them on his back and living their dream as an old-school outlaw who had what it took to compete on racing’s biggest stage. With his absence, I worry that the short track link to the Indianapolis 500 is permanently severed, seriously doubting that anyone will ever do the Indy/Kokomo double once again. Now that his Circular Insanity tour has been halted, the link between all forms of open wheel racing dangerously dangles, wondering if anyone will be able to assume the all-important role as open wheel ambassador. Raising the bar to become the benchmark of USAC success, will wins be as meaningful for his remaining brethren and, who will eventually step up to become this benchmark? Unlike when we lost Rich Vogler and Robbie Stanley, there just don’t seem to be the quality individuals waiting in the wings to assume these key roles - not yet at least.
Selfishly speaking, without Bryan the races just won't seem as relevant or exciting – kind of like IU basketball was for me in the wake of Bob Knight’s firing or the World of Outlaws once Steve and Sammy faded from the scene. As a fan, I feel short-changed that I won’t get to see him set the world on fire, break all those records, and expand his horizons even further. Still irritated that he didn’t get the best of deals for the 500 or get another look in NASCAR, who knows how well he could have done in either discipline with better personnel or the right resources. However, you never heard Clauson complain one bit about his situation, as he was having the time of his life barnstorming not only this country but the globe.
Earning rock star status without the aid of national television or hokey advertisements, Bryan earned such adulation through pure talent and by simply being himself. He was the best at his craft but at the same time was humble, kind, gracious, and genuine. Truly the real deal, although I never once imagined that I could have a racing hero who was 18 years younger than me, Clauson proved that theory incorrect. That, on its own, should speak volumes of how highly I thought of him and how much I’m going to miss his presence.
One week after his passing, I still wonder how we pick up the pieces and move on, as I'm still mired in the muck of trying to make sense of these major changes to my world. Owning zero enthusiasm for attending races, my appetite for activity began to show signs of life on a rainy Saturday night when I enjoyed one of the most thrilling Knoxville Nationals of all time via pay per view, emotionally charged by the stirring drive from winner Jason Johnson and overwhelmed by the continued outpouring of support for BC. Still a very empty feeling knowing that the show must go on without him, luckily we have so many golden memories to hold close to our hearts. If I have any solace in this terrible tragedy, it’s that every one of us who were around him at one time or another are in the same boat, feeling these same feelings, truly unable to comprehend the pain felt by his family, fiancée, close friends, and even his two little dogs. It will be impossible to move on from these feelings any time soon but knowing that he has inspired every one of us to do the right thing and become better human beings, young Mister Clauson most certainly made his mark and left a legacy far greater than he could have ever envisioned. Completely understated yet highly significant, that was BC in a nutshell. Living the same dreams that I once had as a high school kid hailing from the same hometown of Noblesville, thank you for allowing me to tag along Bryan. It truly was one hell of a ride. You might be gone, but you’ll never be forgotten.
Backing up two weekends from the Belleville Nationals to Friday July 22nd, I immediately got goose bumps after determining that Kokomo’s Prelude to the Dirt Classic was my final opportunity to catch Bryan performing live. And, what an odd night it was for the 2014 sprint car track champion, beginning his evening by aggressively attacking a slim cushion in qualifying only to wax the wall between turns three and four and invert. Then, while engaged in hot and heavy combat with Rico Abreu for feature runner-up rights, he again overcooked three and four and blasted the outside barrier, landing on his lid for the second time. Although he was in the hunt all evening, I can’t say that I ever witnessed such a showing for Clauson, as he always seemed in control, especially at Kokomo. My last time to watch Bryan claim a Kokomo victory came in the second half of his Indy double, no doubt serving as the most permanent and positive reflection on an amazing career.
Taking limited notes at this 37 car corral, of course Christopher Bell would collect the $5,000 victory by leading all 35 laps from the pole in Tony Stewart’s 14. What would have appeared to be a dominant drive by the box score was far from automatic as Clauson, Abreu, and Aussie Jamie Veal applied pressure through thick traffic. After BC’s bobble, Abreu and Veal produced podium finishes while Chad Kemenah and Brady Bacon completed the first five. The second half of the top-ten contained quite a few entertaining battles, highlighted by son Sheldon and father Jac Haudenschild’s constant flirtation with the fence. Sheldon scored sixth and Jac eighth, sandwiching seventh place Randy Hannagan. Dale Blaney and Danny Holtgraver took a quiet ninth and tenth.
The only opportunity this season to catch 410 winged warriors flying around Kokomo, these All Stars did not disappoint, with qualifying consisting of one breathtaking circuit after another. Brady Bacon’s 11.139 clocking was easily good enough for number one status and while Tyler Courtney’s 11.258 was second best, he pounded the wall in three and four and paid the price, needing a small army to reassemble his ride just in time for a heat race spin, only to be run over by a push truck. Needing to win the B just to take part in the A, unfortunately Sunshine was unable to exhibit that same qualifying quickness.
Interesting that Friday’s first and second place finishers also ran behind Kyle Larson in the Eldora NASCAR truck tango just two days prior, the overall level of talent in this All Star field was stout. Selfishly wishing that Bell and Abreu’s NASCAR dreams would die on the vine, my own racing dream involved the two of them roaming the country as true outlaws with Clauson and Bacon, ready to win anytime, anywhere, and in any discipline. However, as we know from Bryan such a schedule has its inherent dangers and is unable to match the money from the big time. But, as I once heard Bryan state, "Money is not everything."
Missing out on Abreu's $12,500 triumph on the second night of Kokomo’s Dirt Classic for my wife’s birthday treat (she actually enjoyed the Friday night Kokomo convocation with me), my next opportunity to move on from Indiana Sprint Week was Bloomington’s July 29th tribute to Bob Kinser. The Indiana icon who turns 85 years old on August 21st was honored with a low-key front stretch celebration and a small gathering under the roof at the top of the hill, complete with chronological photo boards and newly printed t-shirts commemorating a career the spanned five decades. Although Bob's last official race came at Knoxville's Masters Classic in 1996, I do recall him taking some Bloomington exhibition laps in one of Steve's cars prior the 2006 NSL race. Thinking of all the guys who grew up racing against him, it's no wonder so many from that era were such clean competitors, as you never wanted to get on Bob's bad side.
As for on-track B-town action, a slim 20-car field contained two Kinsers, no idea if Jordan and Kerry are related to Bob but it was interesting to note that Kerry used his same 305 winged chariot to perform double duty sans wing. After three heats (one of which flipped Bub Cummings over the turn three bank) came a tasty 25-lap feature, taped for airing on Sean Buckley’s Dirty 30 MAV TV program. Beginning Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Tyler Thomas from front row feature seats, KTJ was the obvious pick for the win but there is nothing so easy or simple in traditional sprint cars. As expected, Kevin earned the early advantage but third-starting Max McGhee showed his hand after an early caution for Lee Underwood. Max moved to second with a smooth move underneath of Tyler Thomas, catching Kevin when the Alabama invader climbed the cushion of the still-heavy surface in corner two. Lapped traffic soon made things even more interesting, as a pair of back markers served as a turn three screen on KTJ, allowing McGhee to pilfer the premier position. Immediately tilting on two wheels at the entry to turn one, Max’s apparently aggressive setup nearly bit him, as Kevin and Tyler Thomas were ready to pounce at any moment. After T-squared took second, one more yellow was waved for Minnesota’s Rob Kaho, further bunching the field for a six lap dash. McGhee was just too tough though, taking his first feature victory of the year in impressive fashion, a huge bonus after suffering through a stressful Sprint Week grind with his 16 year-old crew chief/brother Sam. Tyler topped Kevin for second while Josh Hodges and Brady Short found fourth and fifth at the 9:36 PM checkered flag. Point leader Jeff Bland, Jr., Jordan Kinser, Jarett Andretti, Chris Babcock, and Jadon Rogers snagged sixth through tenth. In a classy move, McGhee climbed the hill to hand his trophy to a young fan in the stands. My guess would be that kid will be returning for more races, rooting for the driver of that black number 17. Bravo Max!
Had it not been for a pesky rain shower in North Vernon, we would have exited early enough to pull off a rare Friday night Southern Indiana double of BOSS sprint cars. Instead, I ended up joining my nephew and Matt Pedersen for a Stromboli sandwich at Nick’s English Hut. Being home all alone on this weekend meant that Saturday’s 29th annual Putnamville Clash was a green light, taking the scenic route south on state road 75 after first stopping at Mo's Vintiques in Lebanon.
Although only 24 cars came calling for the $2,900 to win contest, quality reigned over quantity, offering one of the more entertaining features of the season. With sprint chauffeurs facing a heavy surface in the heats, a solid pill draw was of paramount importance. Those who drew poorly had trouble finding their way to transfer positions, evidenced by a B-main containing 1987 Putnamville Clash winner Dave Darland (Walker 11), Jordan Kinser, Jeff Bland, Jr. (his first ride in Mike Dutcher's Maxim), Brady Short, and Jon Stanbrough (Pedersen 4). Taking the top-five, all of these men would make it, but Stanbrough had to sprint from ninth while Jeff Bland, Jr. had his hands full with Brandon Mattox, exchanging the final transfer five times in the last few laps.
One who had no trouble with the damp dirt was Bloomington bad ass Max McGhee, who won his heat from fifth. Max would begin the 30-lap feature from third, as a zero inversion allowed other heat winners Robert Ballou and Tyler Thomas to fire from front row starting spots. Thomas drew first blood, but the first to face adversity was eighth-starting Thomas Meseraull, who was inside the top-five when tilting the Wingo 77 on two wheels at lap four. Soaring off the bank between one and two, T-Mez re-fired but did not contend for the win.
Robert Ballou was the next tempt fate after going wheel to wheel with McGhee for second. Half-spinning in two just after securing the spot, Robert was tagged by Max and sent back on his way, but not before a turn three entanglement with Shane Cockrum. Cockrum kept rolling, but Ballou was done.
Leaving 18 laps to crown another Clash winner, the next incident erupted when Travis Berryhill touched wheels with Tim Creech in turn three. The contact awkwardly shoved Creech onto his left rear, spiraling into a wicked set of flips that nearly sent him tumbling to the woods. A few days later, Tim still had issues with his vision but had already made plans to acquire a replacement chassis. Poking his nose in that Creech/Berryhill battle was Dave Darland. Dave had advanced from 16th to 7th but had his right rear tire go flat under the red, ruining his fine run.
The final caution came for Chris Phillips and at this halfway juncture, Tyler Thomas still led McGhee, Kevin Thomas, Jr. (up from 10th), Cockrum, and Shane Cottle (from 9th). Once the green LED lights glared from Joe Spiker’s high-tech Whelen traffic signals, KTJ collected second while 17th-starting Brady Short secured fourth. The two guys named Thomas went at it for first, Tyler low and Kevin high. Taking Kevin’s preferred line away in one, Tyler bobbled on the cushion and gift-wrapped the lead to Kevin on lap 24. With two tours left, Tyler half-spun into the infield on the south end but before that, the top four positions had fit under one snug blanket.
Kevin Thomas, Jr. would cruise to victory number eight of 2016 for Jeremy Ottinger’s 4J Motorsports squad. Backed by Franklin Equipment, CEP, Hoosier, and now Bosch, Kevin’s impressive triumph from tenth was his second straight in this Putnamville Clash. Tyler Thomas was runner-up for the second consecutive evening while Max McGhee rounded out the podium. Short settled for a solid fourth while Shane Cottle collected fifth. Colten Cottle, Cockrum, Bland (from 20th), Meseraull, and Berryhill scored sixth through tenth. A fantastic feature finished just before 10 PM, I exited as a completely satisfied customer.
The next Friday (August 5th) I bypassed a Bloomington bout dominated by Jeff Bland, Jr. (in his own 38), instead waiting for a lengthy Saturday stroll across western Indiana and all of Illinois to take in the final night of the Ironman 55 at Pevely, Missouri, a World of Outlaws and POWRi midget doubleheader. Not pleased that POWRi scheduled such a contest when the Belleville Nationals was occurring in Kansas, in this age of petty sanctioning body squabbles I take it with a grain of salt. Would the lower dollar POWRi loyalists have towed out to midget racing's most intimidating venue had Pevely not been on the schedule? Back in 1993, they surely would have, but the last time I checked, it's no longer 1993 and midget racing is so much different. Still, I’m a big-picture guy and midget racing needs all the help it can get.
Nevertheless, the plans for this Pevely trip originated in October of 2012, when my nephew and I had batted around the idea of attending a rescheduled Ironman 55 just months before my wedding. Backing out because of iffy weather, after seeing video of last year's slide-fest for both sprints and midgets, we had penciled in all 2016 Pevely WoO dates as possibilities, our most recent April attempt falling victim to Mother Nature. Taking full advantage of this St. Louis soiree to feast on Bogart's barbeque thanks to a tip from John Hoover, after enjoying an adult beverage at International Tap House (where a Firkin Fest packed the place) we made a quick stop back in the city to sample a few more at Schlafly's tasting room. All good stuff, we had to hustle south just to make hot laps, finding a frustratingly long line of cars attempting to get parked at Pevely. My first time to visit since 1998 when I attended a two-night U.S. Dirt Nationals with Brent Goodnight, Tim Brenton, and Randy Mortland, the place was just as I remembered it, in awe of standing so close to speeding bullets rim-riding through three and four.
Summarizing the evening, Rico Abreu’s righteous runs in the dash and feature made the four and a half hour haul completely worth it, attacking a meaty cushion like there was no tomorrow. Such a tactic is sadly foreign to most World of Outlaws regulars, who would just assume have nothing to do with a curb or any semblance of moisture. Setting himself up for a solid evening after timing third quick, Rico won his heat from the pole and took third in the dash, where a massive slide-fest with Brad Sweet set the tone for later. Like Abreu, pole sitter Kerry Madsen is one of the few wingers who never met a cushion that he didn’t like, leading the first 40 laps. With the second track rework of the night coming pre-feature, the third-mile bullring was a tad too heavy for the first half of the 55-lapper, eventually widening out to stack some damp dirt against concrete. Such conditions are tailor-made for the pint-sized soldier, who sat fourth after a lap 26 caution but ratcheted up the intensity over the next 15 tours. Threading the needle between Daryn Pittman and the wall to take third, after a Brad Sweet bobble in four he was soon second. While Madsen was dealing with tricky traffic on lap 38, Rico slid him through four but not before Kerry crossed back. Sweet rejoined the party and stole second, but as Madsen and Sweet Pea swung a tad too sideways exiting four, Rico immediately pounced by sliding both in a nifty three-wide maneuver through one. The absolute king of the two-for-one, despite one more caution on lap 44 and a last turn, last lap bike ride, nothing was going to keep Abreu and his Eagle chassis from capturing the $20,000 top prize. Madsen, Stewart, Sweet, and Saldana (up from 14th) were top-five material. Pittman, Johnson, McMahan, Schatz (from 17th), and Friday night winner Gravel gathered sixth through tenth.
The thirty-lap midget main preceded the sprint car finale, beginning Andrew Felker and Zach Daum from front row seats while Dave Darland (Gray 11) fired from third alongside Casey Shuman (Brown 7). In the all-green flag affair, Daum truly lived up to his “dauminator” moniker by leading all thirty tours in his Eagle/Toyota combo. Darland looked good early, flirting with the fence on the back chute and appearing to track down the leader for a bit. However, as the race wore on, Dave faded and could not contain Zach’s teammate Kyle Jones, the impressive Texan who was hard on the hammer all night long. In the end, Daum, Jones, and Darland comprised the podium while Shuman and Steven Shebester (from 12th) scored fourth and fifth. Tucker Klaasmeyer, Garrett Aitken (from 15th), Felker, Grady Chandler, and Monrovia’s Justin Peck (from 23rd) scored sixth through tenth.
The emotional high and adrenaline from such a memorable excursion were quickly squashed after crossing the Mississippi, as this was the moment when my nephew and I first laid eyes on the Belleville incident that would eventually claim the life of our hometown hero. Finally arriving back at my own abode at 5:30 AM, that drive through darkness reminded me of all those miserable rides home from racetracks when the condition of drivers like Doty, Vogler, Drinan, Hewitt, Stanley, Jones, Cassella, Osman, McClure, Drake, Darland, and Leffler were a complete unknown. Weary and worried sick, I didn't sleep much, awaking to those same concerns and stomach pains. Hoping for the best but fearing the worst, I made the trip to Kokomo for the Bob Darland Memorial to possibly obtain some good news, but in all honesty I had zero interest in watching another race, as the consequences hit far too close to home.
As it was, Kokomo was a rather rare opportunity to meet up again with Auckland, New Zealand's Bryce Townsend, who was doing a nearly two week Knoxville Nationals/Pennsylvania Midget Week tour with Matt and Suzy Percival. Feeling some comfort of being in the company of those who were enduring the same overwhelming thoughts, as usual it was an extremely efficient Sunday evening, going green for the 30-lap sprint car main event at 7:58 PM while waving the checkered flag at 8:12. Slightly disappointed that more men and machines did not support a $3,000 to win program that also offered national television exposure, still, 21 solid cars performed for three hot/lap qualifying sessions, three heat races, and one feature.
Only a one-time winner of his dad's race, Dave Darland was quickest from the three timed hot lap sessions (13.009 seconds), performing as usual in the red number 11 of Jammin' Jeff Walker. Those three heats were hailed by Robert Ballou (from 4th), Thomas Meseraull (from 2nd, his first ride in Mike Dutcher's machine), and Kevin Thomas, Jr. (from 1st, narrowly defeating Darland in a side-by-side power struggle). Logan Jarrett had been running second to Ballou but unexpectedly fell to the wayside, gridding him 19th for the A instead of inside the first three rows.
Jarett Andretti and Meseraull drew the front row for the twilight finale, which saw the first 22 laps go uninterrupted. T-Mez took advantage of high side momentum to lead at the outset, building a half-straight advantage before entering lapped traffic on lap nine. By the halfway mark, Andretti managed to close the gap and keep the black and red rocket within striking distance. Ready to make his move to first, Jarett's surprise attack was spoiled by a caution for C.J. Leary's flat right rear. After the restart, Andretti dipped low through three and four on numerous occasions, subsequently allowing fifth-starting Robert Ballou to apply pressure. With two to go, Robert stole Jarett's line through turn two, but a timely crossover kept car 18 in second. The final caution came one lap later when fourth place Shane Cottle uncharacteristically spun in turn two. Leaving a one lap shootout, in true Kokomo fashion drama was once again high when Andretti exited turn two with the advantage, only to see T-Mez circle the top through three and four to reclaim the lead and the win. After claiming the top spot at the previous evening's Jack Hewitt Classic in Waynesfield, Thomas went two for three on the weekend in three different rides, having wheeled the Wingo 77 in Bloomington on Friday.
Andretti continued his superb summer with a solid second while Ballou had to settle for third. Max McGhee manufactured fourth while point leader Kevin Thomas, Jr. took fifth. Darland, Jerry Coons, Jr., Chris Windom, Josh Spencer (from 21st), and Kyle Robbins (from 17th) rounded out the rest of the top-ten. Had Logan Jarrett and Tyler Thomas not tangled in the final corner, they would have been included in those names.
Some eleven days after the unthinkable tragedy, I still am having such a hard time coming to terms with all of this. However, one thing I am certain of is a vast emptiness that I feel for the one thing that has dominated my everyday existence since I was 13. On the drive home from Kokomo's Darland Memorial, before I ever knew the official outcome of Clauson's condition I seriously pondered the possibility of walking away from racing entirely, as it just didn't seem that there was much left for me to enjoy. It might sound ridiculous, but it is the truth. As I sit here and mull over weekend events, I'll be honest and admit that not much appeals to me at this point. Next week's Kokomo Smackdown was something to get juiced up about before Bryan left us. Now, it just seems like something to fill the time. Oh, there’s no denying that I will be there, as I would not want to miss Bryan’s Celebration of Life and special events surrounding Wednesday the 24th. Yes, BC will be there in spirit, but how will I feel knowing that he won't be there to compete? Yes, this is the cruelest reality of life, as there is no consolation, no explanation, and no closure. Hoping for some spark, some sign of life like last Saturday's Knoxville Nationals feature event, that's all I've got to hang my hat on at this point. I've endured painful endings to so many racing careers, but for some reason none hit as hard as this one. Clauson’s abrupt exit changes the face of racing much like Jan Opperman’s 1976 Hoosier Hundred accident, Dick Gaines’s crash at Champaign in 1977, Rich Vogler’s 1990 Salem spill, and Robbie Stanley’s 1994 Winchester nightmare. Too young to remember Opperman and Gaines, I somehow managed to deal with the loss of Vogler and Stanley and enjoy my open wheel racing once again, knowing that I will also manage to find a way to move on after Clauson left this huge hole. However, I suspect that it’s going to take a lot longer. Truly the end of an era, unfortunately I just did not know how great I had it when he was around. May you rest in peace my friend.
Volume 18, Number 7
Feels Like the First Time
As they say, there’s a first time for everything and more often than not, it’s an occasion that you’ll always remember.
However, as much as my life and happiness revolves around the arrival of Indiana Sprint Week, oddly enough I cannot recall when I first attended one of these contests. Dating back to July of 1988, while thumbing through my National Speed Sport News I remember being intrigued by an advertisement for a new, five race series of local Indiana winged sprint car contests that I would be inevitably missing, as this fell at the same time as a rare family vacation to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Possibly absorbing one of the four Sprint Week shows from 1989, I do vividly recall the 1990 Kokomo finale that was claimed in rather dramatic fashion by Chuck Amati, as his Daryl Tate teammate Gary Trammel finished second and tied for the series crown.
Another First – Carson Short became the fourth first-time USAC feature winner during Indiana Sprint Week
Bacon Bit – Lawrenceburg is the home track for the Hoffmans, where Brady Bacon lifted the left rear in qualifying and later scored 7th in the feature.
Burg Bandit – Bryan Clauson participated in four Indiana Sprint Week rounds, setting quick time and winning here at Lawrenceburg.
Champ - Brady Bacon bagged his first Sprint Week title by virtue of consistency, finishing 2nd, 4th, 5th (twice), 7th, and 11th.
Colorful – The similarly adorned rides of Chase Stockon and Tyler Thomas offer a nice pop against Bloomington's red clay.
Coon Dog – Despite skipping two ISW rounds, Jerry Coons, Jr. still had a solid week, passing quite a few cars and finishing no worse than 8th.
Crowd Pleaser – On the gas at Kokomo and equally on the hammer when he is interviewed, Thomas Meseraull is a true crowd pleaser.
Digging In – Kyle Cummins and his Rock Steady Racing ride truly dig into the Kokomo dirt during hot laps.
Double D – Despite struggling the majority of the week, crowd favorite Dave Darland was actually in contention to win at Putnamville and Bloomington.
Finally – After 13 years of trying, Kyle Cummins looks relieved after finally scoring his first USAC feature victory at Kokomo.
Alternating between winged and wingless formats for the first eight years, although increased payouts influenced participation from bigger name contestants, it wasn't until 1996 when these races truly became relevant. Promoters Mike Miles (Bloomington), Keith Ford (Paragon), and Kent Evans (Kokomo) met at the Martinsville Waffle House in between the '95 and '96 seasons, making a bold decision to partner with the United States Auto Club in an attempt to duplicate the success of Ohio's established All Star Sprint Speed Week. Ultimately rewarded with huge car counts and equally massive front-gate receipts, the three race mini-series of 1996 morphed to seven for 1997, averaging 50 cars and attracting an all-star west coast contingent of J.J. Yeley, Cory Kruseman, Richard Griffin, Mike Kirby, and Troy Cline, with even more left coast talent towing east for 1998. Adding unique promotions from marketing genius Bill Marvel, this helped make Indiana Sprint Week more than just a bunch of races, but indeed an event of epic proportions.
A great time to be alive and owning a feel much like those early 1990s CRA Midwestern Tours, these first few USAC sanctioned Indiana Sprint Week series were certainly some of the most exciting, manufacturing so much potential that I skipped my very first Kings Royal in that '97 season. Although Sprint Week continues to expand in popularity with its huge throng of salivating supporters, endless caravan of campers, and carnival-like atmosphere, in recent years I felt that the series had hit a lull due to slightly waning car counts and the absence of west coast participation, needing some sort of spark to return to those glory days of the late 1990s/early 2000s.
Like any other first-time phenomenon, the enthusiasm and energy of that expanded 1997 Indiana Sprint Week slate could only be experienced once. However, heading into this 29th annual Indiana Sprint Week, much like in recent years I had a sneaking suspicion that something noteworthy was about to occur, as the door had once again been left wide open to create some new cult heroes. Robert Ballou was last year's Sprint Week stud, but his uncharacteristic off year kept him from consideration as the overwhelming favorite. Aside from Bryan Clauson (with six USAC national wins entering the series) or Kevin Thomas, Jr. (seven wins), not one competitor stood above the rest. Knowing that the world-beating Clauson would be cutting his Sprint Week short by heading east to Eldora, when Campbell, California photographer Steve Lafond and I attempted to predict the outcome of the series while feeding our faces and having the time of our lives at our annual Sprint Week kick-off at Perkinsville’s Bonge's Tavern, we logically deduced that national point leader Brady Bacon would be the overall favorite simply because of consistency. But yet again, we were left without an answer to the all-important question. In the spirit of Richard Griffin (’97) and Eric Shively (’02), who would step up to carry the Sprint Week torch as the new thrill maker?
As it turned out, the answer would not be just one person, but rather an entire cast of new characters. Although I sensed that something unique might just take place one of these years, never in my wildest dreams would I have been able to predict that four first-time national event winners would be produced from the grueling seven race stretch, as Tyler Courtney (Gas City), Kyle Cummins (Kokomo), Brent Beauchamp (Bloomington), and Carson Short (Haubstadt) joined the list of USAC elite. Of the 39 USAC features conducted in 2015, only three were brand new winners while in 2014, there were none whatsoever. To get four new names in the record books during Sprint Week is still a mind-blowing proposition.
With seven different feature winners altogether, temperatures rising into the low 90s, car counts hovering in the high-forties, winners coming from as far back as 16th, several big names missing features altogether, plus some mid-week ride hopping after the inevitable meltdown occurred between driver and crew, minus the west coast representation this had much of the same raw excitement as that initial Sprint Week expansion of 1997. Feeling a lot like those first few series under the USAC umbrella, it was indeed a breath of fresh and muggy July air, so psyched to be able to embrace and absorb this ultimate smorgasbord of sensory overloads.
Fine Form – Brent Beauchamp showed fine qualifying form at Bloomington, timing 7th best but later winding up a winner, his first in USAC circles.
Getting Dirty – Photographer Steve Lafond might be getting his camera equipment a tad dirty from a massive rooster trail thrown by Tyler Thomas at Putnamville.
Hard Charger – Shown here with Hard Charger sponsor Bill Wever of B&W Auto Mart, Robert Ballou was the prime mover for the week, passing 64 feature cars in seven races.
Heaven – This is the entrance to my personal culinary heaven, otherwise known as Bonge’s Tavern.
In Your Face – C.J. Leary is literally in Steve Lafond’s face at Gas City, one of two races in which he had to use a provisional to start the feature.
KT – Shown here at Kokomo, Kevin Thomas, Jr. was in contention to win but settled for third, his best performance of the week.
Most Improved – Jarett Andretti might have been the most improved Sprint Week performer of 2016, making all seven features on his own merit and scoring three top-ten finishes.
Mudslinging – In five feature appearances, Hunter Schuerenberg led 14 laps but encountered engine issues on more than one occasion and could score no better than 12th.
New Ride – After parting ways with Amati Racing, Thomas Meseraull jumped into Landon Simon’s 24, elevating from 18th to 5th at LPS.
On the Bike – Kent Schmidt’s tours Bloomington’s turn three on two wheels or less.
As predicted, Brady Bacon did bag the all-important Indiana Sprint Week championship by virtue of consistency, continuing the first-time theme as this was his first title and the first for Hoffman Auto Racing since Dave Darland won it for the legendary Cincinnati, Ohio area squad in 1998. With finishes of 5th, 5th, 7th, 11th, 2nd, 7th, and 4th, qualifying was key as Brady timed inside of the top-ten in five of the seven races, benefitting from a potent Williams Precision Mopar propelling his usual Mean Green supported Triple X chassis. Starting features from 6th, 10th, 11th, 15th, 2nd, 7th, and 5th, he only needed to advance 15 feature starting positions to get the job done. Bacon's championship was far from a walk in the park however, as he had to hustle after a lap 14 tour of the Kokomo spin cycle to claim fifth. Two races later, a dustup with Hunter Schuerenberg allowed him enough time to salvage 11th at LPS. Interestingly enough, Brady’s average feature finish was 5.86, which was actually lower than second place Robert Ballou’s 5.57. But, with USAC paying points for the top-six qualifying positions and top-four heat race finishes, three times Brady clocked inside of the top-six (including quick time at Gas City) and only once did he need to come through the semi-feature (Haubstadt). Ballou only needed to come through the semi once, but he also only timed inside of the top-six once. Those qualifying points made all the difference by virtue of the nine point differential after the Terre Haute finale, this venue offering an interesting twist for the curtain closer as both Bacon and Ballou have been bad-asses on the huge fairgrounds half-mile. Oddly enough, Brady become the ninth Indiana Sprint Week champion to claim the title without winning a race, joining Randy Kinser (’88), Gary Trammel (’90), Bob Kinser (’91), Tony Elliott (’99), Levi Jones (’04, ’08, ’12), and Robert Ballou to own the dubious distinction. Consistency is the key to Indiana Sprint Week success, after all.
Enjoying the services of veteran crew chief Jimmy Jones for all seven races, defending Sprint Week champ Ballou finished 8th, 2nd, 9th, 4th, 10th, 4th, and 2nd in his familiar Don Ott powered Maxim. But in order to earn those solid finishes, he had to work for it, digging from deep in the field for the majority of the contests after starting 13th, 14th, 22nd, 16th, 19th, 16th, and 3rd, advancing a staggering 64 starting positions. Qualifying was indeed a huge struggle for the man who characterized his Sprint Week performance as “piss-poor”, timing 15th, 14th, 29th, 16th, 22nd, 17th, and 6th. Being struck by a rock in the Kokomo feature and feeling as if his jaw was broken, after flogging from 14th Robert dipped underneath and pulled even with eventual winner Kyle Cummins, making things exciting as usual. The next night in Lawrenceburg was another effort to remember after burying himself in time trials, requiring a semi-main surge from 12th to 2nd before yet another feature flogging from 22nd to 9th. Twice squirting from 16th to 4th in the final half of the series, if you only kept your eyes on the Mad Man, you would have indeed gotten your money’s worth, as so often the best racing is not found at the front.
On the Hill – Bloomington’s Sprint Week crowd was again at capacity, celebrating the life of a Southern Indiana legend with this Sheldon Kinser Memorial.
Packed House – Putnamville, like all of the other Sprint Week stops, was packed to the gills.
Psyched – There’s nothing quite like the thrill of a first-time winner, as evidenced by Tyler Courtney’s expressions.
Reach for the Sky – Chad Boespflug is clearly hooked up at Kokomo, where he qualified fourth and finished sixth. A third at LPS was his best Sprint Week showing.
Ringleader - As a four-time Indiana Sprint Week Champion, it's rather appropriate that Levi Jones is now running the show.
Satisfaction – Car owner Jeff Olson and mechanic Ed Hassler join their driver Brent Beauchamp in Bloomington victory lane. All first-time USAC winners, it had to be even more satisfying to accomplish this feat during Sprint Week.
Serious Lift – Robert Ballou’s left rear lift was dramatic at Lawrenceburg, where he qualified a dismal 29th. Charging from 12th to 2nd in the semi, he surged from 22nd to 9th in the A.
Showtime – Shown at Gas City, Chase Stockon scored 2nd at LPS, third at Tri-State, and won the Terre Haute finale, taking fourth in final points.
Silent Gasser – Jon Stanbrough’s first ride in Shane Wade’s 66 since 2013 came at Putnamville, where he started 14th but was first to exit with brake issues.
Sprint Week Stalwarts – The two winningest Sprint Week drivers are Dave Darland and Jon Stanbrough, shown battling for semi-feature supremacy at Kokomo.
Indy native Tyler Courtney was perhaps the biggest Indiana Sprint Week surprise, offering his share of week-long drama and injecting some well-deserved life into the series. A feather in his cap that a third place points finish was a disappointment, Courtney and his Topp Motorsports team actually led points heading into the fifth round in Bloomington, needing just three respectable races to sew up their first crown. Becoming the new cult hero after his win from 16th at Gas City, so many, including my friend Lafond, knew so little about this underrated racer who was 2011 Chili Bowl rookie of the year and USAC's 2013 national sprint car rookie of the year. Not only did he slay the all-conquering Clauson on opening night, but after a first lap spin, he actually sprinted from dead last (24th) to do it – patiently following the infield tires much like a grizzled veteran. An unbelievable beginning to the series, the high emotions felt from that electrifying initial USAC win reverberated over the next nine evenings. Guided by mechanic Mark Shambarger whose resume includes stints with Gaerte Engines, Joe Gaerte Racing, and Bryan Herta Autosport (winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2011 and 2016), after opening with finishes of 1st, 7th (where he was the quickest Kokomo qualifier), and 2nd, TC again topped the timing charts at Lincoln Park Speedway (once owned and operated by his grandfather) but suffered a similar first lap fate after jumping Justin Grant’s right rear. Romping from the rear to 8th, unfortunately the results from Courtney’s next two races ruined his championship chances. Flipping wildly over the south bank of Bloomington at the beginning of his heat race and having to revert to a backup for the B, he missed the show and relinquished his point lead. Undaunted, the team hauled to Haubstadt still in the hunt, but a sub-par 22nd place finish absolutely eliminated them from the chase. Completing the week third at Terre Haute, the fact that Courtney chose to bypass the entire Kings Royal weekend for a chance at Sprint Week supremacy was yet another breath of fresh air, as everyone knows that the big money exists in the winged world. The fact is, USAC racing needs more likeable talent like Courtney and as fans, we can only hope his skills aren’t wasted on the dark side.
Far from his first Indiana Sprint Week rodeo, Chase Stockon closed out the week with his second USAC win of the season at Terre Haute, securing a fourth place in points after making all seven shows without the aid of a provisional. That stat was in jeopardy at Lawrenceburg when Chase qualified an uncharacteristic 26th, needing the last corner of the last lap to slip under Shawn Westerfeld for the final transfer from the semi. Admitting that this particular Terre Haute win was perhaps his biggest to date as the finale paid homage to his former benefactor Don Smith, Don was not only the long-time president of the Terre Haute First National Bank and a former Indy car owner, but he was also the Action Track promoter in its glory days, always in support of racers from the area. Wearing homegrown Haubstadt Dewig Meats decals on the hood of his brightly colored DRC chassis, Chase opened Sprint Week with extremely disappointing finishes of 13th, 14th (running up front at Kokomo before being swept up in an incident with Windom and Clauson), and 12th. Although he also struggled to a 19th at Bloomington, his second half finishes were far superior with a 2nd at LPS (leading two laps), 3rd at Haubstadt, and of course the win at THAT. One of USAC’s better qualifiers, in four of the seven contests Chase timed inside of the top-ten. By virtue of his respectable Sprint Week, Showtime leapfrogged to third in national points.
Leaving Lawrenceburg tied for second in Sprint Week points after opening with finishes of 3rd, 9th, and 3rd, Chris Windom’s championship chances were rock solid, especially after his killer Kokomo performance in which he led the first 21 laps before a turn four meeting with leader Kyle Cummins attracted Bryan Clauson and Chase Stockon, having to restart from the tail to take 9th. Having already claimed one ISW crown for Kenny Baldwin in his banner year of 2011, second half Baldwin Brothers Racing expectations were not unreasonably lofty and although CW drew poorly at Putnamville, like a true pro he worked his way from 22nd to 9th. Unfortunately, a flat left rear with five laps remaining dropped him to 19th and spoiled his championship chances. Qualifying struggles continued at Bloomington and Haubstadt, where the orange crush settled for sub-par finishes of 14th and 18th. Timing third and taking 6th at Terre Haute, Windom wound up a respectable fifth in points.
Sunset - By the time Indiana Sprint Week heads to Bloomington, the sun is sadly beginning to set on my favorite time of the year.
Sunshine – Although Bloomington wasn’t a stellar qualifying performance for Tyler Courtney, he qualified quickest at Kokomo and Putnamville and was second-best at Lawrenceburg.
Surprise Opening - Tyler Courtney came from deep in the field to score the surprising opening night win at Gas City.
The Mecca – My favorite place in the world to eat is Bonge’s Tavern, where Steve Lafond and I annually celebrate our start to Sprint Week. We’re both happy campers, if you couldn’t tell from the photo.
The Other Short – Marion, Illinois is the hometown of Carson Short, no relation to Bedford, Indiana’s Brady Short. Both Shorts were 2016 Sprint Week winners.
The Short Way – Brady Short shows that the shortest distance around an oval is the bottom, where he whisked from 11th to win at Lincoln Park.
T-Mez – Thomas Meseraull is generally all smiles, as evidenced by this pre-feature pose for Steve Lafond.
T-Squared – Oklahoma transplant Tyler Thomas made six of seven features in his first Indiana Sprint Week appearance, scoring a best feature finish of 10th at Lawrenceburg.
Turning Point – The beginning of this Bloomington heat race flip was the turning point for Tyler Courtney’s Sprint Week title hopes, winding up third after sitting atop the standings for all of the series.
We Salute You – It’s tough to find an empty seat in Kokomo’s grandstand for this four-wide salute.
We’re Back – Bonge’s Tavern is so special that Steve Lafond and I have to make a second stop on the Tuesday off-night.
Wheels Up - Chris Windom finished 5th in Sprint Week points, leading 21 laps at Kokomo and finishing on the podium at Gas City and Lawrenceburg.
Sixth through tenth in Sprint Week standings included Kevin Thomas, Jr., Chad Boespflug, Jarett Andretti, Jerry Coons, Jr., and Kyle Cummins. Of these men, Kevin’s Sprint Week expectations may have been highest due to the serious damage he inflicted on his Indiana bullring competition in May and June. Climbing through the cage of Jeremy Ottinger’s rock-solid DRC/Speedway combination, KTJ was far from a dark horse given his seven 2016 feature victories. But with finishes of 23rd, 3rd, 10th, 9th, 4th, 9th, and 21st, his Sprint Week had to be a bit of a bummer. A tale of what could have been, he qualified in the top ten in five of the seven shows, firing from 10th, 1st, 7th, 21st, 7th, 8th, and 8th. Up to fourth at Gas City before hitting a hole and damaging a right rear shock, sliding Windom several times for the lead at Kokomo before untimely yellow flags were flown, and rebounding from a sub-par LPS qualifying performance to secure a feature start and top-ten finish, had it not been for that faulty shock or the Terre Haute DNF, the Alabama assassin could have been in the hunt for his first-ever crown.
Already tallying a trio of USAC triumphs for his new-for-2016 partners Chuck Eberhardt and Fred Zirzow, wrapped in fresh PAC Springs colors Chad Boespflug was looking good in early ISW action at Gas City. Blasting off from fourth, Chad was prepared to pounce on early leader Hunter Schuerenberg until his machine mysteriously shut off, discovering that a severe engine vibration had loosened the spark box and allowed it to fall into the kill switch. Attempting to locate the cause of the vibration post Gas City, the team of Davey Jones, Bryan Stanfill, Jason Keefer, and Boespflug were up all night in their unsuccessful search. Luckily, Dan Pace came to the rescue with a Dave Conn power plant used on opening night by Jon Stanbrough. Completing a 5 AM engine swap, the combination was then tested on Pace’s chassis dyno by 9, ultimately rewarded with Kokomo’s fourth-quickest qualifying time and a sixth place finish. Unfortunately, the team’s Sprint Week title hopes were severely deflated at Lawrenceburg after drawing last and posting the 31st-quickest lap in a field of 42. Unable to dig out of that hole, a provisional was needed to participate in Sunday’s feature, earning them zero ISW points. Rebounding with fifth quick time and a third at LPS, Boespflug rewrote Bloomington’s one lap record with a sizzling 10.737 circuit but was unable to capitalize after an 11th place finish. Strutting southwest to Haubstadt, he was again a qualifying beast (2nd) but fell to 8th at the 30-lap conclusion. The excitement was far from over however, as post-race discussions (heat and feature) between certain members of the Boespflug and Kevin Thomas, Jr. squads escalated into some serious fireworks and a scuffle. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, but not without its share of unfortunate drama, which so often occurs at some point during Indiana Sprint Week. The Boespflug rollercoaster ended 12th at Terre Haute, definitely a disappointment given his supreme qualifying prowess (five for seven in top-ten times). Unfortunately, his average feature finish of 11.86 could only net him seventh in the ISW standings.
If there were ever a most-improved Sprint Week award, it would unquestionably go to Jarett Andretti, who made all seven feature events without the aid of a provisional. Scored 15th, 8th, 11th, 13th, 9th, 5th, and 18th, it was his opening night performance at Gas City that spoke volumes on how far he’s come. Timing 29th out of 47, after struggling in his heat he won the lowly C-main, allowing him to advance to the 12-lap semi-feature where he would be slotted 15th. Following the bottom of a slicked-off surface, Andretti impressively advanced 13 positions to 2nd, pulling off the improbable climb from C to B to A along with A.J. Hopkins. Timing inside of the top-ten twice, he could not take advantage of a front row start at Haubstadt but settled for a still-solid 5th. Switching to a DRC chassis several weeks before the start of Sprint Week, his 8th place in points and second local feature win of the season (7/23 at Lawrenceburg) show that he is becoming a threat to win, any time, anywhere.
Jerry Coons, Jr. and his Edison Motorsports posse might have been missing in action at Lawrenceburg and Haubstadt, but they still had an excellent five race showing. Scored sixth from ninth at both Gas City and LPS, Jerry impressively found fourth from 22nd at Kokomo. Again advancing three spots in Bloomington (11th to 8th), he elevated from 18th to 8th at Terre Haute, nailing ninth in points.
Kyle Cummins collected the tenth spot for car owner Hank Byram after a week of extreme highs and lows. After opening 14th at Gas City, Kyle drew last for Kokomo qualifying but still produced the second-quickest lap. Maintaining his sixth starting position for most of the contest, after a restart for Brady Bacon’s spin the pride of Princeton suddenly found some serious bite off the bottom of turn two. Picking off opponents one by one, by the back stretch of lap 22 he had pilfered P1 but swung his Mach 1 a tad too sideways at the exit of corner four. Leaving the door wide open for Windom, Chris made heavy contact and collected contenders Clauson and Stockon, moving KTJ and Ballou up to second and third. Both breathed heavily down Kyle’s neck for the remainder of the affair and to make matters worse, the final lap contained a four car crash that mandated a two-lap shootout. In search of that elusive first-time USAC score after 13 years of trying, Cummins refused to lose, skillfully hitting his marks and fending off a ferocious advance from the defending Sprint Week and national champ. Robert indeed showed how low one can go at Kokomo, but his last turn lunge came up inches short. The elated first-time winner was returned to reality at Lawrenceburg after timing 27th. Required to rally from 10th to 5th in the B just to advance to the A, he again worked overtime to earn a respectable 8th from 21st. With his Cummins Racing Engine starved for fuel in Lincoln Park qualifying, Kyle was again behind the eight ball after clocking 26th. Unable to recover, his missed the main and was thus eliminated from Sprint Week contention. Uncharacteristically struggling to a 16th at Bloomington, he was back on home turf at Haubstadt after timing third, starting fourth, and applying serious heat to pole sitter and race-long leader Carson Short. Giving Carson everything he had, the Flying Illini made all the right moves through traffic on the heavy surface, forcing Cummins to settle for second-best. Absent from Terre Haute activity, if there was one Sprint Week positive for the self-employed machinist, it was that he was finally able to shake that USAC monkey from his back. One of the most underrated racers in the country, this kid still owns all the right tools to get the job done on a national level.
In addition to those four first-time winners plus Stockon, Bryan Clauson cleaned up at Lawrenceburg while Brady Short romped from 11th to land in Lincoln Park's victory circle. Only competing in four of the seven ISW contests, many, like myself, would have predicted a Clauson clean sweep. It's nearly impossible to be perfect during Sprint Week however, having to hustle back to second after losing the lead in his Gas City rim-riding exhibition. Eliminated in the Windom/Cummins/Stockon scrum at Kokomo while lurking in fifth, he blew a right rear at Terre Haute while operating in third. Topping timing sheets at Lawrenceburg and Terre Haute, he snatched the lead baton at the Burg from Hunter Schuerenberg by lap six. Securing USAC national sprint car win number seven on the season, he’d have to first fend off advances from New Mexico's Josh Hodges and Tyler Courtney, schooling his former pupil on a restart with three laps left.
As for Short, he was enjoying a family vacation for the first half of Sprint Week, launching his initial attack at LPS. In these last six or seven years, Brady has become the absolute master of Indiana dry slickies, clearly evident on Thursday when he began 11th and lifted the lead from Dave Darland by lap 12. Losing a full-straightaway advantage thanks to a caution with five to go, three late race restarts did nothing to diminish his lead. Laying claim to his fifth career Sprint Week score, this one came ten years to the day of his first at Bloomington in 2006. All five of Sweet Feet's ISW celebrations have taken place at different venues, including the aforementioned Bloomington, Lawrenceburg ('08), Brownstown ('10), Haubstadt ('15), and now Putnamville, the same place where he advanced through the alphabet last year and finagled fifth from 22nd. Oddly enough, Short was off-song at his final two Sprint Week stops of Bloomington and Haubstadt, taking 12th and 13th.
Indiana Sprint Week meltdowns are far from a first-time occurrence, as this seven race stretch has historically tested the limits of every aspect of a sprint car squad, whether it be human or mechanical. Entering the grind second in points and an LPS MSCS feature winner as recently as July 2nd, Thomas Meseraull and Amati Racing were not immune to this Sprint Week syndrome. Taking 22nd at Gas City after losing it late in corner four, the longevity of this combination took a serious shot during Kokomo’s A-main where again Thomas looped his red racer. Recovering to claim 11th, some harsh words were reportedly shared between driver and crew chief during a trip to the work area. To add insult to injury, the next afternoon had the Amati rig stopped along I-74 with a flat tire, arriving in Lawrenceburg just as qualifying was about to begin. Of all days to draw fourth, they were only allowed one lap at the end and could only muster 39th out of a 42-car field. Second in the C and 16th in the B, they cashed a provisional but could only claim 18th, dropping one more spot in the national standings. By Monday afternoon, news of the Amati/Meseraull split sent shockwaves through the sprint car community, an unfortunate end to a productive pairing that secured seven victories, four of them under the USAC banner. Ultimately unable to mesh the personalities of an outspoken Meseraull with crew chief Donnie Gentry, Thomas immediately found work in Landon Simon’s Mt. Baker Vapor DRC. Earning an emotionally-charged 5th from 18th at LPS, he again found 5th at Bloomington. Meseraull’s last two showings, however, were a forgettable 19th and 14th. Given his propensity to stand on the gas, I'm sure T-Mez will eventually land somewhere solid.
Amati owner Shane Wade reunited with Jon Stanbrough for the final four programs, taking 24th at LPS (after losing brakes), 17th at Bloomington (popping a provisional after timing a horrific 35th), 12th at Haubstadt, and 15th at Terre Haute (reverting to a backup car for the feature after encountering engine difficulties).
The Sprint Week syndrome also bit Justin Grant and Phillips Motorsports, who permanently parted ways after Bloomington. Joining in mid-May but never quite jelling, their best Sprint Week showing was 6th at Lawrenceburg. Qualifying solidly at Gas City (5th) and Putnamville (6th), an early spin at The Gas granted Justin 20th while Putnamville produced a disappointing 17th. A DNQ at Bloomington and Kokomo, after the split Justin jumped into a completely unfamiliar ride (DKM Motorsports) and took the WAR feature win in rather dramatic fashion at Winston, Missouri, completing his winning move through the last turn of the last lap.
That pre-Sprint Week sense of something noteworthy taking place smacked me right between the eyes after Gas City's semi-feature, as the two winningest drivers in ISW history failed to transfer by a wide margin. A changing of the guard has slowly been taking place over the last decade, but never before had it been more evident when Dave Darland and Jon Stanbrough fell several spots shy of A-main status. Dave would later tag the tail thanks to a provisional but Stanbrough had no such luxury.
Darland did manage to compete in all seven Sprint Week features while Stanbrough started six, but their overall struggle to be competitive was the ultimate shocker. Two exceptions for Double-D involved outstanding outings in Putnamville and Bloomington, where he propelled from the pole each time. Leading nine laps at LPS before yielding to Short, a broken tie rod bolt on the final lap dropped the Jeff's Jam-It-In Storage Maxim from third to tenth. The People’s Champ was officially ahead for nine more tours of Bloomington where a classic high-low battle was waged with Brent Beauchamp, resulting in the most lead changes since the 2001 LPS Sprint Week show that Dave ironically lost in a photo-finish to Stanbrough. Darland ripped the lip but as turn two’s cushion pushed wider and wider, he just couldn’t surge in front of the smooth and steady Beauchamp. Despite those two solid performances, Dave's other five finishes were nothing to write home about: 16th (Gas City), 15th (Kokomo, where he spun at the white flag), 16th (Lawrenceburg, where he was mounted by Nick Bilbee), 24th (Haubstadt), and 13th (Terre Haute).
As for Stanbrough, he started the week driving Dan Pace’s Maxim/Competition Welding but after an uncharacteristic DNQ at one of the venues where he truly excels, he was back in his own Spike for Kokomo and Lawrenceburg before finishing out the week with Shane Wade’s DRC. Qualifying seemed to be his biggest issue, as he timed 27th, 16th, 16th, 14th, 35th, 10th, and 19th. That 35th came at Bloomington, where he slipped off the edge while taking the white flag, effectively killing both laps which later required a provisional pass into the A. In speaking with a candid Silent Gasser in the Gas City pit area, I learned that this is a different man than the one who took the 2006 and 2010 Indiana Sprint Week titles. Yes, he still enjoys the competitiveness of racing, but with 2016 funding limited due to a major sponsor loss (MP Environmental), he has learned to enjoy other aspects of life like camping, something before this year that he’d never, ever tried. Commenting that he was fine without being at a racetrack on some weekends, after so many years of being so focused and intent on winning, who can blame the guy for wanting a bit of a break?
So hard to pick the most memorable race of the seven race stretch, how can you choose from Tyler Courtney’s improbable run from the rear at Gas City, the non-stop chaotic drama of Kokomo where Kyle Cummins prevailed in the most thrilling finish of the week, or the wheel-to-wheel war at Bloomington between Darland and Beauchamp? Given that I was completely on the edge of my seat at Bloomington where a beautiful two-groove surface needed no maintenance, that race gets the nod. Happy to see Brent finally break through, I was ecstatic for his car owner Jeff Olson, who is an air traffic controller alongside my older sister. With the experienced assistance from former driver Ed Hassler, “Oly” provides proof that the little guy still has a place on this national stage, getting some supreme bang out of his bucks. Competing at only four Sprint Week rounds, Jeff is a working man after all.
What is it about the Bloomington Sprint Week stop that promotes first-time USAC feature winners? Brad Fox followed the infield tires and found USAC gold here in 1997. Cory Kruseman got his first one here in Dave Ellis’s bad-fast 21 while A.J. Anderson emulated the line made famous by the original Kevin Thomas with his first score in 2001. As mentioned previously, Brady Short secured his first USAC win here in 2006 while Kevin Thomas, Jr. etched his name into the USAC record books with his 2012 score.
A tip of the hat goes to Advanced Racing Suspensions employee Tyler Thomas, an Oklahoma midget transplant who made six of seven features in his first Indiana Sprint Week starts for Jerry Burton. Missing only the Gas City main, a 10th place finish at the Burg was his top billing, twice timing inside of the top-ten. Kudos also goes to Kokomo’s Logan Jarrett, who enjoyed his best Indiana Sprint Week of his career. Also a DNQ at Gas City, Jarrett made the remaining six features, saving his best performance for last with a solid seventh at Terre Haute. Like T-squared, LJ was a top-ten qualifier twice. And although the results don’t show it with finishes of 12th, 21st, 19th, 22nd, and 24th, Hunter Schuerenberg was once again a force in Tony Epperson’s deuce despite limited wingless appearances this season. In three of his five outings, he qualified inside of the top-ten and on two of those occasions (Gas City and Lawrenceburg), wound up with the pole position. Leading nine laps at Gas City, Hunter led five more at Lawrenceburg but threw a connecting rod while running third on lap 28. And how about Marion, Illinois native Carson Short? His first Sprint Week appearance of 2016 resulted in a thirty lap romp at Tri-State Speedway, his first sprint car win of any kind. Showing flashes of brilliance over the last several seasons, especially when surfaces are heavy, the grip from Haubstadt’s dark dirt did not diminish as much as others expected, which certainly favored Carson. Still just 20 years old, the other Short worked traffic like a seasoned veteran, unaffected by the pressure to perform on such a big stage.
Aside from Cummins, the one driver most would have predicted to score his initial USAC sprint car victory during Indiana Sprint Week was Greenfield’s C.J. Leary. Knocking on the door for the better part of three seasons, C.J.’s Sprint Week was best described as a struggle, competing in all seven features but needing provisionals for Gas City and Haubstadt. Qualifying in the top-ten on three occasions, he also finished in the top-ten an equal number of times, taking 4th at Lawrenceburg, 6th at Bloomington, and 10th at Terre Haute. Earning an average feature finish of 12.43, it was definitely not the week that Leary, owner Mike Dutcher, or the experts expected, with rumors flying about a post-Sprint Week split before the series was even over.
Like Leary, another young man whose week wasn’t anything he’d envisioned was Max McGhee. Twice timing inside of the top-ten (Gas City and Terre Haute) and taking part in four of the seven features, his best effort was a 7th on opening night. Utilizing a provisional at Kokomo only to mangle his Maxim after heavy contact with Dave Darland, after qualifying poorly at Lawrenceburg he loaded up early, also missing features at Putnamville and Bloomington. A character-building week of education and experience for Max and his younger brother/crew chief Sam, after starting off the season strong in Florida as USAC rookies, Sprint Week has a way of humbling racers of all ages.
New Mexico college student Josh Hodges was the lone western representation this year, guided once again by crew chief Jake Argo. Enduring a week of mixed results, Josh was a top-ten qualifier in four of his six showings, also making four of those six features before having to return home on the Sunday of the Terre Haute makeup. The quickest qualifier at the Haub, in the two shows that Josh missed he timed a horrific 34th (Gas City) and 48th (Putnamville). After fixing his engine issues from LPS time trials, just to take part in the semi-feature required a run from 17th to 4th. Showing well at Lawrenceburg (5th) and Haubstadt (7th), it was at the Burg where Hodges provided the biggest threat to Bryan Clauson’s lead, looking like he might just be the third consecutive first-time winner.
2016 Indiana Sprint Week car counts were extremely solid up until the final two evenings. Beginning with 47 at Gas City and Kokomo, the figure fell to 42 at Lawrenceburg but rose to 50 at Putnamville. Bloomington boasted 48 and Haubstadt hauled in 39, the first time in a long while that the southern-most stop has enjoyed so many wingless sprinters. As expected, Terre Haute drew the fewest (32). A total of 82 drivers competed and those making all seven features without taking a provisional included Bacon, Ballou, Stockon, Windom, Thomas, Jr., and Andretti. Those making all seven features but requiring provisional passes included Darland, Boespflug, Meseraull, and Leary.
Qualification performance is a key component of Sprint Week success, and the ones who excelled the most included Bacon, Boespflug, and KTJ, timing inside of the top-ten in five of the seven contests. Clauson, Courtney, Hodges, and Stockon were top-ten timers in four of seven rounds. With USAC’s feature invert containing the quickest six who transfer through their heat, four times the pole sitter timed eighth, twice ninth, and once tenth. Qualifying surfaces were generally excellent, as so many occasions an outstanding lap was turned in late in the order. At Gas City, quick qualifier Brady Bacon came out ninth from the end but found a moist bottom groove to his liking, as did Zach Daum (34th in line) and Cole Smith (29th in line). At Kokomo, quick qualifier Tyler Courtney came out 13th, but second and third qualifiers Kyle Cummins and Bryan Clauson drew 47th and 42nd. At Lawrenceburg, Clauson’s quick lap came early (11th) while second and third qualifiers Courtney and Grant came out 26th and 37th. And at the hammer-down paperclip in Haubstadt, Josh Hodges was fast time from 7th but Chad Boespflug was second best after going out 38th.
All Sprint Week surfaces were up to snuff come feature time, with all but Bloomington requiring maintenance at some point throughout the evening. Despite the heat, most did not go completely dry-slick and so many of the features proved that a poor qualifying time was not of paramount importance. Earning a $100 bonus from KSE and Bill Wever’s B&W Auto Mart, Tyler Courtney won the opening night’s contest from 16th, really getting it done from 24th after his first lap spin. Also on opening night, A.J. Hopkins mastered the alphabet, flinging Roy Jackson’s 42 from 10th to 4th in the C, 18th to 5th in the B, and 22nd to 9th in the A. Jarett Andretti also went from C to B to A, with Shane Cottle coaxing a fourth from Paul Hazen’s famous 57 after beginning 18th. At Kokomo, Jimmy Light buzzed from 13th to 4th in the C while awesome A-main achievements were turned in by Ballou (14th to 2nd), Coons (22nd to 4th), Andretti (19th to 8th), and the Throttle (17th to 10th). At the Burg, Robert Ballou blasted from 12th to 2nd in the B and 22nd to 9th in the A, which also saw Kyle Cummins climb from 21st to 8th. Putnamville produced a ton of overtaking, with Hopkins and Hodges advancing from the C after starting 14th and 17th while Short earned the feature win from 11th. Ballou (16th to 4th), Meseraull (18th to 5th), and KTJ (21st to 9th) were also lauded for their premier passing skills at the Put. Haubstadt’s most notable movement belonged to Ballou (16th to 4th) while Terre Haute touted an 18th to 8th charge from Coons.
As expected, Sprint Week crowds were generally at capacity, as the series still attracts visitors from all around the globe. Quite common to hear just how lucky we have it as Indiana residents, I bumped into two separate parties from Pennsylvania on more than one occasion, namely Chris and Steve Kirner from Hatboro and Ron and Jane Hager from Bechtelsville. I spoke to Chris and Steve at length at Gas City, learning that the previous Fourth of July weekend saw son Steve make a whirlwind tour of the U.S., first flying from Philadelphia to Indy for a Friday night USAC show at Putnamville. Then, on Saturday morning it was off to Perris, California for a Saturday night USAC-CRA union. Then on Sunday, it was back to Indy, only to get rained out for Kokomo's weekly contest. Now that, my friends, is hardcore! Able to come and go as they please as retirees, Ron and Jane Hager might be neighbors to Fred Rahmer but they prefer their open wheel action sans aerodynamic aid, traveling to Indiana and the Midwest at least a handful of times each season. Listening to the excitement in the voices of these fanatics, it reminded me so much of that initial, expanded USAC Indiana Sprint Week when so many of us caught the fever for the first time.
Naturally, the central reason for the enthusiasm and excitement surrounding Indiana Sprint Week is the on-track product, but more so for me is that I get to spend ten days with one of my best friends. Once again, Steve Lafond allocated the greatest portion of his vacation time to bask in my Hoosier hospitality and make even more Sprint Week memories. Ten days might seem like an eternity, especially in the hours leading up to the Gas City opener, but there is never enough time to appreciate every waking moment of this escape from reality. When not traveling to and from my Carmel home base, Steve’s routine involved endless photo editing while mine involved hitting the gym, running errands, tending to household chores, and attempting to keep up on Sprint Week statistics in preparation for this massive summary that you are currently enjoying.
Once done with photos and chores, it was time to think about where we would dine for our one solid meal of the day, with an extreme emphasis on exclusivity and quality. Thrilled to be up at Bonge’s Tavern twice (www.bongestavern.com), as usual the warm and inviting staff (including owner and chef Tony Huelster, hostess Angie Fine, and server Dawn Holowach) welcomed us with open arms, making these two trips as much or more of a highlight as the seven race stretch. Due to the rarity of offering, both times I chose a massive plate of barbeque ribs as my entrée, without question the most scrumptious racks I’ve ever enjoyed in my life. Words do not do this place justice and by just writing about those ribs, my mouth waters and begins to beg for more. In addition to our beloved Bonge’s, Steve and I made stops at The Local, Pizzology, The Pint Room, The Friendly Tavern, Big Woods Brewery (where we bumped into former sprint racers Ande Possman and Kelly Potter), Blu Moon Café, North End Barbeque and Moonshine, Rail Epicurean Market, Nick’s English Hut, Tin Man Brewing Company, and Bub’s Café. No bad meals or bad tunes, while I often handled the driving chores with this year’s rental car (Chrysler 300 S), Steve often played disc jockey with an awesome selection of songs from his massive and eclectic library, particularly enjoying his playlist in route to Kokomo. One exception to our routine was the trip to Lawrenceburg, when Texas photog and first-time Sprint Week visitor Pat Grant handled the driving duties with his luxurious and highly impressive Chevy truck.
Time refuses to stand still when you’re having so much fun and these ten days must unfortunately come to an end at some point. On that final Sunday brunch, the overwhelmingly painful feelings of a heavy heart and lump in the throat serve as a huge contrast to the unbridled enthusiasm that come with our initial Bonge’s excursion. With Steve’s flight leaving early Sunday evening, unfortunately he would have to miss the rescheduled Terre Haute finale, leading to that inevitable tearful embrace and goodbye. Ripping my heart out just as it did the first time he came to visit, some things just do not change. But, knowing how much both of us live for this week, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
My favorite memories of racing do involve the early years when my thirst for open wheel action could not be quenched. These days, I find myself attending races to relive those same memories and earn those same feelings that I enjoyed for the first time some two or three decades ago. 2016 Indiana Sprint Week did manage to ignite many of those same euphoric sentiments from the 1996-1997-1998 era when this mini-series first became a big deal. 2016 was a lot like 1997 with its capacity crowds, outstanding car counts, national championship implications, hard charges, and high drama of emotionally charged drivers, crews, and competitors intersecting. Throw in the thrill of four first-time winners and the creation of some new heroes and what you had was one of the most memorable weeks in the 29-year history of the series. Prior to the Gas City opener, I was concerned that Sprint Week had hit a serious lull and needed some sort of revival. Three weeks later, I realize those worries were completely absurd. Who knows what the next few years might bring, but either way, I’ll always remember this 2016 edition. The first time in a long while that I’ve felt this optimistic about the current state of affairs, there is truly nothing like that first-time feeling.
Volume 18, Number 6
In some ways, I’m nothing but a big kid at heart, especially evident with my endless fascination for railroads that remains just as strong as those days of growing up in Fishers, Indiana, always having to look out my bedroom window or burst outside when the horn of a diesel locomotive blew on the nearby Norfolk and Western line. These days as I jog or ride my bike on the Monon trail north of Carmel, even though it’s been 30 years since this path was last in use as a railroad, when the wind is blowing just right I can still hear the awesome sounds of a freight train thundering by.
Back when this Indianapolis to Chicago branch of the Monon was still active, my favorite place to find a train was these very tracks along Westfield Boulevard, as anywhere from Broad Ripple to 75th Street three separate bridges spanned the Canal, White River, and Williams Creek. Forever in hope of catching a train snaking across one of these bridges, to this day as I drive down this same stretch and cross the White River, out of habit I still catch myself gazing towards that old railroad bridge in search of that elusive train. What can I say? I’m still that same kid, albeit a lot older now.
If USAC’s Indiana Midget Week metaphorically represents the northern edge of the White River valley and Indiana Sprint Week represents the southern edge, then the four and a half weeks of action in the middle of June and early July serves as the bridge that connects the two periods. After the overindulgence of Indy 500 week and Midget Week, I was no doubt raced-out, only able to absorb small doses of action so that the remaining embers of motorsports desire could be stoked to become an inferno by the time July 8th rolled around.
Immediately after Indiana Midget Week’s Kokomo conclusion, up until the afternoon of June 8th I was on the fence about shelling out $37 for a general admission ticket ($32 if I picked up a discount pass from O’Reilly Auto Parts) to a mid-week World of Outlaws meeting at Lincoln Park Speedway. With my wife away on Chicago business, my racing light might have been green, but it still took some convincing to meet my nephew in Plainfield. This was the first time since 1988 that this series would pause in Putnamville, missing that pole night show of ’88 in favor of NASCAR mods at IRP, believing that a new one-lap IRP track record would be set which was ultimately denied by a ridiculous rear end gear rule. Wondering what I missed when Dave Blaney (Nott 48) picked up the win, some 28 years later I decided to finally give LPS a go. Carrying in lawn chairs in hope that a nice, relaxing evening could be enjoyed on the concrete, we were kindly reminded that lawn chairs could only be placed on grass by microphone master Johnny Gibson. I’ve got to be honest - for 37 bucks, it would have been nice to rest my back for this five-plus hour program.
Beginning hot laps a half hour later as excess H2O required additional packing, qualifying for the 30 car field, and the entire evening for that matter, was highlighted by an aggressive Kyle Larson (11.291 in the Silva 57), attacking the insanely heavy surface like he would have in his native NorCal habitat. With the groove widening to only a car and a half and cushion stacked six to eight inches tall, a majority of the tour regulars requested a complete surface revamp after time trials, as the best in the business prefer not to work in such demanding conditions. Truth be told, it would have been far too narrow for adequate passing, but what is wrong with a cushion?
Thus requiring a painful 90 minute wait until 9 PM heat races, this ultimate test in patience was a slightly bitter pill to swallow, especially after the previous week's Midget Week show that went long because of another surface adjustment. Thankfully with only one support class booked (winged MMSA mini-sprints), we were on the road by 11:40 PM, which meant my head finally hit the pillow past 1 AM. But, was the infringement on sleep worth it?
Well, for the first 28 laps, I can emphatically say yes, as the battle through traffic between Larson, David Gravel, and Donny Schatz was some of the best stuff you’ll ever see from the World of Outlaws. Unfortunately, Larson overcooked turn four, crushed the curb, and turned over, ending his evening far too soon. And, although Gravel nearly got by Schatz on several occasions, the North Dakota nightmare could not be contained, finding victory lane for the umpteenth time, tying him for the series point lead with Brad Sweet. A huge pat on the back goes out to my nephew, who claimed victory in the Craftsman "Toughest Man" contest conducted on the front stretch. Holding a pair of 25 pound Craftsman tool boxes at shoulder-height longer than his two competitors, he went home with a $50 gift card. Trust me, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Three days later, the next June journey whisked me west to Macon, Illinois, meeting up one final time with Townsend Tours and the remaining Kiwi contingent for POWRi’s Illinois Speed Week. Leery of making the 2 hour and 45 minute drive to a different time zone as my last several Macon showings wound up washed out or rubbered up, I rolled the dice in hope that the dark dirt of the tiny 1/5th mile bullring would be in vintage form. Vintage form indeed, luck was on my side as a massive cushion stacked against the outside rail, producing some edge-of-your-seat feature action. Despite having to sit through a seven-car 20-lap late model feature as well as a 20-lap 600cc micro sprint feature, the headlining national midget main was a barn-burner, filled with more than its share of slide jobs. An absolute animal against that massive curb, pole sitter Carson Macedo led all the way but faced serious pressure from Keith Kunz teammate Tanner Thorson, who slid Carson through turns one and two on the final two circuits. Successful crossovers each time allowed the Northern California midget rookie to perform celebratory psycho donuts on the front chute. Macedo and Thorson were trailed by Darren Hagen (Brown 17), Decatur’s Terry Babb (from 15th), and Zach Daum (from 10th). Even staying for the Division II POWRi midgets as my long-time friend Crankin’ Craig Dori was in the field, despite numerous incidents the racing was actually entertaining, as Patrick Bruns made a late race pass to steal the win. Kept awake on the late night/early morning drive by a large can of Starbucks energy, satellite radio, and heated tweets in the aftermath of the Robert Ballou/Shane Cottle incident at Port Royal, the biggest downside to any Macon adventure is the time of arrival back home, which was around 2:45 AM.
One week later, the 68-lap Chuck Amati Classic sent me back in time to rural Paragon, Indiana where a sizeable 38-car field formed for the $3,000 to win show, easily the season highlight for this 30th anniversary season of operation for track owners Keith and Judy Ford. Now that the KISS series is no longer, the Amati might be the only time all season when national names test their skills on the legendary 3/8ths mile paperclip, as the field contained notables such as Meseraull, Bland, Hines, Cottle, Rose, Windom, McGhee, Stanbrough (Pace 44), Short, and Welpott. Won from sixth (Meseraull and Cottle), third (Short), and second (Windom), even with surface grip vanishing the four heats offered their share of entertainment, as did hillside conversations with long-time racers Joe Roush, Ande Possman, and Fred Possman.
Starting Max McGhee and Brandon Morin from the front row, the unusually lengthy feature was a tale of two races. Max McGhee led the first quarter but as rubber quickly adhered to the middle/bottom lanes, it was virtually impossible to keep Brady Short from coming to the front, surging from seventh to snatch the lead thanks to superior negotiation of lapped traffic. Slowed only by trio of cautions, the rest of the field was literally no match for the Pottorff/Short Maxim, as Sweet Feet leaned on his smoking Hoosier right rear to claim his second Amati Classic over McGhee, Windom, Bland, and Josh Cunningham (from 13th). Cottle, Meseraull, Stanbrough (from 15th), Rose, and Welpott scored sixth through tenth at the 10:34 PM checkered flag. Before it is all said and done for the Fords, it is my wish that a USAC Indiana Sprint Week show would one day return to their homestead. Yes, it might be a challenge to handle the current-day Sprint Week crowds and influx of campers, but there is just such a unique old-school Southern Indiana sprint car vibe that is earned by spending a Saturday night on the hill, virtually unchanged in all of my years of attendance. If given the opportunity, I have faith that Keith can still produce a surface worthy of Sprint Week expectations.
Headed north to Kokomo Speedway for an Indiana Sprint Week tune up the next afternoon, unfortunately a phone call of appreciation, recollection, and love was the only gift I could give my dear old dad on Father’s Day, as the bright sunlight and ninety degree heat were his motivations for enjoying an evening in the controlled climate of downtown Indy’s Shapiro’s Delicatessen.
Truly feeling like summer as I made the grandstand climb to find a suitable seat for combined hot laps and qualifications (Josh Hodges was quickest at 13.091), a surprising nudge was received from videographer Dean Mills, who returned to the Hoosier state for a short stint after shooting a massive mini-sprint meeting in Marion, Illinois. Dean reminded that it was on Father’s Day of 1986 when a 19 year-old Dave Darland picked up his first-career sprint car score of any kind at Kokomo. Thirty years later, could Dave duplicate his feat in Jeff Walker’s 11?
In order to do so, the Lincoln legend would have to defeat yet another star-studded 21-car field that included his one-time protégé Corey Smith. Corey has been racing sprint cars since 1994 and after making a recent return to the sport one year ago, he’s still attempting to find the sweet spot of an otherwise finicky Spike chassis. Staying in shape by going to cross fit three times a week, when not tending to his 14 year-old son’s micro sprint or attending his daughter’s gymnastics competitions, after 22 years Corey continues to punch the time clock at Chrysler in Kokomo, having to head back to work at midnight on Sunday in fact.
Needing no B-main as a result of the short field, the A-main line up was reduced by two when previous night Lawrenceburg winner C.J. Leary (own 30) lost an engine in hot laps while Shane Cottle suffered an oil pump failure in his heat. Hiding from the sun underneath the grandstand while awaiting the announcement of the feature line-up, lengthy conversations with Kevin Bledsoe and Kurt “The Rooster” Hawkins helped pass the time. I was introduced by Hawkins to Kokomo Speedway legend Don Walker (father to Jeff), who showed me a laminated copy of the 1954 Hoosier Racing license once required to compete at Kokomo Speedway. As would be expected, Don’s photo from ’54 looks exactly like a younger version of son Jeff.
Kokomo’s Father’s Day feast featured a 25-lap finale conducted under daylight conditions. The intriguing front row was an all-Southwest affair, as second place finishes in heats two and three allowed 21 year-old New Mexico Tech student Josh Hodges to start alongside Tucson, Arizona native and USAC triple crown champ Jerry Coons, Jr. Both teenage phenoms in completely opposing eras, Hodges stepped up to sprint cars in 2008 and one year later became the youngest to ever annex an ASCS feature at the age of 14 years, 4 months, and 23 days, eventually earning 360 rookie of the year honors from the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. Flanking Hodges was Coons, the 2008 National Sprint Car Hall of Fame driver of the year who terrorized the combined USAC and Arizona midget racing circuit in the late 1980s, long before he held a driver’s license.
High side momentum propelled Monte Edison’s man to an early lead, pacing a snarling pack containing Hodges, Darland, Jarrett, Thomas, Windom, Andretti, and Grant (Phillips 71), all of whom chose to operate upstairs. Six tours in the books had Windom exiting early and just four laps later, Hodges had pulled even with the leader by choosing the moist middle. Just past halfway, a turn three slide job awarded Josh a brief taste of first, but Jerry immediately retrieved the spot with a turn one bomb, distancing himself thanks to lapped traffic. Darland crept into the lead picture with ten laps left but once Hodges finally extricated himself from a trio of back markers on lap 18, it suddenly became a two car contest. With five to go, Josh jerked his Maxim underneath of Jerry in three and four and leaned his right rear into the Edison Spike, unable to seize the lead. With three to go, Coons dipped even lower at the entrance of turn one and temporarily impeded the path of his New Mexico nemesis, whose bodacious bite through three and four earned him the number one position that he would not relinquish. In the thrilling all-green affair, Hodges and Coons were chased to the 8:23 PM checkered by Darland, Jarrett, and Thomas. Grant, Andretti, McGhee, Farney, and Karraker (who flipped in his heat) secured sixth through tenth place money.
Looking good in his Indiana debut last summer and showing even better in his return, the impressive Hodges is once again guided by the capable Jake Argo, clearly showing that he can win anywhere and offering more than a glimmer of west coast hope for Indiana Sprint Week. Rarely leaving these grounds disappointed, tonight’s early exit and tight finish again maintained such a positive stance, eagerly anticipating my annual zenith on Saturday July 9th.
Bypassing a stressful Friday night drive through rush hour to reach a June 24th twenty car Bloomington homecoming ($1800 to win and $300 to start) claimed by Kevin Thomas, Jr., I instead opted for $5 hamburgers at Recess as part of Indy’s Burger Week promotion. Sorely missing the days of old when stacked fields of sprinters came from all over the state to spray red clay into the B-town grandstands, I am still bothered by the fact that with just one track operating on most Fridays, car counts are still abnormally low. Of course I will return for Sprint Week’s July 15th stop, as there is nothing quite like standing on the asphalt in front of the concession stand while basking in the glow of a battle for the win on a two-groove surface.
Saving my racing activities on this fourth weekend of June for Eldora’s final stop of Ohio Sprint Speed Week, such a decision became a slam dunk when an already slim field of sprinters (78) would be divided among four Hoosier haunts (Putnamville - 22, Paragon - 19, Boswell MSCS – 20, and North Vernon - 17). With USAC away in Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas, that meant the Indiana offerings would be further diluted.
After an obligatory Maid Rite sandwich stop in Greenville, we were easily in the gates for 6 PM hot laps. Enjoying an ultra-efficient evening of 36 All Star Circuit of Champions sprint cars plus a slim field of Eldora stocks, a little over three hours later (9:10 PM) we were packing our belongings after an extremely exciting feature, pondering a stop in Winchester where the King of Wings played host to a paltry ten car field. Unfortunately by the time we were approaching the famed high banks on state road 32, the mass exodus of cars meant we just missed our opportunity for the rare half-mile double.
The eighth race in nine days for the All Stars, just like days of old the Speed Week finale ended at the Big E and offered $10,000 to the winner. Feature winners form earlier in the week represented a who’s-who of both young and old, namely Kyle Larson (Attica and Atomic), Sheldon Haudenschild (Waynesfield), Dale Blaney (Millstream), Rico Abreu (Wayne County), Bryan Clauson (Sharon), and Randy Hannagan (Lima). Larson led points upon his exit to Sonoma NASCAR, handing the lead baton to young Haudenschild, who held a narrow two point margin over Chad Kemenah. Added Eldora bonuses included Hall of Famers Jac Haudenschild and Dave Blaney, with Blaney returning to battle at the place that bit him big time in May while Haudenschild was back for the third time this year in the Phoenix 59, the same ride he steered to victory in June of 2013. On this evening, Blaney and Haud were the bridge to my sprint car beginnings, so cool that both were major players in the ‘80s. And although their current schedules are curtailed, they still remain threats to win, as both timed in the top-six.
The All Star format is intriguingly different from all the rest, somewhat of a mix between weekly Kokomo Speedway and the World of Outlaws, as time trials are divided into segments that correspond to heat race participants, inverting the fastest four for each heat. However, you will need a pen and paper to figure out who is “dash eligible”, as one must generally finish in the top two of his or her heat. But, from the way I understand it, if you don’t make the top two but still take a feature transfer and your qualifying time is quicker than one of those already finishing in the top two, then you’re in the dash and they are not. Confused? I think I might still be.
Kraig Kinser was quickest of all 36 (13.377) but began to belch some serious smoke in his heat, just making the transfer but requiring an engine swap in time for that dash, which was fully inverted at eight. As was the case with the heat races, the top two finishers in the dash came from the front row, as Kemenah defeated Tim Shaffer. Relegated to winning the B after receiving a first lap Cap Henry wheel in his heat, a livid Dave Blaney’s evening was essentially ruined as a result of his heat race, as he would have to start the A-main 19th. After getting lapped very early, the Buckeye Bullet wisely pulled the Motter 71M pit side. Dave’s younger brother Dale had an equally frustrating evening, oddly spinning while lining up for the feature and being forced to tag the tail. The first to exit the event, I was unaware of the issue that cost the perennial series champion his point lead.
As for that A-main, it was vintage Eldora and vintage Jac Haudenschild. Jac might be 58 years old, but his age and the track’s character-filled entries to turns one and three did not slow him one bit, as the Wild Child was elbows up for the entire thirty lap distance. Starting fifth and immediately sliding fourth-starting Randy Hannagan through corner two, Haud somehow saved his Maxim from a half-spin and immediately gathered it up to toss yet another slider at turn three. Just after Jac had inched past Shaffer to secure second on lap nine, son Sheldon blew a right rear sky high while operating in fifth, relieving him of his impending Speed Week title. The second blown tire of the night, Lee Jacobs had one go at the B-main conclusion and cost him a feature transfer, sounding like a bomb went off.
Restarting with 18 laps left, the leaders were working lapped traffic just five laps later, allowing the elder Haudenschild to use one of those slower cars as a front stretch pick to lift the lead from Kemenah. Grazing the turn two wall with seven to go, Haud’s lead suddenly vanished as second place Tim Shaffer was showing some serious late race speed. Third place Kemenah also gained ground as the lead trio weaved their way through traffic over the final five tours, as one breathtaking move after another wowed even the most jaded fans. However, the most jaw dropping maneuver of them all came with two to go, as Jac followed lapper Cap Henry through turn one but literally turned his car on a dime, diamonding the middle of the corner to wrap up his 10th career All Star win at Eldora and 30th with the Ohio-based series. Shaffer would have to settle for second while Kemenah collected third, good enough for Chad to secure his second Ohio Speed Week title. Hannagan was fourth while Danny Holtgraver was fifth. Sixth from 15th was Tyler Courtney, followed closely by Aussie Jamie Veal (Indy Race Parts 71), Kinser, Dominic Scelzi, and another Aussie in James McFadden (from 18th). Exiting in daylight after such a thrilling thirty lapper, I was more than satisfied with my decision on this particular Saturday.
My final race on this bridge between Midget Week and Sprint Week was an otherwise odd Friday night of USAC sprint car competition at Lincoln Park Speedway. The first of a two night Bill Gardner Sprintacular that would also offer MSCS sprinters on the more traditional Saturday, with the need to finish up some work chores I was unable to arrive any earlier than midway through qualifications for the 32 car field. Missing a Josh Hodges quick lap of 12.633 seconds (nearly three-tenths better than second place Chase Stockon), I did however catch Robert Ballou’s pivotal sixth place performance around the bottom, allowing him to begin from the front row of the feature later on. Robert would be joined by seventh-quick Chad Boespflug, who was able to capitalize from C.J. Leary’s failure to transfer from heat one.
Enjoying four entertaining heats, two of which were decided on the last corner of the last lap (Boespflug barely beat Jon Stanbrough while weekly point leader Shane Cockrum nipped Jarett Andretti), action was equally intense for the final transfer from the semi-feature, as Casey Shuman (Krockenberger 21), Aaron Farney, Max McGhee, and Brandon Mattox (own 28) duked it out in wheel to wheel fashion. Maddox just missed it while McGhee pulled off on the final go-round, requiring a provisional pass that started him 23rd but moved him all the way to 9th at the end of thirty laps.
Abnormal to spend a Friday night in Putnamville, cool weather in early July was also highly unusual, requiring a sweatshirt to watch the B and A-mains in comfort. Slowed by only one caution for second place points man Thomas Meseraull who pounded the wall exiting turn four after breaking a steering arm bolt, Ballou faced serious heat on the slicked off surface from Boespflug, who was wicked fast atop the traditional ledge in three and four. Robert’s slight bobble at the entrance to turn three allowed Chad to pull even in the waning stages, but it wasn’t enough to keep the reigning series champion from win number four of an otherwise frustrating season.
Done by a respectable 9:45 PM, Ballou and Boespflug were trailed by the ultra-consistent Brady Bacon, who maintains a healthy 104 point lead on Meseraull, who recovered from his mishap on Friday to claim Saturday’s $3,000 MSCS score, which amounted to his fourth conquest of the year. Shane Cottle (from 12th) and Dave Darland (from 14th) rounded out Friday’s first five. Sixth through tenth included Chase Stockon (third in points), Hodges, Hunter Schuerenberg (Epperson 2), McGhee, and Chris Windom (from 22nd).
Rain ruined my Sunday night racing conclusion to this holiday weekend and with those Kokomo and Tri-State cancellations, the gap between USAC’s Indiana Midget and Sprint Week had completely been bridged. Briefly resting on the other side of this racing valley on this Fourth of July holiday, I’ll need to endure another three and a half days of stressful work before beginning the best ten days that the calendar has to offer. Doubtful that there will be any train watching in this span, instead there’s plenty of other items that will keep me occupied. Indulging in an unbeatable combination of fun, freedom, friends, food, beverage, and the best that traditional sprint car racing has to offer – this is my adult version of summer vacation. Just like when I was a little kid counting down those days to the end of school, I’m eagerly anticipating Sprint Week's arrival. Knowing all too well of the devastating depression and sadness felt at its unfortunate conclusion, I guess I’ll just have to cross that bridge
Volume 18, Number 5
Some might say that you can never have too much of a good thing.
Back in the day when I was filled with boundless energy, such a statement could easily apply to my open wheel intake, as it was virtually impossible to quench my thirst for this thrilling pastime. But as I grew older, lost some of that energy, and tastes matured, something as overwhelmingly exciting as sprint and midget car racing somehow managed to lose its zing, especially noted after I overindulged.
Lately, the three times of the year when my intake could be deemed excessive revolves around the Indianapolis 500, Indiana Midget Week, and of course Indiana Sprint Week. Normally occurring in May, June, and July but with a little interlude in between, 2016 scheduling sandwiched the seven race in six day Indy 500 grind with six consecutive USAC midget and local sprint car doubleheaders of Midget Week. Yes, if one so chose, he or she could absorb 13 contests in 12 crazy days. Could even the most hardcore fanatic consider that overindulging? Isn’t that simply a little too much?
As much as I hunger for the 500 and Midget Week, when the schedules were released in early December, instead of rejoicing for such a concentration of awesome activity I can honestly admit that the instant emotion was dread, as an inability to dip into a severely limited stash of vacation days and a history of chronic fatigue syndrome already curbed my enthusiasm. Arriving home around 1 or 1:30 each morning only to be greeted by a 6:30 alarm for an 8 hour workday, call me a wimp but it takes me weeks to recover. Yes, I am glutton for punishment but unless I was hospitalized, nothing was going to stop me from making it through this two week marathon, as this was must-see stuff. I could rest when I’m dead, or when these two weeks were over, whichever came first.
After such a monumental Indy 500 week filled with signature events such as the 46th Tony Hulman Classic, the 62nd Hoosier Hundred, the 68th Little 500, the 100th Indianapolis 500 plus added bonuses of the Josh Burton Memorial and Kokomo Klassic, I sacrificed Lawrenceburg’s World of Outlaws war on Memorial Day to rest up and mentally prepare myself for the stress of making every Midget Week stop. The irony of my absence meant missing what might have been the most awe-inspiring feature of the entire two weeks, as a Shane Stewart/Rico Abreu slide-fest was one for the ages as evidenced by a WoO video highlight package. Once Lawrenceburg Midget Week was a wash and Kokomo was complete, my final tab showed 11 races in 12 days. Not bad, but I know many, including the nearly two dozen visitors from New Zealand who booked Bryce Townsend’s world-famous Speed Sport Tour, who took in all 12 without even breaking a sweat.
So how in the heck do I attempt to summarize far too much racing now that I am nearly three weeks removed? That would, of course, mean keeping my observations short and sweet. Here goes nothing…
My personal version of circular insanity began on Wednesday May 25th, the date of Terre Haute’s Tony Hulman Classic that would best be remembered for an awe-inspiring mid-race slide-fest involving defending USAC champion Robert Ballou and pole sitter Thomas Meseraull, as the two exchanged the top spot as many as eight times, playing on and around the extreme top shelf of the legendary half-mile. Catching the action with “Tornado” Townsend and his wife Jenny underneath the roof near turn one, Meseraull officially led the first 16 circuits in the Donnie Gentry-wrenched DRC belonging to Shane Wade, interrupted for one lap by Ballou before taking over again from 18 through 21. The final nine tours had the former Rocklin, California resident ruling the roost, building a full-straight advantage on the San Jose transplant. Beginning from the front row in his own 81, 2002 Hulman Classic hero Jon Stanbrough ran as high as second and held off quick qualifier (20.514) and point leader Brady Bacon for third. Chris Windom also had a night to remember, taking Kenny Baldwin’s DRC from 20th to 5th. 2013 Hulman Classic winner Jerry Coons, Jr. claimed ninth, but his flight from 15th to 5th in the first four laps was equally impressive. Unfortunately for Jerry, his bottom groove became blown away far too soon as the entire track went dry/slick.
Done by 9:40, before blasting USAC for docking him one qualifying lap for missing the horn, Robert posed with crew chief Jimmy Jones on the front stretch, reinforcing the notion that this combination remains just as potent some ten years later. Although Jones is most often found winging it with Parker Price-Miller, luckily for Ballou setup advice is just a phone call away. Robert became just the third guy to go back to back with Hulman Classic wins, as “The Butler” did it in 1987 and 1988 while Levi Jones pulled it off in 2008 and 2009.
Battling brutal Carmel High School graduation traffic also headed for the Fairgrounds Coliseum on Thursday May 26th, I missed Hoosier Hundred practice altogether, plopping down my thirty bucks just behind former Bloomington bandits Jon Sciscoe and Danny Holtsclaw. Say what you will, but for one lap of qualifications from a 33-car field and a 100-lap feature, this is a rather lofty price to pay. Thankfully, there are people like myself who are still willing to support the event, which enjoyed solid attendance figures for this 62nd running. Still wanting to know why the drivers aren’t offered two laps of qualifying, if time is the biggest concern, then just drop the modifieds (only six showed up) and give the fans more of what they came to see in the first place.
Enjoying a full-field of machines, unfortunately five of them did not make a qualification attempt, reinforcing my opinion that this series needs a slight upgrade in both teams and equipment. And, despite a mid-day deluge that made the one-mile oval damper than normal, Brady Bacon’s quick lap of 34.396 was over three seconds slower than Johnny Parsons, Jr.’s 1995 record. Throwing rooster tails as he attacked the upper lane, Bacon’s lap was visually spectacular, wishing that the corners contained more clay than sand.
My reason for such minor complaints has everything to do with my memories of what this race once was. Even so, this 2016 version was quite good, as the top-five raced in tight formation for most of the affair. With five official lead changes, outside overtaking was plentiful, entertained by performances from Jerry Coons (who led 32 laps in Gene Nolen’s new Maxim), Bacon (who led 25 laps in the Martens Machine Maxim before an untimely DNF in the final third), Shane Cottle (who led 9 laps in the Curtis Williams Maxim), Bryan Clauson (in the hunt for the entire grind in the Bob East/Terry Klatt entry) and Justin Grant (who ran the high line up to 3rd but slowed with 14 to go in Chris Carli’s DRC).
But, like a cat playing with a mouse, Kody Swanson bided his time and patiently picked off car after car in the middle stages, eventually finding his way to first by lap 67, just as he did in the 2015 and 2014 version. Joining Jimmy Bryan (1954-1956) and Al Unser (1970-1973) to become the third man to win this race three years in a row, Swanson can tie Big Al next year if he scores yet again. Given that he’ll probably be back in the Bob Hampshire wrenched DePalma 63 Maxim, it’s nearly a safe bet, as Hamp is indeed the Karl Kinser of champ dirt car racing.
With feature action coming to a close at 10:16 PM, the hundred miler was interrupted by two red flags for flips by series veterans Russ Gamester and Jeff Swindell. A 1991 and 1993 winner, Swindell’s effort was noteworthy as he was piloting a Mark Swanson owned Maxim/Toyota guided by team manager and three-time Hoosier Hundred winner Jack Hewitt. Arriving with only 15 minutes of practice left and having his sixth-best qualification lap disallowed due to an improper tire compound on the right rear (they mistakenly used a sprint car medium Hoosier), it was still great to see what I consider a big name driver in the field. To make me feel that the series is completely back, I’d like to see more of these big names, both new and old, participating.
The evening hours of Friday May 27th were spent in Bloomington for the unsanctioned Josh Burton Memorial, where an excellent field of 28 sprinters battled for their share of an increased purse paying $3,004 to the winner and $404 to anyone who could crack the A. Mods, streets, and Racesavers all raced for extra dough as well, as the speedway and Burton family went out of their way to pay homage to the life that was lost here three years ago. With Dave Darland, Robert Ballou, Chad Boespflug (back in the Hazen 57 for the weekend), Kyle Cummins, Thomas Meseraull, and New Mexico’s Josh Hodges in the house, hopes were high for a fantastic feature. Extensive pre-race festivities had me fired up but unfortunately too many classes of cars on a much drier than normal surface took its toll on the quality of racing, as smooth/slick heat race conditions and the slight scent of rubber served as a stark contrast to two weeks prior when it was old-school heavy. Dirt track racing is hardly predictable and such low-key evenings are always a possibility, but this does not deter me from giving Bloomington Speedway another shot, as my passion for this piece of real estate will always burn brightly.
Featuring a front row of Boespflug and Jordan Kinser (Hurst 70), it only took three corners for Brady Short to shoot from third to first. Early on, Jon Stanbrough maneuvered the middle to whisk the Wingo 77 from tenth to third, but in just a few laps the bottom had completely rubbered-up and rendered the quarter-mile a one lane affair. Rather than tear tires, fourth-starting Robert Ballou pulled off early. Short had a half-track advantage on Kinser at the 10:35 PM checkered flag, securing his third Bloomington bounty of the season. Stanbrough maintained third while Meseraull and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top-five.
A rather rare double of Bonge’s Tavern and the Little 500 awaited on Saturday, bringing Bryce Townsend and his Speed Sport Tours group to the destination eatery for the first time. Way back in February, I made a 4:30 PM reservation for a party of 24 and thankfully the experience was a huge hit, as tour members still raved about the food, fun and atmosphere three weeks later. A chef in her own right, visitor Erin Tripp (yes, wife to Sleepy) even had positive things to say, which speaks volumes in itself. So pleased that the group enjoyed their visit to one of my favorite places in the entire world, although I once again ate far too much, it was indeed an awesome way to kick off one of my favorite evenings of the entire year. A huge thank you is extended to Bonge’s owner/chef Tony Huelster and greeter/coordinator Angie Fine for making this glowing memory a reality.
Off to Anderson where light rain showers were skirting the speedway, the slight drizzle attempted to spoil the start but a huge rainbow over turns three and four gave hope that things would work out in the end. Slowed by one red flag for an odd backstretch crash that rearranged concrete barriers protecting the pit area, the entire event was completed by 10:58 PM.
Always a race of what-ifs, the rabbit rarely wins, as the smooth and steady approach of 9-time champ Eric Gordon offers plenty of proof. Eric (as spotter) and his former tire expert Sam Brooks assisted two-time winner Jacob Wilson, but Jacob fell victim to that lone red flag, eliminated along with Donnie Adams, Jr. as the two were trying to avoid a spinning Travis Welpott. IRP Silver Crown winner Tanner Swanson was first out in Brad Armstrong’s 99, but could he have been a factor at the finish? 2008 winner Shane Cottle is always fast at Anderson, but a flat right rear tire on lap 44 put him behind the eight ball. After crashing into a spun Tom Paterson in practice prior to qualifying, Shane’s Contos Beat required serious chassis repairs from Thursday to Friday, just lucky to put it into the show. Defending winner Chris Windom was inside of the top-five car and could have been a contender if not for losing his right front wheel and smacking the turn one wall around lap 152. Wheeling an ex-Chet Fillip ride now owned by Randy Burrow, Billy Wease could have been on that leaderboard as well, operating in second when he was unable to avoid a crashed Ryan Litt.
After leading a large chunk of the race and on his own lap for a little while, around lap 450 Bobby Santos III began running out of fuel and needed fresh rubber, thus requiring the punting of Doug Dietsch to force a yellow flag for his pit stop. Word had it that Santos didn’t get enough fuel on his first stop.
And how about the fate of pole sitter Caleb Armstrong? Seemingly in the catbird seat to collect his first win, he recaptured the top spot after the final Santos pit stop. Armstrong’s subsequent duel through traffic with Kody Swanson (Hoffman 69) with less than thirty to go was intense, so much that Caleb’s contact with a lapped car in turn four broke something in the front end. Little 500 luck says that you must lose one before winning one.
Swanson was able to hold off a hard-charging Dave Steele to claim the huge win, the first time the race has been won by a Californian and the first time that the Hoffmans have found victory lane. Beneficiary of Armstrong’s issue, Swanson was fortunate when he looped a 360 in turn four on lap 379, causing the caution that actually allowed him to make his final pit stop.
At the end of 500 circuits, the turn two scoreboard showed Swanson, Steele, Jerry Coons, Jr. (Nolen 3), Kyle Hamilton (Klatt 51), and Santos (DJ Racing 22), with the lead trio operating on the same lap. Perhaps the biggest surprise was sub-par performance of Aaron Pierce, who encountered what appeared to be fuel pickup problems mid-race and settled for tenth, some six laps in arrears. But getting back to Kody Swanson, he's building quite the resume, especially on this Memorial Day weekend after impressively collecting the Hoosier Hundred, Little 500, and Sunday’s Fremont, Ohio BOSS feature. His only blemish was a runner-up showing to his younger brother on Friday at IRP.
Still too many cars on too small of a track racing too many laps, the sheer chaos that ensues is what continues to makes the Little 500 so attractive, so addictive, and so much fun.
On the road the next morning by 7 AM for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, after parking at 38th and Georgetown and walking the requisite 1.3 miles, we were up in our seats by 8:25, easily in time for all of the festivities that again, brought tears to my eyes and goose bumps on my arms. Doing the same Sunday double as Bryan Clauson, naturally I would have liked to have witnessed a better showing for Bryan than 23rd place, but it was vitally important for him to finish in his third attempt. And finish he did, even leading three laps under a mid-race caution. Proud of his persistence as the month-long search for speed, comfort, and confidence kept him incident-free, I was even more proud of what he was willing to attempt on Sunday evening.
As for the 500 outcome, for those complaining about a fuel-mileage finish, lest they forget that the 2011 conclusion came down to the same scenario with J.R. Hildebrand finding himself in the lead thanks to the same strategy as 2016 winner Alexander Rossi. The only difference was Rossi didn’t stuff his car into the turn four fence on the final lap. Everyone wants to win the biggest race in the world, so how can you fault them for having the guts to go for it? Not every race can end in a shootout, happy that Indycar officials did not influence the outcome like NASCAR, which surely would have thrown a caution at some point in those final ten laps. Interesting that Dan Wheldon was the beneficiary of Hildebrand’s error in 2011 (the 100th anniversary) for the same Bryan Herta-owned number 98 backed by Curb-Agajanian. In yet another surprise ending, Herta’s number 98, again backed by Curb-Agajanian, won the 100th running. Is that a little too much symmetry for you?
As for Sunday night, my nephew and I passed a handful of the Clauson tour buses while northbound on U.S. 31. Already with a sizeable crowd on hand, the five bus loads were somehow squeezed into Kokomo Speedway’s main grandstand, giving the evening a distinctively special aura. With competition for cars and drivers coming from Haubstadt ($2,500 to win) and Fremont ($5K to win), Kokomo regulars like Dave Darland and Shane Cottle were over in Fremont, as were Robert Ballou and Brady Bacon. This being the Kokomo Klassic, 22 cars competed for the $2,000 top prize, with special appearances from Carson Macedo (who lost an A-main left front wheel in the Stuebgen 71), Justin Grant (Phillips 71P), and C.J. Leary.
Offering three heats but no B-main, Chad Boespflug (Stensland 41) and Bryan Clauson drew front row seats for the thirty lap finale after finishing inside of the top-two during their heats. Boespflug managed to fend off Clauson’s advances for ten laps, but a successful diamond of corners three and four propelled BC to P1. With Bryan flying high through traffic, five laps later his advantage was erased as the Baldwin Brothers five of Chris Windom came calling. Chasing the tail of the Dooling/Hayward Spike the rest of the way, Big Daddy could not get close enough to make a move, as the rest of the top-five contained Thomas, Hodges, and Andretti at the 10:21 PM conclusion. Leary, Jarrett, Boepflug (one lap down), Coons, and Grant scored sixth through tenth.
With the humongous throng reveling in the storybook conclusion, it was truly a big deal, so appreciative of the bridge that Bryan has built between the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and short tracks like Kokomo Speedway. Writing about this three weeks after the fact, I can’t help but smile as his feat was exactly the same as I had dreamed up when I was a wannabe racer sitting in high school class back in the late ‘80s.
After my much-needed Memorial Day diversion, Indiana Midget Week was the next item to attack on my insane two and a half week agenda. Defying the logic of normal, everyday folk, there was absolutely no rest for the already weary. Thankfully able to leave work an hour earlier on Tuesday and Wednesday to avoid north side I-69 gridlock, on Thursday and Friday I left shortly after 5 PM and still managed to make it in time for the end of hot laps despite such unsavory suicide missions through rush hour traffic. Friday's feat was a minor miracle, choosing State Road 67 all the way to Paragon Road, thus bypassing the frustrating backups for 37 construction just past Martinsville.
Hitting all six stops and still making it into work by 8 AM certainly felt like a tall task as I perused Montpelier’s jammed pit area on Tuesday, finding 45 midgets, 25 sprints, and 27 modifieds. Much to my shock and amazement, all venues except for Gas City offered a third class of competition. Stepping up onto my soapbox, I can never understand the logic, especially when there are two classes that require push starts and one that contains single car qualifying. Adding one more unrelated class is an absolute back-breaker in terms of time, as delays are common in these sprint/midget doubleheaders (flips, track re-works, or even worse, rain). Back in the day, double-duty for sprint and midget chauffeurs was quite common, so much that this third class could give those competitors a chance to wipe their brow, take a swig of water, and apply tear-offs. Not to say that those days are completely over, as Gas City had seven men/women doing the deed while Montpelier had six, but the remainder of the shows did not see much doubling up, sometimes as few as one. With midget counts of 45, 45, 43, 40, and 33 and sprint counts of 25, 27, 32, 28, and 27, these were already full programs. Indiana Midget Week is a premier attraction for the fans, wishing that the operators/promoters would give it the same respect and courtesy as Indiana Sprint Week. Let's face the facts here - people come from all ends of the globe for sprints and midgets, not modifieds or stock cars.
Trying to cram too much racing into one evening has always been the Midget Week mantra but with the majority of dates being mid-week, it’s definitely far from working-class friendly as my exit times (post sprint car feature) were 11:45, 10:28, 12:05, 10:53, and 10:52. Three of the five were completely respectable, the other two, not so much. All except Kokomo required an 80 to 90 minute drive home, which generally meant getting into bed somewhere in the range of midnight to 1:45. Call me grumpy, but maybe I’m getting too old for this stuff? But, given that midget racing of this magnitude is so rare, even though my ass was dragging, I just had to be there.
While maneuvering that muggy Montpelier pit area, I was thoroughly amazed by the assembly of eight omnipotent Bullet/Toyotas belonging to Columbus midget maestro Keith Kunz. Already campaigning Tanner Thorson, Spencer Bayston, Carson Macedo, Ryan Robinson, and Holly Shelton on a regular basis, Keith added the ridiculously talented triumvirate of Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, and Rico Abreu for selected Midget Week shows. Larson was the premier attraction at Montpelier and Gas City, but NASCAR truck regulars Bell and Abreu were actually available for all six, although Chris chose to skip Lincoln Park. Unsure of how Keith and his scant crew of Big Al Scroggins, Pete Willoughby, and Chuck Gurney, Jr. kept track of setups for all cars let alone handled the strict maintenance requirements (Speedway Engines employee Chris Tramel was on-hand to assist), the organization and detail required to pull this off was truly awe-inspiring. Never in my time of attending races have I ever witnessed a larger effort in one evening, but I do recall writing about the seven car midget assault of Parker City's Lew Morgan in the late 1940s immediately before the Offenhauser engine revolution.
All eight of the Kunz cars made Tuesday’s feature, seven of eight started Wednesday (thanks to one provisional), all six took part in Thursday’s A, six of seven fired off in Friday’s feature, while all seven made Kokomo’s finale. Only Carson Macedo (Gas City) and Ryan Robinson (Bloomington) missed out on A-mains.
With that kind of talent holding steering wheels and wrenches, was I surprised that Kunz cars swept all five Midget Week main events with five different drivers? Absolutely not. Keith is absolutely dialed in on setups, he's got great horsepower, and he has some serious studs standing on the gas. Larson (Montpelier), Bayston (bagging his first USAC score at Gas City), Thorson (exorcising his Lincoln Park demons of last year), Bell (Bloomington), and Abreu (Kokomo) took home the hardware, but an even more impressive stat is that KKM cars led 122 of 150 feature laps, with their perfect week spoiled by Dave Darland (leading the first six at Bloomington in the Gray 11) and Chad Boat (pacing the first 21 at Kokomo in the Tucker-Boat 84). Out of his group, Bell (twice) and Abreu (twice) were quick qualifiers, with Brady Bacon offering the only chart-topping interlude at Lincoln Park. Clauson, Tyler Thomas, Darland, and Boat were the lone four who interrupted an absolute KKM Indiana Midget Week podium sweep.
But, aside from Bryan Clauson (Rusty Kunz), Brady Bacon (FMR Beast/Toyota wrenched by Bob East), Shane Golobic (led by Tim Clauson), Chad Boat, Zach Daum, Jerry Coons, Jr. (Hmiel 56), and Tyler Thomas, who was left to keep the Kunz brigade honest? Once again, let's face the facts here: this might have been one of the weaker Midget Week fields in recent years, but truthfully not much has changed in the midget racing landscape of the last several seasons. With no Steve Lewis, no RFMS, no RW Motorsports, no Wilke-PAK, no Klatt Motorsports, no KKR, and no TSR – except for Kunz the days of the midget super squads are long gone. To expect tiny mom and pop teams to slay the proverbial Goliath, tell me, how is that ever going to happen? Exciting drivers sadly missing for 2016 included Pennsylvania's Alex Bright and Auckland, New Zealand's Michael Pickens. In fact, not one racer from the Kiwi contingent competed, although Australia was represented by Jimi Quin (assisted by Anderson's Marc Girard) and Dayne Kingshott. Bringing Oklahoma’s Harli White to Indiana for the first time (doubling in midgets and sprints), Anthony Nocella (Seymour 29), hauled from Massachusetts. Additional odd Midget Week sightings included owners Kenny Irwin, Sr. (with Justin Peck) and Kenny Baldwin (offering an ex-Tracy Hines Spike powered by Ford for Chris Windom).
By the end of this Midget Week madness, it’s tough to beat supreme talent, experience and consistency, which was best exemplified by Bryan Clauson's feature finishes of second, second, second, third, and sixth. Having to swap cars after Bloomington heat race engine issues with his Stanton Mopar SR-11, Clauson came from the back of the B to easily secure a feature transfer. That performance alone showed what this young man is made of, a key moment in collecting his third Indiana Midget Week title. The hottest and most versatile open wheel driver in the world, Clauson maintained his white-hot status in his familiar Spike sprint car after finding victory lane in four of the five features. Perfection was prevented at Bloomington, where Kevin Thomas, Jr. ripped the lip to snap BC’s four race win streak after Bryan could only advance from 8th to 6th. So smooth and always in control, I still cannot fathom how some big-league team down south wouldn't want to take their chances with Clauson.
Unfortunately Mother Nature nixed what has consistently been one of the most exciting Midget Week stops (Lawrenceburg), but as expected the other five shows were nothing to sneeze at. Naturally Montpelier’s USAC midget union was a first for the Speedway, Indiana organization, so my own expectations were kept in check all the way up to feature time. I will admit to being frustrated by the mere presence of modifieds, as my concern for arriving home late was only compounded by the untimely half hour-plus rain delay during sprint heats. But, when expectations start out so low, that’s also a golden opportunity for a very memorable evening. And, after tilling the top shelf just before the midget main, a nice, chunky cushion helps as well.
The Montpelier box score may have only shown three official lead changes between pole sitter and eventual winner Kyle Larson and Tanner Thorson (leader of 24 laps), but their own battle took place over three separate stages of the thirty lapper. Two of the three intervals featured far too many slide jobs and crossovers to count and because of those bombs, Bryan Clauson was also in the mix, serving his share of sliders for second and first before a big-time “Rock Hudson” from Thorson sent him from first to fourth, ultimately settling for runner-up status. After his involvement in a first lap caution, Christopher Bell recovered to take the final podium placement. A last turn, last lap altercation prevented teammates Thorson, Macedo, and Robinson from crossing the finish line, promoting Jerry Coons, Jr. (from 14th) and Brady Bacon to top-five status. Due to my unfortunate vantage point from a fourth row bleacher seat and my first night to attempt to differentiate between similarly numbered and adorned KKM cars that were slicing and dicing in the same pack, it was virtually impossible to take notes and still follow the race. However, it was indeed a mouth-watering/breathtaking contest, about as good as it gets. Was this the race of the week? It would certainly have my vote, but Lincoln Park’s feature was a thrill a minute as well, especially if you are a fan of ruthless slide jobs.
Gas City’s midget main was all Spencer Bayston, leading the entire distance from the pole to produce his first-ever USAC feature victory. No easy stroll down Broadway, Spencer successfully held off the best of the best, as he was closely trailed by his mentor Clauson, who had his hands full with Kyle Larson. A Reece O’Connor pre-feature massaging of the quarter-mile’s dark dirt made it a fast and furious affair around the middle and bottom lanes, interrupted once for a flipping Chase Johnson (Wood 17) and another for a Tanner Thorson stoppage. Zach Daum and 11th-starting Christopher Bell found fourth and fifth.
Greeted by the familiar face of Putnamville’s long-time pit shack boss Jack McCullough on Thursday, I decided to catch the end of midget hot laps in the pit grandstand, which is exactly where I found Toledo, Ohio’s John Nolan. Earlier in the afternoon at the driver’s meeting, USAC’s Levi Jones awarded a plaque to John, commemorating his 2,000th USAC race attended. Turning 78 years young the following Sunday in Kokomo, Nolan’s first USAC event came with the 1956 Indianapolis 500, with Milwaukee champ cars his first USAC contest outside of Indy. Citing the Springfield Silver Crown show as his favorite event of this day and age, it is doubtful that there will ever be anyone as loyal as John, who refuses to see any other type of sprint, midget or champ car race unless it is sanctioned by the United States Auto Club. Kind of like his million-mile 1967 Volvo 1800 S coupe that was used to travel to the majority of these events, they also don’t make race fans quite like they used to.
Extremely arid conditions plagued Putnamville, so much that an extensive rework was ordered after the midget C. Despite the absence of moisture, a huge curb developed and the racing was actually decent, impressed by a Zach Daum heat race haul from 11th to 4th. Joined for the heats by former RFMS and Steve Lewis team leader Glenn Martin, Glenn said that he was headed back to his homeland in New Zealand to live for the first time in 16 years. After a Tony DiMattia flip in the midget B, Chad Boat bagged one of the top six spots, going C to B to A.
Much like Montpelier, the LPS midget main was chock full of flavor but if you read the box score, you’d have no clue. Filled with six cautions and one red (Shane Golobic), Northern California newbie Ryan Robinson led his first USAC laps after propelling from the pole and pacing the first thirteen tours. Tanner Thorson took over from there and led the rest of the way, but as I said, the stats don’t come close to telling the story.
After a dozen laps were recorded, fifth-starting Thorson had reached Robinson and the two engaged in a brief joust just as their teammate Bayston tried to go from fifth to third by launching a massive two-car bomb. Just past the halfway mark, another KKM counterpart Rico Abreu had been pulling the pin on a few hand grenades of his own, bombarding Bryan Clauson with a bold move that sent Clauson over the edge in two. Rico was soon up to second, throwing Thorson a slider in three after Tanner had trouble in two. Unfortunately, one of those six cautions flew at the wrong time, ordering the Little Giant back to third. Always relentless in his pursuit of P1, another Abreu annexation of first was denied by yet another amber illumination. Once green, Rico and Tanner would swap first in a classic slip-and-slide, dip-and-dive maneuver. However, T-squared would keep the spot and with BC back in the battle, he returned the favor to Rico with a serious slider in four and an even more cutthroat overtaking in two that sent Abreu over the bank. Trying to get it all back through three, Rico completely blew the cushion and fell to fifth. Although Clauson pulled even with Thorson at the end, it wasn’t enough to derail the KKM freight train. Tanner and Bryan were trailed by Tyler Thomas (from 10th), Abreu (from 12th), and Bayston.
Bloomington’s beautiful red-orange clay was groomed to perfection on Friday, as for the second time this week (Montpelier was the other) Christopher Bell set a new one lap record in qualifications (11.301 seconds), both times coming at the very end of the order. With rain in the area, USAC and Bloomington beat the odds and served up an extremely efficient show, as the midget main was ready to take the green by 9:55 PM. On that lightning quick surface that flung clay into the grandstand, five of the top six qualifiers failed to transfer through their heat, which included third-best Ryan Robinson who biked into the biggest flip of the week over the turns one and two banking. Suffering from a misfiring Mopar in his heat, Clauson’s B-main surge from 18th to 5th was the most entertaining drive of the night.
Beginning 11th-fastest Dave Darland and Shane Golobic from the front row of Friday’s finale, the surface was still in sterling shape. Not only was a healthy cushion still standing around the perimeter, but generous strips of moisture existed around the infield tires, enough to fit a full midget. Nearly everyone except Clauson played huggy pole in the latter stages, which included a hungry Darland and eventual winner Bell. Dave hustled his Gray Auto Spike/Esslinger for the entire thirty lap distance, unable to keep seventh-starting Christopher behind him as the NASCAR truck series regular used all lanes to move himself into contention early. Bell swept around the outside of Darland exiting the fourth corner on lap 7 and would never be headed. The best race was for second between Darland and Clauson, as Bryan had the spot twice, one of the passes nullified by the fourth and final caution. After Bell, Darland, and Clauson, Bloomington’s top-five also contained Golobic and Spencer Bayston.
Moving to the Kokomo finale after Lawrenceburg’s washout, all-day Saturday storms and Sunday mid-day showers left a soft and saturated surface filled with character. Thankfully, the event was still a go, as this has become one of my most anticipated evenings of all season.
Sunday’s story was without question Rico Abreu. Although he was a contender to win at Lincoln Park, he was definitely showing some midget rust by virtue of his most recent feature finishes of 14th, 6th, 4th, and 10th. Owner of Kokomo’s one-lap record, he might have been three-tenths off his record in qualifying, but it was still good enough for number one. Battling a choppy surface in his heat, Abreu spun once on his own in turn four, body-slammed Dayne Kingshott with an inside dive in turn one, and nearly spun again in turns three and four. Still, he managed to escape his heat race with a feature transfer.
After the final sprint car heat was completed, the Kokomo staff ordered a complete surface smoothing, the end result certainly improved maneuverability come feature time. Chad Boat and Bryan Clauson occupied front row spots for the Midget Week conclusion and with Bryan only needing to finish the event to prevent Spencer Bayston from stealing the series crown, he played it conservative as Boat used the middle lane to move to first. One early caution (Tyler Nelson, Gage Walker, and Dave Darland) and one red (for a big-time Nelson tumble entering turn three) kept Bayston, Bell, and Abreu hot on Boat’s heels. With the top-four tight, Bayston would contest the lead for a brief moment before yet another red put the action on pause when Holly Shelton climbed the front stretch concrete and inverted, chucking her fuel cell all the way to the turn one pit entrance. Restarting Boat, Bayston, Bell, and Abreu with 13 to go, in one fell swoop Rico slid Bell through three and bounced off of Bayston in four, sending him to second. One final debris caution with ten to go set the stage for the winning move, as a turn three slider produced P1 for the two-time and defending Midget Week king on lap 22. Operating above the cushion in the last eight tours, Abreu successfully slayed Bayston, Boat, Bacon, and Bell, as Clauson’s sixth place finish was easily enough to secure his third Midget Week title over Bayston.
After shooting from ninth to fourth in his Montpelier midget heat, the 15 cars that Dave Darland eclipsed in Tuesday’s feature (22nd to 7th) was the most of Midget Week. Chris Windom’s 21st to 8th mauling at Montpelier earned honorable mention. Struggling to qualify well, Tyler Thomas dug deep to charge hard at Montpelier (20th to 10th) and Bloomington (21st to 9th). Other notable performances came from Steve Buckwalter (16th to 7th at LPS), Jerry Coons, Jr. (21st to 9th at LPS), Chad Boat (20th to 10th, also at LPS), and Carson Macedo (17th to 8th at Kokomo).
Sprint cars definitely played second fiddle during Indiana Midget Week, as they were generally left with less than desirable surfaces that failed to peg the excitement meter like the midgets. Bloomington’s sprint car battle for first was fantastic, as was Gas City and Kokomo. But overall, it was Bryan Clauson’s week to shine, his job made much easier when so many of USAC’s sprint car elite stayed away from these standard paying shows to prepare for Eastern Storm. Interesting to note was Dave Darland’s sprint car situation, finding work with Mike Gass for Putnamville and Bloomington after operating his usual Jeff Walker Maxim on Tuesday and Wednesday. Closing the week with Rick Pollock at Kokomo, they struggled mightily and failed to crack the feature lineup.
Beginning at Montpelier, Clauson cruised to an easy victory by leading all 25 laps from the pole. Josh Spencer started alongside Bryan and was set for one of his best showings in years until being forced to exit early. A great battle ensued for second, with Brady Bacon (own 99) beating Coons, Darland, and Boespflug (Stensland 41) to the finish. Scotty Weir was sixth in a second Goodnight 39, with Piqua, Ohio’s Travis Hery following the bottom to seventh.
At Gas City, Bacon led low from the pole as all eyes were glued to Clauson, who fired from fourth and nearly spun twice before falling into a steady rhythm. As surface grip began to disappear, Brady and Bryan soon battled wheel to wheel, Bacon high and Clauson low. Bacon’s dip to the bottom of three had the two connecting, sending Brady into a 360 degree revolution that allowed Bryan to escape with a full-straightaway advantage at the 25-lap conclusion. Again in the Goodnight 39, Scotty Weir scored second. Darland drove to third from ninth while Bacon settled for fourth. Waynesfield regular Kyle Simon had a nice drive from 13th to 5th, making a rare start outside of Ohio.
Forced to sit through a super stock feature before the sprint cars concluded at Lincoln Park, the front row consisted of April 23rd winner Shane Cockrum and Bryan Clauson and although Cockrum drew first blood, it would be Clauson who would snatch the lead off the bottom of the slicked off surface. Fourth-starting Kevin Thomas, Jr. kept things close but blasted the turn two cushion with two laps left, handing yet another victory to the Bullet, number 17 on his circular insanity tour of 2016. Cockrum collected third with Boespflug fourth and once again, Kyle Simon fifth (from 16th).
The big question at Bloomington was if Clauson could sweep the sprint car portion of Midget Week. After winning his heat race, his feature redraw of eighth would be a true test as the front row contained May 13th winner Nick Bilbee and KTJ. Offering a second row of Darland and Short, Thomas took advantage of that outside start, leaning on the substantial cushion that thankfully still existed. Slightly tight up top, Kevin crushed that cushion on many occasions and with lappers coming into play, that allowed three-time 2016 Bloomington winner Short to close the gap. With Thomas’s high road blocked, so was Short’s, but ultimately it was Kevin’s bolder moves through thick traffic that took him to victory lane for the fifth time with team owner Jeremy Ottinger. In the entertaining all-green flag affair, Jeff Bland, Jr. stole second from Short while Shane Cottle (from 9th) and Darland filled out the top-five. Clauson could surprisingly do no better than sixth, silencing his four-race sprint car win streak.
After finishing second in two of three Kokomo sprint car heats, Colten Cottle and Bryan Clauson found themselves on the front row of Sunday’s Midget Week sprint finale. Cottle, Thomas, and Clauson were in close proximity early and the hot battle between Colten and Kevin saw KTJ slide the Ron Lambertson chauffeur through turn four, only to be successfully crossed upon exit. Although Thomas exceeded the cushion on the other end, a great run down the back chute sent him to turn three with a huge head of steam. A low side lunge had his right rear meeting with Cottle at the exit of four, shoving the Flying Illini into the outside concrete and allowing Clauson to escape with not only the lead, but the win as well. Taking his fourth sprint car feature of Midget Week, Clauson defeated Thomas, Tyler Courtney, Bacon (Paul 24), and Tyler Hewitt.
As I put the finishing touches on this lengthy synopsis, it seems like it has been ages since I was in Terre Haute to begin this crazy adventure of far too many races in far too few of days. Following nearly every racing step of Bryce Townsend’s Speed Sport Tour that included Indy 500 week and Indiana Midget Week, it too contained POWRi’s Illinois Speed Week. From my perspective, there can never be too much time spent with Bryce and his bunch, joining them once again in Macon, Illinois for one final evening of midget mayhem. So envious of all the racing and touristy stops that Townsend takes them to, yes, it is always a goal to get down to New Zealand so that he can show me around his homeland, but I’d love nothing more than to be a member of his United States tours, as he manages to squeeze as much enjoyment out of one day as is humanly possible.
Beginning with a group of 19 for the 500, Townsend offers the flexibility of picking and choosing which segments of the tour one would prefer to attend, as Graeme Drummond, Marcel Facoory, and Andy Gray left after the Indy 500. Bryce’s wife Jenny (post-Bloomington), John Cardwell, Tim Malone, Pat Brosnan, Ross Karlsson, Nicole Waugh, and the voice of New Zealand midget racing Aaron Drever exited after Indiana Midget Week, with John, Nicole, and Aaron heading off to additional adventures elsewhere. Long-time tour member Alf Bidois arrived after Indy for Indiana and Illinois Midget Weeks while many hearty souls absorbed the entire three week tour, which happened to include long-time guide and fellow chauffeur Dean Mulholland, Sharron and Owen Larsen, Lee Williams, Murry and Ngaire Worboys, Barbara Lawler (the first time for an Aussie to take part in a BT tour), and Dick Webb. Erin Tripp enjoyed a few days in the early part of the tour, as Bonge’s Tavern, the Little 500, and Indy 500 were new experiences for the majority. While reflecting at Macon, Townsend believed that Lawrenceburg’s World of Outlaws and Montpelier’s midget meetings offered the most exciting racing, with Bonge’s serving the best food. Truly the trip of a lifetime, too much racing and too much enjoyment are words you’d never hear spoken by any of them.
As for that coveted Kiwi Tour Sweepstakes championship that has played a vital part of Indiana Midget Week for Townsend’s tours, it was a tight battle to the end. Going into the Kokomo finale, ten people had a mathematical shot of having their nameplate attached to the famous Aaron Fike nosepiece. Owen Larsen ended up collecting $220 for winning two of the five nights, with Dean Mulholland ($110), Aaron Drever ($110), and Lee Williams (also earning $220 after Lawrenceburg’s money was rolled over to Kokomo) taking the other three. Although Larsen held the lead, I sat in second, unfortunately drawing poorly for that final round (grid 19). But, one by one, each one of the other contenders’ drivers had issues, as 19th starter Dayne Kingshott took 12th and allowed me to secure my third championship with a narrow five point margin over Dick Webb and Larsen. Feeling slightly guilty for winning as I keep track of Sweepstakes points, although there is no money attached to the title, it is still so much fun to be a part of.
Sporadically taking in racing contests at Lincoln Park (WoO), Macon (POWRi), Paragon (Chuck Amati Classic), and Kokomo in the two weeks that followed, coupled with work stress of closing May’s books, by June 19th I was still feeling the fatiguing effects of this intense concentration of automotive action that took place in late May/early June. However, when attempting to summarize its content I always manage to look back with an extreme amount of fondness, wishing that I had the chance to do it all over again. So, if I were questioned at this moment in time if one could ever have enough of a good thing, despite my weariness my answer would easily be no, as you only live once. To steal Wade Garrett’s (Sam Elliott) line from the movie Road House, “Doc, I can get all the sleep I need when I die.”
Volume 18, Number 4
The Thrill of Victory
While readying for a usual Sunday afternoon stroll up U.S. 31 to Kokomo, I flipped on the tube and managed to catch some of ABC’s coverage of qualifications leading up to the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. Listening to color commentators Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear offer their insight and attempt to prove one another wrong, for some odd reason my immediate thought focused on the telecast itself, unable to remember any other network owning the rights for this event since I have been alive. Back in the early to mid-1980s when my auto racing interest grew exponentially, ABC didn’t cover much motorsports and it often showed in some clumsy productions, irritated but sometimes amused by the warring words of co-color commentators Bobby Unser and Sam Posey.
However critical I became of their coverage, I completely missed the days when ABC actually offered some unique action on their long-running (1961 to 1998) Saturday afternoon Wild World of Sports program. Several times, they featured USAC sprint cars from Eldora and Terre Haute, odd that big-time talent like Al Michaels or Keith Jackson would be willing to get their signature yellow ABC blazers coated in dust from an afternoon affair. Even if it has been decades since I last caught Jim McKay’s famous introduction, I can still hear the words from that signature introduction like it was yesterday: “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport…the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…the human drama of athletic competition. This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports!”
The thrill of victory (as Mario Andretti holds up a huge silver trophy) and the agony of defeat (as a ski jumper crashes off the ramp) – that phrase has been etched into the fabric of society, always appropriate to revisit when attending the world’s most important automobile contest, not to mention all of the significant open wheel activity that surrounds it. Pleasing so few and disappointing so many, there can only be one winner in auto racing. But that thrill of victory - naturally that is why these guys are so passionate about putting so much time and effort into the dusty, dirty, dangerous, and ridiculously expensive world of short track, open wheel competition.
Enjoying a decent amount of success on the local Indiana bullring scene as he became a journeyman driver jumping from car to car, the elusive thrill of a USAC victory is one reason why Scotty Weir has continued to do battle for 13 seasons, finally finding his pot of gold at Gas City I-69 Speedway on Friday, May 20th. Offering the truest definition of persistence, Scotty patiently bided his time on the bottom groove of a slicked-off surface and waited for a mistake from the leader, pouncing at just the right moment. That thrill of victory is why Kevin Thomas, Jr. abandoned, at least for now, his visions of becoming the next stock car idol by teaming with Jeremy Ottinger to have some fun, which is exactly what they've been doing as in an eight day span, they took three of four feature wins (Kokomo, Brownstown, and Kokomo) and charged from 14th to 3rd in the other contest (Gas City).
But that agony of defeat - it simply comes with the territory, as you can't win them all, nor less a majority in an 80 to 100 race grind that typifies a season for full-time racers like Brady Bacon, the 2014 USAC sprint car champ who had to settle for an unsavory second place at Gas City after leading 24 of 30 laps. Losing the lead with two to go after encountering difficulty while lapping Dallas Hewitt, it had to be a bitter pill to swallow. Beginning eighth at Brownstown the next evening, again Brady was second-best to Kevin Thomas, Jr. (his third USAC runner-up in a row), coming on strong but simply running out of time. And speaking of an agonizing defeat, how about Shane Cottle's sudden surprise when KTJ cleaned off Kokomo concrete with three laps remaining in the scintillating 25-lap feature on Sunday May 22nd? Taking the lead and putting together two solid laps around the bottom, Cottle's final corner wheel stand ultimately cost him, unable to fend off a top-side surge from Thomas. A fantastic finish if you are a fan, but if you're the driver scoring second, not so much.
Iffy Friday weather restricted a normally overflowing Gas City crowd, still under O'Connor family operation as this was their first time to swing open the gates in 2016. Spitting rain through qualifications and the feature, the show was moved forward in an expedient manner, taking the checkered at 9:14 PM which wound up being just in the nick of time, as rain showers became much more steady afterwards. Highly pleased to see one of the underdogs finally break through for his long-awaited initial USAC victory, I couldn't help but feel Scotty's same thrill of victory due to the simple fact that the show was actually completed! Saturday Brownstown and Sunday Kokomo weather were picture-perfect, incredibly overjoyed by Sunday's mouth-watering feature action and 8:57 PM checkered flag (even with one red flag). Yes, Sunday night Kokomo regular contests continue to offer some of the most thrilling racing in the world, with this particular installment maintaining such a bold stance. If you haven't attended a sprint car contest in Kokomo by now, what are you waiting for? Get your ass to Kokomo - pronto!
The field of 40 Gas City USAC machines turning out for this "May Meltdown" was the largest thus far in the 2016 campaign, containing all the usual contenders with added attendance bonuses from Colten Cottle (timing fifth-quick in Ron Lambertson's DRC/Kercher), Justin Grant (moving to Tony Epperson's Spike), and former midget maestro Mario "Speedwagon" Clouser. Still missing, however, were big-time southern Indiana suspects like Brady Short and Jeff Bland, Jr. Coming out ten cars from the end of the qualifying line, Thomas Meseraull's 11.720 second lap in the Marion Underground/Amati Racing DRC/Dynotech topped the charts, joined in the quick-six club by Robert Ballou, Chase Stockon, Kyle Cummins, the younger Cottle, and Brady Bacon. Eventual winner Weir was seventh in the Todd Keen DRC/Claxton but benefited with a feature pole position when Cummins failed to transfer from heat four.
Heat highlights were aplenty, enthused by late race charges from Colten Cottle (stealing fourth on the final lap from Max McGhee), Brady Bacon (who spun a 360 but swept past Chris Windom to collect fourth at the waving of the white), Scotty Weir (flashing past Jarett Andretti at the finish to finagle fourth), and Justin Grant (circling Jerry Coons, Jr. for the win through the final turn of the final lap of heat four). Heat lowlights had A.J. Hopkins hopping on the bike in turn three, unable to bring Roy Jackson's DRC back to earth without incurring end-of-evening damage from his ensuing tumble. Another unsavory incident came when Tony DiMattia tangled with Kyle Robbins, sending the New Castle native on his head for the second race in a row. The C and B-mains were run without incident, the latter containing yet another last turn, last lap pass for the win, this time by Dave Darland. Aaron Farney punched the final feature ticket by finally stepping upstairs to steal the sixth position from Muncie's Cole Ketcham.
Four-wide at 8:58 PM, Bacon led from his outside pole perch for the first 16 circuits, interrupted by one caution for a solitary spin by second place Chase Stockon and one red for Jon Stanbrough, who had surged from 16th to 7th before bouncing into a rare flip at the bottom of turn three. On the following restart, Bacon switched to the top lane and handed the lead baton to Weir, who was in front for laps 17 through 20. Brady built a respectable margin but with four to go, second place Scotty still managed to stay within sniffing distance. Weir's supreme patience and Gas City experience suddenly paid off when Bacon had issues lapping Dallas Hewitt. With his high side blocked, Brady chose the middle through three and killed momentum, finally sliding Hewitt through the east end. However, by that time Weir had launched perfectly off of the bottom of two and suddenly held the upper hand. Try as he may, Bacon could not overcome the momentary slip-up, handing the Marion, Indiana native his first series win in 115 starts. New point leader Bacon, Thomas (from 14th), Max McGhee (from 9th), and Tyler Courtney completed the top-five. Sixth through tenth were Colten Cottle, Cummins, C.J. Leary (from 13th), Windom, and Darland (from 17th).
A 2003 Montpelier and 2008 Kokomo sprint car track champion, while enjoying a beverage and receiving constant stream of congratulations from fans and fellow competitors, a beaming Scotty Weir had this to say afterwards: “I’ve been trying to do this since ’03 and I’ve been close. I can’t finish and I fu** it up or somebody else messes it up. It just never seems to work out my way. Today, unfortunately that was Brady’s bad. He got held up in lapped traffic and that let me win the race, about like the end of last year here.”
“I’ve probably got more laps than anybody here. This place, it’s always hard for a new guy to come in here and win. Like tonight, the race track almost starts off at track record pace and by the end of the night, the guy wins by running six miles an hour around the infield. You’ve just got to know what it does because the dirt changes so much.”
Comparing his USAC win to an end of 2015 season Gas City victory with the same Todd Keen 18, Weir added, “It was a lot the same. I told him (Todd) that when we figured out that we were on the pole, that it would probably be the same way. The bottom would get faster as the top got blown off. He kind of looked at me and agreed, so that’s what we went for. The first half of the race we were too tight. I couldn’t run it in straight enough to stay around the bottom. But at the end, as long as you can hit the last infield tire and catch the mud, it will always beat them down the front stretch.”
Asked what a USAC victory means after years and years of trying and attempting to find his place in the sprint car community, Scotty stated, “It finally means that I count. There’s a lot of guys that raced sprint cars that didn’t win a USAC race. At the end, you always figured that those guys count. There’s only about 30 of those races a year and the same guys win 2/3rds of them every year. It’s a pretty cool club to be in.”
Making a day of Saturday's Brownstown USAC stop, my nephew, along with our respective better halves, stopped in Nashville, Indiana to enjoy some fine food and beverage at Big Woods Brewery, which just opened a larger version of this same institution on Speedway's Main Street. Opting for an excellent Hare Trigger Double IPA along with an appetizer of smoked pork nachos and a James Beard award-winning burger, as expected everything was excellent, highly recommending a stop at any of the Big Woods outposts. Enjoying the 32 miles of twists and turns of 135 between Nashville and Brownstown, we even passed through the tiny town of Story, where the famed and haunted Story Inn serves as yet another destination eatery that I must one day sample.
Kevin Thomas, Jr. made a shambles of Saturday's green-to-checker feature, requiring only 7 minutes and just over 32 seconds to tour this southern Indiana quarter-mile thirty times, leading all thirty laps from his pole starting spot. In just the third USAC showing for 4J Motorsports since forming in late April, it was of course the first USAC win for owner Jeremy Ottinger while it became Kevin's first USAC conquest since February 2015, easily outdistancing Bacon, Darland, Meseraull, and new one-lap track record holder C.J. Leary. Brady Short, hard-charger Robert Ballou (15th to 7th after requiring a post-qualifying engine swap), Aaron Farney, Tyler Courtney, and Kyle Cummins (from 16th) scored sixth through tenth.
Not your father's dry-slick, stop and go Brownstown Speedway better suited to stock cars, big-time banking had been added to turns one and three. The track changes manufactured both speed and excitement, as so many cars ripped the lip thanks to the healthy cushion that existed all night long. Leary's one lap record of 12.899 came at the very end of the order, topping Dave Darland's early session standard of 12.994 and easily blowing away Brady Bacon's 14.305 USAC record from 2008, not to mention Max McGhee's mark of 13.407 from March of this year. Leary and Darland became the first to tour the Jackson County Fairgrounds in under 13 seconds, even eclipsing the new dirt late model record of 13.002. Undoubtedly the mark will dip even lower when the All Star Circuit of Champions pay a visit in August.
Blasting off from the pole after Leary failed to transfer from heat one, the win may have looked awfully easy for Kevin, but afterwards car owner Jeremy Ottinger noted how the team's Speedway Engine loaded up with fuel throughout the feature, so much that it was spitting out its oil overflow. Requiring some Sunday morning service by Speedway employee Chris Tramel, obviously the problem was remedied as evidenced by another Kokomo victory.
On to Kokomo the next day (May 22nd) for just a regular Sunday night soiree, come feature time there is nothing regular about this place as the action is absolutely off the charts. Under sunny skies and 77 degrees, 24 quality sprint cars contested this affair, with the warmer weather making it feel like the racing season was officially in full swing.
Offering three timed hot lap sessions to line up heats, Dave Darland’s 12.927 second lap was best of all. Heat races were hotly contested, especially for the top-two spots that served as feature redraws. Thomas (from 2nd), Coons (from 2nd), and Darland (from 4th) were winners, with Windom, Grant (Epperson 2), and Tyler Hewitt claiming the all-important second position. Piqua, Ohio’s Travis Hery made the cut from heat one but broke a piston and unfortunately had to scratch for the rest of the evening. Sunday night intensity was ratcheted up several notches after a last lap tangle in heat two that involved Jarett Andretti and C.J. Leary. Andretti hauled it into three and four and pushed up into Leary and although contact was made, both continued to the finish. Unfortunately, the incident escalated into on-track shoving and eventually a heated post-race discussion between the two young chargers. Reports varied as to what took place between the crews and of course the track police performed their due diligence. The bottom line is this: no matter if you are a fan, driver, or crew member, everyone seems to get amped up over a Kokomo contest - it just comes with the territory! While wandering the pits, I encountered Scotty Weir once again assisting Logan Jarrett while Jake Argo lent a hand to Jimmy Light.
After Hery’s scratch, a brief B-main moved six more to the A, won by South Dakota’s Bret Mellenberndt on what sounded like seven cylinders. Chad Boespflug (Stensland 41) overcame early night steering issues to take third. Flip victim Matt McDonald was only one of three to miss the finale.
Of course by now everyone knows that Kevin Thomas, Jr. scored his second consecutive Kokomo feature victory on Sunday, May 23rd but in retrospect, those 25 laps, like the Andretti/Leary incident, were truly something to get worked up over. Still amazed at how the fangs come out for these local features some 11 years after the O’Connors reconfigured the legendary Howard County oval, rarely do I ever leave without raving about what I witnessed. Exciting, breath-taking, and simply awesome, this is the epitome of sprint car competition.
You knew it was going to be a dandy when the leaders fanned three-wide for the entire first two laps, as Grant, Thomas, and Windom were after blood extremely early. Outside front row starter KTJ eventually procured P1 thanks to his high side momentum. Behind them, scooting from sixth to third was Dave Darland, as his backstretch sweep of Grant reaffirmed Kokomo confidence in Jeff Walker’s Maxim/Claxton. Fifth-starting Jerry Coons, Jr. found the bottom to his liking in Monte Edison’s Spike and sent Justin back one more position, but Grant had no reason for concern as second through fifth was one huge mob scene.
As those four men went at it tooth and nail for runner-up rights, Kevin constructed a decent lead in Jeremy Ottinger’s DRC. However, as the race wore on Thomas’s torrid pace took him into lapped traffic that by the halfway mark, had erased his enormous advantage. Windom was now breathing down his neck, with the heat was further intensified after a red flag for an untimely turn four meeting between Justin Grant and Jerry Coons, Jr., sending Grant upside down and out of the contest.
With 12 to go, Thomas, Windom, Darland, Coons, and Cottle had their numbers lit up on the turn three scoreboard, with the volume of intensity cranked full-blast for these next seven circuits. Kevin continued to lead, but Dave and Chris exchanged second three times in two tours. The People’s Champ overextended the cushion in three, allowing Big Daddy to loft a turn two bomb. Dave returned the favor in three, but Chris fired back on the front chute. Shane Cottle even joined the party, but Darland split Cottle and Windom with a spirited turn three lunge. By the second bend, a relentless Cottle got a big bite off the bottom and surged to second, still a long way to go to catch Thomas, however. Thanks to Jarett Andretti’s climbing of the concrete in turn two, the subsequent left rear peeling of rubber from rim caused caution with five laps remaining.
Reverting to the last scored lap, Darland sat second and attempted to influence the outcome by packing the cushion under caution. One more incident involving Boespflug, Jarrett, and Ketcham delayed the inevitable, as the final five laps would contain even more action. Fully expecting a Darland slider, Dave instead attempted to overtake through the moist middle. Unfortunately, the plan backfired when he promptly blew the cushion in two and fell to fourth. However, his packing of that cushion may have caused Thomas to clean off the wall between one and two with three to go, propelling the pilot of Paul Hazen’s 57 to first. Cottle stayed low and Thomas toured high in these final two laps. Although Shane continued to lead at the waving of the white flag, the two were even by the middle of the backstretch. The Throttle's wild wheel stand at turn four’s exit, coupled with a perfect outside sweep by KTJ awarded the win to the black 4J, by just a nose! WOW – what a finish and what a race! Seriously!
Closely trailing Kevin and Shane to the conclusion were Coons, Windom, and Darland. Leary, Brent Beauchamp, Tyler Hewitt, Light, and Josh Spencer were sixth through tenth. Yet another fun and fully-satisfying evening, one week later it’s hard not to be ecstatic after such an electrifying feature. With Sunday night Kokomo Klassic (Bryan Clauson Indy Double) and Midget Week dates approaching, I would encourage you to arrive early to obtain seats.
Feeling that elusive thrill of victory may be the ultimate reason why sprint car racers continue to risk life and limb and invest enormous sums of money and time in such a crazy quest for satisfaction. But, it’s also why we as fans religiously chase their tail tanks up and down Indiana highways, hoping to experience the highs of a rare weekend triple like the one I just enjoyed. Although our little victories may not be as significant as those achieved through feature wins, over time they become an addictive force, luring us into this never-ending search to add spice to an otherwise mundane existence.
Volume 18, Number 3
I’m not sure why I’m always thinking about food when I’m attempting to summarize the most recent week of sprint car racing, but it’s a fact. My increasingly demanding schedule is such that I’m not completely home until about 9 or 9:30 PM on most weeknights and once I finally get settled down enough to open up the laptop and type a few lines, my mind immediately begins to wander as my stomach longs for some long-awaited satisfaction, as most often I have been to the gym and have not eaten in eight or nine hours. Plus, to be honest, whatever I most recently consumed clearly wasn’t that memorable.
When not attending racing events, one of my other passions is exploring Indianapolis’s bursting-at-the-seams food and drink scene, as countless one-of-a-kind restaurants, craft breweries, bars, and distilleries seem to be popping up each week, so many worthy of swoon status. For all the places I want to visit in this city and its surrounding counties, it might take all 52 weekends of the year to get that accomplished and if there was one common theme in these dozens of establishments, it’s that everything is fresh and proudly made from scratch, with nearly all ingredients locally grown or sourced. It’s all good stuff and when there’s a racing off-night, I can hardly wait to expand my epicurean horizons.
Other than its food, football, and basketball, Indy is for sure all about auto racing and those infatuated with the niche market of sprint car racing know full well that the Hoosier state is the capital of the traditional variety, led by the well-known national offering from the United States Auto Club. Locally grown on bullrings in Bloomington, Gas City, Haubstadt, Kokomo, Lawrenceburg, Paragon, and Putnamville, what would big-time wingless sprint car racing be without drivers, cars, and fans originating from these legendary locales?
Back when I began writing these blogs in the late ‘90s, traditional sprint car racing was on its way back in a big way. A couple of years into my columns, two options for Indiana action existed on Fridays, with three or four on Saturday, and often times two on Sundays. Averaging 30 to 40 per show with as many as 150 cars competing on Saturdays, things could literally not get any better. Like today’s Indy food scene, locally grown sprint car competition was thriving and so was USAC.
But my how times have changed, as the economy still has not recovered from the 2008 downturn and only so many people can afford to race and spend at this extreme level. As a result, all but two of the aforementioned speedways have seen operational turnover and there might be one track open for business on Friday, two or three on Saturday, and maybe, just maybe, one on Sunday. Normally assembling 20 to 25 machines each time, unfortunately in 2016 the count has dipped as low as 15, lucky to have 60 to 75 in action on Saturdays. Once Paragon starts their season, the numbers will certainly increase but that’s a night and day difference from 2001. Thankfully there are still tracks, competitors, and fans who avidly support what remains and don't get me wrong - this isn't a doom and gloom story, as things aren't horrible. But, they are not what they used to be either.
Aside from Indiana Sprint Week, back in that 2001 season the newly-formed King of Indiana Sprint Series was the pinnacle of local competition. Unable to move the needle the last several years, the series died on the vine, survived by a select few local shows that offer a substantial increase in purse. Two of them took place in the middle of May, as Lawrenceburg’s King of the Midwest and Kokomo’s appropriately named King of Kokomo contests served as a co-promotion of sorts between Lawrenceburg's Dave Rudisell and Kokomo's O'Connor family. Lawrenceburg’s feature paid a healthy $2,500 and $250 to start, offering a total payout of $11,225. Kokomo’s feature paid the same $2,500 to win but was $300 to start, offering a total payout of $11,450. If any driver could win both features, there was an extra $1,000 available.
Friday night was undoubtedly the best weather of the weekend, at least from Indy on south as impending rain nearly ruined a unique USAC regional midget/World of Outlaws doubleheader in Plymouth. Bloomington’s regular program still only attracted 24 machines however, noticing a theme of the difficulty in luring northern sprint car competitors to the red clay for just a regular payout. Could it be I-69 construction or could it be other factors in play? Overnight rain, chilly temperatures, and pesky Saturday morning showers pulled the plug on Putnamville and Paragon, leaving Lawrenceburg as the lone traditional show in the state (Haubstadt hosted a WoO war).
Could the pent up demand from such lousy springtime weather be responsible for the impressive turnout of 37 machines on Saturday? Sunday weather was less than ideal but a 32-car Kokomo corral certainly gave hope that the local scene was far from dead. Lawrenceburg and Kokomo car counts represented huge improvements over recent years of KISS competition. But, perhaps an even better indicator of local health is the small number of new competitors sprouting on the scene. It might only be three or four, but any addition is good.
A USAC off-weekend had Saturday’s Lawrenceburg field bolstered by national names like Boespflug (Stensland 41), Cockrum (Paul 24), Cottle, Cummins, Darland, Leary, Meseraull (in a second Simon 24), Simon, Stanbrough (own 81), Thomas, and Windom (Baldwin 5), battling Lawrenceburg lords Jarett Andretti (last week's winner), Joss Moffatt (April 23rd winner), Shawn Westerfeld (April 15th winner), and Dickie Gaines (Soudrette 44).
The only man to claim sprint titles on the old quarter-mile and newer 3/8ths, three-time and defending Lawrenceburg Speedway champion Joss Moffatt was pitted next to Whiteland’s Patrick Giddens, who performed the necessary repair work to the front half of Joss’s ex-Jeff Walker 5-bar Maxim after an untimely incident last week with a lapped car cost him a feature win. Giddens was in Moffatt’s machine from last year, originally wiped out in a brutal BOSS B-main flip at Eldora. A pit road wandering saw Danny Drinan assisting his pal “Shaggy” with Tony DiMattia's effort (Tony had Big Al Scroggins advising on Sunday). Frankfort's Brian Cripe consulted with Dickie Gaines while Jake Argo assisted Shawn Westerfeld. Jake noted that he will eventually be back with Josh Hodges who will return to Indiana on Memorial Day weekend and sporadically through the summer as he has committed to a college internship in New Mexico.
Each of Saturday's four heats were won from the front row (Cottle, Thomas, Cummins, and Moffatt), with three of the four offering their share of drama. Jasonville's Brandon Morin lost power entering turn three in heat two and immediately angled into concrete. Heat three had Terre Haute terror Brandon Mattox mauling the wall on the exit of two, performing several end over end somersaults down the backstretch. Miraculously, Mattox and his Burton Racing bunch successfully performed major repairs to be ready in time for one of two B-mains. Finally, in the fourth heat, drama for Dave Darland and owner Jeff Walker came in the form of a freeze plug working its way loose from the block, pouring hot water on Dave's feet and forcing him to pull off prematurely. Sending Jeff and his scant crew into thrash-mode, with the help of engine builder Jeff Claxton and Kenny Baldwin's engine hoist, they were able to get the job done, ultimately leading to Dave to punch the final A-main ticket from the second B. Similar to the heats, Saturday's twin B-mains had their share of incidents as well, the first contest flipping Lee Dakus into the fence after scaling a Drew Abel right rear. The second had DiMattia drilling Darland in corner two, leaving original pole sitter Matt Brannin with nowhere to go but upside down after climbing a wheel.
Spending quality time once again with Lafayette's Joe Higdon, Joe and I absorbed a 25-lap finale that went green to checker. All-time King of Indiana Sprint Series feature winner and six-time series champ Jon Stanbrough propelled from the pole in his familiar blue 81, a Spike chassis actually owned by Chad Smith. Alongside the Silent Gasser was defending BOSS champ Shawn Westerfeld, who immediately launched to the lead as they exited turn two. Hiking the front end of his Spike three laps later in the same spot in which he found first, Shawn’s brief pause allowed Jon to capitalize with some serious momentum and a turn three slider. Jon built a decent lead but never could break away from Westerfeld and eighth-starting Kyle Cummins, as this lead trio remained tight for the final ten tours on a surface that was now slicked-off but was extremely smooth. Experimenting with a new set of Pro Shocks (except for the right rear) on Hank Byram's Mach 1, Kyle collected second with two to go and closed on the leader in those last two laps, simply running out of time to make a difference in the final rundown.
As it was, Stanbrough picked up his first win since August of last year, when he won for the Fox Brothers on this same speedway. Having last won in the 81 at Gas City in May of 2015, the victory was a huge confidence booster for the small squad that tonight consisted of himself, wife Melinda, and heavy lifters Chris Hoyer and Kevin Price. Trailing Cummins and Westerfeld were Cottle and C.J. Leary, who found fifth from 12th. Windom, Thomas, Bloomington winner Nick Bilbee, Michael Fischesser, and Andretti were sixth through tenth. Satisfied upon my 10:33 PM exit, as I was passed by Chris Hoyer’s Dodge Dakota pickup on I-74 just past Greensburg, I couldn’t help but think of how satisifed and relieved Chris must have felt for his pal Jon, as that grind of being a car owner, driver, and mechanic can take an extreme toll on even the best.
Sunday evening offered even better competition, with so many of Saturday’s talent present and accounted for. Subtracting Stanbrough and Cummins but adding Ballou, Beauchamp, Clauson, Coons, Courtney, Jarrett, Grant (debuting in the Phillips 71), Hopkins (Jackson 42), and Robbins, to name a few, it was an all-star cast to lift the lid on Kokomo's 2016 campaign. Although his night was cut short early, Brazil, Indiana’s Nate McMillan, not to be confused with the new Indiana Pacers head coach, was a welcome addition. This being his first visit to Kokomo Speedway, the 22 year-old micro graduate and second year sprint chauffeur was hot off a fifth place finish on April 23rd at Lincoln Park, driving a machine formerly owned and operated by his neighbor Doug Heck. Also pals with Brazil sprint car legend Eric Burns, thanks to “Burnsy” Nate took his first sprint car laps in Bill Gasway’s Stealth a few years back.
Boasting a spotless and eye-popping truck and trailer, Tyler Courtney's Topp Motorsports Maxim was equally impressive with its on-track performance, clocking quickest in the four hot lap/qualifying sessions at 12.903 seconds. As usual, Kokomo heats inverted the fastest four and had winners coming from second (Thomas and Darland) and third (Andretti and Clauson). The number one heat highlight came in the final contest, as an outstanding high/low battle between Clauson and Hopkins pushed me to the edge of my seat for several circuits, with BC eventually winning after widening his arc on the exit of turn two to thwart Hopkins high-side momentum. The number one heat lowlight came when newlywed Kyle Robbins ramped the turn four wall and flipped, taking Logan Jarrett for a ride as well. Logan would return for the B but finished one spot shy of A-main status, as did Bret Mellenberndt.
After a redraw of the top-two heat race finishers, Jarett Andretti and Kevin Thomas, Jr. were the ultimate beneficiaries pulling front row pills for the finale. Waiting for the sun to set beyond the turn two bank, massive amounts of opening act anticipation began to build as the field formed, offering a first four rows filled with heavy hitters Windom, Leary, Courtney, Beauchamp, Clauson, and Darland. Usual Kokomo contenders Grant, Cottle, and Ballou began 9th, 11th, and 14th. Yep, the candle on this local Indiana bullring scene seemed to be burning awfully bright on this evening, easing previous concerns about the sport’s longevity.
Thanks to his outside start, Thomas got the jump to turn one as the top shelf was undoubtedly the preferred lane for the entire thirty lap distance. As cars fanned as far as five-wide through the corners, amidst the chaos Windom snatched second while Leary, Andretti, and Courtney debated over third. With eyes scanning the speedway for the best battle, I was only able to catch a glimpse of an explosion of activity as one machine hurtled into the turn one catch fence. Having to watch a video replay hours later to dissect the incident, C.J. Leary moved up into the path of Dave Darland, who checked up and was promptly drilled by Justin Grant. The contact sent Darland tumbling end over end into the turn one fence while Grant crushed concrete and helicoptered down the bank, completely wiping out the right front corner of the Phillips DRC. While countless others scrambled to avoid the carnage, Jerry Coons, Jr. was turned around, eventually able to restart Monte Edison’s Spike and return to the top-ten before breaking a rocker arm. With the rear bumper of the Walker 11 stuck in the fence and its pilot hanging precariously upside down for several minutes, safety crews eventually figured out how to safely remove the car and driver without harm.
Leaving 27 laps to crown the King of Kokomo, the huge accident spoiled what should have been a fantastic fight amongst eight or ten drivers. Going green the rest of the distance, it was essentially a two horse race between Thomas and Windom, but like everyone else was fully expecting Clauson to offer a threat in the latter stages. Kevin and Chris toured the top and flirted with the fence lap after lap and as the leader played rabbit and worked lapped traffic, by lap 12 2010 track champion Windom had closed the gap significantly, aided even further when Thomas had trouble with the tricky turn four cushion. One of those bobbles came with the white flag in sight, but KT’s successful negotiation of the north end sent him to Kokomo’s victory lane for the first time since May of 2015. In his third ride back with Kenny Baldwin, Windom earned $1,250 for second while Bryan Clauson took home $1,000 after finally solidifying third with three laps to go, embroiled in a ten-lap, intense wheel to wheel war around the bottom with Tyler Courtney, who collected $700 for fourth. Shane Cottle made $600 after elevating from 11th to 5th. Sixth through tenth included Beauchamp, Ballou, Andretti, Leary, and Boespflug (from 17th).
Driving a DRC chassis with potent power from Rick Long’s Speedway Engine Development, this was Kevin’s second score since joining 4J Motorsports in late April. With sponsorship from Franklin Equipment (based out of Columbus, Ohio) and CEP Concrete Construction Corporation, the team is headed up by Danville, Indiana native Jeremy Ottinger, a transportation and operations manager for Indianapolis firm Denney Excavating, which specializes in major demolition projects as it took down Indy’s Keystone Towers, the GM Metal Stamping plant, and Winona and Wishard hospitals. Many may remember Jeremy for his long-time assistance of Kent Christian, but in his first year of car ownership (2015) he was the Lincoln Park Speedway track champion with Scott Hampton.
In speaking to Rob Goodman afterwards, the extremely grateful winner stated, “I’m not very good at seeing through the dust so it’s always good for me to lead. If you make one mistake, and I made a few in three in four, it will cost you a win. This place is really tricky. You’ve got to run the two corners completely different.”
“This team, last year, they struggled a little bit. We got connected together and I’ve had more fun racing with them than I ever have my whole life. It’s very fun doing this. These guys, they are a treat, so it’s nice to see all their hard work pay off. They’ve been doing it for a long time, so for us to come right out of the box and be fast and get a win, at the hardest place to win, it’s a blessing for sure.”
Out the door by 9:18 PM, the Indiana sprint car season was now officially in full swing. Satisfied by a quality-filled weekend double of Lawrenceburg and Kokomo, the would-be short drive home only had me thinking of food a few times. Due to a ten-plus minute wait for a rare train creeping across U.S. 31, in the interest of arriving home at a reasonable hour I resisted the urge to stop for a snack at Cone Palace. Feeling content to wait until I got home, my mind wandered to reflect on the previous two outings of local sprint car competition. These positive and energizing evenings certainly changed my outlook on the future of this thing that has consumed my life for the last three decades, having hope that weekends like this continue to be the norm. Beaming with pride when out-of-state racing visitors rave about the same mom and pop eateries as I do, equally important is the pride with which local Indiana sprint car competition continues to contribute to the national scene of the United States Auto Club. More than just a trendy thing to lure consumers, locally grown is truly a way of life here in the Hoosier state.
Volume 18, Number 2
Some might consider me extremely picky, but I prefer to label it as having a discerning taste for the finer things in life. Either way, I know what I like and rarely compromise in my quest for complete satisfaction. Whether it be food, drink, or material possessions, once I have my heart set on something, my decisions rarely waver.
However, there may be instances when more than one attractive option is laid out on the table and when the consequences of making an incorrect decision are minor, that’s when my alter ego kicks into high gear, second-guessing the simplest of choices as the fear of dissatisfaction weighs heavily. Always wanting the best, naturally I hate being disappointed.
Unless it’s Formula One or sports cars, auto racing may not be one of life's finer things, especially if your preference, like mine, is getting dirty while watching traditional sprint cars slither sideways and sling sticky clay into the grandstands. Such a razor-sharp focus on this one form of motorsports makes determining which racing event to attend fairly straightforward, as anything offered by the United States Auto Club takes top billing. However, if USAC is not an option, much to the surprise of many I might just consider something from the opposite end of the sprint spectrum, which happens to be a winged World of Outlaws affair. But, what happens when both options are offered on the same evening at arguably their premier venue, both within a reasonable driving distance? Luckily the indecisive Kevin did not have to obsess over such a decision on this first full weekend of May, with Eldora Speedway serving as the common denominator courtesy of its USAC/World of Outlaws two-night twin bill entitled “Let’s Race Two”. If it sounds like deuces were wild during this highly-anticipated affair, you would be right on the money.
My first two trips of the season to these hallowed grounds, instead of camping overnight and soaking up rural Darke County night life, I did the Indy/Rossburg commute as I was requested to scoop up Speed Ball from Fishers for Saturday’s slice of sprint car heaven. First exiting my Castleton employ at a tardy 4:37 PM on Friday, I hauled some serious ass on I-70 to reach Richmond and state road 227 about an hour later. Recalling a near-death experience on this route with driver “Dyno” Joe Snyder back in April of 2000, this particular stretch of 227 from Richmond to U.S. 36 might just be the most dangerous route in all of Indiana, as countless steep rises serve as ridiculous ramps that could be lethal if one chose to ignore the recommended 45 MPH speed limit. Experience advised to keep momentum to a minimum before passing the sign for the highest point in Indiana, allowing me to arrive for USAC qualifying in one piece and without a citation for speeding. Saturday’s stroll was at a much more leisurely pace with my pop alongside, allowing for a mandatory Maid-Rite stop in Greenville where Renaissance man Brent Goodnight was encountered. It does not surprise me at all that Goody still knows where all the hidden gems around racetracks lie.
Harkening back to the ‘80s and ‘90s when USAC and World of Outlaws contests were separate early season Eldora schedule mainstays, it is still odd that my first trip of the year just over the Indiana/Ohio state lane comes in May. Nonetheless, it’s something I had to take full advantage of, as there are just a handful of opportunities to catch any kind of sprint car action at my all-time favorite arena. Two nights of the best of both sprint car worlds, Let’s Race Two was indeed all about the deuce, a rather appropriate theme given that USAC’s portion celebrated a pair of first-time Eldora sprint car scores for both Bryan Clauson and Chad Boespflug.
Clauson nearly claimed last year's Four Crown before wall contact spoiled his debut in the Dooling/Hayward 63, still difficult to comprehend that since June of 2005, not one of Clauson’s 37 USAC sprint car scores have occurred in Western Ohio. (You may remember that in that first outing in ’05, he had to take an untimely helicopter ride after a nasty spill.) Despite tallying three Four Crown trophies (2 Silver Crown, 1 midget), Friday was a humongous moment for the guy who has won nearly everything else in USAC circles. His third national sprint car score of the young season, Bryan began the night by clocking quickest at 16.611 seconds, doing so on an abnormally dry-slick surface, odd for so early in the season. Firing from sixth in Friday's finale, Clauson chased outside front row starter C.J. Leary and Thomas Meseraull for the majority of the thirty lap grind, as this lead trio weaved in and out of traffic and provided some top-notch, edge-of-your seat entertainment. It wasn't until six laps were left when BC was able to finally blast by T-Mez after tossing a turn three bomb. Two laps later, Leary slapped concrete in corner two and opened the door for Clauson, who executed one of the longest and cleanest slide jobs you'll ever witness. However, a near-certain victory was left in doubt when green lights were soon switched to red, as fourth place Robert Ballou banged the wall in two, flipped, and landed on all four wheels, collecting Saturday Lawrenceburg winner Jarett Andretti.
Leaving a three lap dash to the checkered, Clauson’s Eldora demons haunted him yet again when he made a heavy concrete connection in turn four. Second place C.J. simply could not capitalize on the miscue, again having to settle for second best after leading 23 laps in Mike Dutcher’s Maxim/Fisher. As you may recall Leary nearly won last year's Saturday finale to the Mother of All Sprint Car Weekends but gave way to Justin Grant on the final lap. Chasing Clauson’s Spike/Stanton-Mopar were Leary, Meseraull, an impressive Dallas Hewitt (who led the first three laps in his own 16), and Bacon. Tyler Courtney (Topp 23), Boespflug, Shane Cottle, Dave Darland, and Kody Swanson (DePalma 63) made up the second half of the top-ten.
Having entered Eldora as the national points leader, an extremely ill Chase Stockon stormed from 23rd to 12th but in the process relinquished his top spot to T-Mez. Ironically, Stockon and previous second place points man Kyle Cummins were forced to take provisional feature starting spots after being way off in the speed/handling department the entire evening.
Immediately after Dave Blaney’s ugly World of Outlaws qualifying flip, Logan Jarrett nailed the wall in turn one and took a nasty tumble, chucking his tail tank in the process. Logan emerged from the wreckage ok but the same could not be said for Dave, who took a ride to a local hospital but was eventually released, albeit extremely sore. Blaney’s blast was one of the most violent in recent memory, rarely recalling any upside down endeavors in his career, especially at Eldora. With the WoO qualifying groove just a half of a right rear’s width from the wall (this essentially stayed that way for the balance of Friday despite some post-qualifying maintenance), car after car flirted with disaster. With literally no margin for error, Blaney’s Motter machine mauled the wall between one and two, going for a big ride that upon landing zinged his Speedway engine to the highest RPM limit that I have ever heard. Running only a limited schedule this year, naturally the battered and beaten Blaney did not return to race on Saturday.
Chad Boespflug’s first career USAC victory came on the Fourth of July 2013 at Lincoln Park Speedway, steering the famous 57 for legendary car owner Paul Hazen. Chad’s second USAC score came on the sport’s biggest stage on Saturday, his first in his 2016 partnership with Chuck Eberhardt and Fred Zirzow. Chuck and Fred call the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area home, a pair of hardcore racing fans who met while bowling. Chuck used to drive and own asphalt modifieds at Slinger Speedway and is the current operator of a bowling pro shop. An avid bowler himself (averaging over 225 per game) and follower of all things open wheel, Fred is a long-time bartender who manages a bar at a bowling alley. After Fred showed Chuck what racing was like in Indiana, Chuck got the bug to get further involved, first putting a small team together at the end of 2013 to become local car owners for Bryan Clauson. Winning at the Gas City closer in their first foray, the following season saw Chuck, Fred, and Bryan bag the Kokomo Speedway track championship. Last year, Eberhardt and Zirzow had Tyler Courtney in their car for the second half of the season, winning a race at Plymouth and showing well the rest of the year. Pooling their resources with Boespflug’s assets for a 2016 USAC run, the team benefits from the mechanical minds of Davey Jones and Bryan Stanfill. Being the son of Bubby, Davey owns massive amounts of experience, best known for his success with Bud Kaeding in the early 2000s.
Chad was ninth in Saturday qualifying, benefitting from a feature pole perch when Thomas Meseraull, Max McGhee, and Bryan Clauson had heat race issues and had to come through the B. Meseraull jumped C.J. Leary’s right rear and the resulting entanglement flipped both and forced backup cars to be rolled out. McGhee also inverted and bent his Maxim like a banana after his fight with the fence. Boespflug got the early jump and disappeared for the early portion of the finale, interrupted after the third lap for a red flag incident involving Robert Ballou and fast qualifier Chris Windom (Hery 40). Robert’s too-close-for-comfort turn one slide job sent both into the wall, causing Chris to helicopter down the banking. Under the red, Windom jogged all the way to turn three to discuss the matter, as both were sidelined far too early. Bryan Clauson spun to avoid the mess but was able to restart. Say what you will about the jinx of wearing that number one, but Robert’s two consecutive evenings of Eldora misfortune continued his subpar season since the series returned to the Midwest.
With seven laps in the books, Boespflug built a full straightaway advantage on Kody Swanson, entering lapped traffic four laps later. The battle behind car 98 was fierce, as tenth-starting Brady Bacon was already up to second by lap 13, which featured a trio of sliders between himself and Swanson. The two-time Silver Crown king soon had to contend with Thomas Meseraull, whose big-time bomb through three and four found the Amati 66 climbing the wall. The wild ride barely interrupted Meseraull’s march however, immediately making his final move to third in turn one.
Boespflug’s big lead was blown by a lap 17 debris caution, having run a stellar, error-free race against a treacherous cushion to that point. Three lappers separated first and second place, but Bacon cleared all of them in one lap, making it a real race as the top three now ran in line with ten to go. But, how agonizing must it have been for Chad to endure three yellows and one red in those final ten laps? First, there was a flat right rear for Tony DiMattia. Then, there was wall contact and an upside down excursion for Dallas Hewitt, the new driver for Kenny Baldwin after Justin Grant left the team after yet another disappointing performance (17th) on Friday. The final two cautions came for the famous Frenchman (debris) and Dave Darland, the latter climbing the turn two wall in his fight for fourth. All that action kept Boespflug’s elbows up on those restarts but like a true professional, the pressure to win at Eldora never affected his poise. Running his Maxim/Claxton to its limits, he even flirted with the turn two wall on the final two tours.
A huge feather in the cap for an underdog squad (void of major sponsorship on its hood) and a dream come true for new owners Eberhardt and Zirzow, Eldora victories with the United States Auto Club are indeed some of the most cherished, so naturally this was a very big deal. Bacon’s surge from tenth to second also moved him to within five points of Thomas Meseraull, who needed two cars to score third. C.J. Leary also needed two horses to take fourth from 13th while Tyler Courtney copped fifth from 11th. Clauson came back to claim sixth while Swanson, Carson Short, Stockon, and Weir (from 18th) scored seventh through tenth. After Eldora’s USAC double, the top-three in points (Meseraull, Bacon, and Stockon) are separated by just 21 markers while Cummins and Darland are fourth and fifth. With weekend car counts of 35 and 28 (up from 25 at Haubstadt and Montpelier), my hope is for a similar assembly at this coming weekend’s rounds at Gas City and Brownstown.
Much like Donny Schatz’s double from last year, 2014 Kings Royal winner Kerry Madsen did the same deed and swept the World of Outlaws weekend, leading all sixty feature laps and taking home a cool twenty grand for his efforts. Thanks to his confidence-inspiring Keneric combination of a KPC chassis and Morrison power, the original Mad Man aggressively attacked a thin cushion atop Friday’s super-slicked-off surface. And although Saturday saw heavier conditions that were a bit more forgiving, still no one could hold a candle to Kerry, who was nearly in a league of his own. The Aussie was the second to sweep a WoO weekend this season, having not scored a win in this series since August of 2015. Four-time All-Star champion Chad Kemenah charged from 10th and 11th to secure second on both Friday and Saturday. Mostly employing low and middle lanes to pull even on several occasions, Chad was the only one to offer a serious threat to car 29.
My first time to sample the World of Outlaws and their new-for-2016 racing format, when fields are large (45 on Friday and 40 on Saturday) qualifying is divided into separate flights that only determine heat race starting positions, which offer no inversions whatsoever. The top two finishers from each heat make the trophy dash but interestingly enough, feature starting positions beyond the dash contestants are earned based on heat race finish, with B-main transfers tagging the tail. Encouraging drivers to be extremely aggressive in their heat, unfortunately qualifying well still means everything with the Outlaws.
While describing the new format and reminding fans of Craig Dollansky’s one-lap track record of 12.707 seconds from April 13th of 2002, WoO microphone master Johnny Gibson announced that for World of Outlaws purposes, Eldora Speedway’s official measurement is .427 miles. With Dollansky’s mark only equating to 120.972 miles per hour (which was different from last year’s announcement of 141.654 MPH), the 20-plus mile per hour average speed difference just doesn’t seem right, as the winged cars scrub off very little speed at this high-horsepower showcase. The first time I have ever heard anyone formally announce that Eldora was not a true half-mile, I found it interesting that this tidbit was not repeated on Saturday. However, I’m still curious where the .427 measurement was taken. Was it from Google Earth? Was it on the bottom? Was it through the middle? Was it just beneath the wall? Inquiring minds want to know, as the news of this distance burst my 31-year Eldora bubble.
Regardless of its distance, nothing will ever take away the fact that in my tiny little world, Eldora is and always will be the most demanding and awe-inspiring dirt track in the world. Its allure is further maintained by stories from car owner Jim Simon, who relayed a tale from 1961 when he pulled all night from the first-ever Knoxville Nationals to a Sunday afternoon 100-lap affair at Eldora. Simon recalled the crazy story of driving a pickup truck with a single-axle trailer as wide open as possible on narrow and curvy Iowa roads through the middle of the night. That trailer contained Jack Steele’s Dodge Hemi powered supermodified, which ended up winning that big race at Eldora after missing qualifying and starting dead last. Simon’s driver that day was New Carlisle, Ohio’s Jay Poland, with such a story only confirming how much desire racing people once owned.
Joey Saldana (Roth 83) topped the timing charts on both nights (13.947 and 13.160), unable to capitalize after finishing third and second in his heat races, the latter after being docked a row for what was ruled a jumped start. Sixteenth on Friday and 24th on Saturday, that latter showing had Brownsburg’s bullet attempting to pierce fourth corner concrete after tangling with David Gravel. Doubly-disappointed had to be defending series champ Donny Schatz, who backed up from second to ninth on Friday, also unable to advance from seventh on Saturday. Still, Donny cut into Brad Sweet’s point lead after Brad could only muster 12th and 9th place finishes. Gravel and Daryn Pittman grabbed a pair of top-fives as they swapped finishing positions, David third on Friday and fourth on Saturday while Daryn was fourth on Friday and third on Saturday.
Kraig Kinser enjoyed a decent double dip in his Arctic Cat DRC, 12th to 5th on Friday and 16th to 8th on Saturday. Oddly enough, Kraig’s father Steve was not spotted in my Saturday stroll of pit lane. After struggling all season long in his first full-fledged Outlaw assault, September 2015 Eldora WoO winner Greg Wilson obviously enjoys home cooking, shooting from 23rd to 7th on Friday and 18th to 10th on Saturday. Brady Bacon had an excellent Outlaw showing, bagging 8th in his own 99 on Friday after taking third in the dash, also finding 14th from 24th on Saturday. Second in Friday’s first qualifying flight, Cole Duncan finished an impressive 10th but was a Saturday no-show.
Those having a forgettable Eldora two-night stand included Sammy Swindell (20th on both nights), Paul McMahan (22nd and 17th in the Destiny 7 wrenched by Scott Benic), and Jac Haudenschild (25th on Friday and 13th in Saturday’s B). Wingless converts Tyler Courtney (who like Clauson and Bacon did the USAC/WoO double), Jacob Wilson, Hunter Schuerenberg, and Parker Price-Miller had disappointing weekends as well, with Courtney’s sixth place B-main finish the best of this bunch. Clauson’s winged weekend netted finishes of 11th and 12th, solidly coming from 22nd on Saturday.
In retrospect, the second showing of Let’s Race Two was another highly enjoyable weekend, two nights of the best that sprint car racing has to offer on the sport’s most famous dirt track stage. The entire event did little to disappoint, offering its share of surprises, intrigue, outstanding stories, and captivating competition, helping to maintain Eldora Speedway’s claim as the world’s greatest dirt track. So when questioned if I would rather attend a United States Auto Club or World of Outlaws event on the same evening, as long as the early May option exists in Rossburg, Ohio, I will always take two.
Volume 18, Number 1
Given my six month longing for a sprint car fix, vacationing at a time other than the off-season sure seems like a rookie mistake, as the possibility of missing the first two outdoor open wheel weekends in the Midwest is the furthest thing a thirty-year fanatic would ever agree to. But on a gorgeous and sun-splashed Saturday in late March, there I was soaring over Brownstown Speedway and its lid-lifting No Way Out 40 while aiming for Atlanta, the lone stopover on my initial European excursion to Ireland. Still in disbelief as I reviewed hot lap times while waiting to board for the eight hour haul to Dublin, despite the knowledge that Indiana events can indeed be conducted without my presence, I was still experiencing a slight bit of withdrawal, reliving my worst nightmare ten years prior when I was infinitely more addicted.
Unable to relax enough to earn some well-needed shuteye to forget about this sudden onset of paranoia, I spent the bulk of the eight hours absorbing all of the automotive-related media available on the flight which included a pair of wonderful documentaries, the first being Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans and the other being Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman. I was so moved by the McQueen flick that I had to watch it again on the return home.
Once setting foot on foreign soil, my stubborn, one-track mind was finally opened to the idea of enjoying such a unique experience chock full spectacular scenery (forty shades of green and rocky cliffs tumbling to blue oceans), quaint villages crammed with fantastic bars, pubs, and eateries, historic castles, churches, and architectural ruins from centuries ago, and hospitable natives so happy to have visitors from lands afar. My motoring mind was also entertained with all of the previously unseen automotive makes and models not available in the States (like the hot, new VW Scirocco) and all those narrow, winding roads that seem to go nowhere. All in all, it was a truly enjoyable journey, one that I will never soon forget.
Despite some warnings to the contrary, the food was fantastic as European influence weighed heavily. And of course there were all those beverages to sample, first taking a tour and titling a few glasses at the Jameson's distillery near Cork. In addition, there were countless craft brews that were unique to each town, much like the rage this industry has become in my Hoosier homeland. Most notable were breweries in Wicklow and Dingle, the former creating St. Kevin's Red (you’ll never make a saint of me) and the latter making Tom Crean's 18/35 (An Antarctic explorer and true Irish hero - not the IU basketball coach). Crean's Irish Lager is only available outside of Ireland in Boston and aboard Aer Lingus flights, but one could only imagine the killing they would make if it were marketed in Bloomington and Indianapolis.
If I have one regret from the trip, it’s that I did not insist on getting behind the wheel of my father in-law’s Open Insignia rental for a brief stint. Instead playing navigator, I now wish that I could have experienced what it was like to drive on the opposite side of the road while shifting a manual transmission with my left hand. Nevertheless, the notion of missing the first three outdoor races of the season for such an unorthodox excursion certainly qualifies as new roads for this home body who previously included auto racing in all of his own vacations.
With Brownstown, Lawrenceburg, and Terre Haute going on without me, I managed to survive, comforted by the fact that the rest of the season was completely jammed with more than its share of memorable contests. Coming back to a disastrous and stressful in-house flood, two days of jet lag, and foul weather that resembled January, the next weekend's Kokomo Grand Prix was cancelled, as were other options in Bloomington, Putnamville, and Lawrenceburg.
Moving my initial outings to USAC sprint shows at Bloomington and Haubstadt, my post-vacation patience was again tested in my trip to B-town, unable to leave the north side of Indy until 5:50 PM. Infinitely stressful east side 465 gridlock from Pendleton Pike to I-70 detoured me downtown on 70 and 65, eventually earning a smooth transition to 37 where timely stoplights conveniently allowed a swap from work to race clothing all from the driver’s seat. Making great time to Martinsville, expected construction delays between Martinsville and Bloomington became reality immediately after Mahalasville Road, using the grassy median to detour back to Mahalasville and employ my nephew’s advised alternate route. Right on Downey, right on Low Gap Road, right on Anderson, and left on Old Road 37, this path cut directly through the Morgan-Monroe forest in some of the most remote areas of these adjoining counties. Much like Ireland’s impossibly narrow and circuitous routes, these were also new roads for which I used up every inch, aggressively maneuvering my Raptor like it was a Robby Gordon trophy truck, doing my best to avoid craters while soaring over rises and overtaking like there was no tomorrow. Unlike Ireland however, thankfully there was no precipitation and the pot at the end of this proverbial rainbow was Bloomington Speedway, where a racing tradition that dates all the way back to 1923 continues. 1923! Can you believe it?
What I couldn’t believe is that one of the vehicles involved in my high speed convoy from Indy to Martinsville was already at the track when I arrived. Feeling defeated that my ridiculously dangerous driving netted me nothing other than the absence of sitting in stopped traffic, I could at least be thankful that I arrived in one piece.
Also disheartened to learn that qualifying for the 35-car corral was already complete, 305 racer Jared Fox informed that C.J. Leary had topped the timing charts with a sizzling 10.842 second circuit, piloting Mike Dutcher's potent Maxim/Fisher to a new USAC record. For those inquiring minds, 10.842 is now a new all-time Bloomington wingless mark, ultimately eclipsing Kevin Swindell's 10.880 tour from April 2007. Second-quick Chase Stockon was also beneath the long-unbeatable Swindell barrier. Scoping out the rest of the qualifying rundown at the USAC trailer, coincidentally my season's first extended conversation came with Evansville-area diehard Dan Hetser, just as it did one year ago. Some things never change, and I'm ok with that!
Finding heat race pit side seating reserved by Dave Darland devotee Joe Higdon, Joe observed that Dave and team owner Jeff Walker were swapping cars for their heat, as Darland detailed that his Jeff Claxton power plant had been weak all day and wasn’t going to make it for the duration of the evening. Benefitting from USAC’s peculiar new rule that only penalizes a team that swaps cars with a start on the tail for just one race, had Dave not finished fourth in his heat he still would have earned a B-main starting spot based on his original qualifying time. (Back in the day, using any car other than the one qualified would have meant a start at the tail of every event, including the feature.) As it was, The People’s Champ did find fourth in the fourth heat, which was won by fourth-starting Bryan Clauson (Dooling/Hayward 63). In fact, all four heats were taken from the outside of row two, as Brent Beauchamp (Olson 34), Chad Boespflug (Nine-Eight/EZR 98), Thomas Meseraull (Amati 66) took those early honors. After seventh-quick Max McGhee tangled with Isaac Chapple in heat three and made a mess of his family-owned Maxim, he too reverted to a backup for the B. Coming from the rear to snag the sixth and final transfer, Max sent Austin Prock and Kody Swanson packing. Issues with Swanson’s Phillips 71P prevented a qualifying lap, putting him behind the eight-ball all night long. Again beset with mechanical gremlins and enduring yet another frustrating evening on Saturday in Haubstadt (20th), a few days later owners Steve and Carla Phillips made a difficult decision to mothball their USAC sprint car effort until further notice.
In between heats and B, I noticed Brad, Steve, and Braylon Fox assisting Chris Hoyer and Kevin Price on Jon Stanbrough’s DRC chassis, a deviation after Stanbrough had used Spikes for all of 2015. The Brownsburg fabricator still has one Spike and will alternate between the two different constructors. Once calling the shots for 2004 USAC sprint car champion Doug Kalitta, legendary Ohio traveler Rick Ferkel was advising on Seth Motsinger’s deuce, driven by Sikeston, Missouri’s Hunter Schuerenberg. Hunter was parked next to Brinton Marvel, a fourth generation racer who employed an ex-Schuerenberg chassis in his 305 winged sprint car debut. Marvel was swept up in an odd feature accident over the turn three and four bank, lightly landing him on his lid and crumpling his new top wing. After Ethan Fleetwood connected with Luke Bland and folded Luke's front axle, Ethan earned his first winged 305 victory.
Top-ten qualifiers Carson Short, Robert Ballou, Max McGhee, and Justin Grant had to come through the B, benefitting Boespflug and Beauchamp with front row seats for Friday’s thirty lap finale. After a meeting of the minds with Rodney Reynolds, I headed for the hill where a healthy crowd was assembled. Standing just in front of the concession stand and eyeing moist ribbons around the top and bottom, I sensed that this would be a solid feature as two Bloomington grooves generally equates to happiness and satisfaction. Happy to report that this was indeed the case, it felt good to be standing amongst the large throng, giving hope that engines will continue to roar for years to come on the south side of this ultra-liberal city that does not genuinely value the presence of a racing facility in its back yard.
Interrupted by separate early flips over the turn one bank by C.J. Leary and Brent Beauchamp, the Hanford Hornet paced the first two tours before fourth-starting Bacon blew by him on the outside of two, immediately pointing his Hoffman Triple X to the bottom of turn three. Two brief stoppages by Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Epperson 2) and Jeff Bland, Jr. (own 38) compressed the field, which by the tenth tour had Bacon brushing back the attacks of third-starting Schuerenberg, Stockon, Boespflug, and 11th-starting Clauson. Choosing the high road, Bryan flew to fourth and was soon third when Hunter overextended turn four. By lap 18, the Bullet had turned up the heat on Bacon, who chopped Bryan’s nose at the flag stand. One lap later, Clauson’s top shelf tactic propelled him to P1, never to be headed the rest of the way. Bacon, tenth-starting Thomas Meseraull (after heavy mid-race contact with Ballou), Chase Stockon, and Robert Ballou secured second through fifth at the 11:06 PM checkered. Darland (from 14th), Schuerenberg, Andretti (from 15th), Brady Short, and McGhee scored sixth through tenth place money.
Easily earning his seventh USAC victory of 2016 (national win number two), this was Bryan’s fourth consecutive conquest of Bloomington USAC national sprint car contests, winner of five of the last 11 national events in the Dooling/Hayward 63 Spike. All amazing statistics, the sensational numbers that Clauson continues to mount are not shocking, as he remains one of the best talents that USAC has ever seen. Choosing new roads as for the second year in a row his schedule is heavily weighted with winged sprint car contests, dare I say that his wingless skills have improved since focusing on the winged wars? Clearly evident at one of his best venues, his ability to ride the rim and carry speed by keeping his machine straight and smooth made all the difference, making this triumph seem like child’s play. Completely dialed in with spot-on setups from his father Tim, if this duo chose to run the full schedule, one could only imagine just how many victories would result. Given his limited status, the competition has to be breathing a sigh of relief.
Saturday weather was spectacular as my nephew joined me for the lengthy journey southwest via 67/57/58/69, owning a goal of reaching Evansville’s Tin Man Brewing Company prior to Tri-State Speedway’s season opening USAC/MSCS Spring Showdown. Once on 69 at Elnora (not to be confused with Eldora), I-69 might have been a straight shot to Indiana 62, but it seemed like forever on this new road to nowhere. Located just north of Evansville’s downtown on Franklin Street, I was pleasantly surprised by Tin Man’s word-class brews and impressive cuisine, feasting on a stunningly delicious fried chicken and cornbread waffle sandwich (oozing with spicy maple mayo and bacon jam) washed down with an equally satisfying Golden Strong Ale brewed in limited supply for their Firkin Friday. After sandwich and suds disappeared, I unfortunately missed out on their signature dessert of pretzel bread pudding as hot laps were due to begin in twenty minutes. Anxious to return for my next hustle to Haubstadt, so many interesting options abound at Tin Man.
Wishing to avoid U.S. 41 stoplights to reach The Class Track, Danny directed me a few blocks west and then north on St. Joseph’s Avenue. Eventually intersecting with Boonville/New Harmony Road, it took us through the tiny town of Darmstadt, which judging from the architecture fully embraces its German heritage. Home to another intriguing eatery appropriately named the Darmstadt Inn (a Tri-State Speedway sponsor), I later learned that longtime New York Yankee star and current Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly maintained a residence near Darmstadt, even in the height of his big league career.
The stars must have been aligned as our 6:10 PM arrival had Tommy Helfrich and crew finalizing dirt track preparations for the evening’s sprint car/modified double header. Slightly disappointed but not surprised by the relatively low turnout of 25 sprint cars, assemblies at Putnamville and Lawrenceburg were in the same ballpark, but I would much rather prefer an evening of four heats rather than three, wondering why more racers would not want a solid shot at $500 start money ($400 if you are not a member). Perhaps the late night drive home from the central time zone is one reason, but the biggest may be that most drivers want to race where they are most competitive and have a shot at winning. This leads to another consideration: there are generally only a handful who are consistently a factor to take home a trophy at Tri-State, as it takes a completely different philosophy (balls-out) to run up front on this tight paperclip, not favoring the technical racer who has it burned into his brain to hit his marks.
Lacking long-time crowd pleasers Daron Clayton, Hud Cone, Alex Shanks, Jon Stanbrough, and Bryan Clauson, Levi Jones was another gasser loved by the Haubstadt locals, unfortunately here just to officiate from his USAC golf cart. So, who could possibly be left to thrill the capacity crowd? That would of course be Kyle Cummins, the Pride of Princeton whose huge wheelie at the completion of his second qualifying circuit literally rose the roof. Rare to hear the cheers over a screaming small block, Cummins qualified quickest at 13.512 seconds in Hank Byram’s Mach 1/CRE. Two Shorts timed in the top-six, which also included Stockon, McGhee, and Leary.
Unhappy with his sub-par time of 16th and feeling something amiss in the same Maxim chassis utilized on Friday, Robert Ballou reverted to a backup for his heat but failed to make the cut. Have no fear, as USAC’s revised rule meant he still got his time back for the B, easily earning second. Perhaps the biggest shock of all was that sixth-quick qualifier Brady Short finished seventh in heat three and blew his shot at the pole. Brady became a victim of a premature heat race ending as a spinning Jim Shelton caused caution just after winner Chase Stockon and second place Dakota Jackson dipped underneath the checkered flag. I can remember USAC laps not being officially scored until everyone crossed the start/finish line but once again, the rules may have been revised, as I don’t claim to read the rule book or attend drivers’ meetings. Either way, Short’s miss meant someone else could capitalize, as he is almost automatic from such a primo starting spot. Heat winners Max McGhee, Kent Schmidt, and Stockon began from third, second, and sixth. Shelton's last lap B-main revolution caused leader Chad Boespflug to stall, forcing Chad to charge hard in the final two laps when he surged past four cars to take fourth. Bret Mellenberndt was eighth, just one spot out of the A.
In that third and final heat, Stockon slid Rose Hulman sophomore Dakota Jackson for the win while coming to the white, the loss doing nothing to dampen Dakota’s Tri-State spirits even after an earlier thrash to troubleshoot his Bullet chassis jumping out of gear. Excited about his upcoming season which will also contain 7 to 8 winged sprint car contests, despite a plethora of 8 AM classes Jackson spent the better part of March and April burning the midnight oil to finish homework and projects during the week so that he could head home on the weekend to assemble sprint car equipment. After earning 11th on this evening, Dakota will spend his second consecutive summer interning at Cummins when not longing for a return trip to Haubstadt.
Sixth in the B and earning an A-main berth was New Zealand native Nevil Algieo. This being Nevil’s first career USAC feature appearance, his success is a prime reason why more low-buck racers should consider a trip to Tri-State. A 24-year resident of the United States and regular Paragon competitor for the last decade, this was the 51 year-old Algieo’s first time out with a new Triple X chassis purchased from Indy Race Parts. While preparing to climb through the cage, Nevil offered a quick summary of his existence, having welded “pipes” (a.k.a. headers) since the age of 15. The former motorcycle road racer proudly married a trophy girl and taught the Howerton boys the ins and outs of welding these “pipes” from 1994 to 2000, the irony being that headers are now the number one revenue generator at Howerton Racing Products. Proud to take some credit for Bobby Labonte’s successful 1995 season at Joe Gibbs Racing thanks to newfound power from his custom-crafted pipes, these days he fabricates drag racing pieces for Ray Skillman.
After the second surface revamp of the night, the modified finale was up first, leading to a 9:58 PM (local time) sprint car wave lap. Ocala winner Thomas Meseraull drew the pole with Sumar Classic victor C.J. Leary alongside. Sentimental favorite Kyle Cummins, who came within five laps of his first USAC score last September, would start sixth.
Naturally C.J.’s outside start shot him to the lead exiting turn two but after a lap one caution for a heavily smoking Max McGhee (breaking an oil filter mount, not an engine), Leary’s subsequent turn one tilt on two-wheels opened the door for a T-Mez slider on the opposite end. Thomas set a torrid pace in his Marion Underground Construction DRC, preparing to enter lapped traffic on the sixth circuit as Aaron Farney spun to a stop on the south end.
Fourth-starting Chase Stockon was all over Meseraull after the restart and for the next six laps, the two would wage a thrilling wheel to wheel war. Although Thomas would lead to lap 11, as surface conditions slightly deteriorated, so did his shot at another win. A moving screen in turn four allowed "Showtime" to pilfer P1, immediately pulling away as his DRC seemed to enjoy better side and forward bite. Cummins climbed to second by lap 16 and slowly sliced Chase's lead to less than a straightaway, but he was going to need additional assistance to make something happen. Such assistance came in the form of a caution for Isaac Chapple, as the lap 25 pause also meant that lapped traffic would restart at the tail. In the final five lap sprint, Kyle immediately kept it close in one and two, earning enough backstretch momentum to mount a turn three threat. However, Chase dipped low enough to thwart the obligatory slide job and that was all she wrote.
Stabbing and steering the Superior Tank and Trailer DRC/Fisher now dampened by Pro Shocks, Chase collected career USAC victory number seven on his seventh speedway, moving him to the national points lead by 14 over Meseraull and 29 over Cummins. Used to towing back to Sullivan and later Elizabethtown (near Columbus), Stockon’s short, post-race pull to Fort Branch is still a new road to get used to after his wife took a job at the Princeton Toyota plant last year. In the feature rundown, Cummins once again had to settle for second-best while Carson Short charged to third after falling as far as eighth. Chad Boespflug and C.J. Leary copped fourth and fifth. Last year’s winner Brady Bacon bagged sixth while Robert Ballou (hardest charger from 16th), Brady Short, Meseraull, and an improved Kent Schmidt secured seventh through tenth.
Entering I-69 at state road 168, I followed it for nearly 100 miles back to Bloomington where it ends at exit 114. Reaching the west side of the Monroe County seat by 12:30 AM, the use of such new roads served up a psychological victory, as an early morning return from Bloomington is so much easier to digest than Vincennes or Terre Haute.
Interstate 69 from Indianapolis to Lansing, Michigan has been complete since 1971, frequently used by United States Auto Club competitors while traveling to Fort Wayne Coliseum indoor midget contests (up through 1989) and Gas City sprint car shows (since 2002). However, departing I-69 at state road 18 (now listed as exit 264) is an altogether new road for USAC, as the Montpelier Motor Speedway hosted its first foray with the Speedway, Indiana sanctioning body on Saturday, April 23rd. This late April sprint car soiree would be followed by midgets on Tuesday, May 31st, which serves as the kick off to Indiana Midget Week.
Built in 1903 as a half-mile horse racing facility, horsepower of the four-legged and mechanical variety alternated in Montpelier’s 113 year span. Owning a colorful history, auto racing first began in 1915 while the final horse race was held in 1970. An extremely popular venue in the early 1900s, overflowing crowds of 10,000 to 12,000 came via the railroad on the west edge of the property, as did its Kentucky clay. Once known as the fastest half-mile clay track in the country, for four years Montpelier held the half-mile world records for Pacers and Trotters. Because of its horse racing fame, Montpelier’s high school basketball team adopted the Pacers name, as did Indiana’s ABA and NBA squad. Three times the covered grandstand for the half-mile was destroyed by heavy storms (1913, 1916, and 1969) and after that last one, the grounds lay dormant until 1986, when a quarter-mile auto racing oval was carved inside of the huge half. Changing hands countless times in the 113 years, five of those transactions took place in the early 2000s. Since 2009, Harold and Lori Hunter have held the reins and have invested great sums, the most notable improvements coming with restrooms, walls, catch fencing, and lighting. Despite heavy storms doing damage once again in 2012, the new owners were undeterred in their quest to keep Montpelier’s rich racing history alive.
A strict 11 PM curfew demanded an early hot lap start of 5 PM, with heat races promptly rolling off at 6:30. Serious about making a positive impression, Montpelier kept its timing well intact, finishing the sprint car feature at 9:30 PM, even after a pair of periods for surface maintenance. Helped by a modest count of 25 sprinters just like last Saturday at Haubstadt, I honestly expected participation from more cars north of Indy. With only three cars sent home early, as previously mentioned the drama isn’t nearly as thick as it could be with four heats.
Sixteenth in line, Brady Bacon’s 14.199 second lap around the quarter-mile would establish a USAC standard. The first time for the Hoffman 69 to appear in Montpelier, USAC's all-time winner for sprint car contests was in the minority as the majority had been here one time or another since 2003. However, everyone's lack of experience at this facility, coupled with rapidly changing surface conditions, generated some radical gear and torsion bar swaps throughout the evening, far more than usual. Baldwin bandit Justin Grant and his crew chief Derek Claxton further experimented by bolting a pair of Slade Shock Technology Black Widow twin-tube oil shocks on the rear of their DRC, going with a pair of ARS on the front.
Despite no hot laps because of a faulty mag box, Thomas Meseraull timed second best while Stockon, Stanbrough, Cottle (Shane), and Cummins clocked third through sixth. Meseraull’s Amati Racing 66 was looking immaculate as usual thanks to Tim “Tattoo” Parfrey, a native of Tucson, Arizona who has spent many a season assisting various Arizona squads. Tattoo’s job is to keep Shane Wade's shop, truck, trailer, and sprint car spotless and the results show just how serious he is about his job. Crew chief Donnie Gentry says that he’ll provide Tim an education on sprint car maintenance before he heads back home later this year.
All three Montpelier heats were claimed from the outside of the front row, with A.J. Hopkins (Jackson 42), Ballou, and Leary victorious. Even with Scott and Ryan Pedersen lending support to Chris Hoyer on Jon Stanbrough’s Spike chassis, Jon was unable to capitalize on his top-six time by failing to transfer out of the first heat, as the reworked surface had passing coming at a premium. 2003 Montpelier champion Scotty Weir scratched the Keen 18 from the B-main, with South Dakota’s Bret Mellenberndt (wrenched and maintained by Jim Forman) making a late race move to keep Josh Spencer and Stuart Hanft from A-main status.
Thankfully saved a feature seat by Joe Higdon as the main grandstand was standing room only, I bumped into Toledo, Ohio USAC loyalist John Nolan in the row beneath me. This being John’s first trip to Montpelier, it was also his 1,993rd USAC event. Making his milestone 1,000th event in 1982 which was commemorated by a plaque from the legendary sanctioning body, today he picks and chooses as the desire to drive long distances is not quite like it used to be (he racked up over one million miles on his 1967 Volvo 1800s while chasing races). Expected to soon reach another milestone with his 2,000th USAC contest, the incredible achievement is expected to come at the Gas City Indiana Midget Week stop, as his immediate plans are to attend events at Toledo, Gas City, Terre Haute, Indianapolis, Clermont, and Montpelier. Given that no one except for Dick Jordan has been as loyal to the group in its 61 years, one would hope that someone in the organization will find a way to pay tribute to John on his extra-special evening. (With Toledo’s wash out and barring any other cancellations, number 2,000 should come in Putnamville.)
Dave Darland and Kyle Cummins would share front row seats for Montpelier’s first USAC national feature, as freshly tilled top and bottom grooves made setup decisions a true crapshoot. Darland beat Cummins to the top of turn one and led the first 11 laps in Jeff Walker’s Maxim/Claxton. The action in those first dozen or so tours provided the best entertainment of the evening, beginning on the next go-round when Shane Cottle slid Cummins for runner-up rights through the west end. With the top-three of Darland, Cottle, and Cummins hammer-down on the top shelf, Brady Bacon was making hay around the bottom, surging from sixth to fourth. Twice a Montpelier winner in 2015 for Paul Hazen, Cottle made a bid for the lead on the bottom of one and two but by the back chute found himself in third when circled by Cummins.
With Bacon quickly closing on the top three, it was quite apparent that his team’s setup and lane choice were right on the money. Snatching third and second on lap 11, one lap later he surged to first exiting turn two. Dave and Kyle soon bolted for the bottom, but it was one lap too late. Bacon's big lead was erased by an A.J. Hopkins front stretch spin on lap 20 and four laps later, another caution came when Bret Mellenberndt spun, as yellow lights turned red for a pit side emergency. With a slight delay expected, the red was opened up to crews who could turn wrenches on torsion stops and adjust air pressure. Any of the changes made were not enough to keep car 69 from victory lane however, marking the team's 94th in USAC sprint car competition, all coming since 1989. In the process, the 2014 USAC national champ became the Hoffman’s winningest driver with 14 victories, surprising that such a low figure is number one.
Brady beat top-five finishers Cummins, Darland, Cottle (Shane), and Stockon. The second half of the top-ten consisted of Leary (hardest charger from 15th), Coons, Short (Carson), Stanbrough, and Grant. With all of these new roads a thing of the past, the series heads to familiar territory in Rossburg, Ohio for a two night stand on May 6th and 7th, with Stockon leading Cummins by 25, Bacon by 27, Meseraull by 31, and Darland by 67. Double-dipping on both nights with the World of Outlaws, it should be a blast! Hoping the weather allows me to catch some action on a busy weekend when the calendar flips from April to May, plenty of local options exist (Bloomington, Danville, Putnamville, Lawrenceburg, Haubstadt, Terre Haute, and Kokomo) but as usual, Mother Nature will ultimately chart my course. Even if nothing happens, I can take solace in the fact that I am once again on familiar turf, back in my element.
Volume 17, Number 14
If September served as my two-minute warning to savor the remainder of this 2015 racing season, October was the equivalent of trying to catch the ball and sprint to the sidelines, as there were simply not enough racing excursions remaining to keep the clock from showing all zeroes. No matter how much I’d like the season to stay alive, everything, good or bad, has its conclusion and racing is no different. Remembering contests at Winchester and Eldora running into early November back in the late '80s, track operators have since figured out that October is still a stretch to attract a respectable crowd. Apparently Indiana fans aren’t as hearty as they used to be, but there is also something to be said about limiting the supply so that adequate demand is maintained.
Filled with less than a handful of final drives that offer the last few peaceful escapes from the stress of everyday life without requiring costly airfare and precious vacation time, October’s initial outing came on the first Friday of the month. Not necessarily the most pleasant of excursions, Interstate 69 doesn’t offer anything in the way of eye candy, but it is efficient once outside of Fishers. Battling some abnormally stiff winds blowing from the east, judging by the ease with which they were tossing my full-size truck around, I should have known something was up. Upon exiting said vehicle, it sure felt like fall, as the bitter chill from those blustery conditions demanded every piece of clothing I carried, a rather a clear indication that those feelings of freedom enjoyed during the outdoor racing campaign were vanishing into thin air.
54 degrees at 6:30 PM felt more like 34, easily able to land a top row vantage point alongside USAC staffer Richie Murray. Such horrendous weather kept the crowd to a bare minimum, enticing attendance from only the most hardcore. Dropping just two degrees two and a half hours later when the 25-lap finale rolled off, surface grip was on opposite ends of the spectrum. Starting with vapor pouring off of right rears for hot laps/qualifying, over those 150 minutes the winds had polished the surface smooth and slick, generally not the most optimal conditions for wingless competition. However, the incredible action that would soon follow was the season’s most pleasant surprise, believing Scotty Weir’s thrilling victory to be my favorite feature of 2015.
Thirty-two sprinters populated Gas City’s pits, ripe with some rather interesting combinations. Most notable was Dave Darland’s initial association with Eaton, Ohio’s Jamie Paul, who has previously provided seats for Tyler Hewitt and Shane Cockrum. Another unique union saw Casey Shuman with Lincoln Park Speedway car owner champ Jeremy Ottinger, not to mention Haubstadt hero Dakota Jackson with Dave Stensland, the latter a previously planned combo for Brownstown’s No Way Out 40 way back in March. Yet another first-time pairing came with Colten Cottle and long-time car owner Ron Lambertson, who was back in business after a prior partnership with Roy Jackson’s 42. Scotty Weir (Keen 18), C.J. Leary (Pedersen 4), and A.J. Hopkins (Jackson 42) all reunited with rides from their past.
Recently moving to Wabash, Indiana after calling Anderson home for the last 33 years, Ron Lambertson’s inventory for the younger Cottle included a DRC chassis and Dick Kercher mill, wearing an unfamiliar number 1. Remembering Ron’s number to be 8L all the way back to his Dallas Kinser days, he also gave Colten’s uncle Shane a big break back in 2003, winning in their initial outing at this same venue. Lambertson has been around this sport for nearly his whole life, starting when he was just 13 years old at Warsaw Speedway (1964). Not too many years later, he became a car owner and hired Jerry Priest for the 1972 through 1974 seasons. At the time, Jerry was married to Ron’s sister but the two eventually divorced. Priest remarried Tony Elliott’s mother Sue after she lost her husband Jim to a motorcycle accident in the spring of 1973. In a bitter twist of irony, on this same day when I spoke to Ron, Sue would lose her son Tony as well.
Winning the first heat was USAC point leader Robert Ballou, who used this Gas City outing to sort out the handling on a Maxim chassis that did not perform to his level of expectation at the recent Four Crown Nationals. Driver Justin Grant, mechanic Derek Claxton, and owner Ken Baldwin were doing the same with their DRC chassis, brand new at Eldora when they failed to crack the A-main. Having tested the previous evening in Kokomo, I also noticed a switch in shock brands on the orange 5, going from SuperShox to Factory Kahne.
Transferring four from heats and redrawing the top-two, that rewarded Logan Jarrett with the pole, his first race back since his early August traffic accident. Fellow front row mate A.J. Hopkins reached the top of turn one first as the fight for runner-up status fanned three wide on the back chute. Tyler Courtney was one of those three, but Tyler’s untimely push between three and four took out Jarrett, who dramatically cartwheeled over the cushion. This time, Logan was ok after the ordeal.
Right after the red, Scotty Weir followed the infield tires and emerged with first, fending off a feisty Hopkins. Seventh-starting Dave Darland gained three spots on the initial tour and was soon following Weir, immediately stepping upstairs despite a miniscule cushion that existed on the east end. Scotty stayed low and allowed the Lincoln legend to lead by turn three, but the Marion, Indiana native found some bite at the bottom of four and would regain the premier position at the start/finish each lap. This back and forth battle would continue for four or five laps until Darland stole Weir’s spot at the bottom of three. Still high in one and two but low in three and four, Dave maintained a slim advantage through thick traffic, allowing me to divert my eyes to an incredible fight for fifth that contained nine cars. The awesome action was put on pause on lap 19 for a Max McGhee spin, allowing third-place Tyler Courtney a true shot as his top-shelf tactic had been extremely effective.
For the final six laps, it was a completely new contest as the lead trio was extremely tight. Tyler continued to ride the rim and inched past Scotty to score second, soon giving Darland all he could handle for first. Sliding the leader through one and two with three to go, Courtney was unable to seal the deal. It was more of the same the next time by, almost too close for comfort; thus allowing Weir to walk away with the lead thanks to his consistent launches off the bottom of two. Courtney again attempted one final slider on Darland to no avail, gift-wrapping Weir’s first win of the season.
Behind Darland and Courtney came Shane Cottle, and Robert Ballou. After bagging the B, Terre Haute traveler Brandon Mattox surged from 17th to 6th, impressive in his first-ever Gas City go. Grant, Leary, 16th-starting Critter Malone (in a rare wingless start), and 19th-starting Casey Shuman took seventh through tenth at the 9:17 PM checkered flag. Despite a few disappointing crowds unfairly influenced by weather, one can only hope that the O'Connors are willing to give Gas City another go for 2016, as the majority of their six race slate saw some extremely enjoyable and entertaining action.
On top of the world during my drive home, by the time I reached the spot where State Road 37 turned from two lanes to four I thumbed through my phone for open wheel updates, immediately brought back to reality when spotting the mind-numbing news of the plane crash that took the life of open wheel icon Tony Elliott. Just a few miles from the location where I learned that Jason Leffler had left us for good back in June of 2013 (also on a return trip from Gas City), Tony’s abrupt exit cut extremely deep, impossible to express in words the contributions he made to the Indiana wingless wars as a competitor (keeping the sport alive in the mid-to-late 1980s) and more recently as a fan, ambassador, and sponsor. It’s not every day that one gets to interact with living legends like Elliott, but such was the case as he was still a very big part of this scene. Sadly, his unique laugh, sharp sense of humor, upbeat outlook, playful personality, and permanent grin are now just memories. One of the sport’s most colorful characters, sprint car racing's vibrancy was instantly and infinitely dulled when he left us, much like a stiff wind blowing leaves from trees and leaving us without autumn's red, yellow, and orange foliage. Forever desiring to host a roundtable discussion with Tony, Dave Darland, and Kevin Thomas regarding their rivalry from the ‘80s and ‘90s Indiana sprint car scene, sadly my dream is no longer attainable. Doing more living in one of his 54 years than I may get to do my entire life, Tony Elliott truly enjoyed his existence, but it still haunts me as I ponder what was going through his mind in those final moments of impending doom. It’s a sad, sad story and we are all going to miss him dearly, but it sure was a blast to be a part of his world. Unfortunately, we just didn't know how good we had it when he was around.
Exactly one week from Gas City's final go I bypassed Brownstown's Fun Fest, a thriller bagged by Chase Briscoe for his first win in a limited 2015 campaign. Instead, I opted to wait a day and join my nephew and Matt Pedersen in a final drive to Eldora Speedway for its third annual Sprintacular, gladly going out of our way to Greenville for a sack of Maid Rites. Eventually meeting up with Tom Percy, the enjoyable evening provided a respite from the recent tragedy that consumed my thought processes. Known for attracting a large contingent in this sprint-only soiree, 2015 was no different as a record-setting count of 126 machines crammed the infield, requiring a couple dozen to pit outside of turn three. The headlining All Star Circuit of Champions drew 42 while the NRA winged 360s tallied 28. The wingless BOSS brigade boasted an all-time record assembly of 56, backing up the 53 that showed for USAC’s Four Crown just two weeks prior. Four men did double-duty with and without aerodynamic aid, namely Bryan Clauson, Gary Taylor, Bill Rose, and Brandon Matus. Six double-dipped in the airfoil-only arena, specifically Greg Wilson, Tanner Thorson, Randy Hannagan, Shawn Dancer, Ryan Ruhl, and Jared Horstman. Abnormal wingless chariots were assigned to Clauson (McGhee 7), Taylor (Courtad 9), Rose (Kissel 320), Hunter Schuerenberg (Walker 11), Landon Simon (Jim Simon 22), Mike Miller (Marshall 32), Todd Kane (Pearson 69), and Chad Boespflug (Hazen 57).
With hot laps commencing an hour and a half earlier than usual, much like the Four Crown the Sprintacular attempts to squeeze ten pounds of racing into a five pound bag. After hot laps, the All Stars took time through a single car, single lap process while the NRA required seven sessions for their four-car groups, both laying down starting positions for their heats (numbering five and three, respectively). BOSS aligned their six heats by a blind draw, creating some entertaining action as so many of the fast guys drew poorly. That left one trophy dash (All Stars), four B-mains (two for BOSS), and three A-mains, waving the final checkered at a respectable 10:29 PM.
As expected, BOSS prelims were best, highlighted by a ninth to first flogging by USAC point leader Robert Ballou. 2015 BOSS champion Shawn Westerfeld, J.T. Stapp, Tyler Courtney, Scotty Weir, and Cody Gardner claimed the other five, the furthest drive being from fourth. In addition to Ballou, other noteworthy performances came from Logan Jarrett (8th to 2nd), Clauson (9th to 3rd), Luke Hall (8th to 3rd), and Jarett Andretti (7th to 3rd). Stacked by a much more substantial cushion than the Four Crown, Eldora dirt enticed a lot more rim riders, which bit Kent Wolters and Joss Moffatt in separate B-main incidents. Operating in the final transfer, Lawrenceburg champion Moffatt mauled the wall and went for a huge ride, which up to this point was the biggest of the night.
Despite the breathtaking BOSS heats, the All Star finale once again stole the show. Four-time All Star champion Chad Kemenah was on it all night, scoring a clean sweep as he clocked quickest in time trials (12.841), battled with Steve Kinser to bag his heat, took the trophy dash, and used a late race romp to eclipse six-time series champ Dale Blaney, landing in Eldora’s victory lane for the first time since June of 2003. Flexing his Muddy muscle by hustling from tenth to third in the dash, with the aid of lapped traffic The Low Rider lifted the lead from Kemenah off the bottom of turn four on lap 15. However, Chad was not done. After a lap 18 restart for a Sheldon Haudenschild red, he took to a choppy top shelf and turned up the heat. With nine laps left, his humongous turn two momentum shot him past Blaney. Enduring one more restart and an attempted slide job with four to go, Kemenah collected his second All Star win of the season. Just like last year, Blaney settled for a Sprintacular second while outside front row starter Steve Kinser was third. Tim Shaffer and 22nd-starting Rico Abreu rounded out the top-five. Winning this race one year ago and still exhibiting zero fear, Rico of course put on a show with his high-side heroics and scorching slide jobs, truly a shame to see such talent wasted with NASCAR nonsense. Sixth through tenth included Four Crown WoO winner Wilson, Logan Wagner, Cap Henry, Cody Darrah, and Danny Holtgraver.
Crediting his car owners Rob and Rita Hunter, the mechanical genius of his brother Brian and a recent switch to Maxim chassis, Kemenah commented from victory lane, “I’m kind of speechless right now. We’ve been so mentally beat up this year. We tried to reinvent the tire for at least six months and it’s still round.” In discussing his mindset of running down a nearly unbeatable Blaney, a succinct Chad concluded, “He pissed me off. I’m tired of losing to him. I just needed to get back up on the fence and get after it. Either win it or wear it.”
Missing the All Star cut after a 19th to 7th B-main surge, Coldwater, Michigan’s Ryan Ruhl was the NRA 360 beneficiary after leader Kyle Sauder’s vicious turn one tumble, topping Moffatt for the evening’s most spectacular spill. With a huge lead in hand, Kyle absolutely killed an Aaron Call/Janet Hollbrook J&J chassis after scaling the right rear tire of lapper Ronnie Blair. Inheriting first place after firing from fifth, Ryan ruled the final 14 tours, registering his first Eldora conquest. Ruhl easily outdistanced 12th-starting Jared Horstman, Devon Dobie, 20th-starting Randy Hannagan, and Tanner Thorson.
The final BOSS battle of 2015 offered a championship front row, both present and past with Shawn Westerfeld and Dustin Smith. Westerfeld immediately dropped like a rock, falling outside of the top-ten at the conclusion of lap one. Smith led the first four circuits but could not contain a turn one slider from third-starting Ballou, who built a half-straight advantage in just one lap. Owning a massive margin by the halfway mark, Robert nearly threw it all away after climbing the right rear of Brandon Spithaler. One final caution with six laps left eliminated his huge lead, but Ballou still ruled the roost and tallied his 15th triumph of the season. In that final dash, Bryan Clauson slid Chad Boespflug for second and hung with the leader for a lap or two, but a teeter-totter ride in turn one sealed his fate. After the checkered fell, Brandon Spithaler was again the center of attention as he dumped Ray Marshall’s deuce in corner four.
Serious sliders were the special of the day as the top-five finishers employed them frequently in their charges from deep in the field. Clauson came from 13th to snag second while Boespflug gained valuable Big E experience by successfully pulling off a multitude of the signature dive bombs, producing a respectable third in his Paul Hazen reunion. Hunter Schuerenberg shot past 15 cars to find fourth while Scotty Weir worked his way past seven to secure fifth in the Keen 18. Operating as high as third, Tyler Courtney scored sixth for Chuck Eberhardt while Dallas Hewitt settled for seventh after running second for the majority of the race in Mark Swanson’s Twister. Cody Gardner, 18th-starting Todd Kane, and Logan Jarrett rounded out the top-ten.
Continuing to say what is on his mind without filter, Ballou bellowed, “We came here a couple of weeks ago for the Four Crown with a new racecar and it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. This thing’s about ten years old, it’s an ex-Danny Smith car, and I haven’t ran it since 2011. We took all the parts off the other car and put this thing together. This is one hell of a Maxim chassis. I’ve got to thank Derrick Bye. We busted our butts getting this thing done. We finished it at about two o’clock this afternoon. It was good from the time we started and I wish we had this thing at the Four Crown. Hats off to whoever the track prep guy is. He did his homework tonight and gave us something to race with. It was pretty brutal the other week. But, if it was easy, everyone would have a track prep job.” With all three features won from the top shelf, that’s the way I want to remember my final drive home from Eldora Speedway for 2015.
The day after Eldora I was headed northeast to Warsaw to pay my respects to Tony Elliott on an otherwise gorgeous Sunday afternoon. It’s hard to believe, but the last time I traversed Indiana State Road 15 was 1989, following photographer Steve Remington to an All Star sprint car meet at Warsaw Speedway. Tony’s visitation was held at the massive Warsaw Community Church just south of town, where some comfort was gained by sharing sentiments with so many familiar faces from the racing fraternity, all of us feeling the same void from losing this larger than life personality. Personally extending my condolences to Tony’s wife Cindy, I was amazed at her resilience in such a tragic time. I’m not sure how she pulled it all together, but she did, pleasantly surprised by the selection of so many perfect pictures that chronicled her husband’s incredible career, all professionally blown up, mounted on fiberboard, and placed on easels throughout the church. Enjoying the golden oldies of Tony with his go-kart and street stock, I couldn’t help but get choked up as I thumbed through his racing scrapbook from the 1980s, having attended so many of the same affairs – again not knowing how good I had it at the time. Spotted in so many of those pictures was Tony’s longtime pal Roger Brandon, who naturally was at the end of the line to offer an embrace. With so many of his helmets, suits, and trophies on display, I was most moved by the sight of Tony’s 1998 USAC championship winning Jeff Walker Racing Stealth, proudly wearing the number one as it was parked outside the front doors along with his most recent Little 500 ride belonging to Gene Nolen. Both Walker and Nolen thrashed all week to assemble these machines from a bare frame and my hat is truly tipped to these men as their efforts and ultimate tribute truly made my day. It’s never easy to say goodbye, and Sunday was no different.
Next up on my October agenda was the final journey to Kokomo Speedway, the 15th occasion to enter the City of Firsts for thrilling auto racing entertainment this season. On tap was the ninth running of the Kokomo Klash, preferring to partake in Friday’s open wheel offering that saw 161 cars from five different classes overflow the pit area. Focused on the 29 sprint cars and 32 midgets, also joining in the fun were 27 600cc mini sprints, 30 thunder cars, and 43 hornets. Saturday’s finale was entirely tin-top, 179 cars strong.
Arriving as combined hot laps and qualifying were concluding, Justin Grant was the quickest of all in Kenny Baldwin’s 5, hearing how previous Baldwin Brothers bandit and 2015 track champion C.J. Leary prematurely called it a night with terminal engine issues. Often times pairing drivers with unusual rides, this year’s Klash had Brandon Mattox getting the nod in Jerry Burton’s 04, interesting to see news that normal pilot Jeff Bland would be heading back to his own 38 for 2016. With Brian Cripe calling the shots, Pennsylvania transplant Tony DiMattia acquired an ex-Chris Gentry DRC that previously found victory lane with Chase Stockon.
With the Klash format altered slightly from standard Sunday night sprint car affairs, there would be no feature redraw, instead lining the finale straight up from heat race finishes. Offering plenty of motivation to win, Darland, McGhee, and Cottle (Shane) took top honors from the first or second row. Back in Jeff Walker’s 11, Darland may have secured the pole, but it wasn’t without its share of drama. Doused with fuel as it was wildly spraying through the dashboard and around the gauges, Dave ignored the distraction and still got the job done despite a noticeable loss of power. Believing a fuel line was loose, such was not the case as Walker’s squad eventually found a broken valve. Before strapping in for the feature, the driver was still confident that he could win on seven cylinders, as the plan was to remove the spark plug on that bad cylinder and block off the fuel line. Unfortunately, not all plans come to fruition as while warming up on the track, the all-time Kokomo feature winner said his engine shook abnormally under heavy acceleration. After turning down the fuel to build some heat, the power plant shut off, scratching an opportunity for a special victory as Tony Elliott’s son Brandon was on-hand to wave the green flag and award the feature-winning trophy. Always enjoying storybook finishes, it would have been rather appropriate for Walker and Darland to win in honor of the man who made both infinitely better racers. But unlike NASCAR, Indiana sprint car racing is the real deal, with no artificial endings necessary.
With Darland’s scratch, Shane Cottle copped the pole position and the rest, as they say, was history. So fitting that Paul Hazen’s machine would claim this emotional Kokomo round given the car owner’s rich history of winning on these same grounds with Jim Elliott and his son Tony, having a third generation Elliott join him in victory lane provided that storybook ending after all. Even though he led all 25 laps, it was far from a leisurely drive for Cottle, his second of the season here and fifth overall in 2015.
A cool 39 degrees at the drop of the green, outside front row starter Max McGhee led to turn one but hooked the turn two cushion and fell to fourth as Cottle coaxed the lead in his DRC/Kercher. Two early cautions for Joe Bares and Brandon Mattox kept Shane honest, with Jerry Coons, Jr., Brady Short, Logan Jarrett, and Justin Grant following him back to green with 21 laps left. The Throttle consistently laid low in one and two while flying high in three and four, keeping Coons at bay during a long green flag stretch. Inching to the edge of my seat as Grant galloped to third by bouncing off the boards, Short would regain the show position when the former BCRA midget master gathered Mattox in a synchronized spin. Three laps later, McGhee scaled concrete in corner two and stopped, setting up a six lap dash to the checkered. Restarting 4th from 14th, Kevin Thomas, Jr. hustled to second, running out of laps in Mike Dutcher’s Maxim/Fisher. Chasing Cottle and Thomas were Coons, Short, and Jarrett. Grant recovered to score sixth while Casey Shuman (up from 16th in Jeremy Ottinger’s DRC), Kyle Robbins (from 17th), Jarett Andretti, and Colten Cottle completed the second half of the top-ten.
The Klash’s 32 midgets offered a wide array of equipment and talent. The cream certainly rose to the top in the four heats as winners included recent Spoon River POWRi producer Justin Peck, three-time 2015 POWRi victor Spencer Bayston, twice Indiana Midget Week champ Shane Cottle (Ecker 57), and current USAC point leader Tracy Hines. Kokomo maestro Justin Grant (Gardner 38) put on a show in finishing second to Bayston but because he did so on just three cylinders forced him to scratch from the feature lineup. An up-front B-main battle between Logan Arnold and Noblesville’s Jeremy Warren was cut short when Warren encountered issues, this coming after Richard Drangmeister climbed a wheel in corner two and flipped wildly. Before the accident, 32 year-old Drangmeister commented that this was the first time he had driven this older Edmunds chassis, having purchased the car for a measly $200 at a Dave Dayton Thanksgiving auction with his allowance money when he was just 10 years old.
Powered by a 2.2 liter Chrysler, Richard was one of three generations of Drangmeisters in competition, as this Crown Point/Hobart, Indiana family epitomizes the ultimate little guy looking for a place to race. His father Ken, who was just ten days short of a 65th birthday, had his iron block Pontiac go up in smoke during the B-main while Ken’s 23 year-old grandson Eric Hein did manage to finish with his Olds Quad 4 powered Ellis copy. The Drangmeisters represented three members of a healthy assembly of “D2” Klash competitors, which could indeed become the wave of midget racing’s future as POWRi is said to be sanctioning such a division while Wisconsin’s famed Badger series is modifying its rules to only allow stock block/stock headed engines for 2016. Speaking of Badger, Chili Bowl and Hut 100 winner Scott Hatton was on-hand with a stock Honda and finished a respectable third in his heat race and sixth in the feature.
As for that midget finale, it was well worth the wait and the 37 degree temperatures, quite an entertaining little affair. Peck, Bayston, Cottle, and Hines made up the first two rows by virtue of their heat race wins, such a surprise to see Hines spin across a slicker than expected bottom groove in turn three of lap one. But, with 25 laps left, he had plenty of time to get back to the front, as I made the prediction to Joe Higdon that he would come back to win the thing. I wasn’t far off.
One lap after Tracy’s miscue, a three car scrum involved Justin Dickerson, Dave Camfield, and Arnold, going all green until lap 19. Peck briefly held P1 until 2013 Klash midget winner Shane Cottle showed him how low one can go at Kokomo, stealing the lead while eighth-starter Casey Shuman, doubling his pleasure in a Dickerson team car, made his way to third. Hines, meanwhile, was already up to 8th. Ten laps in, Cottle relinquished any shot at a clean sweep when he pulled to the infield, placing Peck in the hot seat once again. The trio of Shuman, Hines, and Bayston scrapped for second for a few laps and just as Spencer slid Casey in turn one, Shuman’s car gave up the ghost, illuminating amber bulbs for the final time.
Peck, Bayston, and Hines led the dwindling field back to green but Justin would jump too high in turn four, dramatically handing the lead to a bottom-feeding Hines. Tracy soon felt pressure from the rim-riding Bayston, who flirted with the fence in his Bryan Clauson Inc. Spike/Esslinger. The recently turned 17 year-old from Lebanon, Indiana actually made that treacherous top shelf work, overhauling Hines with three laps left to take his fifth feature victory of 2015. Chasing Spencer and Tracy to the Saturday morning checkered were 12th-starting Shane Hollingsworth, 9th-starting Nick Speidel, and C.J. Leary. Sixth through tenth included the aforementioned Hatton, Austin Prock, 16th-starting Ryan Greth, 20th-starting Kurt Mayhew, and Dalton Camfield. With two more features to go, sadly it was time to bid a fond farewell to K-town as there were too many morning tasks to complete before needing to leave for Lawrenceburg.
Short on sleep due to the late night, despite a definite feeling of fatigue my internal clock kept reminding me that it was time get my butt out of bed as time was truly running out in this 2015 outdoor agenda. Needing to him the gym, mow, and stop to see Speedball before my ultimate final drive, October 17th’s excursion to Lawrenceburg Speedway’s Fall Nationals was hardly reason for celebration as the end was clearly in sight. However, if there was any way to put an exclamation point on the last seven months, a USAC Midwestern sprint car finale would be just the ticket.
Preceded by a Friday night World of Outlaws round claimed by Paul McMahan, Kings Royal victor Shane Stewart scored second and was the only outlaw regular to shed wings for a next day $1,000 bonus. Not surprised by the lack of Saturday participation due to a completely segregated sprint car world, despite Shane’s ugly meeting with the turn three wall in qualifications it was still a noble effort, wishing more winged warriors would be willing to step out of their comfort zone. While Shane’s Larson-Marks Cool chassis (imported from Australia) was cracking concrete, I was instantly taken back to Hales Corners 1991 when Sammy Swindell tumbled in CRA Midwest Tour qualifying, with Donny Schatz’s 2003 Hoosier Hundred hot laps incident also coming to mind. After Stewart’s rough ride broke the frame at the radiator on both sides, my immediate thought was that the days of Outlaw drivers moonlighting in anything other than Chili Bowl midgets is effectively over and has been since the Mopar Million. Thankfully, there are still a few old souls left like Bryan Clauson who prefer to buck the trend, but it’s going to take more than a grand for the usual wingers to go without.
Except for Stewart’s early drama and the bitter chill from a typical Indiana autumn, the night had plenty of other positives. So many people to see and speak to, immediately upon scaling grandstand steps the first two included Jack Hewitt (soon headed South for the winter) and 2000 HARF sprint car rookie of the year Jeff Wilson (crediting Jack with helping him in his first Eldora late model outing in 1994). After hot laps and qualifying came seven-time Lawrenceburg Speedway champion Greg Staab, French-Canadian sprint car star Dwayne Spille (with an accent on the E in Spille), and five-time Daytona 24-Hour winning crew chief Kevin Doran, all Cincinnati racing mainstays. Despite discerning a distinct front end push, Staab got to stab and steer Josh Shaw’s cageless Ellison Special for several hot laps while his protégé Joey Kerr strapped into another Shaw creation and bravely stood on the loud pedal, attempting to run down eventual vintage feature winner Mike Mason.
In addition to my final encounter with pit side personalities, naturally there was yet another chapter unfolding in an air-tight three-way USAC championship conflict containing Robert Ballou, Chase Stockon, and Dave Darland. With $1,100 up for grabs for quick time (the extra $1,000 came from the world-famous whistling turbodiesels of the Lawrenceburg Speedway fire and safety crew), there was added incentive to get after it early. Twelfth in a line of 34 cars, 2013 track champ C.J. Leary had his dad calling the shots on his DRC, bagging the bonus bucks with his 13.898 second circuit. Tony DiMattia was an impressive second-best while Kyle Robbins also opened eyes with the third fastest lap. Dave Darland, Kyle Cummins, and Chad Boespflug (Nolen 20) rounded out the quick-six. Title contenders Chase Stockon and Robert Ballou did not help their championship cause after clocking 12th and 24th.
Lawrenceburg’s cushion was pushed high unusually early in the evening and the slightly slick surface paid dividends during these final heat races, perhaps the best I have ever witnessed at the revamped 3/8ths mile Lawrenceburg layout despite being won from either the first or second row. Thoroughly enjoying a third heat battle for the final transfer between Jarett Andretti, Robbins, and a vastly improved Lee Dakus, the fourth heat was supremely stacked with Ballou, Darland, Grant, Stockon, Stanbrough, and Hines. The latter two would have to come through the consy, as would four of the quick six qualifiers. K-Robb was one of those four, but his wall contact and subsequent spin excluded him from the A. The same status befell Dallas Hewitt (Swanson 21), Dakus, DiMattia, and Mattox, all involved in some sort of calamity.
With ten thousand George Washington portraits providing plenty of motivation, 11th-quick Scotty Weir and defending series champ Brady Bacon occupied front row seats for the 30-lap finale. Bacon had to be the favorite as his hometown Hoffman Triple-X/Williams Precision Mopar scored the last USAC win here in July. Beating Scotty to the top of turn two, Brady led the first lap while Four Crown winner Thomas Meseraull flew from fourth to second in his Amati Racing DRC/Dynotech. T-Mez seized the day with a second lap slider through one and two, but Dave Darland’s backstretch stoppage brought caution and put Bacon back out front. Caused by his Phillips Motorsports DRC jumping out of gear, this incident came after breaking a set of quick change gears at the conclusion of qualifying. Much to the dismay of my grandstand neighbor Joe Higdon, yet another prime opportunity for the ’99 series champ to gain points was flushed down the drain.
On the restart, Meseraull wasted no time in getting down to business, sliding Bacon in turn one and showing supreme speed, enough to build an insurmountable advantage. Encountering lapped traffic by the 12th tour, T-Mez might have been slightly shadowed by Kevin Thomas, Jr., but KTJ could never close the gap, especially after the third and fourth corner attracted rubber and made the remainder of the race a single-file affair. Tallying his second USAC triumph in a row, this was Meseraull’s monumental tenth win of the season and fourth at Lawrenceburg, truly a career year for the old-school crowd-pleasing cowboy. Thomas, Jr. was runner-up for the second night in a row, with Leary, Bacon (earning a monetary bonus from Indy Race Parts and Spike for having the best average finish between Friday and Saturday), and Chris Windom (from 15th) completing the first five. Kody Swanson (Wolters 21), Stockon, Weir, Stanbrough, and hard-charger Ballou (up from 21st) secured sixth through tenth. Darland could only claim 15th, losing eight points to Ballou as he now sits 43 in arrears. Meanwhile, Stockon is just 19 points out of first as the series heads west for the remaining six shows.
After gifting us with his now signature victory lane howl, an amped-up Meseraull addressed the chilled crowd and USAC microphone master Dillon Welch. Thomas touted, “Thank you so much for coming out and being a part of this deal. This was my tenth win on the season. How about that! Ten grand for my tenth win in front of my favorite fans! I’m pretty Shane Wade needs to call Todd Keen and thank him for giving me so many laps down here because really, without the 18 car and all the laps I had here, I wouldn’t be up here (in victory lane). But you know, with this 66 Amati Racing team, we’re on a roll. Donnie had ‘er hooked up tonight!”
Done by 9:55 PM, that left enough time for one last trip through the pits with Railroad Joe, making a pact to meet up again on December 12th for the groundbreaking Indy Invitational at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, a dirt midget/outlaw kart doubleheader conducted on a dirt surface constructed overnight on the home floor of the Indiana Pacers. With recent news of USAC sanction added to DuQuoin’s indoor Junior Knepper 55 on December 19th and of course Fort Wayne’s Rumble in the Expo on December 26th and 27th, this off-season doesn’t quite seem so daunting – not yet at least.
Still in a Queen City state of mind on my ultimate final drive home, I tried extending the evening by stopping for a Skyline fix in Batesville. Mulling over the last seven months that amounted to a 54-race campaign, I easily remembered the thrilling Sunday afternoon opening round in Brownstown, Indiana like it was yesterday. But, once getting into my racing groove, each successive weekend resulted in one big blur, thus defining this 2015 season that was now in my rearview mirror, truly a thing of the past.
Defined as the means for transmitting power from the propeller shaft to the rear axle in an automotive vehicle, the term “final drive” also has similar significance in this soon-to-be offseason. With these final four races of October leaving such a positive lasting impression, the resulting energy from these recollections constantly turn an imaginary set of gears in my head, thus propelling me not just to those December indoor midget duels, but also the far-reaching prize of spring 2016 outdoor action. No matter how much I try to convince myself that I should be cutting back on my open wheel attendance and resulting writing, when the action is in such short supply I can’t help but crave to be back in my dirt track element and living life to its fullest, the only way I have known for the last 30 years. Having dragged my feet these last two weeks in completing this final column of 2015, I have finally come to grips with the fact that the clock has indeed expired. Yes, it might be time to move on to fall and wintertime activities, but with my mind still stuck in October those gears are in perpetual motion, mentally priming me for that next, elusive race. I know I’m ready – how about you?
Volume 17, Number 13
When pondering the most awkward and uncomfortable moments in my life, only occasions such as first dates, weddings, and being pulled over for speeding exceed the uneasiness associated with the start of a new job and new school year. Going back to September of 1986 and a painful beginning to my freshman year of high school, one of the few comforts was having an English teacher who was also one of our football coaches, extremely casual in his approach and clearly sports-minded. So, in the theme of NBA public-address announcers, two minutes from the end of each class Mr. Morris anointed one student to call out a warning: "Two minutes. Two minutes." Yep, that was our signal to finish up any work, pack up our belongings, and wait for the bell to move on to the next period.
Fast-forwarding to 2015, of course football season has begun, with the aforementioned two minute warning serving as an integral aspect of this game as well. Unfortunately, football’s beginning signals the imminent end of outdoor racing in Indiana, as the entire month of September is essentially sprint, midget, and champ dirt car racing's two minute warning, leaving just a smattering of October shows to enjoy before settling into hibernation mode once again. Seriously, does it have to be that time already?
My month of September open wheel activity began with a highly enjoyable journey to Du Quoin, Illinois for USAC Silver Crown racing's traditional Ted Horn 100, creating humongous momentum for the rest of the month. Playing passenger as my nephew acted as chauffeur, family friend Matt Pedersen was an integral participant in this expedition that initially directed us to downtown Du Quoin's St. Nicholas Brewing Company, enjoying some excellent craft beer and pub grub in an ancient hotel sitting along the former Illinois Central main line. An extremely muggy 90-plus degree afternoon/early evening at the Magic Mile, I will save the details for an upcoming column in Flat Out magazine, but suffice it to say this was the most thrilling one mile dirt champ car contest I have ever been witness to in my 30 years of attending such endeavors. With last year's winner Shane Cockrum and asphalt outlaw Aaron Pierce scratching and clawing under the same lead blanket as pole sitter Kody Swanson, Shane and Aaron exchanged the runner-up slot several times, pulling even with the white number 63 as they applied serious heat. So spectacular and stealing the show, the fearless Pierce pounded the cushion lap after lap and threw sparks as he kissed concrete on three separate occasions, the last of which eliminated him from battle. Just before Pierce's spin, Cockrum slid Swanson in turn three, able to repeat the feat on the restart. Much to the delight of the hometown crowd and retiring announcer Jim Childers, Benton, Illinois's fire chief led the remaining 33 tours to take his second Du Quoin victory in a row, his third career Silver Crown score. Chasing the Hardy Boys Maxim to the checkered were Chris Windom (blowing a tire on the cool down lap in the Gormly 98), Swanson, Justin Grant, and Casey Shuman (Bateman 55). Although we stopped for caffeine and nourishment in Effingham, there's nothing like an epic event to keep me energized on a four hour ride home in the wee hours of Labor Day morning.
Less than a week later, Montpelier Motor Speedway’s BOSS bash was the next play in my two-minute drill, skipping hot laps so that I could stop for a shake at the Upland, Indiana ice cream institution known as Ivanhoe’s. Choosing peaches and cream as one of 100 flavors, never mind the thirty minute wait as there are few things in life that I enjoy more than ice cream. Suffice it to say, but it’s a good thing I don’t live any closer as the notion of getting my name on a plaque for sampling all 100 flavors is a challenge that I feel confident I could master in a short amount of time.
Arriving to find a field of 40 machines for a standard $1,500 to win/$200 to start BOSS payout, the pit area offered an extremely old-school feel. Basking in the glow of such living legends like Jack Hewitt, Bob Hampshire, Rusty McClure, Ralph Ligouri, and Greg Staab, I was most surprised to see Hamp in the house, as he was here just to watch his Silver Crown chauffeur Kody Swanson stab 360 cubic inches of steel block power for car owner Kent Wolters. Still pondering a return to Silver Crown competition in Springfield, Hewitt played the role of team manager for Iowa car owner Mark Swanson, who installed Jack’s nephew Dallas in the seat of his coil-front F5/Twister chassis. Mark is more famous for his previous TNT pursuits with Charles Davis, Jr., who piloted this same piece at a recent BOSS meet in Moler, also unable to get Mark’s Silver Crown chariot to fire in Du Quoin. So happy and proud to be back doing his racing thing and “working his ass off this summer”, the always positive Greg Staab was here with his girlfriend Penny, tending to Indy Race Parts business for Bernie Stuebgen. Some 72 pounds lighter and best of all cancer-free, Greg says he’s back to a five day a week gym routine.
Among the field of 40 were heavyweight contenders Jon Stanbrough, Justin Grant, and Shane Cottle, with the balance of the field consisting of an odd assortment of Waynesfield, Lawrenceburg, and BOSS regulars. Taking a break from his own 81, Stanbrough found work in the Spike chassis belonging to Greenfield’s Scott Pedersen, aided as always by Scott’s father Red and son Ryan. The Pedersen 4 was one of five sprint cars towed on an open trailer. Directly relating to the relaxed atmosphere that this series offers, no wonder the following is so strong.
On his way home from dropping an engine block at Jeff Claxton’s shop earlier in the day, I watched the five heats with Dayton, Ohio’s Jamie Miller. Punctuated by two massive flips, the first involved Aaron “Mid-Air” Middaugh, who caught the outside wall exiting turn four and nearly took out the flag stand in his tumble atop concrete. Tearing out a section of fencing, thankfully Aaron was ok, as his mid-downtube Schnee chassis did its job quite nicely. The second spill ended the evening of NHRA pro-stock bike racer Chaz Kennedy, who was making his initial sprint car foray in the BOSS house car belonging to series founder Aaron Fry. The only racer to make all BOSS events in series history, Middaugh earned a $50 Hard Luck Award from Dayton, Ohio’s Lynn Cook, one of a laundry list of unique prizes offered.
With rain falling on Friday and mid-day Saturday, by 3 PM the Montpelier staff was not certain that they could pull off the event. Rolling the dice by moving forward, they were once again rewarded with a full house of fans who had to endure a pair of surface revamps. However, the resulting racing was well worth it, as a solid 25-lap feature contained several lead swaps. Pole-sitter J.T. Stapp paced the first seven circuits in his ex-Sammy Swindell Big Game Maxim, but it would be May Montpelier MSCS winner Shane Cottle taking over on lap eight with an inside attack at turn three. Up front for five rounds, Cottle was overhauled by BOSS point leader Shawn Westerfeld, who surprised The Throttle with an outside sweep of corner four. After shadowing The Guilford Gasser for three laps, Shane returned the favor again in turn three, leading the final ten tours for his fourth win of the season, sweeping 2015 Montpelier sprint car combat. In addition to the $1,500 first prize, Cottle claimed a new right rear tire for car owner Paul Hazen, as he was the highest finisher riding on exclusive American Racer rubber.
Swanson amassed $900 for his second place showing, earning him an extra fifty bucks from Hochstetler Truck and Auto Repair for being the highest finishing steel block. Justin Grant galloped from ninth to third in Kenny Baldwin’s 5 and earned $700, snagging a new Hoosier right rear as he was the highest finisher wearing four Hoosiers. Stanbrough started seventh, was as high as third, but settled for fourth while Westerfeld faded to fifth. Sixth through tenth included Cody Gardner, Waynesfield champ Luke Hall, Dallas Hewitt, Landon Simon, and J.T. Stapp. After spinning early, Hewitt hailed the $50 Hard Charger bonus from Sidney, Ohio’s Bridge Restaurant.
The following Friday found me in Terre Haute for the combined Tony Hulman/Jim Hurtubise Classic, a rescheduled round from the Wednesday of Indy 500 week. Paired with Saturday's $10,000 to win Haubstadt Hustler, this crucial weekend twin bill served as the two minute warning for USAC national sprint car championship contenders Chase Stockon and Dave Darland, both within striking distance of leader Robert Ballou but running out of time in their quest for the crown. After being rained out on October 3rd, Lawrenceburg’s Fall Nationals is the final Midwestern stop, rescheduled for October 17th after the scheduled round at Kentucky Lake Motor Speedway was canceled for the oddest of reasons – eminent domain for the expansion of Interstate 69. So much for my attempt to visit a new track...
After a full day of work there was no possible way to make it in time for 6 PM hot laps, arriving mid-qualifying for the 27 car contingent. Friday morning showers were no longer evident as black streaks showed in Bob Sargent’s surface, surprised to see the cushion pushed to the wall so early. Replacing Chad Boespflug in the Amati 66, Thomas Meseraull nearly got tripped up by the lip that bit Canadian Lee Dakus and Robert Bell, both of them cracking concrete. Two cars from the end of the line, 2013 Hulman Classic winner Jerry Coons, Jr. displayed his terrific Terre Haute form by clocking quickest at 20.490 in Monte Edison’s Spike. Aiding their attack, Darland and Stockon gained a few points on tenth-quick Ballou after timing third and fourth. However, Ballou gained it back when bagging the first of three heats, as Darland could only drive to second while Stockon was swallowed by an odd Stanbrough spin.
1993 and 2014 Hulman Classic winner Darland fired from fifth in the thirty-lap finale. Following the bottom to fan three wide in the first set of corners, by the time he reached the back chute he had already propelled to P1, officially up front for 23 tours in his usual Phillips Motorsports DRC/Foxco. Truly a tale of two races for Diamond Dave, he built a full straight advantage by lap four and was in his own zip code. Lapping big names like Terre Haute Sprint Week winner Aaron Farney and Brady Short before the halfway mark, his gargantuan advantage was eliminated when Mario Clouser crashed hard in corner two.
The resulting restart and final 17 laps were an altogether different deal, as Darland suddenly could not shake second and third place runners Windom and Ballou. With nine laps left, congestion became a serious issue and allowed Chris and Robert to further close the gap. Three laps later, Windom pulled alongside the leader in turn one and created his own hole with a last-minute slider. Dave subsequently bounced off the boards, dropping one spot further when Ballou swept to his outside one lap later. However, had it not been for Windom’s turn two concrete contact on lap 28, Robert would have had to settle for second. As it was, he seized the day and took home his tenth USAC trophy of 2015, including a pair of Winchester rifles as part of the 45-year Hulman Classic tradition.
Windom, Darland, Stanbrough, and Coons took home top-fives while Thomas, Stockon, Leary (from 18th), Bacon, and Courtney (from 21st) were sixth through tenth at the 9:57 PM checkered flag. Heading to Haubstadt, Ballou’s advantage increased to 44 over Stockon and 55 over Darland.
Back to Indy on Friday evening, once Saturday chores were complete I was again a solo pilot pointed southwest to Haubstadt. Employing a slightly different route of 465/70/231/67/57/50/241/41 with a requisite stop in Washington for a strawberry shake at Mason’s Root Beer Stand, the end of the rainbow was a conglomeration of 30 sprint cars for this USAC/MSCS union. Given that this race is the baby of Tri-State Speedway operator Tommy Helfrich, MSCS rules reigned supreme, resulting in feature points only for USAC regulars and a boatload of unexpected drama all night long.
After Ballou’s Terre Haute tally, suddenly the momentum of this September two-minute drill swung in favor of Darland and Stockon after Robert fell victim to first heat Haubstadt calamity, due in part to the MSCS blind draw. Ballou scaled a wheel and landed on his lid (also eliminating Shane Cottle) after front row starter Nick Johnson swung sideways. This being the second attempt at a start, the first connected pole sitter Mike Terry with second row starter Justin Grant (Grant later received an accidental wheel from underdog Robert Bell). USAC’s point leader had to come from behind all night, hustling from 11th to 4th in the B and 20th to 7th in the A. With Chase Stockon and Dave Darland finishing just ahead in fifth and sixth, the damage was minimized as his point lead shrunk by six.
Thankfully the second heat was much cleaner than the first and served as a feature preview, as Princeton's Kyle Cummins had Chris Windom believing that he was a bottom-feeder, only to step upstairs to steal the win from fourth in Hank Byram’s Mach 1/CRE. In action for the first time since early May, last year's Haubstadt Hustler winner Daron Clayton returned in his familiar number 92 Spike and with inboard brake glowing, finished directly behind third heat winner Brady Bacon. Fort Branch's Donny Brackett and his Eagle chassis soared above the competition in heat four, unaware of the heavy contact involving Carson Short, Kent Schmidt, and Hunter Schuerenberg (Walker 11) that sent Hunter to the sidelines. Carson became a B-main casualty after inverting, as did Jeff Bland, Jr. after his altercation with Jon Stanbrough. His second race since splitting with long-time wrench Daryl Tate, Jon’s evening was a nightmare, needing to swap smashed nerf bars and headers in between B and A. Thanks to a thrash from Chris Hoyer and Marc Girard, Jon was able to cash in a provisional pass but fared no better after colliding with Schuerenberg. Chad Boespflug (Krockenberger 21) scored the final transfer.
After a redraw of the top-six in passing points, a rather intriguing front row was comprised of local favorites Clayton and Cummins. Due to incidents involving Windom, James Lyerla (assisted by Jason Knoke), and Grant, two attempts at the original start failed. The third time was the charm, but it didn’t do Daron any favors, as his machine was still a handful. Nearly spinning on the first attempt, Clayton touched wheels with Brackett on the back chute and immediately pulled to the infield, exiting his ride to inspect the front end (broken sway bar). Motivated to race in memory of his son Kinser who sadly passed away a few days after Daron won this race one year ago, another dramatic victory was not in the cards.
An initial USAC victory was also not in the cards for Kyle Cummins, despite leading 35 of 40 feature laps. Cummins was clearly the class of the field and even though 12th-starting Brady Short made it interesting with ten laps left, Sweet Feet still had a ways to go when the unthinkable occurred. Aaron Farney’s front stretch spin blocked half of the track and while Kyle’s last minute decision to veer left appeared to be correct, he didn’t have nearly enough room to avoid Aaron, ending his night due to heavy right rear contact. Instead of parking in victory circle, it was heartbreak hotel for Kyle and his faithful followers. One of these days, he’ll get that USAC win, proving that his late-season speed was no fluke by scoring his second Haubstadt MSCS victory of the month on September 26th.
In the right place at the right time, Short inherited the lead and held off tenth-starting newlywed Kevin Thomas, Jr. for the $10,000 score, his 16th of a career year for the Bedford, Indiana native. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology sophomore Dakota Jackson enjoyed the drive of his life in his family-owned Bullet chassis, starting third and finishing in the same position after mixing it up with the best in the business. Like Cummins, Jackson is extremely stout at this speedway and will be a future threat. Bacon and Stockon secured fourth and fifth while Darland, Ballou, Windom, Leary, and Meseraull populated the second half of the top-ten. Immediately heading for the exits to get a jump on traffic, I missed a heated post-race altercation involving T-Mez and 11th-place finisher Shane Cottle. Given their size differential, I wonder how that fared. Nonetheless, the on-track festivities were extremely exciting, extending another thank you to “Railroad” Joe Higdon for reserving my seat and providing some entertaining commentary. Next up for Tri-State is its season-concluding $3,000 to win Harvest Cup for MSCS sprints on October 10th. Brady Short is already the series champ, so this race is all about cash and bragging rights.
Missing out on the World of Outlaws portion of the Eldora Four Crown Nationals for a Fort Wayne wedding, my consolation prize was a late-night snack at the iconic Powers Hamburgers, my first time to sample this tiny 75 year-old Fort Wayne institution that is famous for extremely tasty sliders. As for Saturday, I would not be denied in my quest to celebrate a milestone 30 year anniversary of my first-ever Four Crown and initial visit to Eldora Speedway. Meeting up with Cleveland area camper Tom Percy, while on our way to the main grandstand we had to stop and inspect Phil Poor's stunning restoration of Steve Butler's 1989 Four Crown winning Gambler sprint car, sending me back in time to that ’85 edition when Phil’s sprinter was piloted by winner Larry Rice. Almost unheard of on daytime surfaces, Rice asked to have the very same right rear tire attached to his LeFevre Silver Crown ride and won yet again. Maintaining my interest in this kind of action after three decades, that certainly indicates the massive impression that the ’85 Four Crown had on my life. Always wondering what the future may hold, call me a creature of habit but it seems unfathomable to be anywhere else in late September. One of my favorite events of the entire year as it is the only occasion when USAC’s primary open wheel divisions share the same billing, Eldora's Four Crown Nationals is my own two-minute warning to truly start savoring what little racing time is left in the season.
After making his name household to NASCAR faithful after claiming July's Mudsummer Classic for the Camping World Truck Series, in his third Four Crown attempt Norman, Oklahoma's Christopher Bell finally drove up the ramp for USAC laurels after dominating all 25 midget and 50 Silver Crown circuits. Just 20 years old, Bell joined Steve Kinser, Larry Rice, Rich Vogler, Jack Hewitt, Tony Stewart, Dave Darland, J.J. Yeley, Tracy Hines, Kyle Larson, and Chris Windom on an elite list as multiple Four Crown feature winners on the same day/evening. In between midget and Silver Crown matches was a thrilling sprint car round claimed by former San Jose, California resident Thomas Meseraull. T-Mez was tagged as the 74th different USAC sprint car victor at Eldora, his first-ever with the legendary Speedway, Indiana sanctioning body.
Ninety-four cars filled the pit area, broken down by 21 midgets, 20 Silver Crown, and a whopping 53 sprinters. Midget and Silver Crown turnout was again a disappointment but not a shocker. However, that sprint car collection, aided by an abundance of Waynesfield and BOSS regulars, was flat-out impressive, even bringing Du Quoin hero Aaron Pierce in A.J. Felker ammunition and aligning Chad Boespflug with Gene Nolen and Davey Jones. Normally a haven for multi-tasking, this year the Four Crown only had two drivers trying all three Saturday divisions, namely Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Brady Bacon, but I counted 21 men who took part in two. Tanner Thorson and Dallas Hewitt were two of those 21, later subbing as Silver Crown chauffeurs for KTJ and Kent Wolters. Filling a Felker midget, Bacon was the lone combatant to partake in four divisions after his Friday winged foray.
Taking home $200 for their efforts, Bryan Clauson (16.886 in a Dooling Spike/Mopar SR-11), Chase Stockon (16.204 in his own DRC/Fisher), and Christopher Bell (17.125 in a Gormly JEI/Foxco) were quickest in midget, sprint, and Silver Crown disciplines. Posting much slower times than I expected, especially given Saturday’s cooler temps and overcast skies, I have to admit that I was disappointed by the drier than normal conditions that would have been better suited to a winged war. Let’s be honest: USAC men and machinery need moisture and a chunky cushion to put on a proper show. Despite that miniscule cushion that kept most in the middle to bottom lanes, those who bravely tempted fate on the top shelf were ultimately rewarded for their efforts as exhibited by Bell and Meseraull. However, teetering on the edge of disaster also bit some like Bryan Clauson, who manhandled his midget up to third but crashed atop turn four, also throwing away what would have been his first Eldora sprint car score after mauling the turn two wall. Eldora isn't for everyone and that was clearly evident on this evening, as a vast majority of those sprint car contestants congregated around the bottom.
Owning unreasonably high expectations for Eldora slide jobs and intense action, although preliminary events were far too tame for my liking, the sprint and Silver Crown features were definitely not duds by any means. If anything, the ultra-smooth and slippery surface kept the calamity to a minimum, which allowed this jam-packed program to move forward at a rapid pace and end at a reasonable hour (11:21 PM). The imminent threat of rain, which arrived during the Silver Crown finale, also meant that normal surface maintenance was not conducted.
Starting with sprint heats, the only unexpected drama came when Boespflug belched out some serious flames from an oil fire, sending him from second to fifth. After timing fourth, last year's Four Crown winner Brady Bacon had his sprint car fortunes take a turn for the worse, spinning while sliding for fifth on the white flag lap. Winning the consolation and starting seventh in the A, Brady blasted the wall between turns one and two on three separate occasions, the second of which flattened a tire and junked a Jacob's ladder. With everyone transferring out of the three midget heats, the only excitement was watching each of the Keith Kunz combatants come from the third row to win, as Thorson, Rico Abreu, and Bell did the deed.
The 21-car sprint car C-main proved to be a test in patience, stopped for separate turn one flips involving Riley VanHise and Aaron Pierce, the latter being disqualified from qualifying after timing 26th. Cooper Clouse surged from 13th to 3rd while C.J. Leary scored second. Given that C.J. came within a lap of winning the last USAC race here, since then his sprint car program has suffered severely, going from the penthouse to the outhouse so to speak. Eight cars came out of the sprint car consolation, including fifth place Tyler Courtney whose Chuck Eberhardt Maxim severed its right front shock tower. Inserting a softer right front torsion bar for the feature, Courtney came from 22nd to 11th. Jarett Andretti and Dickie Gaines enjoyed solid B-main efforts, charging from 14th and 20th to snag 7th and 8th. Luke Hall, Boespflug, and Leary were the first three on the outside of A-main status (Leary would later pop a provisional). Continuing his frustrating runs in Kenny Baldwin's 5, Justin Grant pulled in on the white flag lap, missing the show entirely. Much like Leary, Grant's Four Crown fortunes were ironic as he was the most recent USAC Eldora victor.
As always, the midget feature was up first and after firing from fourth, Bell blew by front row starters Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Tracy Hines through turns three and four to lead the first of 25 laps, never to be seen again. The lone pause came on lap 14 when Clauson had his fourth corner incident. Last year's Four Crown winner spun, tagged the wall, folded the front end, and lost a wheel, probably the lone hope to offer a lead threat. Restarting in fifth with 11 to go, Rico Abreu suddenly came to life. Picking off cars one by one, with just a couple of laps left he used the north end to aggressively slide a conservative Tracy Hines who uncharacteristically manned the middle lane. Far too close for comfort, there was no contact but Tracy immediately crossed over, only to be slid yet again on the back chute. At the end, Bell rang up his 16th career USAC midget triumph as the rest of the top-five contained Abreu, Hines, Thorson, and Thomas, with four of those top-five falling under the Keith Kunz Bullet/Toyota banner. ARDC regular Steven Drevicki was solid in sixth while Spencer Bayston, Tony DiMattia, Thomas Meseraull (Heffner 27) and Ryan Greth secured seventh through tenth. Hines exited with a 25 point lead on Thorson and a 31 point margin on KTJ as they head to Wayne City, Illinois on October 23rd for the Jason Leffler Memorial.
As uneventful as the midget main was, the thirty lap sprint car finale was entirely the opposite. Pole sitter Kody Swanson (DePalma 63) immediately slid his fellow front row mate Jerry Coons, Jr. and paced the first three tours, only to be overtaken on the fourth by quick-qualifier Chase Stockon. A brief volley of sliders were exchanged by Bryan Clauson and Swanson, with Bryan stalking Stockon after a lap seven caution for Dickie Gaines. Like Bell in the midgets, BC bravely rode the rim and swept to the lead with a turn four attack, interrupted by a red flag for a high-flying Kevin Thomas, Jr., who landed hard on all four wheels but was able to walk to the ambulance.
Leaving 18 laps to determine the outcome, Bryan’s tempting of fate bit him big when collecting the wall off turn two at the halfway mark, flattening his right rear tire and causing caution. Stockon, Meseraull, Swanson, Darland and Coons brought the field back to green but in the span of half a lap, T-Mez emulated Clauson’s bold line and wound up with the lead. Flirting with the fence as he finessed Shane Wade’s DRC/Dynotech, Meseraull built a big advantage. But, in that last half of the affair, Clauson was clearly the show, moving all the way from the rear to fourth, his final move a meat-in-the-sandwich split of Scotty Weir (Keen 18) and Stockon. Had the race been a 40-lapper, Clauson could have won but as it was, drifting expert Meseraull made off with the big money, his eighth score of a memorable season and second with Amati Racing. Swanson settled for a solid second while Darland, Clauson, and Weir filled out the first-five. Sixth through tenth included Stockon, Dallas Hewitt, Robert Ballou, Chris Windom (from 23rd), and Coons.
Always bold in his driving and commentary, Thomas’s first words afterwards amounted to a dig at one of his former car owners, asking, “How do you like me now Kenny Baldwin?” Discussing the key moment in the race, T-Mez added, “Before the race, my crew chief Donnie Gentry didn’t do what I wanted him to do. That’s why we were a fifth place car. So, I told him to jack some weight into it under the red.”
All that was left of the Four Crown was the 50-lap Silver Crown contest. Featuring a front row of Christopher Bell and Kody Swanson, the two briefly dueled side by side until Bell earned the advantage, thanks once again to his unflinching assault of the tiniest of cushions. Interrupted by separate spins for Chris Fetter and Dave Darland, Bell was clearly the class of the field, building over a full straightaway lead over Swanson. Using the concrete as his cushion and in attack mode for all fifty laps (bouncing off the wall as late as two to go), Bell’s drive was reminiscent of Kyle Larson’s 2011 effort. Given Christopher’s bright future in greener pastures, one might have expected him to play it safe. But, it was obvious he came here to do one thing and one thing only: win. Lapping up to ninth place and nailing down his first career Silver Crown score, in addition to his Rob Hart led RPM crew Chris was aided by series veterans Steve and Brad Fox.
Kody Swanson settled for second in his usual DePalma 63 and wrapped up his second consecutive series championship. After competing in a Kentucky Speedway ARCA event earlier in the day, Chris Windom made it a two car RPM podium with his third place run. Shane Cottle continued his solid runs in the Williams Maxim with a fine fourth while Brady Bacon bagged fifth in the Martens DRC. Justin Grant, Shane Cockrum, C.J. Leary, Steve Buckwalter and Jerry Coons, Jr. were sixth through tenth.
In between the sprint and Silver Crown mains, promoter Roger Slack had huge Four Crown news to report for next year, as Tony Stewart’s All Star Circuit of Champions would serve as the fourth crown, replacing the World of Outlaws. Roger did not announce if the All Stars will be a full program on Friday, but I have to wonder if the format will return to days of old when qualifying and heats were held on Friday and features only on Saturday. Slack did reveal that significant bonuses are being earmarked for anyone who can win all four crowns. In addition, more money is available to anyone who can equal Kyle Larson’s triple from 2011 or simply claim a wing/non-wing double. Bringing much optimism and excitement, it appears that Tony Stewart is serious about reviving interest and creating a true crown jewel in motorsport events.
Finally finishing this September summary one week after the Four Crown, unfortunately it was with an extremely heavy heart in the aftermath of the tragic plane crash that took the lives of four significant men on Friday afternoon, October 2nd. Learning of the incident while heading home from an epic contest concluding Gas City I-69 Speedway’s season, I was once again reminded that life is short and could end at any moment.
Flying from Warsaw, Indiana to Clemson, South Carolina for Saturday’s Notre Dame/Clemson football match, piloting the plane was 71 year-old Charlie Smith, a Warsaw city councilman who made his name from building a Tippecanoe Valley High School football program from scratch and winning a state championship within four years (1979), amassing an impressive 101-19-1 record over 12 years at two schools. Eventually moving on from teaching and coaching to become an executive at the Warsaw-based Lake City Bank, he was a seven-year veteran of aviation and was included by the FAA in the Airmen Certification Database. However, under cloudy conditions and flying with instruments only, his Piper PA-32 aircraft mysteriously went down in a remote area along the shores of Lake Hartwell, extremely close to the intended runway. Passengers included Charlie’s 44 year-old son Scott (a Warsaw attorney), another former Tippy Valley football coach in 51 year-old guidance counselor Scott Bibler, and two-time United States Auto Club sprint car champion and Indiana racing icon Tony Elliott.
With my wife’s family connected to the Smiths and Bibler, this incident cut even deeper when considering my 30 year association with Elliott, enjoying frequent interaction with the legend since beginning these blogs in 1999. As everyone reading this is fully aware, Tony was a truly special individual, much more than just a racer and businessman as he was a larger-than-life personality who still loomed large among long-time fans, even after he faded from regular sprint car competition in the mid-2000s. Tony remained active with annual Little 500 participation, but his highly successful trailer and golf cart business took him to races all over the globe and allowed fellow racers and fans to regularly interact with the man who was always smiling, joking, laughing, and pulling pranks when allowed the opportunity.
For as long as I have known him, Elliott had a unique energy and enthusiasm for life, so contagious that it simply made people want to be in his presence. To paraphrase a statement from my friend Brent Goodnight, Tony did a lot of living in his 54 years, always in search of a good time. The youngest 54 year-old I have ever encountered, nobody had more fun and his Facebook updates were frequent, detailing his extensive travels for business and pleasure.
Feeling an emptiness when he stopped competing regularly, that emptiness becomes infinitely vast when knowing that our interactions have suddenly ceased. For once in my life, I truly have no words to encompass my feelings. With my heart still pounding and stomach churning, shocked, numb, depressed, and devastated are adjectives that come to mind but just aren’t adequate enough to express my level of despair. There are no two ways about it: Tony Elliott had a huge impact on my life and I am going to miss him dearly. In addition to his legion of supporters that number in the thousands, I can’t imagine how his wife Cindy, three sons, and one daughter are coping right now, let alone his mother, one brother, and two sisters. It tears me up just thinking about it but when considering just how many people are affected by this tragedy, it should speak volumes on this man’s character and legacy.
One of the absolute best open wheel racers I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing, it didn’t matter when, where, or in what kind of car - Tony would figure out a way to win, especially in those final five laps when he would literally come out of nowhere to steal a feature victory. Much like Ron Shuman, Tony was a true “money” racer, a professional who kept his equipment intact and knew his way to the payoff window. Owning a huge desire to compete in the memory of his father Jim who was a three-time Warsaw Speedway sprint car champion, Tony was just 12 years of age when he lost his hero to a March 1973 accident, mauled by a car while straddling his motorcycle. Starting his own career at Warsaw as a street stock racer, it wasn’t long until the teenager was lured to sprint car competition. Eventually joining forces with car owner Paul Hazen, the same man with which his father enjoyed significant success, they dominated the local scene in no time flat. Tony and Paul had a slew of incredible seasons, but it was Elliott’s 1997 pairing with childhood friend Jeff Walker that sent him into another stratosphere, winning just about every big race from coast to coast from ’97 to 2004, including two USAC national championships, an Indiana Sprint Week title, and the famed Western World Championships at Manzanita. Twice a Hoosier Hundred and Sumar Classic winner for Gene Nolen, he was also a 1999 Ted Horn 100 winner at Du Quoin. Taking home some serious hardware after claiming huge midget and sprint events in both Australia and New Zealand, the Elliott name was worthy of worldwide respect, no doubt a future National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inductee.
However, it was his Sunday night Kokomo Speedway duels with Dave Darland and Kevin Thomas that served as my all-time favorite memories, to this day attempting to equal those ultimate highs experienced after each one of those epic battles. Feeling fortunate to have been a part of this era, despite my overwhelming feelings of sadness, the lone solace I can take from Tony Elliott’s untimely passing aligns with the theme for this particular article. Given life’s ultimate unpredictability, just like Tony we should be living and enjoying life as if the two minute warning has already been given. Rest in peace my friend – you will be missed but my countless fond memories will never be forgotten.
Volume 17, Number 12
As the seventh of eight siblings, naturally there are numerous advantages to having so many brothers and sisters. One disadvantage; however, is that it is very rare to be free from some sort of conflict during the holiday season or for any kind of family get-together. Confirming that we are indeed a dysfunctional group after observing how normal families are able to conduct themselves in the simplest of settings, when it comes to my own affairs I have forever been a fan of peace and tranquility.
These days, I tend to arrive home from the gym and find my wife engrossed in reality television programs that feature far too much fabricated drama from wealthy women who have nothing better to do than bicker, easy to see that such dissention sells in Hollywood. Not my cup of tea when it comes to quality entertainment, I prefer the real life drama from the on and off track antics of rival sprint car drivers and crews, adding some much needed spice and intrigue to a scene that has otherwise grown dull and drab. And nowhere is such a spectacle more evident than Kokomo's Speedway's USAC Sprint Car Smackdown, hard to believe that 2015 accounts for the fourth edition of the titanic three day struggle.
For the last three seasons, this event certainly has offered its fair share of drama, the tension so thick that one could literally slice it with a knife. Recalling the heated Levi Jones/Jon Stanbrough on-track incident of 2012 that turned even more ugly in post-race debate, then there was the 2013 Kevin Thomas, Jr./Chase Stockon slam-fest that would boil KTJ's blood and cause him to miss his post-race weigh-in, resulting in a war of words with USAC officials and local law enforcement that led to his team's costly expulsion from the finale. Last year, the drama had everything to do with a relentless Mother Nature, forcing the O'Connor family to pull out all the stops and pump thousands of gallons of water from the grounds after receiving eleven inches of rain. So, it should come as no surprise to learn that 2015 would offer its share of hair-raising antics, as there's just something about the marriage of Kokomo Speedway and United States Auto Club competition that puts everyone on edge. Controversial post-race interviews, bone-crushing crashes, big-time thrashes, heroic over-the-cushion expeditions, hard charges from the rear, wars of words, pit lane scuffles, expulsions, and yet another threat of wet weather - this year had a little bit of everything, proving that Kokomo combatants are indeed the true kings of drama, especially come late August. But at the end of it all, the most low-key guy would rise above the noise to become a three-time champion of this prestigious and pressure-packed event. Read on to find out why this was such a trying, drama-filled four days for the people’s champion, “Diamond” Dave Darland.
Smackdown version 4.0 unofficially kicked off on Wednesday night with the resumption of Indiana Sprint Week’s previously rained out round, needing only to complete the final ten laps of the B-main and all thirty laps of the A. Backing up one day, my big week would actually begin on Tuesday evening when Tear-Off Heaven Fotos principal Steve Lafond came all the way from Campbell, California to knock on my door for the second time in six weeks. Both of us being creatures of habit, to commemorate the occasion naturally we ventured northeast to the tiny town of Perkinsville, where only the best in laid-back atmosphere, hospitality, and cuisine exists at a little slice of heaven better known as Bonge’s Tavern. If you are a regular reader and still have to ask why I would drive so far out of the way for food and drink, honestly, you need to find out for yourself. Angie, Dawn, Amanda, and chef/owner Tony once again rolled out the red carpet, amazed to learn that Tony quickly baked up a batch of my all-time favorite cherry and pineapple dump cake dessert upon learning of our impending arrival. But before I could sink my spoon into that delicious dump cake, there were a couple of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ales to sip and savor. Beginning with their world-famous tomato soup (made with locally grown Red Gold tomatoes, of course), I opted for an additional starter in the lettuce wedge, coated in the best bleu cheese dressing in the universe, believing that it could even make cardboard edible. So difficult to choose my entrée, I went with the creamy bayou chicken topped with shrimp and sausage, all served over cheesy grits. A literal taste explosion, my mouth is still watering as I type this! Just a reminder, Bonge’s only takes reservations for parties of 10 or more, so if you plan on attending with a smaller group, feel free to bring lawn chairs, snacks, and maybe even a few drinks, as tailgating in the parking lot is a welcomed part of the experience.
Drama-free during our Tuesday night Bonge’s bonanza, that only masked some serious issues incurred by Steve on the Sunday before his Indy excursion, taking a spill on his mountain bike and cracking a rib on what was supposed to be a low-key birthday morning trail ride. While I was working Wednesday morning, my guest was relaxing on my couch, quite a departure for a guy who oozes with energy and enthusiasm. Soon joining forces for our fifty minute Kokomo commute, we found freshly painted concrete walls and a parking lot full of campers who would be living it up in the shadows of the Kokomo Grain Company for four straight days. Ten less machines showed for the B-main that would now transfer seven, as feature starter Josh Hodges was back in school in New Mexico. As it turned out, those that finished the affair would punch their feature ticket, frustrating for Kyle Robbins (flip), Josh Spencer (DNF), and Thomas Meseraull (flat right rear in the Keen 18).
Outside front row starter Chris Windom would wind up leading all thirty tours in Rick Pollock’s Maxim, a brand new piece constructed specifically for the Smackdown. Pole sitter Dave Darland would naturally offer the biggest threat to Windom’s win, as Dave first had to fend off Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Brady Bacon before making a bold move to the inside of a clogged front chute, this coming one lap after halfway. Completing the overtaking by setting a backstretch pick on Kyle Cummins, the legend’s lead was short-lived as Bacon made heavy contact with Thomas exiting turn four, wondering if the move was in any way a payback for a February East Bay incident. Naturally, KTJ was extremely agitated, pulling in front of car 69 to remind who was number one. Reverting to the last scored lap, Darland was moved back to second as Windom was a scant .067 seconds ahead on lap 16 according to the story on www.usacracing.com. From my vantage point, it sure looked like Dave had the lead for two laps but the use of transponders removes such doubt.
Enduring the pressure of two more restarts, Chris successfully kept the king of Kokomo in his wake, claiming his first USAC sprint car trophy since Eldora Four Crown of 2013. Speaking with Rob Goodman afterwards, Windom said, “This is obviously one of my favorite tracks. When you hold off Dave for 30 laps, you’re doing something. He threw about everything he had at me. I knew if we could get rolling after the restarts we’d be ok. Rick Pollock has spent the last few weeks getting this thing ready. He basically built a brand new car. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t even be here. This is cool to come out and win on the first night but we’re really looking forward to winning on Saturday night.”
After blowing an oil line and having to settle for second, Darland was extremely irritated, shoving his safety gear into his seat and taking a shot at USAC officiating in his interview with Goodman. Darland said, “It’s like I get screwed by restarts and shit all the time. It’s starting to make me mad. But, it’s just the way it is and with USAC, it must be right. It’s just getting old.”
Despite the damp surface that never really went away, passing was still possible as Brady Bacon moved up three spots to claim third while fourth and fifth place finishers Chase Stockon and Robert Ballou rocked it from 15th and 17th, respectively. Sixth through tenth at the 9:09 PM checkered flag included Scotty Weir (Walker 11), Aaron Farney (from 14th), Brady Short, Tracy Hines, and Shane Cottle. With free general admission, Wednesday’s crowd was indeed thick, much better than Thursday.
A field of 44 showed for Smackdown’s official opener on Thursday, with notable appearances from All Star regular Parker Price-Miller (who rented Kokomo late Wednesday night for testing), Hollister, California's Ryan Bernal (Walker 11), Dallas Hewitt, Chris Phillips (in a coil-front Maxim from the Fred Gormly stable), ARDC's Tony DiMattia, Frank Flud (teaming with Cole Ketcham in a Stensland 41), Colten Cottle (Jackson 42), Dustin Smith (backed by former Mark Cassella pal Louie Gagliardi and his Dom's Gulf service station), England's Tom Harris, and Silver Crown standout Kody Swanson (Marshall 32).
Thomas Meseraull found work in a yellow 29 belonging to Robin Dawkins, an extremely colorful 60 year-old winged sprint car racer coming all the way from Tasmania, which I was reminded is an island state associated with the Commonwealth of Australia. Fielding a Maxim with a Speedway Engines Mopar mill formerly found under hood for Kasey Kahne, Robin's potent piece is kept in Tom Miller's Clermont, Indiana shop, with its owner recently achieving a goal of competing without a wing at Paragon Speedway, finishing one spot ahead of Bloomington “Mayor” Jon Sciscoe on July 25th. Dawkins has been a United States visitor for 29 years, spending quite a bit of time with Brent Kaeding in his early excursions. His most interesting journey; however, came in 2013 when he not only got married in Times Square, but he also raced on American soil for the very first time at the baddest track of all - Eldora Speedway! Here with wife Jo, Robin relayed a story of how he used up a majority of his nine lives with a vicious sprint car spill endured ten years ago. Breaking his back, tearing his sternum, and having a piece of his roll cage come through his helmet, with only 15% of his T3 vertebrae left he has since recovered well enough to compete, still loving every minute of it.
After sprint cars completed their wheel packing, the end result left a nasty little lip at turn one’s entry, the imperfection accounting for three of four of the evening’s flips and the majority of Thursday’s drama, as countless machines toured on less than four wheels through this north end. The worst of the incidents was a qualifying spill from Chris Phillips, who flung his machine into the turn one fence. The abrupt stoppage after several snap rolls initially left me concerned, but Chris somehow emerged from his mangled mount unharmed, without question a miracle as this may have been the most violent crash that I have witnessed on these grounds. After qualifying seventh and starting third in the feature, C.J. Leary attempted to outdo Chris. Clipping that same curb, he executed another equally dizzying set of snap rolls that chucked his tail tank, back the next evening with a completely different ride. Benefitting from the assistance of “Big” Al Scroggins, Tyler Courtney timed 11th but earned the pole for the feature in Chuck Eberhardt’s Maxim. Occupying the runner-up slot early on, a turn two tilt on two wheels caused Courtney to climb the wall and invert, ruining a solid shot at a win which collected Kevin Thomas, Jr. in the process. KTJ would recover to claim ninth at the checkered.
Thursday’s tricky conditions mandated a cautious approach through qualifying, as a majority chose not to tempt fate with a lower approach to turn one. Kyle Cummins was one of those, winding up at the top of the time sheet with a 13.269 second tour in Hank Byram’s Mach 1. After dusting out the infield between turns one and two and flying over the turn one bank in his trip back to the pits, Robert Ballou may have initially appeared miffed, but his fifth-quick time would serve him well later. Michigan’s Joe Bares and Camby, Indiana’s Max McGhee both rode out some massive bike rides in turn one, feeling the energy of the event when Chad Boespflug (Amati 66) secured second-quick time just two cars from the end of the order. Out for just one lap after his Mark Hery 40 shut off on his first attempt, 2015 Kokomo standout Justin Grant timed 14th.
Each of Thursday’s four heats were claimed from the front row, but a big sack was required to transfer due to the gnarly cushion. Stepping well above the ledge in corner three, Grant got the job done. Landon Simon, however, was not as fortunate, hooking the curb in one and two which led to direct concrete contact, ending his Smackdown altogether. Aaron Farney decided go four wheels in the turn one fluff but wound up slapping the wall, choosing to use a provisional pass for A-main access. With five of the top-ten qualifiers at the front of the B, big-time names such as Shane Cottle (encountering engine issues in qualifying), Brady Short, Ryan Bernal, and Kody Swanson missed the cut, Short able to tag the tail thanks to provisional status.
Starting outside of row one, Chase Stockon led the first 24 laps on opening night, still in search of his first Kokomo trophy. With all eyes upon Chris Windom’s over the cushion exploits, Chris had been making steady progress in his ascent from 17th, up to seventh by the halfway mark. Thanks to early reds for Brian Karraker, Leary, and Courtney plus another caution for Jarett Andretti, Cummins and Ballou remained in close proximity. A short green flag stretch in which Ballou bagged second was again interrupted by a red flag for an enflamed Andretti. Once back to green, Robert needed just four laps to snare the top spot, using a tacky bottom lane to cleanly work his way past. With his former crew chief Jimmy Jones in the house to advise, the Mad Man notched USAC win number nine on the season. Stockon, Bacon and Cummins followed, as did Short who impressed with his supreme surge from 24th to 5th. Coons, Windom, Meseraull, Thomas (from the tail after a lap 8 red), and Weir (Baldwin 5) completed the second half of the top-ten. 2013 and 2014 Kokomo Smackdown winner Dave Darland began 19th but could only come forward to 14th.
Afterwards, Ballou told Rob Goodman: “Believe it or not, we’re actually trying some things. This is a test car. It’s totally different from anything we’ve been running and this is the third night on it. It’s pretty good. I’ve got to dedicate this win tonight to Cale Shields. He’s up in the stands there somewhere. This one’s for you buddy. We’re just getting one closer to Dave Darland’s record there.”
Continuing his lengthy speech, Ballou commented, “This place is awesome. I think they missed the setup on the racetrack a little bit, but it just goes to show you, most of the places we go to don’t try to do anything to rework it, but the O’Connors always step up when it has to happen. They made it racy. It hadn’t been won on the bottom all year until tonight. I’ve got to thank them. I’ve got to thank Derrick Bye for all his hard work. Jimmy Jones and my dad flew in to help me because we’re way behind. I’ve also got to thank all you fans for spending your hard-earned money.”
While waiting in the Turn Five Pub for the Sprint Car Snackdown wing-eating contest for Thursday’s top-five finishers, the primary source of 2015 Smackdown drama was occurring in the pit area, as a mass of Darland supporters took exception to Ballou’s post-race comments. I wasn’t there to see it, but was able to observe some of the drama through a Periscope video. Appearing to be nothing more than a lot of hot air that escalated into a brief scuffle, I was shocked to learn that the incident led to a Kokomo Speedway ejection for Dave Darland’s wife Brenda. Neither of the two drivers who were at the center of the controversy were actually involved and whether it is words or punches thrown, I still believe that rivalries only make the sport better for the fans and promoters.
Another epic meal was enjoyed mid-day Friday, traveling to downtown Indy’s Virginia Avenue so that Steve could experience brunch at Milktooth. Named one of the ten hottest new restaurants in the country by Bon Appetit magazine, we tried a little bit of everything, with my main entrée consisting of a hearty ribeye steak adorned with some of the best scrambled eggs I have ever experienced, and that’s saying a lot because I am generally not a fan. Steve chose the cranberry and walnut raclette grilled cheese as his main dish, coated in a black truffle honey that indeed mixed savory with sweet. Additional meal highlights included a fresh oyster starter plus sides of sour cream biscuits and sorghum glazed bacon, ordering a batch of cinnamon sugar donut holes complete with lavender peach jam and peanut brittle crumbles to enjoy later. Such an incredible edible experience, I’m looking forward to going back to sample additional inventive dishes.
Friday’s Smackdown field dwindled to 41 but upped the ante in the drama department when Ballou snapped a rear axle on his first qualifying lap and helicoptered atop the turn two concrete wall, contacting a fence post and tearing out a large area of fencing. Rendering his three-race old Maxim out of commission with left side cage damage (the same car that was ruined in its initial Bloomington outing several weeks ago), Robert and his team hurried to ready a backup car for the first heat. However, this only came after USAC gave their point leader the green light to compete. But, with the medical staff spending an inordinate amount of time hovering around him at the scene of the accident, this left many to wonder just how serious the incident truly was, as word got around that he had been briefly knocked unconscious. Talk about a change in racing luck, could Ballou recover and keep his championship hopes alive?
Darland was the quickest qualifier on night number two in his Phillips DRC/Foxco combo (12.642), a huge turnaround from Thursday when the best he could do was 21st. After his fifth place finish on Thursday, Brady Short’s high hopes for Friday were effectively dashed when his engine died at the conclusion of his first qualifying lap. Like Ballou, Short reverted to a backup. Both Robert and Brady offered the most Friday intrigue, sprinting from the back of the C to claim the top two spots. Beginning 17th and 18th in the B, they were third and fifth at the end of just 12 tours. And, at the 30-lap A-main conclusion, Short was scored sixth and Ballou ninth, the dynamic duo driving past 15 and 13 machines, respectively. If you only watched these two, you certainly got your money’s worth.
Thursday night’s turn one ledge reappeared on Friday and tilted Ryan Bernal on two wheels during time trials, just enough to kiss concrete in corner two. Ryan finally stuck the Walker 11 in the show after winning the first heat but could only muster a 23rd place feature finish after tangling with Kyle Cummins. While coming to yellow after a Tony DiMattia heat race spin, Muncie’s Cole Ketcham caught that same cushion and gained some big air, the massive spill ending his weekend one day early. Friday’s final incident involved Hunter Schuerenberg, who biked and flipped atop turn three with just two laps left. Elevating ten starting spots to third, he dipped into his Kokomo bag of tricks (ala 2008) with an awe-inspiring over-the-cushion attack in Tony Epperson’s Spike. Proving that he can still cowboy a real sprint car with the best of them, after his involvement in an early B-main yellow he worked his way into transfer contention, dramatically stealing the final spot on the final lap from Kevin Thomas, Jr. KTJ was forced to take a provisional pass for Friday’s feature, netting his Mike Dutcher Motorsports squad a sub-par 21st.
Friday’s feature was all Chris Windom, leading the first 27 laps from his outside front row perch. Seemingly having the race in the bag until misjudging a slew of lapped machines in turn three, he rapped one of them in the rear, throwing away a certain win with a spin. Although he did not cut a full 360 degree donut, he was still under power and headed in the opposite direction, leading to what USAC termed an inadvertent yellow and allowing him to reclaim fourth on the ensuing restart. A rather peculiar rule, USAC mandates that if a driver completes a 360 degree spin, the yellow flag is thrown and the guilty party must revert to the rear of the field. Although I agree that Chris did not perform a 360 degree revolution, I wonder how a 180 degree spin is any less dangerous with the remainder of the field bearing down upon him. Rules are rules however, making me glad that I do not have to enforce them.
Handing the lead baton to sixth-starting Chase Stockon, Chase had to endure a pair of restarts for a Hunter Schuerenberg red and Chase Boespflug yellow to hold back the advances of Dave Darland to claim his first-ever Kokomo triumph, polished off with a Polish victory lap. Darland strutted from seventh to second while Windom, Hines, and Stanbrough rounded out the first-five. Short, Bacon, Meseraull, Ballou, and Cummins would be credited with sixth through tenth. A pre-race Smackdown favorite, Justin Grant finished last on Friday after connecting with Scotty Weir on the back stretch. Waving his steering wheel in anger at Weir, in an interesting bit of irony Scotty’s car owner Kenny Baldwin stated the next day that Justin would be his hired gun for the rest of the season.
Securing his second USAC national victory of 2015 and fourth overall this season, the native of Sullivan, Indiana who now calls Elizabethtown home spoke to Rob Goodman about his monumental triumph. “I can’t even describe it. It’s an awesome feeling. This place is one of the hardest places to win at in the world and to beat Dave on top of that is huge. The racetrack tonight wasn’t necessarily my forte. A big cushion like that seems to suit his style. We were able to hold him off and hopefully we can do the same tomorrow. Those late race restarts killed me last night. My crew chief D.J. told me to run as hard as you can – that’s the only way you’re going to beat him. We were on our game tonight. We weren’t as good as I wanted to be, but it was definitely good enough to get the job done.”
Enjoying Friday’s post-race concert from the Flying Toasters, while listening to the tunes and socializing with the large throng, I searched my phone to find the list of the top eight points producers locked into Saturday’s finale. In order, the elite eight included Stockon, Bacon, Windom, Cummins, Stanbrough, Darland, Meseraull, and Ballou.
Choosing to spend our Saturday afternoon strolling the streets of downtown Carmel and its impressive assembly of antique, classic, muscle, and exotic automobiles, for the fourth year in a row Artomobilia preceded Smackdown’s finale. As if the plot needed to thicken any further, Chris Windom’s bike ride and resulting turn three flip in Saturday hot laps tacked on even more drama to this crazy Smackdown story. Tearing out fencing and forcing his team to scramble in assembling a backup car for the feature, what a thrash it was, as Pollock and a cast of thousand hands started with a bare frame that only had a front and rear axle pre-installed. Not the most ideal ride with its rear birdcages crafted for winged competition, the all-out thrash was worth it as Chris would later manage a fourth place finish in the finale.
With its field slimming to 37, Saturday’s four qualifying races moved the top-two finishers to the big show. Essentially paying $1,000 to transfer, these were without question the most competitive, intense, and entertaining events of the week. Boespflug and Schuerenberg’s back and forth slide-fest for second was a thrill, as was Cottle and Andretti’s similar duel for the same spot. Chad and Shane claimed those brief battles, as Coons, Courtney, Grant, and Thomas took top honors. Leary and Hines made the cut in the other two qualifying races.
Eyeing some threatening skies to the west; that only raised the bar for unnecessary Saturday drama as the three lap, two-car King of the Hill contests were next on the agenda, ultimately determining the first four rows of the huge forty lapper. In the first round, Stockon soundly defeated Ballou, Cummins eked out a slim .005 second win over Stanbrough, Bacon manhandled Meseraull, and Darland won by default over Windom as he and his crew were still working feverishly. Round two saw Stockon clip Cummins while Bacon held off a determined Darland. Thanks to a dramatic last turn, last lap lunge on the low side, the Macho Man was King of the Hill, earning him the pole, $400, and a Traxxas radio-controlled truck.
Saturday’s consolation affair ratcheted up the stress and intensity several notches, as did the impending weather, with fellow fans predicting doom and gloom from their smartphone radar. Worried that Saturday night would ultimately lead to a Sunday conclusion and force Steve to miss the show, I could only hope for a minor miracle at this point. In that race for the final six spots, several noteworthy altercations added to Smackdown theatrics. Aaron Farney’s bike ride and resulting flip in three and four confirmed that there are few Kokomo crashes that are mild. Farney collected Ryan Bernal who would have to try again from the rear. Thanks to a pair of red flag periods, in such appropriate dramatic fashion, Ryan swept outside of turn three on the final go-round to steal the final transfer. The first of those reds involved Jarett Andretti and Brandon Mattox, who were vying for the same piece of turn four, top-side real estate. Andretti high and Mattox low, the squeeze play resulted in a vicious ride into the wall and fence for Andretti, who somersaulted and shortened his Beast chassis. Brandon was also removed from battle, venting his frustrations to Jarett afterwards. Travis Hery’s flip atop turns one and two further delayed A-main driver introductions, as a sixth-running Colten Cottle had his Smackdown hopes simultaneously deflate along with his right rear tire pressure. Short, McGhee, Schuerenberg, Weir, Robbins, and the aforementioned Bernal would finally punch their Smackdown tickets. Ted Hines, Josh Spencer, Kody Swanson, and Tom Harris just missed the cut.
Noticing in Saturday hot laps that Thursday and Friday’s challenging cushion was much more manageable, my immediate synopsis was “advantage Darland”. Starting fourth in the finale and leading the last 34 tours, my premonition proved all too true, resulting in a third Smackdown title in a row for Dave and his Steve and Carla Phillips squad. The $10,000 win was rather drama-free for Double D, which after his frustrating finishes the previous three nights plus Thursday’s extracurricular activities, served as an ironic twist for the entire week.
Outside front row starter Chase Stockon paced the first five laps, during which pole sitter Bacon clipped the backstretch wall and flattened the right rear on his Hoffman Triple-X, causing a caution on the fourth tour. Two laps later, Kyle Cummins moved to first but both Kyle and Chase would yield to Darland’s high-side heroics on lap seven. With the cushion on the wall and the bottom and middle lanes wearing thin, that race for first was essentially over. As Dave constructed a half-straight advantage in just four laps, all eyes moved to the fantastic fight for fifth that contained seven men, namely 16th-starting Cottle, Courtney, Windom, Stanbrough, Thomas, Grant, and Short. A spin from Courtney and an early exit by Meseraull allowed Stockon to pull to Darland’s rear bumper on lap 22. Cottle worked as high as third before yellow laundry was displayed for lap 27 debris. In those final 13 trips around this quick quarter-mile, the winds and rain began to swirl as Stanbrough made hay around the extreme bottom, briefly moving to third. However, much like Shane, Jon would drop several spots as top shelf tactics eventually won out.
Stockon and Cummins waged a fine war for runner-up status, as the final lap featured Kyle sliding for the position through turn four. Always digging, Chase successfully countered with a crossover and scored second. After 12 years of sprint car competition, Cummins continued to open eyes with a solid third for Hank Byram while Windom and 12th-starting Kevin Thomas took fourth and fifth. Stanbrough, Grant, Short (up 9), Leary, and Tracy Hines completed the second half of the top-ten. National point leader Robert Ballou struggled to a 15th place finish, still ahead of Stockon by 24 markers. As the series heads to Terre Haute and Haubstadt on the 18th and 19th, Darland is now in the hunt in third, just 52 points in arrears.
Sitting in the spot normally reserved for Lafayette-based railroad lifer Arba Richardson, the forceful winds and driving rain didn’t seem to faze Arba’s buddy Joe Higdon one bit, basking in the glow as he watched his favorite pilot roll into victory lane for the 57th time in USAC competition. Pulling off the improbable Smackdown hat trick, Darland told Rob Goodman, “I love this place. The Kokomo Speedway is an awesome racetrack and I hope you fans enjoyed that race tonight! I’ve got to thank my team – they gave me a great racecar. They worked their ass off all week long to get us here and here we are, in victory lane on the big night at the Smackdown. When it comes to the Kokomo Speedway and when the money is on the line, they go the extra mile. It wasn’t anything different that we do any other night. It was just circumstances. When the cushion is close to the wall like that, it’s what I love to do. The O’Connors – my hat is off to them for the racetrack.”
Slathering some additional icing on his winning cake, Dave finished off his Saturday interview with a special tribute of his own, adding, “My wife Brenda, she couldn’t be here tonight so I just want to dedicate this win to her. She works her ass off for me day in and day out. She has a regular job that she works during the week and comes to the races with me all weekend. She’s dedicated to my career and I appreciate everything she does.”
In this age of reality television featuring families and friends constantly quarreling for the most ridiculous reasons, I will never understand the attraction to such artificial entertainment. A peace-loving individual growing up in a warring household of hotheads, I do, however, grasp the concept that there is something so fascinating about the trials and tribulations of super-competitive personalities attempting to outdo one another both on and off the racetrack. In the span of four straight days of Kokomo Speedway USAC sprint car competition better known as the Sprint Car Smackdown, at no time during the season, not even Indiana Sprint Week, is such a spectacle of craziness and drama exceeded. And although Kokomo might be home to racing’s ultimate drama kings, Dave Darland proved that no matter how hard people try to rattle his cage and distract him from his task at hand, when the big money is up for grabs, he simply puts his head down, blocks out all the noise, and gets to work. Tried and true, there is nothing artificial about this man. The ultimate king of Kokomo, he is still the real deal, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
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