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    by Kevin Oldham


Volume 16, Number 8

 

Someday

 

“There are seven days in the week.  Someday is not one of them.”

 

This was the somewhat sarcastic note that was recently tacked to a co-worker’s cubicle wall, referring to the fact that we’re always short on time, putting off lengthy projects until someday when we hope to have a proper amount of hours to devote to them.  As this particular co-worker has experienced, someday might as well be never.  A great reminder to be opportunistic and efficient, the moral of the story is that if a task needs to get done, there’s no time like the present.

 

Sprint car racers are the ultimate examples of opportunistic individuals, never concerned with the notion of yesterday or “someday”, solely focused on the here and now.  Hardcore examples of living life to its fullest, as my 1990s Jimmy Sills t-shirts stated:  Life is short.  Race hard. 

 

Since joining the sprint car ranks as a teenager in 1982, Dave Darland has never waited for someday to get things done.  Less than ten years into his career and competing against many who had twice or three times the amount of experience, he started making some serious noise with a 19 win season in 1991.  Moving from the local to USAC ranks, he eventually became a champion in each of their top level divisions but despite such consistent success, career advancement was never a real option.  Pouring some salt in the proverbial wound, a recent ARCA opportunity for Daytona actually resulted in a test around the famed 2.5 mile tri-oval, but when push came to shove, the money required to race never materialized.  Now 47 years of age, trying to keep up with the kids becomes more difficult with each passing season, not to mention finding and keeping rides.  The fact that he's a full-time racer makes him an endangered species, so tough to survive and support a family from such meager income, thus requiring consistent wins and podium placements.  

 

His recent score at Bloomington’s Sheldon Kinser Memorial (June 27th) served as a reminder of just how hard he is willing to work for his money.  Like a predator in the wilderness just waiting to pounce on its next victim, Darland doesn’t think about tomorrow, seizing and taking every advantage when they become available.  After qualifying quickest in his timed practice session, he would win his heat from fourth, gaining a gift when front row starters Jordan Kinser and Ethan Barrow tumbled over the turn one bank.  Redrawing the pole position for the forty lap feature, Dave again got a lucky break after pushing through turn one slop at the start, slipping over the bank and dropping to mid-pack.  However, an immediate Brandon Mattox spin awarded him a mulligan, getting it right on the second attempt as he beat Hunter Schuerenberg to the top of turn one.  The rest, as they say, was history, as he led all forty laps to take the $3,000 first place prize.  His second win in this 26th annual event, the first came back in 1997. 

 

Outrunning Bloomington bad-ass Brady Short, Jeff Bland, Jr. (who hustled from 17th to 3rd), Jon Stanbrough (going from 10th to 4th), and Shane Cottle, it wasn’t easy for the Hoosier legend.  After a pair of early cautions for Casey Shuman and Hunter Schuerenberg and a wicked red for Dalten Gabbard, the last 35 laps went all green, a taxing workout as the red clay was still tacky from an extensive pre-hot lap shower.  Darland huffed and puffed as he told Kimb Stewart what it was like to constantly work lapped traffic and keep Short behind him. 

 

Such heavy feature surface conditions, where clay was consistently tossed skyward, are a rarity these days, a far cry from the mid-to-late 1980s when it was the weekly norm.  Much like Darland, afterwards engines were breathing heavy as well, as it was literally wide open for forty tours.  Can you say bad ass? 

 

Attending all but two of these memorials since its 1989 inception, this year’s feature purse was $11,225.  Offering $3,000 to win and $200 to start, the original formula from 25 years ago paid $300 to start, plus it was interesting to note that  the following week’s Fourth of July feature actually paid out $1,400 more.  Remembering that 1989 version that attracted nearly 60 cars, I was naturally disappointed by the slightly low turnout of 27.  With Gas City serving as direct competition for cars (they actually attracted the same amount), the gentleman’s agreement that existed for this show between Gas City’s Jiggs Thomason and Bloomington’s Mike Miles was clearly no longer in effect due to the turnover in operators.    

 

Bumping into former sprint car engine builder Ben Snyder in the pre-race pit area, I sat with the Cummins engineer for the entire evening and had a blast, reminiscing about the past and catching him up with the present, as Ben has only attended a handful of events in the last eleven years, successfully completing his mechanical engineering degree after going back to school. 

 

The fact that the entire evening even happened was a huge bonus, as after the rain subsided track operator Danny Roberts could have easily pulled the plug when noticing just how empty the grandstands were at 6:30 PM, a decision that could have been just as easy given the lower than normal sprint car count.  However, to Danny’s credit and his track crew, they pressed on regardless and quickly worked the surface into shape, starting heat races an hour later than normal.  A decent crowd did come out, treated to an old-school, high-speed endurance contest filled with thrills, chills, and spills.  However, it’s hard to imagine that the attendance was enough to pay the added purse, handing it to all operators who are willing to roll the dice on a consistent basis. 

 

The old-school surface gave rise to some old-school incidents, the first being that double-flip in heat one that swallowed Jordan Kinser and Ethan Barrow, the latter having direct relation to the race’s namesake.  Precipitated when lapper Jordan Blanton pushed up the track after hitting the bottom-side slop in turn one, Kinser climbed a right rear first and flipped all the way to the fence.  Barrow did what he could to avoid Darland and flew off the top of turn one, going for an even bigger ride than Kinser. Reminiscent of Robbie Rice’s 1999 tumble to the parking lot, luckily both drivers were ok but both were done for the evening.  

 

In heat two, sixteen year-old Ethan Fleetwood was also reminded what the turn four earth embankment can do to a sprint car chassis, an expensive lesson that essentially killed a car. Ethan was also ok, but all he could do afterwards was look at his mangled machine in disgust. 

 

Scratching the B due to the aforementioned incidents, feature action was a bit calmer than those first two heats, but only after the red flag for Kenny Baldwin’s Dalten Gabbard, who was slated to start in the first eight positions but was penalized for a muffler infraction.  After the second caution, Dalten was up to seventh but scaled Nick Bilbee’s left rear and went for the ride of a lifetime.  With eyes focused on the front of the field, all of a sudden an orange blur soared into sight, shedding parts and performing as many as four or five wickedly quick snap rolls before landing in the grass outside of turn three. Reminiscent of Danny Holtsclaw’s 2003 accident that broke his neck, the fact that Gabbard immediately popped through the roll cage might just have been a miracle.  Without question one of the worst crashes I’ve seen here since becoming a regular attendee in 1987, these things can indeed bite in a big way.   

 

Skipping the long haul to Haubstadt for POWRi midgets and MSCS sprints in favor of another epic meal at downtown Indy’s Bluebeard, I waited for the final Sunday night of June to achieve my usual Kokomo sprint car satisfaction.  Just a short 45-50 minute stress-free stroll from my Carmel abode combined with the efficiency of an early exit (this night was 9:08), Sunday nights are simply no-brainers.  As Sean Buckley has tweeted so many times, “GYATK” (get your ass to Kokomo) is something I advocate as well, fearful of what I might miss each week. 

 

Twenty-four sprinters represented this standard showing, with Shane Cottle (Walker 11), Casey Shuman (Elson 27), Hunter Schuerenberg, and Columbus charger Joss Moffatt acting as deviations from the norm.  Beginning calmly with three timed hot lap sessions (Max McGhee was fastest of all at 13.380), two of the three heats were taken by pole sitters Scotty Weir and Jerry Coons, Jr., with young McGhee impressively manufacturing a win from fourth in the final fling.  A nine-car B-main sent five more to the A, highlighted by a cutthroat Moffatt slide job on Canadian sprint car rookie Lee Dakus through turns one and two. Showing distinct signs of improvement, Dakus did not flinch and climbed concrete, winding up on his lid.  In its tenth season of Kokomo reconfiguration, the term “Kokomo slide job” is now synonymous with the all-too-common “Eldora slide job”.  Say what you will, but “slide or be slid” has become a Sunday night mindset for most serious racers.      

 

On a three race win streak with his driver Chad Boespflug (Putnamville, Plymouth, and Gas City), I spent a few minutes with Paul Hazen prior to heat race action.  Paul might not be a numbers guy, but he thought it was kind of cool that he was 75 years of age at the start of his 57th season of competition, flip-flopping the numbers that also reside on his tail tank.  Now 76, he is another example of sprint car racing’s refusal to wait for someday to achieve ultimate satisfaction, especially after admitting as to how much pain he’s currently suffering with his left hip, which is a bone-to-bone situation that will require surgery in the off-season.  Breaking his ankle after falling from the top of his trailer towards the end of the 2013 campaign, he’s currently surviving the season on pain pills and injections from doctor and sponsor Dave Stensland, Jr. (of Fort Wayne’s Physical Medicine Consultants).  Commenting further, Hazen opened up by stating, “It doesn’t hurt quite as bad when we’re winning.  If you keep winning every now and then, it keeps the blood flowing.  But, as I’ve always said, racing is worse than drugs. You can get help for a drug addiction, but until you go broke, there is no cure for a racing addiction.”  Winning five times thus far in 2014, Hazen and Boespflug will boldly make a full attempt at Indiana Sprint Week, even bolder when considering how little help the team will have at the track.    

 

As is usually the case for Kokomo Sundays, everything comes to a head in the 25-lap finale.  Beginning Max McGhee and Jerry Coons, Jr. from front row seats, Jerry drew first blood, but it was McGhee who would officially lead lap one.  By turn two, the familiar red number ten was again out front but immediately behind a three car congregation for third saw the position swapped three times in just two tours, involving Logan Jarrett, Scotty Weir, and Shane Cottle.  After taking off from tenth, Saturday Haubstadt victor Robert Ballou bicycled into a flip in turns three and four, putting the usual Kokomo intensity on pause. 

 

Sweeping outside of Coons on the backstretch, McGhee snagged the lead for a brief instant but slipped sideways in corner four, thus opening the door for another exchange.  Max continued to keep pace with the USAC triple crown champ until a lap nine spin for Garrett Miller.  Just six laps later, Miller spun again and eliminated the large lead that Coons had constructed. 

 

Restacking a front-five deck containing Coons, McGhee, Cottle, Schuerenberg, and Clauson, The Bullet began his forward march, bombarding the bottom to sneak past Schuerenberg and threaten Cottle for third.  With just five laps left, Bryan’s bottom feeding shot him to second.  Cutting into the Coons advantage with every lap, at the two-to-go signal Clauson actually inched ahead as he exited the second bend.  Once amber bulbs illuminated for a Chris Gurley spin, this fueled the fire for even more Sunday night drama. 

 

Deviating from his race-long top groove, once back to green Jerry pointed to the bottom of turn one.  However, Bryan showed just how low one can go at Kokomo, surging forward at the exit of turn two to steal both the lead and win, his second of the sprint car season here.  Coons had to settle for an unsavory second, with Chad Boespflug elevating to third from 11th.  McGhee mastered fourth in his best Kokomo performance to date, with Cottle completing the first five.  Weir, Schuerenberg, Dave Darland (from 14th), Kyle Robbins, and Logan Jarrett secured sixth through tenth. 

 

Similar to Darland, Bryan Clauson is yet another open wheel warrior who has no time to dwell on previous attempts at furthering his career.  Having already made a favorable impression in both NASCAR and Indycar, the fact that he’s still slinging clay at Kokomo on Sunday nights highlights just how screwed up big-time motorsports is, which concerns itself with money and marketability rather than talent.  

 

Wasting no time wondering about his future in racing, he’s already lined up a deal with Jonathan Byrd Racing for next year’s Indy 500.  Having competed eight times in 2014 for the Buffalo Wild Wings winged sprint car team belonging to Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s Todd and Susan LaHaise, he discussed the potential for becoming even further entrenched in the winged wars next season.  Let’s face it, for a full-time racer like Clauson, it only makes sense to migrate to where the money is.  Winged start number nine was to have come the previous evening in Knoxville, Iowa if not for rain, so he’ll return to the sprint car capital of the world on July 26th, his second-to-last opportunity to prep for his second Knoxville Nationals.  With no time to wait for someday when he might get another call from a NASCAR owner, for now he lives the dream of racing anytime and anywhere.  But at the same time, he’s also pouring his future foundation.      

 

Moving forward to Thursday, July 3rd, I was able to exit employment at 5:30 PM for a three day holiday weekend.  However, such frustrating lane restrictions for U.S. 31 construction around Westfield nixed any chance to catch the first session of Kokomo Speedway hot laps.  Lucky to make it to my happy place in one piece, evasive action was required to avoid rear-ending a Subaru near 196st street.  There’s nothing like nearly swallowing one’s heart to be reminded that maybe, just maybe, someone is looking out for me. 

 

This special Thursday night soiree kicked off an unusually busy weekend that precedes the Hoosier state’s most intense period of sprint car combat.  Corralling some 26 contestants, this negates the notion that sprint car racers are willing to conserve resources, energy, and equipment in anticipation of someday (otherwise known as Sprint Week).  Just four nights after the previous Kokomo contest, USAC regulars C.J. Leary and Chase Stockon served as added bonuses to the usual stout cast of characters. 

 

Missing all but the final session of hot laps/qualifying, that final group had Jerry Coons, Jr. stopping the clocks at 13.009 seconds, best of evening in the hometown backed Crume-Evans Insurance/RG Enterprises Spike.  Leary (from 1st), Cottle (from fourth in the Walker wagon), and Clauson (from second in the family sled) tallied heat triumphs, the hardest charger being Logan Jarrett, who was initially clipped by a bobbling Dave Darland and spun to a stop.  Restarting from the rear, he blew by a trio to steal the final transfer.   

 

Just like Sunday, the B-main began to bubble with intensity after an upside down excursion from Garrett Miller and a ragged ride by Dalten Gabbard, his first race back from a wicked spill over Bloomington's banks.  Having his hands full with a completely different car for Kenny Baldwin, Dalten spun and later connected with Adam Cruea in a failed attempt to earn a feature berth. 

 

With a packed grandstand (and parking lot) primarily here for pyrotechnics, those inside the gates surely picked their feature favorite from the first five rows of Grant, Leary, Cottle, Stockon, Coons, Clauson, Darland, and Boespflug.  Taking the green shortly after 9:20, Kyle Robbins and Brandon Mattox (his first-ever Kokomo appearance) touched wheels and ignited their own fireworks, sending “The Tall Cool One” (Chris Gurley) skyward. 

 

The first seven circuits served as a Cliff Notes version of the 25-lap finale, as Justin Grant and Shane Cottle traded the top spot twice before a lap seven spill spoiled Josh Spencer’s 29th birthday.  Flipping his red, white, and blue Half Moon Brewery and Restaurant machine all the way to the turn one fence and zinging his brand new Ott/Rider/Claxton engine in the process, thankfully his Spike chassis took the abuse as opposed to his body and brain.  To help get him back on track, on the return home I stopped at Chris Roegner’s Half Moon for a late night feast with both of my nephews, catching Knoxville sprint cars and Oswego supers on MAV TV.

 

Prior to Josh’s nasty spill, Dave Darland had scaled the large ledge that existed in turns one and two, soon pulling to the infield and putting his track championship hopes in jeopardy.  Compared to his early season outings in the Stensland 41, Dave’s last three local Kokomo contests have oddly been sub-par.       

 

After Spencer’s red, Cottle collected first thanks to a low side launch underneath Grant through three and four, up front at the feature’s crossed flags.  With ten to go, Justin sampled the turn three cushion with his right rear, diamonding three and four to chop Shane’s lead in half. 

 

With low-riding Lee Dakus serving as a backstretch pick on Cottle, Grant was able to gather P1 with an outside sweep, scooting away with six laps left.  Shane was able to stay close with some solid tours through three and four, but one and two was an issue.  Cottle inched even closer as the white flag waved, but more lapped traffic lurked around the bottom and prevented a last lap surprise.  Grant parked Mark Hery’s DRC/Claxton in Kokomo’s victory lane for the second time in 2014, leading a top-five of Cottle, Coons, Clauson, and Stockon.  Weir, Boespflug, Leary, Shuman, and Jarrett were paid for positions six through ten.      

 

For the second year in a row, my Fourth of July was spent sitting in a lawn chair in downtown Putnamville, Indiana, sans fireworks as the United States Auto Club’s final Sprint Week tune up offered an intimate preview of the forthcoming marathon.  A rare Friday night offering at this traditional Saturday night stop, the slim car count of 24 was a direct result of going head to head with Bloomington’s $2,000 to win/$500 to start spectacular that actually offered the big boomers. B-town boasted a vast majority of Lincoln Park locals including winner Brady Short, Jeff Bland, Jr., and newlywed Dickie Gaines, who hustled from 12th to 3rd in the Pedersen 4.     

 

Walking up the gravel drive and encountering long-time sprint car supporters Roger and Barb Tapy, they exited a fully decked out Chevy HHR that wore vinyl decals advertising their new venture:  Customized Service Trucks.  As you may remember, Roger sold his Trucker’s 24-Hour Service business back in October of 2010, immediately signing a three year contract to help ease the transition of power.  However, he and the new management parted ways in January of this year and needing something to occupy his time, Roger’s new deal fabricates, outfits, and sells service trucks, just like the ones he used to employ at Trucker’s 24-Hour.  Putnamville USAC would be Roger and Barb’s second sprint car outing of 2014, as family and business have certainly kept them busy this year. 

 

Cutting ties with sprint car ownership after selling the business, the Tapys still stay involved by supporting Dave Darland and Hunter Schuerenberg, also awarding a new right rear tire to a random feature finisher from positions 11 through 20 on each night of Indiana Sprint Week.  Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on sprint car racing since becoming the owner of Jim Whiteside’s machine back in 2001, Roger and Barb are sprint car loyalists who refuse to wait for someday to give back to the sport that they adore so dearly. 

 

The Tapys have employed quite a few sprint car chauffeurs in their time, many of them competing on this gorgeous Friday evening that featured such perfect, humidity-free weather.  One of them was Jerry Coons, Jr., a Putnamville sprint car producer for the Truckers team in August of 2002.  Fast forwarding to July of 2014, after top-six time trialers Max McGhee and Jon Stanbrough failed to transfer through their heat, eighth-quick Coons earned the right to propel from the pole position in Monte Edison’s red rocket.  Yielding first place to Lincoln Park legend Dave Darland for one lap and working overtime to keep a smoking Bryan Clauson in his wake (Bryan actually led lap 26), this would be Jerry’s 15th career USAC sprint car triumph, number four in USAC circles for car owner Edison.  A reversal of fortune after losing late to Clauson in Kokomo on June 29th, it was a feel-good night for the savvy veteran, as a large contingent of in-laws (who hail from nearby Greencastle) and Edison’s number one sponsor (Sherry Evans-Hord) were on-hand to catch the action.

 

Entering the evening as USAC’s point leader, Brady Bacon spun early and recovered to take 13th, seeing his 48 point lead shrivel to just 29.  While operating second, Darland blew a golden opportunity to capitalize after half-spinning in turn two.  Killing his engine in the slip-up, a huge stroke of luck had Chris Phillips rap the rear of the Phillips 71, restarting its Foxco engine and allowing for a fifth place finish.      

 

Comparable to its Midget Week surface, Putnamville’s paperclip was heavy on the bottom for the fourth of July, serving as the preferred lane for both Coons and Clauson.  Having his hands full with the former Noblesville Miller, Jerry was nearly perfect in his pursuit of the checkered, making just one wrong move in traffic.   However, Clauson’s low lane was immediately clogged by lappers in one and two, allowing Coons to circle BC and seal the win.  With the ode of fried Chevrolet quite prominent, both C.J. Leary and Shane Cottle were able to get around the heavily smoking Clauson late.  Fresh from a pair of USAC scores in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Jon Stanbrough settled for sixth while Boespflug, Hines, Windom, and Shuman secured seventh through tenth.  Late arriver Robert Ballou was the hard charger, chugging from 19th to 12th.

 

Finally putting the finishing touches on this pre-Sprint Week wrap-up after arriving home from Lawrenceburg’s washout of ISW stop number three, if there ever was such a thing as “someday” for sprint car fanatics and contestants, that time was most certainly now.  Serving as traditional sprint car racing’s center stage, this is the ultimate opportunity to go for the gusto and let it all hang out.  But before engaging in such a costly endeavor, one would think that fans, teams, and drivers would conserve some resources to properly prepare for the seven race in nine night grind.  Given the participation from all parties the previous two weekends, nothing could be further from the truth, as such a sweeping statement defies the very essence of the sprint car community.  The purest examples of those who take full advantage of the present, they have zero time for yesterday, let alone someday.  Fully embracing the sentiment that life is short, they indeed race hard. 

 

 

 

 

Volume 16, Number 7

 

Buzzworthy

 

Some might say that you can never have too much of a good thing, but in the heart of wingless sprint car country where three nights of intake can so easily be achieved, it doesn’t take long for the senses to get dulled.  Akin to devouring a medium-rare, dry-aged rib eye steak for dinner each night, even something as mouth-watering as sprint car competition loses its flavor, especially after over-indulging from two months of non-stop 2014 activity.  Readily admitting to being “raced out”, which happens to me several times each season, I can attribute these feelings to an internally generated pressure to post fresh and original ponderings after each attendance, so tough to keep up with my impossible schedule.  As much as I enjoy being a part of the scene, sometimes I simply have to step away in order to stoke flames from so many charred embers.    

 

Despite a distinct sense of burnout after my Indy 500 six race in five night binge, like any addict I could not turn down a true open wheel treat, namely a rare double dip of POWRi midgets and traditional sprints at Bloomington Speedway on the final Friday of May.  Enjoying it so much, I had to have a second serving of midgets the next evening in Brownstown.  Some might question this deviation from my usual norm, as this would be the first time I missed a King of Indiana Sprint Series soiree in Paragon since 2006.    However, sometimes you just have to do something different and "shock the system" in order to get the blood pumping again.   

 

With four-cylinder engines screaming at a 10,000-plus RPM redline, midgets simply have a unique way of doing just that, ultimately rekindling my racing romance.  I'm obviously not alone, as ever since this form of entertainment was introduced back in 1933, midget madness has had a similar effect on an entire nation of Americans, Aussies, and Kiwis, without question the most popular spectator sport prior to and immediately after World War II.  My own introduction came at such iconic venues as Winchester, Fort Wayne's Allen County Memorial Coliseum, Terre Haute’s Action Track, and Indianapolis Raceway Park, but what ultimately hooked me were Thursday night USAC regional contests at the Indianapolis Speedrome back in the mid to late 1980s, enthralled by Rich Vogler's innate ability to make an impossible outside lane work with just three wheels.   

 

Throughout time, midget car racing has indeed been buzzworthy, which Oxford’s online dictionary defines as something that is likely to arouse the interest and attention of the public, either by media coverage or word of mouth.   Speaking solely from an American perspective, the sport's popularity waned once the Offenhauser engine became the norm, as the 1950s also saw stock cars and "roadsters" steal the spotlight.  Making a spectacular comeback with ESPN’s Thunder series in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s, once live television disappeared, so did the buzz, with the lone exception being one week in January when all attention is diverted to Tulsa’s Chili Bowl.   

 

For the last ten years, USAC’s Indiana Midget Week has been slowly helping to restore the luster with its spectacular five race mini-series.  Paired with local, unsanctioned sprint cars, even with limited promotion it has continued to grow in all aspects, as evidenced by packed houses and equally cramped pit areas at each one of the 2014 rounds.  The abundance of motorhomes and campers on the grounds seemed to be more evident in 2014, a sure sign that it has achieved must-see, event-level status.  And as has been the case since its inception, it's an international affair, bringing racing junkies from the all around the globe.  After all these years, Midget Week's sufficient word of mouth advertising automatically qualifies it as buzzworthy, otherwise how would it have grown to this stature?  Supplanted by POWRi’s Illinois Midget Week the week before, this month for midgets certainly stirs up interest in June, but what about the other months?  Outside of Montpelier, Indiana, I still feel like this sport needs a local, weekly venue to maintain year-round momentum. 

 

Rewinding back to the final weekend in May in my lead-up to Indiana Midget Week, Bloomington and Brownstown were the final two showings for POWRi's inaugural Midget World Championship, the brainchild of Western Springs Speedway director Bill Buckley.  Spanning three countries and six speed plants, the first four contests were held at the Springs, the next four took place at Australia’s Lismore and Brisbane Speedways, with the final eight slated for Sun Prairie (times two), Bloomington, Brownstown, Quincy, Lincoln, Macon, and Belle-Clair.  At the time of planting my behind on Bloomington pine, I had completely forgotten that this Indiana weekend was worthy of world status, also unaware that Illinois Midget Week had been bounced from Buckley’s schedule.  Constantly working from behind on these articles and wrapped up with my day job, I literally had no idea that Rico Abreu’s Bloomington absence was due to a humongous flip over the Angell Park fence.  Like the old Hall and Oates song goes from the ‘80s, I’m out of touch (and clearly out of time).  It would probably help if POWRi press releases conveniently landed in my inbox. 

 

Winning eight of ten POWRi productions thus far, as expected Keith Kunz Motorsports was represented in Bloomington by Sun Prairie winners Christopher Bell and Tanner Thorson.  So, it should come as no surprise that one of these two would wind up winning from this field of 33 after Bell blasted from eighth to second in his heat, Thorson doing one better by scooting from sixth to first.  Both Bullet/Toyotas fired from Bloomington's feature front row, with Bell ringing the lead from his outside starting spot.  However, the Minden, Nevada youngster took the measure of his more experienced teammate, swiping the top spot by slipping underneath in turn four.  Chris immediately countered with a slider on the other end, only to suffer the same fate in the fourth corner as green lights soon gave way to yellow for a four car entanglement. 

 

Back to green, Bell bolted from the turn two cushion to beat Thorson to the bottom of turn three, never to be touched again.  Exclusively working the low lane and enduring three more cautions, number 71 scored for sixth time in 2014 under the domestic POWRi banner, easily distancing Bryan Clauson, who had lived the high life and elevated from ninth in the Dooling 63.  Thorson settled for third while B-main battler Kevin Thomas, Jr. slashed from 17th to 4th in a Kenny Brown BOSS/Esslinger.  Reigning series champ Zach Daum found fifth while Kiwi Michael Pickens (RFMS 3), Salem’s Seth Motsinger, Andrew Felker (from 21st), Tyler Thomas (from 16th), and Kiwi Brad Mosen (from 19th in the Buckley Breka/Esslinger) were scored sixth through tenth at the 10:16 PM checkered. 

 

Solid competition came from a pair of 5IVE-6IX, Inc. Great Clips Beast/Esslingers for Darren Hagen and Danny Stratton, which is of course Shane Hmiel's effort overseen by seven-time USAC giant Levi Jones.  Despite engine difficulties, Hagen won the first heat with his teammate trailing.  Stratton worked as high as third in the feature before losing a left rear wheel while Hagen exited a bit before.  After winning the opening night of Illinois Midget Week, much to my surprise this squad was a complete no-show for USAC’s Indiana version.  

 

Hailing from the sunny side of Louisville in Jeffersonville, Indiana, another two car corral came from A.J. Felker, who brought his own number 37 for Casey Shuman while maintaining a full-time POWRi piece for Daniel Robinson.  Although Shuman missed the show by one spot, A.J.'s aiding of Robinson led them to tonight's feature, with their recent run from 22nd to 5th at Little Belleville showing promise from this pairing.  A constructor of FSC chassis, A.J. is equally known for his engine services, as he now has use of his own engine dyno and can rebuild an Esslinger or any other midget mill. 

 

Enjoying Bloomington heat races with New Zealand visitor Alf Bidois, who skipped out on the opening act of Townsend Tours to take in this Indiana POWRi pair with Aaron Drever, we both were shocked at the altitude and length of flip involving his fellow countryman Scott Buckley.  Locking horns with Davey Ray at the exit of corner two and landing outside of the entrance to turn three, as Alf so aptly noted, "When a left front meets a right rear, the right rear always wins."  Conscious and alert but battered, bruised, and swollen, Scott took a ride to the local hospital for observation, no surprise that he was a no-show for the rest of the tour. 

 

Numbering 21 in total, sprint cars were also on hand and with surface conditions vastly improved over the previous week, heat action was quite entertaining, watching Jeff Bland win from 5th, Carson Short claim top honors over Brady Short, and Chase Stockon (Gentry 2) fend off the ferocious advances of Christopher Bell, who was wheeling the same Fox 53 that had won a WoO war at Jacksonville just a few weeks prior.  Launching off a massive curb in turn two, Bell would repeatedly get great runs down the back chute and attempt to beat Stockon to the bottom of turn three.  Operating in extremely tight quarters, the two touched once and looked like they could have a few more times if not for some self-restraint.   

 

As for the sprint A, it was all Jeff Bland, Jr., with the Springville Splasher (coined by Rob Klepper back in 2008) collecting his third consecutive feature victory in Jerry Burton's DRC.  This being the first-ever Bloomington sprint car score for the hometown Burtons, their driver propelled from the pole position, operating a smooth and steady line around the infield tires (ala Kevin Thomas) that kept the competition scrambling for 25 laps. 

 

Seven cars scrapped for second early on, with a feisty Chase Stockon dueling with Dakota Jackson and fifth-starting Christopher Bell.  Reverting to his heat race tactic, Chris chopped Chase at the bottom of turn three, but their battle was hardly over as they swapped the position no fewer than five times.  In the mid-to-late stages, Bell sliced Bland's lead and once caution lights came on for Nick Johnson at lap 19, I fully expected some late-race drama. 

 

Not everything in life goes to plan however as Christopher clobbered the big curb in turn two, allowing Brady Short to seize second and mount a threat for first.  Rolling the middle, Sweet Feet turned up the heat on the final lap but slipped off the edge through four, allowing the eye-popping 04 to take the victory.  Bell took second while seventh-starting Chase Briscoe collected third in only his second start of the season.  Two Shorts (Brady and Carson) completed the first five while Stockon, Jordan Kinser, Kevin Thomas, Jr., Casey Shuman, and Nick Bilbee solidified sixth through tenth at the 10:44 PM checkered flag.  Had this victory been the previous week, the noise could have been heard all the way to Indianapolis but with tonight's sparse crowd, the applause was hardly noticeable.     

 

After aligning with Alan Rush for a Brownstown bash, we met Western Springs announcer Aaron Drever and Alf Bidois in Seymour for some traditional American pre-race grub at Cracker Barrel.  A quick in and out allowed us to easily make hot laps under the old-school covered grandstand at the Jackson County Fairgrounds, having no idea how midgets would handle this traditional dirt late model venue as in all my years, I cannot remember anything other than sprint cars, TQs, or mini-sprints attacking this extremely wide quarter-mile layout.  Just shooting from the hip, I would imagine that the long-defunct CORA midget group probably held races here, but that would have been at least 30 years ago. 

 

Holding my expectations to a minimum for this evening’s action, I love it when those expectations are exceeded, as this was one of the most entertaining outings of all of 2014, perfectly providing a buzz for both Illinois and Indiana Midget Week.  A field of 32 midgets were joined by UMRA TQs, mini-sprints, and modifieds, making for an all open wheel show.  The biggest reason for such positive reflections on this evening had everything to do with the surface.  Normally pounded smooth and slick for tin tops, it was 180 degrees of different and absolutely perfect – heavy on the water and light on the packing, producing a massive cushion that oozed with entertainment.  Sure, the end result was another Christopher Bell win, but if you happen to find the short 1 minute and 18-second clip on You Tube courtesy of Jack Slash (Sean Buckley), you’ll understand my reason for associating the word buzzworthy with midget racing.   Narrated by an animated Aaron Drever, such intensity is a prime reason to remain hopeful that this sport finds a way to survive and thrive.   

 

The huge cushion that greeted midget combatants bit Kevin Thomas, Jr. in a big way during hot laps, tumbling over the turn four bank which set the stage for a memorable turn of events for the Alabama throttle stomper.  After repairing the car in time for the second heat, a DNF forced him to begin from the donkey’s tail (15th) of the B.  Slicing through the field like a hot knife through butter, a two-for-one turn three slider awarded Thomas the lead and the win – an extremely impressive showing of drive and determination that got this fan fired up.  Claiming 7th from 17th in the A-main, if there was ever any doubt if this Thomas kid could drive, tonight should have silenced any critics. 

 

Kiwi heat wins from Mosen and Pickens had to please Rush, Bidois, and Drever, but the best heat race performance came from Hagen, who slithered from seventh to first.  Andrew Felker should be commended for holding off both Keith Kunz cars in the fourth heat, as nobody could stake that claim a few hours later.  The same cushion that captured KT also sent local boy Logan Arnold for a ride over the same bank in three and four.

 

As the night wore on, the mammoth ledge had diminished, as had surface moisture.  Still plenty racy, I was surprised to see some pre-feature grooming, as both top and bottom lanes were scratched and splashed.  However, the boys in Brownstown knocked it out of the park yet again as the feature was out of this world, with those two grooves accounting for the bulk of the action. 

 

Just before the green flag fell at 10:39 PM, fourth-starting Brad Mosen was forced to pit for an ill-sounding Esslinger.  Darren Hagen immediately led low but by the third lap, Michael Pickens showed everyone which groove was superior, climbing upstairs to blow off The Hawk.  A lap six yellow for Nick Knepper and Danny Stratton allowed eyes to focus on the third and fourth place machines of Bell and Thorson, who immediately attacked once green lights blinked. 

 

Shot out of cannon, Thorson authoritatively slid from fourth to second through one and two, preparing to go after Pickens until amber bulbs illuminated at lap nine.  Restarting Michael, Tanner, and Chris, Tanner tried Michael through turn two to no avail.  One lap later, Thorson again attempted the same maneuver, allowing his teammate to seize second.  For two consecutive circuits, Tanner tried to take it back through three and four but could not get the job done. 

 

Now, it was Bell’s turn to crank up the heat on MP, pulling even at the top of two with an attempted slide job.  With his inboard brake rotor glowing on the Don Fike DRC/Esslinger, Pickens got the better run off the top.  Another slider in two was oh-so-close, but again, it wasn’t enough to clear Michael's left front.  The lead trio exclusively rode the rim, eyeing Bell's perfectly executed overtaking through three and four.  Pickens immediate crossed over through four and by turn one, they fanned three deep as Michael tried to slide Bell while Thorson made an even bolder attempt underneath Pickens.  Michael and Tanner connected at the top of two, allowing Christopher to construct a large margin before a final caution waved for Shane Hollingsworth. 

 

Leaving just six laps, Bell and Thorson managed to put a half-track on third place Hagen, as Pickens miraculously saved a big bike through three and four but fell to fifth, one spot behind Tyler Thomas, who toiled from tenth.  Felker, Kevin Thomas, front row starter Terry Babb, Zach Daum, and Colten Cottle secured sixth through tenth. Book-ending the POWRi World Midget Series with feature wins, Christopher Bell was crowned the inaugural champion, hoisting the sterling silver cup in the bright lights of Brownstown’s victory lane.

 

Outside of attending awe-inspiring SVRA vintage activities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I did not wish to kill my Brownstown buzz for Indiana’s Midget Week opener in Gas City, intentionally avoiding local sprint car contests on the first full weekend in June.   Heavy rain on Tuesday and an ugly forecast for Wednesday might have spoiled the opener just to the west of I-69 up in Grant County, but it did not dampen enthusiasm for Thursday’s performance in Putnamville.  As for that Gas City washout, it continued a painfully frustrating campaign for promoter Mel Botkin, who had no choice but to pull the plug fairly early.  

 

Now reduced to four outings, how would one sum up Indiana Midget Week for 2014?  Aside from this article's theme, it might be just be Rico Abreu, as the “Little Giant” has been equally buzzworthy, owner of nine 2014 feature victories heading into the five race festival.  Despite nursing a broken collarbone suffered in that Sun Prairie shunt on the eve of Memorial Day, he was consistently quick in qualifying and a factor for each feature win.  Timing first, fourth, second, and first in traditional two-lap time trials, he had a sniff of first place and opened with a third at LPS, secured a second behind his teammate Christopher Bell in Bloomington, landed in Lawrenceburg's victory lane amid a chorus of boos via an aggressive slide job on Alex Bright, and wound up the week by leading ten Kokomo laps before yielding to eventual winner Bryan Clauson, settling for a solid third.  Such incredible consistency netted him his first Midget Week crown, becoming the eighth different driver to own such honor.  The unique combination of diminutive stature and heavy right foot has Rico's exploits on everyone's radar, especially after beginning this year with a bang by taking a World of Outlaws tussle in Tulare and completing a two night sweep of Kokomo's Grand Prix.  Now that he has conquered Midget Week, what's next?  Selfishly speaking, a wingless sprint car would be nice…

 

With the triumvirate of Abreu, Bell, and Thorson, yet again Keith Kunz Motorsports provided quite the buzz for Midget Week competition.  Qualifying quickest in all four affairs and winning a pair with Bell and Abreu, had front row starter Tanner Thorson not spun at the start of Putnamville's feature or Christopher Bell not tumbled over the turn one bank in his heat race at the same stop, they might have taken three of four.  Over the four nights, Thorson had the most inconsistent finishes of the three (20th, 5th, 22nd, and 8th), but he was still a force to be reckoned with after topping the timing charts twice.  Plus, his fifth place finish in B-town came after an early spin, carving up the field in his charge from the rear.  Say what you will about their potent Speedway Engines Toyota power plants, but Keith has his Bullet Chassis hooked up with tried-and-true Advanced Racing shocks.  Given the long-standing success Keith and everyone else has had with ARS, it is interesting and surprising to see that the majority of the midget field has strayed with offerings from Factory Kahne and Competition Suspension. 

 

My own Midget Week buzz is due in great part to Auckland, New Zealand’s Bryce Townsend, who again organized a massive tour of the United States for a large group of 20-plus individuals, always incorporating Indiana Midget Week as the cornerstone event.  Dominating his own Indiana tour of TQ midget racing back in 2000 (which rocked the almighty world of the Goffs), Townsend is a two-time New Zealand TQ champion and also claimed victory in full-size midgets at the famed 50-lapper at Western Springs, amassing over 80 victories before hanging up his helmet after a devastating crash in 2008.  An Indiana Midget Week competitor in 2007, when not serving as a tour guide of the U.S., he operates his own midget and sprint car driving school (http://openwheel.weebly.com), aptly named Bryce Townsend’s Open Wheel Driving Experience. 

 

Townsend Tours of 2014, better known as the Job’s On Tour, brought 24 Kiwis stateside, filling two vans manned by Townsend and Dean “Oogie” Mulholland, a veteran of New Zealand Super Stocks who now gets his jollies piloting Class 1 off-road buggies (powered by a 2-liter, 400 horsepower Subaru engine).  First driving to Detroit for the Indycar Grand Prix, they headed to Chicago on the way back for some sightseeing, arriving back in the Hoosier state just in time for a Kokomo World of Outlaws washout.  Venturing across the border for POWRi’s Illinois Midget Week, they were entertained in Quincy, Lincoln, and Belleville, having to kill an evening in the land of Lincoln's capital city after Macon’s rain out.  Upon exiting Belle-Clair, they turned southeast to Nashville, Tennessee for two more days of sight-seeing before encountering even more moisture while en route to the Indiana Midget Week opener.  Thankfully the wet stuff stayed away for the next four nights, satisfied that they had crammed as much as they could into nearly three weeks.  Visiting numerous museums, stores, and bars, they gained plenty of photo opportunities for their “J0BZ0N” signs, with noted holders including Scott Dixon, Mel Kenyon, and a Saturday night Springfield wedding party. 

 

Intrigued with the wide array of racing fanatics on this particular tour, included in the group were Max and Jason Butterworth, so honored to meet the brother and nephew to iconic New Zealand midget and sprint car champion Barry Butterworth, a former USAC midget rookie of the year and Haubstadt feature winner.  1979 and 1980 New Zealand TQ champion Murray Worboys was here with his wife Ngaire, noting that their son Carl was the 2004-2005 NZ midget champion.  Western Springs steward/official Wayne Morris was yet another colorful character touring the states, as was Western Springs push truck driver Anthony “Crusty” Christini.  Andrew Groshinski (the name is actually Polish, much like Dollansky) enjoyed the festivities immensely, gathering ideas for his V-6 powered wingless sprint car that enters its third year of competition back home.  Graeme “Drumbo” Drummond was on tour once again, pondering the possibilities of bringing son Ben and his midget next year.  New Zealand Super Stock royalty Paul Wade (with wife Raewyn) was included in the group, now a midget car owner for his nephew Jared, who is also a Super Stock star in his own right.  Sporting a pristine Steve Lewis racing t-shirt, Pete Neale was a new addition for 2014, an ex-modified pilot (which look a lot like sprint cars) who stepped away from the cockpit to crew for midget racer Blair Bertran, whose father was a multi-time mod/sportsman/sprint car champ.  Midget Week only whetted his appetite for excitement, as Pete was headed to North Carolina to strap into a stock car.  Fans like Kevin and “Chardonnay” Pam Wilson, 81 year-old Don “Howl at the Moon” Helm, Lee Williams, and Liz Liddle toured with Townsend for the first time, joining veterans Ron and Lois Shearman, Aaron Drever, and Alf Bidois.  And, for just one night (Putnamville), Erin Tripp, wife to Sleepy, was back in Indiana for the first time since 1997, having joined the group in St. Louis.  So impressed that these people spent so much money and time for what was primarily a racing excursion, I will admit that I’m not half the hardcore fan that they are.   

 

As the all-time Midget Week win leader and twice a champion (2009 and 2011), it's hard to imagine that Chili Bowl winner Bryan Clauson could be considered an underdog in this game, but such is the case for 2014 given the Keith Kunz juggernaut.  Even with Keith's older brother Rusty calling the shots on Bryan's Spike/Esslinger, it just seemed like Clauson had to hustle extra hard each night just to stay in the game.   Normally an outstanding qualifier, BC clocked in 22nd, 9th, 11th, and 8th, forcing him to charge from 18th to 4th at LPS, 8th to 3rd at Bloomington, 10th to 4th at Lawrenceburg, and 8th to win at Kokomo, good enough to score second-most Midget Week points.  The only one to consistently ride the rim in B-town, a restart with two laps left gave hope for an upset but after banging the cushion in turns one and two, he allowed Rico Abreu to score second at the stripe.  Gaining redemption two nights later, thanks to some extreme Kokomo savvy he tossed a slow motion slider on Rico at lap 16, walking away with a big win on Midget Week's center stage, celebrating his 25th birthday in style.  I know that Bryan's skills have not diminished and Rusty K. is no slouch with the wrenches, so could it be that their choice of power is holding them back?     

 

An Indiana Midget Week co-champ with Brad Kuhn in 2010 and an outright champ in 2008, Tracy Hines had yet another solid showing in 2014.  Third in points, he didn’t score any wins over the four days, but he qualified in the top-six three times and tallied three runner-up placements (Lincoln Park, Lawrenceburg and Kokomo).  After qualifying a sub-par 15th at Bloomington, he wound up an uncharacteristic 10th at the checkered, serving as the lone outlier in a superb mini-series for the pilot of the familiar Parker Machinery Spike/Toyota.  Third in national points behind Abreu and Bell, Tracy is still in search of that first USAC midget title to round out his “Triple Crown”, hoping he can one day cross that task off his list.  The consummate professional yet still candid in his comments, I enjoyed his assessments of the action each night he landed on the podium. 

 

Fourth in the Midget Week standings was 2001 and 2002 USAC midget champion Dave Darland, who had Jimmy May fly in from California to spin wrenches on the RW Motorsports Spike/Fontana.  "The Rave" started his Midget Week in style with a wire-to-wire win at Lincoln Park, becoming a front row benefactor after outside front row starter Tanner Thorson spun in turn one at the start.  Taking the lead from a wheels-up Steve Buckwalter at the conclusion of lap one, Dave had to contain serious pressure from both Tracy Hines and Rico Abreu while slipping through traffic to claim top honors in the most hotly contested of all Midget Week meetings, all while keeping his rear wheels contained in the tacky middle to bottom lanes.  Qualifying poorly at both Bloomington and Lawrenceburg, he might have only finished 14th in B-town but he was able to scoot to 6th at The Burg, winding up the week with a quiet fourth in Kokomo.     

 

One of three Kiwis to contest Midget Week, Michael Pickens certainly had a good showing with a fifth in points, but if Lawrenceburg could have ended differently, it would have been a great week for MP.  As has been the case in previous years, this mini-series again left New Zealand’s number one export unsatisfied.  Hooked up with RFMS Racing, the 2012 Midget Week and national championship squad, he was paired alongside Chris Windom in nearly identical DRC chassis powered by Gary Stanton overhead-cam Mopars (MP ran FK shocks while Windom wore ARS).  Moving from 12th to 5th at Putnamville, he started and finished 7th at Bloomington.  Traditionally strong at Lawrenceburg and Kokomo, Pickens did not disappoint, starting fourth and leading 15 laps at the monstrous 3/8ths mile.  Slowed by lapped traffic and allowing pole-sitter and lap one leader Alex Bright to stay within striking distance, Bright served a massive slide job on Michael through turns one and two, crowding the Kiwi into the concrete and forcing a run through the spin cycle, spoiling his evening and week.  Starting second and leading one Kokomo circuit, he wound up sixth on Sunday night.  Regardless of whether it was Pickens or Windom behind the wheel (Chris made all four features and had a best finish of 4th at Bloomington), the RFMS squad is still searching for that same magic from 2012.   

 

Speaking of what could have been, Christopher Bell’s attempt to duplicate his 2013 Midget Week title was washed down the drain after tumbling over Putnamville’s turn two bank during heat race action.  Going where they weren’t with four wheels in the fluff, Bell biked his Bullet and snap-rolled to a stop, taking a long while for the paramedics to remove him from his battered machine.  Attempting double-duty in a Fox 53 sprinter, CB completely bowed out on Thursday, lucky to return one night later in Bloomington.  His Keith Kunz hauler might have been the last to arrive on Friday afternoon, but he and his equipment showed no ill effects by going from zero to hero in 24 hours, slipping underneath Damion Gardner in turn four of lap five to lead the rest of the way.  Uncharacteristically qualifying 9th in Lawrenceburg, again patience was a virtue on the big banks, climbing all the way to third after fireworks were literally set off in front of him.  Timing third at Kokomo, the same place where he wowed the world last year with a defeat of wonder boy Kyle Larson, he was waging war with another of his teammates (R. Abreu) when close-quarters competition appeared to slice a left front tire.  Returning to claim 12th, IMW 2014 was a far cry from 2013 for Bell, leaving one to wonder what could have been had it not been for that over the cushion excursion.  

 

Putnamville’s midget field of 44 was the best of the week, followed by Bloomington’s 38, Kokomo’s 36, and Lawrenceburg’s 35.  That latter number proved to be one of the biggest surprises of the week, as previous years had car counts dip dramatically when budget-minded racers stayed home.  Never once did sprint cars outnumber midgets, as the counts were 23, 31, 27, and 30.  Four men competed all four evenings, namely Aaron Farney, Dave Darland, Jon Stanbrough (Dutcher 37 for three nights and Fox 53 for one), and Kody Kinser (son of Kelly, making some rare wingless starts for Aussie Gary Rooke).   When midget rides were plentiful, Midget Week double-duty was a common occurrence but in 2014, only three did the deed on the first two nights.  Five doubled their pleasure at The Burg while seven found work in two Kokomo classes. 

 

And speaking of classes, what’s up with a third class of cars at each event?  Aren’t full midget and sprint fields enough to pay the bills?  Modifieds made up the third class the first three nights, with a slim field of ten street stocks serving as a bathroom and concession stand break at Kokomo.  LPS had the latest ending at 12:06 AM (a two-day show for the price of one), followed by The Burg’s 11:29, Bloomington’s 11:25, and Kokomo’s solid 10:33 conclusion.  Truth be told, modifieds didn’t account for the lateness of hour at Lincoln Park or Lawrenceburg, the former being caused by a marathon midget B-main that took nearly 40 minutes to complete thanks to three yellows and two reds.  Lawrenceburg’s lateness was due to a one hour sprint feature, chock full of reds and yellows as well.  Putnamville's lengthy evening was compounded by three yellows and three reds in the midget heats, not to mention a hot lap tumble from Mooresville High School baseball star Justin Peck, whose coach is Dave Rose, younger brother to baseball icon Pete.  Having to work on Friday morning, five hours of sleep is simply not enough at my age.   

 

Being buzzworthy, naturally Indiana Midget Week offered a few surprise showings from all ends of the country and globe.   In addition to usual participation from New Zealand’s Michael Pickens, Leyton Kendall and Brock Maskovich also came from Kiwi country, with Maskovich joining Oklahoma’s Trey Marcham (USAC’s Western Midget points leader) under Bryan Clauson’s banner.  Brock made mains in in Bloomington (squeezing the final transfer from the B in a four-car photo finish) and Lawrenceburg (taking 10th) but was a DNQ at Putnamville and Kokomo.  His teammate Trey was also an LPS DNQ but followed with feature finishes of 13th, 18th, and 13th (from 24th at Kokomo).  As for Kendall, he copped a ride in a Kenny Brown Spike but had a rough time of it.  Unable to qualify for any of the features, he ended the week with a bang after clobbering Kokomo’s turn four concrete in qualifying, sending him to the hospital and accounting for his second tumble of the week.

  

A trio of Aussies provided further proof of Midget Week’s international flavor, namely Nathan Smee, Domain Ramsay, and Jamie McKinlay.  Steering a former Danny Lendich Spike for Mark Cooper, Smee was 11th and 12th in the first two rounds but was a DNQ for the final two.  Ramsay was 19th and 17th and LPS and Lawrenceburg but failed to crack the A in Bloomington and Kokomo.  As for McKinlay, he turned over three times with his only A-main appearance coming at The Burg, where he was scored 16th.  Regardless of your homeland, just making a Midget Week main event is an accomplishment for any underdog. 

 

Damion Gardner served as a surprise visitor for the first two nights in a familiar Terry Klatt Beast/Chevy wrenched by Bob East.  Earning 8th each time, before heading west to protect his USAC CRA point lead he led the first four laps in Bloomington, taking his heat race transfer on what sounded like three cylinders.  Further Golden State representation came from Ronnie Gardner, Alex Schutte, and 16 year-old James Edens, the latter in a second Daum Motorsports entry.  Ronnie made three of four A-mains, topped by a 13th at Lawrenceburg.  Schutte only made one of four features, timing an impressive third at Lawrenceburg but was unable to capitalize after dropping out of the feature early.  Recently moving to the St. Louis area to regularly compete in crate late models, Edens (known as the “California Flash”) faced a steep learning curve at so many speedways that he’d never seen before.  Present for the first three Midget Week meetings, he turned over in a Lincoln Park heat race and naturally was unable to transfer from any of the B-mains.   

 

Representing ARDC’s proud east coast contingent were Steve Buckwalter, Alex Bright, and Alex’s younger brother Brenden, each making three of four feature events.  After propelling from Putnamville’s pole position, Steve’s best showing was a 7th.  Dropping a cylinder in his Lawrenceburg heat, he was scratched from the rest of Saturday but Sunday saw him in a second Scott Ronk entry.  By the way, Ronk’s stepson Parker Price-Miller made three of four features, a 9th at Bloomington being his best showing. 

 

Eliminated in a first lap LPS incident with Tanner Thorson, starting fourth in Bloomington but later folding his left front wheel, and crashing out at Lawrenceburg on the final lap, when factoring in his  Kokomo DNQ Alex Bright had a highly disappointing week.  However, Lawrenceburg continued to highlight his talent on high speed joints, nearly winning for the second time in three years.  Firing from the pole position, he led lap one before yielding to Michael Pickens, stalking him through traffic and throwing a massive slide for life through turn two on lap 17.  Leading 17 through 26, Alex could not contain a similar slider from Abreu, as the two touched wheels in nearly the same spot.  Staying with the leader until scaling the east end cushion on lap 29, one last ditch effort in turn three of the final go-round titled him on two wheels, sending him straight to the concrete.  Bouncing off the barrier and tumbling down the bank, his calamity caused the event to end under caution.  Walking to victory lane to congratulate the winner, Alex was given a roaring applause, saluting the crowd in return.  Maintaining a family tradition, Alex’s brother Brenden was a Bloomington DNQ but finished 23rd, 14th, and 18th in the other three rounds.  Tony DiMattia was yet another PA visitor, but unlike the others he failed to crack any of the four A-mains. 

 

Additional Midget Week entries came from usual sprint car combatants Brady Bacon, Tyler Courtney, Chad Boespflug, Shane Cottle, Justin Grant, and Jerry Coons, Jr.  Wheeling the Wilke-PAK 11, Brady Bacon made all four A-mains, blasting from 18th to 5th at Lawrenceburg, his third place Putnamville start spoiled by a Tanner Thorson spin.  Sliding into a Spike chassis belonging to Plainfield’s Scott Hampton (no relation to the younger Scott Hampton who occasionally races a sprinter), Tyler Courtney made three of four A-mains.  Chad Boespflug and two-time Indiana Midget Week champion Shane Cottle were Bill Ecker teammates for the final two rounds and although Chad failed to make the cut in either attempt, Cottle collected 8th (from 16th) and 14th.  Strapping on a Stealth for Anderson’s Larry Gardner, Justin Grant appeared at three of the four Midget Week shows, but an 11th at Kokomo was the best he could do.  Exemplifying just how hard it is to land a ride, 2007 Indiana Midget Week champ Jerry Coons, Jr. only found work for one outing, unable to stick A.J. Felker’s 37 into Bloomington’s A-main after qualifying a disappointing 35th from a field of 38. 

 

Much like he did in the final two POWRi World Series shows in Indiana, Kevin Thomas, Jr. some Midget Week buzz.  Popping a provisional for Putnamville, he elevated from 18th to 11th at Bloomington, launched from 22nd to 11th at Lawrenceburg after flipping in qualifying, and ended the week with a 16th to 7th surge in Kokomo.  Zach Daum had a similar week as KT, starting off slow by needing the other LPS provisional.  Scooting from 16th to 6th at Bloomington, he ended the week with finishes of 9th and 5th, leading six Kokomo circuits from his pole position.   

 

Some two weeks later as I attempt to put a period on 2014 Midget Week, Lawrenceburg definitely sticks out as the most memorable of the four evenings.  Dejected by the Gas City cancellation, Putnamville proved to be a long night filled with far too much midget mayhem.  Shocked and surprised by Christopher Bell’s titanic tumble over the turn two bank, once turn one and two's slimy bottom finally came in for the feature, the action was amped up as Darland, Hines, and Abreu battled under a blanket for the entire thirty laps, which was all green after two first lap incidents.  With Rico riding the unruly cushion to nearly snatch the premier position from Dave, I couldn’t help but be amazed at his bravery, tempting fate after breaking his collarbone just two and a half weeks prior. 

 

Bloomington also showed the resilience of Chris Bell, who dominated the feature event before a late race caution allowed Bryan Clauson one last shot at the lead.  When not watching Clauson, my eyes were glued to Tanner Thorson, whose charge from the rear showed me that he too has potential for future greatness.       

 

Pleasantly surprised with Lawrenceburg’s tremendous midget turnout, a few surface imperfections in turns three and four made qualifying quite a show.  Countless cars got big air, including Kevin Thomas, Jr. who flipped cage-first into concrete.  To avoid the hole, many, including Tracy Hines, stepped completely above the cushion.  Aerifying the lower lane and injecting H2O from top to bottom, the Burg’s surface revival paid huge dividends, easily providing the most entertaining midget and sprint features of the week.  As has been the case since the track was expanded to a massive 3/8ths mile for 2008, Midget Week slide jobs and drama are supremely showcased in Lawrenceburg, where Michael Pickens pulled a bold two-for-one slider under Hines and Bright to take the top spot on lap 2.  Bright breathed down Pickens’s neck for the next 16 laps, making a bold move of his own in turn two to take the lead, only to suffer the same fate 11 laps later. 

 

The huge crowd offered some big-time boos for Abreu, but even more drama awaited with the sprint cars.  The 100th sprint car feature held on the new configuration since June 14th of 2008, Chris Windom (who pulled off a Saturday triple when factoring in his Silver Crown run at Gateway) came away the winner in one of the most hotly contested races I’ve ever been witness to.  Counting 16 slide job attempts at the lead (which included numerous crossovers), all but a few were successful, and that did not even include the ones further back through the field.  With the cushion stacked just below the wall, sprint car contestants raced like the winning payout was $15,000 instead of $1,500. 

 

 

 

Concluding Midget Week with a bittersweet outing in Kokomo, I get pumped up for this race as much as any other on my calendar, but it is so difficult to say goodbye to friends who I only get to see once a year.  Eyeing Indycar star Scott Dixon walking in during midget qualifications, hearing Chuck Gurney, Jr.’s four year old daughter Ella sing the national anthem was worth the price of admission alone, enjoying heat three’s first turn, first lap six-wide fanning of competitors.  Yes, you read that right - six-wide! 

 

With a stiff wind out of the southwest, unfortunately Kokomo’s surface could only take so much abuse, pounded black through the top lane of turns one and two.  However, those first ten midget feature laps were indeed awesome, with so much three-wide action that there was no way to get it all down on paper.  To exemplify how crazy it was up front, Daum led lap 1, Pickens took the point on lap 2, Daum rebounded to lead 3 through 5, Abreu came from sixth to lead laps 6 and 7, Daum reclaimed P1 for laps 8 and 9, only to have Abreu gain it back for 10 through 17 before he was served a surprise slider from Clauson.  A very thin and treacherous top shelf was equally effective as the moist middle and low lanes, even at the end when Tracy Hines gave winner Clauson all he could handle.  Mentioning afterwards how this was his favorite place in the whole world, there was no better birthday present for BC, who had an oil filter pull apart after taking the sprint car checkered flag in fourth, emerging from a huge fireball unscathed. 

 

Speaking of sprint cars, they certainly played second fiddle to midgets, their feature action paling in comparison because of diminished surface conditions that existed after the midget mains had run.  Chad Boespflug easily claimed Putnamville from his pole starting spot, caressing the cushion and leading all 25 laps in Paul Hazen’s DRC/Kercher combination.  Going green to checker, Shane Cottle (Epperson 2) scooted from 9th to 2nd, with eighth-starting Casey Shuman (Krockenberger 21) earning third with a last turn, last lap overhaul of Jerry Coons, Jr. (Edison 10).  Jon Stanbrough started and finished fifth after rising as far as second place. 

 

After a brief side-by-side scuffle for first with pole-sitter Dave Darland, Brady Short built a full-straight advantage and bagged his third Bloomington sprint car feature of 2014 in an entirely green flag affair.  Smooth and slick surface conditions aided Short’s effort, using top, middle, and low lanes as Darland refused to surrender the top.  Chase Briscoe again impressed with another third place showing in his family owned number 5, continuing his trend of podium finishes in limited 2014 outings.  Shane Cottle and Jeff Bland, Jr. were fourth and fifth.   

 

Digging into Lawrenceburg sprint car feature details, Windom (Walker 11) and Kevin Thomas, Jr. first had at it, trading slide jobs as if they were playing ping pong.  However, that dance was short-lived when KT flamed out on lap six.  Next in line to tango were Windom and Robert Ballou, with Dave Darland and Justin Grant joining the party.  Dave and Justin bothered Ballou with equally-intense slides for life and at one point, Grant slid Ballou at turn three but was promptly drilled in the rear and turned sideways, causing the Mark Hery 40 to bounce off the fence.   Robert ran down the leader but couldn't shake Dave from his shoulder.  After a furious slide-fest with the Lincoln legend, Robert's night was ruined after crunching concrete and inverting in turns three and four.  Ballou's upside down excursion was the third of the hour-long A-main, which also dumped C.J. Leary and Travis Hery. 

 

Grant and Darland engaged in their own crossover craziness for second before the fifth of six cautions turned up the intensity to yet another degree.  Three separate slide jobs and crossovers between Grant and Windom wowed the crowd before the final yellow waved for Chad Boespflug, who ran out of fuel and plugged Paul Hazen’s 57 into the turn three wall, the first time Hazen has visited The Burg since Casey Shuman wiped out a car several years back.  A final two-lap dash saw Darland drive to second, allowing Windom to score his first feature win of 2014.  Chris was chased to the checkered by Darland, Grant (from 13th), Kody Kinser, and Landon Simon, with 25 cars starting after the B-main was scrapped. 

 

The Midget Week sprint car conclusion in Kokomo was all Justin Grant, leading all 25 laps from his pole position.  Shadowed most of the way by Robert Ballou, Robert attempted a slider in turn one with nine laps left but cracked concrete for the second night in a row, leading to a Chris Gurley turn over.  The top lane unfortunately attracted rubber and allowed Grant to go unchallenged for his fourth score of 2014.  Ballou, Boespflug, Clauson, and Coons completed the top-five.  

 

Two weeks after the fact, Indiana Midget Week is still on my mind, continuing to follow the Facebook exploits of those who spent the better part of three weeks with Townsend Tours.   One such contributor is USAC Honda Ridgeline pace truck driver Bryce Townsend, who posted a picture of me holding the Kiwi Tours Sweepstakes trophy from Kokomo's pit area while vacationing with his family in Hawaii.  Demanding an audit of the results as this would be the second time I claimed the Sweepstakes in six years, just like in golf the lowest point total wins our game.  Pooling money each night for a random draw of starting spots, I pulled number four on the first evening (Dave Darland) and pocketed a cool $110.  Others who enjoyed solid paydays included Wayne Morris, Alf Bidois (becoming the all-time nightly winner with 6 scores), and Pete Neale.  Call me magic fingers, but after drawing starting spots of 1, 9, and 10 the final three nights, my accumulated 33 points just edged Jason Butterworth by 1, Bryce by 2, Alf by 4, Alan Rush by 6, and Kevin Wilson by 6 as well.  With point fund absent, at the end it’s all about the glory of becoming an International champion and getting one’s nameplate pop-riveted onto the unique trophy, which is a Beast nosepiece from a former RFMS midget.  If the racing entertainment and camaraderie wasn't enough, the chance of making some noise in the Sweepstakes makes this period even livelier.     

 

While holding the trophy, enjoying a cold beverage, and sharing a few more stories with the Kiwis late Sunday night before our impending departure, the number one question asked, as it is every year, was when I was headed to their corner of the world so that I could experience the International series, so similar to Midget Week and the Chili Bowl when it comes to being buzzworthy.  Trust me, it’s already a bucket list item – having enough vacation time to do it right and keep my job (which I actually like) ends up being the primary problem.  Given that eleven individuals have already signed up for next year’s Townsend Tour of the United States surrounding Indiana Midget Week, they must know what they are talking about when it comes to arousing interest and excitement.  As the saying goes, you can never have too much of a good thing and when such a statement is applied to midget car racing on an international level, they might be right.  Once a year is just not enough.     

 

 

 

 

Volume 16, Number 6

Circular Reference

Wondering what accountants do most of the day, the average person might believe it involves pushing pencils and operating a ten key calculator. Only partially true, the majority of the time we’re actually assembling and examining figures inside of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and if you work with them long enough, you’ll inevitably encounter the dreaded circular reference, which happens when a formula attempts to refer to its own cell value. Creating an endless loop that continuously requires recalculating and can never be resolved, this is a minor annoyance that requires fixing the formula or removing it altogether.

Given my passion for all things four wheels, of course I can put my own racing spin on circular references, especially with regard to the Indianapolis 500, an event that ultimately serves as my foundation for chasing tail tanks across the Midwest. Growing up in a household where my father and three brothers were humongous fans, whether I initially enjoyed it or not I simply had no choice in the matter, as a deep-rooted passion seeped into my system and bubbled to the surface once I finally had the opportunity to attend my first 500 at the age of 13. Preceded by another first-time visit to the Hulman Hundred two nights earlier, I learned at an early age that Indy’s monumental week meant more than just the big show on Sunday, as this is of course the racing capital of the world.

It only took a couple of years, but my fire for the Indianapolis 500 and the surrounding influential events grew to become a blazing inferno, eventually engulfing the Hulman Classic, Hoosier Hundred, Night Before the 500, Little 500, and any kind of open wheel action that was offered in this limited timeframe, making for one massive week of motorsports.

Even though the 500 and Indy car racing drastically changed after the infamous split of 1996, I still feel strongly about the month of May. But, as the years have progressed, I have often wondered if the 500 would mean as much if I didn’t attend every one of the preceding short track contests that has its own rich history. Or, would the week have as much meaning if I attended each one of these other events but stayed home on Sunday? Would the overall impact be the same if I didn’t try to do the impossible and hit them all? Indianapolis 500 week is thus my personal, circular reference.

Normally preferring to be off of work so that I could take it all in without worry of missing hot laps or feeling dreadfully tired each day, for the second year in a row I would not have such luxury. Too busy to keep up with this column, I must back up to the weekend before the 500 when I chose to absorb a Lawrenceburg King of Indiana Sprint Series soiree and a regular event in Kokomo, with Dog Aid 44, a fundraising benefit for the recently cancer stricken Greg Staab, sandwiched in between. Making for eight races in nine days, it could have been nine in ten had I made it back to the Burg on Memorial Day for the World of Outlaws. But somewhere in between, my energy and immune system took a hit, developing a sore throat and feeling miserable enough to ponder the possibility of staying home one evening to recharge batteries. Memorial Day was determined to be my day of rest, missing out on another Donny Schatz score while I watched the 500 banquet on TV. Nearly two weeks later, I’m still dealing with that cold, so go figure.

To recap this week of circular references, I am determined to keep my summaries and comments to a minimum. Starting with Saturday May 17th, I actually had free reign to make whatever racing choices I wanted, as my wife was vacationing with college friends in Florida. Having to decide between Indianapolis 500 qualifying, the Mecum classic car auction at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, USAC Silver Crown and Hall of Fame ceremonies at IRP, BOSS sprint cars at Eldora, local action in Putnamville, and a double dip of POWRi midgets in Macon, my decision was made a bit easier with a Macon washout. Coming to the conclusion that The Burg would be my safest bet for satisfaction, on the drive down I enjoyed listening to Indy qualifying on the FM equivalent of WFAN (formerly WIBC), with Paul Page performing the play by play. Growing up on Indy car racing in the 1980s, Paul was THE voice of Indy car competition so to hear his genuine enthusiasm on the IMS Radio Network, it returned a certain legitimacy to the entire sport. So many criticized Indy car officials for this year’s qualifying format, with constant activity being so risky (and costly) to both drivers and teams. However, if you were listening on the radio like I was, there was never a dull moment. Heck, I enjoyed listening to Saturday's activities so much that I tuned in for Sunday’s run for the pole via radio.

I was initially concerned with my Lawrenceburg decision when spotting only 21 cars in the pits but once the feature had concluded by an efficient 9:23 PM and was relaxing at the Batesville Skyline Chili with a regular three way and two cheese coney dogs, there was little doubt that I had made the right call. Daron Clayton (from fifth), Jon Stanbrough (lapping three cars), and Brady Short claimed three quick heat races, with Greensburg’s J.T. Stapp leading that third until kissing concrete exiting the second corner. Mount Baker Vapor backed Landon Simon also smacked the turn four wall in that final contest, ruining rubber and a right rear wheel in the process.

Enjoying conversations in the downtime with Landon’s father Chris, Mike McGhee, Bill Moffatt (father to two-time track champ Joss), and Bobby Shutt, I learned from Chris that his son was the one who did all the legwork in attracting his Washington state based sponsorship, this sort of backing being extremely rare in this age of sprint car competition. Commenting on the black number 17 that his son Max had piloted previously at Kokomo, McGhee stated that the car is actually owned by himself but is housed and maintained at Mike Dutcher’s Cicero, Indiana shop, a true cooperative effort. Heading over to say hello to Billy “Brush” Moffatt, he played with tires and stagger while relaying that Joss would be getting married in October. Still enjoying power from St. Paul, Indiana’s Williams Precision Engines, Moffatt added that Roger Williams and his small staff were now working on the Mopar powerplants for Cincinnati’s most famous racing family (the Hoffmans), enjoying some early season success. And finally speaking with former Bill Baker/Rob Botts socket spinner Bobby Shutt, these days he helps Daron Clayton and a host of others, relaying that his Indy 500 week would be a little insane, still needing to finish assembly of a Fred Gormly owned ex-Bud Kaeding JEI dirt Silver Crown car with Joe Liguori. Other activities in Bobby’s dream week included Wednesday’s Hulman Classic with Clayton, Thursday’s Hoosier Hundred with Liguori, Friday’s Josh Burton Memorial with Clayton, Saturday’s Little 500 with Gormly sprinter Bobby Santos III, and Sunday’s KISS/MSCS meet in Haubstadt with Clayton.

Aligning Clayton and Short for Lawrenceburg’s feature front row, the track surface was smooth and wide all the way around, dangerously fast but still racy enough to encourage overtaking. Tacky on the bottom, slick through the middle, and stacking a slim cushion just below the wall on the east and west ends, Dave Rudisell had the place prepped perfectly. Clayton rocketed to an immediate advantage from the pole, but third-starting Jon Stanbrough showed his hand by immediately sliding Brady Short for second in turn four. The thirty lapper boiled down to a hard-fought, balls-to-the-walls contest of bravery between Daron and Jon, a true edge-of-your-seat nail-biter. Interrupted by just two cautions, lapped traffic became a factor by the ninth tour and ultimately determined the outcome.

After a lap nine yellow for a fire involving Shelbyville TQ grad Jamie Ross, Jon slid Daron through turns one and two, only to have the king of the cowboys cross over and rub the left front of the black and silver number 37. After another failed slider in one, even though the top shelf was the preferred lane, Stanbrough experimented with three and four's soggy bottom, sometimes slipping too far sideways and losing ground to Clayton. Action behind them had C.J. Leary and KISS point leader Shane Cottle going at it for third but once the final caution flew for Jeff Harris (Soudrette 44), it restacked the deck and set up a final 14 lap dash. Daron not only had his hands full in holding off Jon, but pesky lapped traffic spoiling his top shelf tactic. With five laps to go, Clayton had serious issues lapping Dustin Webber, killing his momentum enough to propel Stanbrough to P1 after a nice low-side launch through three and four.

After so many podium placements in April and early May, the six-time KISS king gathered his long-awaited first victory of the season in the MP Environmental/Indiana Underground Construction/Griffin’s Propane Maxim/Fisher. Nailing win number 20 in his KISS career, he was able to hold off Clayton (who was quite candid about lapped traffic in his KISS press release interview with Mike O’Leary), Leary, Cottle, and Short. Jerry Coons, Jr. (his first ride of the year in a Spike for Gene Nolen), Kevin Thomas, Jr. (his first ride with Jeff Walker), Joss Moffatt, Landon Simon (all the way up from 21st), and Shawn Westerfeld took sixth through tenth.

After watching and listening to Ed Carpenter win the 500 pole for the second year in a row, I headed out to Brownsburg to spend some time with seven-time Lawrenceburg Speedway champion Mr. Gregory J. Staab. Despite his recent bout with throat cancer, the usually stout Staab still appeared to be in great shape and was in good spirits, with the Dog Aid 44 benefit raising funds to help with his cancer treatments. One of my all-time favorites from the world of racing, I can only hope that Staab’s German stubbornness will allow him to beat the disease and continue his lifelong pursuit of all things racing. If you still want to donate to help Greg pay for his chemo and radiation, access this link: http://www.gofundme.com/8wuvng.

Back up to Kokomo for the third Sunday in a row, I arrived after hot laps/qualifying and found cars and drivers parked on the front stretch for fan appreciation night. After the previous week’s epic sprint car feature, perhaps warmer weather attracted the larger crowd. Having 32 sprinters on hand and a slightly larger field of stock cars made me feel a bit better for the O’Connor family, as this evening had to yield better financial results than the previous three.

Three of the four heats were hailed by front row starters (Carson Short, Scotty Weir, and Dave Darland), with the fourth taken out by second row starter Chad Boespflug. Calling Marion, Illinois home, newcomer Short successfully held off Stanbrough (Dutcher 37) while Weir did the same with Bryan Clauson (BCI 7), surprised to see Chris Windom (Walker 11) maul the turn two wall and have to come from one of two B-mains. Claimed by Windom and Shane Cottle (Elson 27), consolation excitement came from a double-flip involving Sammy Keen and Landon Simon and an even wilder ride from Edmonton, Alberta’s Lee Dakus, who twirled a 360 in turn two before tagging an infield marker tire and going for a big ride in four.

After an 8:46 intermission, the 25-lap finale was set to go a half hour later, as the previous week’s major players Jon Stanbrough and Dave Darland would again reserve front row seats. Jon led to turn one, but Dave aimed for the top shelf in turn three and would lead the rest of the way in the Stensland 41, unchallenged except for a pair of cautions involving Shane Cockrum, the second of which contained C.J. Leary. Stanbrough trailed by a full straightaway before that first caution, biking big time in turn one after the restart and slipping to sixth. Eighth-starting Clauson was a man on a mission, using the bottom to work over Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Walker 11) and pilfer the runner-up position. The final caution with three to go set up an ultimate Sunday night showdown between the 2012 and 2013 USAC championship contenders, but Dave "The Rave" simply drove away to his second consecutive Kokomo victory, amounting to number 51 of his career here, giving credit to Dave Stensland Senior and Junior, part-time midget driver-turned-mechanic Mike Fedorcak, and engine builder J.R. Kercher.

Done by an always efficient 9:31 PM, my immediate thought afterwards was that starting Dave Darland from an outside front row spot on a Kokomo track bounded by a big cushion was like putting a 90% free throw shooter on the line late in the game. Simply put, the end result should be an automatic score. Clauson (up six spots), Coons, (up nine spots), Thomas, and Grant (up five) secured second through fifth while Stanbrough, Boespflug, Gurley, Weir, and Spencer locked up sixth through tenth.

Given the questionable weather forecast for Wednesday May 21st, the 44th Tony Hulman Classic in Terre Haute appeared iffy at best. Forced to leave work at 5 PM and meet up with my nephew in Plainfield, it had been raining for most of the afternoon on Indy’s Northside, surprised that a favorable weather window existed at the end of the rainbow in Vigo County. Last year’s Hulman Classic was washed out in May and postponed to Labor Day weekend and much like that day, I encountered heavy showers most of the way over, only to find sunny skies near the Brazil exit on I-70. So similar to last August, the bad weather seemed to surround the Action Track but managed to stay away.

Arriving just as qualifications were about to begin, Terre Haute soil was super heavy. But even so, I was still surprised to see J.J. Yeley’s ultimate one lap mark of 19.329 seconds (from 2003) finally fall the wayside. Brady Bacon blasted around the legendary half-mile in record-setting 19.225 seconds, of course while working the wheel of the famed Mean Green Hoffman 69 Triple X/Mopar. I guess all that horsepower from Williams Precision Engines must have worked wonders for Bacon, who sizzled to his fifth quick time of 2014. Watching from under the roof in turn one, the sensory overload of amplified audio was worth the long trip through relentless rain. Chase Stockon, Tracy Hines, Stanbrough, Darland, and Thomas (again in the Jeff’s Jam-It-In Storage 11) rounded out the quick six.

With just 23 cars on hand, a trio of sprint heats and all modified events would be held before the legendary Tony Hulman Classic. The mod feature included a front row of former NASCAR stars Kenny Wallace and Kenny Schrader, with Schrader leading all but the last two corners, slammed in the door and spun out in turn three by Jacob Poel. Coming around after the checkered to shake his fist (and probably a finger) at Poel, despite the defeat Schrader still looks like he’s having a blast in the twilight of his career. Selfishly speaking, I only wish it came in true open wheel cars. Also in the modified field were former sprint car combatants Gregg Dillion and Kenny Carmichael (both Junior and Senior). Dillion’s former Britt Tool teammate Eric Burns even stopped to say hello at the conclusion of the evening, mentioning how he’d be running at Paragon on Saturday in an ex-Kevin Thomas/Guy Applebee machine.

With all cars starting the feature, Terre Haute heat races only mandated a top-five finish to make the A-main invert, with Tracy Hines coming from the deepest starting position (sixth) to win. Adding an international flair to the evening, Danny and I were unexpectedly joined under the turn one roof by former New Zealand native and Indianapolis resident Alan Rush and his small Kiwi contingent of Dean Mulholland and Alf Bidois. Fresh off the airplane just an hour earlier, Dean and Alf came to Indy a little early to check off some bucket list tracks like Terre Haute, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Anderson, and Eldora, set to join Bryce Townsend’s U.S. tour after the 500.

With lightning flashing in the distance at the 8:58 PM wave lap, KT Jr. and Darland led the field to green and by no surprise, the race boiled down to a battle between these two, just as it did here last July. Even though the cushion had been knocked down in preparation for the feature, it was back in short order, the line of choice for the majority. Thomas beat Darland to the top of turns one and two and dominated the early stages, with Dave settling into the runner-up position on lap two after a brief battle with Stanbrough. Caution lights were flicked on at lap ten when 2001 Hulman Classic winner Tracy Hines suddenly slowed, able to refire his machine after pitting in the infield.

Thomas and Darland soon separated themselves from Stanbrough and Bacon as action for first began heat up. Darland kept poking his nose underneath in turn three and just like for the Lawrenceburg KISS match, lapped traffic ultimately determined the outcome. Thomas chose the bottom of turn one when trying to overtake Justin Grant, leaving the outside wide open for Darland. Boxed in by Grant, Kevin lost the lead on lap 22, awarded an opportunity to redeem himself thanks to a Hunter Schuerenberg spin.

Caution came again with four to go for Carson Short and although Thomas tried to make a move in one and two, it wasn’t enough to propel past Darland’s Phillips Motorsports DRC/Foxco. Earning his third USAC sprint car victory of the season and number 50 in his career, Dave is now just two away from tying all-time leader Tom Bigelow. Chasing him to the 9:23 PM checkered flag were Thomas, Bacon, Stanbrough, and Stockon. Chris Windom, Robert Ballou, Tracy Hines (in a nice recovery from his caution, even with a deflating right rear), Shane Cottle, and Bryan Clauson made up the second half of the top-ten. The most dominant driver of 2014, Darland’s second Hulman Classic victory came 21 years from his first, which ironically resulted in his first-ever USAC score. Oh how the years have flown by…

Thursday afternoon was much drier than Wednesday, sunny and windy as my dad and I traveled south on Allisonville Road to meet up with Binford Boulevard, a hop, skip, and jump away from the Indiana State Fairgrounds where the Hoosier Hundred would be taking place for the 61st season. Hopeful for a full field of thirty competitors thanks to the efforts of new USAC series coordinator Andy Hillenburg, we wound up four short of that goal (26), still a huge improvement over the past two years when a contingent of 20 or so consisted of far too many field-fillers. Again we were missing names like Bryan Clauson and former winner Shane Hollingsworth, but Jon Stanbrough was back in the fold for his first ride in Galen Fox's 56, quite a famous car owner and number achieving ultimate success in this event with Steve Chassey (1984), Kenny Jacobs (1987), and Dave Darland (1995, 1996, and 2004). As you may recall, Jon sat in Steve and Brad Fox’s Silver Crown chair (number 53) in 2003/2004.

Unfortunately for Stanbrough, his first Silver Crown chore in two years appeared to be just that – a chore. During practice, he oddly spun in turn one on the slippery surface and spun again at the start of the main event after connecting with Kody Swanson, bumping the inside guardrail and losing a lap in the process. However, USAC deemed that he was on the same lap as the leaders, a huge break for Jon's hopes to produce an elusive Silver Crown win on one of the dirt miles. Dakota Jackson also made wall contact in that first lap incident while Dave Darland climbed a wheel. Dakota was out, Dave struggled to a 15th place finish, and Jon nursed his ride to 14th, hoping to see this combination later in the year at Springfield and DuQuoin.

With modified qualifications taking place before the championship dirt cars, Kenny Schrader’s 36.104 second lap set the mod standard. Amazingly, Schrader’s time topped Tracy Hines’s 36.266 second circuit, which was the best in the USAC’s field of 26. Can anyone tell me when a UMP style modified qualified quicker than a USAC Silver Crown car on a one-mile dirt oval? Say what you will, but to me, that is sacrilege! At no point did I hear the cars hit full song down the back or front chute, so perhaps the copious amount of sand in the surface reared its ugly head again. Most of the cars timed in the 37 and 38 second range, but the quick time of 36.266 doesn’t even average 100 miles per hour! That's a long, long way from Johnny Parsons Jr.’s all-time mark of 31.379, set back in 1995 in the Phil Poor-prepped Hoffman Auto Racing Oz-Car.

One of the reasons I like watching these cars on these huge one-mile ovals is for speed but if they’re just spinning their tires, what fun is that? Call me a traditionalist, but I was hugely disappointed after qualifications, especially after Wednesday's rain gave hope for a decent surface. Is it too much to ask for a well-prepared track for this Hoosier Hundred, or is it absolutely impossible given what Bob Sargent has to work with?

Heading to the top of the grandstands to watch the modified feature with my nephew and Matt Pedersen, we turned our backs and gazed at the Indianapolis skyline in the distance, amazed at just how high up we were. With some extra water applied to the high groove after qualifications, the added moisture made all the difference in the world for Joey Kramer, who beat Kenny Schrader to the top of turn one and held him at bay for the rest of the race. That water also paid huge dividends in the Hoosier Hundred, as so many used it off turns two and four to get good runs down the long chutes.

Two-time and defending series champion Bobby East started outside of Tracy Hines in Tony Stewart’s Maxim/Chevy, the same machine that Levi Jones won with one year ago. Getting the jump to turn one, East led the first 77 laps and built nearly a full-straightaway lead over his nearest pursuers. Now that Bobby has slashed his racing schedule to just the Silver Crown slate, I found some irony in the fact that his dad’s final racing event came in the Hulman Hundred in May of 1989 at this same race course, attempting to keep pace with eventual winner Rich Vogler until encountering fuel pickup problems in Gary Runyon’s number 7, falling to sixth place at the end.

Still in search of his first one-mile dirt oval achievement, East will have to wait until Springfield, as his huge lead was erased by a mysterious caution for a Randy Bateman backstretch tank-slapper. April Sumar Classic winner Kody Swanson was hot on East’s heels in the Radio Hospital/DePalma Motorsports Maxim/Hampshire, having moved through the pack thanks to some breathtaking outside passes. Kody made his winning move outside of turn one and brought the crowd to its feet, so reminiscent of Jack Hewitt’s runs here in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A winning white 63 wrenched by Bob Hampshire, American Racer rubber, and those bold outside moves, the only thing missing was Jack Hewitt and sponsor J.W. Hunt.

Chasing Kody to the 10:17 checkered flag were East, Hines, Coons, and Windom, with Zach Daum, Aaron Pierce, Chris Urish, A.J. Fike, and Christopher Bell collecting sixth through tenth. Just like the winner, Joe Liguori made some daring late race moves on the outside to take 11th in his first Hoosier Hundred. Swansons (Kody and Tanner) are now three for three in 2014 Silver Crown action, with the series turning its attention to Gateway International on June 14th.

Given the dramatic outside passes from Kody and several others, I am a firm believer that this form of action can indeed be interesting and entertaining if they are given a proper playing field. Remember the Hoosier Hundred of 2001? What about DuQuoin's first two night races, not to mention their offering last year? All of those examples had great racing surfaces, complete with a cushion. It seems like a simple solution but of course it's not that simple.

Continuing on my week of circular references en route to the Indianapolis 500, Friday May 23rd was my first trip to Bloomington Speedway for 2014, good to come back home to the place that introduced me to sprint car racing (1982). The only such race course that has listed me as an employee, I scored for an entire season (1995), which earned me an announcing gig with Mike O’Leary for the season-ending bomber, street stock, and modified festival when Pat Sullivan and Brad Dickison took the day off. All these years later, Pat and Brad are thankfully still in the booth.

Anxious to see all of the changes that my nephew and photographer Chris Pedersen had raved of regarding the revised Bloomington layout, light rush hour traffic and a 5 PM exit of work meant arriving in time for the first set of hot laps, missed as I was changing clothes alongside Fairfax Road. Pleasantly surprised by the difficulty of being able to find a suitable parking spot, locating a grandstand seat proved to be even more of a challenge as a full house was on hand to honor the life of Josh Burton, taken from us far too soon on this particular Friday one year ago. Regarding those off-season track changes, I did notice taller banking, slightly more racing room, and a flatter bottom lane, but to the naked eye, Bloomington Speedway seemed to be the same old Bloomington.

Rivaling an Indiana Sprint Week crowd, nearly everyone was wearing their brightly colored Burton Memorial t-shirts, as pre-race ceremonies included a line of drivers forming in turn two and stretching all the way to turns three and four while Pat Sullivan provided some thoughtful words, calling for a roaring round of applause in memory of Josh. Next, a live rendition of “Get Your Shine On” was performed by Jake Todd and Craig Coons, followed by the playing of Taps and a military-style rifle salute from the Monroe County Honor Guard. Thinking back to this very Friday one year ago and gazing at the massive throng of people who gathered on the hillside, I couldn’t help but feel a little emotional, wondering how the Burton family felt as they readied their familiar white, orange, and green machine for battle.

Falling under MSCS sanction, a fine field of 43 sprinters paid homage, with a back gate bolstered by healthy fields of modifieds, street stocks, and hornets. Heat race transfer positions were determined by passing points, and those earning the most included Hunter Schuerenberg, Bradley Sterrett, Kyle Cummins, Dave Darland, Jon Stanbrough, and Seth Parker, with Sterrett, Cummins, and Stanbrough eclipsing four cars each. After sliding off the bank and losing the lead before a yellow flag provided a mulligan, Parker’s heat race victory was overshadowed by a brief post-race altercation involving Chase Stockon (Gentry 2) and Darland, as the two had apparently made contact earlier in the event. Notable heat race winners included local boy Levi Shields and Jeff Bland, Jr., who held appropriately held off Brady Short in the Burton 04, much to the capacity crowd’s delight.

Still racy, Bloomington’s surface polished completely smooth and slick by the conclusion of sprint car heats. Obviously not what the speedway staff had hoped for, they opted to take the necessary time to disc the dirt and apply water after the three support classes finished their heats. Delaying action by a little over an hour, I’m sure this was a bitter pill to swallow for so many in attendance, but in all honesty the resulting feature event was a good one, not sure if the track would have been a one-lane tire-eater had they left it alone. Having attended the POWRi event the next Friday (which will be covered in my next installment), the surface was improved and required no additional maintenance, so the learning curve continues for Henry, Kris, and the rest of the boys in B-town. All I know is that I’m glad I’m not in the track preparation business, especially in this state where the critics are waiting to attack at any moment.

After adjustments were complete, fast and frenetic were applicable adjectives to describe the resulting B and A-main action. Twin B-mains sent four more to the feature, impressed when Brent Beauchamp aggressively circled both Bub Cummings and Chase Stockon to find first.

For the second time in six days, Darland and Stanbrough held front row feature seats and with the Burton 04 pacing the field on the parade laps, like everyone else I hoped for a Bland win to truly make this a Cinderella story. Stanbrough rolled the top from his outside starting spot and led early, including the fourth lap that paid an extra thousand dollars thanks to the Burton bunch. Separate spins by Clayton and South Dakota visitor Bret Mellenberndt kept Stanbrough honest, as Hunter Schuerenberg had moved from fourth to second and was already looking like a legitimate threat.

Laps eight through 25 went uninterrupted, a fine high/low duel that saw Jon turn to the bottom as Hunter rode the rim. The lead officially changed hands at lap 14, with the last 11 amounting to a dizzying duel of threading needles through traffic. Each driver employed both lanes in those latter stages, but Schuerenberg never officially surrendered the point. Stanbrough's last second sweep around the top of turn four came up half a car length short, thus creating a thrilling ending.

Awarded a Henry rifle in victory lane at 11:47 PM, Hunter offered his positive memories of Joshua Lee Burton after his second MSCS score of 2014, leading a top-five of Stanbrough, Kyle Cummins, Dave Darland, and hard charger Brady Short (up 9 spots from 14th). Sixth through tenth included Bland, PA visitor Mark Smith, Sterrett, Robert Ballou, and Casey Shuman. Aside from a win by the Burton family you really couldn’t ask for more in this feature event. Winning the next three evenings in Putnamville, Haubstadt, and back in Bloomington, the Bland and Burton combination had clearly jelled, providing the best feel-good story of 2014.

With all the talk of Kurt Busch joining the elite list of individuals who have done Indy/Charlotte double, perhaps an even rarer and more obscure feat was my own Saturday double. Somehow scrounging an open table at a jam-packed Bonge’s Tavern at 4:30 PM so that my trio of Kiwi friends could sample this fine food and atmosphere for the first time, naturally this was the ultimate pre-Little 500 feast. This last minute decision was made possible by the fact that Alan, Dean, and Alf decided to skip the 11-car Night Before the 500 in favor of the Little 5, a first for each of them. Given USAC’s 2013 decision to separate dirt and pavement midget points, it should come as no surprise that the car count for this race has rapidly shrunk to such an embarrassing level. Held in Kokomo during the 1960s, perhaps it’s time to add dirt to IRP or move the Night Before the 500 to an Indiana bullring?

Beginning with a Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale and a group appetizer of Perkinsville Pork, after our requisite wedge of lettuce (topped with a red pepper and creamy bleu cheese dressing) or choice of world-famous tomato soup, Dean special-ordered the 16 ounce prime rib with two large skewers of shrimp. Alan arranged for his own slab of prime rib, Alf chose the lamb chops (which ironically came from New Zealand), and I hankered for the always tasty Harger duck. Ending with some spectacular sweets, for once I actually had dessert envy as Dean and Alf picked the strawberry/rhubarb pie, so amazingly fresh as chef/owner Tony Huelster had just picked the rhubarb from his garden. After Dean divulged that this was the best day of his life (bear in mind he had just arrived from Mo’s Vintiques in Lebanon), Bonge’s may just become part of Townsend Tours in a couple of weeks.

After our meal concluded, fifteen minutes later we were parked at Anderson Speedway, its lot filled to the brim an hour and a half before the scheduled 8 PM start. Featuring a front row of Bryan Clauson (Hoffman 69), Aaron Pierce, and rookie Jerry Coons, Jr., much like Indy there were just enough cars to fill the field (Anderson had one alternate). Missing "Mr. Little 500" Eric Gordon as a driver for the first time since 1991 and 1999 winner Chet Fillip, two-time winner Brian Tyler trashed his Contos Racing machine in a violent turn three practice crash on Wednesday but landed a ride in Mike Bowman’s Beast. Firing from ninth on the grid, BT exited just past the halfway mark after losing the front timing cover in a cloud of oil smoke.

A mini-Indy 500 with its own pre-race ceremonies, there are few things in life that still give me goose bumps and Anderson's parade lap is one of them, so thrilled to see the perfect formation of eleven rows of pavement pounding sprint cars, three deep on the tiny, high-banked bullring. Too many cars on too small of a track according to my dad, such insanity and imminent danger is the allure of this old-school classic.

As always, the name of the game in the Little 500 is staying out of trouble, and for some reason the rabbits usually find it first while negotiating non-stop traffic. Aaron Pierce certainly knows his way around Anderson and should have won this race more than once already. But again, 2014 would not be his year after rocketing to the lead for the first 43 laps before climbing the right rear of rookie Doug Dietsch, stuffing his number 26 Beast into the wall between turns three and four. Armed with one of the most interesting front bumpers I have ever remembered, obviously it didn't prevent him from his unfortunate incident.

Bryan Clauson inherited the lead from Pierce but it too was short-lived. Up front until lap 123, he nudged the rear of Tom Paterson’s lapped machine as they exited turn two. Clauson somehow spun and collected Paterson, who then scaled the nose of the number 69. Putting Bryan in the hole some five laps, any thoughts of winning this race were effectively over but the team and driver did not give up. Back up to fourth despite bad brakes, his late race run-in with Mike Blake pilot Danny Smith, yes, the same Danny Smith who won this race as a sub for Wayne Reutimann in 1979, only added insult to injury. The Hoffmans spared no expense to win this race in 2014 and despite their difficulties, let’s hope they make another run for the gold in 2015.

2008 winner Shane Cottle was the next big threat to fall victim to bad luck, blowing an engine for the second year in a row in the Larry Contos number four. Last year the engine expired while attempting to chase down leader Jacob Wilson in the waning stages. This time, it happened while leading at lap 387. Dave Steele might have been the Mario Andretti of the Little 500, an early winner in his career but having so much bad luck in the years that followed. Steele ended his Andretti curse with a win in 2009. Cottle now appears to be the one carrying that torch after Steele.

Starting fifth and running quick and clean in the first half of the race, defending winner Jacob Wilson was always in the hunt and ready to strike, thanks in part to some timely and error-free pit work. The second half of the race was more the same, as the handling on his Beast chassis was spot-on. With a second killer pit stop for fuel and rubber from a veteran crew led by his brother Clint, he seized the day when Shane Cottle exited with engine problems. The final 113 laps saw the Crawfordsville native run away with the win for the second year in a row, despite being beaten and banged by lapper Bobby Santos in the late stages.

Jacob became the first person to repeat as winner of this race since Eric Gordon did the deed in 2004 and 2005. Running a very Eric Gordon-like race by showing his hand only when he needed to, ironically Gordon was in Wilson’s pit on race night, serving as his spotter. Going one step further, tire expert Sam Brooks also joined the Wilson team for this race, crew member in eight of Gordon’s nine Little 500 scores. With an all-star cast supporting him, young Mr. Wilson did not disappoint, coming through with a very heady drive, so impressed with his unique combination of speed, patience, and stealth-like smoothness. Doubtful that anyone will ever reach Eric’s winning record, Jacob does show that he has the right mindset to get the job done, so you just never know.

Outside of Wilson, I was most impressed with the performance of second place finisher and outside front row starter Jerry Coons, Jr. Named the Little 500 Rookie of the Year, many may forget that he was supposed to compete in this event one year ago until early engine issues in practice nullified the effort. Quietly quick all night long in Gene Nolen’s V-6, he was on the leaderboard for the entire grind, the only other driver to finish on the lead lap. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, even after all these years Jerry remains one of the most underrated racers on the planet, truly professional and never given enough credit for getting the job done.

Those finishing behind Jacob and Jerry included Jo Jo Helberg (2 laps down), Geoff Kaiser (5 laps down in the Speedchaser 64), and Kyle Hamilton (7 laps down in Bob East’s number 5). Chris Neuenschwander (Kohler 10), Shane Hollingsworth, Bobby Santos III, Jason Fuller, and Mickey Kempgens were scored sixth through tenth, with less than half the field running at the end.

Thoroughly enjoying the anticipation of events leading up to the Indianapolis 500 race, my pre-race morning tradition involves waking up just before 8 AM, leaving a little before 9, arriving at 38th and Georgetown by 9:30, and making the 1.3 mile walk to the turn three gate, avoiding any and all traffic. Scooping up my nephew from his Central Avenue pad, we were up in our seats with tons of time to spare, pleased that my 80 year-old father made it yet again (he’s been a Speedway regular since 1946). Joined by my older brother Jeff, the four of us represented three generations of Oldhams whose worlds still revolve around the greatest spectacle in racing.

Enjoying the parade of former winners wheeling vintage equipment, the coolest thing I’ve seen in quite some time were the STP turbine Indy cars taking a three-wide parade lap, so enthused by the sights and sounds and ultimately making me wish I was around in the late ‘60s to see such ingenuity and rapidly changing technology.

As much as I get a charge out of the race, the traditional pre-race festivities truly make this the special event that it is. Mentioning earlier how the Little 500 parade lap consistently generates goose bumps, the one thing that blows this away is the playing of Back Home Again in Indiana, sung for the final time by Jim Nabors. An Indy attraction since 1972, once the 83 year-old Nabors started into the song, a steady stream of tears flowed from both of my eyes, overcome with emotion as yet another sacred segment of my life was going to permanently change. These types of changes are a normal course of life, but with all of the massive modifications that have taken place with my mother and father in the last three years, I had a hard time accepting that this too would become a distant memory. It might just be a song, but for me it’s a tradition that’s become completely intertwined with this event, without question my favorite moment of the entire year.

Of course I am biased, but I believe Indianapolis 500 momentum has more than returned, as the last several 500s have been truly enjoyable. Kept up to date thanks to the IMS Radio Network, the first 149 laps went caution-free, a record pace that was eventually spoiled when Charlie Kimball crashed in turn two. Cautions do breed cautions as the rest of the race saw several incidents, the most disappointing of them coming when Ed Carpenter was taken out in turn one after becoming the meat in a Townsend Bell/James Hinchcliffe sandwich.

Still, the last 50 laps were a literal barn-burner, ultimately coming down to a dogfight between three-time winner Helio Castroneves, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Marco Andretti. Somewhat reminiscent of Little Al and Emmo in 1989 and Rick Mears and Michael Andretti in 1991, the battle intensified after the first-ever red flag for something other than rain since Swede Savage’s horrific incident from 1973. After Bell blasted the turn two wall with eight laps left, instead of risking another yellow flag finish like last year, 500 officials flipped on the red lights in order to fix the fence and Safer Barrier, giving the fans a better shot at a green flag conclusion.

As much as I despise the notion of emulating NASCAR, at least they didn’t extend the race beyond 500 miles. Plus, those last 8 laps provided some high drama, as it was a battle royal between Castroneves and Hunter-Reay. Ryan’s ballsy move in turn three may have shocked “Spiderman”, allowing him to have the upper hand when the winning pass was completed as the white flag waved. Becoming the first American to win the 500 since Sam Hornish, Jr. (2006), I was certainly happy for Ryan, who was bumped out of this event in 2011 by his own teammate.

Worn out from a week of late nights, a couple of early mornings at the gym, walking to and from 38th Street, being in the sun all day, and still dealing with what might have been a cold, Kokomo's nightcap was still a requirement for making my week feel complete. Since 1992, I can think of only a few times when I chose not to complete a Sunday double, pleased to see a stout field of 23 sprinters sporting USAC equipment for Dave Darland (Phillips 71) and Bryan Clauson (Stewart 20). Nearly all the usual suspects, including Chris Windom, Justin Grant, and Jerry Coons, Jr., were in the house for this $2,000 to win Kokomo Klassic. Going head-to-head with a combined MSCS/KISS contest in Haubstadt, hometown hero Shane Cottle drove four hours to protect KISS points.

Out of the eight races I witnessed in these last nine days, this one might have been the most intense, so hotly contested that it seemed like they were racing for twenty grand instead of just two. Dave Darland’s first heat decimation offered a preview of coming attractions, so hooked up around the top that he put a full straightaway between himself and second place Scotty Weir. Other early winners included Chad Boespflug (Hazen 57) and Chris Gurley, who narrowly fended off a quickly closing Justin Grant.

Union City’s Sammy Keen owned the B, with the second to last transfer being taken by Mitchell’s Dickie Gaines, still struggling to find the handle on the Pedersen number four. Three generations of the Pedersen family swapped rear torsion bars in an attempt to produce some left rear drive for Dickie, including former Silver Crown owner Red, his son Scott, and Scott’s son Ryan. Despite the frustration of an unhappy Spike chassis, the former KISS and Lawrenceburg Speedway champion was still all smiles, announcing that he was getting hitched to Autumn Emberton at the end of June.

Grant and Boespflug led the field to green for the thirty lap finale to my monumental week. The Hanford Hornet drew first blood but Grant gathered the gold on lap two, rolling to a big lead over the two by two formation of Boespflug, Weir, Windom, and Darland before Tyler Hewitt spun with six laps in the books.

Grant, Boespflug, and Windom fanned three-deep for first through turn four on the restart, with Chris surging from third to first before Gaines looped his ride in turn two, scoring seven laps. With the intensity preparing to ratchet to another level, Darland’s DRC came alive, wrenching third from Weir and closing the gap to Grant in no time flat. Tossing the most cutthroat slider of the season on Justin through turns one and two, Justin wisely cracked the throttle in order to prevent a massive mishap. Like spanking the bottom of a misbehaving child, the California charger rapped the rear of the Lincoln legend as they sprinted to turn three, with Darland closing the gap to his former Walker ride with a little more than half the race remaining. Now wheel to wheel on the back and front chute, Windom worked low while Dave chose to live the high life, par for the course in Dave's 32 year career. Throwing yet another too-close-for-comfort slider on lapper Tyler Hewitt in turn two, Darland briefly blasted to first before the Canton cannonball reassumed the premier position in three.

The all-time king of Kokomo followed his nemesis along the bottom of one but attempted to serve a slider the next time around, unable to seal the deal and thus gave Grant one more opportunity to blast his bumper. Ten laps were left to decide this Kokomo Klassic, eyeing another Clauson charge from eighth to fourth as Windom continued to hold a slight advantage up front. Chris attempted to put the race in the bag with some bold moves through traffic, but a nearly impossible fourth corner slider on Logan Jarrett turned bad. The two cars firmly connected and left Walker’s wagon with a flat right rear. An extremely frustrated Windom might have expressed his displeasure with Jarrett, but this altercation was completely tame compared to Saturday evening fisticuffs on Anderson’s front stretch after his Goacher 5 was eliminated by Rex Norris III.

Leaving seven laps left, Darland inherited the top spot and ballooned his lead thanks to a legendary launch off turn two. Two laps later, a Landon Simon/Adam Byrkett twin spin restacked the deck, but before action would resume Simon and Josh Spencer could not agree where they needed to be in the lineup. Eyeing plenty of rooting, gouging, and finger pointing, Spencer brake checked Simon and stopped in turn four, lighting Landon’s fuse as he too stopped and unbelted. Popping through his roll cage and venting to a pair of track officials, things started getting heated between Landon and the two track dudes. Big boss Reece O’Connor came in to bring order, but things got even more heated before the former Buckeye was ordered back to his pit.

After the insanity had concluded in turn four, Darland cruised to his third consecutive Kokomo score, leading Grant, Clauson, Boespflug, and Coons to the 10:15 checkered flag. Weir, Gurley, Dalten Gabbard (Baldwin 5), Spencer, and Travis Hery rounded out the second half of the top ten. The biggest crowd of the season witnessed the wildest and most tension-filled feature of the season on what should have been just a quiet Sunday night. Truth be told, there is rarely such a thing on Kokomo Sundays and that's why it is so hard to skip these regular programs, as you just never know what might transpire.

Putting a wrap on this massive week, much like a hangnail, circular references in spreadsheets are a minor annoyance that if left alone, will continue to be a pain until they are addressed. Circular references in racing are hardly problematic, especially if referring to the week of the Indianapolis 500. With so many opportunities to sample some of the most historic contests in midget, sprint, and Silver Crown competition, each one of these events exists due to the influence of the biggest race in the world. However, would an Indy 500 week be complete without the Hulman Classic, Hoosier Hundred, Little 500, and Night Before the 500? Regardless of whether you want to believe that these events have anything to do with one another, it’s still an awfully special period of time when a healthy appetite for so many varieties of open wheel racing can be satisfied. A day at the racetrack beats a day at the office on any day of the year so I’ll gladly deal with such circular references, certainly a good problem to have in this day and age when all things old and meaningful seem to be fading to oblivion.

 

 

 

Volume 16, Number 5

Best of Both Worlds

As a lifelong Indiana resident, I can attest to the fact that we are extremely passionate people. But, when the topic concerns our time-honored traditions of basketball and auto racing, there is no word that can accurately describe our fanatical feelings. A function of genetics or something in the water, it's nearly impossible to prevent these emotions from bubbling to the surface.

We're only human for wanting to be a success in whatever it is that we strive to achieve. It’s what is driven into our heads from an early age and continues through our careers and the materiality of today's society. Even if it's something as frivolous as a friendly discussion about which basketball squad or racetrack is superior, Indiana folk simply want to be right and have the last word.

With family ties to Indiana University, I was born a fan of the Hoosiers and in my first full season of avidly following their basketball endeavors, they were 1981 NCAA champions, thus setting the bar unreasonably high for future expectations. But living in the middle of the state, naturally there were those who rooted for arch-rival Purdue and I can’t tell you how much I dreaded going to school the day after the two teams played and Purdue won, as the ribbing would be unrelenting. Even if their basketball programs are a shadow of their former selves, we are still extremely divided on which team we support, yet to encounter anyone who rooted for both.

In the early days of the internet, a similar rivalry divided the sport of sprint car racing into winged and wingless factions. When I was first introduced to this craziness in the early ‘80s, there was no such separation, as drivers and fans switched back and forth with no thought whatsoever. If there was a high-paying event held within a reasonable driving distance, you simply showed up and loved every minute of it. But in this day and age, and much like IU and Purdue, depending on where you live and how you were raised, this determines not only what flavor of sprint car racing you prefer, but also which racetracks receive your seal of approval.

The second weekend in May provided a rare opportunity to sample the source of so many sprint car debates over the last decade, taking in a winged World of Outlaws event at Tommy Helfrich’s Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt, Indiana on Saturday and a standard Sunday night wingless sprint car show at the O’Connor family’s Kokomo Speedway. The age-old argument revolves around which form of action is more entertaining and which set of drivers are more skilled, but lately message board banter frequently concerns which of these two speed plants is the best in the state.

I firmly believe that the positive attributes of winged sprint car racing are showcased on tight, banked bullrings like Tri-State. And, when it comes to mouth-watering, modern-day traditional sprint car excitement, there is no better venue than Kokomo – again just my opinion. I got the best of both worlds this weekend and having a week to reflect, I can weigh the merits of both and settle the arguments once and for all. When pigs fly, right?

When initially faced with the dilemma of choosing between the first-ever Grand Prix of Indianapolis or a World of Outlaws affair at Haubstadt, it was a painful decision to abandon my Indianapolis Motor Speedway roots, but my reasoning was rationalized during some Saturday iron pumping, coming to the conclusion that having someone to look up to and revere still means a great deal in my racing realm. Initially idolizing Indy 500 names like Foyt, Andretti, Unser, Rutherford, Johncock, Mears, Sneva, Sullivan, Fittipaldi, and Rahal, the only form of racing that still offers an opportunity to see lifelong heroes in action is winged sprint car racing. Possibly the last time to see Steve Kinser or Sammy Swindell in the southwestern corner of the state, my decision was cemented. It was Haubstadt or bust.

Normally doing the drive back and forth on own or with my nephew serving as sidekick, this journey was indeed rare as I rode down with writer-extraordinaire Dave Argabright, allowing me to relax and enjoy the sights and some deep conversations. Taking State Road 37 south to Bloomington and angling over to the new I-69 via 45 and 58, the trek still amounted to a solid three hours, including a brief bathroom break at Steak ‘n Shake where I couldn’t resist one of their famous ice cream concoctions. Interesting to spot freshly cut swaths where the new 69 plowed through pristine Southern Indiana wilderness, in my head I debated the merits of such a highway when the amount of traffic on the new road was still slim to none.

One of the first truly hot days of the year when a sweatshirt was not needed, after scrounging to find a seat I immediately began to feel a slight panic. Call it a mid-life crisis, but I suddenly realized that it had been almost twenty years to the day that I had first attended this very speedway for this same stop on the WoO tour, riding as a passenger to photographer Steve Remington. May of 1994 was also the twenty year anniversary of my graduation from Ball State University so as a huge lump in my throat began to develop, a flood of emotions made me ponder where the time had escaped. Recalling a similar farewell to “King” Steve Kinser at Terre Haute in October of 1994 as he headed to an albeit brief stint in NASCAR land, how ironic was it that two decades later we again were offering another Southern Indiana salute. Sick to my stomach for feeling so old, such feelings of nostalgia created a magical air about the evening, wondering if we would be celebrating with The King much like we did in late '94.

I have forever embraced the “jetfighters-in-a-gymnasium” analogy of winged sprint cars attacking quarter-mile high-banked bullrings. The frenetic action is second-to-none, as traffic is always an issue. So hard to use all that 900-plus horsepower, it still gives the little guy a chance, as evidenced just days before in Jacksonville, Illinois when car owners Steve and Brad Fox realized lifelong dreams by winning a World of Outlaws war for the first time with driver Christopher Bell, a feat that they were never able to accomplish with their hall of fame father Galen. Unfortunately we would not see the Fox 53 in action at Haubstadt, as Bell was fulfilling USAC midget duties in Belleville, Illinois. However, this highlights a huge disadvantage for any World of Outlaws program that is held in the wingless-centric Hoosier State: there just aren’t enough local competitors to bolster the field or offer any kind of threat to the full-time travelers.

Chris “Critter” Malone, Robert Ballou, Brady Bacon, Kody Kinser (back in father Kelly’s 4k), and Paul May were the only ones putting up a fight and willing to take the $800 start money, with Illinois invaders Paul Nienhiser, Joey Moughan, Blake Nimee, and Russell Borland also making the tow. In the field of 26, we were missing Jac Haudenschild and Shane Stewart, but names from the past like Danny Smith and Jeff Swindell offered additional intrigue. Unfortunately, when attending any World of Outlaws meeting in this state, you know who is not going to win. Back in the ‘80s, that wasn’t always the case.

Speaking of Jeff Swindell, this was his first time to Tri-State since 1999, the site of his first-ever sprint car triumph. When quizzed on the year, he could not recall but noted, “I think Jesus was here though.” Remembering pitting in the infield and receiving tips from his brother Sammy about driving four wheels above the cushion for qualifying, as we will learn later another meeting of the minds between these two would play a pivotal role in this evening’s outcome.

Saying hello to Critter Malone for the first time in ages, the long-time midget madman is primarily a winged sprint car combatant these days, competing with the MOWA group the previous week in Flora, Illinois. First encountering Malone at the Lawrenceburg, Indiana Hut Hundred in late 1989, he still punches the clock at Howerton Racing Products on Gasoline Alley, welding up headers for Indycar and NASCAR teams, claiming Hendrick Motorsports and Michael Waltrip Racing as customers. As far as locals were concerned, Malone made the most noise and impressed even the most jaded sprint car critics with his feature performance, using the no-man’s land middle lane to scoot from 21st to 5th before being swept up in an incident with Cody Darrah with just five laps left. Malone would have to settle for an unsavory 13th, a $1,400 pay cut from what should have been. Nonetheless, it was one whale of a drive.

Born and bred on the bullrings of Bloomington, Paragon, and Haubstadt, Joey Saldana entered the evening with a nine point lead over Daryn Pittman, with only 27 points separating himself from fourth place Paul McMahan. After the last three nights of competition at Eldora, Jacksonville, and Wilmot, the points lead had exchanged hands each time so needless to say, there was parity in 2014 Outlaws action before Pittman went on his East coast tear.

One of the best attributes of winged sprint car racing is that new track records are still possible but on this evening, no one would approach Sammy Swindell’s 2004 standard of 11.110 seconds. Out third, Paul McMahan topped the charts for the fourth time in 2014, clocking in at 12.188. Sammy was second, Saldana third, and The King fourth, one of the best qualifying performances I’ve witnessed from Steve in quite some time. With an ancient -12 head engine, Brady Bacon was an impressive fifth quick in his own number 99. Victim of a detached nozzle line, Donny Schatz crawled across the line as the slowest qualifier, a rare slip-up from his TSR crew. But on even the worst of evenings, Schatz somehow turns lemons into lemonade, certainly the stuff of champions. Tonight was no different.

Observing some surprised looks on Outlaw drivers’ faces as they witnessed a pre-heat race complete surface revamp from Tommy Helfrich, the preparations allowed even more time for fans to get their hero cards and t-shirts signed by Kinser, who graciously agreed to countless photo ops as well. Saluted by series microphone maestro Johnny Gibson (for 22 Tri-State tallies and 58 top-fives) and Helfrich in pre-race ceremonies, Steve even carted off a case of German bratwursts from race sponsor Dewig Meats. Receiving a standing ovation from the capacity crowd, yes, it’s good to be king.

Heat races were up next and from a fan's perspective, this amounts to a bit of a downer as they only invert four, resulting in the fast cars running off and hiding without much overtaking. Representing the Indiana locals in style, Robert Ballou timed 12th and started from the pole of heat three, needing a win in order to make the dash and have a shot at scoring some sizeable sums of cash. Ballou did a credible job of fending off second row starter Joey Saldana for eight laps, but an overtaking from the Brownsburg Bullet was inevitable. Heat two had its moments as Kody Kinser tilted on two wheels into turn one, flipping and landing on four wheels as his throttle stuck wide open. Kody was ok but scratched his machine for the balance of the program. Continuing his frustrating outing, Donny Schatz spun in the fourth corner but successfully rebounded for the final transfer, faced with an uphill start from the outside of row 11.

After finishing fourth in his heat, drawing the pole for the dash, and narrowly holding off his long-time nemesis Sammy Swindell for the win, all the stars seemed to be aligned for an October 1994 duplication for King Kinser. Watching the dash and feature atop turn one with the talented trio of Kurt Gross, Kevin Briscoe, and Eric Davis, it was if the entire Tri-State assembly was unified in their hope that The King could conquer Haubstadt one more time.

So apropos that the feature would start Steve and Sammy from front row seats, the Tennessee terror beat the Hurryin’ Hoosier to the top of turns one and two. Into lapped traffic by lap seven, Sammy was more than prepared to spoil Steve’s going-away party until impatiently scaling his brother’s left rear wheel as they entered turn one on lap ten. Spinning Sammy up the bank and sweeping Saldana into the mess, after a front wing swap Joey would continue but The Slammer was finished. Again, could things not be falling into place any better for an epic salute?

Paul McMahan moved to the outside of the front row for the double-file restart and just like Swindell, he beat Kinser to the top of turn two, as the preferred lane remained around the rim. By the halfway mark, Steve continued to pressure Paul, even as they weaved in and out of rush-hour traffic. Separate incidents for Kasey Kahne cohorts Daryn Pittman, Brad Sweet, and Cody Darrah (also collecting Critter) allowed Kinser three more opportunities to steal a win, but each time he didn’t have enough mustard on the hot dog to pull off a massive slide for life.

McMahan cruised to his second score of 2014, heading off Kinser, Kerry Madsen (up from 11th), David Gravel, and Saldana (in a sterling run from the rear). Hard-charger Schatz (up 16 spots), Bacon, Sweet, Kinser (Kraig), and Sides were scored sixth through tenth at the 10:12 PM checkered flag. The cutthroat action witnessed from tenth to third is what I have come to expect for winged bullring action, but the battle for first simply never materialized. Regardless of the outcome, the benefits of absorbing a WoO war, regardless of the size of the playing field, include the prompt professionalism of organized officials and the polished presentation of one Johnny Gibson. Simply put, it’s always a show.

Even the best laid plans do not always come to fruition and as I have learned in the last 20 years, life, love, and sprint car racing rarely wind up with storybook endings. Akin to losing the homecoming game and feeling slightly defeated, perhaps I was still stuck in 1994 as a naïve college graduate, thinking that nights like these are just meant to work out. Back when I regularly shot baskets as a kid, I could never end my session without a perfect swish so luckily for Kinser, he still has four more opportunities (Lawrenceburg, Kokomo, Terre Haute, and Bloomington) to go out in style in his back yard.

The opposite end of the Indiana sprint car spectrum took place the next day, some four hours northeast in Kokomo. The Mother’s Day Mudslinger offered the same number of competitors (26) as Haubstadt, but for only a fraction of the purse. I counted a dozen legitimate WoO winners on Saturday and ironically on Sunday, a nearly equal amount could be considered threats to take home a trophy.

Those showing smoke signals during combined hot laps/qualifications included Josh Spencer, Jamie Frederickson, and Jerry Coons, Jr. Coons might have qualified quickest in the third session but a broken intake valve ended his evening prematurely while Frederickson ventilated an engine block in what was his season debut. Spencer might have had to win the B-main to take part in the A, but at least his smoke was not terminal. Bryan Clauson (BCI 7) was quickest overall at 13.231 seconds.

Just like the Outlaws, Kokomo’s regular programs invert the fastest four in the heat races, but at least the top two finishers are available for a feature redraw and have an honest shot at making headlines later. Also like Haubstadt, two of three Kokomo heats were won from the front row (Darland and Cottle), with Kevin Thomas, Jr. (own 9) claiming the other from fourth, appearing quite motivated to fend off his former Mike Dutcher Motorsports mount. Sunday heats were way more interesting than Saturday, as the trio of Jarrett, Thomas, and Stanbrough each held the lead in one single tour during the first contest. Clauson used a dramatic last turn, last lap lunge under C.J. Leary to lift the final redraw in the second event while in the third, Justin Grant (Hery 40) diamonded turn two on the last lap to steal second from Jarett Andretti.

Back gate stock car support remained minimal on Mother's Day so the show was run with its usual Sunday night efficiency, as evidenced by a B-main completion at an astonishing 7:38 PM, pushing out the A by 8. This compared to Haubstadt’s 9:45 PM (10:45 Indy time) wave lap, but their heat races didn't start until 7:30 or so. Walking the pits one last time before the green flag fell, it was interesting seeing Davey Jones’s son Dalton wrenching on KT Jr.'s machine with Tanner Thorson, as Davey and Kevin had already cut their ties (Davey was now helping Dallas Hewitt). Last week’s villain Daron Clayton was tightening wheel nuts for final B-main transferee Mike Terry while Daryl Tate pushed Carson Short’s 21 to the lineup chute (probably old news but the first time I noticed this 2014 pairing).

USAC sprint car national championship contenders for the last two years, Bryan Clauson and Dave Darland (Stensland 41) held front row seats for the 25-lap finale, with first heat protagonists Thomas and Stanbrough (Dutcher 37) beginning a row behind. Starting Darland on the outside of row one and with a cushion to lean on is like handing a thief your debit card and PIN, as many would like to believe that this was automatic money in the bank. But as Dave can attest, Sunday nights in Kokomo are rarely that academic.

True to form, Darland immediately surged to first while Stanbrough maneuvered the middle to streak past Clauson. As the early laps quickly clicked off, the Silent Gasser snuck up on The People’s Champ and managed to lead low at the start/finish just before Parker Price-Miller flipped wildly atop turn two, somehow emerging from the wreckage to step into the ambulance. When looking back, it could have been a lot worse, as evidenced by the fuel cell sitting atop his roll cage.

With 11 of 25 in the books, Darland led Stanbrough, Clauson, Grant, and Thomas back to green, but almost immediately amber bulbs were illuminated when newlywed Josh Spencer abruptly slowed in the second corner and was hammered by Tyler Hewitt and Carson Short, both of whom inverted over the 66 that had lost its power steering in the B.

Leaving the last 14 laps to decide Sunday night bragging rights, for certain these were the most thrilling of the 2014 season, so difficult to capture the true essence of the action with just pen and paper. If you have any doubts about the thrills and goose bumps that a regular Sunday night Kokomo feature can generate, check out Sean Buckley’s website (www.jackslash.com) for a recap. If you aren’t already a subscriber, I highly recommend it, if only for catching these final 14 tours. I might be slightly biased, but this one was indeed epic.

When green laundry was dangled, Grant, Thomas, and Cottle foamed at the mouth like a wild pack of dogs fighting over a fourth place bone. Meanwhile, Stanbrough and Darland were wheel-to-wheel under the flag stand for the premier position, which became a central theme for this final sprint to the checkered. Jon kept his nose clean, scratching and clawing at the lower half of turns one and two and hoping for some huge forward bite while Dave circled the top to lead off two. Like a pair of ping pong players immersed in an intense back and forth volley, for the next four circuits Jon would haul it into three and launch like a rocket ship off four, briefly surging to first. But every single time, Dave would live the high life through one and two and propel to P1 by the backstretch. A big bounce through turn one did not derail Stanbrough’s quest for his first win of the season, digging deep to slip underneath the all-time Kokomo feature winner in turn four. The Brownsburg fabricator even led on the exit of the second corner, but Atlanta, Indiana’s full-time racer flew past in three, only to see that black and silver 37 squirt ahead as they straightened their wheels.

Able to cut the impending drama with a knife, Clauson and Grant were making hay on the high side and had joined the party at the front of the pack. For a change, Darland officially led the next lap by the narrowest of margins but Grant whipped Claxton horses into shape by claiming second on the back chute, battling tooth and nail with Stanbrough as they both breathed heavily down the leader’s neck. Coming to the white flag, they fanned three wide as they exited the fourth corner, with Justin turning from the middle to bottom at turn one. Dave’s Physical Medicine Consultants DRC/Kercher kept the lead thanks to traditional turn two momentum, but Justin early apexed the third turn entry and straightened turn four, coming up a few inches short at the start/finish.

The scorers turned to the transponders to confirm a dramatic Darland conquest, as Dave’s son Trenton and famed midget driver turned sprint mechanic Mike Fedorcak sprinted to victory lane to celebrate. Grant grabbed second at the 8:30 PM checkered flag with Stanbrough, Clauson, and Thomas taking third through fifth. Positions six through ten contained Boespflug, Cottle, Leary, Jarrett, and Gurley. After removing his hard hat to the raucous support of his hometown crowd, the winner relayed to Rob Goodman, “I just kept running the top. That’s what I do for a living. This place wears my ass out for 25 laps, but I love running here.”

Comparing Haubstadt World of Outlaws to Kokomo wingless sprint cars is a similar argument to IU versus Purdue, akin to the proverbial apples and oranges. Both are great schools and both are tasty fruits, but you may be hard pressed to find someone who loves both at the same time.

In my maturation, I have expanded my palate to savor more than just pizza or hamburgers, as quite often I do have a taste for something different. As a diehard fan of the Hoosiers, I have even developed a sense of admiration for the teams that Purdue's Gene Keady put on the court, wishing that both Indiana and Purdue programs would fully return to their former elite status. And when it comes to my preferred form of racing entertainment, I started as a generic fan of sprint car racing, eventually transforming to become a staunch supporter of traditional, wingless combat. Recently switching back to my original state of overall enjoyment for both varieties, there is no right or wrong, as personal preference will ultimately dictate which style suits you best and which track you will frequent the most.

But with Haubstadt primarily in operation on Saturdays and Kokomo on Sundays, an ambitious fan can actually have their cake and eat it too. When awarded such options, that's the best of both worlds, truly coming to appreciate my Indiana address that much more.

 

 

Volume 16, Number 4

Feel Like a Number

A thankless, black and white profession filled with rules and regulations that stifle creativity and individualism, such is the reality of a career in accounting. Week after week and month after month, there are far too many accounts to keep reconciled, customers to bill, vendors to pay, books to close, and results to report. The insanity never stops, as by the time you are actually done, it is time to do it all over again.

Switching jobs in November for the second time in less than a year, the first six months in my new, uplifting environment has been a blur, just now starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel after a long winter filled with far too many challenges worthy of a quick discussion. Finally complete with first quarter figures, I was so mentally exhausted from producing them that I could not relate to my superiors what they actually meant. When you’re mired in the muck of so many accounting details, it can be quite a challenge to see the forest through all of the trees.

As much as I enjoy my weekend respite from crunching numbers and keeping records, whether I realize it or not, I’m still surrounded by these things in my racing realm. Car number and driver combinations, qualification times, figuring heat and feature lineups, and analyzing everything afterwards in order to produce these articles, I have a hard time turning off my brain even when I’m in my happy place. Nicknamed “stat geek” a long time ago by the one and only Anthony Stewart, as much as I cringe at such a description, it is certainly an accurate account.

Hoping to escape these numerical nightmares on this first weekend of May with a double-dip of Eldora Speedway World of Outlaws and Kokomo Speedway King of Indiana sprint cars, by the time that Shane Cottle had inherited first place on Sunday night, my mind was already back to work. Doing some quick figuring in my head and attempting to make sense of everything that transpired, I had already confirmed that deuces were wild and the entire weekend's theme surrounded the number two.

Rained out the previous Sunday at Terre Haute, the 2014 KISS series would begin the following Friday in Bloomington where Cottle served up a supreme surprise for Brady Short, blasting underneath B-town’s best as the white flag was waving. Ending Short’s streak of three straight on the red clay, on Friday the 2nd Shane scored his second feature victory of 2014, this time in Tony Epperson’s white deuce after gathering Gas City’s opener two weeks prior.

Tired from toiling all day at work, although I would have loved to have sampled Shane’s win in person, I read about it while resting from one of the most epic meals I have ever enjoyed, this one coming at Indy’s Late Harvest Kitchen. Everything was extraordinary, including a pair of craft cocktails and my shockingly delicious entrée of rabbit biscuits and gravy (which ironically was served with carrots!), paired with a side of ridiculously addictive hand-cut kennebec fries, coated in smoked bone marrow and sprinkled with jalapeno peppers. Ending with one of my all-time favorite desserts in maple chomeur, after numerous visits I am still convinced that chef/owner Ryan Nelson is a God. As much as I savor a killer sprint car race chock full of slide jobs, a meal like this is equally satisfying.

Receiving text message updates from my nephew who was just over the border in Rossburg, also on Friday May 2nd another white deuce would drive to victory lane. Shane Stewart steered the Kyle Larson and Justin Marks’s machine to its first triumph in World of Outlaws action in just the team’s second outing. The next evening, that lucky numeral made its impact yet again, as my second trip of the year to the Big E saw David Gravel grab his second World of Outlaws victory of 2014 in just his second start in the Roth Motorsports number 83. How many times has number two been mentioned thus far? I seem to have lost count.

Proving that it’s all in the numbers, one day later my second visit to Kokomo resulted in Cottle’s second KISS celebration of the weekend in the Epperson number two. Can you guess what Shane’s other finish of the weekend was? If you guessed second, then you’ve clearly been paying attention. Oddly enough, the same number of sprint cars (33) appeared for KISS contests in Bloomington and Kokomo.

Rewinding back to Saturday’s Outlaw adventure, the traditional drive across US 36 through eastern Indiana was a bit out of the ordinary, experimenting by exiting just east of Lynn, Indiana at Arba Pike. In all my years of driving or riding to Eldora, I have always noticed the sign pointing south to Arba and Crete, realizing that the latter was once home to Jim Jones, author of the freakish 1978 Jonestown massacre that saw 909 members of his People’s Temple commit mass suicide. Defying the urge to see what type of town could have bred such a monster, I instead turned north and slowed for the sad remains of the circa 1908 Spartanburg High School, as just a few walls were left intact after a March 2012 inferno. Hooking back up with 227 and then Greenville Pike, a quick stop at Maid-Rite was ultimately successful, avoiding the 118 Ansonia detour by substituting route 49 to McFeeley-Petry Road, interrupted by an eastbound 103-car CSX freight hauling the mail on the famed double-track.

Easily making it in time for hot laps, I made several circles around a corral containing a stout contingent of 34. World of Outlaw pit areas are traditionally packed with gawking fans who want to gain a glimpse of such rock-star-like icons. I have to admit, I was one of them on this afternoon, often just standing and staring in awe of their every move. Although many of the legendary mechanics from those glorious late ‘80s and early ’90s have long since retired, some road warriors still finding work include Scott Benic (leading the Destiny 9 for the Wild Child) and longtime Haud mechanic Dean “Bonzai” Bruns, who on this evening aided Jac’s son Sheldon. Unfortunately for Dean and Sheldon, their collaboration was short-lived after blowing up in qualifications. Overseeing the Roth 83 for new driver David Gravel was ex-Selma Shell socket spinner Sonny Kratzer, who was back for yet another stint with this squad after parting ways midway through last year. How many times have both drivers and mechanics returned for tours of duty with the revolving door of Roth? I’m quite positive Kevin Eckert could recount such a statistic.

Feeling the need for speed, once engines were warmed I headed to the inside of turn three for a reminder of just how quickly these beasts can blast around a half-mile. Ears deafened by 900 horses that needed no breathing, I headed to turn one for qualifications, of course bumping into Aaron “The Outlaw” Mosley, who just dropped over $15,000 on a new Triple-X mini sprint for his son Evan, who will enjoy enriched horsepower at Logansport thanks to an Eric Shively rebuild.

Also watching from inside of one in the early evening hours was Keith Kunz midget partner Pete Willoughby, here to observe his hired gun Christoper Bell steer Steve and Brad Fox’s 53. Good for 12th in the rundown, Bell’s best lap was 13.639 seconds, showing no signs of fear by flat-footing it through a choppy cushion. Speaking of Willoughby and Kunz, former pilot Jay Drake was also spotted roaming the pits, sporting some Keneric Racing gear.

Reminded that deuces were still wild this weekend, for the second night in a row Keneric contestant Kerry Madsen’s 13.296 (15th in line) was atop the qualifying charts, propelled by a potent Brian Morrison mill housed inside a California KPC chassis. Unfazed by some strong winds that actually toyed with the drivers, perennial qualifying standout Paul McMahan and his GF1/Kistler Chevy stood second while GF1/Speedway Engines ammunition earned the next three spots for Brad Sweet, Joey Saldana, and Daryn Pittman. David Gravel also enjoyed Speedway Engines horsepower, clocking sixth in a KPC chassis. Steve Kinser was a respectable 7th but his TSR “teammate” Donny Schatz was a subpar 21st. So many came awfully close to clobbering the turn two concrete in quals, but all were clean except Trey Gustin, who waited to do the deed in turn three. Early scratches included the younger Haud and Brandon Wimmer.

Stopping to say hello to the familiar faces of Steve and Brad Fox, their dually pickup and small trailer harkened back to days of old when the size of the hauler had no correlation to on-track performance, reminding me of when Lee Brewer, Jr. used to show everyone how it was done here. Without question an underdog effort at this venue, the last time that I can remember this brotherly duo hauling a winged chariot to these hallowed grounds might have been 1991. Remembering pit lane photos snapped of the Gohr Racing 56 from 1989, on this cool evening Steve donned his signature flannel shirt, nice to know that some things just don’t change. With backing from Bloomington’s Hinkle’s Hamburgers, unfortunately the best the boys could do was 20th on Saturday evening, aided by Monticello’s Mark Batcheldor and former midgeteer Tim Mehner.

Talking about things not changing, Bobby Allen’s tow rig and racecars appeared just as they might have when he hung up his driving gear in the late 1990s. Never one to win any beauty awards, these functional pieces still get the job done for grandson Logan Schuchart and 19 year-old son Jacob Allen, who was born and raised in Indianapolis and was a graduate of Brownsburg High School. Interestingly enough, Pennsylvania native Logan is actually a year and a half older than Jacob and has quite a bit more seat time in 410 sprinters. Both failed to crack Friday’s feature but Saturday was a different story, as Logan transferred through his heat while Jacob found the final transfer out from the B, gaining the spot when Caleb Helms fell to the wayside. Still, the youngest Allen managed to outperform Paul May, Brent Marks, Trey Starks, Greg Wilson, and Trey Gustin in only his second Eldora outing. There’s that number two again…

The World of Outlaws are always an entertaining proposition on the wide, sweeping banks, so blindingly fast yet requiring so much finesse when flirting with the fence. Much like Formula One, their heat races are won on the first or second lap, often stretching out to parades that leave wingless sprint car fans swearing off this brand of action. Emphasizing qualifying performance with a miniscule four-car invert, of course heat winners will come from those first two rows. Third row starter Jac Haudenschild nearly got to heat two victor Paul McMahan, flying higher than anyone else would dare on the south end of the speedway. Aside from a few sliders between Dale Blaney and Joey Saldana; that was the lone heat highlight. The lowlight was low buck racer Brian Paulus’s turn two dump, wondering when we’ll see him again.

Thanks to an inversion of six, David Gravel started on the pole of the dash, easily beating last year’s May Eldora winner Daryn Pittman. However, like I always remember Sammy Swindell stating a couple decades ago, he’d rather finish second in an Eldora dash to line up on the outside of the front row for the big money. Speaking of the feature, that’s when these cars and drivers truly shine, especially as surface grip begins to diminish. Observing General Manager Roger Slack recommend tilling and watering around the bottom of turn four after Matt Westfall claimed another modified feature win (Matt says he’ll be going for Lima and Eldora track championships that pay $6K and $2K respectively), I was surprised that water was not added anywhere else. However, after witnessing another wicked slide-fest through relentless traffic between reigning WoO champ Daryn Pittman and David Gravel, I have a hard time questioning Slack’s formula for frenetic feature action.

Just like Sammy professed, Pittman’s outside front row start propelled him to a lead of 18 tours, with third-starting Joey Saldana offering an early threat before being blown off by a turn three slider from Gravel. After a lap 11 right rear tire pop by a concrete-kissing Kerry Madsen, that’s when things began to get interesting. Pittman might have constructed a half-straight advantage in a heartbeat, but it completely vanished when reaching back markers. Gravel gathered the spot with an aggressive attack of turn three, but Pittman would immediately return the favor in one. The very next lap, David again drove deep into three but once they reached the opposite end, Daryn ducked underneath. Pittman’s advantage lasted no more than a split-second, as the Connecticut charger immediately crossed over.

The fun was far from over as a few laps later, Gravel had his hands full with lapper Haudenschild, his brief hesitation allowing the Kasey Kahne combatant to pull the trigger in turn one. However, David instinctively fired back with a slip and slide, dip and dive through turn two, essentially sealing the deal. Meanwhile, behind this dynamic duo, seventh-starting Randy Hannagan was making hay on the bottom, benefitting from that turn four moisture laid down by Roger Slack. Operating the middle to bottom lane like a modern-day Bobby Allen, Hannagan’s Neumeister 11 was absolutely hooked, scooting to second on lap 25 and beginning to breathe down Gravel’s neck before fading to third, reminiscent of his stunning performance here last October in the All Star Sprintacular. Always great to see a David versus Goliath story in a World of Outlaws war of money, a podium placement might as well be a win.

Nailing down his fourth-career WoO win, Gravel led Pittman, Hannagan, McMahan, and hard charger Donny Schatz (all the way from 19th) to the 9:55 checkered flag. Dale Blaney blasted from 18th to 6th while Danny Holtgraver hauled from 16th to 7th. After the tire change, Kerry Madsen maintained his standing as one of the best on these banks, coming from the rear to 8th. Brad Sweet and Steve Kinser collected 9th and 10th while Kraig Kinser advanced ten spots to 11th. Traditional Eldora heavyweights Saldana, Swindell, and Haudenschild struggled in 12th, 18th, and 19th.

On to Kokomo for the second half of my weekend double, I could honestly say that the racing season was now in full swing, such a special feeling as there are few things more highly anticipated than spending Sunday nights with the O’Connor family. Truly becoming the benchmark for sprint car excitement since the speedway’s configuration was completely revamped over the winter of 2004/2005, this particular showing was bolstered by appearances from Bland, Clauson, Clayton, Short, and Stanbrough. In reality, it was just another standard Sunday night program that paid more purse due to its KISS connection.

Upon exiting the VehiCross, my nephew and I immediately applied layers of clothing to fend off that wicked wind from the east. May 3rd felt more like March 3rd, but at least rain was out of the equation. The cooler temps kept Kokomo’s dark chocolate clay in tip-top shape, but unfortunately it also kept attendance to a minimum. Wondering what it takes to put butts in the bleachers these days, apparently all the stars must be in alignment to achieve a full house, as I can’t imagine any legitimate sprint car aficionado wanting to stay away from their sprint car opener.

The long-standing KISS format of lining up heat races from the blind draw remains the same since its 2001 inception and as a fan, I’d like to see the series officials spice things up and differentiate these races with qualifications and a deep heat race inversion. That probably won’t happen but with the blind draw, sometimes you’ll have races stacked to the hilt with hot shoes while others can be less than stellar. As a prime example, tonight’s first event had Clayton, Weir, Thomas, Ballou, Stanbrough, and Grant fight for the first four spots, bouncing Ballou and Grant to the B. Clayton, Clauson (in his own number 7), and local hero Josh Spencer took three of the four heats from front row starts, while in the other, Shane Cottle struck gold from sixth. All-important redraw spots (that would be finishing position number two, of course) were earned by two-time track champ Scotty Weir, C.J. Leary (up from 7th), Jerry Coons, Jr., and Jeff Bland, Jr. (Burton 04). Helping his father Tony assemble a new DRC after his previous week Gas City shunt, Logan Jarrett learned just how much grip the Kokomo clay offered after bicycling atop turn one. Climbing the wall and lightly tipping over, Logan’s initial hometown showing of 2014 was over far too soon.

Staying up in the stands to catch Jim Darland’s thunder car debut, it was B-main time before we knew it, as the Kokomo staff has a nice habit of keeping their regular programs moving rather quickly. With the surface still sticky and cushion stacking even higher, Max McGhee bicycled from the lead on the north end in another Mike Dutcher machine. Marion’s Tyler Hewitt clipped the cushion in the same spot as Max, tipping on two wheels and flipping his number 97. Feature passes were eventually awarded to Darland (Stensland 41), Ballou, Grant, and Dalten Gabbard, who wheels a Kenny Baldwin 5 wrenched by Frankfort’s Fred Click.

Although the Outlaws put on a great show at Eldora, my second race of the weekend refused to play second fiddle, as it surely had its moments as well. Offering a front row of Leary and Weir, Coons, Spencer, Cottle, and Clauson comprised rows two and three. And from that coveted number two starting position, Weir would lead via the top shelf after his cohort Leary tilted on two wheels.

Early in the thirty lapper, the race for second was vintage Kokomo, worth braving the chilly winds as Cottle and Clauson came from the third row to show their hands around the infield tires. Plenty tacky around the middle to bottom, Bryan, Shane, and C.J. fanned three-wide for second on a couple of occasions, exchanging the spot at least five times in seven laps. Clauson would come out on top, soon whisking underneath Weir for the premier position with a nice launch off the bottom of turn two.

Cottle followed suit and soon had second, but it was hardly academic as this position was the most hotly contested in the entire twenty car field. Scotty, Shane, Daron, and Jerry fought tooth and nail through the crossed flags, hard to tell who had the advantage until Mr. Excitement (Clayton) found a sweet spot through the middle to separate himself from the snarling pack. Although “The Bullet” had fired to a full straightaway advantage and disposed of lapped traffic like Dave Darland with five to go Clayton was coming. And, when C.J. Leary spun to a stop on the final lap, just as Clauson took the checkered flag the yellow reverted the field to a single lap dash to the conclusion.

Restarting Clauson, Clayton, Cottle, Coons, and Short, Daron attempted to sweep to the outside in turn one and immediately cut underneath Bryan. However, Clayton’s move did not go as planned as the Rock Steady Racing pilot poked the unsponsored number 7 in the rear, spinning himself and shredding Clauson’s left rear. As the field went nuts trying to avoid the mess, seventh-running Jon Stanbrough swerved right and couldn’t get stopped, tipping the Indiana Underground Construction number 37 on its side. While under red, BC calmly hiked to DC’s car to discuss the move, but at this stage, nothing could overwhelm the bitter taste of a near-certain victory being wrenched from his grasp.

Friday winner Shane Cottle inherited first place and the win, holding off Coons, Short (up 8 spots), Thomas (up 5), and Weir. Gary Taylor (Cook 04), Ballou (up 11 spots), Boespflug (up 6 after a bump from Ballou and a flat left rear), Grant (up 10), and Kyle Robbins (up 5) soldiered home sixth through tenth at the 9:06 PM waving of the checkered cloth.

Crediting chemistry with mechanic Jim Forman as the reason for his early-season success, Cottle also commented, "Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. You've got to put yourself in a position to win." A four-time track champion in the O’Connor era, there is little doubt as to just how good Shane is when it comes to Kokomo, but it never hurts to have lady luck smiling in your direction and aiding your effort. Two for two in 2014 KISS competition, after May 9th's rainout at Gas City "The Throttle" will attempt to remain undefeated at Lawrenceburg on May 17th.

After looking at figures non-stop since my November 11th hire date as the new Controller for Kittle's Home Furnishings, I was beginning to feel like a number, having survived a whirlwind of activities surrounding a new system implementation, year-end closing, and a couple of audits. Ready and willing to turn off my accounting brain for weekend racing activities, unfortunately there is no such switch for this hard-wired functionality, as evidenced by my recent breakdown of events in Rossburg, Ohio and Kokomo, Indiana. Whether or not some higher power had influence on the results or if it was all just a coincidence, it's a lot easier to make sense of numbers when they involve a passionate pursuit of pulse-quickening, sideways-sliding, mud-slinging machines as opposed to the usual revenues and expenses. In either scenario, the numbers will never stop being manufactured and there will always be a resulting story to relate. Call it job security, but that’s what butters my bread.

 

 

 

Volume 16, Number 3

Time-Tested

If there was anything to be learned from the trio of United States Auto Club sprint car contests at Eldora, Gas City, and Haubstadt, it’s that in order to eventually succeed in this sport, one must first take his share of lumps.  Feature winning chauffeurs Dave Darland, Tracy Hines, and Daron Clayton have certainly been around the block and established themselves as consistent threats to win, but in the early stages of their USAC careers, they endured a fair bit of adversity before finally breaking through to the other side. 

After setting the local Indiana bullring scene on fire with a scintillating 19 win season in 1991, Darland’s initial USAC triumph came at 1993 Tony Hulman Classic, upsetting the awe-inspiring Cary Faas after his fellow Valvoline-backed bandit fell to the wayside.  A month and a half later, Darland proved his Terre Haute tally was no fluke after another big win in Kokomo but the true barometer for USAC success has always been Eldora Speedway.  And, no matter how hard he tried, he simply could not conquer the beast, ten years of enduring any and all kinds of misfortune on the famed high banks.  But, thanks to some tips and tutoring from Jack Hewitt, Dave finally pulled into victory lane on May 24th, 1998, just a handful of hours after his mentor finished his first Indianapolis 500 in 12th place. 

Staying afterwards at Indy to sign autographs, Hewitt may not have been in the house when Darland finally struck gold, but he was there in spirit.  Addressing the crowd after his April 19th win at the Don Branson/Jud Larson Memorial at Eldora Speedway and looking like a modern-day Hewitt in his dominating performance, Dave divulged, “Thank you Jack for all of your knowledge.  You had a big hand in what I do.” 

Aside from Tracy Hines, no one gets around The Big E better than Darland.  His fifth USAC sprint car victory at the Western Ohio speed plant was also his 48th overall in the same series, just four wins away from tying Tom Bigelow for the all-time mark.  Adding to his midget and Silver Crown scores, it was his 11th Eldora success story.  Quizzed by USAC intern Dillon Welch as to why this place suits him so well, Dave admitted, “It’s the speed, the wall…it’s treacherous and it scares the hell out of me every lap.”

Some may have forgotten that this place threatened his life after a frightening Four Crown Nationals crash in 2001, but no one would have ever noticed in this early season outing.  Eight cars from the end of the order, he clocked fourth fastest in a 31-car field, driving deep into turns one and three.  Charging from sixth to first in less than two laps, he easily owned heat four.  Starting from the inside second row for the thirty lap finale, his only obstacle was pole sitter Chase Stockon.  Chase outdragged fellow front row mate Dallas Hewitt (Simon 22s) to turn one and led the first five laps before Hewitt flipped atop turns three and four to force the first stoppage of the affair. 

Bouncing hard through turn three immediately after the restart, Stockon’s bobble allowed second-place Darland to pounce and pilfer P1 through turn four.  However, Dave’s lead was brief as Chase returned the favor in turn one, closely sliding the People’s Champ and forcing the veteran to stab the brakes to avoid contact. 

As for Eldora’s other maestro, Tracy Hines qualified third after going out last and also won his heat from sixth.  Firing from fifth, Tracy had now closed the gap to the two leaders, further aided by a red flag for a wicked flip for Jarett Andretti, who skied as high as the fence in turns one and two.  

Unbeknownst to this author, Stockon had lost his right front torsion arm after bouncing through turn three after that last restart.  When green lights glowed again, Chase did his best to deny Dave, who threatened in nearly every corner before finally sliding past in turn three of lap 12.  Amber bulbs illuminated for Aaron Farney’s wall contact in corner four, keeping things close for a bit up front.  But clearly in a league of his own, Darland would soon construct a full straight advantage in his Racer’s Advantage Store DRC/Foxco, awarding car owners Steve and Carla Phillips their first Eldora trophy.  Showing no fear of the concrete wall, Stockon successfully held off Hines for second while Jerry Coons, Jr. and quick qualifier Brady Bacon (15.069) found fourth and fifth.  Sixth through tenth included Bryan Clauson (still searching for his first Eldora sprint score), Jon Stanbrough, Justin Grant (up from 13th), Robert Ballou, and Scotty Weir.  An extremely efficient evening, we were headed to the car at 9:36, reminding me of the good old days when Earl Baltes ran an extremely tight ship, especially on these early-season offerings. 

Stopping to talk to Earl’s son-in-law Joe Schmitmeyer on the way out, Joe relayed that Earl was in attendance and would be celebrating his 93rd birthday in the coming week.  Honestly, it doesn’t seem that long ago when he was still in charge, readily admitting to Joe that the corporate image of today’s Eldora Speedway has trumped the raw, innocent charm that seduced me into becoming a sprint car fanatic.  Regardless of the change in feeling, it’s still a highly enjoyable place to watch a race and as I will always maintain, my season has not officially begun until I walk through these gates. 

Gaining goose bumps while watching hot laps from the outside of turn three, pit road observations included long-time Eldora ace mechanic Phil Poor assisting Texan Nathan Moore while Tim Clauson called the shots on Shane Cockrum’s 66.  Remembering when Dave Darland drove his number 91 at Terre Haute’s Jim Hurtubise Classic in July of 1992, Scott Hull stopped to say hello, still readying his sprint car for 2014 action.  Scott noted that his 13 year-old son has his eyes on a mini-sprint but until then, look for the South Whitley native to take his number 48 to some winged Michigan meets before unbolting the airfoil for Indiana action. 

It’s only natural that an Eldora visit came with a conversation with its favorite son Jack Hewitt, who had arrived back home in Troy, Ohio just days before, this after spending the entire winter in sunny Florida.  Here with his wife Jody, a tanned Hewitt made light of his wintertime escape, cracking a smile as he joked, “The only white stuff I want to see is dandruff!”  The absolute king of the one-liners, still in rare form Jack was here to offer whatever advice his nephews Dallas and Huston would accept.  When noting how both have impressed with their previous Eldora outings, Jack admitted that he too liked what he saw from both but warned, “They’ve got two strikes against them.  They’re kids and they’re Hewitts.  They don’t want to listen.” Wondering if he would ever get back behind the wheel of a racecar at his home track, he said he actually turned down an offer to drive a modified for Columbia City’s John Orr at last year’s NASCAR truck event.  Believing he could still get it done in a truck or in a Silver Crown car, perhaps there is still a chance that he might have one more Eldora outing.  But until then, Jack says that he has his grandkid, his two-seat sprint car, and fishing to keep him busy, in that order.  Nudging me to note that he wasn’t quite finished with his statement, he added, “I would still like to have some sex in there too, but I’m getting old.”  Still laughing after that comment, Hewitt is truly one of a kind and in thinking back to what made my early trips to Eldora Speedway so special, a lot of it has to do with this man. 

In honor of my nephew’s 27th birthday, we stopped in Greenville for Maid-Rites before arriving at the speedway.  Joined by my father, my brother Greg, and his son Alek, Eldora is always an Oldham family affair.  Speaking of my nephew, he made a good point when asking, “Why don’t they have a Jack Hewitt Classic at Eldora Speedway?  Good question Dan O.  Good question. 

Another USAC racer who has withstood the test of time is Tracy Hines, who made his 1000th start with the Speedway, Indiana sanctioning body one week later in Haubstadt.  The night before in Gas City, start number 999 resulted in series sprint car win number 46.  Tying him Hewitt on the all-time list, he is now just six short of Bigelow’s record (and three behind Darland).  A second generation racer who began his career in the shadows of his father Jim and older brother Ted, I can faintly remember reading his name in Indianapolis Speedrome results as early as 1992, but by the time he branched out to the national scene one year later, on more than one occasion I can recall his machine already sitting on jack stands when I had arrived, done for the day after crashing in practice. 

Learning through the school of hard knocks, by 1995 Hines finally started showing some real promise, finishing fifth in points after a pair of second place runs.  One week after suffering severe burns in a frightening June of 1996 Richmond, Virginia crash that was televised to the world on ESPN, Tracy showed what the Hines name is all about when he steered Chuck Leary’s backup to his first-ever USAC victory on Winchester’s treacherous high banks.  Suddenly on every car owner’s short list for employment, Tracy even branched out into sprint car competition with Boyce Holt midway through 1997, eventually becoming a Silver Crown and sprint champion in 2000 and 2002.  Heading south for NASCAR duty from 2003 through 2006, nearly all of his truck and Busch rides were low-buck efforts, unable to truly showcase his talent. 

Giving up his big-time dreams for reality, happiness, and satisfaction, he was back for a full USAC tour with Tony Stewart for 2007.  Time-tested once again, his golden opportunity to shine was cut short before the season truly got started after crashing his motorcycle into a fencepost on his property, fracturing his pelvis and left femur while also dislocating his right knee.  After a painful period of recovery and therapy, he nearly bagged that elusive midget championship in 2008, losing the points lead in the waning moments of the season.  The odd-man out when Stewart cut his sprint car roster in half, the bad news did not faze the strong-willed Hines, who returned in a fleet of rides for all three divisions.  Still in search of that midget title to complete the triple crown, he quietly does it all these days, maintaining the machines during the week, driving the tow vehicle to the track, calling the shots on setups, and last but not least, belting in for combat.  Much more humble these days, although the wins are much tougher to come by, he is still a legitimate threat to win on any given night.  

Gas City emphasized that point dramatically.  Starting tenth after qualifying eighth and having to come through the B-main, for the first half of the feature Tracy failed to advance his position. But, one by one the front runners, who had been attacking the treacherous top shelf with reckless abandon, removed themselves from contention while he found the bottom groove first.  After a mid-race restart for an incident involving Dave Darland, Hines restarted fifth but was up to third with ten to go.  Patiently following the infield tires, he surged to first on lap 25 thanks to a supreme, low-side launch off turn two, propelling past previous week Gas City winner Shane Cottle (Epperson 2).  Tested once more for a Jon Stanbrough red flag in turn four, the former "Fastest Man Alive" took the checkered flag in front of Bryan Clauson, who restarted fifth after the Stanbrough red but snatched second from Weir through the final corner.  Weir matched his best USAC finish to date with a solid podium placement in the Keen 18 while Cottle and Chris Windom were fourth and fifth.  Done by 10:45 PM, sixth through ten included Chase Stockon, Kevin Thomas, Jr., Coons, Hunter Schuerenberg, and C.J. Leary (up from 19th). 

Sporting a massive cushion all night long (circa 1999 when guys like Brandon Petty and Eric Shively lived the high life), limited A-main preparations left a slick bottom lane, altogether different from the last eight years when Jiggs Thomason and his crew routinely ripped up the track in response to daylight savings time difficulties.  Beginning from the outside pole and leading the first lap, many believed Bryan Clauson would cruise to an easy score in the TSR 20.  But, two-time track champ Shane Cottle had something to say, finding his way underneath BC to take the point for the next six circuits, placing Tony Epperson’s deuce on the top shelf.  Circling Cottle like he was tied to a post, a hooked up Brady Bacon (quick qualifier at 11.934 seconds) was in his own zip code, looking like a world beater until bicycling in turn three and spinning, victim of the vicious curb.  Soon thereafter, third place Dave Darland bounced to a stop in the same spot, but not before a distinct connection came from Scotty Weir.  After that point, it was an entirely new race, quite an intriguing thirty lapper that saw a little bit of everything. 

Having to leave my Castleton employ at 5:30 PM, after a suicide mission through ungodly Northside rush hour traffic, I was greeted by red flag qualifying conditions after Landon Simon tumbled in turn two.  A little later in the heat races, PPM Titanium employee Robert Ballou crashed for the second week in a row in Grant County, this time ripping the front clip from his Maxim after he blasted the front stretch guardrail.  Miraculously, Robert reappeared the next night in Haubstadt with another car, not sure how he makes it happen week after week when doing it on his own dime.  And, a black cloud continued to follow Logan Jarrett, who crashed in the consolation but exited his tattered number 29 unscathed.  

On the flipside, memorable heat race runs came from Josh Spencer and Nathan Moore, each taking a final transfer position, the former holding off Tracy Hines and the latter taking the spot after Justin Grant’s right rear tire lost air pressure, earning him his first career USAC feature start.  Thomas Meseraull also pulled off a last second pass to crack the A, with Travis Welpott being the B-main victim. 

Parting ways with team owner Mike Dutcher after Lawrenceburg, Kevin Thomas, Jr. was back in his own number nine at Gas City, steering a Spike chassis that had Davey Jones turning screws.  Also assisting were Tony and Tyler Courtney while Matt Hummel managed a set of Factory Kahne shocks that came from his Indianapolis shop.  Qualifying second-best and operating as high as third in the A, his seventh place feature finish was not indicative of how strong of an outing he had.   

Like Eldora, Gas City has a different feel as for the first time in my days of authoring this article, Nona Thomason was not there to greet me at the front office while her do-it-all husband Jiggs was not even on the grounds.  Former sponsor and car owner for three-time track champ John Wolfe, Mel Botkin is the new man in charge and several insiders have said that had it not been for Mel wanting to take the reins, the place would not have opened for 2014.  Although I was not in attendance on opening night, from all accounts it was a difficult indoctrination as nearly everything went wrong.  But in the end, the fans and racers were rewarded with an incredible sprint car feature that saw the top four finishers of Cottle, Stanbrough, Cockrum, and Darland come from 14th, 12th, 15th, and 19th.  Botkin has some new ideas to spice up the local scene, adding midgets to the weekly card, reinstating single-car qualifications for sprint cars, and experimenting with Delaware double-file restarts.  We’ll see how it all pans out but Mel’s second night seemed fairly seamless in comparison.    The KISS sprint cars come calling on May 11th, so all eyes will again focus on Gas City.  Here’s hoping that Mel knocks it out of the park.

Missing from Gas City was Rock Steady Racing pilot Daron Clayton, perhaps saving his best stuff for a bout at his beloved Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt, Indiana.  If that was the intent, then the plan was executed to perfection as Daron rocked everyone’s world, lucky enough to start from the pole after qualifying seventh but wiring the field in a thirty-lap romp that left only six cars on the lead lap.  Seventh place and one lap down was quick qualifier Bryan Clauson (13.365 seconds), overtaken on the final tour. 

So many times in the last ten years at this southwestern Indiana bullring, I can recall equally impressive performances from Clayton.  There was Labor Day weekend of 2006, when he began mid-pack in a new Maxim wrenched by Bubby Jones and lapped about half the field.  Or, there was the Hoosier Sprint Nationals from 2008 when he found work with Tom Busch, improbably taking the lead in an unfamiliar car, only to throw it all away with a turn one tumble.  In September of 2012 for the Haubstadt Hustler, Daron was unable to find a fire for hot laps or his heat race, tagging the tail of the B and making some bold moves to actually make the A at the last minute.  And after beginning 18th, he charged through the pack for a dramatic $10,000 score, truly the stuff that becomes legendary tales.  Learning setups and a different way to attack this particular speedway from Ol’ Bub, his unorthodox early apexes still seem to work magic, as he has scored 11 times here in the last decade. 

Remembering his first Indiana visits around 2002, from 2004 through 2006 no one stood on the gas harder than Daron.  But to his own detriment, no one tore up as much as equipment, effectively spending his father out of the sport.  For a brief while, he found rides with the Hoffmans and Jeff Walker, but he always seemed to be at his best when he was in his own stuff.  Returning to the winged wars in order to earn a few more bucks, the experiment was short-lived, coming full circle as a poor-boy, journeyman racer.  To his credit, I can think of few other drivers whose attendance guarantees increased front gate admissions, putting butts in the seats with his balls-out driving.  Time-tested like Darland and Hines, as fans we can be thankful that someone like Hank Byram keeps him in the game.

Cutting some incredible celebratory donuts in turn four after the checkered flag (and nearly flipping his Mach One chassis in the process), Daron’s parents joined him on the front stretch for victory lane photos.  Brady Bacon bolted from 11th to second, but he was still more than eight seconds in arrears at the 9:48 PM conclusion.  Jon Stanbrough rounded out the podium while Hunter Schuerenberg and front row starter Brady Short took fourth and fifth.  Grant, Clauson, Leary, Andretti, and Stockon were scored sixth through tenth in a feature that was paused just once for a caution that eliminated an irate Kevin Thomas, Jr.   

This being owner/operator Tommy Helfrich’s 63rd birthday, a USAC/MSCS co-sanction netted 31 cars with no real surprises.  Hot laps saw Jeff Bland, Jr. and Carson Short blast the turn three wall, the latter flipping his number 21 but returning for a second place finish in his heat.  Helping to get the juices flowing, I enjoyed a five-car fight for second place in the first heat, not to mention an impressive flash from fifth to first in the second event by early season bad-ass Brady Short.  The final heat was punctuated by a violent first lap incident involving Shane Cockrum and Wes McIntyre that reminded just how quickly things can take a turn for the worse.  From my front stretch vantage point, Cockrum dive-bombed the bottom of turn three and climbed the left rear of McIntyre, sending the McCordsville chauffeur head-on into Haubstadt boiler plate.  So tired of redneck NASCAR announcers calling crashes into safer barriers "hard licks”, had they been witness to McIntyre’s contact that turned the front half of his chassis into a banana, then they might actually understand the meaning of their overused term.  I did not make it back to the pit area to see if tempers flared, but if these were the days when Bob Kinser or Jack Hewitt raced, an eye or two would have been dotted and some blood would have been shed.   Nevertheless, this stuff tends to happen quite often on these tight bullrings, but the presence of police pretty much guarantees that immediate paybacks are a thing of the past.

Energized by Clayton’s stirring performance for our long drive back to Indy, my nephew rode shotgun as I employed I-69 to U.S. 231, fueling up in Bloomfield with a king size Whatchamacallit and a Red Bull.  Hearing the thunder of a westbound Indiana Railroad locomotive on the former Illinois Central line, on the way out of town I saw a sign on the right pointing to the tiny White River town of Elliston, which was once home to an extremely rare three-way railroad crossing.  Hoping to one day explore Elliston in daylight hours, I plan on bypassing the upcoming Indianapolis Grand Prix for a return to the Class Track for the World of Outlaws, saluting The King one more time.    

As I have learned from the rollercoaster ride of my own life, to gain anything of significant value requires patience, persistence, and a heaping helping of work, stress, and sweat.  All recent winners with the United States Auto Club, Dave Darland, Tracy Hines, and Daron Clayton are living proof, as each had to initially survive a difficult stretch of proving that they belonged in the upper echelon of short track open wheel racing.  Even as they became established stars, they were continually challenged by injuries, crashes, a significantly changing landscape of nearly extinct car owners, and an onslaught of young gassers that pushed the envelope of speed and danger.  Still effective all these years later, Darland, Hines, and Clayton are the epitome of time-tested talent, adding further fuel to my insatiable desire for dirt track action.    

 

 

 

Volume 16, Number 2

Formula Diminutive

Back in the early 1990s when Diamond P Sports covered Phoenix International Raceway’s Copper World Classic for The Nashville Network’s American Sports Cavalcade, I will always remember a particular technical segment involving the late Steve Evans, who highlighted the intricacies and evolving technology in what was then a vibrant and robust midget racing scene.  Back in that incredible era, there were so many different chassis and engine builders, so many colorful car owners, so many talented chauffeurs, and if you can remember, so many great races, especially on the big mile at PIR which served as midget racing’s Indy 500.  So genuinely enthused about the equipment, instead of naming these intriguing and sophisticated machines midgets, Steve suggested a more appropriate name might be “Formula Diminutive”.  

Without question, those were some rather fond memories of this sport, its popularity ignited by the white-hot exposure achieved from ESPN’s Thursday and Saturday Night Thunder series.  But after Thunder and live TV disappeared in the early 2000s, so did a large number of those car owners and all that ingenuity, especially after engine and chassis costs skyrocketed to another stratosphere.  Currently on life support and on the verge of extinction, USAC pavement midget competition is completely splintered from the dirt division, paying separate points with a paltry seven race schedule serving as the charred remains of a high-profile feeder division.  How long the asphalt assignments will exist is debatable, but just like traditional sprint cars, fan and competitor interest has switched to dirt bullrings.    

Thanks to the cooperation of groups like USAC, POWRi, and BMARA in co-sanctioning signature events, there seems to be a slow but steady midget resurgence outside of the Chili Bowl.  Thriving contests such as Indiana Midget Week, Illinois Midget Week, and the Gold Crown Nationals serve as prime examples, not to mention the efforts of promoters in Montpelier and Gas City, Indiana, where midget madness is offered in its purest form on a semi-regular basis.  And, the return of California’s famed Turkey Night Grand Prix to its soiled roots certainly has re-injected interest. 

When speaking of the words Grand Prix, this term is not normally reserved for midget car contests but rather Formula One affairs, as featured in James Garner’s famous racing flick from the 1960s that bears the same name.  In the spirit of Turkey Night, Kokomo Speedway concocted a Midwestern version involving both USAC and POWRi, serving up an early April spectacular dubbed the Kokomo Grand Prix.  Back for a second attempt after a complete washout in 2013, it’s only appropriate that this meeting would feature Formula Diminutive, as this track was originally constructed for midgets back in 1947 and was once host to the Night Before the 500 classic from 1959 through 1961 and 1965 through 1968.  

Paying handsome sums of $4,000 and $6,000 to win Friday and Saturday showings, I missed the first round in favor of the comedic routine of one Jerry Seinfeld, whose NBC sitcom still ranks as my all-time favorite.  Seinfeld tickets went on sale in February and given that there was only one show, I pressed the purchase button, believing that rain is all too common on April Fridays.  Warm, bright, and sunny on the drive to the Murat Theatre, an extremely enjoyable evening of laughter and hilarious observations actually helped me forget about Formula Diminutive for 90 minutes.  Jerry’s act was one week after sampling the act of Steve Hytner, whose most famous role was that of Kenny Bania on the same Seinfeld show.  Although he doesn’t do his Seinfeld bits in person, Steve might just be the funniest man alive, providing the best medicine after some rather intense work weeks. 

Before Seinfeld started, my nephew texted an impressive Friday car count of 46 for the USAC national midget series opener, denoting that Dave Darland was quickest of all in the RW Motorsports Beast/Fontana Spec 6.   By the time I got home from the show, I could have actually made the drive to Kokomo for the B and A features, but house guests and an impending Saturday morning at the office meant waking up to a text that read Rico Abreu leading all thirty tours, with Darland and a first lap bicycling Christopher Bell rounding out the podium. 

Saturday was more of the same, but it wasn’t quite as easy for the “Little Giant”.  He still led a majority of the affair (laps 14 through 40) but his cause was helped when teammate and leader Christopher Bell bounced through turn three and broke a right rear torsion stop while at the same time, second place Kevin Thomas, Jr. (who led laps 4 through 8 after overtaking Tyler Courtney) flattened a right rear tire.  Waging war with new leader Bryan Clauson for two tours, Abreu swept the top shelf to propel to P1, but the race was anything but over at that point.  Facing heavy heat from Clauson as lapped traffic became an issue, after restarts with 13 and 11 to go Bryan bounced through turn one irregularities and was mauled by Michael Pickens (RFMS 3) and Darren Hagen (Hmiel 56).  Setting the stage for a ten lap dash to the checkered, Rico kept his two Keith Kunz Motorsports teammates behind him for the big score. 

It’s been a killer 2014 for Abreu, who began the year with impressive showings in New Zealand and the Chili Bowl.  Winning both ends of the ASCS national opener in Yuma, he backed that up with a Silver Cup collection in Chico along with a humongous World of Outlaws win in Tulare and a Stockton open competition 360 score.   After adding two more triumphs in Kokomo and a King of the West war in Placerville, it becomes easy to see who is currently the hottest man in the short-track, open wheel arena.  Being a black and white, debits equal credits kind of guy, I like things that fit together and make sense.  So, the fact that the smallest man in the pit area would be the inaugural king of Kokomo’s Grand Prix for size-challenged machinery seemed rather appropriate. 

Thrashing all day Saturday at work and feeling some incredible amounts of tension as the clock crept closer to 5 PM, I still needed to head home, get changed, and gather my gear before bolting north.  Finding heavy U.S. 31 construction traffic through Westfield and nearly having a nervous breakdown,  thankfully hot laps commenced much later than anticipated, allowing for a full program and a chance to finally unwind. 

The best of USAC, POWRi, and ARDC appeared 45 cars strong on night number two and for the second consecutive evening, Darland clocked quickest at 13.319 seconds, just a tick slower than Friday’s standard of 13.299.  Dave drew second to last, with the qualifying rundown indicating that no matter where you drew, a good result was still a possibility.  Coming out 31st, Caleb Armstrong took Terry Klatt’s Beast/Chevy to second, a strong effort aided by legendary wrench Bob East, who roamed the concrete concourse while his wife Janice rooted from the stands.  With Beast chassis one and two in qualifying and Bob and Janice in full view, this reminded me those glory years of the early ‘90s when Formula Diminutive and Steve Lewis Racing was all the rage.   

Out 12th was third-quick Rico Abreu, followed by Tracy Hines (out 6th), Kevin Thomas, Jr. (out 5th in Kenny Brown’s 17), and Christopher Bell (out 19th).  A solid seventh was female sensation Taylor Ferns, lassoing SR11 Stanton Mopar horses for chief mechanic Kevin Besecker.  Tyler Courtney (Wilke 11), Zach Daum, and Chili Bowl hero Bryan Clauson rounded out the top-ten.  From qualifying alone, I counted five different engine makes and five different chassis manufacturers.  It may not be quite the same level of diversity and individual ingenuity as those early ‘90s, but nonetheless it’s still positive news to report.

Catching up with former Thunder in the Dome midget winner Besecker after qualifying, the well-spoken wrench divides his time taking care of equipment for both the Ferns and Armstrong families.      Dropping a bit of a bombshell, Kevin noted that the two groups acquired a fleet of four rolling Maxim chassis formerly operated by Craig Dollansky, switching their focus from midgets to dirt winged sprint cars.  Dipping toes into Southern Ohio waters first, Kevin commented that his goal was to get Caleb sharp enough to compete with the World of Outlaws by Charlotte’s World Finals.  Noting how the Armstrongs were completely selling out of midget inventory, the reason for the switch was disenchantment with the outrageous spending, frustrated by the power differential that exists between the Toyotas constructed by Rick Long’s Speedway Engine Development (as found in the trio of Keith Kunz cars) and the rest of the field.  Ever since the late 1940s when the costly and purpose-built Offenhauser overwhelmed the Ford V-8 60, Formula Diminutive has always been an expensive endeavor, so not much has changed in some seventy-plus years. 

Each one of Saturday’s four heats was won from the front row, the closest finish coming when midget rookie Spencer Bayston (BCI 39) held off mentor/car owner Bryan Clauson to claim heat two, seeing Clauson contemplate a last lap slider until wisely recoiling.  Speaking of sliders, Shane Cottle’s (Ecker 57) attempted overtaking of Christopher Bell came with heavy contact, bouncing Bell to the B-main.  The best prelim was heat three, where a seemingly unlimited supply of slides-for-life were swapped between Andrew Felker and Rico Abreu.  Seven or eight times, the two traded the final transfer with all-out aggression, but the Little Giant secured the spot.   

In between heats and C, I spoke to Levi Jones for the first time in a long while, now caretaker and crew chief for Shane Hmiel’s squad that again had Darren Hagen installed in the seat.  Reinventing his career after abruptly retiring as a driver late last June, the five-time sprint car and two-time Silver Crown king has a full slate as a true working man, tending to his family’s chain of Rural King farm and home retail stores and spending time as a doting father to his wife and two children.  Getting his thrills through team management, maintenance programs, and successful setups, he even serves as a consultant to Jarett Andretti’s sprint car effort and plans on fielding a Jack Rogers racer for some lucky soul later this year.  Quizzed if he missed stabbing and steering, the obvious answer was yes and when asked how his repaired neck felt after his September 2012 surgery, his response was fine, although he indicated that his left arm was still fairly weak and one of the fingers on his left hand was completely numb.   Earning his first dirt mile Silver Crown win at last May’s Hoosier Hundred, Jones admitted that the fire to win on both home state one mile ovals in Springfield and DuQuoin still burns deep, throwing out the remote possibility that he might get back in the saddle in a family owned Silver Crown car if he can find enough sponsorship for a decent engine.  Here’s hoping that such a statement becomes reality, as the open wheel scene just isn’t the same without Levi playing a pivotal role in the outcome.  

Kokomo calamity began with a C-main spill by Isaac Chapple, followed by a pair of upside down B-main excursions by Rumble in the Expo winner Justin Peck.  Spencer Bayston also inverted in the A, which could have easily swallowed more given the treachery of the top shelf.  But, such surface character didn’t stop guys like Michael Pickens (whose inboard brake rotor glowed bright orange) from making hay.  Going back to the B, Taylor Ferns surrendered a transfer on the white flag lap after suffering mechanical gremlins.  Davey Ray also had a feature spot in hand before dropping two spots to Andrew Felker and Shane Hollingsworth, both on the final tour.  Luckily for Ray, he was able to tag the tail thanks to a provisional pass.  Ecker associates Shane Cottle and Jerry Coons, Jr. were the biggest names to miss Saturday’s cut, surprising given just how historically strong both are in Formula Diminutive, especially at Kokomo. 

The A-main ended up being a survival of the fittest, as just half of the 26 starters finished the forty-lapper.  Outside of the Keith Kunz podium sweep, Tracy Hines made it a Toyota foursome with his fourth place effort.  Tyler Thomas (from 15th), Kevin Thomas, Jr. (back from his flat right rear), Andrew Felker (from 18th), Zach Daum, Parker Price-Miller (from 16th), and Shane Hollingsworth (from 24th) finished fifth through tenth.  Crowd favorite Dave Darland dropped like a rock from his third row start before exiting stage left around lap 24.    

Although a vast majority of its players have changed since the early 1990s, in the big picture the midget racing song remains the same.  Engine and chassis diversity still exists, but yet another super team with huge horsepower and mind-blowing talent holding steering wheels and wrenches tends to dominate proceedings.  Many might see that as a negative, but car and fan counts are rising and the racing is still as exciting as ever, thanks to successful outdoor events like the Kokomo Grand Prix.  Packing such a huge entertainment punch and generating a lot of noise from such a small package, it might be cooler and more politically correct to label them “Formula Diminutive”, but I’m ok with just calling them midgets.  

 

 

 

Volume 16, Number 1

Opening Day

Is there anything more sacred, cherished, or eagerly anticipated than the opening day of a new sports season?  Back in the day, the last day of school or the Christmas season were high on my list of things to get excited about but now that I’m a working adult who has nearly everything he wants (except for a pool table or a Ford Raptor pickup), it’s all about the extracurricular activities.  Of the stick and ball variety, I find football and basketball the most entertaining, but given the gloom and doom of Indiana winter weather that eventually arrives with each, I honestly don’t get that pumped for either.      

Baseball and Indiana sprint car competition offer an altogether different feeling.  Sharing the same seasons, the beginning of both give reason to believe that life is actually worth living.  Having endured one of the worst winters in at least two decades and a pathetic season of Indiana University basketball, day after day of blowing snow and frigid temps tended to get a little monotonous.  Indiana Pacer pride was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise gray off-season but just when you thought we had seen the worst of weather, another winter storm warning was announced.  Even an official change of season was no guarantee for better weather, as the very day that the Indiana bullring scene was scheduled to blast off saw a massive morning snow shower.  Waiting five and a half months for some outdoor open wheel action and even longer to hear Marty Brennaman announce a Cincinnati Reds game on 700 WLW, there is no surer sign of hope and happiness than the traditional Major League Baseball opener in Cincinnati or the first race of the season in the Hoosier state. 

For the second consecutive season, Brownstown, Indiana played host to Indiana’s initial outing with its No Way Out 40.  A tribute to the late Jesse Hockett who claimed this event in 2010, it was only a month and a half later when his life was tragically cut short after being electrocuted while working on his race trailer.   Moved from a damp and chilly Saturday to a sunny Sunday twilight affair, I scooped up my nephew from his downtown digs and some seventy minutes later, a packed pit area was within sight, hard to believe that opening day was finally a reality.   Pondering the postponement to Sunday, I had to be thankful that a rain date was actually considered, such a rarity in this day and age of inflexible, jam-packed schedules.     

Motivated by 7,500 George Washington portraits, a whopping 51 sprint cars paid tribute, one of the best turnouts for a non-sanctioned affair in recent memory.  Populated by an impressive contingent of cars and stars, one of them included Jesse Hockett’s family-owned machine.  Decked out in Easter-egg hues of pink and blue, its driver was USAC triple crown champ Jerry Coons, Jr., who carried the American flag as he slowly circled the quarter-mile paperclip during the playing of the National Anthem.  Unfortunately for Jerry and the Hockett clan, it just wasn’t their day after falling several spots shy of the A-main.  Say what you will, but this isn’t NASCAR, where a phony, feel-good story is right around the corner for timely, positive publicity.     

Call me old-school and crotchety, but a Midwestern sprint car opening day just doesn’t feel right or get the juices flowing if it’s not in Rossburg, Ohio.  But to cure a bad case of cabin fever, beggars can’t be choosy and Brownstown would have to do.  In all honesty, this first sprint car contest of the season has as much to do with the sights and sounds as it does the social aspect.  Case in point:  three times during the course of the afternoon/evening I attempted to make my way back to my car for additional clothing and then to the pit area, but each one of those times I bumped into friendly faces like Brent Goodnight, Jimmy Hypes, and John Hoover, stopping to converse until the sounds of sprint cars called us back to our seats.  I never made it to my car until the feature was over, but feeling so good to be back in my element and amongst so many friendly fanatics, this is why we must come back week after week, year after year. 

Arriving ten minutes before hot lapping commenced, from the turn one stands I cleaned cobwebs from the brain by jotting down car numbers and names as they flashed past for single-car, one-lap qualifications.  Divided into four segments and setting heat race lineups in straight-up fashion, each of the four heats had pole sitters in the form of 2013 track/series champions, as evidenced by Lawrenceburg lord C.J. Leary (wrenched by Derek Claxton), Bloomington baron Brady Short (still wearing a cast on his right wrist after an Ocala spill), MSCS king Jon Stanbrough (making his Indiana debut for Mike Dutcher), and the consensus People’s Champ Dave Darland (in a second Stensland 41 to Thomas Meseraull).

Despite the massive amounts of moisture from the previous day, Brownstown soil was packed tight and sealed shut as damp conditions turned to dry towards the end of the qualifying line.  Such transformation was not a shocker and had the surface been left open, Sunday would have been spent watching the Indy car opener at home.  Lightly spritzed for the heats, all but one of them was claimed from the front row, the lone exception being Brady Bacon’s score from the second row.  Surprised to see him in the Hoffman 69, its unsanctioned appearances are just as scarce as Sunday afternoon rain dates.  Bryan Clauson (Stewart 20), Short (half-tracking the field), and Robert Ballou were the other winners, with spirited drives coming from two-time and defending UMP national modified champion Devin Gilpin (transferring through heat four for the legendary Hurst brothers - his second-ever non-wing sprint showing), Aaron Farney (9th to 2nd in the same heat), and Chris Gurley.  After being punted by Dakota Jackson in the first heat and stretching through his roll cage to flip him the bird, Gurley came through the field to score the final transfer. 

Twin consolations were claimed by Hunter Schuerenberg (joined by socket-spinning Jake Argo in a new collaboration with Gene Nolen) and Bradley Sterrett, as Jordan Kinser and Tyler Courtney (in Scooter Ellis’s coil-front F5/Twister) finagled the final feature seats. Including Coons, some of the notable names loading up early included Darland (spinning three 360s in his heat), Meseraull, Christian (in the one down tube sticker car), Briscoe, Hupp, Jarrett, Boespflug, East (back in a Klatt Enterprises Beast), Hayden, and Gaines (unable to fire Scott Pedersen’s 4).  Just two spots from a transfer was Muncie, Indiana mini-sprint graduate Cole Ketcham, looking very solid in his initial sprint car showing.   

Much like the very next day in Cincinnati, come feature time the cream rose to the top in the form of two-time defending USAC national sprint car champion Bryan Clauson.  Battling side-by-side for the first ten laps with fellow front row mate Brady Short, Clauson eventually pulled away, comfortably constructing a half-straight advantage on seventh-starting Jon Stanbrough and Short to claim the big check and reaffirm his stance atop the sprint car throne.   

Just before going green, a four-wide salute left the pole open to Jesse Hockett and aside from the first ten laps, feature action was fairly tame on the wide, slicked-off surface.  Short tried to advance with his signature off-the-backstretch adventures, but because progressive off-camber banking had been altered over the off-season, Brady’s bid for first was denied.  Three cautions for Casey Shuman (Krockenberger 21), Chase Stockon, and Hunter Schuerenberg kept things interesting, allowing last row starters Jordan Kinser and Tyler Courtney to impressively advance all the way to fifth and fourth respectively.  Daron Clayton, Kevin Thomas, Jr., Aaron Farney, Bradley Sterrett (from 18th), and Brady Bacon were sixth through tenth at the 9:06 PM checkered. 

A little further east on U.S. 50, another monumental opening day took place the next day in the Queen City.  And once again, the St. Louis Cardinals proved that they are still the benchmark for success in the National League Central division, blanking the Reds 1-0.  It should be noted that the home team was already decimated by key injuries, but as a diehard Reds rooter it’s extremely frustrating to know that even with a managerial change and limited roster moves, the red legs still can’t hold a candle to the red birds, who took two of three in the opening series.  It’s hard to know if their respective roles will be reversed over the course of a brutal 162-game season but nonetheless, this is why I enjoy my racing activities, as it numbs the day-to-day agony of the baseball season. 

As much as I’d like to see Bryan Clauson earn another shot at the big time, even if he manages to dominate another Indiana summer, that’s more than ok with me.  Like a fine wine, the kid from Noblesville just keeps getting better with age and it’s easy to feel good for his success, as there is such a positive aura that surrounds him.  I can’t say the same thing for the equally impressive Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, whose neck tattoo automatically qualifies him as the villain.   

The next Saturday dawned bright and sunny, perfect weather for the USAC Midwestern sprint car opener in Lawrenceburg.  Hitting the road in timely fashion and flipping on the radio to hear how the Reds finished off the Mets for their second win of the season, much to my dismay I learned that a 3-2 ninth inning lead turned into a 6-3 defeat, as reliever J.J. Hoover coughed up yet another grand slam.  It’s a good thing that The Burg was on the horizon, otherwise I might have been in a bad mood for the rest of the weekend.  Nabbing my nephew in the shadows of Wannamaker’s former Big Z quarter midget course that spawned so many famous careers, about an hour later we enjoyed the trip down the always-picturesque State Road 1.  Noticing that Dover’s Horseshoe Inn had closed, we were happy to see running water in the adjoining creek/river that’s normally dry.  Somewhat surprised to see snow sticking to the slopes of Perfect North and with most of the foliage still brown, early April appeared more like early March. 

As angry as I still felt for the choke of epic proportions from the Reds, I can only imagine the frustration felt by Jon Stanbrough at the conclusion of Saturday night’s feature.  After taking the lead from pole sitter Dave Darland on lap ten, quick-qualifier Stanbrough worked traffic to perfection and opened up a straightaway advantage on second place.  His first win of 2014 was well in sight until a lap 28 caution flew for C.J. Leary.   But, that once-certain win was now in doubt, as Jon now had eleventh-starting Justin Grant breathing down his neck after finding the tricky and treacherous top shelf to his liking.  Bouncing through a mysterious hole in turns one and two immediately after going green, Jon fell to fifth as Grant galloped to the big win, a fitting ending to celebrate his reunion with car owner Mark Hery, with whom he shared great success two seasons ago, including an Indiana Sprint Week score at this same venue.  As bad as I felt for Stanbrough and his Mike Dutcher super squad, I felt equally good for Grant and his underdog effort, highlighting the benefits of sprint car fandom.  There might just be one feature winner, but there are so many other stories that offer intrigue and satisfaction.  The same thing couldn’t be said for my baseball misery, at least in these first few weeks of the season. 

Backing up to the beginning of the Burg’s opening evening, a fine field of 42 benefitted from Putnamville pulling its season-opening plug, as heavy rains pounded the Hoosier state late in the week.  Making my first pass through pit lane this year, there really were no surprises, as the scene had not changed much since my last USAC union at this same speedway last September.  Pleased to see legendary mechanic Bob Hampshire back in a USAC sprint car corral with a familiar number 63 for Kody Swanson, one change I did notice was the presence of former Jeff Walker wrench Kyle Dautrich calling the shots for Jarett Andretti.  Off-season Andretti analysis had help coming from seven-time USAC champ Levi Jones. But in speaking to Levi one week later, he admitted sending setup sheets to the Andretti compound awhile back, planning on being at the track to assist whenever possible.  Tonight was not one of those nights, however.      

Predicting world dominance from Clauson after he was clocked quickest in hot laps, time trials proved that even the best are human after he wound up ninth in the rundown.  I was also incorrect in believing that the surface would be toast towards the end of the order, as Jon Stanbrough topped the charts (13.727) after going out second to last.  Back in the Keen 18, defending Gas City stud Scotty Weir was second while Jerry Coons, Jr. (also back in the Edison 10), C.J. Leary (out first), Thomas Meseraull, and Brady Bacon completed the quick six.  Upon congratulating Coons for his solid performance, Jerry noted that when not in the red 10, he’d be in a similar Spike for Gene Nolen, who acquired an engine from the Jonathan Hendrick camp. 

Lawrenceburg’s lightning-fast surface proved challenging for overtaking, but three of the four heat race winners (Clauson, Justin Grant, and Chase Stockon) came from the second row and only one of the quick six (Bacon) failed to make the cut.  Opening eyes with solid second and third place finishes in the final heat, Jarett Andretti and Travis Hery even impressed this jaded fan.  Come B-main time, action intensified thanks to Mister Excitement Daron Clayton, who started 12th but drove the wheels off Hank Byram’s Mach 1 to gain an apparent transfer, only to be denied thanks to two yellows, one red, and undisclosed issues that forced an early exit.  The choppy and tacky track bit Brady Short (biking from third to eighth) but favored Logan Jarrett, who stole the final transfer from Jeff Bland, Jr. on the final tour.  Just missing the cut was Landon Simon, who was looking good thanks to new sponsorship from e-cigarette company Mt. Baker Vapor.  Spotting him at the same Batesville Skyline Chili later that night, the young Simon must have good taste. 

Aside from Stanbrough and his fall from grace, there were a host of others singing the blues after Saturday night’s feature.  Chris Windom would be one such soul, surging from tenth to third in just five laps in Jeff Walker’s Jam-It-In Storage Maxim/Claxton.  But, during a caution for an Andretti-Hery entanglement, Chris’s left rear tire chose a crappy time to go flat.  Expecting a better recovery, Windom only worked his way back to 13th.  Outside pole-sitter Thomas Meseraull also pitted under the same caution and never returned to battle.    

Teammate to Stanbrough in the Mike Dutcher Motorsports brigade, Kevin Thomas, Jr. had a night he’d rather forget, a vast departure from this race one year ago when he claimed a scintillating score thanks to a last lap lunge.  Timing a disappointing 14th and missing a feature transfer through his heat, after a B-main barrage he gathered an A-main seat outside of the seventh row.  Thomas’s lackluster start to the season was further intensified after being swept up in a Bryan Clauson bicycle.  KT cartwheeled while Clauson clawed his way back to ninth.   

And last but not least, the Hines family had a horrific showing on Saturday night.  Proudly wearing Carolina Nut colors, Tracy encountered some under-the-hood issues that caused him to miss his spot in the qualifying line, coming out last to claim the 22nd spot on the charts.  Gaining a feature transfer through his heat, Tracy took the green flag from the 20th position and looked to improve his position through attrition.  But, his A-main performance was simply not up to snuff, adding insult to injury after suffering an exasperating DNF in the last two laps.  During the B-main, Tracy’s older brother Ted clipped an infield marker tire entering turn one and dumped his DRC in a big way, the sudden landing somewhat concerning for the 52 year-old.  Thankfully, Ted walked away from the mess unscathed.    

Chasing Grant’s DRC/Claxton combination to the 10:18 checkered were Darland, Coons, Bacon, and Stanbrough.  Stockon, Weir, Schuerenberg, Clauson, and Jarrett (his best USAC effort to date) represented the second half of the top-ten.   Heading into this weekend’s Branson-Larson Memorial at Eldora, Darland leads Grant by just one USAC marker.  Weekly wingless sprint cars rule Lawrenceburg Saturday nights through May 17th, which happens to be a KISS contest.  The World of Outlaws come calling on Memorial Day, with the month of June consisting of just two dates, a BOSS bash on the 7th and Indiana Midget Week on the 14th

Two weeks have transpired in this 2014 season for the boys of summer and if I have learned anything, it’s that my long-standing belief that stick and ball sports do nothing but disappoint has been upheld.  It’s not that I have to win every single day of the year, but I just can’t stand losing and owning such an attitude will never allow me to get to September without a massive amount of stress.  So for the sake of my own health, it’s a good thing that the sprint car season is also in full swing, as each dirt track date is an escape from reality and a winning feeling regardless of who takes the checkered flag first.  Now into my 16th consecutive season of submitting my thoughts through this website, for the first time in a long while I can genuinely state that I am excited to get this season started.  Gentlemen:  instead of pushing piles of snow let’s push-start those engines please!  

 

 

 

Volume 15, Number 7

Afterimage

Still stuck in a 1970s rock and roll world, although I thoroughly enjoy listening to this particular genre, I own zero talent in the musical arena whatsoever. The seventh of eight offspring, I paved my own path by refraining from playing an instrument for the middle or high school band, the first in my family to make such a decision. I still have no clue concerning musical notes, nor can I discern sounds from different brands of guitars. All I know is that this style of music soothes my soul when faced with life’s most stressful situations.

Continuing to reflect on those awkward teenage years, I can remember the dread of a deadline for a book report or a paper, as words flowed as smoothly for me as the process of pulling stubborn teeth. Writing was painful but perhaps the subject matter was the issue, as I rarely expounded on the things that I was most passionate about. So ironic that I currently find refuge in expressing myself through words, often times I brainstorm titles and themes by listening to lyrics from those beloved bands from the ‘70s. This edition is one such example.

The weekend following the final Indiana outdoor sprint car contest was an odd one. Suddenly chilly and overcast, I found myself alone on a Saturday afternoon with a long list of tasks to complete. Uncharacteristically postponing routine yard work and exercise for later in the day, instead I headed west on state road 32 to the Boone County seat of Lebanon to visit Mo’s Vintiques, the recently opened haven for nostalgic motor heads. While staring at the open road and the barren farmland that stretched to infinity; with the blink of an eye I envisioned the final few laps of the previous Friday’s Kokomo Klash sprint car feature. Easily identifying the machines of Dave Darland and Jon Stanbrough as they tracked down leader Jerry Coons, Jr., after a millisecond or two those same images completely disappeared, reminding me that the lonely offseason had suddenly been thrust upon us.

Perhaps I simply have an excessive case of racing being on the brain, but I also could have just experienced an afterimage, which by definition is a type of optical illusion in which an image continues to appear briefly, even after exposure to the actual image has ended. Granted this notion may be a little far fetched as my exposure to the Kokomo Klash came eight days prior, but the reason I was able to associate with this technical term is my passion for music from the Canadian rock trio Rush. Coming from their 1984 album Grace Under Pressure, Afterimage was written by drummer/lyricist Neal Peart as a dedication to Robbie Whelan, a close friend of Peart who passed away but had worked as an assistant engineer on some of the band’s earlier albums, most notably Moving Pictures and Signals. As the song goes, “Suddenly you were gone…from all the lives you left your mark upon.”

Yes, the racing season suddenly was gone, leaving me in a state of reflection on this slightly gloomy Saturday. About.com states that an afterimage can retain the colors of the original stimulus (a positive afterimage), or the colors might be in reverse, like a photographic negative (a negative afterimage). The conditions favoring the production of afterimages are either brief exposures to intense or very bright stimuli in otherwise dark conditions, or prolonged exposures to colored stimuli in well-lighted conditions.

I could definitely identify with the last explanation for my sprint car afterimage, as an intense 48 race campaign spanning from March to October served as my prolonged exposure to some highly colorful and entertaining stimuli. Continuing to follow 32 into Lebanon and bypassing the tempting Milky Way dairy bar, I eventually hung a right, which led me to the courthouse square, a path that I encountered on my first day of driver’s education in 1987. Making another left on Main, this pointed me in the direction of a beautifully restored 1930’s era filling station flanked by a pair of vintage Mobil gas pumps out front. With a classic cage-less quarter-midget resting on the roof and an Offy Owners Association sign above the door, I knew that I was in the right place. Eyeing an awesome high-wheeled bicycle as I walked to the building, the tiny station was chock full of petroleum signs, vintage mini bikes, go-karts, cast-iron toys, tether cars, slot cars, Hot Wheels and Matchbox die-cast cars, games, clocks, license plates, patches, racing pictures, programs, trophies, and posters – all of it available for trade or purchase. If you enjoy testosterone-charged stuff with a checkered past, then this is the place for you, as proprietor Kyle Moody shares a similar passion for sprint and midget racing. Located at 319 West Main Street and open from Thursday through Sunday, stop in for a visit, give Kyle a call at 765-481-2133, or check out his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/mosvintiques.

Conversing with Kyle regarding my last two racing excursions of 2013, I again blinked my eyes and those afterimages appeared and disappeared in an instant. Sending me back two weeks to Eldora’s University of Northwestern Ohio Sprintacular, I still get fired up when recalling the details of that day.

Basking in the glow of 75 degrees of unseasonable warmth, I scooped up Speed Ball and exited I-69 at Pendleton, where we both noticed that the former Boles Chevrolet and most recent Stoops used car outlet was empty once again. Two names in open wheel circles that were responsible for four USAC sprint car championships (’86, ’87, ’88, and ’95), a Silver Crown title (’95), and an All Star Circuit of Champions crown (’90), drivers like Steve Butler, Tray House, Terry Shepherd, and Tony Stewart piloted equipment either owned or sponsored by Willie Boles and Jeff Stoops. Following the all-too familiar route of U.S. 36 to the state line straddling 227, after a few miles north I deviated from the Union City norm by angling east on Greenville Pike, which surprisingly became Ohio route 502. My first time on 502, the primary purpose was to acquire a sack of Maid-Rite loose meat sandwiches. Skillfully devouring several as we passed through Ansonia and Rossburg, soon we rolled up the concrete driveway that once belonged to the Earl of Eldora, where tonight a whopping 120 sprint cars would pack the pits.

Unencumbered by modifieds or tin tops and divided into three classes, the winged 410 cubic inch All Star Circuit of Champions served as the headliner, joined by the 360 cubic inch winged NRA Sprint Invaders and the BOSS wingless warriors. The All Stars earned 37 cars and the NRA numbered 29, but can you believe that the BOSS boasted 54? Without cubic inch, minimum weight, or tire rules, car and driver combinations literally came out of the woodwork for this wingless match, so many machines that I had never previously witnessed. It’s been ten years since I last recall such an impressive turnout of traditional sprint cars on this property, so naturally I had something to be excited about right off the bat.

Reminded of those glorious mid-October Eldora All Star finales from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that featured nail-biting, drama-filled championship deciders, this was once again their season-ender as three-time reigning king Tim Shaffer and Dale Blaney would battle for both Ohio region and national honors. Although Butch Schroeder had already wrapped up the 2013 NRA title, the ultimate BOSS bounty would be awarded as well. Five men had a shot at that, including leader Tony Beaber, Brandon Spithaler, Mike Miller, Aaron Middaugh, and Kirk Jeffries.

Wielding his own winged 410 and wingless weapons, Brady Bacon was the only one to test all three disciplines after teaming with Randy Hannagan in a second Dennis Yoakam 360. As for those doing the double, I counted ten. Seven operated exclusively with airfoils, including Kevin Swindell (in a pair belonging to Bernie Stuebgen), Shane Stewart (in Joe Gaerte’s 3G and a previously unseen number 29 for 360 duty), Tim Shaffer (adding a Ron Hammons 360), Lucas Wolfe (whipping both 410 and 360 horses for Destiny Motorsports), Ronnie Blair, and Mark Smith. Three more split time between the 410 winged and non-winged ranks, namely Brandon Spithaler, Brent Matus, and Brandon Matus. Almost time for hibernation, like a squirrel in search of nuts before snow blankets the ground, this was truly an all-you-can-eat sprint car smorgasbord. Quantity may not always equal quality, but on this evening, you actually got both, so impressed with an All Star field that also contained South Dakota standouts Mark Dobmeier and Justin Henderson (Jessup 7k), Trey Starks, Brandon Wimmer (Hammer 24), and Sheldon Haudenschild (Marshall 33).

Because temperatures are normally twenty degrees cooler at this time of the year, hot laps were scheduled to roll off at an early 4:30 PM. Hearing how the thermometer was warmer than the June Ohio Sprint Speedweek round, the whole thing seemed too good to be true. June’s winner was Jac Haudenschild, who began the night in fine fashion by clocking quickest at 13.032 seconds in Tom Leidig’s 59. Coming four cars from the end of the qualifying line, Haud’s number one lap was even more impressive when figuring that the first four cars in line timed third (Cole Duncan), second (Danny Holtgraver), fifth (Ian Madsen), and sixth (Rob Chaney). NRA 360 artillery was up next, timing four at a time in seven separate sessions. Over a full second slower than the 410 All Stars, Dennis Yoakam’s driving contingent of Randy Hannagan and Brady Bacon swept the top-two 360 spots.

The BOSS sprinters did not clock in but hot laps still offered intrigue, as you had no more than a dozen drivers with significant Eldora experience mixed with a majority who might have been touring these vaunted banks for the first time. As I remember reading on Warren Mockler’s sprint car dashboard in 1985, nobody wins hot laps, but if you manage to step over the edge, you can sure lose a lot. Just ask Tony Beaber, who blasted the turn two wall, flipped, and destroyed his ride. Luckily for Tony, he was able to keep his title hopes alive after climbing into a car that should have been driven by his famous father Johnny.

Despite the plethora of sprinters, the track was still solid for All Star heats, highlighted by a sixth to first cushion-crushing performance by Jac Haudenschild and some cutthroat sliders from Shane Stewart. NRA heat highlights included a win from fifth by Kevin Swindell while Randy Hannagan worked overtime after starting from the rear, docked two spots for jumping but still finding his way to third.

Unpredictable, chaotic, edge-of-your-seat exciting, and punctuated by so many sick sliders, the best of the BOSS heats was saved for last when Brady Bacon surged from seventh to make a last lap lunge on last year’s winner Luke Hall to take the win. Additional victors included first-time visitor Drew Abel, Dallas Hewitt (subbing for Chad Wilson), Jarett Andretti, and Matt Westfall. After swapping slide jobs with Andretti and losing a right rear torsion bar stop, Adam Cruea endured some major chassis lean but still held on for a transfer. Not so fortunate was Huston Hewitt, who appropriately piloted a white numbered 63 and rocketed to an early advantage. Unfortunately for Huston, he plastered third turn concrete, climbed the wall, and slid down the bank, only to blast the inside barrier as well. Towing with an open trailer, Hewitt’s tattered ride was immediately loaded for home via the wrecker. Another BOSS blooper came in heat four when Thomas Meseraull (Stensland 41) immediately scaled the car of Kent Wolters in the third turn, inverting Kent and swallowing a late-arriving Steve Thomas.

Next up was an All Star dash that was dominated by the Wild Child, as championship contender Dale Blaney would test the engine changing abilities of his George Fisher crew after ventilating a mill. Placid All Star and NRA B-mains were bagged by Cole Duncan and Mark Smith, the latter taking the final All Star pass as well. The first of two BOSS consolations was an all-out rout from fifth-starting Dustin Smith, who stepped upstairs and lapped four machines with just 305 cubic inches at his disposal courtesy of car owner Mike Burkin. Slowed by a Bill Griffith dump, the second BOSS B saw T-Mez take the win, trailed by sixth-starting Tony Beaber. Aaron Middaugh missed the cut and eliminated any hope of becoming the premier BOSS for 2013.

The 30-lap All Star affair was the 132nd at Eldora, offering a contrasting front row of an elder Haudenschild and a younger Swindell. Tim Shaffer owned a slim three point margin on Dale Blaney, whose engine swap proved quite successful. Blaney began from sixth, some four rows ahead of the Steel City Outlaw.

Swindell got the jump, steered low, and led through the first set of corners, but even he couldn’t hold back a highly motivated Haudenschild, who swept past in three and four. Needing seven laps to reach back markers, despite such traffic Jac easily moved away from Kevin. Lap eight had Caleb Helms tumble in front of the leader in turn one, forcing the 55 year-old veteran to take some rather evasive action. Looping his 59 in a perfect 360 and somehow avoiding Helms, Haud came away clean. Swindell wasn’t so fortunate, as he too spun a 360 but suffered top wing damage in the scrape. Mitch Harble piled into the party at the last minute and flipped his number 15, the sixth such inversion on the evening.

Eight laps were recorded when lights were switched from red to green, with Haudenschild heading Swindell, Chaney, Hannagan, and Blaney. As if smelling blood in the water, Chaney slid Swindell, as Kevin’s ragged wing spoiled the aerodynamics on his Maxim. Hannagan and seventh-starting Shane Stewart also blew by the four-time Chili Bowl bandit in short order. Randy then stole second from Rob and immediately set his sights on Jac, who had heavy traffic on his agenda at lap 18. A brief slide-fest between Stewart and Chaney sent Shane to third and with ten laps to go; suddenly it became a three car corral for first. Quite adept at pulling off patented Eldora slide jobs, Stewart served yet another to Hannagan to secure second with eight laps left.

Two tours later, the 3G closed the gap on the fan favorite, pulling all the way to Haud’s rear bumper with five to go. A turn four slide job came up short but when dealing with Mark Dobmeier in turn one, Shane bumped bars with Jac and reached turn three first, briefly producing P1. With Dobmeier still in the mix, cool as a cucumber Haudenschild fired back in the first corner, sliding both Mark and Shane in one slick move. Meanwhile, Hannagan continued his forward march, lifting third from Stewart after a thunderous move in three. Capitalizing on the confusion was Dale Blaney, who sent Shane reeling to fourth. Gaining huge ground as the white flag waved, Hannagan surprisingly reached the rear of Haudenschild’s car in turn three. Driving down the bank in four, Randy pulled even but was unable to win the drag race to the checkered flag. Having to shake my head at what I just witnessed, without question that was one of the most exciting Eldora features I have ever witnessed, as those last ten laps were literally out of this world.

The Wooster, Ohio native nailed his ninth All Star win at Eldora, his second of the season in the number 59. This would surprisingly be his last ride in the 59 as just a few days later; Jac announced he was moving to the Destiny Motorsports number 9. Hannagan had to settle for second in the Neumeister 11, with Blaney’s late race run netting him both the Ohio region and national All Star titles, joining Frankie Kerr, Kenny Jacobs, Chad Kemenah, and Tim Shaffer as four-time series champs. Stewart held on for fourth while Shaffer’s rally from 14th to 5th was too little, too late. Chaney, Danny Holtgraver, Lucas Wolfe, Ian Madsen, and Kevin Swindell secured sixth through tenth.

Due to the excessive amount of carnage, there was no way that the NRA 20-lapper could live up to the awesomeness of the All Star event. Jared Horstman propelled from the pole while Shawn Dancer started alongside, but the crashing commenced when third row starter Brady Bacon slid sideways in turn two. The same calamity corner where he flipped at the Four Crown just three weeks prior, Bacon was blasted by Beau Stewart, ending what should have been a promising showing in the Yoakam double-deuce.

While working lap two, Dancer broke an axle and lost a left rear wheel in the middle of three and four, wreaking havoc by collecting the other Yoakam 22 of Randy Hannagan and Ryan Ruhl. Dumping both Dancer and Ruhl, this accounted for flips seven and eight.

Two laps after the restart, Butch Schroeder found first while seventh-starting Kevin Swindell snuck up to second, shadowing Schroeder on the top shelf. Traffic became a huge concern for the leader at lap 13 and when Butch was blocked by Hud Horton and Tim Allison, Swindell seized the day by aggressively sliding all three with a dramatic dive bomb of turn three. Schroeder’s right front nearly launched over the left rear of Swindell when they reached turn one, but that was as close as anyone would come to Kevin, who had to endure two more yellows (one for Shane Stewart and another for Ron Blair) and a red for Devon Dobie, who slammed the wall in between turns three and four and landed hard on his lid. Dobie’s dump was the ninth such incident of the night.

Chasing Swindell to his first-ever Eldora score was Schroeder, New Yorker Chuck Hebing, Horstman, and 12th-starting Bryan Sebetto. Mark Smith (from 17th), Max Stambaugh (from 15th), Horton (from 18th), Blair (from 19th), and Tim Allison rounded out the top-ten in the survival-fest.

Leaving only the BOSS 25-lapper to sample, Justin Grant (Elson 27) and Luke Hall held front row seats for the excitement. Talent was spread all throughout the 24-car field, as Four Crown victor Chris Windom began from 12th, Gary Taylor 14th, and Thomas Meseraull 22nd.

Hall held the advantage through one and two thanks to his outside start and was soon trailed by second row starter Matt Westfall, who worked past Grant at turn three. Hoping to redeem himself after his 360 slip-up, eighth-starting Brady Bacon had already advanced to fourth by the second tour, getting by Grant on the back chute to take third. Meanwhile, Jeff Walker wheelman Windom was now sixth and had his eyes on fifth; soon embroiled in a volley of slide jobs with Jarett Andretti. Trading the position as many as four times in two laps, this action allowed Hall, Westfall, and Bacon to pull away.

Brady first tried to slide Matt in turns one and two to no avail. One lap later, Bacon bagged second with a similar yet successful maneuver. The lead trio then fanned three-wide for first through three and four, as Westfall and Bacon would soon swap second twice more. Briefly back in third, Matt boldly blasted by both Luke and Brady in a slide job of epic proportions! A two-for-one slider is as rare as they come, but lightning struck twice as Bacon did the same, attacking turn one to overtake Hall and Westfall in one fell swoop. Holy cow!

By the halfway mark, Windom was up to fourth and soon had third after mounting a massive slide for life on Hall. While Bacon built a big lead and continued to craft crazy sliders through traffic, Windom stole second from Westfall with an authoritative move through one and two. Continuing to chase Brady’s tail tank, Chris needed just four laps to pull the rear bumper, leaving six laps to figure out a way by. Bacon and Windom attacked the top shelf and flung dirt with reckless abandon, but Brady’s negotiation of traffic could not be matched, rewarding him with his first Eldora triumph like Swindell.

Windom, Westfall, 10th-starting Dallas Hewitt, and 14th-starting Gary Taylor were scored second through fifth. Grant, Hall, Andretti, 16th-starting Brandon Whited, and Kody Swanson secured sixth through tenth at the 10:40 PM conclusion. Operating green to checker without any interruptions, ironically this wingless feature was the cleanest of all three, so surprising given the slick surface and the absence of aerodynamic aid and Eldora experience. By virtue of his 17th place finish, Tony Beaber became the second BOSS champion, capping a crazy evening in style. Congratulations to Tony for coming through in the clutch and refusing to throw in the towel, even in the most trying of times.

Still savoring the final ten frantic All Star laps featuring some unbelievable action between Haudenschild, Stewart, and Hannagan, still amazed by Kevin Swindell’s breathtaking three-car pass for first in the NRA feature, and still blown away by the two-for-one sliders from Matt Westfall and Brady Bacon in the BOSS finale, the positive afterimages of this evening are burned into my brain and continue to be accessed nearly one month later.

Naturally firing me up for the Friday portion of the Kokomo Klash that arrived in less than one week, I was still undecided if this would be my own curtain call for 2013, as one more local opportunity existed the next evening in North Vernon. Hustling from Indy’s north side after 6 PM, an exchange of shirt/tie/dress pants for jeans and sweatshirts (yes, plural) came in the packed Kokomo parking lot, amazed at how the season instantly turned from Indian summer into fall/winter with the disappearance of daylight. Late afternoon temps in the low sixties morphed into the mid-forties in the span of three hours. Perhaps my five layers were overkill, but that stiff wind from the west still stung, such a shock to the system after the previous weekend’s pleasant temps.

Arriving just in time for sprint car heats, a solid contingent of 32 warmed the soul with wicked fast rounds, extremely difficult to overtake as the surface was sticky from top to bottom. Gas City champ Scotty Weir came the furthest to claim his heat (fourth), as the other three were won from the front by Lawrenceburg lord C.J. Leary, Kokomo king Wes McIntyre, and MSCS maestro Jon Stanbrough. All important redraw positions were annexed by Gary Taylor, Jerry Coons, Jr., Josh Spencer, and Bloomington baron Brady Short. Truly representative of a local Sunday night program, several heats were super-stacked with talent, as additional feature berths were acquired by Chris Windom, both Fitzpatricks, Dave Darland (despite a blubbering engine in the Stensland 41), Shane Cottle (Epperson deuce), Robert Ballou, and Josh Spencer. Aaron Farney’s third heat connection with Justin Grant provided feature passes for Adam Byrkett and Travis Hery.

Intrigued to see former midget chauffeur/fabrication wizard Mike Fedorcak tending to Darland’s ride in shorts and pair of rubber boots, I also noticed the Daryl Tate 66 of Jon Stanbrough wearing fewer decals on the hood, pulled by a much smaller truck and trailer. Preparing to head west for work in the Josh/Keith Ford 73, Jon confirmed that the team’s partnership with Shane Wade was over after clinching an MSCS championship at Haubstadt one week prior.

As is always the case for the open wheel portion of the Klash, midgets, TQs, 600cc mini sprints, and thunder cars packed the pits, hoping for more than the 14 midgets that appeared. An odd mix of youth and experience, long-time competitors Kurt Mayhew and Ken Drangmeister served as stark contrasts to 2013 Kenyon midget champ Spencer Bayston (Clauson 39), 2012 USAC Midwest Ford Focus dirt and pavement midget champ Ross Rankine, and Parker Price-Miller. Price-Miller and Shane Cottle (in the 2013 Badger championship ride, the Ecker 57) succeeded in the pair of “formula diminutive” heats.

Even after the myriad of classes completed their heats, the track was still in tip-top shape for the twin sprint car consolations. Bordered by a big curb, Kyle Robbins and Mike Terry, Jr. were the winners, with Jarett Andretti able to keep an aggressive Chris Gurley from a feature transfer in the first hooligan. Front axle folded from Aaron Farney contact and bolt-ons taking a beating from a Jamie Frederickson t-bone, Bill Elson and crew made sufficient repairs to allow Justin Grant to take the final transfer in the second. Gurley and sixth-place finisher Logan Jarrett earned reprieves thanks to generous and unexpected provisional passes.

When not hanging out underneath the grandstand to block the breeze, the majority of action was caught from a top row seat saved by recent CSX retiree Joe Higdon. Former Washington native Gary Taylor was still in search of his initial Indiana victory in Mark Hery’s 40, earning another prime opportunity with his pole starting spot. Jerry Coons, Jr. joined him on the front row, having a solid last two months and always a threat in the hometown Edison-mobile. Sitting with Darland super fan Higdon, even Joe had his doubts about Darland’s chances of scoring from tenth.

After an opening lap Adam Byrkett tour of the spin cycle, Coons circled Taylor at the exit of the second bend. More chaos was soon caused when third-starting C.J. Leary looped it in turn four, watching fourth place Wes McIntyre make contact while everyone else did their best to avoid the incident. This restart actually moved Dave Darland all the way up to 4th, giving Higdon hope that his hero would make soon make some more noise. However, Jerry Coons was doing his best to stink up the show, building a big lead by skillfully managing a large cushion of clay. Jerry’s advantage was erased at lap six after amber bulbs illuminated yet again for Byrkett. My eyes immediately flashed to the scoreboard, noticing that Taylor, Stanbrough, Darland, and Weir were chasing the red 10.

Dave dashed to third after briefly jousting with Jon in the second corner, taking runner-up rights from Taylor in the same spot one lap later. Gary gathered his senses and fired back in three, only to see The Rave return the favor in four. Taylor immediately took it back in one and two, but the Lincoln legend somehow found a way underneath at turn three. Rather unfortunate, this jaw-dropping spectacle was interrupted by a Wes McIntyre whirl in turn two. Amazingly, 18 tours remained in this already thrilling affair, just as excited in recalling the details several weeks later, creating an onslaught of afterimages in the process.

Coons continued to play pilot dog when the green lights glared, with Darland taking his place behind Taylor as Stanbrough and Windom salivated at upcoming overtaking opportunities. Like letting a pack of wild dogs out of the cage, Darland immediately slid Taylor in three, only to have Gary dip and dive to regain the position in four. One lap later, Scotty Weir, who had restarted sixth, came out of nowhere to steal third from Darland with a surprise third turn slider. However, Jon Stanbrough was in the mix as well, bombarding the bottom to drive by both. Darland continued to work in the attic, sweeping past the Silent Gasser who simply would not go away. Jon had clearly found his rhythm and gained some great bite off the bottom, surging past Dave and Gary to gather second with 14 laps left. Stanbrough turned to the top to protect his position while Darland and Taylor again traded third, all while Coons constructed a full straight advantage. If that race for second and third wasn’t enough action, if you moved your eyes a little to the left, you would find an even better battle for fourth through eighth between Taylor, Weir, Ballou, Windom, and Cottle.

The People’s Champ was back to second with nine to go, but his duel with the Brownsburg bulldog was far from over. While heavy smoke poured from Cottle’s soon to be expiring power plant, Stanbrough stole second yet again. As lapped traffic became a bigger factor, Jon and Dave closed big time on Jerry. Darland’s Physical Medicine Consultants DRC was extremely stout when leaning against the ledge and it would be the all-time leading Kokomo feature winner pulling to the rear bumper of Coons’s Crume Evans Insurance Spike as the white flag waved. Both banged the cushion in one and two on the final tour, but the Tucson tiger held on for his sixth victory of the season, his second at his team’s hometown haunt. Ecstatic to hold off the fierce charges of his veteran comrades, Coons cut some rare donuts in turn four, commenting afterwards about the confidence he has developed in this car and team.

Darland had to settle for second while Stanbrough, hungry for his first Kokomo victory since June of 2010, nailed down a solid third. Windom (from ninth) and Taylor took home top-fives. Weir, Ballou, Brady Short, Kyle Robbins (up from 17th), and Jarett Andretti (up from 19th) were sixth through tenth. After beginning dead last, Chris Gurley had a nice run to eleventh, victorious the next evening in Flora, Illinois.

Chilled to the bone while waiting out the beating and banging of the final thunder car contest, 2013 Montpelier feature winners Billy Wease (Moore 10) and Shane Hollingsworth (own 85) held front row seats for the midget 25-lapper that was immediately interrupted for a Spencer Bayston spin. Wease got the jump for the second time, initially leading low before Hollingsworth hauled it into three on the top shelf, thusly rewarded with the premier position. As fourth-starting Shane Cottle began to make some noise, a Tate Martz/Michael Koontz meeting of the minds caused caution. Mysteriously stopping on the front stretch was leader Hollingsworth, who was pushed back to the pits but reappeared several laps later.

Wease led Cottle, Price-Miller, Mayhew, and Rankine back to green, but another one bit the dust in the form of Price-Miller, who suddenly slowed and stopped just as Cottle worked his way past Wease. 22 laps were left when action resumed and it didn’t take Cottle long to coax first place from Wease. Billy hung tough on the bottom and initially gave a good fight, but in a couple of laps Shane flexed his muscle and moved away to a comfortable margin. Behind the leader, Ross Rankine was working the high side and had caught the former Penske pilot. They exchanged the runner up slot a couple of times before Ross overextended turn four, falling to fifth in the process. Demotte, Indiana’s Kurt Mayhew was now second and held off a ferocious pack containing Chett Gherke, Wease, Rankine, Bayston, and Hollingsworth, who appeared to be having a blast despite his laps in arrears.

At the finish, Cottle held a half track advantage and finally collected a Kokomo feature win in 2013, as Mayhew and Gherke jousted wheel to wheel to the checkered. Kurt’s Buzzard chassis inched ahead while Gherke, Bayston, and Martz filled the first five. Rankine, Wease, Koontz, Isaac Chapple, and Gary Gibson were credited with sixth through tenth.

If only time could stand still on such a fantastic evening of feature action, due to the cold weather it was time for Railroad Joe and I to bid farewell. Still undecided as to our Saturday race status in North Vernon, Mother Nature ultimately made the call for us.

Ending the outdoor season on a pair of extremely high notes, as I settle into hibernation mode and think about the months that must expire before another true racing opportunity presents itself, I will figure out ways to stay busy. Obviously I still need my day job to help pay the bills, but some items on the agenda could include exercise, a few Flat Out articles to compose, several books to catch up on, new music to sample, a classic car to tinker with, and some basketball and football to enjoy.

Of course I will spend more time with my extremely patient wife, continuing to unpack and hang pictures in our new house. I’m quite positive that there will be a few trips to Bonge’s Tavern and other high-end, one-off restaurants. And if I’m lucky, there will even be a vacation to some exotic locale with a warmer climate.

If I find myself needing a racing fix, there are always December indoor midget meets in DuQuoin and Fort Wayne that can be sampled. If I can’t make it to either, then there are always the afterimages of Eldora and Kokomo to further digest. Just the blink of an eye away, they can transform an otherwise drab day into one filled with passion and positivity. Five or six months might be a long time to wait for the next sprint car contest, but when the images and memories are still so vivid and inviting, I can take all the time I need to savor them that much more. Generating energy for an even greater 2014, it’s always good to have hope and optimism.

 

 

Volume 15, Number 6

Stretch Run

Beginning in late March, ending in October, and offering a regular season of 162 games, major league baseball is one massive marathon. Filled with so many highs and lows, if as a fan you allow each one of the injuries, losses, and temporary setbacks get you down in the dumps, it makes for an awfully stressful six months. If your favorite squad happens to be in the hunt during the September stretch run and actually makes it to post-season play, then of course all of that stress and worry is acceptable. But, if that same team somehow finds a way to implode in these waning stages, I can’t envision many more agonizing things.

Case in point: the 2013 Cincinnati Reds, who performed just well enough to get them to the playoffs for the third time in the last four years but abruptly ended their season after a one game wildcard loss to Pittsburgh. Sending me to insanity with their rollercoaster ride, they failed to win their last six games which ultimately led to the dismissal of manager Dusty Baker, who over the last six years made the Reds relevant once again. This 2013 stretch run only confirmed that stick and ball sports consistently crush hopes and inflict unnecessary pain.

Local Indiana sprint car contests also start in the latter part of March and end in October and if one so chooses, the opportunity exists to attend nearly as many races as there are baseball games; that is if one doesn’t achieve some level of burnout along the way. Easy to achieve happiness and satisfaction in more than just winners and losers, by the time I was a teenager I finally figured out that any kind of auto racing was a positive escape from the frustration of a sub-.500 summer of baseball. With the Reds having some awfully lean years from 1996 through 2008, the September stretch run often meant nothing to me other than the fact that the end of the racing campaign was rapidly approaching.

United States Auto Club sprint car competition has its own stretch run and it too starts in mid-September. Beginning with a trio of events that finish off the Midwestern portion of the nearly nine month slate, Haubstadt’s Hustler Sprint 40, Eldora’s famous Four Crown Nationals, and the City of Lawrenceburg Fall Nationals make for a memorable final few weeks.

Thinking back to the February Ocala openers, Tracy Hines took two of three rounds but once the series steered back to its Midwestern base, the next three and half months were dominated by both Mother Nature and Kevin Thomas, Jr. Last year’s championship combatants Dave Darland and Bryan Clauson began breathing heavily down Kevin’s neck during Indiana Sprint Week and once Thomas blew a fuse after night two of Kokomo’s Smackdown, it became crystal clear that the 2013 title would again be a two horse race (although Brady Bacon briefly threw his name in the hat). Before leaving Lawrenceburg for the four west coast contests in Canyon and Perris, in order to remain a contender neither Dave nor Bryan could ill-afford any flub-ups in these final Indiana flings.

Three consecutive sunny Saturday afternoons provided some pleasant excursions to these USAC unions. Flying solo for two out of the three, this included Haubstadt which is the most scenic in daylight but the most dreaded in darkness, particularly if my passenger seat is empty. Getting a late start for this three hour tour, the trip was further delayed by some untimely state road 67 construction that directed me into downtown Mooresville. Following Steve Hair’s open-trailered sprint car that was en route to the Paragon finale, in the interest of time I took 67 all the way to Vincennes, sacrificing a sacred Mason’s Root Beer Stand stop in Washington and my favorite road in the entire state: the endless twists and turns of 241. Once hooking up with the pedestrian four-lane U.S. 41, I needed only thirty minutes to reach Tommy Helfrich’s grain elevators, where Sullivan, Illinois Caterpillar retiree Wendell Smith awaited. Last meeting Wendell for the Tony Bettenhausen 100, our expectations for entertainment were unquestionably upgraded for this affair, as there is never any doubt about a lack of effort in track preparation, nor is there any question regarding the possibility of some rock-em, sock-em slide jobs at this racy little joint.

Paying $10,000 to win this combined MSCS/USAC program for the sixth year in a row, Helfrich was once again denied a proper car count for such a substantial purse. With competition coming from Putnamville, Lawrenceburg, and even Paragon, some 29 sprint cars still towed to Tri-State. No, that’s not bad, but it leaves me with the same feelings and questions I’ve had for more than a decade regarding higher-paying special events in this state. Aside from a larger grandstand gathering, what could be any track operators’ motivation for putting up such big bucks? Regardless of the questions, there’s still just something about a big-buck race that gets the juices flowing. When thinking back to last year’s improbable win from 18th for Daron Clayton, I have to wonder if the more mature and dollar-conscious Daron would have been as motivated to drive that hard and take that many chances for just $2,000 to win.

As has been the case in each of these Haubstadt Hustlers, heat races were lined up by the blind draw, moving the top-16 passing masters to the 40-lap feature. Point leader by 18 over Bryan Clauson and the most recent winner in West Memphis, Dave Darland was now tied with Jack Hewitt for the second-most USAC sprint car conquests. In search of his first Tri-State triumph since May of 2005, Darland drove from fourth to first in the initial heat, where behind him sliders were as plentiful as those found at Golden Corral’s endless buffet. Most surprising was the struggle of traditional Haubstadt heroes Chase Stockon and Daron Clayton, forced to come through the B where they would eventually claim first and second, Clayton finally finding comfort and confidence by charging from 9th in his Mach One machine. Although Brady Bacon’s fourth corner, last lap lunge under Seth Parker rewarded him with a win in heat three, the other two contests (claimed by Tracy Hines and three-time 2013 TSS titan Kevin Thomas, Jr.) were fairly tame, witnessing sixth to third charges from Jon Stanbrough (who had his hands full with Shane Wade’s J&J) and Brady Short. In heading to the early 8:32 PM intermission, in addition to Stockon and Clayton those who reserved A-main seats out of the B included A.J. Hopkins, Tyler Courtney, Robert Ballou (recovering from contact with a wheel-standing Jeff Bland, Jr.), and Bland.

Needing to stretch my legs before the feature and the subsequent three hour haul home, I bumped into ex-sprint car owner Rodney Reynolds, who fondly reminisced when he and driver Pete Abel would make the two hour haul from North Vernon to compete against the likes of Gary Hayhurst, Lee Dunn, and J.C. Sulawske for Sunday night winged sprint car bragging rights. Owning one of the best sprint car brains outside of Kevin Eckert, out of left field Reynolds questioned the whereabouts of 1981 Eldora USAC winner Dave Peperak. Little did we know that Peperak was actually competing on this evening for the first time in 2013. Dave wound up ninth in one of two features at Paragon.

On a cool and crisp evening, the intermission between the B and A was the only time that Helfrich exercised his John Deere equipment and by ten after nine, they were already lining up the main event. The first three rows of the Hustler aligned Short, Hines, Thomas, Darland, Bacon, and Stanbrough and although Hines held the lead through turn three of the first circuit, it would be Short who drew first blood at the line, in search of his first USAC score since Brownstown 2010. Nine times a winner in 2013 at a trio of tracks, Brady did his best to make it an even ten at four venues, narrowly holding off the snarling pack of Darland, Thomas, and Bacon for 26 hard-fought tours.

With a substantial cushion stacked at both ends, at times either Brady or Dave would push the front end if they didn’t enter the corners just right, allowing Short’s lead to shrink or grow accordingly. Heavy lapped traffic would allow Bacon and Thomas to make it a four car foray and while waiting for an aggressive Darland to make his pass for P1, Bacon and Thomas would swap third place at least six times in ten tours. KT secured second at lap 26 with a turn four slider, immediately making his winning move in turn two by cranking underneath of Sweet Feet. One lap later, Dave mysteriously slowed and exited the affair, a huge blow to his championship drive. After Dave’s departure, it was all academic for Thomas, who was able to find grip even through a slicked-off middle lane. Cruising to his fourth Tri-State Speedway triumph of 2013, this one was worth a healthy ten grand, number seven with the Speedway, Indiana sanctioning body and number ten overall.

Short secured second while Bacon, Stanbrough, and Kyle Cummins (from 12th in the Pollock 21) had a nice tussle for the top-five. Scored sixth from 17th was Chase Stockon while Daron Clayton collected seventh from 18th. Hines, Clauson, and Shane Cottle earned eighth through tenth at the 9:31 checkered flag. By virtue of Darland’s dropout, that allowed Clauson to take a five point advantage to Eldora’s Four Crown while Bacon was only 56 markers from first. With an immediate departure back to Carmel, zero stops for fuel, food, or drink allowed me to arrive home at an appreciated 1:30 AM, never once yawning or feeling the effects of six hours behind the wheel.

No September stretch run would be complete without a trip to Eldora’s Four Crown Nationals. Missing only a handful of the 32 showings, those were only because I had no inkling of what dirt track racing was about in the early 1980s. Sad that I missed the initial 1981 running when Steve Kinser subbed for Rich Vogler in Johnny Vance’s Aristrocrat Products sprint and Silver Crown cars and won from the back in each, thankfully I have seen additional superhuman performances in this ultimate test of adaptability and diversity, with Jack Hewitt and Kyle Larson’s improbable sweeps of 1998 and 2011 immediately coming to mind. Not to be shorted in their accomplishments, there have been many who have doubled their pleasure on one afternoon/evening, namely Larry Rice (’85), Rich Vogler (’86), Tony Stewart (’95), Dave Darland (’99 and ‘04), J.J. Yeley (’01), and Tracy Hines (’06). Also doubling up in ’91, ’96, and ’97, Hewitt’s record 19 Four Crown victories will likely never be touched, as Dave Darland’s seven scores comes closest.

This would be the first time all year that I have shared a vehicle with my father. At 80 years old he doesn’t get out like he used to but like me, can never turn down a Four Crown invitation. Given the rich relationship that both Eldora Speedway and the United States Auto Club have shared since 1962, it still comes as a shock to realize that this was the only opportunity to catch this combination in 2013, as the April event was weathered out and never rescheduled. Regardless of the fact that these races aren’t quite the moneymakers like they once were, Saturday’s crowd was quite substantial. Selfishly speaking, one USAC/Eldora meeting per year is simply not enough, as there are few venues where the positive attributes of wingless action are highlighted better than here.

The Friday Four Crown featuring WoO wingers and UMP modifieds was erased by rain, as was the Gas City points finale (congrats to Scotty Weir for picking up the title), but rain or shine it wouldn’t have mattered as there would have been no way to attend due to work commitments. Happy to get the rain moved out and gain a little extra H20 for the Saturday surface, back in the day a trip to the pits would be absolutely necessary to know who was in what car, as there were so many drivers lining up one-off rides. These days, there are so few car owners in search of hired guns that no pit lane stroll was necessary. Dave Darland was one of the few who provided some deviation from the norm by scrambling to grab a last-minute Silver Crown chair in the Sam Pierce Chevrolet number 26. With a midget ride in the RW number 17 and his usual Steve and Carla Phillips sprint car seat, Darland was one of four who did triple duty. Tracy Hines, Chris Windom (in a second Don Fike midget), and Jerry Coons, Jr. were the others who tackled all three disciplines.

The sprint car count was of course the highest at 36, adding Bill Rose and Jac Haudenschild as unexpected surprises. Haud traveled to Lernerville in anticipation of a WoO war but was washed out early enough to wind up in Jim and Steve Simon’s 22. An increase from previous years, midgets numbered 20, as did Silver Crown inventory. USAC upped Silver Crown start money to $1,000, enticing participation from Oklahoma newcomer John Hunt, Joe Liguori (in an old Mucci/Matczak 99), Matt Westfall (Longworth 19), and longtime competitor Jerry Nemire. I didn’t get a chance to quiz Jerry on his last Silver Crown start, but if I had to guess, it was the late 1990s. Jerry has been showing off his impeccably restored ex-A.J. Foyt number 14 on the vintage trail over the last several seasons and on this evening, he actually stabbed and steered both the orange 14 and his own 176, the 176 of course reserved for competition.

Sprint car hot laps and qualifying were up first and by no surprise, Tracy Hines immediately rose to the top of the charts and stayed there. Boasting nine sprint scores at the Big E since 1999, including a two-race sweep of 2012, Tracy’s time of 15.088 (7th in line) put him in his own area code. Nearly three-tenths of a second quicker than Hoffman 69 shoe Brady Bacon, the rest of the quick six included Chase Stockon, Darland, Haudenschild, and Daron Clayton.

Midgets were up next and Rutherford, California’s Rico Abreu was the ultimate rocket, just edging out Hines for the number one spot and continuing the Toyota power/Keith Kunz Motorsports domination of dirt. Showing so well at Belleville, Kansas where he won on opening night and led 11 laps in the finale, Abreu’s Kings Royal experience had to help as well. Defending national champ Darren Hagen, Darland, Bryan Clauson, and Bobby East were also inside the quick six. Seventh on his first tour, Brad Kuhn bounced through a choppy turn two and could not save his Mason Cook Beast/Toyota from impending doom, clobbering the wall and flipping big. Brad climbed out ok, but his car was crushed.

After dominating DuQuoin before running out of fuel, Robert Ballou’s streak of Silver Crown sour luck continued in Four Crown hot laps, tumbling the iconic number 63 in turn two. Luckily his Radio Hospital crew would have plenty of time to make repairs, as the dirt champ finale would roll off several hours from the incident. Defending series champion Bobby East, who entered the evening five points up on Jerry Coons, Jr., was unequaled in qualifying prowess after touring the high-banked half-mile in 16.517 seconds. Again Tracy Hines was second in time trials, some 16 points away from East in the championship chase. Christopher Bell (6R Racing 21), Matt Westfall, Chris Windom (fourth in points and only 21 out of first), and Coons would begin from rows two and three. Seventh in qualifying and only 29 points from first, Kody Swanson also had a mathematical shot at the title, offering some high drama for the forthcoming fifty lapper as the points protagonists all started in close proximity.

Sprint car heats did not disappoint thanks to a solid surface, clearly evidenced by a Tracy Hines triumph from sixth. Hines executed numerous signature Eldora sliders, as did Daron Clayton (winning from fifth) and Bill Rose, whose duel with Bryan Clauson provided ample entertainment. Gary Taylor (from 2nd) and 2007 Four Crown czar Robert Ballou (from 4th) were the other winners while Jerry Coons, Jr., C.J. Leary (bumped hard by Bacon), Dallas Hewitt, and Dave Darland were drop-outs, the first three operating in transfer positions. After encountering steering issues, Dave had to tag the tail of the B after his team busted out a backup car, instantly creating an uphill championship battle.

Surprised to see Rico Abreu serve a cutthroat slider to teammate Tanner Thorson through the final set of turns on the final lap of midget heat one, Tanner was not rattled in his initial Eldora encounter, immediately turning beneath Rico to take the win. This was also Christopher Bell’s initial Eldora outing and he too would claim a heat win over Bryan Clauson while Chris Windom easily collected the third, trailed by Wilke warrior Brady Bacon.

Needing to pull a rabbit out of his hat just to stay alive, Darland started dead last (tenth row) in the sprint B and moved to second by the end, easily making the top-eight. Aided by one caution when he nudged USAC rookie Tyler Courtney into a spin, Dave only trailed Dallas Hewitt while Adam Cruea was one spot shy of A-main status.

At just past ten PM, the 25-lap midget main was first to fire and offered a front row of Bobby East and Bryan Clauson. Twice a Silver Crown winner here but never in a midget, Clauson surged to first while fifth-starting Hines fell to seventh. Even worse, third-starting Darland dropped like a rock to fourth from the end. With six laps recorded, Abreu annexed second by sliding East through the south end. Bobby returned the favor on the back chute, only to have Rico rock his world through three and four. One lap later, Clauson suddenly slowed with mechanical issues, instantly awarding first to Abreu who now had his teammate Bell breathing down his neck (after beginning eighth).

The Keith Kunz comrades owned a half-straight advantage on East, Hagen, Windom, and Hines. Now working lap eleven, Bell blasted by Abreu with a breathtaking dive bomb of corner three, countered of course by an Abreu crossover exiting the fourth bend. Bell immediately attacked with another slider through one and two, but again Abreu had an answer. One lap later, Christopher came back and pulled the trigger in turn one, but Rico refused to lose, turning underneath and beating him to turn three. While encountering lapper Stratton Briggs, Abreu suddenly slowed and gave Bell another opportunity to overtake in turn one, but for the fourth time, the diminutive driver instantly found his way back to the front. Only a caution for Darren Hagen’s blown right rear with ten to go would interrupt the excitement, as this race was so reminiscent of the outstanding 2008 duel between eventual winner J.J. Yeley and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.

Two laps after the restart, it was more of the same action: Bell sliding Abreu through three and four, with Abreu crossing underneath to retain P1. Bell gave it one last shot through turn one with two to go but could not complete the pass, killing his momentum and sealing the deal for Abreu, who became the 100th different USAC feature winner at Eldora Speedway. The KKM companions were chased to the checkered by Hines, East, and a resurgent Darland. Six through ten included Thorson (up from 13th), Coons, Alex Bright, Hagen, and Caleb Armstrong.

Bryan Clauson and Daron Clayton held front row Four Crown sprint car feature seats and thus things appeared quite bleak for Darland, who would have to rally from 24th in order to stay in the game. Clayton cruised to the early lead while “Showtime” Stockon shot from fourth to second after dramatically sweeping past Haudenschild and Clauson through a productive turn three. BC blew smoke signals on lap four, shooting some substantial flames but was able to keep motoring on. C.J. Leary’s spin put the action on pause at lap six, with the scoreboard showing Clayton, Stockon, Clauson, Haudenschild, and Hines.

Fifth-starting Brady Bacon leapfrogged from sixth to fourth, taking third after The Bullet blasted the backstretch concrete in Tony Stewart’s 20. Soon thereafter, Dallas Hewitt illuminated amber bulbs after losing his right rear and waxing the turn four wall, leaving 16 tours to enjoy.

After a big jump by the Modern Day Cowboy, Bacon immediately overcooked the cushion and crushed the wall, wiping out the Hoffman 69 (and his championship hopes) in turn two, so ironic that this machine would suffer the same fate in the same corner two years in a row. But before going green, eighth-running Robert Ballou pitted for a fresh right rear while Chase Stockon relinquished runner-up rights due to a mysterious under-hood ailment.

Clayton now led Clauson, Hines, Chris Windom, and the Wild Child, with Tracy taking second from Bryan thanks to a standard turn three slider. In just two laps, BC was bounced back to fifth while Hines turned up the heat on Clayton, kissing backstretch concrete but still making some serious headway. With ten to go, Windom now worked in third and with just six laps left, Dave Darland finally found his way inside of the top-ten. Lapped traffic in the form of Tyler Courtney was giving the leader fits, enough that Daron desperately slid “Sunshine” through one and two but in the process, hammered the wall, flipped, and flushed a first Eldora win down the toilet. Dangerously driving beneath the cartwheeling number 35, Hines now held the lead.

In the final dash to the checkered, Tracy was initially pressured by Jeff Walker’s chauffeur but was able to pull away in the final few tours. Meanwhile, Darland was finally heating up, restarting 8th but flying past Gary Taylor, Justin Grant, and Jon Stanbrough as the track got tricky. Aggressively attacking turns one and two and flirting with the fence on the white flag lap, Tracy seemed destined for USAC sprint car career win number 46. But with a narrow cushion stacked against the concrete in three and four, somehow the modern day master of Eldora climbed the turn four wall, spun, and flipped with the checkered flag in sight. A rather rare error from the New Castle native, whether or not you are a fan you just had to feel horrible for him, as no one works harder at staying alive in this sport.

In the race that nobody wanted to win, Chris Windom was now the leader and with just one lap remaining, he would go untouched and finally lay claim his first win on these famed high banks. Jac Haudenschild scored second while Dave Darland dive-bombed turn three and took third from Clauson, completing an amazing drive from 24th which cemented his stance as a championship contender. Clauson settled for fourth and took a two point lead to Lawrenceburg. Robert Ballou bagged fifth, a solid effort after changing a tire and restarting from the rear at the halfway mark. Jon Stanbrough, Gary Taylor (from 16th), Justin Grant, Kevin Thomas, Jr., and Jarett Andretti (from 20th) were scored sixth through tenth.

At 11:30 PM, all that was left was the Silver Crown fifty-lapper, the final say in the 2013 series championship. East and Hines had an unobstructed path to turn one, but Bobby got the jump in Tony Stewart’s Maxim/Chevy and led the first three tours until a caution came for a spinning Mitch Wissmiller (RW 7), who was promptly drilled by surprise DuQuoin winner Chris Urish.

Restarting double-file behind leader East were Christopher Bell and Chris Windom. Windom’s RW Motorsports Beast/Toyota beat Bell to turn one and squeezed underneath East, taking the lead before yet another caution was caused, this time for Kellen Conover and Jerry Nemire. More yellow lights arrived at lap seven, offering a top-five of Windom, Bell, Hines, Coons, and East.

Chris and Christopher pulled away from the pack, seeing Bell serve a lap 16 turn one slide job that was immediately countered by Windom, who surprisingly spun in the same corner one lap later. In the process, Bell had nowhere to hide and blasted the black RW Beast, but this talented tandem somehow kept their machines moving and briefly handed Hines first place. The Four Crown sprint car victor was able to retake the top spot just before Bell blew his right rear to smithereens, resulting in caution number four.

Windom, Hines, Coons, East, and Shane Cockrum lit up the scoreboard, with the runner-up slot alternating between Tracy and Jerry for a couple of laps. After beginning dead last (20th), Ballou restarted seventh and blew by Taylor Ferns, Cockrum, and East, soon collecting third from Coons. Mysteriously slowing at lap 23, Jerry’s championship hopes vanished into thin air while Ballou exited stage left on lap 25, his DePalma Maxim showing sparks as it dragged the rear end on pit lane concrete.

Operating exclusively upstairs, Windom and Hines were all alone at the crossed flags. With ten to go, it was more of the same, still a rather close encounter. After falling back at the start, Matt Westfall was making the bottom lane work in Marc Longworth’s 19, securing third without the aid of stopping power. Back up front and threading his way through traffic, Windom drifted away from Hines, whose unsuccessful lunges kept him from mounting any serious threats in the final ten laps. With two laps remaining in turn four, it was déjà voodoo for Tracy, who climbed the wall and flipped much higher and harder this time. Climbing out of his trashed ride, as if the guy wasn’t already disgusted with his previous incident, how could he not want to crawl in a hole and hide for a couple of weeks? After commenting on the P.A. earlier in the evening about his Carolina Nut Company sponsorship and the elimination of the long-time racetrack superstition regarding peanuts, it seems oddly coincidental that Hines had such horrible Four Crown luck at arguably his best dirt venue.

Finishing 14 minutes into Sunday morning, Windom would not be denied his very first Silver Crown victory, entering his name into an elite list of Four Crown winners who doubled their pleasure. Westfall collected second while Cockrum, Ferns (up from 13th), and Darland took third through fifth. By soldiering home sixth, East clinched his second Silver Crown championship in a row, joining Larry Rice, Gary Bettenhausen, Jack Hewitt, Steve Butler, J.J. Yeley, Dave Steele, and Levi Jones as two-time Silver Crown champs. Those who have won this title two times in a row include Hewitt, Yeley, Steele, Kaeding, Jones, and now East, owner of three separate USAC national championships. One final and interesting Silver Crown stat is that for the first time since 1990, the series had a different winner in each of its events. Reaching unparalleled lows for 2013 car counts despite rescinding its controversial ethanol mandate, one can only hope that more owners can be enticed to break out their mothballed equipment for 2014.

Remembering this 2013 Four Crown for such a fantastic midget match, the Chris Windom double, and Tracy Hines’s unfortunate flips, it was time to move on to the Midwestern USAC sprint car finale in Lawrenceburg. With daytime temps in the 80s and evening temps in the low-70s (it was 70 degrees as the feature took the green), you couldn’t ask for better weather. Paying another sizeable sum of $10,000 to win, the pit population of 37 machines was slightly lower than previous years due to competing contests at Haubstadt, Putnamville, and Flora, Illinois. The Midwestern Sprint Car Series previously co-sanctioned this City of Lawrenceburg Fall Nationals event but after dropping its support, added another event at its home track. Although there were only 17 cars competing at the opposite corner of the state, four of them included Jon Stanbrough, Brady Short, and both Fitzpatricks.

In this epic title fight between Darland and Clauson, Lawrenceburg was still the place to be, as all night long further intrigue was added to this stretch run storyline. In two lap qualifications, Dave went out second-to-last in the order while Bryan drew dead last. Dave’s clocking of 13.427 seconds was good for that magical sixth-quick time while Bryan’s 13.308 topped the charts. Those timing between this tandem included Kevin Thomas, Jr. (biking on the first lap), Gary Taylor, local Shawn Westerfeld (biking twice on his first lap), and Justin Grant (Elson 27A). Other notables performances came from Matt Westfall (7th), Kyle Robbins (10th), Chad Boespflug (11th in Mike McGhee’s 17), and Jarett Andretti (12th).

With Penske shocks attached to all four corners of his Chevy Performance charger, Clauson managed third in the first heat, trailing winner Aaron Farney and Joss Moffatt. After falling to sixth, Darland used consecutive sliders on Robbins, Thomas, and Windom to make a bold statement in claiming a third place finish in the second heat, which was won by a smoking C.J. Leary. C.J. promptly stopped his machine on the back stretch, unbelted, and rolled on the ground after an oil line came loose and set his car, and himself, on fire. Second row starter Chad Boespflug was the only one of the four heat winners to start beyond the front row, as fourth and final prelim was claimed by Tracy Hines.

Some big names in the B included Thomas and Brady Bacon, whose Hoffman team uncharacteristically missed the call for the first heat. These two claimed the top two spots, leaving big names like Robert Ballou and Thomas Meseraull beyond sixth place when combined yellow and checkered flags fell for a final lap scrape between Cody Gardner and Travis Hery. Ballou was hot on the tails of Kyle Cummins for the final transfer when the caution came out, unable to complete the lap. As it was, Robert tagged the tail of the field through a provisional pass.

Going four-wide in their 9:25 PM parade lap salute to Breast Cancer Awareness, just like at Kokomo’s Smackdown Chase Stockon and Dave Darland comprised the front row for this thirty-lapper. Unlike Kokomo, this time it was Stockon who got the jump, sliding from the bottom to top in the first set of corners. Chase and Dave drove away from third place Justin Grant, who soon lost the spot to Bryan Clauson, interesting to notice that for the second race in a row Clauson’s Chevy blew big smoke early in the race.

Stalking Stockon for several circuits, Dave dove beneath Chase through turns three and four to snatch the premier position. His lead was short lived as Stockon returned the favor in the same spot on the next lap, with Clauson closing big-time on both. After Darland scaled the healthy turns one and two cushion on lap nine, the bobble gave his championship nemesis a clear shot at second place, immediately taking advantage in turn three. Dave returned the favor while exiting the fourth corner but again had trouble in turn one, bicycling back to third. With Stockon in the middle, Clauson in the middle to low lane, and Darland up top, the lead trio operated in close confines at the crossed flags. On the 17th circuit, the People’s Champ once again tripped in turn one while The Bullet found his way beneath Stockon on the back chute, finally pulling away from last year’s Lawrenceburg winner on lap 19.

Despite making right rear contact with Joss Moffat on lap 20, Clauson scooted even further away from Stockon and Darland but lapped traffic allowed Chase to reel him in five laps later. So hooked up in the low lane, BC consistently hit his marks in the final five tours and constructed a half-straightaway advantage at the 9:35 checkered flag. In the all green flag affair that took a little over seven minutes to run, Stockon, Darland, Thomas, and Grant trailed the number 20. Taylor, Coons, Boespflug, Bacon, and Windom were sixth through tenth.

Heading west to Canyon where he has clearly excelled over the last couple of seasons, Bryan Clauson now owned a 13 point lead in the championship battle after finishes of 9th, 4th, and 1st in these final three Midwestern meets. Entering the three week swing 18 points up, Dave dropped out of Haubstadt, suffered more setbacks in his Eldora heat race, and had trouble with the cushion in Lawrenceburg. But aside from his DNF, Dave did not fold under the pressure, doing what he needed to do to stay alive in this stretch run. For the second year in a row it has come down to these two, wondering if age, experience, and a budget-minded mom and pop team of Steve and Carla Phillips can overcome such raw talent, youthful exuberance, and the championship juggernaut that is Tony Stewart Racing.

Reverting back to my baseball comparison, whether you are loyal to the Reds, Cardinals, Pirates or any other outfit, unless your team ends up winning the World Series you’re going to wind up hugely disappointed after hanging on every win and loss from April through the end of September. Depending on the outcome, it’s a polar opposite feeling that more often than not results in extreme heartbreak. For fans of stick and ball sports, that’s the nature of the beast.

One of the things I like best about sprint car racing is that it represents automobile racing in its purest form. In the lengthy season that spans from spring to fall, there is no gimmicky playoff or artificial championship chase, as the driver who consistently outperforms the rest is the one who winds up king. Depending on how much you idolize the exploits of Dave Darland or Bryan Clauson, you might just be crushed by the national championship outcome after the Oval Nationals. But regardless of which driver ends up on top, chances are you should have been able to find something to feel good about from this stretch run of races leading up the finale.

As for yours truly, recalling the details of these three events certainly helped ease the sting of Cincinnati’s painful wildcard one and out. Baseball is officially over in my book and sprint car racing is sadly not far behind. Ready for some football and basketball, unfortunately that also signals some potentially unbelievable highs and some devastating lows. Hoping to avoid even more pain and suffering, perhaps I can hibernate until the arrival of springtime, as I’m not sure that my heart can handle the abuse.

 

 

Volume 15, Number 5

Top-shelf

What a difference one year makes.  Twelve months ago, I was scrambling to assemble a resume and begin the painful process of a job search after an acquisition and merger would soon eliminate my fifteen year run of employment in the computer software industry.    Recalling the drive to night one of Kokomo Speedway’s initial Sprint Car Smackdown, I turned off the radio and began to rehearse answers to impending interview questions, as I had a pair of them scheduled the very next morning.  Carrying my papers into the track to study in the downtime, not even a little work and worry could keep me away from this titanic sprint car struggle. 

Although those interviews went well, ultimately neither one of them panned out, instead having to wait until the end of January to become the controller for an Indianapolis retailer of wine and spirits.   Some six months into the new gig, I’m continuing to learn the ropes and working long hours, still concerned about making a positive impression.  One year after that initial Smackdown excursion, at least I didn’t have any paperwork to peruse but again there was stress to endure, wondering just how much of the first evening I would have to miss as I had no choice but to work a full day.        

In my former role, my biggest concerns were the people problems that came from managing a team of four female personalities, with the resulting stress crimping my once boundless energy and enthusiasm for racing and writing.  These days, my world is all about inventory and margins, which in turn has had an even more adverse effect on the flow of creative juices concerning my once regular Hoseheads sprint car contributions.  Taking what seems like forever just to come up with a theme to encapsulate this second annual Sprint Car Smackdown, after several days of being up to my eyeballs in month-end inventory recounts, suddenly the term “top-shelf” popped into my head.  Most often associated with the business of tending bar, top-shelf refers to the liquor bottles that are kept up high because patrons don’t often demand drinks containing the most expensive elixirs.  As it turns out, most liquor stores also do the same thing with their premium offerings. 

Adapted to anything that is the highest of quality, top-shelf seemed such an appropriate descriptor for the ultimate in sprint car entertainment.   Kokomo’s standard Sunday night programs, not to mention the Midget and Sprint Week stops, are certainly something to get excited about, but when you multiply any of one these already awesome programs by three, of course something like the Smackdown is going to capture the attention of open wheel devotees, as this venue has quickly become the nation’s most celebrated bullring once Bourbonnais, Illinois’ Jim O’Connor and his family took the reins.  Already inviting the most cutthroat of competition, when dangling traditional sprint car racing’s largest purse to already salivating group of throttle psychos, this event becomes a win-win for everyone. 

A collaboration between USAC and the O’Connors to create a signature event for the wingless sect, the first Smackdown edition certainly lived up to the hype with Bryan Clauson’s opening night win from mid-pack, Chris Windom’s Friday night surprise, the incredibly thrilling “King of the Hill” match races on Saturday, and of course the white-hot controversy that erupted between Levi Jones and Jon Stanbrough. 

In the weeks leading up to Smackdown version 2.0, the O’Connors injected even more octane by converting the infamous “blue barn” into the Fifth Turn Pub, where adult beverages can be purchased and consumed without missing any of the action thanks to closed circuit televisions.  Interestingly enough, that particular structure was where Kent Evans, Brent Goodnight, “Sexy” Rex Staton and yours truly watched the sun come up after the 1998 Wolverine Midget Nationals.  (I ran into Mr. Evans this weekend, so odd that I was now working in the same industry as the one he left before taking the keys to Kokomo Speedway.)  With all kinds of pre and post-race entertainment available over the three days not to mention the carnival-like atmosphere found in the sea of campers and motor homes, to say that this second event would be anything less than memorable would be absolutely absurd. 

Referencing the online version of the Urban Dictionary to research the various meanings of “top-shelf” (many are too rude and crude to mention here); one definition that wasn’t found was one that I often employ thanks to the influence of Dr. Pat Sullivan.  Back in the Evans Kokomo Speedway era (’95 through ’99), Pat shared microphone duties with Brad Dickison; calling numerous Dave Darland/Tony Elliott Sunday night duels.  Back when Tony was piloting Paul Hazen’s 57, he could often be found on the bottom while his primary adversary seemed to prefer the high line, which Pat so often referred to as the “top shelf”. 

Much like the 2012 Smackdown had Bryan Clauson dominating the weekend, 2013 was more of the same with David Lee Darland.  Leading 18 Thursday laps in the Steve and Carla Phillips DRC before Clauson clawed his way to the front from 14th (via the low lane like Mr. Elliott); Dave had to settle for second on opening night.  Setting a new USAC one-lap record on Friday and surviving a slide-fest with Kevin Thomas, Jr., Dave held the point for the final 12 laps and secured his third national win of the season.  Leading all forty tours on Saturday, his supreme top-shelf skills earned him a handsome sum of $15,000 for the weekend, topped by another $2,100 in lap prize money as he led 70 of the 100 feature laps, which paid $100 to the top-five ($30 to 1st place).   Such humongous scores allowed him to finally overtake Tony Elliott in terms of all-time Kokomo feature wins and while collecting career USAC sprint car victories 43 and 44, he was now just one behind Tracy Hines (45), two behind Jack Hewitt (46), and eight behind all-time leader Tom Bigelow (52).  In my era, whether it was the flat and narrow quarter-mile paperclip or the current-day banked bowl, there’s been no one more consistently solid around Kokomo’s top-shelf than Double-D. 

Rewinding back to the Thursday opener, someone must have been looking out for me as a brief afternoon shower at the speedway brought a slight delay, aiding me in my assault of northbound U.S. 31 asphalt.  Missing hot laps and Jarett Andretti’s opening car qualifying crash, the surface was extremely heavy from the added precipitation but with the cushion pushed halfway down on both ends, nearly every one of the 38 cars (six less than last year) essentially ran in the same tire tracks.  Back with the same Jeff Walker squad as he started the season (winning recently with Walker in Lawrenceburg and Danville), Justin Grant’s 12.739 circuit wound up topping the charts, with Robert Ballou, Hunter Schuerenberg (Stensland 41), Chad Boespflug, Darland, and Shane Cottle completing the quick six.  Despite the one-lane qualifying conditions, times were fairly equitable as Grant came out sixth in line while Darland was four cars from the end.  C.J. Leary snapped a right rear axle on his second lap, sending his brand new DRC into a rather violent and expensive set of gyrations.  C.J.’s crash resulted in a massive thrash that contained as many as ten men, including everyone associated with Jeff Walker’s two teams, Travis Welpott, and Phil Poor.  Unfortunately for Leary, the damage was far too severe to continue any further, digging into his father’s arsenal for Friday ammunition.   

Alluding to Schuerenberg’s union with the Stensland family from Fort Wayne, fellow Sikeston, Missouri native Daron Clayton also joined in the game of musical chairs by bringing his engine to Hunter’s former horse that belonged to North Vernon’s Hank Byram.   Every night, Clayton seemed to have difficulty adjusting to the Mach One chassis as his front wheels were continuously reaching for the sky, learning later that the team had been playing with wheelbase dimensions.  Additional Smackdown roster changes included Darren Hagen in Rick Pollock’s 21 while former Roger Penske pilot Billy Wease found work in Jerry Powell’s 59. 

Pleased to see several underdog efforts giving it a go, including Ray Kenens, Jr., I was however disappointed by the lack of Southern Indiana participation, namely Brady Short, Jeff Bland, and Kyle Cummins.  I’m sure each of these guys had their reasons to skip the weekend (Short sits atop Bloomington points), but it just seems like so many Indiana sprint car competitors choose to shy away from the ultimate measuring stick that is Kokomo competition.  Even with $1,000 available to Saturday’s feature starters plus a laundry list of contingency prizes, this weekend confirmed that the majority of Indiana’s sprint car cast could care less about the sport’s big picture, instead choosing to go where they have the best chance of winning.  Unlike last year when every track except Paragon shuttered for the Smackdown, this year both Bloomington and Putnamville provided options and pulled a few would-be cars from Kokomo.   Although such a lack of cooperation is irritating, at this stage I just have to accept it as par for the course.   

Under heavy cloud cover, Thursday’s surface refused to widen for heat racing, which would up being wide open around the bottom.  Three of the four were won from the outside of the front row (Clauson, Stockon, and Windom) but the fourth was claimed from the inside of the second by Jon Stanbrough.  In an attempt to reach a transfer, Grant carved his own lane around a no-man’s land top lane in the first heat, only to have a camouflaged cushion bite him badly.  JG biked and flipped big enough to bend the roll cage and eliminate him from the rest of the weekend – a true bummer as he’s always been a threat to win in K-town. 

Enjoying an extended conversation with Kokomo Honda dealer, Formula Vee racer, and ex-Indy car constructor Lynn Reid, we watched Hunter Schuerenberg spectacularly spin a 360 in front of the B-main field in turn one.  Causing a caution but soon carving through the field, an errant left rear shock spoiled Schuerenberg’s shot at an A-main ticket.  Clayton, Meseraull (Baldwin 5), Tyler Courtney, Blake Fitzpatrick, Gary Taylor, and Darren Hagen moved on from the crazy contest, with a starving six pack of contestants vying for that final transfer.  Unfortunately, Chris Gurley, Braylon Fitzpatrick, Dakota Jackson, Jarett Andretti, Nick Drake, and Josh Spencer were among those unsuccessful in their quest for Thursday’s finale.     

Pre-feature surface preparations saw quite a bit of Reece O’Connor packing from the middle to bottom, hoping to promote more passing for the forthcoming thirty lap dance.  Hob-knobbing with “Railroad” Joe Higdon (in his first race back since acquiring a new left knee) and Arba Richardson before Thursday’s feature, as always they asked for my prediction, too easy not to choose pole sitter Kevin Thomas, Jr.  KT might have qualified tenth best, but because four faster men failed to transfer through their heat, that left Kevin with the most coveted position.  After a false-start, Thomas would briefly lead low in turn one, only to be overtaken by fellow front row mate and Monte Edison wheelman Jerry Coons, Jr.  KT took the point for the next three laps but was served an authoritative slider through the south end by fourth-starting Dave Darland.

Taking over first at lap five and constructing a full straight advantage in just five more trips around the quarter-mile, Darland seemed destined to win this thing.  But as the cushion thinned, 14th-starting Bryan Clauson began making some noise around the bottom, noticing his placement on the scoreboard with a little more than half the race left.  Up to second by the halfway mark, it took Bryan no time at all to cut into Dave’s seemingly insurmountable advantage, employing the same line that Kyle Larson used to beat him during the sprint car portion of Midget Week.  Reaching the same straightaway with 12 tours remaining, with ten to go the gap continued to shrink, reduced to nothing at lap nine when Darland tilted on two wheels.   Unable to restrain the surging Clauson who seemed to be getting all kinds of forward bite from the slick surface, Darland helplessly watched from the attic as the Chevy Performance Beast chassis built a full straight advantage of its own by the end. 

Turning to the race for third, Thomas, Coons, Jon Stanbrough (from 13th) and Brady Bacon (from 9th) waged an entertaining war for the final ten laps.  Choosing the middle lane in his Shane Wade 66, Stanbrough made it work and grabbed the final spot on the podium next to Clauson and Darland.  BC bagged his third Smackdown victory in four tries and in doing so, set a new USAC thirty lap record of seven minutes and 21.35 seconds, finally eclipsing J.J. Yeley’s long-standing mark from 1997.   Bacon and Coons flashed fourth and fifth while Thomas, Ballou, Christopher Bell (up from 20th), Chad Boespflug, and Shane Cottle secured spots six through ten at the 10:06 PM checkered flag.    A near duplication of last year’s Smackdown opener (Clauson won that one from 12th), as solid as Thursday night’s program was, much like last year the best had yet to come. 

Immediately heading home so that I could try to make it into work a little earlier on Friday, that meant missing out on the parking lot/campground shenanigans that make this such a special event.   Scrambling all day just to get my work done, Friday traffic was much thicker, forcing me to revert to days of old when any ride to the racetrack was a rage-filled, take-no-prisoner experience.  Weaving in and out of so many moving chicanes, one driver became irritated enough to blow his horn, hold up his arms, and give me a dirty look.  Questioning why I was in such a hurry, obviously this guy was not a sprint car fan.     

Forced to park halfway to Galveston (it seemed that way when jogging to the front gate), I again missed hot laps and the first several cars of qualifying.   Meeting up with Tom Percy (who straddled a Harley-Davidson from Cleveland to Kokomo), he and his pals from PA kindly saved me a seat, informing that Jerry Coons, Jr. had already suffered terminal engine failure and Shane Cottle blew a u-joint in hot laps, forcing Shane’s Epperson Painting squad to thrash just to be ready in time for heat racing.  With the sun shining bright and the surface so much wider than Thursday, Dave Darland’s shocking one-lap USAC record of 12.618 seconds came at the very end of the order.  The remainder of the quickest six included early qualifiers Brady Bacon, Scotty Weir, Nick Drake, Chad Boespflug, and Chase Stockon.  

Just like Thursday, three of the four heats were won from the front (Stanbrough, Schuerenberg, and Blake Fitzpatrick), with Kevin Thomas, Jr. serving as the exception from row two.  With action amped up, Smackdown heats suddenly turned to into contact sport, watching Thomas Meseraull and Chad Boespflug bump and twirl, Chase Stockon knock nerf bars with Daron Clayton, and Shane Cottle connect with Casey Shuman.  The best of the bunch was heat three, showing Sprint Week intensity as four cars argued over third, leaving The Throttle to contemplate an uphill B-main battle from the rear. 

That B-main might just have been the zenith of the entire Smackdown weekend, as Cottle’s aggressive attack of the Kokomo layout was easily worth the price of admission.  Beginning 19th and aided by a couple of cautions, in just four laps he had already advanced to sixth.  Tackling top and bottom lanes equally effectively, he slid Scotty Weir for first with four to go.  Just like the heats, more contact came when Robert Ballou drop-kicked Daron Clayton, forcing Daron to cash in a Hank Byram provisional to take part in Friday’s finale.  Logan Jarrett, Nick Drake, Todd Keen, Chris Gurley, and Gary Taylor were the first five cars to miss the cut. 

If the heats and B were any indication, Friday’s feature would easily be awesome.  Pre-feature track maintenance included a slight soaking from top to bottom and with the surface still slimy on initial push-off, an extended ironing session was required to blow off the excess slop.  Once race-ready, Kevin Thomas, Jr. made his way to the pole for the second night in a row, 11th best from qualifying but benefitting from the heat race misfortune of Weir, Drake, Boespflug, Taylor, and Clayton.  Kokomo Sprint Week runner-up Wes McIntyre started alongside Kevin, trailed by Christopher Bell, Chase Stockon, Brady Bacon, and Dave Darland. 

Just like Thursday, Thomas held the advantage to turn one and in just five circuits built a sizeable gap to a dueling Bell and Wes Mac.  Four laps later, Darland slipped past Stockon for fourth while Bell bagged second from McIntyre with a similar slider in two.  While KT was working traffic, a five car conglomeration contested second.  Darland briefly lifted third from Wes Mac; only to temporarily surrender the spot to the man they call Showtime.  With 13 in the books, a Blake Fitzpatrick spin put the hot action on pause, allowing second place Bell an opportunity to see the back bumper of Thomas. 

For the restart, three lappers were placed between cars 17 and 67.  As a result, Darland was able to dive to the bottom of four and blast by the Midget Week maestro.  Immediately heading upstairs to manufacture momentum, Dave chased down Kevin and was prepared to pounce when Christopher collected the turn four concrete and flipped along the front stretch.  The Norman, Oklahoma teenager was ok and although his damage did not initially appear to be catastrophic, the incident would ultimately put him out of commission for Saturday. 

Restarting Thomas, Darland, Bacon, Stockon, and Hines with 13 to go, this is when things started to get even more interesting.  Now calling Atlanta, Indiana home, the former Lincoln legend attacked the Cullman, Alabama native in turn three.  Kevin countered by turning to the bottom and led at the line, but the Phillips 71 pilot diamonded the first and second corners to take the point with 12 to go.  Exchanging volleys like a tennis match, one lap later a turn two Thomas slider was followed by a turn three Darland dive-bomb.  Wheel to wheel at the flag stand, Kevin inched ahead in turn one, only to see Dave squeeze by outside of two.  Such intense action allowed Bacon and Stockon to enter the picture and after one final caution for McIntyre and Meseraull (leaving T-Mez on his side), just five laps were left to determine a winner. 

Thomas tried yet another slider in one and actually completed the pass but not before Darland crossed over to reclaim the top spot.  The next time by, Thomas tried the cushion in two but bobbled slightly, allowing third place Chase Stockon to make a massive run to turn three.  Chase hauled it into three and four and made solid contact with Kevin, sending KT reeling all the way back to fifth.   Darland was untouched in the final few, tying him with Tony Elliott for the number one spot in all-time Kokomo feature victories.  Stockon secured second, Bacon sizzled in third, Clauson collected fourth from ninth, while an agitated Thomas had to be unsatisfied with fifth.  Cottle charged from 22nd to 6th, with positions seven through ten initially belonging to Hines, Windom (from 16th), Shuman, and Weir. 

Once the checkered was displayed, Thomas shoved the 32 car through turn one.  Chase retaliated in turn three and scaled Kevin’s front end.  Adrenaline surging and anger boiling, KT initially missed his required stoppage at the scales.  Although his team pushed the car back to its intended area, it wasn’t enough to prevent him from being disqualified, adding further fuel to the fire.  Moving everyone up a spot (including Robert Ballou – who was now 10th), that made Cottle’s night that much more impressive, eclipsing 18 cars in the B and 17 in the A. 

After Thomas incurred a serious meltdown with USAC officials and Kokomo security, despite lengthy discussions involving Kevin’s father, team owner Mike Dutcher, USAC’s Darr Lawson and Jason McCord, and the female police officer who received the wrath of number 17’s chauffeur, the situation simply could not be smoothed over.  Given the previous pit lane altercation Thomas and his team had with Kyle Cummins during Indiana Sprint Week and when adding the additional issues brought to light by McCord, the officer, whose job is to keep Kokomo pit area peace, refused to back down from her mandate that the team be excluded from Saturday night’s activities. 

Although I was not witness to the words and actions that put Kevin in hot water, come Saturday afternoon I was still shocked to learn that the RW Motorsports team was not permitted to participate in the biggest race of the year.  Knowing that they were one of the favorites to claim the huge prize, it was hugely disappointing to have them barred, as I always enjoy the ultimate in cutthroat Kokomo competition.  I can completely understand how tempers and harsh words can surge off the charts when confronted in the heat of the moment, but at the same time, such disrespect for authority will never earn you any favors, especially if there is a history of such things.  By now, I am certain that the memories of the 2013 Smackdown are still sore for Kevin, but the only way to learn and grow is from making mistakes like these.  Recalling so many of the pit lane blowups since the track’s 2004/2005 reconfiguration, what is it about Kokomo Speedway that invites such extreme emotions from the drivers?   

Friday was a highly satisfying evening, clearly highlighting the raw, intense, unpredictable, action-packed excitement that makes sprint car racing top-shelf entertainment.  Witnessing Shane Cottle’s hard charges, the countless slide jobs exchanged between Darland and Thomas, and all of the post-race drama, these items only confirmed this notion.

 

Tom Percy rode his bike back to Carmel in order to absorb a breakfast at Bub’s Café and Saturday’s Carmel Artomobilia car show.  For yours truly, the highlight of the day was the impeccably restored San Diego Steel Products 500 roadster owned by Dave Schleppi of Batavia, Ohio.   Noticing my enthusiasm for his prized possession, the congenial Schleppi offered to let me climb in the cockpit and try it on for size.  Naturally I couldn’t say no to his offer and even though I’m just five feet ten inches tall, it was quite a challenge to contort my body and squeeze inside, as the steering wheel was not removable.  Clearly noticing the cramped cockpit and the humongous school bus-sized wheel, the other thing that was interesting was just how close both rear wheels were to my head.  One of the most gorgeous racecars I’ve ever laid eyes on and winning best in class for this particular show, they clearly don’t make them like they used to.  

    

With its chassis constructed by Chuck Chenowth and bodywork crafted by Eddie Kuzma, it first made a qualifying attempt at Indianapolis in 1961 with east coast driver Mike Magill.  The first car at Indy with a Chevrolet V-8 under the cowling, unfortunately too much nitro methane killed the engine and the run.  Attempting to unseat the mighty Offenhauser, the Chenowth Chevy had the same cubic inches but offered less horsepower than its purpose-built counterpart.  However, the key note with this combination was that the Chevy was actually lighter than the Offy. 

Well-publicized for its engine but also its outstanding craftsmanship, its second owner Greg Weld claimed, “It was the most immaculate racecar I ever saw.  It was absolutely a work of art.  There wasn’t one weld on the car that wasn’t flawless and perfect.”  Liking the car so much, Weld had ace fabricator and sprint car driver Don Brown design and construct a version exclusively for half-mile tracks, thus creating the famed “Mechanical Rabbits”.  Max Dowker’s Jet Rod roadster, the most dominant machine in the 1970s at Dayton, Winchester, and Salem, was also influenced by this particular Chenowth creation, which gets credit for starting the roadster revolution in the sprint car competition.  

Even as the roadsters faded from the championship trail in favor of the rear engine design, this car still set an open wheel record for a 1.5 mile track, clocking 157.4 MPH at Atlanta in October of 1964.  And, while it was in the able hands of legendary mechanic Jack Steck, it was the first car to qualify at the Michigan International Raceway in 1968.  Later owned by long-time USAC participant Ray Smith and Gary Congdon, it wound up with Kalamazoo, Michigan’s Lyle Roberts, who aptly renamed it the Roberts Steel Erectors Roadster.  With a roll cage attached, Roberts actively campaigned it as a sprint car from 1973 through 1983, winning the Little 500 with Jeff Bloom in 1977.  First restored as a sprinter (I recall seeing it as the Roberts 47 in the early 1990s at Winchester’s Old Timers weekend) and now to its 1961 configuration, in addition to Magill, Weld, and Bloom guys like Bob Hurt, Bob Pratt, Al Smith, Cy Fairchild, Tom Sneva, Duke Cook, Ray Wright, Johnny Logan, and Marv Carman also spent time in the seat.    For further information and photos, be sure to check out its website:  www.sdsproadster.com

Becoming car crazy after spending a couple of hours gawking at some fine machinery, parched and sun-burned it was time to think about making the northbound trek to K-town.  Finding cover underneath the grandstand and learning of the absence of the RW Motorsports 17, Christopher Bell’s Keith Kunz 67, and a handful of others, Brent Goodnight pulled me aside to share some private words.  Judging by the initial tone of his voice and body language, I immediately knew what he had to say before the words ever exited his mouth.  Just writing this gives me chills and brings tears to my eyes, but unfortunately our great friend Randy Mortland, who had been battling stage four lung cancer since being diagnosed with the dreaded disease in May, had passed away that afternoon. 

If ever the term top-shelf applied to a human being, it would be Randy.  I first remember meeting him with Brent at the 1998 U.S. Dirt Nationals in Pevely, Missouri and on that first night and every other time I was in his presence, I had a fabulous time (fabulous being one of Randy’s favorite words).  Whether the surface conditions were dry or tacky or whether the race was a dandy or snoozer, Morty’s incredible sense of humor and his highly contagious enthusiasm just made you feel better.  I made several trips to the St. Louis area with Brent and his Kokomo cohorts in the late 1990s and early 2000s and of course Randy was an integral part of the equation, showing us the sights around his East Alton, Illinois hometown, graciously allowing the use of his shower and bathroom, and introducing us to the tastiest tacos in the world from his favorite watering hole:  Don’s No-Man’s Land Tavern.  One of those trips was the infamous “phantom” rainout of a two-night USAC sprint and midget doubleheader at Granite City and as he held court in the parking lot, it mattered not that there was no racing.  As long as he was able to enjoy some time with his friends, life was good.  

A sensible man whose addiction to the sport came from following the whereabouts of his hero Larry “Captain Crunch” Kirkpatrick, Randy preferred his open wheeled racing without wings and in order to indulge his obsession, he often had to make the long trek to the Hoosier state in order to catch legends like Jack Hewitt, Tony Elliott, and Dave Darland in action.  One the sport’s greatest ambassadors, Morty attracted friends like a magnet collects steel shavings.  He simply couldn’t walk but a few feet before engaging in an animated conversation with someone that involved a hilarious story or two and some knee-slapping laughter. 

Serving on the East Alton Fire Department for some 35 years, the last six and a half of those were spent as Fire Chief, which of course limited his racing availability.  But, no matter how few his excursions were, he absolutely made the most of each occasion, truly living life to its fullest.  After retiring in November of 2012 but still feeling the need to serve his community, he was overwhelmingly elected Village Trustee in April of 2013.  As well-liked as Randy was in the racing circles, he was equally treasured outside, as East Alton literally closed up shop in order to properly pay homage during his showing and funeral, even cancelling their annual Labor Day weekend parade.   

A proud father to son Drew who also entered the world of firefighting, Morty truly looked forward to his years ahead when he would become a grandfather.  Relishing the thought of rescuing even more basset hounds (he had two – Otis and Ellie), helping his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife Debbie with her bakery, and attending even more races with his large legion of friends, unfortunately Randy reminds us about the fragility of life.  Last running into him at the Little 500, he shared his horrible news about the severity of his cancer, so difficult to not get choked up in his presence.  Regretting not telling him how much he meant to me and for not giving him a hug, he endured a very rough summer that not even our worst of enemies should have to suffer.  Informed of just how serious things were thanks to Andrew Quinn, I couldn’t help but smile when Andrew shared a few tidbits of how Randy had not lost his fighting spirit or his sense of humor throughout the horrible ordeal. 

Reopening deep wounds that still pain me daily regarding the loss of my mother from a similar fate, it’s still hard to fathom that he’s gone, as for sure this was his favorite time of the year given the Silver Crown series was so close to home in Springfield and DuQuoin.  As much as I would love to be spending another racing weekend with him come October at the Gold Crown, I can at least recall each one of those St. Louis excursions like they were yesterday.  Sharing a birthday with Dave Darland, on the day before his passing Dave would not only speak to him on the phone, but promise that he’d win one for him that very evening.  Of course “Goober” (Randy’s pet name for Darland) did him proud, upping the ante with a humongous Saturday night score that was dedicated to Morty’s memory. 

As I venture west on Interstate 70 in the coming weeks and see the signs indicating mileage to St. Louis, I know that I will be fighting tears and developing a rather large lump in my throat.  Outsiders will never understand our unhealthy racing addiction and our reason for feeling like we have to be there as much as we do.  The fact is, our reasoning has as much to do with the on-track action as it does the unique and intriguing personalities we encounter.  Randy Mortland was indeed one of those characters who made the sport infinitely more colorful and enjoyable.  One of the most positive people I have ever encountered, so many of us are going to miss him dearly but if we can take anything away from his loss, it would be to live each day with a genuine passion and enthusiasm and to find a way to laugh.  If we can do that, then even the worst of days surely won’t seem so bad.  Rest in peace my friend. 

After such sobering news, suddenly the shock of Kevin Thomas’s Smackdown absence seemed trivial  but as we all know, the racing show continues to press on regardless.  Heck, if Morty had his wishes, he’d have been here too, but even in all of the excitement of this fantastic finale, it was such an empty feeling.  Locking in the top eight points gatherers from Thursday and Friday, the elite eight included Darland, Bacon, Clauson, Ballou, Boespflug, Stockon, Stanbrough, and Tyler Courtney. 

With only 21 cars vying for 14 feature spots, three heats would send nine more to the main while the B would promote five.  Just like last year, those Saturday prelims did not disappoint, chock full of action, drama, and destruction.  Tracy Hines and Dakota Jackson jousted for third in the first one, trading numerous slide jobs before the two touched on the back chute, dumping Dakota for the night.  After another bump between Braylon Fitzpatrick and Hines, Braylon’s older brother Blake blew while leading, presenting P1 to Scotty Weir.  Scott initially lost the spot to Tracy in turn two of the final lap but would redeem himself with a slick exchange through three and four, earning the ninth starting position for the big show.   

The second heat had Hunter Schuerenberg starting from the inside of row two, somehow able to get to the top before reaching turn one.  Way too much corner speed pinned his Physical Medical Consultants DRC onto the right front, but there was no bringing this baby back down without incident.  Hunter flipped into the fence and flung his fuel cell into the pit area, brushing one of Robert Ballou’s crewmembers.  Although he climbed from the wreckage, Schuerenberg had to make a hospital visit for further evaluation.  Carrying Morty’s name on his tail tank thanks to mechanic Brian Cripe, Chris Gurley slid Nick Drake for the final transfer in heat two, which was won rather handily by Shane Cottle (who would then start tenth).  Heat three was easily claimed by Chris Windom (now the 11th starter), but Jerry Coons, Jr. was the hero after coaxing third from Daron Clayton while the white flag waved.  Always a class act, Coons and his wife Amy were kind enough to sponsor a feature lap or two in honor of their friend Randy Mortland. 

The first four rows of the feature would be determined by the results of the King of the Hill match races, three laps each with the highest seed picking top or bottom lanes.  The first round had Dave Darland holding off Tyler Courtney, Chad Boespflug beating Robert Ballou in a fine duel, Chase Stockon taking the high road over Bryan Clauson, and Brady Bacon besting a too-tight Jon Stanbrough.  Round two saw Darland and Stockon move on, each reaching turn two before Boespflug and Bacon.  In the finale, a slight blubber from Darland’s Foxco allowed inside starter Stockon to slide the veteran through one and two.  Although Dave attempted one more overtaking, it wasn’t enough to deny King of the Hill status to Chase who pocketed a $500 bonus, took home a Traxxas R/C truck, and nabbed the pole position for the humongous forty lapper.  However, given his preference for the high line, Double-D may have played his cards wisely, as the big prize of ten grand was a distinct possibility if he could get to the top of turn two first.  Bacon, Boespflug, Clauson, Ballou, Stanbrough, and Courtney would form rows two through four. 

Heat race carnage eliminated three cars (Schuerenberg, B-Fitz, and Jackson), leaving nine men to fight over five spots in an extended 15-lap B.  The top seven were tight for the early part of the affair, with Meseraull sending Darren Hagen into the spin cycle.  In the waning stages, the battle for the final transfer involved Kyle Robbins, Nick Drake, and Hagen, with an elated K-Rob successfully holding off The Hawk to score the $1,000 transfer.   

Leaving quite a bit of time between the B and the A, prior to driver introductions the shaving of Jon Stanbrough’s moustache garnered the majority of the spotlight.  Collecting $550 for the ceremony and later adding another $670, all proceeds were donated to Kick it for Cancer, a foundation gathering funds to help find a cure for children’s cancer.  With Shane Cottle (the $500 B&W Auto Mart hard charger for the weekend), Dakota Jackson, and Ethan Barrow controlling the razor, afterwards all four men posed with a charity check totaling an impressive ten grand thanks to a weekend kickball match.  

Adding even more pomp and circumstance, old-fashioned driver introductions saw each starter walk the concrete in front of the main grandstands, tossing a t-shirt to one lucky fan that offered special privileges if that driver stood in victory lane.  Although I heard a few grumblings from those who wished the show would be kept moving, I have to remind them that this wasn’t just another Sunday night program, nor was it just another USAC event.  This is the largest event for this brand of competition, so why shouldn’t there be a big deal made of those who would be putting on the show?   There has to be some way to get the younger fans connected with the drivers and allowing them to shake hands, talk, and gain autographs goes a long way to cementing their relationship with the sport. 

After the 10:15 wave lap, a Chase Stockon wheelie allowed Dave Darland easy access to turn one’s cushion and that was essentially all she wrote, as Darland had only a couple of challenges and close calls for the entire forty lap grind.  The race for positions two through five were generally tight, with one eye kept on the black 71 and the other scanning the pack for side-by-side scuffles.  Again, this 2013 Smackdown mirrored 2012, substituting Darland dominance in place of Clauson. 

The finale was relatively incident-free, with the first caution waving for a spinning Jon Stanbrough five laps in.  Darland weaved his way through lapped traffic and manufactured a full straight advantage, earning his biggest scare when he made turn one contact with Logan Jarrett.  The second yellow came for Gary Taylor, negating Dave’s margin and leaving 15 laps left.  After climbing from tenth to second, Shane Cottle made a bid for first on the restart but didn’t have enough mustard on the hot dog.  In that last run to the checkered, Dave bicycled in turn one and slammed the cushion in two, but even that wasn’t enough to derail Darland’s weekend, as the hometown hero triumphed for the 49th time here since 1986. 

As smoke from the booming fireworks began to clear, Darland cut some celebratory donuts for the second night in a row and took a Polish victory lap, later dedicating the win to his good friend Morty, which choked up everyone who knew Randy.  I’ve always said that one of the best things about sprint car racing is that it isn’t scripted, but given the heavy hearts of my closest of racing friends and the fact that the two had spoken on the phone just one day prior, the outcome seemed rather appropriate for the occasion.  Huge kudos go out to Steve and Carla Phillips for providing the winner with such a stout ride, as it is always nice to see an underdog team get the job done in such a high profile contest. 

Double-D, The Rave, The People’s Champ, Goober, or the King of Kokomo – whatever you want to call Dave Darland, you can add another one to the list, and that’s Smackdown II champion.  Trailing in his wake were a top-five consisting of Cottle, Stockon, Windom (up 7 spots), and Bacon.  Clauson, Weir, Coons (up 9), Hines, and Courtney garnered sixth through tenth. 

Although both the 2012 and 2013 Smackdown finales were dominated by one driver, each weekend featured all kinds of action, drama, entertainment, and atmosphere that made it oh-so-easy to have a positive frame of mind for three solid days.  Lucky enough to live less than an hour from this epicenter of sprint car excitement, I can honestly say that this destination event is essentially a triplicate of any given Sunday night from May to September.  No, there’s never a guarantee for barn-burning finishes or an abundance of slide jobs, but more often than not you’ll wind up leaving here at a decent hour with something to smile about, counting the days until the next visit. 

As Bryan Clauson so aptly tweeted over the weekend, Kokomo never disappoints.  Given most people’s positive perceptions of this venue and event, perhaps that Urban Dictionary needs an update on the definition of top-shelf.  Not only does Dave Darland prove that it is the most effective way to win at Kokomo; but, it is also synonymous with the ultimate in sprint car entertainment.  So no matter what shelf your favorite adult beverage comes from, let’s hope that the Smackdown is here to stay, allowing us infinite opportunities to fill a glass and toast to the best that our world of traditional sprint car racing has to offer.  

Extra Innings…

Despite working most of my Saturday of Labor Day weekend and the definite possibility of rain showers, I defied normal logic and headed west to Terre Haute Action Track for the final time this year.  With the Tony Hulman /Jim Hurtubise Classic on tap, I left Carmel with ominous skies to the south and west.  Sure enough, I ran into major rain on 465 but once past the airport, the sun was shining and all systems seemed to be a go. 

Before Indiana Sprint Week, every one of the scheduled Action Track events for 2013 had been ruined by rain.  Thankfully for Reece O’Connor, who tackles Terre Haute alongside Bob Sargent, Sprint Week went off without a hitch and despite some searing temperatures, they were rewarded with a substantial front gate and a nail-biting feature.  With the USAC title fight heating up thanks to yet another Dave Darland win in West Burlington and emotions still high from the Smackdown, I desperately wanted a duplication of what I saw in July.  But would that dreaded 30% chance of rain turn into 0% chance of racing?  In Indiana, you just never know, so I rolled the dice. 

Vigo County temperatures were boiling yet again when the scant field of 23 sprint cars hot lapped on the huge half-mile.  Plopping my rear end down in the turn one side of the main grandstand, there’s nothing quite like the sound of a small block V-8 screaming its guts out down those endless straight-aways, such sweet audio echoing off the roof as the chauffeurs figure out how deep they are going to haul it into turn one.  Whether it was 1963 or 2013, such a sensory overload has not changed one bit.

Returning from his one race detention, Terre Haute Sprint Week dominator Kevin Thomas, Jr. was back where he belonged, sitting atop the qualifying charts with a lap of 19.807 seconds, his time coming just five cars from the end of the order.  The rest of the quick six included 2001 Hulman Classic king Tracy Hines, Bryan Clauson, Brady Bacon, Kyle Cummins (the new driver for Rick Pollock’s 21x), and 2010 Hulman Classic winner Jerry Coons, Jr. 

Watching northern skies darken throughout the qualifying order, by the time the National Anthem was played and the first heat was hurried to the speedway, temperatures cooled off about 15 degrees, winds picked up, and lightning was flashing to the north and east, making me believe that this would be a very short evening.  All three heats were able to be conducted without interruption, as those storms somehow stayed east.  Transferring everyone to the main event, the trio of contests were taken by Jon Stanbrough (from 4th), Hines (from 6th), and Clauson (from 6th). 

With a few modified heats completed as well, soon they were calling sprint cars to the lineup chute for the feature as more storms were brewing to the north and west.  At a few minutes until 9 PM, Coons and Cummins had front row seats for the start, which was called back when Kurt Gross, Brandon Mattox, and Nick Drake tangled in turn two.  Spotting rain in the lights as I looked towards turn one, I saw videographer Greg Stephens scrambling to protect his gear.  However, the caution continued to be displayed and the cars kept rolling, crossing my fingers that they could indeed outrun the weather.   

Coons again led to turn one, hammering Monte Edison’s Spike into the cushion as Brady Bacon blasted to second, with the lead duo pulling away from the pack.  As the track dried out and dust began to fly, the bright yellow four of Tracy Hines came into focus as he chased down the first two.  Jerry, Brady, and Tracy separated themselves from fourth place Bryan Clauson and fifth place Dave Darland (up from 10th) by a full straightaway.  Bacon appeared to have enough speed to move by Coons and while lapping Justin Grant, he even made a low side lunge at turn three, only to be denied as the top shelf was clearly the place to be.  Brady’s Hoffman 69 Triple X seemed to hook up quite nicely at turn two’s slippery exit and a few laps later, his momentum allowed him one more shot in the third turn.  But once again, it was a no-go as Coons ruled the high side.  Things got fairly frantic for the three leaders as they weaved in and out of traffic but it was Jerry’s half-mile experience that made all the difference in the world, as he was able to put his car when and where it needed to be to maintain his advantage. 

Once Hines and Bacon swapped second some four times in the waning stages, that gave Coons enough of a breather to bag his second Hulman Classic victory and allow Monte Edison to carry home a coveted Winchester Rifle that has been awarded to the winning driver and car owner since its 1970 inception.  Say what you will, but there are few better at this track than Jerry, who has impressed me ever since he took his first midget laps here in the fall of 1997.   

Bacon, Hines Clauson, and Darland trailed the red 10E, the second time that Monte Edison has taken a first place trophy home from Terre Haute, the last coming in 2004 with Shane Cottle at a KISS contest.  Robert Ballou, Jon Stanbrough, Chris Windom, Chase Stockon, and Daron Clayton (Byram 35) scored sixth through tenth.  Lapped on the final go-round was Kevin Thomas, Jr., who blew a right rear tire at the checkered but was uncharacteristically off the pace.  Nice to win one over Mother Nature, it was also nice to see another underdog team earn the ultimate reward, especially in light of the thrash that was required to ready the machine after striking Gas City gold on Friday.  It’s hard to believe that the Edison 10 had not won with USAC since April of 2006 at Gas City, also recalling a Bloomington Sprint Week score with A.J. Anderson in 2001.       

Having to work on Monday nixed a drive to DuQuoin for the Ted Horn 100, so Kokomo’s Vince Osman Memorial served as a solid solution, collecting 29 sprinters for the final points race of the 2013 campaign.  With Haubstadt’s MSCS meeting also taking cars and stars, such a population was rather impressive, attracting heavy hitters like Shane Cottle (Edison 10), Gary Taylor (Hery 40), Thomas Meseraull (Baldwin 5), and Justin Grant (Walker 39) to go along with track championship contenders Wes McIntyre and Scotty Weir, Scotty trailing by some 21 markers.  A handful or more also came from Waynesfield and Lawrenceburg and despite overcast skies it was nice to see Kokomo finally rewarded with a full pit area and a substantial grandstand crowd. 

McIntyre was quickest from the three hot lap/qualification sessions, his 12.533 second tour just a tick off of Thomas Meseraull’s ultimate record from July of 2012.  Speaking of Thomas, his night would be cut short after his front end mysteriously folded in hot laps, somersaulting the orange 5 through turn four.  Chris Gurley (holding off a snarling pack containing C.J. Leary, Scotty Weir, and Gary Taylor), Wes McIntyre (after a dynamic duel with Logan Jarrett), and Shane Cottle claimed the three heats while Michigan visitor Joe Bares bagged the B, highlighted by an early spin and sprint back to fourth for Adam Cruea.  Under the duress of high RPMs, Drew Abel blew some big smoke at the checkered and failed to make the cut. 

Twenty sprint cars were lined up and waving to the crowd at 9:11 PM, offering a first three rows of Grant, Gurley, Leary, Jarrett, McIntyre, and Cottle, with championship contender Weir starting from seventh.  After a Brian Karraker/Joe Bares bash, a complete restart had Grant winning the drag race to the top of turn one.  One lap was in the books when Conner Donelson dumped in turn one, restacking a top five of Grant, Gurley, Leary, Jarrett, and McIntyre.   Operating in eighth, Cottle tilted on two wheels at turn one but luckily brought it back to earth, still giving Monte Edison a shot at three wins on the weekend.  Unfortunately for the four-time Kokomo king, his feature was far from clean as he would soon spin in turn three after contact with another car.  2008 and 2012 champ Scotty Weir’s night wasn’t going that great either, pitting under caution to remedy a seriously stuttering engine in his Keen 18. 

Four laps later, things went from bad to worse for The Throttle, who was swept up in a Jarett Andretti altercation.  By this time, Weir had given up the fight as well, making McCordsville, Indiana’s Wes McIntyre the 2013 Kokomo Speedway sprint car champion.  Leaving 17 laps to decide the final Sunday night of the season, Grant now led tenth-starting Gary Taylor, who was working the low lane to perfection and threatening to finally kick down that door to victory lane.  With Justin and Gary pulling away from Wes, Gary showed his nose in turn two and actually inched ahead with 12 to go.  But two laps later, an Adam Byrkett turn four spin restacked the deck with the Walker 39 out front. 

Soon seeing Friday’s second place Gas City finisher Todd Keen swipe third from McIntyre, in that last dash to the checkered Grant sealed the deal by building a full straightaway lead, taking his fourth win since early August.  Afterwards, Justin gave huge props to Jeff Walker crew member Bill Elson, who provided comfort and confidence after allowing him to drive his car in the mid-summer stretch.  2013 has been a rough go for Grant, who left the Walker camp early in the season and bounced around several rides.  Not feeling 100% at the start of the 2013 campaign, he also suffered some fairly serious burns this summer.  After wiping out one of Walker’s cars in the opening night of the Smackdown, this win went a long way to restoring his name as a winner. 

Taylor took second while Keen, McIntyre, and Leary were top-five material.  Kyle Robbins, Josh Spencer, Adam Cruea (up from 19th), Max McGhee, and Brandon Whited (from 17th) were scored sixth through tenth. 

Afterwards, newly crowned king Wes McIntyre spoke about his scary bike ride and concern when Todd Keen passed him late, thinking it was Scotty Weir.   Honored to be the champ at the most ferocious venue in the state, Wes Mac’s solid July showings certainly made the difference, winning on July 7th and 28th and even scoring a second in the Sprint Week bout.  But the big deal was finishing inside of the top-five in seven of 13 outings, finally showing the consistency to match his usual blazing speed. 

Last but not least, my only racing-related attendance for the first weekend of September involved Bloomington Speedway’s curtain call, the Mitchell-Priest Family Fall Clash that paid a handsome $4,000 to win and $225 to start.  With USAC away in Arkansas and Gas City giving it a go, car count for this higher paying program was limited to 32 machines.  This of course included a white hot Brady Short, winner of four in a row here and hoping to wrap up his fourth Bloomington sprint car championship (going for three in a row), also earning one in the modifieds back in 2004.

Having to watch my speed on state roads 67 (beeping my horn at Brent and Asha Goodnight near Gray Brothers Cafeteria) and 37, unfortunately I arrived as the first heat was taking to the track, hurrying to swap work clothes for proper race attire.  Watching Bradley Sterrett win from the ticket window, the remainder of the three heats were claimed by Brady Short (from 1st), Nick Bilbee (from 5th), and Blake Fitzpatrick (lapping back markers in his romp from 2nd).  Heat three offered the most intrigue, as pole sitter Shane Cottle spun from second place without an assist.  To snag the top spot, Bilbee nudged Daron Clayton (Byram 35), who showed his appreciation by brushing the black 17 after the checkered cloth was displayed.   Although Jon Stanbrough had a mathematical shot at the title entering the night, Short’s heat race win wrapped up the season championship, seemingly a no-brainer given his seven scores in B-town. 

Dickie Gaines (Scott Pedersen 4) gathered B-main honors but again Cottle was the man to watch, moving from seventh to third but not before a love tap to Kevin Chambers moved him into a transfer position.  After a Lance Grimes overextension of the north end, Chambers actually held the final transfer until the last lap when Jeff Bland, Jr., driving the Jerry Burton 04, swept to the outside of turn one to steal the spot.   Recalling Paragon fireworks between these two back at the Chuck Amati race in early July, that pass had to sting a little more than usual for Chambers.  It was definitely a solid weekend for the hometown Burton family, as Jerry’s mother, a huge sprint car fan before they were ever involved in the sport, won the 50/50 drawing while on Saturday; the team won the feature at Putnamville with Bland again in the saddle.   

Bloomington even named a new award in honor of their late son Josh, choosing the retiring Danny Holtsclaw as the recipient of the Josh Burton Spirit Award.  Ever since he started in sprint cars back in 2000, whether his fortune was good or bad Danny always maintained a positive attitude and an outstanding sense of humor, serving as a great spokesman for the sport.  Unfortunately for Holtsclaw, his final race did not go as planned as a mid-feature half-spin in turn two resulted in some heavy front end contact from Dickie Gaines.  Dickie went flying through the air, landing with the left side of his engine bay engulfed in flames as the incident also swept up Bland and Brent Beauchamp (Fox 56).  The brother of Dickie’s car owner is track photographer Chris Pedersen, who was one of the first on the scene with a fire extinguisher.  After the mess was cleaned up, Holtsclaw’s candid interview was a classic, making me hope that he finds a way to stick around the sport or better yet, revoke his retirement.    

Driving a second Pottorff 11, Josh Kinser earned the pole position for the season closer, flanked by  Marion, Illinois’ Carson Short.   With the track prepared beautifully, it was still lightning-quick come feature time, which saw Daron Clayton scale the left rear of Justin Grant (Walker 39) very early.  Grant had his left rear rubber swapped but Clayton could not get repairs made before action resumed.  Differentiating his number 11 from Brady Short by green tape, Kinser would lead Carson Short while the other Short moved from eighth to fifth.  Inside row two starter Nick Bilbee snagged second from Carson as inside row three starter Chris Windom (Walker 11) smelled blood in the water and took third.  Kinser’s car continually pushed through turn one slime, eventually biting him once Bilbee slipped underneath. 

After the red flag for Gaines and Holtsclaw, only ten laps were left to decide the $4,000 victor.  Restarting Bilbee, Kinser, Windom, B. Short, and C. Short, Windom immediately stole second from Kinser while “Sweet Feet” moved his teammate back one more position.  With five to go, Shane Cottle’s miserable evening continued with a half-spin while Windom applied heavy heat to Bilbee.  The lead trio worked in close quarters for the final few laps, bringing them even closer when Nick and Chris kept encountering issues with turn one’s soggy bottom.  Coming to the white flag, Short seemed primed to steal another win, aided when Windom pushed in turn one.  But, Bilbee would nail the final two corners and reach the line first, ending six years of Bloomington futility.  Short (Brady), Windom, Sterrett, and Kinser were second through fifth while Beauchamp, Braylon Fitzpatrick, Jon Stanbrough, Carson Short, and Ethan Barrow produced sixth through tenth. 

All in all, it was a solid way to end the season for the Bloomington Speedway management team, which has had to endure some huge lumps in learning the trial and error science of dirt track preparation.  Offering a smooth, fast, and multi-lane surface for the finale, such success certainly gives hope for an even more improved 2014 season. 

Mentally preparing for my final racing month with potential expeditions to Haubstadt, Rossburg, Gas City, Lawrenceburg, Granite City, and Kokomo, of course it’s hard to imagine where the time has gone, as I can vividly recall the season opener in Brownstown, still needing a couple of races to get excited about the upcoming campaign.  Now that I’m all warmed up, unfortunately I can count the number of racing opportunities on both hands, hoping that the always iffy early fall weather cooperates.   Never appreciating what we have until it is too late, isn’t that always the way?     

 

 

 

Volume 15, Number 4

Different Stages

The absolute zenith of the United States Auto Club’s calendar, the holy grail of traditional sprint car combat, the great escape from everyday life, and summertime’s ultimate feeling of freedom - all of these phrases are directly associated with Indiana Sprint Week, the seven race in nine day carnival that crisscrosses the Hoosier state and sends its hardcore followers to the top of the world. Few, if any, weeks of motorsports madness generate this level of anticipation but at its conclusion, no other period takes us to these depths of depression, forced to say goodbye to so many friends and wait an agonizing twelve months to do it all over again.

Aside from such giddy eagerness and dreaded depression, everyone involved with the series experiences excitement, elation, exhaustion, disappointment, denial, and dejection at any one time, thus encompassing the different stages of Sprint Week. Depending on the timing and frequency of these stages, this ultimately determines how memorable the week will be and which competitor will actually get to celebrate by sitting in the coveted Bridgeport rocking chair, crafted as always by Loogootee, Indiana’s John Youngs.

Getting Dirty – C.J. Leary sprays a ton of mud at Putnamville, starting five of six Sprint Week features and earning a top finish of tenth at Bloomington.

A true test of man versus machine versus the elements, with so many variables at play rarely do the racers encounter anything but extreme ups and downs in this mini-marathon, ultimately separating the national championship contenders from pretenders. For those fans lucky enough to leisurely caravan from venue to venue via campers and motorhomes, they undoubtedly have it the easiest, a stark contrast to those having to work during the day and pick and choose their events. Thankfully I was not included in the latter category, having arranged for this treasured time off well in advance, sacrificing any and all vacation time in the previous five months.

Clearly sounding like a broken record in my annual Sprint Week recap, the Thursday before my personal summer solstice is the highlight of my year, a time when the sun shines brightest and nothing can go wrong. Not only is it the eve of the year’s most hotly contested sprint car activity, but for the last four years, it is has been a time to reacquaint with two of my best friends, namely Ded Ringer drummer and Tear-Off Heaven Fotos photographer Steve Lafond and former Ron DiDonato and Junior Holbrook crew member Tom Percy. This year, while on his way from his newly adopted Cleveland home, Tom relived fond Eldora memories by substituting the Night Before the Kings Royal instead of Gas City’s opener.

Agricultural Racing – With a little grass and dirt shown in this shot at Lincoln Park, Bryan Clauson was on the hammer all week long.

Understanding of Tom’s decision, I still had ants in my pants while awaiting Lafond’s arrival. Pulling up in an arrest-me-red Chevy Cruze rental, words cannot describe why this one particular occasion means so much to me, so unfortunate that I can only experience it once each year. After an obligatory handshake and hug, I was handed an autographed copy of Ded Ringer’s eighth release entitled Wanted Ded and Alive. Without wasting any time, we were quickly on our way to Perkinsville’s Bone’s Tavern, otherwise known as the epicenter of eating. The tunes would have to wait as there was far too much to talk about in the forty minute jaunt. Filling in the blanks on our personal lives before switching the conversation to the latest happenings in the sprint car sphere, this first stage of Sprint Week is filled with so much excitement and so many lofty expectations, bursting at the seams with positivity.

Quizzed about the Indiana scene and my Sprint Week predictions, my belief was that this series was wide open, especially after four-time Sprint Week champ Levi Jones announced his abrupt retirement from the sport in mid-June. Three-time Sprint Week king Dave Darland had already won a couple of USAC contests in his Steve and Carla Phillips 71 and could have been considered a favorite due to his extensive experience, but it certainly wouldn’t have been overwhelming with this year’s parity. After winning two big races with Jeff Walker the weekend prior to Sprint Week, 2010 series champ Chris Windom also could have been considered a leading candidate, but like Darland, it wasn’t overwhelming.

Best of the West – Starting five of six features, Hollister, California’s Ryan Bernal saved his best Sprint Week effort for last, starting from the pole and finishing fifth at Bloomington.

Although he was inching closer to victory lane, two-time king Jon Stanbrough had yet to win a race for the Daryl Tate-led Amati Racing squad and with his 2013 activities being limited to Bloomington, Putnamville, and Haubstadt; it just wasn’t feasible to call him a marked man. Stepping into the Tony Stewart 20 formerly occupied by Jones was last year’s national champ Bryan Clauson but other than a win in the Ocala opener and a local score at Putnamville, he and crew chief Bob East had not found their sweet spot yet. And, USAC regulars Tracy Hines, Robert Ballou, Brady Bacon, Chase Stockon, and Hunter Schuerenberg weren’t having the season of consistency needed for Sprint Week accolades.

So if none of those names were favorites, just who was? Given that he had won three of the five USAC races run in Indiana this season, the one name who stood out was Kevin Thomas, Jr. His pairing with crew chief and now team owner Mike Dutcher had transformed the Alabama native from a marginal player into a virtual superman, having the machine to beat since early April. But, could Kevin handle the adversity often encountered in this ultimate stress test? Time would tell as even the strongest can wilt under weighty Sprint Week pressure.

Clutch Performer – Shown here at Bloomington, Bryan Clauson scored wins from fourth in the final two nights to take his first Sprint Week crown.

Finally arriving at the Mecca of mouthwatering morsels, after an obligatory photo op we toasted to what could easily be another memorable week and a half with a pair of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ales. Basking in the glow of a cozy early evening sun, within minutes we were called into the eatery by familiar hostess Angie Fine. Shifting our discussion to more serious matters, a difficult decision awaited when forced to choose which one of Chef Tony Huelster’s creations we were going to devour. With entrees preceded by a mammoth wedge of lettuce drowned in creamy homemade bleu cheese dressing (which would probably make cardboard edible), after skipping my lunch the ridiculously rich 14 ounce New York Strip was just the ticket, coated in a demi-glaze and sprinkled with crumbles of Maytag bleu cheese. After much consternation, Steve continued his New York strip tradition, a rather predictable path to a satisfied stomach. Although he had to take half of his steak home due to an excess of jalapeno cornbread, thankfully there was still room for dessert as the extremely rare offering of dump cake was actually on the menu. A sweet concoction of yellow cake, cherries, pineapple, walnuts, and caramelized coconut that was topped by a huge blob of whipped cream, could a Sprint Week eve get any better than this? I think not.

Sampling the new Ded Ringer CD for the drive home, the ten song set contained a handful of gems that I had not been privy to. I will forever treasure “Daily Grind”, “Julio’s Place”, and the all-instrumental “OMG”. I also enjoyed “Lady Luck”, quite apropos given the fact that we had just hit the dump cake lottery. Also containing such titles as “Top of the World”, “As Good as it Can Be”, and “Ninety Miles an Hour”, naturally this album would be my anthem for Sprint Week. Perhaps I am biased in my opinion of this musical trio, but after further tweaking from engineer Don Budd, they have never sounded better. Days and now weeks into my post-Sprint Week doldrums, popping in this disc is rather effective medicine, transforming me to this initial stage when my mood is at an all-time high.

Double D – Opening up the series with finishes of fifth, third, and second, after Lawrenceburg Dave Darland was in command of Sprint Week points.

Heading into work on both Friday and Saturday morning to close out my pre-vacation obligations, after a fantastic Friday lunch at The Local we aimed for the sprinter in the sky, eventually encountering a convocation of legendary photogs (Can you say John Mahoney and Randy Jones?) holding court in the I-69 Speedway parking lot. With the sun shining bright enough to burn the back of my neck, I examined an impressive 53 car assembly, bolstered by a trio of California competitors in Ryan Bernal (Ford 73) and the Vander Weerd brothers. After a July 3rd Kokomo crash dinged the down tubes on his ART chassis, Jack Yeley called Joe Devin to perform repairs and allow Caleb Armstrong another shot at Sprint Week (at least through Terre Haute). One car that was mysteriously missing all week belonged to Lafayette’s Kenny Baldwin, who I had hoped would campaign throttle psycho Thomas Meseraull, as T-Mez is so fun to watch. Living in the moment of this glorious initial stage, it was impossible to remind myself to savor ounce of Sprint Week, as there are so many people to see and so many stories to cover on this opening night that the time literally vanishes into thin air.

Given the full house on-hand, I didn’t even attempt to find a seat in the usually tight Gas City grandstands, leaving me to scramble for pit-side seating once the pair of non-qualifier races pushed off. With a surface unfortunately sealed shut for qualifications, an early draw was emphasized as quick-qualifier Dave Darland (12.295) was seventh in line. Big names like Ballou, Bernal, Jerry Coons, Jr., and Scotty Weir (Keen 18) had horrible draws and were sent to the NQ; awarded an opportunity to redeem themselves thanks to a complete surface revamp. Only Weir would make the feature on his own merit after skillfully producing a heat race transfer. An honorable mention for effort goes to Coon-dog’s B-main barrage, blasting from 23rd to seventh before tagging Dakota Jackson and spinning. Although two of the four heats were won from the front row, Bryan Clauson and Jon Stanbrough made huge impressions by winning from the third row.

Familiar View – This was the view most everyone had of Kevin Thomas, Jr. during Indiana Sprint Week, winning three features in a row and leading 96 of the 180 feature laps.

Another track rework was mandated by Jiggs Thomason prior to A-main action, soon seeing tenth-quick qualifier Chad Boespflug and Jon Stanbrough fire from the front row. Saved a turn three pit-side seat by Lafayette CSX employee “Railroad” Joe Higdon (whose Sprint Week would be cut short after three days for knee replacement surgery), we saw the most recent USAC winner at Putnamville put Paul Hazen’s 57 up front, leading a pack of consisting of his front row mate, third-starting Bryan Clauson, and fifth-starting Shane Cottle (Epperson 2). Near the halfway mark, second place Clauson clipped a turn two marker tire, biked his Beast chassis, and miraculously brought the piece to the ground. Such an awkward pause caused Cottle to balk and allowed Stanbrough to seize the day and leap frog to second. Soon powering past Boespflug on the outside of turns three and four, Jon’s DRC/Dynotech was absolutely hooked, sailing away to a convincing victory which was his first of the season, 30th in USAC action, and 15th for the Sprint Week tally, also the first in USAC circles for car owner Shane Wade. At the 11:17 checkered, Cottle collected second while Hunter Schuerenberg scrambled from 14th to 3rd. Despite a right rear tire that was mostly bald due to an unusual tread separation, Clauson held on to fourth while quick qualifier Dave Darland soldiered home fifth. Early leader Boespflug was scored sixth while Christopher Bell (Kunz 67), Stockon, Thomas, and Windom took seventh through tenth. As for KT, his rally from 20th to 9th was exactly the kind of effort that is required to sit in that Bridgeport rocker. By virtue of scoring more qualification points than Stanbrough, Shane Cottle actually led the Sprint Week standings after night number one.

Enjoying a mid-Saturday pre-race feast for the second year in a row thanks to photographer Dave Roach and his son-in-law Jason Clark (awarding Lafond box after box of assorted Little Debbie snacks), Tom, Steve, and I soon arrived in Kokomo to snag decent grandstand seats and pound a pit area containing 46 stout sprinters. Notable additions included Bobby East and Brent Beauchamp, with some ride-swapping already taking place after Robert Ballou (who missed Friday’s main altogether) stepped out of the Pollock 21 and into his own 12, with midget veteran Davey Ray inserted into the revolving ride out of Illinois.

Flexing Muscle – Jon Stanbrough won his heat from fifth and led the final 15 laps of the feature, scoring his first victory of the year in his first trip to Gas City this season.

Say what you will about the economy and issues with local car counts, but how impressive was the week-long Sprint Week assembly of ammunition? Expected to take a dive in Terre Haute as the half-mile eliminates so many of the smaller teams (33 ventured to Vigo County), Gas City, Lawrenceburg, and Putnamville all eclipsed the magical 50 mark. Even the rained out finale in Haubstadt had 38, making for an extremely healthy average of 45. Although it would have been nice to have further west coast representation from Mike Spencer or a cameo appearance from Kyle Larson, such solid numbers only added to the allure.

Normally a USAC pit area is packed to the gills with so many nondescript massive haulers. Thus, it was nice to see some open trailers belonging to Brazil’s Daylan Chambers (using a 358 cubic inch steel block in his Eagle chassis) and Texan Nathan Moore, maintaining that old school Sprint Week spirit where racers will do whatever it takes to compete. As for Moore, the 305 cubic inch winged racer from the Dallas area had never raced without aerodynamic aid. After unloading at Gas City, both Tim Clauson and Phil Poor were seen advising the enthusiastic racer on setup for his ex-Bryan Clauson Maxim chassis (the one that won all of the big races in 2012), powered by a Chevy LS-7 crate engine constructed by Ron Shaver. With a little over 800 horses at his disposal, every part in the aluminum block mill comes from the GM performance parts catalog, costing less than $25,000 and able to go 35 nights between rebuilds. Hooked on non-winged racing after watching Jesse Hockett and Robert Ballou go at it in Sprint Bandit competition, although he did not make a feature event Moore had so much Sprint Week fun that he was already considering a permanent move to the Hoosier state.

For the Win – Bryan Clauson battled Christopher Bell all race long at Putnamville, passing him on lap 13 but having to fend off a late race challenge.

Jon Stanbrough might have rang the opening night bell and had momentum on his side, but after drawing second to last and timing a disappointing 24th at Kokomo, the spotlighted Sprint Week stage soon shifted to Chad Boespflug, Dave Darland, and Kevin Thomas, Jr. For the second night in a row, qualifying draw was key as Darland drew fifth and again topped the charts with a 12.668 second circuit. Unable to take advantage of his placement in the upper end of the qualifying line, Bryan Clauson’s engine was obviously ill and required a replacement after posting the 26th best time.

As is normally the case, Sprint Week heat race intensity is at its highest level at Kokomo and this year was no different. Gary Taylor and Jerry Coons, Jr. jousted for transfer positions in the first event, tipping Taylor and causing Tyler Hewitt to climb a wheel and awkwardly tumble through turn one (as Travis Welpott pancaked the concrete). The safety crew carefully extricated Hewitt, who wound up with a broken shoulder and ribs, extremely painful injuries that put a premature end to what was a solid season thus far. The second heat saw some amped-up action when Kyle Cummins slid into sixth quick qualifier Kevin Thomas, Jr. at turn four’s exit. The nudge spun KT, flattened his left front tire, and motivated him to flip Kyle the bird as he idled by. Ryan Bernal bumped bars with Cummins to claim the final transfer but the fun was far from over. After the checkered flag fell, the annual Sprint Week pit area meltdown was about to begin. Thomas and crew member A.J. Bray made a beeline to the Cummins pit, as the burly Bray attempted to pull Kyle out of the car, causing Kyle’s father Mark (who is far bigger than Bray) to react by pinning A.J. to the ground. Order was restored once police arrived, but it was only moments before the B-main cars were called when both drivers were granted permission to race by the Sheriff, who had specifically requested that both Kevin and Kyle “work things out” in a civilized manner before suiting up again.

Four Abreast – Shown at Lawrenceburg, USAC sprinters might only go three-wide on the pace lap, but they save the four abreast action for when it counts.

Three of the four Kokomo heats were won from the front row, but the third one was claimed from the outside of row two by underdog Chad Boespflug. Perhaps the most thrilling of all Sprint Week heats, Chad promptly threaded a turn two needle and wound up with the lead by turn three. Holding off all comers for the big score, this propelled him to a second consecutive A-main pole position start, as five cars ahead of him in qualifications failed to make the heat race cut.

Both Thomas and Cummins earned A-main tickets, with Casey Shuman (Krockenberger 21k) the first to be left out in the cold. With a slight intermission before the big show, track preparer Reece O’Connor put the finishing touches on his playing field by blading the top of three and four, later simultaneously disking and watering the dirt from top to bottom.

Game Face – After his team was forced to change an engine after Kokomo qualifying, Bryan put on his game face and charged from 20th to 7th.

The thirty lap battle was interrupted by two yellows and one red (for a fence-busting flip by Ryan Bernal), but its first ten laps were without question the most exciting of the series. Watching outside front row starter Jerry Coons pace the first four tours before a bottom-feeding Wes McIntyre (winning his first Kokomo feature the Sunday prior) surged from third to pace the next four circuits. A blanket could have been thrown over the first seven competitors as Boespflug, Coons, Thomas, and Darland were slicing and dicing like a swarm of angry bees. Chad made the low line work and was out front for laps nine and ten, but Thomas toiled even lower and pilfered P1 on lap 11. McIntyre moved up top and made several bids for first, somehow manufacturing momentum off the razor-thin turn two cushion. KT was equally strong on the bottom and once he matched McIntyre’s top-shelf strategy with ten to go, he was able to streak to a full straightaway advantage, ultimately stinking up the show. McIntyre, Darland, Bell, and Windom (from tenth) landed inside the top-five. Boespflug again settled for sixth as Clauson salvaged his evening with a scintillating surge from 20th to 7th. Hunter Schuerenberg hustled from 15th to 8th while Scotty Weir and Brady Short did likewise, respectively advancing five and seven positions.

Darland held a 17 point series advantage on Clauson as we headed southeast to the Ohio River and the always muggy Lawrenceburg Speedway. After a brunch at Bub’s Café where I enjoyed a tasty trifecta of shrimp, crabmeat, and eggs over English muffins (along with a bowl of fruit and one-fourth of a blueberry buckle pancake), Tom and Steve took a nap while I hit the gym for some quick cardio, energizing us for the 90 minute drive down Interstate 74. Touring the pit area under broiling sunlight, this was the first day of 2013 that peaked above the 90 degree mark, made extremely uncomfortable by an almost unbearable humidity, clearly reminding of when Indiana Sprint Week stopped in the valley of North Vernon where there was absolutely no breeze. Thanks to spots saved by Jason and Travis Clark, Tom and I enjoyed a great view of the 3/8ths mile, literally feeling the perspiration run down my chest as I instantly became a hot, sweaty mess. However, the huge field of cars and even bigger crowd were given a break from the stifling weather when a small storm cell rolled through after qualifications, dumping a fair amount of rain that delayed non-qualifier races until 9:15 PM.

Gassing It – Shown here in the Pollock 21 at Putnamville, Justin Grant also drove the Elson 27 early in the week, scoring seventh at both Lawrenceburg and Bloomington.

Dave Rudisell and crew had their best Lawrenceburg qualification surface in a few years, as Robert Ballou’s quick lap of 13.491 seconds came 29th in line. Not known for his qualifying prowess, when was the last time Robert was number one in time trials? With the clay in perfect shape, the rest of the quick six were sprinkled throughout the draw. Continuing his qualification hot streak, Dave Darland was third best while Kevin Thomas, Jr. earned eighth. Chad Boespflug slapped a pair of 57s over his own number 98 but struggled in time trials and was forced to win a non-qualifier race just to make the heats. After failing to snag a transfer out of heat and B, Boespflug’s Sprint Week title hopes were effectively squashed, such a shame that this reality came so early in the series.

The rain made Lawrenceburg’s skyscraper banking lightning-quick for heat race action, as three of the four contests were claimed from the outside of the front row. Given the speed of the surface, Ballou and second-quick Wes McIntyre were the lone two from the top-ten to miss the heat race cut, awarding front row feature spots to Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Scotty Weir. After a sub-par qualification effort, Hunter Schuerenberg again had to work hard, gathering the final B-main transfer after beginning 12th.

Limelight – Backed by bright Kokomo lighting, Brady Bacon had a quiet but excellent Sprint Week, finishing second in points after finishes of 12th, 13th, 3rd, 3rd, 6th, and 3rd.

After an 11:24 PM wave lap, Weir led the first tour while behind him, Chase Stockon attempted to reverse the April USAC ending with a wicked turn three slider on Kevin Thomas, Jr. Two-wheeling all the way to the wall in turn four, such a costly mistake signaled an end to Stockon’s evening.

Once action resumed, the engine in the Keen 18 gave way for Weir, who handed the big banana to Thomas. While approaching back markers at lap ten, KT had to deal with second place Darland for the next six or seven laps. But, after Dave overextended the cushions in turns two and three, the race for first was all but over. Kevin was far too strong in racking up his fifth USAC union of the year, his second at the legendary Lawrenceburg Speedway in just two and a half months. Wishing that the dirt wasn’t so sticky, Darland settled for second while Brady Bacon bagged third for the hometown Hoffman team. Shane Cottle came from tenth to fourth while Bryan Clauson found fifth from 11th. Wes McIntyre looked solid in sixth as did Justin Grant in seventh, finding work in Bill Elson’s 27 for the first three shows. Bell, Ballou, and Richard Vander Weerd (his best result of the series) completed the first ten. Jon Stanbrough stayed in the Sprint Week title hunt with his 20th to 11th flogging, mirroring his Kokomo effort where he took 12th from 19th. Darland now held a 28 point advantage on Thomas as they eyed Action Track activities on Wednesday.

Reach for the Sky – Popping a wheelie while warming up at Kokomo, Chad Boespflug opened Indiana Sprint Week with a pair of sixth place performances for Paul Hazen, leading 17 combined laps.

Done by 11:40 PM, thankfully the early morning haul to home base came at the start of the two day break, giving everyone ample time to regroup for the final four showings. Waking up far too early on Monday morning in order to meet with landscape and garage subcontractors for my new home, after transporting a truckload of storage unit items I sadly had to say goodbye to Tom, whose guilt of being away from his wife Carla and young son T.J. became too much to justify on this two day racing respite, heading back to Cleveland and leaving Steve and I to finish the rest of the week on our own. Deciding to head to downtown Indy to show Steve the sights and absorb the guitar exhibit at the Eiteljorg Museum, shortly after we entered the museum the energy from our initial Sprint Week high had officially worn off. Completely exhausted by our usual late evenings and early mornings, we both agreed to exit stage left, time to slow down and take it easy for the rest of Monday and most of Tuesday.

Joined by wife Rachael, Monday night’s entertainment was another incredible eating adventure in downtown Indy. The memorable meal came at Bluebeard, just my second time to sample one of the city’s best kept secrets. Enjoying a couple of craft cocktails and trying a little bit of everything on their vast menu, after raving endlessly about the food our thoughtful server Elvis even gave us two incredible loaves of Amelia’s Bakery bread to take home. Tuesday’s daytime adventure took us to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the obligatory lap around the track in a bus, which now costs a whopping $25 for a full grounds tour and an opportunity to kiss the bricks at the start-finish line. Whatever happened to the $2 or $3 lap around the track while listening to a recording by Donald Davidson? With that kind of inflation, IMS is obviously hungry for some easy cash.

Hard Charger – Hunter Schuerenberg passed a ton of cars in Sprint Week feature action, overhauling 30 machines in the first four features.

Kissing the bricks was cool, but for sure Tuesday’s highlight was a second return to Bonge’s, where Steve deviated from the norm by choosing their world famous tomato soup (made of course with local Red Gold tomatoes) along with an entrée of prime cap and shrimp, the first time he hasn’t had the New York strip in at least a half-dozen visits. I had the requisite wedge with bleu cheese but deviated with a delicious combination of lemon chicken with mushrooms. For dessert, I again went with the unusual, a banana cake coated in cream cheese frosting while Steve went with chocolate ganache cake. With such unbelievable eats and ambience, it was a great way to begin the second half of Sprint Week, made even better by stopping to chat with photographer Steve Remington, who lives just up the road from the righteous restaurant.

Thanks to Steve’s extra set of hands, I was able to move garage items from my storage unit on Wednesday morning. Once that was complete and the Bonge’s binge had been obliterated, in anticipation of Terre Haute we fueled our stomachs at Zionsville’s Friendly Tavern where upon exiting, the wife of former car owner/driver Gary Irvin took notice of Steve’s vintage Ron Shuman Tamale Wagon tee. Hitting the highway and suggesting a US 40 detour at the Greencastle exit to avoid I-70 one-lane restrictions, after an ice cream stop at 231 and 40 unfortunately Steve’s pace in between Putnamville and Brazil was a tad too much for a State Trooper, who made a quick u-turn, only to issue a warning to the super cool Californian.

Hard Luck – Sprint Week was not very memorable for Tracy Hines, saddled with disappointing feature finishes of 20th, 11th, 12th, 22nd, 15th, and 13th.

Thankfully our brief stoppage did not keep us from the thirty-three car contingent at the Don Smith Classic. An O’Connor family/Bob Sargent production, I was surprised and pleased that this contest was not watered down by any support classes. Again, both Vander Weerds skipped the half-mile, with notable absences from Chad Boespflug and Scotty Weir. After heavily damaging his lone engine at the Sheldon Kinser Memorial some two and a half weeks ago, last year’s winner Daron Clayton was missing in action. Rick Pollock’s revolving door continued to rotate as Justin Grant returned to the ride for a second round. Tiring of the World of Outlaws grind, Bill Rose reverted to the wingless wars with his familiar number six.

Despite sizzling weather, I was so happy that the fans still came out in force for this event, as this was the first time in six 2013 attempts that the Action Track had cooperation from Mother Nature. One of those waiting in line to buy tickets was Levi Jones, also encountering Tommy Helfrich and a pair of New Zealanders (Wayne “Mags” Nicholson and John Hopewell) as I melted during my conversation with Decatur, Illinois benefactor Dan Clifton.

In Sight – With the Bonge’s Beer sign in sight, everything must be right.

Finding some relief from the unforgiving sun under the main grandstand roof, racing royalty was seated just two rows ahead, as both Rollie Helmling and Bruce Walkup were enjoying the action. So too were sprint car chauffeurs Jon Sciscoe, Steve Rone, and Clayton, who peddled t-shirts with his wife Shelley. Most of the top-ten times from Terre Haute qualifications came in the first half of the order, as Jon Stanbrough’s number one tour of 19.947 seconds came ten cars in. However, two-thirds of the way through Kevin Thomas, Jr. produced the third best time, showing no signs of letting up after dominating the previous two outings. Dave Darland maintained his excellent Sprint Week qualification streak with the fourth best lap.

Two of the four heats were won from the outside from row, but the other two were taken from sixth by Thomas and Darland. Spoiling his seventh-quick time, Justin Grant biked and flipped in heat three but still managed to pop a provisional pill to take part in the thirty lap finale. Ryan Bernal two-wheeled turn four and needed the B-main to redeem himself. Speaking of the B, after failing to take a qualifying lap and missing his heat race altogether, Bill Rose came from dead last to sweep past Brian Hayden on the final lap to steal the final A-main ticket. With Hayden and Rose going at it, was this 2013 or 1993?

His Way – After failing to make the opening night feature at Gas City in the Pollock 21, Robert Ballou returned to his own ride at Kokomo, earning a top finish of fourth at Terre Haute.

After four hours of sweating it out in the sauna, a 10:15 wave lap sent front row starters Brady Bacon and C.J. Leary on their way. After firing from fifth, it didn’t take long for the Thomas Express to get back on track, finding first on the initial go-round as quick qualifier Jon Stanbrough dropped like a rock to 12th. With Thomas, Bacon, and Darland caressing the cushion and pulling away, 2001 Hulman Classic winner Tracy Hines’s hopes went up in smoke far too early.

Keep my eyes on the lead trio while also watching Jon Stanbrough bombard the bottom with the precision of a surgeon; one by one he picked off cars by consistently hitting his marks. Similar to Hines, Jerry Coons, Jr.’s Sprint Week also went up in smoke while operating a strong fourth.

Bacon’s Hoffman 69 Triple X-Mopar certainly appeared up to the task of taking on Thomas, pulling even with the RW Motorsports Maxim-Fisher on the straights and allowing Dave Darland a look as well. A Tyler Courtney caution came with just four laps left, setting the stage for Sprint Week’s most exciting ending.

Strange Sunset – After storms rolled through Lawrenceburg, this was the sunset we were left with.

With green flag flying, Darland immediately dove low in turn one and snatched second while Robert Ballou also smelled blood in the water to take third. Restarting sixth, Stanbrough sprinted to fourth and continued his colossal climb. Thomas somehow slipped sideways in turn four, allowing Darland to dive bomb with a turn one slider with two to go. But immediately after Dave clipped the cushion, Thomas turned left and beat him to the back chute. Shadowing KT through three and four, with white flag flying the Lincoln legend attacked again with a similar slider in one. But, much to the shock and dismay of the large throng, Dave spun sideways through the slick middle and backed his Phillips 71 hard into the outside concrete, putting his Sprint Week title hopes in serious jeopardy. Like letting the air out of a big balloon, this was one of those stages of the series where disappointment and dejection reigned supreme. Learning later that a zip tie became lodged in a butterfly and stuck his throttle wide open, Darland commented that he quickly ran out of options and spun the car in an attempt to save it from complete destruction. Unfortunately, the blast to the rear broke the frame and may have stressed the crankshaft in the engine.

In Your Face – Danny Holtsclaw takes a two-wheeled tour of Bloomington, scored 21st in the feature event.

Restarting Thomas, Ballou, Bacon, Stanbrough, and Stockon for a two lap dash, the Silent Gasser immediately gathered two more spots by taking the shortest distance, running out of time to make a bid for first. Tallying his third USAC win in a row for the second time this season, this middle stage of Sprint Week absolutely belonged to KT Jr., who took the series point lead and appeared unstoppable. Trailing Thomas and Stanbrough were Bacon, Ballou, and Stockon (up from 10th). Schuerenberg again did a fantastic job in the feature, scored sixth from 13th and strengthening his hold on the week-long Josh Burton hard charger money ($404.04, which was sponsored by B&W Auto Mart). Short, McIntyre, Windom, and Cottle (from 16th) took seventh through tenth.

Topped by a fried egg and strips of bacon, elk burgers at Bub’s served as Thursday’s mid-day meal as we were attempting to come to grips with a huge crack to the rental car’s windshield, undoubtedly from taking a rock on I-70 just east of Terre Haute. One of the week’s low points, there was nothing we could do but move on to the next event. By the time we exited the car in beautiful downtown Putnamville, apparently someone decided to crank the heat up a little more, completely soaked in sweat as I laid down chairs in the main grandstand alongside high school pal George Robertson. A pit tour confirmed that Darland was now in a backup car, surprised by the appearance of Blake Fitzpatrick and mechanic Davey Jones; who assembled a Spike chassis in three days. Going to school to be a lawyer, Blake had not driven in nearly a year and simply felt the need for speed, not intimidated by the Sprint Week spotlight.

Jerry – Series veteran Jerry Coons, Jr. qualified second and was running a solid fourth at Terre Haute before engine issues ruined his evening and week.

Carrying three shirts in the car in anticipation of the sticky weather, I switched to number two on my walk back to the front stretch. Perking up in my lawn chair for the 50-car qualifying session, Kevin Thomas, Jr. came out on top at 12.716 seconds, showing no signs of letting up in his quest for the crown. KT was 21st in line and even though most of the top six times were turned in the first half, the surface was still solid later as Schuerenberg clocked tenth just three cars from the end. Ryan Pace was a notable second quick while Jon Stanbrough continued to show some Sprint Week vital signs by timing third. Bacon, Richard Vander Weerd, and Bryan Clauson were the rest of the quick six, leaving Dave Darland out of the mix as he wound up a sub-par 16th.

Watching Steve Lafond get hammered by bits of clay from his outside turn one vantage point, thankfully he moved in time for the qualifying races, otherwise he might have needed a change of underwear when Mike Terry tumbled into his former spot. Three of the four heats were won from the front with Thomas initially missing the cut as his race was abnormally stacked. Pace and Bacon (driveline) also missed it and made for the best B-main of the week.

Local Rep – Wes McIntyre provided solid, local Indiana Sprint Week representation, earning 8th in points after finishes of 2nd, 6th, 8th, and 9th.

Speaking of that B, tempers flared when Justin Grant was banged by Robert Ballou, watching Justin threaten with the steering wheel and remind as to who was number one. Beginning from 13th, Ballou was far from finished, tangling with A.J. Hopkins for the final transfer on the final lap. Thomas took the win and Bacon scored second, but non-qualifier winner Wes McIntyre did the unthinkable, coming all the way from 18th to 3rd in just 12 laps. Stockon, Ballou, and Chase Briscoe (from 12th) also made it. With the groove now widening, this was the best Lincoln Park surface I’ve seen this year and was arguably the best of the entire seven race slate.

With four of the top-ten qualifiers having to come through the consolation, that allowed Hunter Schuerenberg to finally start a feature from the front. Putnamville Midget Week master Christopher Bell started alongside in his coil-front Keith Kunz Bullet and immediately pointed low to take the lead. On the second circuit, fourth-starting Bryan Clauson slid Schuerenberg for runner-up rights, briefly leading off the bottom of two before Bell solidified the spot by touring the top of turn four. Amber bulbs illuminated on lap five for third-starting Tracy Hines, who again had issues that compounded an already horrific Sprint Week. Out of the six races that were actually run, his best finish was an 11th at Kokomo.

Pride of Princeton – Kyle Cummins made four of the five features he attempted, becoming embroiled in a Kokomo heat race controversy with Kevin Thomas, Jr.

The restart saw Kevin Thomas take fifth from Jon Stanbrough and while attempting to slide Schuerenberg for fourth in the suddenly slippery turn four, the two connected and spun Kevin, proving that he was indeed human. Luckily for KT, there was easily enough time to make up for the mistake and keep his title hopes alive. A short while later, Schuerenberg finally stopped and caused caution after running numerous laps with his left front shock dislodged. Just a few laps later, a charging Chase Briscoe came cart-wheeling to turn one, the nasty landing absolutely destroying a Spike chassis that had just been acquired from Jonathan Hendrick. In his lone Sprint Week appearance, it was a bitter pill to swallow for the budget-minded Briscoe, as he had advanced all the way to 11th from 20th before being squeezed into the outside concrete.

Twenty tours still remained in round five, with Bell leading Clauson, Stanbrough, Vander Weerd (Richard) and Bacon. Christopher continued to hug the bottom but somehow Bryan found a way to go even lower. Two laps into the next green flag run, The Bullet made his bid for first as they entered turn one. After some slight contact, he held his first Sprint Week feature lead at lap 13.

Logan – Despite showing some fine qualifying form at Bloomington, Logan Jarrett seemed to struggle for the majority of Indiana Sprint Week.

After another yellow, this time for Shane Cottle, Dave Darland had climbed to sixth from 13th, ready to capitalize on KT’s misfortune. On the top shelf through turn four, Dave soon pulled alongside Brady Bacon for 5th but had his front end chopped, sending him directly to the infield with a broken front axle. Watching him climb from the car, put his hands on his hips and stare down the driver of car 69, it didn’t take a genius to see the anger in his expressions, as his run at a record-tying fourth Sprint Week title was officially over.

Nine more laps were left after one final caution for Richard Vander Weerd. Bell clearly had enough mustard on the hot dog to retake first, attacking the top of turns three and four and giving Clauson a run for his money. However, one front end washout against the turn three cushion was enough to seal the deal for Bryan, who earned his second USAC sprint car score of the season. Thrashing from 19th to 3rd in the Pottorff Logging 11, Brady Short’s sterling performance was the hardest charge of the entire series. Jon Stanbrough notched a nice fourth place run while Chris Windom came from 11th to claim fifth. Bacon, Ballou (up 14 spots), Boespflug (up 7), Brent Beauchamp (also up 7) and Stockon tallied top-ten finishes. Kevin Thomas, Jr. recovered for 11th and with Bloomington on the horizon; he held an eight point advantage on Stanbrough and ten on Clauson. Suddenly, this was a completely different ballgame, entering into an altogether different stage of Sprint Week. Could Thomas hold it all together for the final two rounds or would Clauson and Stanbrough’s savvy shine through?

Toasting – With a pair of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ales in hand, Sprint Week guest Steve Lafond and I toast to another epic meal at Bonge’s Tavern.

Bumping into USAC super fan Richie Murray on Friday afternoon at Nick’s English Hut, our annual pre-Bloomington feast of local brews and full Stromboli sandwiches was a no-brainer. Soon heading south and turning into the speedway off Fairfax Road, the familiar face of former track operator Mike Miles smiled and waved, continuing to conduct his mulch business from these same grounds. Thinking of just how much flack the new regime has received over their surface conditions this season, I had to chuckle and think that Mike is probably relieved to have exited the racetrack business.

Confident that the clay would be wet and tacky due to the excellent conditions I witnessed at the Sheldon Kinser Memorial two weeks prior, Steve Lafond initially relayed that it wasn’t quite wet enough when walking across to stow his camera gear in the infield. Sure enough, his intuition was right on the money when hot laps commenced for the 46 car field, showing dreaded black streaks immediately upon application of throttle. Sweating it out in the turn four bleachers with the Kiwi contingent of John Hopewell, his father Bryan, “Mags” Nicholson, and honorary resident Davey Ray, despite the warm and windy weather on Friday, we were all astounded at the condition of the clay. The second session wasn’t even complete when Pat Sullivan came over the PA and announced that management had decided to bite the bullet and completely rework the dirt, as leaving it alone surely would have led to single file, rubber-down racing, definitely not the type of action that Sprint Week patrons paid $25 to see.

Winners – Bob East, Bryan Clauson, Warren Beard, and Brad Mariscotti form the 2013 Indiana Sprint Week championship team.

An embarrassing situation for the entire Bloomington staff on their biggest night of the year, despite the 90 minutes of downtime I do believe that they made the right call. Had they not tried to make improvements, I suspect that they would have lost fans for both this night and the future. The high expectations and resulting pressure of Indiana Sprint Week not only impacts the racers, but clearly the track operators as well. There is no exact science on how to prepare a dirt track, as far too many variables are involved in the process. Thinking back to my one year tenure as a serial scorer at this very venue back in 1995, that task eliminated any possibility of getting into the racetrack business, as I saw back then that nearly every job was a thankless one, one that you didn’t hear about until you did it wrong.

On this particular evening, I have to imagine that Danny Roberts, Bruce Leer, general manager Kris Kirchner and the rest of the Bloomington Speedway Partners might have wished that they would have done something different with their time and money. As it is, I’m glad that they stepped up to the plate to take over for Mike and Judy Miles, as I would much rather go through these growing pains and continue this 90 year tradition rather than see this historic piece of property turned into a tract of homes.

The Bear – Starting all six Sprint Week features in Jeff Walker’s 11, Chris Windom scored sixth in series points, finding fourth at Bloomington and fifth at both Kokomo and Putnamville.

The red clay was still wet and slimy when the first car was presented for two-lap qualifications and as expected, all but two of the top-ten qualifiers came from the second half of the order. The top-three times were turned at the very end of the line, as Sheldon Kinser Memorial winner Chris Windom clocked quickest at 11.357 seconds. Second through sixth included Bacon, Clauson, Stockon, Thomas (after coming out 21st), and Ryan Pace. Justin Grant (8th) and Wes McIntyre (10th after going out fourth) were pleasant surprises while Jon Stanbrough’s 15th best time emphasized the importance of a heat race transfer.

Non-qualifier races were thankfully scrapped in recognition of the time crunch and because of the ultra-heavy conditions, passing of course came at a premium. Three of the four heats were taken from the front row while the fourth was impressively won from fifth by Grant. Chad Boespflug (Fox 56) and Nick Drake tangled at the start of that fourth heat, with Boespflug shedding aluminum pieces that landed over the front stretch fencing. Thankfully, no one was injured, as those in the affected areas were clearly paying attention. But, it does bring to light (along with Brian Hayden’s crash here back on June 28th) that the fencing does need to be taller.

 

Aside from Thomas’s Thursday tangle with Schuerenberg, Bryan Clauson’s last lap, turn three slider for fourth on Jon Stanbrough proved to be key moments in he Sprint Week championship. Had Bryan not pulled off that pass, it would have been extremely difficult to win the feature from the fourth row.

The Favorite – Shown spitting some Bloomington clay, a faulty power steering unit kept Kevin Thomas, Jr. from his first Sprint Week championship.

Heats were finished by 10:30 PM, which on a normal night could have signaled an A-main conclusion. Still wet and narrow for the consolation affair, overtaking was still a daunting challenge, although Richard Vander Weerd managed to take the final transfer from tenth. The Bloomington B was anything but memorable for Stanbrough, who fell from fifth to 8th after Chad Boespflug took a bike ride directly in front of him. Unable to work his way to a transfer, his opportunity at a third crown had suddenly disappeared. Achieving the ultimate thrill with a win on opening night but having to attack for every position at Kokomo, Lawrenceburg, Terre Haute, and Putnamville just to keep his championship aspirations intact, Jon’s agony of defeat in Bloomington indicates that the full spectrum of emotions can easily be achieved during the Sprint Week grind. Much like Shane Cottle, Chad Boespflug and Dave Darland, Stanbrough rode the ridiculous roller coaster, only to be disappointed in the end.

Come feature time, the 2013 Indiana Sprint Week title fight had been reduced to two individuals. At 24 years of age, Bryan Clauson was now the cagey veteran while 22 year-old Kevin Thomas, Jr. served as the heavily-favorited upstart. But before Ryan Bernal and Thomas bolted from their front row perch, my buddy Mags laid claim to the 50/50 sum of $1,359, donating $359 to the cause of the soon-to-be 21 year-old female who sold him the ticket.

The Office – Working hard from his office chair, Robert Ballou cranks sideways through Terre Haute’s first turn.

After the 12:02 AM wave lap, Thomas reached turn one first, amassing a humongous advantage by the end of lap two. With the track still narrow, naturally Kevin would encounter lapped traffic extremely early. In the blink of an eye, Clauson came from fourth to breathe down KT’s neck, as his Beast chassis seemed to be able to rotate through the sticky corners better than the majority of his counterparts. After KT bounced through an invisible turn two crater, that opened the door for BC, who slid him for the top spot in turn three on lap 18. A Blake Fitzpatrick spin allowed Thomas an opportunity to redeem himself, but Bryan’s big jump and Kevin’s over the cushion excursions in turn two effectively put the race out of reach.

Unbeknownst to me, Thomas had a steering gear that was failing, completely justifying the difficulty he had in negotiating the south end of the speedway. If ever there was an evening when you needed a power assist, this would be one of them, as the surface was completely cowboy. With two to go, the steering situation got so bad for Kevin that he was unable to make the first turn, flying over the banking and ultimately forcing a final caution.

Leaving two laps left, Clauson could not be caught, scoring his second victory in as many nights which not only shot him to the top of the Sprint Week standings, but also to number one status in the national points. Chase Stockon had his best showing of a frustrating series with a runner-up, shadowed by Bacon, Windom, and Bernal. Darland (up eight spots), Grant, Bell, McIntyre, and Leary claimed sixth through tenth. Exhausted and dejected, Thomas took 16th, without question a devastating blow to his Sprint Week championship as he now sat third, five markers behind Bacon and 31 behind Clauson. Leading the first 17 laps, had it not been for the freak mechanical failure, Kevin would have been the point leader heading into the final round. Could he make a recovery at Haubstadt, a place where he’d already won twice in 2013? And, how appropriate was it that Clauson would head to the Haub as the leader, the place where he lost a nail-biting title fight to the former chauffeur of his ride – the legendary Levi Jones.

Three Wide – On one of the hottest days and nights of the year, a humongous Terre Haute crowd salutes the three wide parade lap.

Fighting sleep for the last forty-five minutes of the drive home, by the time we had miraculously arrived at the 116th and Keystone roundabout, I came to my senses and realized that it was time for half price shakes at Steak ‘n Shake. No matter what time of the day or night, there’s always room for some ice cream.

Soon heading to bed but waking up on Saturday morning to brooding skies, the wet weather matched my melancholy mood, as I had been dreading this day as much as I had looked forward to that initial Bonge’s bash. Completely unoriginal in my lunch choice of a chain (Ted’s Montana Grill), dejected, despondent, and in denial that our nine days of paradise and freedom were quickly coming to a close, Steve and I drowned our sorrows and fueled up for the three hour tour with steaks and some local suds. Sure we might have had the drive down the Haubstadt and one last evening of action, but where did the last eight days disappear to? Why did it have to end so soon? Damn it!

Taking a brief detour on our journey southwest, I pointed Steve in the direction of Paragon Speedway, which by now had rightfully cancelled due to wet grounds. Speaking of moisture, from Spencer to Princeton rain pounded the windshield and puddled the highway, concerning the California driver who successfully dodged some wicked lightning bolts. Constantly checking my phone for updates, weather.com still stated that the evening’s chance for precipitation was a reasonable 40%. Quickly stopping for yet another ice cream fix (Can you say butterscotch shake?) at Washington’s Mason’s Root Beer Stand, not too far from Princeton the rain finally relented. But, those threatening skies continued to infringe on Tommy Helfrich’s Tri-State Speedway, as John Deere green continued to compact the clay in anticipation of a deluge. Spitting rain, a small crowd, and impending heavier storms caused the plug to be pulled at 7:20 local time; my first experience of being washed out at Haubstadt. Sadly, just like that the final page of the Indiana Sprint Week novel had been turned, as a Sunday rain date was just not in the cards.

The Legend – Going after his fourth Indiana Sprint Week title, Dave Darland was a force to be reckoned with all week long in the Phillips 71.

In his ninth season of Indiana Sprint Week activity, Bryan Clauson laid claim to his first series championship, a huge feather in his cap as he’d done just about everything else there was to do in USAC except earn a Silver Crown title. Performing in the clutch when the pressure and heat were at its highest levels, much like Levi Jones would have done, Clauson’s stretch run served as the final stage of Sprint Week, stealing the ultimate honor from Kevin Thomas, Jr. If there was any solace for KT, Bryan would readily admit that you have to lose one of these things before you can win one.

Four years ago, Clauson lost out on a Sprint Week crown in a heart breaking and exasperating Haubstadt finish to Jones. Taking over for the man who I liked to call Mister July, Clauson continued the Jones tradition of finishing races inside of the top-ten, salvaging good evenings from horrendous beginnings, and coming on strong in the final quarter. Fourth at Gas City (despite the bike ride and right rear tire issue), seventh from 20th at Kokomo (after changing an engine post-qualifying), fifth from 11th at Lawrenceburg, struggling to 12th at Terre Haute, and winning from fourth at both Putnamville and Bloomington, Indiana Sprint Week was definitely a test of Bryan’s internal fortitude.

Nine men made all six features without the aid of a provisional. Of course there were the top-five points producers of Clauson, Bacon, Thomas, Darland, and Bell, but Windom, McIntyre (having an outstanding week), Stockon, and Cottle also did the deed. Tracy Hines and Hunter Schuerenberg also started all six, but both required a provisional at Bloomington.

Using the all-new Interstate 69 as the route back to Indianapolis, while Steve poured through his previous evening’s photos, I enjoyed a gorgeous sunset that seemed to span to the end of this earth. With exits, gas stations, and civilization all but extinct in this neck of the woods, the road to nowhere suddenly ended at U.S. 231 and state road 58 near Bloomfield. Following the tow rig of Jeff Bland, Jr., Bloomington required 32 more agonizing miles via state road 45.

Six hours of driving through rain was certainly not the most ideal manner in which I would have chosen to conclude my zenith, unhappy that it did not end on the ultimate high note that it so deserved. Not only did I not get to see a Haubstadt finale, but I also had to say goodbye to my freedom, my friend Steve, and my escape from reality. Despite my earlier attempt at denial, even at the beginning of the week when we were basking in the glow of Sprint Week’s euphoric stage, I knew this day would come. So similar in feeling to when I was younger, that final day of school before summer vacation was the absolute high point. But, the flip side of that coin was that the day before heading back to school was the year’s ultimate low. So passionate about my freedom to do what I want, when I want, without the stress or worries of work and responsibility, I expect that I will always feel that way when returning to the real world. With anything good, you must deal with the bad so here Steve and I were on that drive home, cringing at such a bitter taste of reality.

The good news is that there will undoubtedly be another Indiana Sprint Week to treasure with our closest of racing buddies. The bad news is that it is one full year away, which of course seems like forever. When that glorious day finally arrives yet again, all of those different stages will still be a part of the equation, including the utterly depressing ending. However, there will also be every one of those positive phases, as savoring some epic meals, tilting back a few choice beverages, jamming to some feel-good tunes, reveling in the intensity of some white-hot sprint car entertainment, laughing at foolish jokes, and genuinely enjoying the company of fellow speed freaks will always outweigh broiling temperatures, utter exhaustion, threats of speeding tickets, rocks to the windshield, dry-slick surfaces, or a rained out finale.

No, it may not take place in the most glamorous locale as I can actually sleep in my own bed after every round. However, I am not ashamed to admit to racing non-believers that Indiana Sprint Week continues to be the ultimate summertime vacation destination for yours truly. Truth be told, the different stages of this scintillating series offer the greatest escape from everyday life and an unequaled feeling of freedom, taking me back to my beloved, carefree summers of youth. Although some might say that I am a difficult person to please, that simply is not the case in this situation, as sometimes the simplest things in life provide maximum amounts of pleasure.

Sprint Week Post Script…

It has taken an inordinate amount of time to complete this Sprint Week summary, as three crazy weeks of work, a massive house move, and an additional writing assignment took precedence once arriving home from Haubstadt. Backing away from all available sprint car racing (including highly desired trips to MSCS meets in Haubstadt and Putnamville) until I could get caught up in my writing, the one exception to this rule was Kokomo’s Bob Darland Memorial on July 28th. Even this event was made more difficult by the fact that this was an inventory Sunday that required work until 6 PM.

Stopping by to scoop up Rachael on the short trip north, an unseasonably cool and breezy evening required long pants and a sweatshirt, arriving just in time for the start of heat races for the 30 sprint cars which happened to include Jon Stanbrough, a first for a 2013 local Kokomo program.

Strapping into the Brad and Steve Fox 53 that has only operated with a wing atop its roll cage this season, Stanbrough was joined by an all-star cast that included heat winners Wes McIntyre (from third), Shane Cottle (from fourth), and Chris Windom (from third). Blake Fitzpatrick (also his first Kokomo showing), Jerry Coons, Jr., and Darland (Phillips 71) claimed coveted feature redraw positions. Chad Boespflug was leading heat one in Paul Hazen’s 57 but had the misfortune of breaking a crucial component in the rear end or driveline, unable to make the call for the B.

The biggest surprise of the night was undoubtedly the plight of almighty Sprint Week star Kevin Thomas, Jr., who threw away a heat race transfer after climbing the second turn wall on the final lap. In the B, KT avoided calamity by climbing a wheel but nearly tipped over in turn one, popping the left rear tire from its bead and running out of time to get it changed. Justin Grant (Pollock 21) claimed the consy over a determined Conner Donelson, with Dakota Jackson edging previous night Paragon winner Dalten Gabbard for the final A-main ticket.

Once the intermission was over and the sun dipped beneath the turn two concrete, pole sitter Wes McIntyre got the jump to turn one for the thirty-lapper that awarded $3,000 in winning memory of Dave Darland’s dad. Unfortunately for Wes, the start was called back when Logan Jarrett scaled Gary Taylor’s ride, landing Logan on his lid and flattening Gary’s left rear.

McIntyre again led to turn one on the complete restart, but it would be outside row one starter Jerry Coons, Jr. getting the best bite in three and four, successfully launching through the soggy bottom. Brookston’s Aaron Farney flipped over an infield tractor tire on the second circuit and rang up red flag number two.

When racing resumed, a virtual replay of the prior lap saw McIntyre lead to the top of turn three’s cushion, but it would be Coons taking the polar opposite route to P1. Second row starters Shane Cottle and Chris Windom offered an equally enthralling spar for the show position; swapping three times in two laps as sixth-starting Dave Darland entered the mix. While Coon-Dog and Wes Mac continued their wheel to wheel war up front, the next four cars closed the gap. But soon thereafter, McIntyre finally found his rhythm, as his top shelf tactic allowed him to quickly construct an insurmountable half-straight advantage. Cottle, Coons, Darland, Windom, Weir, and Ballou provided plenty of entertainment as they sliced and diced for second via bottom, middle, and top grooves. Aside from an over-extension of turn four’s cushion on the final tour, Wes McIntyre was flawless for the thirty lap score, earning him some serious coin and also extending his point lead. Finishing the job he started during Sprint Week competition, Wes was trailed by Cottle, Darland, Weir, and Ballou. Coons, Windom, Stanbrough, Gurley, and Meseraull (Baldwin 5) secured sixth through tenth.

On the road by 8:57, this certainly made me salivate for the next event on Kokomo’s stacked 2013 schedule, this of course being the second annual Sprint Car Smackdown. Beginning on Thursday August 22nd and ending on Saturday the 24th, if you attended last year’s showing, you’ll know that this massive event is far from just hype, as the scorching Sprint Week intensity is somehow ratcheted up a notch. Standard, separate USAC programs take place on Thursday and Friday, paying $5K to win. But come Saturday, the finale dangles a tantalizing ten thousand dollar carrot to win, with a cool $1,000 coming to each feature starter. With all kinds of pre and post race activities taking place on the speedway grounds, if I can’t absorb another Indiana Sprint Week until next July, for sure this is the next best thing. Hoping for a packed house, I’m literally counting down the days, hours, and minutes.

 

 

 

 


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