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    by Kevin Oldham


Volume 16, Number 13

Take Me Home

Say it isn’t so! Like a silent assassin, October snuck up from behind and wrenched the last remaining visages of summer from my heart and head, abruptly flung head-first into an autumnal frame of mind.

Let’s be honest - once a jacket becomes requisite attire for the morning drive to work, the fun and freedom from warm weather activities are a thing of the past. Of course it’s not the end of the world just yet, as there are plenty of positive forecasts to treasure before old man winter becomes a permanent fixture, enjoying the eye candy of fall foliage before those mature maples and oaks shed their summer coats and create a massive mess. Trading a lawn mower for a leaf blower and rake and swapping outdoor open wheel action for non-stop football from my favorite lounge chair, October is certainly all about change. A season for sweatshirts and Sunday night soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, I instantly associate this time of the year with apple cider, chili cook-offs, the scent of burning leaves, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, as this was my favorite item to achieve from a night of trick or treating.

High school and college homecoming football games are another October mainstay and although springtime is the homecoming for open wheel addicts, this tenth month of the year does indeed take me home – not back to Hamilton Southeastern or Ball State, but rather to the place where I merely slept, showered, mowed the lawn, and did my laundry for the last six months. Returning to a life of normal existence, it is always nice to have a place to call home, but if I needed any more comfort from this bittersweet conclusion to my 2014 outdoor campaign, it's that my October excursions came at two venues that have served as my home away from home for the last three decades: Eldora Speedway and Kokomo Speedway.

Any trip to the Big E is automatically special, as this was THE place that cemented my passion for this sport. In the late '80s and early to mid-'90s, any scheduled sprint car contest, whether it be USAC, World of Outlaws, and especially the All Stars, meant mandatory attendance, making the 184 mile round trip an average of a dozen times each season. But, once my preference for sprint car entertainment eliminated aluminum airfoils, those trips to Eldora were severely slashed, leaning more towards Kokomo where wingless sprint cars never went out of style. First experienced some three seasons after my Eldora indoctrination and truly earning favor in the early ‘90s, this venue was the source of my sprint car driving dreams, wishing to earn a college degree and make a decent living so that I could go head to head with Tony Elliott, Dave Darland, Kevin Thomas, Gary Fisher, Mike Mann, and Tray House. Undergoing significant ownership and configuration changes since that first visit back in 1988, Sunday nights are even harder to miss these days, so thankful the track is only 45 minutes from my front door.

On Saturday, October 11th, Speed Ball and I made that oh-so-familiar trek across U.S. 36 for the second time in three weeks, wondering just how many times we’ve duplicated this Eldora excursion since 1985. It has to be in the hundreds, logging tens of thousands of miles in the process, ultimately amazed that our appetite for such habitual activity has yet to diminish. Motivated by the season-ending University of Northwestern Ohio Sprintacular, an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of sprint car activity that was easily one of the best events in all of 2013, it closed the campaign for the All Star Circuit of Champions, the NRA 360 winged warriors, and the traditional Buckeye Outlaw Sprint Series. Their respective counts of 34, 25, and 53 machines might have fallen short of last year’s 37, 29, and 54, but the fun and excitement failed to disappoint.

Celebrating the 135th All Star appearance at Eldora, it came as no surprise when twenty-time 2014 winner Dale Blaney topped the time charts at 12.990 seconds in his George Fisher wrenched/Tony Kennedy owned 14k. Having completely dominated Buckeye area sprint car proceedings this season, all Blaney had to do was take the feature green flag and he'd be guaranteed a record-setting fifth series crown. Moving from sixth to fourth in his heat, the former Los Angeles Lakers draft pick flew from third to first in the trophy dash, setting up a start from the pole for the thirty lap finale. Fully expecting an additional score for the tall cool one, the final results certainly proved the point that nothing is a given in this sport, as one of today's most thrilling chauffeurs one-upped the veteran and again added to the legacy of Eldora exhilaration.

The young man I am speaking of is 22 year-old St. Helena, California native Rico Abreu, who qualified sixth and began the feature from fifth, able to stay with the leaders thanks to an early caution from Derek Hagar and a wicked red flag for a failed Lee Jacobs slide job on second-quick qualifier Gary Taylor. Jacobs flipped wildly but was able to exit under his own power, immediately sprawling out on the ground and writhing in pain as he was later diagnosed with fractures to his T11 and T12 vertebrae in his lower back. Given my own back issues, I have to feel for Lee.

Restarting fourth behind Blaney, Randy Hannagan, and Greg Wilson, Abreu made quick work of Wilson with a north end slider and immediately set his sights on The Hurricane, boldly threading the needle between Hannagan and the turn two wall to snatch second. Halfway through the thirty lapper, lapped traffic aided Abreu in eliminating the gap to Blaney’s rear bumper. While Dale astutely picked and chose his passes, Abreu’s attack was more like a machine gun, automatically going where the back markers weren’t. With Jim Nier and Paul May serving as the moving pick, Blaney cleared both with a bodacious two-for-one slider through turns three and four, surely a tough act to follow. However, Abreu’s tremendous run off the turn two cushion provided ample turn three momentum, firing his own two-for-one slide job that included not only Nier, but also leader Blaney! Twelve laps remaining, Dale was ready to return the favor as they lapped Jac Haudenschild (Miller 6), but during the overtaking he brushed the turn four wall, allowing Rico a brief respite.

Traffic continued to keep things close for the two front runners over the remaining ten tours. Numerous times the Hartford, Ohio hot shoe would pull even at the exit of turn two, but Abreu's high side momentum maintained a slim margin. With two to go, an approaching gaggle of cars containing Danny Smith, Travis Philo and Dean Jacobs (Leidig 59) would be the deciding factor. Rico circled Smith through one and somehow stole the bottom of three from Philo, brushing his right rear against Travis’s left rear. Exiting turn four three abreast, Abreu pointed to the top and dipped underneath the white flag, able to cruise to his second career All Star victory and his second tally of the weekend after taking top honors in a MOWA match the previous evening in Lincoln, Illinois.

After a disastrous weekend at the Four Crown Nationals when he flipped both his winged sprint car and midget, his second visit to Eldora’s victory lane served as redemption for the 2013 Four Crown midget winner. Climbing atop his wing with steering wheel in hand, I haven’t heard Eldora cheers this loud in a long time, his noise exceeding that of mentor Kyle Larson’s incredible Four Crown sweep of 2011. (Bear in mind, I haven’t attended a Kings Royal since 1996 or a World 100 since 1986.) As a fan, I was caught up in the moment as well, distinctly feeling that same rush of adrenaline that pumps through your system when you know you just experienced something special.

When asked what it was like to beat Dale Blaney at this place, Rico exclaimed, “Yeah, that’s pretty damned cool. Dale’s been the guy to beat all year long – him and Donny. We haven’t raced against them much this year but to get him here at Eldora – I had a terrible Four Crown and crashed a lot of stuff. I was just really timid all night until the feature. I got my confidence built back up in those first seven laps. I knew my car was really good. I just kept getting my wing back and made sure I was patient and had really good restarts. I got to Dale and was just judging where he was going to go. It’s so awesome to win here at Eldora in a sprint car and a midget. I’m just so happy with this team. I’ve gotten so many great opportunities this year. You’ve just got to take advantage of them.”

Continuing to reflect on his memorable score, Abreu added, “I knew Dale was right there. When you pass him, you know he’s going to step it up. I just tried to get through traffic as well as I could. It was tough with those guys running side by side and then I got into the side of Philo. I apologize for that. I just got really excited there at the end. It could have ended really bad but it didn’t. Thanks to all these fans for coming out tonight. It’s a great event that draws a lot of cars and hopefully they keep it going in the later years.”

With win number 23 of 2014, Abreu joins an elite list of individuals who have claimed Eldora victories in both midgets and winged sprint cars, as Jack Hewitt, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart (360 winged), and most recently Brad Sweet have also done the deed.

Blaney settled for second while Hannagan, Wilson, and Knoxville points champion Ian Madsen rounded out the top five. Fourth-quick qualifier Christopher Bell (Fox 53), Chris Andrews (up 15 spots from 22nd), Travis Philo, Danny Smith, and Dean Jacobs scored sixth through tenth. It was a tough road for the 57 year-old Smith, who broke an axle in his heat and slammed the turn one wall, needing to come through the B where he just squeezed the final transfer. Like Smitty, those suffering hard luck in their heats included Ryan Myers (climbing the wall in three and four while leading heat two) and Rob Chaney (blowing an engine during the fourth heat while running second).

Disappointed with his runner-up finish but happy to be a five-time All Star champion, Dale Blaney appeared to have the car to beat, commenting, “I was pretty good but it’s hard to be good here. On this track, you try to run straight and smooth – get it as much as you can around the top, but not enough where you are going to wear the tire out. Maybe I was a little bit too patient. I think I maybe got the wing back a little bit too far and got tight getting into three. I really struggled with getting through the center of three after that. Rico did a great job. He’s been really fast all year. He did a great job here and he got the win. But five (titles) is really neat. To be able to do that, it’s a testament to the guys I’ve driven for. I’ve had great cars. George has been with me now for 12 years. He gives me a great car every night. Five is pretty special. We’ll savor that for a little bit and try to get six next year.”

After the All Stars came a 20-lap NRA feature, with all eyes focused on six-time Eldora winner Randy Hannagan, again proving to be the man to beat after qualifying quickest (14.154). Slated to start from the outside of row three, by the sixth circuit Hannagan had caught fourth-starting Butch Schroeder, who had been out front since the second lap. Patiently shadowing Schroeder over the next four laps, Randy made his move on lap 11 in turn one. Despite his extensive Eldora experience that dates back to the mid-to-late ‘80s, there was nothing Butch could do to catch the Dennis Yoakam 22, as Randy ruled the Eldora NRA roost for the second time in 2014 and seventh time in his career. Dustin Daggett, Greg Wilson (in the Ron Hammons 6 normally piloted by 2014 NRA champ J.R. Stewart), and Ronnie Blair rounded out the first five while pole sitter Hud Horton, Mitch Brown, Devin Dobie, all-time Eldora 360 winner Tim Allison, and Knoxville visitor Jon Agan completed the top-ten.

Leaving the BOSS 410 wingless sprinters to close out Eldora’s 61st season, that impressive 53 car field was narrowed to 24 through six heat races and a pair of B-mains. Initially impressed by Thomas Meseraull’s 9.4 second gapping of second place Derek Hastings in heat one (T-Mez was in Todd Keen’s DRC/Claxton), C.J. Leary also scored high marks with his win from ninth while Dallas Hewitt also opened eyes with a seventh to first squirt in Jim Simon’s double-deuce. Also claiming a win was a resilient Jarett Andretti, who flew from fifth to first in his familiar Superior Auto Beast. Under the guidance of mechanic Mike Dutcher, this came one night after flipping high and hard at Waynesfield. Additional heat winners included Brandon Spithaler (from fourth) and Landon Simon (from second) while Bill Rose (Kissel 320) moved from 9th to 3rd to take one of the 18 heat race transfers. Six more were sent through the consolations, won by Travis Berryhill (doing it on less than eight cylinders) and Kent Wolters, the second contest seeing an outstanding two-by-two tug of war between Wolters, Steve Irwin, Joss Moffatt, and Huston Hewitt.

Logan Jarrett and Travis Hery fired from the front row of the BOSS 25-lapper, with championship contenders Dustin Smith and Mike Miller beginning 15th and 9th respectively. Already a BOSS champ in 2012, Russiaville, Indiana’s Smith held a slim seven point advantage entering the feature, needing to finish just one spot behind Miller to sew up his second crown. Difficult to pick an all-out favorite for the feature, former Eldora wingless winners Justin Grant, Matt Westfall, and Luke Hall blasted off from 11th, 16th, and 18th.

Grant was the first to exit the affair after ramming the rear of the Meseraull’s machine in turn three of the first tour, nailing both the outside and inside walls after losing his steering linkage. After a complete restart, Jarrett again got the jump to the top of turn one, with third-starting Dallas Hewitt securing the runner-up slot on the second tour. While Travis Hery and Derek Hastings were falling backwards, sixth-starting Leary, Miller, and eighth-starting Meseraull were on their way up, slipping and sliding, dipping and diving for third and fourth on the smooth and slick surface that still held some dark dirt on top of the north and south ends. Miller was as high as third but could not contain either Leary or Meseraull, who extended their battle to include Hewitt. Taking a page from Abreu, T-Mez moved from fourth to second with a slick two-for-one slider in turn one. C.J. tried to counter in three and four, pulling even yet failing to complete the pass.

It took no time for Meseraull to run down leader Jarrett, who had it his way for the first half of the affair. Pulling to Logan’s tail tank with ten laps remaining, Thomas teed up yet another patented turn one slider. Using the entire corner to make his move, he even sprayed some loose dirt at the exit of turn two for added style points. Leary followed with a slide job on the opposite end, securing the runner up slot before the second caution flew for Andretti.

The scoreboard showed nine laps were left and a top-five that contained Meseraull, Leary, Jarrett, Hewitt, and Miller. Dustin Smith was mired back in ninth and desperately needed to make something happen but immediately after restarting, he slipped too high in turn one and kissed concrete, ruining any chances at that championship. Back up front, Leary tried to move past T-Mez in three and four but was far too courteous, allowing Thomas to ride the tight rope and circle him through a treacherous turn four. Just a little bit further back, the battle for sixth through twelfth was an absolute free for all, seeing Spithaler, Fischesser, Hastings, Irwin, Rose, Westfall, and Smith scattered from top to bottom.

But when it was all said and done, T-Mez made it three for three for Northern California natives at the Sprintacular, besting Leary, Hewitt, Jarrett, and Miller, the latter dialing up his first BOSS championship in a clutch performance. Fischesser, Spithaler, Rose, Irwin (up 13 spots from 22nd), and Westfall secured sixth through tenth at the 9:52 PM checkered. Dustin Smith had to settle for an unsavory 12th.

Afterwards, an animated Meseraull commented, “Every time I come here, I tell everybody I suck, because I do. I kind of figured out how to go straight. I was over there talking to Stan Courtad. Courtad – he’s won some races here – he said, ‘Just drive it straight. I know you can’t do that, but drive it straight.’ Well, how was that Stan Courtad? I just want to thank Todd Keen and Scotty Weir. Scotty and him fell apart a couple of weeks ago and let me be in the car. Todd’s got a nice car and his son was sick and couldn’t make it out today, but I’ve just got to thank all the help: Triple-A, Spirit, Claxton Engines, DRC chassis. Thanks to all the fans who stayed and watched. Please drive home safe.”

“Thanks to the winged cars, we knew it would be really slick and smooth to the fence. It was nice. Usually in the USAC shows, I’m in the back, so I can’t see that good. It was nice being up in front and having clear vision. It was pretty awesome to race with C.J. Leary. He’s kind of a rookie. He’s been racing the last four years but he’s come a long way. It was a pretty awesome night.”

Unfortunately I missed the interview with Wapakoneta’s “Magic Man” Mike Miller, formerly a 2002 Lawrenceburg champion who can proudly add hardware from a hard-fought 2014 BOSS championship to his trophy room. Hidden talents like Miller have the perfect stage on which to play with Aaron Fry’s BOSS series, as a family man who consistently punches the time clock from Monday through Friday can still make some noise without spending a fortune.

Rewinding a bit back to Eldora hot laps, an interesting evening had just begun to unfold for Jason Holt, who returned to the cockpit of Dave Stensland’s 41 after a three year absence from the sport. While slowly circling this same speed plant where his father Boyce’s famed number 51 set a one-lap USAC track record with Johnny Heydenreich in August of 1997, Jason spread his father’s ashes into this sacred soil, this coming just a few weeks after delivering the eulogy following his September 24th passing. Emotionally charged by the experience, Holt attacked Eldora’s infamous banks with fury and fervor, undoubtedly the best he’s ever appeared here. Unfortunately, his night would come to a premature conclusion when pulling to the pit area as he was promptly t-boned by a push truck, the damages proving to be beyond racetrack repair. Remembering back to that August of 1997 evening when Boyce’s car was the favorite to win the feature, unfortunately bad luck befell the number 51 when the hood flew off just as it was preparing to take the lead. So ironic that Jason would have the same sort of luck as his father at this same venue, both had to be left wondering what might have been. Either way, I have to believe that his extremely hard to please father would have also been impressed with that brilliant hot lap performance.

Eldora’s efficient proceedings certainly served a good purpose as temperatures had indeed dipped throughout the evening, but an even bigger bonus was sending us home with enough time to take a detour through Greenville, as Maid-Rite’s drive-in was open until 11 PM. The last time for a sack of loose-meat sandwiches in 2014, if I had to go home, it might as well be with a happy tummy. Such an easy drive across U.S. 36, I certainly was in no rush for it to end.

Six days later, the eighth edition of the Kokomo Klash would serve as my 17th and final visit to the City of Firsts in 2014. Recalling how difficult it was to fathom that the Brownstown opener had arrived in late March, I was in equal denial about the Indiana outdoor farewell. Enjoying a warm and sunny downtown Indy lunch, by the time I was exiled from my sales and use tax seminar it was overcast and blustery, a rather rude greeting for this final go. Clearly indicative of the evening ahead, those wicked winds from the west would of course be hitting me face-first while stationed in Kokomo’s front stretch grandstand, an unpleasant proposition for even the most hardcore follower.

Loading up on layers of outerwear, a much bigger surprise than the plummeting temperatures was the sight of 2001 track champion A.J. Anderson holding court in the parking lot. Tanned from staying an extra week in Florida after his sister Leslie got hitched, it’s been ages since A.J. last competed in Kokomo, suddenly reminded at how the young group of racers that I first wrote about are now no longer a part of this scene. When you’ve spent your life savings and been burned out in more ways than one, I suppose it is much easier to walk away from sprint car racing than someone like me who has very little invested.

Observing hot laps/qualifying for the 34 sprint cars with Renaissance man Brent Goodnight, while raining sticky clay I still managed to record the quickest times from the four sessions, reminded of Brent’s early season donation of City of Kokomo leaves that were then mulched into the surface over the most recent off-season. 2010 Klash winner Scotty Weir (Simon 23S), Justin Grant (quickest overall at 12.752), 2007 Klash winner Brady Short, and C.J. Leary topped each of the four groups, with the fastest four inverted as usual.

Indiana’s season finale has a history of some interesting pairings, and this evening was no different. Three former Klash kings exchangedchariots, as Jon Stanbrough completed his Hoosier campaign with Daryl Tate, Shane Cottle worked the pedals of the Wingo 77, and Dave Darland drove for Jammin’ Jeff Walker for the second weekend in a row, reuniting for a Waynesfield win one week prior. Bob Darland Memorial victor Robert Ballou also wrangled a ride with Ray Marshall in his Buckeye Machine Maxim. In addition to providing hardware for Weir, Covington, Ohio’s Jim Simon maintained a Maxim for Dallas Hewitt, with Dallas’s deal towed old-school style on an open trailer pulled by Steve Simon’s pickup. With two separate tow rigs, that late night haul back to Ohio on desolate two-lane highways meant twice the opportunity for infamous “deer dog” sightings for the Simon set.

Friday’s night’s Klash docket was completed with 24 midgets, a slim collection of 600cc mini sprints, and a full array of Detroit iron. Notable midget maniacs included last year’s winner Cottle (Ecker 57), Darland (RW 17), Thomas Meseraull (Sandy 16), Shane Hollingsworth (family owned 85), Chett Gehrke (Moore 10), 2014 Montpelier champion Tate Martz (Alexander 2), Roselawn, Indiana’s Kurt Mayhew (aided by Crankin’ Craig Dori), and a pair of BCI Spike Esslingers for Trey Marcham and Spencer Bayston.

Ditching the wind by abandoning my usual up-high vantage point, I moved down to the first ten rows and found the sprint heats quite entertaining, conducted on an extremely heavy surface that has become par for the course in this season-ender. Cottle was the winner of the first from fifth, flirting with the infield marker tires as he distanced himself from Stanbrough, who actually lost the redraw position on the final lap after a turn one front end push. Donning some spurs, Dave Darland dominated his heat from third, putting all four wheels in the fluff in true cowboy fashion. Behind Darland, Chad Boespflug had secured a feature transfer until his Kenny Baldwin 5 caught fire, having to exit the event to extinguish flames. Additional sprint heat stars included A.J. Hopkins and Chase Stockon (in Chris Gentry’s DRC), seeing current Kokomo track champ Bryan Clauson (Eberhardt 7) get on the bike and have to come through the B. Midget heats contained Austin Nemire gymnastics and an unexpected Shane Cottle shut off in the final turn of the final lap while leading. Gifting a win to Spencer Bayston, that sent a steamed Cottle to the consolation. Twin sprint B-mains were no picnic, as the challenging surface kept Jarett Andretti, Max McGhee, Chad Boespflug, and Josh Spencer out of the A, the latter two earning provisional passes thanks to late season Kokomo kindness.

With World of Outlaws microphone maestro Johnny Gibson finding a seat prior to Indiana’s ultimate sprint car finale, heavyweights Darland and Cottle earned front row starts thanks to the luck of the draw. Given Dave’s dynamite heat race performance, how could anyone not pick him to win?

However, just like for Eldora’s All Star event, the consensus favorite failed to “park it”. Dave did lead early, but when Shane slipped sideways in four it triggered a chain reaction that collected last year’s Klash conqueror Jerry Coons, Jr., who bounced like a basketball and scaled the infield tractor tire, flattening left rear rubber. Also gathering Justin Grant, both Coons and Cottle pitted and were required to retire, as a special rule change for this evening eliminated the work area.

Darland was chased by Leary, Meseraull, Stockon, and Hopkins when amber bulbs were exchanged for green. While eyeing Stockon’s tussle for third with T-Mez and fight for fourth with the Silent Gasser, Leary emulated Grant’s patented turn three diamond to slip underneath Deputy Dave. After the action was paused for an errant marker tire, Meseraull would move past Darland with a surprise backstretch sweep. Attempting to keep pace with the leader, Thomas joined Leary in a four-wheel cushion trampling exhibition, an Eldora role reversal from the previous week.

Slowed for one final caution at lap 15, Double D soon slid Thomas in turn one, swatting the Keen left front with Walker’s right rear. However, there simply was no catching C.J., who was in full-attack mode all feature long. So hooked up these last few weeks of the season thanks to Derek Claxton, the teenager easily sliced through lapped traffic and constructed a full straight advantage, obtaining his fourth score of ’14. Darland, Meseraull, Ballou (up 10 spots from 14th), and Stockon tallied top-fives while Clauson (up 12 from 18th), Stanbrough, Jarrett (up 9 from 17th), Grant, and Boespflug (up 11 from 21st) secured sixth through tenth.

Discussing his first career Kokomo sprint car score with Rob Goodman, C.J. said, “This is a dream come true for me and my team. Derek (Claxton) has really been wanting to get a win here again. He and my dad set the car up great. It was on kill all night. This is one of my biggest career wins and it’s very prestigious. Dave is one of my biggest heroes – I grew up watching him and all. I’ve got to thank my dad and my mom. She couldn’t make it tonight but hopefully she can make the next one.” Given the exclamation point Leary put on this conclusion to the Indiana campaign, I wouldn’t be surprised if that next one comes in California.

After an extensive surface restoration to eliminate the colossal curb, midgets were available for their 25-lap conclusion, finding first heat winner Shane Hollingsworth as the pole manin his Spike/Esslinger with Darland again earning a front row start thanks to his win in heat two. Number two in the hearts of Hoosier racing faithful, midgets were actually number one for those Kokomo Klash customers who stuck it out in the unfriendly weather, putting on an outstanding show that featured three lead changes, a tight three and four car formation at the front, and a hard charge from a hometown favorite who nearly pulled off a win from deep in the field.

Hollingsworth’s initial lead might have been short-lived thanks to Darland’s low-side launch off turn four at the conclusion of lap one, but a five-car pile-up in that same corner (involving T-Mez) re-racked cars numbered 17, 85, 39, 10, and 2. (If you are keeping score, those numerals equate to Darland, Hollingsworth, Bayston, Gehrke, and Martz.)

Once back green, Shane and Dave engaged in a wheel to wheel war for first, soon joined by Bayston and Cottle who in just seven laps had advanced to 4th from 16th! Choosing the shortest distance possible around the quarter-mile, Hollingsworth lurked in Darland’s shadows, just enough to offera surprise attack at the exit of turn two to pilferthe premier position. The front four could fit under a snug blanket with ten laps left, but two tours later Darland’s Spike/Fontana somehow found a hole beneath huggy pole Hollingsworth in turn one, taking the lead for good.

With Cottle now third, the scoreboard showed six laps were left when he slithered into second after an inside attack of turn three. However, not even lapped traffic for the leader could aid his further advance. Darland’s second midget victory of the season amounted to overall win number 15, leading a top-five of Cottle, Hollingsworth, Bayston (who half-spun from third in the final corner of the final lap), and Marcham. Gehrke, Martz, Meseraull, Walker (Gage), and Watson (Alex) completed the second half of the top-ten.

Kokomo Speedway’s victory lane has been Dave Darland’s home away from home, visiting this cherished piece of real estate for the sixth time this year. Quizzed by Rob Goodman on his thoughts of the midget action, the king of Kokomo observed, “That was a great race! This place was great again tonight. It’s great every week. With all the rain we’ve had this week, the track preparation was just great. Every chance they had, they were working on it. It started out good and it just kept getting better and better. The O’Connors do a great job with it. It’s too bad 2014 is coming to a close.”

“These guys gave me a good midget. The Steve Weirich RW 17 was great tonight. Even Avart, Craig, and all the guys back there working on it did a good job. They gave me a great setup and the car was fast all night. I’m glad to be here in victory lane.”

After bumping into Aaron Mosley on the way out, I extended the evening for a few more minutes by watching Todd Kirkman claim the 600cc mini sprint main over Kyle Schuett (also 11th in the full midget main), Cole Bodine (son of Kevin Bodine, former Eric Shively sprint car assistant), Corey Smith (yes, the former Kokomo Speedway sprint car feature winner), and Kyle Lock. Following The Outlaw and his five-time U.S. 24 Speedway feature winning son Evan to the parking lot, given the dramatic change in weather and chilled bones that would require several minutes to properly thaw, I could sense that this was it for my season. Taking me home one final time, there would be no trips to Fremont, Chillicothe, or Perris, but for one final gasp of air, there might just be a night or afternoon under the Fort Wayne Expo roof in December.

On one of my drives into work after my season had concluded, thanks to the variety of musical offerings found on satellite radio, I unearthed “Take Me Home”, a 1986 gem from Phil Collins. Written about a patient in a mental institution, while absorbing an uninterrupted listen in the parking lot, my interpretation of the lyrics had more to do with my current frame of mind that comes with October’s massive changes that have accordingly shocked my system.

Returning to a standard existence where work, workouts at the gym, dinners and movies with my wife, and televised football and basketball take center stage, it’s a long time to be locked up until April. Aside from a vacation or two and the multiple holidays, there’s honestly not much to look forward to. However, it’s certainly not all bad, as that extended wait makes me thirst for and appreciate the equally massive changes that come with springtime’s arrival.But if it’s anything like last winter, I could be in for a rude awakening and a bad case of cabin fever, longing for the rekindling of friendships and racing action of any kind. However, no matter how dark that end of the tunnel may appear, there is always optimism, maintaining hope that a microscopic ray of light will soon return.

Sipping on an Old Fashioned and savoring some incredible morsels at Nora’s North End Barbeque and Moonshine on the last evening of October, that bit about continual optimism was put to a serious test. Peering out the window in disbelief at the blizzard-like conditions, not only did this confirm that it was officially the off-season, but I suddenly recalled the mental anguish of the most recent winter. Indiana reality is often so harsh, requiring me to zip up my coat, brave the wet and windy weather, and remove sticky snow from my car’s windows thanks to a scraper donated by Terre Haute First National Bank president Don Smith. Cranking the defroster and seat warmers to full blast and pointing my motor carriage back to Carmel, in search of some level of comfort all I could think about was reaching my humble abode, heading straight for bed, and hope that I would wake up the next morning and find that it was already April.

Of course there would be no such miracle, but nonetheless, at least I was home. There is indeed no place like it in this world and no better feeling when I reach it.

 

 

Volume 16, Number 12

Swan Song

Sadly seeing the glass half empty in these waning stages of the season, the weather is far too nice to be pondering the prospects of readying my snow blower for such frequent use. Truth be told, I wouldn't mind the upcoming respite from racing so much if the Farmer's Almanac prediction for this coming winter was more agreeable, as I can find plenty of things to do with my downtime.

Attempting to thread a common theme between the final three Midwestern USAC sprint car contests and a trio of World of Outlaw wars, the only thing that popped into my head was “swan song”, which is not only a record label founded by legendary rock band Led Zeppelin, but also a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement. Yes, these final few races are indeed some of the best of the year but also some of the most painful, as I know with few exceptions that these are my last visits to these facilities, the last time to visit with these friends for six and a half months. I might have plenty of things to do come wintertime, but I do honestly miss these escapes from everyday life.

Wondering where the term swan song has its origins, I thank Wikipedia for such instant gratification, as it refers to an ancient belief that swans sing a beautiful song in the moment just before death, having been silent during most of their lifetime. This belief, whose basis in actuality is long-debated, had become proverbial in ancient Greece by the 3rd century BC and was reiterated many times in later Western poetry and art.

The third week in September is an odd time of the year to be stockpiled with some massive meetings. Just as hectic as Indy 500 week and Sprint Week, this particular six race in eight day grind might just be the best possible rendition of a swan song that I can think of. Beginning with September 13th’s Haubstadt Hustler and ending with Eldora’s Four Crown weekend, in between there was a Tuesday WoO war in Kokomo followed by WoO and USAC sprint car spectacles in Terre Haute on Wednesday and Thursday. Finally finishing the Four Crown on Sunday due to untimely Saturday showers, I was able to take in everything except for the pair of Terre Haute trips. (A chip off the old block, my nephew Danny did it all, reminding me of my younger days.) One week later, a half-day of vacation allowed me to spend a gorgeous Friday afternoon with Danny, basking in Bloomington sunshine at Upland Brewing while awaiting Steve Kinser’s windup as a World of Outlaws regular. The next night, my September was silenced with Lawrenceburg’s Fall Nationals, ultimately closing the USAC Midwestern sprint car campaign.

Two of the six contests consumed over these three weeks truly resonated with the nostalgia of the 1980s and ultimately influenced this swan song theme, as Jack Hewitt’s Four Crown return in 6-R Racing’s final fling and Steve Kinser’s Bloomington, Indiana finale to his Salute to the King tour soothed the eyes, ears, and soul, flooding the brain with so many great memories. However, far too many of these other September showings were simply the same song and dance, as Daron Clayton (Haubstadt) and Bryan Clauson (Lawrenceburg) dominated USAC action, just as they have in the past at these very venues. And when speaking of domination, Donny Schatz simply took the cake. Although Joey Saldana broke up "Donny decimation" with back-to-back triumphs at Eldora and Lernerville, the North Dakota nightmare truly dulled the senses after cleaning clocks in Kokomo, Terre Haute, and Bloomington, taking four of five Outlaw outings in the Hoosier state. Looting the tour much like The King in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Schatz and his TSR squad are clearly the cream of the crop, leaving the rest of the pack to scratch their heads and find an answer. The way it looks right now, they are a long way from finding that solution.

Making a withdrawal from the memory bank in going all the way back to Saturday the 13th, my solo flight to and from Tri-State Speedway made for a very long day, as that ride home is always so mentally and physically fatiguing. Deviating from my usual 67/57/50/241/41 route to the southwest corner of the state, instead I chose State Road 37 to Bloomington, parked in agonizing construction traffic in Martinsville. Making my way over to the new 69 via the scenic twists and turns of State Road 45, I was hoping to see daylight construction progress as one brief stretch of 45 overpasses the new road. However, it still looks like they have quite a bit more work to do. Say what you will about speeding up the Evansville drive time, but there may not be a more boring stretch of Indiana highway than these sixty some-odd miles on 69. There's still something to say about taking the road less traveled, as my stint on 69 completely bypassed the scenic double-spanned iron bridge over White River near Newberry, eliminated a stop at Washington's Mason's Root Beer drive-in, and prevented any possibility of locating one of those world-famous Decker melons, of which the chilled juice served as the source of an incredible Decker Melon Soupsavored at high-end Indy eatery Recess back in late July. Nonetheless, I easily made it to my destination on time, not a bit surprised that just 32 cars would go for ten grand to win.

I was, however, happy to see a reuniting of Hud Cone and the Hurst Brothers, as aside from Clayton there may not be anyone more exciting to watch on this tight paperclip than “Mr. Pretty from Oakland City”. Still calling Salem, Indiana home, 77 year-old Dave Hurst was Hud’s equipment provider, aided by his 49 year-old son John while 53 year-old son Dan took Andrew Prather to Putnamville. Starting his racing career as a jalopy driver way back in 1959, Dave’s duties morphed to mechanical when assisting car owner Marion McCord whose chauffeur just so happened to be Orval Yeadon, winner of Eldora’s first 500-lapper in 1965. Celebrating his 50th sprint car season in 2014, Hurst began fielding his own cars in 1965, so 2015 will be his golden anniversary of sprint car ownership. Still flying beneath the radar in this age of store-bought equipment, the Hurst 9T has seen its share of drivers come and go, but the resourcefulness and resilience of this family shines through each time they arrive at the speedway. Building a unique Buick-headed Chevy for their 2013 Maxim that was recently acquired from Jeff Walker, they traded 32 year-old red oak lumber (retrieved from Salem’s 1982 airport runway lengthening) for credit on sprint car parts owned by close friend Karl Kinser. Quickest in his hot lap session, sixth in the fourth heat, third in the semi, but falling from the feature, handling problems plagued Hud’s evening, but he was still a thrill-a-minute sight in his heat and B, flirting with the boiler plate each and every lap. Regardless of the end result, it's a great feeling to know that the old-school Indiana sprint car scene is still alive.

My solo status allowed ample access the pits, where I bumped into likeable seven-year sprint car veteran Brandon Mattox. A twenty-eight year-old Terre Haute terror employed by Vigo Landscaping and tutored in sprint car competition by former driver/mechanic Travis Thompson, Brandon is one of just a few sprint car racers left from an area that was once a hotbed of open wheel activity. Receiving ample support from Mattoon, Illinois’ Don Searles, Searles was instrumental in the team’s engine upgrade, allowing them to spread their wings and strut their stuff at such high-horsepower haunts as Eldora, Kokomo, and Terre Haute.

Much like Cone, Mad Dog Mattox had a night he’d soon rather forget, folding his front end after heat race contact with Shane Cockrum. Spinning sideways during the B, the slip triggered a three car incident that swept up Hunter Schuerenberg and left both on the outside of A-main status. After popping a provisional, Brandon was unable to avoid a spinning Mitch Wissmiller, tumbling three or four times through the third turn. Miraculously landing on all four wheels, he rolled his machine into the trailer, ending an eventful evening that introduced Evansville energy drink company Liquid Ninja to the sport of sprint car racing. With plenty of samples available for consumption, my early morning drive was fueled by Liquid Ninja, allowing me to stay alert as I scanned both sides of the road for wildlife.

Another intriguing Haubstadt combination paired Jerry Coons, Jr. with Chris Gentry. Offering a DRC chassis wearing specially-crafted gas-charged Pro shocks and powered by a potent Don Ott Chevy that underwent $12,000 in upgrades, the Gentry deuce is certainly no slouch after winning at both Eldora and Putnamville with Chase Stockon behind the wheel. Jerry took full advantage of the opportunity, overtaking Daron Clayton for a heat race win and operating in the top-three for the majority of the forty-lapper, ultimately settling for fourth at the conclusion.

Leading the last 16 laps to score the $10,000 paycheck, it was yet another huge Haubstadt score for Daron Clayton, who by my estimate has taken home 12 trophies from Tri-State, five of them falling under the USAC banner and second this season. Elevating from 11th, his mid-race, side-by-side duel with leader Kyle Cummins lasted several tours, but lapped traffic and an excellent lap 25 restart helped Daron pull away. One would have thought Clayton would be on cruise control the rest of the distance, but with ten laps left he managed to tangle with lapper Nick Hale, who wound up on his head. A second threat came from Robert Ballou, who poured on the coal and applied heavy heat until one final caution at lap 34. Daron uncharacteristically slipped sideways with four to go, but a fourth corner front end push from Ballou sealed the deal. Stabbing and steering his usual Spike chassis propelled by a J&D Chevy, Clayton actually turned down a ride in Scott Pedersen’s machine because he had bills to pay and didn’t want to share his race winnings. Going from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows two days later with the tragic loss of his young son Kinser, I can never begin to fathom the gut-wrenching pain and never-ending grief that Daron and his family continues to endure, but my heart bleeds for them in these trying times. Why these things have to happen, one will never know.

After leading the first 24 laps, it just wasn’t meant to be for third place Cummins, who is still in search of his first USAC win at his home track. Impressively scoring a heat race win from sixth, he began from the outside of the front row and appeared to have the winning car for most of the race. Pressured heavily through chaotic lapped traffic by third-starting Kevin Thomas, Jr., KTJ got extremely close on lap 17, so close that he tapped Cummins and spun from contention, the first of three cautions for Kevin who again had help from Californian Jimmy May. Strapped into his family-owned Spike/CRE, Cummins collected his second consecutive USAC podium at Tri-State, proving two weeks later that his hometown speed was no fluke after scoring his second MSCS victory here in as many years, wrapping up a fourth MSCS crown in the process.

As previously mentioned, Coons was fourth at the 10 PM checkered while pole sitter Chase Stockon (now wearing Factory Kahne shocks) fell to fifth. Sixth through tenth included Jon Stanbrough (up as high as fifth until scaling the cushion), Bryan Clauson (up from 13th), Brady Bacon, Tracy Hines (up from 15th), and Brian Karraker (up from 21st). Entering Haubstadt as the point leader by five markers over Brady Bacon, after finishing 11th Dave Darland exited in second, some three points in arrears. Despite the fact that his Phillips squad received some at-the-track technical assistance from both DRC and Super Shox, Dave’s Tri-State struggles continued, unable to move forward from his ninth place start. Sixth at Terre Haute before his dismal Eldora weekend, one could say that September has generally not been kind to the king of Kokomo, as this particular month cost him last year’s title. A special thank you again goes out to Darland super fan Joe Higdon, who saved me a spot high atop turn one.

Up next was the World of Outlaws in Kokomo, their 23rd visit here since 1978. A reschedule from early June, the healthy 38 car contingent featured the seven winningest men from 2014's open wheel arena, namely Donny Schatz, Rico Abreu, Christopher Bell, Bryan Clauson (Stuebgen 71x), Dale Blaney, Derek Hagar (Destiny Motorsports' new driver), and Daryn Pittman.

Going after Sammy Swindell’s two-year old track record of 10.950 seconds, Cody Darrah’s quick lap of 11.050 came the closest, but the extremely heavy surface resulting from Monday rain wreaked havoc on the winged warriors. Sixteen year-old Quentin Blonde nearly went for a ride during his qualification attempt, biking big and hitting hard when landing on all four wheels. In an attempt to ease the pain, the road grader removed the curb after time trials, but try as they may to pound it into submission, that same old ledge returned with a vengeance. Say what you will, but these particular drivers, cars, and teams just aren’t accustomed cowboy conditions and with most tentatively playing around the middle to bottom, all night long I simply wished someone would step upstairs and boldly put all four wheels in the fluff.

A midget regular and winged part-timer, Christopher Bell was the most aggressive on this particular Tuesday. Stepping slightly above the cushion in turns three and four in his heat, Bell was preparing to steal the final transfer from Steve Kinser with an outside sweep, but Steve’s right rear met Christopher’s left front. The resulting damage sent the Fox 53 to the B, where Bell utilized the same move on the final lap to steal the win from Brady Bacon, seeing 1996 Kokomo winner Dave Blaney snag the final transfer in Joe Gaerte’s 3G.

Come feature time, dash winner Kerry Madsen might have led the first two laps and David Gravel the next three, but by no surprise the smooth and steady Donny Schatz would prevail, taking over on the sixth circuit. Wearing SST “black widow” Pro Shocks on all but the right rear, Schatz’s only threat came late from ninth-starting Shane Stewart, who had two shots at the lead within the final few tours but failed to complete the pass. Dale Blaney, Gravel, and Madsen were third through fifth while Abreu (up from 11th), Darrah, Paul McMahan (up ten spots), Pittman, and Joey Saldana secured sixth through tenth. Christopher Bell copped 11th while Steve Kinser served as lapped traffic in 19th, a huge disappointment in what may have been his final Kokomo contest. I counted seven cautions and one red in this calamity-filled forty-lapper, the lone stoppage coming for Jac Haudenschild’s wall climb and resulting entanglement in the turn two fence. Unfortunately for car owner Bernie Stuebgen, the impact killed both ends of the car and zinged the engine to 10,500 RPMs, requiring a thrash of epic proportions to be ready in time for Eldora as they not only had to construct another car, but the engine had to be hauled to Paul Kistler’s shop for a quick rebuild.

Not knocking the Outlaws as they are indeed the most professional sprint car program in the business, but this particular event highlighted just how great we have it in this wingless world and how much talent truly exists in the usual Sunday Kokomo convocations. A heavy surface such as this is fairly common, routinely producing the most breathtaking action you could ever imagine. Not everyone caresses the cushion, but there are still a few cowboys left who aren’t afraid to attack it. To each his own, but that’s what floats my boat when it comes to sprint car action.

On to the Big E for the Friday portion of the Four Crown, high school pal George Robertson played chauffeur, meeting up with California transplant Tom Percy for a highly enjoyable evening. If you're going to catch the Outlaws on a half-mile, Eldora is definitely the place to be as the all-out speed, ample room to race, and resulting slide jobs provide an optimal formula for fun.

With the cushion well off the wall for qualifications, Rico Abreu was first in line and nearly equaled Craig Dollansky's 12 year-old track record time of 12.707 seconds with his own tour of 12.733. Kings Royal winner Kerry Madsen continued to flex his Eldora muscle by securing the second best time of 12.764. Dollansky made a rare appearance outside of Knoxville to earn 8th, with Donny Schatz one spot behind in 9th. Steve Kinser just missed the heat race invert in 17th, and that invert is the lone hope of salvaging a decent evening with this group unless you post a time near the top of the charts. Fifteen of the 36 cars dipped beneath 13 seconds, blistering fast to say the least.

Sending Schatz to the front row of his heat, naturally that translated to a victory and placement in the dash, where he advanced from 5th to 3rd. Donny has never been the guy to beat at Eldora, but it still took a nearly perfect night from Joey Saldana to interrupt his winning ways. Joey qualified fourth, finished third in his heat, and claimed the dash after the "four" inversion put him on the pole. Up front for all thirty tours, this would be Saldana’s fourth Four Crown win, quite appropriate given that he was once a USAC regular (1991) and that this was the site of his father's final race (1985 Four Crown). Notching Eldora Speedway victory number 23 (actually 24 if you count an April of 1998 WoO Preliminary score), 13 have come under WoO sanction while 11 were with the All Star Circuit of Champions. Either way, he’s number three on the Eldora World of Outlaw win list behind Steve and Sammy and number two on the Big E All Star list behind Kenny Jacobs. Regarding Ted Johnson's ridiculous rule that did not count preliminary feature wins towards career "A-main" totals, my friend Tom Percy made an excellent point: "I never saw them race any easier on Friday compared to Saturday."

Far from a cakewalk, the Brownsburg Bullet first had to contend with both Kerry Madsen and Donny Schatz, as the trio moved in tandem through thick lapped traffic. Enduring restarts for a Brad Sweet caution at lap 12 and separate red flags for Sweet (again) and Abreu at laps 20 and 22, the most serious threat to Dan Motter's 71M came in the last five laps, as Schatz shortened up turns three and four to no avail. Dale Blaney disproved the theory that you have to make the dash in order to reach the podium, as he elevated from 11th, even stealing second from Schatz on the final restart with 8 to go. Settling for third, Blaney was chased by Madsen and Gravel, who reversed their finishing order from Tuesday. Shane Stewart, Paul McMahan, Greg Wilson (up 8 spots from 16th), Cody Darrah, and Tim Shaffer crossed sixth through tenth. Wearing special Bowers Coal colors for Bernie Stuebgen, the two day thrash didn’t pay off for Jac Haudenschild, who bolted from 20th to 9th in just two laps before blasting the turn two wall, the first to retire from battle.

The traditional United States Auto Club portion of the 33rd annual Four Crown Nationals was next on my lengthy list of September swan songs. Assembling 18 midgets, 39 sprints, and 20 Silver Crown cars, the impressive number of sprints was aided by an odd assortment from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. Always one of my must-sees as this event is the ultimate showcase of talent, I have only missed one Four Crown since my 1985 introduction. For 2014, six did triple duty, namely Chris Windom, Bryan Clauson, Shane Cockrum, Tracy Hines, Brady Bacon, and Dave Darland. Given Clauson’s Friday night ride, he was the only one to attempt all four true open wheel divisions.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this race's must-see status was my instant connection and fascination with “Eldora’s Favorite Son” Jack Hewitt, who was truly tailor-made for this particular event. Winning 19 different features, including four in his mind-blowing 1998 sweep, it’s an amazing statistic that will probably never be equaled in my lifetime. Returning for 6-R Racing’s Silver Crown swan song, this would be Jack’s first Silver Crown event since his July of 2002 accident at North Vernon, Indiana. Attempting to end his career on his own terms in an October of 2004 Fun Fest sprint car feature at Lawrenceburg, it wasn’t long until he was found behind the wheel of a winged sprinter at Skyline Speedway, also partaking in his own Jack Hewitt Classic two years ago in Waynesfield. In between those three contests, he’s logged countless laps in his two-seat sprint car, even starting at the back of several Waynesfield features and passing a few cars before pulling in.

Amongst a sea of photographers, friends, and general well-wishers, I got to spend a few minutes with the legend before he suited up for battle. Here’s a quick question-and-answer session from Saturday, with more quizzing coming post-race on Sunday.

KO: A lot of people have probably asked you the same question that they have asked me – why do this again?

Hewitt: I just love it, you know? When you get older, you get a little crazy thinking you can do things that make your body start laughing at you. We’ve been driving the two-seater and it’s been teasing me. With it being Eldora – like I said, it’s just because you love it. But as I’ve been telling everybody, it’s just like watching porn. You can only watch it so long and then you want to have sex. Well, I’ve been watching for what, 12 years now, and I’m ready to go and do the real thing.

KO: Eldora Speedway – it’s been kind to you and mean to you over the years. What’s the first thing you think about when you hear the name Eldora Speedway?

Hewitt: Don Hewitt – my dad. He was the first one here. I grew up here, so that just made the place that more special. And, then we were fortunate enough to win a race or two here.

KO: When you’re lying there in the hospital bed in Indianapolis getting worked on back in 2002, did you have a lot of regrets, specifically about not getting to run Eldora again? Is that part of the reason why you are here today?

Hewitt: No. That has nothing to do with it. I knew the risks going in, so I was good with them coming out. I tell you, if I ever have any regrets, it’s that there wasn’t enough of me to go around when I ran Indy. I turned around and missed Eldora Speedway that night because I just didn’t want Indy to end. If I regret missing one race, it was that one night after Indy.

KO: So what’s a bigger deal to you – the Four Crown sweep in ’98 or Indy that same year?

Hewitt: It would be a toss-up. I’d hate to think. They’ve both meant a lot to my career. I guess when you’ve got to go out, if you can go out with a little bit of a bang, it’s something for people to remember. Both of those were definitely highlights.

KO: So what’s the goal for tonight? Is it to be competitive and run up on the wall or just to get the juices flowing and see if you want to do this some more?

Hewitt: I’m here to have fun. No pressure.

KO: Ever since I’ve been coming here, they have called you Eldora’s Favorite Son. I started coming here in the mid-80s and I didn’t know anybody, but just from the fan reaction, I knew you were somebody special. What does that mean to you when they call you Eldora’s Favorite Son?

Hewitt: Well you know, this is home to me. This is my home track. I’m 35 miles from here. Terry Baltes and I grew up together. We’re the same age and everything. I started racing when I was a kid. Terry – he just figured he’d be the promoter here, but he became the announcer. He’s the one that actually came up with Eldora’s Favorite Son. That’s an honor to be a part of that here. To have my name in any form with Eldora Speedway is just fantastic.

KO: You’re back with 6-R Racing. I don’t know how much longer they are going to be doing this. Some say this is their last race – with Darryl and the boys. Hamp is just down the road in the pits. But, how cool is it to do this with 6-R?

Hewitt: Well, this is where I was at when I got hurt. So, I’m back home again and we’ve even had Hamp down looking over the racecar and giving us a few pointers. If I don’t turn a lap right now, I’ve had the best night going.

KO: How did the test go at Waynesfield last Saturday?

Hewitt: We had to make some adjustments on the car for comfort. Throttle and the brake. I wasn’t real happy but we found some things wrong with the car. We’ll see what it does after hot laps. I’ll have a lot more answers after hot laps.

KO: Any other fond memories of Eldora other than the Four Crown sweep? I remember the spin and win with Larry Rice back about ’88 or so. I remember the Kenny Jacobs deal in ’86 which may not be the fondest memory, but it was an honorable thing to do or say afterwards.

Hewitt: If I had a choice, I would like to have said that I won the World 100 because that is the Daytona, the Indy, and the Knoxville for late models. Probably one of the neatest things was the night when we stole the ambulance here. My dad – he was drinking – and he was in the driver’s seat. We ended up taking the ambulance home that night. That was in Earl’s book. We got ‘er back the next day, but we got a butt-chewing. Those are some stories that you just can’t make up.

KO: If it goes well tonight, what does the future hold for Jack Hewitt?

Hewitt: I’ll just have to keep my upper lip moist, because I’ll be grinning all of the time!

Sprint car hot laps and qualifications were up first and perhaps the biggest shock of all came when Dave Darland broke an axle while coming to green. Returning for one lap at the end of the qualifying line in his backup car, he slapped the backstretch wall and ruined another rear end, coasting to the line to clock the slowest time. With the cushion already pushed to the wall in three and four, nearly everyone flirted with the fence and got away with it. The lone exception was local boy Luke Hall, who climbed the concrete and rearranged his front end. Saturday's sprint car quick six consisted of Bryan Clauson (15.557), Tracy Hines, Brady Bacon, Jerry Coons, Jr., Justin Grant, and Robert Ballou (aided again by Oklahoma’s Jimmy Jones). Brandon Mattox and Shane Cockrum also impressed with ninth and tenth best times.

During midget hot laps, things went from bad to worse for Darland when the Fontana engine in his RW Motorsports Beast expired, done for the rest of the weekend in that division. As if things couldn’t get any worse, he was the second of two Silver Crown cars to invert in hot laps, Russ Gamester being the first after tripping over the turn two cushion and tagging the wall. Darland's gymnastics in Marc Longworth's Beast/Toyota were much more dramatic after his steering broke at the exit of turn two. Cracking concrete and launching high into the air, the crash landing drew the curtain on his Silver Crown weekend as well.

Call me an old-school traditionalist, but I can vividly remember when the Four Crown was one of the most prestigious midget races on the calendar. Now only able to attract a miniscule field of 18 machines, as expected the quickest three came from the Keith Kunz stable. Abreu (16.369), Bell, and Thorson led the way in qualifying, with Darren Hagen (Hmiel 56), Clauson, and Hines following. Illinois visitor Terry Babb blew up on his second circuit, further reducing the field to 16.

Silver Crown practice and qualifications were next and only 17 of the 20 entries took time. Surprised at how hard these big cars were being hauled into the corners for hot laps, they were pushed even harder for qualifications, with Christopher Bell’s time of 16.448 (Gormly 99) initially topping the charts. However, his time would be disallowed as his machine measured too wide in the rear. Brady Bacon (McQuinn 14) suffered the same fate as Bell and after the Saturday night rain, his team chose to head back home. Bell’s teammate Jerry Coons, Jr. (16.513) inherited the number one starting spot, joined on the front row by point leader Kody Swanson. Bobby East, Tracy Hines, Chris Windom, and C.J. Leary made up the next two rows.

Reverting back to the September swan song theme, just how did Jack Hewitt look? In one word, it would be respectable. Although he briefly tested the top in hot laps, he generally played it smart by conservatively running right through the middle. His qualifying time of 18.391 was just a tick off of Robert Ballou (suffering a sick engine in the SET 53) but was so much smoother than Patrick Lawson.

With a humongous crowd on hand, what a huge difference one night and the absence of aerodynamic aid makes when it comes to the art of overtaking. Again, not knocking the WoO, as it’s a completely different animal for heat race action, but wingless sprint cars were simply made for Eldora Speedway. The first heat from Saturday offered more passing than all four from Friday, as Clauson charged from 6th to win while C.J. Leary and Kevin Thomas, Jr. swapped too many sliders to count. Hunter Schuerenberg won his heat from 5th while a desperate Dave Darland put on a passing clinic in romping from 10th to 4th. As awesome as this style of racing is here, it’s still dangerous as hell. Just ask Mitch Wissmiller, who wiped out his ride after he blew through the turn two cushion, slammed the wall, and flipped wildly. Jarett Andretti shortened up his chassis after he tagged the wall between three and four and tumbled end over end.

As for the two midget heats, the first one was noteworthy given Rico Abreu's hustle from sixth to first by third turn of the first lap! Unsure if Rico was running full tilt the entire distance, Clauson nearly chased him down. Unfortunately, all of this awesomeness was put on pause when the winds suddenly changed direction and storms rolled in, resulting in a four hour delay that had my antsy father asking me to drive him home. Fearing a repeat of the 2006 all-nighter, rather reluctantly I pulled out of the parking lot at 12:40 AM, praying for more rain. Sometimes prayers do get answered, as twenty minutes into the drive the plug was pulled on Saturday night. Previously committed to a golf scramble with my wife and in-laws the next day (because it’s been 20 years since they ran a Four Crown during the day), how could I possibly convince them that I HAD to be at Eldora on Sunday afternoon to watch Jack Hewitt do it one more time?

After some begging and pleading, I was reluctantly headed east the next morning, just like it was 1994 all over again, the last time they actually ran the Four Crown during the day. Damned if I do and damned if I don’t, unfortunately I couldn’t be happy in what should have been a feel-good drive, knowing that I disappointed three very important people. As a raceaholic, this has been the circular story of my life.

It’s been ages since USAC played a part in an Eldora Speedway Sunday matinee – June of 1997 if I remember right and Kevin Huntley was the sprint car winner. Out of the entire field of 2014’s Four Crown competitors, I counted only four who would have been around in that era to own daytime Big E experience: Dave Darland, Jon Stanbrough, Tracy Hines, and Russ Gamester.

After a dusty sprint car B-main, midgets were up first and due to further attrition from Saturday, only 13 machines would make the start. Beginning 1996 Four Crown midget winner Tracy Hines from the pole with Bryan Clauson flanking his outside, Clauson drew first blood and exited turn two as the pilot dog, fending off an immediate turn three threat from The Hawk. Scooting from sixth to fourth, Rico Abreu dive-bombed the bottom of turn one on lap two, somehow squeezing underneath Tracy Hines. The thin cushion could not contain number 97 however, as Rico crushed the concrete and tumbled down the bank. Snagging Hines, Tanner Thorson piled in and inverted, as did Brady Bacon. Christopher Bell and Chris Windom were also involved, nearly taking out half the field, not to mention all three Keith Kunz combatants. Bacon returned to battle and with right front wheel askew, Hines did as well. After a major thrash, Bell was back, but not Abreu, Thorson, or Windom.

Sadly, just ten cars contested the rest of the race, leaving Bryan Clauson as the leader and eighth-starting Christopher Bell as the big question, wondering if his car was up to the task. By lap seven, that question was already answered as he was up to third, needing nine more tours to slip into second. A two horse race for the final nine circuits, the closest Christopher came was a failed slider through three and four on lap 23. Armed with Spike/Esslinger ammunition from Joe Dooling, Clauson would find Eldora’s victory lane for the third time, the first in a midget. BC outgunned Bell, Hagen, Daum, Cockrum, Bacon, Isaac Chapple, Hines, and Steven Drevicki.

A grueling thirty lap sprint car contest was next, the 187th time this series has taken to these daunting high banks. Unfortunately, the lack of daytime experience was clearly evident in this one, littered with three yellows and four red flag periods. Lots of equipment might have been damaged or destroyed, but thankfully no drivers were seriously injured.

The calamity ensued immediately as they were preparing to take the green, as pole sitter Jon Stanbrough connected with front row mate Robert Ballou, bouncing his Dutcher 37 to a stop. The next attempt had Logan Hupp spinning in turn two, attracting Dave Darland and Matt Westfall. This being the first of three incidents for Dave, after being towed to the pits he had a new right front attached and was able to rejoin the fray. The third and final attempt had Tracy Hines sneaking to the lead from his second row start, falling to third by the exit of two as Ballou and Brady Bacon streaked by. At the conclusion of the first lap, Brandon Whited scaled the right rear of KT, Jr., literally setting off a bomb that sent Whited, Thomas, and a late arriving Stanbrough on their heads, also sweeping up Landon Simon, Scott Hampton, and yes, you guessed it, Darland. Both Kevin and Dave would give it another go.

Finally clean and green for ten laps, Ballou, Bacon, and sixth-starting Bryan Clauson solidified their up-front status, interrupted by a titanic tumble from Chase Stockon, whose turn two slider on Hunter Schuerenberg turned bad after smacking the wall, chucking the tail tank from his DRC.

Clauson sprinted to second once green lights were aglow, moving to the middle of turns three and four as rubber had officially adhered to the clay. Bryan tossed a big slider on leader Ballou on lap 17, only to be countered by a turn two crossover. However, everyone was seeing red when KTJ clobbered the wall and flipped in turn two, his second time to invert in one feature. That’s quite a dubious distinction, as it’s rare to walk away from any Eldora acrobatics.

Leaving eleven laps to determine a winner, Bacon worked on Clauson until a Brandon Mattox spin restacked the deck once more. This time, Brady did manage to slip underneath in turn one. While Bacon battled Ballou (whose right rear was failing), Clauson cranked up the volume, hazing his right rear and bouncing off the backstretch wall with four to go. With the top three bunched tight, Ballou finally slipped enough in turn two to allow the Hoffman 69 to seize the lead. Clauson connected with Ballou which caused the Mad Man to connect with concrete and land on his lid. Darland and Westfall were again victims, crazy to think just how much bad luck Dave had at one of his best venues.

A three lap dash to the checkered could not keep Bacon from bagging his first USAC win at Eldora, taking two in a row after beating Ballou on the final tour of Terre Haute. Clauson, Grant, Hines, and Schuerenberg secured top-fives while Coons, Leary, Windom, Cockrum, and Swanson soldiered home sixth through tenth, a true test of endurance.

If the sprint car contest could be considered a meat grinder, then the Silver Crown finale was for sure a tire grinder. Seventeen of the 20 cars started the 50-lapper, a one-lane rubber-down parade that mandated patience and precision to keep a right rear tire alive for the entire distance.

Pole sitter Jerry Coons, Jr. paced the first 12 laps before point leader Kody Swanson slipped underneath on the front chute, unable to stay in the rubber as he reached turn one. Coons kept the lead for the next six circuits until slipping out of the turn two groove, allowing the famed number 63 to snatch the premier position. By lap 22, the tire parade commenced when Caleb Armstrong slowed with a flat right rear, wearing his American Racer rubber all the way through thanks to the abrasive surface. Davey Ray also exited at this stage with a broken rear axle.

This being the first of six separate yellows for ruined right rears, four laps later Christopher Bell was the next victim. Two more laps and fifth-place Chris Windom slowed for the same reason, as did Jacob Wilson at lap 33. The ring around Bryan Clauson’s right rear meant that it was only a matter of time until he would have to pit, mandating yet another caution without completing a lap. Patrick Lawson’s subsequent spin and tommy tipover turned green lights to red. Once back to green though, C.J. Leary caused the final tire-related slowdown, leaving just five more laps.

Up until this stage, Swanson was absolutely the class of the field, so similar to his Springfield performance. Leading Coons, East, Hines, and Pierce back to green, sixth-place Caleb Armstrong began to explore the lane above the rubber, sweeping past Hines and East to third. Coasting past Coons through the same lane, his fresher rubber propelled him past Swanson on lap 47. Kody’s American Racer right rear tire was now toast, blowing it to smithereens on the final tour.

Armstrong appeared to collect his first-ever Silver Crown score in dramatic fashion, initially topping Coons, Windom, Hines, and Cockrum. The reason I say initially is because afterwards, USAC officials learned that Armstrong’s team changed a left rear tire in addition to the right rear. Violating a specific rule that does not allow a non-flat tire to be changed without penalty, unfortunately this stripped Armstrong of the win and sent him back to 11th place when most of the fans were already headed for home. Reminding me of the early ‘90s when fuel disqualifications were quite common, one such infraction took place during the midget portion of the 1990 Four Crown when apparent winner Wally Pankratz was disqualified, handing the victory to Stan Fox. Although it would have been nice for Armstrong’s penalty to have been enforced during the race, in the future I’m hoping that the sanctioning body will be prepared to police this rule each time a car enters the pits.

Inheriting the pole the previous day, Jerry Coons, Jr. nursed his right rear and was rewarded with a feature win, his first Silver Crown score this season and second at the Four Crown. The third to pit for new rubber, Windom moved up to second while Hines, Cockrum and East (all three with original right rears) were top-five material. Six through ten included Clauson, Pierce, Wilson, Swanson, and Gamester.

Operating in 13th for the majority of his race, Jack Hewitt completed 16 laps before he chose to pull pit side after developing a right rear blister. Catching up with him afterwards, here’s the word-for-word account of his day.

KO: So what happened out there today?

Hewitt: We were geared up for soft tires and we had seen it was taking rubber in the sprints. We made a mad dash to put all of our hard tires on and set the stagger, but we just didn’t pay attention. I’m sure the rest of ‘em were geared up for the hard stuff and we weren’t. We didn’t divot our tire and we blistered it. We got it out of balance. I wasn’t going to tear the rear end out of it and try to hang out there long enough. We just brought ‘er in. It’ll load up. We did what we had to do and we had a ball doing it. Man oh man! We didn’t look like an idiot anyway. I was pretty happy. Pretty happy.

KO: How did it feel before the tire started to blister?

Hewitt: I was riding. I knew we had a good setup and a good car. The two guys in front of me were going here and there. I was just kind of waiting on them. I knew the tire parade was going to happen. I was just trying to save as much as I could do. I wasn’t trying to win it at that time. I was just going for a good finish. Our tires – they looked good. They’ve got a lot of rubber left. We just didn’t do the right thing with the right rear.

KO: How long did it take to get used to it here at Eldora?

Hewitt: Today, the track came down (off the wall). God took care of me when he made the race go from last night to today because I was done. I’d say Jesus and Tony Stewart made my dreams come true today. Matt Westfall was going to drive the car last night because I know I can’t do tear-offs. I’ve never came to a racetrack where I had to be smart but this was the one. If I had come up here and got hurt or anything like that, it would have proved a few people right but then it would have ruined the whole weekend. People might have said ‘I was here for the Four Crown and I was there when he got hurt there the last time’. Well, now they don’t have to worry about that.

KO: How many people were urging you not to do this?

Hewitt: Well, Jody was of course, until Cody bought a motorcycle. Well, that got me out of the heat of the kitchen. But, my biggest problem was Tracy Hines. He was calling up USAC. There were a couple of owners here, and Tracy comes goes up and tells me, “What happens if you crash and you get hurt or if you do something stupid and take me out.” And I said, ‘Well, what about last year when you flipped, leading two features?’ And today, he took three midgets out, including himself. So, I said to Tracy, ‘Everyone makes mistakes and I’m capable of making mistakes, but not this weekend.’

KO: Does this day give hope and promise or is it just satisfaction, for a while?

Hewitt: Well, I’m satisfied, definitely for a while. With the sprint cars, I try to get in and run with kids and I can’t because these kids are definitely braver than dirt today. Like I told them last night, if I could only be 50 again.

KO: Is there any hope to get the two-seater around Eldora? Is that an insurance deal or is it a possibility after this deal?

Hewitt: That’s entirely up to Tony Stewart. I would love to have it up here. If we had this track rented for a week, eight hours a day, I couldn’t take everybody who wanted to ride here. We could charge ‘em a thousand dollars. If Tony and I had the late model and the two-seater up here, just taking rides, it would be unbelievable for everybody. People want to run Eldora Speedway and then if they get to take a ride with somebody special – it would be the ultimate for any race fan.

KO: With this being the swan song for 6-R Racing and Jack Hewitt being in the seat – do you have any thoughts about that?

Hewitt: No. But I tell you what, it was like old home week. When we got hurt, that’s who I was driving for. Not in the sprint car, but they were my Silver Crown owners. For me to come back and do it with them was that much more special. And the neat thing about it, they had as much fun as I did. The fans had as much fun as I did. Well, I take that back. They came close to having as much fun as I did. I don’t think anyone could have the feelings that I have right now.

KO: Does it compare to sex?

Hewitt: I tell you what, it’s been so long and I haven’t had any, so it’s hard to tell. You’ve got to have some to have a comparison.

KO: What was the Toyota like? You ran a little with the Toyota in the two-seater, but this was the first time in the Crown car. What did you think?

Hewitt: Definitely not short on horsepower. I had it in the two-seater for a while and they teased me with it. Then I got to come here and run it. It definitely does run. I wouldn’t have no trouble running a Toyota in anything I’ve got.

KO: You’re a true-blooded American guy. You’ve run Chevys and some Fords your whole life. And now, a Toyota. How does that fit with your image?

Hewitt: I’m not going to eat sushi, but I will run a Toyota motor.

KO: Any final thoughts?

Hewitt: I’m glad everyone came out. They made my weekend that much more special. It’s kind of like Indy. I didn’t want the weekend to end. But it has, and now we’ll go on to whatever we dream up next.

Five days after the Four Crown came Steve Kinser’s equally moving swan song in Bloomington, as both Hewitt and Kinser truly embody everything that has endeared me to this sport. Laying down chairs in the early afternoon hours for fear of the mob of fans who would be wanting one last piece of The King, Danny and I encountered Greg Staab, who was assisting Indy Race Parts’ Bernie Stuebgen in his co-promotion of this affair. Battling brutal throat cancer treatments since his springtime diagnosis, after fighting the good fight day after day Staab was in great spirits, announcing that he was cancer free and would be able to have the apparatus around his neck removed in three weeks. Consistently positive in his outlook and in superb health thanks to his years of being a gym rat, Greg convinced me that attitude has a lot to do with the success of that uphill battle. I can't begin to tell you how fantastic it was to hear such uplifting news!

Heading back into town for a bite to eat, we arrived in plenty of time for hot laps, utterly shocked at the lack of paying customers, especially given the importance of this evening in the realm of sprint car history. Naturally, this day/evening had all of ingredients for a massive turnout: perfect weather, Steve Kinser’s final showing at his hometown track, not to mention zero Friday night racing conflicts. A unique World of Outlaws co-promotion with Bernie and Betsy Stuebgen, these two extended a ton of effort, time and dollars to make this happen, literally sweating out details and weather for nine months. Renting the track, paying the purse, and tacking on advertising, insurance and other assorted items, a WoO show is essentially a $100,000 nut, a huge sum for any successful promoter or businessman. However, the last two times this series was in Bloomington, literally every seat and piece of grass was filled with fans, making this a good gamble. But, the glaring facts showed that tonight’s crowd was significantly less than 2011 and 2012, told that this evening’s attendance came in at 2,859, some 1,100 short of the record crowd from three years ago. Perhaps a victim of too many races in too short of time, thankfully the visibly stressed Stuebgen just managed to break even, driving home the point that there is no sure thing in racing.

This being the 26th World of Outlaws appearance on Bloomington’s south side, the evening started off with a bang as a superbly prepared surface allowed Joey Saldana’s 15 year-old one-lap record to finally fall. Established on 4/14/1999, Joey’s 9.380 second lap was topped twice, as David Gravel’s 9.304 became the new standard. White-hot since winning Knoxville, Donny Schatz was the other to dip underneath the old mark at 9.361. Twenty-eight of the 38 cars in attendance registered in the 9-second bracket, with bonus participation from non-wingers Christopher Bell, Bryan Clauson, Brady Bacon, Hunter Schuerenberg, Kevin Thomas, Jr., Mike Terry, Jr., and Chris Babcock.

This particular swan song had all the makings to be a huge hit, as tonight’s honoree timed 13th, putting him on the pole for the first heat. Taking the checkered first over son Kraig, not even a problem with the front stretch lights could squash his storybook evening. Unfortunately, a six invert screwed Steve for the trophy dash, as he would begin the 40-lap finale from eighth.

Adding even more stress to an already pressure-packed evening, co-promoter Stuebgen fielded two cars. Jac Haudenschild won the third heat in his usual 71 while Bryan Clauson fired from the pole in the other 71, spinning after clipping the cushion when chasing leader Chris Bell. Clauson restarted and salvaged a transfer after a late race surge, but how cool could it have been if Indy Race Parts had both of its entries into the trophy dash? As it was, Haud won that dash and would begin the big show from the pole, flanked by the potent underdog – the Fox 53.

After a Cale Thomas B-main blunder directly in front of our turn four hillside seats (preceded by a massive wingless mini sprint crash of the same caliber), with fog beginning to roll in from the north end, it was time for the moment of truth. Putting my notebook and pen in my pocket so that I could completely soak in this final Steve Kinser showing, The King may not have collected that coveted feature win for the ultimate storybook conclusion, but he came home an extremely competitive sixth. Pole sitter Haudenschild was up front for four laps, yielding to a cushion-crushing Christopher Bell who paced the next 15. As good as Chris was against the curb, one bobble would allow the feature winning robot better known as Donny Schatz to take over and lead the rest of the way, tallying number 23 on the season. Bell moved low to match Schatzbut had issues with a pack of lappers clogging the bottom half, ultimately sealing his fate. Except for Haubstadt, Schatz cleaned house in the Hoosier state, making me wonder who will step up to add excitement to this series and provide a realistic threat to his dynasty. Bell bagged second, Daryn Pittman took third, Brad Sweet scored fourth, while the Wild Child slid back to fifth.

The Midwestern USAC sprint car swan song came the next night in Lawrenceburg, where a field of 32 assembled to contest for the $10,000 Fall Nationals top prize. Regardless of competition from Haubstadt MSCS and Putnamville (where both Jeff Bland, Jr. and Max McGhee were victorious – Max impressively winning his first-ever from 18th), naturally the Burg attracted the heaviest of hitters.

One of those included Jac Haudenschild, his second ride in Jeff Walker’s Maxim in consecutive weeks. After splitting with Destiny Motorsports, it’s been an interesting last few weeks for the 56 year-old Wooster, Ohio veteran, finding work with familiar winged chariots belonging to Bernie Stuebgen and Jamie Miller, both of whom were on-hand to hang with their hero. Never a dull moment with these three, the off-season is going to be quite a bit busier for Jac and Bernie as they are headed to Australia for eight races, the first time Haudenschild will have competed down under in at least 15 years. Focusing on activities at Sydney Speedway, their adventure begins on December 26th, taking them all the way through the Grand Annual Classic. As for this particular evening, Jac was seventh-quick in qualifications, took fourth in his heat (after sliding completely sideways), but was only able to manage an 11th at the conclusion. Regardless of the finish, as usual he was a thrill to watch on such a challenging race track.

Cutting to the chase, the end result of this final September sprint was all too familiar. So similar to the last two seasons, this pressure-packed period of the calendar is when Bryan Clauson shines brightest. Qualifying sixth, scoring second in his heat, and lining up on the outside of the feature front row, after beating fellow front row mate Chase Stockon to turn one and surviving an exciting exchange on the opposite end, Clauson would lead all thirty tours, his fifth win of the season and amazingly, number 30 of his career. Now 51 points behind leader Brady Bacon in his quest for a third consecutive championship, it should be an entertaining final four shows to say the least.

The box score may have displayed a dominating performance from the driver of Tony Stewart’s Chevy Performance Beast/Kistler, but it was anything but easy. Requiring both aggression and precision on a slick but character-filled surface, complete with a chunky cushion stacked against the concrete, Bryan had plenty of pressure applied by third-starting Brady Bacon. In the middle stages of the affair, Bacon was able to hang extremely close, but each time he pulled even Clauson would work his magic through traffic, once again manufacturing a healthy margin. Two late race cautions, one at lap 25 and the other at lap 28, led to further threats through turns three and four from the pilot of the Mean Green Hoffman 69, but it wasn’t enough.

Tracy Hines took third, April winner Justin Grant grabbed fourth, while Jerry Coons, Jr. jerked fifth from Jon Stanbough on the final lap, this after starting 14th in Monte Edison’s Spike. Sixth through ten included Stockon, Stanbrough, Ballou (up from 16th after a post-heat race engine swap), Chris Windom (up from 19th), and Dave Darland, who suffered a flat right rear at lap 25.

Compared to an awesome August capped by his 53rd career USAC sprint car score at Kokomo’s Smackdown, September simply stunk for Dave Darland. Exiting Kokomo atop the point standings, after finishes of 11th, 6th, 13th, and 10th, he is now mired in third, trailing Brady Bacon by 89 as they head west. After his demoralizing Four Crown weekend, things began much better at the Burg when the new resident of Atlanta, Indiana topped the timing charts for the sixth time this season (13.985 seconds). Third in his heat thanks to some authoritative overtaking, he lurked around the top-five for the majority of the feature. However, much like the rest of the month, the night ended in disappointment after losing his right rear tire, needing a caution, some quick pit work, and several miraculous moves to salvage a tenth. Not out of the championship picture by any means, Darland will need some bad luck from Bacon and Clauson to secure his second national sprint car crown.

Referencing an ancient belief that previously silent swans sing a beautiful song before their death, a more widely known definition for swan song is a final act or performance before retirement. Appropriately defining a hyperactive three weeks in September that appropriately put an exclamation point on the sixth full month of this season, this period was highlighted by huge home track appearances from Jack Hewitt and Steve Kinser. Taking me for a pair of pleasant yet emotional spins on a memory go-round that recounted countless evenings of excellence, at the end of it all I’m once again feeling nostalgic about the mid-to-late ‘80s and early 1990s, crediting the role that these two men played in my overnight obsession for open wheel action. Still unable to break free from these chains some three decades later, season-ending events are still bittersweet affairs. However, if you’ve got to go out, do it in such a way that will leave a lasting impression. After all, I’ll need something to hang my hat on for those truly glass-half-empty days when I’m pushing my snow blower, smacked in the face with the hopeless reality of Indiana winter.

 

 

Volume 16, Number 11

Retro Rewind

Traditional sprint car supporters hailing from the Hoosier state have had it awfully good for the last decade and a half.  Living high on the racing hog, the multitude of quality options, all within a reasonable drive, have certainly spoiled us.  Able to pick and choose to the point of becoming jaded, such plentiful supply hasn’t always been the case. 

With this year's premature closing of Gas City’s I-69 Speedway, the infrequent August activity in Bloomington, and the quieting of Kokomo Speedway after Labor Day weekend, experiencing a shortage of options in this first September weekend was analogous to a retro rewind to the late 1980s and early ‘90s.  In an era when Sony Walkman cassette players, high-top sneakers, and hair bands still ruled my world, Gas City had shuttered after only three brief seasons, Warsaw had permanently locked its gates by 1990’s summer conclusion, while Bloomington switched to specials-only programs for that same campaign.  Back then, Bloomington, Paragon, Lawrenceburg (often flooded-out for half of a season), and Haubstadt were all winged sprint car haunts.  Terre Haute was closed from the mid-point of 1987 through 1989, leaving Putnamville and Kokomo as the only two tracks in the state that stayed traditional, but it’s not like car counts and quality of competition were all that stellar.  For those who weren't around in that era, they just don’t realize how good we truly have it in this day and age. 

Heading back to the future, my goal on September the 5thwas to take in the final points-paying program of Bloomington’s 2014 campaign.  My first trip south since Sprint Week, miraculously I made it in one piece after a suicide mission through rush hour gridlock, taking a huge risk as I made a last second exit from 465 at state road 37 to avoid a mile-long backup.  Nearly getting t-boned after cutting in line and crossing two lanes of traffic, such a bone-headed move was more common to my testosterone-charged teenage years.   

Much like the early ‘90s, this was the only Friday night option, thus expecting more than the 28 car contingent and surprised at the absence of so many Gas City regulars.  The most notable exceptions making the tow included I-69 champ Chris Gurley, C.J. Leary, Chad Boespflug (Elson 27), Aaron Farney (assisted by Robert Ballou), and Max McGhee, with Chase Stockon serving as the most recognizable outsider.  Pondering a “what if” regarding Gas City’s future, if by chance they chose not to re-open, was tonight an indication that the majority living north of Indy would choose to stay home on Fridays?   

Missing hot laps altogether, I was allowed a leisurely pit lane stroll while locals exercised Detroit iron, spotting Casey Shuman and his assist in an engine change with car owner Shawn Krockenberger.  Hiking to the other side as I prefer the pristine view from the hill, I found a turn four blanket rolled out in my honor thanks to my nephew and his fiancée.  This turn four vantage point reminded me of the same scene in the fall of 1982 when my oldest brother first introduced me to this stuff. 

Acting as Bloomington bandits, visitors Boespflug, McGhee, Simon, and Gurley came away with heat race victories, punctuated by a massive Kevin Chambers tumble over the turn two bank after snapping a rear axle.  With track still lightning-quick, a super-stacked third heat sent four-time track champ Brady Short, Tyler Courtney (Pedersen 4), and Aaron Farney to the B.  "Sweet Feet" stubbed his toe with a flat left rear tire but somehow scampered to the win and produced his fifth track title, capping off a dominating campaign on Southern Indiana soil.  Even more dramatic was Casey Shuman’s surge from the rear to a transfer, this after missing his heat race because of that engine exchange. Courtney’s twin spins kept him from collecting an A-main pass.   

At the 9:56 PM feature wave lap, Bloomington’s surface was reminiscent of those late ‘80s and early ‘90s, stacked by a substantial curb on both ends.   Moving just below the scoring tower for the most optimal view, I took notes as Team Audi/VW sales consultant Chris Gurley beat Landon Simon to turn one.  Simon’s second lap bike ride benefitted Chad Boespflug, who soon had pressure from seventh-starting Chase Stockon.  With Gurley and Boespflug working in the attic, Stockon stayed in the basement, all three operating under the same toasty blanket.  Spoiling the party for only a brief moment, Nick Bilbee’s stoppage illuminated amber bulbs at lap ten. 

The lead trio fanned three-deep after the restart and for a brief instant, Stockon stole the premier position from Gurley by gutter-balling turn two.  However, a huge mess unfolded behind them, spotting Brady Short soaring skyward.  Tagged mid-air by Bub Cummings, Short was joined in the altercation by Shuman, Dakota Jackson, Ethan Fleetwood, and Braxton Cummings, who scored his first career victory the next night in Paragon.

After another restart, northern Indiana’s “Tall Cool One” had his hands full with Stockon once more.  Staving off a turn one threat by staying low, Gurley chose the top shelf in turn three and allowed “Showtime” a shot at the lead.  However, yet another spin, this time by third place Chad Boespflug, restacked the deck for one final time. 

Gurley led Stockon, 15th-starting C.J. Leary, Jeff Bland, Jr., and Max McGhee to the green laundry but by the time they reached the third bend, they were already three abreast.  Chase chose the low lane and Chris manned the middle, but C.J. stormed the cushion to authoritatively steal the top spot, seemingly shot out of a cannon.  Encountering issues with his steering gear, Gurley soon exceeded the generous turn four curb and plummeted to sixth and while lapped traffic allowed Stockon to get close on the final go-round.  However, it wasn’t enough to prevent Leary from landing in victory lane for the third time this year, the first time he's done it outside of Lawrenceburg.  Impressively getting it done from 15th, C.J. was chased by Stockon (who ironically claimed a Lawrenceburg victory last month in the Leary 30), McGhee, ninth-starting Chris Babcock, and Nick Bilbee, who recovered nicely after causing that first caution.  Kody Kinser (from 16th), Gurley, Bland, Jared Fox (up from 20th), and Dakota Jackson rounded out the second half of the top-ten. 

As I’ve forever maintained, a two-groove Bloomington surface is indeed something to get excited about and this final regular showing of the season certainly gives great hope for a solid 2015.  Back here for Steve Kinser’s final Indiana farewell as a World of Outlaws regular on Friday September 26th, I suspect my feelings upon exiting that affair won’t be quite the same as this evening, fearing the finality of the most storied career in the history of the sport.  As far as I’m concerned, sprint car racing will never hold the same weight without a competitive Kinser in competition. 

Unlike Friday, this initial September weekend actually had more than one Saturday night option, with King of Non-Wing at Putnamville, a season-closer at Paragon, the Buckeye Outlaw Sprint Series at Montpelier, and a $15 rain check for a POWRi midget twinbill two and a half hours away in Macon.  After an eleven year absence and in search of something different, Montpelier Motor Speedway was my pick, preceded by a mandatory pit stop at Ivanhoe's, Upland, Indiana’s ice cream institution where 100 shake and sundae combinations make for one difficult decision. 

Given my singular Montpelier meeting of 2003, the bridging of that eleven year gap resulted in yet another retro rewind frame of mind, essentially treating this as a first-time visit.  Reminding me of my first Gas City go in September of 1997, the tiny, ten row bleacherswere filled to capacity, joined in the lower rows by longtime car owner Jason Goacher.  In hindsight, I probably should have ponied up an extra $15 to join my nephew and enjoy increased seating options in the pit area.   Given the size of the crowd, anything bigger than a BOSS battle will require a grandstand upgrade.  However, if the demand is present, it’s a great problem to have, so rare in this day and age.  

My nephew immediately headed for the pits to help push Scott Pedersen’s Spike, as Scott’s son Ryan is one of Danny’s best friends and the team does not have the use of a four-wheeler.  Truthfully, they don’t have the room to haul one either, as their ex-A.J. Watson open trailer is one of the last of its kind outside of Paragon.  Having a vested interest in how the squad would fare, it was upon Danny's suggestion that Ryan and Scott get in touch with 2003 Montpelier sprint car champion Scotty Weir, as the deal was brokered at 10 PM on Friday night.  Pre-2003, Scotty and Ryan were dirt go-kart competitors.  

With racing history dating all the way back to 1903, Montpelier is indeed one of the oldest speed plants in the nation.  Operated since 2009 by Harold and Lori Hunter, they have definitely pumped some money into the facility, most notably with transponder scoring and some first-class fencing and concrete barriers that protect front stretch fans and pit patrons.  Reconfiguring the quarter-mile with added banking in turn one, thatfeeling of being at a foreign facility wasexperienced for an entire evening, so rare as there are only a couple of dirt tracks in my home state that I have not visited.  Checking out the track’s informative website (www.montpeliermotorspeedway.com) that’s filled with all kinds of information including ancient newspaper clippings, there are several photos showing the old covered grandstand, packed to the gills of course.  There’s also a satellite photo from 2012 that shows the outline of the old half-mile configuration, so fascinating to gauge how small the current layout is compared to the original.  Call me a racing geek, but I always enjoy learning how things used to be in their true heyday. 

A fine field of forty sprint cars clashed to become the BOSS of Montpelier, bolstered by big names like Andretti, Stanbrough, Ballou, and Weir, who by no surprise were winners of four of five heat races.  BOSS regular Brandon Spithaler (Burkey 57) claimed the other, highlighted by a last turn, last lap final transfer schooling of Dallas Hewitt by Matt Westfall.  Twin B-mains were bagged by Joss Moffatt and Mike Miller, but most impressive was Logan Jarrett’s jolt from last to second, also enjoying a last turn, last lap swap of the final A-main ticket between Steve Irwin and Adam Byrkett. 

Losing my seat after seeking a sweatshirt, had it not been for some kind souls near turn one, I would have resigned myself to standing room only status for the feature.  After an intermission for tilling, watering, and packing, the 25-lap finale was ready to rock, offering Michael Fischesser and Todd Keen an unobstructed view of the green flag.  Keen conservatively paced the first circuit around the bottom, but Brandon Spithaler aggressively hauled it high into turn one the next time around, leading the next three tours until the tacky turn one bit him in a bad way, flipping from first place. 

Third-starting Jon Stanbrough inherited the top spot but was unable to develop any rhythm when Keen and Josh Spencer met in turn one, resulting in an odd double-flip that landed Keen on all four wheels.   Hot under the collar and painfully limping to express his displeasure with Josh, Sammy had to be checked out later at a local hospital.   

As always in Mike Dutcher’s 37, Stanbrough sailed away to a huge advantage just past the halfway mark, but his first encounter with lapped traffic proved disastrous after tagging the left rear of Derek Hastings while entering turn three.  The contact sent Stanbrough into the spin cycle, passing the lead baton to seventh-starting Scotty Weir.  Try as he may, Scotty could not contain ninth-starting Robert Ballou, whose high-side heroics resulted in his eighth feature win of the season.  Weir held on for second while Jarett Andretti annexed third from tenth.  Logan Jarrett looked good all night, passing more cars than anyone after climbing from 19th to fourth.  Midget and sprint journeyman Travis Berryhill found fifth from 11th while Cooper Clouse (from 13th), Dustin Smith, Fischesser, Joe Liguori, and Stanbrough secured sixth through tenth at the 10:20 PM checkered flag. 

Offering an efficient program and a solid two-groove feature surface, if by chance the folks at Montpelier Motor Speedway were forced to pick up the local Indiana sprint car slack, I feel fairly confident that they could get the job done.  If not, then there’s always a healthy contingent of modifieds and stock cars, with a semi-regular offering of midget action that has indeed begun to revive a dying form of competition in this state. 

Up and on the road by 7:30 Sunday morning, Danny and I were again headed west for the Tony Bettenhausen 100 (Take Two) at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.  After meeting Wendell Smith in Decatur, like last time, we all rode in together but this time, the weather was at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Sun-splashed with absolutely no humidity, much like Jackie Stewart would say, it was a fine day for a motorcar race.  Driving in through the main gate of the Fairgrounds, this was my first time to see this place outside of the state fair, completely void of congestion as we were able to find parking directly along the humongous grandstand.  It was certainly an unusual feel without a Ferris wheel outside of turn one, no stage set up along the front stretch, and no food trailers hawking huge corn dogs and lemonade shake-ups. 

Regardless of the less than traditional Springfield scene, if there’s anything that sends me back in time, it’s a champ dirt car race on a one mile Fairgrounds dirt oval, today being no exception. Down just one car from the previous attempt in August, the assemblage of 24was actually respectable given that DuQuoin’s century was conducted one week prior.  Still, it’s a far cry from pre-2006 when forty car fields were the norm.  Maybe one day I’ll get my wish, but it’s going to take time and stability with both rules and purses in order to attract more competitors.  But, given the rumblings of a return to battle for the vaunted Plastic Express, not to mention new efforts from Robert Galas and one more former California car owner, there is indeed hope. 

Winner of dirt drives in Terre Haute, Indianapolis, and Belleville, aside from an uncharacteristic 13th at DuQuoin, Kody Swanson and his Bob Hampshire-led DePalma Motorsports 63 have ruled traditional Silver Crown proceedings this season.  Serving as a source of nostalgia, the white 63 Maxim/Hampshire Chevy absolutely dominated the day in Springfield, much like Jack Hewitt did with Hamp back in ’86 and ’87 when they sent ol’ Gussie (a Stanton chassis) to victory lane.  Qualifying quickest at 31.999, Kody led all 100 tours and lapped up to ninth place, preparing to put Dave Darland a lap in arrears until backing off on the final go-round.  Building a nearly half-track advantage on second place Tracy Hines, there was zero drama for the American Racer-shod Swanson, who exited the fourth corner so much straighter than everyone else.  The 14th different driver to score on the miles at Indy, Springfield, and DuQuoin, Swanson was the 18th man to claim the Bettenhausen from the pole.  Trailing Kody and Tracy at the end of the 100 mile grind were Bobby East, two-time TB winner A.J. Fike, and Chris Windom.  Bryan Clauson, Jerry Coons, Jr., Dave Darland, Levi Jones (his second ride back from retirement in Galen Fox’s 56), and Brady Bacon made up the second half of the top-ten. 

Passing was extremely difficult on the daytime surface, as the groove was only a car and a half wide at best.  The biggest movers and shakers were Illini chauffeurs Windom and Jones, who advanced six and seven spots respectively.  Sixteen cars took the checkered, counting nine that bolted on American Racer rubber.  The end result had Swanson maintaining his point lead, up 27 on Hines and 54 on Bobby East as they entered the second to last show at Eldora’s Four Crown, where car number 63 has clearly dominated over the years.Will this retro rewind continue for Swanson and Hampshire, or will Eldora high-side experience pay huge dividends for someone like Hines?  Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to the entire weekend. 

Frequently thinking of the pastthirty years and wondering where they disappeared, there is a constant wish to relive those days when sprint, midget, and champ dirt car racing was far more innocent and simple.  As much as I lived, ate, and breathed this kind of action in that influential era of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there’s still something to say about the benefits of current times when quality competition and numerous venue options abound.  Amidst all of the noise and negativity found on internet message boards, Facebook, and Twitter, it’s easy to lose sight of just how good we have it as born and bred Hoosier racing fans.  So many people from so far away would give their right arm to be in our position but despite such optimism,it’s scary to fathom such distinct possibilities of losing any one of our current speedways.  As much as I enjoy reminiscing about my own golden days of open wheel activity, twenty years from now I’m almost certain that I will be doing a retro rewind to these twenty-teens, wishing that I appreciated everything that this era had to offer.  So instead of longing for the feelings that have been lost, perhaps it’s time to start appreciating the present for what it is.  Yes, I am spoiled and perhaps I am jaded.  But at the end of the day, it’s only natural to hope that the opportunity to be so choosy will remain indefinitely. 

 

 

 

 

Volume 16, Number 10

System Reboot

Give me the good news first.

That's all I ask for, as lately the only news I tend to receive is bad, awaking in disbelief to the stomach-churning report of "the incident" that completely rocked the racing world on the night of August 9th. Fearing a full-court press from the media, my deep concerns were justified when every available outlet offered their opinion on a subject for which they had little or no credibility.

Telling myself to ignore any computer and television for fear of instant enragement; I unfortunately could not avoid such contact, as Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward, Jr. were front page news everywhere I turned. In an uninformed world where NASCAR and all forms of auto racing are synonymous, even the so-called experts had no clue as to what they were talking about. Rather than be the first to get the story out, it would have been nice if a veteran sprint car driver could have been interviewed to provide some intelligent insight into what it is actually like to pilot one of these machines.

As sprint car diehards we stick out like sore thumbs in mainstream society, so I'm sure most of you were inundated with questions from co-workers on what might have actually happened. Naturally, only one person knows, so there is no point in speculating any further. Still feeling horribly sick for both sides of this ugly equation, such negative news is clearly a black eye for all of us, as the only time our sport gains national attention is when a guy like Tony gets hurt or someone is killed. Akin to a simultaneous punch and kick to the groin, in the days that ensued I truly felt like my world of 30 years was quickly crumbling. Of course I'd be giving in to the pressure to conform if I decided to back away from my most passionate pursuit, so naturally I would never consider it. But, why is it that we always have to justify our unreasonable love to people who just don't get it? What is wrong with being so caught up in something that provides hope, endless excitement, and a reason to live life to its fullest?

This unsettling feeling of anxiety and anger was quite a contrast to my standard mood that exists in early August. Normally a peaceful time reserved for reflection and relaxation after Indiana Sprint Week, I generally desire two full weeks to decompress and catch up with my writings, also needing the time to generate demand for any kind of racing activity.

After some serious sensory overloads, in order to recharge those racing batteries sometimes you just have to hit control, alt, and delete, rebooting one's system by engaging in some altogether different activities. Pre-Sprint Week, it was my first trip to a Cincinnati Reds game since June of 1996, my first-ever at Great American Ball Park which included a post-game feast at Mount Lookout's The Wurst Bar in the Square, a fantastic find that pays homage to two traditional German Cincinnati favorites: beer and sausage. Post-Sprint Week and in the days surrounding the Brickyard 400, in celebration of my wife's birthday a trifecta of epic eating adventures ensued, including Greg Hardesty's Recess, The North End Barbeque and Moonshine, and a rare summer Saturday at the jam-packed Bonge's Tavern. Two weeks later, instead of the Knoxville Nationals or MSCS at Putnamville, I was committed to a Friday afternoon wedding in Chi-town, spending the next day at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field for the first time since 1981.

In between, the first weekend in August actually served as an effective racing restart, benefitting greatly from a Buckeye Outlaw Sprint Series bout at Liberty, Indiana's Whitewater Valley Speedway and Kokomo Speedway's postponed Bob Darland Memorial. With far too many Saturday options on this particular weekend, I actually decided to stay dark as no fewer than four tracks fought for the same cars and drivers. So instead of sprint car combat, another excellent meal was substituted at Delicia, devouring some outstanding Latin cuisine in the same building where my grandfather once practiced dentistry.

Rewinding the clock to our Friday evening excursion to Liberty, my nephew and I exited the pedestrian and abnormally rough Interstate 70 at state road 1. After crossing U.S. 40 and slipping through Milton, we selected state road 44 at Connersville. Once part of the ambitious Whitewater Canal, rampant with railroads this river city is ripe with history in not only the automotive sector, but also Oldham heritage as apparently a lot of them settled in this area after a lengthy journey that began at the Cumberland Gap. Regarding Connersville’s automotive heritage, it was once known as “little Detroit” as the Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg, Ansted, Empire, Lexington, and McFarlan were all constructed here, not to mention the Willys MB Jeep body and the Roots blower.

Crossing the west fork of the Whitewater River, some five to ten minutes later we climbed the ridiculously steep concrete path that leads to Whitewater Valley Speedway, finding a parking lot at the peak that gave even the best of off-road suspensions a serious workout. Making it just in time for 7:30 PM hot laps, waiting in the ticket line was 2008 Liberty Indiana Midget Week promoter Tony Barhorst, who was on his way home from Cincinnati, stopping to see how the evening would turn out. For those in attendance here in August of '08, Barhorst was the man who gave the most brutally honest and impassioned speech of all time after USAC pulled its sanction due to safety concerns. Some six years later, although the steel rebar that protruded from concrete had been cut and rusting hulks of heavy equipment had been moved from their precarious positions, the concrete footer was still showing along the inside wall and no catch fence had been constructed outside of turns one and two.

None of them were of concern to Aaron Fry’s Buckeye Outlaw Sprint Series, attracting some 35 cars that consisted of a bevy of BOSS regulars who would do battle against a few USAC runners and an odd assortment of locals who call Lawrenceburg, Paragon, Bloomington, Waynesfield, Flora, and even Michigan’s MTS series home. Dare I ask, but where else will you find a pair of Beabers (Johnny and Tony) and Brannins (Matt and Dillien) in competition on the same night?

Given a new lease on life by promoter Bill Wagner, Liberty sports a pristine concrete concourse area, some newer aluminum seating, and a nice scoring tower/concession stand. Those seats offer the most scenic view of Indiana countryside in the state, not to mention a highly intimate setting to sample some intense sprint car competition. Unfortunately, it tends to be a little too intimate, as we had to dodge our share of rocks all night long. And, with a sizeable crowd bunched together, that intimacy meant inhaling far too much second-hand smoke, as for some reason a majority of Whitewater Valley's paying customers dangle a cigarette in one hand and cradle a Bud Light or Mountain Dew in the other.

Regardless of the inconveniences and the lateness of hour (the feature was completed at 11:52 PM), it was still a memorable, thoroughly enjoyable evening highlighted by a well-prepared surface that was stacked with a massive cushion on both ends. Serving up a sizzling feature battle between Logan Hupp (Marshall 2M) and seventh-starting Kevin Thomas, Jr., their edge-of-your-seat slide-fest provided a royal feast for the eyes, as there were far too many to count in a contest that was ultimately decided by lapped traffic. Columbus comet Hupp claimed his second BOSS battle of 2014 over KTJ, 2002 Lawrenceburg champ Mike Miller, Andretti, and Garrett Abrams. Local boy Brandon Whited, Aric Gentry, Scott Hampton, Dallas Hewitt, and Steve Irwin were scored sixth through tenth. After winning his heat with a flat left rear, Chase Briscoe was my pick to win but was eliminated early. Thankfully the feature didn’t go past midnight, as Danny and I were able to place a phone-in order for a Pizza King take-out in Connersville, enjoying our own royal feast for the taste buds on our late night return.

Two days later, the $3,000 to win Bob Darland Memorial brought 24 cars to Kokomo Speedway while I brought my nephew and long-time friend Dean Caldwell along for the ride. Serving as a Smackdown preview, all the heavy hitters except for K-town point leader Bryan Clauson were in the house, including Bob’s son Dave in his Phillips 71 USAC weaponry. Given that this race was postponed one week, track championship points were not being awarded.

Aside from a three-wide squeeze play that sent last year’s winner Justin Grant to the B, preliminary action was fairly tame, that is until the thirty lap conclusion that required four separate starts due to a pair of red flags and one yellow. In un-Jon Stanbrough-like fashion, Jon immediately two-wheeled turn three and promptly inverted Mike Dutcher’s Maxim. The second stoppage came when third-starting Dalten Gabbard biked Kenny Baldwin’s 5 at the first turn entry, sending the orange crush into concrete and eliminating fourth-starting C.J. Leary. Kevin Thomas, Jr., Lee Dakus, Shane Cottle, and Travis Hery were also swept into the altercation. The third attempt to begin the "BDM" was no better, as tenth row starters Adam Byrkett and Josh Spencer tangled in turn one. Unable to post a qualifying time and finishing fourth in his heat, Dave Darland was originally slated to start 11th but after the early race shakeups advanced to sixth before a lap had ever been completed. Likewise, Justin Grant was now 10th after starting 17th.

Finally clean and green, first heat victor and recent Waynesfield winner Scotty Weir (Keen 18) leapt to the lead as Chris Windom (Walker 11), Robert Ballou, Darland, and a white-hot Justin Grant dueled for runner-up rights. Working the lower lane to perfection, Ballou kept Darland in his wake and soon waxed Windom for second. Just before the halfway mark, Robert burst to first with a supreme squirt off the bottom of two while Justin continued his magnificent march, stealing second from Scotty.

With a dozen laps left, the Mad Man and his Maxim may have owned a sizeable margin but just four laps later, the driver of Mark Hery’s DRC had whittled that distance down to miniscule proportions. In dealing with lapped traffic, Ballou's lead had completely evaporated, allowing JG to pull even on the front stretch with just four laps left. Just as Justin was making his move, Robert drifted up the track and squeezed him into the wall, effectively sealing the deal for the former Rocklin, California resident.

Seven for 20 since acquiring a new Don Ott power plant, Ballou's summertime streak continued, taking the 8:45 PM checkered flag first ahead of Grant, Darland, Weir, and Windom. Cottle, Coons, Thomas, Logan Jarrett, and Jarett Andretti secured sixth through tenth. Had it not been for the inadvertent contact, it certainly would have been a highly interesting ending.

Waiting nearly two weeks for my next racing adventure, I had to bypass Bloomington’s outstanding MSCS feature (claimed by a last lap Kyle Cummins slider) in order to be fully rested for my longest day of the year. Originally setting my alarm for 5:30 AM in order to leave by 6:30, a late revision to the Springfield USAC Silver Crown schedule had hot laps commencing at 10 AM Illinois time, leaving me an extra hour of precious sleep. Planning on a Macon POWRi nightcap, as I recall from last year my arrival home was 2:30 AM, making for a 21 hour day. Little did I know at the time, but I shouldn't have skipped Bloomington.

After the demoralizing week of Stewart-gate, I had hoped to reboot my system with a potent combination of one-mile dirt Silver Crown action and a pair of Macon midget features. Even though the weather forecast was clearly not in our favor, because my ticket was supplied for the second year in a row by Sullivan, Illinois' Wendell Smith, I rolled the dice in hope that the storms might break up or simply take longer to get to central Illinois.

Wendell, Danny, and I were rudely greeted by light rain at Sangamon Avenue, but thankfully the showers weren't enough to stop hot laps or qualifying for the Silver Crown contingent. Unfortunately the opening laps of practice, arguably the most entertaining portion of the program, were missed by all of the grandstand ticket holders, as no one was on-hand to sell or take tickets, making me wonder if management’s expectation was a complete washout.

With point leader Kody Swanson clocked beneath Tracy Hines's one-lap record of 29.305 seconds, hope for a new mark went unfulfilled when the chart-topping circuit was only 30.646 (also set by Hines), interesting that just one lap of qualifications was offered to the 25-car field instead of the standard of two. Given the short fields that don't require a qualifying race and the limited bang for the buck in terms of on-track action, it would be nice to see two laps of qualifications once again.

Excited that Bryan Clauson (fifth quick), Brady Bacon (ninth quick), and Christopher Bell (unfortunately a DNQ) were part of the Silver Crown cast, champ dirt car qualifications and stock car heat races were complete by 12:30 PM, leaving at least an hour of downtime before opening ceremonies for the Tony Bettenhausen 100. With such a small window of favorable weather, I had honestly hoped for a greater sense of urgency to pull out all the stops and complete the show, rewarding Silver Crown diehards who showed up early and gambled with Mother Nature. But as luck would have it, steady rain started to fall during the pace laps and eventually ended the day, resulting in a mini-meltdown for this particularly disappointed and frustrated fan who really needed some feel-good entertainment. Several days later, news of the first Springfield rain date since 1996 came as a very pleasant surprise.

This being my nephew’s first trip to the Illinois State Fairgrounds since 1992, when coupled with another cancellation in Macon one might believe that six hours of driving was a complete waste of a day, but at least we were not alone in our unsuccessful quest. A rare opportunity to spend some quality time with one another, we also got to speak to people like Wendell Smith, Todd Amstutz, Levi Jones, Ben Andres, Brent Goodnight, Fred Zirzow, and Waukesha, Wisconsin’s Chuck Eberhardt, learning that the latter two are the primary owners of Bryan Clauson’s local Indiana sprint car. Still, this road trip didn’t quite cleanse the soul and purge the poison of the previous week’s detrimental news. Thankfully, Kokomo’s third annual USAC Sprint Car Smackdown was right around the corner.

If there was anything that could restore the luster of sprint car racing and return to my world to normalcy, it would be a three-day show in Kokomo. But even something as routinely automatic as Kokomo satisfaction faced some serious challenges, threatened by an untimely eleven inches of rain that fell from Wednesday through Sunday. Requiring a monumental effort from the O’Connor family in order to complete the full Smackdown schedule, aside from the 2006 Four Crown Nationals at Eldora, never have I been more impressed with the sheer desire and all-out effort of any race track operational team, ultimately restoring my faith in mankind.

Requiring a full Thursday to recover from robust morning showers, upon my 7 PM opening night arrival the entire O’Connor crew was still hard at work attempting to get the show started. However, all that exertion was for naught, as some rather ominous radar proved to be reality for my third racing event in a row. Heavy storms arrived just after qualifications and with just enough time to complete two of four heat races, thunder, lightning, and a torrential downpour sent most of the crowd huddling underneath the grandstand, just waiting for a break in the weather to make a mad dash to their vehicles.

Pooling massive amounts of water in every nook and cranny of Kokomo Speedway, extensive pumping played a pivotal role in making Friday racing a reality. Thankfully the second show was run without a hitch, the only day of the original Smackdown schedule unaffected by weather. Planning an ambitious Saturday with a mid-afternoon continuation of Thursday's festivities followed by a sweeping of the stands and a complete surface revival, before the finale could ever get started yet another storm spoiled the party. Watching the clouds roll in and rain begin to fall at Ray’s Drive-In, unfortunately Saturday evening was pushed to Sunday afternoon.

In speaking with an exhausted Reece O’Connor before Sunday’s show, four more inches of rain fell overnight, requiring the crew to toil until 11:30 PM just to keep the water to a reasonable level. Reece returned at 1:00 AM to pump the "pond", arriving back at the track by 8 to find even more water in the office and concession stand. Not only was this excess H2O removed, but the walkway underneath the grandstand was power-washed to eliminate mud and grit. Again, I can think of very few tracks that ever would go to such extremes to make an event happen. Recalling the mantra of ultra-positive Park City, Illinois sprint car chauffeur Tim Cox, his “gottawannawin” became “gottawannarace” for the O’Connors who also hail from the Illini state. Despite a lower than expected crowd and car count, they pressed on regardless and refused to let the weather win, setting the bar awfully high for expectations in unfavorable conditions.

Thrilled by Saturday afternoon’s feature that offered a tacky track and chunky cushion despite the impossible combination of heat, humidity, and bright sunlight, Sunday afternoon’s twilight show was more of the same, sporting an excellent surface that needed just one revival. Even more amazing was the fact that I didn’t even have to wear goggles, as both Saturday and Sunday’s daylight conditions were dust-free! Given that their weekly Sunday shows are often completed before darkness, one could say that it’s par for the course here. Offering so much praise for all the work that went into removing water from these grounds, somehow the surface did not get ignored.

If such amazing and impressive O’Connor effort didn’t serve to reboot my system, then the record-setting performance of ageless sprint car stalwart Dave Darland certainly should have done the job. As I grew up in awe of so many impressionable sprint car standouts who owned larger than life personalities, were as strong as steel, and could literally walk on water, the common denominator in all of them was their age compared to mine. Turning 48 on September 4th, Dave is one of the few racers remaining from that era, maintaining such hero status in my eyes. To be witness to his tying and breaking of Tom Bigelow’s record for all-time USAC sprint car wins, one that has been the benchmark since the summer of 1981, it was indeed a rare and special scene, as accomplishments like that just don’t happen in this day and age, simply because the longevity of sprint car competitors is not what it used to be.

I was there for Dave’s very first USAC score at Terre Haute’s Tony Hulman Classic in May of 1993, studying during the downtime for a Finance final the next day at Ball State University. Some 11 years after his initial sprint car season (1982), it took 21 more to reach the summit with a record that may never be equaled, again because of the longevity factor. Introduced to this virtual unknown when he claimed the 1987 Putnamville Clash, in the midst of his titanic 19-win campaign in 1991 he received a great deal of fanfare after capturing an Indiana Sprint Week contest at Kokomo. Wondering then if this local stud had the stuff to make it on a national level, although it took a handful of seasons to truly make his mark outside of Indiana, it is amazing that he has remained a winning force for four decades.

USAC sprint car victory number 52 came in the Saturday afternoon matinee, a thriller that saw Dave track down pole-sitter Justin Grant, who led the first 23 laps atop the healthy cushion that had accumulated from all that rain. One bobble by Grant against the turns three and four curb was all it took for Darland to snatch first place, brushing the pride of Ione, California as he squirted past in corner four. However, it wasn’t like Dave could coast the rest of the way, narrowly avoiding a stopped Kyle Cummins in turn one which set up a six lap shootout. Darland might have gotten the restart jump, but Grant dug deep with his usual diamonding of turns three and four to inch ever closer. And, as if we had rewound the Sprint Week clock, they were once again side-by-side at the waving of the white flag. Just like in July, Grant tried a slide job through turns one and two but left enough room around the top for Darland to squeeze by. Giving it one more try through three and four, Justin had to settle for another second place finish.

$5,000 richer and trying Tom Bigelow’s record, after doing some turn four donuts Dave was doused with a cool bottle of water thanks to wife Brenda, explaining to Rob Goodman, “(To tie the record) It’s an unbelievable task. Lucky for me, he retired when he did, otherwise he probably would have won 30 more. It’s truly an honor and a privilege to have done this.”

Beating Bryan Clauson and Chase Stockon to reach the finals of Sunday’s unique three-lap King of the Hill match races that determined the first eight starting positions for the $10,000 to win 40-lap finale, for the second year in a row Darland was runner-up, unable to beat Brady Bacon to claim the pole, $400, a Traxxas R/C truck, and a case of Amsoil. In the iconic Hoffman Auto Racing Mean Green Triple-X Mopar, Bacon would lead the first five laps of the feature but the very next circuit saw the Lincoln legend surge past on the front chute, opening up a half-straightaway advantage before reaching lapped traffic. Even though the first five runners were in close proximity thanks to congestion, a lap 26 caution for Casey Shuman made this a whole new ballgame.

Restarting Darland, Bacon, Stanbrough, Ballou, and Leary, Dave promptly ran off and hid while Robert rushed to second, flinging his right rear wheel cover into the northwestern horizon. Hot on Darland’s heels and ready to make his winning move, Ballou’s bid was initially denied when a final caution flew for C.J. Leary. Permitted three more tours to find first, try as he might, but he couldn’t get it done, as a climb of the turn four cushion sealed the record-setting win number 53, also creating a two-time Kokomo Smackdown champion.

Earning a hug from Tom Bigelow as booming fireworks blasted eardrums, feeling right at home at the very place where he began his career some 32 years ago, a relieved Darland told an excited Rob Goodman, “It is absolutely special. We couldn’t have done it any better than this. It’s a fairytale story. Tom Bigelow is here. He was the one who set the bar for me. The only thing I’m sad about is that he said it only took him 12 years to get 52 wins. It’s taken me twice as long. But, we got here and I’ve got to thank a lot of people. Obviously – my Phillips team. They gave me a great racecar tonight and the night before and the night before and the year before. I’m just having a great time with this team. They do a great job. I’ve got to thank the O’Connors for their track preparation. With all the rain we’ve had, to have the track in this great of condition says a lot about them. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dry summer or a wet summer, they do a great job with this racetrack. I’m just glad to be here. I’ve got to thank my sponsors for supporting us, including Steve Stroud, as we couldn’t do it without them.”

When talking about the need to put 40 perfect laps together, Darland added, “I’ve made a lot of laps around here and there’s always someone breathing down my neck, whether it’s Bacon, Clauson, Ballou, or Justin Grant – he’s on my ass every time. I can’t get away from him as he’s always putting pressure on me. There were 25 good cars here tonight and it could have been any of them.”

When asked if he could have done anything different to defeat Darland, runner-up Robert Ballou told Dillon Welch, “Yeah, I needed a mud cover that would last 30 laps around Kokomo Speedway. We gave it our all. We got beat by the best guy in the business. He’s been doing this a long time, longer than I have been alive. Hats off to him and all the guys on that team that make that thing win. We were a second place car and we were third the other two nights. This ain’t what I come here for. I come here for wins. I felt like if we didn’t have that caution I could have gotten it done, but that’s why they call it racing. I’ve got about 30 or 40 more years left and Dave Darland will be in Bigelow’s position here when I’m still racing, so hopefully I’ll be challenging him for wins if we keep this number 12 going.”

Rattling off his laundry list of backers, Ballou noted, “They’re all little, but they all mean a lot to me and keep this thing on the racetrack night in and night out. Derrick Bye busts his butt. Scott Ronk is the best boss in the world – he lets me leave to go racing whenever I want. I’ve also got to thank the Farney family. They cooked food for us all week so we could stay hearty and upright. It’s been hard because we had some motor issues. And, hats off to the O’Connor family. Nobody else would have put up with this crap.”

Third place finisher Bryan Clauson commented, “We struggled all night just to get it under control. I can’t thank everybody on the Curb Records, Chevrolet Performance number 20 enough. We tried hard but we just needed about 30 more laps. We did everything we could. We took a couple of shots late but it wasn’t quite good enough. I can’t thank the O’Connors enough for their hard work. They fought a lot of adversity just to get this race in. Hopefully everybody appreciates that and enjoyed the show. It was a tough weekend on everybody.”

Further digesting the details, the undisputed king of Kokomo continued his home track qualifying prowess for the pair of Smackdown prelims. Quickest in a field of 36 on Thursday (12th in line at 12.791 seconds), on Friday evening Darland’s 12.712 second tour (5th in line) was again number one out of 34 machines. The only other individual to time within the top six on both nights was Robert Ballou, with Clauson, Coons, Leary, Grant, Bacon, Cummins (Pollock 21x), Stanbrough, and Meseraull representing a mixed bag of top qualifiers on Thursday and Friday. For T-Mez, he did not have a ride for night one but used the second night to make his debut in the Wingo 77.

Darland’s dynamic weekend didn’t start off that way, as he needed to reach Friday’s A through the B after banging Robert Ballou’s left front in his heat race. Starting seventh, he was quickly up to third, utilizing bottom, middle, and top grooves to pick off cars. After a lap two caution for Casey Shuman, he lurked around the bottom of turns three and four until Shane Cottle abruptly exited high. The resulting collision wiped out Dave’s front end, returning to the race some three laps down. Cottle appeared to have some issues of his own, pitting soon thereafter and limping home 12th.

After this incident, Friday was essentially a two horse race between pole sitter Bryan Clauson and fourth-starting Jon Stanbrough. Bryan paced the first 28 laps but could never shake Stanbrough from his shoulder. Jon appeared to be better in three and four, but Bryan was clearly superior in one and two, entering through the middle and exiting high. As Stanbrough stalked, in an odd twist of fate Clauson missed his mark and entered turn one a tad too high on the 29th lap, bobbling on the massive mountain of mud that never budged all night long. The Silent Gasser seized the rare opportunity, leading the last two laps for his fourth USAC victory of the season, his first of any kind at Kokomo since June of 2010. Mike Dutcher Motorsports literally went bananas, with hugs aplenty and high-fives flying. After Stanbrough and Clauson, Friday’s first ten finishers included Ballou, Cummins, Bacon, Stockon, Short, Leary (from 14th), Windom, and Jarrett. Speaking of Stockon, despite being the smallest in stature he was the first of five contestants to devour twenty boneless wings on Thursday night, claiming the infamous inaugural crown of “Snackdown” champ.

Saturday afternoon’s resumption of Thursday contained the third and fourth heat, B-main, and A-main, enjoying a spirited heat race joust for fourth between Shane Cottle and Landon Simon, chock full of bumping and banging, wheelies, and sliders. Qualifying third on Friday but scratching for mechanical gremlins, throttle psycho Thomas Meseraull tagged the tail of Saturday’s B but took a big ride in turn four, flinging his Wingo wagon skyward and tearing out some fencing. The race also resulted in a Jarett Andretti inversion, a Trevor Kobylarz front end folding, a three-wide finish for second between Cummins, Max McGhee, and Tracy Hines, and a swapping of sixth between Hollister, California’s Ryan Bernal (Elson 27), Parker Price-Miller, and Chad Boespflug. After firing from 14th, Boespflug got the spot, having to hustle all weekend long due to some persistent under the hood issues on Paul Hazen’s 57. Not going unnoticed, Boespflug earned a $500 cash bonus for becoming the weekend’s “Passing Master” while Hazen claimed the $300 Bill Gardner “True Grit” award.

Saturday and Sunday no-shows included Scotty Weir and Daron Clayton. After terminal engine failure on Thursday, Hunter Schuerenberg was painfully forced to sit out Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

With skies threatening to the west, Saturday’s feature was undoubtedly the best of the three, with side-by-side and three-abreast action quite common from front to back. At the start, pole man Justin Grant reached the top of turn one first. However, his drive off the turn two cushion chopped fellow front row mate C.J. Leary. C.J. partially spun and forced fourth-starting Bryan Clauson’s stoppage. Using the rest of the race to recover, it just wasn’t BC’s day after suffering a flat left rear tire with six laps left.

Featuring an outstanding scuffle for second between Jerry Coons, Jr., Robert Ballou, and eighth-starting Shane Cottle, Shane got as far as first place, actually taking the lead at the line in Tony Epperson’s Spike before a caution waved for Brian Karraker (Byram 3R). Continuing to give grief to Grant in the early-to-mid stages, unfortunately one costly mistake eliminated Shane from contention.

Storming from 12th and 14th, Chris Windom and Brady Short made a lot of noise with their impressive top-five charges near the midpoint. At the end, Chris settled for fourth, sandwiched between Robert Ballou and Jon Stanbrough. Sixth through tenth on Saturday included KTJ, Bacon, Cottle, Short, and Stockon.

With his two third place finishes, Robert Ballou was the top point man heading into the finale. The select seven who were also locked into the forty-lapper included Stanbrough, Bacon, Darland, Clauson, Windom, Cottle, and Stockon.

After hot laps commenced on a hot and sweaty Sunday afternoon, three heats sent nine more to the feature. With help from DRC chassis constructor Joe Devin, Brandon Mattox attempted to go three for three in Smackdown heat race wins but slid sideways in turn four. Turned straight by Chad Boespflug, Mattox’s luck soured worse in the B after sailing high at the turn one entry. Bouncing into the wall and taking a tumble, the Terre Haute terror’s weekend was over. Jarett Andretti also earned big air in the B, flipping high atop the turn four fence. Appearing slightly dazed on his ride back to the pits, Jarett was otherwise ok.

After turning a long turn three bike ride into a Sunday heat race flip, Max McGhee, his team (backed this weekend by Kenny Baldwin), and a host of others (including welding services from Jon Stanbrough) thrashed to repair his Maxim in time for the B. Max managed to score one of five feature transfers, as Chad Boespflug again eclipsed his share of competitors by winning from 7th. Tyler Courtney, Landon Simon, and Josh Spencer also punched their A-main ticket through the consolation, worth a healthy $1,000. Spencer’s run for the final transfer saw him gallop past Chris Gurley late in the going, made possible when Pennsylvania visitor Trevor Kobylarz (the $500 winner of the best appearing car) tagged Brian Karraker, spinning both from contention.

In between heats and B were the King of the Hill match races, pairing the top-eight in Smackdown points in three lap match races, beginning side-by-side to a white chalk line laid out on the front stretch. Pitting the highest against the lowest seeds, the high point man had lane choice and each time, they chose low. High drama ensued during Bacon’s second round battle with Jon Stanbrough. Battling wheel to wheel to the checkered, Jon was squeezed into the outside wall, spun, and nearly turned over, suffering a flat left front tire in the process.

Sending off the feature drivers in style with old fashioned driver introductions in front of the main grandstands, drivers tossed autographed t-shirts and assorted gear into the crowd as they marched past, an entertaining and thoughtful gesture to reward the fans for their patience and persistence. One lucky fan who caught the t-shirt from the feature winner not only got to stand in victory lane, but also earned $100 in cash and free Smackdown tickets for 2015. Not a bad deal, eh?

As the setting sun provided a beautiful backdrop to the wild celebration in honor of Dave Darland’s incredible accomplishment, Bacon and Stanbrough just missed podium placements but enjoyed solid top-five finishes. Scored sixth through tenth were Grant, Cottle, Thomas, Stockon, and Cummins (who collected $500 for being the event’s “Newcomer of the Year”). Officially closing the book on this third Smackdown weekend at 8:22 PM, O’Connor patriarch Jim along with daughters Jill and Chris stood outside of the front gate and personally thanked each fan for attending. I returned the favor, thanking them for actually going through with it, as I know that the weather kept fan count down while the slimmer than expected car count remained a mystery.

Paying the top-five for all weekend feature laps, outside of the $5,000 and $10,000 amounts for the winners, the most impressive Smackdown dollar statistic is the $1,000 prize offered to start the finale. That alone should be incentive for any team to give this deal a shot, as history shows that attrition takes its toll by the end of the weekend, allowing little guys like Josh Spencer and Brian Karraker a realistic shot at making some decent dough.

The fact is, there is not another race on the USAC calendar that offers more incentives, as USAC’s staff again went out of their way to gather a plethora of cash and product sponsors for countless awards, the majority of them designed for hard chargers, those suffering hard luck, and those not even making a feature. Understanding that August might be a time when budgets are worn thin, without any competition for cars for the first time in its brief history (aside from Paragon), I still don’t understand why more racers have not jumped on the Smackdown bandwagon. Hoping that the word gets out extremely early in 2015 regarding the available prizes, this Knoxville Nationals-style event deserves an overflowing pit area and grandstand.

One week removed from the Smackdown, I concluded my month of August with Kokomo’s last regular season event: the Vince Osman Memorial. Still a Sunday night, the holiday weekend and fireworks actually attracted a bigger crowd than the previous weekend. In brainstorming with Edison Motorsports helper Craig Heathcoat on ideas to attract more fans, we both agreed that fireworks should be a more frequent offering, at least once the weather gets warm. They do cost quite a bit more money, but if it fills the bleachers like it does at every track I have attended, it might be a worthwhile investment.

With a pit area consisting of 24 sprint cars, 14 thunder cars, 12 street stocks cars, and 26 UMP modifieds, given the consistently strong contingent of mods that appear on the holiday weekend shows, like fireworks perhaps they too should be a more frequent attraction. With competition for sprint car talent coming from Haubstadt’s $3,000 to win program and DuQuoin’s Ted Horn 100, Bryan Clauson was unquestionably the biggest name in the Kokomo house, here to reap the rewards of a season-long track championship. For a guy who has started the Indianapolis 500, sat on the pole at both Indianapolis and Daytona, enjoyed brief NASCAR success, claimed three USAC national driving championships, a pair of USAC national midget and sprint car titles, a pair of Indiana Sprint Week and Midget Week titles, laid claim to the Chili Bowl, Turkey Night Grand Prix (twice), the Belleville Midget Nationals (also twice), and the Sprint Car Smackdown, the fact that he placed so much emphasis on this Kokomo championship speaks volumes as to the quality of competition that exists each Sunday night from May through August.

The fastest qualifier (13.394) from three timed hot lap sessions, Bryan ran second in his heat to Shane Cottle, who returned to the seat of Monte Edison’s machine as regular driver Jerry Coons, Jr. was down in DuQuoin. Clauson, Cottle, and first heat runner-up Justin Grant were the three primary players come feature time, engaging in an outstanding battle that highlights the benefits of attending these weekly contests. Surprise heat winners for this final Sunday of the season included Kokomo rookie of the year Garrett Miller and Joe Liguori. Biking in the first heat and landing tail-first in the turn two fence, Canadian Lee Dakus ended his initial Kokomo campaign on the hook. Even earlier, Max McGhee tumbled in turn three qualifications and experienced deja-voodoo for the second time in one week, putting an exclamation point on his evening.

Enjoying a brief chat with former Kokomo throttle stomper Kurt “The Rooster” Hawkins in between the heats and B-main, that B was bagged by Chad Boespflug, with Texas visitor Payton Pierce picking up the final transfer position, just beating out Illinois veteran Steve Thomas. Showing extremely well in the feature (climbing from 20th to inside of the top ten before exiting), aside from a Putnamville appearance the previous evening, this was Pierce's first racing trip to the Hoosier state.

Grant and Miller comprised the front row for the 25-lap tribute to Vince Osman, a contest that was littered by six cautions and one red flag. In between all of the pauses existed a highly satisfying feature, doling out three distinct grooves, two separate cushions, and one thrilling finish claimed by the current king of Kokomo cowboys. Yes, you read that right: two separate cushions, as one existed about a third of the way down the track while another was cut by Justin Grant in never-never land.

Fourth-starting Cottle, Grant, and fifth-starting Clauson provided first-class entertainment with their extreme showcase of talent. After a brief four-wide fan for first at the start and an initial caution for Cooper Clouse, Cottle two-wheeled turn two, recovered to find bite at the bottom of turn three, and narrowly slid Grant through turn four to produce P1. With Shane positioning the Crume-Evans Insurance Spike on the standard cushion, Justin immediately tested the waters elsewhere, stepping even further upstairs on both ends to stay within striking distance. Manning Chuck Eberhardt’s unsponsored Maxim (a.k.a. the family car), Clauson chose the middle lane and eyed the outstanding battle for first. At one point, Cottle biked turn two for the second time and successfully recovered, but not before Grant squirted beneath to take first. Unfortunately, a Josh Spencer spin nullified such a slick move.

Near the halfway mark, Cottle again flirted with disaster against the unruly cushion that had been pounded flat during the intermission. Biking for the third time in turn two, that third time was not the charm for “The Throttle”. Careening off the concrete and coming to an abrupt halt, he ended his evening the same way for the second year in a row, in this very race. Enduring quite a bit of pain from the crash in the following days, it still looked like Cottle had a blast in his reunion with his longtime buddies.

After a Logan Jarrett spin (having earlier elevated from 12th to 4th), a seven lap dash would award Sunday night bragging rights for the final time in 2014. Grant continued his exploration of upper regions while Clauson smoothly attacked the equally effective but less treacherous middle. Each time, they would meet at the turn two exit, coming oh-so-close to touching lap after lap after lap. Building a fairly substantial margin at the white flag, Grant’s high line was suddenly blocked by lapped traffic as he approached turn three, forcing him to go low. Spotting third place Joe Liguori flipping in turn two with one eye, the other caught Clauson sneaking beneath Grant to steal an apparent win.

Although the checkered flag and red lights appeared simultaneously, officials concluded that they needed to go back one lap, as only three cars took the checkered. Amping up the intensity even more, Justin juked Bryan as they took the green and white flag together. Although Grant chose his effective turn three and four diamond, Clauson pulled tight as they approached the flag stand, just missing the win by a nose. Grant gathered his second straight Vince Osman victory, an all-out thriller on what was just another Sunday night in Kokomo.

Clauson settled for second while Scotty Weir worked from tenth to third in Bill Elson’s 27. After having a flat left front tire swapped at lap ten, newly crowned Gas City champion Chris Gurley charged through the field to take fourth, annexing the position from Jarett Andretti. Spots six through ten included Adam Byrkett, Josh Spencer (recovering from a lap ten spin), Logan Jarrett (also recovering from a late race loop), Travis Hery, and 2002 track champ Dustin Smith.

Landing in Kokomo’s victory lane for the third time this season with car owner Mark Hery, afterwards the ever-popular Grant commented, “I’ve been a part of so many races that have been the best race of the year and come up second in every one of them. So, it’s good to finally win a good race. Bryan raced me clean coming off of turn four to the checkered. He could have let that thing go and gave me a wheel, but he didn’t, so I appreciate that. We caught a break there at the end. We got into lapped traffic and Bryan actually beat me to the line when the red came out. He would have won that race but as many yellows and as many chances as he had, I’ll take one break for myself.”

Scoring second and his first Kokomo championship, Clauson received quite a bit of appreciation for his feat, stating, “It’s awesome man! I looked down the point standings here at Kokomo Speedway a couple of weeks ago and they’re the same guys that are battling it out on the national circuit! This is definitely the baddest bullring in the country and I definitely love coming here. The O’Connor family does so much for our sport with all the races they put on for us. To have the opportunity to come out here every Sunday night and run the best racetrack in country, that’s a lot of fun. I wish we could have ended with a win, but we gave it everything we had. We didn’t need a lot of those cautions. He was a little better in the short run and we just ran out of time.”

Beginning my usually peaceful August on a high note with a throwback BOSS battle in Liberty, Indiana, this memorable meeting effectively restarted my sprint car system after another epic Indiana Sprint Week experience. The month ended on an even higher note with an unexpected Vince Osman Memorial thriller in Kokomo. But in between, any benefit from that first race back was negated by some serious negativity generated by the non-stop Tony Stewart witch hunt. The ultimate shock, anger, and frustration was more than I could stomach, searching for any kind of a mental break from the stinging reality of a world turned upside down. Hoping that a road trip to Springfield and Macon would reboot the system once again, a rare double rain-out only intensified the internal strife. Believing that a three day USAC Sprint Car Smackdown could make me forget about everything that was wrong with the world, Mother Nature and her eleven inches of rain intended to continue my misery. However, even she had no clue as to just how much resilience and desire some people have.

Thanks to the superhuman efforts of the entire Kokomo Speedway staff, not only did they prove that the impossible might just be possible, but they also reaffirmed the reason why I became a sprint car fan some thirty years ago. Turning bad news into good, by the time Dave Darland was celebrating his record-setting 53rd USAC sprint car victory I was certainly feeling better, but this fragile soul had already taken a serious beating from such a sickening rollercoaster of emotions. I don’t ask for much out of life, but in order to continue the healing process, could you please just give me the good news first?

 

 

 

Volume 16, Number 9

I'm Alive

Seven races in nine nights! 

To an outsider, such an extensive, intense period would appear to be more than enough time to get one’s fill of the best that traditional sprint car racing has to offer, easily bordering on the excessive.  But for anyone who has previously sampled the intoxicating atmosphere of the United States Auto Club's Indiana Sprint Week, they will quickly advise that this isn’t nearly enough time to relax, take a deep breath, and let it all soak in without worry that the painful conclusion was lurking right around the corner. 

It might be so cliché to state that time flies when you’re having fun, but for someone who revels in making the most of one’s available hours, it becomes far too easy to lose track of time in these nine days.  Of course it's an illusion, but the second hand of the clock seems to pick up speed during Sprint Week, especially after the first three days have expired.  Vividly recalling a hello that came with such unbridled enthusiasm, before you know it the gut-wrenching curtain closer forces us to say goodbye, wondering how it was possible that this precious period had completely disappeared. 

Two Grooves – Hunter Schuerenberg and Dave Darland take two different routes in the battle for Bloomington supremacy

Despite the tear-inducing despair and depression that sets in after it’s all over, I’d gladly repeat the process in a heartbeat, as there is no better time to truly feel alive.  In this ultimate expression of freedom from work and worry, food and drink taste better than they ever have before, music rocks even louder and harder, and the most mundane scenery suddenly becomes beautiful.  More than just about the on-track action, Sprint Week is all about the fans, photographers, and crew members who come from all ends of the globe wearing smiles a mile wide, seemingly in heaven for this limited duration.  A time to reunite and live it up with the closest of acquaintances, such enthusiasm is quite contagious when everyone’s spirits are sky-high.  If it was just another racing weekend without such camaraderie, there would be no reason for such sadness when engines quiet and everyone heads for home.  But, in order to appreciate these highest of highs, the lowest of lows must also be weathered.  Thus, it can be reasoned that Indiana Sprint Week is an accurate representation of life itself. 

Admitting to being burned out on racing prior to this nine day deluge, such feelings went completely out the window upon the Thursday arrival of Campbell, California’s Steve Lafond, who served as my Sprint Week guest for the sixth season in a row.  Not just any old racetrack acquaintance, Steve is absolutely one of my best friends.  Separated by 2,285 miles, even though we appear to be quite different on the outside, on the inside we’re made of the same stuff – responsible, honest, thoughtful, kind, passionately enthusiastic, and a perfectionist to the core.  The one time all year that we get to hang out, his presence automatically upgrades my favorite time of the year to epic proportions. 

Bike Ride – Brady Bacon two wheels Bloomington’s turn one

Absolutely the coolest guy I know, Steve butters his bread as a technical staffer at Silicon Valley data storage provider NetApp but in his free time, he is either panning, clicking, and producing digital images for Tear-Off Heaven Fotos (www.tohf.com) or creating rhythm by slamming sticks into his bubinga drum kit for all-original rock band Ded Ringer.  For the first time in five years, Steve and I would not share space with ex-Ron DiDonato/Holbrook Motorsports crew member Tom Percy, who was forced to cancel his Sprint Week plans after his wife Carla lost her grandmother. 

Missing a crucial member of our three stooges, Sprint Week surely felt different, but as usual I handled the majority of post-race driving duties while Lafond worked on photos and served as DJ, selecting appropriate tunes from his eclectic iPod collection.   Reminding me of my younger years when my oldest brother cranked up classic rock on Q-95 and ultimately influenced my musical taste, this year my favorite selection from Steve was the 1979 debut album from Ronnie Montrose’s Gamma, highlighted by the second track entitled “I’m Alive”.  Enamored with the electronic background vocals that evoke the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, this song hit the sweet spot and was officially declared the Sprint Week anthem of 2014, also accounting for this blog’s theme. 

Given that ISW is my own zenith, it should come as no surprise that I felt alive once again, regardless if it required a visit from Steve and a mandatory trip to Bonge’s Tavern on Thursday’s Sprint Week eve.  Feeling like I had just completed my final day of school before summer vacation, although that long-awaited three month break is now just nine days, this particular Thursday at Bonge’s is the zenith of my zenith.  With so much great food, drink, racing, and laughter on the horizon, life could literally not get any better.  I could go on and on about Bonge’s unbelievable cuisine, amazing atmosphere, and generous hospitality, but this particular visit was quite memorable, spending quality time with owner and chef Tony Huelster, whose mentor Dieter Puska (of Carmel's famed Glass Chimney restaurant) sponsored midgets and sprints driven by Larry Fritz.  The pride of Perkinsville, Indiana, Bonge’s is located on the banks of the White River and as I have always stated to Steve, anytime this body of water is crossed, expect great things.  By no coincidence, the White River is encountered in four of the seven Sprint Week stops.  

Bonge’s Sunset – On the way back from Bonge’s Tavern, Steve captured this epic Indiana sunset

It was fantastic to feel alive once again, even better to see Indiana dirt tracks also spring to life for this seven race stretch.  With the exception of special shows and fireworks displays, local sprint car programs in the Hoosier state continue to face serious challenges in drawing decent attendance figures, but that certainly was not the case for Sprint Week.  Forecasted rain for Kokomo and Lawrenceburg might have curbed crowds on the opening weekend, but the beautiful, humidity-free weather the rest of the week helped attract record numbers of attendees, particularly challenging to find open seats at Gas City, Putnamville, and Bloomington.  As for the usual plethora of motorhome and campers caravanning to each event, there was no such shortage for the 2014 version.  Rumored to be in the house at Bloomington, USAC Indiana Sprint Week visionary Kent Evans had to be proud at what he created with Mike Miles, Keith Ford, and Bill Marvel at that fateful meeting over the winter of 1995/1996 at the Martinsville Waffle House. 

Aside from Brownstown’s season-opening slew of 51 and Lawrenceburg’s Midwestern USAC opener of 42, car counts have not exactly been stellar for 2014 either.  However, Sprint Week was again the X-factor, pumping up numbers to their usual standard.  Enthused by the old-school population of 53 machines for the Sprint Week opener at Gas City, subsequent assemblies of 46, 44, 38, 44, 43, and 36 averaged out to a respectable 43.  Solid – yes, but I still miss those fields of 60+ from the late '90s and early 2000s.  Back then, non-qualifier race drama took place every night, as the absence of provisional starting positions meant that the possibility of loading up early was quite high.  Even the low numbers of 36 and 38 at Haubstadt and Terre Haute were encouraging, much higher than expected given recent history.  This being the 27th edition of ISW, 21 cars came to all seven events, with 77 different drivers participating. 

Burnsy – Eric Burns backs it in to turn one at Terre Haute, his first Sprint Week run since 2002

Winner of two national events in 2014 and entering Indiana Sprint Week fourth in points (some 96 behind leader Brady Bacon), it seemed quite appropriate that defending Sprint Week king Bryan Clauson and his Tony Stewart Racing squad would come alive, as they always seem to shine in this mini-marathon.  Starting off an uncharacteristic 16th best in Gas City qualifications and working up to tenth in the feature, Clauson and his Bob East wrenched Chevy Performance Beast/Kistler started to find their Sprint Week stride in Kokomo after timing third and finishing fifth.  Second in Lawrenceburg qualifying before the rains came, he blew by Robert Ballou and paced the final 14 laps in Terre Haute to take his first-ever victory at the famed half-mile, continuing his theme of coming on strong in the second half of the week.  Reversing roles by running second to Robert at Putnamville, he entered Bloomington as the ISW point leader after week-long leader Chris Windom was spun from second by Kevin Thomas, Jr., with Bryan barely escaping the mess after locking horns with both at the bottom of turn one.  Seventh in Bloomington time trials but propelling from the pole after Jarett Andretti failed to transfer from his heat, Clauson’s patience paid huge dividends, experimenting with high and low lanes to keep pace with leaders Dave Darland and Hunter Schuerenberg.  After a red flag for Tyler Courtney with six laps remaining, second-place Bryan used the moist bottom to surge to first.  Consistently hitting his marks to take the huge win, the clutch performance kept him ten points ahead of Darland as they entered the Haubstadt finale.

History shows that the Bloomington Sprint Week winner goes on to take the title, as eight times such a statistic has held true prior to 2014.  Eight became nine when Clauson qualified third and finished fourth at Tommy Helfrich’s Tri-State Speedway, as Darland could not mount a worthy challenge after struggling to an 11th place feature finish, ultimately falling to third in the ISW standings after Ballou bagged the finale.  2014 was the third year in a row that Tony Stewart Racing has claimed the crown, the sixth for the team since 2003.  This being Bryan’s second in a row, he’s the first to do the deed since TSR’s Levi Jones (’08 and ’09).  Now third in national points and only 34 out of first, this sets up another title showdown between Clauson and Darland, adding second place Brady Bacon to the mix.  Looking forward to the next USAC outing at Kokomo’s titanic Sprint Car Smackdown on August 21st through the 23rd, we all know how well both Bryan and Dave have performed there in the past two years.  Although so many people tire of seeing the same winner, years from now when Bryan has moved on to greener pastures, we can most certainly look back at this period and say that we were witness to greatness. 

Calm Before the Storm – Some of Sprint Week’s most intense action takes place right here

Other than Clauson and TSR coming alive, the biggest story of Indiana Sprint Week was that of Robert Ballou.  Still on his self-dubbed Empty Pockets Tour and essentially down to his last car and engine (a ten year old Maxim chassis and a fairly new for 2014 Don Ott mill), for the first four races he had Oklahoma’s Jimmy Jones calling the shots.  Having enjoyed the majority of his wingless sprint car success with Jones back in the MPHG Motorsports days, the two of them were known for their fiery relationship that often resulted in many loud and harsh words.  Schooled by Karl Kinser in the science of sprint car mechanicals and the art of driver motivation, Jones told me, “They don’t hear ‘ya unless you’re yelling.  You’ve gotta make an impression!”   

Robert’s father was also in town to assist for the entire grind and although things started off slowly with a 16th to 14th showing at Gas City, the next night in Kokomo restored confidence with a 14th to 7th surge.  Seventh-best in Lawrenceburg qualifying, that statistic served as a ray of hope as Robert’s Achilles heel the last several seasons has been sub-standard qualifying performances.  Topping the timing charts at Jimmy's last outing in Terre Haute; this was certainly a sign of things to come as they led three laps near the race’s mid-point.  Robert was quite disappointed in his post-race interview after settling for second, but I highly doubt he and Jimmy were doing any yelling afterwards. 

Sans assistance from Jones, he was seventh-best in Lincoln Park time trials and was slated to start third, but after Chad Boespflug’s car failed to appear at the staging line within five minutes of the sounding of the USAC horn (a new rule instituted at Terre Haute), that bounced Ballou to the front row.  Taking full advantage, he led all thirty tours atop Putnamville’s gigantic curb and narrowly held off Clauson, a humongous score for such an underdog, shoestring effort.  Robert’s victory lane interview was one of the most memorable I’ve ever heard, holding nothing back as he burst into tears when relaying just how difficult things have been of late, relegated to working a full-time job for Kokomo’s Scott Ronk to pay the bills and somehow keep a sprint car rolling.  Advised by his dad to “not do anything half-ass”, Robert also spoke about spending a great amount of time assembling equipment for Aaron Farney and Parker Price-Miller to “give these kids a chance”.  If you weren’t already a fan of The Mad Man, after that interview you had to at least respect his effort, desire, and genuine passion, as there is no one that works harder as an owner-driver combination.  I, for one, got a little choked up in listening to just how much this win meant to him. 

Chase – Taking part in two features, Chase Briscoe qualified a solid fourth at Bloomington

Winding up Sprint Week with a 21st to 6th blast at Bloomington, Ballou led the first six circuits at Haubstadt, yielded to Kyle Cummins for eight, and then led the final 16 en route to his third consecutive Tri-State triumph.  Closing Sprint Week second in points to Clauson, Robert most certainly had to be feeling as alive as he ever has, wishing that that week did not have to end so soon. 

Gunning for his fourth Indiana Sprint Week title and the consensus pick to win it all, Dave Darland was in the hunt all week but just did not have the consistent finishes of Clauson to get the job done.  Starting sixth after qualifying quickest at Gas City, he was the lone soldier who attacked the top groove and was lucky to wind up eighth.   

Moving to Kokomo, his autobiography with Bones Bourcier was officially released in the afternoon, quickly countered by an epic qualifying effort that saw his Phillips Motorsports DRC/Foxco set not only a new USAC track record, but the ultimate one-lap mark as well, stopping the clocks at 12.405 seconds.   

Come feature time in K-town, Kevin Thomas, Jr. bolted to an immediate advantage from his outside front row starting spot, leading the first five tours.  Dave wasted little time in posing a threat to KT, diamonding the second bend on lap five to briefly lead before the Cullman, Alabama assassin retook the position at the stripe, soon seeing Kokomo’s all-time leading feature winner prove just how large his attachments are when threading the needle between Kevin’s car and the outside wall in turn two.  Officially leading the rest of the way, it was far from easy for Dave, who had his hands full with a sizeable ledge, heavy lapped traffic, and a lightning quick Justin Grant, who rocketed from eighth to second just as soon as Darland drove to the lead.  Whenever there is room between the cushion and Kokomo’s outside wall, few are better than Justin, who first had to fend off Kevin before sinking his teeth into Double-D’s lead, pouring on the coal with 12 to go.  After Dave’s front end washed out atop turn four at lap 21, Grant gave a classic Kokomo slider in turn one, only to be countered by an immediate Darland crossover.  With seven to go, Grant gave it another go in one but didn’t have enough mustard on the hot dog.  Two more untimely bobbles from the hometown hero, one of them in turn four with the white flag in sight, allowed the pride of Ione, California one more shot in turn one, offering a slide for life that easily cleared the leader’s front end.  Both cars seemingly came to a stop to avoid exceeding that cantankerous curb, the brief pause giving Darland a chance to crank his front wheels to the left and mash the gas.  The resulting backstretch drag race saw the cagey veteran point to the top of turn three, chopping Grant who correspondingly diamonded three and four to come just inches short.  Dave capped off his huge day with USAC sprint car win number 51, now just one short of tying Tom Bigelow for the all-time record. 

Check it Out – Kyle Cummins’s lone Sprint Week appearance resulted in a second place at Haubstadt

Regardless of the winner, it was an epic duel to the finish that further elevated Kokomo’s status as Sprint Week’s centerpiece.  However hard to imagine, I’ve actually witnessed local shows here this year that offered far better features (Mother’s Day Mudslinger), encouraging anyone and everyone to sample Sunday night local contests.  Enjoying a post-race parking lot beverage with Lafond and Randy Jones as we basked in the glow of the thrilling feature finish, I’m not sure if we felt as alive as Darland did at that moment, but we were pretty damned close.  Now, if we could only bottle up these feelings and uncork them six months from now, I’d be on to something. 

The rest of Darland’s Sprint Week didn’t quite go to plan, although he did leap-frog Chris Windom as the Sprint Week point leader after clocking fourth at the Lawrenceburg rain out.  Dave was slated to start Terre Haute’s thirty lapper from the outside of the front row, but USAC’s brand new rule required presenting one’s car to the feature staging lane within five minutes of a horn being blown.  This new rule bit the Phillips team in the behind by moving them back two rows, interesting to learn that only nine cars presented in the proper timeframe.   Creating mass confusion with wholesale lineup changes, Darland charged to third by lap ten but faded to seventh, quite uncharacteristic given the 71P's dominance here in May.  After finishing fourth, Chris Windom was back atop the ISW throne, at least for one more night.   

Suffering a flat right rear in Putnamville hot laps and tipping over after his 15th place qualifying performance, another feature lineup shakeup actually benefitted Darland, who was supposed to start 13th but instead took the green from 10th.  Never contending for first, he instead kept his nose clean and claimed a respectable fifth, now sixth points behind new leader Clauson. 

Coon Dog – Jerry Coons, Jr. was one of 10 men to make all 6 Sprint Week features without employing a provisional

Sixth fastest on a lightning-fast Bloomington surface, Dave fired from the outside of the front row in Friday’s feature, starting alongside Clauson.  Pacing the first ten tours and moving from top to bottom, he was first circled by Hunter Schuerenberg and after a turn four miscue, then it was Clauson, settling for third at the checkered.  Hoping for change of fortune in Haubstadt where he hadn’t won since May of 2005, he began the feature from eighth but immediately struggled to find his groove, backing up to a disappointing 11th.  However “unalive” he might have felt after the conclusion, Sprint Week wasn’t a total loss for The People’s Champion, entering the series 29 points behind Bacon but exiting five ahead. 

After their up and down Sprint Week tour, Jon Stanbrough and his Michael Dutcher Motorsports bunch certainly know all about the highs and lows of feeling alive.  Scoring the pole for the Gas City opener after qualifying ninth, Jon was the pilot dog for all thirty tours by utilizing the lower regions of the slick I-69 quarter-mile, just edging a quickly-closing Justin Grant who made one final swipe atop corners three and four.  Winners of three of the last four USAC events, confidence was high heading into Kokomo, but a disappointing qualifying result left them 16th in the rundown, forcing the Silent Gasser to start 15th and claim 11th.  Lawrenceburg had been strong point for Stanbrough and Dutcher in 2014, but after flying high in qualifying when nearly everyone else went low, they were saddled with the 20th best time, perhaps a blessing for them that it ended up washing out. 

Second in the Terre Haute timing light tango, winning their heat from sixth, and having made a pass on Bryan Clauson in the feature, a broken piston sent them to the sidelines fairly early, ending any hope of a third Sprint Week crown for the 2006 and 2010 champ.  After an excellent fourth place qualifying effort at Lincoln Park, Jon needed the B to make the A, coming on strong to find fourth after starting seventh.   Continuing the roller coaster ride in Bloomington, driver 37 wound up 17th in qualifying, was roughed up by Carson Short and C.J. Leary at the start of his heat, but came from the rear to claim an authoritative transfer.  Climbing from 14th to sixth in just seven feature laps, unfortunately he was the primary victim of a Brady Bacon spin, brought about when the Hoffman shoe stayed out on a flat left rear.  Still claiming ninth at the end, the end result should have been a podium.  Ending the week with quick time at Haubstadt, Jon settled for a solid third, mentioning afterwards that he burned off a right rear tire too soon.  After the broken piston at Terre Haute and the Bacon blunder at Bloomington, Stanbrough and MDM still salvaged a fifth place points finish, leaving the team wondering what could have been.     

Cowboy – Daron Clayton’s last ride in Hank Byram’s machine came at Terre Haute

One spot ahead of Stanbrough in the ISW standings was Brady Bacon.  A solid qualifier all week, only twice did he time outside of the top ten, reaching the top of the charts at Putnamville.  Consistent feature finishes of sixth at Gas City, eighth at Kokomo, third at Terre Haute (pacing the first 13 tours after being moved to the front row thanks to the "horn" rule), ninth at Putnamville, and sixth at Haubstadt were spoiled by a 17th at Bloomington after his spin.  That incident essentially cost him the national point lead, but it could have been much worse had his crew not thrashed to make hasty repairs after a heat race incident at Gas City (requiring some straightening and welding of the right front torsion tube), also swapping an engine after the Putnamville B.     

Neck and neck early on for the top of the Sprint Week standings, Chris Windom and Justin Grant secured sixth and seventh place chairs at the end of the seven race grind.  Opening with oh-so-close seconds at Gas City and Kokomo, Grant and his Mark Hery 40 stayed in the hunt by galloping from 15th to 6th at Terre Haute.  However, a 21st place in Putnamville did him in, winding up the week 7th and 20th.  Like Justin, Chris Windom began with consistent third, third, and fourth place runs for 1999 Sprint Week champion car owner Jeff Walker.  Holding the point lead after Terre Haute and operating in second at Putnamville , an untimely shove from KT, Jr. tainted title hopes, having to swallow the bitter pill of a 20th place payoff.  Finishing fifth in B-town and 12th at the Haub, at that point it was academic for the 2011 Sprint Week king.  But without the Putnamville punt, Chris could have been a 2-time champ.   

Eighth, ninth, and tenth in the Sprint Week standings were Hunter Schuerenberg, Chase Stockon, and Jerry Coons, Jr.  Schuerenberg made five of six features, his only blemish being terminal engine failure after Terre Haute hot laps.  Hunter started from Kokomo’s front row and finished fourth, nearly won Bloomington, and secured seventh in the Haubstadt finale.  Stockon started his Sprint Week strong, surging from 13th to 5th at Gas City.  Clocking quickest in Lawrenceburg and second fastest in Bloomington, the rest of the week was a qualifying struggle, taking tenth place finishes out of the Hut and Put.  Slamming Haubstadt’s boiler plate and flipping in his qualification attempt, a massive thrash aided by a bevy of competitors allowed “Showtime” to do just that in his heat, swapping numerous sliders with Clauson.  As for Coons, he was inside of the qualifying top ten three times but saved his best feature finish (8th) for last.  The rest of the week resulted in fairly consistent runs of 11th, 12th, 11th, 19th, and 11th for Monte Edison’s hired gun. 

Double Trouble – After his Gas City tumble, Jeff Bland, Jr.’s next race resulted in this wicked flip at Putnamville

Ten men made all six features without the aid of a provisional, consisting of Clauson, Ballou, Darland, Bacon, Stanbrough, Windom, Grant, Stockon, Coons, and Thomas.  Needing one provisional apiece, C.J. Leary and Tracy Hines also participated in all six main events.  Given that such a large number made all Sprint Week main events on their own merit, compared to the late ‘90s and early 2000s when only a handful could boast such a feat, the conclusion I can come to is that the number of competitive local Indiana chauffeurs have simply decreased in the last decade.

One of the most competitive local Indiana machines belongs to Paul Hazen.  Hoping to hit all seven shows, he and driver Chad Boespflug made all five features they attempted, sitting out Terre Haute due to a weak set of valve springs and worn retainers.  Paul had ordered a new set of springs but they did not arrive by Wednesday morning, forcing him to skip the trip as he wasn’t willing to chance it on the big half.  Qualifying inside of the top-ten twice and posting a pair of top-ten feature finishes (8th at LPS and 10th at the Haub), had they presented in time at Lincoln Park, their pole position start could have resulted in an 11th USAC score for Hazen.  If there was one thing that led to irritation during my zenith, it’s that this new rule actually impacted feature results, especially on efficient evenings when time wasn’t a huge concern.    

Finding His Groove – Robert Ballou bagged two wins and claimed second in Sprint Week points

Another solid local performer was Thomas Meseraull and his Dave Stensland DRC/Kercher.  Had it not been for Bloomington engine issues, T-Mez could have easily competed in all six Indiana Sprint Week main events.  As it was, 2014 was still a solid showing for the former BCRA midget champ, nailing ninth at Kokomo and scoring a scintillating third at Lincoln Park after some serious sliders with Chad Boespflug, thoroughly enjoying his interview afterwards.

The key to feeling alive for Sprint Week chauffeurs has so much to do with qualification performance, as feature winners started from the pole position four times, the other two being taken from sixth and third.  So exciting to hear those famous words "IT'S A NEW TRACK RECORD", new USAC one-lap marks were established in Kokomo by Dave Darland and Bloomington by Hunter Schuerenberg.   Darland's 12.405 second clocking not only bettered his own 12.618 circuit from last August, but it also eclipsed T-Mez’s all-time mark of 12.498.  Schuerenberg's sizzling 10.920 second trip around Bloomington’s banks finally beat J.J. Yeley's USAC record of 11.068 from July of 2002.  However, Kevin Swindell still holds the all-time wingless mark from April of 2007 at 10.880.  Timing inside of the top-ten in six of seven outings, Dave Darland was the king of ISW qualifying.  Five for seven included Bryan Clauson, Brady Bacon, and Chris Windom while Ballou, Grant, Schuerenberg, and Stanbrough were four for seven.       

Recalling the all-time king of Sprint Week qualifying, that would be Silver City, New Mexico’s Richard “The Gas Man” Griffin, who set quick time in all six of his 1997 appearances.  Despite participation from Richard and Jace Vander Weerd, Brody Roa, and Gary Taylor (only the first weekend in the Cook 4), ISW 2014 was missing that solid left coast vibe that made Sprint Week so special in the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially when Cory Kruseman came out and did some serious damage. 

Focus – Now a two-time Sprint Week champion, Bryan Clauson appears ready to rumble

This was the third year in a row that the Vander Weerd twins towed to Indiana but unfortunately their results didn’t reflect such experience.  Both skipped Terre Haute altogether, with Richard competing in all five of his features but needing a pair of provisionals to get it done.  Starting off strong at Gas City, he fired from third but ended 13th after a big-time bike, tallying a tenth in B-town.  Jace only competed in one feature (Haubstadt) and needed a west coast provisional to accomplish that.  Provisionals also aided Taylor (1) and Roa (2) but Brody actually impressed with a Bloomington blast up to 12th.  

Josh Ford Motorsports didn’t make it out this year, but their crew chief Jimmy May did, calling shots and maintaining a Spike chassis with ex-Rico Abreu Shaver power for Kevin Thomas, Jr.  Despite feeling far from alive the Sunday before Sprint Week, he decided to make a go of it anyway, painfully trudging through the entire nine day grind with some sort of stomach ailment.  Kokomo (leading five laps and finishing 6th) and Putnamville (up as high as 2nd) were Sprint Week highlights for May and Thomas. 

Indiana Sprint Week might be all about feeling alive, but for a vast majority of competitors there are far more opportunities to feel less than stellar.    One such example was Jeff Bland, Jr.  Five times he’s been a winner with the Burton family this season, but his series started less than ideal after tumbling over the turn two bank during the Gas City B.  Losing his vision for about 30 minutes after the incident (which severely bent his left side head rest), he was examined in nearby Marion where X-rays revealed nothing serious.   Despite a sore neck and some serious bruising on his knee and lower regions, Bland aided the Burtons in constructing a new car on Saturday and Sunday.  Putting the new piece in the show at Putnamville, unfortunately an errant wheel launched him end over end to the Indiana Stone Works billboard in turn three.  Somehow returning for Bloomington in yet another car and qualifying 8th, following a fifth place heat race run they were done for the week. 

Getting Dirty – Thomas Meseraull shined with an impressive third place performance at Putnamville

Bland’s buddy Brady Short had every reason to feel alive after starting with charges of 18th to 12th at Gas City, 22nd to 13th at Kokomo, and 9th to 5th at Terre Haute, but a Putnamville B-main blunder with Carson Short spoiled his Sprint Week momentum, popping a provisional and elevating from 24th to 6th.  Bad luck continued to bite Sweet Feet, who biked in his Bloomington heat and barrel rolled four or five times over the turn one bank.  Miraculously getting his Pottorff-Short ride repaired in time for the B, he exited prematurely and ended his week one day early.      

Always good for some hammer-down highlights, unfortunately Daron Clayton's Sprint Week was nothing to write home about.  Unable to crack Gas City's A in Hank Byram's Mach 1, he took 22nd at Kokomo but blew up in a big way during the Terre Haute B, creating a dramatic fireball that was caught by many cameras.  Reportedly done for the year in the 3R, Clayton moved to Mike Terry’s Maxim for Putnamville but scratched after qualifying, returning for Haubstadt in his familiar yellow Spike.  Charging from 10th to 5th, as usual Daron put on a show but he needed more laps or cautions to contend for the win.   

Mad Max – Shown at work in Terre Haute, Max McGhee saved his best Sprint Week performance for last in Haubstadt

A.J. Hopkins only took part in two shows but literally went out with a bang in both.  In the Gas City B, he exited early after punching two holes through the side of his engine block.  Even more dramatic in Putnamville qualifying, he bicycled into a humongous flip through turns three and four after setting fifth quick time on the first lap.  Tumbling all the way to the photographer’s tower in four, one such photog who was sent scrambling into the woods was Sean Buckley.  Damaging both engine and car in one week, such a double-whammy is never good. 

Speaking of that double-whammy, Tracy Hines suffered such unkind fate in one night at Bloomington.  Encountering a power failure during intense heat race combat with Brent Beauchamp, the two of them flew over the turn three bank, seeing Beauchamp gain big air but somehow landing his Olson 34 upright.  After employing a backup car to begin B-town's feature via a provisional, Hines inverted on the back stretch, adding further insult to injury.  Beginning with a promising fourth at Gas City, Tracy tallied disappointing finishes of 16th, 8th, 11th, 22nd, and 19th.  His older brother’s Sprint Week lasted just three races, as Ted lost his steering and slammed head-on into turn four Lawrenceburg concrete.  That's the second time this season the three-time Speedrome champ has endured sudden stoppage in Lawrenceburg USAC action, having stuck a landing after an ugly flip in early April. 

Filled with as many chills as thrills, Sprint Week was stacked with all kinds of calamity.  Looking sharp with a special fighter plane wrap on his Mount Baker Vapor DRC, Landon Simon appeared for the first four events but was ready for lift off after scaling Dave Darland’s wheel in a Terre Haute heat.  Upon returning to Earth, he permanently rearranged the chassis and was forced to call it a week. Nathan Moore mauled his Maxim after meeting Bloomington’s infamous turn four earth embankment, breaking out his Wolf Weld to finish the series in Haubstadt.  Appearing for the first four shows, skipping LPS and B-town, but returning for Haubstadt, Shane Cockrum’s highlight was a seventh at Gas City.  His lowlights:  inverting Shane Wade’s new Maxim at Kokomo and the Hut.  Qualifying an impressive fourth at Kokomo, after popping a Bloomington provisional Tyler Courtney was yet another who found disfavor with the turn one cushion, wildly flipping the Pollock 21 over the bank late in the feature.  

Mecca – Bonge’s Tavern is the ultimate destination for outstanding atmosphere and awesome cuisine

Appearing at just three Sprint Week stops, Elizabethtown’s Dakota Jackson had an equally disappointing week as the aforementioned chauffeurs.  Suffering push rod issues at Gas City and believing he had it fixed for Putnamville, his Bill Tranter Chevy still wasn’t right, unable to escape the B at Lincoln Park or Bloomington.  One of just a few who campaigns a Keith Kunz Bullet Chassis and living just minutes from Keith’s shop, often times Dakota aids the midget maestro, most notably in Chili Bowl crunch time this past winter when Kunz crafted all-new cars and didn’t have nearly enough hands to finish the massive project.  A veteran of sprint cars since he was 13, come August 29th Jackson heads to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology to embark on a mechanical engineering degree, hoping to transform his world-class education into an Indycar engineering position.   

Digging through the notebook for random highlights from each round, starting at Gas City Josh Spencer (6th), Richard Vander Weerd (7th) and Max McGhee (10th) enjoyed outstanding qualification efforts.  After timing at the opposite end of the spectrum (37th), Shane Cottle’s C to B to A alphabet soup proved to be quite tasty, surging from 17th to 5th in that B-main blast.  Had he not tangled with Mark Smith and Scotty Weir, a top-ten feature finish could have easily resulted for The Throttle, who had a disappointing Sprint Week after just two top-tens.  Hats off to part-timer Jimmy Light, who digested ninth from 15th in “Gastronomical City”.  While walking the I-69 pits, I enjoyed reminiscing with former sprint car combatant “Nuclear” Nick Corea and the world famous Jackie Dean of Frankfort – both blasts from the past.  A special shout out goes to Lafayette’s Joe Higdon, who not only saved me a seat in the jam-packed pit stands on this evening, but also two nights later at The Burg.  Sharing similar passions for sprint car racing and bygone railroads, we were apparently speaking too loudly as we got “shushed” by some lady in front of us.  Imagine that – too loud at a racetrack!  Gas City’s sprint car checkered came at 11:20 PM.

Mid-Air – Jeff Bland, Jr.’s Gas City heat race launch offered an ugly preview of things to come

With often one support class (most commonly modifieds) and sometimes two supplanting Indiana Sprint Week, the most entertaining support division was Kokomo’s lone offering of MTQRL TQ midgets.  If this were a perfect world and I were king, I’d abolish all Sprint Week support classes.  But, if there has to be one, it might as well be TQs, keeping it all open wheel.  Kokomo Sprint Week heat races are usually the most intense and one of the four truly made an impression, eyeing five successful slide jobs between Thomas Meseraull and Chad Boespflug for the final transfer.  Kokomo’s B had tight packs for first through third and fourth through sixth, but seventh place Josh Spencer wasn’t close enough to mount a threat.  Watching the action with “Terre Haute” Rob Botts for the first time in ages, Kokomo’s sprint car conclusion came at an efficient 10:12 PM, the third earliest of the week behind Putnamville (10:07) and Haubstadt (10:08), although for those of us living in the Eastern time zone, it was really 11:08. 

With sticky and stormy weather surrounding Lawrenceburg Speedway, even though the sun was shining bright it still poured rain about a third of the way through the qualifying line.  Unusually tacky around the bottom, Chase Briscoe was the first to find the fast line while Tracy Hines miraculously saved a huge bike but recovered to time sixth.  Three heats were completed when the rain returned for good, waiting a couple of hours underneath the grandstand before the plug was finally pulled.  Meeting guys like Atascadero, California’s Randy Wright and Canton, Ohio’s Marty Reilly, it made the downtime a little more plausible, but rain delays are rarely ideal, especially during my zenith. 

Opening Night – Gas City’s standing room only crowd offers its salute at the Sprint Week opener

A pre-race Terre Haute pit walk encountered old-school competitors Eric Burns and Brian Hayden.  As an ex-Lincoln Park and Haubstadt track champ in 2000, many may forget that Burns came oh-so-close to winning the Tony Hulman Classic here in 2001 but tonight, instead of watching from the infield he decided to exercise Bill Gasway’s former Hud Cone Stealth that dated back to the mid-to-late 1990s.  With a steel block modified 355 engine supplying power, I can’t imagine anyone would have considered him a threat to make the main event, but if you followed Eric through the years, you’d know that he can cobble a car from throwaway parts and actually be very competitive.  Here to have fun in his first Sprint Week appearance since 2002, Burns had help from Doug Rolison, the owner of the car that he drove to the second King of Non-Wing Putnamville feature win last September. 

Speaking of Hayden, he and I turned the clock back to 1995, the first time he claimed an LPS sprint car title and the year that he nearly beat Terre Haute ace Jack Hewitt at the Jim Hurtubise Classic.  Further rewinding to 1993, we laughed about an incident at Kokomo when Jack took out his front end, perturbing Brian enough that he stood at the edge of the track and flipped him the bird.  Immediately afterwards, Jack barked, “Go ahead and hit me big boy!”  Not wishing to spoil his status as a three night a week racer, Hayden surprisingly held back.  Once enemies, the two eventually became friends in their Bill Biddle tenure of 1998.  Cut from the same mold of characters who have no filter and are willing to settle matters with their fists, Brian’s KMD Motorsports name comes directly from Hewitt’s irate Macon, Illinois interview from August of 1996, confirming that KMD stands for Kiss My (you know what).  Racing extremely hard for that final Terre Haute feature transfer in the B, Hayden successfully held off Brandon Mattox.  An old school breath of fresh air, I’ve said it many times but I’ll say it again:  sprint car racing needs more people like Brian Hayden. 

Packed House – Huge crowds like this one in Kokomo were par for the course for Indiana Sprint Week

Enjoying the sights and sounds underneath the Action Track front stretch roof with Sullivan, Illinois visitor Wendell Smith and my nephew, Terre Haute’s checkered flag fell on Bryan Clauson at 10:33 PM, amazing that this was his 61st USAC national triumph.  Where the hell have the last ten years gone? 

How about Putnamville’s humongous cushion, especially in corner four where a sprint car could be swallowed whole!  Yes, I call that old-school Putnamville curb service.  Hot and heavy heat one action for the final transfer between Chris Windom and Brady Bacon was certainly Sprint Week worthy, wishing that this year’s series was filled with this level of intensity.  The two traded fourth place twice in the final lap, with Chris stuffing it in under Brady in turn three, forcing the Hoffman 69 up the track and to the B-main. 

With former NASCAR competitors Kenny Wallace and David Stremme here to race their modifieds, I was intrigued by Kenny’s not-so-tall trailer that tightly stacked two modifieds on top of one another.  Signing autographs and selling reasonably priced ($20) t-shirts in the concrete concourse during sprint car activities, later on Wallace easily claimed the mod feature.  Interviewed on the front stretch, he was his usual boisterous self but actually made some extremely valid points in his rant, earning a huge round of applause from yours truly when he advised:  “Love your sport.  Quit bitching and moaning on the internet.  Go home and brag to people about how much fun you had at Putnamville tonight.”  Bravo Kenny.   

Happy Family – Kokomo was a big night for the Darlands, as Dave set a new one-lap record and claimed a thrilling feature win over Justin Grant

Continuing our Bloomington tradition of devouring a full Stromboli at Nick’s English Hut, Steve and I shared beverages and stories with an enthusiastic group of Australians, namely Adrian Densley, Greg Densley, Andrew Chivell, and Lafond’s pal Daniel Beard (photographer for website www.sprintcarzone.com).  Nick’s ran a little long, making me sweat the prospect of finding a solid grandstand seat.  With less than an hour to spare before hot laps started, I hustled to lay down a blanket six rows from the bottom of turn four.  In the process, I bumped into Stephen Cording, who again enjoyed the festivities with Ailsa Haigh.  Coming from across the pond (England), Stephen makes at least two trips a year to the States, mentioning how he enjoyed his Sprint Week off days in a Brown County cabin.   Advising that John Lawn and Jenny Baker were also here from England, he noted that a man from Germany was absorbing the week as well.     

Joined by my nephew and Matt Pedersen, Matt was extremely vocal regarding his admiration of the tallest cushion Bloomington has built in several years, throwing so many for a loop in turn one.  I was thrilled by the ten second qualifying laps, pleasantly surprised by solid top-five qualifying performances from Jarett Andretti, Chase Briscoe, and C.J. Leary, the second time C.J. timed inside of the top-ten this week.  Happy to bump into former Kokomo resident “Coach” Randy Moss at the bottom of the hill, Bloomington’s checkered flag dropped at 10:33 PM. 

Aiming for the finale that comes in the southwest corner of the state, in order to make a stop in Washington for a butterscotch shake at Mason’s Root Beer stand, I took my usual path of state roads 67 to 57 that actually parallels the new Interstate 69 near Elnora.  Using 69 on the return ride, in the process of following a foggy state road 45 back to Bloomington, I can’t tell you how eerie it was to see such blindingly bright lights of I-69 construction at 1 AM on a Sunday morning.  Pleased by Haubstadt’s car count of 36, guys like Max McGhee (winning heat two) and Logan Jarrett (scratching after qualifying) made their first trips here.  Able to walk the track after the feature was over, Danny and I were amazed at the amount of mulch that is embedded into the Tri-State surface.  Stacking the dark dirt nearly five feet high on both ends of the paperclip, it’s too bad the racing line was mostly through the middle and bottom lanes. 

He’s Alive – After his recent struggles in the USAC ranks, Robert Ballou proved that he was more than alive during Indiana Sprint Week

Becoming a broken record for mentioning how much I enjoy this week, while feeling so alive I couldn’t help but feel a little less than such when reading the shocking news of Gary Lee’s passing on the Monday night of Sprint Week.  Everybody instantly associates Gary with ESPN’s Thunder Series that showcased USAC racing to the world, as he and Larry Rice teamed to become one of the best play-by-play and color combinations in all of auto racing.  My recollections also include his work as the sportscaster for Channel 4’s nightly news in the early 1980s, also lending his voice to the IMS Radio Network and ESPN International’s replay of Indycar events in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Having driven sprint cars and midgets and owning a go-kart venue in Whiteland, Gary certainly knew what he was talking about when it came to racing, as there were few in the television industry who oozed more passion.  However, whenever the name Gary Lee comes to mind, I envision those trips to the Indiana State Fairgrounds, Springfield, and DuQuoin, hearing his booming voice over the loudspeaker, hanging on his every word at such iconic Silver Crown events.  To me, his name is instantly synonymous with a time when the United States Auto Club was at its peak, playing a vital role in developing my most cherished racing memories.  Dr. Pat Sullivan gave a great tribute before the Putnamville Sprint Week contest that made me pause to reflect, wishing that I would have thanked him for his immeasurable contributions to making this sport so much more enjoyable.  Gone far too soon, he will indeed be missed.   

Just two weeks later, we lost longtime Brian Hayden sprint car crew member and Indiana Open Wheel creator Bill Gardner, finally succumbing to his lengthy battle with cancer.  At Terre Haute, Hayden was quite frank in his assessment of Gardner’s condition, commenting on the insufferable pain Bill had been enduring of late and the dim prospects of eliminating it.  At no point do we want any of our friends or loved ones to leave this world, but just like with my mother and the cancer that ravaged her body and ruined her quality of life, my only solace is that Bill no longer has to suffer.  Naturally, everyone in the wingless sprint car community has been morning Gardner’s passing, as his passion for sprint car racing and unselfish desire to unite thousands of people has made a huge impact.  Leaving a legacy much larger than the creation of an internet message board, his refusal to give up in the fight for life offers endless inspiration, as I have not encountered anyone who handled the ups and downs of such a battle better than he.  I often wonder why people must suffer so much but as hard as I rack my brain for an answer, it will never come.  However, crossing paths with people like Bill Gardner reminds me that regardless of the adversity, life is always worth living.         

I’m Alive – That smile tells the story, as I was thoroughly enjoying Terre Haute festivities with friend Wendell Smith

Trying to end this article on a much higher note, I click on iTunes and open up "I'm Alive", originally a 1965 number one hit in the UK for The Hollies that was remade in 1979 by Ronnie Montrose and his band Gamma.  Recently introduced to this tune on my Sprint Week tour, I was reminded:  “Now I can breathe, I can see, I can touch, I can feel.  I’ve never felt like this…I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.”

Serving as the primary inspiration for encapsulating my zenith, there is no better time to appreciate being above ground than this nine day span.  Joined in this jubilation by photographer and close friend Steve Lafond, even though Steve was under the weather with an irritating cold for most of this period, both of us could breathe, see, touch, and feel better than we have all year long.  Tasting and eating should have also been included in the song’s lyrics, as this world-class assembly of sprint car contests contained an equally world-class tour of eateries, sampling my all-time favorite Bonge’s Tavern not just once but twice, squeezing in some epic stops at North End Barbeque and Moonshine, The Pint Room, Café Patachou (where Tony George sat within earshot), Bluebeard, Northside Kitchenette, Nick’s English Hut, The Local, and of course, Bub’s Café for the final meal before we went our tearful separate ways.  Of course it could go without saying that we had a great time.  And yes, we will do it all over again one year from now. 

For the dirt track venues that participated, for drivers like Bryan Clauson, for teams like Tony Stewart Racing, and for fans who traveled from all over the world, Indiana Sprint Week is THE prime time to feel alive and truly savor all of the best things in life.  Seven races in nine nights might seem like a lengthy and exhausting grind, especially for those who work on racecars or spend all waking hours of the night doctoring photos, but for those of us who are lucky enough to treat this as a welcomed respite from reality, it is not nearly enough time to acknowledge its positive effects before the sands have already slipped to the bottom of the hourglass.  Thankfully, there is always next year to look forward to feeling alive once again but until that time comes, we’ll just have to make do with whatever tiny treasures come our way. 

More Photos............

Jam It In – Chris Windom led Sprint Week points for the majority of the series, but a Putnamville punt removed him from championship contention

Tradition – Shooting from the turn one tower in Terre Haute, this may be sprint car racing’s most traditional vantage point

Tough Start – California’s Richard Vander Weerd fired from third at Gas City but bicycled fairly early

T-Mez – Shown backing it in at Gas City, Thomas Meseraull made four Sprint Week features in five outings

The Legend – Tending to his famed 57, Paul Hazen and his pilot Chad Boespflug produced a pair of top-ten finishes in five starts

The Champ – Bryan Clauson came on strong in the second half of Sprint Week, taking two wins, a second, and a fourth

Sweet Feet – Lifting the left rear in Lawrenceburg, Brady Short scored two top-ten Sprint Week finishes

Sunshine – On the hammer at The Hut, Tyler Courtney’s fourth-quick qualifying performance in Kokomo served as his Sprint Week highlight

Silent Gasser – Winning the Gas City opener and taking third in the Haubstadt closer, Jon Stanbrough wound up fifth in points

Showtime – Chase Stockon’s Indiana Sprint Week didn’t go as planned, claiming ninth in points

Rough Ride – Brady Short’s Bloomington barrel rolls served as an evil twist of fate for the four-time track champ

Pleasant Surprise – Bonge’s Tavern greeter Angie Fine poses with Steve Lafond, showing us the surprise dessert of the evening: dump cake!

White River – Whether it’s on the way to the races or Bonge’s Tavern, anytime this body of water is crossed, good things are bound to happen

Wheel to Wheel – Claiming second and third in the opening two rounds, Justin Grant and Chris Windom were literally inseparable

Looking Good – Jarett Andretti’s Sprint Week highlight was his third-quick qualifying run in Bloomington

K-town - Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Dave Darland display typical Kokomo feature action

KT – Making all six features, Kevin Thomas, Jr.’s best finish was a sixth at Kokomo


 

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.

 

 

 


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