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    Florida Open Wheel

    By Richard Golardi

    Troy DeCaire Takes Speedweeks Pavement Race at New Smyrna

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    February 21, 2017

    When pavement sprint cars take to New Smyrna Speedway for a Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series race and Troy DeCaire is in the field, you can be sure of a couple of things. He’s going to make it exciting, and there will probably be at least one high-risk pass either through the grass or low on the track during the feature race. Twice in the past two seasons, DeCaire has completed a pass for the lead in such a manner and then gone on to win the race. He did just that on Sunday to win the first pavement sprint car race of February Speedweeks in Florida.

    With only one more pavement sprint car race remaining in Florida Speedweeks, on Saturday at 4-17 Southern Speedway in Punta Gorda, Troy DeCaire can do what Donny Schatz had wanted to do on dirt – win every race he was in during the month of February. That race also marks the return of sprint car racing to Southwest Florida for the first time in over four years. The TBARA had last raced at the track in 2012.

    “From the first couple of laps, I knew we had probably the best car on the track,” Troy DeCaire said in the Winner’s Circle at New Smyrna Speedway on Sunday evening. “I saw Mickey (Kempgens) sprint out to a big lead, which made it better for me. I was actually hoping for that because usually guys out front they rabbit out, don’t know how to quite pace the race and run that right rear off. I was just sitting back there. I closed up on Sport (Allen) and then the yellow came out. I coasted up behind them on the red there and saw both their right rears were chunking up pretty good. I looked over at mine and it still had the line down the center. I knew I could fire off and run the last fifteen pretty hard. Once I figured out where Mickey was I was able to set him up and make the move into three.”

    On the cool-down lap there was some apparent “signaling” between the two drivers, DeCaire and Kempgens. Troy believed that any tension between them would not last long. “Maybe he’ll get over that,” Troy said. “I’ll buy him a beer or something.” The car was one that he characterized as “our non-wing Little 500 car”, now converted into the primary winged sprint car for Florida racing. They have fought some gremlins with this car, but crew chief Todd Schmidt worked on the problems along with car owner Lenny Puglio. The last two times out, the car did no better than fifth place. Schmidt told Troy that the car would win this night and it did.

    “He put together a hell of a race car and it made my job real easy,” Troy said with a broad smile of victory.

    As far as a car for the Little 500 in May, DeCaire admitted that, “I don’t even know if I am going to run the Little 500. I have a couple of options coming up – we’re going to look to see. I’ve been so busy working on other race cars, I haven’t really thought about what I was going to do yet. It’s getting close to May so I guess I better start thinking about that. The next couple of weeks will pan out. I’ve got two or three options for the Little 500. I need to start jogging or something. I’m a little out of shape. For right now, we’re going to enjoy tonight and get ready for Punta Gorda next weekend.”

    A win in the converted car means it may be the favorite for the team to run at Punta Gorda on Saturday also. The “red and black car” is the alternate, and has won about two out of every three races the last 15 times it has raced. With 13 cars starting the feature race on Sunday, there are hopes to get back to the average car count last year, which was 15-16 cars for the series in 2016. With the slower speeds at Punta Gorda and the Southwest Florida teams nearby, there is a good chance for that average to be exceeded there on Saturday.

    At this time, it seems unlikely that Troy will race a full season with the Southern Sprintcar series, as his team plans a partial schedule for 2017. “I doubt we’ll run the full schedule,” said Troy. “Probably about 70%, I mean Lenny might want to, but I’m getting too old to do 100% right now. I look forward to running as much as I can this year with these guys and hopefully put together some good runs.”

    With Dave Steele’s admission that he has no racing plans for 2017, could that make Troy DeCaire the favorite for the most wins this year in Florida pavement racing? “I don’t even like winning when Dave’s not here,” Troy admitted. “That’s all I hear is that, ‘Dave’s not here.’ But nobody seems to say when he wins that Troy wasn’t there, but maybe they will start saying that. The last couple of times we raced him we really haven’t had our act together and he caught us with our pants down and hopefully this is a sign that we are getting our ducks in a row. He’ll have to start worrying about us when he unloads on Saturday.”

    Feature Race Video: Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series at New Smyrna Speedway, Sunday, February 19, 2017:

    https://youtu.be/MnVkCvL5TFo

     

     

     

    Caleb Armstrong Looks Back at the Little 500 and Ahead to a Year on Dirt

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    February 17, 2017

    Caleb Armstrong was on his way to winning the 2016 Little 500, or so it appeared. In the lead late in the race, and consistently one of the fastest cars all night long at Anderson Speedway on May 28, 2016, it appeared that he would be challenged for the lead as the 500th lap and the checkered flag approached. Kody Swanson cut down on his lead each lap until he and Caleb both dove for the bottom groove in turn 3 late in the race and collided. Swanson continued on in the race without major damage, but Armstrong’s car had broken parts and he spun on the front straight a few seconds later. Swanson went on to win his first Little 500 for himself and his Hoffman Racing team.

    Nine months later, Caleb Armstrong was racing in a new year, a different car, a different race series, and a different race surface – dirt. There was another popular sprint car racing star that challenged this time and this race – Donny Schatz. It was Thursday, February 16, 2017 at Volusia Speedway Park with the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions. This was the last race in Florida for the series in 2017. In both the second heat race and in the first dash, Armstrong was challenged by Donny Schatz twice, and twice he defeated him, winning both the heat race and the dash. This earned him a front row starting spot for the feature race. Staying in the top three through much of the 30-lap race, he was passed by two other cars late and had a top five finish at the end. It was a far better end result than nine months earlier, and he had shown his prowess at racing on both pavement and dirt.

    Armstrong had another top five during this year’s Florida Speedweeks, which happened on opening night last week at Bubba Raceway Park with the All Star series. He had been to Florida twice previously for racing during February, and last year was his first race at Volusia. “I’d never been there. It was a different experience,” he said. “I’m still kind of new to this wing thing. That’s probably the fastest track I’ve ever been on. Going there this year, I feel more comfortable and I feel I’ll be better over there. We’re actually just going to do the two All Stars races, because we’re running the All Stars all year.” Caleb explained that the team was not going to stay for the following three World of Outlaws races because of the reputation the track had earned for being hard on motors.

    “We’re trying to save what we can for the rest of the year. We did the same thing last year, just ran the All Star races and then went home. I ran the Little 500. That was the only pavement race that I ran. We led about 200 laps last year, and had something break at the end. But that race is a really fun race. Rick Dawson (Anderson Speedway track owner) does a really good job up there, promoting that whole deal. It’s fun to do 500 laps in a sprint car, make pit stops and stuff – it’s pretty crazy.”

    Regarding the third turn collision with Kody Swanson late in the race, Caleb stated, “It’s racing. It is what it is. Karma has a way of playing itself out in life, I feel like. We’ll be there for sure this year. Hopefully we can have the same speed we did last year and hopefully we can actually pull it off.” He did believe he was on his way to winning the Little 500 last year. “That’s what I thought too – I was hoping for it.”

    Dirt will dominate his racing again this year, as last year. He had planned on doing the full All Star series schedule last year and then he broke his leg in early June, shortly after the Little 500. “It was one of the first races after the Little 500. So I sat out for two and a half months. So that kind of ruined the whole thing. I missed out on a good portion of the year. So I only ran about 15 to 20 races last year. That’s the plan to run the whole All Star circuit this year and we’ve got a good group of guys surrounding us this year, so I feel pretty confident.”

    The team and equipment for 2017 are mostly the same as 2016. He wants to be a front-runner in All Star series racing this year, with a goal to finish in the top three in 2017 All Star series points. He was relishing the chance to race against the many Outlaw and PA Posse drivers in the first All Star series races of the year. “I think they said there were 17 guys running full-time this year with the All Stars, so that’s a pretty good amount of people running. We had a good start and hopefully we just keep getting better and better.”

     

     

    Aaron Reutzel Has What He Wants – “All the Good Stuff”

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    He has a new car color (black) and a new crew chief for 2017, but Aaron Reutzel has the same make of sprint car chassis (Triple X), same race engines and same racing suspensions. “All the good stuff,” as he calls it. The new crew chief, J.J. Simmons, is a long-time friend with whom he has enjoyed a 20-year friendship. Nattress Construction from Minnesota is a new sponsor, and Reutzel admits that a couple other sponsors were lost. The car was white last year, and they decided to change it in an attempt to change their racing luck.

    “We decided to change it up a little bit this year. Last year wasn’t very good so it was time to make a difference and see if it changes our luck a little bit,” Aaron said in an interview at Bubba Raceway Park last week. The highlight of his year in 2016 was winning the Jackson Nationals at the end of the summer. “That was pretty good – that was $10,000 to win,” he said. In 99 races last year, Aaron Reutzel had 8 feature wins and 33 top five finishes. In 2015, he was the ASCS national sprint car series champion racing in his 360 sprint car.

    As far as the low point of the year, unfortunately for him he felt like it lasted all year. “The entire year was pretty much bad luck. Leading, running good, stuff breaks, stuff falls off. We had a different crew guy last year and it definitely was not working out too well. It definitely made us struggle for the first part of the year. Then J.J., who usually works in the oilfields but that hasn’t been working out too good lately, so I asked him to come on the road with me. He came out on the road and turned our year around and that’s when we won the Jackson Nationals. We gel together good and get along on the road. I trust him and trust what he wants to do. I think we won five races in two months,” Aaron said of the late-year change of fortune.

    The downturn in oil prices, and its effect on oil drilling, directly led to his crew chief change and reuniting with an old friend and getting the team back to its winning ways. At Bubba Raceway Park last week for the first three nights of national series racing during Speedweeks, the team struggled the first two nights before getting a sixth place finish in the Saturday feature. This week, he plans to compete in all five races at Volusia Speedway Park from Wednesday through Sunday, which includes the season opening races for the World of Outlaws.

    For 2017, he plans to run all of the ASCS national sprint car series races, and about 25-30 races with 410 motors. That means he will do more 360 races, which is all of the ASCS series races. He has not made a transition to doing more 410 racing than 360 racing, although there were initial plans to do that this year for the first time. “We had plans to do all 410s this year and then the Badlands (Motor Speedway) deal kind of went away so that ruined our plans.” He had planned to take part in the weekly 410 racing at Badlands, which was abandoned when the track closed and was put up for sale.

    “I’d prefer to run the Outlaws 410s but this is the hand I’m dealt right now so I have to play it,” Reutzel admitted. It’s a dream he will hold, pending the right ride being offered or the right amount of sponsor dollars being invested in his team. In the interim, he has a goal for himself and his team this year.

    “Win the ASCS national championship again for a second time,” Aaron said.

     

     

    David Gravel Back with CJB Motorsports, Now a One-Car Team

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    David Gravel is behind the wheel of the #5 CJB Motorsports sprint car again in 2017, after he and the team had nine race wins together in 2016. Two of their biggest victories came in the Silver Cup at Lernerville Speedway and the Jokers Wild at Eldora Speedway. The Pennsylvania based team was in Florida this year as a one-car team to race at Bubba Raceway Park and also in all five races this week at Volusia Speedway Park, All Star and World of Outlaws races both. The All Star Circuit of Champions races last week and this week are the only planned races in that series. After this week, they plan on a full-time run with the World of Outlaws through the end of the year. They were satisfied with their third place finish in 2016 World of Outlaws points, the highest ever for Gravel. With the second team car driven by Sammy Swindell dropped for this year, Gravel will get their full attention in 2017.

    “All Outlaw wins aren’t easy,” Gravel told me at Bubba Raceway Park last week. “The Silver Cup at Lernerville, one of the biggest races we have. Been really close to winning races there before in the past and never got one, and to make that my first one at Lernerville, that’s pretty cool.” David is also looking for his first feature win in Florida during February Speedweeks.

    Biggest racing goal for 2017: “Back up what we did. Don’t make it a fluke. Try to build off what we did last year and always try to improve every year. I had odd circumstances the past couple of years, bouncing around a lot of different cars. Hopefully I’ve found a home and just continue to build off it.” David said that the only change for the team from last year was the addition of one new crew member. Otherwise, the team enters with the same personnel, cars, and motors they had at the end of last season. “It’s all the same stuff,” he said.

    “We had two teams last year and consolidated into one, so we had a lot of equipment left over.” This consolidation was done later in the year, mainly because the team was having greater success with Gravel in the #5 car, and dropped the #1 car that was for Sammy Swindell. Swindell’s big win of the year, in the 360 Knoxville Nationals, came in a car owned by another team.

    It was not a problem-free year for David Gravel. He did have one hard wreck that injured him, which occurred during the second to last race weekend of the year and caused a strained neck. He uses the Hybrid Pro for his head and neck restraint, which he felt did its job protecting him in the wreck.

    “I wrecked really hard. It was a bad one, for sure. It ripped the lower shaft out of the rear end and ripped the steering gear out of the car. It was a really rough wreck, at Lakeside Speedway in Kansas. Pretty high speed. Injured my neck a little bit, but I’m alright. Just a little sore, saw the chiropractor once or twice a week and tried to get it straightened out. Nothing broken, it’s still a little sore but that’s part of it. It’s OK.”

     

     

    Donny Schatz Sees This Year as a Time with a Building Curve

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    “We have a building curve this year,” eight-time World of Outlaws sprint car champion Donny Schatz said on Friday night after his second feature win of this year’s Florida Speedweeks. “We’re all up to that task. At this point, we don’t know exactly when that date’s going to start, when we have to try to transition things (to Ford motors). We’re looking forward to that. We’re looking forward to the challenge. We’re looking forward to building a platform that’s ours. Our goal is to try to still win a championship this year, and not lose sight of that and be competitive along the way.”

    For Schatz and his Tony Stewart Racing sprint car team, they are aware that this may be one of their most difficult years to win a championship in the World of Outlaws. Ford has not had a 410 motor that met the World of Outlaws rules, and has just started to develop and build one for the team’s two sprint car drivers, Donny Schatz and Tony Stewart. I asked Schatz if he estimated that the new Ford 410 motor would be ready at about mid-point in the 2017 World of Outlaws schedule, about 46 races into the current 94 race schedule (that would be before the Knoxville Nationals in August).

    He stated, “I’d say you’re probably pretty close. They’ve been working on it. There actually is some 410 stuff, but the World of Outlaws deemed everything that’s theirs not legit, so they’ve kind of put Ford under the gun and forced them to start from scratch. They’re willing to do that. They want to be in this sport very bad. They want to be associated with Tony Stewart Racing. They want to build something that’s a great product that wins races.”

    Donny Schatz also revealed that renowned engine builder Doug Yates is overseeing the Ford 410 motor project, along with others from the Ford engine building team. He did not reveal any other names other than Doug Yates. He also stated that he has not met anyone from the Ford engine building team yet, but believes in their skills and has a great deal of confidence in the Ford team. He knows that he’ll be hearing from the Ford team throughout the season’s first half, and won’t be kept out of the loop.

    “Doug Yates has been around the Ford program for a long time and does a lot of the NASCAR stuff. He’s overseeing the project but he’s not directly going to be hands-on with it. There’s a lot of details that we don’t know but we’ll find out as they go. There will be an engine builder that has a lot of Ford experience doing the engines. At this time, we can’t really say anything about who it is. It could put him in a bad spot,” Schatz said.

    At the time of the interview, Schatz had rolled over the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions competition on the first two nights of racing at Ocala’s Bubba Raceway Park. He then appeared to be on his way to a third straight win the next night, Saturday. That night started with an unforeseen possible change of heart for Tony Stewart, who later stated that he was looking at revising plans to race with the All Star series, which he owns. The Schatz steamroller hit a speed bump that night, with a tire problem during the feature leading to being caught and passed for the lead and the win by Kerry Madsen.

    “In a perfect world, you win every night,” Schatz responded when asked about the win streak. “In a realistic world you don’t. You can’t keep up a pace like this. I know what we’re capable of, right now it’s good to be running this good but you can’t base anything off of what you do in Florida. We’ve come to Ocala and won two races before. We’ve come to Volusia and been good and left there and been terrible. We’ve had every spectrum and you don’t gauge anything off of last night. That’s not how we race. As long as we can keep ourselves in a good position and be up front in these races and be competitive, that’s all you can ask for.”

    The 2017 World of Outlaws sprint car season starts at Volusia Speedway Park on Friday night, the first of three races at the North Florida track. Yes, Donny Schatz still has a goal of winning the World of Outlaws sprint car championship this year, despite the daunting task of bringing in a new engine building team that will provide them with a new motor. The gravity of the task that lies ahead seems to have him unfazed.

     

     

    Tyler Clem – 410 Racing, Heading Out of State, and More in 2017

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    Fourteen year old Tyler Clem had his best year yet racing in Florida in 2016, with a total of nine feature race wins during the year. Five of those wins came in dirt late model racing, two in dirt modifieds, and two in sprint cars. Both of those sprint car wins were at the track owned by his father, Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala. His father is Tampa radio personality Bubba Clem. They were his first ever feature wins in a sprint car since he started racing them at the age of eleven. That sparked one out-of-state journalist to write a column complaining that at eleven years old, Tyler was far too young to be behind the wheel of a high-horsepower sprint car.

    Tyler Clem at Bubba Raceway Park on Saturday for All Star Circuit of Champions racing.

    One of the wins in 2016 was at Volusia Speedway Park, his only race win not at Bubba Raceway Park. For Tyler, it was a satisfying race win, as he felt that he had not done well at the track previously. Last year was also another year as a development driver for Tony Stewart Racing. His father and Tony Stewart have been close friends for years, and Stewart chose Bubba Raceway Park as the place to return to sprint car racing for the first time in 2 & ½ years during last week’s stop by the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions. Tyler raced a 410 sprint car for the first time during the 3-night stand at his father’s track. He advanced to the feature race on all three nights, finishing in 25th on Thursday, 16th on Friday, on 14th on Saturday night.

    Tyler Clem does feel that 2016 was his best year yet. At Bubba Raceway Park, he spoke about the highlights of the year for him. “I had a few good races in a sprint car here, and Volusia with the modified, when we won there. That was pretty special, my first win at Volusia and we’ve only had bad luck at that place. It felt good to finally win there.”

    There were no major changes for his team this year with his sprint car, other than a few new associate sponsors. The top wing on his sprint car is crowded with many sponsor stickers, almost as many as some of the most popular racers on the All Star tour. “There’s a lot of great people that help us out with our cars,” Tyler said. “They give us great products, some really cool stuff and they are amazing.” To share his racing exploits with his friends and sponsors, he sometimes attaches a GoPro camera to his car and shares the race videos online. “I put some on my YouTube channel every once in a while,” he said.

    Bubba Raceway Park, after the conclusion of Friday night racing last week.

    His main goal for 2017 is to be consistent on the track. “Winning races like we have, finishing well and being consistent is what it is all about,” said Tyler. “We’re probably going to run around here a little bit and then head up north and run a few different tracks. We’re definitely thinking about it, it’s not 100% confirmed.” Tyler stated that could include racing with the USCS winged sprint cars on dirt, a series he has raced with at Bubba Raceway Park previously. The USCS series has raced throughout the Deep South and mid South states and also in Florida for the past couple of years.

    His father still comes to the track as much as previously, to act as car owner, adviser, mentor, and center of influence to bring in sponsors, maintain contact with the media, and manage the multi-car race team. “Oh yeah, he comes to every race that he can come to,” according to Tyler. That may even include the planned racing beyond Florida coming this year. “If he can get off work, yeah. He might not come during the week, but Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, he probably will.”

    After his accomplishments behind the wheel of several types of race cars in 2016, there was no certain next big step for Tyler Clem in 2017. He is branching out, adding new race venues, new sprint car competition, and was ready for the next big challenge, whatever that may be. “We’re definitely pretty close … pretty close,” he stated.

     

     

    Joe Melnick’s Second Big Recovery

     

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

     

    As Joe Melnick was leaving Beanie’s Bar & Grill, a favorite Ruskin, FL hangout, on December 31, 2016, he had a parting message for his friends as he headed to the exit. “I’m going to be home by eight o’clock. I’m going to build me a big fire, eat my food, and pick up Becky (his girlfriend) at the airport on Sunday night. I’ll see y’all later.” For many friends, once they saw the bonfire going at his house, they would stop by at Joe’s house later in the evening. It was going to be an enjoyable evening with friends.

     Joe Melnick and son Shane Melnick.

    There were a few words that Joe would say to himself when leaving Beanie’s.

     

    “All I’ve got to do is cross the highway and then I’m home safe.”

     

    Joe walked to where his vintage Harley-Davidson was sitting in the parking lot. He threw his leg over the bike, settled down, put on his helmet, turned the key, and took pleasure in hearing his bike roar to life. He steered his bike through the parking lot toward the intersection. The intersection had stop signs, but it required crossing multiple lanes of traffic to make some turns. Much of the traffic approaches the intersection from an angle, furthering the chaotic state of traffic flow. Some of the traffic approaches from a bridge, often at a very high rate of speed. Joe disliked using the intersection. But to get to Beanie’s he had no other choice. He was forced to use the intersection, so he did.

     

    A car approached, heading South on US Highway 41. What happened next is not so clear. If Joe misjudged the distance, or if the driver in the approaching car never saw Joe’s motorcycle, or was distracted, or if a car entering the intersection blocked their view of each other – all were possibilities.

     Joe Melnick's motorcycle after the wreck, Joe Melnick Photo.

    “It’s a horrible place,” Joe said. “I didn’t make it.”

     

    The first time that Joe Melnick had multiple injuries that would require a long recovery, it also became a life-changing event. It was Tuesday, January 31, 2006. In a non-wing sprint car race at East Bay Raceway Park, his home track, Joe was in his element. He loved non-wing sprint cars on dirt and he was racing at his favorite track. This time, Joe was on a mission. He had one more car to pass to take the feature race win. Bouncing his right rear tire off the wall, he was using every inch of the dirt and all his dirt racing skills. Furiously throwing his car into the turns, he bounced the right rear one last time off the wall near the pit gate. The car destroyed itself around Joe as it flipped and disintegrated. The roll cage mostly protected him, as the rest of the car was being ripped apart.

     

    Joe believed that if he had been wearing a HANS device, his head and upper body may not have taken the severe beating that it received in the crash. Without the protective device, he had a broken back, broken ribs and a broken collarbone. He had to wear a brace that had two halves, one for his front torso, and one for his back. A long recovery would lie ahead.

     Joe Melnick and friend Becky Thomas.

    Upon leaving Tampa General Hospital, he made a promise to his nurses that he would not return, except for some bizarre circumstance. Later, his doctor told him that his recovery was complete, and that he could resume doing all the things that he had done before. That included one of his favorite pastime activities – riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He was looking forward to getting back on his Harley and hitting the open road.

     

    But getting back in a sprint car and then going back on the dirt racing circuit was another matter. He decided, at 53 years old, that he didn’t have anything more to achieve racing a sprint car. He already had over 140 feature race wins in eight different types of cars at 14 different race tracks. He was the Tampa Tribune “Florida Race Driver of the Year” in 1984, which was followed by two consecutive TBARA driver championships in 1995 and 1996. This was a time when the TBARA raced on both dirt and pavement surfaces, requiring that the champion be versatile on both. He earned eight different track and race association championships during a 34 year racing career.

     

    There were other accomplishments, as well as other crashes, and other recovery periods, followed by a return to racing. But this time was different. He was at a point to call it a career. In 2006, he made the decision to stop driving race cars. In the ensuing decade, he has not returned to racing, despite being tempted to do so more than once.

     

    As the car headed south on US Highway 41 and approached Joe on his Harley as he left Beanie’s on December 31, neither of the drivers had time to react to avoid a collision. “Then there was my big motorcycle wreck,” Joe said. Joe speculates that he may have stopped, eased his Harley forward, and then had his view of the intersection blocked by a car (but he is not certain of this). His head likely hit the car’s hood or windshield. The horrifying collision totaled his Harley and left Joe severely injured. A trip to Tampa General Hospital was next. He had vowed not to return to the hospital, but was now on his way back.

     

    “But I’m alive,” he said. He could not remember exactly what happened in the moments before the collision. “I don’t know. Evidently she didn’t see me, or I didn’t see her. I don’t know. Knocked out … don’t remember going to the hospital, don’t remember surgery (to his badly broken right leg).”

     

    The layout of the intersection was where Joe placed most of the blame for the accident. Sometimes, he would leave Beanie’s and go in the wrong direction, just to avoid entering an intersection that he, “now really hated. There’s been wrecks there, and people coming over the bridge at a hundred miles an hour. It’s horrible. You have to go there and you’ll say, ‘Holy ____, somebody’s going to get killed here!’ They can’t do anything about it. I call it an accident. I ain’t blaming me or her.”

     

    Surgery to his right leg was needed because his ankle was crushed, and his femur, tibia and fibula were broken in that leg. He had ten broken ribs on his right side, a fractured pelvis, and a severe concussion. Although his double vision and headaches are gone, Joe does have some nerve damage in his left eye from the accident. This is still being treated and is improving, but the recovery from the nerve damage is ongoing. He has a walking boot on his right leg and can’t put weight on it yet, but will begin rehab for his leg soon.

     

    Becky Thomas, Joes’ girlfriend, has been there with him through this recovery process. She is a retired nurse. They met while they were both out for a ride on their motorcycles and had stopped for a red light at an intersection. Joe also had praise for his son Shane, a business owner and contractor, in all he’s done to help in the recovery through the first two months of the year. Joe Melnick’s second big recovery continues, for the first time for an off-track mishap. The first big recovery resulted in his 2006 vow, which has remained for the past 11 years, to not return to the seat of a race car. Now that a motorcycle incident was to blame for causing a second big recovery, would he vow not to return to motorcycle riding, a great passion he has enjoyed for many decades?

     

    “I just don’t ride a motorcycle no more,” Joe said. “I might have two boats next year. I’m going to buy a travel trailer and go camping.” He won’t return to the seat of his Harley or any other motorcycle. “I can’t go through this. I can’t put my family through this. I’ve put my son through so much. Thank God, once again here comes my son to save me. My son’s saved me through three horrendous sprint car crashes, now a motorcycle crash. I can’t put him through no more, you know what I mean?”

     

    Joe sees himself potentially in a new role in the future, as the guy who tells his motorcycling friends, “You know, you probably should be wearing a helmet!” He’ll be admiring the motorcycles built and owned by his friends. He can even hear himself saying, “That’s a nice bike. You be careful on it.” But he won’t be back riding a motorcycle. You can call him a retired race car driver. In addition, you can call him a former motorcyclist.

     

    But don’t feel sad for Joe Melnick. All through his life, he’s had a well-deserved reputation as a guy who knows how to have fun. After each recovery, he has gone back to doing just that – having fun. That’s probably what will happen this time too.  

     

     

    2017 Florida Speedweeks Preview

     Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

     The 2017 Florida Speedweeks will have a few of NASCAR’s well-known stars missing from the Daytona 500, Tony Stewart’s return to sprint car racing, the World of Outlaws starting random drug testing for sprint car and late model drivers, it will be warmer than usual, the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars, All Star Circuit of Champions, and the USAC National Sprint Car Series season opening races, a first-ever pairing of future NASCAR stars in training along with winged pavement sprint cars on the same day at New Smyrna Speedway, and a new set of rules and new series title sponsor for the NASCAR Cup Series. In addition to several NASCAR stars missing from Daytona, another star will be missing from Florida Speedweeks sprint car racing, one who has been part of the February racing for years – Bryan Clauson.

     Collin Cabre returns to NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, New Smyrna Speedway, FL, Sunday, February 14, 2016.

    Tony Stewart’s final NASCAR Cup Series season is over, as is his annual stint at the Chili Bowl as a dirt track prep expert. With the arrival of the month of February, he begins a new endeavor – to solidify his legacy as a short track racing legend. A date and place is set for this endeavor to begin. It is Thursday, February 9, at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala (his first sprint car race in 2 & ½ years). He will drive a winged dirt sprint car on that night and the following two nights of racing in a series that he owns, the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions.

     

    The odds of Stewart’s replacement in the #14 NASCAR Cup car, Clint Bowyer, winning the 2017 Daytona 500 aren’t that great, according to Las Vegas odds makers. One casino (which uses the name of a Roman emperor) currently has eleven drivers with better odds of winning the 2017 Daytona 500. This group is led by Brad Keselowski, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr., both 5/1; Joey Logano at 7/1; Kyle Busch at 8/1; and Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., and Chase Elliott all at 10/1. Clint Bowyer is at 22/1.

     

    The late 2016 decision by the World of Outlaws to begin random drug testing of drivers in 2017 in both the sprint car and dirt late model divisions was not because of any suspicion of performance-enhancing drug use. In fact, World Racing Group CEO Brian Carter specifically discounted the possibility that they were being used, saying he would not be looking for their use by World of Outlaws drivers. Instead, he mentioned “recreational drug use”, an obvious reference to increased marijuana use nationwide spurred by state ballot initiatives which legalized medical marijuana use and recreational marijuana. As of January 1, 2017, 29 states have legalized medical marijuana use and 8 states (also Washington, DC) have legalized its recreational use. Of those states where the World of Outlaws sprint cars race in during 2017, 16 states have legal medical marijuana use and four states (CA, NV, OR and WA) have recreational marijuana laws in place. Some states have not written rules and guidelines yet for their “dispensaries”, but likely will in the near future.

     Four wide pace lap at Volusia Speedway Park, World of Outlaws sprint cars, February 2014.

    The first two sprint car races of February Speedweeks are on Friday and Saturday this week at East Bay Raceway Park, the season-opening races in Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series competition. The series will allow a variety of motors for these two races in addition to the limited 360 motors usually used. Rules that were relaxed in 2016 will allow 602 and 604 crate motors for these two races (and the rest of the season), and also 305 RaceSaver motors (February only, with documentation). That RaceSaver motor did have one win in Speedweeks racing last year. Unlike last year, Top Gun will avoid competing on Super Bowl Sunday.

     RJ Johnson at World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series, Volusia Speedway Park, FL, Friday, 2-12-2016.

    As in 2016, there will be three successive weekends with national sprint car series racing each weekend, up to and including Daytona 500 weekend. Among the anticipated highlights of this year’s Speedweeks include the following –

     

    ·         The first races for the newly renamed Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, with accompanying rules changes designed to make the Cup Series racing more exciting and fight a trend by TV viewers who limit their viewing to race finishes only.

    ·         The #14 NASCAR Cup car previously raced by NASCAR legend Tony Stewart takes to the track for its first races with Clint Bowyer, Stewart’s replacement for 2017 and beyond. With 49 Cup series race wins and three Cup titles, Stewart retired from NASCAR racing at the end of the 2016 NASCAR season at age 45. He will spend 2017 with two major undertakings: as a NASCAR Cup Series team owner, and as a short track racer, racing his sprint car, dirt late model, and TQ midget.

    ·         The slate of dirt sprint car racing during 2017 Speedweeks remains impressive, with the Lucas Oil ASCS National Series as the only series from the past 2 years missing from 2017. A regional ASCS series, the ASCS Southern Outlaw Sprints, will race in Central Florida for the first time at East Bay on February 23-25. Planned downsizes: none. All Star Circuit of Champions goes from 4 planned races last year to five this year, with one additional race at Bubba Raceway Park.

    ·         Bubba Raceway Park takes the title as the Florida track with the most sprint car races during Speedweeks this year. The Ocala track has 6 races. East Bay Raceway Park and Volusia Speedway Park both have 5 nights of sprint car racing planned. New Smyrna Speedway and 4-17 Southern Speedway (both asphalt) each have one race during this month.

    ·         The most significant February pavement sprint car change is the return of New Smyrna Speedway, with one Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series race. A second series race during February will be held on the 25th at Punta Gorda’s newly christened 4-17 Southern Speedway. That race marks the return of sprint car racing to Southwest Florida for the first time in over four years.

    ·         There is no planned network TV broadcast of sprint car racing during Speedweeks, which is not much different than 2015 and 2016. Once again, pay-per-view is the dominant broadcast method for this year and beyond.

    ·         NASCAR short track racing returns with the K&N Pro Series East staging one event on the high banks of New Smyrna Speedway on Sunday, February 19th. For the first time ever, NASCAR short track stock car racing will be paired with Florida’s new pavement sprint car series, the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series. That series plans to run all their 2017 series races with wings, a change from last year when several non-wing series races were held.

    ·         In dirt late model racing, the World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series returns this year with racing only at Volusia Speedway Park. The Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series will race at both East Bay Raceway Park and Bubba Raceway Park. The month’s most unusual dirt late model race will be one without dirt (how long will the tires last in that one?). Dirt late models will take to the asphalt of 4-17 Southern Speedway on Saturday, February 11. Let’s hope there’s a good breeze to carry away the tire smoke and extra tires on hand for each team. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

    ·         It is very likely that there will be above-average warm weather this month, with average high temperatures above 70 degrees and several days above 80 degrees along with average rainfall for Central and North Florida over the next 3 weeks.

    ·         The most hyped and most expensive unveiling of Speedweeks last year was the Daytona Rising Project at Daytona International Speedway. That $400 million project has apparently encouraged another overhaul of an ISC-owned track, Phoenix Raceway in Arizona. This time, the changes extend to the other side of the catch fence, with pit road and the start/finish line location being changed.

    ·         The retirement of Carl Edwards directly led to a Hispanic driver, Daniel Suarez, acquiring a full-time NASCAR Cup Series seat for 2017 with a top-level team, Joe Gibbs Racing. One of the least-discussed trends in NASCAR, something planned for years, gets a big kick-start this year, with the number of minority and female Cup Series drivers sure to increase over the next few years, most likely to include an African-American Cup Series driver.

     

    Recognized as two of the most talented short track open wheel racers in the country, Rico Abreu and Bryan Clauson found their careers taking divergent paths last year. One year ago, Abreu began his transition into national-level NASCAR racing with a full-season NASCAR Camping World Truck Series ride. Clauson had set a goal to race in a total of 200 races during 2016.

     

    Rico Abreu was taking the assumed route that many thought would take him to NASCAR Cup racing. That quest now appears to be over. Abreu has no planned late model, no truck, and no stock car races for 2017. Clauson’s main focus in 2016 took him back to short tracks all over the country, in addition to the Indy 500. At one of those planned 200 plus short track races, his life came to an end. Bryan Clauson was not moving up into a full-time ride in IndyCar or NASCAR, and said he was comfortable with that scenario. He looked forward to furthering his short-track racing achievements and to a stop in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indy 500. His last ever feature race win in Florida occurred last year during Speedweeks. It was a USAC sprint car race on Thursday, February 18, 2016.

     

    The season opening race for the World of Outlaw sprint cars will again be at Volusia Speedway Park, this year it’s the first race of an exhausting 94-race season. The driver lineup for Tony Stewart Racing has its second significant change in the past few years. Both times, a retirement was involved. Donny Schatz was the sole driver in 2016 after Steve Kinser retired from the team and full-time sprint car racing. Now, Stewart’s retirement from NASCAR racing has led him to add his name as the second driver for TSR in 2017. Schatz is coming off a 25-win season (fewer than the 31 wins in 2015) and his eighth World of Outlaws sprint car title in 2016.

     

    Florida continues to be the nation’s prime location for pavement sprint car racing in 2017. There are a total of 22 pavement sprint car races planned, which began with two races at Desoto Speedway in January. The King of the Wing Series does not return to Florida in 2017, leaving the Southern Sprintcar series as the dominant force in the Sunshine State. At one time, weekly pavement sprint car racing in the state turned out a brigade of drivers that went on to overpower the competition in national pavement races.

     

    Complete Schedule of Sprint Car Races – Speedweeks 2017

    Go to:

     

    https://calendar.google.com/calendar/embed?src=gc3bg4n941p1mlck9f24232mpc%40group.calendar.google.com&ctz=America%2FNew_York

     

    Short Weekend #1 Itinerary Recommendation

     

    Friday, February 17                                                                                                                  World of Outlaws Sprint Cars / Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville                               

    Saturday, February 18                                                                                                                       ARCA Stock Car Series (Day) / Daytona International Speedway                                                          Clash at Daytona /Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (Night) / Daytona International Speedway                                                                                                                                      

    Sunday, February 19                                                                                                                                  World of Outlaws Sprint Cars / Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville                                           OR                                                                                                                                               NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, New Smyrna Speedway, New Smyrna Beach                                                                  

     

    Short Weekend #2 Itinerary Recommendation

     

    Thursday, February 23                                                                                                                           USAC National Sprint Car Series / Bubba Raceway Park, Ocala                                                         OR                                                                                                                                                       360 Sprint Car Winternationals / East Bay Raceway Park, Gibsonton

    Friday, February 24                                                                                                                    360 Sprint Car Winternationals / East Bay Raceway Park, Gibsonton                                                                           

    Saturday, February 25                                                                                                                       NASCAR XFINITY Series (Day) / Daytona International Speedway                                                          USAC National Sprint Car Series (Night) / Bubba Raceway Park, Ocala                                  

    Sunday, February 26                                                                                                                                  Daytona 500 / Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series / Daytona International Speedway                                                            

     

    The Daytona 500 race weekend has the addition of a national sprint series running in North Florida on the night before the 500. The USAC National Sprint Car Series is running at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala on Saturday night, which is a 40 minute drive from Daytona Speedway. On Friday night, the race fan in Florida for just this weekend can catch either the sprint cars at Bubba Raceway Park, or the NASCAR truck series at Daytona. With the XFINITY Series running at Daytona on Saturday afternoon, that leaves enough time to make it to Ocala to take in the USAC sprints on Saturday evening. The finale of Speedweeks then takes place on Sunday the 26th, with the running of the 59th Daytona 500.

     

    On a personal note, I had made a habit of speaking to and interviewing Bryan Clauson each February, an “annual interview.” The interview took place at Bubba Raceway Park each year, going back to a time when Bryan was preparing for his first race in an Indy car and his first attempt to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Bryan always was a good interview subject, and we did discuss the danger involved in auto racing. When we spoke for the last time on May 31, 2016, I congratulated him on two “victories” (making it to the finish of the Indy 500 for the first time followed by a Kokomo Speedway sprint car win later that same day), and he called me “sir.” I always enjoyed the face-to-face time with Bryan, and greatly enjoyed getting to see both races on his day of two victories.

     

     

     

    January 18, 2017

    Radio personality and Bubba Raceway Park owner Bubba Clem has confirmed that Tony Stewart will return to sprint car racing at his track during February Speedweeks. Stewart, who is a close friend of Bubba Clem, plans to race a winged dirt sprint car that he owns during the February dates that the All Star Circuit of Champions will be at Bubba Raceway Park, located in Ocala, Florida. The series will race at the Ocala track on Thursday to Saturday, February 9-11, 2017.

    “Yes, he has indicated he will be racing his 410 winged sprint car all 3 nights,” Clem told me earlier today. The February All Star races will be the first races by a national sprint car series during February Speedweeks in Florida. Since Stewart will almost certainly not be racing in any of the local Florida race series, which do have sprint car races scheduled prior to the All Star series races, this means that a date and place has been set for Stewart’s return to sprint car racing. It will happen on Thursday, February 9, at Bubba Raceway Park.

    Tony Stewart in his most recent sprint car race at Bubba Raceway Park, February 2013

    This date and place is not surprising, as Stewart owns the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions, is a personal friend of Bubba Clem, and the three nights at Bubba’s track are the season opening nights for the series. In addition, Bubba Clem has confirmed that his son, Tyler Clem, will be making his initial 410 sprint car starts in those same races. Tyler had the distinction of winning two 360 sprint car feature races last year in Top Gun Series competition in Florida. He has also made a national sprint series start with a 360 motor, at Bubba Raceway Park with the USCS Outlaw Thunder Tour in 2016. Now, Tony Stewart will race against Tyler Clem, a young racer who is currently a Tony Stewart Racing development driver.

    Tony Stewart had recently stated that he already had 71 races planned for his 2017 short track racing schedule, but he did not release his racing schedule and he did not reveal his initial 2017 short track race. All that was certain was that his NASCAR driving career was complete, and that he was making an aggressive return to sprint car and short track racing in 2017. But now a few of his 71 race dates have been revealed. Earlier today, Hoffman Racing confirmed that Stewart will be entered in their pavement sprint car for this year’s Little 500, held at Anderson Speedway, Indiana in May. This Hoffman entry was driven to the 2016 Little 500 win by Kody Swanson, beating Floridian Dave Steele, who finished in second. Stewart and Steele have raced against each other previously, mainly in USAC open wheel competition in the 1990s.

    View of track from car of Jac Haudenschild, Bubba Raceway Park, February 2014

    Tony Stewart has not yet begun racing in any short track events so far this year, preferring to operate heavy equipment as a track prep expert at last week’s Chili Bowl. He has stated that he will race a sprint car, TQ midget, and dirt late model, but seems reluctant to say when he’ll race and where. One type of car he has already ruled out is an IndyCar, leaving that car type as one that is in his racing past.

    With Stewart’s entry into the 2017 Little 500, which is held on the night prior to the Indianapolis 500 in May, he won’t attempt the nearly impossible task of doing both races within a 24 hour period. After all, Indy 500 drivers are expected to show up in the sponsors’ infield tents on the night before the race, to schmooze with sponsors and benefactors.

    All Stars series owner Tony Stewart and All Stars feature winner Kerry Madsen, Bubba Raceway Park, February 2015

    To do 500 exhausting laps at Anderson Speedway on Saturday night, and then 500 miles at extreme speeds at Indy the next afternoon seems unwise (although drivers have done an “Indianapolis and Charlotte Double” in the past). The last driver that was planning to do both Indiana races in one weekend was Chet Fillip in 1985. He had qualified for both the Little 500 and the Indianapolis 500 in 1985, and then was bumped from his Indy starting spot on the second weekend of Indy 500 qualifying. He raced in only the Little 500 in 1985, later becoming a Little 500 winner in 1999.

    Tony Stewart has not confirmed that he is driving in any other Florida Speedweeks dates, but it seems likely that he may include races at Volusia Speedway Park the next week after Ocala. His series, the All Star series, races at Volusia on Wednesday and Thursday, February 15 and 16, which is immediately followed by the season opening World of Outlaws race dates on the next three nights. The likelihood that Florida race fans will be able to see Tony Stewart racing at more than one Sunshine State racing venue seems high.

     

     

    Sprint Car Racing Returns to SW Florida for First Time in 4 Years

     Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

     Sprint car racing will make its first appearance in over four years in Southwest Florida with a race in Punta Gorda in February. The race, at 4-17 Southern Speedway on Saturday, February 25, is the third of the season for the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series. The 3/8 mile slightly banked asphalt oval, which has a new leaseholder as of 2016, resumed racing earlier this month after the previous leaseholder failed miserably, scheduling and canceling sprint car races several times. On another occasion, a track employee went on an obscenity-laced tirade that was posted to the internet. These are problems the current track management hopes to avoid, and they have already succeeded. They have already completed two apparently incident-free race weekends, and have track renovations completed (fencing, spectator stands, flagstand, control tower, etc.), something the prior leaseholder never accomplished.

     “Congratulations, two-time.” That was the message sent by John Gilbert Jr. to Johnny Gilbertson on the morning of October 27, 2012, the last TBARA race of the 2012 season. That was the last sprint car race held at the track then known as Punta Gorda Speedway, and most recent sprint car race in Southwest Florida. After a hard crash at Citrus County Speedway, Gilbert Jr. was still recovering from broken ribs and a concussion and made the difficult decision to sit out the last race. That decision left Gilbertson with a comfortable margin in the season-long points, and the knowledge that he had wrapped up his second straight TBARA driver championship. John Gilbert Jr. would later make a very limited comeback to TBARA racing before departing Florida sprint car racing.

     Dude Teate, TBARA Feature Winner, Saturday 10-27-2012, Punta Gorda Speedway, Punta Gorda, FL.

    Punta Gorda Speedway got this race in after heavy rains flooded the parking area for weeks, and forced the cancellation of two race dates in September 2012. The plans for three late season races were pared down to one. With rain, flooding, and summer race cancellations caused by low car counts, a decision was made by the TBARA to regroup and resume racing in the fall. Sunny skies and more cars both arrived for the season’s last two races in October.

     This year’s Southwest Florida racing comeback has similarities to a race event held nearly ten years ago at Punta Gorda (Source – Sarasota Herald-Tribune). The April 14, 2007 race there was the first after another sprint car racing hiatus, this time lasting two years. The day would be highlighted by the running of TBARA’s Dick Friedley Memorial to honor the former TBARA media chief. Some of the names of the TBARA racers expected at Punta Gorda nearly a decade ago included Troy DeCaire, Keith Butler, Wayne Reutimann, Stan Butler, Bo Hartley, Mark and Gary Gimmler, and Dude Teate. TQ midgets, a group primarily based out of Southwest Florida, were also scheduled to appear, as well as pro wrestlers Dead Man and Skull Crusher, continuing a long-running close association between pro wrestlers and Florida short track racing.

     In October 2012, Ray Bragg Jr. was a favorite to win the feature, with an earlier heat win and front row start for the feature race. He was looking for his first pavement feature win of the year. “On the restart, going down into one, I saw sparks flying by me, from the left front,” Ray said, after the left rear brake failure started a fire under the car. As Ray was leading the pack coming for the green on a late race restart, the fire under the rear end was spreading. The boiling fluid spread, and both ends of the car showed flames. He was forced to stop on the back straight, and was out for the night.

     TBARA sprint cars at Punta Gorda Speedway in October 2012.

    “I’ve never had a brake failure of that magnitude. It turned me sideways. The next three laps, I ran around here with no brakes,” he said. Seemingly on his way to winning the feature, Bragg was out and Dude Teate took over the lead and encountered his own problem.

     “We couldn’t have went another lap. Coming off of four, it sputtering, but then came back,” Dude Teate said. The nine car length lead that he had in the middle of the last lap disappeared in the last turn when his motor sputtered, but he managed to win by three car lengths. “I was shaking it around, trying to get the last of the fuel that was in there. Poor Ray (Bragg), he looked like he had the car to beat, for sure. I told him – we’ll take them any way we can get them. They are so hard to come by,” Dude said.

     Over the next few years, Florida’s pavement sprint car racing saw the arrival of a Winter Racing Series at newly reopened Showtime Speedway, the former Sunshine Speedway. The track shunned participation in the TBARA series, as did some other Florida pavement tracks, running part or all of their sprint car racing as self-sanctioned for a two-year period. Further turmoil led to the demise of the TBARA by the end of 2014, a single year of self-sanctioning pavement racing in 2015, and 2016’s arrival of the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series. Only one other Florida pavement track made a step toward a self-sanctioned sprint car race in 2016, which was quickly canceled and replaced by a Southern Sprintcar series race. With the arrival of 2017, one track will attempt a schedule of non-wing series, along with sanctioned Southern Sprintcar races. That track is Desoto Speedway in Bradenton, which has two Saturday races over the next two weekends.

     The changes, coming after the departure of a divisive General Manager at the track, include the running of an initial non-wing race honoring the memory of three Smith family racers, Willard, Robert, and Daryl Smith. That race takes place on Saturday, January 21; and the opening race of the 2017 Southern Sprintcar season (a winged race) takes place the following Saturday, January 28.

     Three following non-wing races have been entered on the Desoto Speedway calendar, for March, April, and May 2017. As of this date, with the release of the King of the Wing national sprint car series schedule revealing the lack of a Southeast tour, it is unknown if the Southern Sprintcar series will attempt to take over the Southeast tour dates, traditionally at Pensacola and Mobile prior to 2016. That was when Montgomery, Alabama was added to make it a three-race weekend. The spring date at Pensacola has been plagued by rainouts, as happened in 2016. It is unknown if the races will be held under a different sanctioning body, if they might be moved to a time later in the year, or even if those tracks have a desire to continue the tradition of an annual winged sprint car race.

     The 2012 TBARA Sprint Series season summary:

     9 races

    6 different feature winners

    Most feature wins – Mickey Kempgens – 3

    Driver Champion – Johnny Gilbertson – 452 points

    Rookie of the Year – Rex Hollinger – 362 points (5th place overall)

     The complete feature race video, from Punta Gorda Speedway on October 27, 2012 (last sprint car race in SW Florida) is on the Florida Open Wheel channel:

     https://youtu.be/8Wgq7QzCYwM

     

     

    2016 Top Gun Series Champion Interview with Matt Kurtz

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    December 20, 2016

    In December 2015, Matt Kurtz had a perplexing dilemma, or at least that’s the way it might have seemed to an outside observer. With the last regular season race of the Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series scheduled for Saturday, December 5, 2015 at East Bay Raceway Park, Matt would need to show up to assure that he had enough points to secure the series driver championship for 2015. He had a small point lead going into this race over AJ Maddox, who was second in series points. If he showed up, and also remained ahead of Maddox in that night’s competition, he would be the 2015 Top Gun Series champion. So, you might wonder about what happening next and about Matt’s decision. Instead of going to East Bay Raceway Park, he attended a close friend’s wedding, missing the race, and missing his chance for the championship, which went to AJ Maddox.

    “Last year, we ran every race but the last one,” Matt Kurtz said. “I had a wedding. I was leading the points until then. I was the best man at my good buddy’s wedding. He was my best man (at Matt’s 2015 wedding to Cayla), and I was his best man. He’s one of my best friends, he comes to the races quite a bit. He planned the wedding before the race schedules came out. It was cool, it was worth it.”

    That left Matt at the end of 2015 with the certainty that he had made the right decision, but without a 2015 Top Gun championship. He had won the Top Gun driver championship once before, in 2012. He wanted another. One year later, he found himself in a similar situation. But even though he was once again going into the final Top Gun Series race of the year in December at East Bay Raceway Park with the series point lead, this time there was no wedding to conflict with the season finale. Matt Kurtz was at the track and he had a mission – redemption.

    Matt Kurtz and team after winning the 2016 Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series championship, 12-3-2016.

    Summarizing his racing year in 2016, Matt said that it was a good year. “It started off a little rough when I backed the car into the wall the first night at East Bay, the Winternationals. That kind of started our season off a little rough. We won a couple of races, but then I did that and it put us out for about a month and we got behind the eight ball on the points deal and we were able to catch up to them. A lot of ups, won a lot of races, so it was a good year. I was really happy when we won Volusia, because we put it on them pretty bad that night. We’ve had some bad luck there in the past. We won at Volusia a long time ago, like 2009.”

    He also felt good about his first night of racing in this year’s East Bay 360 Winternationals, at least up until an incident on the 22nd lap of the feature took him out. “We were able to race with all the big boys, all the Outlaws, and all the 360 guys. We had a good first night until lap 22, we were running top five I think and I backed the car into the fence.” Matt still felt that the progress he made in this national event was promising, at least up until the point when he hit the wall.

    With the races that he missed, he did have competition for the 2016 Top Gun point championship from Dennis Misuraca, who was taking advantage of a 2016 rule change allowing 604 crate motors to put together a consistent season with a crate motor in his car. Going into the last race of the season at East Bay on Saturday, December 3, Dennis was only 6 points behind Matt Kurtz in the point standings. This year, Matt was at the track and was ready to fight to retain the lead in points and win his second Top Gun Series championship in the Hardy Maddox owned car.

    Matt Kurtz at East Bay Raceway Park, November 2012.

    “We missed two races right off the bat after I did wreck the car (in February),” Matt said. “We sent the car up to GF1 and they did a killer job getting it back to us as quick as they could. We would have missed more, but luckily one of them got rained out.” Now he had a trusted car builder and good luck on his side, so he was still in the running for the 2016 championship. The spring and summer races were pivotal for Matt, as he powered to wins at Bubba Raceway Park, East Bay Raceway Park, and also Hendry County Motorsports Park.

    At the East Bay finale on December 3, he only made 2 laps in the feature race before he encountered a front wing problem and fell back. Despite having an ill-handling car for the remainder of the feature race, he held on for a 2nd place finish. Misuraca finished further back, allowing Kurtz to retain his point lead and earn the 2016 Top Gun championship, his second. It also made the sting of missing last year’s finale and the championship seem further away.

    “We were able to come back and win the championship and we were fast,” Matt said. “Dennis (Misuraca) was consistent all year. I don’t know if he won any races or not, but he was consistently top five, top ten every night. He’s really come a long ways. I remember racing him a couple of years ago and he’s gotten a lot smoother, a lot more consistent. He’s definitely getting fast, he’s definitely getting tough to beat. There’s ten guys out there that’s really quick and the series is getting stronger and it’s fun to race. It’s a lot more fun when you have more cars.”

    Kurtz also had praise for his car owner and his team for the part they played in the championship year. “I’m glad Hardy and Brian (Maddox) got the car owner’s championship this year. I really like working with Hardy and I like working with Brian. They’re good guys and we seem to work pretty well together. They’ve got good equipment and it’s just fun racing.”

    With only a two-month break for the series before Top Gun Series racing returns to East Bay as part of the Winternationals during the first weekend in February, teams must begins preparations hastily in order to be ready. “Next year, I think we’re going to do a little more 360 stuff. Actually, I’m going up next week to Pennsylvania to get a race trailer (for his own car). I’m hoping I’ll be driving both cars – theirs and mine. They want to slow down a little bit, they don’t want to run the full year for points, but they do want to do some 360 racing (USCS or ASCS).”

    Matt’s 2017 plans may see him running his own car about a dozen times, on those weekends when he won’t be in the Maddox team car for Top Gun competition. That means more races next year, allowing more freedom to pick where and when he will race, including USCS races in Georgia and the Carolinas, and those tracks that are less than a 10-hour drive one-way. However, he’s not walking away from Top Gun racing.

    “It’s nice running these races, and they’re close to home,” he said. “The competition’s getting a lot stiffer, so it’s fun, it’s a good series. I wish we could get 25 or 30 cars every night, but I enjoy the racing.”

    He will now also be able to enjoy the title of champion, adding it to his designation of “a good man to have as a friend”, a title that he earned one year ago. Matt Kurtz has definitely earned both titles.

     

     

    Don Rehm Recalls 2016 as a Transition Year for Top Gun Sprints

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    The letter grade that Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series founder and owner Don Rehm would assign to the 2016 season is, “B minus, C plus.” His reason for this grade was, “Mainly car count. We just struggled with car count. I had a lot of people that hurt motors at the beginning of the year and crashed cars and we never recovered like we normally do.” Despite having 21 cars present for the season finale at East Bay Raceway Park, he admitted that, “it doesn’t help the rest of the year. It’s been coming back, but not like it had been doing (referring to the “normal car count of 18-20 cars”).” The car count this year was closer to 15-16 cars, as estimated by Rehm.

    AJ Maddox, feature race winner, Top Gun Sprint Series, East Bay Raceway Park, Gibsonton, FL, 12-3-2016.

    With so many other series, including Florida’s newly inaugurated Southern Sprintcar series, having average season car counts of about 15-16 cars this year, Don Rehm said that he was still not satisfied having a car count that was the same as most other series. He wanted more. “It’s not my expectations,” he remarked. “I used to think that if we went to the race track and we didn’t have 25 cars, we didn’t have anything. But then I got a little concession, and gave in a little bit, and then it was 18-20.”

    High point of the year in Top Gun Sprints for Don Rehm: “The closeness in the point battle. One’s a carbureted car and one’s an injected car. The carbureted car is actually a 604 crate motor (describing the motor used by Dennis Misuraca, who finished in second place in the 2016 Top Gun point battle to Matt Kurtz, who used the fuel injected limited 360 sprint motor). Everybody has always said it’s the injected cars that always win everything. They have won quite a few, but Dennis has always been right there.”

    With this rule change for 2016, Top Gun made the biggest change to its racing since eliminating the non-wing races several years ago. They will now allow 602 and 604 crate motors to compete against the mainstay limited 360 motor, and in some cases even allow the 305 RaceSaver motor. “They are a little bit low on horsepower,” Rehm said, describing the 604 crate motor. “That’s a sealed Chevrolet motor.”

    Low point of the year in Top Gun Sprints for Don Rehm: “Just the continued car count deal,” he said, referring to the average car count being lower than what he wanted and expected. The average car count did improve and recover later in the year, but “it was a slow recovery,” Rehm said. Hendry County Motorsports Park races saw the lowest car counts, due to the distance to the Lake Okeechobee area track from the main sprint car home bases in the Tampa Bay and Jacksonville areas. The track will bring in new clay and has plans for a resurfacing project.

    Matt Kurtz, 2016 Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series champion with crew.

    The tracks that Don Rehm wants to have on the yet to be announced 2017 series schedule are likely to be similar to the set of tracks that made up most of the schedule this year. With the success that Citrus County Speedway had with a super-low admission price that arrived with the track’s summer grand re-opening, and the subsequent packed stands, this likely had an effect on attendance at other North Florida short tracks. Two tracks in this area, both dirt short ovals, made the decision to suspend their remaining 2016 race schedules after Citrus County drew fans away from them and other area tracks. They were All-Tech Raceway in Ellisville and Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville. Bubba Raceway Park, which suspended even basic repairs like a torn front stretch catch fence, was also rumored to be for sale after different race nights went through trial periods (Saturday to Friday, then back to Saturday). Florida’s short track dilemma of “everybody wants to run on Saturday” remains an annual quandary, at least for 11 months each year (February Speedweeks being the exception).

    “We’ll try to run 4 or 5 tracks that we’ve run this year,” Rehm said, conceding that All-Tech and Volusia were still in the “to be determined” category pending an announcement on their 2017 plans. Speedweeks dates for Top Gun have already been released, with two dates at East Bay Raceway Park for February 3 & 4, the first Winternationals race weekend at the track. Hendry County is expected to be back for 2017, with sprint car racing often drawing the biggest crowds there. “The situation at Volusia is pretty assured that we’re going to have races there,” he added, which would happen during the March to November period.

    “The 604 crate motor is an accepted motor now,” Rehm said regarding the biggest recent change for Top Gun. “The 602 has steel heads and the 604 has aluminum heads, both carbureted. But they can run both of them. We have two of them here tonight (Saturday). In January, that was a 305, one of those RaceSaver motors,” he said, referring to the January 2016 Speedweeks race won by Jeff Taylor, the only series race won by a 305 RaceSaver motor this year. “We’re going to allow the 305 RaceSaver motors, as long as they have the correct paperwork with that motor (assuring it is a sealed RaceSaver motor); we’re going to allow them to run in February.”

    The experiment to allow these motors to compete with the mainstay limited 360 motor in Top Gun competition, done for the first time this year, is a change that Don Rehm gives “an A or an A plus. The 305, that’s just special for the Speedweeks deal,” he said, confirming that it won’t be allowed in the series after February. “But the 602 or 604 motor is allowed, that’s an accepted motor. Dennis (Misuraca) stepped up and started the first one and ran with us all year long, and I think that was a good test that he was consistent all year long and proved that you could do it with that motor. And it’s quite a bit cheaper, and it’s a sealed motor. You don’t have to do nothin’ to it, really.” Rehm had an objective to avoid anyone having an obsolete car or motor in 2016, which in turn would help increase car count.

    With Speedweeks this year, the new motors began to be used, marking this year as a major transition year for the Top Gun Series organizers, car owners, and racers. It remains to be seen if the North Florida dirt tracks will make a comeback and remain on the 2017 race schedule, and if there will be additional teams that will try out the Chevrolet crate motors, or even the 305 RaceSaver motor for the February Speedweeks races at East Bay. This means that after a year of transition in 2016, there could be a year of experimentation in 2017 in the only touring dirt sprint car series running year-round in the Sunshine State.

    The feature race video of the Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series at East Bay Raceway Park on Saturday, December 3, 2016 is here:

    https://youtu.be/MVq_3HXd6Yk

     

    Saturday's Top Gun Sprint Car Series race at East Bay. Bob Wing http://www.rewingphotos.com

     

     

    Southern Sprintcar Season In Review and a Look Forward to 2017

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    The two persons who had the greatest impact on the inaugural season of the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series are the current President, Rick Day, and the newly crowned 2016 season champion, Dave Steele. Rick Day guided the series through their first season of competition, which included 17 race events at 4 different tracks, with 4 different drivers adding their name to the feature win list. Dave Steele led this list with 13 feature wins, followed by Sport Allen with 2 wins, and Troy DeCaire and Shane Butler with one feature win each. Steele not only dominated the first season of racing for Florida’s new touring pavement sprint car series, he also is an associate sponsor. The logo for his business, Steele Performance Parts in Tampa, is seen on everything from sprint car front wings to t shirts to the logo for the new race series. He, along with Rick Day, not only helped birth the new series, he spanked it on the behind, got it to take its first breaths, and helped get it crawling and then up on two legs on its way to perambulating to success.

    2016 Southern Sprintcar series champion Dave Steele with series official Richard Boyer at Showtime Speedway, 11-19-2016.

    “Probably a B plus,” Rick Day responded, when asked to assign a letter grade to the first year of competition for the Southern Sprintcar series. “I mean, there’s always room for improvement, so we don’t want to say it’s an A. But with the past turmoil that had been going on with sprint car racing the last 2 or 3 years, with what we’ve pulled out with the last minute decision to do the series, I think we did pretty good. Our sponsor, BG Products, is possibly going to step up a little more next year, so we’re pleased with the series so far this year,” he said after the final series race of the year had concluded on Saturday at Showtime Speedway.

    Day confirmed that he was unsure about the future status of the other main series sponsor, TruFuel. They only had a one-year sponsor commitment, so he was waiting to speak to Davey Hamilton and others before commenting further on the return of TruFuel, or if they might be replaced by another corporate main sponsor. “Davey Hamilton (who has been acting as a sort of sponsor go-between for certain entities looking to sponsor sprint car racing) has called a couple of times, asking if we were going to be at the PRI Show, and he was wanting to fly down next week to talk to me, Taylor (Andrews) and Robert (Yoho).” It appears that the future of TruFuel’s return to Florida race sponsorship in 2017 is pending.

    Southern Sprintcar Dash winner John Inman, Showtime Speedway, 11-19-2016.

    Rick Day’s high point of the year for the series: “The fact that there were 4 race tracks and a new race track wants to come on board (referring to 4-17 Southern Speedway in Punta Gorda), with Citrus County stepping up to the plate more (they were involved minimally, hosting only 1 race this year), Punta Gorda wanting races, to make 19 races (total for 2017).”

    Rick Day’s low point of the year for the series: “All the rainouts. So, that’s one of the reasons why we’re doing the schedule the way we’re doing it next year. We’re starting early (in the year), ending late, and we’ll move races to allow the new tracks coming on board to capitalize on the northerners when they’re going to be down (in the cold weather months from November to April), which makes sense. That’s why Punta Gorda, Desoto, Citrus County, all want early and late stuff. Most of those race tracks are going to be closed late June, all of July, and the first part of August.”

    2016 Southern Sprintcar feature winners Sport Allen and Shane Butler, L to R, Showtime Speedway, 11-19-2016.

    With a concerted effort to move most of the racing to the cold weather months, which is the dry season in Florida and the time when the population swells with Snowbird winter residents, Rick Day hopes to reduce the number of rainouts, get more race fans buying tickets at a greater number of tracks, and please the track owners and promoters with race dates when they want them. There is also the possibility that there may be a “summer break” in 2017, with no races scheduled for a period as long as about 11 weeks. This would be a substantial change from the way a touring pavement sprint car series has been conducted in Florida in the past, when the season break was always in the late fall and early winter. The plan for 2017 and beyond is to move this season break to the summer, the rainy season.

    The planned summer break may mean moving the one mid-summer race already on the schedule (July 29 at Showtime Speedway) to another time of the year. When this date is moved, the 2017 summer break will be 11 weeks. With their next race, the first of 2017, scheduled for January 14 at Citrus County Speedway, the 2016-2017 winter break will be only 8 weeks long and it may be shorter in subsequent years.

    “If I can get that one date moved, we’re looking at a two and a half month break mid-season for the teams,” Rick Day said. “They’ll do June 10th at Citrus County, and then hopefully, if I can move the July 29th date, then the next race in August gives them the break. That way, instead of rebuilding in the winter, they can rebuild in the summer. I’ve thought about it for years too, and it’s a combination of us, the race tracks, so I mean, I can’t take credit for it all totally. We know we’ve got the perfect weather in Florida to race year-round, so why fight the rain and the heat?”

    There is one more big change coming to the Southern Sprintcar series in 2017 – the new race schedule is 100% winged sprint car racing. As of today, there are no non-wing races next year, a substantial change from the 2016 schedule, with several races run without wings. Again, Rick Day points to this as a change spearheaded by the track owners and promoters, and that it is something they want based on the feedback from their fans. Fans who have expressed a desire for speed, which comes with wings, have been heard and they will get what they want, according to the majority of race promoters.

    “The entire schedule is all winged events,” Day said, ruling out the possibility that decision may change and non-wing races added later. “As of right now, no. They like the look of the car with the wing,” he said, referring to the preference of most fans. There was also support from Citrus County Speedway track management for the move to all winged racing in 2017. “They said we can do them all winged next year, if we want to. They’re good with it.” Showtime Speedway management also echoed this sentiment.

    The Awards Banquet is being held on the night of January 20 in Pinellas Park. Along with Dave Steele as the champion (13 wins this year and 99 career wins in Florida sprint car competition), Sport Allen will be recognized for earning second place in 2016 points, and rookie driver Clayton Donaldson for earning third place in points and the Rookie of the Year title. His team reports that Clayton drove six different cars, with five different car owners, on his way to the rookie title this year. Another rookie driver, Carlie Yent, earned fourth place in overall points and was ranked in second place in rookie points. Veteran racer Dude Teate, a three-time TBARA champion, took fifth place in 2016 points.

    The Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series feature race video from Saturday, November 19, 2016 at Showtime Speedway is here:

    https://youtu.be/QyNXbmE8lJc

     

     

     

    North-South Shootout for TQ Midgets Coming to Florida in February

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

    A multi-race North-South Shootout for TQ midgets is coming to Florida in February 2017, according to FMRA (Florida Midget Racing Association) President Mike Nelson. Nelson confirmed today that there are three current race dates planned for the race series, all at Florida pavement ovals. The two confirmed dates, both at Showtime Speedway in Pinellas Park, are Wednesday, February 22 and Saturday, February 25. A third date planned for Bronson Speedway in North Florida has a date that is yet to be finalized. There is also a very good possibility that there will be additional February race dates planned at one or more dirt short ovals. Mike Nelson (who has been FMRA President since the start of this year) also stated that this special event has been in various planning stages for about the past one and a half years.

    Mike Nelson in his FMRA TQ midget, Mike Nelson Photo

    The Indiana-based TQ midget series that has been involved in the planning process with FMRA President Nelson is the UMRA King of the TQ Midget Racing Series, which races on dirt short ovals in Indiana. That is one of the reasons that the plans for the North-South Shootout in Florida include an effort to add dirt races, since the Midwest racers are used to racing on dirt. The FMRA racers only race on pavement short ovals, which are plentiful in Central and North Florida, and about to add one more track to their number in Southwest Florida (Punta Gorda). The group recently completed their regular 2016 race season, crowning Jimmy Wilkins III as the current series champion after he won 8 feature races this year.

    There are even rumors that one or more well-known Midwest open-wheel racers may be competing in the multi-race series in February, as they often spend a week or so in Florida during this time. Dave Darland is one name that has been rumored to be looking to race a TQ midget then, and Dave Steele has been a TQ midget race winner in Florida previously. Florida has a tradition of TQ midget and full-size midget racing events during February Speedweeks attracting many racing champions from the Midwest. Golden Gate Speedway races during the 1980s included Mel Kenyon, Rich Vogler, Kevin Olson, and many others.

    TQ midgets on grid at Citrus County Speedway, 10-3-2015.

    This marks the first attempt by the FMRA to stage a major race event with an intention to make it an annual event. Next year will mark their first time sanctioning this type of multi-race event, with February 2017 planned for the inaugural running. Still to be determined are a possible title sponsor for the event, additional race dates, locations and dates for the dirt track events, and the rules applied and prize money to be awarded. One obstacle for the initial success of the event is the plethora of major open-wheel racing events traditionally run in the few days immediately prior to the day of the Daytona 500, which is Sunday, February 26, 2017. One of the announced TQ midget race dates, Saturday, February 25, is also the date of the finale of the East Bay 360 Winternationals and also the usual last race (of 3) for the USAC national sprint car series at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala.

    The Florida Speedweeks sprint car race dates that have already been announced include the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series at Desoto Speedway on Saturday, January 28, and at New Smyrna Speedway on Sunday, February 19. The Top Gun Sprint Series races at East Bay Raceway Park on Friday and Saturday, February 3-4. The 360 Sprint Car Winternationals at East Bay Raceway Park are on Thursday to Saturday, February 23-25. The World of Outlaws sprint cars are back for their usual three dates on the weekend before the Daytona 500, this year on February 17-19 at Volusia Speedway Park. Tony Stewart’s All Star Circuit of Champions will likely duplicate the same dates as February this year, (although the Bubba Raceway Park dates haven’t been announced) with two dates at Bubba’s on the weekend prior to the World of Outlaws weekend, this time on Friday and Saturday, February 10-11. The All Star sprint cars then make their usual trip to Volusia Speedway Park to race on the two nights prior to the Friday season-opening World of Outlaws race. In 2017, those two Volusia race dates are Wednesday and Thursday, February 15-16.

    Yet to be announced: USAC sprint car race dates for Speedweeks, which is usually an announcement reserved for the PRI Trade Show during the second week in December.

     

     

     

    Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series Nears Conclusion of First Year with Historic Event

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    November 3, 2016 Wayne Reutimann, Frank Riddle, Sam Rodriguez and Jim Childers.

    Those are the drivers who were ahead of Dave Steele on the Florida All Time Sprint Car Win List as of January 1 this year. Since Dave Steele’s first race in February, when he was in fifth place on the list, he has surpassed all of these drivers for career Florida sprint car wins with the exception of Wayne Reutimann. There is currently a tie between Reutimann and Dave Steele for first place on the Florida All Time list with 97 career wins. With a win in either of the two remaining Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series races (this Saturday at Desoto Speedway, or 11/19 at Showtime Speedway), Dave Steele will accomplish a career milestone that he has stated is very important to him. He will take over sole possession of first place on the Florida All Time Sprint Car Win List. Next stop – 100 Florida wins.

    He already has two USAC Silver Crown Series championships, three TBARA sprint car series championships, and two Little 500 race wins. Dave Steele has two major accomplishments from the past 18 months. They are a renewed effort to add a third Little 500 race win to his career accomplishments (he finished in 2nd place in the Little 500 the past two years), and a renewed effort to gain more Florida pavement racing wins by racing in the inaugural year of Florida’s new series.

    Dave Steele with Riddle family members in Winner's Circle at The Frank Riddle Memorial.

    The Southern Sprintcar series, which began competition in February, was launched in late 2015 with the ambition to continue the tradition of the Florida traveling pavement sprint car series (TBARA’s demise occurred in early 2015). A 2017 race schedule with 20 races at five different tracks (417 Southern Speedway in Punta Gorda to be added) will likely cement the hold that the series has on Florida pavement racing. Only one other pavement series makes an inroad on Florida (King of the Wing national series with a spring race in Pensacola), and that race may have a co-sanctioning deal next year.

    “I mean, that’s a pretty special feat, with me being born and raised in Florida,” Steele said. “You know, a lot of those guys that we passed up on that list were my heroes as a kid. That means a lot to me actually. All those guys that you mentioned (ahead of him on the list in January) were my heroes growing up as a kid watching them. It is a feather in our cap to be able to do that. It’s a tribute to my car owners. I’ve always had good stuff to drive. You can’t get it done if you don’t have some good wheels under you.”

    Four wide pace lap at Showtime Speedway, The Frank Riddle Memorial Race.

    For several years, Steele has been his own car owner, racing his own dirt and pavement sprint cars, some of which he has raced, then sold. He was quick to credit his crew for their part in helping him earn a slew of Florida feature wins this year, which has exceeded his win total from the prior two years combined. The second place finish in May’s Little 500 was just about the only 2016 racing disappointment. Off the track, Steele insists that his family and his business are the most important priorities in his life now. The racing accomplishments – well, that’s the stuff that the reporters write about. That includes the inevitable 100th career Florida win.

    “Yeah well, we don’t want to count our chickens before they hatch. None of these are easy,” Steele said. Then he went about the usual post-race routine: greeting friends and fans and packing up his gear and his car after another win in Florida.

    Dave Steele is interviewed after winning The Frank Riddle Memorial Race

    The feature race video of the Frank Riddle Memorial Race at Showtime Speedway on Saturday, October 29, 2016 is here:

    https://youtu.be/x3nP6NvFqIM

     

     

    Tampa Bay Déja Vu: 2016 is 1941 All Over Again

    By Richard Golardi

    October 26, 2016
    Tampa Bay area big car racing (the big cars were the predecessors of today’s sprint cars) was facing a situation in 1941 that bears a striking resemblance to Tampa Bay area sprint car racing in 2016. In both years there was a new race sanctioning body in the Tampa area, one driver was exercising a high degree of dominance, resulting in some grumbling among the other teams, racing was emerging from a period of strife and moderately hard times, and there was hope for the future with underlying concern for what lies ahead.

    The West Coast Auto Racing Association, based out of Tampa, issued membership card number 14 to Johnny Hicks in 1941. The new sanctioning body would soon have to deal with the complaints of those stating that Johnny Hicks was so dominant at Tampa’s Plant Field that the rules needed to be changed to include handicaps. One Tampa newspaper captioned a sports page cartoon with the words, “Johnny Hicks, the auto race pilot, to be forced to compete against the rest of the boys driving his car backwards …” In the cartoon, his competitors look on in dismay on Hicks passes them while going in reverse. “Maybe you guys will have a chance with me drivin’ backwards,” he yells back at them.

    Johnny Hicks in the Frank's Hal Special at Plant Field in Tampa in 1941, Chad Freeman Collection.

    Hicks’ beautiful number 23 Frank’s Hal Special, supposedly bought for $4,000 by an unnamed “angel”, was paying off far too well in the minds of his opponents. They didn’t like riding in his dust on the half mile Plant Field dirt oval, so they scheduled a meeting to go through the rules and possibly request some changes in hopes of curbing the “daredevil laundryman” and his new Hal. After all, they wanted to win a Plant Field race every so often. Track Program Director Jack Sheppard frowned upon handicaps being placed on any team or driver, citing that the open class type of racing was very popular at the track, the fans loved it (weekly racing drew crowds in excess of 5,000 fans), and that he intended that it would remain in place in 1941.

    Promoters kept the fans coming back for more, despite Hicks’ dominance, by telling the Tampa sports reporters that several drivers, like Cecil King, had rebuilt their cars and gained speed. King had installed new crank and cam shafts in his motor, and stepped up the speed and horsepower, bragging that he could, “match anything that Hicks can develop.” The promoter at Plant Field also had the advantage of being the only Tampa Bay area track to have the big cars on his race program. In 1941, the big cars racing in Tampa had a very similar appearance to the big cars being raced in Indianapolis for the Memorial Day classic, the Indianapolis 500.

    Membership card for Johhny Hicks to race big cars in Tampa in 1941, Chad Freeman Collection.

    With war raging in Europe and the Pacific, factories were running full tilt in the states producing munitions, vehicles, and all kinds of supplies needed to wage war. This boosted employment and the incomes of American workers. The country was finally being pulled out of the Great Depression, which had lasted about a decade. America had managed to stay out of the war, and there was hope that “happy days are here again”, as the lyrics of a 1929 song had predicted. With the Depression ending, spectator stands full of paying race fans, competent race management by sanctioning body and track managers alike, things were looking up for big car racing in 1941 in Tampa, Florida. There was concern about America’s place in the world, and if the country might be dragged into the World War despite all effort to stay out of the fray. On the morning of December 7, 1941, the world learned that America would enter the grand stage of the most horrifying war in human history.

    With the demise of the Tampa Bay Area Racing Association (TBARA) in 2015, Tampa Bay had lost its most influential and longest-running sprint car race sanctioning body. No traveling sprint car series in the state had a longer continuous run than the TBARA (East Bay Raceway Park had been running sprint cars since 1977). With Florida pavement tracks “doing their own thing” in 2015 in the wake of the TBARA departure, a movement began to continue a great Florida tradition – the traveling winged pavement sprint car series. By 2016, a new series was a reality and was ready to begin racing in Central Florida, with experienced leadership, multiple sponsor deals, and teams ready to race on pavement, both with and without wings. It was the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series.

    Dave Steele immediately emerged as the driver that would dominate racing in the new series. He won the first five races in the inaugural season for the new series, beginning in February up to April 30. He used the month of May to prepare for a second consecutive year of racing in the Little 500 in Anderson, Indiana, where he is a two-time winner. After finishing in second place in that race, he went winless for a period of three months, from April 30 to July 30. One night of racing in July at Showtime Speedway gave a glimpse of a possible rivalry between Sport Allen and Dave Steele, as the two fought hard for a race win on a doubleheader race night, with Allen winning both races. But the possible intense rivalry between the two veteran racers fizzled and faded away; as Dave Steele went on to win all but one of the following 2016 races.

    Dave Steele, feature race winner, New Smyrna Speedway, August 2016, Richard Golardi Photo.

    Steele has limited his racing outside of Florida. “He’s using a rear end that isn’t allowed in that series,” was the reasoning mentioned for Steele’s absence from the King of the Wing series and the Must See Racing Sprint Series. Any grumbling about Steele’s domination of the Southern Sprintcar series racing is kept off the radar, as other competitors either are reluctant to sound out their complaints, or are merely absent from the track. They are unheard and unseen. This small group includes some of the fastest cars and winningest drivers in recent Florida pavement racing. They simply aren’t around this year, so good luck finding them to ask the obvious question: “Have you kept your car off the track for most of the year because Dave Steele is dominating?”

    The future looks bright for the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series to be dominant in Florida sprint car racing. They have avoided the hazard that has befallen the Top Gun Sprint Series in Florida this year – track closings due to various reasons, some related to competition with other tracks and some due to faltering attendance. While Top Gun has lost tracks, Southern Sprintcar organizers managed to add one that at first was headed into self-managed sprint car racing. Citrus County Speedway at first scheduled a non-sanctioned race for September 17, which was later canceled and replaced with a Southern Sprintcar sanctioned race on October 1, which was considered a success. Track management at Citrus County Speedway has since taken a step back with a disastrous modified race that saw 15 cars get disqualified and multiple teams withdraw their support of the track.

    As in 1941, there again is hope for the future of Tampa Bay area open wheel racing after a period of strife, which included the bitter demise of a storied pavement race series, and a disorganized mish-mash of racing in 2015. But while there is hope for the future, there is still underlying concern for what lies ahead, just as there was justifiable concern in 1941. Track management at two of the tracks on the Southern Sprintcar series schedule have made some puzzling and questionable decisions since early September. Both tracks are reported to be returning to the series schedule in 2017, with hope for better management decision-making to be revealed. One additional track may be added, in Punta Gorda.

    In Florida, “Happy days are here again, the skies above are clear again …” (we hope).

    Special thanks to Chad Freeman, for allowing me access to his personal “Florida Sprint Car Hall of Fame – Kentucky Branch” archives. Without his help, this article would not have been possible.

     

     

    Golden Gate Speedway, the Resurgence of the Old Timers, a Hurricane, and More

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    The 4th Annual Golden Gate Speedway Reunion, held in Tampa on Sunday, has been praised as a success by many of the attendees. This year’s version included present-day cars as well as vintage and classic passenger cars and race cars. Interviews of many of the racers from the track’s golden age in the 1960s and 1970s were conducted by Gene Adler. The Crown 7 stock car owned by Cush Revette, with its dirt covering from the prior night’s race at East Bay Raceway Park, was present. The car has a special place in Golden Gate history as the winner of the track’s first late model race in 1962.

    Chad Freeman brought his vintage number 3X sprint car, was showing photos from his collection to Randy Alvarez

    Keeping with the weekend’s theme of things that are vintage and classic, a recent trend at East Bay Raceway Park, which held sprint car racing the night before the reunion, has seen three drivers over the age of 50 win the past three sprint car races. On Saturday night, it was Joe Zuczek winning his first feature race at East Bay after his recent move to Venice, Florida. Joe is a former URC sprint car racer from the Northeast who became a regular racer at East Bay starting this year. He had raced at the East Bay Winternationals last year before getting a limited 360 motor to race with the East Bay Sprints and Top Gun Series. The prior two sprint car feature race winners at East Bay Raceway were also over the age of 50 years (Kurt Taylor and Tim George), and all three were seen together in the pits after Zuczek’s win, joking about the recent resurgence of the “old timers” in Florida dirt racing.

    Hurricane Matthew, which came close to Brevard County on Florida’s east coast last week, moved closer to the coast once it was north of Brevard and had reached Volusia County. That’s the county where both New Smyrna Speedway and Daytona International Speedway are located. Daytona announced after the hurricane passed over on Friday that it had experienced moderate damage, which included damage to trees, lights, speakers, signs and fences. The track had just completed a $400 million renovation project earlier this year. The damage at New Smyrna Speedway was more extensive. The front straight grandstands, from just past the largest tower grandstand all the way to turn 1, were lifted by the high winds, flipped over, and then dumped onto the track’s front straight. A crane company will lift the stands to put them back in place, followed by repairs to the crushed front straight catch fence and a new roof for the main infield pit office building. The track has stated that they will be ready for their biggest annual one day event, which is the Governor’s Cup late model race on Sunday, November 13. There have been no reports on the condition of Volusia Speedway Park, but that track has no racing scheduled until the return of the DIRTcar Nationals and the World of Outlaws sprint cars and late models in February 2017.

    Cush Revette and his Crown 7 Chevrolet late model at East Bay Raceway Park

    The Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, which fortunately has no racing planned for Florida’s east coast until 2017, is back in action at Showtime Speedway on the west coast on Saturday. Another win by Dave Steele will tie him with Wayne Reutimann for the lead on the All Time Florida Sprint Car Win List at 97 wins in Florida. The series is making plans to return to both Citrus County Speedway and New Smyrna Speedway in 2017. There are also plans to possibly co-sanction races in Pensacola, Mobile and Montgomery in 2017 with the King of the Wing national sprint car series. That series raced in two of those cities in April 2016 and recently crowned Davey Hamilton Jr. as their 2016 King of the Wing national champion.

    Gene Adler interviews Jack Nowling (left) at the Golden Gate Speedway Reunion

    Are track closings in North Florida related to the super-low ticket prices, packed spectator stands and the recent success of Citrus County Speedway in Inverness? Earlier this month, racing ceased at Volusia Speedway Park after the current tenant decided to suspend the remainder of the 2016 season. That was preceded by a decision by All-Tech Raceway in Ellisville to suspend the remainder of their season in August. Bubba Raceway Park hosted sprint car racing in September, but appears to have reduced or suspended expenditures for track upkeep. A temporary catch fence repair made during Speedweeks in February still remains, with no permanent repair made to the torn section of fence since that damage occurred on February 19. A smaller dirt oval, intended for mini-sprint and midget racing, was never completed. Other projects that were discussed, such as a grass spectator viewing mound in turn 2, never materialized.

     

     

    Golden Gate Speedway Reunion Takes Place This Sunday

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    The Golden Gate Speedway Reunion, with its fourth edition scheduled this Sunday, October 9 at the former location of the race track on Fowler Avenue, Tampa (Big Top Flea Market), has brought together former racers and car owners, drawn attention to Florida’s incredible open wheel racing history, produced one of the few track reunions to take place in Central Florida, and inspired one prospective author to begin a project chronicling the lives of several of the Golden Gate racers (a project that is nearing completion).

    Pancho Alvarez, Larry Tyler, and Gene Adler (L to R) at the 2014 Golden Gate Reunion

    Prior to the first Golden Gate Speedway Reunion in 2013, much of the activity in race track reunions in Florida was tied to tracks in Southeast Florida and North Florida, tracks where late model racing dominated. The attendees, and the racers selected for their respective Halls of Fame, were dominated by members of the late model and stock car racing community. That’s not surprising, as the epicenter for sprint car and open wheel racing in Florida was in neither of those two parts of the state. It has been in Tampa since the 1920s. The state’s first dirt open wheel short oval race took place there in 1921. While sprint car racing did take place in Southeast Florida and also in the Jacksonville area, it never received the level of attention afforded to stock car racing.

    That’s changed with the arrival of the reunion for Golden Gate and the surrounding sprint car racing community, many of whom are still based in the Tampa Bay area. Although the track became well-known for late model stock car racing, initiating the Governor’s Cup race that still exists today, it was the sprint car racing and the racers who began there and reached fame at national events that garnered the greatest attention. They include Dave Scarborough, Frank Riddle, Robert Smith, Wayne Reutimann, Larry Brazil, Jim Childers, Stan Butler, and Bill Roynon.

    Robert Smith signs the billboard for the first Golden Gate Reunion in 2013.

    Another event makes this weekend a great Tampa sprint car nostalgia weekend, and that’s the appearance of the Daytona Antique Auto Racing Association, who will be racing at East Bay Raceway Park on Saturday night, along with the East Bay Sprints also. That East Bay Raceway hosted sprint series has a great tradition, going back to the beginnings of the track in the 1970s.

    Randy Alvarez, a former Golden Gate Speedway racer and Florida open wheel racing journalist, is one of the organizers of the track reunion this Sunday. Randy told me that one of the changes for this year’s reunion was that the vintage race cars on display will be joined by present day race cars for the first time. During the track’s first reunion, the display cars were limited to just those cars that had actually competed at Golden Gate. In subsequent years, that was modified to allow all vintage and classic race cars, with this year’s change now adding present day cars. “So we can show how it was, and how it is now,” Alvarez said.

    Randy Alvarez at the first Golden Gate Speedway Reunion in 2013

    One of the cars expected is the dirt modified currently being raced on Florida dirt tracks by Buzzie Reutimann, a car whose development and testing is chronicled in the current issue of Speedway Illustrated magazine. Reutimann may bring a vintage modified along with his current car, to allow attendees to see the past and present of dirt modified racing side-by-side. It is expected that sprint cars will be presented the same way, with both the past and present on display, as well as cars from other classes that raced at Golden Gate and in the Tampa Bay area.

    “We’re going to have a variety of cars – past and present,” Randy Alvarez told me. “The track was built in 1962, and Golden Gate was way ahead of its time. The place was called the Garden Spot of Racing. All along the front straightaway, it was all landscaped. They ran two Florida 500s there (endurance sprint car races held in the 1970s). It was just a special, special place. They were the home of the TBARA sprint cars. Back then if you ran pavement, you were TBARA. The 360 sprint cars were started there, at Golden Gate Speedway. Some of the biggest legends of racing, in halls of fame all over the place, came from that track. It was so special and it was such a shame that it got closed down. We’ve got track champions, we’ve got hall of fame members showing up, we’ve got Bobby Brack, who comes from Miami, we’ve got Leroy Porter, who comes from Orlando, we’ve got people from all over the place who show up for this. It’s just a great thing, and we’re going to be there on the ninth.

    “Gene Adler will once again be the host of it,” Alvarez said. Adler, of Racing Roundup TV, will return to conduct interviews of some of the legends of Golden Gate, including Pancho Alvarez and Buzzie Reutimann and others, who are scheduled to attend. “Linda (Grimm) is my right-hand gal right there; she’s the one that signs everybody in and all that. She’s been there since day one (in organizing the event). Her son runs open wheel modifieds, and they’ve got several people who are going to bring their cars. It should be a lot bigger as far as race cars there.”

    Here is the place to go for times and information regarding the reunion, the Facebook page for the 2016 Golden Gate Speedway Reunion:

    https://www.facebook.com/events/828144537286900/

     

     

     

    Dave Steele on Verge of Reaching Top of All Time Florida Sprint Car Win List

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

    It may soon be time for the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series to prepare for a special event, for which they certainly will need (at the very least) several confetti cannons and a few bottles of champagne. That event would be the ascension of Dave Steele to the top position on the All Time Florida Sprint Car Win List, which appears likely to occur this year. This special event would probably be shortly followed by his attaining 100 career Florida sprint car feature wins (he is already close), which would be a first in Florida.

    Dave Steele in his car prior to the start of the 2015 Little 500 in Anderson, Indiana

    With his last Florida sprint car feature win at Desoto Speedway on September 10, a Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series race, Dave Steele has put himself in a position to soon take first place on the All Time Florida Sprint Car Win List. The list, compiled by Bob Patten and more recently by Sonny Hartley, has been topped by Wayne Reutimann since 2007. Reutimann is currently in first place on the All Time Win List with 97 sprint car feature wins in Florida, which covers the period from 1969 to the present day. Dave Steele is now tied for second place on the All Time Win List with Frank Riddle, with both drivers having 95 Florida wins.

    At the beginning of 2016, Dave Steele was in fifth place on the All Time Win List, with 86 Florida wins. Since January 1, he has passed both Jim Childers and Sam Rodriguez, who were tied for third place with 90 Florida wins. He has ascended from fifth place to a tie for second place due to the dominating year he has had racing with the Southern Sprintcar tour. He has had nine feature wins this year, far in excess of his combined total of wins for the prior two years. His win total in Florida for 2014 and 2015 combined was four sprint car feature wins. It was a time when Steele had told me that he was going to concentrate on his family and his business, and make them a priority.

    Since then, the arrival of the Southern Sprintcar series, for which his business, Steele Performance Parts, is an associate sponsor and supplier, caused him to devote some additional time to racing in Florida. His only out-of-state race this year has been the Little 500 in Anderson, Indiana in May, in which he finished in second place for the second consecutive year. A win would have tied him with Jim Childers for the most Little 500 wins by a Floridian. Childers has three wins, Steele has two.

    With five races remaining on this year’s Southern Sprintcar schedule, Steele would need to win three to take over sole possession of first place on the list with 98 wins. If he was to win all five races, he would not only take possession of first place on the list, he would become the first ever Florida sprint car driver to reach 100 Florida sprint car wins. The next race is this Saturday at Citrus County Speedway. If he wins the next three races (all during October), he will reach 98 wins at Showtime Speedway on October 29, a race that will remember another Florida legend. The race that night is the Frank Riddle Memorial. Frank Riddle passed away in 2007. Wayne Reutimann currently lives in Florida. He retired from a career in teaching in 2014 and has not raced since 2008.

    Somebody better warn the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series now. They probably should begin making preparations soon. You know, just in case Dave Steele keeps dominating and winning like he has all year. Then, let it rain down (a spray of champagne, of course). I’ll bet that’ll be a long night of celebrating a racing career well done.

     

     

     

    Danny Martin Jr. Ends His Summer Hiatus with Two USCS Wins

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    It may become an annual tradition as long as the USCS (United Sprint Car Series) continues to have a late season race weekend scheduled at Ocala’s Bubba Raceway Park. The USCS comes in and Danny Martin Jr. wins, as long as car owner Doug Shaw and his driver remain together. Their collaborative effort, which resulted in USCS feature race wins on Friday and Saturday, had been on a short hiatus, not having raced since June. It has been much more difficult to see them racing in Florida, since a decision was made to skip Top Gun Series racing, done with limited 360s. That decision was made along with focusing their effort on a limited USCS schedule, even though it seems like the team could easily win many more races and a championship if they so desired. But Danny’s employment and home life, with two young daughters, has intervened and taken priority. His family was with him in the Winner’s Circle on Saturday, with smiles all around.

    Danny Martin Jr. at Bubba Raceway Park on Friday, Septemeber 16, 2016

    Those two wins were the fourth and fifth wins of the year in USCS competition for Danny Martin Jr. “I ain’t been in a race car since the beginning of June,” Danny said. “I was a little bit rusty at the beginning (of Friday competition) but it came back to me. No laps since June. We went to Phenix City, I’m pretty sure it was at the beginning of June. That was the last time we’ve been in a race car. We struggled there with some setups that we had been trying that had been working, so tonight we kind of went back to basics. We got going towards the end when the track came to us, so I’m happy with it.”

    Martin’s next revelation may bring some unwanted news for his many fans in Florida – that the team may be done racing for the year. That may change if they decide to enter the new USCS race event at Charlotte in October. The news of the new format in Charlotte, with the World of Outlaws sprint cars racing one week earlier than in prior years (last weekend in October this year), now includes another weekend of racing, preceding the World of Outlaws Charlotte weekend. USCS will race at The Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday to Saturday, October 20- 22.

    Danny Martin Jr., feature race winner, USCS Outlaw Thunder Tour, Bubba Raceway Park, FL, Sat., September 17, 2016

    “I think we’re done for the year,” Martin said. “We might go to Charlotte, the 360 World Finals. We might do that. If we don’t, I guess tomorrow will be our last night for the year.” Martin explained that his responsibilities at work, and a desire to stay closer to home (not wanting to make the long haul to Tennessee, Mississippi, or Arkansas), and not wanting to race in local limited sprint races, are the main reasons for the team’s reduced race schedule since June. Team owner Shaw told Martin that if they race at Charlotte, that will be their last 2016 races. Next up will be the 2017 East Bay Winternationals in February. That race, along with Charlotte’s World Short Track Championship in October, are two events that Martin longs to win prior to the conclusion of his career. They was no talk of his career ending in the near future. There was just a rearranging of priorities while he places emphasis on his job, draws his family closer, and narrows the list of iconic race events that he still wants to win.

    “Maybe go to Charlotte, go have some fun, and then start getting ready for the Winternationals,” he said. “That’s the race that I want to win so bad. Before I give it up, or retire, or get fired or quit, or whatever you want to call it, I really want to win the Winternationals. We’ll spend all winter just getting everything ready, I guess.”

    The number of cars from Florida participating in the two USCS races, and the total car count, were both down as compared to the celebrated USCS return to Florida in October 2015, when 13 Floridians filled out the field of 23 entered cars. The feature race starting field was 15 cars on both nights, and all laps were led by Floridians, including two teenage Floridians with feature wins. They were 17 year old Nick Snyder and 14 year old Tyler Clem, son of track owner Bubba Clem. Between the two, Clem was the most recent feature race winner, taking his first sprint car feature win this year with the Top Gun Series at the family track in April. Snyder has a 2015 national series win with USCS to go with his 2015 USCS National Rookie of the Year title.

    Florida racers Tyler Clem, left, and Nick Snyder, right, both have won a feature race since 2015

    In other racing during the USCS weekend at Ocala, veteran Georgia racer Joe Larkin picked up his first win in about a decade in a dash race for the bottom six finishers in a prior race. The “Mystery Dash” sponsor, who chose to remain anonymous, wanted to have the race for the drivers in the back of the pack and award the win to one of them. In a Saturday Southern States Midget Series race for Division II midgets, the closest finish in series history saw Ryan Bartholomew defeat Robbie Smith by a few inches in the midget feature race.

    Friday USCS sprint car feature race video from Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala:

    https://youtu.be/nwEzp2Q4BPY

    Saturday USCS sprint car feature race video from Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala:

    https://youtu.be/tvUW0yBxi1E

     

     

     

    Weekend in Tampa: Goody Goody Burger and Racing

    By Richard Golardi

    Calendar Date: Sunday, November 25, 1951, Tampa, Florida

    You’re craving a good hamburger for lunch, so you grab your watch (gold, on a chain safely in your vest watch pocket), keys, pack of cigarettes (Lucky Strike), and your fedora, and head outside to your 1947 Ford convertible, right where you left it last night on the street outside your apartment in downtown Tampa. You are heading to pick up your girlfriend, Mavis, and then to Goody Goody Burger in downtown for lunch.

    AAA Big Cars in the fourth turn at Speedway Park, Tampa in 1951, Speedway Park photo

    You order two POX burgers for you and Mavis, and a slice of Butterscotch pie to share (she’s a light eater and doesn’t mind, only wanting a bite), and two Cokes. As you light up a Lucky Strike while seated at the lunch counter, you compliment Mavis on her new jacket and new hat.

    “You know dear, did I mention you look especially cute today? I thought I should let you know that. I like the new hat. The jacket too.” She looks up and smiles, that way she always does. It’s the way that just gets you every time.

    You signal the waitress for the bill, put out your cigarette, and pay (cash – it totals about $2.50 with tip). Mavis slides in next to you on the front seat of the Ford and you’re on your way to your next stop – Speedway Park on Hillsborough Avenue, about a mile west of Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. That Sunday afternoon, your favorite type of racing is on the schedule, according to the ad you read in the sports section of the Tampa Tribune yesterday. “AAA Big Cars – tomorrow at Speedway Park. See in action Tommy Hinnershitz and Bill Schindler, along with Tampa boys Cush Revette, Ralph Liguori and Pancho Alvarez, as the big cars roar around the big ½ mile oval, racing starts at 1 pm, admission 75 cents, box seats $1.”

    Tommy Hinnershitz wins the AAA big car race at Speedway Park, Tampa, FL in 1951, Speedway Park photo

    The parking lot at the track is packed today, it looks like it will be a big crowd for what the track’s roadside sign says is “AAA National Big Cars – Today!” But it’s not the AAA National Big Car Series, in spite of the track’s somewhat deceptive sign. The series racing today is the AAA East Coast Big Car Series, a regional series that will draw some of the biggest names in Indy car racing, but not all of them. The majority of the field will be filled with drivers from a class that the track has labeled “State Big Car Races”, with big cars the same as seen at Indy, but with local Tampa drivers behind the wheel. These same cars and drivers also compete at Tampa’s Plant Field in February for the IMCA races.

    As you make your way from the parking lot to the stands on the main straight, you wish you had arrived earlier, as it is clearly evident that this will be one of the biggest crowds ever at Speedway Park. Auto racing is the biggest sport in Tampa, as it has been for decades. You manage to get two seats fairly high up near the fourth turn, but that’s fine as it means you are closer to your favorite thing to see: the cars broadsliding through the turns, drivers throwing their cars hard into the corner. Shortly after arriving, the stands appear full, and late arrivals are sitting in the aisles.

    “Boy, this is the biggest crowd here ever, right?” Mavis asks. “Good thing we got lunch – imagine how long the line is at the hot dog stand! Give me a smoke, will ya, doll?”

    Tommy Hinnershitz wins the AAA big car race that Sunday, along with the 1951 AAA East Coast Big Car championship. He is the first winner of an AAA Big Car race in Tampa, finishing a half lap in front of Duane Carter, the 1950 AAA Midwest champion. Arizonan Jim Bryan is third.

    Mavis wasn’t too happy about her new jacket and hat getting a fine coating of dirt, but enjoyed our afternoon together. For me, it was the best race I’d ever seen at Speedway Park. I’m definitely coming back here again, maybe with the boys next time, and then we’ll go out drinking and hit the clubs in Tampa.

    I turn the key in the ignition and my Ford roars to life. I turn left on Hillsborough Avenue heading out of the track parking lot, back to Tampa. The engine purrs contentedly as I point her back toward the city lights and the first colors of the setting sun.

    Calendar Date: Saturday, September 10, 2016, Tampa, Florida

    Goody Goody Burger is back in business.

    You grab your cell phone (which makes it unnecessary to carry a watch, camera, or radio), car door remote, and Surface Pro tablet (to take notes later), and head to the restaurant’s new location for a POX burger and fries. Closed since the downtown location was shuttered in 2005, the new location is in Hyde Park Village. It opened in late August. You order a main course consisting of the iconic burger (POX is for pickles, onions and secret sauce, not the usual kind, but a tomato-based ketchup/salsa hybrid). A new menu with classic items beckons, so you choose two items as side dishes to round out the meal, a Strawberry milkshake and a slice of Butterscotch pie. Although the sauce and fries are a bit salty, every item arrives after a reasonable short wait, and is delicious. Regarding that wait, upon arrival you are told that there will be a two and a half hour wait for a table (Saturday, late afternoon). The counter, well, that’s on a different system: when a seat opens, take it. After five minutes, you have a seat at the counter.

    “Don’t need a menu, I know what I want. A buddy told me what to get and he’s already been here twice,” you tell the waitress, who has to turn sideways to squeeze between restaurant equipment crammed into the space between the wings of the front counter, arranged into a horseshoe shape. Later, the seat to the right is open, and a curious diner drops into it the moment it opens.

    Dave Steele Feature race winner Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series Desoto Speedway FL Saturday September 10 2016 Richard Golardi Photo

    “So … what’s good here?” he asks.

    “Butterscotch pie – I had that. If you’re getting a burger, get the secret sauce, but don’t think McDonald’s when you hear secret sauce. This one is the best tomato-based burger sauce I’ve ever had. You can get it on the side, and try it out. I’d go with that.”

    Curious to see what he orders, and if he thinks as highly of the secret sauce as you do, the bill arrives (a little less than $15, not including tip), so you pay (VISA credit card) and leave. You head south on I-75, toward Bradenton. That’s where Desoto Speedway is located, off exit 220.

    That night, the headline race event is a regular season race with the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, in their inaugural year of racing in Florida. Their season has mostly been a success, with a few minor problems here and there, the usual growing pains for a new enterprise. Tonight, the new series has a feature race starting field of 14 sprint cars (with massive wings providing downforce, they are the fastest on Florida pavement short tracks), just about one car below the season-long average. In the stands along the front straight, there are more empty seats than occupied ones (NASCAR is televising a Sprint Cup night race tonight, and short track attendance usually suffers at such times).

    Sprint cars at Desoto Speedway, September 10, 2016, Richard Golardi Photo

    Dave Steele is the undisputed king of pavement sprint car racing in Florida in 2016, so if you came to root for him and see him demolish the competition, you leave happy. If you wanted to see two or more racers battle it out to the finish, with no certain winner until the last lap, you got that earlier this year in a series race at New Smyrna Speedway in May, but not at Desoto Speedway tonight. Dave Steele took the lead shortly after the green flag dropped and was never challenged. He handled the slower cars with ease (as he usually does), showed blistering fast speed (a lap over 110 mph earlier), and only slowed to a stop to park in the winner’s circle for the ninth time this year in Southern Sprintcar series racing.

    The most enjoyable part of the day? Sinking your teeth into the POX burger and the Butterscotch pie at Goody Goody Burger, followed by seeing your friends at the track, and getting to talk to drivers, car owners, crew and media. Yeah, that was the most enjoyable. That’s what good memories are made of.

    Thanks to Thomas Schmeh for his assistance with Speedway Park race results and Brian K. Dery for assistance in deciding what to order at Goody Goody Burger.

    The feature race video of the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series at Desoto Speedway on Saturday, September 10, 2016 is here:

    https://youtu.be/VEP77wUDyUw

     

     

     

     

    The Last Wins: Celebrating the Florida Sprint Car Racing Careers of Bryan Clauson and Steve Kinser

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    “Yeah – ahh!” Steve Kinser bellowed.

    He had just stepped out of his winged sprint car, kissed two small children who called out to him, “Pop-pop!”, and then turned toward the waiting fans and photographers. He let out his victory cry as he raised the checkered flag over his head. While the confetti rained down onto the dirt of the Volusia Speedway Park winner’s circle, Kinser bent over at the waist and made a move to simulate “kissing the dirt” next to where his car had stopped. Did Kinser somehow know that this win was special, that there was something different about this night? It was Sunday, February 16, 2014, the last night of three nights of World of Outlaws sprint car series racing at the Barberville, Florida high-speed dirt oval and it was a special night, for both Florida racing and for Steve Kinser.

    These eyes have seen it all - Steve Kinser at Bubba Raceway Park in 2014

    Steve Kinser’s feature race win that night at Volusia became significant due to an announcement that he made at Lebanon Valley Speedway last week. He announced that he was stepping out of his sprint car permanently and was retiring as a sprint car driver (saying it was likely his last race). With that announcement, the February 16, 2014 win at Volusia became his last ever feature race win in Florida, and also his last ever World of Outlaws sprint car feature win.

    It was the last feature win for the 62-year old racer in a World of Outlaws career that included 20 World of Outlaws point championships (the last in 2005) and a total of 577 World of Outlaws feature race wins. Kinser had already transitioned to making his car owner duties his most important occupation since the beginning of the 2015 race season. He is the car owner for his son’s car in the All Star Circuit of Champions, where Kraig Kinser is racing the full season this year. That transition began in Florida last year with the 2015 season opening races for the All Stars at Bubba Raceway Park in February, which followed Steve Kinser’s last full World of Outlaws season in 2014. That was also his last year with Tony Stewart Racing.

    Did he ever have visions of himself relaxing in a recliner, I asked Steve Kinser, with a cold drink in one hand, and a remote control in the other hand? And when he does try to imagine this, does he dread it a little bit, or is that OK with him? “I’m dreading it,” he said in 2014. “When you’ve done this for as long as I have, you just wish you could do it forever. You know, your body starts telling you it’s time. I’d rather not talk about it a whole lot. That’s how much I dread thinking about not racing. It’s a tough situation for me,” he added. There was one statement he made in 2014 that foreshadowed that future retirement announcement. He said, “Who knows? I’ll be sixty years old in June. At best, I could probably run another four or five years, you know what I mean? It’s sort of time to slow down a little bit, I guess.”

    The Thursday race in February at Bubba Raceway Park, the first night of the usual three nights of USAC national sprint car series racing, is usually the best of the three nights. That’s unfortunate, because it is always the most sparsely attended race of the three nights. The fewest people attend it, but it’s often the one race they shouldn’t have missed. I’ve chosen the Thursday night race at Bubba’s as the best race of February Speedweeks on more than one occasion. This year, the race was special for another reason. It was the last feature race win in Florida for Bryan Clauson, coming two years and two days after the last Florida win for Steve Kinser. Bryan won’t be returning to Florida to race again, as he died this month as a result of a crash while doing what he loved – racing an open wheel race car.

    We had discussed the possibility of tragedy on one prior occasion since I had begun the habit of interviewing Bryan Clauson each February when he came to Florida to race a sprint car. It was in 2012, when an Indy car champion (Dan Wheldon) had been killed in a crash late in the prior Indy car racing season.

    Bryan Clauson, Feature Race Winner, USAC National Sprint Car Series, Bubba Raceway Park, February 18, 2016, Richard Golardi Photo

    “Any time you strap into one of these cars there’s a chance for a tragedy, whether it’s a sprint car, or a midget, or Indy car. In Indy cars, they are going faster, and they are more exposed, and the racing is a little bit closer, but …,” Clauson said. I asked Clauson if it was something that he tried to not think about; did he put it out of his mind? “Anytime you strap into one of these things, there’s that chance,” he stated. He made it clear he wasn’t feeling any intimidation in preparing for his first Indy car race at Indy in 2012, calling it an “awesome opportunity.” It became a reality on May 27, 2012 when he started his first Indy 500 race.

    By May 2016, Bryan was now preparing for his third Indy 500. He had not made it to the finish in either of his prior two Indy starts, in 2012 and 2015. His car was not fast enough to be able to compete for the win in 2016, but he was in the field and he was going to make his single Indy car start of the year. He had some other goals that were achievable for him in the 100th Indianapolis 500. If he didn’t have a decent chance to win, he wanted to make it to the finish, to cross under the checkered flag on the last lap while passing over the yard of bricks at the finish line. Leading a lap would be okay too.

    On May 29, 2016, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he accomplished both. Oh, and another thing – one of the three Indy 500 laps that he led was the 100th lap, the halfway point of the race. The flagman shows the crossed flags to the leader on the 100th lap to signify that halfway point. As that moment in time approached, the flagman turned to wait for one car to be the first to receive the crossed flags signal. It was the green, white and black number 88 Indy car, driven by Bryan Clauson. At Indy on this lap, he was the first.

    As Steve Kinser celebrated his last ever World of Outlaws feature race win at Volusia Speedway Park on that mid-February night, a voice called out a greeting from among the small crowd gathered on the front straight dirt. “Way to go, buddy!” he said.

    Indeed. “Way to go, Steve!” “Way to go, Bryan!” If only there could have been a way to know that it was the last time in Florida, the last win in Florida, the last celebration in Florida. Everyone would have likely wanted the celebration to go on a little longer, to get a few more photos, a few last greetings and handshakes and hugs, or maybe just seek a way to make the visuals and all the sights and sounds last forever.

    “Way to go, buddy!”

     

    Billy’s Back

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    Billy Boyd is back. He’s back at East Bay Raceway Park, his home track. It’s the place where he won two consecutive sprint car track championships in 2013 and 2014. Before his comeback race on Saturday night could occur he had an opponent to defeat, one that had emerged after he had won the two East Bay Sprints championships. It was cancer.

    “We wound up finding out at the end of 2014 that I had leukemia,” Billy Boyd said earlier this year. “So we kind of had to go in and out of doctors and hospitals and then it got worse, so we wound up missing all of 2015. It was a little bit harder of a fight than what I thought it would be.” The low point in his fight against cancer came earlier this year, in February. The first bone marrow transplant initially appeared to be a success, and then test results conveyed some bad news that it may not have been successful. He was back in the hospital by February, with plans for a second transplant, an endeavor he called “a last ditch effort.”

    The things that Billy needed most of all at this point were patience, prayer, and family. It took time for the transplant to go to work and defeat the cancer cells. After leaving the hospital in March, he made the transition from a wheelchair to a walker to climbing up the steps to the announcer’s booth at East Bay in April. That’s when he made a decision about getting back in a race car. He set a goal of returning to the cockpit of a race car at East Bay in August, telling his doctor, “you’ve got four months to get me straightened up.” His doctor told him his goal was possible. He achieved that goal on Saturday night.

    Billy Boyd entered his own dirt sprint car for the race at East Bay last Saturday. It was a special event, the Bob and Marge Long Memorial race. Friends and family crowded around his car in the pits, where they could see that Billy had gained back some weight since his ordeal, and his hair and beard had grown back a little thicker. They joined in to help replace a magneto when his car’s motor sputtered during hot laps and the heat race. Keith Butler retrieved a replacement magneto from a nearby race shop, and it was replaced in time for the feature race. That race was a wild one, with one car running over Billy’s right rear tire and then going airborne, and others spinning in his path. On the 11th lap, contact with another spinning car caused a right rear tire puncture and he was out of the feature race.

    Billy credited the effort made by his friends in helping to get the car ready, as he had been fighting the symptoms of a cold during the week, but was determined to meet his August racing comeback goal. “Probably really shouldn’t have been out here, but I made it a point of what I was going to do and that’s what I did,” Billy said on Saturday. “A cold wasn’t going to stop me. It would have to have been a little more than that. We just worked hard for a couple of weeks here and got things together and made it happen.”

    Updating his recovery since he was last interviewed in April, Billy said that he was, “a lot better than I was back then. We’re still battling it a little bit, but I’ve just got to get my body back strong again. I had to see where I was at physically so I could work on it, because you never know until you try it.” Billy greeted friends and well-wishers in the pits after the race on Saturday, sitting in front of a large fan with a cold bottle of water in his hand.

    When asked if he would continue to race his #4 sprint car, or if he would return to the #9 car of the Amans Motorsports team and Jerry Amans (his team in 2013 and 2014, the East Bay championship years), Billy responded, “Probably my car. I think he (Jerry Amans) is going to focus on Brian (son of car owner Amans) a little bit before he gets the other car done and once he gets him going, I guess we’ll get back with the nine car but so far, as of right now, we’re mainly going to focus on the four car.” Since the last time he had spoken to Jerry Amans, Billy believed that he would eventually return to racing the #9 car, as that team transitioned to a 2-car team.

    He had planned on returning to East Bay for their next sprint car race, until a friend’s wedding ceremony was scheduled for that same Saturday. He’ll attend the friend’s wedding instead. “Well, if Tommy Nichols wasn’t getting married, I’d be here the next race but I’m in the wedding, so I’ve got to show up.” Nichols was at the track on Saturday, for support and also getting his hands dirty working under the car’s hood.

    With his #4 car having gone unused since prior to the East Bay championship years, the only big obstacle with the car during the evening was the bad magneto that required replacement. Otherwise, Boyd was satisfied with how the car and motor performed. “It was okay,” he said. “It was a little loose coming off the corner from the middle off, but we know what we’ve got to do to it now. We’ve got to do a little bit of work to get it back hooked up like we had it before we parked it.”

    The GoPro video from the #4 car of Billy Boyd during the East Bay Sprints feature race on Saturday, August 20, 2016 is here:

    https://youtu.be/a4zYSYphL_M

     

     

     

     

    Sprint Car Racing Gone From Many Florida Pavement Tracks

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    In the last few years of its operation, the Tampa Bay Area Racing Association (TBARA), raced at Punta Gorda Speedway, Auburndale Speedway, Citrus County Speedway, Orlando Speedworld, and also at Five Flags Speedway (in prior years). In 2016, sprint car racing is gone from every one of these Florida pavement tracks. Granted, there was a sprint car race at Five Flags Speedway scheduled for this year in April which was rained out, then canceled. For the others, they were either mismanaged by blundering promoters (Punta Gorda Speedway, renamed Three Palms Speedway), seem to have lost interest in sprint car racing (Auburndale Speedway and Orlando Speedworld), or are not continuing a track’s tradition of racing sprint cars (Citrus County Speedway).

    Top Three Finishers at New Smyrna Speedway on 8-13-2016

    Trying to reverse the apparent trend of pavement sprint car racing’s downsizing in Florida is the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series. In its first year of operation, the new series began racing in February, after pavement racing had a chaotic year in the Sunshine State in 2015. The series has brought stability to the state’s pavement sprint car racing, while facing the shortage of tracks that want to host their races. Most of the series races being run during the first year are at Showtime Speedway in Pinellas Park. While its location is convenient for the majority of the teams based in the Tampa Bay area, the track has received criticism for being far from ideal for sprint cars, severely limiting speeds and sometimes limiting passing.

    There has been a benefit to having a substantial number of races at a smaller track with slower speeds. Showtime Speedway has become a showcase for some talented young rookie drivers. Clayton Donaldson and Carlie Yent have performed well at the track, with frequent top five finishes. The small track likely also lessens the anxiety levels of the racing families that may be more fearful of the high-speed tracks like New Smyrna Speedway (the fastest track on the schedule). Having fewer tracks on the race schedule may be a detriment to competition if there is one team that seems to be able to get the right setup all the time, and has a highly talented driver in their car. This year, that car owner and that driver is Dave Steele.

    BCStrong logo seen on the car of Troy Thompson at New Smyrna Speedway.

    Steele has been at the height of his domination the past three weekends, winning at Showtime, Desoto Speedway and then New Smyrna Speedway on Saturday. With several teams missing that appeared to be in contention for the win at the previous series race in May at New Smyrna, Steele built up a half lap lead over the next fastest car (#88 car of Sport Allen) and was never challenged for his eighth win of the year with the Southern Sprintcars. After going without a win in the 3-month period ending on July 30, he now has three straight wins since that date.

    The race night was not without drama, as a mundane feature race was followed by drama at the post-race tech inspection. The #88 car driven by Sport Allen had “rudders” on the underside of the top wing, which were metal strips running from front to back on the wing. The debate as to whether they were illegal continued after the race and later on social media. The #88 car was not subject to any penalties for the wing, but apparently will not be racing with that style wing again in a series race.

    Feature Race Pace Lap at New Smyrna Speedway

    There has been contact between the Southern Sprintcar series and Citrus County Speedway, according to a series representative. The track has stated that they want to invite traveling series to race at Citrus starting in 2017, and appears to want to control the racing there prior to then. Is there a viable solution to induce more pavement tracks to embrace sprint car racing? The competent management and aggressive racing schedule of the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series is probably the best solution for now. Several of the tracks that included sprint cars on their schedules in prior years are unlikely to see them return, either due to resistant track owners or facilities that have slipped into dormant or near-dormant states.

    The Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series feature race video from New Smyrna Speedway on August 13, 2016 is here:

    https://youtu.be/Tzu8Ctkjoec

     

     

     

    The King of Saturday Night Pavement Back in Winner’s Circle

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

    After going without a sprint car feature win for three months, from April 30 to July 30, Dave Steele has won a pavement sprint car feature race on each of the past two Saturday nights. During those three months away from the Winner’s Circle, he concentrated on an effort to gain his third career Little 500 win, missed two Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series races, and finished second in another to Sport Allen. He has won the past two series races, including the Larry Brazil Memorial race at Desoto Speedway on Saturday. His next challenge is to win at New Smyrna Speedway on Saturday, a track where he has not been as dominant in the past several years.

    Taking the challenge to start at the rear of the field at Saturday’s Larry Brazil Memorial (extra $500 to win), Steele methodically drove past all the cars that started ahead of him, including recent series feature race winners Sport Allen and Troy DeCaire, took the lead after a mid-race restart, and went on to a convincing win. That gave him seven feature race wins for the year, including the first five of the year in the new pavement series, and put him in a tie with Jimmy McCune for the lead in national pavement sprint car wins.

    “We drew a bad pill, so it was kind of a no-brainer,” Steele said, referring to the decision to start from the rear in the feature. “We didn’t really have a whole lot to lose.” He does want to race at New Smyrna “if the crew will come help get the car ready, I guess.” With a crew that seems to be one of the most loyal and devoted to him as their leader, and that enjoys their regular trips to the Winner’s Circle, he was joking (of course). “Can’t ever tell about them guys … I’m just kidding … they’ll be there.”

    Regarding the season-long series points contest, where Sport Allen has a slight edge over Steele since he skipped two races, Steele said that the points are something that he does not follow closely, and that he, “hates getting wrapped up in those points battles. I don’t even know what the points are to be honest with you.” Steele said he would not commit to entering and racing in the remaining series races, which continue through mid-November. “Some of my guys might like to go on a picnic or Guns N’ Roses concert, so we’re not tied into anything.” Regarding this Saturday night at New Smyrna, he stated, “I think that’s a go. It’s been a while since I’ve been there.”

    One of the biggest challenges Steele faced during the race was not from another driver, it was from a long red-flag period and the effect of the heat. Without a tow truck present at the track (an announcement stated the truck went on a job elsewhere), a hard crash in the third turn caused a long delay. With temperatures in excess of 90 degrees before the sun went down, and engine heat pouring back into the cockpit, Steele was feeling the heat.

    “Man, sitting there under that red, I was roasting. I was like a roast duck in the oven – man it’s hot. I thought the guy that owned the track owned the tow company.”

    With using one car for both winged and non-wing races (the black #33 car) and endurance sprint car races too (the Little 500 in May), was Steele considering putting one or more other pavement cars into service, and then putting the car up for sale later, as he has in the past? Steele spoke about using “a little different suspension on the rear that works a little better for the non-wing stuff”, and seemed content to use just one car for now, which has been a winning formula for 2016. “We’ve kind of got a combo car – we change some stuff around on it. This is kind of a low-budget deal, we can’t afford a super-big money operation. Just staying with one car. I think we’ve got a pretty good baseline and setup.”

    The only frustration he has had all year has been a meticulous effort to win the Little 500, only to settle for a second place finish for a second consecutive year. Now back in Florida, Steele has only had to settle for a second place finish once since his return. He’s won the rest of his races.

     

     

     

    A Moment to Remember Bryan Clauson

    By Richard Golardi

    What follows is a repost of an interview I completed with Bryan Clauson at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala in February 2016. He was at the track for the All Star Circuit of Champions weekend, which has set a tradition of being the first national sprint car series to race during February Speedweeks. His Circular Insanity tour was about a month old on that day. My reason for this repost is to acknowledge Bryan’s skill on and off the track, and express the admiration that I, and in turn the entire Florida open wheel racing community, had for his talent and bravery as a race car driver and a man. I last saw Bryan and spoke to him at Montpelier Motor Speedway on May 31, 2016. Two days prior, he had made it to the checkered flag for the first time at the Indianapolis 500 and went on to win a sprint car race at Kokomo Speedway later that day. “Thank you, sir,” he replied when I offered my congratulations on that achievement. The sprint car race at Montpelier Motor Speedway was the last time I ever saw him race a sprint car. He won. The interview follows:

    Bryan Clauson knows the press scrutiny this month, and for the remainder of 2016, will be due to two main reasons. The first is due to a quest he has named “Circular Insanity”, a goal to race in a total of 200 races (of all kinds) during 2016. The second is a stop in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indy 500. In two prior IndyCar race entries in the Indianapolis 500, neither resulted in a good race finish or an offer to race full-time in the IndyCar Series. As each year passes, 26 year old Clauson cements his reputation as one of the most talented and accomplished short-track racers in the nation, who likely will not move up into a full-time ride in a higher-paying series.

    At Bubba Raceway Park for the opening national sprint car series race of Florida Speedweeks, Clauson was back in the Matt Wood Racing #17W car that he campaigned in the National Sprint League (NSL) and other winged dirt series last year. He did capture one NSL feature race win at I-80 Speedway in October. “Beat Lasoski and McCarl at I-80 for an NSL win,” he stated. He finished in 7th place in the feature race at Ocala on Friday.

    “We went to the Kings Royal and we were quick time. We ran inside the top ten at the Knoxville Nationals for most of the race. Had a lot of strong runs. I think for year one it was a very strong year. We showed a lot of promise, and went to the World Finals (November World of Outlaws finale in Charlotte) at the end of the year and should have run in the top five twice. Had a top five the first night and was running fourth and got passed in traffic. It felt like at the end of the year we started showing up at World of Outlaws races and being in the dashes and being in contention. So overall it was solid and I think we have a good foundation to go into 2016.”

    This month, he will be at Volusia Speedway Park later this week for All Star and World of Outlaws winged dirt sprint car races before moving on to Bubba Raceway Park next week for non-wing shows with the USAC National Sprint Car Series. But he won’t be racing for a championship with any of the series mentioned previously. “I won’t be running all of anything. It’s going to be all over the place, going to travel a bit more,” he said. Instead, the “Circular Insanity” tour and the Indy 500 race will be priorities.

    The #17W winged sprint car does look different than last year, with new colors and new sponsor stickers added since 2015. Some were due to the new sponsor and car owner alliance for this year’s Indy 500. Added sprint car sponsors: Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality & Restaurant Group (main IndyCar sponsor), and Vantage Hospitality Group, which is represented by a front wing sticker with the Americas Best Value Inn logo. Returning sponsor: Elk Grove Ford. “Bringing some new partners and exposing them to short track racing for the first time,” Clauson revealed.

    Bryan raced in close to 60 winged dirt sprint car races last year, which he says was a transition year after concentrating heavily on non-wing racing with USAC for many years. “I felt like if I was going to do it, I needed to focus on it. So we kind of made that step and found a good home here and started building,” Clauson said. He was USAC midget champion in 2010 and 2011, USAC national sprint car champion in 2012 and 2013, and a Chili Bowl winner in 2014. He will race in about 100 winged sprint car races this year, with the other 100 spread out among non-wing sprint car (about 40-50), midget (also 40-50), Silver Crown (partial season) and the one IndyCar race at Indy.

    He does not anticipate racing in any other IndyCar races during the year, after some hopes to expand his IndyCar race schedule were floated last year. “I don’t know, we’ve been kicking it around,” he responded, when asked about IndyCar racing beyond the Indy 500. “But at this point, Indy is my focus - what I want, what I care about. Honestly, it’s probably unrealistic that we’ll add anything just because of doing so many short track races.” So most likely only Indy? “Only Indy, yeah,” Clauson said.

    Will the notoriety from the “Circular Insanity” tour help propel him into a better-paying full-time ride in IndyCar or a NASCAR series? Bryan Clauson seems to be a realist when it comes to this possibility, preferring to concentrate his mind-set and skills on the two main priorities set for this year. A good Indy 500 finish is high-ranked.

    Playing off the self-titled “Circular Insanity” tour title, some might say he is “insane” to attempt that much travel and that many races in the space of one year. “That’s what most people say,” he responded with a smile, sharing a laugh. “I think I’ve got 215 or 220 on my schedule. By the time it rains (which occurred on Saturday at Ocala, canceling that race), we’ll see where we end up.”

    He does have some race weekends with races planned for Friday, Saturday, and again on Sunday. That draws comparisons to traveling racers from the barnstorming days before WWII. “I race 28 out of 30 days in June. So I mean, we’ll be hustling. Getting to race at some new race tracks, and obviously we continue to race in big races. That’s what it’s built around, all the big races on the schedule. It’s going to be a lot of fun – get to see some new places and new fans. Just be on the road racing – why I wake up in the morning is to go racing. It’s going to be a fun year.”

     

     

     

    AJ Maddox Powers to Third 2016 Top Gun Feature Win

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    In a race with high attrition taking out many fast cars, the winner will need to be very near the front, avoid mistakes, take care of his car and most importantly, be fast. That was what AJ Maddox did on Saturday at Volusia Speedway Park to win his third Eagle Jet Top Gun Series race of 2016. Mark Ruel Jr., the early race leader, along with Matt Kurtz and Tyler Clem, were all taken out or slowed by problems during the feature race. After starting on the second row, Maddox used a slide job in turn one on the first lap to move to second place and stayed there until Ruel fell out, moving him to the lead. That’s where he stayed until the end of the race, building close to a half-lap lead over the second place car at the end.

    With the Top Gun Sprint Series going on a summer hiatus, with only one race between now and October (Hendry County Motorsports Park on 9/3), this night was important for the series. Heavy rains left the track muddy, but it dried out due to sun and summer heat. The race comprised the first of five weekends with one sprint car race on five consecutive Saturdays in the State of Florida from 7/23 through 8/20. With pavement sprint car races on each of the next three Saturdays, it was important for dirt track racing to have it moment in the sun, and fortunately the sun cooperated.

    AJ Maddox, feature race winner at Volusia Speedway Park.

    “Check one off the list in Florida here,” AJ Maddox said in the Winner’s Circle. “I’ve never won here and it’s pretty special. I love this place. I’ve been racing here for quite a while and I’ve run second here probably more than I can count on my fingers and toes. I hate it for Mark with the way he was going pretty good and I hate it for him to fall out and for me to win it like this, but once I got into clean air it felt like the car picked up about half a second. It’s all over now and we got it done.”

    “Pretty much whoever started in the front who didn’t screw up or break was going to win, so I was that guy,” Maddox said later. He was going through about 2 tearoffs a lap in the muddy conditions, thankful that he wasn’t in a pack of cars. Due to track conditions, he said, “There was no hope of passing anybody really. Hopefully somebody would screw up real bad or break and we caught a good break and Mark broke and pulled off, so we got an easy one there.” After seeing the 3 cars mentioned earlier break or pull off, he said, “I figured that was pretty much the competition, really.” He did not know about his sizable lead near the race end.

    Maddox said that he believed being in clean air was worth half second a lap while racing a limited sprint car at Volusia. That made it nearly impossible for anyone to catch and pass him near the end of the race at Top Gun’s fastest track. “I was over a second faster than everybody once I got out in the lead.” He didn’t back off. After all, “There’s no mirrors on these things. You don’t know. You never stop going until the checkered flag comes out. Once you start taking it easy, that’s when stupid stuff starts happening or you get caught up behind a lapped car and you get passed.”

    Feature Race Start at Volusia Speedway Park on 7-23-2016.

    During the Top Gun hiatus, AJ and the Ray Bolin race team will be looking north at upcoming USCS series races, possibly making the Senoia, Georgia races in mid-August. They did put their USCS 360 motor on the dyno recently, and AJ admitted that the team was not happy with it, but will still get prepared for USCS racing. “We’ll be there. We’ve definitely got some work to do,” he said, adding the September USCS national series races at All-Tech Raceway and Bubba Raceway Park to their list of at least 4 planned USCS races this year. Those plans do depend on car owner Ray Bolin’s health. Bolin had triple coronary artery bypass surgery earlier this year, and even though he was at the track Saturday, he was still recovering and may need other surgery.

    Also at the track on Saturday was Top Gun series owner Don Rehm. It was his first time back to the race track after surgery to repair a broken leg and he was mobile, getting around with a cane. Within arm’s reach were his post-op x-rays, allowing him to show off the sizable metal works in his leg, with rods and pins sure to set off alarm bells on his next circuit through an airport metal detector.

    The feature race video of the Top Gun Sprint Series at Volusia Speedway Park on Saturday, July 23, 2016 is here:

    https://youtu.be/ZA0ErcoOM-c

     

     

    Sport Allen Takes “Oddball One-Of-A-Kind” Car to Double Feature Wins

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    Sport Allen called the Dayton Andrews Dodge sprint car that he drove to two sprint car feature wins on Saturday at Showtime Speedway an “oddball one-of-a-kind” car. He had just earned his first feature win in the new car, his first Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series win, and best of all for him – he had battled Dave Steele to the finish of the Inaugural Senator’s Cup race and won. There was widespread praise for that 50-lap race as the best sprint car race at the track since it was renovated and resumed racing in 2012 (it was closed from 2004 to 2012).
    Sport began the evening winning the 35-lap feature that was rescheduled to Saturday after being rained out on June 18. He was so dominant in that race, he lapped the entire field, which had 13 starters. In one startling incident, a loose wheel bounced off the wall, soared 40 feet into the air and came down on the top wing of the #44 car of Gary Wiggins, damaging the wing sideboard. Wiggins did not know what had happened, as he could not see the damage from the cockpit. He continued with the damaged wing and finished in sixth place. Meanwhile, Allen was passing slower traffic on the inside and outside down the front straight. Steele was not in this race, as he had not raced on the original race night and did not qualify to race in this makeup race. That set up the scenario for the second feature, a 50-lap main event certain to pit Allen against Steele in a battle for the win.
    “This is the one and only of this style Hurricane that Jerry (Stuckey) built so far,” Sport Allen said. “It’s a one-of-a-kind out here. It took us a while to figure it out. It drives real good, I can go to the top, the bottom, wherever I need to go and I have plenty of motor.” Sport went on to describe what was new and what was unique about this Hurricane chassis, built for car owner Taylor Andrews. “We moved the motor around to make it within the rules. The rear end is on a swing arm system instead of a four-link system so the spring mounts directly to an arm almost like a Beast chassis. It took us some time to figure out the spring rate. It changes everything; it’s just an oddball one-of-a-kind thing. That’s why we got lapped the first two races.”
     

    Feature Race Battle, Sport Allen leads Dave Steele

    In keeping with its oddball characterization, the car did have one odd feature, according to Sport. It had a weird echo, which made it sound like another car was just off to the side, when no car was there. Sport was hearing the sound of his own motor, bouncing off the cavern of cockpit and wing, but it sounded like another car. He would glance off to the car’s side, only to see empty track.
    “You always get this feeling like somebody’s right on your left side,” he said. “It sounds like somebody’s right there. It’s just the way it echoes off the body. I always think somebody’s there, so I just don’t slow down.”
    Sport Allen also discussed the dilemma of how to handle slower traffic, which can be sometimes erratic and other times steady. “Some guys were pushing really bad and then they’d push up to the second and third lane and then once the right front would catch, they’d come right back down to the grass, to the infield. So you never know when to get next to them. Are you going to catch them on the zig or the zag? Some of them are real courteous and they’ll obey the move over flag and hold their line coming off the corner.” But not all are that way, Sport went on to explain. “You’ve got to make a split-second decision to either blast under them and jam on the brakes or try to go around them on the outside.”
     

    Sport Allen's one-of-a-kind car driven to 2 feature wins at Showtime Speedway on Saturday, 7-16-2016

    The night’s next task was to get a second win. The second feature race of the night would add 50 laps to the total of 85 laps of sprint car racing and showcase a new signature event for the series, the Senator’s Cup 50. The #33 car of Dave Steele, winner of all series races up to mid-May, would be racing this time.
    With Dave Steele entering the fray and 35 laps of racing already completed, Sport sought out the comfort of the team’s air conditioned RV to rest. “I had to sit there in the AC and cool off. I’m getting old man!” he said, laughing off the heat-induced fatigue. “If we can get two, that would be awesome. I’d love it.”
    With two months since the last pavement feature race, and several Florida car owners recovering from illness and recent surgery, some familiar faces were in new cars. Richie Corr’s two cars now had Justin Appleby and Clayton Donaldson (while Corr was recovering from pneumonia), with Donaldson moving from the Mac Steele #2 car while Mac was healing from a recent medical issue. Mickey Kempgens took over driving the #55 car of Tommy Nichols, who showed me the bandage on his lower back from recent spine surgery.
     

    Feature Race 1 Pace Lap, Showtime Speedway, 7-16-2016

    Series rookies Carlie Yent and Clayton Donaldson impressed with top five finishes in both feature races. Donaldson benefitted by having TBARA and Must See Racing champion Troy DeCaire in his pits, who he was conferring with at his car in the minutes just before the start of the second feature.
    After leading early in the second feature race, Kempgens was passed by both Sport Allen and Dave Steele in the same turn and ended the race with a broken rear axle causing him to spin after taking the checkered flag. Allen used slower cars to get by Steele coming out of turn 4 late in the race, with the two bumping on the front straight with two laps to go after a side-by-side battle lasted through several turns. Steele stayed close behind, but could not repass Allen and was now winless since April.
    Sport Allen called it his “most satisfying win in a while.” Admitting that he has in the past conceded that Steele was faster, and would “just kind of give up” and hold on for a second place behind Steele, he saw that this race was different because of slower cars. They were racing in small groups, holding up the faster cars. He would need to use them to make a pass.
    “David’s a class act, he had me covered. He kept getting bottled up in traffic and I kept closing up on him,” Sport said. “I’m like, I may have a shot at this. It ain’t over, 50 laps is a long time. A lot of stuff can happen. It slowed his pace down dramatically and let me get right to him. It was a lucky traffic pick. Just like he got me, I got him. If we can run with David, we’ve got a good car. I’m extremely happy with it. We’ve figured it out, which is satisfying.”
     

    Troy DeCaire confers with Clayton Donaldson, Showtime Speedway, 7-16-2016

    Sport was feeling happy, but tired. Preparing three cars for him and a friend for this night, plus a job that keeps him on the road (with UPS) often until 8 pm, he was ready for a short celebration, a good night’s rest, and then back to work the next day.
    “We’ll get up tomorrow, wash all this stuff off, dissect it, and know right where we’re at so we can pick up next time and take off.” Sport Allen seems to have his race mantra memorized well. It is: prepare … win … repeat.

    Feature Race Video, Feature Race #1 at Showtime Speedway, Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, July 16, 2016:

    https://youtu.be/mRMuSnwxBNc

    Feature Race Video, Feature Race #2 (Senator’s Cup 50) at Showtime Speedway, Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, July 16, 2016:

    https://youtu.be/1LGmZKa6CrM



     

     

     

    Summer Race Report for Florida Open Wheel Racing

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    Nikole Voisey, a 17 year old rookie racing in her first year of dirt sprint car competition, has three top ten finishes in her last three races at East Bay Raceway Park. She is also the newest female sprint car racer in a state that boasts females racing in both dirt and pavement sprint cars. The last time I interviewed her several years ago, she was racing a mini-sprint at Marion County Speedway in Ocala. Her father is pavement sprint car racer Ric Voisey. He brought his daughter through the micro and mini-sprint racing ranks while he was an owner/driver of a pavement sprint car. I frequently asked them if Nikole would be taking over his seat in the car in the future, as the father/daughter duo would go Ric’s races at Citrus County Speedway and other pavement tracks. They decided to go dirt racing at East Bay, where she has five races this year and is competing for rookie of the year. She is in 9th place in East Bay points. “Not too bad for a 17 year old female in her first year in a sprint,” Ric Voisey said.

    Dave Steele at Showtime Speedway

    Citrus County Speedway has delayed the grand opening event from Saturday July 16 to Saturday July 30. They explained that they had ongoing projects at the track that they wanted to get completed prior to their premiere night for the newly renovated and repaved track, and would not be able to have the track in the condition they wanted by July 16. Photos posted yesterday showed underground water or sewage lines being installed, and also the new scoring tower on the front straight appeared to be just a shell, far from being complete. Some fans have been outspoken about their disappointment that the new leaseholders did not choose to switch the front and back stretch at the track when they had the ideal opportunity to do so prior to renovations. That would have allowed fans on the front stretch (the main spectator stands, for general admission ticket holders) to avoid facing the fierce late-afternoon sun, which can be brutal during Florida summers.

    Bubba Raceway Park co-owner Tom Bean previously confirmed that the ¼ mile dirt oval race track under construction on his property would be intended for karts, mini sprints and also micro sprints. The construction of the track, begun in 2014, now appears to have been abandoned. It has no walls, no catch fences, and no spectator seating. Some referred to the track in prior years as “Tulsa South” (a name not embraced by the management), a sign of their high hopes for the new track. They also hoped for a big annual mini-sprint event, similar to the mini-sprint races at the dirt oval in Tulsa known for hosting the Chili Bowl midget race each January.

    Matt Kurtz and car owner Maddox family, Feature Race Winner, Top Gun Sprints, 7-1-2016

    The Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, which has not held a feature race since mid-May, is preparing for a double-feature night next week, Saturday July 16. The two previous feature races in June were both rained out. Since the heat races on Saturday June 18 were completed prior to the arrival of rain clouds, and the feature race lineup was set for that race, that 35 lap feature race will be held on July 16. A second sprint car feature, dubbed The Senator’s Cup 50, will pay the winner $2,000 to win. I have learned that Dave Steele will participate in this race, but he will not be a starter in the 35-lap feature race postponed from June 18. That is because he did not race in a heat race that night, and only those cars that participated on the original race night are qualified for the rainout makeup race next week. Since Steele has won all the feature races in the Southern Sprintcars inaugural year save for one race, this means there will be a new first-time series race winner that night (May race winner Troy DeCaire is not a qualifier). The front row for 35-lap rainout makeup race will have Dude Teate and Clayton Donaldson, with Rex “Boneman” Hollinger and Tommy Nichols on row two. There are 13 cars qualified for that race.

    Top Gun Sprint Car Series at Bubba Raceway Park.

    Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series owner Don Rehm is recovering from recent surgery and was not present at the most recent series race on July 1 at Bubba Raceway Park. He did share a photo to show that he is back on his feet after suffering a broken hip. The July 1 feature race was won by Matt Kurtz, making it his fourth series feature race win this year. The prognosis for both Don Rehm and his race series appears to be good, as the series recently retained their Hendry County Motorsports Park race dates (the troubled track shut down temporarily this year) and car counts continue to be good for Central and North Florida races.

    With the opening of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America at their new home at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, some may be shocked to see a museum that will feature open wheel racing (in addition to stock car racing, of course) and open wheel race cars at the location of NASCAR’s most prestigious track. But, it’s happening. The old location of the Daytona USA theme attraction (opened in 1996, later called the Daytona 500 Experience in 2007), directly in front of the speedway, is the museum location. A 1914 Stutz race car, looking like the Indy cars of that era, is one of the featured cars on display, in addition to the Ganassi Racing Indy car that won the 2008 Indianapolis 500. This museum will include the cars and objects from a racing museum in Novi, Michigan that was purchased by NASCAR. The “Phase 1” portion of the museum, minus the theater, had a soft opening last Sunday. The current main attraction is likely the Bluebird, a car that set a land speed record on the Florida beach in 1935.

    Whether the museum will have a desire to honor Florida short track racing with a Florida Motorsports Hall of Fame incorporated into their museum is unknown. I intend to ask if they have such a desire, and will report back on what I find.

     

     

     

    Searching for Tampa’s Auto Racing History – Part 2: Tampa

    The former location of Plant Field, with downtown Tampa visible in the distance

     Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

     The search for Tampa’s auto racing history began in Tampa, wound through several East Coast and Midwest states, and eventually returned to Tampa. The Librarians in the main Hillsborough County Public Library in downtown Tampa were particularly helpful. On the opposite side of the Hillsborough River from downtown and the location of the library is the University of Tampa. The university’s soccer field and baseball field now occupy the grounds once occupied by Plant Field, as the half mile dirt oval track at the Florida State Fair was called.

         Auto races were held each year during the South Florida Fair, which later became the Florida State Fair. The Gasparilla Carnival of Speed, also called the World Series of Dirt Track Racing, featured the big cars (not yet called sprint cars) sanctioned by the IMCA. The Sprint Car Winternationals event name was not used until the 1970s. Famous open wheel race drivers like Pete Folse, a local driver who became a 3-time national champion, raced and won at Plant Field. Frank Luptow, who became a Tampa resident, was an IMCA dirt-track champion from 1949 to 1951.

         Lone runner circles the track where sprint cars once raced at Plant Field, Tampa

    Revisiting the former location of Plant Field in early June, I saw that a prominent structure that recognized the defunct track’s legacy was now missing. It was a plaque that was placed at the southeast corner of the grandstand. The stand is used for spectator seating at soccer matches and track and field events. It’s located in the same spot as the race track’s spectator stand. But the plaque was gone. In its place were a construction site and a colorful signboard. The signboard depicted the structure being built. It was two stories, with a brightly lit entrance and ringed by palm trees. The signboard read, “The University of Tampa Fitness Center.”

         “From February 1921 until the mid 1970s, races were held each year during the South Florida Fair,” the plaque read. “Along with talented local racers, the country’s most famous drivers, including Jimmy Wilburn, Emory Collins, Gus Schrader, Ted Horn, Frank Luptow, Tommy Hinnershitz and Bobby Grim raced here during the winter months. Sadly, several drivers lost their lives at Plant Field.” The plaque also stated that it was dedicated to those drivers who lost their lives, in addition to all those who performed and spoke there.

         The plaque was placed at its prior location in 2007, due to the efforts of three groups who were listed on the plaque. Two were auto racing groups – the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum and the Tampa Bay Area Racing Association (TBARA).

         Plant Field plaque, installed in 2007, as seen in 2014, at the University of Tampa

    But what had happened to the Plant Field commemorative plaque? Was it going to be returned to its prior location next to the grandstand, or had it been put in storage and forgotten? The university’s Fitness Center, as seen on the signboard, appeared to be taking up the area where the plaque was placed.

         A call placed to the University of Tampa’s Public Information Department resulted in a swift reply from the university’s Kimberly Shannon. She stated that the plaque was in the university’s possession and was being stored, awaiting its installation in a new location at the university. The plaque was going to be moved to the old entrance to the fairgrounds, around the corner from its old location and to the south of the soccer field. This seemed appropriate, as the Florida State Fair and its dedication to promote auto racing are worthy of being remembered and celebrated.

         Go one block north of the University of Tampa baseball field location (where the race track’s turns 3 and 4 were located) and you arrive at the location of the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. At the edge of the park grounds is another commemorative plaque (yes, it’s still there as of June 4), for Phillips Field. It was built as the university football stadium in 1936. As with most football fields it was surrounded by a 1/4 mile cinder running track. Midget races on the 1/4 mile track became popular, so it was paved. Then the jalopy era came and so did a promoter who brought them to Phillips Field. If you missed turn one at Phillips Field, you went into the Hillsborough River. Racing lasted there until the early 1960s. Now you hear the sounds of basketballs, children’s voices and tennis balls hitting racquets where the midgets and stock cars once roared.

        Plant Field - 50 Years Later, left photo approx. 1964, right photo from 2014, photos from approx. same spot, Richard Golardi Photo on right.jpg

     Speedway Park in Tampa was constructed in the late 1940s and lasted only until 1954. Jim Hurtubise started racing there. It was a 1/2 mile dirt oval with a 1/4 mile track added later that used part of the front stretch. In addition to big cars and midgets, Speedway Park hosted motorcycles, stock cars and jalopies. The area is now an industrial park on West Hillsborough Avenue, west of Dale Mabry Highway.

         Golden Gate Speedway, a 1/3 mile asphalt oval on the northeast side of town on Fowler Avenue (near I-75), became legendary for intense sprint car and stock car racing. Their Florida State Late Model Championship, now known as the Governor’s Cup Race, is still run in November each year at New Smyrna Speedway. The track’s site is now the location of the Big Top Flea Market.

         Is “The Gate” deserving of a commemorative plaque? That’s probably a question that should be directed to the three groups that put the plaque at the Plant Field location – the Hillsborough County Historical Advisory Council, the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and TBARA’s successor group – the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series.

         The Florida State Fairgrounds Speedway made a comeback in 1979. It lasted a decade. The “new fairgrounds” was a ½ mile dirt oval at the state fair’s new site. It was east of town at I-4 and US 301. The last race on the oval was in February 1989. A road course there ran 3 IMSA GT sports car races, on 11-27-1988, 10-1-1989 and 9-30-1990. The 1990 race marked the end of auto racing at the Florida State Fairgrounds. The site is now the location of the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, an outdoor concert venue. Country, Pop, and Rock and Roll pushed out auto racing (“Long Live Rock!” – The Who, 1979).

         In 1971, the University of Tampa Board of Trustees approved a transaction that granted the university the Plant Field grounds and the rest of the fairgrounds. New sports facilities were approved and built and the name Plant Field faded into history. Today, the start/finish line of the running track is at approximately the same place where the start/finish line of the half mile dirt track was located. The stands for the track and the soccer field are in the same place as the stands for the race track.

         If you stand at the start/finish line on a quiet day, you hear the sounds of the plodding footsteps of the runners. If you close your eyes, you can hear the scream of the Offenhauser engines coming down the front stretch. You can imagine a solitary figure standing at the start/finish line, checkered flag in hand. The cars approach. The Starter grasps the checkered flag tightly, and begins to raise his arm. You hear the runner pass, breathing heavily. He is winded from running in the Central Florida heat. His race is over. The Starter strides forward onto the dirt. He takes a few steps toward the approaching cars.

         The checkered flag drops.

     

     

     

     

    Searching for Tampa’s Auto Racing History

     

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

     

    The search for Tampa’s auto racing history went from Tallahassee, with a visit to the Museum of Florida History and their auto racing exhibit, to York Springs (Pennsylvania), Anderson (Indiana), Indianapolis, Charlotte and then back to Tampa. The search was made partly to research a book whose subject was the story of Florida’s sprint car racing legends. It was also made to continue to be immersed in a lifetime pursuit – to look for the best of American open wheel racing, including the best tracks, the best races, the best drivers and the best racing stories.

     Three generations of the Liguori family present at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, Ralph Liguori, right, along with his son Frank, and his grandson Joe Liguori, center.

         Mainly due to the popularity of International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) sanctioned sprint car racing on the Plant Field oval dirt track at the Florida State Fair, Tampa became known as “The Winter Auto Racing Capital of the Nation.” Tampa’s short track auto racing history can be traced back to February 3, 1921. That’s when dirt track auto racing came to the Florida State Fair. That was when auto races were staged for the first time at Plant Field near downtown Tampa, a track where horse racing was still the main event.

     

         Short oval tracks dominated the racing scene in Tampa through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Stock car racing gained popularity in the post-World War II era at Tampa Bay area short tracks.

     

         One of the ads for Phillips Field, a quarter mile track around a football field right on the Hillsborough River, left no doubt about what race fans would see at the track. “For a night of action, thrills, chills, and spills for the entire family … watch drivers turn their cars into murderous masses of mangled metal tonight at Phillips Field.”

     

         Stock car racing grew in popularity at the small track in the 1950s when Jake Kedenburg, a New York promoter, saw the track as just the right size for midgets and stock cars. He rented Phillips Field to run stock car races there, and brought a number of stock car racers from up north with him to Florida.

     Chris Economaki is remembered at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing in Pennsylvania

         “I’m 90 years old now,” Ralph Liguori said at a recent race in Indianapolis. He was observing his grandson, Joe Liguori, as he raced a USAC champ car in the Hoosier Hundred, a 100-mile race held annually in May at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The sponsor sticker on the car’s side advertised the Sunshine Trailer Park in Tampa, a business that Ralph owns and that is managed by his son Frank. Three generations of the Liguori family were present, with Ralph as the family’s patriarch. He witnessed a great portion of Tampa’s racing history, and was recruited by “Big Bill” France Sr. to race in NASCAR in the 1950s.

     

         Bill France Sr. and NASCAR played a part in Tampa area short track racing. Shortly after the debut of Daytona International Speedway in 1959, short track construction in the Tampa Bay area picked up, influenced by Daytona’s initial success. If Daytona Beach had the big track, Tampans were resolved to make Tampa Bay the epicenter of short track auto racing. Two area pavement short tracks were built in the three years after Daytona opened. On the west side of Tampa Bay, Sunshine Speedway was completed in 1960. It was a slightly banked ¼ mile oval in Pinellas Park. Golden Gate Speedway came next in 1962. Richard Petty won the only NASCAR Grand National (now known as Sprint Cup Series) race ever held in Tampa, at Golden Gate on November 11, 1962.

     

         Golden Gate Speedway was a track that held weekly sprint car racing and contributed to developing the pavement race skills of its drivers. “The Gate” was a third mile asphalt oval about 8 miles north of downtown Tampa. It was a track whose meteoric rise to short track legendary status and eventual decline and failure all happened in a little over two decades.

     

         Floridians who raced and learned their craft on Tampa Bay area short tracks, including Golden Gate, became especially skilled in pavement sprint car racing. They won the Little 500, pavement sprint car racing’s premier event at Indiana’s Anderson Speedway, nine times between 1979 and 2009. The Little 500 winners from Florida are Wayne Reutimann, Frank Riddle, Dave Scarborough, Jim Childers and Dave Steele. All of them are from the Tampa area and surrounding city suburbs.

     Dave Steele, one of 2 Floridians with multiple Little 500 race wins, at 2016 Little 500, Anderson Speedway, IN, 5-28-2016

         York Springs, Pennsylvania, is special because it lies in a middle of a part of the state with many iconic dirt oval race tracks, where the PA Posse live, breathe and race. They are a group of sprint car drivers who know these tracks so well, they routinely beat the best of the national sprint car drivers when they come to town. It is also the location of the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing, whose curator is Lynn Paxton.

     

         Paxton was a friend of many of the Florida racing legends and is still a friend to authors and prospective authors using the museum’s archives for research. The museum houses Chris Economaki’s personal library, donated when he passed, and back issues of his National Speed Sport News, documenting countless Florida races and Florida racers. Economaki was close to many Tampa area racers, including Dave Scarborough and Pancho Alvarez, and traveled to Tampa frequently for race events.

     

         One of Tampa’s most iconic races was the Governor’s Cup late model stock car race, held at Golden Gate Speedway starting in 1965 through the track’s demise in the 1980s. They would honor the race’s winner each year by adding their name to the Governor’s Cup trophy. But that was not the only Governor’s Cup awarded in Florida. Another Governor’s Cup trophy emerged in 1975, and was awarded by Florida’s Governor to the winner of the Daytona 500 that year, Benny Parsons. It resides in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, where it continues to confuse race fans today.

     

         You can almost imagine them saying, “Hey, what a minute! How many different Governor’s Cup trophies are there in Florida?”

     

         As the state government’s official museum, the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee currently presents an exhibit exploring the state’s auto racing history since 1903. It is named “Sun, Sand, and Speed – Florida Auto Racing” and runs through July 4, 2016. A more accurate name would be “Sun, Sand and Speed – Minus Any Mention of Tampa’s Short Track Racing History”. Nearly 100 years of Tampa’s short oval track racing history is completely ignored, as if it never happened. Although it was once recognized as the nation’s Winter Auto Racing Capital, that was not enough for Tampa to be recognized as such by the museum’s curator.

     

         When one examines the exhibit’s official website, NASCAR is the very first race sanctioning body to be mentioned. A conspicuous sponsor logo appears at the bottom of the page, with a prominent NASCAR racing family’s name displayed. It states, “Events Sponsor: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet – Tallahassee.”

     

         While NASCAR racing does receive a center stage position in the exhibit (and rightly so, with displays featuring NASCAR racing suits, helmets, autographed checkered flags and an entire car, driven by none other than Earnhardt Jr. himself), it is puzzling to comprehend why Tampa’s short track history is ignored. With involvement by Don Garlits, the Ormond Beach Historical Society, and other professionals, none appeared to have raised concerns about such a large portion of Florida’s racing history being completely omitted from the exhibit.

     Florida Museum of History's Auto Racing Exhibit

         Tampa does get a mention, begrudgingly left for display on signboards on the museum’s wall (as of April 1, 2016). The statement that one signboard makes is so inaccurate that one is left incredulous, trying to make sense of its nonsensical wording. “Open wheel racing in America is commonly known as Indy Car racing …,” the sign states, as if no other types of racing are done with open cockpits and open wheels.

     

         “Open Wheel Racing: Grand Prix of St. Petersburg” reads the title of another signboard, provided to the museum by the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg organizers. Although the group is from the Tampa Bay area, the signboards they provide make no mention of any Tampa race event other than the Grand Prix IndyCar race. The other 82 years of Tampa Bay auto racing history without a Grand Prix of St. Petersburg are never mentioned once anywhere in the museum’s auto racing exhibit (and those “other 82 years” tell a glorious and historically significant story).

     

         Tampa newspapers previously had motorsports columnists, and the action at local tracks dominated the sports pages through the mid 1970s, along with local high school and college sports. There were no major league professional sports teams based in the Tampa Bay area then. In 1976, their gradual, decades-long takeover of the local Tampa Bay sports scene began with the arrival of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL.

     

         Today, the three remaining Tampa Bay area short tracks are East Bay Raceway Park (Gibsonton), Showtime Speedway (Pinellas Park) and Desoto Speedway (Bradenton). Their future seems promising, mainly due to Florida’s positive economic climate and the continued influx of people and money coming to Florida, many of them retirees from rust belt states. Florida’s robust sprint car and open wheel racing community, which traces its beginnings to Tampa and Plant Field nearly 100 years ago, still has tracks to schedule races, car owners to bear the costs and fans to support the dirt and pavement race events.

     

         On February 3, 2021, short track oval auto racing will celebrate 100 years of racing in Florida. It started in Tampa nearly 100 years ago and it looks like auto racing will be active in the Tampa Bay area for many decades to come.

     

     

     

    Top Gun Sprints and the Southern Sprintcars Both in Action Saturday

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    Both of Florida’s traveling sprint car series, which are the Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series on dirt, and the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series on pavement, will be racing this Saturday. They have both been on hiatus for about a month. The Southern Sprintcars had one race scheduled during the past month, the Larry Brazil Memorial Race at Desoto Speedway. It was rained out and rescheduled for Saturday, August 6. They will race with wings at Showtime Speedway on Saturday, a track where they raced without wings in April. The track has two remaining series races without wings this year, in July and October. I have learned that one of these two races may be renamed as the Frank Riddle Memorial Race, which was last held at Citrus County Speedway in 2015.

    The Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series will be at Volusia Speedway Park on Saturday. The series recently revamped its race schedule by deleting those races scheduled at Putnam County Speedway, and moving to add some Friday night races at both All-Tech Raceway and Bubba Raceway Park. Those two Friday races have been slotted for the two weekends following this coming weekend. After losing Danny Martin Jr., the best-known Top Gun Series driver, as a regular competitor earlier this year, no driver has emerged as a single dominant driver in the series this year. The series has had seven different drivers win feature races this year (Matt Kurtz has the most – 3 wins), and has seen an effort from another start-up series to get non-wing dirt sprint car racing back in Florida. Top Gun rejected non-wing racing several years ago, saying that the owners and drivers didn’t want it.

    The Top Gun Series race at Bubba Raceway Park on the night of Friday, July 1 is on the same day as another Florida racing nostalgia event of interest to Florida race fans. The Living Legends of Auto Racing, whose museum in located at the Sunshine Mall in Daytona Beach, will host a Summer Car Show and Autograph Session on that day beginning at 11 am. Their Facebook page has the address and details. Retired NASCAR Archives Manager Eddie Roche, who is the author of the most recent book about Florida short track auto racing, will also be there to speak. His book is the Florida Motorsports Retrospective Pictorial, Volume 1, 2nd Edition, released late last year.

    On the subject of books, also known as “that thing that old people read”, I would like to recommend Eddie’s book to Florida readers. I know that by promoting books, I will alienate myself from my younger readers, who regularly eschew books for whatever they can read on their smart phones (come on, you know it’s true). I made a particularly depressing observation earlier this year at a US airport while flying to Las Vegas for a brief vacation. While waiting for my flight to board, I reached into my briefcase and pulled out a book to read. I looked to my left and right to see if any of my fellow travelers were also reading the old people’s standby – a book. I was the only one. Every other traveler that was reading held either a smart phone or a tablet in their hands. Of course, some of them may have been reading a book, as audio and eBooks are readily available. I will persist. I will also continue to recommend books of interest to Florida readers. I know there are still some of you out there … somewhere.

    Two North Florida racing organizations also recently released some promising news. The two organizations have been intertwined for years, due to occupying the same area of the Interstate 75 corridor with Inverness to the west and the Villages to the east. They are Citrus County Speedway in Inverness and the Villages Motor Racing Fan Club, the state’s largest auto racing fans club, comprised exclusively of residents of the Villages. The club recently appointed a new Crew Chief to be head officer of the club, Tony Kennea. The club’s continued prosperity seems assured. The speedway has undergone a significant renovation that included repaving the racing surface and new bleachers after a new leaseholder took over earlier this year. They are planning an opening night race event on Saturday, July 16 (no sprint car racing). Despite discussions about an interest in sprint car racing, the track has no sprint car race dates through Labor Day.

    Members of the Villages Motor Racing Fan Club frequently went to races at Citrus County Speedway in prior years, often calling it their home track. The connection between the two will be further strengthened when Camron Ray, the track’s new General Manager, speaks at the next monthly meeting of the club on Wednesday, July 6. Ray will speak about the renovations which began in March, upcoming special events and the July 16 “Opening Night Bash.” The club already has announced their support and their intention to fill the stands with yellow shirts, the club’s signature clothing item.

     

     

    The Floridians at the 2016 Little 500 – Heartbreak and High Finish

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    Thirty years ago, the 1986 Little 500 was the last of a series of three Little 500 races dominated and won by a driver from Florida. Dave Scarborough dominated the rest of the field so thoroughly, he was 21 laps ahead of the second place car at the finish. It seemed that the era of dominance by Florida drivers in the Little 500 would continue for a long time, but it did not. It was not until 1992 that another Floridian won, with Jim Childers in the George Rudolph owned car.

    Troy Thompson Inc. race team with driver Shane Butler, center, red cap, 2016 Little 500, Anderson Speedway, 5-28-2016

    Unlike 1986, when 14 Floridians were in the race, there were three Floridians who qualified for this year’s Little 500 at Anderson Speedway, Indiana. Dave Steele seemed to have the best chance to win on Saturday night. He had two prior race wins, in 1996 and 2009, had finished second last year, and was the fastest qualifier among the Floridians. He had placed at the top of the practice speed charts during the week, and seemed stolidly confident. His solemn tone belied the intensity he showed on the track, and seemed designed to lull the younger racers into thinking the “old guy” (as he referred to himself) could not compete with them for the race win. He could and he did compete with them on Saturday night. The race’s final laps saw Steele attempting to run down and pass Kody Swanson. He came close to winning, as he did last year, but was about a second behind Swanson at the finish. The Swanson brothers, Kody and Tanner, won three straight major Indy race week events from Thursday to Saturday in Indiana.

    I asked Dave Steele if he would rate this year’s Little 500 as even more intense than last year’s race? “I probably would say yeah,” Steele replied. “It seems like some of the faster cars were in there at the end. Last year, it seems like there was a little more attrition. We had to go all out for the whole five hundred just to stay in the hunt.” The amount of contact between cars was at a high level, mostly in the early and middle potions of the race. The cars of all three Floridians had contact with other cars.

    Mickey Kempgens and car 68 prior to the start of the 2016 Little 500, Anderson Speedway, IN, 5-28-2016

    “There were all kinds of close calls,” Steele said. “You just got to be patient.” Was there more contact and rough driving this year compared to last year? “Nah – it was just the standard deal.” Will he be more motivated to come back and win again now that he has finished in second place for two years in a row? “I don’t know. It’s hard to muster up the motivation. It takes so much hard work to come up here and do this deal. It’s just the way it goes.”

    With the work ahead to “turn around” the car upon arriving back in Florida, Steele said he would return to race in the Southern Sprintcar series, but may “skip one”, referring to the next race planned for this Saturday at Desoto Speedway. The series could possibly have another first-time series winner this weekend, as it did at the most recent race in mid-May won by Troy DeCaire.

    “It was very eventful. Stuff was happening all around us,” Shane Butler said after finishing in 8th place in his sixth Little 500 start, his best ever finish. Early in the race, “we got turned sideways going into one, I don’t know what those guys were doing. It was the first 50 laps, I got turned sideways facing the infield. Luckily someone got underneath me, bounced the left front off of them and straightened the car up. We got to 150 or so laps into the race, and the brake pedal just faded.”

    After a caution period, the brakes in Butler’s car seemed to come back after going a lap down, only to fade again later and keep fading again every 50 to 75 laps for the remainder of the race. “I had to ride and not use any brakes. Then the pedal would come back, and I could race some more,” he said. “Just staying out of trouble was key to our race. The brake situation took us out of any kind of chance for a top five run, maybe even better. Just dodged wrecks.” One of those wrecks was the car of Jacob Wilson hitting the inside wall on the back straight, just in front of his car.

    “The twelve car slap ran Mickey (Kempgens) over getting into three,” Butler said. “That was a tough moment too, we were scattered. He flat drove over Mickey, I don’t know what the heck he was doing. That guy did a lot of stuff tonight that I’m surprised the car’s still in one piece. I really don’t know what he was doing, he had a decent race car.”

    2016 Little 500 Florida Driver Group Photo, L to R, Dave Steele, Mickey Kempgens and Shane Butler.

    Shane felt that his team had two great pit stops, even though he did overshoot the second stop. He was pleased with his team’s effort, including having LJ Grimm doing his spotting from the infield. He was pleased with the car too, calling it “awesome”, other than the brake problem he encountered. He knew he had a year to figure out that problem, as team owner Troy Thompson has stated he did want to come back next year, allowing him a second chance to make the field and have Shane as his teammate at the Little 500. Thompson worked on Shane’s pit crew on race night.

    “I just can’t thank Troy Thompson and Jimmy Brown enough for this effort,” Shane Butler remarked. “Those two guys spent all the money. If it wasn’t for those two guys, this wouldn’t be possible at all.” The car had several co-owners, as Troy owned the motor in a car that Jimmy Brown owned, with several installed parts that were owned by the Butlers. Troy Thompson was listed as the owner for a car that was a joint effort.

    “Going off this run, I don’t see why we wouldn’t come back. This deal worked pretty good,” Butler concluded. “Walked away from this deal with nothing but a bent front bumper, so I’d say that’s a pretty damn good night. Obviously we wanted to get two cars in the show and we only got one, the one we did get in the show we finished and had a good showing. I’m tickled to death. I can’t wait for next year.”

    Mickey Kempgens returned with the same car owner as in last year’s Little 500, Doug Kenny. A hard crash on Tuesday in their winged sprint car eliminated a chance to win two races while in Anderson for the week. That car was intended for the Wednesday night Must See Racing winged race, but was now likely totaled. Mickey called the impact with the outside wall his hardest ever hit in racing, and the subsequent impact into the inside concrete barrier his second hardest hit. He was uninjured, saying the wreck was caused by a front wheel coming off the car in the turn.

    All three Floridians were in the top 12 positions at the finish of the 2016 Little 500, with the #68 purple and black car driven by Kempgens in 12th place. Diving low into the third turn, the number 12 car of Grant Galloway collided with Kempgens and ran over the tail of the number 68 car, which spun out. Kempgens continued in the race, but was slowed for a period of the middle portion of the race.

    “Apparently, the twelve just doesn’t know how to be patient and drilled me and spun me out and I went four or five laps down right then,” Mickey Kempgens said. “That’s pretty much the end of your race. I’m not very happy about it, that pretty much screwed up our whole race. We were behind the eight ball from then on.”

    Unfortunately for Mickey, it was not his only incident of the night. On the back stretch, another crash again involved the number 12 car with Galloway behind the wheel. Jacob Wilson struck the inside concrete barrier, bounced back onto the track, and when oncoming traffic slammed on the brakes, Mickey’s car struck the car of Travis Welpott. His car had front end damage from this impact that slowed him later in the race. “Something happened in the front end. It wasn’t the best after that.”

    Earlier in the race, Mickey felt that, “the car was good, we had to start pretty far back, started picking people off, got up close to the top ten and made our first pit stop. Just cruising along, car was really good.” After the two incidents, he felt he was still, “going pretty good, just four or five laps down at that point, so nothing I could do from there. We finished all in one piece, I guess that’s all that matters.”

    When asked if he will come back to Anderson for next year’s Little 500, Mickey had a very succinct answer. “I sure hope so,” he said. “Hopefully we should be at Bradenton next week.”

     

     

    Three Floridians Make the Field for the 2016 Little 500

     

    By Richard Golardi

      

    All three of the Floridians in the field for Saturday’s 68th running of the Pay Less Little 500 at Anderson Speedway have multiple sprint car racing championships. The fourth was hopefully going to be Troy Thompson, a rookie. But his rookie status did not diminish his importance to the group of Floridians, as he is the owner of half the cars entered by the group, with a third car brought as a team backup. Troy, who is owner of the Troy Thompson Inc. race team and the cars for himself and Shane Butler, had qualified in the field of 33 cars Thursday, only to be bumped from the field on Friday.

     Florida has sent some of their best pavement sprint car racers to the Little 500 this year. Along with Mickey Kempgens and Shane Butler, two-time race winner Dave Steele is back on the grid this year after last year’s second place finish. It is his second time back in the Little 500 since his race win in 2009. This year is also the 20th anniversary of his first Little 500 win in Jack Nowling’s sprint car in 1996. That win came when Steele was in his 20s, and the second when he was in his mid 30s. He is now 42 years old. In qualifying for Saturday at Anderson, he posted the 7th fastest time.

     When asked if he felt comfortable with his starting position, Dave Steele said, “I guess we’re comfortable with it, but we’re a little bit disappointed. Five hundred laps, right now I think we’re on the third row, we’ll be alright.” As far as the reason for feeling disappointed, he commented that he felt that they had, “something a little bit better than that - just the way it is. Even qualifying, we had one pretty good lap, but apparently I can’t string together four of them anymore. I don’t know – see if we can put 500 together.”

     To win, Steele believes that he must be, “patient, not get too rambunctious. You’ve got to run hard, but still stay out of trouble. There’s some fast cars out there. The skill level is there, a lot of those guys don’t have experience in a 500 lap race. They’re fast. If there’s any advantage for an old guy like me, it’s that we’ve got more Little 500 races under our belt than those guys do. We might not have the break-neck speed, but hopefully we can counteract that with experience.”

     Mickey Kempgens is back at the Little 500 one year after his impressive performance in 2015, in which he led laps late in the race for a substantial period. A left rear wheel that could not be removed and a meeting with a lapped car in turn two, which resulted in that car running over the top of his, suppressed his chance of winning. He looks to change that in 2016.

     Mickey said that he had been struggling with the car during this week, and had not been able to find speed. “Figured some things out last night (Wednesday) and this morning and finally got the car half-way decent. Qualifying – tires were cold and the car just didn’t want to get going on the first lap and progressively got loose. Not what we wanted, but we started 19th last year, so we’ve got a good race car. So we’ll race really good, just not a very good qualifying car, or I’m not a very good qualifier. One or the other. I think we’ll be alright. We’re prepping the car, getting all the fluids changed, getting everything ready for Saturday.

     “A lot more maintenance, a lot more going over everything with a fine-tooth comb,” is the way that Mickey and his team intend to prevent a replay of anything like last year’s left rear tire problem. “Just going through the car, checking everything, making sure we’re good to go.”

     Tom and Sid are two new crew members on the PCS Racing Team this year for Mickey Kempgens. Tom might be a fuelman on race day, and Sid may likely be a jackman. Other crew are Mickey’s father Ted, George Rudolph as crew chief, Richard, Charlie and Doug, which is the same as last year’s crew.

     Mickey believes that he can run lap times near those of his qualifying laps and he can do that for 50 or 100 laps on race day. “The car is comfortable and consistent,” Mickey said. “The car was just a hair bit off for qualifying. We’ve got a good race car. We should be OK. I like starting in the back and coming towards the front. That’d be really nice to win this thing, especially for George (Rudolph). It’s the 68th running of the race and we’re in a purple number 68. I’m really hoping to get him a win.”

     Shane Butler stood on his time from his second qualifying attempt on Thursday, the first day of Little 500 qualifying. During his first attempt, he slapped the wall on the front straight during his second lap, cut short the qualifying attempt and headed back to the pits. “I just got a little too anxious on the second lap,” Shane Butler said. “I screwed up and got in the fence. I hit it square enough that it didn’t affect anything. Luckily we came back in and found nothing wrong with the car, so we went back out and kind of got my head squared back up and went out there and laid down four solid laps. I wanted to be locked into the top 15, but I don’t think we have to worry about anything right now.

     “We’re just going to play it smart,” Shane said about his race day tactic. “First couple of laps, we’ll just let everybody get in line and then we’ll see if we can start picking cars off one at a time. The field is going to be pretty damn stout. There’s going to 33 good race cars and drivers.” Shane also spoke about how the team was working hard to get Troy Thompson up to speed and in the field for the race. When I spoke to Troy on Thursday, he was feeling confident about his chance of getting into the race. On Thursday his speed was fast enough, but on Friday the bumping began and the speeds went up, and Troy was not among the 33 fastest cars.

      Dave Steele on his qualifying attempt at Anderson Speedway.

     Mickey Kempgens qualifying for Little 500 at Anderson Speedway.

    Shane did take part in an exercise and weight loss regimen along with Troy Thompson, losing 21 pounds since the beginning of the year. That was when the decision was made to go to Anderson as a team this year. “I didn’t do a whole lot of the working out part, we did jog here and there. Back in January, when we were guaranteeing that we were going to come, I was trying to eat a little better and stay off the sodas is mainly all I did. I’m pretty excited. I can’t wait to get the race going on Saturday night. I feel that pit stops can sometimes make or break this race. If we do our job and get everything right on pit stops and hopefully get some luck from a push truck, we feel like we’re pretty prepared. My guys have done some pit stop practice. We don’t have a front row car, but we’ve got a solid race car.”

     Video – “Little 500 Qualifying for Florida Drivers”, with all four qualifying attempts completed on Thursday, first day of qualifying:

     https://youtu.be/G77rorZd6X0

     Video – “The Little 500 Pace Truck Story”:

     https://youtu.be/DPt3OovgQao

     

     

    Jim Hanks Interview – Looking Ahead and Analyzing the Alliances

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    Jim Hanks is a busy man. When I spoke to him at Spitzer Motor Speedway on Sunday, it was during a time when his Must See Racing Sprint Car Series had 4 races in an 8-day period. Two of those races were in Ohio, and two at Anderson Speedway in Indiana, culminating with the Little 500 on Saturday. That race is the only non-point, non-wing race during the year. Prior to last weekend, two races of a 16 race schedule were complete. Although they no longer race in Florida, those two races made up a Southern swing for their season-opening weekend.

    Brian Gerster, Must See Racing Sprint Car Series feature race winner, Spitzer Motor Speedway, OH, 5-22-2016

    “The Car Owner’s Alliance, I think, is a really good thing,” Jim Hanks stated. “Basically, the car owners in the Midwest, the guys who race with us and the other series, decided it was time to get together to have a voice as a group on what they considered a necessity to improve sprint car racing. What they thought needed to be addressed and ultimately improved, was scheduling issues. There were several things going on. Number one: coming out with schedules early in the season that were, bottom line, incorrect or fictitious. Number two, and this was the primary thing, was series booking against other series and they’ve been very successful to get us all on the same page. I said, look I’m all for what you’re doing. If you want to bring out what the facts are, what the truth is, and what needs to be done so that we can all work together, I’m all for it. If you want to clean up bad behavior, let’s call it garbage, I said bring your garbage truck to my house first, because we have not intentionally come up with any bad scheduling. We try not to book against anybody and I think this is all a great idea. They’ve been very successful with that. I for one, really appreciate it.”

    Concerning the 2016 Must See Racing season so far and their outlook for the rest of the year, Hanks remarked that he is extremely positive. He acknowledged that the series had “one down year for sure”, partially due to a sponsor reneging on a commitment. In addition, Hanks endured a heart attack and open-heart surgery in early 2015. “I’m happy to tell you that not only am I back in great health, so is Must See Racing. We’re extremely positive about this year.”

    The car count for the first two races was 15 cars at each. They are integrating 360s and 410s into their races. At Shady Bowl on Saturday, one of the cars with a 360 set a new track record, with Johnny Bridges driving.

    Top Three Finishers, Must See Racing Sprint Car Series feature race, Spitzer Motor Speedway, OH, 5-22-2016.

    “As far as our schedule this year, it speaks for itself,” Hanks said. “I think we have 16 races and we’re putting 8 of them on MAVTV programming. We’ve got a good schedule. We’ve got a good, solid car count base, and we’re trying to improve on that. I see a resurgence, I see a new energy coming back in winged sprint cars.”

    Engine Pro is a presenting sponsor for the series again this year. They bring suppliers or vendors that support them, and they sell their products. The Little 500 will be one of the races on MAVTV, with a one-hour program planned. The remaining races will be part of the Dirty 30 weekly half-hour program on MAVTV.

    Recent posts on social media showed evidence of a meeting of various pavement sprint car racing series, which included Florida’s Southern Sprintcars, the King of the Wing series, Auto Value Super Sprints, and NSRA. I was not able to obtain any further information on the purpose of the meeting or the subjects discussed at the meeting, other than a vague statement about an effort to “unify pavement sprint car racing.” The Must See Racing Sprint Car Series was not mentioned as a participant at the meetings.

    “We’ve never been asked, we’ve never been invited, and we’ve never been a part of any of that,” Jim Hanks responded when asked for comment on the meetings. “I think what they’re doing, and here again I don’t have a dog in that fight, look at what their sponsorship is. I think that’ll answer your questions as to probably what their end game is.” Hanks continued that he didn’t like to comment on a subject that gets into racing politics, and he didn’t want to get into racing politics, because his main concern is what Must See Racing is doing.

    “We focus on that and we think we have a great program going here with great support and great race tracks like this one we’re sitting at, and I feel good about it,” Hanks stated.

    To avoid scheduling conflicts between pavement race series, as has occurred several times in recent years, the Car Owner’s Alliance, with Jim McCune as one of its organizers, asked for 2016 race schedules to be submitted to them to allow them to work toward avoiding conflicts. Hanks stated that Must See Racing typically completes their schedule first, and when their 2016 schedule was complete, it was submitted to the alliance for review. Hanks not only listed race dates on his completed 2016 race schedule, he included the history of how long the series had been competing at each track on that specific race weekend.

    “They reviewed it and they came back to me and said, ‘Those all look good, we understand why you feel you should have that date,’ and that’s where it all started. The other series then came with their schedules later and for the first time there’s no stepping on each other’s schedule. I assume that the coalition had a lot to do with that. I appreciate where we are right now with that. I appreciate what the other series are doing.”

     

     

     

     

    Troy DeCaire Takes First Southern Sprintcars Win at New Smyrna

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    When car owner Lenny Puglio said that he, crew chief Todd Schmidt, and driver Troy DeCaire may choose to skip the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series race at New Smyrna Speedway on Saturday, he seemed open to reversing that decision. Fortunately for the team, he changed his mind. Prospective fishing trips were canceled and the team showed up at the high-banked half mile hoping for their first win in the new Florida pavement sprint car series. After a ferocious charge to the front that included a last-lap pass for the lead, the team was putting on their best smiles in the Winner’s Circle on Saturday.

    Winning team in Winner's Circle at New Smyrna Speedway on 5-14-2016.

    “This is the 48th win for this car,” Lenny Puglio told me in the Winner’s Circle at New Smyrna. “When we reach 50 wins with this car, it will be retired. There’ll be a new car to replace it.” Puglio has had most of his recent wins with Dave Steele, followed by more wins with Troy DeCaire when Steele transitioned to racing his own cars prepared out of his Tampa race shop. The Lenny Puglio Motorsports team will soak in their win for a few weeks before returning to the track for the three-race weekend with the King of the Wing series in June at Toledo, Winchester and Fort Wayne. DeCaire already has one win with that series this year at Mobile, Alabama in April.

    Rex 'Boneman' Hollinger at New Smyrna Speedway, 5-14-2016.

    “We’re going to go do Winchester, Toledo, and Fort Wayne – looking forward to that, three big half miles,” DeCaire said. “Lenny’s got a 410 ready to go. We’re going to put it in there and hopefully do what we did at Mobile.” As far as the team’s plans after June, DeCaire was noncommittal, claiming, “I don’t know, I’m kind of getting old (he’s 30 years old). Just race whenever Lenny wants to race,” he added, highlighting the bond between this car owner and his driver. “Todd likes to fish and he’s got his boat. We’ll race whenever. It’s no big deal, like no set plan, just kind of racing for fun.”

    And the best fun of all – winning. “Tonight was a lot of fun. Mobile was a lot of fun,” DeCaire stated. With their plans to concentrate on winged sprint car racing, the team will skip the Little 500 next week. With Dave Steele going to Indiana for the Little 500, Steele and DeCaire’s plans to continue racing with the Southern Sprintcars has not been verified. Perhaps it may depend on the Steele team getting their own share of the fun with a win on Saturday night next week at Anderson Speedway. It would be Steele’s third Little 500 win, with one win in each of the past three decades, if he does it.

    Top Three Finishers at New Smyrna Speedway on Saturday, May 14, 2016

    ETC.
    Rex Hollinger was in a car with new graphics, a new engine, and new look for himself too, after recent weight loss. It’s still number 85 with a Boneman theme, complete with bones in the graphics. … With a part that broke in his heat race while behind the wheel of Tommy Rice’s number 16 car, Dude Teate thought he was done for the night and would be relegated to being a spectator. Not so fast – didn’t the Doug Kenny team bring both their red and blue cars to practice with at New Smyrna? Yes they did, with Mickey Kempgens taking laps in both cars during hot laps. They put Teate in their blue car, with Kempgens in the red car for the feature race. Both drivers got top five finishes, with Kempgens in third and Teate in fifth. … Rookie Clayton Donaldson’s first ever race at New Smyrna Speedway saw him get a top ten finish by finishing in ninth place. … With Sport Allen performing as “the rabbit” in Saturday’s race, opening up a sizable early lead, his car’s handling seemed to deteriorate later in the race, forcing him down to the track’s apron at one point to avoid spinning. He was nearly passed by DeCaire on the next to last lap when DeCaire went down onto the apron at the same point where Allen went to avoid a spin. That pass attempt caught the edge of the turn 4 grass and sent up sparks when DeCaire went back on the pavement. A half lap later, DeCaire made the pass of Allen in turn two of the last lap and went on to win. … Driver Carlie Yent is making plans to get her undergraduate degree at the University of Florida in Gainesville, starting in the fall. Her chosen major is Business and Marketing. … The next race for the Southern Sprintcars is on Saturday, June 4 at Desoto Speedway. … Confirmed entrants from Florida for this year’s Little 500 stand at four – Dave Steele, Mickey Kempgens, Shane Butler and Troy Thompson. There were also four Floridians in the Little 500 field for the years 2012 to 2014. The “Little Five” is on Saturday, May 28.

    The feature race video from the Southern Sprintcars at New Smyrna Speedway on Saturday, May 14, 2016 is here:

    https://youtu.be/LM-skpSOVNw



     

     

    Southern Sprintcars Will Have a New Winner This Saturday at New Smyrna

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    The Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series will have a first-time series winner when it races at New Smyrna Speedway on Saturday, as Dave Steele will not be racing. Dave Steele is 5 for 5 in series races in 2016. That’s every one of the races ever held by Florida’s new pavement sprint car series and every pavement sprint car race held in Florida this year.

    I’ve confirmed that Dave Steele’s team has already installed his 410 motor in his sprint car, and is preparing it for the Little 500, which begins its race week in 2 weeks. Without Steele in the field, and also without second place finisher Shane Butler from the last series race, 2 other names emerge as favorites for Saturday. They are Mickey Kempgens and Sport Allen.

    Jason Kimball at New Smyrna Speedway, 8-30-2014

    Kempgens has already racked up 3 second place finishes in series races so far this year, in addition to another second place finish in a King of the Wing series race in April. He’ll be that much more motivated to get his first win of the season on Saturday. Sport Allen finished in third place in the last series race, and is coming off a win on the dirt at East Bay Raceway Park last Saturday. With a win this Saturday, Allen will certainly maintain his reputation as one of the most versatile sprint car racers in the nation. Going into the May winged sprint car race at New Smyrna Speedway 2 years ago, Sport Allen was attempting to take three straight wins in three weeks, with three different varieties of sprint car racing. After winning a non-wing Showtime Speedway pavement race, he followed with an East Bay dirt win. He did not win on the third weekend at New Smyrna.

    Troy DeCaire’s effort to take his first Southern Sprintcar win will be hampered by a team decision to possibly sit out this Saturday’s race, and instead concentrate on their next definite scheduled races, with the King of the Wing series in June. Car owner Lenny Puglio confirmed that the team may choose to skip New Smyrna Speedway. Instead, they will race in the Midwest weekend for the King of the Wing at their next races, on June 24-26. He also confirmed that he will not enter a car for Troy DeCaire in the Little 500 this month. Puglio had previously told me that he has a dislike for non-wing races, and prefers to race his car with wings. He has a fishing trip planned for Saturday, May 28, the day of the Little 500 in Anderson.

    Feature Race 4-wide lap at New Smyrna Speedway, 8-30-2014

    In addition, I’ve learned that Troy DeCaire has received offers of four other seats for the Little 500, and has turned down all the offers. It appears that Puglio and DeCaire are committed to working with each other in the future. The duo already have one winged sprint car feature win this year, in Mobile, Alabama on April 2.

    Another car with a good chance to be seen in the Winner’s Circle at New Smyrna is the number 79 of Jason Kimball, who will have some of the Troy Thompson Inc. team members in his pit on Saturday. Neither of the Troy Thompson team cars will be racing on Saturday, as the team is preparing for the Little 500 with entries for Troy and Shane Butler. Kimball most recently won The Frank Riddle Memorial race at Citrus County Speedway in October.

    Turning to the Little 500, Troy Thompson appears to be one of only 2 rookies on the entry list as of today (the other is Ron Larson from Canada). “My biggest goal is making the field,” Thompson said.

    Heat race at New Smyrna Speedway, number 88 car of Sport Allen, 8-30-2014

    The group of Floridian drivers appears to be nearly set, with either four or five drivers, at the most. In addition to the Troy Thompson entries, Mickey Kempgens in the Doug Kenny owned #68 car and Dave Steele in his black #33 car are also confirmed.

    In addition to that talented group of Floridians going for the Little 500 win on race day, another treat will await race fans when they arrive at the track on May 28. The 2016 Little 500 race program will have an article and photos in a two-page spread about Florida sprint car legend Robert Smith. It was 30 years ago, in the 1986 Little 500, that Smith was in a terrifying crash and fire in which he was seriously burned and hospitalized for months. After undergoing skin grafts, he raced in Florida later that year and also made a return to Anderson Speedway to race again in the Little 500. The article takes a look back at his lifetime pursuit of a win in the Little 500.

     

     

    A Month on Pavement with Florida’s Sprint Car Racers

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    Dave Steele is the favorite for the 68th running of Anderson Speedway’s Pay Less Little 500 sprint car race, which is about a month away. Fellow Floridian Mickey Kempgens is the “dark horse”. He’s the one that may surprise everyone when he wins the Little 500. He’s been consistent in the past, always making it to the end, with a best finish in 2015. Last year, when race fans were overhead asking, “Who’s in number 68?” as he led for a swath of laps mid-race, he looked like he could win. This year, he may.

    Those statements would all be spot-on if not for all the drivers from the Midwest and elsewhere who will be trying to stop the duo from Florida. They are the ones who may, as they did last year, find themselves battling one of the Florida pavement masters to the finish and then beating them. Dave Steele has another opponent that grows more formidable each year. It’s the effect of aging. He’ll be 42 years old on race day.

    Heat race at Showtime Speedway Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, 4-30-2016.

    Chris Windom, 25 years old and the 2015 winner, and 34 year old Mickey Kempgens are among the young guns who will be Little 500 favorites on race day. “I’m okay with that,” Mickey Kempgens said on Saturday, when asked how he felt about being labeled as the dark horse favorite to win this year.

    “Who’s this guy? Do you know who he is – the one leading? Anybody heard of him?” Those were some of the questions being peppered back and forth between various race fans in turn 2 during the time Kempgens was leading late in the race. His chance of winning was foiled by a left rear tire which could not be removed, and then by another racer driving over the top of his car coming out of turn 2. He still brought the battered car home, finished in 8th place with the same left rear tire that was there when the race started.

    On Saturday night at Showtime Speedway, it was the first time that the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series raced this year without wings. That was new. The result at the finish was the same old result. The same racer who has won every pavement sprint car race in the state this year was once again the winner. It was Dave Steele, 5 for 5 in series races in 2016.

    Dave Steele in Winners Circle at Showtime Speedway on 4-30-2016

    Of the four Floridians with plans to enter the Little 500 who also raced Saturday at Showtime, only one was in the same car that he intends to race in the Little 500 on May 28. That was Dave Steele. Kempgens raced his number 5 car on Saturday, the one with blue graphics. He’ll bring the number 68 with purple graphics to Anderson for the 500 (photo is in last week’s column). The PCS Racing team will also compete in Wednesday’s Must See Racing 60-lap race, at Anderson Speedway on May 25. The team’s blue car or red car will race that night. Kempgens and car owner Doug Kenny are still looking for their first feature win in a national sprint car series. They came close last month.

    After finishing in second place in the first night of a two-race weekend with the King of the Wing series in their April swing through the Deep South, Kempgens looked like he was about to cruise to the win in night two. In this race at Alabama’s Montgomery Motor Speedway, he had a half lap lead over the second place car at the half way point when the right rear radius rod bolt broke and took him out. Just prior to this, he was, “Cruising, waving at my Dad.” The wave was a response to his father’s pleas to back off, as his lead was big enough to cruise to the win from there. When he waved back, he was trying to convey his message that he had already backed off. “What do you want? I’m already backing off!” was his reply.

    Mickey Kempgens in turn 4 at Showtime Speedway, April 30, 2016.

    Dave Steele has won so frequently because he is the master of peaking at the right moment. On the day prior to last year’s Little 500, he had the fastest practice lap. Was he as fit as he used to be? “Probably not,” he said that day. “Our starting spot isn’t as good … lack of practice time,” he added. With the dour tone he set, he was either downplaying his chances, or ambushing the competition. If they fell into his trap, they wouldn’t know he was coming until he passed. Making his late race surge, he was in second by the last restart. It worked, right until the final laps. Steele’s car pulled alongside Chris Windom twice, but he failed to pass him.

    The 2-driver Troy Thompson Inc. team, both in Saturday’s race, will bring 3 cars to Anderson for the Little 500. Neither Shane Butler nor Troy Thompson were in the car they will attempt to qualify at Anderson in about 3 weeks. Shane Butler was in the #15 car with the “Floridarific” colors (orange and lime green). That car will have Troy Thompson behind the wheel at Anderson. The red #18 car, the backup car for Anderson, was driven by Thompson last Saturday. The red #55 car makes its return at Anderson for Shane. Although the team denied they will put a third team car in the field, Hall of Famer Stan Butler will be present.

    Next up for the pavement racers will be the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series and their first stop at New Smyrna Speedway, with wings. That’s on Saturday, May 14. That high-speed venue offers an extreme contrast to the much slower confines of Showtime Speedway sans wings. Mac Steele intends to enter the #2 car for the team’s new primary driver, Clayton Donaldson. It will be the first time racing on the high banks of New Smyrna for the 17-year old racer. Within 5 days of that race, the Troy Thompson team heads north, with some special practice time at Anderson on the docket after arrival.

    The feature race video from Mike Maglio, Showtime Speedway, 4-30-2016, is here:

    https://youtu.be/HrlWNDd3yV8

     

    The GoPro camera video from the #5 car of Mickey Kempgens at Showtime Speedway, 4-30-2016 is here:

    https://youtu.be/l1ikE0PCzl0

     

     

    A Tale of Two Cities, Near Indy

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    There are two cities near Indianapolis, Indiana, each with a different tale of racing, on opposite sides of downtown Indianapolis. The first city is Speedway, so close to Indianapolis that many assume it’s part of the big city. It’s not. The second city is Anderson, far enough from Indianapolis that it is at the extreme outer limit of being in the Indy metropolitan area, and many assume that it is not.

    Each spring, Speedway’s big race event, the Indianapolis 500 mile race, draws the most attention. Each spring, Anderson’s biggest annual auto race, the Little 500 for sprint cars, starts an equal number of race cars (33), but draws far less attention. The Indianapolis 500 celebrates its 100th running this spring, on May 29. The Little 500 takes the green flag on the night before the Indianapolis 500, on May 28, for its 68th running. The Indianapolis 500 has attracted Formula 1 drivers, and has seen some of its drivers graduate to success in Formula 1 and other series. The Little 500 has been a training ground for drivers to perfect their skills on pavement and move on to success in the Indianapolis 500, with the names Parnelli Jones and Johnny Rutherford being the best known.

    Dave Steele in his car prior to the start of the 2015 Little 500.

    Speedway’s track, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is known for speeds so fast that cars are a blur as they pass by at well over 200 miles per hour, and approached about 250 miles per hour on the straights at one time. Anderson’s track, Anderson Speedway, is known for far slower speeds, and for being a Mecca for sprint car race lovers. They are mostly the ordinary, working class, All-American type that work hard, love their families and want their racing close-up, and their favorite race drivers without trust funds and with blue collar lifestyles, just like them.

    Although the stands at Indy are also mainly populated by the blue-collar class on Indy 500 race day, the same cannot be said for the drivers. Trust funds, famous family last names, big-dollar benefactors, and ride-buyers abound. With the IndyCar Series requiring expertise in road racing, the series and its car owners now routinely assign rides to Formula 1 castaways and road racers from Europe and beyond. With fewer American drivers and the departure of the stars from prior decades, interest in Indy car racing waned. TV ratings plummeted and stands were removed from “the Speedway”.

    Number 68 car of Mickey Kempgens on track for Saturday hot laps at 2015 Little 500.

    Since the start of the current decade, the trend in Anderson has seen the popularity and notoriety of the Little 500, and its ability to attract the best short track open wheel race car drivers, go through a renaissance that almost approaches the “good old days.” At times, the Little 500 rookie class included drivers with multiple open wheel racing championships making the field for the first time, becoming a “Champion Rookie.” Anderson Speedway has not needed to build additional stands for race day. But the fans, the press, and the car owners and drivers have all noticed and acknowledged the trend. The Little 500 is back.

    Floridians have been drawn to the Little 500 for decades, due to Florida’s robust pavement sprint car racing community, with tracks to schedule races, car owners to bear the costs and fans to support the pavement race events. Floridians’ involvement in the race reached a low point at the beginning of the current decade’s Little 500 renaissance. In 2011, Troy DeCaire was the sole Floridian in the race. Since then, there has been a slow revival of Floridians’ interest in the race. The revival peaked in 2015. A Floridian almost won for the first time since 2009.

    Floridians won the Little 500 nine times between 1979 and 2009. The peak of their dominance was in the mid 1980s. In 1986 and 1987, 42% of the starting field was composed of Floridians, an incredible but short-lived stretch of dominance. A Floridian occupied the Little 500 Winners Circle each year from 1984 to 1986. One year was so dominant for the Floridians, it has been called “The Year of the Floridians.” That was 1985. The best of times for Floridians at the Little 500 was in the past. But 2015 did give a hint that a change could come soon. Mickey Kempgens and Dave Steele both had impressive performances in the 2015 Little 500 and Dave Steele nearly won. Both will return to the Little 500 in 2016.

    Florida driver group photo at the 2015 Little 500, L to R, Troy DeCaire, Dave Steele, and Mickey Kempgens.

    Although the best of times for Floridians at the Little 500 was in the past, this is not the case for Floridians in the Indianapolis 500. The Floridians in the Indy 500 are having their best times now. They have had a dominant stretch in the Indy 500 in the most recent years. Although only one of the recent winners was born in America, the Floridians are all year-round residents and now make their permanent home in Florida. They are Floridians. They have now won the past three Indianapolis 500 mile races, and four out of the past five races. Juan Pablo Montoya, 2015 winner (Miami resident), was preceded by Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2014 winner (Fort Lauderdale resident), who was preceded by 2013 race winner Tony Kanaan (Miami resident). With Dan Wheldon’s win in 2011 (Dan and family resided in St. Petersburg), the only non-Floridian to win in the past 5 races was Dario Franchitti, who won in 2012 (and 2007 and 2010). Hunter-Reay’s win in 2014 was the first for an American driver from Florida since Jim Rathmann’s 1960 Indy 500 race win.

    This Saturday’s Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series non-wing race at Showtime Speedway will serve as a good barometer of how prepared the Florida teams are for the Little 500 in one month. Four teams, with five drivers from Florida, have affirmed that they are making the trip to Anderson Speedway for the race. Most or all are anticipated entrants for this Saturday’s non-wing race on the ¼ pavement at Showtime. That makes it as close to a “Little 500 Preview” race as Floridians will see this year.

    Will the winner of this Saturday’s race also be named as the winner of the Little 500 in one month? Dave Steele’s name should be immediately be mentioned when this question is asked. He’s won every series race since Florida’s new pavement sprint car series was announced late last year.

     

     

     

     

     


    E-mail  Richard Golardi quickterm@yahoo.com


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