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    Florida Open Wheel

    By Richard Golardi

     

    Credit Davey Hamilton for Getting Short Track Oval Racing in Indy’s Infield

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

    September 4, 2018

    As I walked down the sidewalk on Main Street in Speedway, Indiana on Tuesday, September 8, 2015, I observed Davey Hamilton crossing the sidewalk as he headed toward his parked car. Next, I watched as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway management team of Doug Boles and Mark Miles exited a restaurant on Main Street. They had just completed a lunch meeting at the restaurant with Hamilton, during which they discussed a range of topics, including one that I had reported on previously.

    Davey Hamilton holds the restrictor used by sprint cars in the King of the Wing series, January 2015.

    The IMS management team and Hamilton discussed the subject of using a temporary infield short oval at the speedway for winged sprint car racing with Hamilton’s King of the Wing sprint car series. The 3/8 mile flat oval was going to use a portion of the current road course near turn four of the big oval. A wide sweeping turn in the road course is located there. At that time, Hamilton wanted the new short oval to have its first race in June 2016, as part of the Midwest race weekend with the national King of the Wing Series.

    Therefore, when you enjoy the USAC dirt oval racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s new open wheel racing short track this week, remember the person that put that idea into the speedway management’s heads – Davey Hamilton. He was the first person to make a formal proposal to speedway management to hold open wheel racing on a short oval in the speedway’s infield. It was his idea.

    Remember to give Davey Hamilton the credit for being the first one to come up with the idea.

    Earlier in 2015, Speedway President Doug Boles had revealed some details about his talks with Davey Hamilton while he was at an informal Q & A session in Crawfordsville, Indiana during a community event. Boles revealed that he and Davey Hamilton had been discussing the possibility of using the infield roads at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to construct a temporary short oval for pavement sprint car racing. Boles made it clear that racing winged sprint cars on an infield short oval was a possible future event, and that he liked the idea and was considering it, and that Davey Hamilton had spurred the idea to make it happen.

    Davey Hamilton gave me some more details in 2015: “Doug and I spoke for maybe eight or nine months on this subject. The new road course for the Indy cars was just finishing up. I went in there just as a driver to give some input on the track – where the curbing should go and the design of it. While I was doing that, I accidentally found a perfect semi-oval race track. Three eighths of a mile long, it’s super wide. So I started driving around it, and I went and grabbed Doug [Boles] and a few other folks at the speedway and we all went down in my truck. I said, ‘I found a perfect short race track. You don’t have to do anything.’ And so we made some laps, and the discussion started. We continued the discussion with Mark Miles, and especially Doug. He’s really looking forward to trying to put this program on. I’d like to do it next year [2016], obviously because of the 100th Indy 500 race. I’m proposing to run King of the Wing there.

    “It’s part of the old Formula 1 road course, and the new IndyCar road course,” Davey continued. There is a big, wide oval-type turn that if extended out, it looks like it could be made into an oval about one third of a mile in length.

    “It’s actually exactly three eighths of a mile. It has some uniqueness to it, which is always good for a race track. The front straightaway and the back straightaway are absolutely parallel,” he added. The logistics of constructing a temporary short oval seemed daunting, but Hamilton was determined to see the race event on the speedway’s schedule for 2016.

    In the subsequent months and years, several events happened that appeared to lessen the possibility of a pavement short oval being constructed, and also resulted in the eventual construction of a dirt oval with dirt open wheel racing.

    First, Davey Hamilton left the USAC management position he held from March to June of 2015. The status of this Indy infield pavement short oval was unknown for a short time, but Hamilton later held the lunch meeting in September 2015, and then assured me that the planning for this 2016 race was still moving forward. The King of the Wing pavement national sprint car series still had a Midwest race weekend at this time, planned for three June races (this year, the series didn’t have any Midwest races).

    Then, Davey Hamilton revealed on May 30, 2016 that he had sold the King of the Wing series, stating on Twitter: “Bittersweet selling the King of the Wing but knowing the new owners will take it to the next level makes it all good.” It was later revealed that Tom Hartsell Jr., of the Auto Value Bumper to Bumper Super Sprints, along with three others, had purchased the series from Hamilton. Not only did it appear that the possibility of pavement sprint car racing at the speedway had stalled, but Davey Hamilton, the driving force behind it, had exited the business of promoting pavement sprint car racing.

    As the popularity of pavement sprint car racing diminished in the Midwest, dirt sprint car racing grew stronger, with USAC eliminating pavement racing from both its sprint car and midget national racing series. USAC, Tony Stewart, World Racing Group, and various media organizations that openly favored reporting on dirt sprint car and midget racing, and seemed to almost ignore pavement sprint car racing, helped accelerate this trend. Several dirt events like the Chili Bowl and Knoxville Nationals have received attention that seemed closer to worship than it did to unbiased reporting.

    If there was ever going to be a short oval in Indy’s infield for open wheel racing, it now seemed like it was going to be a short track with the Midwest’s favorite form of open wheel racing – the kind on dirt.

    In 2016, IMS built a temporary dirt track in the turn three infield area to honor the final NASCAR racing season of Indiana racing legend Tony Stewart. They ran midgets around the small track during an exhibition that year. NASCAR had been struggling to draw fans to the Brickyard 400 at IMS and needed to make some changes to attract more fans. Their ideas for 2018 were to move the Brickyard 400 to September, and host a USAC national dirt midget race at a new quarter-mile dirt oval to kick off the NASCAR weekend, now on the weekend after Labor Day.

    So, do you like the idea of short track oval racing finally making it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and a national open wheel series throwing some dirt there this week, starting on Wednesday? Then give some credit to the guy who made the first push to make it happen – Davey Hamilton.

     

     

     

    Notes from New Smyrna Speedway, August 25, 2018

     Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

     August 28, 2018

    Shane Butler at New Smyrna Speedway, 8-25-2018.

              Shane Butler’s demonstration of speed with the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series on Saturday night at New Smyrna Speedway began with the second heat race, when he started in the last row, passed the other five cars on the front straight at the start, and took the lead going into the first turn of the first lap. After winning that heat race, he took the lead in the feature race on lap 10 and then led the last 20 laps to win by a straightaway over the second place No. 7 car driven by his brother Keith.

             Lee Sisson, owner of car No. 7 and also owner of Knights Air Conditioning in Riverview, confirmed that he has replaced driver Clayton Donaldson with Keith Butler for the remainder of the 2018 races with the Southern Sprintcar series, through December. Keith has recently been concentrating on dirt sprint car racing in Florida, but has considerable pavement race experience and pavement wins. He finished in second place to his brother Shane in both the second heat race and the feature, and showed good speed with a motor that Lee told me has upped their horsepower numbers from their previous motor.

             I asked series President Rick Day if the disqualified original listed winner of the feature race on August 11, Jason Kimball, had any recourse to appeal the series decision to take away the win due to a tire test, conducted by Blue Ridge Labs for the series, which showed that his tire sample did not conform to the benchmark from Hoosier Tire. I was told that Jason may request a detailed copy of the test results, but there is no appeal process for a series decision of this type. His DQ, and the decision by the series to award the race win to Tommy Nichols, can’t be appealed.

             Although tire samples were taken from the cars that finished in the first three positions at Citrus County Speedway on August 11, this will not necessarily be the procedure used by the series in all future races. Rick Day informed me that the series may take a tire sample from any car, finishing in any position in the feature race, and a car suspected of using “tire prep” may be included in this group. The previous method used in Florida, when a durometer was used to test tires, along with the good ole “sniff it and note if the tire smells strange” method, is no longer used in pavement sprint car racing. On Saturday at New Smyrna, only the winning car driven by Shane Butler had a tire sample taken to be sent to the lab.

             Shane Butler, who had a frightening high-speed crash destroy his car during the last series race at New Smyrna Speedway in April, had a rebuilt car and used it to win the next race at the track that had caused him so much trouble four months ago. It was his first feature race win since that wreck; he had two early season wins in February and March. “We’ve been struggling the last four races with this car that we had to put together,” Shane said, “but we found something after the last race, the gearbox was gone on it. We needed this after destroying that race car.”

             Ray Bragg’s day got off to a bad start when a push truck went over the back of his car with enough force that it went airborne and struck the top of his wing somehow. He had been trying to signal the push truck driver that he was stopped, but the driver apparently did not see his signal. He had a backup wing ready and went on to win his heat race in impressive fashion, as well as take a fourth place finish in Saturday’s feature race. “The car wasn’t firing on all cylinders,” Ray said, “as we were only running on seven but still managed a fourth place finish. Tough day for Team Statham, but we got through it as a team …”

             Not only will sprint car racing be missing from New Smyrna Speedway’s Governor’s Cup late model championship weekend in November (a sprint car race originally set for Saturday, November 10 has been moved to October 13), but so will Ty Majeski, who has won the last three straight Governor’s Cup races. He has a NASCAR race scheduled with Roush/Fenway Racing at Phoenix (ISM Raceway) in the XFINITY Series. That means he’ll miss the Friday and Saturday practice and qualifying days, and that will leave him out of a chance to get into Sunday’s championship race. With Majeski’s talent behind the wheel of a stock car, it seemed inevitable that he’d eventually leave his days of late models and the Governor’s Cup behind and head to NASCAR.

     Top 3 finishers 1st -Shane Butler center 2nd - Keith Butler left 3rd  Sport Allen right Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series New Smyrna FL 8-25

     

    Video of feature race from New Smyrna Speedway, Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, Saturday, August 25, 2018:

     

    https://youtu.be/FHTwfqt8IQY

     

    Video of heat races from New Smyrna Speedway, Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, Saturday, August 25, 2018:

     

    https://youtu.be/hOgdHLys8JY

     

     

    Rusty Marcus Brings Smiles to New Smyrna Speedway, Part 2

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    August 24, 2018

    Rusty Marcus, now living and working in New Smyrna Beach, is the new track manager at New Smyrna Speedway. He was close to Kim Brown, the track’s General Manager who passed away in late February. “I came down to help during the World Series,” Rusty said, “but then I went back home to Texas on a Tuesday, and on Saturday I got the call that Kim had passed away. I was talking to Jane and Robert [Hart], and they had been trying to get me to come back. It never seemed right – I told them I didn’t want to come back just to fill a position.”

    That’s when the Harts ratcheted up the intensity of their effort to get Rusty to return to Florida and work for them. There had been another big change for the track shortly before Kim’s passing. Robert Hart had announced at the Living Legends of Auto Racing banquet in Daytona Beach on February 14 that he was retiring from active management of New Smyrna Speedway.

    Dave Steele at New Smyrna Speedway, on 2-18-2013 with USAC National Midget Series.

    “Here’s the thing,” Rusty said. “God puts you in places, and if you’d have told me a year ago that I would be back here, I’d probably have said, ‘Yeah … not so much,’ because I want to make sure anywhere that I go that I can make a difference. I couldn’t see where I could make a difference here, all the positions were filled. I’m not here to step on anybody’s toes.”

    When things at the track changed, Rusty made his decision in late March, told the Harts that he was returning to Texas to tie up some things, and by April he was in his present job at New Smyrna Speedway, and has been there ever since. This weekend’s sprint car race is the second there since his return and expect more next year, according to Rusty.

    “I’ve always been a race fan … always,” he said. “On Sundays when I was a kid, we lived in a rural area down in West Palm Beach, and we’d go to Palm Beach Fairgrounds Speedway. Every Sunday afternoon, that was our family thing in the mid-to-late ’60s. Then Palm Beach decided to go from Sunday to Friday night, well I was born and raised Seventh-day Adventist, which means from Friday night sundown to Saturday night sundown, you don’t do anything. So I lost racing altogether except for one race a year, and that was the Orange Blossom 100. That was at Palm Beach Fairgrounds Speedway, they held it on Sunday in January every year. That was the one race I got to see each year. The Orange Blossom 100 is now here.”

    After that race went dormant for a while, he brought it back to Orlando Speedworld during his time managing that track and now it’s at New Smyrna, and he gets to enjoy a happy memory from his childhood and his part in reviving a decades-old Florida late model racing tradition. The Orange Blossom 100 now has a home at the track he calls home.

    Winged sprint cars at New Smyrna Speedway.

    Moving to Okeechobee for a job with the state in the South Florida Water Management department in the 1990s, he opened a car lot at the same time. After becoming friends with a mini-stock race car owner, he put his business name on his friend’s car, and they’d go to Bradenton every weekend to go racing. He had a new racing habit – but this one was weekly, not limited to just once a year. That led him to buy his own race car, now that a dirt track had opened in Okeechobee. “It was called Thundercross. I bought a ’73 Dodge Charger. Very consistent – dead last every time we took it out,” he said.

    A ’77 Dodge Aspen was added later, and so was some track marketing, promotion, and announcing experience to add to his resume, sometimes wearing the brightest, craziest fluorescent colors that he could find, again at Thundercross. People came to the track “just to see what he was going to do next.”

    The lesson learned was that “every position at a race track, it doesn’t matter if it’s the flagman, the concession people, or the front gate guy, everybody here is part of the show, and that’s the way that it needs to be. People need to go, ‘Hey, that’s the corner worker. He’s great because he puts a lot of energy into it.’ That’s what we need. We need that high-five energy all over the place.”

    Rusty was at Orlando Speedworld, during his tenure as manager, for one of the last major USAC pavement racing events in Florida, the PRI Sprint & Midget Classic, which was held in 2005 and 2006 in conjunction with the PRI Trade Show when it was based in Orlando. “Orlando has its problems, it doesn’t drain real well,” Rusty said. “I said, ‘You’re going to think it’s a little hokey.’ ” Then he told the PRI Trade Show management about his track-drying idea. They were concerned about rain and standing water necessitating a race cancellation. Not to worry – it was time for “Rusty to the rescue.”

    He had an idea, one that would probably only work in Florida. He had some fear that after “comin’ down to redneckville” that they might look upon his idea with doubt. He told them, “I’m going to do something a little hokey, but it’s going to work, or I think it will work. So he [PRI show head honcho Steve Lewis] said, ‘You do whatever you got to do.’ So, I called a bunch of guys with airboats, I’d seen it done at Palm Beach. You leave the airboat on the trailer, you fire it up, and it dries the track. At 10 minutes ’til 10, I went to him and said, ‘Steve, the track will be yours at 10 o’clock.’ It was race-ready.” The most redneck of all redneck methods of track drying had saved the day, and the Orlando Speedworld PRI Show races were a big success.

    Rusty also spoke about a possible big change coming for New Smyrna Speedway, something that would dramatically change the appearance of the track facility. “I’ve got to get some engineers here,” he said, “because I’m looking at putting a smaller track here, and we have a verbal agreement with U.S. Legend Cars that if we build the small track here, the Legend Winternationals will move to New Smyrna Speedway. The size is going to be three-eighths or less, because they can’t run anything bigger. We’re trying to figure out the configuration. The Winternationals are held at the same time as the World Series of Asphalt, two huge shows, we fold those shows together. Legends, Bandoleros, super lates, modifieds, all right here. Either use the existing backstretch, three, four, front stretch, and then make a new one and two connecting – the corners are going to be different than the other two corners. Because it’s going to go down there by the quarter-midget track, it won’t have the banking that three and four have. Eventually, we will put the small track in.”

    Rusty’s proposal (nothing has been engineered or designed yet) means that a new turn one and two, plus the entrance and exit off of the existing half-mile, would need to be designed, approved and constructed for a future February Speedweeks, likely not until 2020 or later. It’s one of Rusty’s long-term projects for the track: first the new smaller oval is constructed, and then Legend and Bandolero racing are brought back and made a major part of the February Speedweeks racing.

    The kids and families involved in Legend and Bandolero racing will always his pet project, and Rusty spoke of those racers who he helped through the ranks of those series, and who then made it to the big leagues of auto racing (including NASCAR Cup racing). “Anywhere you run the Legends Winternationals, there will be a hundred plus cars out there. You can be eight years old to get in a Bandolero, and if you’ve got experience, you can get in a Legend car at 12. They’re great cars, they’re safe cars, but they teach the kids so much,” he said, his eyes beaming.

    Overseeing several generations of racers, seeing them move up the ladder of success … somehow, Rusty Marcus seems to be in the right spot. He’s right where he needs to be.

     

     

    Rusty Marcus Brings Smiles to New Smyrna Speedway, Part 1

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    August 23, 2018

    Rusty Marcus, track manager at New Smyrna Speedway since April this year, seems to be perpetually happy and always in a good mood. Why? Well, he gets to be at a track that is a special place to him, he loves racing (which is apparent in every story that he tells), and his spiritual faith – something he doesn’t talk about in an interview, but discusses in social media posts – is also important to him. You can tell that he loves racing and seeing fans enjoy their time at the track – “What did you think of the racing?” he’ll ask – and it motivates him in all he does.

    The small administrative offices at New Smyrna Speedway, consisting of several cramped rooms and located right behind the main stands, aren’t necessarily where you will find Rusty Marcus, and neither are the control tower or spectator stands the place to find him on a race day. He’s going to be everywhere – even roaming the pits, talking with owners, drivers, and crew. Need to track him down for an interview? – Best just look everywhere.

    Rusty Marcus at New Smyrna Speedway, August 4, 2018.

    “My job duty here is track manager, which means you do a little bit of everything,” Rusty Marcus said. “I started back here in April, I was with the Hart family [owners of New Smyrna Speedway] for years before with their Orlando track and ran it for a number of years down there.” In 2008, he left Florida for a track management position in Monroe, Louisiana, after he felt that he had taken the Orlando track as far as he could take it. Other positions in racing management followed, some involving Legend car racing with U.S. Legend Cars, located in Charlotte, North Carolina. They needed a manager to take over their Texas branch, and he was off to Texas Motor Speedway, where he stayed for six years until January 2018, when the Texas branch closed.

    “The Harts had been trying to get me to come back since I left, nine years ago,” Rusty said. “I would come back and help them with the big shows and we talked all the time. Here’s the thing – I don’t burn bridges. We’re like family. They’d fly me in, and I’d come down here and do whatever needs to be done. I’ve worked for them for so long, and they know what to expect out of me. You have to get the show on for the fans; you can’t be a prima donna at the race track. You’ve got to be ready to do anything and everything. They [Hart family] kept wanting me to come back. When U.S. Legend Cars closed down the office at Texas Motor Speedway in January, I had already planned on being here for the World Series in February.”

    New Smyrna Speedway’s popular and personable General Manager, Kim Brown, passed away in February 2018 due to a long illness. The Hart family wanted Rusty to come on as the track manager, and he took a couple of months off after returning to Florida in January and working at the track’s World Series in February. He accepted the job offer in March, began in April, and it was like he was a member of the Hart family once again, or rather, like he had never left, and he dove head first into his new job managing New Smyrna Speedway.

    Sprint cars at New Smyrna Speedway, April 28, 2018.

    Rusty Marcus is also a supporter of Florida sprint car racing, and the half-mile high-banked track at New Smyrna will once again host pavement sprint car racing on Saturday with the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series. It will be the third visit by the series this year, and since the shutdown of Desoto Speedway last year, it plays an important part as the only high-speed, high-banked track left, rounding out the mix of bullrings, intermediate tracks, and high-speed tracks used by the series.

    “Whether you like ’em [sprint cars] or not, it’s very important,” Rusty said. Even though he had earlier referred to New Smyrna Speedway as “a stock car track,” he acknowledged that sprint car racing was important to his track and to Florida racing. “There’ll probably be more [races] next year,” he added. “The fans love ’em. It doesn’t matter how anybody else feels – you do stuff for your fans. I want people to look at New Smyrna Speedway, and have it be the beacon that everybody’s shooting for. I don’t think New Smyrna needs to be a chaser. New Smyrna needs to be a leader.” Rusty wants to have four or more sprint car races at the track again next year, and also into the foreseeable future.

    Rusty spoke about his time at Orlando Speedworld, working with TBARA in 2008 and earlier years, when he felt that sprint car racing had a “purse that was very high, and we had a lot of start-and-parks, back in ’06, ’07, they would bring 20 cars, and five laps in, you’d have 10 cars. It lost its luster. It went through a little lull, and the purse was so high.” Now he wants to keep sprint cars as part of February Speedweeks, because “there’s people that look for that, and we’re looking to add more stuff for February Speedweeks.” Regarding the Southern Sprintcar series race originally set for Saturday, November 10, the night before the Governor’s Cup late model championship race, he said, “We moved that up, because we had too much stuff on Governor’s Cup for Saturday and Sunday. It was so heavily loaded, and none of those classes are cheap. We talked to the sprint group, and they said, ‘It’ll work better for us if we move it,’ and it was moved to October. He [Rick Day] was all in agreement with it, and I was like, ‘Hot Diggity!’ But here’s the thing: the sprint cars always bring their own crowd. Sprint cars aren’t a sideshow.”

    The Southern Sprintcar series race originally set for New Smyrna’s Governor’s Cup weekend on Saturday, November 10 was moved to October 13. That left an opening on that date that has now been filled with a second date for Citrus County Speedway, which held its first sprint car race of the year two weeks ago. That series feature race on August 11 was originally credited as a win by Jason Kimball. His win was later rescinded when a tire test, conducted by Blue Ridge Labs for the Southern Sprintcar series, showed that his tire sample did not conform to the benchmark from Hoosier Tire. That resulted in the feature race win being awarded to Tommy Nichols, his first series race win of the year and first with the Southern Sprintcar series.

    Rusty Marcus has plans for the future at New Smyrna Speedway, he’s just not going to divulge all of them right away: “We’re working on some things, and I don’t know if they are going to come through, but if they do, it’s going to be great. Stay tuned … I can’t tell ya! I don’t know if it’s going to work out yet or not, but if it does … I guarantee you there’s a lot more coming.”

    More of the Rusty Marcus interview coming tomorrow in Part 2.

     

     

    Remembering Don Rehm, a True Racers’ Friend

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    July 22, 2018

    On Saturday, August 26, 1978, Don Rehm was behind the wheel of the “Salvay Sprinter” sprint car at Golden Gate Speedway in Tampa, a track renowned for exciting, intense pavement sprint car racing. Coming out of turn two in the feature race, he went over the rear wheel of the car driven by Steve Moore and barrel-rolled and flipped end over end down the track. Don was hardly new to sprint cars, he had been racing them for four years at the track. It was the wildest ride fans had seen at the track in a while.

    By the time the flipping and rolling had stopped, Don was upside-down in the car, trapped against a chain link fence in front of the pit grandstand, looking at dirt and the bottom of the fence. While trying to get him out, crews realized there were several problems complicating the matter: the fuel tank had been leaking, saturating the ground with methanol, and his foot was caught under the driveline. They removed the fuel tank to stop the leaking, and had a tow truck pull the car over with Don still in it. The rescue was successful, and Don took a few steps around the car, looking like he was in surprisingly good shape after going through such a harrowing experience.

    Don Rehm at Volusia Speedway Park in 2014

    His only injury was a sprained shoulder, and he said he was going to be back after a few weeks of rest for him and repair work for the car, which looked like King Kong had stomped on the rear end of it, crumpling the roll cage and twisting the chassis. Don had survived this crisis, and a career that would be highlighted by leadership positions in multiple Florida-based sprint car series and in the Tampa area race supply business was ahead.

    By the 1980s, Don Rehm was one of the main suppliers of racing fuel, tires, and parts to the Tampa Bay area racing community through his business, Riverview Racing Equipment. When working on a sprint car tire in 1989, its beadlock slipped and the tire was propelled into his face. He needed reconstructive surgery to repair the damage to his face. The racing community sponsored a benefit barbeque to raise money for the purpose of helping with his medical expenses. Don was just that important to them, and they wanted him to get well, feel better, and not worry about his medical bills.

    “It’s made me feel real good,” Don said. “The racing people will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you.”

    Left to right, Ann Renee Rehm, Don Rehm, with friends Dorothy Nowling and Danny Smith, December 2015

    Don Rehm went on to serve as the president of the TBARA for 14 years, from 1993 to 2007. He was a selfless promoter of the Florida sprint car series and the exciting style of winged sprint car racing (all of it on pavement after 1996), saying in August 1997, “Every place we go, the people just go berserk over the sprint cars. We don’t race at the same track every week, and I think that helps in that the people want to see them again.” By 2003, the association had 51 drivers as members, along with 48 cars, most from the Tampa Bay area, for them to drive. The year-end points fund was $42,000. Don oversaw the transition of the series from dirt and pavement racing to a pavement-only series, with increased popularity, purses, and car counts.

    Don’s daughter Jennifer even married one of the TBARA racers, Keith Butler, during her father’s time as president of the series. They are the parents of Don’s granddaughter Kenzie. Jennifer and her younger sister Heather also worked as volunteer safety officials for the TBARA, rushing to the scene of crashes and other incidents at the track. You could time them on their response time to the scene of a crash or spin – 15 seconds was their best time.

    As founder and owner of Florida’s only touring dirt sprint car series, the Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series, Don Rehm was responsible for keeping winged dirt sprint car racing alive and well across the state for the past nine years. Without the hard work and dedication of Don Rehm and his wife Ann, dirt sprint car racing would have been severely restricted in the State of Florida for years, with not much other than February Speedweeks dirt racing and the occasional East Bay Sprints race the rest of the year. The series raced in North, Central, and South Florida, with several young racers earning honors, such as Danny Martin Jr., Mark Ruel Jr., AJ Maddox, Matt Kurtz, and also 2018 multi-race winner Hayden Campbell.

    One of the regular awards in Top Gun Sprint Series racing was the "Jeff" Barfield Memorial Clean Sweep award, available to any Top Gun racer for winning their heat and the feature race on the same night. The Rehms always expressed their gratitude to the Barfield family for their continued support of Florida sprint car racing. Tom Schmeh, retired curator of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, stated that Don Rehm and also Lee and Jeff Barfield were great supporters of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame for many years.

    Florida sprint car racing legend Sam Rodriguez said, “Don always worked extremely hard to help every racer with whatever their needs were. I know when I started he was a tremendous help to me!”

    Sprint car builder/owner Bernie Hallisky said that Don was “a man that helped many racers get to the race track when we started out. He along with Ann fulfilled many racers’ dreams by helping us get started.”

    Taylor Andrews was the only driver to win the TBARA driver championship four times, including twice during Don Rehm’s time as the president of the association. “When Don Rehm runs an association,” Taylor said, “just like he did with the TBARA and the Top Gun Sprints, you know you’re going to something that’s professionally run, and he’s more than capable of running it. He’s the fairest guy that runs races. He’s always been like that – he was like that when he ran the TBARA. He’s the best man for the job. You need a guy to run a series – you put Don Rehm in charge of it. He understands the ins and outs of it. He knows how to separate the bull____ from the part that matters.”

    In recent years, Don Rehm had been making changes to the Top Gun Series that he owned and operated. A big change came in 2016: to allow engines other than the limited 360 engine that was the main power plant for years. They would allow 602 and 604 crate motors to compete against the mainstay limited 360 motor, and in some cases even allow the 305 RaceSaver motor. Non-wing races had been eliminated several years prior, but then made a comeback in 2017, and multiple non-wing races were planned for 2018. Don was willing to make changes to ensure the continuation of the series, and its future success seemed assured with his leadership skills.

    Don Rehm passed away on Friday, July 20, 2018 after suffering a massive stroke. He was 75 years old. Florida open wheel racing is fortunate to have benefitted from his lifetime of contributions to the sport. He will be greatly missed.

     

     

     

     

    Support for the Return of Non-wing Pavement Racing in Florida is Growing

     

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

     

    June 21, 2018

     

    In Little 500 qualifying last month, a surprisingly large group of Floridians (7 entries) attempted to make the field of 33 starters. All but one made it, and that was because of a practice crash that dashed Carlie Yent’s hopes of making the field, and left her recovering from a concussion. The results were still less than satisfying for several teams. Of the six starters, four of them were starting in the last two rows.

     

    Whether these rear-of-the-field starting spots were related to the lack of non-wing pavement sprint car racing in Florida, gone since early 2017, could be debated. Florida used to make an effort to have one or more non-wing pavement sprint car races in the weeks before teams were set to leave for Anderson in late May, a race that was known as the “Little 500 Warmup.” In 1992, it was held at Lakeland Interstate Speedway, a tight quarter-mile, and the racing was without wings. In 1988, the Little 500 Warmup was held at Desoto Speedway on May 7, and the 25-lap feature race was won by Donnie Tanner, after Jim Childers had won the Warmup race the prior year. Many of the Warmup races held during this time were won by drivers who also won in the Little 500 (including Frank Riddle, winner of the 1986 Little 500 Warmup at Citrus County Speedway on May 10), and these drivers also had the advantage of weekly sprint car racing at Golden Gate Speedway.

     Johnny Gilbertson on the grid at the 2018 Little 500, 5-26-2018.

    Owner/driver Johnny Gilbertson had a few words about the healthy state of pavement sprint car racing in Florida today. “I think Florida’s got the best asphalt series in the country right now. I’m pretty proud of that,” he said. He did express a desire to see non-wing pavement sprint car racing return to Florida. “I’ve already made my case with everybody down there, that myself and Steele Performance would support any of that, as long as everybody keeps with the same purse structure and nobody’s schedules conflict against each other,” he added.

     

    “Yeah, absolutely,” Mickey Kempgens said. “I love non-wing. I love winged too, but I’d like a couple of non-wing races thrown in there, that’d be fun. I haven’t sat in a non-wing car since Anderson last year,” he said at last month’s Little 500.

     

    Troy DeCaire has talked to his team about doing more non-wing races over the next year, which means that he and his team will have to travel north to find those non-wing races. There are none scheduled in Florida this year. A non-wing sprint car race planned for today at Anderson Speedway was rained out, and the track now has non-wing races planned for July, August, September, and October.

     

    “Lenny has already mentioned some things about that, we talked about it. That’s up to them,” Troy said. As far as the possible return of non-wing racing in Florida, he said, “Yeah, we should. I’d like to see it.”

     Row 10, which had three cars from Florida, 2018 Little 500, 5-26-2018

    Garrett Green stated that he’s ready for a possible return of non-wing pavement racing in Florida. “I wish it was all non-wing racing,” he said. “If they threw the wings away tonight, I’d be thrilled. It’d bring sprint car racing back.”

     

    NOTES:

    Terry Taylor has told me that a new Florida TQ midget race sanctioning body has been formed named Florida Outlaw Midgets. Apparently this body is not replacing the Florida Midget Racing Association (FMRA), which is currently concentrating on races close to their Southwest Florida base at Punta Gorda’s 4-17 Southern Speedway. Taylor identified himself and TQ midget racer Mike Nelson as the organizers of the Florida Outlaw Midgets, which plan to race for the first time at Showtime Speedway on Saturday, June 30. That’s also the date that the winged sprint cars of the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series will race at Showtime. This new sanctioning body plans to have full-size midgets, TQ midgets, and mini-sprints all run together in their first race, according to Taylor. They plan to implement a formula at a later date to make for fair competition between these different classes of race cars in the same race.

     

    Upcoming Florida sprint car races: Saturday, June 23, the East Bay Sprints at East Bay Raceway Park, followed by the return of the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series (with wings) after a two-month layoff at Showtime Speedway on Saturday, June 30. The next week, the Top Gun Sprint Series is back at Volusia Speedway Park on Friday, July 6, the same day as the Living Legends of Auto Racing’s Annual Vintage Race Car Show from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the Sunshine Park Mall on Route 1 in South Daytona.

     

     

     

    2018 Little 500 Recap with the Floridians

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    May 28, 2018

    Three drivers from Florida were still on track at the end of 500 laps of the 2018 Pay Less Little 500, and they were Mickey Kempgens (4th place), Troy DeCaire (11th), and Garrett Green (14th). The two drivers from Florida that were contending for the Rookie of the Year award, Johnny Gilbertson (26th), and John Inman (29th), both went out earlier in the race. Shane Butler (20th) was also out a little past the half way point with brake issues. Carlie Yent, who was injured in a Friday practice lap crash, returned to the track on Saturday, displaying a large bruise on her left arm and various other smaller bruises, caused by the impact into the turn three wall. Her worst injury was a mild concussion, but she had already stopped taking the prescription pain pills by Saturday, and was able to smile while describing her injuries and the crash itself.

    2018 Little 500 Florida Driver Group Photo, Left to right - Troy DeCaire, Shane Butler, John Inman, Mickey Kempgens, Johnny Gilbertson, and Garrett Green.

    Following are the stories of the three drivers to see the checkered flag at the end of 500 laps, Mickey Kempgens, Troy DeCaire, and Garrett Green:

    Near the end of the 500 laps at Anderson Speedway on Saturday night, Mickey Kempgens was still making laps, and also making passes. Mickey, who has made it his habit to consistently make it to the end of the 500 laps while others crash out and otherwise fall out of the race, did it again on Saturday. In the race’s last laps, the track’s scoreboard showed him in fourth place, just behind the third place car of Shane Hollingsworth. He made consistent, fast laps, caught up to the tail of Hollingsworth’s No. 20 car, and then passed him with just a few laps left.

    It looked as if Mickey had made it to that inevitable next step in his Little 500 driving career, a top three finish and a place on the podium. But it was not to be, as he was still four laps down to the third place car after making that pass, and with the checkered flag about to fall, there wasn’t a way to make up that many laps on the No. 20 car. With a fourth place finish, he did something that seems to have become an annual habit for Mickey – improving his performance and his finishing position from his previous best finish the prior year (he was 5th in 2017).

    “We started 28th, because we qualified like crap,” said Mickey Kempgens, beginning his story of his 2018 Little 500 race week. “First half of the race, the car was fast. I think we drove all the way up to 16th. Came in, they put on another set of tires, they gave me a little more stagger because the car was a little tight, and it was so loose I couldn’t drive it. That was about lap 180, maybe. All the passing I did from the first stint, they all got back by me. Then we came in at lap 300, put the rear tires on, filled it up with fuel, and they said, ‘You’re good to go!’ And I started passing cars again after that second stop and at about lap 350 I lost the brakes. Was still running good, just cruisin’ around with no brakes, was passing Windom, and he just slap put me in the outside fence [on lap 375]. I was on the outside of him, and he just turned right and put me in the fence. If I would have stayed in it, we would have both crashed, but I lifted, let him go again. But it messed up something in the front end. The steering wheel was moved over a quarter. So, the last hundred laps, it was everything I could do – car got tight again, with no brakes. Actually, when Windom hit me, the brakes kinda came back. But, there’s something messed up in the front end, right front was chattering. It’s probably bent, it was just everything I could do to bring it home from there.”

    Mickey Kempgens checks over his car on race day, 2018 Little 500, May 26, 2018.

    When he looked up on the track scoreboard, saw that the No. 20 was ahead of him on both the track and by one position in the race standings, he pressed down even harder on his accelerator. “Had I known he wasn’t on the same lap as me, I probably wouldn’t have driven as hard, to get by him,” Mickey said, thinking that the pass he made on the No. 20 Hollingsworth car was for third place. It wasn’t. It moved him from five laps to four laps down on that third place car. So he was fourth, still an improvement on his previous best finish in the race. He had something to smile about.

    “My crew was awesome, their pit stops were incredible,” Mickey said. “They did their part – I did my part. I mean, 28th to fourth, it’s hard to do here, but we did it. We just need to figure out that qualifying thing, so I don’t have to work so damn hard.”

    With Troy DeCaire’s car just declared complete and ready for the Little 500 on the night prior to last week’s Wednesday practice day, Troy and his team knew that they needed to rush to get ready for Thursday qualifying and the race on Saturday. Lenny Puglio’s new Beast chassis with a Gaerte engine was new and shiny. The team members were not so new, but had many years of experience – owner, driver, and crew. There were “issues,” with Troy saying, “We’re off the pace, quite a bit off the pace. We’re looking for a steering box right now. We talked to Bob East, and we’re looking for a different style steering box. ‘New car bugaboos’ type deal, and I think we’ll get it together.”

    Young and the old(est) in the Pay Less Little 500. Garrett Green (19 yrs old), who finished 14th, and Ken Schrader (62 yrs old), who finished 9th. Robin Green photo.

    There was no backup car, as “Half-Breed” had been left back in Florida. “No!” Troy replied when asked if he had wanted it there as a backup. They were determined to make this car fast and put it in the show.

    “This car here, there’s nothing nicer,” Troy said. “We’ve just got to get the steering dialed in, and then I think we’ll be alright. I’d say it’s a great race car. Sometimes new stuff doesn’t work how it’s supposed to. We’re way off right now. I’ve got some work to do,” he said on Wednesday.

    Post-race on Saturday night, a somewhat “new Troy DeCaire” was speaking to friends in the pits after finishing in 11th place. He had already changed his clothes and was in a relaxed mood. The stress of race day had passed. His new life as a father and working “a regular nine-to-five job” had changed him.

    “I work twenty five, eight,” Troy said. “Me and JoJo (Helberg) were talking. If it was like 500 days straight of work, we could probably run up front with these guys, but 500 laps is tough for us ‘old dads.’ We’re both dads now.

    “For the first hundred laps, I had no brakes,” Troy continued. He lacked speed early in the race because of “no brakes. I was gonna pull it in and not risk this really expensive race car. I had no brakes for the first half of the race. There was a yellow, dialed on my brake adjustor all the way to front brakes, and then I was pretty decent. I started passin’ cats. I think we raced our way up to about eighth or so. Then we had a pretty damn good race car. I ran into CJ Leary down here, and I about junked us all, because the pedal went down to the floor. I don’t know why that is. New car woes – I’m not sure. You know, they’d get a little spongy here and there, and I’d drop to the bottom and cool them off, and then I’d get back to racing once I had a pedal. Then we were one of the faster guys out there, I felt like.”

    There were more problems – he ran out of fuel once under the green flag, and then there was a caution a few laps later for Kody Swanson’s turn two spin. If his fuel had lasted until that caution, Troy felt his final position could have been in fifth or sixth place, due to the faster laps he ran in the race’s last half. He felt that to run the entire 500 lap distance, with all the problems since Wednesday, was a win for him and the team.

    “I’m a little old and out of shape, so …” Troy said. “We had fun, we’ll do it again. Ready to get back to winged racing at home, a shorter race where I don’t get so tired. There were just problems that we couldn’t predict. Everything was brand new, and it’s just proof that brand new stuff breaks too. Fortunately for us in the 91 car, we have success more often than we don’t. These kind of nights are humbling nights. Race cars will break your heart, and that’s essentially what happened. We’ll pack it up, go home, finish our new winged car and go back to racing.”

    Garrett Green’s 14th place finish on Saturday, although not his best Little 500 finish, was probably the one that required the most work, the most patience with other drivers losing their cool, and the most skill at handling and controlling an ill-driving race car. His maturity at 19 years old was in evidence as he was there at the end of the 500 laps for the second time in two attempts at the race (he was Rookie of the Year in 2013).

    This year, Garrett was in the Tommy Nichols-owned No. 55 car with sponsorship from Wilo, the primary sponsor on Tommy’s car when it was raced in Florida in winged competition. Nichols had originally entered two cars for him and Garrett, later reduced to one car only.

    Tommy Nichols was an owner-driver in his last Little 500, in 1996. This was his first time as just an owner. “It was actually as nervous as being in the car,” Tommy said. “I was nervous for Garrett, I was nervous for the car, nervous for the pit crew, you know – doing pit stops, in which we had a few problems today. But, I think we made it through and just to finish the race was awesome. Made it to the finish – we were 50 something laps down. Some of that I know was penalties, because we had a flat tire and the pits were closed.”

    A tap of the wall after Garrett was hit by another driver broke a panhard bar in their car, which was not discovered until after the race was over and someone leaned on the car and it moved over to the side far more than it should have. “He did a good job. I’m proud of him and proud of the team,” said Tommy. “My sponsor was here from Germany.” Management from Wilo came to Anderson to watch the race from the pits with the team they sponsored. They enjoyed this crazy style of American short track racing. And they’ll be back next year.

    “We ended up having to take two pit stops that were unplanned,” Garrett Green said. “And at about lap 240 we got punted into the fence and broke a rear panhard bar. We did hit the wall. The car was just swaying side-to-side without that panhard bar being there. Bobby Santos ran over my right front – that was pretty interesting. We finished, so we’ll take what we got and head for next year.”

    Once Garrett returns to Florida, “probably go back and do some dirt racing, probably in a personally-owned car and I’ll run a few pavement races here and there. We’re going to take things slow,” he said about putting together his own dirt racing team for Florida, and would not speculate on when that dirt car and new team would be ready. He’s also ready for a possible return of non-wing pavement racing in Florida.

    “I wish it was all non-wing racing,” he added. “If they threw the wings away tonight, I’d be thrilled.”

     

     

    Little 500 Qualifications Conclude for Floridians, Part 2

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

    May 26, 2018

     

    John Inman’s harrowing 2018 Little 500 Friday bump day included engine problems, seeing a friend’s team, the No. 63 Carlie Yent car, fail to qualify with an engine that he had loaned them, and then watching Carlie get injured (a mild concussion) in a qualifying crash. And that was just the beginning of John’s bump day story.

     

    Near the end of the Little 500 bump day, John’s No. 59 car was “on the bubble,” with the 33rd fastest time, which meant that his bubble could get burst at any time by a car with a faster qualifying speed. Then he’d be out of the starting field for the 500-lap race on Saturday night. That would be devastating for John and his team, as he had committed a great deal of time, hard work, and dollars to this effort to be a rookie driver in this year’s race. John already had racing luck and good fortune shine on him in the past year, winning four Florida pavement sprint car races last year, and the 2017 championship in Florida with the Southern Sprintcar series. He just needed a break on Friday, and some more luck. With 15 minutes left in bump day qualifying, it seemed that his luck had run out. He was bumped from the field by a faster car. But wait …

     John Inman, 2017 Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series driver champion.

    He was not going to be able to jump back in his car, the No. 59 car, and try to bump his way back into the field, due to the engine failure. Shane Butler and Butler Motorsports had their No. 55 backup car, not yet qualified. They offered the car to John to make a qualifying attempt. Meanwhile, the clock was running out, and the Florida team crews were thrashing to get the car ready and John buckled into it and pushed to the infield qualifying line. They made it in time. John made his best effort, pushing the car to the limit and beyond. The time was too slow. At best, he was going to be an alternate, which meant that he would get a place in the field if another car was withdrawn.

     

    Just when it seemed like the field was set, including a 33-car lineup released by the speedway that did not show John’s name and car number in the field, everything changed. The car that had bumped John’s car from the field was disqualified by race officials and John now had the 33rd best qualifying time. He was back in the field, starting in 33rd place in the last row. All that hard work, risk, and money expended for this Herculean effort was worth it. Something exceptional had just happened, and it made a darn good story too.

     

    Now there is just one more part of the story yet to come – those harrowing 500 laps around Anderson Speedway on Saturday night. It’s a race that has brought the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for dozens of race car drivers from Florida. One last item – rookie drivers from Florida have made a habit of earning the Rookie of the Year honor at the Little 500. The last was Garrett Green in 2013. John Inman has an excellent chance to be the next, provided that he gets more good fortune shining on him – like on Friday. He’s already got the talent and guts, and the car and the team and the driving skill. Now to find some luck …

     

    NOTES:

    Six Floridians made the field for the 2018 Little 500: Troy DeCaire, Garrett Green, Mickey Kempgens, Johnny Gilbertson, Shane Butler, and John Inman. One Floridian failed to qualify: Carlie Yent.

     

    Carlie Yent returned to her hotel on Friday afternoon, after x-rays and being examined at the hospital after her qualifying crash at Anderson Speedway. Her only injury is a mild concussion. The crash was caused by a stuck throttle, and she impacted the tire barrier in turn three.

     

    The inaugural Dave Steele Carb Night Classic was a great success last night at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. Lynn Steele made a pit walk prior to the race, and thanked each team present in the pits for coming to race their USAC champ car on Friday night. Current plans are for the race to be an annual event from now forward. Kody Swanson won, making it his third straight USAC Silver Crown Series champ car race win this year. The last driver to win three straight USAC champ car races was Dave Steele, who accomplished that feat in 2005.

     

     

     

    Little 500 Qualifications Continue for Floridians, Part 1

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    May 25, 2018

    Carlie Yent had gotten some practice in her sprint car without wings in Florida before this week’s Thursday and Friday qualifications for the 2018 Little 500 in Anderson, Indiana. She and her family-owned team, with her father Charlie Yent as her car owner, had gone to both Showtime Speedway and Citrus County Speedway to allow her to practice without wings on her car. They felt this was important, as all the pavement sprint car racing in Florida is currently done with wings.

    Earlier this week, in a private practice session on Monday, she was pushing to gain speed, slipped, and hit the outside wall tire barrier in turn three. She and her team only had a few days to make repairs before qualifying began on Thursday. Aaron Pierce offered to let them use the Sam Pierce Chevrolet racing team’s shop in Daleville to make the repairs the next day. After 13 hours of work on Tuesday, mostly to damage on the suspension and the car’s front corners, the Hurricane chassis had been completely repaired. The car was ready for the first Little 500 practice session on Wednesday. So was Carlie.

    She had been seeking out advice from a plethora or racing legends present at the track for race week for the big race. They included Jim Childers, Florida’s only three-time winner of the Little 500. They also included Brian Tyler, who drove Carlie around the track in a passenger vehicle for a look at the best groove at Anderson. Carlie also mentioned Aaron Pierce and John Inman as another two who helped with their advice to get up to speed. Pitted next to them, John Inman would offer an extremely valuable bit of help on Thursday. When the engine in Carlie’s No. 63 sprint car was damaged during a Thursday practice session prior to the start of qualifications, Charlie Yent told me that the damage was severe enough possibly stop them from qualifying … unless another team had a spare engine that they could borrow. John Inman did. He had already qualified and had a spare engine, which he loaned to Carlie for her car. She would need to qualify for the race during second day qualifying on Friday, with a speed fast enough to make the 33-car field.

    2013 Little 500 Rookie of the Year Garrett Green makes his return to race at the Little 500 this year.

    Garrett Green was back at Anderson Speedway in 2018, and this time it wasn’t to help out on another driver’s team. He was back to make his second attempt to qualify and race in the Little 500, after a 10th place finish in 2013 earned him the Little 500 Rookie of the Year title. After Thursday qualifying, he had posted a qualifying time of 46.133 seconds, 24th fastest, which seemed fast enough to assure him that he would make the field. After Friday’s bump day qualifying, that would be known for sure. This time, he was in the No. 55 Hurricane chassis with sponsorship from Wilo, a single-car team owned by Tommy Nichols. Originally, Nichols had entered two cars for himself and Garrett, but that was reduced to one car when Nichols withdrew one of his cars due to engine damage suffered at a race in Punta Gorda, Florida earlier in the month. Garrett’s appearance has changed since his rookie run in 2013. He’s considerably taller, more mature-looking, and now has a full beard.

    Three-time TBARA champion Shane Butler adapted quickly to the earlier announcement of car owner Troy Thompson’s retirement from open wheel racing. Thompson had been involved in sponsoring and owning several of the cars that Shane had driven recently, and had raced with them at Anderson’s Little 500. For this year’s Little 500, Shane was not going to be driving one of his family’s Butler Motorsports cars. He was going to drive a car co-owned by Chuck Castor and Buddy Lowther, a black car with a gold No. 3. Shane had the 28th fastest qualifying time in Thursday’s first day of qualifying. The red No. 55 car that he had driven to an 11th place finish in last year’s race sat next to this year’s car in the pit, but the team would not confirm if a second team driver would be put in this car on Friday to attempt to get in the field. Shane seemed confident and balanced during practice and qualifying, certain of the speed that he could get with this car and team, which included most of the crew that he brought with him in recent years.

    Johnny Gilbertson at Anderson Speedway on Wednesday, May 23 practice day.

    Johnny Gilbertson had been to the Little 500 before, both as a driver and a car owner. In addition to making an attempt to qualify for the 2010 Little 500, Johnny did make some laps in his own car in 2017, a car that was leased to another driver. This year was going to be the first time that Johnny was an owner/driver, in his white No. 22 Diablo chassis car. This would mark the first time that a driver and car out of the Steele Performance Parts shop in Tampa was going to be in the Little 500 since Dave Steele’s final Little 500 in 2016. In Thursday first-round qualifying, the two-time TBARA champion put up the 27th fastest time.

    “We went to Showtime [Speedway] twice, and then went back and made some changes to the frame, welded some brackets and stuff in April,” Johnny Gilbertson said, describing his preparations for the 2018 Little 500. “We got out here Monday morning, went out three or four times Monday, rented the track for an hour and a half or so. Then came out here today [Wednesday], and I don’t know – we’re struggling bad. We just can’t find the speed. It might be me, just lack of seat time in a non-wing car. I really don’t know, I’m scratching my head.

    “About ten years ago, I came out here with Mac Steele’s car, and we didn’t qualify. We qualified 34th, I guess,” he said. When asked what he needed to change to gain speed for Thursday qualifying, Johnny responded, “I’m going to have to sleep on it, because I don’t know. We got fast, I think we may have had an 11.7 [second lap time], and then we’ve gotten worse and haven’t changed the car. We’ve lost a tenth or two. You’re going to have to qualify early tomorrow, or else you’re done,” he said, in discussing the hot weather and the hot, slippery track that it caused. The cars to qualify early were going to be the fastest ones, he thought, due to the cooler track.

    “The car felt considerably different,” Johnny said, describing the feel of his car after a lunch break, and the return to a track being baked by the sun and hot weather, which looked likely to return for Friday and Saturday. The track felt slippery to him. “I almost spun it out twice. That track’s got to be a hundred and something degrees, I think. This tire’s pretty hot, and we’ve already been sitting here 10 minutes,” he said, as he reached out to put the palm of his hand on his car’s left rear tire.

    “I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself and my friends for this deal,” Johnny continued. “I don’t want to let anybody down. I’m just frustrated with myself, because I don’t feel myself getting better [referring to his Wednesday lap times], and I think I should. I might be over thinking it and being a little too hard on myself – I don’t know. I’ve got to go to the hotel and think about it and get my mind set for tomorrow and try to get this thing in the show solid, and then not stress out anymore this weekend.”

    Johnny also had a few words about Florida, and its healthy pavement sprint car racing environment. “I think Florida’s got the best asphalt series in the country right now. I’m pretty proud of that,” he said. He did express a desire to see non-wing pavement sprint car racing return to Florida. “I’ve already made my case with everybody down there, that myself and Steele Performance would support any of that, as long as everybody keeps with the same purse structure and nobody’s schedules conflict against each other.”

    Rookie John Inman at Anderson Speedway with his car 59x to make his first attempt to qualify for the Little 500.

    John Inman had arrived at Anderson Speedway for this year’s Little 500 after winning the title of Florida’s pavement sprint car racing champion in 2017 with the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series. With four wins in sprint car racing in Florida last year, he had next set his eyes on winning the Little 500. With a repaired Diablo chassis, he had already shaken off a high-speed crash at New Smyrna Speedway about a month ago. The limp he had from that crash, due to an impact to his knee, was gone. The car was ready – and so was he.

    “We did go to Showtime [Speedway] last Wednesday night,” John Inman said, “and we were pretty close to the track record there, so we just loaded up the car and brought it how it was. We were going to rent the track and test here but today’s [Wednesday] is our first laps on the track. We’ve got two sessions in now, and we’re pretty good.” John had a “brand-new Kenny Hahn 22-degree motor, Florida-legal 360. I didn’t want to buy two motors, so we brought the 360 up here.”

    The Diablo chassis that John was driving was actually the same car that he had driven in some Little 500 practice laps last year when the car was owned by Grant Thormeier. He purchased the car after last year’s Little 500, and then won two winged sprint car races in Florida last year in this car. “We won at Punta Gorda and at Citrus, with a wing. We did take this car to South Carolina, to run Must See. We have now clipped it and fixed it and we’re back,” he said, referring to crash damage the Diablo chassis suffered earlier this year. By the end of April, he had two crash-damaged cars. Now the Diablo is repaired and the other car he described as “completely lost.” He put all his efforts into readying the Diablo chassis in order to make it a specialized non-wing car set up for the Little 500.

    After Wednesday’s laps, he said, “We’re mid-pack right now. We’re going to make a qualifying run with some new tires and see how good we can get it. Kenny, of K&K Performance, put an awesome motor in it, the Diablo chassis is good, and Taylor Andrews of Dayton Andrews Dodge, he came aboard to help us out. And we’ve got Circus Time Ice Cream up there for the weekend, thanks to David Sink. We actually put it in the same spot on the car as Dave Steele, a throwback to Dave. We think we should be in the show on Saturday, no problem.”

     

     

     

    Rear Axles Prove Dangerous in New Smyrna Accidents

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    May 10, 2018

     

    It happened twice in the late summer of 1970 at Golden Gate Speedway, a defunct Tampa pavement short oval that closed in 1984. Two different cars, two different drivers – at the same track.

     

    In each crash, the driver was on the straight at “the Gate” when the throttle stuck, and they left the track at a high rate of speed and crashed violently. The first was on August 14, 1970 when Wayne Rohn was behind the wheel of a sprint car, headed down the front stretch at 100 mph when the throttle stuck wide open. The car went over the fence in turn one. A newspaper report claimed that he didn’t have a single broken bone from the crash that followed, but he did receive a very serious head injury and subsequently died five days later. He was a popular driver who had moved from Michigan and had already won some races in Florida. He was the first driver to die in a crash at Golden Gate Speedway.

     

    The second crash – that was on September 19, 1970, and involved Richard Pratt Jr. This crash was different from the first that took Rohn’s life. First, Pratt had his shoulder harness buckled when the crash occurred, and the Tampa Times news report speculated that Rohn did not have his shoulder harness buckled when his car crashed. Secondly, Pratt had a “kill switch” in his car for just this scenario – a car out of control with a stuck throttle. But Richard, son of former driver Dick Pratt, did not have time to hit the switch and cut the car’s power before the impact. He survived, but with very serious injuries (source: Tampa Times, September 25, 1970, Blount, Archie, “Throttles Prove Dangerous in Golden Gate Accidents.”).

     Bent chassis and shifted seat on John Inman's car after crash at New Smyrna, 4-28-2018

    Nearly a half century later, at a Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series race on April 28, 2018 at New Smyrna Speedway, a high banked, high speed Central Florida pavement short oval, two similar crashes occurred. Both were attributed to the same mechanical failure, and resulted in two high-speed sprint car crashes. The two crashes that day were eerily similar to each other, but vastly different from the 1970 crashes. A broken rear axle was blamed for each wreck, causing the cars to do a half-spin and impact the outside wall with the left side of the car. Unlike the 1970 crashes, neither car left the track. Unlike the cars that crashed on those two days in 1970, the sprint cars both had full containment seats, with modernized and updated harnesses, and the drivers were wearing high-tech, modern helmets with head and neck restraint devices, something invented long after the ’70s.

     

    The first crash, during an afternoon practice, happened when the rear axle broke on the No. 59x car driven by John Inman, the 2017 Florida pavement sprint car champion. The impact with the outside wall in turn one was so violent that the car’s chassis was left with a V-shaped bend at the driver’s left elbow, and the seat was shifted to the left a sufficient distance that allowed it scrape the outside wall upon impact. After being checked out by the EMT at the track, John showed his right knee, which was cut and swollen. Even though he had a noticeable limp, he stayed at the track, put away his bent and broken car, and vowed to return to racing and to keep his plan to repair one of his cars for the Little 500 in May. He had no broken bones, and his injury was relatively minor, considering the violent impact.

     Crash damage on 18 car of Shane Butler from feature race crash, New Smyrna Speedway, 4-28-2018.

    The second crash, again due to a broken rear axle, involved a half-spin and high-speed impact into the turn two outside wall. It happened in the feature race to the No. 18 car driven by Shane Butler. This crash had the potential to be significantly more serious. It happened with the full field of cars on the track at speed, and the car flipped on its side after reaching the inside grass strip along the back stretch. Fortunately, no other cars were involved, and Shane was able to climb out of the wrecked car and tell the safety crew that he was OK. The car had gone into the air after the initial impact, and even though it was slammed down onto its left side in the grass, Shane’s helmet did not show a single visible scratch or dent. Shane later said that his only injury was a sore knee, and that it was his right knee – the same injury suffered by John Inman.

     

    That both cars were kept on the track after each impact was due to the track being surrounded by a concrete wall (without a SAFER barrier). That’s a vast difference to the conditions at Golden Gate, which had a partial concrete wall and was often the scene of cars leaving the track at speed, only to strike a sand bank or outer ring of steel sheets. Not only was the track safer, the cars were also far safer than the cars raced at the Gate in the early ’70s. With the drivers’ heads and arms being restrained, neither driver faced an increased risk of having a part of their body strike the wall, or in Shane’s case, of having an arm trapped under the side of the car or having his head strike the ground when the car flipped onto its side. The end result – no serious injuries suffered by either driver. They would both return to the track in May, with both drivers making plans to race in the 2018 Little 500 on May 26 (in fact, they are two of eight drivers making a “Florida invasion” of this year’s Little 500).

     

    I spoke to Steele Performance Parts manager Johnny Gilbertson at the track upon the conclusion of the racing on April 28. Two of the most important questions that I felt needed to be asked were: What happened, and could it happen again?

     

    The first question was probably the most difficult to answer. One or more rear axle manufacturers had made a decision to no longer use aluminum in the rear axles that they produced. There had been upgrades and improvements in the design and manufacture of rear axles designed for use in sprint cars, but they were far from perfect, and did not come with any guarantees that they would never break or fail. New Smyrna Speedway was the track where rear axles had the greatest possibility of breaking, as it had the fastest speeds and highest stresses on the cars, due to the long straights and shorter radius of the turns. Nationwide, high-banked half-mile pavement tracks had been disappearing from most of the pavement sprint car racing schedules. But not New Smyrna Speedway – they still had sprint cars coming to race.

     

    That left the most relevant question: Was there a danger that this could happen again, at either New Smyrna or another track? Johnny Gilbertson replied that it could happen again, and that high-speed racing and the current design of rear axles was not fool-proof, and that rear axles could break again. Racing does not come with any absolute guarantees.

     

    NOTES:

    Mickey Kempgens, who showed impressive speed at the most recent Southern Sprintcar series race at New Smyrna on April 28, where he built up a half-straightaway lead late in the race and maintained it all the way to the checkered flag, took his first feature win of the year that night. Earlier mechanical problems did cut down the size of the feature field, which was then depleted further by multiple wrecks, but Mickey still had to hold off the fast cars driven by Sport Allen and Johnny Gilbertson to take the win.

     

    “We had to start 10th,” Mickey said. “I knew on the start I was going to jump to the outside and pick off as many as I could. I didn’t expect to get all the way to third [by the second lap].” Mickey went to the outside, third groove, to make the pass for the lead in the fourth turn, getting past leader Joey Aguilar, who then crashed at the exit of that turn. Mickey didn’t make contact with any of the crashing cars. “We just dominated from there, I guess,” he added. “We’ve been struggling all year, like I said, even though we’re leading the points. We found ‘an issue’ with the car and finally got it fixed, and it showed tonight. This is the first race [since the issue was discovered and resolved]. That car was faster at the end of the race than it was at the start. I was honestly just cruising, running three-quarter throttle, wasn’t pushing the car. I couldn’t do it without all these guys – they bust their ass all week. I just show up and drive this thing, so all the credit goes to them.”

     

    The next race for the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series is this Saturday, May 12 at 4-17 Southern Speedway in Punta Gorda. After then, eight drivers from Florida will be readying themselves for the Little 500 in Anderson, Indiana, with qualifying on May 24 and 25, and then the 500-lap race on Saturday, May 26. Another race of interest to Floridians is the inaugural Dave Steele Carb Night Classic in Indianapolis on Friday, May 25, a USAC Silver Crown Series champ car race.

     

    Richard Pratt Jr., mentioned earlier, did return to race again after recovering from his injuries. He raced bombers and late models from 1968 to 1976, and his son later raced late models in Florida in the ’90s.

     

     

    Lynn Steele: Preserving Dave Steele’s Legacy, Part 2

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

    May 4, 2018

    In the past 13 months since the passing of Dave Steele on March 25, 2017, Lynn Steele’s time has been spent caring for her three children, continuing her career as a teacher, helping out at the Steele Performance Parts race shop, and working toward preserving the legacy of Dave’s career as a legendary open wheel race car driver, business owner, husband, and father. Her work to preserve Dave’s legacy recently resulted in Dave’s name being attached to the Dave Steele Carb Night Classic, a USAC Silver Crown race in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Raceway to be held on Friday, May 25.

    Dave Steele with his car at the 2016 Little 500, his last time in the race.

    “I do still teach at the same school – fifth grade,” Lynn said. “Each morning, I still take my son [Brody] to his school and the two girls go to school with me. Bailey and Claire are old enough to be at my school and next year Brody will be joining school with us, so the four of us will be able to go to school together in the morning [Brody is the only child under five, too young for Kindergarten]. Grandma Carol and Mac – they help out a lot as far as when I have school meetings or events with the kids, that maybe Grandma will keep a couple while I take one. Dave was a big part of the school logistics every day. Grandma, bless her heart, she’ll get up early three days a week, and I’ll get up early two days a week. I wouldn’t be able to do it without her.

    “The kids are doing very well in school,” Lynn continued. “Bailey, she’s on the principal’s honor roll every quarter, and Claire’s just in kindergarten, but she’s doing very well and kind of flourishing beyond what I thought she would because her and Dave were very, very close. Brody, he enjoys life, he knows his dad because we talk about him so often. If we didn’t talk about him, he wouldn’t know him. He’ll stop and look at pictures sometimes, and say, ‘And that’s my daddy?’ And I’m like, ‘Yup – that’s your daddy!’ That’s a tough thing. Dave comes up in everyday conversation, and it’s not forced. It’s just they want to hear about it, or they want to say something or they want to talk about a memory they have. We giggle or we talk about it – it makes them happy to talk about it.

    “I would hate to leave out my mom and dad, Bill and Julie, who fly down when they are ever needed,” Lynn added. “Anytime that I’m … I do get down sometimes, and my mom does not hesitate to jump on a flight and get here to either help with the kids or just be with me.” Lynn knows that she just needs to pick up the phone, and her mother will head for the airport to fly to Tampa, in addition to the help that is nearby – all the family and friends that live in the Tampa Bay area.

    “Johnny [Gilbertson, manager at Steele Performance Parts], at the shop, has also been here, and Mike Maglio. If something breaks at the house, or if I need help with something, both of them, without question, are right there at the front door. Together, they can get almost everything done that Dave did. I don’t know how Dave did it!”

    At the race shop on Lois Avenue in Tampa, Lynn’s usual routine is to “make sure that I am there at least on Saturdays. Throughout the week, if Johnny needs to leave or is working out back and needs someone up front, I try to get there. I’m trying to learn. I’ve been doing a little bit more of trying to be present at the race track still. Johnny makes that easy for me. He’s like: ‘Come on – you need to be out here doing this – it’s still your shop.’ He’ll let me ride with him. It’s very helpful for me to be able to be still involved because it’s tough to want to get there mentally, stay there mentally, and to also have the kids. I’m trying to be a lot better at being present for customers. Even if it’s just shipping and receiving, or inventory – it’s kind of the same stuff that Dave would put me to work to do when he was around.”

    Lynn often feels that she is not familiar with the operation of the shop, as Dave’s habit was to keep his home life and his work at the shop separate. When he came home from work, that was the time that he devoted to his family. “He didn’t bring the shop home with him much,” Lynn remarked. “So, I didn’t know a whole lot about the shop.”

    The sales volume at the shop is classified by Lynn as “really well.” She states that “for the most part” customers have been patient and understanding in talking to and dealing with Johnny as their contact at the shop, and that they have lost very few customers in the past 13 months. She states that Johnny Gilbertson is “picking up the work of two guys. It was always more than a two-man job there, but that’s how David and Johnny ran it. Johnny has been working his tail off at the shop.”

    There have been a very small number of the shop’s customers who were “not extremely loyal,” were the words used by Lynn. There was something that Johnny learned from Dave – and then passed down to Lynn regarding losing some customers: “You just run your business, and they’ll come back. You can’t turn your back on your money. You keep plugging away, and do what you know is right.”

    There was a special part of the relationship between Dave and Lynn, an offer made by Dave that drew them closer together and strengthened their marriage. It was when Dave said to Lynn, “I’ll put you through the school of life.”

    Lynn related that she learned a lot from her husband. She felt that he really did put her through that “school of life” during their marriage. She felt that one of the most important things that she learned from Dave was the importance of always being completely honest.

    “He never was dishonest,” said Lynn, “in any way – at the house, at the shop, with customers, with his family, and it kind of set the bar high. Not that I was a dishonest person, but some people will tell you what you want to hear. He was not one of those people. He wasn’t going to sugar coat or make it nice. He was just going to say what it was, and I really always admired that and I admired his humbleness. There’s so many stories that came out that I didn’t even know about, like from people that I didn’t even know that Dave was involved with. I think that’s pretty cool that he never had to flatter anybody.”

    Lynn wanted her kids to learn these lessons and learn about Dave’s personality traits and his desire to be honest with everyone that he related to at work, at play, and at the track. “You know – does that make sense?” Lynn asked.

    Yes – it definitely does. Dave was a man with an admirable personality, work ethic, and ability to love and care for others, even taking on some of the personality traits of the car owners he had when he was a young man, readily offering his advice and assistance to other racers and other teams to improve their chance of success at the track.

    After all, that was just good business. And that was just Dave Steele … being himself.

     

     

    Lynn Steele: Preserving Dave Steele’s Legacy, Part 1

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

    May 2, 2018

    Lynn Steele has been busy in recent weeks and months working toward setting up an event that will honor the legacy of her late husband, open wheel racing legend Dave Steele. That event, the inaugural Dave Steele Carb Night Classic, will be held for the first time at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis on Friday, May 25 in conjunction with the running of a USAC Silver Crown Series race. In the conversation that I had with her last week, Lynn discussed her work toward getting this event approved and placed on the 2018 USAC racing schedule, and also discussed her life in the past 13 months since the passing of Dave on March 25, 2017.

     Dave and Lynn Steele in the winner's circle after another Florida race win.

    “After the accident, several months after,” Lynn began, “I’m good friends with Levi Jones – we went to high school together [at East Richland High School in Olney, Illinois]. With him being at USAC there, he called and said that if there was anything that he could do, ever, to give him a call. So I got to thinking, a lot of things have happened and the one thing that I can think of to keep Dave’s name alive, and something that he would be really proud of and something that would make me feel good too was: Why not do a race? Dave kind of made his name with USAC, and so I contacted Levi and I approached him with, ‘How about we get an annual race in Dave’s name, and I said the two places that come to mind are Phoenix, or IRP [Indianapolis]?’ Levi got together a couple of different proposals, and spoke with both track promoters and it kind of worked out that Indianapolis would be the best deal.

     

    “One thing that Dave always wanted was to bring more race cars to the race track,” Lynn continued. “One of the things that Dave was known for was taking that chance to go to the back, and putting those two together – a come from behind win for a bigger purse and just promoting it and trying to get more cars to the race track. That was what we really wanted to do and what I think would make Dave really happy. When the proposal came in, I jumped at it and from that point on Levi and I have been kind of going back and forth and worked with it. There are t shirts to be made and I’ve gotten a few sponsorships together to have a purse for coming from the back of the field. Mac and Carol [Steele – Dave’s parents] are going to sponsor the pole award.”

     

    Lynn explained that she is the only one that has made an announcement about the Dave Steele named event because USAC wishes to concentrate on promoting the events that are coming up in the near future that are USAC-sanctioned, prior to May 25, and that they will begin their promotion of the Dave Steele Carb Night Classic later in the month. There has not been a press release or web-based promotion from USAC yet. Lynn made the announcement on a Facebook page that she administers, which is titled “A Thank You from Lynn Steele.”

     

    “Rich Forman has made the flyer, I’ve proofed that,” Lynn said. “Bob Sargent [race promoter] has been the one that has been working with Lucas Oil Raceway. USAC approached him to do this, and it will be the Dave Steele Carb Night Classic every year. I’m very new at all this, and I’ve tried to learn as I go. Poor Levi – he’s being very helpful. The come from the back bonus is one that is being paid by sponsors. I’d like for there to be a come from the back challenge each year.”

     

    Lynn has been consulted and involved in decisions regarding the design and look of the t shirt in addition to the overall design and setup of the race event. The first conversation between Lynn and Levi about this event was about 10 months ago, and some additional planning happened in Ocala in February during USAC’s Speedweeks races there, and that culminated with the social media announcement made by Lynn on Wednesday, April 25. Shortly after, both Lynn and Levi Jones were surprised at the enormity of the positive response, prompting Levi to exclaim, “Wow!” They hope to have a lap sponsor for each of the 100 race laps. Some laps are sponsored at $1,000, and others at $50, with all the lap sponsors listed in the race program. The lap sponsors are allowed to choose the amount of money that will be awarded to the lap leader of the lap they sponsor.

     

    “I’ve contacted all of Dave’s car owners with wins at IRP,” Lynn said, “and most of them are trying to get in for the race, and the opening ceremonies, so that’s exciting. Dino Tomassi [Dave’s car owner from the 2002 IRP wins, a USAC doubleheader midget race night] – I spoke with him, yes. He’s working on trying to get in for it.” Her friendship with Levi Jones, which spans decades and was the driving factor in getting this event finalized, goes back to when their families were friendly with each other in Olney, Illinois, and they became friends during their high school years, although they were not in the same grade.

     

    “I’ve not had anybody officially say that they want to do anything,” Lynn said, when asked about the possibility of another race event named for Dave in Florida, or elsewhere. “I’m a little bit selfish and want to make sure that anything that is using Dave’s name is not a memorial. I don’t want it to be a memorial. That’s why Levi and I, we called it the Classic, we wanted it to be a positive thing. That’s one of my stipulations, that it not be called a memorial, and that it own up to what I think David deserves. I want it to be worthy – that’s probably very selfish of me, but that’s the way I feel. I just think that these guys that do this, these legends, deserve a lot. David, being my husband, I think he deserves extra,” she said, letting out a gentle laugh, which seemed to show her relief and sense of satisfaction at knowing that the race event was going to happen, and that Dave would certainly have been proud of it, and proud of her.

     

    Coming up: “Lynn Steele: Preserving Dave Steele’s Legacy, Part 2”

     

     

     

    Lenny Puglio is in Fine Form

     Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

     April 30, 2018

     Lenny Puglio is in fine form. 

    In a Monday morning phone conversation, the zingers and one-liners were flying left and right from the legendary sprint car team owner. So were the dollar amounts that he has been spending in recent weeks, numbers that would make the average Joe’s head spin and eyes bulge. Lenny has been spending those dollars in recent weeks in pursuit of a singular goal – to continue his legacy of being a winning pavement sprint car team owner. He also has a more specific goal for the near future – to win the Little 500 on May 26.

     Car owner Lenny Puglio, left, with driver Troy DeCaire and chief mechanic Todd Schmidt at Desoto Speedway, 9-19-2015.

    Lenny has not been in Florida for the past two weeks. That’s why he was not seen at New Smyrna Speedway on Saturday night, when the Southern Sprintcar series raced. He’s been in Indiana, at Bob East’s Beast race shop and at other garages and suppliers in the Indy area. He mentioned what he’s spent so far on putting together a Beast chassis pavement sprint car for the May 26 Little 500, and mentioned what his hotel bill was for the past two weeks (he just got back in Florida), and they are all big numbers, each with a bunch of zeros.

     

    The Beast chassis – well, that’s brand new, and will be a sight to see in a few weeks at Anderson Speedway. Be ready with your sunglasses, as it will glint in the sunlight, all carbon fiber, titanium, and chrome, with a Gaerte engine under the hood and veteran driver Troy DeCaire behind the wheel. After you see this new car in a few weeks, be prepared to see it disappear. Oh, it’ll be back again, but not for another year – it’s a Little 500 only car. Yes, you can say that car owner Lenny Puglio is all-in on winning the 2018 Little 500, in a very big way.

     

    But wait, you may say. Doesn’t Lenny already have a Little 500 only car, the one called “Half-Breed”? Yes, he does. But this new car appears to be an innovative and improved version of Half-Breed (it doesn’t have a nickname yet). It certainly will cost more, and is undoubtedly a favorite to win on May 26. After all, Lenny Puglio has been there before, in the Little 500 winner’s circle. If there is any time when Lenny’s voice may sound a little choked up, it is when he talks about the driver he took to that 2009 Little 500 winner’s circle, his driver – Dave Steele. Lenny wistfully will spin tales of the trips together up north with Dave, times at the track, and the most enjoyable times of all – watching Dave dominate the competition and beat them while driving one of his sprint cars.

     Two most recent drivers of Lenny Puglio cars, Dave Steele, left, and Troy DeCaire, right, greet each other prior to 2015 Little 500, 5-23-2015.

    Continuing the theme of native-American nicknames for his sprint cars, one of those cars was “Kemosabe.” When Dave was behind the wheel of Kemosabe, he won 39 times. Add another 11 wins by Troy DeCaire, and the car’s win total had reached 50 wins by the time it arrived at Punta Gorda on February 17 for an early-season Southern Sprintcar series race. That’s the race where Kemosabe met its untimely demise.

     

    A grinding wreck on a restart left Kemosabe with a skewed and bent chassis, and the car will be relegated to the show-car circuit, never to race again. But first, it’s going to be straightened and repaired and put back into clean and shiny condition. That’s because it’s destined to sit in a place of honor, on display at the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum in Iowa. It’ll look as it did when Dave Steele drove it, serving as a reminder of those times when Dave drove it and won in it.

     

    Lenny Puglio had a personal tragedy in his life recently – his wife passed away. He did return to the track after a while, racing in Florida in winged pavement competition with Troy driving. There were wins, but Lenny has now mourned the loss of his wife and is ready to dive back into racing with both feet, and is ready to spend whatever is necessary to win. The Beast chassis isn’t the only new car. There are two new Hurricane chassis cars coming too. One will have a 410 engine in it and will be for up north, with the Must See Racing series mentioned by Lenny. The other will have a 360 for Florida competition. He will return to 360 competition in Florida, he’s just not saying when for now. It may be later, after the 410 series racing.

     

    There’ll be one constant in all of these races, including the Little 500, and Lenny also spoke about that. It’s luck. It’s always a big factor in the Little 500. So many times, Dave Steele was the favorite to win the Little 500, many times with Lenny. But then he didn’t win, for one reason or another. Luck just wasn’t there for the two men. In Lenny’s last try at the Little 500 in 2015, with Troy driving, hopes were high. They were there with Half-Breed, a fine car. They were the first car out of the race after it broke a few laps into the race. They were listed in 33rd place – last place. You can’t go to the Little 500 with a big budget, the fastest car, and your ace driver, and expect that you are going to win without something else on your side – luck.

     

    With luck, then maybe, just maybe you might win. Lenny Puglio knows that. That’s why he’s written all those checks lately. He expects to take another trip back to Anderson Speedway’s winner’s circle on May 26, this time with Troy DeCaire. He expects to be there – with luck on his side, that is.

     

    Here’s the full Little 500 Entry List for Florida Drivers, as of Monday, April 30, with rookie status (R), car number and engine size in CI (drivers and teams that have confirmed they intend to file an entry):

     

    1)      Johnny Gilbertson, (R), No. 22, 410

    2)      Tommy Nichols, No. 55, 410

    3)      Mickey Kempgens, No. 68, 410

    4)      Troy DeCaire, No. 91, 410 (New Beast chassis)

    5)      Carlie Yent, (R), No. 63, 360 (Will attempt to be 1st female in field since 2013)

    6)      John Inman, (R), No. 59x, 360 (Chassis will be repaired)

    7)      Garrett Green, No. 55, 410 (Hornet chassis, Tommy Nichols race team entry)

    8)      Driver named later (off-the-record as of 4/30)

     

     

     

    Hayden Campbell: Dawn of a Future Sprint Car Champion

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    April 12, 2018

    With a new J & J sprint car chassis that his family-owned team debuted in March 2017, 21-year-old dirt sprint car driver Hayden Campbell went on to win three feature races in 2017 Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series competition on dirt. That tied him with Matt Kurtz for the second most series feature wins during the year. Hayden followed that with a rampage through the first two months of Top Gun Sprint series racing this year by winning the first four races of the 2018 season. That’s all but one race in the series this year. Hayden appears to be on track to be Florida’s next dirt sprint car racing champion.

    Hayden Campbell at Volusia Speedway Park, October 4, 2014.

    “It’s a lot more than what a lot of people think,” Hayden replied when asked what had happened that turned him, and his team, into a dominating force in Florida dirt sprint car racing. “We’ve been around racing for a long time; I started in go karts when I was seven. Family heritage goes back a long, long time – back to my grandpa. My great-grandfather and my dad raced, so racing’s been there forever.” Hayden’s great-uncle is legendary Florida master car builder and mechanic Harry Campbell, who had a long list of Florida racing legends drive his sprint cars. Hayden moved up to sprint cars in 2014, which was the same year that Harry Campbell died.

    “We finally got involved with certain people and got certain things lined up – new chassis manufacturer, J & J Chassis, and different shock program with Penske Shocks. It’s been a lot of things being put together and we finally got everything lined up perfectly. It’s been pretty amazing!” Hayden said.

    Hayden only needed a period of a few months with the new chassis before he started getting wins, followed a few months later by the domination at the end of last season and the first four races of this season. Matt Kurtz and AJ Maddox have been winning the championship driver title in Top Gun racing for years now, but that streak seems to be on the verge of ending soon.

    Hayden Campbell heat race at Bubba Raceway Park, October 25, 2014.

    “Now it’s up to us to make sure the car’s 100 percent and ready to go every race,” Hayden said. “We want to keep winning as many as we can, for sure. I don’t see why we can’t go win another four more this year.”

    After he started racing at age seven, Hayden then wheeled his go kart to the Florida Karting Association championship, with numerous wins. Next, it was on to the World Karting Association and more success racing in Florida. “We were really dominant in the go karts and that’s what got us going pretty quickly to the mini-sprints and the modifieds. After go karts, we weren’t winning that many races. We were winning one here and there, but nothing really sticks out more than how dominant we’re being with the sprint car. That’s the most dominant we’ve ever been with a single car.”

    Hayden, who is a native Floridian, told me that his team is searching for sponsorship dollars. Those dollars will be used to purchase a USCS-eligible 360 engine, and then enter future USCS 360 sprint car races. USCS has put its foot firmly into Florida 360 racing this year, with a total of eight series races planned in 2018 at Ocala’s Bubba Raceway Park. Hayden plans to be a future participant in that racing and is hoping that his recent success will bring in the sponsors. Until then, the Top Gun series is where they will race, with plans to run all the series races this year. The current plan is to begin with the new 360 motor at next year’s East Bay 360 Winternationals in February.

    What about long-term goals? Hayden has several of those. He is looking beyond his current racing home in Top Gun series racing, and his current educational status as an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida, where he is studying pre-law and is on course to graduate in December this year.

    In racing: “I’d love to be able to race for a living,” he said. “That would be a dream of mine. If some major sponsorship were to come our way, I’d love to go to a national touring series, like ASCS or even the All Stars, or something like that, just to do something all over the country.”

    His long-term career goal: Hayden plans to enroll in law school in 2019 after getting his bachelor’s degree in pre-law, and plans to be a practicing attorney as his career. He wants to go to a law school that is close to home, and still continue racing in Florida while studying law. He currently lives in Montverde, which is in Lake County, west of Orlando.

    “That’s the number one thing right now is to finish school,” Hayden said. “There’s no attorneys in the family now. If everything goes well and I graduate, I’d be the first one. If racing gives me an opportunity, then we’ll take it. Ultimate goal in racing would be to follow 410 series racing, like the World of Outlaws or the All Stars. I love sprint cars and I love the dirt racing. If I had that opportunity to run the World of Outlaws, and say after that someone came up to me and wanted to give me an opportunity with something bigger, then I would have to look at it. But, my mind right now is set on where my dream is to run the World of Outlaws. How could you not love going to run a hundred races a year and traveling all over the country, getting to run sprint cars? It’d be great.”

    Hayden also wanted to give thanks where it was due: “The biggest sponsor to thank is 5X5 Communications, also J & J Chassis, Penske Racing Shocks, and Engler Machine & Tool, who does all the fuel injection systems for me and also dynoed my motors and helped with tuning the motor. Smith Titanium – Stevie Smith, those would be the big ones, those are the ones that help us to do well.”

     

     

    The Oddities of 2018 American Pavement Sprint Car Racing

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    April 5, 2018

    American pavement sprint car racing seems to have its share of oddities in 2018.

    Oddity No. 1: When the 2018 King of the Wing national sprint car series schedule was released earlier this year, it did not have, and still does not have, a single race scheduled in the eastern half of the United States. Despite the fact that the Indiana/Ohio area is still the epicenter of American sprint car racing, there are no races there. The national series (originally planned with four weekends of racing in four locales: the Southeast, the Midwest, the Northwest, and the West Coast) does have a Midwest tour, but the two races in that Midwest weekend (June 22 & 23) are both at tracks in Canada (Delaware Speedway & Jukasa Motor Speedway). There’s nothing in the states, at least not east of the Mississippi River. The rest of the races during 2018 are in Colorado and further west. No Southeast tour, no Midwest U.S. races.

    Must See Racing sprint cars at Mobile International Speedway, Alabama, 4-14-2012.

    Oddity No. 2: Perhaps partially inspired by a lack of interest in the Southeast on the part of the national sprint car series, and also likely inspired by the demise of a sprint car series that focused on the Deep South states, the ASCS Southern Outlaw Sprints, Alabama’s Mobile International Speedway decided to launch their own pavement sprint car series. Never mind that the big half-mile high-banked track is suited for pavement sprint cars and is located in an area (the Deep South states of AL, MS, and GA) where there are no pavement sprint car teams, other than the black No. 13 car driven by Todd Fayard. They could fill the field with some dirt sprint cars, and there are some of those in need of a race series – the former Southern Outlaw Sprints teams. Maybe they could draw some Florida teams, but we’ll get back to that later. The debut of the new series for MIS last weekend drew a total of six cars for the feature race, one of them a 53-year old car. No surprise, the pavement sprint car won, piloted by Todd Fayard. The old SOS teams mostly stayed home, as did all the Florida pavement teams. The next two sprint car races at MIS (if they are run) are on April 28 and May 26. Those two races should be more of the same, without the Florida teams. They have a race at New Smyrna Speedway on the first date, and that second date – that’s the day of the Little 500. This oddity of a series may be on the way to an early demise.

    Oddity No. 3: The track that won’t die is back again for more pavement sprint car racing in 2018. This “zombie track” that keeps coming back from the dead (it’s been headed to the graveyard of forgotten race tracks several times) is Irwindale Speedway in Southern California. It is back on the King of the Wing schedule for one final race on November 3, 2018, unless it survives life beyond the grave one more time and comes back again in 2019. It seems appropriate that the race is only three days after Halloween. So, if you want to add that track to your life list of tracks visited before the bulldozers go, better make plans to get out there this November, before it’s history. It will soon be gone, unless it isn’t, in which case you can just go next year (maybe).

    Aaron Pierce car after contact with car of Kody Swanson, King of the Wing Series, Toledo Speedway, OH, 6-26-2016

    Oddity No. 4: The Midwest-based pavement sprint car series that does have races east of the Mississippi (in addition to the Must See Racing series), the Auto Value Bumper to Bumper Super Sprints, has a 2018 race season that is so short, it seems to finish within a few weeks of getting started. Lasting all of two months and 24 days, the season doesn’t start until after Memorial Day and the Little 500, and is over on the weekend before Labor Day weekend. They race, they go home, and then they begin their nine-month period of preparation for next year. Unless they want to head to … somewhere over the rainbow in the distant West or the South.

    So, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. There’s nothing odd about the state of American pavement sprint car racing, unless you perceive it to be odd. It’s just got its … idiosyncrasies (as we all do).

     

     

    Dylan Reynolds: “The Diesel” Ignites Florida Pavement Racing

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

    March 26, 2018

    So far in 2018, the best-performing rookie in pavement sprint car racing has been 17-year-old high school senior Dylan Reynolds, who has already had four feature starts this year with the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series in Florida. At his last outing with his family-owned team at Auburndale Speedway on March 17, 2018, he won his first sprint car heat race and had a seventh place finish in the feature race, his second top seven finish in the first four series races this year.

    Dylan Reynolds and his family-owned car at Auburndale Speedway on March 17, 2018.

    His name is listed on the side of his car as Dylan “The Diesel” Reynolds. “Well, we own a diesel shop,” Dylan explained. “My buddies gave me the name “The Diesel,” and I drive like I’m driving diesels … so that’s how the name came around.” His father is Jason Reynolds, who has raced mod minis and worked at a go kart track, which is where Dylan’s interest in go karts started. Prior to 2018, Dylan had six championships in three years in go karts, his last in 2017. That’s the year that Dylan and his father began working toward getting a sprint car for the family team. After the hardware was purchased in 2017, it was readied for Dylan’s first sprint car race in January at 4-17 Southern Speedway in Punta Gorda.

    “We did run unlimiteds,” Dylan said of his go kart racing, “and we had two-strokes on them, so they were pretty bad-ass, but you’ve got a lot more horsepower in a sprint car, that’s for sure. I’ve been wanting to drive a sprint car ever since I was a little kid. Dude Teate – he’s my dad’s best friend – he’s like my uncle. Every time he’s racing, I’m there, and it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do and I finally got it to happen.”

    This year, he has made his debut in Punta Gorda on 1/20/18 with an 11th place, he’s had a car break at New Smyrna Speedway on 2/10/18, his other seventh place happened back at Punta Gorda a week later on 2/17/18, then the best weekend so far happened at Auburndale in March with the heat race win and his second seventh place finish of this year. Dylan remarked, “All in all, we’re doing pretty good right now for a rookie.” He is the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year in the Southern Sprintcar series, but the year is still young, with over eight months of competition yet to go until the December series finale.

    “It takes more driver to drive these smaller tracks,” he said while at the quarter-mile Auburndale Speedway bullring, “but New Smyrna is pretty fun because you’re moving pretty good.” In that race at New Smyrna Speedway’s half-mile last month, he “came from dead last all the way up to eighth place and it broke on the last lap.” That drive shaft failure on the last lap, and all Dylan’s laps in a sprint car since January, were being closely observed by series official Terry DeCaire. “Once we got that repaired, Terry DeCaire gave us our green light,” Jason Reynolds said. That “green light” meant he had passed his rookie probationary period, and would no longer be required to start at the back of the pack in each race. They could now earn a better starting position in each race based on their results.

    The team has been closely aligned with the Butler Motorsports sprint car team. Their equipment includes a Hurricane chassis bought from Shane Butler and previously raced by the Butler Motorsports team, which included Stan and Shane. Troy Thompson recently retired from open wheel racing and sold his sprint car and Silver Crown car inventory. The engine, from Hickernell, was bought from Troy Thompson’s inventory, previously under the hood of Troy’s No. 15 car. It was placed into what was previously the red Butler Motorsports No. 81 car, and now is the red No. 555 car for Dylan.

    “Other than racing, taking over the business that we’ve got,” are Dylan’s stated plans for the future. “Taking over Dad’s business – Reynolds Automotive and Diesel in Leesburg, Florida.” That’s been the family business since 2009. He wants to “get out of the ‘hard labor’ stage of it, which I’m in now, in a hot shop with a hot fan blowin’ on me. I do all major engine work.” Once the hard labor stage of taking over the family business has passed, he sees himself directing the activities of others from his office, “in the A/C,” he said. He also sees himself working on his race car in this “next stage” of involvement in a business that is for father and son, Jason and Dylan Reynolds.

    “Cup cars … yes, sir!” Dylan said enthusiastically when asked about his ultimate auto racing goal. He’s aware of those most recent drivers who have advanced from sprint cars to Cup Series racing, or are nearing that summit, like Christopher Bell. “That’s what the big goal is here. Hopefully, I can get recognized, and get some big sponsors. I’ll drive anything with four wheels and a motor.” He is also wants to take college courses with a goal of getting a business degree.

    Dylan’s next race is this Saturday, March 31, at Showtime Speedway in Pinellas Park with the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series.

    The feature race video from Auburndale Speedway with the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series on Saturday, March 17, 2018 is here:

    https://youtu.be/XMmTUHNErP4

     

     

     

    Chase Stockon, feature race winner, USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Series, Bubba Raceway Park, Ocala, FL, Thursday, February 15, 2018.

    Chase Stockon: Winning Ways Continue in Ocala

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

    March 12, 2018

    “Last year was a trying year for us,” said 29-year-old USAC sprint car racer Chase Stockon. “We struggled quite a bit. We always typically run pretty good in Florida, there’s a little bit of optimism there. We finished the year on a high note.” Chase won two of the last four USAC national sprint car series races in 2017. Both wins were in November, one at Arizona Speedway and one at Perris Auto Speedway. He carried those winning ways over into 2018, winning USAC’s season opening sprint car race at Ocala’s Bubba Raceway Park on Thursday, February 15.

    In an interview from February in Ocala, Chase said, “This is a little bit different car than what we usually run – same chassis, but the stuff on it is a little bit different. We were kind of trying to free up the chassis. You know, in the summer months when everything slicks up, I think it’ll be right in the money. We fine-tuned everything over the winter to see if we can get a little more speed than what we had through the middle part of last year.” The colors on the number 32 sprint car’s vinyl wrap for 2018 were changed a little bit, but were “pretty similar,” according to Chase.

    “Goal for this year is to obviously win the championship. We started out last year pretty good, than fell off a lot through the middle part of the season, and we ended up fifth in points.”

    As for the mid-year “fall-off,” he felt that “stuff with the tires that’s changed on us, and we kind of went back to some of our old notes and changed the shocks a little bit … and we gained that speed back toward the end of the year. Hopefully, the speed we found at the end of the year, we’ll keep that with us for this year.”

    For 2018: “Competition this year’s pretty tough,” Chase said. “There’s a couple of newer teams coming along, or old teams with new drivers, so it’ll definitely be an interesting year. It’ll be a good year to be a fan.” He does believe that the overall skill level of the drivers in the series has improved, as compared to recent years. “Yes, skill levels with a bunch of drivers, crew chiefs, everything, so there’s no slouches anymore, so we’ve got to be on our toes at every point of the night.” Chase has to improve his driving skill, his car, the parts he chooses, tire care … everything.

    “That’s right,” he interjected. “Making mistakes behind the wheel is almost a thing of the past. If you want to win these races and be in the hunt, you can’t make many mistakes.”

    Chase intends to race the full 2018 USAC national sprint car schedule (which resumes racing on March 31 at Lawrenceburg Speedway), plus “some local stuff around home,” which for him is in Southern Indiana. “We’ll stay around Haubstadt area,” he said, “do the MSCS deal, because we live five miles from Tri-State Speedway. Then we’ll dabble a little bit with winged stuff in the local area. We only ran one winged show last year, the year before we were only able to do two – it was weather both years. It’s not even something I’m looking to do, USAC sprint cars, I think, are the best there is. It is for me anyway.

    “I like to go do the winged stuff sometimes – it’s a different speed and different change of pace. You’ve got to drive a little bit different, so it’s one of those things I do to try to stay a little bit sharper. This year, we plan to do the World of Outlaws show down there (at Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt, IN on April 14), and we’re going to try to venture over into Illinois and run some of those races, and maybe if the All-Stars are in the Indiana area, we might hit some of those.”

    The video highlights of Chase Stockon’s feature race win in the 2018 USAC national sprint car season opening race at Bubba Raceway Park on February 15, 2018 are here:

    https://www.facebook.com/speedshifttv/videos/1627686957300153/


     

     

    Kevin Thomas Jr.: Speaking Freely

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    February 22, 2018

    Kevin Thomas Jr. was going to speak his mind.

    That’s what he did last weekend. That’s the weekend when he was racing with the USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship in Florida, the same weekend when Austin Dillon was racing in a different race in Florida, the Daytona 500 (which he won). Kevin let loose on Austin Dillon, specifically the things he did right before and after taking the checkered flag at Daytona International Speedway (to summarize, he didn’t like what Dillon did, didn’t like his cowboy hat, didn’t … well, the rest is on Twitter).

    Kevin Thomas Jr. emerged from 2017 USAC national sprint car racing with the most sprint car feature wins during the season. He parlayed that into earning a seat for the 2018 USAC sprint car season with one of the best-known USAC teams, Hoffman Auto Racing and their number 69 car. Then he went out and took finishes of second, third, and fourth in the first three races of the 2018 USAC sprint car schedule, races held last week at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala. That meant he had the best overall record for the year so far, and the point lead for the 2018 USAC sprint car season. He was kicking butt on the track, and then verbally kicking butts off-track, but only when he felt they had it coming.

    Kevin Thomas Jr. and the Hoffman Racing 69 USAC sprint car at Bubba Raceway Park, 2-16-2018.

    Shouldn’t he have tried to use to the “nice-speak” of the nice guys over at the big speedway, the guys who refused to lay blame or get openly upset about getting put in the wall on the last lap? Nah – that just wouldn’t have been Kevin. What he says will probably be what many (some?) are thinking, but won’t say openly. Who knows – maybe he’ll be the next open wheel racer to find himself on a path to NASCAR success, with a climb through the ranks ending up in the Cup Series (Chris Bell’s current career path). Wouldn’t that be fun to see (and hear)?

    “Last year at the beginning of the season, it didn’t work out for me and the winged cars,” Kevin told me on Friday, with USAC at Bubba Raceway Park. “Then we went back to Indianapolis and got an opportunity with a few different teams. Then we started assembling our personal team back together (raced in previous years). Last time I raced for myself was in 2014, basically we had to start from scratch again. It took a lot of effort from my dad and sponsors like Jeff Walker and David Abreu from Abreu Vineyards. And a lot of people helped me put my program back together and we ended up clicking off 20 wins there (in total for 2017). One winged, 19 non-wing. It was a good year for us, to bounce back from the way it started, and then end the season with an Oval Nationals win.”

    The next significant event for Kevin was making contact once again with the Hoffman Racing team, a team he had driven for previously in 2012. Kevin’s relationship with the team had always been good, and then the pieces came together. A deal was made for them to race the full USAC sprint car schedule for 2018. “We’ve got the Mean Green colors on the side of this thing, and the Hoffman 69 is obviously legendary. It’s just a good little team that we have here and Hoffman brings a lot of experience on making championship runs – they’ve got 11 of them,” he said.

    Kevin Thomas Jr. checks his smart phone, racer downtime at Bubba Raceway Park, 2-16-2018.

    Can he bring them championship number 12? “S___, I hope so!” he replied. “If we can get them their 12th, my first, that’s the goal. We almost squeaked in there last year.”

    He didn’t come to Ocala for February USAC racing last year, and felt he could have won the 2017 championship if he had raced there. Last year, there were winged racing commitments he had made, in the Buffalo Wild Wings sponsored car. At that point in time, he wasn’t even going to race in USAC in 2017. Then things changed, and wings were out. But not quite 100% out – he’ll be back in a winged sprint car again, but it’ll be limited and may not be for a while. Winning the USAC sprint car championship is his primary goal now.

    This year in USAC, according to Kevin: “We’re going to have a lot of good competition throughout the year and it’s going to be tough. There’s not as many veterans as normal, but the younger guys such as myself, Justin Grant, Sunshine (Tyler Courtney), and Windom – we’re all coming into our own. Not as wild as we once were, but still got the balls to do things that maybe you shouldn’t do. It’s a pretty stout field. Now we’ve all kind of grown to be able to compete on all levels and do it on a consistent basis. You always say that about 15 guys in a non-wing race can win a race, but it’s legitimately 12 people now, that on any given night, it could be their night. They’re all out for blood, just like us.”

    Is there still a lingering desire for success in winged racing, the original goal at the beginning of last year, or will he be satisfied if success with winged cars never comes, but is replaced by continued success in non-wing racing? “Oh, yeah. Absolutely,” Kevin replied. “I obviously wanted to step into winged racing a little bit sooner in my career, like last year, and get that under my belt. But it didn’t work out and I set my goals for an Indiana Sprint Week title and an Oval Nationals title, and that’s what I wanted, and we miraculously accomplished both of those in one season. I’m happy where I’m at. I do love winged racing though. I think it teaches you a lot.”

    Kevin has close to 100 races planned for this year, in “quite a few different race cars,” he said. “We’ve got a full midget schedule ahead of us, in the USAC ranks. That’s the main concentration – dabble in Silver Crown cars a little bit. It’s going to be a lot of races, a lot of race cars. We’re going to try to get in 100. That’s the only way to really keep your butt in the seat and stay sharp.”

     

     

     

    Dave Darland: The Story of an Emotional 180 Degree Turn

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    February 16, 2018

    “At the end of last year, I didn’t want to race anymore,” Dave Darland said on Thursday.

    He had reached an emotional low point in his relationship with his life’s work – auto racing. His year competing in USAC sprint car racing had not gone the way he wanted. The success in USAC that he strived for, and had been striving for during the past 25 years, did not come in 2017. Retirement became a possibility … but not for long. A change was coming, or maybe it was more accurate to call it an emotional 180 degree turn, a reversal of fortune.

    Dave Darland poses with his Goodnight race team No. 36D car on Thursday, 2-15-2018

    “But then when I got the Goodnight team deal here, I want to race for another 10 years … now.” For a time, he didn’t like racing, but with the reversal of fortune, he now feels very positive. “Right,” Dave said. Had he felt that in any prior years – when his emotions took such a drastic turn from near despair to excitement and anticipation for the new season?

    “No. That’s the first time,” he replied. “Half way through last summer, I was pretty down and things weren’t going well. In some areas, they were going good. I ran Mark Hery’s No. 40 car and we won six races together last summer, but I didn’t win any USAC races and things weren’t looking good for a while. I hopped in the Goodnight car for a few races, and that got my spirits back up. So things are looking good.”

    Dave Darland is going to make a run for a second USAC national sprint car series crown with the Goodnight family-owned team, in car No. 36D with Scott Benic as his crew chief. His one and only USAC sprint car title came in 1999 when he drove the No. 69 Hoffman Racing team car. Don’t take that fact to think that his career hasn’t been awesome, because it has been. The Indiana racer is the winningest driver in USAC national sprint car series racing (59 feature wins), and has won the championship in all three of USAC’s top tier national open wheel series. Those championships came in a six-year span from 1997 to 2002.

    Dave Darland prepares to take to the track at Bubba Raceway Park on Thursday, 2-15-2018

    This year serves as sort of a reunification with the Goodnight family team, as he spent most of the year racing with them in 2010 and also ran some races with them at the end of last summer. Those few races were classified by Darland as one of the highlights of his 2017 racing season. Another was the feature win at Kokomo Speedway in August, when he won the Bob and Joan Darland Memorial, a race that honors his late parents. Another mid-year event that marked a high-point in the recognition of his racing skills was Dave’s induction into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in June.

    Dave explained how he arrived with the Goodnight team for 2018 USAC racing: “Me and Matt (Goodnight) talked about it in the middle of last summer when I was looking for a ride, and we talked about it and we put it together for this year and I brought a couple of sponsors along that helped the deal. But Matt and Gene Goodnight said that we can do the full schedule. We sat down a couple months ago and went through the schedule we wanted to do and so we’re going to do the entire USAC schedule, plus some outside of USAC.”

    He did not have a schedule for those races outside of the USAC national series, but said he’ll “do what makes sense for us. To start with, we’re going to run the sprint car portion of the Kokomo Grand Prix midget race. We have agreed to run those two nights (April 13 and 14); it’s USAC midgets there but the sprint cars are just a local show.”

    Racing at Bubba Raceway Park, now a winter tradition for the USAC racers, is not a track tradition that he greatly looks forward to, neither does he dread it. “Oh, it falls in the middle somewhere,” Dave said. “It’s certainly not on either end of the scale, but it’s something that’s not great for me and it’s not terrible. We have a good chance of having a successful trip here – looking forward to it, I guess, especially with my new team. The car was great last night and I ran the car three times at the end of last summer and it was great. I certainly am looking forward to this weekend driving for the Goodnight team.” His primary goal this year is to win the USAC championship again, as well as win as many races as he can.

    This winter, vacation time for him and his family took place down under. “Me and my wife Brenda just got back from Australia, we went to the beach there for a few days. I did two midget races while I was down there, three days of racing. Here in Florida, I just got in Wednesday (practice night at Bubba Raceway Park). Left Indianapolis yesterday morning, flew in here, practice last night, fly out early Sunday morning. Got here at the last minute, leaving the first thing.”

     

     

     

    Mark Smith – The King of Florida Speedweeks 360 Sprint Car Racing

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    February 13, 2018

    After winning the Saturday finale at the East Bay 360 Winternationals during Florida Speedweeks for two out of the last three years (2015 and 2017), Mark Smith has continued his dominance in 360 sprint car racing during 2018 Speedweeks by winning both USCS sprint car feature races last week at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala. This year’s Speedweeks schedule has two consecutive weekends of 360 sprint car racing. In addition to the two USCS races last Friday and Saturday, the East Bay Raceway Park Winternationals return for three days of racing beginning Thursday this week, culminating with the $10,000 to win Saturday race. That race also comes with a title for the winning driver: the King of the 360s.

    Mark Smith, who races in Pennsylvania and the Northeast for most of the year, is a 46-year-old veteran of decades of racing sprint cars on dirt ovals. His first win in 2015 in the Ronald Laney Memorial, as the East Bay Saturday night finale is called, was a win he called “one of the biggest of my career,” putting it next to winning “an Outlaw show in the prelim night at the National Open.” The Florida Speedweeks wins have been career-defining for Mark, with the intensity of the racing and huge car counts at East Bay in February always making them tough wins.

    Mark is also a sprint car chassis builder, marketing his chassis design under the Mach 1 brand name out of his Central Pennsylvania shop. His out-of-state sprint car wins are often heralded with a “PA Posse wins again!” exclamation when the news that Mark won reaches his home state. His first USCS national series win came last November in Florida, when he won the second of two nights of racing at Bubba Raceway Park. He has now won the last three USCS feature races, starting with that night, all of them at the Ocala track.

    “So far, it’s been pretty good for us,” Mark told me earlier this month, while he was at Bubba Raceway Park during their first February weekend of racing. As far as making a prediction for this weekend’s 360 sprint car racing at East Bay, he said, “I don’t want to sound like I’m cocky or anything, but we’ve won two nights down at East Bay, and I’d like to go down and win three nights. That’s kind of a goal – to win all three nights. But, that’s a tough deal to do. There’s a lot of good cars down there you know, but it’s possible to do.”

    Putting his Speedweeks emphasis on 360 racing meant that he chose to skip the five nights of racing at Volusia Speedway Park which concluded on Sunday. He has raced in events with 410 sprint car series last year and in February at Ocala with the All Star series. But his recent success – that’s come primarily in 360 sprint cars.

    What about beyond February – when he’ll be back in Pennsylvania and can celebrate his success in Florida, and look ahead to the spring and summer? “I have no idea,” he replied. “I haven’t even looked at the schedules, other than coming here. It was tough just to get down here, and I just want to thank Optilumen (a sponsor marked on the car’s side), they really made a big difference with helping us get down here. That’s our new sponsor for this year. They made this trip possible for us and just want to thank them. I’ll be in Pennsylvania most of the time. We’ll do some New York stuff, maybe going to Canada, maybe some Ohio stuff – just kind of skip around.”

    What he won’t be doing is going for any track or series championship. “I don’t like being stuck in a points race. I don’t like to race for points – I never race for points, it just happens that we win ’em! In the last two years, we’ve had 11 wins in each of the years. I’d like to beat that this year. Twelve would be good.”

    Looking long-term, could he envision that day when he’s ready to retire from driving, maybe be a full-time chassis builder only? “Oh … who knows?” he replied. “I guess when I don’t feel like doing it anymore. Right now I feel good, I’m competitive, and it’s not boring yet, so we’ll just keep going. I enjoy working on my own stuff, and this year we actually built a motor to race down here and that was the first time we did that. And so we’re just kind of playin’ around and havin’ some fun.”

    That fun in 2018 may include driving three other cars during the year, in addition to his No. M1 car, a Mach 1 chassis of course. Once again, he could be carrying a title with him through that spring and summer of Northern sprint car racing, as the guy who went down South and came home as “the King of the 360s.”

     

     

    Dale Blaney – The ‘Crew Guy Experience’

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    February 12, 2018

    After one night as a “crew guy,” Dale Blaney said (the modern way – in a Tweet), “I feel the need to apologize to every person who has ever worked with me. This crew guy stuff is way more stressful than being a driver. #INeedARideBad”

    Dale Blaney, at work as a 'crew guy' on his brother Dave's team at Bubba Raceway Park, 2-3-2018.

    Those were Dale’s feelings after working the first night as a crew guy on his brother’s team, the No. 70 sprint car driven by Dave Blaney, on Thursday, February 1 at Bubba Raceway Park. And the reason that Dale was a crew guy was because he did not have a full-time sprint car ride for the 2018 season, despite being a six-time driver champion with the All Star Circuit of Champions, and an inductee into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2016. He is hopeful about that status changing – soon. He is also smiling while he works, bottle of cleanser in one hand, and rag in the other, as he wipes down his team’s car in the pits in Ocala. I spoke to him two days later, on Saturday.

    “It’s a lot different being a driver,” Dale said. “I’m glad I can help my brother out down here a little bit.” According to Dale, the chronology of getting to this point, without a full-time ride, was “winning one (2017) race,” he said, laughing. “I’m going to run a little bit this year, here and there for a few guys. So it’s not like I’m going to be a crew member all year long. I’m just down here to help my brother in Florida – so that’s all. Hopefully first race will be mid March.”

    Where? “Don’t know,” he replied. “Don’t know where, don’t know for who.

    “Mid March or end of March, I’ll be racing somewhere,” he said emphatically. As far as the possibility of going outside – or even way outside – his comfort zone, into dirt late model, non-wing sprint cars, etc., he said, “Probably not,” and chuckled. “I haven’t got a call from too many people to drive one of these,” he said, gesturing toward his brother’s winged sprint car. “Why would I get a call from somebody that’s running late models? But, running a late model would be pretty cool. I’m up for anything. I’m a 54-year-old guy who won one race last year who doesn’t have anything to race in Florida. That’s all that is. I’ll have a job for early April at the latest.”

    Dave and Dale Blaney at Bubba Raceway Park for All Star series race, 2-3-2018.

    Beyond Florida, Dale said he would continue to help as a crew guy for his brother’s team, when he is not racing a car, “If he needs me to help him.” Dave Blaney is racing the full All Star Circuit of Champions schedule, so he will be close by, with the All Star series events heavily concentrated in Ohio and the Midwest.

    “He hasn’t run the full All Star Circuit of Champions probably since ’83 or ’84,” Dale said. “It’s been a long time. He hasn’t raced any series full time since ’97. That was the last year he raced with the Outlaws and then he went NASCAR racing and since he’s come back and raced a little bit, he just runs here and there. He always had Ryan to kind of help and since Ryan’s secure in where’s he’s at, it gives Dave an opportunity to go race a little bit more.”

    Ryan Blaney, Dave’s 24-year-old son, was named as the driver of the No. 12 Ford with Team Penske in December, it’s a full-time ride driving the new third NASCAR Cup Series car for the team in 2018. For the past two years, Ryan drove the iconic No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing car. He won his first Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway with them in June 2017. Ryan was following in his father’s footsteps with his success in racing. Dave Blaney won a USAC Silver Crown championship in 1984, then a World of Outlaws driver championship in 1995. He also was a Chili Bowl National midget champion in 1993 before moving into NASCAR stock car racing for more than a dozen years.

    “He’s a great kid,” Dale said about Ryan, “deserves what he gets and it’s pretty cool to have a Blaney driving for Roger Penske.”

    As far as Dale’s fans are concerned, they will just have to watch the race results in mid March to see where he landed, who he drove for, and how he did in his entry into a new era of his career in winged sprint car racing.

    “I’ve got three or four fans,” he said. “Times ten thousand!” came the reply. “Yeah …” he replied, followed by his characteristic good-times laugh. Dale is looking ahead.

     

     

     

    John Inman Races Today, Current Pavement Champ is Back

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

    February 10, 2018

    When Troy DeCaire laid down his New Year’s Day challenge, it was the start of a possible rivalry (OK, it was fully intended and imagined to create excitement about 2018 racing). The target of his challenge, John Inman, has never responded publicly in kind. He did not issue his own challenge directed at Troy DeCaire. He’s been busy, and has been going about his business taking care of his young family and his race team. He’s doing quite well in playing the role he’s familiar with, the one he’s comfortable with – the nice guy.

    John Inman, 2017 Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series driver champion.

    John Inman has confirmed that he will be racing in Saturday’s BG Products Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series race at New Smyrna Speedway. He’s not ready to race his own car, the No. 59X Diablo chassis sprint car, so he will be driving car owner Mac Steele’s No. 2 Beast chassis car in the race. He reached a one-race agreement with Mac Steele to drive the car in this race only. He expects to be back in his car after Saturday, with the anticipation of an engine repair being completed and the engine returned to him.

    John will have one week before the next series race, at Punta Gorda’s 4-17 Southern Speedway on Saturday, February 17, the last of the track’s four cold-weather season sprint car races. “We switched to a new motor builder and the motor expired at Punta Gorda. I was trying to work out an engine for the race but Mac Steele has stepped up and I’ll be driving the No. 2 Beast for Mac Steele this weekend,” John told me on Friday. “Mac Steele called me Wednesday of this week and offered me the ride, so I will be driving for ‘Crafty,’ instead of sitting in the grandstands. As of right now, it’s just for New Smyrna.”

    He does want to be back with his own car for next week’s race in Punta Gorda, but it is not certain that he will be. “It’s still up in the air who I’ll drive for or if I’ll drive,” he said, but that scenario was only if his engine was not ready to put back in his own car. Once the changeover to a different engine builder for his team is complete, he does intend for race in the remainder of this year’s series races with his own car.

    “I’ve driven for him (Mac Steele) one time before two years ago,” John said. “It was at Showtime, it was the vintage car, but we put a wing on it and we finished third. We missed one race last year and still won (the 2017 championship). We’re not chasing points, we’re mainly looking forward to try to get some backing together to go to Anderson. We’re going to take a shot at the ‘Little Five’ and if we can make that happen, then we can make that happen. If we can’t, we’ll just run local races. For anything we do from this point forward, I prefer to be in my own equipment,” he said, confirming his intention to enter and race his own car in this year’s Little 500.

    Only one thing will stand in his way and prevent him from making his rookie attempt in the Little 500 in May, and that’s lack of, or insufficient sponsor dollars. “It’s a 50/50 shot right now,” he said of his chance of making that happen. “We’ve got to get some backing behind us. By the end of March, we hope to have something put together. If we don’t by the end of March, then we’ll probably just make plans for another year.”

    And that rivalry, the one with Troy DeCaire, that got a start with Troy’s challenge directed at John, and only John – what about that? It got derailed by John’s engine woes, not racing in Florida until today, and John’s desire to be non-confrontational. He just doesn’t have the heart for it, for the stare-down, the confrontation, all of that stuff that would be unpleasant for the nice guy. It wouldn’t be the type of day he wants at the track. He wants to win, minus the confrontation.

    “Yeah … no,” he explained, “I went with a new engine builder for this year, and we had some little mistakes happen, but we’re back with K&K Performance. We switched at the beginning of this season (to a different engine builder, followed by the engine problem), but now we’re back with K&K Performance and he’s going to do my motors.”

     

     

     

    Parker Price-Miller – The New ‘Hired Driver’ in Town

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    February 8, 2018

    Parker Price-Miller at Bubba Raceway Park, 2-3-2018.

    It was a significant day for Parker Price-Miller at Tri-State Speedway on May 14, 2017. On that day at the Southern Indiana quarter-mile bullring, he won his first ever World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series race. It was significant because it was a turning point in his racing career, and he has now transitioned to racing full-time with the World of Outlaws. Parker, easily the youngest-appearing racer in the series, wants a lot more wins. This year, he has a seat in the potent No. 4 Destiny Motorsports car, and started his year racing in last week’s All Star Circuit of Champions races with feature finishes of 4th, 10th, and 5th.

    The 19-year-old driver from Kokomo, Indiana, who was Rookie of the Year at the Chili Bowl in 2014, was first named as the driver of the Destiny Motorsports sprint car in the fall last year. His first race with the team was on September 22, 2017. Florida racing will always be something special for him, as he got his first sprint car feature win here on February 20, 2014, in a Thursday preliminary race during the East Bay 360 Winternationals. He was only 15 years old at the time, defeating racers who had decades more race experience than him.

    Destiny Motorsports No. 4 car, piloted by Parker Price-Miller in 2018.

    “This is my third time,” Parker said, as he had raced at Bubba Raceway Park during Speedweeks in 2015 and 2017, as well as this year. His racing plan for 2018: “As of right now, to run the whole World of Outlaws schedule. Hopefully we keep running strong. Last night (Thursday last week in Ocala), we had a good run, led the first 21 laps of the race, and then fell back and finished fourth. Not a bad night and pretty good start to our 2018 season.”

    His racing goal for 2018: “I’d definitely like to have a top seven in points with the Outlaws and a few wins would be nice. One World of Outlaw win last year, the first of hopefully many. Main goal is just to build communication with my team and get comfortable with my guys, because it’s a new team and communication’s got to be there. Just build a relationship, and hopefully I’m here for years to come. I really enjoy the guys I’m working with this year. They’re like my best friends away from the track.”

    The Destiny Motorsports team also plans to run the two All Star series races this week at Volusia Speedway Park, followed by the full World of Outlaws 2018 tour, which begins on Friday at Volusia. “With the contract we signed with the Outlaws, we’re not allowed to run anything else,” Parker explained. “We can run Terry McCarl’s race at Oskaloosa, the Front Row Challenge, but other than that, I think that’s it. If you get rained out, you can go somewhere else. If that happens, we usually go to Knoxville, get laps there, or an All Star race that’s close. We have 96 races scheduled.

    “I think I ran 15 races at the end of the year,” he said. That was the partial year last year in the Destiny Motorsports car. “I consider this pretty much my first race, ’cause new season, new cars, everything’s how we wanted it to be. New thing for me – this is my first time ever being a “hired driver,” and that’s the only thing I do (driving). I help the guys out when they want me to. I’m here … and I’m going to give it 110 percent every night for them.”

    The hired driver role is new for Parker. He was used to driving a family-owned car or a car in which he was a partner and spending a great deal of time turning wrenches and doing the adjustments to the setup himself. Now he has a crew and a crew chief to do that for him. Passing time with the crew during downtime in the pits, and telling them how he wants the car to handle, and getting hands-on when he is needed and when the crew wants him to are new experiences for him, since last year.

    “In 2015 I drove for my dad,” he said, “and then in 2016 I had a guy from Illinois who gave me a lot of sponsorship and some motors and his truck and trailer, so it was kind of a partnership deal, and then I worked on the car. Last year, I kind of was a hired driver, but I also had to work on it. So this is my first time ever just being a hired driver. It’s new. I don’t have to work on the car, but I enjoy working on it and learning stuff. If they want me to do something, I do it. It’s not like I just go to the hotel, and show up when it’s race time. I hang out with the guys, and go to the car wash with them, and work on it during the day. I enjoy it. I used to work on it and drive it.

    “This is what I want to do for a living, so you might as well learn while you’re at it,” Parker said, as insightful a mantra for a young racer as can be said.

     

     

     

    Kerry Madsen – Back to Ocala, Back to the Winner’s Circle

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    Kerry Madsen at Bubba Raceway Park, Friday, Feb. 2, 2018.

    February 7, 2018

    Kerry Madsen had a season to be proud of during World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series racing in 2017. Driving the No. 2M Big Game Motorsports winged sprint car to five series wins put him in a tie with Brad Sweet for fourth place on the World of Outlaws win list last year, behind Donny Schatz, David Gravel, and Shane Stewart.

    Last week at Bubba Raceway Park, he raced with the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions and had finishes of 13th, 2nd, and 2nd in the three days of racing. He looked fast each night, and seemed primed for a win at any time. His next chance for a Florida win comes on Wednesday, the first of five nights of sprint car racing at Volusia Speedway Park (the first two nights with the All Star circuit, before switching to World of Outlaws sanctioning for the last three).

    Kerry Madsen, right, is a podium finisher at Bubba Raceway Park, All Star Circuit of Champions, Saturday, February 3, 2018.

    Looking thin and trim, with his Australian accent giving him a suave, charming flair (as it always does), I was fortunate to interview Kerry Madsen on night #2 of All Star racing last Friday. That was the night of his first podium finish of the week at Ocala. Madsen has made a habit of doing well in February racing at Bubba Raceway Park in recent years, as he won a February feature race there last year. In 2015, he won two February Speedweeks All Star feature races at Bubba Raceway Park.

    He described the races last week at Bubba Raceway Park as a time “to dust the cobwebs off. The car’s been quick and it’s quick tonight, so if we keep it up, we’ll be alright for the overall week.” As to whether he feels fortunate to be with this team, which includes team owner Tod Quiring and crew chief Guy Forbrook, a National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inductee, he said, “Absolutely! We got the opportunity to come here last year, and it was a no-brainer. Every time I get in it, the car’s extremely quick. So, that’s all I ask for and for me, it’s not about numbers, it’s about being in a quick car every night.”

    His team is “taking it one night at a time,” and has not committed to racing in all five nights at Volusia Speedway Park. “If we get through every night unscathed, then we’ll be back every night,” Madsen commented. His goal for 2018: “Win races. We won a lot last year, but we felt like we gave up a lot, so we’d like to get a little more in the ‘W column,’ for sure.”

    In Australia during the winter he “won about seven out of 14 down there, ran an unbelievable year with the Keneric team down there … just Australia.” Madsen won not only the Speedweek points title for Keneric Racing while he was down under, but also his third consecutive Australian Sprintcar Championship in 2018. In what was called “a superbly calculated race,” Madsen beat James McFadden and Matt Egel to the finish line to win at Mount Gambier’s Borderline Speedway in Australia on January 27 to clinch the championship.

    “Just the (Knoxville) Nationals – that’s the only one,” he replied, when asked if there was any one “big race” that he’d like to win that he has not won yet. Could this year be the year when he’ll see his name as the Saturday finale winner at the Knoxville Nationals? “Who knows?” he replied. “We’ve been in it for the last five years and had every shot and haven’t got it done, so … just to go back and try and get ourselves in a position to have a crack, that’s the main thing.”

    This is Kerry Madsen’s second year with this team, this crew, and although GoMuddy.com is not showing on the car as the main sponsor, as it was last year, there is another sponsor taking up the main position on the top wing. It’s the Jackson Nationals (June 7-9, 2018, according to the lettering on the car, it’s a World of Outlaws race weekend at Jackson Motorplex, MN). As far as Kerry is concerned, he’s got his same team back, and they are ready and race-prepared for more Florida Speedweeks and World of Outlaws wins once again.

    “We’d like to think we’re a year advanced, but who knows? Look, I really enjoy racing with those guys. You know, racing’s a weird game in terms of when it’s your time and you’re going to win a lot. But when you’re not having a bit of luck, you’ve just got to keep digging. We know the speed’s there and the equipment’s there, so it should be a fun year,” Kerry said in conclusion.

     

     

     

    Sheldon Haudenschild – A First for Florida

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    February 6, 2018

    In 2017, Sheldon Haudenschild’s year ended with a double dose of good news. He was named as the new driver of the Stenhouse Jr. / Marshall Racing No. 17 winged sprint car in December. The ride came with primary sponsorship from NOS Energy Drink and a commitment to race the full World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series schedule, which is a grueling 91 races in 2018. The first series race is at Volusia Speedway Park this Friday, February 9. In November, he was also named as the World of Outlaws Rookie of the Year for 2017, after a season with 12 top five and 41 top ten finishes in Outlaws racing.

    Sheldon Haudenschild and his new car for 2018, Stenhouse Jr. - Marshall Racing No. 17 with NOS Energy Drink sponsoring, 2-2-2018.

    His team decided to get in some early-season racing with the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions in their three-race series at Bubba Raceway Park last week. He had a solo win with the series last year in April, after a dominating year with the All Stars in 2016 when he won nine series feature races. That meant he had a nine-month drought of no wins with the All Stars going into last week. That ended for Sheldon on Saturday night, the All Star racing finale at Bubba Raceway Park. He won.

    The 24-year-old baby-faced racer got his first sprint car win in the State of Florida on Saturday by leading all 30 laps and holding off the early challenge of Floridian Tyler Clem, and then the late race challenges of second-place Kerry Madsen and third-place Chad Kemenah. He praised his team for having great equipment and great crew guys after winning his 17th career feature with the All Star series.

    I interviewed Sheldon, son of National Sprint Car Hall of Famer Jac Haudenschild, on Friday night – prior to the night #2 racing of the All Stars at Bubba Raceway Park. “I had a good night,” he said, referring to Thursday night, his first race with his new team for 2018. “Just down here trying to get some laps before we get to Volusia. Everything went smooth … passed some cars and finished the race last night, so that was good. I think we’ve got one of the top five teams on the (World of Outlaws) tour and great equipment, great owners, and really good crew guys. Really, the whole package right now. One All Star win last year, no Outlaw wins. Looking forward to it – anything’s possible – I think five Outlaw wins is possible for this team and quite a few top fives – and turn our top tens into top fives.”

    Sheldon Haudenschild's first win of 2018, and first win in Florida, Bubba Raceway Park, 2-3-2018.

    At this point in time (Friday), he and his team had not committed to racing the All Star race on Saturday at Bubba Raceway Park, the race that they later won. Sheldon stated that they were in a “night-by-night, shaking things down” mode at that time, but had decided to race in the two All Star races at Volusia, on Wednesday and Thursday this week. Those two races are popular with the World of Outlaws teams as prep work for the Friday World of Outlaws season-opening race. After Volusia, it will be “strictly Outlaw races, that’s really all we’ve got time for, and that’s where we want to be.”

    Could he see himself following the “Jeff Gordon Plan,” as a winner, a consistent winner, a champion, and then a legend? Could he ever see himself in that type of career progression, like Jeff Gordon’s team put in writing for him early in his NASCAR career?

    “I don’t put anything out of sight, so … set little goals and hopefully they’ll become big goals,” he replied. This year is his second year running the full World of Outlaws tour – he raced in the tour last year with a family-owned car and is looking to get his first career Outlaw tour win this year. “It’s definitely the level of competition – you’re racing the best in the world for 91 races out of the year,” he said of his competition in the World of Outlaws. Last year with the No. 93 Haudenschild Racing car: “It was my own team. I had a great team last year, and I thought we had a great year. I think it’s got me in the position I’m in now, which is great. A lot of work went in to get to this point. I’ve got to make it worth it now.”

    His father Jac takes over the family-owned car this year, and has decided to race in the All Star series. So does that mean that father and son will not be racing against each other this year?

    Sheldon Haudenschild and other cars on hot laps, Bubba Raceway Park, 2-3-2018

    “My dad will show up at some Outlaw races,” Sheldon said, “so we should get to race probably 20-25 times together.” This was due to Jac’s current race schedule being planned to include all the 2018 All Star series races, with some of the World of Outlaws races. The All Star series has far fewer races this year, 54 races, compared to the 91 Outlaws races for 2018. Jac is going outside of the All Star schedule, but his son Sheldon is not going to race outside the Outlaws schedule this year, other than Florida in February. That decision was fateful for Sheldon Haudenschild, as it brought his first win in Florida and his first win with a new team that has the potential to elevate his career significantly.

     

     

    2018 Florida Speedweeks Preview

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    January 31, 2018

    The 2018 Florida Speedweeks will have another of NASCAR’s well-known stars missing from the Daytona 500, it will be the start of a rebuilding year for NASCAR’s Cup Series as they replace well-known superstars with lesser-known young drivers, one of whom is the first full-time African-American Cup Series driver in decades – Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. taking over the iconic number 43 Richard Petty car, the World of Outlaws return to a track – Volusia Speedway Park – that witnessed two incidents of sprint cars vaulting catch fences one year ago – with one person seriously injured, it will be warmer than average for February, the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars, All Star Circuit of Champions, USAC National Sprint Car Series, USCS Outlaw Thunder Tour, and the POWRi National Midget Series all hold season opening races, the annual “future NASCAR stars in training” super late model racing returns to New Smyrna Speedway, and Bubba Raceway Park brings back national midget series racing – the first time in Florida in five years – to present the most diverse and exciting lineup of open wheel racing by adding the POWRi midget racers to both winged and non-wing national sprint car racing.

    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 decades – Dave Steele.

    Sadly, this February is the second consecutive year that a nationally known sprint car racing star that had made a habit of racing during Speedweeks will be missing. Last year, that missing star was Bryan Clauson. In mid-January, it was announced that both racers, Dave Steele and Bryan Clauson, were going to be inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2018. Steele was inducted in his first year of eligibility.

    Troy DeCaire, with car owner and crew, celebrates 2017 Speedweeks sprint car win at New Smyrna Speedway, 2-19-2017

    NASCAR: The most significant racers to either be departing or arriving in the NASCAR Cup Series as full-time racers at the 2018 Daytona 500 are 24-year-old Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. (arriving) and 35-year-old Danica Patrick (departing). Of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr. surpasses them both in popularity, but he departed Cup racing as of the last series race of 2017 in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is noteworthy that both racers either arriving or departing are not among the white male majority that dominates the Cup Series driver lineup. Bubba Wallace takes over the number 43 Richard Petty Motorsports car, with the full blessing of King Richard himself. He is the first full-time African-American Cup series driver since Wendell Scott’s last full Cup Series season in 1971. That gives him a chance to become the first black Cup Series race winner since Scott’s win on December 1, 1963 in Jacksonville, Florida.
    Danica Patrick brings GoDaddy sponsorship to Premium Motorsports for the Daytona 500 as part of her “Danica Double” of final races in 2018, the 2018 Indy 500 is included for the GoDaddy sponsorship. No longer the “GoDaddy Girl,” Danica hopes to transition into being a fitness and wellness guru with a book, clothing line, and wine label. She gets experienced crew chief Tony Eury Jr., ECR (Childress) engines, and a guaranteed spot in the race for her final Daytona 500 and NASCAR Cup Series career finale. She’s stated that she has no plans to race her ex-boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., any differently now, as compared to the last five years when they were together.
    With 23-year-old Christopher Bell’s spectacular recent successes (2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion and 2017 Turkey Night Grand Prix midget race winner in November, and 2018 Chili Bowl Midget Nationals champion in January), he takes the next step in his NASCAR racing career with a full-season XFINITY Series seat in the number 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, a car proven to be capable of winning. His season starts on Saturday, February 17 with the 300-mile XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway. Bell follows Kyle Larson as the most recent sprint car and midget racing standout to follow a path certain to lead to further success in NASCAR stock cars.

    NEW (OR RENOVATED) PLACES FOR RACE FANS TO EXPLORE: Among the race-related places that are new for race fans to explore are the Streamline Hotel on A1A in Daytona Beach, the famous site where NASCAR was officially launched in 1947. It’s now fully restored and looking sparkling new, in all its Art Deco style and elegance. Also, there is the new Andretti Indoor Karting & Games in Orlando’s I-Drive tourist area, which opened in September and is now the largest indoor kart track in the world. Their electric-powered karts sound like high-pitched drones as they whirl around the three kart courses in the 150,000 square foot building. Most activities cost between $10 and $25 each. I haven’t had the chance to try out the kart tracks yet, but the absence of exhaust fumes and roaring engines seems appealing. Volusia Speedway Park, renovated and safer than last year, shows off new, higher outside walls and catch fences in both the west and east end turns for the 2018 season-opening World of Outlaws sprint car race on Friday, February 9.
    The Sky Lounge at the Streamline Hotel is the spot where some famous group photos were taken during the 1947 organization meeting for NASCAR’s formation. Perhaps the best way to get to see this site is with the Living Legends of Auto Racing sponsored Historic Racing Bus Tour, planned for Friday, February 16 at 8 a.m. The tour includes stops at the Ormond Garage replica and the NASCAR Archives in Daytona Beach in addition to viewing other locations, and includes lunch at The Shores Resort in Daytona Beach Shores. The hosts and tour guides are two NASCAR racing experts, retired NASCAR archivists and historians Eddie Roche and Buz McKim. Call 386-299-7343 to purchase bus tour tickets or for information (or visit Living Legends of Auto Racing Facebook page).

    SPRINT CAR RACING: Still the most exciting short track racing, and along with dirt late models, only one of two car types to be included in all three February race weekends, sprint car racing returns both with and without wings, with six sprint car series racing up to the day of the Daytona 500 (Sunday, February 18), the same number of different series that raced last year. In order of first February race date, they are the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions, the Eagle Jet Top Gun Series, the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series, the USCS Outlaw Thunder Tour, the BG Products Southern Sprint Car Series (only Speedweeks pavement series), and the USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Series.
    The ASCS Southern Outlaw Sprints are missing this year after racing at East Bay last year, and the USCS Outlaw Thunder Tour is new to 2018 Speedweeks, headlining with the POWRi national midgets at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala on Friday and Saturday, February 9 & 10. The East Bay 360 Winternationals will probably have their usual huge field of cars consisting of the nation’s best 360 racers, even though they will be without ASCS sanctioning this year. Last year’s sanctioning, from regional ASCS Southern Outlaw Sprints, has evaporated, as has the Southern Outlaw Sprints themselves.
    Sprint car racing continues in February after the Daytona 500 at three Florida tracks – 4-17 Southern Speedway in Punta Gorda, All-Tech Raceway in Ellisville, and with USCS taking over the spot previously held by Southern Outlaw Sprints at the Florida panhandle’s only dirt track, Southern Raceway in Milton. Once again, there is no super modified or champ car racing during Speedweeks, but national midget racing returns to Florida for the first time since February 18, 2013.

    Wall, catch fence, and spectator stand in turn two at Volusia Speedway Park that have all been replaced since the date of this photo, 2-17-2017.

    NAMES AND CARS TO WATCH IN SPRINT CAR RACING: Even though there is only one pavement sprint car race during 2018 Speedweeks, it does offer a rivalry that’s new for 2018, with the gauntlet getting thrown down on January 1 by one Florida multi-time champion. That’s when Troy DeCaire declared, “The 91 will be back in 2018. The winner’s circle may be a place of the past for one John Inman …,” challenging 2017 Southern Sprintcar driver champion John Inman. DeCaire followed up on his challenge by winning the 2018 Southern Sprintcar season opening race on January 20, and the two sprint car racers are up next at New Smyrna on Saturday, February 10. DeCaire will be in the Lenny Puglio number 91 and Inman in his own number 59X.
    National dirt series racing begins on Thursday, February 1 with Tony Stewart’s All Star series at Bubba Raceway Park, the first of three days of All Star racing there that is almost certain to see the TSR team cars of both Tony Stewart and Donny Schatz compete. Schatz is certain to be one of the Speedweek favorites, as he has been for many years at both All Star and World of Outlaws races at Bubba’s and Volusia Speedway Park in the number 15 TSR sprint car.
    Sure to challenge last year’s 20-time Outlaws winner Schatz is the CJB Motorsports team number 5 car with driver David Gravel, who teamed to win 18 World of Outlaws feature races in 2017. Also worthy of watching in 2018, and placing high on the 2017 World of Outlaws win list are: Shane Stewart – number 2 Kyle Larson Racing, now with Kyle Larson as sole team owner (eight 2017 wins), Brad Sweet – number 49 Kasey Kahne Racing (five wins), Kerry Madsen – number 2M Big Game Motorsports (five wins), and two drivers who both had four wins in 2017, Jason Johnson (number 41 – Jason Johnson Racing) and Logan Schuchart (number 1S – Shark Racing). Kyle Larson is always sure to challenge for a win, and Rico Abreu (number 24 – Rico Abreu Racing) returns to Speedweeks after forays into late models and NASCAR with plans to race in 110 sprint car races in 2018. Another new team is Stenhouse Jr. – Marshall Racing, with Sheldon Haudenschild driving the team’s winged number 17 car.
    In USAC racing sans wings, the newest pairing worthy of mention is one of the best-known USAC teams, Hoffman Auto Racing and their number 69 car, with the driver who won the most USAC sprint car feature races last year, Kevin Thomas Jr. Hall of Famer and all-time winningest USAC sprint car driver Dave Darland will be racing and takes over the Goodnight family sprint car, number 36D. Other contenders are 2017 USAC sprint champ Chris Windom – number 5 Baldwin Brothers Racing, Justin Grant – number 4 TOPP Motorsports, and Tyler Courtney – number 7BC with the new Clauson Marshall Newman Racing group, a team that makes their debut with USAC at Bubba Raceway Park in February.

    World of Outlaws sprint car navigates Volusia Speedway Park's curved back stretch during 2017 Speedweeks, 2-17-2017.

    SHORT TRACK LATE MODEL STOCK CAR RACING: New Smyrna Speedway is the dominant track for Speedweeks super late model racing, and dirt late model racing during Speedweeks takes place at East Bay Raceway Park, Volusia Speedway Park, and Bubba Raceway Park. National dirt series: World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series races at Volusia on February 14-17; Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series races at East Bay from February 5-10, and at Bubba’s on Sunday, February 11.
    The half-mile high-banked pavement at New Smyrna Speedway has seen intense rivalries in previous Speedweeks super late model racing, with the battles between Harrison Burton and Ty Majeski in 2016 and 2017 showing the pavement skills of both racers, who seem assured of a place in future NASCAR Cup Series racing.
    Majeski will take over the Roush Fenway Racing number 60 Ford NASCAR XFINITY Series car for a total of 12 races in 2018 (first race – Bristol on April 14), sharing it with another two drivers during the season (Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric). Burton has filed an entry for 2018 Speedweeks super late model racing, which is scheduled for seven races at New Smyrna from Friday, February 9 to Saturday, February 17. They take a day off on Sunday, February 11 when NASCAR is the headliner with their K&N Pro Series East late model season opener, and have another off-day on February 16.

    Ty Majeski's car shows the battle scars from a 2017 Speedweeks super late model race at New Smyrna Speedway, 2-21-2017

    2018 DAYTONA 500 ODDS: Even though the news of Danica Patrick being guaranteed a start in the 2018 Daytona 500 with Premium Motorsports is fairly recent, her odds of winning the Daytona 500 have been assigned: 65/1, according to Las Vegas odds makers. One casino (which uses a lion in their logo) currently has 20 drivers with better odds of winning the 2018 Daytona 500. This group is led by Denny Hamlin at 6/1; Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Kyle Busch at 7/1; Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Martin Truex Jr. at 10/1; and Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson at 12/1. By the way, Danica’s ex, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has her beat in one early contest. As of January 15, 2018, his odds of winning are 25/1.

     

     

    2018 Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series Preview

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    January 15, 2018

    This year, 2018, brings a significant event in Florida pavement sprint car racing – the first full racing season in the post-Dave Steele era. Steele’s aura will still be present in Florida racing for years to come, now even more so due to an announcement that came in the first half of this month. It was announced that Dave Steele was the first Florida race car driver to be inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in eight years (Frank Riddle was the most recent, in 2010). It may not happen again for a while. The Dave Steele era was over, and there may never be a similar era in Florida again.

    Dave Steele with his car at the 2016 Little 500, his last time in the race.

    The BG Products Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, which Dave Steele made his primary series for his racing in 2016, will begin their third racing season next Saturday, January 20 at 4-17 Southern Speedway in Punta Gorda. It’s the first race of a slightly downsized 16-race 2018 season, as compared to 2017’s original 20 to 22 race planned schedule. Last year, only 12 races were completed in a year bedeviled by bad weather, including one major hurricane that slammed into Southwest Florida in September. A new young driver champion emerged – John Inman. He won four races and wrapped up the title before the season’s last race in December.

    Two Florida pavement tracks present on the 2017 race schedule have disappeared from the 2018 schedule: Desoto Speedway, Bradenton, and Citrus County Speedway, Inverness. The track which may most likely return is Citrus County, which hosted three pivotal post-Labor Day races last year. Desoto’s future is unknown, due to the recent filing of foreclosure documents. There hasn’t been a sprint car race there in almost 10 months, and rumors of a new buyer coming forward are common. That leaves the 2018 schedule with six races at Showtime Speedway, four races at New Smyrna Speedway, four races at 4-17 Southern Speedway, and a single race at Auburndale Speedway, which hosts sprint car racing for the first time in four years in March. One race on September 15 still has a location to be announced. For the second consecutive year, all races are with wings.

    Returning series director Rick Day stated that there is the possibility of more races being added to the 2018 schedule. “Things are looking good,” he said, saying 2018 could be “one of our better years yet – we’re going to our third year, so …” He also mentioned that 4-17 Southern Speedway wanted to take advantage of the population swell in Southwest Florida in December, January and February when northerners were in town, and wanted races during those winter months.

    One of Rick Day’s most perplexing dilemmas with 2018 race scheduling is the problem of “What’s going on with Citrus County Speedway?” The track with the wide straights and new asphalt played host to some of the season’s best sprint car racing, and at first had four races on the 2018 schedule. This was the initial plan, at the time of the summer meeting that gathered Florida pavement track managers and promoters together for a planning session. Later, races were canceled (due to a disagreement over funding the race purse between the series and Citrus County Speedway management), leaving only two races left – in February and November. Then, those two races were canceled too (partly for the same reason, and also due to some late model races taking on greater importance for the track). Citrus County was now completely off the 2018 Southern Sprintcar schedule.

    With that revelation, it was the right time for an old Florida racing tradition to make a comeback. That tradition, started by Golden Gate Speedway back in the 1970s, was to have sprint car racing as part of the November Governor’s Cup late model race weekend. Sprint car racing had been absent from the New Smyrna Speedway Governor’s Cup weekend race schedule in recent years. That changes in 2018. A New Smyrna Speedway race was added to the schedule for Saturday, November 10, the night before the Sunday Governor’s Cup late model championship race. That race has been the biggest single day event at New Smyrna since the Governor’s Cup moved there in 1988. It could be the best-attended race night on the 2018 schedule for the Southern Sprintcar series.

    Southern Sprintcar 4-wide at Showtime Speedway. July 16, 2016.

    “They wanted us to subsidize the purse for two of the races (at Citrus County Speedway),” Rick Day said, “and we’re not in a position to do it. We don’t have a major sponsor, we don’t have a lucrative sponsor, I should say. With the way we pay our drivers, we could not afford to subsidize the purse to keep the date.” Day mentioned that the series is not subsidizing the purse for any of the races at the other tracks, and that New Smyrna Speedway management was happy to take the November race date vacated by Citrus County, and add it to their Governor’s Cup weekend schedule.

    Was Rick Day surprised to see John Inman emerge as a winner and as the new champion in series racing in 2017? “Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “He really came into his own from what he was the year before. I don’t know what he found in that Diablo chassis, but he definitely came on strong and he definitely deserved it. Now he’s bringing two cars to the series, so we’re happy about it. We offered him the two franchises for next year.” Inman has not stated who is driving his second team car, according to Rick Day.

    Regarding the possibility of racing at Five Flags Speedway and Mobile International Speedway, or another venue or event designed to attract out-of-town 410 teams by using restrictors, Rick Day mentioned a prior attempt to do that four years ago at Showtime Speedway.

    Winged sprint cars at New Smyrna Speedway.

    “I’m kind of gun-shy of attempting something like that just yet,” Day said. “We’re not sure we want to take that chance just yet. We tried that in St. Pete four years ago, when Davey (Hamilton) came down – talked Robert (Yoho) into doing that 75-lapper and we had eight cars show up.” A non-wing race at Citrus County Speedway that same night (March 1, 2014) took most of the Florida-based 360 cars away.

    There’s no significant rule change for 2018, but there is a tire change. Hoosier Tire ramped up early-year production to get the new tire (right rear M450) ready for Florida and the January season start. “Hoosier came up with a new right rear tire, so we’re working with the teams in getting all that changed over. We just rolled that out tonight on Facebook,” Rick Day said, relating how the series uses social media not only for notifying racers of changes, but for promotion and marketing purposes also. Detailed race results and point tabulations show up on the webpage owned by the series: http://southernsprintcarshootout.com/

    There is one confirmed rookie who plans to join the series in 2018, Dylan Reynolds. “Right now, he’s the only one we know of for sure. He bought one of Shane Butler’s cars is my understanding. He’s going to miss the first two races, but we let them drop two races for the Rookie of the Year honor anyhow,” said Rick Day. Reynolds has prior go kart championships to his name, but the 17-year-old is not going to be permitted to race at the initial New Smyrna event on February 10, as he does not have prior high-speed oval experience. He’ll race at New Smyrna, but later in the year after getting more experience at the other tracks, where series officials will get to see him on track and evaluate his skill level.

    The 2017 series sponsors are all returning for 2018, including Steele Performance Parts as an associate sponsor and a Hoosier Tire supplier. BG Products also returns as the title sponsor again, same as last year. Rick Day feels that the current 16 races for 2018 will satisfy those sponsors and also the competitors and Florida race fans, and that attempting to schedule 20 to 22 races might be too many.

    “Sixteen is a decent number, as long as Mother Nature cooperates,” he said. The possibility of Desoto Speedway making a comeback, and also Auburndale Speedway wanting more dates later in 2018 could change that number, as could rainouts. An attempt to schedule 20 or more races and a greater chance of back-to-back race weekends was ruled out. “I think that’s just too many,” Day said. The stability of the Florida schedule is a contrast to the just-announced King of the Wing national tour, which does not have a single US Midwest race, and also lacks a single race in the entire Eastern half of the United States. That national pavement touring series used to have a Southeast weekend and a Midwest weekend that including US races.

    Regarding car count: “I think our lowest car count was 15,” Day said. “That’s pretty good. We’ve had as high as 24 or 25 – one of the Bradenton races. We’ve been pleased with our car counts last year.” He expects a good showing of cars for the season-opening race on the 20th and has gotten an encouraging response from teams so far.

    Rick Day bragged about the group that he works with and the racers too. “We’ve got a great group of drivers that support the deal and some die-hard race fans and officials that support the deal, and couldn’t ask for anything better.”

    Dave Steele worked hard for the success of the series also, even though he wasn’t on the series board of directors. Maybe he should have been, or maybe it was as if he was on the board. He worked closely with series management. “Oh yeah,” said Rick Day. “We always bounced stuff off of him and he helped a lot with contingency awards. We definitely miss him, that’s for sure.”

    In other words, Dave Steele’s influence lives on …

     

     

     

    Top “Good News” Stories of the Year in 2017 Florida Sprint Car Racing

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    December 29, 2017

    The biggest, most newsworthy story of the year in Florida sprint car racing was the tragic death of Dave Steele in a pavement sprint car race at Desoto Speedway in March. Now that over nine months have passed since this tragedy, I felt that the passage of time warranted looking back at the year in sprint car racing not based on what was newsworthy, but rather to look back based on a different theme: the good times.

    Tony Stewart celebrates his win in USCS sprint car race, Bubba Raceway Park, 4-1-2017.

    (1) Mix One Racing Legend, Some Ocala Dirt, and Sprint Cars to Get the Feel-Good Story of the Year

    In early April, the USCS Outlaw Thunder Tour had two races scheduled at Ocala’s Bubba Raceway Park, with the second race on Saturday, April 1, just one week after the crash that killed Dave Steele at Desoto Speedway. There was some uneasiness in the atmosphere at the track that day, due to the passing of a Florida racing legend that was so loved by fans and racers. By the time the two days of racing had been completed, the atmosphere had changed. On Saturday, Tony Stewart won the USCS feature race at the track, his first sprint car feature win since his February return to sprint car racing. The weekend’s USCS sprint car feature race winners, Stewart and Tyler Clem, donated their winnings that weekend to a fund to benefit the family of Dave Steele. Tony Stewart was back in the Winner’s Circle, one of the nation’s most popular short track racers smiling once again. Florida’s sprint car racing community was back at the track too. It was even starting to feel like it was OK for them to smile once again too.

    John Inman with his Dave Steele banner after winning at Citrus County Speedway, 11-11-2017.

    (2) John Inman: Florida’s Next Generation Pavement Champion

    Seemingly on his way to an insurmountable point lead in the 2017 Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series points standings, John Inman climbed atop one of the rear tires on his winged sprint car in the Winner’s Circle at Citrus County Speedway on Saturday, November 11, 2017. He had just won his third series race of 2017. Inman’s aggressive style on the track, and his ability to surge to the front in almost every race during the Southern Sprintcar series season, then join his growing family (complete with his wide-eyed infant son) in the Winner’s Circle for the requisite “adorable family” photos drew comparisons to another frequent pavement race winner in Florida – Dave Steele. Once Inman was atop the tire, he unfurled a banner. It was black, with a number 33 and the words “RIP Dave – You Will Be Missed!” He wanted to use part of his time in the Winner’s Circle to honor a champion who came before him. One week later, John Inman was a winner again at 4-17 Southern Speedway in Punta Gorda. He now had four feature race wins in series competition in 2017. He also had an insurmountable point lead in the 2017 Southern Sprintcar series points and was the 2017 series driver champion. Just like the driver that he paid homage to one week prior, he was now a Florida state pavement sprint car champion.

    (3) Mac and Stan Concoct a Win

    Mac Steele described his work hours, an average work day, set in the early ’80s: “Way back, we had the shop, or the parts store, running full time, I was working full-time at the phone company, and at that time, Stan Butler was driving for me, and I would work the one-to-nine shift at the phone company. I’d start off in the morning at the shop … get off at 9 o’clock, and by the time I got there (at the shop), Stan (Butler) would be there and a lot of times we’d work until midnight, 1 o’clock. That was pretty often we’d do that …”
    The same car that Mac and Stan had spent late nights working on was at the track on the night of the Frank Riddle Memorial race at Citrus County Speedway in October for a vintage sprint car race. To make sure all the stars were aligned, Mac Steele was at the track that night, and Stan Butler was going to climb in the seat of the number 0 Mac Steele Auto Craft car for the feature race. The only way the story could get any better was if Stan dominated the vintage sprint car race and wheeled the car into the Winner’s Circle as the feature race winner.
    He did.

    (4) Florida’s Young Gun Racers Take Wins

    Garrett Green, Tyler Clem, Anthony D’Alessio, Hayden Campbell, Justin Webster, Conner Morrell – all winners in open wheel racing on tracks inside and outside Florida, and all Floridians. Garrett Green won in an early-year non-wing sprint car race at Desoto Speedway shortly before the track canceled their remaining non-wing sprint car races of 2017. He later endured serious burns and an arduous recovery through the spring and summer before getting back in a family owned dirt sprint car later in the summer. Tyler Clem broke through to get his first national series dirt sprint car feature race win on March 31 at Bubba Raceway Park, one night before Tony Stewart’s USCS win. Anthony D’Alessio got his first sprint car feature win in March at East Bay Raceway and an East Bay feature win in Top Gun Series competition later in the year. He ventured into pavement sprint car racing later in the year too. Hayden Campbell got his first Top Gun Sprint Series wins and ended the season with three series feature wins, and seems on track to be a future series champion. Justin Webster and 13-year-old Conner Morrell both won open wheel championships in 2017. Webster was the East Bay Raceway Park sprint car track champion, and Morrell was the 2017 USCS 600 Sprint Car Series champion and had a series feature win in Mississippi in March in his mini-sprint.

    (5) Florida’s Home State Sprint Car Series: Survivors All

    Both of Florida’s home state sprint car series, the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series and the Top Gun Sprint Series, were survivors during a tough year of racing in 2017. There were plenty of rainouts during the warm weather months, followed by the arrival of a Category 4 hurricane in September, Hurricane Irma. The hurricane’s path put many of the Southwest and West Florida short ovals directly in line to get slammed by Cat. 3 or 4 winds. Only one track has not reopened after suffering hurricane wind damage, Desoto Speedway in Bradenton. It was a tough hit for the community of pavement sprint car racers to lose one of their Tampa Bay area tracks during a year that had been a very trying time for the community, which also lost two of their active racers early in the year.

    After a four-month layoff due to rainouts and canceled races, the Southern Sprintcar series was back on the track in mid-September, surprisingly getting up and running less than a week after the hurricane passed through Central Florida, then finishing the rest of their schedule through early December and crowning a popular new first-time champion.

    Top Gun suffered their share of rainouts and an unwanted extended break from racing, welcoming some new winners and a driver championship decided in the last race of the year. AJ Maddox took the 2017 driver championship and won the most series features during the year (five).

    One thing is for sure – both the Florida dirt and pavement sprint car racing communities are a pretty tough bunch of racers and have made it through the tough times in 2017. The proof – they will both be back racing in 2018, beginning in just a few weeks.

     

     

     

    Nation’s Longest-Running 2017 Sprint Car Season Ends on Saturday

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    December 8, 2017

    John Inman, 2017 Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series driver champion.

    It started on January 21, 2017 with Mickey Kempgens winning a non-wing sprint car race at Desoto Speedway, and Florida’s 2017 sprint car race season does not end until tomorrow, Saturday, December 9, 2017. That’s when the final race of the season is run, an East Bay Sprints race at East Bay Raceway Park in Gibsonton. That race will determine the 2017 East Bay Sprints champion, the last remaining 2017 sprint car champion to be named in Florida. The champions in Florida’s two touring sprint car series have already been determined: John Inman as the BG Products Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series champion; and AJ Maddox as the Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series champion.

    Justin Webster is the favorite to win the East Bay Sprints driver championship. He goes into the final series race on Saturday with the lead in feature wins (5 this year) and also with the lead in driver points (he has a 53 point lead over second place man Billy Bridges). The series, which started its season in March and races with limited 360 engines, the same as is used in Top Gun series racing, boasts prior East Bay track champions such as Billy Boyd, Robert Smith, Kenny Adams, Taylor Andrews, and Joe Melnick.

    The list of feature race wins in 2017 Southern Sprintcar series competition shows John Inman in the lead with four wins, and Troy DeCaire and Mickey Kempgens are next, with two wins each, and Sport Allen, Shane Butler, Dave Steele, and Dude Teate with one win each during the year. Dave Steele still leads the all-time Southern Sprintcar feature win list with a total of 14 wins since 1/1/2016. Steele also is in first place on the all-time Florida sprint car win list (wins during the “modern era” in Florida since 1969) with 100 wins.

    The list of feature wins in 2017 Top Gun series competition shows AJ Maddox, who also won the Top Gun series driver championship, in the lead with five wins, and Matt Kurtz and Hayden Campbell are next, with three wins each, and Mark Ruel Jr. and Anthony D’Alessio with one win each during the year. For the second time in the past three years, AJ Maddox went into the final Top Gun series race of the year sitting in second place in season-long points, and then passed points leader Matt Kurtz in the final points calculation after the race was over, winning the Top Gun driver championship for the second time in the past three years (2015 and 2017). Kurtz won the driver championship in 2016.

    East Bay Sprints race at East Bay Raceway on September 26, 2015.

    Ever had a conversation with a moth (or any other non-human being)? I think I may have had such a conversation earlier this week, or so it seems. At least that’s my belief based on the name that appeared on the Twitter page belonging to the “Knoxville Moths,” who seem to enjoy taking the spotlight above the heads of the sprint car racing fans at the Knoxville Raceway in Iowa. Not only do they distract the fans in Knoxville, they also engage in Twitter conversations with fans, racers, and even sometimes journalists. Our conversation this week involved Florida’s long-running 2017 season, and whether the Knoxville Moths fly south for the winter (they have been to East Bay – “the Clay by the Bay, a few times … and we’ll be back” – they stated in a December 3 tweet). Just don’t ask me how they type on a keyboard with their appendages.

    Has an important era in Florida sprint car racing history come to an end, namely the days and nights of sprint cars turning laps at Desoto Speedway? The track, which began racing in 1978, has not held a sprint car race since March 25, 2017, the day that Dave Steele died in a sprint car at the track. It appears that the current owner may be behind in payments required to maintain his ownership, and foreclosure documents filed in Manatee County may result in him losing his ownership. The track has been shuttered since the spring, at first claiming a comeback was pending with a new promoter, and then claiming to be making plans to repair serious hurricane wind damage caused by Hurricane Irma. There has also been a history of inappropriate remarks made in the past several years by a track employee on social media, and mistreatment of the media at the track in 2016 by that same employee.

     

     

    Florida’s Sprint Car Series End 2017 Seasons This Weekend

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    November 30, 2017

    Both of Florida’s touring sprint car series – the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, and the Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint series – end their 2017 regular seasons this weekend. The Southern Sprintcar series will race at Punta Gorda’s 4-17 Southern Speedway on Saturday, and the Top Gun series will race at the track that has been a staple of the series for years, Gibsonton’s East Bay Raceway Park, also on Saturday. There is only one remaining sprint car track championship in Florida, the East Bay Sprints at East Bay Raceway, and they also have one remaining race on Saturday, December 9.

    Both touring series experienced significant events earlier this month. The pavement side, the Southern Sprintcar series, crowned Florida’s first pavement sprint car champion in the post-Dave Steele era on November 19. That was the day that the series declared John Inman as the 2017 driver champion after he won the November 18 feature race in Punta Gorda and officially had an insurmountable lead in points. Inman had also won the prior series race on November 11 in Inverness, and his 2017 series win total currently sits at four races. After Mickey Kempgens had won two out of three races prior to Inman’s two wins, it looked like there could be a longer-lasting battle between the two for the driver championship, but it did not happen.

    Matt Kurtz, 2016 Top Gun Sprint Series champion with crew at East Bay Raceway Park, Gibsonton, FL, Saturday, December 3, 2016.

    The dirt side, Florida’s Top Gun Sprint Series, experienced an event that took away one of the series’ most important benefactors. He was the man who owned and operated the business that was the series title sponsor for several years, Rick Gabor of Eagle Jet International. The announcement came on November 13 that Gabor had passed away in his sleep the prior night after fighting cancer for several years. An announcement by Top Gun stated that Gabor had “been a faithful supporter of the Top Gun Sprint Series and many other race teams for years and will be greatly missed. His passion was racing.”

    AJ Maddox is the most recent “hot driver” in Top Gun Series dirt sprint car racing, after winning the last two feature races, which included the first series non-wing dirt race in several years on November 18. Prior to Maddox’s wins, Hayden Campbell went on a tear, also winning two series feature races in a row. Maddox currently leads the 2017 series win totals, with five feature wins in series competition, while Matt Kurtz has three 2017 wins and the current lead in the 2017 driver points tally. Saturday looks like it will be the day to determine the 2017 Top Gun Driver champion, as Matt Kurtz enters the final race day with a slim 10-point lead over second-place points man AJ Maddox. The duo has battled for the driver champion’s title on a persistent basis for years in Top Gun racing, so this Saturday will be another battle to the bitter end for the two Sunshine State dirt aficionados.

    AJ Maddox with Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series, at Volusia Speedway Park, FL, Saturday, July 23, 2016.

    For 2018 racing in Florida’s touring sprint car series, the Southern Sprintcar series has released a 2018 schedule (shown on their Facebook page) with a statement that all 2018 series racing will be with wings. Without a published 2018 race schedule, the Top Gun series has dropped one hint about the makeup of their schedule next year, and it has something to do with what was perceived as a successful comeback for non-wing racing in the series at East Bay Raceway on November 18.

    On November 19, the day after the return of non-wing racing to the Top Gun Series, a statement by the series read, “Heard a rumor that there may be more non-wing races in 2018.”

     

     

     

    Team Effort: Florida USCS Young Guns Danny Sams III and Conner Morrell

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    November 21, 2017

    Fifteen-year-old Danny Sams III and 13-year-old Conner Morrell posed for a photo earlier this year with two other members of a small group of dirt racers from Florida who have met with success racing in USCS and have been dubbed “the Florida Young Guns of USCS Racing.” Danny Sams III, from Englewood, FL, the 2016 USCS Sprint Car Rookie of the Year; and Conner Morrell, from Bradenton, FL, who is the 2016 USCS 600 Sprint Series Rookie of the Year, are teammates. They returned to the USCS series in 2017 to race in sprint cars and 600 sprint series cars.

    The Florida Young Guns of USCS Racing, L to R, Conner Morrell, Bradenton; Danny Sams III, Englewood; Tyler Clem, St. Petersburg; Nicholas Snyder, Marco Island.

    Both were at Bubba Raceway Park on Saturday, November 11 for the second USCS visit this year to the Ocala dirt track. “We’re a team,” Conner told me, as he stood near the 600 sprint series car, sometimes called a mini-sprint, which he was driving that day. “I drive the number 28,” Conner added, “and we’ve been driving together for a long time. We’re good friends and we’re teammates. The car is owned by my dad.” Conner has not yet made the transition to racing a full-size 360 sprint car with the USCS Outlaw Thunder Tour, but that transition is planned for the future (more than likely again with USCS). The November USCS races were planned to be his “last in the mini, and then I’m moving up to a sprint car (for 2018).” Again, the car will be family-owned.

    Conner’s long-term goal is to race in NASCAR, but he does have an alternate plan if that doesn’t work out. “I want to be a safety engineer,” he said, “so I can work for NASCAR and design safety barriers and stuff like that.” He does plan on college, and wants to take engineering courses.

    “We kind of work things out with the teachers,” Conner said, describing the method used to avoid falling behind in his classes while traveling to out-of-state races with the USCS tour. Danny Sams III has already been doing that for a while – driving on a national tour while remaining a full-time student. The high school sophomore has had somewhat of an up and down year racing in 2017.

    Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, scene of USCS series racing on November 11, 2017

    “We’ve run most of it,” Danny said, “and we’ve been down a little bit throughout the season, but we’ve gotten it back together and we’re racing again,” after some motor problems during the year. “The races that we’ve been able to run, we’ve been up in the top five almost every time and we’re contending for the win each time.” Next year, he plans to “run up front and go for a championship,” by racing the full USCS national series schedule.

    At Venice High School, Danny is an A/B honor roll student, works to keep his grades high, and is fortunate to have teachers who work with him when he ends his school week early to head to a weekend of out-of-state racing (which is most of the season that ends in mid-November, other than two Florida race weekends). He plans to go to college, to study Mechanical Engineering. He still wants a life in auto racing, but with a college education and an engineering career as a “back-up.”

    “World of Outlaws,” Danny said, “or USAC and then hopefully NASCAR, or something like that,” is his long-term racing goal. The rest of his team members are: Danny Sams Jr., Danny’s dad, who is the car owner and crew chief; Tina Sams, Danny’s mom, who describes her duties as “pit crew, video crew, and the bank”; Allen Morrell, who is Conner’s dad; and “Grandma, that’s my mom,” Tina said. Her parents, Elaine and Ron, were there to help too. Elaine describes her race day as a time “to come here and be nervous and watch him race.” She also helps by fetching tools and whatever is needed, like washing out filters. But if anyone has taken on the responsibility to do all the worrying for the team, it’s her.

    There have been some worrisome moments on the track in the past for Danny. At a West Memphis, Arkansas USCS race last year, he was leading the feature race, seemingly on the way to winning, when he was taken out and wrecked by another car with two laps to go. His containment seat and HANS head and neck restraint protect Danny while he’s racing, and hopefully reduces Elaine’s race-time stress levels a bit, knowing that her grandson is well-protected. Danny acknowledges that the drivers’ perspective about using these safety devices has changed. For him, racing with these devices is all he’s ever known.

    “That’s all we’ve done, ever since quarter-midgets. We’ve always used stuff like that,” Danny said. His father got a HANS for him, and he’s worn it ever since he started racing at four years old. It’s always been that way for Conner too, who also started racing in quarter-midgets at age four. He’s never felt uncomfortable wearing a HANS device while racing.

    “That’s what we need – safety first,” Danny said.

     

     

    Top 3 Finishers at Citrus County Speedway, 9-16-2017, also contenders for 2017 Southern Sprintcar championship, L to R, John Inman, Mickey Kempgens, and Carlie Yent.

    Florida’s “Super Fall Racing Weekend” Starts This Friday

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    November 7, 2017

    What may well be Florida’s best weekend of racing of the fall season comes this weekend with the Friday arrival of the USCS Outlaw Thunder Tour, their national winged dirt sprint car series, and the first of a trio of season-ending pavement races for the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series on Saturday, and on Sunday, the iconic late model race that traces its history back to 1965 at Golden Gate Speedway in Tampa, the Governor’s Cup race.

    The racing begins this Friday with the first of two nights of USCS dirt sprint car races at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala. The last time the series visited the Sunshine State in early April, there was a palpable feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty in the air, due to the tragic death of Florida racing legend Dave Steele one week earlier. By the time the two days of racing had been completed, many felt far less dread, and some could even feel it was OK to smile again. On Friday, March 31, Tyler Clem, son of track owner Bubba Clem, won his first feature race in a national sprint car series, followed the next day (Saturday, April 1) by Tony Stewart’s first sprint car feature win since his early year return to short track racing and the cockpit of a sprint car. Both drivers donated their winnings that weekend to a fund to benefit the family of Dave Steele. Later that month, significant changes occurred in the rules of multiple pavement sprint car racing series, including Florida’s own Southern Sprintcar series, to better protect drivers by requiring head and neck restraint devices and full containment seats. All future pavement sprint car drivers were going to be better protected. Their families, friends, and fans could breathe a little easier.

    Tony Stewart leads Danny Martin Jr. into the last restart at USCS race at Bubba Raceway Park on Saturday, April 1, 2017.

    After an inaugural season in 2016 that saw Florida’s best pavement sprint car driver in a generation dominate and become their first season champion, the Southern Sprintcar series had to endure the loss of that driver, Dave Steele, and more in their second season in 2017. Desoto Speedway has not held a sprint car race since Steele’s death, and appears to be in serious decline with a revolving door of promoters, conflicting claims, and serious hurricane wind damage from Hurricane Irma’s thrashing in September. The series schedule originally had a planned summer break of 2 months, later extended to over four months by rainouts and canceled race dates. The series persisted, and has been redeemed by the quality of its races held at Citrus County Speedway, highlighted by the Frank Riddle Memorial in October and its all-out late race on-track brawl between Mickey Kempgens and Shane Butler. Neither racer backed down from the high-contact confrontation, in which Kempgens went airborne into turn three, collided with Butler again, got exhaust header damage, and later went on to take his second feature win in series competition. Fortunately for the series, they return to the scene of that racing excitement, Citrus County Speedway in Inverness, this Saturday. The final two series races of 2017 are both in Punta Gorda (4-17 Southern Speedway) on November 18 and December 2.

    At a recent Golden Gate Speedway Reunion, the iconic Tampa pavement short oval and the man who built it, Frank Dery Jr., were remembered. Dery was also the man who started the Governor’s Cup race in 1965 at “the Gate.” After Golden Gate shut down in 1984, Dery played a part in getting the race and its trophy moved to New Smyrna Speedway in 1988, where the race has been held each fall since that year. This year’s race will probably focus on two drivers with loads of talent and a likely future in NASCAR Cup Series racing. They are Ty Majeski and Harrison Burton, who both have had success on New Smyrna’s half-mile high banks. Majeski’s share of the success comes from winning the Governor’s Cup 200-lap super late model race for the past two years. Harrison Burton, son of former Cup Series driver Jeff Burton, has had the most success at New Smyrna this year, first winning the World Series of Asphalt Racing super late model championship there in February, and then starting his 2017 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season at New Smyrna that same month, and earning the title of 2017 series champion in September.

    Ty Majeski, 2016 Florida Governor's Cup late model race winner, 11-13-2016.

    ALSO: With Florida’s long history of producing sprint car racers equally adept at winning on both dirt and pavement, including recent dual winners Sport Allen and Garrett Green, it is not surprising to see another young racer attempt to add his name to this short list. It is also not surprising to see him attempt to achieve success on dirt and pavement in Florida. That young racer is Anthony D’Alessio, who won the East Bay Sprints feature race on March 11, 2017, his first sprint car feature win. He also had a Top Gun Sprint Series feature win on dirt at East Bay Raceway Park in September.

    Driving the number 22x pavement sprint car owned by Johnny Gilbertson, Anthony D’Alessio led the early laps in the Frank Riddle Memorial race at Citrus County Speedway last month. He went on to finish in 10th place that night, and in his two prior pavement races, he was 14th at Showtime Speedway on October 7, and 8th at Citrus County Speedway on September 16.

    “Never been on pavement before tonight,” Anthony told me back on September 16 during his first night of pavement racing, at Inverness. “It’s fast, I liked it, little different than dirt, but something I might be able to get used to. Johnny Gilbertson hooked me up with this ride tonight, so just got to thank him.” Since his pavement races have been at the smaller quarter-mile tracks, I asked what he thought of getting out on the larger pavement tracks, including the fastest track for the series, New Smyrna Speedway.

    “Hey, I can run some quarter-miles. I can run big tracks too – I’ll run whatever they put me in,” Anthony declared.

     

     

    Mac Steele: Not Retired Yet

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    October 19, 2017

    Mac Steele is 77 years old. But don’t call him a retired Florida sprint car owner. He’s not retired.

    In fact, he has plans to make a return to Florida pavement sprint car racing as a car owner. His most recent driver, Clayton Donaldson, has a new family-owned car to race in Florida pavement racing with the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series. So he won’t be returning to a full-time seat in Mac’s car. Larry Brazil Jr., another one of Mac’s recent drivers, downplayed his chances of returning to the seat of Mac’s car, saying he did not believe he would be Mac’s driver. When Mac’s car is ready, there will be a driver, but that driver is still unnamed.

    Mac explained that “it’s just taken a while to get the Beast car running again (the black and white number 2 car), and at the same time, I’m retiring the ‘Green Hornet,’ and bringing back to life a Hurricane car that I owned several years ago.” He admitted that it would “be a hard time making this season – there’s not enough races left. It’ll be next season, 2018. Hopefully both cars will be ready.”

    The Hurricane sprint car is currently in car builder Jerry Stuckey’s Hurricane Race Cars shop in Spring Hill, up the coast from Tampa, and there has been some updates and changes made to the Beast chassis, which is now back in Mac’s Tampa race shop, Autocraft. “The Beast is more complete right now,” Mac said. His cars will carry the number 2, which was used for Mac’s last feature win in 2014 at New Smyrna Speedway with Larry Brazil Jr. driving.

    Mac Steele, right, and Stan Butler, left, at Citrus County Speedway, October 14, 2017.

    Mac has discovered and mentored younger, talented drivers in the past, including his own son, Dave Steele. These drivers had talent, maybe in a raw form, which needed developing and needed the guidance of an experienced and knowledgeable car owner.

    “Just about all my car ownership career, I’ve kind of had drivers like that, and I don’t know yet. I’ve been kind of leaning toward more experience that can run up front more often. I’m considering what to do in that regard (in choosing his next driver),” he said. Could he see himself in the position of being a mentor again? “Possibly,” he replied.

    Mac still has his own race shop, Mac Steele’s Autocraft, at a different Tampa location than his son Dave Steele’s race shop, Steele Performance Parts on Lois Avenue. Today, Mac spends less time at his race shop. He is splitting his time each day between the two shops. He usually starts off the day at his shop and then goes over to Dave’s shop to “help Johnny (Gilbertson) over there the rest of the day. I’ve got more work now than I did before,” Mac said. He usually gets over to Dave’s shop around lunchtime and spends the rest of the day working there, averaging over 20 hours a week there, four or five hours a day, Monday through Friday.

    With fewer hours spent at his race shop, Mac told me that it has “turned into more of a hobby shop than a business there. I still do some engine work there. Then everything else is my race cars in the back and it’s just a slow process now of getting time to work on my cars.” Mornings are now spent on the two sprint cars that he is preparing for Florida pavement competition, which is where Mac has had most of his racing success. Spending evenings at the shop are in the past. “I don’t like to go work evenings any more – getting too old to do that,” Mac said.

    Mac has settled into a routine of work on his own cars in the morning, then to Dave’s shop in the afternoon, and then home to have dinner and relax for the rest of the evening. “There you go – yup,” he said to confirm his new “daily routine.” Toiling until late in the evening in a garage long after most businesses have closed is a thing of the past for Mac. “Well, we used to do that kind of stuff,” he said. Now: “Can’t do it!”

    Mac Steele, right, with his two most recent drivers, Clayton Donaldson, far left, and Larry Brazil, Jr., center, August 30, 2014.

    Mac described a previous routine work week, which typically involved hours far beyond the 40-hour work week. The scenario he described is set in the early ’80s: “Way back, we had the shop, or the parts store, running full time, I was working full-time at the phone company, and at that time, Stan Butler was driving for me, and I would work the one-to-nine shift at the phone company. I’d start off in the morning at the shop, we had a couple people working for us then and Carol worked there full-time also. I’d have to be at work at one, so between 12 and 12:30, I’d take off for the phone company. Get off at 9 o’clock, and by the time I got there (at the shop), Stan would be there and a lot of times we’d work until midnight, 1 o’clock. That was pretty often we’d do that, but there’s no way I can do those kind of hours anymore.”

    The sprint car that Mac and Stan were working on during those late evenings was at the track last Saturday for the vintage sprint car race at Citrus County Speedway as part of the Frank Riddle Memorial race night, and both men were at the track too. “Mac Steele Auto Craft” – the number 0 sprint car still had that sponsor lettering on its side, along with the driver’s name, Stan Butler. With Stan behind the wheel for the 15-lap vintage sprint car feature race that night, the car and driver totally dominated the race, leading every lap.

    It was a night for nostalgia, and reminiscing about vintage race cars, along with old drivers and old car owners, seemed like the best way to top off the evening. And that trip to the winner’s circle for Stan and Mac’s old number 0 car – that seemed like fate had intervened and made things right again.

    The Vintage Sprint Car feature race highlights from Citrus County Speedway on Saturday, October 14, 2017 is here:

    https://youtu.be/H_oF9OJq-Wk

    The Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series feature race, The Frank Riddle Memorial, from Citrus County Speedway on Saturday, October 14, 2017 is here:

    https://youtu.be/3pp34pMLkCU



     

     

    Southern Sprintcars Back on Track after Extended Layoff

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    September 21, 2017

    For one to say that this has been a tough year for the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series would be an understatement. After the death of Dave Steele, their star driver and car owner, and series associate sponsor, in late March, the series made significant rule changes to increase driver safety in April. Intending to have a summer break (as opposed to the usual winter break) of about 2 months, lasting from mid June to late August, that break lasted for more than 4 months, extended by rainouts, one race cancelation, and a major hurricane that devastated the state and left it recovering from being declared a federal disaster area.

    Mickey Kempgens feature race winner at Citrus County Speedway 9-16-2017

    The summer race at New Smyrna Speedway, originally set for late August and then reset for September 9, the day before Hurricane Irma roared through Central Florida, was the first choice for the series return to racing. Taking a risk by scheduling a race less than one week after the hurricane caused major damage to homes and businesses throughout South and Central Florida (on Sunday and Monday last week), the series announced on Tuesday that they would proceed with a race at Citrus County Speedway in Inverness on Saturday. A polling of car owners showed that the likely field of cars would be near the average field for the series (15-16 cars), or greater. There was still a far greater problem than a possible low car count to overcome. Six million Florida homes were left without power after the major hurricane passed over (60 percent of all Florida homes), with some areas likely to go without power for a week or more.

    On race day last Saturday, 18 cars were present, with 17 starting the feature race after a hard crash by Francis Crowder in practice. He was reported to be uninjured. Attrition in the feature race was high, with about half the field out after a yellow flag for the incident between the cars of Johnny Gilbertson and then race leader Shane Butler, who appeared to be on his way to a dominating feature win. With Butler out, there were only nine cars remaining for the last restart. Mickey Kempgens immediately jumped out to the lead and stayed there until the checkered flag waved on lap 40. It was his first feature race win with the Southern Sprintcar series. John Inman, the current series point leader, was second, and Carlie Yent, current second place in series points, was in third place in the feature, followed by Dude Teate and Brian Gingras to complete the feature top five.

    Carlie Yent, after her 3rd place finish at Citrus County Speedway, 9-16-2017.

    For Carlie Yent, it was her first top three feature race finish in sprint cars, with a fourth place finish as her previous best finish in sprint cars. Last year as a rookie driver, Carlie Yent earned fourth place in overall 2016 series points and was ranked in second place in rookie points. She was also impressive on another Southern Sprintcars race day last summer, when she had top five finishes on a doubleheader feature day at Showtime Speedway on July 16, 2016. She also had a new multi-color vinyl wrap on her car last Saturday, one of several cars showing new colors for the first time that day.

    Another of those cars was the number 55 of Tommy “Tommy Gun” Nichols, with the colors of new primary sponsor Wilo USA, one of the largest pump manufacturers in the world. Nichols is employed by them in sales of the pumps. “Went from 11th to like 5th or 6th in a couple of laps,” he said about his debut in the new colors. He explained that a fuel pickup problem put him out of the feature when his car kept shutting off in the corners.

    Clayton Donaldson with new primary sponsor Knights Air Conditioning on his car, Citrus County Speedway, 9-16-2017.

    A big change for Donaldson Motorsports was on display on Saturday – including new colors, new primary sponsor, and a new commitment to power driver Clayton Donaldson to the team’s first sprint car feature race win with him driving. The Donaldson family told me that Todd, wife Jennifer, and their son Clayton own the car, a Hurricane chassis. “Mac Steele (former owner of the car) made Clayton a sweetheart deal on the car,” according to Todd Donaldson. “Lee Sisson of Knights Air Conditioning is our primary sponsor, along with other sponsors Donaldson Transport and MAC Tools. Donaldson Motorsports is still a family owned team.” Primary sponsor Lee Sisson was in the pits to show the car with its new colors and sponsor logo. Clayton went on to finish in sixth place in the 40-lap feature race.

    Tommy Nichols at Citrus County Speedway with new sponsor colors from Wilo USA.

    Two of the five remaining races on the 2017 series schedule are at Citrus County Speedway, which may give the points advantage to those drivers who performed well in last Saturday’s race. The next race there is on October 14, which has been designated at The Frank Riddle Memorial race. The next race for the series is next week, Saturday, September 30 at Showtime Speedway in Pinellas Park. That track reported minor hurricane wind damage and had racing last Saturday.

    The Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series feature race video from Saturday, September 16, 2017 at Citrus County Speedway is here:

    https://youtu.be/lLnPl5LvMF4



     

     

    Florida Short Track Hurricane Damage Report

    Story by Richard Golardi

    September 12, 2017

    This article will detail the available hurricane damage reports from Florida’s short tracks, as of 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, September 12, 2017. Some tracks have made no report of the extent of damage at their facilities, including the two south Florida tracks, 4-17 Southern Speedway in Punta Gorda (southwest Florida’s pavement track), and Hendry County Motorsports Park in Clewiston (southeast Florida’s dirt track). With Punta Gorda close to the Gulf Coast, and 80 miles directly north of the spot where Hurricane Irma made landfall at Marco Island, it is probable that 4-17 Southern Speedway may have sustained the greatest wind damage of all of Florida’s short tracks. Hendry County Motorsports Park, located in a swampy, low-lying area close to Lake Okeechobee, likely has flooded even without the lake overflowing its banks.

    These tracks have hosted sprint car racing in the past 12 months:

    4-17 Southern Speedway:
    There is no damage report from 4-17 Southern Speedway in Punta Gorda, but it’s likely heavily damaged by wind.

    Bubba Raceway Park:
    No current damage report available.

    Citrus County Speedway:
    Has provided a photo that showed a flooded infield, and also asked for assistance from the Southern Sprintcar series to determine if there was a sufficient number of Florida’s pavement sprint car racing teams that wanted to race at the track in four days for a previously scheduled race on Saturday, September 16, and so far some teams have responded. Subsequent to this, the Southern Sprintcar series stated, as of 6 p.m. Tuesday, that they will race this Saturday.

    Desoto Speedway:
    No current damage report available.

    East Bay Raceway Park:
    East Bay Raceway has a flooded infield and also flooded front straight, no other current damage report for now.

    New Smyrna Speedway:
    New Smyrna Speedway was likely the first Florida short track that I found with a damage report, they have sign damage only. All else OK.

    Showtime Speedway:
    Showtime Speedway in Pinellas Park has sustained "some damage", but intends to open tomorrow, Wednesday night, September 13, for practice. Their next scheduled sprint car race is on Saturday, September 30.

    Southern Raceway:
    The track has made several social media posts in the past 24 hours, without any mention of damage to the track by hurricane winds.

    Volusia Speedway Park:
    Volusia Speedway Park is one of the latest FL short tracks to report damage: they have fence damage & need to take off one week or more to complete repairs.

    These tracks have not hosted sprint car racing in the past 12 months:

    All-Tech Raceway:
    No current damage report available.

    Auburndale Speedway:
    Auburndale Speedway has reported serious damage, with light poles down & damaged buildings & no power & no date set to resume racing.

    Bronson Speedway:
    Has reported that they have no major damage, but a great deal of storm cleanup to complete and no power as of today. They have canceled this weekend’s planned racing.

    Five Flags Speedway:
    No reports of damage at the track.

    Hendry County Motorsports Park:
    No current damage report available, although the track has been closed for renovations for several months, and had stated that they hoped to be open again this month. A sprint car race date in September was previously canceled.

    North Florida Speedway:
    DAARA has reported that the track is flooded, and it appears that the intended opening race of the “second half” of their season this weekend is canceled.

    Additionally, I have confirmed that the USCS national series sprint car dates at Ocala’s Bubba Raceway Park this weekend, September 15 & 16, have been postponed to November 10 & 11, the Friday and Saturday night prior to the day of the Governors Cup late model stock car race at New Smyrna Speedway, which is on Sunday, November 12.

     

     

    Garrett Green, with parents Gary and Robin Green, Rookie of the Year Award at 2013 Little 500.

    Back to the Dirt with Garrett Green

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    August 24, 2017

    Friday, April 14, 2017, Flomaton Speedway, Alabama, USCS Outlaw Thunder Tour sprint car series.

    Garrett Green was there with his Valrico, FL family-owned team and dirt sprint car number 3G, sponsored by his family’s construction business, G2 Development, a business owned by his father and mentor, Gary Green. Garrett had the distinction of being one of the few sprint car drivers who has won a sprint car feature race on both dirt and pavement in the past two years, joining Sport Allen in that category. He had won a non-wing pavement race at Desoto Speedway in February, one of a couple of sprint car races there this year before the track shut down for the summer.

    This race at Flomaton Speedway was to be the team’s first out-of-town race of the year. Everyone on the team was feeling very positive, and the knowledge that their equipment “is in tip-top shape” only increased their level of confidence. Garrett started in the back of his heat race, which had six or seven other cars. They finished fourth, happy with the passing points earned. This likely would place them in the top ten for the feature race, with hopes for a top five or better in that race. Garrett left the track at the completion of the heat race, heading down a long, darkened road toward the pits, a road about 200 yards long with no lights. The area where his team was pitted did have lights. A fuel line had loosened during the heat race and sprayed fuel on the engine and the cockpit floor while he was on this road. A fire erupted in the engine area and also in the cockpit, up to the level of the steering wheel.

    Garrett Green at Flomaton Speedway, April 14, 2017 (Robin Green photo).

    As he approached the pits, some mini-stock drivers saw the fire, ran to Garrett’s assistance, and helped to pull him out of the burning car after he stopped (the track safety crew were still in the infield, as the heat races were being run). As he was being helped out of the car and away from the fire, his uniform pant leg was pulled up and a portion of his leg was exposed to the fire just above his fire proof sock. A three-inch area around his leg was burned badly, later determined to be a third-degree burn. As he was taken to the ambulance, the car was still on fire. After fire extinguishers and a bucket of water over the engine were used, the fire was out. Although the fire had melted parts and wires, it looked like it could be repaired for the next night’s race. But Garrett’s injury was serious and painful – he was going to be out of racing for a while.

    The ambulance crew treated Garrett and gave him instructions to go to the hospital, telling him that the burn looked severe. Not wanting to be stuck in a hospital in Alabama for a week or more, his family agreed that they would leave and go directly back to Tampa, where they could get Garrett treated at a hospital close to home – Tampa General Hospital, which had a burn unit. Garrett was admitted for the burn to be treated, and the initial plan was to allow time to heal and then likely avoid a skin graft, as long as healing progressed steadily.

    At five weeks (mid-May), the burn was not healing as quickly as hoped for, as third degree leg burns should have noticeable healing after three weeks. Because of his age (18), his doctor was going to allow him some more time to heal before scheduling surgery for a skin graft. Garrett was feeling some frustration about an unknown date for his return, and the possibility of losing part or all of the summer of racing.

    Garrett Green, driver of the Larry Brazil tribute car at the Larry Brazil Memorial race, Desoto Speedway, August 6, 2016.

    By June, nine weeks had gone by since the fire and the decision was made – Garrett needed a skin graft on his left leg to move the healing forward and complete treatment. That meant a trip back to the Tampa General Hospital burn unit for surgery, which was done on June 15. After a short hospital stay, he returned home to recuperate, recovered from a strep throat infection (causing his mother to lament that it was “like the never ending injury”), and then on July 11, the words that he was waiting to hear (and most every race car driver hopes to hear post-injury) from his doctor: “You are healed sufficiently and may resume driving.”

    While Garrett was healing, his father, Gary, used that time to “get our motors done, trailer done, car done, really just did everything to prepare ourselves to go back.” They also chose a novel method to use when pushing their sprint car around the pits, by using a Smart car. “It rides in the back of the trailer,” according to Gary. “It’s smaller than a ‘mule.’ They drove it up there.” The tiny two-passenger car, actually a used 2009 model acquired at low cost, was fitted with a push bar to push the race car from pits to track and ready it for the push truck. It was also going to be used by Garrett and the team to drive to the USCS races (mostly in states in the Deep South), and would soon be sporting a wrap with their car number and sponsor stickers, making it a “mini-me” version of their race car. Even if the car was going to draw laughs and taunts, those were likely going to be followed by the ultimate compliment: “Hey, that’s a pretty good idea. I think I’ll get one!”

    Unfortunately for Garrett’s mother, Robin, the return to racing meant she was probably going to need to give up on her plans to “sell all the sprint cars and buy a bad-a** boat.” The father and son racing duo in her family were planning to go back to the track, with sprint cars intact. But when?

    While a comeback date was being set, Garrett celebrated his 19th birthday on August 3. “He’s 19 years old now,” Gary Green said. “He’s had plenty of seat time since he was 13, starting out. Now we need to keep him in the seat with the best competition we can get him in, in order to see if he still keeps excelling.”

    Garrett was already spending time working with his father in his construction business, after graduating from high school in December 2016. Some weeks would be spent preparing the cars for the next weekend’s race and travel to the race, once he was back to driving. The time to set that date had arrived.

    Garrett’s comeback would be complete at Boyd’s Speedway, Georgia on Friday, August 18 with the USCS sprint car tour, his first race after a long and arduous recovery of 18 weeks. He started 12th and finished 13th in the feature race, surviving an impact with a loose exhaust piece from another car that struck his front wing and then the top wing on his car, but didn’t stop him from continuing in the race. With both wings damaged, Gary left Tampa in the morning with two new wings to allow them to race again on Saturday night. Two USCS races were planned for the weekend, and they wanted to race in both. At Georgia’s Senoia Raceway on Saturday, August 19 with the USCS national series, he started 20th and finished in 8th place in the feature race, winning the Hard Charger of the Race Award.

    This coming weekend, Garrett’s team plans to continue their sprint car racing on Friday, 8/25 at Crossville Speedway in Tennessee with the ASCS Southern Outlaw Sprints on dirt, and the family-owned team will race again on Saturday with ASCS SOS (and ASCS national tour) at Smoky Mountain Speedway, Tennessee, with other ASCS and USCS races planned through October. Southern Raceway in the Florida panhandle during Labor Day weekend, again with the ASCS Southern Outlaw Sprints, is planned, along with a trip to Ocala and Bubba Raceway Park for two nights of USCS national tour racing on September 15 and 16. With a limited 360 engine at the ready, they may likely race with the Eagle Jet Top Gun series late in the race season (their last race is on Saturday, December 2 at East Bay Raceway Park).

    But wait, that’s not all – add pavement sprint car racing into that mix. They still intend to enter one or more of the fall season Florida races with the Southern Sprintcar series, which races through December, in the pavement car owned by Lee Cipray. It’s a car Garrett has driven before, and he may be in again at Citrus County Speedway or another Florida track by September. In total, a well-rounded return to the track and a test of a talented young driver’s ability, as well as his prowess at putting the past behind him and moving on to better times.

     

     

     

    Mid-Summer Sprint Car Notes From Florida

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    August 10, 2017

    Aaron Pierce has confirmed, “Just Sept. 9 for now … no lease.” In his return to Florida winged 360 sprint car racing on pavement with the Southern Sprintcars, he will be a teammate to Justin Appleby in cars owned by Richie Corr, whose team has done limited racing in the series in recent years. Aaron is bringing Sam Pierce Chevrolet sponsorship, but is not leasing the car, as he has done in Florida previously. The September 9 series race, at Desoto Speedway, is the second planned race after an unusually long summer break for the Southern Sprintcar series. A planned break of 2 and months turned into a break of nearly four months after a 6/10 rainout and 7/29 race cancelation. The first race back after the summer break is Saturday, 8/26 at New Smyrna Speedway.

    Southern Sprintcar series officials have been working on finalizing a 2018 schedule, getting commitments from several tracks for 2018 races, including New Smyrna and Auburndale Speedway, which has not hosted sprint car racing since March 15, 2014. New Smyrna has three dates, one during February Speedweeks (on Sat., 2/10) which is a week earlier than this year, and Auburndale has one date, on Saturday, 3/17. The remaining tracks expected to return are Desoto, Showtime Speedway, Citrus County Speedway, and also 4-17 Southern Speedway, the newest track added this year. In the near future, the series is showing that it has stable management, reliable partners, and tracks friendly to hosting their races. Their only recent trouble has been a single fatal racing accident and the uncertainty at Desoto Speedway, which claims that it will return to racing next month after recently losing several race-day and PR staff to Showtime Speedway.

    Driver Shane Butler & number 15 champ car at Troy Thompson Inc. Silver Crown team test, New Smyrna Speedway.

    Shane Butler makes his second USAC start of the year on Saturday at Salem Speedway with the Silver Crown series in the Troy Thompson Inc. champ car. His previous start, in April, yielded a sixth place finish at Phoenix Raceway. The team has stayed in the Midwest for the rest of their 2017 starts, two with Troy Thompson (Indy’s Lucas Oil Raceway and Toledo Speedway), and the next pavement race at Salem. The team has a dirt champ car, but with the pavement experience of their drivers, they have stayed off dirt this year.

    The Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series was back in action last Saturday, after a short five-week summer break, with AJ Maddox winning at Bubba Raceway Park before a packed house when track owner Bubba Clem offered free grandstand admission. The next race is this Saturday at Volusia Speedway Park. There has been no comment on whether the series will seek to return to All-Tech Raceway in North Florida, which recently resumed racing with a limited schedule. Recent feature winner Tyler Clem has driven the last two races with a car owned by Gene Lasker after selling the motor he had used for limited 360 racing.

    The race team with a Florida owner that has had an amazing run since April 2017 is DJ Racing, with car owner Dick Fieler and driver Bobby Santos. They have piled up wins in both USAC Silver Crown pavement champ car races (they don’t race on dirt), and winged pavement sprint cars. Although the team is not based in Florida, Dick fielded cars driven by Troy DeCaire and Bobby Santos in recent years, and has won in Florida previously (at Five Flags Speedway with the King of the Wing series in 2015.) With Bobby driving, they have won at Phoenix, Indianapolis, and Toledo in USAC champ cars (since April), and at Berlin, Toledo and Baer Filed with Auto Value Super Sprints (since June). They also came close to getting a Little 500 win in May, finishing second to Kyle Hamilton. If they win at Salem Speedway on Saturday, their fourth USAC pavement champ car win of the year, they match Dave Steele’s 2005 pavement champ car win total.

    The reunion that has been the most attentive to Florida’s open wheel racing history, the Annual Golden Gate Speedway Reunion, has been scheduled for Sunday, October 22 at the Big Top Flea Market, the former location of the speedway. Along with open wheel racing history in the form of cars, memorabilia, and interviews with the track’s former racers and car owners, the reunion has also been responsible for motivating several projects in the works for the Golden Gate Speedway story and possible film documentary.

    1979 Little 500 co-winners, Danny Smith (left) and Wayne Reutimann (right).

    I have received an initial positive response from staff at Anderson Speedway for an idea to present Little 500 race-winning trophies to the duo that won in 1979, Wayne Reutimann and Danny Smith. Smith never received a trophy after driving the last nine race laps and taking the checkered flag, and Wayne is the only Little 500 winner to never receive a winner’s circle reception after winning (he was in the hospital after getting a concussion). The 40th anniversary of the win is the proposed “Winner’s Circle Replay”, but it has not yet received formal approval from track management and was only recently proposed. After the two drivers posed for a photo together for the first time ever in May at the Steele Family Benefit in Gibsonton, they both confirmed that they did not have, or could not locate, the single trophy for the winning driver.

     

     

    Kurt Taylor Ponders Retirement after 40 Years in Racing

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    July 27, 2017

    In a race on the dirt at East Bay Raceway Park on August 20, 2016, Kurt Taylor went for the ride of his life. In a wreck he called “the worst crash I ever had in racing”, he went flipping end over end down the back straight. The only things he saved from the car were the steering box, motor, and rear end. He was uninjured and shortly after returning to the pits with the bent remains of his car, he was joking and smiling with fellow racer Tim George. Although the car was in need of substantial repairs, he was in the winner’s circle at East Bay just about a month later after winning an East Bay Sprints feature. Kurt Taylor is a fighter – you won’t be able to keep him down for long.

    Even if things aren’t going that great for Kurt on the track, he can be resilient. “I’ve had a lot of motor problems,” he said about racing in 2017, “and little penny-ante stuff that’s gone bad. I’ve been running in the top five, but here lately it’s trying to survive because things just ain’t going your way. You know how that goes – you just get the monkey on your back. But that’s part of racing, you just keep trying. Don’t let it get ya down.”

    Kurt Taylor was still able to laugh after flipping his car down the back straight at East Bay Raceway Park, 8-20-2016.

    “That just cost too much money,” Kurt said, recalling the 2016 late-summer flip, then win experience. “I hope them days are over. It hurts the body – I’m too old for that deal. To be honest with you, I think come November after the last race, I think I’m going to retire. It’s been on my mind for a while and I’m just tired and burnt out, and I’ve got other things that I want to do around the house and stuff. I’ve been doing this for like 40 years – working with people and stuff. I could be swimming in my pool and drinking a margarita!”

    At the time of the interview in late June, Kurt had not told his car owner or his wife of this decision, so an intentional delay in letting the news out was planned to allow him to tell all the important people in his life. Kurt said that his current car owner, the Nichols Brothers, don’t want him to stop racing and may try to persuade him to run one more year. “If he gets me in a weak moment, I might just say, ‘OK, I’ll run one more year.’ The way expenses are, tires are so expensive, and especially at East Bay, you don’t make no money. I have to say that they give us a place to race that nobody else would, I give Varnadore credit for that,” he said, referring to track owner Al Varnadore.

    Kurt chose the Nichols Brothers, his current sprint car owners, as his favorite car owner. “They’ve been the greatest,” he said. “These people here, you couldn’t ask for two better car owners in the world. I can call them and say I need something, and ‘OK, no problem. Go ahead and get it.’ Marvin (Nichols) has been fantastic to me. He calls me once a week: ‘Hey, we’re going racing.’ I say, ‘yeah.’ He says, ‘Good luck. Call me and let me know how you did. If you need anything, give me a call.’ Best car owner I ever drove for.”

    Kurt Taylor, during hot laps prior to heat race crash, East Bay Raceway Park, 8-20-2016.

    About the current competitors in Florida dirt track racing, he feels that “with the way it is down here at East Bay, with Top Gun and stuff, the top 15 can win on any given night. The competition is really tough in this division.” If you’re talking about back in the day, the competitors that Kurt mentioned as the toughest to beat were “Larry Tyler, Wayne Reutimann – raced against him, Wayne Hammond – he used to be there. Guy Bos – he was a good competitor. Now, these young guys that are coming up are putting us old men to shame. They’re doing a hell of a job. You had about five to eight people back then, and you’ve got about 15 in this sprint car deal now that can win on any given night. So I’d have to say now, that they’re more talented because you’ve got 15 guys that can win. These guys are good.”

    His 40 years in racing included “driving off and on, working with Larry Tyler, and I had a pavement deal, and I ran thunder cars when East Bay first opened. Driver, car owner, mechanic, crew and everything. And going down the highway, hauling it to go to Echol’s shows and others. I’ve been involved with sprint car racing, and all racing, about 40 years, ’cause I’m 61 years old. I started at East Bay when they first opened up and I ain’t ever stopped.

    “But it’s been a good time, I’ve enjoyed it. I met a lot of great people, and I got hooked up with Jack Nowling and we went racing out of town a lot. I’m very proud of what them 40 years has brought me. I think it’s been great. I wouldn’t throw ’em away for nothing. They’ve been good ones – ups and downs, but that’s all part of life. It’s been a good 40 years. We’ll see – I may go 41, I don’t know. First thing I’ve got to do is tell my wife. She knows I’m going to retire already – she’s all for it.”

    With months of racing left in Florida with a season that goes to December, and that season barely half over, Kurt still looks to improve over his first half performance at East Bay and beyond. Bubba Raceway Park was the location of his most recent Top Gun Series race. He wants to finish races, get two or three more wins this year, and load the car in the trailer in one piece. He has two complete cars for the last 4 months of the 2017 season.

    He has also made a commitment to wear his HANS device every time he climbs into his race car, as he was wearing it in the 2016 East Bay crash and it protected him from serious injury. He called himself someone who was “from the old school, who didn’t believe in a lot of that stuff back then.” Now he does.

    “I think I can run with ’em,” said Kurt. “If I can get the monkey off my back, we’ll go. Just be safe and load it in the trailer, instead of tumbling down the straightaway!”

     

     

    Top Gun Sprint Series Mid-Year Report

     Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

     July 11, 2017

     After a season-opening weekend on February 3 and 4 when they had the national sprint car media all to themselves as the only sprint car races that weekend, and then another two races in March, the run of good fortune and good weather for the Eagle Jet Top Gun Sprint Series ended. All of their scheduled races from April 1 through the end of June were rained out, except for the most recent race at Bubba Raceway Park on June 30, won by AJ Maddox.

     

    As of today, the series win totals are as follows: two feature wins for both AJ Maddox and Matt Kurtz, and one win for Mark Ruel Jr. With no races planned for July, the second half of the season begins on August 5 at Bubba Raceway Park, followed by Volusia Speedway Park one week later, on August 12. There are a total of 10 races remaining at four different Florida dirt tracks through the first Saturday in December.

     

    With so little to report regarding on-track activity, I decided to pose two questions to each driver that I could locate at the most recent series race on Friday, June 30 in Ocala and use their replies for the Top Gun Series mid-year report, which follows.

     

    How has your year gone so far racing on dirt?

     

    Nikole Voisey

    “So far, so good. We’ve had a lot of rainouts this season, which sucks. With this new car, I love every chance that I get to be in it because it’s so much different than my other car. You wouldn’t think they would be that much different. This car is a different chassis, so the handling is a little bit different and it’s a little bit different setting it up, so I have to get used to my driving style from that car to this car. This is my fourth race in this car this year. It’s a 2011 model – an old car, but new to us. This is my first Top Gun race, all of our other Top Gun races have been rained out.”

     

    Mark Ruel Jr.

    “Our year’s gone pretty good. We’ve actually run more 360 stuff than we have this limited stuff, which is good. We wanted to be able to do that. We’ve improving every time we get in the 360, so that’s good. I’m on a new shock package, so we’ve been trying to learn that. We’ve got one win with Top Gun at Volusia in March.”

     

    Matt Kurtz

    “Started out decent, won a couple of races, kind of been boring as of late. We ran last weekend, but before that we got rained out like six races in a row. We haven’t done as well as we need to with our 360 program but we’ve got a new car on the way that should be here this week, a new Mach 1. It’s been running really good, so since GF1 shut down, we’ve got to try the new program. We’re going to build that one, not a complete whole new car, but new chassis and new front end, and they’ve got the motor program running pretty good.”  

     

    Keith Butler

    “Considering the other years, not bad. Every year, I go through more than one or two motors. We ran the first six races of the year and we had the motor out four times, same motor. It finally blew up, and the motor that’s in it now we ran twice and had some problems with it but I think after the last one we figured out what the problem is, so we’ll find out tonight.”

     

    Guy Bos

    “It’s gone pretty well. We’ve had a couple of bad finishes. Last week we had the right rear knocked off of it and a bead lock started letting air out of it at East Bay. So we had not too good of a night last week but we’ve been doing pretty fair. We were leading the (East Bay Sprints) points standings up until last week and now we’re back tied for second. We’re not really racing for points. We just race for fun and do the best we can. We go out and try to win them every week. If it’s working good then we’ll go for it.”

     

    Kurt Taylor

    “It’s gone alright. I’ve had a lot of motor problems and little penny-ante stuff that’s gone bad. My motor wouldn’t run last week at East Bay and I’ve been running in the top five but here lately it’s just trying to survive because things just ain’t going your way. You know how that goes, you just get the monkey on your back. But that’s part of racing – you just keep trying. Don’t let it get ya down.”

     

    AJ Maddox

    “The five races that we’ve gotten to run, in total, they’ve been pretty good so far. The Winternationals was probably the best for me, being in the top five in the nationals, that was a career accomplishment (fifth place in the East Bay 360 Winternationals finale feature race on February 25). We haven’t won any races, other than one (Top Gun feature race at East Bay, February 3, and also later that night at Ocala on June 30). Hopefully we can get some more races here, if the weather will cooperate. We had planned on going out of town, to run some USCS, and like three weekends in a row it kept raining out. They kept rescheduling Phenix City and it kept raining out.”

     

    Hayden Campbell

    “We switched to a brand new car in February, we’re now with J & J. We’ve actually only run one race this year, it was the first night out in this car in March at East Bay and we started dead last and I want to say we finished third. Ever since then, we’ve been rained out. We haven’t gotten to run it since so this is going to be the second race of the year for us. We didn’t run this year in the Winternationals. We wanted to wait until this car was done. We’re going to stick with just running Top Gun.”

     

    Brandon Grubaugh

    “It’s been pretty lousy. We’ve had more DNFs in probably the last five races than I’ve had in the last couple of years. Trying to come back – just struggling keeping it together with me and Dad. But we’re here – keeping the car count up. I went up to run a USCS race, but with four laps to go, something broke in the right front and put us in the fence.”

     

    Johnny Gilbertson

    “Our last race was last week but that didn’t go too good. But before that, I don’t even remember. Last week was my first dirt race since February, this is my second Top Gun race of the year. It’s been a weird year for me, it’s been kind of a big blur, to be honest with you. I’m going to have to say it’s been mediocre at best because I don’t have any highlights to tell you.”

     

    Aileen Collins-Love

    “This is the beginning for me – the first time I’ve run this year so far. We’ve been waiting for a motor, but the motor’s coming along and didn’t want to wait anymore. Definitely going to support Top Gun and we needed cars out here so we decided to go with the old motor and just show support for the whole group. We have not got the new motor yet.”

     

    Anthony D’Alessio

    “Well, this year’s been pretty tough – we’ve gone through a couple of race cars already, but right now we just won a heat race, so it might be turning around. It was bad luck, just got caught up in wrecks and stuff, so hopefully we’re turning it around tonight.”

     

    Tyler Clem

    “It’s been pretty good. We’ve won five times with the late model, modified, and sprint car (one sprint car win, three late model, and one modified win). We need to keep being consistent, it’s the only thing we can do.”

     

    What are you looking forward to during the second half of your year in dirt racing?

     

    Nikole Voisey

    “Hopefully getting a better feel for the car, get more comfortable with it and hopefully this rain stops so we can start going to the races some more. When we’re not in the big sprint, I’m also in the mini-sprint to get as much seat time as I can this year. Just for more seat time, nothing too serious. I definitely like the challenge, in the mini-sprint we run mostly non-wing, so it makes you a better driver not having that wing adjustment up there. I know my first race back in the mini, I kept reaching down, grabbing for my wing adjustor and it wasn’t there!”

     

    Mark Ruel Jr.

    “Get some more wins, get some more top fives, that’s really the goal. We’re not really running for points anywhere, so we want to go where we want to go, some stuff closer to home (Jacksonville, FL). We’re going to be running some USCS stuff, maybe some ASCS Southern Outlaw Sprints. Hopefully, we’ll be able to run a little bit here and there, depending on how our motor program goes – it’s strong so far.”

     

    Matt Kurtz

    “We’re going to continue the Top Gun deal. I hope we’re going to Dixie Speedway two weeks from now, with USCS, and obviously we’ll be here with USCS later in the year, and then we’re going to run the Needmore Speedway show. We’re going to try to run about another six or eight 360 shows. Last year we ran one 360 race, the year before I think we ran seven or eight. Definitely more 360 shows, so looking forward to it.”

     

    Keith Butler

    “Finishing races would be very nice. I’ve got a feeling if we finish races, we’ll be a contender to win one or two hopefully.”

     

    Guy Bos

    “It would be nice to stay in the top five on a consistent basis. It would be real nice to do that and if we could get a win that’d be great – we’d like to do that.”

     

    Kurt Taylor

    “Finishing races. I’d like to get two or three wins before the end of the season and have a good last part of the season. First part of the season – I give it about a five or six average, and I hope on the last part of the season, I can come up and say an eight of nine, maybe a ten – ya never know. I want to have a good last part of the year. That’s why I’m here tonight. I want to make sure this thing’s running. I’ve got two complete cars. Just be safe and load it in the trailer, instead of tumbling down the straightaway (which happened to him at East Bay on August 20, 2016).”

     

    AJ Maddox

    “We’re in the points for the Top Gun deal again so we might run the whole deal again. There’s a lot of 360 races we want to go to, quite a few of them, and then just get ready for the (East Bay) nationals next year, basically. None of the races that we want to go to conflict (with scheduled Top Gun series races), so we’ll probably just do it all. Everything that we can go hit, we’ll go hit, but Top Gun’s probably a priority though, since it’s so close.”

     

    Hayden Campbell

    “Obviously, not getting rained out, racing a lot more, and hopefully getting some wins with this new car. Even after our first night out, we were very happy with it. We just want to get better with it ever since then.”

     

    Brandon Grubaugh

    “I’m looking forward to a lot more top fives, podiums, and hopefully sneak out a win. We got close once, see if we can get back there. At the end of our season last year, we almost had a half-track lead up at Lake City and we blew up with four to go.”

     

    Johnny Gilbertson

    “Hopefully, a lot of races and some wins. That’s what we need. I’ve just got to be able to focus a little bit more on the equipment and myself. It’s been a crazy year but we’re here and we’re trying to have fun.”

     

    Aileen Collins-Love

    “I’ll be at every Top Gun show, for sure. We’re in it, even if it’s the old motor. I’ll be there.”

     

    Anthony D’Alessio

    “I’m hoping to get a couple more wins under my belt during the rest of the year but just keeping the car in one piece would be good enough (he had an East Bay Sprints feature win on March 11, 2017, his first sprint car win). No wins last year, but quite a few top tens and top fives. Going for the Top Gun win now.”

     

    Tyler Clem

    “Just trying to improve, trying to get better, and trying to win – that’s all. We had to sell our Top Gun motor and I was fortunate enough that he (Gene Lasker) gave me the opportunity to drive one of his cars (June 30 at Bubba Raceway Park).”

     

     

    Checking In With Johnny Gilbertson and Steele Performance Parts

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    July 5, 2017

    “It’s a strong group of people. You can just say that you talked to the people at the shop and they’re there every day, and they’re doing what we need to do and it’s a strong group, man. I’m proud of ’em.” That was Steele Performance Parts manager Johnny Gilbertson’s reply when he was asked how everyone was doing at the race shop, located on North Lois Avenue in Tampa.

    It has been more than 90 days since the devastating news that Dave Steele, the shop’s owner and founder, had died after a sprint car crash at Desoto Speedway on Saturday, March 25, 2017. By the next business day, Monday, March 27, the race shop’s future had already been decided. The shop’s statement read: “In honor of Dave, it’s business as usual.” Lynn Steele, along with Dave’s parents, Mac and Carol Steele, did not hesitate in making a decision to continue operating the business.

    Johnny Gilbertson at East Bay Raceway Park, September 26, 2015

    “It’s been a weird year for me,” Johnny Gilbertson said. “It’s been kind of a big blur, to be honest with you, and it’s hard to think.” Johnny was recalling all the dirt and pavement sprint cars races he had competed in since the season began, which was mid-January for sprint cars in Florida. Florida has had many rain-outs in the past few months. Friday was his first Top Gun series race in Florida on dirt since the series opened in early February. He was racing on the dirt at Bubba Raceway Park last Friday, in addition to a race at East Bay Raceway the prior week, and again with East Bay Sprints this week. Squeeze in some pavement races with the Southern Sprintcars series and that’s been his year on the race track.

    “I’m gonna say that it’s been mediocre at best – because I don’t have any highlights to tell you,” he said in summing up his year at the half-way point. He went to the Little 500 in May as a rookie car owner, at an event where he has not yet competed as a rookie driver. The driver who leased his pavement sprint car for the 500, Doug Fitzwater, did not make the field. Of the four cars that came from Florida, only two made the field, as it was a larger than average-size field this year and more difficult to qualify. “I’d do it again,” Johnny said. “It was a fun deal. I’d like to attempt to qualify myself one day. It was my rookie car owner experience with a rookie driver, and it was an experience.”

    Johnny Gilbertson, Bob Long Memorial Feature Race Winner, September 26, 2015

    Does he believe the car would have made the field with him behind the wheel? “Possibly,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t want to say anything bad about Doug. He’s a good guy and he put everything he had into it and he spent a lot of money. I got to help him do something that he wanted to do and that was gratifying for me. It’s good that we have the shop that can help guys kind of check stuff off their bucket list. It’s enjoyable for me to watch people be able to do that, where before they probably wouldn’t be able to.”

    For the second half of the year in Florida, he’s looking forward to: “Hopefully a lot of races and some wins. That’s what we need. I’ve just got to be able to focus a little bit more on the equipment and myself. Like I said, it’s been a crazy year, but … we’re here and we’re trying to have fun.”

    Despite the announcement in March that Steele Performance Parts would remain open, Johnny feared that a number of racers may have assumed that they would close. Regarding one racer, Johnny remarked: “Unless he thought because Dave was gone that the shop was not there anymore, I don’t know. Nah – we’re still kicking. There’s a lot of people that thought we were going to close the shop and that’s not the case.” For a time, he was asked: “What are you going to do with the shop?”

    His reply was: “We’re going to keep it open. We’re digging. We just need more races in Florida.”

    The feature race video of Johnny Gilbertson’s most recent Top Gun series feature race, the Top Gun Sprint Series at Bubba Raceway Park on Friday, June 30, 2017, is here:

    https://youtu.be/v8y5kICtjf8

     

     

     

    Opinion: NASCAR Should Embrace Sprint Car Racing

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    June 22, 2017

    NASCAR should embrace sprint car racing. Wait, let’s go back a bit. Let’s first examine the current situation and then decide: Should NASCAR embrace sprint car racing?

    At one time, NASCAR did embrace open wheel racing. They even promoted and sanctioned it. Next Wednesday, June 28, will mark 64 years since the last time a NASCAR race was held that came closest to modern day sprint car racing. It was the final race in the NASCAR Speedway Division, using champ cars (close in size and appearance to sprint cars of that time) that were required to use stock block engines, no Offenhausers allowed. NASCAR had only a shortened second season of Speedway Division racing in 1953, with three out of the five races counting toward the championship. Then it was done, never to return. NASCAR’s Midget Division raced into the early 1960s and then suffered the same fate.

    Then there was the ill-fated alliance between NASCAR and USAC to stage champ car races as part of NASCAR Cup race weekends. Some of those “next generation champ cars” now rest as hanging tombstones, suspended from the ceilings of race shops in Florida and Indiana. Another idea that seemed like a good one (well, not the cars – they were ugly), but didn’t work in real life. It was abandoned shortly after starting. Traditionalists even started up their own short-lived series to use the old USAC Silver Crown champ cars on pavement short ovals.

    Tony Stewart in a pavement sprint car at Anderson Speedway, 2017 Little 500

    One thing is for certain – other promoters and other tracks are seizing NASCAR’s mojo, taking their young stars and also sometimes old retired stars, placing them into mostly dirt sprint car races, and then reaping the profits and the racing glory. What has NASCAR’s reaction been to this usurping of the star power of their new and old stars? Not much of anything, until recently. On June 21, a story on the NASCAR.com home page titled “Kyle Larson Can’t Be Stopped, Picks up Fourth Win in Eight Days” seemed to begrudgingly confirm that Larson was doing most of his winning, and having the most fun, not on NASCAR tracks but on dirt tracks in a winged sprint car.

    Nothing in the few paragraphs of NASCAR’s online article implied that anything exciting had happened. But the Twitter message embedded into the article, from Larson himself, took an entirely different direction. He was excited – even ecstatic, you could say.

    “Win number 10 on the 2017 year!” Larson wrote in his tweet. “Been a few years since I’ve been in double digits. Hopefully can keep it rolling!!”

    The tweet by Larson implied that he was ecstatic because he was racing and winning on dirt in a sprint car. But why was NASCAR letting this happen without diving in themselves, without any involvement into the racing that their current and retired stars take part in? Sure, it was mostly dirt and that wasn’t NASCAR’s thing until its revival with the trucks on dirt at Eldora. One likely reason was that NASCAR wanted their supporters to hold the party line, and that line was “NASCAR is the most exciting form of racing in the world.” I even heard a NASCAR celebrity presenter state this at a non-NASCAR function in Florida last year. Yes, he said those exact words.

    The most accurate statement he could have and should have made was to state: “NASCAR has the biggest stars in their driver lineup, brings in the biggest sponsors, and continues to consistently get the best TV ratings and biggest crowds in American auto racing.” But the part about being the most exciting? No … he should have left that out. The races are boring, they are too long, and the contrived “debris cautions” near the race conclusion are phony and turning race fans off and leading them to search out racing excitement elsewhere. Or, if they stay NASCAR fans, they tune in for the last 20 or 30 laps of the race in many cases. That’s sometimes the exciting part because the racing is manipulated to be that way. The end is exciting. It’s your reward for making it through the 3-4 (or more) hours of tedious mind-numbing boredom.

    There’s an alternative, of course (isn’t there always). It’s racing at American short tracks, specifically sprint car racing. You aren’t going to get all of NASCAR’s stars in the race, but you are going to get excitement. Imagine eliminating the first 380 boring laps of a 400-lap NASCAR Cup race. Just run the last 20 laps. What would you get? It’d be insanely exciting. Drivers would have to take crazy chances. Sure, it might be a demo derby. But it would be exciting (and no, the current stage racing fails in doing that). I know I’d watch.

    But wait. That’s what you’ve already got in sprint car racing. In certain races, you’ve got the best of everything – those current and retired “star racers” from NASCAR with the excitement of a short, intense race. So many of NASCAR’s stars come from sprint car and open wheel racing (in fact, all of the “big name retirements” since 2015 except for Dale Earnhardt Jr.) that promoters who succeed in getting them back into a sprint car reap the benefits of a “big NASCAR name”, without paying NASCAR a cent. The perfect example is the 2017 Little 500. Tony Stewart crossed a bucket list race off his personal list by racing there, and Tony’s fans gave Anderson Speedway owner/promoter Rick Dawson his first Little 500 sell-out since the return of the race’s popularity (often tied to the demise of the USAC Night Before the 500 midget race, last run on the same night in 2014).

    There is a smart move that NASCAR can make, by riding the wave of NASCAR stars racing in sprint car races. They should do it themselves. There are already several NASCAR tracks with available “infield short ovals” that use part of the big oval front straight. Charlotte and Atlanta are two good examples. Daytona could become one too with the trioval grass area either partly or completely paved over (banked front straight with a flat back straight sounds exciting – forget that back straight short oval, it was terrible). The days leading up to the Saturday night or Sunday afternoon Cup race just got interesting. Don’t expect a big turnaround in crowd size – too many have been turned off by NASCAR in its current iteration. But what will be turned up is the level of excitement and interest, with current NASCAR drivers trying out sprint cars or returning to them, plus new sponsor names joining the fun.

    The benefit to NASCAR in adding sprint car racing is twofold: First, they will bring back some of the excitement to NASCAR that is now being credited to Anderson Speedway, the All Star Circuit of Champions, Florida’s Bubba Raceway Park (site of Stewart’s comeback to sprint car racing in February and his first comeback sprint car feature win in April), and other tracks, series and promoters. Why not take the glory themselves? It’s pavement sprint car racing, and Stewart just showed he’s good at it with a third place finish in May at the Little 500 against a field of America’s best sprint car racers.

    Secondly, and just as important due to the decades-long rivalry between Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Daytona International Speedway, Daytona will beat Indy in being the first to stage a short-oval sprint car race using an infield course. Indianapolis Speedway’s President Doug Boles has already openly expressed interest in staging such a race, and plans for Davey Hamilton to be the one to promote it as a King of the Wing race later fell apart. A temporary dirt short oval in Indy’s infield was used later for a single publicity stunt.

    Let’s revisit that question from the beginning. Should NASCAR embrace sprint car racing? The answer is yes. Will NASCAR embrace sprint car racing? The answer is probably not.

    But they should.

     

     

    Grant Thormeier’s Career Culminates with Little 500 Experience

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    June 14, 2017

    Grant Thormeier had made a decision. He was going to go up north for the 2017 Little 500 and when it was over, regardless of whether he made the starting field or not, he was going to retire from race car driving. He had chosen a year when he was going to have a more difficult time making the field of 33 cars. There was more interest and more car entries for the Little 500 this year due to Tony Stewart’s entry with the Hoffman Racing team. The stands were sold out and the number of cars attempting to make the field would be well above 33 for the first time in a number of years. It was going to be a difficult task for the sprint car owner/driver from Florida. Some said he might be better off making his first and last attempt to make the field next year. But no … he wasn’t going to wait. He was going for it – this year.

    Florida Driver Group Photo at 2017 Little 500, Mickey Kempgens, left, and Shane Butler, right.

    Thormeier was one of three drivers from Florida making the trip from the Sunshine State to Anderson, Indiana in late May for the Little 500. Four entered cars were making the trip – one of them from the Steele Performance race shop in Tampa. That fourth car, owned by shop manager Johnny Gilbertson, was going to be leased to Doug Fitzwater. There was actually a fifth “Florida car”, but many people did not view it as such, as the car was owned by a Floridian but not based in Florida. It was the number 22A car owned by Floridian Dick Fieler and driven by Bobby Santos. Fieler and Santos were going into race day as one of the favorites to win, and had one USAC Silver Crown win in 2017 – at Phoenix. They had a second place finish in another Silver Crown race the night before the 500.

    “This is it,” Grant Thormeier said. “Everything will be for sale, so getting out of racing completely, all forms of racing.”

    He had started racing in 1986, when he was 16 years old. His first car was a super late model that he raced at Desoto Speedway. He raced in the All Pro and ASA Series in a late model. He credits Dave Steele with getting him into sprint cars. “Short track racing is not the same no more,” he said. “The atmosphere, the drama … Dave Steele’s the one that got me switched over from late models to sprint cars, and I told him, ‘If I switch, I want your chassis (a 2013 Diablo chassis), nobody else’s.’ And without him being around anymore … he was the man to beat and it’s not fun chasing other people down. I’m coming here to the Little 500, making it my last race, plus a tribute to the Florida legends. Robert Smith was my hero; Larry Brazil Sr., Frank Riddle, Dave Scarborough and Dave Steele.”

    Grant Thormeier and his car at Anderson Speedway for the 2017 Little 500.

    His car had what he called “tribute sponsors”, which included his great-grandfather’s bar, and Ace Welding Supplies, a company owned by a crew member’s great-grandfather. His retirement decision came after the death of Dave Steele, a mentor of his, and the entries of Stewart and Ken Schrader, who he admired. He was hoping not to be required to qualify on Friday bump day by qualifying in the top 15 cars on pole day, which was Thursday. When that day arrived, he had the 36th fastest time out of 38 cars to make a qualifying attempt. He would need to make a dramatic improvement for Friday bump day in order to make the field. With the 37th fastest time, Doug Fitzwater would also need to make an overnight improvement to put a car from the Steele Performance Parts shop in the field.

    Earlier in the week, Grant had leased the track for a short private practice session, in order to allow him and the team to get some extra practice laps and get used to the track, where he was a rookie. “On Sunday, we couldn’t get the motor right, so we came back on Monday,” he said. He reached a best time of 12.5 seconds with old tires, and was satisfied with his team’s progress.

    Early on Monday, he hit the wall in turn two. Not too scary, compared to what happened later on Monday, that same private practice session. While leaving the track after a practice stint, the car’s throttle stuck and he was sent on a harrowing ride through the Anderson Speedway pits. Although they were the only team practicing and there were no other cars, there were crew members present (looking to see if Tony Stewart was at the track practicing) that he had to avoid striking. He couldn’t steer once his brakes locked up and he did have a collision with wire catch fencing, which was the last object to stop him from completely leaving the pits and going out into the RV parking area. He was not injured. On Tuesday, he and the crew plus volunteers worked all day to repair crash damage.

    His last race in a sprint car was in Florida in October 2013, a TBARA series race. “Last time in a sprint car and last time I raced,” he said. “The bickering and everything …” he said when explaining why he’d been away from racing for a while. It had been over three and a half years since he’d been in a race car, and he had only started in sprint cars a little over four years prior. “When I first started driving a sprint car was May 4, 2013 at Desoto. That was the first time me and Johnny and Dave got this car together for me to get in it. With the ASA and All Pro experience, you can see I’m pretty prepared for a long race. Mike Blake – he’s crew chief. I impressed Mike, with him saying, ‘Wow – you’ve got one heck of an outfit and you’ve got all the equipment we need.’ I’ve talked to Jeff Bloom three or four times a week since November on what to bring and what to look forward to.”

    Jeff Bloom was also in need of some luck to make the field on Friday, after not making an attempt on Thursday to get in the field for his 35th straight start in the Little 500. By the end of the day on Friday, Thormeier did not make the field. His time was not fast enough. Neither did Doug Fitzwater in the car owned by Johnny Gilbertson out of the Steele Performance shop. Grant Thormeier was not going to end his racing career in the manner that he desired, on the track honoring some Florida racing legends and competing against some drivers that were his own personal racing legends. His did give it his best effort, with many hours of preparation and practice, even a catch fence that was in his path got pushed aside. But it was not enough, despite the effort.

    Jeff Bloom ended his streak of consecutive Little 500 starts at 34, after also not making the field on Friday. His Friday fate was the same as the driver from Florida he had been advising and mentoring.

    As for the other three, the rest of the Floridians, Bobby Santos had the best result for his Florida car owner, Dick Fieler. He was in second place at the end of 500 laps on Saturday night, a repeat of his second place in a champ car on Friday night. Santos seems destined to be one of the next of the group of younger drivers to win at Anderson in the Little 500. Mickey Kempgens had his first Little 500 top five finish, as was reported earlier in this column. Shane Butler took 11th place, racing and passing Tony Stewart during the race. It was the first time he had raced against Tony Stewart.

    Many said they felt Dave Steele’s presence during the few days of racing at Anderson Speedway during the last weekend of May, and also felt that he was riding along with them. Even though not all in the group of Floridians got what they wanted during that time, they all shared something else – a sense that Florida sprint car racing had suffered a great loss with Dave Steele’s passing, but that they would go on and so would their memories of a great Florida open wheel racing champion.

     

     

    Mickey Kempgens Dodges Flying Cars and Other Objects for First Little 500 Top Five

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    May 29, 2017

    On a weekend that saw special events for others involved with his team, PCS Racing, Mickey Kempgens was the last member of his team to make the weekend a special one. With crew chief George Rudolph celebrating two special anniversaries at this year’s Little 500, and George’s Little 500 winning driver, Jim Childers, making his return to the track where he won 2 Little 500 races, the attention would turn to Mickey on Saturday night. With his expertise in non-wing pavement sprint car racing, Mickey is frequently named as the next Floridian likely to win at Anderson in the Little 500. Saturday night, he would make his fifth start in the Memorial Day weekend classic race.

     

    After making it through the chaos and frustrations of qualifying, when he was the fastest second-day qualifier, Mickey had the 16th spot on the 33-car grid on Saturday in his blue and black PCS Racing #68 car. Only one other Floridian made the field, Shane Butler, who started 27th in the red #55 car, for which he was listed as the entrant, but the car has parts owned by Jimmy Brown and also Butler. Going into the race, Butler and Kempgens both had two prior top ten finishes in the 500.

     Mickey Kempgens at Anderson Speedway, 2017 Little 500, Saturday afternoon warm-up session.

    “Top five – that’s pretty cool looking,” Mickey said as he looked toward the Anderson Speedway scoreboard on Saturday after 500 laps of the 2017 Little 500 were complete. As Kyle Hamilton celebrated in the Winner’s Circle nearby, Mickey had a smaller and quieter celebration in his pit. It was his best ever finish in the Little 500, and his first top five finish. His best previous finish was eighth in 2015, a year he led 78 laps with the same team.

     

    “Car was good, to start off with,” Mickey said. “We short-pitted, we came in early, which put us in the back, and we got a lap down early. I wish we had waited a little longer to do that first pit, but we were just behind from then on. I came in that last time, at about lap 400, and I look up and I’m like, ‘Well, I’m just going to go.’ And I ran as hard as I could for that last hundred laps, and I figured out that me and the seven (#7 car driven by Caleb Armstrong) were on the same lap, he was fifth and I was sixth. They gave us five to go and I did everything I could to get around that seven to finish fifth. We had amazing pit stops. My crew did awesome. I can’t thank my crew enough. Car was good; we were just a little behind the eight ball early. Hard to come back from that, but I’m really proud of a fifth.”

     

    Mickey passed Caleb Armstrong for fifth place with about two laps to go, a significant pass because Armstrong seemed to be in contention for the win early in the race, along with Kody Swanson and Kyle Hamilton. “I just bonzaied it in the corner and hoped it stuck. I had her jacked sideways a little bit, but she stuck. And we came out with a fifth, so couldn’t be happier. Well I could be happier, we could have, but …” The hope for a Little 500 race win is still there, with the next chance in 12 months.

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

    Mickey did get to pass “Smoke” (Tony Stewart) a couple of times, as Stewart was in a small group of cars that included both Floridians early in the race. Both Floridians passed him. “He and I were very equal. If I hadn’t gone a lap down early, I probably would have run third, but I’m happy. We always come up here to win this thing. Our goal is to win, and that’s what we’re going to do one of these days.”

     

    There was more than one close call for Mickey on Saturday night. “Aaron (Pierce) went flipping over me,” said Mickey. As Mickey came upon a row of stopped and slowed cars coming out of turn two after Caleb Armstrong had spun, he slowed and Pierce’s car went over his rear tire and was launched into the air down the back straight. “Everybody stopped in front of me – I stopped. Aaron ran over me. I was actually looking at Aaron, he was already upside down and I was staring right at him.” Aaron’s car passed over the top of Mickey’s car in the inverted position, so Mickey found himself looking up into Aaron’s cockpit.

     

    “He (Pierce) didn’t hit me (other than his tire), but I had a couple of close calls. Austin (Nemire) got in the fence early, and his nerf bar (after being detached from Nemire’s car) hit the roll cage, almost came into the cockpit with me. Other than that, those were really the only close calls.”

     

    The close calls did represent a couple of instances that could have “really been bad.” Karma or some kind of good luck was riding with Mickey, it seemed. “May have been David. He was riding along with us,” Mickey concluded. “Lynn was in the pits with us the entire time. Gilby (Steele Performance Parts Manager Johnny Gilbertson) was with us, changing tires. True Florida effort.”

     

    Was that the most strange, chaotic, and bizarre sprint car race you’ve ever been in, I asked? “Yeah,” Mickey said. “It was.”

     

    For more photos and stories from the 2017 Little 500, check out the Pay Less Little 500 Presented by UAW GM Facebook page. It contains photos that I have contributed to the page:

     

    https://www.facebook.com/paylesslittle500/

     

     

     

     

    Two Floridians Make the Field for 2017 Little 500

     Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

     Saturday, May 27, 2017

     For Mickey Kempgens, his first day on the track at Anderson Speedway for practice, also the first day of qualifying for the 2017 Little 500, went from good to bad to near heartbreak. There was a problem, but a quick solution to put the car right for second day qualifying was not close at hand. “Practice went good – pretty decent all day. Bolted a new set of tires on to go qualify and I couldn’t drive the darn thing. It wouldn’t grip the race track. I turned the motor 8,900 – just loose, loose, loose, and qualified 32nd. Don’t know what happened to the car. I’m not even in the show right now. We’ll figure it out, come back tomorrow and put down a lap like we should,” Mickey said. As far as what problem needed correcting, he replied, “I have no idea. I can’t put any power down. I know everybody’s having that problem.”

     Shane Butler takes checkered flag at the end of his four lap qualifying run at the 2017 Little 500.

    The disappointment was exacerbated by the excellent equipment he had, from car owner Doug Kenny, and the talent on the team put together by Kenny, which included Little 500 Hall of Famer George Rudolph as crew chief, who was still turning wrenches despite retiring as a car owner. Mickey’s talent was evident also, as shown by his prior non-wing sprint car championships in Florida and prior Little 500 results. Two years ago, he was at the front late in the race. A showdown between him and Dave Steele for the 2015 Little 500 win seemed to be approaching when a tire problem and late race crash caused by another driver set him back.

     

    When Friday came and Mickey Kempgens and his team returned to Anderson Speedway, it seemed that all had changed. The car’s handling was back, and so was Mickey’s confidence. Things were right again. The time to put down some lap times to get in the field had arrived. With positions 1-15 decided on Thursday, his best possible result on Friday was 16th starting position.

     

    On Friday, Kempgens said: “The track changed big time on Thursday. It was a rocket in practice, but when we put on tires to qualify, I couldn’t get it hooked up.” On Friday, his 78.81 mph hour qualifying speed for four laps placed him in the field as the fastest qualifier on day two of qualifying. If that time (45.677 seconds) had happened during Thursday for him, he would be starting in ninth place on Saturday night. With a qualifying time posted on day two, he starts in 16th place in the blue and black #68 car.

     Mickey Kempgens at Anderson Speedway during qualifying for the 2017 Little 500.

    “The car was fast today, we’re happy,” he said. The smiles were back.

     

    Shane Butler, back with the same team and car as last year when he had a top ten finish, decided to stand on his qualifying time from Thursday when he was 23rd fastest. He was not bumped on Friday, did not need to requalify, and at the end of day two qualifying had the 27th starting position for Saturday. This year, the car has a sticker honoring and remembering Dave Steele, and Shane will take the green flag wearing a helmet that is a tribute to Dave Steele’s career. It has photos of Dave Steele and the cars he raced on the sides, and on the back, an “S logo” with halo. After last year’s finish, Butler hopes a top five or top three finish in this year’s 500 will be an additional tribute to Dave Steele, with his images riding along in the red #55 car.

     

    For his crew this year at the Little 500, Shane mentioned, “We’ve got LJ Grimm, Devin McLeod, and of course, got my dad (Stan Butler), Troy (Thompson), and Dave Tompkins came up and Jimmy Brown, and Bobby Kistler coming over from Ohio, and Herb Neumann as right front tire changer, and two – not sure where they’re at – they haven’t shown up today,” he said, still managing a smile while the chaos of Little 500 pole day surrounded him. The car has a different engine – “something we’ve run here in the past, not the one we ran here last year. It is a 410. We’ve got a little different rear suspension this year, something we talked about after we left here last year, and we decided to do it.” The team has some new sponsors to support their 2017 Little 500 effort also, some from Florida. Some supporters helped financially, but asked to remain anonymous.

     

    This year’s Little 500 takes on greater significance for Shane Butler and his team, as they are not running all the Southern Sprintcar series races at home in Florida, and are not in the running for the state pavement sprint car championship this year. Shane has won the TBARA championship in Florida three times. “Hopefully, we’ll be lucky seven (his number of starts in the Little 500) and get us a win this year.”

     

    Shane said that his race day strategy will be to “stay out of trouble and hopefully we’ve got luck on our side.” This will be Shane’s first race competing against Tony Stewart. “Doesn’t matter if it’s Tony Stewart, or Jacob Wilson. We’ve got to beat 32 other guys. When we get in the car Saturday night, we just want to beat them all. It doesn’t matter who’s driving it,” he said. They plan on two pit stops during the race, their “normal routine.” They plan to change three tires on both pit stops.

     

    Video of Shane Butler’s 2017 Little 500 qualifying run at Anderson Speedway on Thursday, May 25, 2017:

     

    https://youtu.be/GgxzcSFjfxw

     

     

     

     

    George Rudolph Celebrates Two Career Anniversaries at Little 500 This Year

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    Mickey Kempgens talks with crew chief George Rudolph at Anderson Speedway prior to the 2016 Little 500.

    Florida sprint car racing legend George Rudolph, whose fame was built on the sprint cars that he designed, built, and owned, is celebrating two anniversaries while in Anderson, Indiana for the Little 500 this week. The two events, which occurred fifteen years apart, are the 1992 Little 500, at which he was the winning car owner with Jim Childers driving; and the start of the win streak by his sprint car, with Larry Brazil driving, at Golden Gate Speedway in May 1977. The 1992 Little 500 win was the first of two for Rudolph and Childers.

     

    Both George Rudolph and Jim Childers are making a return to Anderson Speedway for the Little 500 this week. George is here in a working capacity, as crew chief for the #68 car driven by Mickey Kempgens. The car number was chosen because it was used by George on his purple #68 sprint cars driven by Jim Childers and many other Florida sprint car racing legends. These drivers wheeled George’s cars to championships at Golden Gate Speedway (Larry Brazil, 5 time Golden Gate sprint car track champion), to TBARA championships (Robert Smith, 1 time; Dude Teate, 2 times; Troy DeCaire, 2 times; Stan Butler, 1 TBARA pavement division title), and to Central Florida Wingless Sprints championships (Troy DeCaire and Mickey Kempgens, both 1 time).

     

    Jim Childers has returned to Anderson Speedway for race week this year for the first time since 2001. That was the last year that he raced in the Little 500, retiring from race car driving shortly after. Only one year had elapsed since he won the last of his three Little 500 races in 2000, this time driving the car owned by his father-in-law, Jim Riddle. Jim and wife Charmaine have made the trip this year to be reunited with the #68 car, now completely restored, which he drove to the 1992 and 1994 Little 500 victories. Jim will get behind the wheel, with George Rudolph looking on, on Friday night at Anderson Speedway. It won’t be a race. It is just a vintage race car exhibition, and the vintage cars will circle under the yellow flag. Still, it will be a nostalgic reunion – for the champion driver and the car that carried him to two of his most important championships.

     

    After George Rudolph had a disappointing finish in the 1986 Little 500 with Bill Roynon driving, Jim Childers drove in his first Little 500 for George in 1987. He led laps in the race after starting on the front row, as Robert Smith and Bill Roynon had done before him in George’s number 68 car. When Childers won the pole position, led laps, and finished in the top five at the 1991 Little 500, George’s expertise in choosing a driver at or near the peak of his driving skill was evident. He was drawing closer to earning a Little 500 winner’s trophy.

     

     George Rudolph, center, poses with drivers that drove his sprint cars during their career while at New Smyrna Speedway on May 6, 2017.

    In 1992, Childers was back in George’s car and started in the middle of the front row. He led nearly half the race laps and won. It was the first Little 500 win for both men. The next year did not bring a repeat of the prior year’s success. In 1994, buried deep in the middle of the field at the start, Childers again showed his skill when he battled to the front and won. George and Jim Childers were in the Little 500 Winner’s Circle for the second time in three years.

     

    The driver that George Rudolph achieved his greatest success in Florida sprint car racing was Larry Brazil. They won five Golden Gate Speedway sprint car track championships together in the 1970s and Brazil racked up 85 career sprint car feature wins in Florida, mostly driving for George. The two men had a turbulent relationship as car owner and driver, and George was frequently asked, “How in the world do you put up with that guy?” There was an easy explanation – Larry Brazil took the car to Victory Lane on a regular basis and he was like a family member to George.

     

    Two drivers took most of the sprint car wins at Golden Gate Speedway in Tampa during the first half of 1977. They were Frank Riddle and Larry Brazil. Frank won a stretch of races, and then Larry went on a tear, beginning in May and all through June 1977. On May 21, 1977, Brazil broke Riddle’s streak with his fifth win of the season. He was helped by an incident on the third lap of the feature when Riddle locked up his brakes as heavy traffic slowed in front of him, putting Riddle into the wall. The frame of Riddle’s number 11 car was bent. Brazil won, with Jim Childers second. On June 11, 1977, Brazil’s Golden Gate win streak season continued as he won his heat and the 30-lap feature for his fourth win in a row. With brakes that were gone by race end, he stayed ahead of Frank Riddle, his arch-rival for years at Golden Gate, who was second.

     

    In all these 1977 races, Brazil was driving George Rudolph’s “Cuban Offy”, which actually had a stock Chevrolet engine. Larry Brazil continued his domination of that 1977 race season, winning 14 sprint car feature races and the title of Golden Gate Speedway sprint car track champion once again. His 1978 sprint car title would be his last at Golden Gate. By 1984, Golden Gate Speedway closed permanently, and George Rudolph began an annual trek to Anderson to enter his car in the Little 500.

     

    The 2017 Little 500 and the month of May 2017 mark the 25th anniversary of George Rudolph’s first win as a car owner in the Little 500 in 1992. This month also marks the 40th anniversary of George and Larry Brazil’s domination of the sprint car racing at Golden Gate Speedway in 1977, a track that produced many Little 500 winners.

     

    Happy anniversary, George. Here’s hoping you have many more, and one more trip to the Winner’s Circle at the Little 500 too. Keep an eye on that blue and black #68 car owned by Doug Kenny and driven by Mickey Kempgens at Anderson Speedway on Saturday night. It’s the one that George Rudolph helped put there.

     


    E-mail  Richard Golardi quickterm@yahoo.com


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