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    Florida Open Wheel

    By Richard Golardi

    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 ½ 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 ½ 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 ½ 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.

     

     

     

    Dave Steele at the Little 500: The Last Two Years

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    Friday, May 19, 2017

    Dave Steele at 2016 Little 500 autograph session.

    Thirty years ago, the 1987 Little 500 was the first running of the classic Indiana pavement sprint car race that was not won by a Floridian since 1983. The race was the first of a run of consecutive wins by Bob Frey from 1987 to 1990. Five years later, the 1992 Little 500 was the first race in which car owner Mac Steele put his son, Dave Steele, in the seat of his sprint car since first entering a car in the race in 1985. Dave finished in fifth place and was awarded the Rookie of the Year title.

    Although Mac Steele never did visit the Winner’s Circle as a car owner, when Dave Steele made a comeback to the Little 500 in 2015, he was returning as a two-time winner. This seemed surprising, as he seemed destined to win the Little 500 many more times, especially after his first “return to the Little 500” in 2000. Steele had raced in both IndyCar and NASCAR since the beginning of 1998, and was making a concerted effort to improve his fortune in short track open wheel racing by May 2000.

    After winning the Little 500 for the first time in 1996 with car owner Jack Nowling, Steele was in pursuit of his second Little 500 win, driving for Nowling again in 1997. In his next six starts from 2000 to 2005, he qualified on the front row every year, with four of those starts from the pole position. In 2000, he was driving in the race for car owner Bob Gratton from Tampa for the first time. During the six straight years that Dave Steele started from the front row beginning in 2000, Eric Gordon was the winner of the Little 500 for five straight years from 2001 to 2005. He had perfected the late race charge, surging to the front when others were tiring and slowing due to fatigue. Today, Eric Gordon is at the top of the Little 500 win list with nine career wins.

    Dave Steele in the pits with his car at the 2016 Little 500.

    By 2009, thirteen years had passed since his first win and Steele was now 35 years old. After getting beat for the 2009 Little 500 pole position by Indiana favorite Tony Elliott, who had finished second the year before, Dave Steele was progressing through his race week, saying his car was better in qualifying than it was in practice.

    Steele’s Little 500 nemesis since the beginning of the decade, Eric Gordon, was one of the last cars to qualify and his time appeared to suffer due to a track that got slick in the hot afternoon sun. Going into the 2009 Little 500 race looking for his ninth win, Gordon was several rows behind Steele’s starting spot on the front row.

    After 315 laps were complete on race day, Saturday, May 23, 2009, most of the fastest cars had been eliminated either through crashes or mechanical problems. That left Dave Steele and Eric Gordon, the eight-time winner, to fight it out between them for the win. The ensuing fight included controversy, accusations, and differing opinions on should be declared the winner. The intense match race between the two veterans would decide the winner.

    At the last restart, Steele was at the end of the field and on the lead lap. Eric Gordon was leading. Steele closed the gap and waited. Gordon slowed in lapped traffic, and Steele dove low in turn one to make the pass with 32 laps left. On cruise, he avoided slower cars and fatigued drivers for his second Little 500 win, only made sweeter by winning the match race against Eric Gordon and beating him to win for the first time in the decade.

    As Dave Steele sprayed the winner’s bottle of champagne along with car owner Lenny Puglio as 2009 Little 500 champions, behind him on the winner’s podium stood Lynn Bunn, his fiancée. Earlier in the decade, he became a multi-time USAC national champion. Now he could add multi-time Little 500 winner to that list of achievements. By the end of the year, he had his second TBARA driver championship.

    Assuming the role of a local businessman in Tampa, and adjusting to life as a married man and father, Dave Steele did not return to the Little 500 the next year. After an aborted attempt to return to the Little 500 in 2014 and the sale of his race cars, Steele started work on a new pavement sprint car for 2015. He was going to enter it for the 2015 Little 500, his first since winning in 2009.

    Dave Steele at the 2015 Little 500 afternoon warm-up session.

    Steele was absent from the Little 500 for six years, but not from racing. Giving himself the title of “local racer” and saying that he was semi-retired, he won nine sprint car races and the TBARA championship in 2013, and then did not win a single race in 2014. After winning two sprint car features during February Speedweeks in 2015, he was back behind the wheel again in 2015 at Anderson Speedway for the Little 500. He was one of the favorites to win.

    His first Little 500 win came when Dave Steele was in his 20s, and the second when he was in his mid 30s. He was now 41 years old. In practice at Anderson Speedway for the 2015 Little 500, he posted the fastest practice lap. Dave Steele was back.

    When asked if he thought he was as physically fit now at age 41, as compared to when he had his two Little 500 wins, Steele replied, “probably not.” What was his chance of winning his third on Saturday night? “Well, it’s as good as anybody. Our starting spot isn’t as good as we’d like (18th).” In addition, Steele said that the motor problems that they had earlier in the week were fixed.

    After 181 laps, Dave Steele was in fourth place, after starting in 18th place. At the 350 lap mark, he was in third place, one lap down to Mickey Kempgens in first place and Chris Windom in second. Then Steele was moving forward, making passes. He was right on the bumper of the #68 car of Kempgens, and passed him on the 403rd lap to get back on the lead lap. With Kempgens slowed by a worn rear tire, he was passed by Windom, and then Steele, who were now in first and second place.

    The last run to the checkered flag started on lap 459, with Windom in first place. Steele was now right on his rear bumper. The battle to the finish would take place between these two drivers, one from Florida and one from the Midwest. Dave Steele had been in this situation many times before. The usual outcome: Dave Steele makes the pass and wins.

    Steele moved to pass Windom’s car twice during the last run to the checkered flag, reaching the side of Windom’s car in traffic each time. He could not make the pass, and Windom won the 2015 Little 500, his second win in the race. Dave Steele was in second place.

    “I knew we were going to have to be dead even going into the corner. Leading this thing, nobody’s going to give it up that easy,” Dave Steele said. “Just came up a little bit short. Crew did a good job. Car’s in one piece, have to settle for second. He was fast at the end. We were maybe the same speed, but you’ve got to be a little faster to pass him.” Steele revealed that he did come close to being caught up in one of the early race wrecks in turns one and two that took out many cars. He did not reveal whether he intended to return to the Little 500 the next year, leaving the racing media and his fans guessing.

    One year later at the 2016 Little 500, he had placed at the top of the practice speed charts during the week and was confident. “If there’s any advantage for an old guy like me, it’s that we’ve got more Little 500 races under our belt than those guys do,” he said. “We might not have the break-neck speed, but hopefully we can counteract that with experience.” One of his ploys to lull the younger racers into thinking he could not compete with them for the race win was to refer to himself as an “old guy.”

    He did compete with them on Saturday, race night. The race’s final laps saw Steele attempting to run down and pass Kody Swanson. He came close to winning, as he did the prior year, but was about a second behind Swanson at the finish. The Swanson brothers, Kody and Tanner, won three straight major Indy race week events from Thursday to Saturday in Indiana.

    When asked if he would rate the 2016 Little 500 as even more intense than the prior year’s race, Steele replied, “I probably would say yeah. It seems like some of the faster cars were in there at the end. Last year, it seems like there was a little more attrition. We had to go all out for the whole five hundred just to stay in the hunt.” The amount of contact between cars was at a high level, mostly in the early and middle portions of the race.

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

     

     

     

    Race Report: Southern Sprintcars “Superman 33” at New Smyrna Speedway

     

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

     

    The past weekend could be described as one of healing and catharsis and a new beginning for pavement sprint car racing in Florida. Last weekend included the first Florida race at which all drivers were wearing an approved head and neck restraint system. That rule, announced in mid-April, came into play when the first major incident since the rule changes occurred at New Smyrna Speedway on Saturday. Clayton Donaldson, the Southern Sprintcar series Rookie of the Year in 2016, hit the back straight wall during a heat race, rode along the top of the wall and then hit the inside wall. He was wearing a HANS device, his car was equipped with a containment seat, and he was uninjured in the incident.

     Dude Teate, feature race winner, New Smyrna Speedway, Saturday, May 6, 2017.

    On Sunday, an auction was held at the Gibsonton home of Jack Nowling to benefit the family of Dave Steele. Many members of the sprint car racing community in Florida (and outside Florida) donated their time and items for the benefit auction, which successfully raised over $40,000 for Lynn Steele and her children. With the Saturday race designated as the “Superman 33” in memory of Dave Steele, the Sunday auction benefit was the last planned benefit event in Florida. Dave Steele’s name will be mentioned and his deeds remembered at another pavement sprint car late this month, the Little 500. This year’s race will also mark the 25th anniversary of George Rudolph’s first win as a car owner in 1992. I have also learned that Frank Riddle’s 500-winning car will also be brought to Anderson Speedway and will be on display to mark the 20th anniversary of Frank’s last start in the Little 500 in 1997.

     

    Mechanical problems and the heat race crash took out several cars, reducing the starting field of the Superman 33 feature race to 12 cars. The three cars of Shane Butler, who had made his first USAC Silver Crown start the prior week, Troy DeCaire, winner of the February race at New Smyrna Speedway, and Dude Teate, looking for his first feature win since 2012, separated themselves from the rest of the field and contended for the win. Teate passed Shane Butler for first place on lap 12 and was never headed for the lead, even after a late race restart for the one-car crash of John Inman on the front straight caused by a broken rear axle. Inman was also uninjured, with about half the field using a HANS and the other half a version of the Simpson Hybrid head and neck restraint. Two drivers were making the switch from HANS to the Simpson Hybrid brand: they were Troy DeCaire and Clayton Donaldson (making the switch at the next race in June).

     Clayton Donaldson surveys the damage on his car after a crash on the back straight at New Smyrna Speedway.

    The driver making the most significant change in his use of a head and neck restraint was 45 year old Dude Teate. After never wearing any head and neck restraint device for his entire sprint car racing career (dating back to 1996, includes three TBARA championships), the Saturday race marked his second career race while wearing head and neck restraint (a HANS device). The new Simpson helmet and HANS that he displayed had been a gift from a prominent member of the Florida open wheel racing community. Wearing his new gear, he made an impressive display of high-speed driving skill in the feature race to win over second place Butler and third place DeCaire.

     

    After his second place finish, which came seven days after a sixth place finish at the Phoenix USAC champ car race, Shane Butler referred to the special tribute helmet he was wearing, which featured pictures of Dave Steele on the sides and topped by a Superman “S logo” with a halo. “I would’ve liked to have won this with this special helmet, but hats off to Dude, he’s a hell of a good guy, and he did what he had to do.” Shane Butler’s next race will be the Little 500 on Saturday, May 27. His car owner, Troy Thompson, will also race during Indy race week, starting the team’s next USAC champ car race on Friday at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. Thompson has decided not to attempt to qualify for the Little 500, as he did last year.

     Dude Teate shows the new Simpson helmet and HANS device he used at New Smyrna Speedway on Saturday.

    Troy DeCaire, whose highest position in the New Smyrna feature race was third, where he finished, stated that he had oil covering him during the race and he cleared his helmet shield of the oil and “took a stab at it and driver error down in one (on the restart). But got a little loose, got on the brakes, and Shane (Butler) straightened me out, so I guess I’m happy that we got third because it could’ve gotten a lot worse there.” Praising the Southern Sprintcar series, he said that, “We’re working hard to build the car count here so that we can give you guys a race you deserve and even with a short car count, I feel that we put on a pretty good show.”

     

    “Yeah, I didn’t want to see that caution at all,” Dude Teate stated in Victory Lane. “That old car was rollin’ – it was rollin’ good. I tell you what though – this is for Superman, David Steele, thirty-three. Yeah – woo!” he exclaimed, part victory cry and part celebration of the life of Steele, whose name is legend in Florida sprint car racing as the only driver to win 100 Florida sprint car feature races. “I want to thank Ron Vandenbrink, my car owner – definitely couldn’t do it without him, my parents and all my crew. Yeah, love ’em – love ’em all.”

     

    The feature race video of the “Superman 33” Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series at New Smyrna Speedway on Saturday, May 6, 2017 is here:

     

    https://youtu.be/9moRPkTg9LM

     

     

     

     

    A Positive Change

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    After 2013, a year which saw a significant number of serious injuries and deaths in American sprint car racing, there was a call to improve American open wheel racing safety. In early 2014, the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series mandated that containment seats must be used effective February 1, 2014. Some drivers were still using flat-back seats during the 2013 season, mainly older drivers who were used to that style of seat. A front axle tether rule was also effective as of April 1, 2014. With these rule changes, the World of Outlaws assumed somewhat of a leadership role in making their sprint car races safer for drivers and fans alike. This was a significant role for them, owing to their exposure and popularity nationwide. They also stated that they “encourage all 410 governing bodies to incorporate these rules.” Their actions could begin a national movement and influence other series to adopt the same safety initiatives.

    Mickey Kempgens at feature race start, Desoto Speedway, February 2015

     

    In late 2016, the World of Outlaws decided to begin random drug testing of sprint car drivers in 2017. World Racing Group CEO Brian Carter said there wasn’t any suspicion of performance-enhancing drug use. He would not be looking for their use by World of Outlaws drivers, he said. Instead, he mentioned “recreational drug use”, an obvious reference to increased marijuana use nationwide spurred by state ballot initiatives which legalized medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. Of those states where the World of Outlaws sprint cars race in during 2017, four states (CA, NV, OR and WA) have recreational marijuana laws in place. Some states have not written rules and guidelines yet for their “dispensaries”, so legalized use has not begun (including Florida).

    One instance in which the World of Outlaws management showed indecisiveness was during the 2017 February Speedweeks races at Volusia Speedway Park. Early in the race week, a car vaulted the second turn catch fence during an All Star Circuit of Champions race on Wednesday. A potential disaster was averted when it narrowly missed spectators in a small occupied spectator stand and nearby parked safety vehicles. Four days later during a World of Outlaws feature race at that same track, close to that same spot, another sprint car vaulted the catch fence and injured several spectators. The track’s owner and manager, World Racing Group, is also the owner of the World of Outlaws and could have closed the area on the outside of turn two to spectators after the first incident.

    Cockpit of World of Outlaws sprint car driven by Danny Lasoski at DIRTcar Nationals, February 2015

     

    The Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, which along with the entire Florida racing community was shaken by the death of Dave Steele on March 25, announced on Thursday, April 13 that it revised its safety rules. This was the second time they had done so since the incident that took Steele’s life. The April 13 announcement stated that all drivers would be required to wear an approved head and neck restraint device. The prior rule change, announced on March 31, mandated that all cars were required to use an approved full containment race seat. It was reported that all cars complied with this rule for the first series race after Steele’s death, held on April 8 at Citrus County Speedway.

    Beginning less than 24 hours after this April 13 announcement by the Southern Sprintcar series, it appears that their move to improve safety may have inspired two other pavement sprint car series to improve their driver safety rules. The Auto Value Bumper to Bumper Super Sprints announced on April 14 that they will require all cars to have a full containment race seat. They had previously required that drivers wear an approved head and neck restraint system, prior to this latest announcement. Five day later on April 19, the King of the Wing national sprint car series also required containment seats for their 2017 race season, which begins racing in July. Prior to this year, they had also previously required an approved head and neck restraint system. On April 28, Florida’s Top Gun Sprint Series announced that they will require an approved head and neck restraint system also. Now both of Florida’s touring sprint car series were requiring the safety device for all drivers.

    The Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series had now assumed a leadership role in driver safety, as the World of Outlaws had done earlier in the decade. Their actions were encouraging other sprint car series, which had not yet mandated a head and neck restraint system or containment seats, to make rule changes to make their racing safer. The two incidents at Volusia Speedway Park in February show that there is still more to do and that track safety is the next area in need of change, including positioning of spectator stands and moving and updating catch fences.

    Hopefully, this increased attention to safety in the American open wheel racing arena will continue, until racing without a head and neck restraint or without a full containment seat are a thing of the past, like when drivers believed that it was better to avoid wearing a safety belt.

    I believe that the passage of time can heal wounds and bring a bit of relief to the pain felt by several families in the Florida open wheel racing community. The strengthening of driver safety rules in both of Florida's touring sprint car series, the growth of the state's economy and amazing influx of people and dollars, and the growth in the fan base (witness the reopened tracks making a comeback in the past 9 months), reveal that the immediate future can be a positive, enriching time for open wheel racing and its supporting community in Florida. Time also reveals the substance and strength in the community’s members. Every part of the community is making a contribution in some way, and every part of the community is holding it firmly together. The recent changes are positive, and a safer racing environment can bring enjoyment back into the sport for participants and spectators alike.

     

     

    Troy Thompson Inc. Team Ready to Enter Silver Crown Competition

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    April 20, 2017

    Florida pavement sprint car racing had been the main pursuit of the Troy Thompson Inc. race team in recent years, with drivers Troy Thompson and Shane Butler. Although the team made its first trip to the Little 500 last year and earned a top ten finish with Shane Butler driving, it had not ventured beyond pavement sprint cars. That’s about to change. Last Saturday at New Smyrna Speedway, the team completed its last major step to prepare for their first ever USAC Silver Crown race. Soon, they will go champ car racing.

    Car owner Troy Thompson at the wheel of his team's USAC Silver Crown car at New Smyrna Speedway on April 15, 2017

    Car owner Troy Thompson had purchased two Silver Crown cars, one a Beast chassis with a Gaerte engine for pavement racing, and also a Hurricane chassis for dirt champ car racing. These cars share a direct lineage with the cars that were used in USAC champ car racing when it was part of the USAC Indy car series (prior to 1971). Pavement tracks were eliminated from both the USAC sprint car and midget series, but the USAC Silver Crown series champion still must prove his versatility at racing on both dirt and pavement. Florida seemed the perfect breeding ground for a new Silver Crown team, with year-round sprint car racing on both surfaces.

    The team’s test at New Smyrna Speedway on Saturday was with their Beast chassis – the pavement Silver Crown car. At the end of the two hour test session on the high-banked half mile New Smyrna oval, a decision would be made as to whether the team would make the long trip to Arizona next week. That trip, to Phoenix International Raceway, would mark their first entry into USAC Silver Crown racing on April 29. Shane Butler will drive that race. The team’s second race, if all went well at the New Smyrna test, was planned for May 26 at Indy’s Lucas Oil Raceway, Friday night before the Little 500. Troy Thompson would drive then.

    A problem arose at the beginning of their Saturday test session – the car’s fuel injector nozzles were clogged with gunk, and needed to be cleaned thoroughly before the test laps with Butler behind the wheel could continue. The delay took some of their precious testing time, but likely would still leave time for both Butler and Thompson to test the car.

    Team owner Troy Thompson (left) and Shane Butler at Troy Thompson Inc. Silver Crown test, New Smyrna Speedway, Saturday, April 15, 2017.

    “The car felt really good,” Shane Butler said, crediting the spring set-ups that they got from Dave Steele with helping to get the car to handle well during the test. “As far as testing here, he put us right in the ballpark, which I had no doubt about that.” There were plans to check back with Steele again before heading to Phoenix, to take advantage of his expertise about a track where he had garnered many Copper Classic race wins. A sticker on the side of the car pays tribute to Dave Steele, and his contributions to the sport of open wheel racing in Florida seem to go on.

    “This second test went very good,” Shane said. “A couple of minor issues, nothing serious, just minor things here and there. But, very happy with the way the car feels, very drivable. The last time we were here, we thought it was a fuel pickup issue, kept changing pills, and then come to find out this trip we had trash in the (fuel injection) nozzles. Everything’s squared away with that now.” Shane Butler also revealed that he had never driven at Phoenix Raceway before, and the one-mile oval would be the longest track he’s ever raced on. “I’m super-excited,” he added.

    Unlike last year, Troy Thompson will not make a qualifying attempt at the Little 500, leaving the Friday USAC Silver Crown race in Indianapolis as his only race of the weekend, and the red number 55 sprint car as the only team entry in the Little 500 on Saturday, with Shane Butler driving. There will be a second sprint car that they will bring as a backup, with “no plans to run a second car at all”, according to Shane. This year’s contingent of Florida drivers planning to make the trek to Anderson Speedway for the “Little Five” appears to be two or three drivers, about the same as the last couple of years.

    “I want to finish all 100 laps,” Shane said when asked about his expectations for the Phoenix race. “I know that’s the same goal for Troy, we want to finish all 100 laps. That’s the number one goal.” He does expect that 100 laps on the Phoenix one mile oval is “in theory, probably less grueling than 500 laps at Anderson,” but still, “on your toes the whole time, I would think.”

    Troy Thompson was the second driver to take laps in the car at New Smyrna. He did not push the car as hard at Butler did in the practice laps, as could be seen in the video taken by the two GoPro cameras carried by the car during the test. As with Butler, he commented that the car felt stable and he was pleased with the second test for the car. “Looking forward to getting more seat time in it,” Thompson said. “Just wanted to be conservative, being it was the first time, getting ready for the Phoenix race, don’t want to overdrive the car. I have a reputation for driving the cars too hard. I knew not to overdrive the car, just take it easy, have some fun.” Troy has never raced at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis before, and at 5/8 mile, it will be slightly larger than the half-mile tracks he has raced in Florida. Troy looks forward to his first Silver Crown race next month, adding to a racing first in April when he won his first sprint car heat race and also led the initial laps of the Southern Sprintcar feature race at Citrus County Speedway.

    Thompson acknowledges that he has a “big learning curve” in finding the fastest way around Lucas Oil Raceway in a champ car. “I heard it’s nice and wide. I think you’d want to roll it in, and then halfway through back on the throttle gently again. Of course, my idol that I can’t talk to anymore, I was looking forward to talking to him about it. We know who we’re talking about – Mr. Steele. My goal is to start and finish the race, not to light the world on fire.” The team plans a last New Smyrna test session in May, to give Troy more practice laps before they go to Indianapolis later in the month.

    With the test session drawing to a close, it was time for a decision. Was the team ready for Phoenix, and would they go there for their first USAC Silver Crown race? “Are we officially going?” Shane Butler asked.

    Troy Thompson replied: “Yes – we’re going.”

    PLUS: Today, April 20, 2017, marks the 90th birthday of Florida open wheel and stock car racing icon Pancho Alvarez, who raced his big car (a predecessor of today’s sprint cars) at Tampa’s Speedway Park in the early 1950s and also in IMCA big car national series racing at that time. His racing exploits from the 1940s to the present day saw him make contact with many other American racing legends such as Al Sweeney, Frank Luptow, Bill France Sr., Pete Folse, and many others. His already completed biography will be included in an upcoming book, and tells of the amazing career of one of Tampa’s foremost racing legends.

    The video from the Saturday, April 15, 2017 Troy Thompson Inc. team test session at New Smyrna Speedway is here:

    https://youtu.be/mfskOFzfftg

     

     

     

    Robbie Smith is Back on the Dirt in Florida

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    April 14, 2017

    Florida dirt sprint car racer Robbie Smith had not been seen on the state’s dirt ovals for a while. At the East Bay Raceway Winternationals earlier this year, he was asked about his absence. “I’ve just been working hard,” Robbie responded in February. “Working hard making some changes in business and doing things besides racing. It’s been almost 2 years since the last time racing a sprint car, two years this month actually.” Robbie had raced in the February 2015 Winternationals and also at Ocala that month in an ASCS national race.

    Robbie explained that there was a period of time when changes to his business became a priority and required his time and attention. “We went through a phase when racing wasn’t a priority to us. Now we’re going to run some and try and get back into it and see how we like it, and continue on. Same car, same owner, same truck, same trailer,” he explained, as was last seen two years ago.

    At 51 years old, Robbie stated that “the car’s a lot faster than me. I’m out of shape, of course. Being out if it for a couple of years, it takes a little longer to get the cobwebs knocked off. For the most part, we’re happy with what we’ve done even though we’ve been chasing the track and not done as well as a lot of these guys around here.” Robbie mentioned the toughness of the competition in the East Bay Winternationals, which could also be said of the initial 2017 visit to Florida for the USCS national tour in April. That visit saw Floridian Tyler Clem win on the first night (his first national sprint car tour win) and Tony Stewart win on night two, his first sprint car feature win of 2017, his short track racing comeback year.

    “We’re happy getting our feet back in it and feeling good. If we can make it through tonight, have a strong run, see what happens, and then continue on.” Robbie and team raced at Ocala with USCS, and further plans were based on waiting until he got his limited 360 motor from his engine builder up north. That motor would then be used for Top Gun Sprint series races in Florida. “Our Top Gun motor is up in Indiana,” he said.

    CONCERNING PAVEMENT SPRINT CAR RACING SAFETY IN FLORIDA:

    The Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, which along with the entire Florida racing community was shaken by the death of Dave Steele in late March, announced on Thursday, April 13 that it had revised its safety rules for a second time since March 25. The April 13 announcement stated that all drivers would be required to wear an approved head and neck restraint device. The series had run one race, at Citrus County Speedway on April 8, since the tragedy that took Steele’s life. There was no requirement that drivers wear a head and neck restraint device at this race. There had been a rule change, announced on March 31, that did apply to this race, and that was to require an approved full containment race seat. It was reported that all cars complied with this rule and were allowed to race at Citrus.

    Less than 24 hours after this latest announcement by the Southern Sprintcar series, it appears that this latest move to improve safety may have inspired another pavement sprint car series to up their current safety efforts. The Auto Value Bumper to Bumper Super Sprints announced today, April 14, that they will require all cars to have a full containment race seat. They had previously required that drivers wear an approved head and neck restraint system, prior to this latest announcement.

    Hopefully, this increased attention to safety in the American open wheel racing community will continue, until racing without a head and neck restraint or without a full containment seat are a thing of the past, like when drivers believed, “it’s better to get thrown out of the car than to wear a safety belt.” Young racers, including those in Florida’s racing community with its many young pavement and dirt sprint car drivers, will learn to accept the open wheel racing safety devices as necessary, and not an annoyance. Even those drivers who seemed to be able to dive out of their car before the crash impact (Masten Gregory was one in the 1950s), due to not wearing a seatbelt, eventually got hurt badly and sometimes did not survive. It’s better to be safe.

     

     

    Shawn Murray Is Well Into His Year of Big Changes

    Active duty US Navy aviator Shawn Murray at Bubba Raceway Park, 9-16-2016

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

    March 30, 2017

    Florida dirt sprint car racer Shawn Murray, an active duty US Navy aviator, is preparing for some big life changes in 2017. Not only is he preparing to retire from active duty US military service, he is transitioning from being a military aviator to a commercial airline pilot, preparing for his last day in the military (9-1-2017), and doing some job hunting. He may not have to look far for a job, as Delta Airlines is actively recruiting pilots from his US Navy unit in Jacksonville to come fly for them. That means his home will remain in Jacksonville. It also means he can continue to be a Florida dirt track racer.

    When I spoke to Shawn recently at East Bay Raceway Park, he was racing his sprint car in the East Bay Winternationals. He was also hoping to race in this week’s USCS Florida Spring Nationals when they visit Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala on Friday and Saturday (3/31 and 4/1). “We’re going to try to hit as much USCS as we can, because we’re up out of Jacksonville,” he said, making the USCS Georgia race locations closer than some of the Florida dirt tracks.

    “I’ve got four more months before I retire,” Shawn said in February. With September 1 as his last day in the Navy and with a chunk of leave time built up (about 90 days), he hopes to complete his job hunting and have a job with a US airline before he receives his last paycheck from the Navy. After serving on active Duty in the US Navy for 22 years, this is obviously a major life change for Shawn Murray. I could not sense even a hint of trepidation or uneasiness in his voice and mannerisms. He seemed completely confident that the transition would go smoothly, and was looking forward to a life of flying aircraft for an airline, and later for Fed Ex.

    “I think I’m going to have to fly for Delta for a little while,” according to Murray, “and ultimately I want to fly for Fed Ex.” He believes that his qualifications and skills will probably lead him to Delta Airlines first, and then he hoped to eventually be flying for Fed Ex for better pay and better flight schedules and routes. That career path will also allow, “better time off to race,” he said with a smile, relishing the thought of a work life and a racing life that would both bring contentment.

    “I fly P-3s out of Jacksonville,” he said. “Between now and June, I’m still an Instructor up there, teaching the kids how to fly that plane and then hopefully just transition right over to the airlines.” As to why he called his student pilots “kids”, he explained, “Because I’m way older than them, and when they check in to fly the plane, they’re really young (about 21 or 22 years old)!”

    He anticipates a “pretty hectic schedule” after September 1 when he is a new airline pilot and has the least seniority, and therefore will be flying frequently. That means less time for racing, but it doesn’t mean he’ll be giving up racing. In fact, he is having a new race trailer built to update his team’s equipment. He’ll still have a Florida home, and intends to race at the same tracks in Florida and the Southeast states. “We’re going to do it as much as possible,” Shawn explained.

    After returning to Jacksonville upon completion of the East Bay Winternationals in February, Shawn’s next planned trip was to Indiana, to pick up his new race trailer. The journey to a whole new life was still ahead, complete with an airline pilot’s uniform in place of a Navy uniform, salutes of enlisted sailors becoming just a memory, working alongside airline pilots and crew instead of naval aviators, and a lot more.

    Tightening the belts, pulling on his gloves, adjusting his helmet, flipping down his face shield – things that could commonly be done by either an aviator or a sprint car driver, will now only apply to one of the two for Shawn Murray. The launch – the moment of release when the throttle is pushed forward and life is accelerated – well, that will probably still bring a smile.

     

     

    Remembering Dave Steele:
    (Reprint of 2016 Article: “Here Comes Dave Steele – Look Out, SSSS and Little 500”)

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    March 27, 2017 (originally published March 8, 2016)

    The online video shows Dave Steele negotiating through the field of cars on the asphalt of Desoto Speedway during the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series (SSSS) feature race. The GoPro camera attached to the car captures the images as Steele starts on the fourth row, moves into the lead by mid-race, and laps all competitors save for three other cars. Some might think that driving a pavement race car on ovals is not such a difficult task, since it only involves steering, braking and accelerating, with no gear shifts and no broadsliding (as is done on dirt). But very few can do it well. Even fewer can win and dominate their competitors. The video shows just how Steele goes about doing both. Long before the conclusion of the video, the viewer will sense that they know how the story ends – Dave Steele will win.

    Dave Steele, Feature Race Winner at Desoto Speedway, March 5, 2016

    As the TBARA’s successor organization for Florida pavement sprint car racing, the Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series was conducting its second race of 2016 at Desoto Speedway on Saturday. The race was its first at a high-speed track, and it was also a test of how well it would draw spectators to a race outside of Speedweeks. It had the feel of being the first major pavement sprint car race of 2016, since the first race in February got lost in the chaos of Florida’s Speedweeks. The paid attendance, although far from a sellout, was noticeably larger than prior years, surely benefiting from low gas prices, and Snowbirds and vacationers seeking warmer climates. The race event’s greatest success was the size of the starting field – 23 cars. Compare that to the size of the field for Top Gun’s race in South Florida on the same day, which drew 6 cars.

    Dave Steele’s relationship with the new sanctioning body is a close one, but he stated that he is not on the Board of Directors for the SSSS. His business logo, for Steele Performance Parts, does appear on the series logo as a sponsor, along with several other businesses. He is not involved with managing and administering the series, as that is done mainly by Rick Day, a board member and President, and a team of race officials and volunteers. Steele is a sponsor and tire supplier to the series, which races on Hoosier Tires.

    Dave Steele greets Troy DeCaire prior to the start of the 2015 Little 500, May 23, 2015

    “Well, I’m a series sponsor, my store,” Dave Steele said. “Somebody mentioned something that I was (a board member), but if I am, I’ve never been called to duty yet. If I am, I’ve never been summoned.” As a three-time TBARA driver champion, I wanted to know how Steele felt about the new series (which he supports and participates in) being a replacement for the TBARA, which last raced in 2014. “I mean, it’s pretty much the same deal, it’s just got a different name,” he replied. “If you’re one of those historians that’s hung up on the name itself, I guess there’s something to it, but I mean it’s all the same group of guys. There isn’t much difference.”

    For its first season, the Southern Sprintcars will have an ambitious schedule of 17 races (two of them without wings), at three different tracks, two on the West Coast and one East Coast track (New Smyrna Speedway). They are forced to work in a racing environment that has resulted in several Florida pavement short tracks ceasing operations in the past year, reducing their available options for race venues. In addition, with Steele as one of its most popular and well-known racers, he won’t commit to a full season with the new series. “We just go one race at a time,” Steele stated. “I don’t really like getting caught up in a points deal. I’m just here to support the series and add a car to the car count. We’ll do that.”

    For the near future, which sees a Southern swing for the King of the Wing series in April (Pensacola, Mobile and Montgomery), and then the annual trek to Anderson, Indiana for the Little 500 in late May, you can count Steele in for the 2016 Little 500. “Little 500 – I think we kind of plan on doing that. King of the Wing – I don’t know. They kind of changed some rules around and some of the rules they changed, our car doesn’t really meet the specs, so we may not go do that. They changed the rules and it’s some stuff I don’t necessarily agree with, but it’s not my call. We’d have to change our car around,” Steele added, making it clear that the required changes were not to his liking.

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

    For 2016, Dave Steele’s return to the Little 500 will mark 20 years since his first win in 1996 with car owner Jack Nowling. It will also be one year since he came very close to earning his third career Little 500 victory. Pulling alongside eventual winner Chris Windom twice in the last portion of the race, he could not complete the pass and finished second. He’ll make a change for 2016 to attain his goal. He’ll have a 410 motor under his hood this year, as opposed to a 360 last year when he nearly won. “It should hopefully be better. I think we were giving up some on the weight. Weight-wise is mainly why we’re looking to do the 410,” he said, noting that the track doesn’t greatly favor additional horsepower. But he will make the change, in order to take the win.

    Steele looks trim and states that he runs or rides his bicycle each day to keep in shape. Sometimes, the bicycle rides include his whole family. This mostly occurs on weekends, and then the bike rides proceed at a leisurely pace. By race day this year, he will be 42 years old. Windom was 25 years old on the day he won in 2015. “It’s up to me to stay in shape.” Is he? “I’m trying,” he replied.

    Regarding the increased fan interest and attendance at 2016 short track races, Steele states that, “You’ve got to have popularity. You need fans in the stands and you need all of that. Car count, I think is only going to get better and the car count down here is pretty good and it’ll get better. So hopefully that’ll bring some more fans in the stands.”

    Florida now has a relatively stable traveling dirt sprint car series and the new traveling pavement series – the Southern Sprintcars. Will this translate into increased sales and profits for Steele’s racing business based in Tampa, which is the current epicenter of Florida’s short track race supply industry? It apparently already has had its desired effect for his business, which he states is doing better. “Last year wasn’t a good year for us,” he admitted. “Very few pavement races - I mean there wasn’t many. It rained most of the summer. It rained like crazy, so a lot of races got rained out.” And that affected his bottom line? “For sure. Yeah.” Barring another extreme rainy season this year, it seems like business should see a significant increase for a Florida supplier. “It already is for the first couple of months – yeah.”

    Even though Florida’s racing season is less than two months along, Dave Steele already has two feature race wins and is seeing an early season improvement in his business sales, with no indicators that a slowdown is in the future, for either him or for Florida. Could this indicate a trend that will follow for the rest of the country’s short track racing industry? Race engines fire up in the North and Midwest in about a month, so it won’t be long before the trend reveals itself to be nationwide or confined to just the Sunbelt states.

    Mike Maglio’s video from Dave Steele’s GoPro camera, Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, Feature Race, March 5, 2016:

    https://youtu.be/1qtD4y0QsUg

    Video – “Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series, Feature Race, Desoto Speedway, March 5, 2016”:

    https://youtu.be/0h722x2bWOM

     

     

    Danny Martin Jr. Laments Loss of Home Track Advantage

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

    March 20, 2017

    Danny Martin Jr. believes that he and his team “don’t have a home track advantage here (at East Bay Raceway Park) anymore because we only run here for the Winternationals.” After racking up multiple Top Gun Sprint Series championships for him and car owner Doug Shaw racing with a limited 360 motor, Martin has transitioned to USCS and ASCS racing and no longer races in the Top Gun Series. One of the most popular dirt racers in Florida, his fans now have limited opportunities to see him race in Florida.

    One of those opportunities will come up next week, when the USCS national sprint car tour makes their stop at Bubba Raceway Park for their USCS Florida Spring Nationals. They will race at the Ocala dirt track on Friday and Saturday, March 31 and April 1.

    “It’s not like we’re running here on a weekly basis like we used to,” Danny said recently at East Bay Raceway during the February Winternationals, which this year was an ASCS Southern Outlaw Sprints sanctioned event. “Last time we ran here was last year’s Winternationals, just like everybody else. I haven’t even been in a car for six months. The last race was at Ocala – five or six months ago. A lot of these guys have been running 410s at Ocala, then went to Volusia, then come here and jump in a 360 – everything’s kind of slowed down for them. It definitely helps. I’m not making excuses, we’ll be OK.” He went on to state that his team would try something different on his car that night and see if produced a better result.

    One of the possible opponents that Danny Martin Jr. might have at Bubba’s next week may be Tony Stewart, mentioned as “getting ready for Florida” recently. Next week’s races at Bubba Raceway Park are the only national series races in Florida until USCS returns again in late summer, making it the most likely Florida scenario. In addition, track owner Bubba Clem is a friend.

    The Shaw Racing team is planning to race about once a month in 2017. “We’re going to try to run something”, Danny said, “If there’s nothing down our way, then I don’t know. We’ll go fishing or something.” For the USCS races that the team will be more likely to enter, it will be “When they come to Florida or Georgia or Alabama, we’ll play it by ear (with no specific planned schedule of races).”

    Danny described his team’s new philosophy of racing as, “no pressure, it’s all about fun. We don’t have a lot of sponsorship – we’ve got good equipment. Traveling - diesel fuel and tires – we don’t really have any help on that end so we just stay close to home.”

     

     

    Jacob Wilson’s Speedweeks Adventure in Florida

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    February 25, 2017

    “It was snowing back home – had to get away,” Jacob Wilson said, explaining the reason for the visit by him and his team to Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala.

    “Trying to do a little bit more dirt racing, unfortunately our pavement organizations and events are in such shambles there’s really not one to run all the time. The Little 500 is the only one we plan on definitely hitting. It’s kind of a bummer, don’t want to race this dirt stuff, but really no other way to turn. We’ll probably hit nearly 50 dirt winged shows this year. Everybody’s kind of trending that way. It’s unfortunate, but kind of what we’ve got to do.”

    With his intention to race in only four or five pavement winged sprint car races during 2017, he plans to race in nearly ten times as many dirt races as pavement sprint car races. Wilson said he is uncertain if his team will haul their USAC Silver Crown car to Phoenix for that USAC pavement race in April. There are two winged dirt races in Indiana for him to compete in during that same weekend when the Phoenix Silver Crown race takes place. “We’ve kind of got to weigh our options. Going out there and losing money the entire trip, or having the chance to run two races at home and be back in your bed every night.” Wilson said he would have preferred if USAC had scheduled at least two Silver Crown races in the Southwest that weekend, so that teams could have justified making the long journey to Phoenix from the Midwest.

    The dirt races for the Wilson Brothers Racing team have been their first February Speedweeks races here in Florida. So far, they have raced with the All Star Circuit of Champions at Bubba Raceway Park and Volusia Speedway Park, the World of Outlaws also at Volusia, and the East Bay 360 Winternationals this week. So far, their best feature race finish came on the first night of racing at Bubba Raceway Park on February 9th. Their low point was likely a flip on the dirt at Volusia Speedway Park during the World of Outlaws season opening race last Friday. Jacob was unhurt in that incident.

    Jacob does have a history of racing in Florida, as he raced in the first Desoto Speedway endurance sprint car race, the Florida 400 in December 2006. He also raced in the PRI Sprint & Midget Classic, a USAC race event in Orlando that same month. “Other than that, we don’t get down here much,” he said. “I wish the pavement guys down here would have stacked three or four races on a weekend for the Speedweeks deal, we would have brought our pavement car with us. But that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be happening any time soon. That would have been awesome.”

    Wilson describes his plan for this year as follows: “It’s going to be mainly dirt, running local stuff, getting used to it. Last year, we ran about 20 races (on dirt). We’re going to run some MOWA, which is the Midwest Open Wheel Association (which races in the Midwest from April to October). A lot of All Stars, I think 23 All Star events, 15 Outlaw events, just all over the Midwest, going to travel a little bit. We’re not going to make it over to Pennsylvania. The IRA – we make a couple of them too. I think our schedule had 80 races on it.” Other than the Florida races, the rest were in a five-state area. Last year was his first year in racing with more dirt races than pavement races.

    Jacob still admits that he misses pavement sprint car racing, and the Little 500 is still the highlight of his race year. His biggest success came there, topped by two consecutive wins in the Little 500 in 2013 and 2014. It was the start of a new trend in that endurance race, with younger drivers taking the two subsequent Little 500 races in the next two years (Chris Windom and Kody Swanson). “I miss the pavement – I do. It’s my bread and butter. It’s what I like to do. It’s kind of a bummer there’s not more we can do with it.” If it seems like Jacob Wilson would make a good Florida racer, you are probably correct, as Florida still has a robust schedule of both dirt and pavement sprint car racing year round. Of course, nothing is as frenetic as the month of February, when most national sprint car series come to the state.

    His reason for running with the World of Outlaws is to, “try to make the shows, get laps, learn. You learn by getting your butt kicked by these guys, week in and week out. You watch what they’re doing, see how they’re driving, learn how they hold themselves, and that’s how you learn. We’re not all Kyle Larson out here – you’ve got to learn somehow, right?”

    Part of his learning curve was racing at Volusia Speedway Park for the first time. The high-speed track dodged a potential disaster during Jacob’s time there when two sprint cars flipped over a catch fence, injuring spectators on one of the two scary incidents. The track them removed a spectator stand and barred spectators from standing in the area near that turn two stand.

    His biggest goal for 2017 is to return to the Winner’s Circle at Anderson Speedway on May 27th. That’s the night of the Little 500. “Winning the Little 500 for sure. Got to get back to that – won it in 2013 and 2014. This year, going to have Stewart there, he’s going to take a lot of pressure off everybody because we’re not going to have to do a single interview all week. He’s going to take all that away from us,” Jacob said sarcastically. “It’ll be nice just to get back and focus on what we’re doing. It’s going to be nice having him there, it’ll pack the place. Get the fans there – that’ll be great. I’m just happy we have the ‘Little Five’ still.”

    Winning the Little 500 will still keep the trend going, as he’ll be another young driver to take the win. He’s 26 years old now, and will be 27 on the day of the race in late May. He’ll be back in his element, on pavement in a sprint car, at the race event he has come to love. Trends seem to favor the young, the talented, and the ambitious. That’s a good way to describe Jacob Wilson.

    Speedweeks Race Video: World of Outlaws Season Opening Race Day Highlights, Friday, February 17, 2017:

    https://youtu.be/TyngpV7zs7Y

     

     

     

    Troy DeCaire Takes Speedweeks Pavement Race at New Smyrna

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    February 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    https://youtu.be/MnVkCvL5TFo

     

     

     

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

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    February 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

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

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

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

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

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

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

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

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

    Joe Melnick’s Second Big Recovery

     

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

     

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

     Joe Melnick and son Shane Melnick.

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

     

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

     

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

     Joe Melnick and friend Becky Thomas.

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

     

    2017 Florida Speedweeks Preview

     Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

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

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

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

     

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

    Complete Schedule of Sprint Car Races – Speedweeks 2017

    Go to:

     

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

     

    Short Weekend #1 Itinerary Recommendation

     

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

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

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

     

    Short Weekend #2 Itinerary Recommendation

     

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

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

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

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

     

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

     

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

     

     

     

    January 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

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

     Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

     TBARA sprint cars at Punta Gorda Speedway in October 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

     The 2012 TBARA Sprint Series season summary:

     9 races

    6 different feature winners

    Most feature wins – Mickey Kempgens – 3

    Driver Champion – Johnny Gilbertson – 452 points

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

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

     https://youtu.be/8Wgq7QzCYwM

     

     

    2016 Top Gun Series Champion Interview with Matt Kurtz

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

    December 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Matt Kurtz at East Bay Raceway Park, November 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

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

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    https://youtu.be/MVq_3HXd6Yk

     

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

     

     

    Southern Sprintcar Season In Review and a Look Forward to 2017

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    https://youtu.be/QyNXbmE8lJc

     

     

     

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

    Story and Photo by Richard Golardi

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

    Mike Nelson in his FMRA TQ midget, Mike Nelson Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

     

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

    Story and Photos by Richard Golardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dave Steele is interviewed after winning The Frank Riddle Memorial Race

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

    https://youtu.be/x3nP6NvFqIM

     

     

    Tampa Bay Déja Vu: 2016 is 1941 All Over Again

    By Richard Golardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

     

     


    E-mail  Richard Golardi quickterm@yahoo.com


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