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RACING SCENE – (PAS Sprints, July 22, Part I of II)

RACING SCENE – (PAS Sprints, July 22, Part I of II)


AMSOIL USAC/CRA 410 sprint car teams reached the one-third mark of the 2017 season (the 14th for the series) on Saturday at Perris Auto Speedway. Race eight of the 24 race season produced the second repeat winner of 2017. Arizonan R. J. Johnson, 30, won his second consecutive PAS feature in Bobby Martin's No. 51 Sherman. He was on the PAS color program cover this week for winning the June 24 PAS feature. Five drivers have won the eight races so far at four speedways.

The July 22 USAC/CRA car count was a season-high 28 thanks to five cars from Arizona (Nos. 51, 12, 19, 7k and 02) and three Nor Cal cars (Nos 83, 17v and 5m) that have not raced at PAS regularly lately. Matt Rossi came from Apache Junction, AZ and lost a cylinder during qualifying. He did not race and had a long-tow for no dough.

Two So Cal cars (Nos. 23 and 7g) and “retired” drivers Greg Alexander and Don Gansen also swelled the field. Greg, 28, told me he stopped racing three years ago because his wife was pregnant. His son is now two years old so he got back into the cockpit of the No. 23 Bellegante car. They said it is a 2007 TCR chassis they got from Glenn Crossno's ITI firm. Gansen drove the third Gansen Engineering car that has been a backup for team drivers Mike Spencer and his brother Chris Gansen. Matt Mitchell (in the No. 73 Ford and Max Adams, in his family No. 5m 2016 Maxim were welcome additions.

Driver Austin Liggett, 21, came south from his home in Tracy to race at PAS for the first time in 2017. His only crew members were his dad Tim and mom Mona. At times his sister's husband also is a pit member. The personable driver celebrated his most recent birthday in Ventura on July 8 racing his 83 sprint car and a 600cc micro. At PAS July 22 Austin was the first driver on track to qualify at 6:20 in his family-owned No. 83 Maxim. He turned a best lap of 16.812 that held up for fourth quickest in the 28-car field.

Austin started sixth in heat four and finished third. All six fastest qualifiers made the feature out of their heat races, so Austin started the feature inside row two. He shot past second starter Spencer into P. 2 with an inside move in the first two corners. Austin ran second until Jake Swanson got by on lap 3. Liggett was still third at lap 12 when he got shuffled back to fifth while lapping slower cars. He was still fifth until lap 28 when Roa and A.Williams passed him in traffic.

Liggett finished in P. 7 with 19 of 23 starters on track for a successful visit to PAS. He wanted to get pre-Oval Nationals experience for three nights of 410 racing from November 9-11. Austin and his No. 83 raced in the PAS Oval Nationals in 2015 for the first time and flipped in a B-main. He returned to PAS on 10/16 /16 and finished fourth in the A-main. He made the A-main all three nights of the 2016 Oval Nationals. His finishes were 26th, 20th and 16th in Saturday's 40-lap feature.

LIGGETT DATA: Born in Tracy on July 8, 1996, Austin graduated from high school in 2014. He won a USAC 360 sprint main event at the Las Vegas half-mile dirt track early that season and beat runner-up J. J. Yeley. Austin, the 2012 rookie of the year, has raced primarily at northern and central California dirt short tracks. He has raced in Marysville, Chico, Chowcilla, Tulare, Hanford, Stockton, Placerville, Ventura and Perris. His white hauler/trailer wracks-up miles almost every weekend from March to November.

Austin named the Perris half-mile his favorite speedway. Why? “It is always fast and racy and is prepared well before and during race days,” he answered. He plans to race for the third time in the annual PAS Oval Nationals November 9-11, 2017. By the way, PAS management announced winning driver/car owner/racing school proprietor Cory Kruseman will be the 22nd annual Oval Nationals Grand Marshal.

The 2017 season has been a career-year so far for personable, friendly Liggett. He has raced 21 times from March through July 22 and as of July 27 and he has won eight main events, scored 17 top fives, and 20 top tens. His victories have come at Chico, Chowchilla, Hanford, and the Stockton dirt track. Most of his 2017 victories have come in the No. 51 Eagle chassis he races for Brian Sperry Racing in the new Joe Hunt Magneto Series. That new in 2017 circuit for winged 360 sprints has large car counts and competes at various dirt tracks in the northern half of California.

Liggett also races the USAC West Coast Sprint Cars 360 non-wing series in which he has won features in his family-owned Maxim No. 83. As of July 25 Austin ranks second in the touring USAC West Coast Sprints series points. He has scored 649 points driving his family No. 83 Maxim. He is only 70 points in back of series point leader Jake Swanson, who has tallied 719 with the Sertich No. 92. Their next point races in the 16 event series are Friday-Saturday, July 28-29 at Watsonville and Petaluma.

At Ventura Raceway on July 8 (his birthday) Austin was able to race his sprint car and a 600cc micro. A flip in his heat race left his 83 sprinter badly damaged. A spectator noted on Twitter that other uniformed sprint car drivers, including friendly rival Jake Swanson, Landon Hurst and others, pitched in to get Austin's car ready for the main event. He started 17th and raced to a close second place finish behind Swanson, his series championship rival and friend.

Austin attended Cal State University Stanislaus in Turlock after high school and even made the dean's list. Now he is a successful businessman in addition to his expanding racing career. A year and a half ago he started Liggett Trucking in Tracy with one truck. He now has grown to three trucks--two water trucks for dust-suppression at construction sites and highway projects. He also has an 18-wheeler to haul general freight. Austin has all the necessary licenses and at times employs other drivers.

Liggett has Excel Environmental Services, Inc. on his racing uniform and on the hood of the three Maxim cars his family owns. That firm is owned and operated by his father Tim from the same address in Tracy used by Liggett Trucking. Excel hauls waste water/toxic liquids from factories and manufacturing plants to approved sites for safe disposal.

Austin's developing natural acing ability reminds one of talented, versatile Nor Cal open-wheel drivers Kyle Larson and Rico Abreu and Oklahoman Christopher Bell. Austin also has raced at the Tulsa (OK) Chili Bowl National in a midget and made the B-main; he also raced 600cc micros there in late December.

All he needs is financial support beyond Liggett family funding to move up the racing ladder to the national touring winged 410 World of Outlaws Series or NASCAR. “My goal is to keep racing anything I can,” Austin told me. He enjoys racing with his family, but like most young racers, he would like to advance as far as his racing talent will take him.

Point leader Damion Gardner, a USAC-CRA 5-X champion, flew back to Cali from Indiana after racing Thursday, July 20 at Lucas Oil Raceway, the .686-mile paved track west of IMS in Brownsburg (formerly Clermont, IN). Damion, a 2017 USAC Silver Crown “rookie”, qualified ninth fastest in a 21-car field for the mid-week Silver Crown 100-lap race.

Damion, “the certified world's fastest sprint car driver” (at the Bonneville (UT) Salt Flats course), again drove the No. 6 Beast of Terry Klatt/Bob East and placed 20th (DNF) in the 100-lapper. This season Damion is the highest ranked USAC S/C rookie (21 total rookies). He has 184 S/C points after five of ten scheduled races. Damion is P. 8 of 48 drivers with points and 70 points ahead of the next highest rookie--Davey Hamilton, Jr.--who is 13th in points prior to the July 28 race in Toledo.

Brody Roa returned to USAC/CRA racing July 22 after racing in five of the six Indiana Sprint Week (July 7-16) races completed. A mid-week race at Terre Haute was rained out. A rain postponed race from Thursday, July 13 in Putnamville was made up on Sunday, July 16. The Roa team had to skip that race to return home for work Monday. They departed Haubstadt, IN Saturdayafter the race and drove to St. Louis. Brody flew home Sunday from there. Three team members, including Brody's dad Brett, took turns driving and made it home to So Cal Monday.

ISW feature winners were: C. J. Leary (2X), Thomas Meseraull, Kevin Thomas, Jr., Kyle Cummins and Robert Ballou. Thomas, from Alabama, won the 2017 ISW championship. Roa made all six main events where he competed. Car counts in order were: 32, 45, 41, 36 signed in at Terre Haute before rain hit, 40, 35 and 25 for the Sunday night rain date.

Roa's ISW highlights were: a sixth FQ time in a 41 car field at Lawrenceburg, a heat race win at Bloomington, and P. 8 finish in the 30-lap Lawrenceburg feature. Brody's other feature finishes were: 21, 20, 22 and 14. No one said it would be easy. Brody drove his usual green/black No. 91R 2017 Maxim. He currently ranks a close second (-26 points) to D. Gardner, the USAC/CRA point leader. Brody's ISW experience should make him a more formidable 2017 challenger for the five-time USAC/CRA champion.