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Racing Scene Column

Racing Scene Column

 The August 27 USAC-CRA 410 sprint cars plus Young Guns and Senior Sprints at The PAS clay half-mile in Perris was a thriller. There was a larger crowd than normal according to track veterans. “California Racers Hall of Fame Night” attracted many additional fans. All three series had multiple feature leaders; two features had sensational finishes. Racing lived up to the billing “entertainment value spectacular” as mentioned by a pit reporter after the final main event.
The 23-car USAC-CRA main produced the ninth different feature winner of 2016. This 2016 season still has a way to go in starting a season with consecutive different winners. CRA in 1974 began the sprint car season with 12 consecutive different winning drivers. The 1970 and 1972 CRA seasons had 11 different winners in the first 12 races.
Damion Gardner won his first 2016 feature and gave fans a thrill to remember for years. He started fifth as second fastest qualifier and was third on lap 9. Then at turn four he was caught in a P. 2-3-4 tangle. Austin Williams, Damion and R.J. Johnson stopped at the crash-wall. Damion restarted 19th and raced through the field to P. 4 by lap 23.
Damion's move from fourth to second on lap 25 was electrifying. He shot between Ronnie Gardner's No. 12 (P.3) and Jake Swanson's No. 92 (P.2) in the third/fourth turns and emerged from turn four in second place. It was a classic win it or wear it demonstration of self-confidence. With leader Brody Roa, the lap 1-28 leader holding off Damion, the four-time USAC-CRA champion took the lead with an inside pass entering turn one. Roa charged back and led lap 28. On lap 29 Damion took the lead by ten yards. Roa cut the winning margin to five yards at the finish.
YOUNG GUNS: The eight-car 360 sprint car 15-lap main for drivers 14-25 was a thriller as well. Point leader Courtney Crone, 15, led laps 1-10 over fourth starter Hannah Mayhew (No. 43 dad's Maxim). Hannah led laps 11-13 in a close three-way battle for victory. Matt McCarthy, 25, made it exciting at mid-race and all three were within ten yards. Winner Courtney (No. 81m Steve Watt Maxim) passed Hannah on the inside from the fourth turn to the finish line on lap 14. McCarthy, driving his dad's No. 55m Triple X chassis, passed Hannah in the dash to the checkers. Despite the close racing, the all-green flag race took five minutes and had five of six finishers on the lead lap.
The 360 age 45+ senior drivers raced a 20-lap main and had one yellow flag. Bill Badger (No. 75) started on pole and led eight laps. He was angry after the race and said Chris Wakim (81s) spun him out of the lead (L 9 in the south turn). Senior point leader/second starter Eddie Tafoya (51t) led laps 9-10. Ascot veteran Richard McCormick, 58, made a nice inside pass entering turn three and led the final ten laps in the Ellis-built No. 71. He won by almost a straightaway over Wakim. Eight seniors started and all finished, five on the lead lap. Sean Conrad deserves thanks for donating the $700 cash purse for the top five finishing seniors, who normally just race for fun and trophies.
HALL OF FAME NIGHT: Retired drivers from Ascot, PAS and other tracks signed autographs on the main concourse for fans prior to racing. During the Junior Kurtz Trophy Dash they were present along with Junior's widow Michelle. Drivers present included: (from Nor Cal)-Chuck Gurney, 67, and Jimmy Sills, 62; from North Carolina-tanned Brad Noffsinger, 56; from Palm Springs area Eddie Wirth, 73; plus Bob Hogle, 81, Jimmy Oskie, 69, Stan Atherton, 60, Mike Sweeney, 58, Wally Pankratz, 70, Page Jones, 44, John Redican, 71, Buster Venard 73 and his driver sons Steve and Brian, Jeff Heywood, 63, Frank Pedregon, 53, Brett Roa, 57, and Rip Williams, 60.
Others present were: Steve Ostling, 53, Danny Lewis, 56, Jerry Hudson, Rick Hendrix, 63, Bobby Michnowicz, 52, Frank Baldozier, 61, J. J. Ercse, 45, Jordan Hermansader, 43, and Mike Spencer, Sr., 63. AMA-two-wheel stars Sammy Tanner, 77, who raced Hank Higuchi's sprinter in 1959, and two-wheel star Sonny Nutter, who raced the No. 93 CRA sprint car in 1982-83. Renowned racing engine builder Ron Shaver also attended as did racing photographer Marv Keller.
I asked several of the drivers when and where they ran their final race. Gurney said it was in 2002 at the NSC Hall of Fame weekend race in Knoxville, IA. Sills said it was about a year and a half ago at a BCRA Midget race near Reno. NV. He said he closed his race car driving school at Placerville about the same time. Atherton said he ran his final race in Sal Acosta's No. 77 sprint car at Bakersfield's Mesa Marin Speedway on Nov. 25, 1990--the day Billy Vukovich III lost his life there. Driving home Stan told his wife Diane, “Racing isn't fun anymore. I quit.” Pankratz still operates his race driving school and races at times in the USAC HPD Division.
Gurney still lives in Livermore and drove south to honor his friend/car owner Kurtz. He drove and won in the Junior Kurtz No. 30 champ car and his No. 30jr sprint car. Chuck, who now has a distinguished-looking full head of white hair, has “three grandchildren and one on the way.” Son Chuck, Jr, 33, lives in Indiana and works with Keith Kunz Racing. He wed in 2008 and now has daughter Ella, 6, and son Tate, 4. Chuck's daughter Ashley has son Jaxon, 1, and a daughter on the way.
   > The Aug. 27 PAS 56-page, $5.00 color H of F Night program had extra pages and 47 historical color photos. It saluted many of the past drivers present. The color cover had photos of ”Jr” Kurtz and his No. 30 Plastic Express No. 30 and No. 30jr cars at speed. Center fold full-page photos of dad Brett Roa at Ascot (No. 84) on the left and his son Brody (No. 91R) at PAS on the right. Both pix were taken by NSCHoF 2015 inductee Mike Arthur. Other photos honored past Oval National Champions plus CRA and SCRA presidents. It has a full page color photo of the late Bryan Clauson, the 2015 PAS Oval Nationals winner in No. 63, in car and atop the roll-cage. The program is an instant collectors item.
   > The first Junior Kurtz Trophy Dash with the four fastest qualifiers paid $2,000 to the four drivers--$1,000, $500, $300 and $200. Each driver had to start from positions one through four in four successive 3-lap dashes. Drivers scored finishing points in each of the four dashes as AMA speedway bike racers do—3-2-1-0. Damion Gardner won two dashes (from starting P. 2 and 1). Jake Swanson (from P. 1) and R.J Johnson (from P. 2) won the other two dashes. Gardner won the overall dash victory with 9 points, to R.J's 8-points, and Jake's 7-points. Austin Williams ran fourth in all four dashes for no points. The top three drivers stopped at the finish line for the awards. Junior's widow Michelle and veteran drivers also participated.
   > The 7th annual $500 Billy Wilkerson Fast Time cash award from his widow, Anne Wilkerson, honored the memory of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inductee and two-time CRA driving champion (1967 and 1970). He set fastest qualifying time in CRA sprint cars 59 times, won 41 trophy dashes and 21 features. Arizonan R.J. Johnson (16.758) won the $500 by .009 over Damion Gardner (16.767). Damion was the third driver to qualify and R.J the fourth.
   > PAS pit announcer Chris Holt collected more than $3,700 in lap money at $100 per lap for the 30-lap main event in addition to the regular purse. Money was donated in honor or memory of living or deceased racing luminaries. The $2,800 earned by Brody Roa for his 28 laps led helped him get over the loss of his first PAS victory. He said the money will help the Roa team go north for six races at five tracks from Sept. 3-10. Winner D. Gardner received $200 for leading the final two laps.
   > The No. 98 Jeremy Ellertson sprinter is a new Spike chassis. He dropped out of his heat race Aug. 27 because of a fuel filter /pickup problem. The team fixed the problem and and raced all 30-laps. Jeremy started 17th and finished tenth.
   > Cal Smith's No. 39 had a small engine fire on the backstretch during hot laps. He slowed and stopped next to the crash-wall at the end of the backstretch. A corner worker coming to Cal's assistance as he climbed from the car was struck and thrown by the firetruck rushing to the site. He remained on the ground about 15-minutes receiving EMT care before being hospitalized. Cal's engine had melted hoses, so he did not qualify or run his heat race. He started last in the feature and ran almost 20 laps for 21st place.
   > Andrew Sweeney, 18, is the son of Verne, a veteran owner/driver (and one-time Phoenix Manzanita Speedway feature winner). On Aug. 27 they qualified at 17.887 (son in 98jr) and 17.995 (dad in 98). They started alongside in row ten. Dad finished 13th and son 16th. Andrew said he thinks he is third in current USAC-CRA rookie points behind Trent Williams (No. 52) and Max Adams (5m) or Anthony Lopiccolo (36).
   > Dwight Cheney's brand new No. 42 sprint car is a Maxim with a new Shaver engine. It was in the PAS pits so Brody Roa could drive it in addition to his No. 91r during hot laps. Dwight said USAC National Sprint Series triple 2016 feature Kevin Thomas, Jr, from Alabama, will drive it at the Nov. 10-12 PAS Oval Nationals presented by All-Coast Construction. Dwight said his sponsors are Steve & Seth Wilson's Racing Optics, in Las Vegas, and Chino's multi-million dollar They provided Dwight with a new trailer and more.
   > Bob Basile said the long-gone Speedway 117 (Chula Vista) all divisions reunion will be held Sunday, Sept. 11 at 1:00 pm in the Chula Vista Elks Club. Tickets are $25. and all proceeds go to fight breast cancer.
   > Brad Noffsinger came west for California Racing HoF Night to see racing friends. He said he will return for the Nov. 24 Turkey Night Midget GP in Ventura. Oklahoman Brady Bacon will drive the No. 76m Beast/Esslinger that Brad operates for car owner Frank Manafort, of Vermont.  
  > Buck Blair, a 500cc D-1 AMA speedway bike rider was in the PAS pits Aug. 27 to watch sprint car racing. He has raced speedway sprints powered by 500cc motorcycle engines at Victorville for two years; he led the points until July before slipping to second. He said he would like to race midgets or sprint cars for someone. Buck said his Aug. 20 speedway sprint race at Victorville was canceled by the 37,000 acres Blue Cut forest fire.
   > The 24 USAC-CRA sprint cars at The PAS Aug. 27 had only 11 different car numbers. There are too many cars with the same numbers and often with the same colors. That makes it difficult for new and even knowledgeable fans to know who is driving. In the good old days, CRA would not allow duplicate car numbers on CRA sprint cars. Letters A (for Arizona Racing Assn.), N (for Nor Cal NARC) cars, JR (30JR or 98 JR), or X for visiting sprint cars were the only exceptions. Back in the 60s-80s almost all number from 1 to 99 were taken and some cars used triple digits, e.g. No. 101, 102, 111, and 391.
  > The Aug. 24 duplicate numbers at Perris were: 4, 5, 21 and 98. The three No. 4 sprinters were No. 4 and the Gansen Racing 4g and 4s identical black cars. Three No. 5 cars were 5, 5m and 5x and all three cars are black. Two 21 cars were 21 and 21az. Three 98 cars were the white 98, plus two identical Sweeney red 98 cars—98jr and 98v—with hard to see small letters on the tail. Making it more difficult for grandstand spectators, both 98 Sweeney cars ran close to each other in the feature. At the very least, officials should mandate these similar cars to use white or florescent tape on the roll cages to identify the almost identical 4, 5 and 98 cars.