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Racing Scene Column

Racing Scene Column

LOS ANGELES – I decided to skip the USC (36) - UCLA (14) expected rout football game on Saturday November 19 in the Pasadena Rose Bowl. It started at 7:30 pm local time. Instead, I made a sentimental journey back in time to a speedway I had not visited in 18 years. The site--Bakersfield Speedway--began existence shortly after World War II in 1946. The track looks similar to those earlier days. The main grandstand from turn four to turn one still is all concrete with steps allowing access to seating rows. Knowledgeable local fans bring folding lawn chairs, cushions or blankets to sit on the concrete.
The speedway doesn't offer plush seating or suites, but that is off-set by a dust-free, racy clay racing surface. It makes two-wide racing action intense with outside and inside grooves. Grandstand seating is lower than at many tracks and gives fans a closer at track competition. It almost appears race cars are passing slightly below eye level. Most fans sit at or near the top row.
Bakersfield Speedway (actually in the town of Oildale or north Bakersfield) started life as a quarter mile dirt track and used that configuration through 1997. Track management expanded it to a third-mile for the 1998 season. They moved the backstretch east a bit towards No. Chester Ave. and gave drivers more racing room from the second turn exit to the third turn entrance. Racing improved noticeably.
The USAC Midget one-lap track record listed in the USAC Yearbook for years was 12.339. Ricky Shelton set that mark in his own No. 75 on June 21, 1997. The track announcer gave that time as the current track record prior to time trials Saturday. However, the USAC Midget Bakersfield one-lap track record as a third-mile since 1998 is 12.623. The late Jason Leffler set that standard on March 14, 1998 in Steve Lewis' No. 9 Beast. Others have come close, but no one has beaten Jason's fastest lap in the first USAC race following the expansion from a quarter to third-mile.
For years Doug Bainton was the Bakersfield Speedway promoter. He booked USAC races and hosted the annual USAC Midget Turkey Night GP five years in 1992-95 and 1998. Winners were: Ron Shuman (twice), Jordan Hermansader, Billy Boat and Jay Drake. The current track announcer saluted 21-year Bakersfield Speedway announcer Mike Mosier, who died three years ago.
Scott Schweitzer currently promotes a schedule with stock cars of various classes, modifieds, dwarf cars, NMRA-TQ midgets and other open-wheel cars on their busy schedule. Admission and concession prices are family friendly. Tickets are slightly higher for touring series such as USAC and IMCA.
Bakersfield hometown hero and 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Kevin Harvick is pictured on large Budweiser track schedules posted around the premises. Parking is free and the track has good sound and lighting systems.
The November 19 Bakersfield season-ending race had 15 mini-dwarfs cars, 16 American stocks, and 14 hobby stocks as support classes. They boosted grandstand occupancy about 40% with local stock car fans and put about 60 race cars in the pits. All divisions ran two or three heat races and main events of 15, 20 and 25 laps. The temp was 72 degrees at mid-day, 66 degrees at 5:15 and still 55 when the final main event finished. Not bad for mid-November night racing.
USAC midgets qualified from 5:35 to 5:55 pm. Ronnie Gardner, the USAC Western Series champion from 2013-15 and 2016 point leader, was the 13th qualifier. He set fast time of 12.869. Fifteen mini dwarfs qualified from 5:59 to 6:10 on a tenth-mile track inside the third-mile. Track watering periodically kept the track racy and dust-free. The first heat race started at 6:30.
Second generation USAC drivers competing were: Randi Pankratz, daughter of 2000 USAC W/S champion Wally Pankratz; Tyler Dolacki, 23, son of long-time USAC Midget driver Robert Dolacki; Maria Cofer, 17, daughter of 1994 USAC W/S Midget champion Johnny Cofer; 2016 Belleville Midget Nationals winner Chad Boat, 24, son of three-time (1995-97) USAC W/S Midget champion and Indy 500 veteran Billy Boat; plus Gardner, 28, who has numerous Gardner drivers and Indy 500 vet Ronnie Duman in his family tree.
USAC ran three eight-lap heats with six midgets in each. Boat (from P. 2 in his No. 84 Spike/Speedway Toyota) led all laps in heat one. Michael Faccinto (from P. 3 in his No. 35F Spike/Chevy) ) led the final five laps in heat two. Courtney Crone, 15, started sixth and impressively won heat three after passing pole starter/laps 1-3 leader Cofer on the outside to lead laps 4-8. Midgets at this multi-groove track really look fast and pass inside or outside.
The 13-car mini-dwarf main event went to an impressive six-year old boy in his No. 1. P. 3 was an eight-year old boy who also was interviewed by the pit announcer. Brent Hosfeldt started sixth and led laps 15-25 of the hobby stocks 14 car main. American stock cars ran a pair of 20-lap features won by Chad Johnson and Brody Schweitzer.
Nicky Johnson, a 15-year old Bakersfield resident, impressed me by starting sixth in a ten car fastest main. The competitive race had three leaders and Nicky reached second on lap 10 in his Chevy Nova. He closed rapidly on lap 6-20 leader Schweitzer and trailed by only three lengths at the checkered flag.
Nicky sat in the grandstand with his family between his races. He told me he has been racing two years at Bakersfield since age 13. His goal is to race a modified in the huge 250+ car field at the week-long Boone (Iowa) Nationals each summer. He doesn't have a California drivers license or permit to drive on the street yet, but he sure knows how to handle his race car at speed in traffic. He often finishes on the podium and has won a 2016 Bakersfield main event. The final support main ended at 9:08 pm.
The 18-car USAC 30-lap main event started at 9:22 with Troy Rutherford and Frankie Guerrini in row one. The race had four red flag incidents in which five drivers flipped (28% of the field). Flippers were: Nate Wait (L 5), Ron Hazelton (L 11), Quintin Crye (L 14), and a double rollover (lap 21 in turn one) involving P. 7 Robert Dalby, 16, and veteran David Pickett. No injuries resulted. Dalby restarted tenth and finished seventh, with ten cars on the track.
Quickest qualifier Gardner started sixth and chased lap 1-20 leader Guerrini from lap 3 to lap 11 when his car got tight and dropped to fourth. High-running Faccinto and Boat passed him on laps 11-12. The lap 13 order had Guerrini, Faccinto, Boat and Gardner in close formation. Gardner re-passed Boat on the lap 14 green. P. 2 Faccinto lost his muffler and exited on lap 20. Cory Elliott, 16, passed Boat for third, but Boat soon re-passed him and retained third to the finish.
On the lap 21 restart Gardner passed Guerrini on the inside entering the third turn for the lead. He won by 25-yards over San Rafael resident Guerrini. Ten green flag laps preceded the 10:04 pm checkered flag. Boat, Cory Elliott, Crone and Cofer followed within half a lap. Second year USAC Western Midget Series drivers Crone and Cofer raced impressively all night.
Cofer is a senior at Butte Valley High School near her home in Macdoel. She drove her dad Johnny's 2015 Spike/Esslinger. It carries No. 57, the number he used on his 1994 USAC Western Midget championship car owned by Esslinger Engineering of El Monte. Johnny said he has a son Cole, 20, who is an outdoors-man (hunting & fishing) and he doesn't attend races. His personable brunette daughter Maria caught the racing fever. She looks a bit like Laura Hayes, a USAC Ford Focus Midget and Western 360 Sprint driver a decade ago.
Crone drove two-time USAC Western Midget driving champion Jerome Rodela's No. 25 New Zealand-built Breka chassis with an Ed Pink Toyota engine built in Van Nuys. Both teens planned to race as rookies in the Ventura Thanksgiving Night Midget GP and in the January 2017 Tulsa (Okla) Chili Bowl indoor midget classic.
It was Gardner's sixth victory in 13 features this season. Ronnie won two of the three Bakersfield 2016 races. He extended his point lead from 121 to 155 over Faccinto with only the Ventura Turkey Night GP remaining. Gardner and his Mitchell Johnson-owned Stewart/Esslinger Team 68 are trying to win four consecutive USAC Western Midget titles. Retired Ron “Sleepy” Tripp won three USAC Western States Midget driving championships in a row. Five other drivers won 2016 USAC Western Midget features.
NOTES: Ted Finkenbinder was in the Bakersfield pits with his No 3T driver Tim Barber, from San Francisco. Ted said he owns a fleet of 11 midgets/sprint cars. He will tow two of his Bullet/Esslinger midgets to the January 9-14, 2017 Tulsa Chili Bowl. Barber will drive the No. 3T and Idaho's Davey Hamilton, Jr. will drive the No. 3F.
Cody Swanson, P. 6 in USAC Western Midget points, was absent from the Bakersfield race and dropped to ninth. Cofer jumped from P. 8 to P. 6 and Robert Dalby, the 2015 TNGP Don Basile Rookie of the Race in Perris at age 15, went from P. 9 to P. 8 in points. Tyler Dolacki remained tenth.