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RACING SCENE - (PAS Oval Nationals - Part 2 of 2)

RACING SCENE - (PAS Oval Nationals - Part 2 of 2)
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Night three of the 23rd annual Oval Nationals at Perris Auto Speedway received the usual once a year special ceremonial touches. Track lights were turned off on the front straight for main event driver introductions. All 26 drivers were announced from the infield podium/stage. They then walked to their sprint cars under a spotlight from 26th starting spot to the pole position. Earlier, a large USA flag, held by U.S military veterans at the start/finish line, was displayed accompanied by the 2003 recording of “American Soldier” by Toby Keith. A 15-year old girl sang our National Anthem expertly.

Four ten-lap heat races were seeded by qualifying times with the four fastest qualifiers in each race starting inverted in the first two rows. That made getting into the A-main event starting positions seven through 14 exciting for everyone. Transfers in the four heats in order came from these starting positions: P. 2, 1, 1, 4, 4, 2, and 4, 1.

Other heat race drivers had to race in one of two 12-lap B-mains that transferred the first five finishers in the two races to the feature. Competition was intense to make the A-main. With 24 spots filled, two provisional berths went to Logan Williams and Danny Faria, Jr., after No. 42 Maxim owner Dwight Cheney wisely used his final 2018 provisional in the $500 to start feature.

OVAL NATIONAL POINTS: The top six drivers in Oval National points after Thursday and Friday racing did not have to go through time trials. They had their own practice session and fully inverted 6-lap Super Six Dash that determined starting positions one through six in the feature. The top ten in Oval National points were: Tyler Courtney (No. 7BC)-287, Justin Grant (4)-282, Kevin Thomas, Jr (69),-273, Chase Stockon (32)-271, Damion Gardner (4X)-245, and C. J. Leary (30)-244. Just missing the Super Six were: Brady Bacon (99)-243, Chris Windom (5)-240, sprint rookie Logan Seavey (19AZ)-223, and Jake Swanson (34AZ)-220.

Passing points after the first two nights towards the Tony Jones Hard Charger Award showed Windom leading with 21. Grant was second at 14. Bacon and Seavey were tied with nine, followed by Josh Hodges (8), Isaac Chapple (7), L. Williams (6), Austin Liggett & Max Adams (5), with Danny Sheridan & D. Darland (4) tied for tenth place. Six other drivers had 3, 2 or 1 and all other drivers earned no passing points.

Drivers at the 2018 Oval Nationals came from eight states. States of origin were: Calif.-28; Ariz. & Ind.-4 each; Okla-2; Alabama, Iowa, Illinois & N.M-1 each. Of course three drivers--Grant, Mc Dowell and Thomas--now reside in Indiana. Entered but “no show” drivers were: Tony Everhart (No. 55) and Jeremy Ellertson (No. 98E). Two entered backup cars did not see action.

The fantastic late season run by Nor Cal native Justin Grant at Perris resulted in two consecutive feature victories in USAC-CRA events (June 23 and October 20) in the No. 19 Reinbold-Underwood Spike/Chevy. He was committed to race USAC National Sprint events in the No. 4 TOPP Chevy. All he did in that 2017 Maxim was win the first two Oval Nationals preliminary features on November 8-9 to make it four PAS wins in a row. He started fifth and finished eighth in the Saturday feature. He ranked eighth in final 2018 USAC National points only two digits in back of Dave Darland.

So who owns that No. 4 team and what is TOPP? Kevin Birchmeier, of Rochester, Ind., owns the car. TOPP is his long-time nickname given to him by his father as the youngest of five children. TOPP Performance Race Parts, of Rochester, Ind., and is one of three firms he owns. They also manufacture waste water tanks and build racing engines. TOPP bought Gaerte Engines, of Rochester, Ind., from retired WoO winged sprint car driver Joe Gaerte, son of the late famed engine builder Earl Gaerte. Joe was hired recently to be crew chief for a touring WoO team.

TOPP has 130 employees, including Tyler Courtney's father, who is the TOPP sales manager. Tyler drove the No. 4 TOPP sprinter last season before moving to the No. 7BC 2018 Spike sprint car and midget rides for the Clauson-Marshall-Newman team. Ironically, Courtney and Grant bumped wheels battling for the victory during the final two laps both Thursday and Friday at Perris. Courtney was mad about Grant's two slide jobs in turn three and felt they cost him two PAS victories.

Will Grant return to the TOPP ride in 2019 or will he race for his friend Andy Reinbold, the 6'7” Arizonan who reportedly is planning to base his race cars in Indiana next season? No one is forthcoming with information, including Grant when I posed the question to him before the Oval Nationals feature Saturday. Either way Grant will land on his feet. His wife and twins (age 2) were in the PAS grandstand all three nights.

DRIVER INFO: New Mexico driver Josh Hodges (No. 74X) graduated from New Mexico Tech a year ago and is now working in Albuquerque as a mechanical engineer. He is able to take long weekends at times and flies to Indiana whenever possible to race in USAC. He leaves his sprint car and racing gear at Jon Stanborough's racing shop in the Hoosier state.

Chase Stockon said his 2018 DRC sprinter is his and “more than 50% owned by Tom Burkey, who is in his 50s and was in the PAS pits. Most teams traveled from Arizona Monday or Tuesday after racing November 2-3 in Arizona. Stockon's team departed Perris immediately after the Saturday feature and with two truck drivers (including Stockon) drove directly home to Indiana. During the final five laps Stockon and Windom traded second place twice. Stockon passed Windom on a lap 38 restart and held the $15,000 P. 2 position to the checkers. That was a $5,000 difference in his Oval Nationals paycheck.

“People's champion” Darland drove the No. 36D Matt Goodnight car during 2018 and won two USAC features in Indiana (Bloomington in April and his record 61st USAC sprint triumph at Putnamville during the July Speed Weeks in a 47 car field). He said his 2019 plans are uncertain. Dave picked up the No. 12 Boss Chevy ride for the AZ-Cali races. Owner/driver Robert Ballou was suspended by USAC for making detrimental comments via social media about Eldora Raceway track conditions at the September 27 race. Ballou, ninth in 2018 driver points, was allowed by USAC to enter his car with another driver and did so.

Retired USAC midget and sprint car driver Darren Hagen raced out of Riverside. He retired five years ago after an eye injury while racing. He sat in the PAS grandstand Saturday and spectated with his attractive blonde girl friend Tina. Darren said he now lives in Anaheim and commutes to his job at Lake Elsinore. Darren and a friend selected winners and bet $20 on heat and B-mains plus the winner of the A-main. Darren showed he keeps up with racing news and knows racing talent when he sees it.

Cody Williams (No. 44 Jory Chevy) is known by the nickname “Cadillac”. I asked him how he acquired that name. He was a running back (No. 44) and made a good play in a high school game. A teammate said he looked like running back “Cadillac” Williams, a star at Auburn U and NFL first round draft pick and star who scored 22 TDs for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2005-11. The name stuck. Cody and his wife are expecting their second child, a boy, on January 3. Their daughter Lexi was born June 28, 2015. The Williams' are debating three possible names for their son.

Frank Rodgers, a 43-year old low-budget owner/driver from Lucas, Iowa (about 35-miles south of Des Moines), came west for the first time to race his 2010 Maxim. He races it in the 305 ci winged Racesavers Sprint Car Series in the Midwest. His brother “Trapper” was his pit-man. Frank said he uses No. 11 because that was the number of his hero Steve Kinser, the WoO 20-time champion from 1978-2005. Frank raced in Arizona and blew his self-built 305 engine. He purchased a 350 Chevy for $7,000 from Arizona owner/driver Shon Deskins. PAS infield announcer Chris Holt interviewed the unassuming and humorous Frank twice during the Oval Nationals. On the PA mic Chris said, “he is my new favorite driver.”

Strong Santa Ana winds (30 to 40 mph) Thursday and Friday made the PAS track dry out early. It took rubber and became dusty during main events. Winds were absent Saturday and flags were limp. Track conditions were perfect all night with drivers racing high and low. Grandstand attendance increased each night from Thursday to Friday and greatly Saturday to an estimated 5,000+. The 44-page color Oval Nationals printed program was outstanding and a keeper as usual.

SATURDAY AWARDS: After the final race Saturday the usual Oval National awards were presented. The Tony Jones Hard Charger Award and additional $500 went to Logan Seavey, a sprint car rookie from Sutter, CA. The 2018 USAC National Midget Series point leader (and likely champion in his USAC rookie season) started 15th and finished sixth in the 40-lap feature.

The Ray Scheetz Winning Crew Chief Award went to Kevin Thomas' No. 69 Hoffman Racing crew chief Jeff Walker, a past Oval Nationals winning car owner. It was his third PAS Eagle trophy. Also acknowledged was USAC Southwest Sprint Series champion Charles Davis, Jr.. USAC-CRA 2018 champion Gardner and rookie of the year Joel Rayborne were recognized as well.

The 2019 PAS racing schedule was released. It shows ten sprint car dates from March 9 through the 24th annual Oval Nationals November 7-9. The annual Fred Ercse Memorial Classic slick kart race for charity (American Heart Assn) had fliers posted by J. J Ercse around PAS advertising the Tuesday, November 20 event at Go Kart World in Carson. Eleven different winners in 16 events that were not rained out include several feature winning sprint car drivers.

TOP THREE PODIUM QUOTES:

Thursday – Winner Grant said: “I didn't qualify good. My guys got this to be a rocket-ship. We (Courtney) banged wheels a little bit. He decided to spin me after the finish (leaving turn two).” He received the $500 Thursday hard charger $500 cash in five $100 bills awarded by “Big” Mike Grosswendt all three nights. Grant added, “Thanks to “Big” Mike for all he does here. I'll spend it on my wife and kids. My birthday is Sunday.”

Runner-up Courtney stated, “Hats off to my guys. I got a little timid in traffic. Justin (Grant) is racing for wins now and I'm going for the 2018 championship. I'm looking forward to Saturday. Points are what they are. You've got to win every time you're on the track. I have to be one position higher next time. Win races and points take care of themselves.”

Third place D. Gardner told the crowd, “That was a barn-burner there. My guys gave me a god car and have to do a lot of work during the week. I lost a cylinder and thought it was over. I held it to the floor. On lap 22 it (engine) was missing, but it cleared out a bit and ran on seven cylinders to the end. Our championship battle could've ended tonight if my motor quit.”

Friday winner Grant seemed subdued and even somber in his comments. He apologized for banging wheels with Courtney and almost turning him in turn three during his victory pass on the final lap. “I got sideways. Tomorrow should be an awesome race.” Second place Courtney said, “I got hit and just about spun out.” He added that Grant's contact could have cost him a shot at the 2018 championship. Third place K. Thomas could only say, “I had a good view of the lead battle.”

Saturday feature winner K. Thomas told the crowd, “I was pretty excited there. Sunshine (leader Courtney) was running the middle. I stalked him and went to the top to get by. To tie him in final points is something. If people say sprint car racing is dying they better get their heads out of their a--”. I won here last year (in No. 9K) with Davey Jones turning the wrenches. If Brady (Bacon) hadn't had a problem while running fourth at the end I would've won the championship too.”

Pit announcer Georgia interviewed first-time USAC champion and 11-time feature winner Courtney. He said, “To come out in my first full year in sprint cars and win the championship is awesome. Thanks to NOS Energy Drink for coming on board this year. My mom and dad got me into racing. At the start of the year my goal was to be on the podium for the championship. This is my first national championship. My only other championship was in quarter-midgets.”

Stockon, second place in the 40-lap race, said, “I was all over the top five positions. I started fourth, dropped to fifth, got to third and then second at the end. A lot of money was on the line and I worked my ass off. I had strong finishes at the start of the season and at the last races.” ... Third place Windom stated, “It was alright. We all ran hard for the lead. He (Stockon) ran a pick and got by me near the end. I'll come back next year and try to get a win.”

USAC-CRA 2018 champion Gardner (now a seven-time west regional series 410 champion) thanked his crew “for working so hard. We all make mistakes and I made a mistake tonight (by flipping on the final lap of the Super Six dash). Thanks to Tom Malloy and Trench Shoring for coming on board this year and getting us parts we needed. Thanks to my family and girl friend. We appreciate the fans and PAS track and “Big” Mike.”

Oval Nationals Tony Jones Hard Charger for his high-points finish after all three nights was Logan Seavey. He received $500 from All-Coast Construction. He thanked the firm and added, “It was a lot of fun racing at Perris. It was my first time here and first Oval Nationals.” Ray Scheetz Crew Chief Award winner Jeff Walker said his latest PAS Eagle trophy “will go up there with my Western World Championship trophies.”

Dates for the 24th annual PAS Oval Nationals presented by All-Coast Construction will be November 7, 8 and 9, 2019. Practice night will be Wednesday, November 6.