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RACING SCENE (PAS Sprint Cars)

RACING SCENE (PAS Sprint Cars)
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The annual “Salute to the Indy 500” Memorial Day weekend event at Perris Auto Speedway (The PAS) took place Saturday, May 27. It was the 21st running of the sprint car salute to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”. Sprint car racing is in its 22nd season at the half-mile clay fairgrounds oval. Only the 2008 season did not have a 410 cu. in. sprint car salute to the now 101 race old Indy 500 classic.

Winners of the PAS “Salute to the Indy 500” race are an impressive cross-section of western open-wheel drivers, including five champions. Thirteen drivers have won the PAS Indy 500 salute. This year Damion Gardner won his fourth PAS Indy salute a day after flying back to California on Southwest Airline from Indiana. His scheduled USAC Silver Crown Hoosier 100 race for the No. 6 Terry Klatt/Bob East team on Thursday, May 25 was rained out.

Other multiple winners of the PAS Indy 500 Salute are: three-time winner Mike Kirby; two-time winners Cory Kruseman, Blake Miller and Matt Mitchell; plus eight single winners--J. J. Yeley, Troy Rutherford, Richard Griffin, Tony Jones, David Cardey, Mike Spencer, Richard VanderWeerd and Austin Williams in 2016.

The PAS May 27 four division event had 21 USAC -CRA 410 sprint cars, 21 winged CLS Lightning Sprints (powered by up to 1,200cc motorcycle engines), seven PAS Young Gun 360 cu. in. sprints, and six 360 PAS Senior Sprints. All 55 cars and trailers fit easily in the infield pits.

Only USAC-CRA ran qualifying laps and did so rapidly from 6:09-6:26 pm. Nine drivers ran faster on their first lap and 11 ran faster on lap two. Eighth qualifier Jake Swanson set FQ time of 16.573 on his first lap. D. Gardner, the 12th qualifier, turned second FQ time (16.690) also on his second lap. Randy Waitman, who changed his car number from 69 to 90 this year, flipped in turn three during the final hot lap session and did not race.

Spotted in the PAS pits May 27 were retired sprint car drivers Jeff heywood, Mike English and five-time CRA champion Jimmy Oskie. Jimmy said he goes country music dancing four nights a week and qualifies as a teacher of the dancing specialty. English and his wife are grandparents of two (ages 3 and 3 months) who keep them busy. Mike said he only made it to a race once last season.

Toby Sampson took a couple of hot laps in his No. 67 Okie 360 sprint car to honor his late brother. Ronnie Gardner had a May 25 Silver Crown USAC Silver Crown ride with Nor Cal's Ted Finkenbinder scheduled. He also saw his champ car initial opportunity Thursday washed out by Indy rain. Ronnie, adept in both sprint cars and midgets, finished ninth in the Tulsa Chili Bowl Saturday, January 14th 55-lap feature. He took several PAS hot laps in the same No. 68 Mitch Johnson Rick Stewart chassis with an Esslinger engine.

Brian Howard, the ex-CRA sprint car, Indy Racing League and Indy 500 starter, worked as an engineer for Boeing Corp. in Long Beach. Boeing moved his operation to the Seattle area, so Brian moved north to Washington to retain his job. His mom Barbara and siblings Lisa and Gary still live in So Cal. His late father Chuck owned a CRA sprint car in the 1960s-70s and called it the B-L-G Special for the first letters of the names of his three children.

DRIVER/TEAM NOTES: PAS Young Gun racing for drivers (ages 14-25) started in 2013. The unique series has produced four champions—Logan Williams, Trent Williams, George Morris and Courtney Crone in 2016. Two first-time YG 360 sprint car drivers made their PAS debuts May 27. They drove impressively and finished first and second in the 15-lap YG feature. Cody Smothermon (not mAn) is a Porterville resident who raced winged/non-winged outlaw micro cars powered by motorcycle engines. He raced those cars on the indoor quarter-mile Tulsa (Okla.) Chili Bowl track a week prior to the January 2017 Chili Bowl for midgets. Smothermon, 23, drove the No. 81 CS9 chassis owned by Ventura County industrialist Steve Watt. He only had a few hot laps prior to racing in a 6-lap heat (started 7th & finished 4th) and the YG main (started on pole and led all 15 laps). He won by 50-yards.

Blade Hildebrand, 18, is a recent graduate (as of June 8) of Yucca Valley High School (on Hwy 62 north of Palm Springs). He was the starting quarterback of his Yucca Valley High football team that went 6-3 in his final year. They lost in November 2016 to league rival 29 Palms High. Blade wore uniform No. 5 as QB, so he uses No. 5 on his family-owned Empire Racing brand new white/gold XXX sprint car.

On May 27 Blade made his first start with only a few hot laps experience. He started the seven-car heat race fourth and finished second, a straightaway behind YG veteran Hannah Mayhew. Blade adroitly avoided the out-of-shape P. 2 No. 98 car in turn two on the final lap by darting left. Blade kicked up dust at the edge of the track and never slowed. He stayed second with the P. 3, 4 and 5 cars following closely behind him. His family and friends cheered and smiled broadly.

In his 15-lap main event, Blade started third and waged a stirring duel for P. 3 with fellow YG rookie Trinton Sparks, 15, from Bakersfield. They traded third place five times, using backstretch and inside passes entering the third turn on laps 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. Blade spun low on lap 10 in the first turn while in P. 4 and restarted fifth. He inherited P. 2 on lap 13 after Mayhew spun. Both first and second place first-time PAS racers stopped at the finish line and were interviewed over the track PA system by Chris Holt.

Blade is a name he received from his dad Michael because he was a fan of the Marvel Comics movie “Blade” starring actor Wesley Snipes as Blade—the vampire hunter. The trilogy came out in 1998, 2002 and 2004. Blade's dad is a Yucca Valley multi-business owner and home constructor who raced ovals and then tried off-road racing. Blade raced go karts and motocross for years and played sports before also competing in desert off-road racing.

Currently Blade is also a rookie Spec Late Model stock car driver in a RCF-built Chevrolet (also No. 5 for his football jersey) at the paved half-mile Irwindale Speedway. His next race there is June 17. His sister Shelby, 28, also races a Spec L/M at Irwindale as a rookie in a No. 68 (her dad's racing number). Both siblings also will continue racing off-road in the Lucas Oil Best in the Desert Series (televised by MAVTV). They compete in the Pro Light Class in events such as the Las Vegas to Reno race, the Parker, Arizona event and Baja 500/1,000 races in Mexico. The Hildebrand family has an ambitious racing schedule this year with all three types of race cars.

Smothermon and Hildebrand showed racing talent. They and other PAS YG drivers are the future of sprint car racing in California. The PAS Young Gun series was the starting point in sprint cars for current USAC-CRA 410 sprint car young drivers Logan Williams, Parker Colston and Matt McCarthy. Courtney Crone, at 15, drove the No. 81 Steve Watt 360 sprinter to the 2016 PAS YG championship and currently ranks third in 2017 USAC Western Midget Series point standings. She also has won two BCRA Midget 2017 features at Madera Speedway for car owner Jerome Rodela.

Another YG newcomer is Gary Marshall, Jr., 24, from Pomona. He drives the all red, white No. 72 FerraroGroup.com 360 sprint car. The PAS May 27 race was only his second race in the car he co-owns with his father. They made their first start in the April 1 PAS race. It is a 2005 TCR chassis that Tony Jones raced as No. 4 for Mark Alexander a decade ago. The Marshall duo visited the Alexander shop and saw the old No. 4 chassis “out in the weeds” behind the racing shop. They inquired about buying it and did so for $7,000, including a 360 engine. Gary, Jr. started racing a mini stock car, No. 72 Ford Mustang II, at clay tracks in Victorville and Ventura.

Eric Englert, 17, is a friend of Gary, Jr. and was in his pit May 27. Eric told me he raced as a PAS Young Gun once last year in the No. 35 sprinter. He said it also is an old TCR chassis, the ex-No. 42 Dwight Cheney owned car, driven by several drivers on the USAC-CRA 410 sprint car circuit. Eric said he plans to race it at Perris later this season. He came out to see his friend Gary race his No. 72 TCR.

CLS DRIVERS: Murrieta resident Chris Dickey, 38, is a 20-year U.S Navy veteran about to retire. He is a Senior CPO (Fire Control specialty). He served on the USS Cowters and plans to move ASAP back home to Indianapolis “where prices of everything are not as high as in California”. In CLS Chris drives the No. 11, owned by Pat Kelley, of Chino. Pat drives his No. 7 (the ex-No. 24 Damon Arnett car). Damon was killed in a tragic accident while working under on his car. The heavy rear end fell on him. Pat bought the No. 24 that Damon raced for years. The car now has a tribute to Damon on the side.

Bespectacled Cody Nigh, 22, was the 2016 CLS rookie of the year. The Camarillo resident is a recent college graduate from SDSU. His dad Mike was the long-time crew chief on the No. 45 Harlan Willis-owned 410 sprint car driven by Cory Kruseman during the 1990s. The Nigh CLS team bought the CLS ex-No. 9 car and made it look like the No. 45 sprint car. It is black with red trim and a white No. 45 on the tail of the 2007 Henchcraft chassis. It has a 1,200cc Kawasaki for power. Cody led all six laps of the second heat race. He started seventh and finished fourth May 27 in the 20-lap main.

The CLS No. 2J is a new DLX chassis. The driver is James Turnbull II, of Indio, and the owner is his father. ... Palmdale resident Eric Greco, 14, uses No. 8G on his colorful ex-No. 5 CLS car. He placed fourth in his heat race and seventh in the main. New drivers are getting into the open-wheel talent pipeline.

The No. 32K CLS car has BARDAHL on the hood. The long-time racing sponsor (back to the 1950s) was on the car when Ken Coulston, of Bermuda Dunes, bought it from an owner near Seattle, home base of Bardahl. The prior car owner from Washington had BARDAHL on the hood because he received free Bardahl products. Ken, 43, continued that arrangement with the oil additive firm.

Past CLS champion Jarrett Kramer set fastest CLS qualifying time (18.886) in group time trials during the CLS hot-lap session. Bobby Michnowicz, the 53-year old veteran of CRA and SCRA 410 sprint car racing during the 1990s raced his usual No. 21K. He pressed pole starter Kan Hillberg from the lap one green flag to lap 19. Hillberg's engine then soured and he lost the lead to Bobby M, who led the final two laps. Brent Sexton dropped Hillberg to P. 3 on the final lap.

OTHER RACING NEWS: Wally Pankratz, 71, and his daughter Randi, 46, raced against each other in the 360 senior sprint car division May 6 at Ventura Raceway. Chris Wakim (Steve Watt No. 81) took the lead on lap 15 and won the 20-lap main event. Randi led the first 14 laps and finished second with dad Wally third. In VRA Senior Sprint 2017 points, Wally ranks third and Randi tenth. ... Chuck West won the NMRA-TQ midget feature at Bakersfield Speedway on April 29 for his second consecutive triumph with the No. 38 Spike/Suzuki owned by his first cousin West Evans.

Kyle Edwards, 21, from Fountain Valley led all the way and won his first sprint car main event May 20 at Ventura Raceway. Past VRA 360 champion Kyle Smith finished second in a ten car field. Edwards ranks third in VRA 2017 points. He drove his Safe House Security-sponsored No. 39K owned by his father Gordon. Kyle and Matt McCarthy, 25, are leading 2017 USAC-CRA rookie of the year candidates. As of June 1, Matt ranked 11th with 171 points and Kyle 14th with 146 points.

Courtney Crone, now 16, started second and led laps 23-30 in winning her second BCRA Midget Series feature May 20 at the third-mile Madera Speedway. Her first midget feature triumph came on May 6 at Madera; her victory two weeks later was the annual Bill Vukovich Classic. She drove her regular USAC ride—the No. 25 Breka/Toyota owned by 2005-06 USAC Western Midget Series champion driver Jerome Rodela, from El Monte. Courtney and Jerome are planning to step up and test themselves by racing in the USAC National Midget Series Indiana Midget Week. The June 6-11 races will be run at six different clay tracks in the Hoosier state.

Brody Roa, of Garden Grove, started second, led the first ten laps and finished second in the 30-lap USAC-CRA feature May 27 at The PAS. As of June 1, Brody ranks second in 2017 USAC-CRA driver points to May 27 feature winner Damion Gardner after five of 24 scheduled events. He and his No. 91R team also took the opportunity during a lull in USAC-CRA races to travel to the Midwest and compete against national competition.

On Friday, June 2 at I-80 Speedway in Greenwood, Neb. (near Lincoln), Brody qualified seventh fastest in a 27-car field. He had never seen the 4/10-mile, semi-banked clay track and it also was the USAC debut at the facility. Brody placed fourth in his ten-lap heat and fifth in the 22-car, 30-lap feature.

Then the three man Roa team towed about 195 miles northeast to Knoxville, Iowa for the second USAC National Sprint event of the weekend. The Saturday, June 3 event on the famous Knoxville half-mile black clay track followed the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame annual induction ceremonies earlier in the day.


Brody qualified 15th fastest in a 35-car field before the largest crowd of the year at the famed Knoxville Raceway. He finished second aboard his No. 91R in the third of four eight-lap, nine-car heat races to make the feature out of his heat. In the 30-lap main event Brody finished 20th in the 22-car field. It was a trip he and his team will remember for years.