bob jennings' WORLD O' RACING 09/08/2001
Goin' USAC'n with my favorites
Ryan Newman (1) tries to pass Tony Stewart (11) in the USAC Silver Bullet series "Dupont 100" at Indianapolis Raceway Park on August 6, 2000
It feels good when I go to a USAC race. It's usually a casual thing for me. I don't go to USAC races with a preconceived notion about who's going to win or what's going to happen. I identify with so many drivers running USAC it doesn't matter to me who does what. Certainly I have particular guys to cheer for but I keep adding new names to that list. Sometimes USAC racing isn't that competitive. One driver winds it up and demolishes the competition. But other times they run wheel to wheel lap after lap and all you can do is hold your breath and pray. I've seen it both ways many times since I've been paying close attention to USAC racing during the three most recent seasons.
I like it when I pull in to the parking lot at one of the numerous ovals in Indiana to see a USAC race on a summer evening. The track lighting is usually just coming on as the sun is going down. Sometimes there's a haze settling on the grass, trees and cornfields which surround Indiana race tracks. I can hear the roar of racing engines if qualifying or heat races are being run. The sound of the public address is barely audible but becomes clearer the closer I get to the race track. This is one of the best things about living in Indiana.
Indiana is auto racing. USAC Silver Crown cars, sprinters and midgets are about as Indiana as you can get with the exception of the "Indianapolis 500." I don't have an absolute count as I write this. However I would guess more than half the drivers starting any USAC "national" feature event reside in or are from Indiana. Names of Indiana drivers like Tracy Hines (New Castle) and Dave Darland (Kokomo) come to mind immediately. But it doesn't take long to think of others like Tony Elliott (Kokomo), Eric Gordon (Greenfield), Derek Davidson (Lafayette), Ed Carpenter (Indianapolis), Brian Gerster (Indianapolis), Billy Puterbaugh (Brownsburg), Ted Hines (New Castle), Russ Gamester (Peru), Jason McCord (Anderson), Robbie Rice (Brownsburg) and Michael Lewis (Noblesville). These are Indiana drivers currently competing in USAC on a regular basis. We have so many race tracks in this state and at many of those tracks the USAC midget, sprint or Silver Crown show is the big event and Indiana drivers are among the leading competitors.
When I moved back to Indianapolis in 1998 I decided I was going to catch as much local racing as possible if I enjoyed it. Obviously I did enjoy it! In 1999 I began going to USAC races around the state on a regular basis. I went to legendary tracks I'd read about but hadn't been to previously. I'm talking about the half mile high banks at Salem and the world's fastest quarter mile at Anderson Speedway. I'm also referring to the (shall we say) rustic yet charming little dirt bull ring at Bloomington Speedway, home track for the Kinser family. I also visited familiar Indiana race tracks such as the Indiana State Fairgrounds, Indianapolis Raceway Park, the Terre Haute Action Track, Winchester Speedway and Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville, Indiana for more USAC racing. Did you know Winchester is the third oldest racing facility operating continuously in the United States behind the Milwaukee Mile and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
I hated to lose the 16th St. Speedway. I went there three times to see USAC midget racing. I saw Tony Stewart win a feature on July Fourth weekend 1997. Later that season I saw Billy Boat win a USAC midget feature in September. I was also there to see Jason Leffler beat Tracy Hines in the "Summer Sizzle" feature in July 1999. It was a dusty old place where you could watch some pretty good race drivers zip around under the lights on a Saturday night. The old Triple AAA baseball Indianapolis Indians ballpark at Bush Stadium had a personality unique from any other race track I've been to. I wish Tony George's experiment with 16th St. Speedway had worked. But at least Tony tried and he's to be applauded for that along with many other things.
I went to nine USAC shows in 1999. The only races other than USAC events I attended in 1999 were the "Indianapolis 500" and the "Brickyard 400." My 2000 racing season was more diverse. In addition to the "Indianapolis 500," "Brickyard 400" and the U.S. Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway I also went to Atlanta and the new Kentucky Speedway for Indy Racing League events. I still made it to nine USAC shows however. I went to Anderson, Salem, Indianapolis Raceway Park, Putnamville, the Indiana State Fairgrounds and Winchester to see the Silver Crown cars, the sprinters and the midgets or a combination of the three.
Of the primary USAC series the sprint cars seem to be the most popular with more events scheduled each season. Perhaps the most entertaining to me are the midgets. I think it's because I enjoy watching the agility of the narrow, twitchy midgets while the sprint cars run in a more methodical fashion. The Silver Crown cars are the fastest but there doesn't appear to be quite the passing and side by side racing they have in the midgets and sprints. What I enjoy most is when the USAC midgets and sprints run a twin bill. That way you can draw direct comparisons with the smaller, agile midgets and the more powerful, dangerous sprinters. The midgets whine like a wet, hungry baby while the sprint cars rumble ominously. The midgets jerk around, especially someplace like Salem or Winchester. Just for the sake of visual entertainment the midgets may be the most fun to watch because they can move around on each other so easily. But then I enjoy watching the sprinters and the Silver Crown cars from the rear as they slide out of the corners at a place like Indianapolis Raceway Park too.
Among the things I find interesting about USAC competition are the racing cars. The design has remained constant and in the same configuration for all three classes since the end of World War II. The Silver Crown cars have the basic layout they had when Johnny Parsons took this type of race car to victory in the 1950 "Indianapolis 500."
Lee Wallard and Troy Ruttman followed Parsons into Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway driving the standard "dirt style" Offy powered rear drive chassis with the drive shaft located under the cockpit. Although the classic "Indy" roadster put the "dirt car" out of business within three years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway these cars continued to rule on the dirt mile ovals which comprised most of the Indy car schedule during the 1950's and early 1960's.
Roll cages and enclosed cockpits have evolved for safety reasons over the past 25 years on the Silver Crown cars. However other than the shape of the cars becoming more boxy than round there is next to no aerodynamics on the contemporary USAC Silver Crown race car. When a Silver Crown car hit 182 mph in July testing for the scheduled USAC Coors Light Silver Bullet event at Nashville Superspeedway the decision was made quickly to cancel the race. There was concern the lack of down force might allow the cars to become airborne. It would be a terrifying sight to see a USAC Silver Crown car lift into the air going down the backstretch at Nashville Superspeedway! Had USAC allowed the race to go on as scheduled there might have been such a frightening situation.
The traditional design concept of the USAC Silver Crown race car prevails with sprint cars and midgets too. There were some attempts at building rear engine sprinters in the mid 1970's but USAC acted quickly to banish these cars from the sport. Of course the World Of Outlaw series made winged sprinters immensely popular over the past twenty years. The Outlaws put on an interesting show and the speeds are impressive. But I prefer the USAC style non-winged sprint car to the World Of Outlaws configuration.
To me the primary appeal of non-winged sprint cars is they are so difficult to drive. Consider that sprinters carry as much engine as a Silver Crown car but weigh less and have a shorter wheelbase. Where do you think the two best race drivers in America Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon (that's how I rank them) learned to race? They learned to race in USAC sprints, midgets and Silver Crown cars. They didn't have wings to push them to the ground or rear engine single seat formula cars to help them adopt to modern racing technology. Stewart and Gordon learned how to race by sliding around in an uncontrollable beast of a USAC sprint car where good tires, the ability to feel a race car by the seat of your pants and an extra load of testosterone means everything.
The volatility of non-winged sprint cars became real to me on July 14 at Indianapolis Raceway Park. I saw Chris Hayes climb the wheel of another car on the final lap of the third heat at a USAC show. Hayes smashed against the wall and the safety fence and flipped end over end. I caught it all on video and it scared hell out of me. During the deadly 1950's and 1960's I bet there were more drivers killed racing sprinters than any other type of racing car.
I went to a few USAC races when A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti would show up to run sprint cars at Indianapolis Raceway Park during the mid-1960's. I continued to attend the "Hoosier Hundred" at the Indiana State Fairgrounds through the mid 1970's. But I became disenchanted with USAC when it ceased to be relevant to Indy car racing. In the process I missed a lot of good racing. USAC experienced a tough time after it lost Indy car racing to CART in 1979. It was like the organization forgot it's way. Didn't USAC switch to all dirt track races for a few seasons? I missed the "Gary (Bettenhausen) and Larry (Dickson) show" and seeing drivers like Tom Bigelow, Rich Vogler, Mel Kenyon, Larry Rice, Steve Butler and Jack Hewitt when they were at their peak. Don't forget that Kenny Schrader was a USAC hotshot until the early 1980's. Obviously I missed Schrader's USAC heyday too.
I began to pay attention to USAC again in 1986. ESPN started presenting USAC midget races from the Indianapolis Speedrome on summer Thursday evenings. I lived in Indianapolis at the time and went to a number of the Speedrome shows. It seems like most of the races at the Speedrome featured intense battles between Rich Vogler and Mack McClellan. I can still visualize Vogler going around the tight, flat Speedrome turns in the "cinnamon" red Jonathan Byrd's Cafeteria/ Kentucky Fried Chicken midget with the left front tire in the air as the weight shifted to the right rear corner of the car.
I remember one Thursday in 1986 when Jack Hewitt showed up at the Speedrome on a Thursday to race. After the races they let fans into the pits which were located outside the track. I don't know what the little boy did but daddy Jack Hewitt gave his kid a spanking. The boy looked about four or five and he was wailing as Hewitt whacked his butt. If Hewitt did something like that in today's world he'd be arrested and the child would be taken away by the authorities.
Russ Gamester who has challenged for the USAC Silver Crown title the past couple seasons won a 500 lap USAC midget race at the Indianapolis Speedrome in September 1986. I was at the Speedrome that night. It was crazy. The drivers had to get completely out of the cars when they were being refueled. That was an unusual sight.
Earlier the same day as the 500 lap midget event at the Speedrome I went to my final "Hoosier Hundred." I was going to a bunch of CART races in and around that time but I had an open weekend and decided to make it a USAC Saturday so to speak. It was a hot dusty late summer afternoon. There were problems with the track surface and cars kept flipping all over the place bringing the red flag out. Within an hour of arriving at the Indiana State Fairgrounds I walked away even though I purchased a ticket. I wasn't feeling sympathetic and it seemed alien to what I was concentrating on at the time which was mostly Nigel Mansell who was leading the points for the Formula One World Championship.
My next USAC experience came the Friday night before the 1988 "Indianapolis 500." John Dailey spent most of May 1988 in Indianapolis. John talked Tim Pendergast and I into going to the Indiana State Fairgrounds to see the "Hulman Classic" USAC Silver Crown race. It was a night with pals to get "500" weekend off and running. John was enjoying beer (I'm being polite) with the racing. After the race John engaged Lloyd Ruby and Tom Bigelow in conversations and had everyone laughing hilariously. But I couldn't wait for the Silver Crown race to be over. All I can remember about that race is that a black car driven by Chuck Gurney ran away from everyone and it was boring as hell for me.
I went to Winchester Speedway on a cloudy, steamy Saturday night in June 1991. I was bored with nothing to do and I thought a trip to Winchester might help ease my depression over a breakup with my former girl friend Dana. I had only been to Winchester once before in April 1975 when John Dailey cajoled me into going on a cold, dreary not quite Spring Sunday to see the USAC sprinters. I don't remember much about that day except Larry Dickson won the feature in about eleven minutes and I nearly froze to death.
My 1991 trip was a lonely drive up Indiana highway 37. I became lost between Noblesville and Elwood. Somehow I got on to Indiana highway 67 eventually and drove by Anderson Speedway which had stock cars running that evening. Eventually I made it to Winchester Speedway where a USAC sprint - midget double header was going on. By the time I got to the track lightning was flashing in the nearby sky.
I didn't know much about who was driving that night at Winchester. Within a few minutes of arriving I was wishing I could leave. I was love sick and couldn't have been more miserable. I was glad when a thunderstorm put an end to the racing a few minutes after a car flipped out of the track. I think it was a midget but I don't remember who was driving. Maybe that was the night I missed seeing Jeff Gordon race a USAC sprint car in person.
What would it be worth to see Jeff Gordon and Rich Vogler going wheel to wheel in a USAC sprint car or midget today? Would that be neat or what? I wish I'd been paying close attention when Jeff Gordon was at his peak in USAC and Rich Vogler was still alive. Gordon was the 1990 USAC midget champion and won the 1991 USAC Silver Crown title too.
The USAC Thunder presentations followed a couple seasons of midget racing at the Indianapolis Speedrome and did a lot to help the sanctioning body reinvent itself. Indianapolis Raceway Park was the primary venue for the ESPN telecasts. But USAC racing from Winchester, Salem, Eldora and other Midwest circuits was also featured on USAC Thunder. The ESPN shows began each spring in California with the USAC Western Midget series and then shifted to the Midwest in May. The Western races from Bakersfield, Ascot and places like that are where I took notice of Billy Boat and Jay Drake. I remember Boat was a "tail ender" in the American Racing Series (Indy Lights) in the mid to late 1980's. Billy didn't make much of an impression on me at that time in the "Indy Lights" cars.
After Rich Vogler was killed in July 1990 and Jeff Gordon was making the move to NASCAR in 1991 a new group showed up to take the place of Vogler and Gordon in USAC competition. Stevie Reeves did some winning and names like Mike Streicher, Randy Tolsma, Robbie Stanley and Don Schilling were prominent. But the drivers who stand out to me in the mid 1990's were Mike Bliss, Dan Drinan, current drag racing star Doug Kalitta, Kenny Irwin and a youngster from Columbus, Indiana named Tony Stewart.
It's not that I wasn't watching in the years before I began actively going to USAC races. I'd sit in my Chicago apartment on Wednesday nights and view the USAC Thunder presentations on TV. Stewart and his group of USAC contemporaries became relatively familiar thanks to the USAC shows on ESPN and ESPN2.
I was impressed that Tony Stewart was able to win all three USAC championships in 1995. No one else has done that before or since. When the Indy car split occurred in 1996 and Stewart was the Indy Racing League "poster boy" I became hooked on USAC. Tony Stewart got me interested in USAC racing and drivers. I wanted to see the IRL become populated with a bunch of modern day A.J. Foyt - Tony Stewart "look-alikes."
In the first couple seasons car owners were looking seriously to find USAC drivers like Stewart. I remember being pleased in 1997 when Andy Evans hired Jimmy Kite as the lead driver for his fleet of IRL entries. I liked seeing Andy Michner with a regular ride for the 1998 season and Jack Hewitt and J.J. Yeley with rides in the 1998 "Indianapolis 500." I was also glad that Brian Tyler, Dave Steele, Stevie Reeves and Yeley had limited IRL runs. Unfortunately the Indy Racing League hasn't become an opportunity for many USAC drivers the way I hoped. In the most recent IRL race at Chicagoland Speedway the only USAC graduates with regular IRL rides were Billy Boat, Donnie Beechler and Sarah Fisher. Perhaps the new Indy Lights style Dallara Infiniti series scheduled for 2002 will give guys like Dave Darland, Kasey Kahne and Tracy Hines a chance at making it to Indy car racing eventually.
Tony Stewart was the most visible competitor in the Indy Racing League but was still doing USAC races on a regular basis. One of my lasting memories of the 1996 racing season came while I was watching the "Hut Hundred" midget race in early September at the Terre Haute Action Track on ESPN. Stewart and Kenny Irwin were running a pair of Steve Lewis Beast entries. Tony and Kenny were racing hard as they did countless times during their parallel USAC and NASCAR careers. They were battling for the lead of the race when they ran into each other coming out of turn two at the dirt half mile. The mishap took both drivers out of the race.
I began going to USAC races to see Tony Stewart race whenever my life in Chicago would permit. I hadn't been to Indianapolis Raceway Park in years when I left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway late on "500" Pole day 1997 to attend a USAC midget - sprint doubleheader. Arie Luyendyk qualified at 218.263 mph to edge Stewart (218.021 mph) for pole position for the "Indianapolis 500" earlier in the day. Tony came to IRP to ease his disappointment with some USAC racing.
Stewart signed a long term NASCAR contract with Joe Gibbs earlier that week. One of the stipulations of the contract was that Tony could run Indy cars, USAC Silver Crown cars and midgets while he was learning to race stock cars. But he had to stay out of sprint cars. That reinforces what I wrote earlier in this piece about the dangers of racing the sprinters.
Dave Steele won the sprint car feature that evening at IRP in the black Johnny Vance Aristocrats car. Stewart had to start at the back of the field for the midget feature in one of the Steve Lewis Beasts because he arrived at IRP too late to qualify. That didn't seem to bother Tony. He picked his way through the field to win the midget feature. It was a good day of racing for Tony Stewart. Even though he was disappointed with qualifying second on the grid for the "Indianapolis 500," Stewart recovered nicely with a back to front win in the USAC midgets the same evening. It was a good day of racing for me too.
On Friday July 4, 1997 I was sitting at my old Compudyne 486 computer in my small Chicago apartment signed on to the Internet. I came across an item reporting Tony Stewart was going to race in the USAC Silver Crown event at the Terre Haute Action Track that evening. That was before USAC had a website. I planned to go to Indianapolis the next day to visit my mom. I intended to make my first visit to 16th Street Speedway to see Stewart run a USAC national midget show when I got to Indianapolis. So I left Chicago a day early to see Tony race at Terre Haute.
It was a partly sunny, cool day as I traveled highway 41 at the south end of Lake County Indiana and headed for Terre Haute. The race was a 100 lap event on the dirt half mile Action Track. I arrived early at the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds which is the home of the Action Track. The sky was clear and the air was cool for July 4. I went to the infield waiting for the race which started late. That used to really piss me off about USAC. It seems like USAC races always ran behind schedule when they weren't on live television.
The grandstands and infield began filling up with people about sunset. A lot of families were in the crowd. Perhaps they were capping a day of family picnics and the usual Fourth of July holiday stuff except they decided to go to a race rather than a fireworks display. I remember a pretty young woman, sort of slender with long blond hair, a looker to be sure! She was wearing a leather racing jacket with a driver image on it although I don't recall who the driver was. Maybe she was going with one of the USAC drivers. I also remember the woman had three small children with her who were running around playing and making her nervous.
For most of the race Tony Stewart ran third in the red A.J. Foyt - George Snider 11 Silver Crown car. Perhaps it's the same car Tony is driving in the photo on this web page. Jimmy Sills was driving Gary Stanton's number 75 Mopar entry. Sills was battling for the lead with Donnie Beechler who was in the number 67 Zarounian car. About ten laps from the end of the race Stewart's car slowed and stopped on the outside of turn one. Once Tony's car was cleared from the track Beechler moved past Sills to win. The next night I saw Tony take Larry Martz's midget to victory in the feature at 16th Street Speedway.
I went to Indianapolis Raceway Park following "Indianapolis 500" Pole day qualifications in May 1998 for a 100 lap USAC Silver Crown race. Tony Stewart was entered in the usual red Snider - Foyt car. It had been a disappointing day of "Indianapolis 500" qualifications for Stewart. He qualified for the "500" in the Glidden Menards Dallara at 220.386 mph. Billy Boat (223.503), Greg Ray (221.125) and Kenny Brack (220.982) all qualified faster. I spent time during early morning practice in the Menard pits at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway taking photos of Stewart. Tony sat on the scoring stand watching Boat and Brack in the two Foyt cars. Stewart had the look of frustration as his primary "500" pole competition ran laps faster than he was able to do. He scowled at me as I focused my Nikon camera and old camcorder on him.
Tony Stewart brought his frustration with him to Indianapolis Raceway Park that evening. I don't recall the exact starting field for that race but I remember most of the USAC "toughies" were there. In 1998 most of my USAC interest was generated by Tony Stewart. I wasn't at the same level of interest I would reach in 1999. So I didn't particularly care who else was there as long as Tony Stewart was racing. Tony didn't disappoint me. He kicked butt! Ironically it was the first USAC Silver Crown win of his career. That seems odd considering Stewart was the 1995 Silver Crown champion. But his title came from consistency rather than wins. I have a VCR tape of Stewart's 1998 Silver Crown win in May 1998 at IRP somewhere. I need to find that cassette and watch it again. I'll put it on a future Bob Jennings' World O' Racing video.
In September 1998 I went to Indianapolis Raceway Park for the season finale oval show featuring the USAC sprints and midgets. As hard as I think about it I can't recall exactly what happened in both feature races. I think Dave Steele won the sprint feature and it seems like Jason Leffler won in the midgets. But I can't say for sure and that bothers me. I'll have to play that video too. I'm getting old.
Since his May 1998 Silver Crown win at Indianapolis Raceway Park I saw Tony Stewart run two more USAC events, both of them Silver Crown races at IRP. He qualified second and finished ninth in the "Dupont 100" on August 6, 2001. There was a large crowd of people gathered in front of the Snider - Foyt hauler while Stewart was relaxing after the race. The race was held the evening following the seventh "Brickyard 400" and I think every Tony Stewart fan still in town was standing by that hauler. Last month on Thursday August 2 Tony had a short night at IRP. He only completed ten laps before pulling out of the race in the red Snider - Foyt car.
Despite his infrequent USAC appearances Tony Stewart retains his ties to the sanctioning body. He co-owns the Team ASE number 9 Silver Crown car with Bob East. He was a USAC feature winner during the 2000 season too. Last November on Thanksgiving night Stewart realized a long time ambition by winning the traditional USAC midget Turkey Night Grand Prix at Irwindale Speedway.
Controversy followed Tony Stewart in the week after the "Brickyard 400." The most recent problem comes from an incident where one of Stewart's Home Depot crew members pushed a local TV reporter away from Tony after the race. Tony was avoiding the press. He was disappointed after having problems late in the event. When Will Hampton, a sportscaster for Indianapolis TV station WISH, attempted to have a word with Stewart one of the Home Depot guys got in his face. Tony was already in trouble with NASCAR. He was put on probation after his pit road clash with Jeff Gordon at Bristol last March. The probation was extended through the end of this season after Stewart had the confrontation with Gary Nelson at Daytona following the "Pepsi 400."
In an interview with Vince Welsh of Indianapolis radio station WIBC on Friday August 3 Stewart expressed unhappiness with NASCAR because of what happened at Daytona. He said he no longer talks to either Mike Helton or Gary Nelson. He also indicated he'd be happy to come back to live in Columbus, Indiana and run midgets and sprint cars. Man would I love that! I'm sure Tony George and the Indy Racing League would love it too.
I expect Tony Stewart is feeling better about NASCAR since he took his twelfth career Winston Cup victory in the popular night race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Tony wasn't as animated in the winner's circle at Bristol as he was following other NASCAR victories. But he seemed relieved at having something positive happen in a NASCAR race for a change. Stewart told a TNT reporter that Bristol was "his favorite track." Tony appeared to be at piece with his world.
For me the most significant driver from the three seasons of heavy focus on USAC is Ryan Newman, another Hoosier boy. Jason Leffler, Tracy Hines and Dave Darland, have been successful. But it's Ryan Newman who I paid the most attention to at most of the USAC races I attended in 1999 and 2000.
Have you ever seen the film "Rudy" about the "pint-size" kid from Chicago who overcomes many obstacles and makes it to Notre Dame? Rudy even plays in one of the Irish football games. Ryan Newman reminds me of the actor who played the lead character in that film. Ironically Ryan Newman is from South Bend, home of Notre Dame.
I watched Ryan Newman take his first USAC midget feature win at Indianapolis Raceway Park on one of the USAC Thunder programs. That happened something like five years ago although I don't remember exactly when it was. Ryan was driving a midget sponsored by LCI in his first feature win.
Ryan Newman has landed in NASCAR's greener ($) pastures. Ryan was too good in ARCA. He won so easily Roger Penske decided to pull him out of the series and save the money.
Newman made his Winston Cup debut last season at Phoenix driving Penske's ALLTEL Ford Taurus. Ryan qualified tenth but only finished forty-first. He ran this season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with little success (started 35th, finished 33rd) but qualified on pole for the "Coca Cola 600" at Lowes Motor Speedway. I wish he'd been running the "Indianapolis 500" instead. However it became a short night for Newman when he crashed on lap eleven. Ryan redeemed himself in June at Michigan with a fifth place finish. Penske was spotting for Newman at Michigan and after the race "the Captain" called Ryan a "champion in the making" or something like that.
Newman made his most recent Winston Cup start in the "Brickyard 400." Ryan's lap of 177.908 mph was tops in practice on Friday before the "Brickyard 400." Benny Parsons commented on NBC from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that if Newman hadn't bumped the wall coming off turn four on his qualifying lap he would've won pole position. Even with the miscue Ryan qualified fifth at 179.0368 mph.
Newman looked pretty good during the opening stages of the race. Ryan was running fifth after ten laps. He moved into the lead during the first series of pit stops. But a few laps later Newman caught the wall between turns three and four damaging the rear of his car. After stopping for repairs Ryan carried on to a 31st place finish one lap off winner Jeff Gordon's pace.
Newman has also been doing limited racing in the NASCAR Busch series. He's been qualifying well with four pole positions including his most recent pole run at Darlington. He has two other front row starts in eleven Busch races this season. But Ryan's only top five finishes came on August 18 at Michigan International Speedway and Darlington this past weekend. Newman had a dominant win in Michigan as he beat up on the field which included NASCAR rookie sensation Kevin Harvick. He was fourth in the "South Carolina 200" at Darlington.
Ryan Newman will begin full time Winston Cup competition next year. I look for success to come quickly. This kid is good and he's going to leave a long trail in NASCAR. I wish we could bring Newman to the Indy Racing League. Ryan wants a NASCAR career. I wish he wanted the "Indianapolis 500."
The "Mel Kenyon Classic" at Indianapolis Raceway Park on August 18, 1999 was perhaps the best Ryan Newman - Jason Leffler "dog fight" I saw. Newman was in the C.E. Lewis Drinan number 39 and Jason was driving the Steve Lewis Beast number 9. They ran side by side lap after lap with light reflecting off the shiny IRP track surface. Leffler would catch Newman going into the third corner but Ryan would power by Jason through the first corner on the next lap. It went like that until the race was red-flagged for an accident or maybe it was only a yellow flag. Anyway when the race resumed Newman had it figured out and ran away from Leffler on the way to the checkered flag. It was fun to watch.
On May 24, 2000 I was at Anderson Speedway. Ryan Newman overhauled Tony Elliott and Tracy Hines and then slid wide off the final corner to barely edge Kasey Kahne to the checkered flag in a USAC sprint car race. The Anderson race was another of my favorite Ryan Newman races.
Ryan Newman is lost to USAC now. Roger Penske will never let Newman make a guest appearance the way Tony Stewart does from time to time. Obviously I'm still going to USAC races but there's a big void for me without Ryan Newman.
I miss Jason Leffler at the USAC races too. Unfortunately for Jason he'll probably be back. His NASCAR Winston Cup career has gotten off to a rocky start this season. The phrase I see most often in regard to Leffler and Winston Cup is "tough learning curve." I hope Jason gets the opportunity to grow in Winston Cup but Chip Ganassi isn't known for his patience.
I've attended five USAC shows this season. I have plans to go to four more. That means I'm on pace to match my total of nine USAC events during each of the past two seasons.
"Thunder in the Dome XVII" - March 10
Since the first time they had this event in January 1985 I toyed with the idea of going. I finally made it this year. However I'm pretty sure my first trip to "Thunder in the Dome" will also be my last. They reportedly cover the cement floor in the RCA Dome with Coca Cola syrup concentrate in an attempt to add traction to the racing surface. The combination of burnt Coke syrup and the fumes from the engines in the USAC midgets filled the air. Within minutes of arriving I was sneezing and choking and that went on for days. I don't know if it can be directly related to the race at the RCA Dome but I contacted what seemed a lot like bronchitis shortly after. My ailments came and went for the next two months. They didn't go away completely until I went to the doctor for an antibiotic in early May.
There was a decent entry at the RCA Dome. Tracy Hines, Dave Darland, Kasey Kahne, Jay Drake, Tony Elliott and Jack Hewitt showed up. Johnny Parsons was entered making one of his rare racing appearances. Michael Lewis, Aaron Fike, A.J. Fike, Robbie Rice, Steve Knepper and Bobby East were entered along with a bunch of NAMARS midget regulars like Matt Westfall, Travis Welpott and Critter Malone. In years past guys like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Steve Kinser and Kenny Schrader were regular entrants in the event.
At the RCA Dome drivers are divided into two groups known as Team Indiana and Team USA. There were six preliminary races which set the field for the 100 lap feature. People talk about how loud it is when the Winston Cup cars race at Bristol. If you like loud go to the RCA Dome next year when they run this event. After 100 laps with 24 midgets barely able to squeeze on the small temporary oval all I could think about was getting outside for some fresh air.
The race wasn't very good either. Donnie Lehmann led the first 20 laps before giving way to Jim Hettinger and that was it. Tracy Hines tried to make it exciting by passing a bunch of cars. But he wasn't able to overtake Hettinger and finished second.
"Coca Cola 100" - Indianapolis Raceway Park - May 12
The sun was out all day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday May 12 as qualifications opened for the 85th "Indianapolis 500." But it was windy and cool. I got to the Speedway early and went to my favorite photo location in the grandstand E penthouse overlooking turn one. The wind was whipping through the penthouse making it even more cold. By 3:00 PM I was tired and ready to go home. My two guys Al Unser Jr. and Tony Stewart both qualified for the "500" by that time along with several other contenders. I decided to catch the rest of Pole day qualifications on TV at home. In retrospect I wish I had remained at the Speedway because I missed a lot of prime drama and key "500" qualification runs.
So it was hard for me to get off the couch to go to Indianapolis Raceway Park for the 100 lap Silver Crown race. Tony Stewart was entered but for some reason or another he decided not to race at IRP. However Mike Bliss was also entered in Tony Stewart's usual Silver Crown ride, the red Foyt - Snider number 11 or 111 or whichever it is on any given night. I missed seeing Bliss race in his person during his USAC glory days and I decided to go to the race.
It was cold. I went to the restroom about seven or eight times at IRP. I was worn out and ready to do my racing from the couch at home. I was glad the race concluded in 35 minutes.
Paul White passed Tracy Hines for the lead on the first lap. Kasey Kahne, Dane Carter, Russ Gamester, Dave Darland and Bliss followed the two leaders during the opening laps. Bliss was charging however and went under White on lap ten to grab the lead. Then Mike proceeded to pull away from the pack. Gamester moved into second and tried to catch Bliss but it was hopeless. At the finish Mike lapped all but second place Gamester. But Russ was nearly 3/4 lap behind.
As an aside I do have a vivid USAC memory from Indianapolis Raceway Park involving Mike Bliss. It was another ESPN Thunder show and it was a next day replay which I watched from my apartment in Chicago. In this same Silver Crown race in May 1996 I watched Bliss pull a slide job off corner four to beat Kenny Irwin by inches
The following day I was watching "500" qualifications on TV. One of the ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 reporters came upon Tony Stewart and Mike Bliss sitting together on the pit wall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Bliss was a consistent winner and contender in the NASCAR Truck series but he was a flop in A.J. Foyt's Conseco Pontiac and was replaced with Rick Mast halfway through the 2000 Winston Cup season. His career which looked bright a few years ago has stalled. I enjoyed listening to Stewart extol the virtues of his former USAC rival and recommend Mike Bliss as a prime candidate for a good ride in the Indy Racing League. I agree with Tony Stewart and it would make me happy if Bliss would get a good IRL ride. Come on A.J. Foyt. Keep Donnie Beechler but take a chance and put Mike Bliss in Eliseo's Salazar's car 14 next season.
"Oldtimers Weekend" - Eldora Speedway - June 23
I decided to celebrate my 55th birthday by going to the legendary Eldora Speedway for the first time. My wife went with me and we had a pleasant drive through the upper eastern portion of central Indiana and across the border to Rossburg, Ohio.
Eldora Speedway is one of (if not the) celebrated bastions of grass roots oval track racing in this country. Look at any issue of Chris Economaki's National Speed Sport News during the actual racing season and I'm willing to bet there are two or three articles with reports from Eldora Speedway. It's been a home for USAC racing since it opened. Among the races scheduled at Eldora each season are two of the richest and most prestigious ( the "King's Royal" and the "Historical Big One") World Of Outlaw events on the calendar. The Ohio based All-Star winged sprint series (you know - the Frankie Kerr series) does a lot of racing at Eldora too.
Eldora was more than I expected. It looks like Earl Baltes had to carve Eldora Speedway out of the rolling, rocky western Ohio terrain. The turns were banked more than I thought possible at a dirt track. The Eldora grandstands and bleachers were mostly full. At one end of the half mile dirt oval parked high on a hill were numerous campers and recreational vehicles. Eldora Speedway has a ramshackle but comfortable "casual lived in" look. It reminded me of Forest Park in Noblesville, Indiana where my dad's people the Jennings clan used to have a lot of summer picnics years ago.
It seems like most of the people at Eldora were familiar with the place and each other. When Earl Baltes took his old, muddy truck on to the track to wet the surface many of the fans saluted him. Earl returned their greeting with a loud beep of the foghorn from his old truck and the fans loved that.
It was good to be at Eldora on Saturday June 23. Since it was "Oldtimers weekend" they were interviewing racing personalities from the past and present who had gathered for the celebration. Patrick Sullivan, who is active on the PA at different USAC shows I attend, was at Eldora. Tony George must like Sullivan because Pat has been on the PA at IRL races I attended at Kentucky Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway. Sullivan talked to Gary Bettenhausen and Larry Dickson about the "Gary and Larry show" that dominated USAC sprint competition in the late 1960's and early 1970's.
Bettenhausen made an interesting point when he was interviewed. Gary compared the horsepower of the USAC cars when he raced to today. He said his cars had about 450 horsepower when he was battling Larry Dickson. Today the USAC sprinters carry 650 horsepower.
Bob Jenkins, Larry Rice and Gary Lee were at Eldora to do a "USAC Thunder" replay to be shown the following weekend on ESPN2. All three were interviewed on the PA. Johnny Rutherford was the grand marshal for the weekend's festivities and had been at Eldora for the previous evening's USAC sprint and midget features.
Tony George was also at Eldora on Saturday June 23 evening to help stepson Ed Carpenter. Although Carpenter is a regular competitor in each USAC series, that night he was only racing in the sprint cars.
The previous evening Jay Drake won both the midget and sprint features at Eldora. Last season Drake had what I count as 17 USAC feature victories in a remarkable display. But times have been tough for Jay Drake in 2001. The Eldora victories were his first USAC wins this season.
Dave Darland and J.J. Yeley put on a classic battle for most of the 25 lap midget feature at Eldora on Saturday June 23. Darland and Yeley ran side by side in their Steve Lewis Beast team cars. It was intense.
Before the midget feature started my wife and I moved down from the bleachers on the hill overlooking turn one to the lower seats along the main straightaway. When the racing started we were showered with dirt clods. The closer you sit to cars racing the faster they seem and the louder they sound. My wife didn't like it and moved a few rows back. Michael Lewis flipped end over end and out of the track in turn four on lap 20. It was a nasty crash and Lewis was knocked unconscious. That was too much for the wife. The red flag came out and she demanded we go back up on the hill.
When the race was restarted Yeley and Darland resumed their "in-team" feud on the Eldora dirt. It probably scared hell out of car owners Steve Lewis and Bob East. Darland found speed on the cushion while Yeley rode low. The high line was the right way to go and Dave pulled out several car lengths to beat J.J. to the checkered flag.
Yeley got his revenge in the sprint feature however. J.J. led from flag to flag in the 30 lap event despite a red flag for a crash on the second lap that involved Bud Kaeding, Dickie Gaines, Brian Tyler, Jerry Coons Jr., Gregg Dillon, Robbie Rice, Kevin Doty and Danny Holtsclaw. When the race restarted Yeley was able to hold off Jay Drake who followed J.J. in second place to the checkered flag. Dave Darland, Tyler Walker and Ed Carpenter rounded out the top five finishers.
"Turbines, Inc. - Indiana Sprint Classic" - Indianapolis Raceway Park - July 14
When I write about the pleasure of arriving at a USAC race on a summer evening I'm probably thinking about Indianapolis Raceway Park. Due to its convenience I make it to more USAC shows at IRP than anywhere else. This was one of those summer evenings with a Saturday night USAC show. I had to go to northwest Indiana earlier that day and drove directly to IRP when I got back to Indianapolis.
Brian Tyler has taken over Dave Darland's ride in the white Hoffman Racing Kroger Pringles Folgers Sunny Delight car number 69 this season to go along with his regular ride in the Hoffman Silver Crown car. The previous evening (July 13) Tyler led from flag to flag to win a 30 lap USAC sprint feature at Toledo Speedway that was televised live on ESPN.
Unlike Toledo the previous evening Tyler had to work for his second USAC sprint feature win in two nights. At the start of the 30 lap feature Brian took the lead but Derek Davidson was hot on his trail. By halfway Derek's red number 26 BWB looked like it was going to catch Tyler. Jason McCord's cream colored number 4 Payless car was moving along pretty well too. McCord passed J.J. Yeley, Jay Drake, Eric Gordon, A.J. Fike, Tracy Hines and Bud Kaeding to move into third place.
Kaeding's red and white number 29 erupted in a ball of flame and the race was stopped. The red flag seemed to be just what Brian Tyler needed. When the race restarted Davidson seemed to lose his momentum and McCord was able to pass for second place as Tyler raced on to the win.
"J.D. Byrider 100" - Indianapolis Raceway Park - August 2
It seems like Tony Stewart's appearance in the "J.D. Byrider 100" was more symbolic than anything else. Stewart qualified 16th but placed his car at the rear of the 30 car grid for the 100 lap race. Then he ran near the back of the pack before pulling into the pits after 20 laps with overheating problems in the red Foyt - Snider car which carried sponsorship from J.D. Byrider. Tony of course does TV commercials for Byrider and they support Stewart's late model stock car program. What was that all about Tony?
Dave Darland didn't make it as far as Stewart. Darland was in an unfamiliar number 135 car. I wonder what was wrong with Darland's usual blue number 56.
Mike Bliss was also back at Indianapolis Raceway Park in a USAC Silver Crown car but it was another unfamiliar number entry, the Wirtgen America/Boothill Saloon/Mac Tools number 29. Bliss only lasted 33 laps before dropping out with handling problems.
P.J. Jones made an unexpected return to USAC for the first time in years. Considering how unfamiliar Jones must've been with the number 29 car he was racing P.J. gave it a decent ride to finish eighth.
Ray Evernham even showed up at IRP to help with the MOPAR powered Johnny Vance Aristocrats number 2 driven by ex-World Of Outlaw "up and comer" Tyler Walker. Walker ended up ninth with Evernham running his pit.
When the race started I thought I was back at the USAC sprint race on July 14. Brian Tyler put his Hoffman number 69 in front. Brad Noffsinger and Paul White tried to keep up with Tyler but to no avail. Then Kasey Kahne began to pour it on.
Eventually Kahne moved into second place and began stalking Tyler. Lap after lap Kasey's white Team ASE Tony Stewart Bob East number 9 drew closer to Brian. It was like Tyler knew he was a sitting duck waiting for Kahne to pounce. It happened on lap 82 when Kahne went under Tyler coming out of turn four. From that point on Kasey pulled away to win. Brad Noffsinger finished third with J.J. Yeley and Michael Lewis following in fourth and fifth.
If you look at the list of USAC feature race winners during the 2001 season you see a lot of competition. In the 53 feature events held so far in the Silver Crown, sprint and midget seasons you find 24 different drivers winning. Dave Darland and Tracy Hines with six feature wins apiece lead the list. Kasey Kahne has five USAC feature wins so far in the 2001 season and they came in limited appearances. J.J. Yeley has four wins. Jay Drake, Tony Elliott, Dave Steele and Paul White each have three USAC feature wins. Bobby East, Russ Gamester, Jack Hewitt, A.J. Fike and Brian Tyler are double feature race winners this year. A.J. Anderson, Mike Bliss, Jerry Coons Jr., Derek Davidson, Aaron Fike, Eric Gordon, Jim Hettinger, Bud Kaeding, Michael Lewis, Jason McCord and Jon Stanbrough have each won a single USAC feature even this season.
Coors Light Silver Bullet series points leaders
standings after 11 of 13 events.
Last updated September 4, 2001.
Freightliner Sprint Car Series
|Unofficial standings after 28 of
Last updated September 5, 2001.
WorldCom Midget Car Series
|Unofficial standings after 16 of
Last updated September 4, 2001.
data courtesy of the United States Auto Club