Positivity - By Bobby Gerould
...Another Copper Classic is in the laptop. Things done changed. A Toyota powered midget was the winner in the USAC National 25-mile race, and the USAC Silver Crown Series debuted their new pavement cars. Though not popular - sometimes change is good. Time will tell with the new era of Silver Crown machine. Big things start small. Even Shaquille O'Neal was once a diaper wearing little guy - so maybe the series will grow to enormous heights. I believe we had seen how far the old car could go. There is no way to spin it when talking about the entertainment value of this weekend's Silver Crown race though. There were eleven starters for the 50-mile event. They were mostly strung out - with the exception of a three-car battle for third during some of the middle laps. Dave Steele won both divisions, and he dominated in the Silver Crown race.
The crowd witnessed another fantastic Midget race that saw Bobby East and Steele battle early before East hit the wall hard on lap 14 after suffering a stuck throttle. The restart saw Michael Lewis try with all his heart to catch Steele. They raced side-by-side in turn one and turn two but Steele kept his foot buried in the Toyota on the high scary side - and he drove away from Lewis when Michael had a huge wiggle moment in turn four. Post-race, winning car owner Steve Lewis made the comment that "the best of the best - are sitting (at the podium) on each side of Steele. True. Lewis - who finished second, and Jay Drake were the guys he was talking about. I wholeheartedly agree with the Steve Lewis assessment, and history has proven this to be true as well. If you can race well in a midget at the Copper Classic - you can race in big-time American oval events for sure. I repeat myself about this every year. The midgets on the mile are twitchy little darts. It takes bravery and skill to run up-front. I hear some folks bitching about the Steve Lewis midget team from time-to-time but until there are rules that state otherwise - there is nothing Lewis is doing that someone else couldn't do if they had the money, and experience his team has. Steve Lewis has paid his dues. Toyota officials at the Copper Classic said they teamed with Lewis because his team was the best in the business when it comes to this form of racing. They put the undisputed king of PIR (Steele) in the seat and dared anyone to compete with them. East may have had the stuff to beat them - and Michael Lewis and his Gerhardt team were close. But at the end of 25-laps - it was Dave Steele doing the talking as the winner. No shame anywhere.
…Cole Carter impressed me (again) on the mile. He has really become quite the racer at P.I.R. …Drake was his usual smooth self. He rallied up to third place in the Keith Kunz #67. Drake was filling Bryan Clauson's seat because Clauson is not yet 18 which one has to be to run at mile tracks under the USAC sanction. I am sure that Drake will land a ride sometime soon for the 2006 season. He is way too good of a racer to sit in the pits and watch as he did Saturday night at Manzanita Speedway. Truth is - he could have raced Brandon Lane's #97 - but Drake was not familiar with said machine so he turned down the opportunity. Drake is not a big-ego guy who self promotes. I like that. His work speaks for itself - and we think his work is excellent. He may not be the flashiest - but he is fast, and he knows how to bring a car home in one piece. I worry about folks in many career avenues who like Drake are skilled veterans being overlooked. I digress.
…Manzanita Speedway turned in a strong 2006 season opening effort for the USAC/CRA non-wing sprint cars. Josh Wise scared the crap out of many in the feature event. He was leading (and going to win) when he approached a slower car going down the front chute. Blake Miller was about to be lapped when his engine blew. Miller drifted up the track in a bang-bang situation. Wise had to veer right to avoid contacting Miller's wounded machine. Wise rode the wall and then went into a violent series of flips, end over end, to the deepest part of turn one. He was transported to Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix and spent a night. He has since been released. Among those visiting the hospital after the event to show support to Wise and his family were Johnny Rodriguez, Drake, Dave Darland and USAC President Rolling Helmling. USAC Chaplain Tim Spillman was at his best, comforting family and friends. In my third season with USAC, I had a strong sense that USAC is truly a family. …Back to the races…I thought the feature was fairly entertaining. Jesse Hockett took the lead away from Levi Jones on the restart after the Wise crash. However - Hockett's motor blew as well. Jones saw the opportunity as soon as Hockett sputtered once. Levi controlled the waning laps despite a challenge from Cory Kruseman. …The Manzy event started as close to on-time as I've ever seen at the ˝-mile dirt track. …Hockett was happy to have a new frame under him in the Massey #2 for the season opener. He looked strong until the motor deal. …Johnny Herrera, the former World of Outlaws driver, showed his desire to race. He was in his Dad, Joe's #45. "Hollywood" was second quick behind Damion Gardner. …R.J. Johnson - the USAC/CRA Rookie of the Year in 2005, drove from 19th to seventh. …Rodriguez jumped the cushion in the early laps of the feature. It was Johnny's first time to run at Manzanita and he timed in seventh quick as one of only nine drivers in the 18-second bracket. Unfortunately for J-Rod, the crash in the feature put a kink in the frame of Mark Priestley's beautiful #7. …Tony Jones is now driving the Alexander #4.
…Travel Guide for the weekend: January 20-22, 2006. …I took Southwest Airlines from Sacramento to Phoenix Friday afternoon. After seeing the new Rental Car Facility just off the airport grounds, I wheeled my National Rental Car (Pontiac 6) into the Spring Hill Suites off of highway 17. The room was very nice with a small couch, a mini-fridge, and a microwave. The best part was the free high-speed internet which I really am finding I "must" have on the road. I drove to Sing High - my favorite Chinese restaurant in PHX, and got some takeout. It was delicious (sweet and sour pork, Chinese Green soup, and fried rice.) I grubbed while watching the Friday night NBA game on ESPN. Saturday - I never ate at the track(s) because I had leftovers. I did eat a part of a cheeseburger from the infield concession at P.I.R. on Sunday. It didn't do much for me. The trip home on Sunday was made easier in part due to the latest Al Franken book - The Truth with Jokes.
Overdose. That's what the Chili Bowl is. Four nights of midget racing at the 1/5-mile dirt oval inside the Tulsa Expo Center is exciting, long, thrilling, and exhausting all at the same time. I feel worn out. I can only imagine what the people associated with the teams are feeling. Probably like "junk parts" as my friend Brian Sperry likes to say. …The best part of the deal for me is getting a chance to see racers from all over in a competitive situation where a driver really has to be up on his or her game to perform well. I saw potential in so many drivers. Where to begin? Brian Gard is a good place. The Kelseyville, CA pilot of his own #57 was exciting in moving through several early events. He rode the rim in his own express lane and showed me more than I had previously known he possessed. …Trey Robb is a kid that the locals in Tulsa know all about. Just 13 years-old - he could barley see over the dash in his midget #12. But that didn't seem to matter. It was his throttle control and ability to look very much in command of his car that impressed me. He has been racing winged 360's in the Southwest.
…Obviously - the winner Tim McCreadie is a fast dude. Once in front of the A-main he ran away. …Damion Gardner was really getting the hang of running a midget, the more laps he ran. He threw slide jobs at all in front of him and he cleared darn near every one. …Johnny Rodriguez made the Saturday 50-lap finale. J-Rod (Ponch) was steering for Mark Priestly in the sweet #7 ride. …Wally Pankratz called it a career after a stirring high-side run to advance from the C-Main to the B-main. The 60 year old Pankratz threw caution aside to bounce back from being bounced out of a transfer spot. …For only racing one dirt event a year, P.J. Jones was spectacular. He drove to a podium finish on his preliminary night. …Josh Wise had me all excited with his run from 21st into the top four in Saturday's A-Main. The winner of the 2003 Belleville Midget Nationals is back with MOPAR in 2006.
…Cole Whitt from Alpine, CA looked like he had been running a midget his entire life. Never mind that Whitt was a raw rookie at the Chili Bowl. …Brady Bacon was another kid that I enjoyed watching. …Veteran driver Wayne Johnson was the show. The driver who is usually exciting fans at Knoxville Raceway in a winged sprint car was a Chili Bowl Rookie. He dazzled with a ridiculous drive from the 2nd F-main all the way to the feature event. …Steve Buckwalter, an East Coast gasser out of the ARDC midget ranks showed his obvious skills in the little cars.
…The racing got done too late almost each night. I understand. There are 260 freaking cars there - so it is going to take some time to get the shows in. But maybe they should look at adding a fifth night of racing so that there is less racing each night. I firmly believe each track should shoot for getting done by 9:30 PM. Start earlier if you have to. Tommy Estes Jr. does a great job from "Race Control". I know this because I sat next him each night. We (Johnny Gibson and I) were working on Greg Stephens' DVD coverage of the 20th annual event so we shared the press box with Estes, Steve Sinclair and super PR ace Lonnie Wheatley . It is easy to see why Sinclair is so highly thought of. He works with the drivers rather than against them. Plus - he brought me a hamburger on Saturday. : ))) Wheatley's work is always excellent. His pre-race work on the Chili Bowl was the base for all the homework I did for the race.
...Travel Guide for the Chili Bowl (January 10-15, 2006) …Racing got in the way of my fun time, leaving only Wednesday's opening night as a chance for me to hit the infamous Elephant Run which is attached to the local Best Western motel. The joint's lobby was raging at 3:30 am when I left that morning. ... I FLEW Southwest Airlines from Sac to Las Vegas - then Vegas to Tulsa. I had the pleasure of chatting with Kyle Larson and his parents at the LV airport. Kyle is a young racer that we will all be blessed to see race midgets, or sprints someday in the near future. The kid ran 80-plus races in 2005 and won over 30 of his features. The way I understand it, Larson runs Outlaw Karts, and Mini-Sprints. …Once in Tulsa, or "T-town" as they called it on the local hip-hop radio station, I checked in to the Days Inn which was pre-arranged for me. Okay - it wasn't that bad. But I would be lying to you if I said I was totally comfy at this old motel. I did have a mini-fridge, and a microwave. It also got some respect from me because of the soda machine that dispensed cold Mountain Dew for 65 cents a can! The soda machine was mere steps from my door. I did not care for the yellow stained caulking in the bathroom, or the mushy mattress, and pillows. (Comfort is a big deal to your boy when he is away from his own casa). Because we got done so late each night - I ate Denny's. Lots of Denny's. The 24 hour restaurant sits alongside the Days Inn. Upon arrival Tuesday night near midnight I had a club sandwich. I gave the girl at the register a $10 dollar bill and she gave me change like I had given her a $20. Let's hear it for honesty. I told her of her mistake - hoping to get some good karma going. …At the track Wednesday - I ate a Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich from the Tulsa Expo Center concession stand. It was okay. After the races - I had time to venture elsewhere - but I ate at Denny's so I could hitch a ride to the "ER" with Gibson. This night it was a Super Bird. That is a Turkey sandwich with cheese on grilled sourdough bread. Again - it was okay - like most stuff from Denny's is. The Elephant Run was quite an experience. I'll leave it at that. It was fun to chat with the Eckert Brothers, and Gibby's friend Wendy of Ron's Transmissions fame. My homey Paul McMahan, and his bride Jan, Bud Kaeding, Damion Gardner, Dean Mills, Casey Shuman, J.T. Imperial, Michael Trimble, Chucky Cypert, (Big) Tommy, Steve Gomez, and Gary Taylor were just some of the people I enjoyed rapping with. …Thursday included some deep slumber before hitting the track. I ate a slice of Dominoes Pizza at the track - and then had a Turkey Leg (not as good as Knoxville). Denny's Chicken Fried Steak was the dining choice after the event. Another trip to Elephant Run was on-hold because of a relatively early crew call the next morning. …Friday I sat and B.S.ed with Bill Woodside of Sprint Car & Midget Magazine. Woodside is a good cat that that tells me all kinds of cool stuff about what is going on back in his home state of Pennsylvania. That afternoon I dined at some random Chinese place called the Egg Roll (Station?). I should have known better. For some reason - fried rice in Oklahoma comes out yellow. Do they use Saffron rice? The cashew chicken was equally so-so. Do I ever eat something great? …Again I knew we had a 12-hour day at the track Saturday - with hot laps starting before noon. Bottom line - no fun after the races Friday night. When I was younger - like a year ago - maybe I would have said screw it. But I didn't. I got some decent sleep after another bout of Denny's - this time I did Chicken Fried Chicken. …Saturday I ate a burger that Sinclair brought me from a guy who Ques it up just outside the building in turn two. Drop $5 in the guy's donation jar and he'll hook you up with a plate. He served pork ribs which were tasty. I also had my first taste of Elk meat. The guy said it would be good - and it was. …The last night of Denny's preceded a quick two hour nap before a 4:30 am alarm - and off to the airport. I had a crummy middle seat from Tulsa to Phoenix, and a better deal - but not much better from Phoenix to Sac. Airline travel is only good in getting you to your destination faster than an automobile. The rest of the experience generally sucks.
...The USAC Western banquet was held January 7th, 2006 in Buena Park, CA. The Southern California event was positioned to accommodate the many USAC/CRA teams that are based in the Los Angeles area. Highlights of the affair included a spirited acceptance speech from Midget champ - Jerome Rodela. He joked that he almost didn't want to win the title because he knew he would have to speak at the banquet. …Audra Sasselli took home the Hard Charger Award in the Ford Focus class as well as the Most Improved Driver trophy. Upon receiving the M.I.D. award - Sasselli joked "I guess this means I was really slow last year". …Focus dirt champion Chase Barber drove a car in 2005 that was wrenched by his 15 year-old little brother. …Kody Swanson showed further proof of why he is a special talent when he took the podium to accept his USAC Western Sprint Car Championship. The 17 year-old, without the benefit of note cards, was gracious and professional in thanking all the right people. He can think on his feet - which as we all know - is a part of the deal these days. …I was proud of Damion Gardner who had a short speech written that thanked all of his many helpers. Gardner and his Nor-Cal followers from Concord travel 16 and a half hours round trip each time they run at Perris. Kevin Urton was given a nod by Gardner for being the guy who first convinced DG to head south sans wing. By the way - we also learned that Gardner is no longer associated with the Cruz Pedregon midget team. Chad Kemenah drove the car at the Chili Bowl.
…R.J. Johnson was honored with the USAC/CRA Rookie of the Year award. The 18 year-old is already a two-time champion in the Arizona Midget Racing Association. …Brad Galedrige took Rookie of the Year in the Western Midgets. …Tim Barber from the Western Sprint Car ranks tipped that he still hasn't seen his Ken Pierson owned new generation Silver Crown car. Barber is a talented pilot from San Francisco that should do well in the series once they take delivery of their car. …Danny Sheridan earned the USAC/CRA Hard Charger award for passing the most cars in A-Main action in the `05 season. …Guests at the USAC Western banquet included J.C. Agajanian Jr., Don Kazarian, and Floyd Alvis. …The venue was good in my opinion. It was held at the Knott's Berry Farm Radisson.
…Travel Guide for the trip: I hopped a Southwest flight from Sacramento to Burbank which was actually the wrong airport to choose in this instance. I should have flown into the O.C. since the banquet location was in the Northern part of Orange County. Whatever. It worked out okay - but traffic was bad on Sunday trying to get from Buena Park to Burbank. I stayed at the Radisson which was a nice place. Since banquet food is often foo-fooish and unpredictable I ate a late, late Saturday lunch at So-Cal Japanese fast food spot Yoshinoya. A Beef Bowl was predictably excellent. I didn't care much for the chicken dinner at the banquet - although the cheesecake dessert was really tasty. Post banquet I took a spin in my rented Impala from National Rental Car. Thankfully I never sampled the wine at the banquet because I ran into an LAPD sobriety checkpoint on Olympic. Mr. Policeman shined a flashlight into the car and waved me through. I drove around for a bit and decided to head back but there was a crash on the freeway - and I sat in traffic stopped for like 45 minutes. Even at 2 am there is traffic in L.A. …I had Mountain Dew issues with the rip-off vending machine that wanted $2.50 for a 20 oz. soda at the hotel. The vending machine was old and did not like my dollar bills.