Back Home Again in Belleville ‘05

Part 2

By Chris W. Lovett


     The atmosphere at the “Camp Fun” party could best be described as subdued this year. Instead of frolicking fair board members at least four of Republic County’s finest lawmen became less than subtle attendees of what is still a well publicized post race gathering. While the fully armed and uniformed officers didn’t shut down the party the effect of their presence was like someone opening the bedroom door of the room you had snuck away to with your date in order to secure some “quality” time. It was a buzz kill to say the least.

     People always say that the older you get the faster time passes. I have become a firm believer of this concept. It really doesn’t seem like a year has passed since the ’04 Midget Nationals. While the wait didn’t seem as long the problem is that the passage of time doesn’t slow down once you are here. Already I’ve gone through the annual rituals with only Saturday’s finale left on the to-do list. It just seems like the sinking reality that the wait to come back here begins again tomorrow is something entirely too familiar given the amount of time that has actually gone by.

     At least this year it feels as though Belleville is the same as it was when I left it a year ago. No additional businesses went out of business. In fact the entire west side of the square that lost Duckwall’s a year ago has a business in every available retail space. You can’t call it an economic recover yet, however, because there is still a huge over-abundance of “for sale” signs and there has been no significant change in the employment picture. I’ll worry about Belleville just a little less this year I guess.

     The Highbanks Hall of Fame and Museum inducted their fifth class of inductees during the week and also celebrated by having a long overdue ribbon cutting ceremony. Improving incrementally over last year the museum is still a sparkling gem that should be admired but there is still much work to be done. It was announced during the induction that in order to begin construction of the second phase of the museum, which would double the size of the current structure, a very ambitious amount of funds would have to be raised. If you haven’t seen what has been accomplished so far please just take my word for it and do whatever you can to further help this dream become a more complete reality. Perhaps, with your help, when you finally do see the HBHoFM it will be even more impressive than it already is.

     By the time hot laps were over it was clear that competitors were going to be dealing with a different racetrack tonight. Generous amounts of water were poured on the racing surface, the wind stopped when the sun went down, and there were going to be no time trials to be run. The fastest part of the racetrack was considerably further away from the wall than it was on Friday.

     The green flag fell on the first heat race at 8:30. Wally Pankratz, who insists that this truly is his last trip to Belleville as a competitor, took the green flag and pulled into the pits. Whether Pankratz’ quick retirement from the eight lap race was mechanically induced or due to a desire avoid flirting with disaster one last time was unclear. Despite the fact that the four heat races represented the remaining competitor’s opportunity to get into the finale the intensity level was definitely a far cry from the intensity that those on Friday provided. It was pretty clear to most everyone present that the narrow racing groove combined with a still highly tacky surface was the culprit.

     Unfortunately, with just one lap left in the fourth heat, the kind of intensity you least like to see at Belleville happened in turn two. Ryan Pace connected with Ryan Kaplan between turns one and two which resulted in both cars flipping up the track before hammering the guardrail. Both drivers walked away but the incident presented a serious obstacle to Kaplan’s shot at securing “Rookie of the Nationals” honors which he held securely coming into the night’s events.

     The ten lap dash to determine the first three rows on the 40 lap finale produced a few twists. Davey Ray started in the pole position and jumped out into a lead that initially wasn’t more than a car-length ahead of Robby Flock. Ray was able to stretch his lead over Flock as the laps clicked away. Suddenly, with three laps to go, fifth starting Jerry Coons Jr. surged into the picture on the low side of the speedway. In quick order Coons disposed of both Flock and Ray to win the race that would put him on the pole of the 2005 Midget Nationals. Coons is arguably at or near the top of just about everybody’s list of drivers who are way overdue to win their first Nationals crown.

     Probably the most notable thing about the fifteen lap semi-main is that it was over just before 10:00. The track hadn’t changed much since hot laps so everybody was fast and position changes were minimal. With the exception of a single caution the race went non-stop.

     Even before the cars could be lined up on the front straightaway the majority of the final answers to the speculations produced by the rumor mill could be laid to rest. Tony Stewart was nowhere to be seen and if he was anywhere near Belleville certainly did not strap into a midget. Defending Champ Bobby East did not compete. Those ”nine cars” that always seem to rise to the top at the Nationals did not compete and the world did not end. Tracy Hines competed both nights and would start in the finale. Any remaining un-resolved rumors will likely be dealt with in due time and at their own pace regardless of how many cycles people want to spend on them.

     The wind picked up a little as the cars were pushed off for the start of the feature event. Unlike last year push trucks had been dispatched to run-in the top portion of the racetrack. The racing surface was still completely unlike that of Friday’s. A four-abreast salute to the fans along with the obligatory fireworks display was performed and the green flag dropped at 10:50.

     Green flag racing lasted until lap nineteen when the caution flag flew. Coons had jumped into the lead and quickly built up a half straightaway margin over Ray. As the leaders started to encounter back-markers Ray had closed the gap to within three car-lengths.

     When the green flag returned Ray’s car seemed not to take off and he briefly lost second to third place Johnny Rodriguez. Ray gathered himself up quickly and was back challenging Coons for the lead. The final 21 laps went non-stop and while Ray was able to pull alongside Coons briefly on two occasions in turn one the leader refused to bow to the intense challenge. When the checkered flag was thrown Coons had narrowly won the race that had dogged him for fifteen years and removed a seemingly gorilla sized monkey from his back.

     No matter how quickly time passes to the ’06 Nationals I’d rather be looking at the Sunday before the Nationals than the Sunday after. Second place finisher Ray, who has youth on his side, probably feels the same way. Unfortunately only time will tell if it takes Ray fifteen years to get his first Nationals win and that is just one of the many things that keeps us all coming back.