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Dirt Car Notes From the Illinois State Fairgrounds

Illinois State FairBy Jay Hardin

(September 9, 2014)-Jack Hewitt is slated to return to USAC Silver Crown competition in two weeks but Kody Swanson did one hack of a Hewitt impersonation Sunday when he wheeled the familiar white 63 of Bob Hampshire and Ralph Depalma to victory in the 53rd Bettenhausen 100 Sunday at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Kody is a very nice young man and an absolute tiger with the 63 machine, trying to destroy anything and anyone in the path of victory lane, which is exactly what he did.

Quick in practice at about a half second off the track record, he set quick time as the 18th scheduled qualifier with a 31.999. On the drop of Mo’s green he went right to the lead and while Tracy Hines was able to keep up for a bit, eventually Swanson pulled away to one of the most dominating wins in the 80 year history of championship dirt car racing at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

Kody became the 14h driver since 1953 to take dirt car racing’s ‘triple crown’, that is post wins on all 3 of the of the dirt fairground miles. He joins such names as Jimmy Bryan, Rodger Ward, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Mario Andretti, Jack Hewitt and Chuck Gurney to win at Indianapolis, Springfield and DuQuoin. J.J. Yeley was the last driver to join that prestigious list when he won DuQuoin in 2003. Only Bryan, Foyt, Unser and Hewitt have won all three in the same year.

Swanson is the 18th Springfield race winner to start on the pole and the 17th to lead all 100 miles. He gives a car numbered 63 win number 3, a Chevrolet engine win number 35 on the Springfield mile and the 16th win at Springfield for a McCreary-American Racer shod car. It is just the second Springfield win for the hometown Maxim chassis.

Swanson thrilled the paying customers several times with daring passes of lapped traffic going into turn one, including twice when he nearly hit the inner rail trying to get around lapped cars.

Interesting stat is that the top three in USAC Silver Crown points finished 1-2-3 on Sunday with 2006 Bettenhausen winner Tracy Hines taking second and Bobby East taking third. If Swanson can win the title he will become the 20th Springfield winner to win a national championship as well (9 National Champions, 10 Silver Crown champions) and the first to do so in 12 years.

Several of the teams had to really thrash to get cars ready for Springfield. Chris Windom’s RW crew basically built a new car and he brought it home fifth. Chris Fetter’s team worked to get an engine in the 88 car, while Marc Longworth and crew got Dave Darland’s mount ready for Sunday. Jacob Wilson’s crew also put in some long hours and Kenny Gentry showed up just in time to fire and tag the tail of the Bettenhausen 100. Unfortunately Terry James was unable to get the 23 ready in St. Louis for the tow north.

Twenty-four cars made the trip for the rain date. Five that did not come from DuQuoin were the Daum 5, the James 23, C.J. Leary’s 35, the Jerry Bruce 50 and the 53 of Robbie Ray. The 91 of John Hunt, the 40 of David Byrne and the 18 of Gentry were not at Springfield on the original date, the 99 of Chris Bell and the 30 of Tiffany Wyzard were but unable to make the program.

A.J. Fike was strong Sunday but unable to pull off the three-peat. The black and gold Beast seemed to have trouble exiting the corners yet A.J. managed fourth.

Russ Gamester’s crew worked feverishly to fix a mechanical issue and fired up from the pits just as the command was given to start engines. He finished 11th in his 22nd Springfield start. Dave Darland made start number 21. Gamester is now third behind George Snider and Johnny Parsons, Darland tied for fourth with Larry Dickson.

Benton’s Shane Cockrum won at DuQuoin and was ready for the next dirt car victory of his career, unfortunately the car known as “Ginger” was not. Her power steering gave up on lap 34 after starting 6th. Ginger is an ex-Foxco Beast campaigned by Steve Fox for Jon Stanbrough. We believe the car is at least ten years old.

Nice guy Randy Bateman celebrated 30 years in the series and ran well until the car overheated at the three quarter mark.

Just like DuQuoin, Dennis McQuinn had the highest finishing rookie in Brady Bacon who ended the day 10th after starting 3rd. Third generation driver and teammate Steven Russell ran 98 laps and finished 14th.

Steven was the subject of a nice story in the Illinois State Journal Register. He combines racing with his other sport, football as a lineman for the defending state champ Rochester Rockets. Due to weather his Friday night game got rescheduled to Saturday night. He had three tackles in their Saturday night win.

Olney’s Levi Jones, two-time Silver Crown and five time USAC Sprint car champ ran second for Galen Fox at DuQuoin and it was thought he would be a real threat at Springfield. Levi did go from 16th to 9th at the end but the anticipated charge never materialized.

Chris Urish and some internal issues in the engine during practice and was unable to fire at the start. However, Illinois supported the series once again with 8 of the 24 starters calling the Prairie State home soil.

Sunday was a gorgeous day in the capitol city, high in the upper 70’s and bright sunshine. It did help to dry out the track which had received quite a bit of rain on Friday night.

The track had some speed in early practice, and then slowed down due to the sun and a slight breeze. A second groove existed at times in turn 3 and 4, but the fast way was right down on the rail in turns one and two.

USAC did not post an official time and speed, but only two brief cautions slowed the field and the time of race had to have been less than an hour and five minutes. The two slowdowns were both for stalled cars, Kenny Gentry on lap 3 and Caleb Armstrong on lap 41.

A great job of covering the Bettenhausen by the SJ-R’s Ryan Mahan, WICS TV and the Bloomington Pantagraph. It’s great to have local media recognize the importance, prestige and history of auto racing at the fairgrounds.

Sunday’s crowd was not bad for a rain date and certainly was enthusiastic. I understand there were quite a number of people on the infield in turns 3 and 4.

Seen walking around were former drivers Donnie Beechler and Scott Ritchhart.

I’ve heard snippets from people who didn’t enjoy the race. Why? Swanson did exactly what he is paid to do, pedal his hot rod as fast as it could possibly go. He obviously had the best mount and on this day it was dominant. Champ car races are long, strategic events. They aren’t 8-15 mile races contested on small tracks. These races (and victories) show who can manage the car over a long distance at high speeds. The victories get drivers noticed and those that want to move on to say, NASCAR, usually do. I’d wager at times there have been more Silver Crown champions and race winners in NASCAR than from any other series (outside of NASCAR).

The Yankees, Steelers, Celtics all were dominant in their respective sports. There is nothing wrong with dominance in an auto race. If a guy can ‘stink up’ a race, I say more power to him. I’ve heard for years people talk about ‘great races’ only to find that the only thing great may have been the finish. Take the 1992 Indy 500 for example. All anyone remembers is the finish but frankly the race itself was terrible. Caution after caution after caution. Would I have liked a race similar to DuQuoin? Sure. However, Sunday saw a race at a historic venue under beautiful skies with a series on the comeback trail. No one hit the wall and no one got hurt, and we had a first time Springfield winner. Seems like a pretty good day to me.

A paragraph or two of self-indulgence, if you don’t mind. It was an honor and privilege to be behind the microphone Sunday for the 53rd Tony Bettenhausen 100 at the Illinois State Fairgrounds and a coming home of sorts for this writer. I grew up 30 minutes north of the fairgrounds and was practically raised at Springfield Speedway and the Springfield Mile. Sunday marked the 47th Bettenhausen 100 for me and to think I followed Twenty Grand Steinbock, Rex Easton, Bobby Baugh, Bill Hill, Gary Lee and my friend Jim Childers at the mike still leaves me in awe. I hope that USAC’s Dillon Welch and I were able to keep you informed and entertained for the afternoon. Thanks to the drivers for their cooperation in interviews, thanks to the fans, and a big thank you to Bob Sargent and Jim Childers for the opportunity. I won’t forget it.

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