2008 Season Review: 15 Racetracks=15 Adventures

HAMMOND, IN: With soaring gasoline prices and deflating disposable incomes, 2008 was a challenging year to be a spectator of motorsports in the United States. Looking back on the past season, I were astonished to realize that we managed to attend 15 different race venues throughout the year. Now, more than ever, I can realize why I’m currently broke!

Reflecting on our travels this year, it was also surprising to realize that, for the first time in memory, we did not attend a single road course event or winged sprint car show during the season. I guess that, with a thirsty motorhome and gas over $4 per gallon, getting back to basics was, literally, the only way to go!

Due to an unexpected bit of “sheet time” last winter, the 2008 racing season didn’t kick off quite as early as normal. Therefore, the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was where it all began for me this year. The following is a summary of our racing experiences for the past season in more-or-less chronological order (I think!).

1. The Indy 500 Experience: Being on the scene at the Speedway from Opening Day thru the Race is something that’s become part of my DNA. It began for me in 1956 as a 10 year old, and I feel fortunate to say I haven’t missed a 500 since. Even though there are those who feel that the significance of the Race has been diminished in recent years by the open wheel split of the ’90’s, and the resulting growth of NASCAR, it still feels like the biggest race in the world to me.

This year’s running produced one of the more straight forward results in recent years. Sometimes, the clear favorite just simply kicks ass and dominates the proceedings, and that’s basically what Scott Dixon did this time. The former and future IRL Champion converted the Pole Position into a dominating victory on Race Day. However, with this year’s field inflated by the refugees of the finally-dead Champ Car group, the qualifying sessions took on renewed interest with the return of real, old-fashioned bumping! And, even with the economy locked in a downward spiral, the future for the coming 100th anniversary of Indy 500 looks quite promising. It should be fun.

2. Indianapolis State Fairgrounds: the Hoosier 100: I include this non-event only because I was physically there! In what is becoming a disgusting tradition, the Hoosier 100 was rained out once again this year. And, with no make-up date available for the promoters, we’ll have to wait until 2009 to see if the weather curse can be broken. Fortunately, the annual Memorabilia Show at the Fairgrounds provided a great alternative on a rainy day. With old-timers like 1960 Indy winner Jim Rathmann on hand, plus an endless array of nostalgic “stuff” to root through, it was almost easy to forget that, once again, there would be no Hoosier 100 this year.

3. The Milwaukee Mile: I believe it was Frank Capua (aka: Paul Newman in the film, “Winning”) who once said, “Everybody goes to Milwaukee after the 500”; and so they did. The race was good one, with Ryan Briscoe justifying car owner Roger Penske’s faith by beating Indy winner Scott Dixon in a straight fight. The track may be the oldest continuously running race track in existence. But to me, and other gray-beards, the “Milwaukee Mile” will always be “State Fair Park”.

4. Winchester Speedway: A UASC sprint car event under the lights was reason enough to return to the “hills” of Winchester for the first time in nearly 20 years. And, I’m happy to report that it’s still a totally awesome joint. For history buffs, it’s hard not to believe that the ghosts of Wilber Shaw and Spider Webb aren’t lurking around every corner. Not sure what they’d think of night racing on the high banks though. Scary stuff!

Darren Hagen, the latest “King of the Hills”, won the feature that evening. And, in one of the support events, Tony Stewart’s dad Nelson showed his racing chops by running strongly in the top five during the running of the companion Thunder Roadster feature.

For any of us who need to be reminded what got us hooked on sprint car racing in the first place, Winchester Speedway is the place for you.

5. Gas City; start of Indiana Sprint Week: The Hoosier state is known as the home of the “bull rings”, and the 1/3 mile clay oval at Gas City is a perfect example. Many of the folks we met that first night were embarking on a two week odyssey that has become a mandatory destination for followers of “real” sprint car racing; not a wing in sight!

One of USAC’s young guns, Cole Whitt, scored a popular victory in front of a packed grandstand on the first of what should have been two nights at Gas City. But the steady rain that began a few hours after the feature continued through the night and well into the next day, forcing the cancellation of that evening’s show. However, the great thing about Indiana Sprint Week is that there is always another race

6. Kokomo Speedway: My first visit to Kokomo was in the late ’50’s, when the famed “Night Before the 500” midget race was moved there for 2 years following the closing of the 16th Street Speedway in Indianapolis. I had been back several times after that, but not since the track’s original configuration and been modified. It has been said that “change is good”, and, in the case of Kokomo Speedway, truer words were never spoken!

Quite simply, the race that Dave Darland won that Sunday evening at Kokomo was the race of the year, if not the decade!

As lap one of the 30 lap feature neared completion, the Number 9 Mopar car of Brad Sweet executed a series of barrel rolls coming out of turn four. Sweet walked to the ambulance with some assistance.

After the complete restart, former Indiana Speed Weeks champ Jon Stanbrough jumped out front and a yellow was waved at the end of lap one for the 5k of Henry Clarke stopped in turn one. Darland, who started 7th had blasted his way to 2nd.

Stanbrough was on a mission as he was lapping cars early on and Robert Ballou took over 2nd on lap seven. Stanbrough was running a perfect race as the 17B of Brett Burdette spun in turn one. The running order was Stanbrough, Ballou, Darland, Cole Whitt, Tracy Hines and Levi Jones.

For a time it looked as though Ballou might have something for Stanbrough but a right rear wheel packed with mud slowed his furious charge.

As the white flag was displayed, Burdette spun in turn one and Chad Boesphlug made contact and hit the turn two wall. Stanbrough, holding a comfortable lead, was bearing down on this and could not avoid clipping Burdette which resulted in Stanbrough turning over and bringing out the red flag. After 29 perfect laps, Jon Stanbrough found himself on the hook done for the night.

Reverting back one lap created a two lap race to the checkers with a limping Ballou, trying to hang on with a still mud-packed right rear wheel, back in front, trailed by Darland, Cole Whitt, Tracy Hines and Darren Hagen.

Ballou and Darland raced side by side with Darland on the low side and Ballou high. As the white came out again, it remained the same with the capacity crowd on their feet. Coming out of four Darland gained the slight advantage and Robert “The Madman” Ballou, still “running high not afraid to die”, hit the wall at the exit of the final turn and began a series of vicious flips, stopping in a smoking heap just short of the finish line. As Darland took the checkers, Levi Jones collided with disabled Ballou car, and tumbled down the front straight. Thankfully, all drivers emerged unhurt.

When the smoke cleared, the crowd let out a collective “sigh”, and welcomed Dave Darland to Kokomo’s Victory Lane. This one will be hard to forget.

7. Kamp’s Speedway, Boswell, IN: Another of Indiana’s “bull rings” that has been re-configured several times during it’s existence, the the USAC sprint cars put on a good show at Kamp’s; that is, what you could see of it. Unfortunately, track prep left a lot to be desired, but those of us lucky enough to have dust goggles saw Jerry Coons Jr. score a hard fought victory. Hopefully, the extreme dust problem can be addressed in the future.

8. The Terre Haute Action Track: My first memory of racing at the Vigo County Farigrounds was watching my hero, the legendary Jim Hurtubise, win his first of five USAC sprint car wins in a row there in 1960. Before the track installed lights in recent years, the summer sun and breezes could always be counted on to produce dust but, normally, it was not too bad for a daytime show. It was hoped that, by running under the lights in the evening, a better, more dust-free show could be enjoyed.


The Sumar 100 Silver Crown race, featuring great battles throughout the field for the full race distance, turned out to be an embarrassment to the promoters, and the sport in general. Long before Dave Darland pulled into Victory Lane that evening, more that half the grandstand crown was gone, and not without good reason. Even wearing goggles, it was almost completely impossible to follow the race. Basically all I saw were the people around me leaving after only 20-30 laps, coughing and wiping their eyes. Shameful! In today’s economy, these are the problems that MUST be solved, if our sport is to survive. I actually found myself apologizing on behalf of USAC and sprint car racing in general to the fans I talked to after the race.

9. O’Riley Raceway Park: The old/new USAC Silver Crown pavement cars, plus the USAC midgets were the featured attractions at IRP (sorry, ORP just doesn’t have the right “ring” to it!) as the Brickyard 400 week began in Indianapolis. Both events featured fairly straight forward, dominating wins; Bobby East taking the Silver Crown 100 laper, and Chuck Gurney Jr. scoring his breakthrough victory in the midget show. Good racing. Decent crowd. Too bad more of the NASCAR folks didn’t seem interested.

10. Illiana Speedway: My home track. Saw my very first auto race at Illiana as a 5 year old in 1950. From AAA midgets and “big cars”, to AAA and USAC stock cars, Illiana has seen it all. Tony Bettenhausen, A.J. Foyt, Eddie Sachs, Paul Goldsmith, Rodger Ward, Allen Heath and Curtis Turner were just a few of America’s racing heroes to have laps at Illiana. Today, it remains the only viable short oval track operating in the south Chicago land area.

The USAC Regional and Ford Focus midgets were the main attraction on Aug. 6th, with Zack Schiff and Kyle Hamilton winning their respective features. A good crown was on hand to enjoy promoter Mike Mulkey new aluminum grandstands. However, I’m told that the school bus “races” held several times a year at Illiana are what really pays the rent.

School bus races? Could this be the “end of the world as we know it”?

11. Macon Speedway: You want a “bull-ring”? If so, Tony Stewart’s Macon Speedway is the joint for you! The POWRi midgets were the headliners on a beautiful summer evening in central Illinois, with the Springfield 100 Mile Silver Crown race only 30 miles to the west the next day. Soon-to-be ARCA champion Justin Alllgaier, the newest Roger Penske star-to-be, scored an impressive win over a stout field of midgets, including America’s favorite light bulb repairman, Kevin Olson, who finished fifth.

Justin Allgaier may well prove himself to be our newest “throwback racer”; a guy who can win on a wide array of tracks, with or without fenders. Hopefully, he’ll be able to remember his roots. After all, somebody has to replace Ken Schrader eventually!

12. Springfield; Illinois State Fair: Talk about a “throwback”; the Springfield 100 mile event seems relatively unchanged since my first visit in in 1961, a race won by Jim Hurtubise (notice a pattern here?). On a typical, sunny summer Saturday afternoon in August, underrated Brian Tyler racked up another win in a precision drive that made me wish that Tyler had been given more of a chance in the world of Indy Cars. With his smooth style, he would have been a sure winner.

One thing for sure; there’s something about a Ferris Wheel alongside a dirt track in the Summertime that just feels “right”.

13. Sun Prairie, WI; Angell Park Speedway: With no disrespect intended to Gilmore Stadium, if God ever created a perfect track for midget auto racing, this is it. In dozens of visits to The Prairie over the years, I’ve never seen a bad show. The historic 1/4 oval runs Badger Midgets almost every Sunday night from mid-May through Labor Day and, even though it’s a 6+ hour round trip for me, it’s worth every mile and minute.

On the night of our visit, the Badger feature was taken by Levi Jones, while the companion Illini Racing Series event saw Angell Park veteran Kurt Mayhew in Victory lane. Both features showcased the usual wheel-to-wheel excitement in front of a big crowd, with no dust, great concessions, and the Midget Hall of Fame available to enjoy on the grounds.

To me, no racing season would be complete without at least one visit to The Prairie. Trust me: this is as good as it gets.

14. Chicagoland Speedway: The IRL race at Joliet is always a heart stopper, and this year’s running, featuring a photo finish between Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves was no exception. Sadly, a large percentage of those on hand are NASCAR “fans”, who are forced to buy IRL seats in order to obtain their coveted tickets for the Nextel Cup race earlier. It’s still hard to believe that so many of these “taxi cab” fans don’t seem to get it. But, then again, they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Unlike many of the stock car fans I observed, I was VERY glad I was there!

15. Tri-State Speedway, Haubstadt, IN: Although I had driven past Tri-State Speedway, just north of Evansville, IN on Highway 41 dozens of times, I had never set foot in the place until September 27. As it turns out, I had been missing one of the nicest, best maintained dirt tracks I had ever seen. The event was a 50 lap, $15,000 to-win Midwest Sprint Car Series show, and it was a dandy!

If you believe in reincarnation, it just might be that Jim Hurtubise has returned in the form of “The Modern Day Cowboy”; Daron Clayton! I’ve had the pleasure of watching this guy work for several years now and, let me tell you, young Mr. Clayton always manages to take you breath away.

On this late September night in southern Indiana, the Modern Day Cowboy took on a stellar field of sprint car heroes, blasting into the lead early and holding off the best in the business until sidelined by engine failure with only a hand full of laps remaining, handing the victory and winner’s check to Jeff Bland. Although it was tough to see Clayton lose a victory he had so thoroughly earned, it was still a fitting way to end the season; at least for me.

With the current economic crisis in America, we can only hope that the 2009 season can produce the same opportunities for excitement that we’ve all come to enjoy in recent years. If you’re like me, skipping a meal to make a race is no problem. Hell; we can all afford to lose a pound or two!

Happy Holidays!

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