O’LEARY: Hoosier Pit Pass
STANFORD, Ind. — The first round of this year’s Indiana Sprintweek competition is in the books and there is no doubt that it remains one of the best programs in sprint car racing.
Two of non-wing sprint car’s very best wheelmen claimed the first two events, Jon Stanbrough at Gas City I-69 Speedway, and Dave Darland at his hometown Kokomo Speedway.
But there was enough tough racing behind them to see that it wouldn’t be a stretch for any of a half dozen drivers to cart home the big trophy after this weekend’s finale.
Featuring USAC’s AMSOIL National Sprint Car series, Indiana Sprintweek is really multiple layers of rugged competition. Seven nights of racing, at seven different tracks, over a nine-day period, with completely new programs each night, 40 to 50 cars unloading in the pits, Sprintweek delivers smack-in-your-face racing at its very best. Add the nightly purse that is paid, Sprint Week point fund and contingency awards, and the posted earnings are substantial. Considering that this is all a critical component of USAC’s national championship, the potential rewards become even greater.
This program has been attracting racers from not only around the states, but from outside the country for years. In addition to USAC’s regulars and the tough local sprint car shoes, the lineup the first weekend has included the Vander Weerd brothers, Jace and Richard, with Brody Roa representing the California contingent.
Mark Smith returns from Pennsylvania and young Nathan Moore, who has towed in from Texas with an open trailer, for the third year. Lee Dakus was attracted down from Edmonton, Alberta, and Australian Jay Waugh is making his first Sprintweek appearance.
It is USAC’s program that makes Sprintweek tough on everyone. From the first lap turned by the first qualifier, there is no slack time for the drivers or the crews. Every track has a different character based on its dimensions, surface and preparation. The criticality of qualifying is frequently underestimated. If you are slow, you are behind the 8-ball all night long; if you are fast, you have better starting positions in heat races and the feature. Decisions need to be made quickly about last second adjustments to setup, gearing and strategy.
On the Hoosier ovals, heat races are like knife fights in a dark alley. The top four finishers in each of the four heats receive golden tickets to the main event. Heats are lined up by inverting the six cars with the fastest qualifying times in the first three rows, putting the two fastest cars in the third row. Cars slower than the first six line up behind them in order of their speeds. What this creates is the front four starters fighting to stay in a transfer position, while the faster cars battle to move into the top four. What makes the racing really intense is that most of the cars are highly competitive and nothing is easy.
Gas City held the opening ceremonies for Sprintweek competition July 11 with 53 machines unloading in the pits and the importance of qualifying well and heat races was demonstrated vividly. Although Jon Stanbrough qualified the No. 37rw Dutcher/MP Environmental/Indiana Underground Maxim ninth, only five of the faster qualifiers were able to transfer through the heats and they were inverted to form the first three rows of the main event, with Stanbrough on the pole.
While Stanbrough took the lead in the first turn, the track became very slick. Soon most of the cars were nose-to-tail and looking for any opportunity to challenge for a pass. Dave Darland was the exception. After setting fast time and starting sixth, Darland went straight to the top groove. With a couple of brilliant and aggressive moves, he was second by the third lap. But the top was just as difficult to drive and Darland soon began slipping backward.