Instant Replay: 20th Annual Belleville Midget Nationals - 1997 by Paul Haase BELLEVILLE, Kan. (July 29, 2001) - Jason Leffler came to the 1997 Belleville Midget Nationals leading the USAC National series and left by week's end with an even...
Instant Replay: 20th Annual Belleville Midget Nationals - 1997
by Paul Haase
BELLEVILLE, Kan. (July 29, 2001) - Jason Leffler came to the 1997 Belleville Midget Nationals leading the USAC National series and left by week's end with an even greater lead. The Pete Willoughby car had taken him to victory lane on several occasions. But this was the Championship on the High Banks. Big names in big name cars pull out all the stops for this one.
During the Preliminary qualifying races, Jason Leffler had turned in the fastest time for the two days. But during the Thursday prelim he watched Billy Boat take the checkered flag right in front of him. In the Friday prelim he followed Shane Scully until the 11th lap of the feature when they tangled and sent Scully flipping. On the restart he ran away with it.
Boat was back but was served notice by Leffler during the dash for the championship starting positions race. Leffler took a big lead off the green and didn't look back. Did Boat have what he had on Thursday? And what about the always competitive Steve Lewis cars? Lewis brought in Indy car sensation Tony Stewart for Saturday and Tracy Hines was in the other one that challenged Leffler on Friday coming from the back of the pack to finish right behind him.
The evening started with a concern about the track drying out at the top. After hot laps the track crew and USAC officials talked to the drivers and they indicated that the track was perfect. And it turned out to be just that with a well defined groove right up against the guardrail while still being able to run down low.
But with a slightly dry track on Thursday and a very tacky track on Friday, what driver did this track favor if anyone?
During the driver introductions you couldn't have gotten a good betting line. Too many questions were left only to be answered when the checkered flags were pulled out by Indy 500 flagman Brian Howard.
Leffler set out on the opening laps to prove he was truly the fastest one followed closely by Boat. On lap 29 Boat got around Leffler and tried to show that Thursday wasn't a fluke. However, on the next lap Leffler took back the lead and Boat started going backwards. Leffler never looked back after that and lead to the end. Boat eventually drifted back to finish in the seventh position.
The top eight qualifying positions for the championship lineup were shuffled when Jerry Coons, Jr. lost an engine in the championship lineup dash race. Coons got a ride in the Stephan Lewis car but due to the car change had to start from the back. Coons ended the night finishing fourteenth.
Two spots in front of Coons was Nationals veteran Dave Strickland, Jr. in the Klatt Enterprises car. Strickland had to go through the semi-main to qualify after finishing last in his heat due to an engine problem. That didn't stop the determination of Strickland or his crew and Strickland ended up finishing third after his 22nd starting position.
Stewart came into Saturday in a scratch start position, meaning he had to start at the end of his heat to begin qualifying. Stewart finished second in his heat and qualified for the 14th position. The Coons change put him in the 13th position. Stewart was able to slowly pick positions off but was able to close in on Leffler before the checkered finishing second.
The only accident during the championship came as Steve Paden committed an admittedly rookie mistake. Paden said he removed a tear-off shield from his helmet visor and it ripped in the middle only removing half of it. Paden said he went to remove the remaining half and drifted up striking the guardrail and taking a couple of hard flips coming to rest in turn three. Paden was transported to the hospital where he was treated and released.
Near the end of the championship Danny Drinan blew his left rear tire. A part of the blown tire struck Drinan's left arm injuring it. After a trip to the hospital for X-ray's it was found not to be broken as feared.
20th Annual Belleville Midget Nationals - 1997 Top 5 finishers: 1. Jason Leffler 2. Tony Stewart 3. Dave Strickland Jr. 4. Jay Drake 5. Tommy Estes Jr.
Reserved tickets for the 24th Annual Belleville Midget Nationals presented by WhoWon.com are available by calling (785) 527-5179, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, or by logging onto the Belleville High Banks Web site.