The inaugural $500,000 NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown Thursday-Saturday November 6-8 at Irwindale Speedway was a rousing success based upon comments by fans, racers, sponsors, track management and NASCAR officials.
The event deserves to be an annual event; hopefully it will be held at the state of the art Irwindale track. Visiting drivers from other states said they loved racing at the super-smooth Irwindale half-mile, the hospitality at Irwindale, and of course the record purse. Many racers said they would like to see the prestigious invitational race rotated to tracks closer to their homes for logistical reasons. Some teams towed 3,300 miles from New England and southern states.
There were 16 current and past champions in the 70 driver All-Star field representing 28 championships. Youngest driver was J. R. Patton, 20, and the oldest was Jack Sellers, 59. The two Grand National Divisions (Busch North and Winston West) sent the top 15 drivers in 2003 points (30 drivers). The four Elite Divisions (Southeast, Midwest, Northwest and Southwest) sent the top ten in their final points (40 drivers). Only two eligible Busch North and two eligible Southeast drivers did not compete. Next highest point drivers brought those two divisions to full strength for the unique team competition during the All-Star Showdown. Carey Heath, a 28 year old female from Essex, Mass., was one of the two BN alternates who raced her No. 12 Chevy at IS.
The Toyota race purse included disbursements of $60,000 to the three traveling Elite Divisions (30 drivers at $2,000 each) and $45,000 to the 15 Busch North (Grand National) drivers at $3,000 each. The 70 All-Star drivers came from 26 states-Calif.-17, Wash.-10, Wisc.-six, Mass.-five, Ga, Id and Maine-three each, Alab., Ill. S.C and Vt.-two each, and Ariz., Colo., Conn., Iowa, Minn., N.C, N.H, N.J, N.M, N.Y, Nev., Ohio, Ore, R.I, and Tenn.-one each.
NASCAR staff from Florida reported the race results--four 50-lap races Friday and 100 (Elite) and 125 (GN) features Saturday, so this column will focus on various unreported All-Star Showdown related events. The idea for the NASCAR Touring Divisions event originated with Brian France, the new NASCAR president, about seven years ago. It took almost eight months of planning this year to make the event an "instant" success. Title sponsor Toyota, TV execs, NASCAR and Irwindale Speedway's management team were pleased by the inaugural Showdown.
Seven+ hours of live national coverage by Speed Channel was an added plus for drivers and team sponsors. One Midwest team got a $5,000 sponsor on the hood for this event alone. Friday had three hours live (8-11 p.m PST) for the two GN 50-lap qualifying mains and the two Elite 50-lap qualifying mains. Saturday live TV had four hours in prime time--5-9 PST (8-12 EST)-for the two features (100-laps Elite and 125-laps Grand National). Irwindale Speedway hosted a media breakfast meeting atop the track administration building roof Wednesday, Nov. 5 at 10:00. All six divisional champions, Toyota, NASCAR and track officials spoke and answered media questions. Each driver looked forward to competing against the best touring drivers in their divisions. Most visiting drivers had seen the Irwindale track only during televised races.
Activities surrounding the All-Star Showdown included a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors-issued and signed proclamation "NASCAR Week Nov. 3-9 in honor of Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale Speedway". Pre and post-race fireworks Saturday added color. A Wednesday night street festival--featuring racing displays, booths, food, and live music--took place on police-blocked off 2nd Ave. in Arcadia from 5-9 p.m in front of the Hilton Hotel. Approximately 2,000 people attended. Top three point teams in Busch North and Winston West took part in a pit stop contest Each driver drove his car into a work area three times and his crew changed two right-side tires and simulated refueling. Times ranged from 14 to 16 seconds. Mike Stefanik's Burnham Boilers BN No. 55 won with a best two-stop average of 15.535. They won $2,500 for their quick work. BN cars participating were No. 6, 55 & 96, and WW cars were 09, 9 & 77.
Irwindale hospitality, including use of the huge tent (used for the track's championship awards banquet Nov. 22) near the administration building, for All-Star competitor meals that were compliments of Toyota. On Thursday, Nov. 6 All-Star drivers, car owners and racing officials were served a mandatory complimentary welcoming breakfast in the tent. Procedures were explained in that relaxed, get-acquainted setting.
Drivers and crew members (that total was just at 900!) each received gift bags that included a commemorative All-Star Showdown watch desk clock, Toyota All-Star mug, pin, Champion Spark Plug key chain and other "goodies".
Following six-hours of practice Thursday, 900+ competing team members were served a sirloin-tip and pastas alad buffet dinner in the huge tent from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Breakfast and dinner, catered by Twin Palms and King Taco, were compliments of Toyota, as were the gift bags. Nearby Miller Brewery provided free kegs of their best frosty product for the Thursday dinner. Teams saved expense money and really appreciated those hospitality touches.
The noon to 6:00 practice in partly sunny, 68-degree conditions gave both divisions three hours on the track. GN cars had 12, 2 and 4 p.m slots, while Elite cars had the 1, 3 and 5 p.m hours. Rain forecasted for Friday or Saturday did not materialize. First car on the track at 12:03 was BN driver Eddie MacDonald. Cars entered and exited the track freely as teams pitted, made adjustments and improved their cars during the ample three practice hours available to every team. All teams improved times during the day. Some teams said IS reminded them of tracks in Lake Erie, PA, Birmingham, AL, Rougemont, N.C, or Indianapolis Raceway Park.
It was amazing how quickly visiting drivers took to the new track and acclimated to IS. Dale Quarterley, a 10-year BN veteran, said his team changed 11 springs, five sway bars and even removed the transmission to lower the track bar in an effort to improve handling. First practice sessions were incident-free. W/W drivers caused cautions in session two with a spin by Bobby Hillis and first turn wall-contact by Johnny Borneman, Jr, who drove to the pits. His crew went to Long Beach and installed a new right side overnight. All teams also had one hour of practice Friday afternoon, so four-hours of practice made each team ready for racing. Elite cars driven by Justin Diercks (MW Div.) and John Bender (NW Div.) made contact in turn three and Diercks contacted the wall. Both teams made repairs and raced.
Irwindale Speedway had a silent auction of a Bill Simpson-donated $798 Impact "Vapor" Helmet signed by all 70 Showdown drivers. The six champions signed in silver on the visor and the other 64 drivers signed in black on the white helmet. The winning bid was $1,501 from a Ukiah, CA resident. The speedway also auctioned a jacket signed by Dale Earnhardt, Jr on Monday, Nov. 3 (the day after he won the W/Cup race in Phoenix) when he came to IS to tape a TV spot promoting use of seat belts. A Temple City, CA fan submitted the jacket-winning bid of $600. All auction proceeds went to the American Red Cross Fire Relief Fund following the tragic October California wildfires.
Duplicate car numbers in each division were avoided because drivers who finished higher in points kept their numbers and lower point drivers selected unused numbers. If both drivers finished in the same point position, the driver with the most wins kept his car number. To make the Showdown team-racing easier to see on TV, all Elite cars had either blue, red, yellow or white car numbers on roofs, front air dams and rear spoilers to identify their home division. GN cars used red for WW and blue for BN cars in the same three places.
The Elite Division had two drivers named Steven Howard and they started a row apart. Steven B is 21 and raced his No. 38 Chevy in the NW Series. Steven A is 29 and raced his No. 99 in the SE Series. Steven A said Irwindale reminded him of the track in Birmingham, AL because you can race the top. Eddie Hoffman, Jr (MW Series) is the son Eddie, Sr, a 15-time Chicago-area champion who resides in Fallbrook, CA. Eddie, Sr now races a NASCAR Super Late Model at Irwindale and he gave Eddie, Jr valuable tips about the Irwindale track. Racing celebrities present were Friday honorary starter/IRL driver Lyn St. James, and Saturday Grand Marshall Darrell Waltrip. Darrell said the Showdown racing was the best short track competition he has seen. TV announcers Mike Joy, Phil Parsons, Dick Berggren and Ray Dunlap also praised the close competition at the Showdown.
The Elite Division 100-lap main Saturday had 40 starters and an amazing 37 finishers, 24 drivers on the lead lap, and 10 down one lap. The GN 125-lap main had 30 starters and 25 finishers, with 20 on the lead lap and three drivers down a lap. Most impressive newcomers were Andy Santerre (GN) and Elite winner (MW Series rep) Ron Breese, Jr, from DeKalb, IL.
A newspaper headline could read, "Breese blows away competition." Breese went from slowest (40th) at 19.511 in the first practice session Thursday to l7th quickest (18.458) in session two, and third fastest (18.277) in round three when fast time was 18.173 and 40th fastest driver was 18.807. Breese was sixth quickest of 40 drivers in Friday practice at 18.472 when Craig Raudman was fastest at 18.345. Drivers did not beat the IS track record in either division.
Elite Saturday feature winner Breese won $14,350. Runner-up Jim Pettit II (SW Series) earned $8,350 and third-place David Gilliland (SW) received $6,000. Position 40 paid $4,500. GN winner/current cancer chemotherapy patient Austin Cameron received $26,000. Runner-up Santerre got $20,350 (including $3,000 travel money). Third finisher Mark Reed collected $11,000. Position 30 (last) paid $4,000. BN had eight of the top ten Saturday, but WW had first and third. Winning teams in each feature Saturday were based on NASCAR position points (totaled at the intermission with 25 laps remaining).
The MW Series (with five of 10 MW drivers finishing in the top ten) won the Elite top payoff ($20,000 or $2,000 for all ten MW drivers) by a huge margin. The SW Series (with four of 10 SW drivers in the top ten) took second place money ($10,000 or $1,000 for all ten SW drivers). Third and fourth place teams won $5,000 for each team, or $500 for all ten drivers per team. BN drivers won the GN Division over WW drivers 1,905 points to 1,660. The GN team pay-off was $45,000--$30,000 for the first place team, and $15,000 for the second place team. All 15 BN drivers received $2,000 and all 15 WW drivers received $1,000 in team award money.
On Friday night, 20 Elite Division drivers and 15 GN drivers raced in the two 50-lap qualifying mains for each division. Elite race-winners were Breese and Pettit. GN winners were BN drivers Joey McCarthy and Santerre. The track announced attendance on Friday as 3,000+ and Saturday almost 6,000, plus the crowded pit area first turn grandstand. The races were televised locally Friday and Saturday.
Winning Cars: Santerre names his racing cars for female singers. His winning No. 6 Friday is named Faith Hill, for the country singer. Saturday GN winner Cameron said his No. 16 Chevy was new for 2003 and was nameless. Brendan Gaughan's WW championship winning No. 16 was called "Bad Andy" for the TV commercial character. When Jim Inglebright joined the Bill McAnaly team he got the winning car named "Bad Andy" as he requested and renumbered it No. 20.
It was great to see drivers compete in person at the Showdown after reading about them for years. Examples are GN drivers Santerre, Quarterley, Mike Stefanik, Kelly Moore and his son Ryan (the BN rookie of the year). Elite drivers in the same category for me were champions Steve Carlson, Charlie Bradberry, Jeff Jefferson, plus Jeff Fultz, Jason Jefferson and Chris Hart. Of course many new names will be on my radar now after watching them race in the All-Star Showdown. Foremost among the latter is the impressive Breese. Some All-Star drivers have NASCAR's Nextel Cup, Busch GN or Craftsman Truck Series as racing goals. Others just want to race annually in the touring divisions where they compete currently. The All-Star Showdown will continued to be a deserved reward and will give national recognition to all drivers who qualify for it.