After torrential rains flooded various parts of the island of Oahu over the past two weeks, the sun finally emerged in time to greet USAC's Southwest Sprint Car drivers upon their encore visit to the 50th State. Eight mainland drivers, including four participants from 2003, return this weekend for the second annual Hawaiian Sprint Car Classic at the quarter-mile Hawaii Motor Speedway dirt bullring in Central Oahu.
Reigning track champion and inaugural Classic winner Dean Freitas leads a contingent of over two dozen local drivers vying for the lion's share of the $20,000 purse. 2003 Southwest Sprint champion and Classic fast qualifier Rick Ziehl, second to Freitas in the rain-delayed Sunday morning finale, headlines the USAC squad arriving Wednesday.
"This experience was awesome last year," recalls Lubbock, TX's Leighton Crouch, third in USAC points this season. "The people here on this island are so nice, and they'll always go out of their way to do anything for you. Last year we kind of came into this deal blind compared to most race tracks we do; we fared OK but had some bad luck the second night. We brought some extra parts this year and hope we can do a little better."
Series runner-up David Burns will also mark his sophomore Hawaii appearance, and he likewise vows for better on-track results. "We had our problems on the first night, when we tangled with another car, and it took us a while to get the track figured out. We've bounced around this year in a couple of different series, but we've had a pretty good year and have the car running pretty good. I do have another guy helping me, but my original crew chief is back, so we should be on a better footing this year than last, because the same guy will be setting the car up. I'm not as apprehensive this year as I was last time."
The Southwest Sprint Car series endured some scheduling snafus this summer, and construction delays at the new United Sports Arizona track in Tuscon meant concluding the 2004 campaign with only a two-race season. Many participants ventured out into assorted regional series instead, such as 2003 Friday night feature winner Ronnie Clark, now concentrating on SCRA and ASCS 410 non-winged sprints.
"I've been everywhere, all over the country this year," says Yuma, AZ's Mike Martin, third in the 2003 Friday feature. "I went back east to run the non-wing championships and did pretty well. Some of our finishes didn't do us much justice, but we were fast back there, and that was a tough group of cars. I ran a lot of California stuff with SCRA; it was my first year running with the 410 division, so I ended up Rookie of the Year and seventh in points. With that group and that division, that's pretty decent. We've had a lot of top five finishes in the 360 division at Manzanita Speedway. But I haven't gotten a win this year, so hopefully this weekend we'll break into the winner's circle."
"We were just kind of along for the ride," Crouch adds. "We ran other series as well, such as ASCS and NCRA, and a couple of SCRA non-wing events as well as NMMRA at Hollywood Hills - we had a feature win there. We enjoyed the three shows we did make; we had some bad luck at El Centro but made it up at Reno where we ran second. This will be our third race, and hopefully we can have that good luck."
The uncertainty regarding the series made it difficult for Martin and others to plan on participating far in advance. "I got a really late notice on the deal. It had always been on the schedule, but the division hadn't run many races this year, and I was really skeptical and thought it could be cancelled. But I'm driving for someone else this year (Ed Mastiff) and fortunately was able to bring his car out; that worked out really well for me. It's really similar to the car I drove last year; we have a good basic setup on it, and we should be pretty fast this weekend."
In order to quickly complete his roster, series director Hal Burns wound up bringing aboard some regional drivers who had not actually run with the group this season, such as SCRA runner-up Charles Davis, Jr. and SCRA/NMMRA veteran Don Grable. In the case of El Paso's John Carney, Jr., "I've never run USAC before, and this is only my second time in a non-wing car. I race winged sprints in Texas and New Mexico; we went to a race in Albuquerque a few weeks ago and stumbled across Hal, and he was looking for people to come to Hawaii to race. We worked it into our schedule, figured out the program, got our tickets, and here we are. I've raced on a lot of quarter miles and think I have a pretty good chance - this track seems familiar to me. In Texas there's a track even smaller than this one, and I've been on tracks which are bigger, more oval, with long straightaways, tight corners, high banked or flat - with all that variety I think I should do OK here."
Last year's event featured several major accidents, including one during Friday's heats which knocked 2004 Southwest Sprint titlist Beau Binder out for the duration. Binder wound up shipping his ride back to Oahu after finding an eager buyer thereafter, as did Martin. "A couple of guys showed some interest in it when I was down here. 4-5 months later I got a phone call from someone who wanted to buy the car. We just lined up the deal and shipped it over to him. He's had it for a few months and has run it a little bit; he says he's doing pretty good with it, and that shows a lot of interest. They tell me they now have eight non-wing cars; last year they had none. I think that's really good for the sport of non-wing sprints, and it's really good for Hawaii Motor Speedway to have another class built up."
Meanwhile, Martin still emotes frustration over the wreck which apruptly ended his shot at winning the inaugural Classic in that car. "It was really unfortunate because on Friday our car was super loose and we still ended up third that night, even though the car wasn't that great. We made some changes for Saturday, and the car was just a rocket. When we got there Sunday, it was super fast, and I was up to fourth or so and just had a guy (a local backmarker) spin out in front of me. He had been all over the place for 4-5 laps prior to that; I knew what was happening, and I was just trying to bide my time and wait for the opportunity to get by him.
"You get one shot, and I was very angry. It's tough when you mix two different calibers of guys together, and you expect the other one to be able to step up and drive under control. Under normal circumstances, you show up to a race and there's 30-40 cars; those cars get weeded out early in the night, so you don't have to deal with them in the feature. But we were pressed for cars last year; we didn't have a big car count (locally), and you have to work through something like that. Hopefully this year with a little bit better car count, maybe it'll weed out some of those guys who are notorious for spinning out, wrecking cars, stuff like that. You just can't afford to crash and tear up cars."
The 2004 race weekend will bring in attendees from as far away as Iowa and Pennsylvania. The Iowa representative is Knoxville's National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum director Tom Schmeh, who boasts of visiting over 300 racetracks worldwide in his lifetime - but none in Hawaii. Yet.
Last year's rushed itinerary, compounded by the Sunday morning rain date when most had flights home that afternoon, meant many parties vowed to do things a little more leisurely this time around. "Again, we brought our whole family with us," says Crouch. "I can't imagine doing this without them, and their support is just incredible. I need to thank my grandmother for getting us here, my fiancee, my mom and dad, aunt and nephews who are here - we're going to stay after the races and maybe enjoy some of the other islands and the whole Hawaii experience."
While Davis, whose sister was expecting around this timeframe, could not spend all year dreaming of this vacation like Crouch's family, he nonetheless snapped up the last-minute opportunity. "That's what I asked my wife - 'do you want to go to Hawaii?' 'Yeah, I want to go to Hawaii!'
"'You just gotta remember, we're racing while we're there.'"