Notes from the Bettenhausen at Springfield

Springfield, IL August 18, 2001 - Perhaps it's karma, irony, or the alignment of the stars, but the state of Texas ruled supreme at Saturday's 41st Corona-Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100, as first A.J. Foyt returned to the Springfield Mile for the...

Springfield, IL August 18, 2001 - Perhaps it's karma, irony, or the alignment of the stars, but the state of Texas ruled supreme at Saturday's 41st Corona-Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100, as first A.J. Foyt returned to the Springfield Mile for the first time in 22 years to serve as Grand Marshall of the event and watch grandson A.J. IV make his dirt champ car debut, then as Temple, Texas pilot Paul White walked away with over $9000 in dominating the 100-mile event. Strangely, this was the 30th anniversary of Foyt's 4th and last victory in the Bettenhausen Memorial 100, so perhaps it's appropriate that a Texan took the checkered flag. And, White was the first Texan since Foyt 30 years ago to step into victory lane at Springfield in a championship dirt car.

Don't underestimate the drawing power of "SuperTex", as one of the largest Bettenhausen crowds was on hand for Saturday's race. Lots of Foyt fans dotted the grandstand, with a fair mix of Indy Racing League fans as well. The crowd was estimated by some observers to be a significant increase over last year's gate, so it appears championship dirt car racing is alive and well in the Illinois capitol. Foyt brought the house down in an interview on the stage, when he told the crowd that he loved them all, enjoyed coming back to the track where he got his start, and hoped to come back many more times. Those comments drew a standing ovation.

The IRL's Donnie Beechler was also a significant drawing card as well, Springfield being his hometown. Beechler was lightning fast in practice, a lap just .5 seconds off the track record was seen on a hand help stop watch, and Beechler appeared to be "loaded for bear" today. Perhaps it was the pressure of being at home, or the pressure of trying to be the first Springfield driver to win the fair championship race, or maybe it was performing in front of the "Boss", as Foyt just happens to own Beechler's IRL ride, the Harrah's Dallara. Donnie to cooked the Gary Stanton owned, Chrysler powered Beast hard into turn one on his first qualifying lap in an attempt to take the pole. The rear end bit, and when it did the front end washed out, sending the car hard into the turn one wall. Beechler later said he felt as if something may have broken in the rear end when he went into turn one. Donnie emerged unhurt after shaking off the cobwebs, but unfortunately won't make the trip to DuQuoin in two weeks. The crash really has nothing to do with not showing at DuQuoin, as Donnie will be busy trying to take the IRL race at Joliet.

Beechler's wreck caused a few early exits, a few fans were heard stating they were leaving because Beechler was not going to be in the field.

It's doubtful Donnie's wreck had much of an effect on "SuperTex" Foyt, as A.J. had his own trouble to deal with shortly thereafter. Grandson A.J. IV, 17 year old son of Tony and Nancy Foyt, was slated for his debut on the same race track that grandpa made his champ car debut, forty-four years ago, and in the same race. Anthony, as he is known, has run go karts and the Formula 2000 cars, and recently ran a car at Jimmy Sills sprint car school. But Saturday was his first run in a champ dirt car on a big dirt track. Foyt looked pretty good for a 17 year old with limited experience, he was very smooth, adapted to the changing track and didn't try to drive over his head in the practice session. Unfortunately, qualifying didn't go as well for the youngster. Drawing the 33rd pill (out of 48) in the draw, A.J. IV headed out and qualified a respectable 9th on his first lap. His second circuit was going even better until turn three, when he got high and jumped the cushion, tagging the wall. The car came back around on the left rear, snap rolled at least once, stood straight on it's tail and came down on all four wheels. He emerged unharmed to the delight of the crowd, that seemed to adopt the young man as an instant favorite. On the other hand, many wondered what grandpa's reaction was going to be.

A.J. was relieved that his grandson was unhurt, but wasn't thrilled that the car had been wrecked. When the car was towed back to the pits, it was obvious this car wouldn't be repaired as the front end was a wash, one of the down tubes on the new Beast chassis was severely bent, and the Jacobs ladder may have been broken in the rear. A.J. announced to the crowd later that his grandson would appear at DuQuoin in two weeks in a new car that A.J. would secure from longtime buddy and former co-car owner in the Silver Crown series, George Snider. At a later press conference, a teary-eyed Foyt said that his grandson was upset and "crying like a little kid, which he is" when he returned to the pit area. A.J. obviously has a soft spot where Anthony is concerned, as A.J. began to cry too and said "I felt as bad as he did, he wanted to do well here because he knows this is where I got my start". Foyt also indicated that a stuck throttle may have been the culprit of the accident, and took the blame himself as he said he was the one who was adjusting the injectors prior to qualifications.

If you believe in numbers, the stars, or Karma, keep the numbers 9 and 16 in mind when playing the lottery or dealing with the Foyt family. Anthony's first qualifying lap was ninth fastest at the time, and 16th overall by the end of the day (which would have put him in the 100-miler). In a stroke of irony, grandpa Foyt qualified 16th and finished 9th in his championship debut at Springfield in 1957.

Actually, this wasn't exactly Foyt IV's first time on a mile dirt track, two days earlier he had gone to DuQuoin for a rare test session of a dirt car on one of the miles. This was to be a semi-secret test so a crowd wouldn't come, but rumors are that several race fans found their way to the Southern Illinois mile and watched the "secret" test. (It seems the Foyt name is a pretty powerful draw anywhere a race track exists). Anthony reportedly ran 115 laps and looked very good in the test, before the Gaerte engine let go in the car. A new power plant was flown to Springfield, and the Foyt crew installed it in a local shop on Friday.

Fifty-five cars filed entries for this year's Bettenhausen 100, with 48 drawing for qualifying times. This was an extremely healthy car count for the 1st mile dirt track event of the year, and in excess of a few of the pavement events. Five cars were lost in the practice session, meaning 43 actually took qualifying times. Three more were casualties in the timed laps, meaning that forty cars were available for racing action. USAC rules indicate that if the entries exceed forty, two qualifying races are run and that's just what took place Saturday.

Some of the names in the qualifying events would have been a good main event lineup on their own. Last year's Bettenhausen polesitter Tony Elliot was to start the first last chance race, but the car sounded like it dropped a cylinder on the second qualifying lap and couldn't be repaired. Brad Noffsinger ran the first qualifier, as did Johnny Parsons, Jason McCord, and hot rookie Aaron Fike, the winner at Richmond. Fike dominated the first qualifier and may have set a 10-lap track record in the process.

Iowa sprint car pilot Terry Thorson was in the second hooligan, along with Bill Rose, Ed Carpenter, Dane Carter, Tom Capie and veteran Jerry Nemire. Michael Lewis, injured earlier in the year seems to have made a fine recovery, he tagged the tail of the field at the start and using the second groove, came to 4th by the end of 10 miles, and then drove to from 28th to 13th by the end of 100 miles.

No one said so officially, but Lewis' Print Express beast sure looked like the car Jack Hewitt used to win the Bettenhausen last year.

Silly season of sorts seems to have started in the Silver Bullet series, Brian Tyler, normally in the Hoffman 69 was pulling duty at the NASCAR Busch race today, despite his top ten slot in the points. Stepping in was "Hot Rod" John Heydenreich, who normally pilots the JL West equipment. Brad Noffsinger was in Bob Galas' number 12 instead of the usual Curb 40, even though the trailer for the Curb 40 Noffsinger co-owns was in the pit area. Six-time MARA midget champ and hometown boy Donnie Lehmann indicated he still has his Watson chassied dirt car, but today was in a Magnum of Pat Lysell, who normally campaigns sprint cars at Farmington, Missouri. Kevin Huntley secured a ride in the SC Racing 97 which hasn't been seen for a while, and Bill Rose was in Craig Burghardt's 65. It seems that Bowen racing (the 41 team) has their entire operation up for sale.

Brad Fox was in his dad's second car, sponsored by former owner Junior Kurtz's Plastic Express company. The car is a Beast that Kurtz purchased a few years ago for Cary Faas, but was so upset with the team's performance he gave the car to Galen to run. Unfortunately, Brad's day was short as he clobbered the turn two concrete in practice, bashing in the rear bumper and the tail tank, and re-aligning the rear axle. The car was done for the day, Brad was not hurt.

Dane Carter had a Beast for the dirt rather than his regular Drinan chassis, Jack Hewitt moved to Bob Parker's yellow Beaberbuilt rather than the Dewitt 21, and Bill Schemonia looked good in the team's new Beast. Craig Dori also had a new chassis, with a Beast replacing his Challenger.

Among the 7 cars that didn't make it to Springfield, there were three interesting no-shows for the day, Billy Puterbaugh signed in at the gate but the family owned Qualistar never found the grounds, nor did the EWH Team of the "Redhead" Gary Hieber, from the famous racing town of Langhorne, PA. Hieber's absence was especially strange as he usually performs very well on the dirt, winning the 1990 Hoosier Hundred. Murphysboro's randy Bateman usually makes the Illinois dirt shows, but he too failed to make the trek. Add Tyler Walker to the list also, because it was announced earlier in the year that he and the Johnny Vance-Ray Evernham team were going to run the full series, Tyler did run the Knoxville event so the team does have dirt equipment.

Kudos have to go out to Bob Sargent, USAC's officials, competitors, the Illinois State Fair people and the fans themselves for Saturday's event. Not only was a big crowd on the grounds, but the threat of rain blew up in the afternoon and everyone worked diligently to get the 100-miler in. Ten minutes after the event ended, raindrops could be felt, and the fair P.A. was asking people to take cover from an impending thunderstorm.

Rain the night before the 41st Bettenhausen might have helped the track a little, it uncharacteristically dried out very quickly during the practice session, and got slick in turn 2 (which was the cause of the Fox crash). During the cleanup, water was applied to the cushion and it temporarily revived the racing surface, giving drivers a real cushion to use all the way around.

The water apparently invigorated Jack Hewitt as well. Springfield hot laps are well worth the price of admission alone, and Hewitt gave everyone their money's worth this Saturday morning. Riding the cushion as if he were a man half his age, Hewitt threw rooster tails of dirt over the fence and pushed the cushion quite high, cutting a very wide groove.

Unfortunately, the cushion dried out during qualifying and it wasn't till the end that the track took rubber. Using the cushion, J.J. Yeley set fast time as the 3rd qualifier while Paul White grabbed the 2nd slot as the 47th driver in line by hugging the pole.

The track broke up on the mainstretch a little causing some marbles and a little dust, but overall the track was smooth and in good shape. The track appeared to be a little moody and sensitive to the sun and the heat of the day, as it first was tacky, then slick, then tacky again, then slick, then tacky at the end after it began to really take rubber.

White's time was only .003 of of Yeley's 31.363 second lap. His win gave the outside front row starting slot it's eighth win out of the 67 national championship dirt track races presented at Springfield. The 2001 race was also the 33rd Silver Crown/Silver Bullet event at the Illinois mile.

In leading all 100 miles, Paul White became only the 12th man to lead the entire Springfield event. The last driver to lead all 100 miles of the Bettenhausen was 7 time winner Chuck Gurney in 1996. His winning time was only the fourth dirt car race in Springfield's storied history that was run in less than an hour!

White's win in a car carrying number 10 was the first win for that particular car number since Billy Winn's second victory in 1935!

White's victory was the 26th consecutive win for the small block Chevy V-8, and the tenth consecutive Bettenhausen win for the Bob East built Beast chassis. That puts East into a tie with the late Grant King and A.J. Watson for most Springfield wins by a car builder.

Beast chassis are extremely popular in the Silver Bullet series, eighteen of the 30 starters were in East built cars, and the chassis took 7 of the top 9 slots at the finish.

Hewitt moved up further on several stat lists for the Bettenhausen Memorial. His 17th consecutive start at Springfield puts him one behind leader A.J. Foyt, and his 21st start overall broke a tie with Larry Dickson that puts him second on the all-time Springfield start list.

Veteran Roger Rager, formerly of Mound, MN and now of Newton, IA is always spectacular on the dirt and his talents combined with the Springfield track were a neat combination in hot laps. Rager hasn't been to the Illinois mile in several years, but quickly found the touch and set sixth quick time. Rager appeared to be in great shape and seemed to be having a good time in his return to the dirt cars. Roger is the non-winged sprint car track record holder at Springfield, and is best known for leading the 1980 Indy 500 in a car powered by parts of a school bus engine.

In fact, Knoxville, Iowa's Saturday night sprint car program sent four regulars to the Bettenhausen Memorial, indicating that the state of Iowa may be coming back to the Springfield Mile. At one time, Iowa sent several drivers to compete in USAC events at Springfield, most notably stock car drivers Don White, Ramo Stott and Ernie Derr.

Of the Knoxville regulars, Rager had the best qualifying position, with Manny Rockhold in 16th. Terry Thorson and Jon Agan missed the show. Rockhold had the best finish of the four, taking 25th.

Saturday's Bettenhausen contained several rookies, chief steward Bill Carey indicated he thought there were nearly a dozen drivers who had little or no experience on the mile dirt tracks. However, Saturday's race may be an indication of a changing of the guard, as several young drivers let it be known they were going to be a force to be reckoned with. As indicated earlier, Anthony Foyt would have made the starting field based on his first qualifying lap, while Ricky Shelton ran a strong race in the Aviators new Beast chassis. Galesburg's Aaron Fike, a winner earlier in the year at Richmond, shaved 12 seconds off the 10 lap record at Springfield, while Eddie Carpenter barely made the starting lineup and put in a fine drive to the 10th slot. Olney's Levi Jones, a star basketball player and USAC Sprint driver, made the show in the car owned by St. Louis' Gus Sohm, while former Springfield rookie of the year Rich Tobias qualified in the top ten and finished 5th. Unfortunately, sixteen year old Kyle Steffens of St. Charles, Missouri missed the race by one spot in the qualifying events. The youngster looked more comfortable as the race wore on and was pressuring Levi Jones in the Sohm car at the end. Steffens, who will race at DuQuoin on Labor Day weekend, is remembered for his wild victory lane celebration there winning last year's Bill Oldani Memorial modified event.

Fifty-six year old Johnny Parsons, who moved to the IRL broadcast team this year, continues to pursue his love of driving the dirt champ cars on the mile tracks. Parsons made the Bettenhausen 100 in the Ricky Nix Beast through the first qualifier, and moved from 23rd into the top ten before a tire went bad late in the race.

A lot of veterans had trouble this day, Beechler crashed in qualifying and Elliot had mechanical troubles in qualifying. Parsons, Noffsinger, McCord, Bill Rose, Jerry Nemire and Tom Capie had to run one of the semi features, while Jack Hewitt had clutch trouble at the start and the car never hooked up during the race. Last year's second place finisher and rookie of the race Bud Kaeding had a flat tire on lap 44, dropping him out of contention. Russ Gamester was able to salvage a third, while Dave Darland couldn't find the handle and struggled to sixth.

Saturday's win helped White in the points chase, he moved to within 27 of leader Gamester. Yeley moved to third with Dave Steele fourth going into the upcoming event at Gateway in St. Louis.

A nice note involves former USAC driver and area hero Dean Shirley from Middletown, Illinois. His former sprint and champ car owner Gus Sohm still had the sprint car Dean won a several track championships in, and the hope was that someday Shirley could take a ceremonial lap around the Springfield Mile. Sohm sold the car recently, and the new owner completely restored the machine. On Saturday as part of the Midwest Vintage Racing Association presentation, Shirley took several ceremonial laps, giving his patented peace sign in the process.

There were several familiar open wheel machines for the vintage ceremonies, including an Offy dirt car wheeled by Jack McGrath in the fifties, the last dirt champ car driven by the late Jan Opperman, a midget driven by Lonnie Caruthers, and Foyt's 1981 Coyote that he sat on the front row at Indianapolis.

According to the pre-race drivers meeting, a couple of rules have changed with regards to 100-mile races on the dirt tracks. First, under red flag situations, USAC is now requiring that all cars stop in a straight line on the main chute, rather than going back to the trailers. Once all of the cars are stopped an in line, the crews will then be allowed to tend to the cars and can do anything except add oil and water. This seems to be an effort to speed up the restart process after a red flag. One item of note was the warning given to the drivers by Chief Steward Bill Carey, who gives a very well conducted and informed lecture to the drivers. It seems that there is a steadfast rule against driving through an accident scene on a red flag, and the penalty for doing so is most severe.

Another change involved using the red flag (ala NASCAR) to ensure that a green flag finish was seen by the fans. There was a rule on the books in the last few seasons that mandated the last two laps be run under the green, which was different from prior years where the races could and did end under the yellow. This means that fans get to see a green flag finish, the races go the 100-mile distance and not over, and fuel probably isn't a concern.

-SS

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About this article
Series USAC
Drivers Donnie Beechler , Michael Lewis , J.J. Yeley , Dave Steele , Jack Hewitt , Brian Tyler , Bud Kaeding , Ray Evernham , Aaron Fike , John Heydenreich , Dane Carter , Brad Noffsinger , Jerry Nemire , Johnny Parsons , Russ Gamester , Levi Jones , Paul White , Tyler Walker , Jason McCord , Tom Capie , Gary Hieber , Jimmy Sills , Donnie Lehmann , Tony Bettenhausen , A.J. Foyt , Bill Rose , Kyle Steffens , Ed Carpenter , Ricky Shelton