The 12th Annual COMP Cams ASCS Speedweek Revisited TULSA, Okla. (July 22, 2004) - A three-time ASCS National champion, Tim Crawley had been close before. But close is all, and close doesn't count for a whole lot when ASCS ...
The 12th Annual COMP Cams ASCS Speedweek Revisited
TULSA, Okla. (July 22, 2004) - A three-time ASCS National champion, Tim Crawley had been close before. But close is all, and close doesn't count for a whole lot when ASCS Speedweek championships are on the line. The ever-elusive ASCS Speedweek crown had escaped the Mabelvale, AR, driver's clutches in the past.
"I've been real close to winning this Speedweek thing several times, even led it going into the last night but haven't been able to win it," Crawley commented while studying the feature lineup for the Saturday night, July 17, Speedweek finale at Riverside Speedway in West Memphis, AR.
When the twelfth edition of COMP Cams ASCS Speedweek commenced at Batesville Speedway eight nights earlier, Crawley commented that, "We'll be at all of 'em except the last one at the Ditch. My son's got a birthday party that day, so we'll probably have to miss that one."
When queried the obvious, "What if you're leading points?" Crawley responded with a laugh, "Then I guess we'll be at the Ditch."
At a track that Crawley had fared no better than a pair of sixth place finishes in Speedweek competition in 2000 and 2002, Crawley had the winning combination this time around at Batesville, scoring an impressive victory and hinting at what was to follow.
The next three rounds of Speedweek did little to clear the championship picture however, with Travis Rilat delegating Gary Wright to second at Little Rock's I-30 Speedway, Tim Montgomery taking quick advantage of Garry Lee Maier's misfortune in lapped traffic to score his first series triumph at Tulsa and Darren Stewart racing to Speedweek glory at Tri-State Speedway near Ft. Smith for the second year in a row.
With four different drivers racing to victory lane through the first four rounds of Speedweek, a mere 14 points separated the top five drivers in points: Crawley, Rilat, Wright, Zach Chappell and Stewart.
Then the contenders began to fall.
Stewart would be the first when a rough Delta Bowl track destroyed his machine's driveline in heat race action, sidelining the young Okie for the night. Stewart's Speedweek would continue to degenerate the next night when he was parked for the evening after a heat race run-in with Cody Branchcomb. Out of the running for the points title, Stewart and car owner Bobby Sparks skipped the Riverside finale to win the weekly feature at I-30 Speedway over a field of twelve cars.
Zach Chappell, who had quietly posted top-five runs through the first three rounds at Batesville, Little Rock and Tulsa, battled back from a heat race spin at Ft. Smith while battling for second with Stewart to race from 17th to ninth in the feature, keeping his Speedweek title hopes alive.
Then the 2001 series champion fortunes began to take a major turn. Chappell pulled the Number 45 pill in Thursday night's draw at Delta Bowl, the highest number in the mix. Not damnable in and of itself, the luck of the draw only made things worse, putting Chappell at the tail of a heat that included strong runners Tim Montgomery, Garry Lee Maier, Mike Ward, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Terry Gray, Josh Howard and Darren Stewart.
On a lightning fast track with a fairly large-sized gully to dodge in turn one, passing was difficult at best, and when matched against equally competitive rivals, virtually impossible. Chappell picked up one position when Gray took his machine pitside then inherited sixth when Stewart's mount succumbed to the track and slid to the infield.
Chappell would race from sixth to third in a B Feature in which the youngest Howard would chase down Delta Bowl dynamo Mike Ward in lapped traffic to snatch the victory, much to the delight of older brother Dale. Keeping his title hopes alive, Chappell would charge from 19th to sixth in the feature.
Chappell wouldn't find the Memphis Motorsports Park and Riverside Speedway quarter-mile bullrings to his liking the next two nights however, utilizing his first two provisionals (three per season are allotted to the top ten in points) just to start both main events. Chappell could only muster a 17th at MMP before racing from 21st to eighth at Riverside to secure fourth in points.
Rilat entered the fifth round at Delta Bowl just two points behind Crawley. Fast in hot laps, Rilat ripped his competition in heat race action. When young Tony Bruce, Jr., surrendered the front row outside starting slot with ignition woes, Rilat gladly slid into the second starting slot.
The green flag flew and Rilat was gone. Just a couple of laps in and Rilat had put nearly a straightaway between himself and Crawley and Company. Rilat was on track to turning in perhaps one of the most dominant performances in Speedweek history when Lady Luck dealt the young Texan a bad card as his u-joint exploded on the seventh lap, forcing a long, powerless ride to the pit area.
After picking up a pair of positions late in the going at MMP to finish third, Rilat was still in the running for his first Speedweek title but was in need of help. A lot of help. To the tune of a win in the Riverside finale, while Crawley had to finish no better than 19th and Wright no better than 7th.
Starting the finale to Crawley's outside in the second row, Rilat appeared ready to fulfill his part, racing past early leader Natalie Sather on the seventh round, just two rounds before Sather spun in turn two and collected third and fourth runners A.G. Rains and Crawley.
With Wright mired mid-pack and Crawley's front end a mess, there was renewed hope for Rilat. Crawley would rejoin the fray after hasty repairs however and Wright would make a sudden move forward. Then, for the second time in three nights, misfortune struck Rilat while leading.
With 16 in the books, Henry Gustavus, Jr., and Mike Ward tangled exiting the fourth turn. The pair slid wildly down the front stretch, bouncing off the outside wall then into the inner railing, with Gustavus landing on his side. As the red lights flashed on, Rilat didn't slow quick enough to avoid another car checking up.
A mangled front end sent Rilat's crew into thrashing mode in an effort to rejoin the action. Repairs were completed just in time for Rilat to rejoin the field at the tail. Apparently on a mission, Rilat rode Riverside's rim masterfully as he charged back toward the front. The charge would culminate in an impressive fifth-place finish behind Wright, his primary season points championship contender. Rilat would settle for third in Speedweek points, 26 markers out of the lead.
A headline in itself could be the fact that Gary Wright failed to visit victory lane on at least one occasion over the course of the seven-race Speedweek. This had only happened twice before in Speedweek history, including the Original Speedweek in 1993 (in which Wright didn't compete) and 1996 (when Wright started five of seven features, with a second-place finish his best).
In nine other ASCS Speedweeks, Wright had posted at least one victory while posting five Speedweek titles. In fact, Wright had posted two or more wins in eight of those nine years, with the 2001 seven-winners-in-seven-races edition Wright's only one-victory Speedweek. Wright scored two victories in '95, '98, '02 and '03, with a Speedweek best three wins on four occasions in '94, '97, '99 and '00.
After finishing a distant second to Crawley in the Batesville opener, Wright's best opportunity for victory appeared to be, at least on paper, at Little Rock's I-30 Speedway, where the Texan had found victory lane in eight of the most recent eleven major Sprint Car features contested atop the high-banked quarter-mile oval.
After testing the waters during the opening rounds, Wright ventured to the high side and methodically worked into second at Little Rock, then raced past Rilat and appeared headed for another I-30 victory. Rilat had other plans however, blasting back into the lead following a late caution and forcing Wright to settle for another runner-up finish, his sixth in a row including runner-up runs in the Hollywood Hills double and Sprint Bandits features at Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Frustrated with a half dozen runner-up finishes, Wright wouldn't reach that summit the rest of the week. Typically dominant at Tulsa, Wright only managed a seventh place finish, then ran tenth at Ft. Smith.
After surrendering the runner-up slot in the late going to a daring move from youngster Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Wright put on a show in the final two rounds of Speedweek by racing from 19th to sixth at MMP and 17th to fourth at Riverside.
Wright's 2004 Speedweek of four top-fives and seven top-tens in seven features left the veteran just 12 points shy of his sixth Speedweek crown, a fact that even surprised the Texas shoe who asked upon the completion of the Riverside feature, "So, where did I wind up in points? Third, fourth, fifth?" When told he was just 12 points back in second, a surprised Wright said, "No way. We were terrible this week."
Wright extended his current stretch of ASCS Speedweek top-ten feature finishes to 20, still about three years short of four-time Speedweek champ Terry Gray's record string of 40 top-tens.
With the tales of the other major contenders now documented, we return to Tim Crawley.
Crawley was fast all week and perhaps more importantly, luck played into his hands this time around. After serving notice with his win in the Batesville opener, Crawley raced from mid-pack to finish fifth at Little Rock, reintroducing himself to nemesis Shane Stewart on the cool-down lap.
Crawley briefly inherited the lead after Garry Lee Maier's lap 23 mishap at Tulsa, only to watch Tim Montgomery race by on the low side before finishing second. Crawley eked out an eleventh-place finish at Ft. Smith, setting up the crucial three-race stretch through the Mid-South that would determine this year's Speedweek champion.
When Rilat made his early exit at Delta Bowl, Crawley was there to take advantage and raced to his ninth career Speedweek victory. Crawley backed it up by racing from the fourth row to capture his second Speedweek win in a row and match Wright's record of three Speedweek victories in a single tour.
Ten times before, a driver had scored back-to-back wins in Speedweek action. In addition to accomplishing the feat in the inaugural version of Speedweek in 1993, Crawley had also scored back-to-back wins in 2000. Wright has scored two in a row on five occasions ('94, '95, '97, '99 and '00), with Wayne Johnson ('96), Jason Johnson ('02) and Shane Stewart ('03) also scoring doubles in Speedweek history.
No driver had ever won three in a row however. And no driver had ever claimed four feature wins during a single Speedweek. Crawley had a chance to change both facts in this year's Speedweek finale at Riverside.
As Crawley studied the Riverside finale lineup, in which he was slated to start on the second row inside, he shared that, "I'm trying to decide how I want to race this one. Do I try to race for the win, or should I play it careful and try to get the championship? I really want that title, it's got away from me before."
In typical Crawley fashion, he appeared to be chasing another win in the early going, looking for a way past A.G. Rains and Natalie Sather. While Rilat found a way to charge past all three, the worst-case scenario nearly played out for Crawley when Sather looped her mount in turn two on the ninth lap, leaving Crawley with no place to hide.
Crawley's crew wouldn't let it slip away this time however, and after replacing a radius rod or two, Crawley rejoined action minus a nose wing and with a damaged top wing. Crawley went the conservative route the rest of the way, manhandling a tight machine to a tenth place finish, good enough to secure his first Speedweek crown.
While Crawley captured the headlines on another successful Speedweek, a total of 70 different drivers competed in at least one event with 16 drivers hanging in for all seven events. Those 16 drivers represented eight different states, including Razorback rep Crawley along with West Memphis, AR, shoes A.G. Rains and Marshall Skinner, Lone Star State drivers Wright, Rilat and Sam Hafertepe, Jr., Sooner shoes Chappell, Cody Branchcomb and Jimmy Taylor, Kansas guns Garry Lee Maier and Tony Bruce, Jr., Byhalia, MS, brothers Dale and Josh Howard, Tennessee's Mike Ward, Show-Me-Stater Toby Brown and North Dakota's Natalie Sather.
Fifty different drivers started at least one Speedweek "A" Main, with Crawley, Wright, Rilat and Chappell the only four to take the green flag in all seven main events.
The initial series champion in 1992, Garry Lee Maier rebounded from some early misfortune to take fifth in Speedweek points. Slated to start the Batesville opener on the pole, Maier was sidelined before it ever started with a faulty MSD box.
Maier appeared to have the field covered in the third round at Tulsa when Josh Howard's mount lost power directly in front of the Cimarron, KS, driver, leaving Maier with no place to go. Maier bounced back with a sixth place run at Ft. Smith, then fourth and fifth place showings at Delta Bowl and MMP before missing the finale at Riverside.
With one of the most impressive ASCS Speedweek career resumes, Mike Ward finished just four points shy of fifth. With five wins, 18 top-fives and 34 top-tens in 45 Speedweek feature starts entering this year's version, Ward started every feature except Tulsa's, racking up top-ten finishes at Batesville, Ft. Smith and MMP, including a best finish of third at Tri-State Speedway by Ft. Smith.
The eldest of the three Howard brothers, Dale Howard started all but the Riverside finale, scoring top tens at Little Rock and MMP to finish seventh in points.
Marshall Skinner shook off a wild Delta Bowl flip, purchasing a used Maxim from the Chappell team to finish out the week. Skinner finished ninth at MMP aboard the "new" machine then raced from 20th to sixth in the Riverside finale to claim eighth in points.
Toby Brown's week got off to a rough start when he tagged the turn two Batesville concrete on Speedweek's opening night, destroying his J&J. Putting to use an Eagle chassis borrowed from Garry Lee Maier and Scott Brown's Lubbock Wrecker Service team, Brown and the ABF Truck Rebuilders crew pulled an all-nighter to race to a third place finish at Little Rock. Brown also finished fifth at Ft. Smith and tenth at Delta Bowl to take ninth in points.
Leading Brodix Rookie of the Year contender A.G. Rains scored eighth-place finishes at Batesville and Delta Bowl en route to completing the top ten in Speedweek points. Rains took a trip to a local hospital after Rilat tagged him from behind at Riverside. Other than some aches and pains, Rains was all right.
Fellow Rookie of the Year contenders Sam Hafertepe, Jr., Jimmy Taylor and Natalie Sather all had moments as well during Speedweek.
Hafertepe dismissed hard contact with the turn one Batesville wall last year to utilize a provisional starting position to race from 21st to 13th in this year's Batesville opener. The 18-year-old Hafertepe would also make Speedweek feature starts at Ft. Smith, Delta Bowl and Riverside, closing on Crawley's bumper at the Mosquito Bowl before settling for a Speedweek best fifth-place finish.
Sather destroyed a car after tagging the turn four wall at Batesville, then flipped wildly off the backstretch after utilizing a provisional to start the third round feature at Tulsa. Sather rebounded to start Ft. Smith's feature the next night, then with ace crew chief Kenny Woodruff away at a class reunion, the attractive young North Dakotan led her first laps in O'Reilly ASCS National Tour feature competition at Riverside before spinning.
Haunted by driveline woes during the preceding Lubbock-Albuquerque trek, the Jimmy Taylor team then solved fuel system problems to make their first Speedweek feature start at Tulsa Speedway. Perhaps one of the last "true" racers, often leaving his Oklahoma City home with just enough money to get to the track and nothing more, Taylor raced his way into both MMP and Riverside features and scored his first career Speedweek top-ten by crossing the stripe ninth at Riverside.
Cody Branchcomb picked up top-tens at Little Rock and Tulsa, then missed his only feature of the week after taking the fourth turn fencing down during heat race action at MMP. With Branchcomb on the receiving end of this tangle with Darren Stewart, the incident was remarkably similar to last year's rub in the exact same spot in which Josh Howard was launched into a wild series of flips off of Branchcomb's right rear. The post-accident "discussion" was quite different however, with this past Friday night's version unacceptable by any standards.
Speaking of Josh Howard, the 18-year-old newlywed got his first taste of a week on the road with his first Speedweek racing experience. Josh was impressive at times, with the highlight being the aforementioned pass of Mike Ward in Delta Bowl's B Feature. Josh followed that up with his first career ASCS top-ten feature finish by crossing the stripe ninth in Tunica. Josh also started features at Tulsa, Ft. Smith and Riverside.
Nineteen-year-old Tony Bruce, Jr., made his second full run at ASCS Speedweek. After finishing 11th in the Batesville opener, the Liberal, KS, shoe missed the show at Little Rock and Tulsa, before racing into second in the Ft. Smith B Main when he clipped the inside wall and cut a left front tire exiting turn four approaching the white flag. Bruce held on to claim the fourth and final transfer to his second feature start of the week.
Bruce's strongest run of the week appeared to be at the high-speed Delta Bowl where he scored a convincing heat race victory, earning the front row outside starting position for the main event. Ill fortune kicked in at that point however, forcing Bruce pitside with ignition problems. Bruce was the only car to exit the MMP feature the next night when his left front locked up under a caution.
After bypassing the Batesville opener, Tim Montgomery "shook-down" Donnie Cooper's new Maxim with a seventh-place finish at Little Rock. The "Fredericktown Flash" raced to victory lane after Maier's Tulsa mishap, then chased Darren Stewart to the line at Ft. Smith. Montgomery's mount was damaged when tagged from behind by Branchcomb when the red flag flew for Ernie Ainsworth's backstretch gymnastics at Delta Bowl. Montgomery was a target at MMP, surviving contact on several occasions just to make the feature's starting grid, then missed the show at Riverside.
Young Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., made his presence known. After starting his first career Speedweek feature at Batesville, plans for the full Speedweek tour were nixed with engine problems at Tulsa. After skipping the Ft. Smith show, the 16-year-old rebounded strongly by racing from 14th to second at Delta Bowl, with a dazzling move past Gary Wright and a pair of lapped cars on a late restart that left the railbirds buzzing. Stenhouse made a second daring pass of veteran ace Wright in MMP heat race action before a cut tire curtailed his feature run. Stenhouse ended Speedweek on the strongest of notes, racing from the fourth row then holding off Riverside master Eddie Gallagher to score the first of what could eventually be many ASCS victories.
Oklahoma drivers Jamie Passmore and Nick Smith both picked up a pair of top-ten finishes early in the week before passing on the Mid-South portion.
Two-time ASCS Gulf South Region champion Kelly Angelette struggled with engine problems and headed for his Thibodaux, LA, home after Ft. Smith.
Louisiana's Stephen Chevallier, fresh off his first ASCS Gulf South win at Motorama Speedway in Beaumont, TX, on Friday, July 9, checked in for the final three rounds at Delta Bowl, MMP and Riverside. Chevallier raced from 20th to eleventh at Delta Bowl, then after finding the high line to his liking late in B Main action at MMP, missed the cut by a car-length at most.
Four-time Speedweek champ Terry Gray had a miserable Speedweek. After a seventh-place finish at Batesville, it was all down hill. Passing on I-30 due to other obligations, Gray's Tulsa outing ended with a heat race flip. Gray's mount never fired at Ft. Smith and he exited early in both heat and B Main action at Delta Bowl. Gray's MMP showing lasted all of two corners when he flipped after being unable to avoid a spinning Josh Baker in heat race action. Gray shared some driving tips with Baker upon crawling out of his machine uninjured but obviously agitated.
D.J. Masner, who finished third in 2001 Riverside Speedweek action, nearly pulled off a shocker before settling for second at MMP after charging toward the front from tenth.
California transplant Steven Tiner made his first Speedweek start a successful one by finishing seventh at Delta Bowl. After breaking a camshaft in MMP heat action, Tiner made the Short Man proud by racing from 18th to third at Riverside, giving Shorty Chambliss two of the top three finishers with Stenhouse aboard the winning mount.
After leading much of the way at MMP before finishing fourth, Eddie Gallagher seemed intent upon making it three consecutive Riverside Speedweek wins in a row. Little Stenhouse refused to let it happen though, forcing the accomplished veteran to settle for second in the finale.
Car counts were strong throughout the week, with top counts of 40 at Little Rock, 39 at MMP and 37 at Riverside. Thirty-two entries checked in at Batesville, Tulsa and Delta Bowl, with 27 on hand at Tri-State near Ft. Smith.
Thirteen different drivers started their first-ever ASCS Speedweek features over the course of the week, including Tim Montgomery, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Steven Tiner, Josh Howard, Jason Martin, Jimmy Taylor, Natalie Sather, Stephen Chevallier, Justin Sturch, Joel Howard, Buster Dickerson, Robert Gant and 14-year-old Hunter Schuerenberg.
On the flip side, Gary Wright extended his number of Speedweek feature starts to 69 of the 80 contested since 1993. Crawley has started 64 Speedweek features, with Terry Gray and Garry Lee Maier running their Speedweek feature starts total to 57. Mike Ward's six Speedweek feature starts this year pushed his career total over the 50 mark to 51, into a tie for fifth with Wayne Johnson on the ASCS Speedweek feature start charts.