Championship Dirt Car notes from Springfield

*This year's 40th Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 race at Springfield marked the 66th anniversary of dirt track championship racing at the Illinois State Fair mile, and the 66th championship style race overall. It was the 32nd USAC Silver Bullet...

*This year's 40th Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 race at Springfield marked the 66th anniversary of dirt track championship racing at the Illinois State Fair mile, and the 66th championship style race overall. It was the 32nd USAC Silver Bullet series race contested on the Springfield Mile since the dirt cars separated from the national championship series in 1971.

*Jack Hewitt's fourth Bettenhausen win moved him into some elite company. He is tied for second on the Bettenhausen win list with A.J. Foyt, and now three behind all-time leader Chuck Gurney's seven.

*Hewitt set a record he'd probably rather forget August 19. At 49, Jack became the oldest man to win a champ dirt car race at Springfield. The former record holder? Gurney, whose last win in 1996 came at age 47.

*Jack further extended his lead as the all-time winningest driver in Silver Bullet history with his 23rd win Saturday. Of those 23, 12 have come on dirt miles, with seven of those in Illinois. The all-time leader in series history on dirt miles is Gurney, who has 14 wins on dirt miles, ten on Illinois clay alone.

*Bud Kaeding gained a legion of fans Saturday at Springfield. The third generation pilot out of Campbell, California reminded Springfield veteran observers of Al Unser with his smooth style and ability to keep a race car straight. Bud, whose dad Brent drove here and whose grandfather Howard is a California sprint car legend, really had Springfield figured out and was half a second under the track record in hot laps. Bud led 79 of the 100-miles and gave up the lead only when Hewitt made a daring pass going into turn one. After finishing second, Bud got perhaps as big if not a bigger ovation than Hewitt from the crowd!

*Had Kaeding won, he would have become the first rookie to win at Springfield since Rodger Ward turned the trick in 1953!

*Kaeding certainly has a stellar crew on his side, led by owner and Vincennes, Indiana nice guy Rollie Helmling, and backed by CarQuest Auto Parts stores. Helmling likes his new pilot and says that the team is really beginning to jell. Look for Kaeding to become one of the USAC's newest stars, and get a lot of looks from the IRL and NASCAR.

*Kudos have got to be doled out to Joe Gaerte and the Kele crew for what they did Saturday to keep Jerry Coons, Jr, going in the teams Drinan chassis. First, Coons blew an engine in hot laps and the crew changed motors. Thn Coons had to go out last in qualifying and stuck the car in the 16th slot with very little practice. Then he got involved in a first lap melee on the backchute that saw Terry Pletch stuff his car under the guardrail and bring out a red flag. Coons headed for the pits with significant damage to the tail and rear bumper, but once again the crew came through and fixed the car. Jerry kept plugging along and wound up 18th, a lap down at the end.

*Speaking of Dan Drinan, he was spotted in the pit area race morning in street clothes. Dan had been in the Kele car through the first part of the year, and had been in an incident at the Indiana State Fairgrounds during the rained out show in May. When asked why he wasn't driving, he just smiled and walked away.

*Illinois and area teams faired only so-so at the Bettenhausen. Local . favorite and IRL driver Donnie Beechler had a huge throng in the . stands, and a decent ride in Jim Logan's Stanton with long-time friend . Dennis McQuinn as crew chief. Donnie qualified 18th but never did . get hooked up during the 100-miler. He did have a spirited battle . with rookie Kasey Kahne during the Bettenhausen, winning the war and . finishing 11th, a lap down Kahne himself was a driver many were looking. forward to watching on a dirt mile, but the Zaruonian Stanton also . never got hooked up to the track .

*Beechler's 2001 IRL plans remain uncertain at this time. Donnie alluded several weeks ago that team owner Larry Cahill was looking for sponsors to run the 2001 season, and as of Springfield the team was talking to several people but had yet to finalize a deal. Hopefully, a sponsor will recognize Donnie for his nice personality and driving talent and back the Cahill team before they end up in victory lane.

*Sherman's Donnie Lehmann had a tough day. The engine let go in the family Watson, so Lincoln's John Barrick graciously turned over his own Magnum to Lehmann. Lehmann never could get the car to work properly, and missed the show. He was able to get out early and head to a midget show at Morris, Illinois.

*Murphysboro's Randy Bateman also suffered woes in the 100-miler, the front end washed out on the GRP Magnum and sent Bateman hard into the first turn wall. Bateman was shook up buy OK, though his car looked questionable for DuQuoin.

*USAC's Silver Bullet series may be the best training ground there is for young talent. Four Rookie of the Year contenders made the show, including Kaeding and Kahne. Brad Fox had a fair day in dad Galen's second beast, a car that came from former owner Junior Kurtz and carried Plastic Express sponsorship, while Tony George's stepson had a top ten showing in the Menard Beast.

*Another rookie that had a great day was Steve Sheppard, Jr. of nearby New Berlin. Seeing an ad in one of the trades for a dirt champ car for sale or rent, Sheppard put in a call to the owner, Lou Burmeister of Wisconsin. The two made a deal Wednesday prior to the Bettenhausen for the ride, and Sheppard stuck it in the main event through the semi, and stayed out of the fast cars' way to finish 23rd, a couple laps down. Burmeister, a former USAC stock car driver, was said to be ecstatic over the showing as the car missed last year's event.

*This year's race may have been the most competitive ever, just 1.8 sconds separated the top twenty and it took a 32.194 lap just to make the top 20. The houligan looked like a main event, with Gurney, Jimmy Sills, Brad Noffsinger, Eric Gordon, Paul White, Richie Tobias and Pletch all having to run the semi. This may have been the first time in Gurney's career he had to run the last chance race at Springfield!

*Even with their troubles, only a sucker would have bet against Gurney and Sills before the 100-miler. However, a gambler could have given odds and made a lot of dough this day. Gurney, driving for Bob East, never did get the car hooked up in the corners and struggled all day, nearly going a lap down before the engine mercifully giving way on lap 64. Sills, who won the qualifier seemed down on power all day and soldiered to an uncharacteristic 16th place in the main event.

*Sills left the Snider-Foyt True Value car prior to the Springfield event, returning to Gary Stanton's Chrysler operation and a new Beast chassis. Stanton, after selling all of his equipment to Todd Kane after the 1998 season, returned to the series part time to field a car for East Coast modified star Brett Hearn. Snider had J.J. Yeley in his Beast, and J.J. was moving to the front in the 100-mile event only to have the rear end conk out with 33 laps to go.

*23 cars, possibly a record, were running at the end of the Tony Bettenhausen 100.

*Kudos also go out to the track crew for the best Springfield track in years. Smooth and tacky, several cars flirted with the low 29's in practice (the track record is 29.988 by Robby Flock) and it looked like the record could fall. Cool weather and clouds contributed to the first legitimate Springfield cushion in years, and at times three grooves existed. Perhaps the drivers and track crew re-discovered the top groove that existed at the Illinois mile for many many years.

*The conditions contributed to Tony Elliot's near record pole speed of 30.221, over 119 miles per hour, the fastest pole speed since Flock in 1996.

*Had the red not come out during the main, a new 100-mile record might have been set. Hewitt set the record of over 106 miles per hour in 1987, and this year's event went green from lap 15 on. Kaeding and Hewitt were turning laps of over 109 miles per hour up until the checkered flag fell.

*This was the first of three events on dirt miles, places that Gary Bettenhausen once said "separated the men from the boys". The points certainly took a new twist after the Bettenhausen, Dave Darland vaulted from fourth to second in the points on the strength of a fourth place and lies just 39 behind Brian Tyler. Tracy Hines stayed in third, while Noffsinger dropped to fourth. "Hot Rod" Johnny Heydenreich jumped from 8th to 5th, while Jack Hewitt and Jay Drake dropped Russ Gamester and Paul White from the top ten.

*Dirt entry lists for Silver Bullet races have been a little shy the last few years, but the entry list was 46 strong prior to race time and 44 cars registered at the pit gate. No shows that had pre-entered were the family 30 of Chuck Leary, the Mataka 31 of Ron Smoker, the 65 of Critter Malone and the 172 of Al Thomas. as well as the 131 of Mike Lauterborn and the 49 of Terry Babb. Throw in the BWB 25, the Westcon 59, Bob Hoerner's cars. the 75 of Todd Kane, Bob Hampshire's 63 and the 34 of Daryl Daughter as cars that could have entered and almost 60 cars might have been in the pit area.

*Next up for the USAC Silver Bullet cars is the 50th running of the Ted Horn Memorial at DuQuoin, presented by the Southern Illinoisan newspaper. Massive improvements await the teams, a new concrete wall replaces the old brittle guardrail, a new catch fence is in place, landscaping and flowers surround the racetrack, and part of the lighting system is in place. After DuQuoin, the teams have a two-week wait before the rescheduled Hulman-Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indy on September 22. Visitors from abroad may get a firsthand look at American racing as this race takes place 2 nites before the U.S. Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

*Perhaps now that the State has spent money to improve DuQuoin, attention can turn to Springfield. The Springfield Mile has the best dirt surface of any mile in the country, and perhaps one of the best surfaces of any dirt track in the world. But no real safety improvements have been made since the concrete wall was erected in 1966. The wall, while adequate, could use to be raised along the mainstretch. The catch fence is also adequate but could be modernized. And painting the wall white would brighten things considerably, not to mention lights.

The State did spend several million on a new show arena that was designed to accomodate car racing and motorcycles on a short, perhaps 3/8 mile dirt oval. Perhaps sprint cars and midgets could be run at night during the fair's big race weekend.

*The pit area also could use some updating, extending pit road and putting the exit in turn two would make a much safer racetrack, especially during the stock car events.

*Hewitt moved to second on the all-time lap leader list at Springfield, but is still over 200 laps behind leader Gurney. Jack inched closer to the consecutive start record held by A.J. Foyt at 18, Jack's start at Springfield was his 16th in a row since 1985. One record concerning starts that just might be out of reach for everyone is that of George "Ziggy" Snider. George had 29 starts at Springfield between 1965 and 1997!

*Johnny Parsons holds several distinctions at Springfield he would like to change. He has the most starts, 19, has led the most races, 5 and the most laps, 128 of any driver who has never won the Bettenhausen.

*Bet on Hewitt to win, place and show at DuQuoin. Everytime Jack has won the Bettenhausen event at Springfield, he's come back to take the 100-miler at DuQuoin as well.

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Series USAC
Drivers Donnie Beechler , Kasey Kahne , Dave Darland , J.J. Yeley , Tracy Hines , Jack Hewitt , Brian Tyler , Bud Kaeding , Jay Drake , Tony George , Dan Drinan , Brad Noffsinger , Johnny Parsons , Russ Gamester , Eric Gordon , Paul White , Jerry Coons , Rodger Ward , Brett Hearn , Robby Flock , Donnie Lehmann , Tony Bettenhausen , Randy Bateman , A.J. Foyt , Al Unser