Darland, Drake are early favorites for Illinois

Drake, Darland Favorites in 44th Bettenhausen 100 at Springfield Springfield, IL-August 16, 2004- Defending Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 winner Dave Darland of Lincoln, Indiana along with Val Verde, California's Jay Drake are the early ...

Drake, Darland Favorites in 44th Bettenhausen 100 at Springfield

Springfield, IL-August 16, 2004- Defending Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 winner Dave Darland of Lincoln, Indiana along with Val Verde, California's Jay Drake are the early favorites to take home the trophy in the 44th running of the Tony Bettenhausen 100 when the teams of the United States Auto Club Weld Racing Silver Crown Series pull their machines into the Illinois State Fairgrounds on Saturday, August 21. The 44th Bettenhausen Memorial marks the 9th of 13 scheduled events on the 2004 Silver Crown schedule, and the seventieth anniversary of the first national championship dirt track race at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

A place in racing history will be at stake for around forty pilots of the big championship dirt track machines. The entry list should include the current top ten in the USAC Silver Crown point chase, three former winners of the prestigious Bettenhausen Memorial, a couple of veterans of the Indianapolis 500 and some part-time NASCAR shoes as well. At least seven Illinois drivers are entered, with a record three from Springfield. One of those three is a youngster attempting double duty this weekend at the Illinois State Fair. A changing of the guard in the series is somewhat evident, a number of young drivers dot the entry list and defending USAC champ and 2002 Bettenhausen race winner J.J. Yeley has moved to the NASCAR Busch Series driving for renowned owner Joe Gibbs.

Darland, the 1997, '99 and 2003 winner of the Bettenhausen 100 currently sits sixth in the USAC Weld Racing Silver Crown points. The 1997 Silver Crown champion took the Hoosier 100 in May after Dave Steele fell back late in the event. Darland dominated last year's Bettenhausen 100, he took the pole position and led 99 of the 100 circuits on the way to victory. With a victory at Springfield he can tie Jack Hewitt and the great A.J. Foyt for second on the all-time Bettenhausen win list with four, and become the first back-to back race winner since Chuck Gurney's three-peat in 1989-90-91. An eight-time winner in the big cars, Darland is only one of three men to capture all three USAC (midget, sprint, Silver Crown) titles. Darland has a unique situation this year in the series, on pavement he drives for Illinois ' Bob Hoerner, but on the dirt occupies the familiar blue machine of legendary owner Galen Fox.

Drake is currently one of the hottest USAC drivers around, setting a record by winning three consecutive Silver Crown races, all on the pavement. Those three wins have allowed him to climb to fifth in the standings, one hundred and twenty five behind Dave Steele. Drake is still looking for his first mile dirt track win in the big cars, however his car owner should know a thing or two about the machines for the car owner is none other than George Snider, the 1971 Silver crown champ and the 1981 Bettenhausen 100 winner. Snider co-owns the Mopar sponsored team with NASCAR standout Ton Stewart. The team has local ties to Springfield as well, they are one of the few Silver crown teams running a new Eagle chassis designed and built by Springfield's Jerry Russell.

Leading the USAC Silver Crown point standings is Tampa, Florida's Dave Steele, himself a former Indy Racing League and NASCAR Busch series pilot. Steele, known for his prowess on the paved tracks, won the first two events of 2004 at Phoenix and Memphis. He was a surprise pole winner on the dirt at the 52nd annual Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in May, and led a good portion of the event before falling back. Steele picked up a top machine over the winter, he now has the seat in Bob East's Powerstroke Diesel sponsored Beast, the car vacated by J.J. Yeley.

Second in the points is another pavement specialist, Anderson, Indiana's Jason McCord. McCord, the driver of the Contos Racing entry, found victory lane in a Silver Crown Machine for the first time last season by winning the 100-lap event at Indianapolis Raceway Park in July. Third in the USAC point standings is a young, third generation driver who nearly won the Bettenhausen Memorial in the year 2000, losing to one of hero and family friend Jack Hewitt. Campbell, California's Bud Kaeding is trying to regain the form he had before a nasty sprint car flip at Terre Haute a couple of years ago, and may be on the verge of his first mile-track Silver Crown win. Kaeding won the race at Tulsa last September and has an excellent car in the Zarounian owned machine.

Fourth in the standings is another driver who has come on very strong this season, former USAC Sprint car champ Brian Tyler of Parma, Michigan. A veteran of USAC competition, Tyler has dabbled in the Indy Racing League and the NASCAR Busch Series as well, but returned to the USAC series to become one of it's most familiar faces. Tyler ran a strong second to Darland at the Hoosier 100, and then captured the Sumar 100 at Terre Haute in June, much to the delight of car owner Tom Johnson.

New Castle, Indiana's Tracy Hines has moved to 8th in the title chase driving for Terry Riggs. However, it is unknown if Hines will be at Springfield, as his current NASCAR Truck and Busch Series rides may conflict with the Bettenhausen event. Other veterans expected include 1998 Bettenhausen winner Russ Gamester of Peru, Indiana Pennsylvania's John Heydenreich, 2001 Bettenhausen 100 winner Paul White, former Bettenhausen pole sitter Tony Elliot, last year's second place finisher Jerry Coons, Jr., and Indiana sprint car standout Jon Stanbrough, running as a teammate to Dave Darland.

Another veteran who narrowly missed severe injury in last year's race is one of the dark horse favorites this year, Annville, Pennsylvania's Rich Tobias. Tobias destroyed a car of his own construction near the end of last season's race in turn one, flipping violently several times and having to be cut from the car, but walking away unscathed. Tobias then stretched a sprint car for the Ted Horn Memorial at DuQuoin, came from 25th and won the 100-mile event there!

One driver nearing his sixtieth birthday is a fan favorite and cannot be counted out. Indy 500 veteran Johnny Parsons will turn sixty in late August and drives for Benton, Illinois car owner Ricky Nix. Parsons suffered a leg injury in a crash at Richmond but both man and machine are expected to be ready for Springfield. Parsons has the dubious honor of having led the most laps at Springfield of the drivers who have yet to find victory lane.

Rookies in the series occupy the seventh, ninth and tenth slots in the points in 2004, one very talented second generation driver who has one win to his credit, plus two more looking for their first Silver Crown win.

Seventh in the points is one of the hottest USAC drivers in the last two months, second-generation driver Bobby East of Indianapolis. East, whose father Bob, a former driver owns the car driven by Dave Steele and builds the vaunted Beast chassis, won his first Silver Crown race at Richmond in June and has since added a couple of USAC sprint car wins as well. Indianapolis' Aaron Pierce sits ninth in the standings, making his first start on a one-mile dirt track at Indianapolis in May and capturing a top ten finish. Boston Reid, a native of Logansport, Indiana picked up the ride in the Roger Johnson owned machine when Tyler Walker vacated the seat. Reid, a rookie in the big machines, has already impressed one NASCAR owner, signing a driver development deal with Rick Hendrick, the owner for former USAC Silver Crown champ Jeff Gordon.

A changing of the guard in the USAC ranks is evident by the number of young drivers who are seeking a win in the Bettenhausen Memorial. Ohio's Matt Westfall was the top rookie in 2002 in a car two decades old, while fellow Buckeye Teddy Beach set a one-lap world record at DuQuoin at the age of 19! Indiana's Shane Hollingsworth, a second-generation driver with sprint car experience on the Indiana short tracks has brought a new car owner into the series as well.

Seven Illinois drivers are a part of the current entry list for Saturday, a record three of them come from the capitol city. Springfield's Donnie Beechler, running as a teammate to Brian Tyler, has several Silver Crown wins to his credit, including the 1998 Hoosier 100. Beechler, a veteran of the Indy 500 and the IRL would like nothing better than to add a triumph on his home race track in one of the big cars. Another hometown pilot, Jim Moughan makes his return in a dirt car after an absence of over ten years. Moughan is a veteran of sprint car racing on the local short tracks, and has a new Eagle at his disposal courtesy of owner Scott Long.

A third hometown driver is just 18 and has already made several starts on the Springfield Mile, but none in a Silver Crown machine. Justin Allgaier is already a veteran of midget, late model and ARCA stock car competition. The son of Hoosier Tire distributor Mike Allgaier hopes to be enrolled at Lincoln Land College this fall, and on the last weekend of the Illinois State Fair hopes to become the first driver in fifteen years to run a Silver Crown dirt car and ARCA stock car on the same weekend at Springfield. Should Justin be able to win both races, he would join A.J. Foyt, Roger McCluskey and Al Unser as drivers who have won both the Bettenhausen and Crowe 100. Unser is the only man to win both on the same weekend!

Other Illinois drivers on the entry list are Galesburg's Aaron Fike, a former winner in the Indy Racing Pro Series and currently looking at a NASCAR ride and Granite City's Tad Roach. Murphysboro veteran Randy Bateman and Decatur's Terry Babb each have a ride for the Bettenhausen 100, while Marion's Alex Shanks looks to make his first Silver Crown start. Former Illinois native Hud Cone captured a top ten in the Hoosier 100 and has the same ride for this event.

Racing legends though the years with names such as Shaw, Rose, Ward, Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Hewitt and Gurney have all posted championship dirt car wins on the famous Springfield Mile. They are part of the ninety-four year heritage of automobile racing at the Illinois State Fair. Another part of that heritage is the event that for the last forty-four years has honored one of auto racing's true legends.

Tinley Park, Illinois' Tony Bettenhausen may have been the best championship driver of the "Fabulous Fifties", though fans of Jimmy Bryan and Rodger Ward might argue. Bettenhausen was fast in anything he drove, he was tough, relentless and immensely popular with the fans. He and the "99" championship machine became famous together. Constructed by Frank Kurtis for three-time Indy Winner Lou Meyer, the "stretched midget" carried a supercharged Offy as the Meyer-Drake house car in 1949. Tony drove the car once, winning at DuQuoin. But the best was yet to come.

Meyer's customers were soon complaining about getting beat by a car owned by their engine supplier, so Meyer sold the car to Indiana auto dealer Murrell Belanger. Belanger eventually put Bettenhausen in the "little blue jewel" and they won at Springfield in October of 1950. Both driver and car were primed for an all out assault in 1951. Believing he had a better chance to win Indianapolis with Lou Moore, he signed an Indy only deal with the man who had won four Indy races, yet the antiquated front drive Blue Crown cars couldn't keep up with Belanger's little blue car, and Lee Wallard easily won the 1951 Indianapolis 500 in "99".

Back in the car after the "500", Bettenhausen dominated the rest of the year taking wins at Springfield and DuQuoin to take the 1951 National Championship. Tony then went into semi-retirement, driving only Indianapolis and a few stock car, or midget races here and there. But the itch to run full time became to great, and by mid decade he was back on the full circuit. In 1958, he astounded the Italians with blazing speed at Monza in the famed Novi, running speeds faster than ever seen on any oval track before. He won the 1958 national title without a victory, yet Indianapolis remained his most elusive and coveted triumph.

By 1961 he was forty-four, with a farm and a good-sized family in Tinley Park. He was at an age when most of his contemporaries had either quit racing or perished while racing. Yet when Indy came in 1961, he had a top ride with Lindsey Hopkins and quickly became one of the favorites when he flirted with the 150 mile an hour barrier in practice. The day before qualifying, good friend and Chicagoan Paul Russo asked Tony to test the Stearly Motor Freight car. Russo said the car had a handling problem he couldn't figure out, and Tony was not a man who turned down a friend. Coming down the main stretch, the car swerved violently to the right as a bolt came loose in the steering. A series of barrel rolls into the catch fence ensued taking the life of the popular champion. Shortly after, the Illinois State fair championship race was named in his honor.

The Tinley Park farmer left a legacy of three racing sons. Eldest son Gary nearly won the 1972 "500", damaged an arm in a dirt car at Syracuse in 1974, and then one-armed his way to wins at Springfield in 1978 and 1983. Merle, named for Murrell Belanger, was an up and coming ace when he crashed at Michigan in 1972 and lost his right arm. He came back to drive again, and now is an Indiana businessman. Youngest son and namesake Tony began in midgets and stock cars, and then ran several times at Indianapolis. Tony and wife Shirley, daughter of driver Jim McElreath, owned an Indy car team at the time of their death in a Kentucky plane crash four years ago.

It is the Bettenhausen family and spirit that is honored for the 44th time on Saturday when the best dirt track drivers in the country compete in the Tony Bettenhausen Memorial. Practice for the Silver Crown cars begins at 9, with qualifying at 10:25. Robby Flock set the one lap track qualification track record at 29.988, 120.948 miles an hour in 1996. The last chance race is set for noon and the 44th Bettenhausen 100 is set to go at 1:00 p.m. with $40,000 in prize and purse money on the line. Tickets are available at the Illinois State Fair Box Office, Ticketmaster or by calling Track Enterprises at 217-764-3200. Additional information is available at www.trackenterprises.com or at www.usacracing.com

-midamer-

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Series USAC
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Al Unser Sr. , Dave Darland , J.J. Yeley , Tracy Hines , Dave Steele , Jack Hewitt , Brian Tyler , Bud Kaeding , Aaron Fike , Jay Drake , Bobby East , Teddy Beach , Johnny Parsons , Russ Gamester , Paul White , Tyler Walker , Jason McCord , Aaron Pierce , Jim McElreath , Jerry Coons , Jon Stanbrough , Rodger Ward , Boston Reid , Justin Allgaier , Robby Flock , Shane Hollingsworth , Tad Roach , Tony Bettenhausen , Randy Bateman , Hud Cone , A.J. Foyt