Illinois: Bettenhausen Memorial preview

Yeley Favored to Win Bettenhausen Memorial as Beechler Returns to Racing Springfield, IL-August 12, 2003-J.J. Yeley enters the 43rd running of the prestigious Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 as the overwhelming favorite to win his second ...

Yeley Favored to Win Bettenhausen Memorial as Beechler Returns to Racing

Springfield, IL-August 12, 2003-J.J. Yeley enters the 43rd running of the prestigious Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 as the overwhelming favorite to win his second consecutive Bettenhausen crown when the championship cars of the United States Auto Club Weld Racing Silver Crown Series enter the Illinois State Fairgrounds on Saturday August 16th. Not only is Yeley the favorite, he has a unique chance to make auto racing history when the championship dirt cars come to town. However, to put that mark in the history page, he will have to best a stellar field of Indianapolis 500 veterans, former Bettenhausen winners, local favorites, plus current contenders for the USAC Silver Crown title and a large crop of up and coming chauffeurs. Around 40 drivers and cars are expected to compete for over $40,000 in prizes and awards for the Bettenhausen 100, now in it's tenth season under promoter Bob Sargent of Track Enterprises.

Yeley, a rookie at the 1998 Indianapolis 500, enters the eighth stop in the twelve race series as the current USAC Silver Crown point leader with three wins and three other top ten finishes. Yeley recently broke the record for USAC wins in one season by netting his 20th USAC win of the year. That broke the record held by Jay Drake and four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt. A win at Springfield would be his twelfth career win in the series, putting him in a tie for third with three-time USAC Silver Crown champ Jimmy Sills, and could vault the Phoenix, Arizona shoe to his second consecutive Silver Crown title. Currently first in the USAC national Sprint Car points and the national Midget Series standings as well, Yeley is seeking to become just the second driver in USAC history to win all three titles in the same season. The other driver is pretty successful in his own right, that being defending NASCAR Winston Cup Champion and former Indy Racing League champ Tony Stewart.

Yeley began marking history pages in championship car racing last year with a dominating performance in the Tony Bettenhausen 100 at Springfield. J.J. captured the pole position, then became just the 13th driver since 1934 to lead all 100-miles at Springfield as he raced a talented field and an approaching storm front to the checkered flag. Yeley also gave a Ford powered championship dirt car it's first win on the Springfield Mile since 1976! While Yeley's first champ car win on a dirt mile was an accomplishment that previous Silver Crown champs Mike Bliss, Ken Schrader and Stewart were unable to attain, his second mile track victory at DuQuoin two weeks later in the Ted Horn Memorial made J.J. just the 12th driver since 1948 to take both races in the same season. Adding further to his resume, J.J. won at the Syracuse Mile in October as well.

Yeley is the only driver coming to Springfield with a chance to win the USAC dirt track "Triple Crown" (the Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fair, the Bettenhausen Memorial at Springfield and the Ted Horn Memorial at DuQuoin) in the same season. Yeley put on a dominating performance at the Hoosier Hundred in May, first as the fast qualifier and then leading all 100 miles. If he can repeat his sweep of the Illinois dirt tracks, he will join legends Jimmy Bryan, A.J. Foyt and Jack Hewitt as the only drivers who have taken all three races in the same year, Hewitt being the last seventeen years ago. With his Hoosier Hundred win, Yeley became just the 13th championship driver in 50 years to post a win on each of the "Big 3", the fairground dirt miles of Illinois and Indiana.

Repeating last year's dominant win in the Bettenhausen Memorial won't be an easy task for the driver of the Bob East-Tony Stewart owned Ford. A star studded field of drivers is expected to pass through the gates on the 16th in search of a Bettenhausen trophy and attempting to derail the Yeley express.

All of the top ten pilots in the current USAC Weld Racing Silver Crown point standings are expected to compete at Springfield, including Tampa, Florida resident Dave Steele. A two-time winner on the tour, Steele is currently second in the Weld Racing Silver Crown Points, thirty points behind the leader. The driver of Bob Gratton's Northside Propane Beast is better known for his pavement exploits, but his dirt racing has improved to the point he is a threat on the clay.

Third now in the points is two-time (1997 &1999) Bettenhausen champion Dave Darland of Lincoln, Indiana. The popular driver has been using two different rides this year, driving on the pavement for Bob Hoerner of Illinois, and reuniting with Galen Fox in his familiar number 56 for the dirt events. Darland was chasing down Yeley at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in May, but a blown right rear tire ended his hopes of victory fifteen laps from the end.

Fourth in the points is Tracy Hines of New Castle, Indiana. The 2000 USAC Silver Crown champ is 82 markers out of the lead, and has an excellent mount in the Indiana Underground-MoPar powered Beast.

Sittting fifth in the standings is Jay Drake, whose 2000 USAC season will go down as one of the best in history. Drake, fully recovered from a vicious Terre Haute midget crash two years ago, won the race at Pikes Peak in July behind the wheel of his MoPar sponsored machine. Drake drives for a familiar figure to Springfield fans, his owner George Snider was the first Silver Crown titlist in 1971, and won the 1981 Bettenhausen Memorial.

Sixth in the standings is 2001 Bettenhausen winner Paul White of Temple, Texas. White's luck changed dramatically in 2002, mechanical woes kept White out of victory lane but his fortune seems to have turned again and good finishes on the dirt could move him up in the title chase. Former USAC Sprint Car champion and former Indy Racing League driver Brian Tyler of Parma, Michigan is now seventh in the Silver Crown points, driving the Print Express.

An Indy 500 veteran who is a three-time Springfield pole sitter and the man who has led the most laps at Springfield without a win is also slated to return. Fifty-eight year old Johnny Parsons, of Speedway Indiana drives for Benton, Illinois owner Ricky Nix and is seeking his first Springfield victory. Other veterans slated for the entry list include 1998 Bettenhausen winner Russ Gamester of Peru, Indiana, Greenfield, Indiana's Eric Gordon, Californian Brad Noffsinger, former USAC Sprint champ Tony Elliot, second generation driver Rich Tobias, Jr.(tenth in the standings) and Pennsylvania driver John "Hot Rod" Heydenreich.

USAC's new motto is the "Starting Line of Champions", and that statement is reflected in the strong group of young drivers now moving into the Silver Crown series.

Slated to oppose the veteran drivers is a batch of youthful frivers drawing a lot of attention. Leading that group is Galesburg, Illinois resident A.J. Fike, currently tenth in the Silver Crown point standings. In his first full season in the big cars, young A.J. has two top ten finishes. His older brother Aaron, currently the driver of the car fielded by 1996 Indy 500 winning car owner Ron Hemelgarn in the Indy Racing Infiniti Pro Series, has moved from the family operation into a machine fielded by long time Silver Crown owner George Zarounian. Aaron Fike is a former winner in the Silver Crown and Infiniti Pro Series, and is looking to move to the Indy Racing League. Aaron does not appear on the preliminary entry list, as he is scheduled to race in the IRL Infiniti Pro Series event at Kentucky this weekend.

Other young guns include Ohio's Teddy Beach, a midget driver in his first season in the big machines, fellow Ohio driver and last year's Rookie of the Year Matt Westfall, Dane Carter, son of 1980 Bettenhausen winner Pancho Carter, Anderson, Indiana's Jason McCord (8th in the standings) and Vincennes, Indiana driver Jonathan Vennard.

A couple of "Outlaws" form a potent combination on the Kele Racing team, as Tyler Walker and Donny Schatz prepare to make their Springfield Silver Crown debut. Both drivers have several World of Outlaw sprint car feature victories to their credit. Walker had a ride a couple of seasons ago with Johnny Vance's famed team out of Ohio, with help from Dodge and NASCAR owner Ray Evernham. He returned to the World of Outlaws after his ride in that car ended, and has re-entered Silver Crown competition as a replacement for Jerry Coons, Jr. Walker has adapted very well to running without a wing, he currently sits eighth in the point standings and led part of the event at Terre Haute in June. Walker will be attempting to become the first man in history to win both the Bettenhausen 100 and the Knoxville Nationals.

Schatz, from Minot, South Dakota is in his rookie year in the Silver Crown cars and has encountered a steep learning curve. He flipped the RE technologies car at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in practice ending his mile dirt track debut uninjured, but with a wrecked car. Scahtz has elected to pass on the Springfield event, concentrating on the race at Knoxville.

Several Illinois drivers will be attempting to become the first home state pilot in twenty years to claim a Bettenhausen trophy, with at least one hometown driver sure to add local fans to the stands. Returning to the cockpit of a championship dirt car at Springfield for the first time in two years, Springfield's Donnie Beechler is an outside favorite to be the first Central Illinois driver to win the Bettenhausen since Champaign's Don Branson pulled into victory lane in 1966. Donnie, a veteran of the Indianapolis 500 and the Indy Racing League, has teamed with long time Springfield chief mechanic Dennis McQuinn and several investors to form Freedom Motorsports with the goal of running four dirt races on the schedule. The team purchased the former Gary Stanton Chrysler powered car that Donnie ran in 2001, but missed the race at Terre Haute. This race could mark the return of Beechler to the Silver Crown winners circle, the veteran sprint car driver has four wins in Silver Crown competition, three on dirt miles and one at Terre Haute.

In addition to Beechler and A.J. Fike brothers, Murphysboro's Randy Bateman returns in his own Beast chassis. Olney native Levi Jones has a ride with a new team that made it's debut at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in may. The young pilot was impressive in his Springfield debut for long time car owner Gus Sohm of St. Louis. Jones was a starting guard on the Olney High School basketball team that reached the sectional a few years ago. Decatur's Terry Babb returns driving a car owned by Carterville's Ken Morford, while an Illinois car owner who has a win as a chief mechanic could also field an entry. O'Fallon's Bob Galas was chief wrench on the cars Gary Bettenhausen piloted to several wins, but Galas' orange and white machine has yet to make an appearance this year.

One interesting Illinois entry that is sure to draw attention is that of Petersburg's Mike Hess. The Hess family owns the Dairy Queen in the small Illinois community, and Hess is quickly becoming one of the better known midget pilots in the country, having won the prestigious Hut Hundred in 2002. The Tony Bettenhausen 100 marks the Silver Crown debut for Hess.

Unfortunately, one driver who will be missing is four-time Bettenhausen winner Jack Hewitt, the oldest winner of the race at age 49. Hewitt, now 52, is still recovering from injuries in a sprint car crash last summer and had hoped to back in a Silver Crown car by now.

A diverse field is in search of one of the more prestigious trophies in motorsports, one representing a famous name in motorsports and continuing a tradition that began in 1934.

Competitive motor racing at the Illinois State Fairgrounds actually pre-dates World War I, with the first actual competition during the fair taking place in 1910. Auto racing continued during the fair until just before the stock market crash of 1929, and was discontinued due to an accident which claimed the life of a spectator.

In 1933, Promoter Ralph Hankinson began to lobby the national championship sanctioning body at the time, the American Automobile Association, for a national championship event at Springfield, Illinois. His perseverance was rewarded with an August date during the 1934 fair, a race won by Billy Winn. That race began a tradition of 100-mile championship races that is celebrating it's 69th anniversary and shows no sign of stopping in the near future.

Legendary figures such as Wilbur Shaw, Rex Mays, Mauri Rose and the great Ted Horn all competed at Springfield during the thirties and forties as massive crowds watched racing heroes in the making. During the fifties, Jimmy Bryan, Rodger Ward, Johnny Thomson and Jud Larson all added to their status by competing on the mile ribbon of gumbo clay.

However, it would be a farmer from the northern part of the Prairie State who would capture the hearts of racing fans at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Tony Bettenhausen, from Tinley Park, Illinois came to Springfield after World War II and captured the 100-miler in 1947. Taking the reins of Murrell Belanger's little blue jewel, Bettenhausen and car "99" terrorized championship tracks all over the country, including Springfield. Tony's subsequent wins in 1950 and 1951 made him the first three-time winner at Springfield.

Sadly, the man dubbed the "Tinley Park Express" and "Der Panzer" would never be able to capture the one race that eluded him, his beloved Indianapolis 500. A crowd favorite everywhere he went, Tony Bettenhausen was contracted to drive another race car in 1951 while Lee Wallard took "99" to victory lane at the Indianapolis 500. Bettenhausen ran the car the rest of the year to capture a national championship, and repeated as national champion in 1958 at age 41 without the benefit of a victory.

One of the favorites at Indianapolis in 1961, to break the magical 150 mile an hour barrier and to win the race, Tony took a test drive in the Stearly Motor Freight Special at Indianapolis at the request of good friend and fellow Illinois resident Paul Russo. A mechanical part in the steering broke as Bettenhausen came down the front straightaway, sending the car into a series of flips, and the great racing champion was gone.

It didn't take long for the tributes to start, one coming directly from the Illinois State Fair. A decision was made to re-name the Illinois State Fair championship event in honor of Illinois' native son. When fans bought the 1961 race program, on the cover in bold, black letters read the solemn phrase, "Tony Bettenhausen Memorial".

Since 1961, the race has become not only a perpetual tribute but a celebration of the life and career of Tony Bettenhausen, as well as a celebration of traditional motor sports. Many great racing drivers have come to Springfield and left as a Bettenhausen Memorial winner, drivers such as Mario Andretti, Al Unser, A.J. Foyt and Jim Hurtubise all won national championship on the Springfield Mile.

After the dirt tracks were separated from the national championship in 1970, it was Foyt who took the first Silver Crown race at Springfield in 1971, and in the process became the first four-time winner of the Bettenhausen Memorial. Other famous names who captured a Bettenhausen win include seven-time winner Chuck Gurney, Larry Rice, Kenny Irwin, Jimmy Sills and Bobby Olivero, while an emotional Gary Bettenhausen won his father's event in 1978 and again in 1983.

The next American racing legend could add his name to the honor roll list of Bettenhausen winners when the track opens for the 69th national championship race in Springfield, Illinois. Practice for the USAC Weld Racing Silver Crown Series is slated to begin at 9 a.m., with qualifying for one of the top twenty starting slots at 10:25. Drivers will be taking aim in qualifications at the one-lap track record for the "World's Fastest One Mile Dirt Track", currently held by Californian Robby Flock at 29.988, or 120.048 miles and hour. The last chance race to fill the thirty-car field is scheduled for 12:45, with a field of the fastest and finest dirt track drivers rolling off for the 43rd Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 at approximately 1:30. A top prize of over $9,000 is up for grabs, as is Jack Hewitt's seventeen year old 100-mile track record of 56:07.00, 106.920 miles an hour for the race distance.

Tickets are available at the Illinois State Fair Box Office or by calling Track Enterprises at 217-764-3200. More information on the USAC Weld Racing Silver Crown Series is available at www.usacracing.com.

-midamer-

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series USAC
Drivers Tony Stewart , Ken Schrader , Donnie Beechler , Mario Andretti , Donny Schatz , Dave Darland , J.J. Yeley , Tracy Hines , Dave Steele , Jack Hewitt , Brian Tyler , Ray Evernham , Jay Drake , Teddy Beach , Dane Carter , Brad Noffsinger , Matt Westfall , A.J. Fike , Johnny Parsons , Russ Gamester , Jonathan Vennard , Eric Gordon , Levi Jones , Paul White , Tyler Walker , Jason McCord , Pancho Carter , Jerry Coons , Rodger Ward , Jimmy Sills , Robby Flock , Tony Bettenhausen , A.J. Foyt , Al Unser