Illinois: Race notes

Springfield, IL August 18, 2003-The visit of the USAC Weld Racing Silver Crown cars to the Illinois State Fairgrounds for the 43rd Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 was a rousing success for many, not the least of which was Lincoln, Indiana pilot...

Springfield, IL August 18, 2003-The visit of the USAC Weld Racing Silver Crown cars to the Illinois State Fairgrounds for the 43rd Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 was a rousing success for many, not the least of which was Lincoln, Indiana pilot Dave Darland. Darland was on a mission Saturday, very focused from the time he entered the pit area until the time he crossed the start finish line. Obviously not happy with a ninth in the USAC/SCRA challenge the previous night at Farmer City, and still disappointed from a late race tire failure at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in May, the 1997 Silver Crown champ felt he had something to prove, and prove it he did.

Darland sat on the pole, one tenth of a second faster than teammate Jerry Coons, and with the exception of a faltering motor on an early race restart, would have led all 100 miles. In fact, Coons could barely keep Darland in sight, once the Jarvis Enterprises 56 got into the lead.

The pole time of 30.240 (119.047) was just a quarter second off the track record, not bad considering Darland went out as the 21st of the 39 qualifiers. That lap was also the third fastest qualifying lap in the 69 year history of championship racing at the Springfield Mile.

Galen Fox may have limited the appearances of his blue 56 on the tour, but that doesn't mean the wily, veteran chief mechanic has lost a step when it comes to setting up a car or putting a potent power plant under the hood. The Foxco Beast ran flawlessly all day, as did the team car, the Plastic Express of Jerry Coons. Fox's cars swept the front row, then finished one-two. Saturday's win was the fourth at Springfield for Galen Fox as a car owner.

Darland now joins a list of heavy hitters who also have three wins at the fabled Springfield Mile. Tony Bettenhausen was the first three-time winner at Springfield, joined by Rodger Ward, Al Unser and Mario Andretti. Jack Hewitt and A.J. Foyt both have four Bettenhausen crowns, while Chuck Gurney has the all-time record of seven Bettenhausen wins.

Darland's 99 laps led move him to 6th on the all-time lap leader list at the Illinois State Fairgrounds with 232, just behind Tony Bettenhausen's 263. Darland has a long way to go to catch A.J. Foyt, who led 519 circuits in championship competition on the Springfield Mile.

By winning Saturday, Darland became the 14th man to win from the pole slot, the last being Yeley the year before. Dave gave a car numbered 56 it's sixth win at Springfield, tying that car number with the numbers 30 and 2 for most wins at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

Dave's pretty wife Brenda has joined the USAC ranks, she is part of the staff and takes care of coordinating interviews, autograph sessions, and some of the public and media relations. Anyone who has met Brenda knows that her personality makes a good match for those types of tasks.

Darland also profited in a big way from the trouble suffered by current USAC Silver Crown point leader J.J. Yeley. Yeley's Tony Stewart owned Ford powered machine never appeared to be right all day, from the moment it came off the trailer. Yeley was fairly quick in practice, but the machine didn't show the overpowering speed of the year before. In qualifying, J.J. was able to time third, but from the start the car handled very poorly, pushing badly in the turns. So bad in fact, that many times Yeley had the wheels completely cocked to the left, and the car still heading for the fence! The diagnosis on one of the pit stops was a malfunctioning front brake, and after several stops the car got somewhat better. Yeley finished 17th, 8 laps in arrears and it was to his credit as a driver that he kept the car in one piece all day. Unfortunately, the bad finish allowed Darland to close to nine points behind the leader going into Nazareth next week, and a big dirt event at DuQuoin on the horizon.

To add to the frustration, Yeley saw a shot a history go down the drain, as he was in line to become just the fifth man in auto racing history to win the USAC dirt track "Triple Crown" by winning the Hoosier Hundred, the Bettenhausen 100 and the Ted Horn 100 at DuQuoin in the same season. Jimmy Bryan, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Jack Hewitt are the only ones to take all three in the same year, Hewitt being the last in 1986.

One of the worst championship wrecks ever at the Illinois State Fairgrounds occurred Saturday, on a lap 88 restart after a yellow flag for the stalled car of Levi Jones. Coming down to the green flag, witnesses report that Brian Tyler and Rich Tobias got together, with Tobias losing one of the rear tires. The blue RW Motorsports machine of the Annville, Pennsylvania shoe then dug into the Illinois clay, and executed a nasty series of barrel rolls, launching a tire high in the air. In fact, at one point, Tobias car appeared to be about 15 feet in the air. A melee ensued, with cars flipping and dust flying. When the dust cleared, an angry Brian Tyler exited his machine, as well as Tom Capie who was holding his back in pain. Also involved were Eric Gordon, and A.J. Fike. The Jaws of Life was used to extricate Tobias, who miraculously walked away! Tobias was angry as well, and his home built chassis was a total loss. The rest of the machines appeared to be repairable, at least for DuQuoin.

Besides Jerry Coons, Tyler Walker had a great day as well, starting tenth and moving to the third slot by the finish in the Curb Records Drinan. Walker, after a brief rest, then headed for the Knoxville Nationals. His RE teammate, Donny Schatz, chose to pass on the Springfield event to concentrate on winning Knoxville.

Jay Drake ran a strong race in George Snider's MoPar Beast, starting sixth and finishing fourth. Fellow MoPar driver Tracy Hines ended up fifth in the other MoPar car of Terry Riggs, while former Silver Crown champ Paul white came from 18th to sixth at the finish.

Kevin Huntley continues to have one of his better seasons, running strong in just about any car he sets in. He qualified the SC Racing car a strong 7th, and finished in that position.

Saturday marked the return of hometown hero Donnie Beechler to the dirt car ranks, driving the Springfield based Freedom Motorsports car. The car, a Beast chassis with a MoPar motors was formerly owned by Gary Stanton and driven by Beechler in 2001 at Springfield, a day he'd like to forget as the car tasted concrete during qualifications. Donnie had moved up into the top 5 just before the red flag flew, but elected not to take on tires during the red. Apparently the right rear sealed over, and the car handled poorly, dropping him to 8th at the end. Beechler's appearance surely boosted the gate attendance, and he had a large fan base in the stands.

Greg Wilson drove arguably the oldest car in the field Saturday, rumored to be a twenty-year-old Gambler owned by Ralph DePalma. DePalma retuned last year to the dirt cars with Matt Westfall, and the car had several fine runs. That streak continued again, though it was in jeopardy during the semi. Wilson got together with David Bridges and Jonathan Vennard in turn 4, and the car suffered some slight front end damage. Wilson barely made the top ten, and started 30th in the field. He kept going all day, and finished 11th and on the lead lap!

While the 100-mile dirt races favor the veterans, the young kids didn't do all that bad. Matt Westfall ran a good race in the Aviators 50 to end 13th, Dane Carter came from 27th to 14th, while rookie Ron Gregory came from 26th to 15th.

Some vets fell by the wayside early on, Roger Rager dropped out on lap 5 when the steering let go, while Russ Gamester crashed on lap 55. Brad Noffsinger lost the brakes on his car on lap 70, while 58-year-old Johnny Parsons lost the steering on lap 79.

Speaking of Parsons, who will turn 59 in a few days, don't look for him to retire soon. A race morning conversation with "JP" indicated that he has no immediate retirement plans, and will run as long as he feels good. John is in great shape, and enjoys running the dirt cars with the younger guys, a division where he is still very competitive. John holds the distinction of leading the most laps, the most races, having won the most poles, and having the most starts of any driver in history, who has never won a championship race on the Springfield Mile. Perhaps John can add oldest race winner, next season.

Bob East built cars continue to dominate at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, the Beast chassis has won every Bettenhausen Memorial since 1992. Darland's win marked the 28th Springfield win for the small-block Chevy V-8, and the fourth for a car on Hoosier tires.

Thirty-nine cars drew for qualifications, with thirty-five actually posting times. Illinois drivers Terry Babb and Randy Bateman were qualification casualties; Babb's rear end locked while coming to the green flag in Ken Morford's Beast, while Bateman apparently had a motor problem. Schatz' car sat idle, while poor "Crankin" Craig Dori hit the wall not once, but twice trying to qualify and the second wall contact proved to be terminal for the front end.

The field set a record as well Saturday. Fourteen cars completed the 100 miles, the most ever to complete the distance in one championship race. However the seventeen cars running at the end was six short of the record of 23.

The 43rd Bettenhausen Memorial continued a tradition of championship racing at the fair that dates back to 1934, and a motor sport tradition during the fair that goes back to 1910. Saturday's race was the 69th national championship race at Springfield, and the 34th Silver Crown event since the dirt cars became a separate USAC series in 1971.

Credit Bob Sargent with the ability to prepare a great track, even in the heat and humidity. Speed was the order of the day, in great measure due to track preparation. During practice, Darland and Hines were both 8 tenths of a second UNDER the track record, and Darland came pretty close in qualifying despite going out mid pack. During the 100-miles, Dave completed the first 50 miles in 25 minutes, averaging over 111 miles and hour and turning race laps in excess of 115 miles an hour. If the red flag had not come out, it is quite likely that the 100-mile record set by Jack Hewitt sixteen seasons ago, would have been broken.

While most of the summer had been mild, Mother Nature tuned up the heat at Springfield Saturday sending the mercury and humidity rising to typical mid August weather in the state capitol. Despite the heat and humidity, one of the best Bettenhausen Memorial crowds in recent years filled the grandstand, with a good crowd in the infield as well.

Perhaps with the scary incident Saturday, the state of Illinois would review the catch fencing along the "World's Fastest One Mile Dirt Oval". The rich gumbo surface is still the best in the land, and the track still one of the better facilities around, however with advances in technology and safety, a few capital improvements might be considered. The catch fence could stand to be raised, as could the concrete wall in some areas where new dirt has been brought in. And improving the pit area would be a major consideration for both the dirt cars and the stock cars.

One improvement apparently gaining some serious thought by the state is lights! Monday's Illinois State Journal Register quoted a state official as "appreciating the drawing power of auto and harness racing" and considering the addition of lights in order to increase the hours the track would be available. Apparently some of the grandstand shows have not been a draw, and certainly nighttime auto racing would be a great way to open or close the Illinois State Fair.

-midamer-

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Series USAC
Drivers Tony Stewart , Donnie Beechler , Al Unser Sr. , Ralph DePalma , Donny Schatz , Dave Darland , J.J. Yeley , Tracy Hines , Jack Hewitt , Brian Tyler , Jay Drake , Dane Carter , David Bridges , Matt Westfall , A.J. Fike , Russ Gamester , Jonathan Vennard , Eric Gordon , Ron Gregory , Levi Jones , Tyler Walker , Jerry Coons , Rodger Ward , Tony Bettenhausen , Randy Bateman , Greg Wil , A.J. Foyt