SWS: Commotion by the ocean

SWS: Commotion by the ocean

Forty years since professional level drivers last went head-to-head in a race on Hawaiian soil, the dust shall fly again this weekend courtesy of the stars from USAC's fledgling Southwest Sprint Car Series. The inaugural Hawaiian Sprint Car...

Forty years since professional level drivers last went head-to-head in a race on Hawaiian soil, the dust shall fly again this weekend courtesy of the stars from USAC's fledgling Southwest Sprint Car Series. The inaugural Hawaiian Sprint Car Classic pits a dozen mainland competitors against the local hotshoes from Hawaii Motor Speedway, commencing the sanctioning body's first foray into the 50th State.

Mike Boat with daughters Hayley and Julia.
Photo by Earl Ma.
'The guys coming over are having a ball - they love it," summarizes series race director Hal Burns. "I figured it would be a tough sell to get the guys to come over to Hawaii, but actually it's turned out to be an easy sell. I told the wives first, and they said yes first! They're excited and are looking to have a good time."

Eleven of the top twelve in season points accepted the invitation, led by newly-crowned champion Rick Ziehl, with 2002 champ Mike Boat filling out the roster. They will battle an equal number of Oahu sprint car specialists for a $19,000 purse on Saturday in a 30-lap main event, with a companion elimination round paying the standard track purse on Friday.

Wednesday marked the visitors' first trip to the 1/4 mile dirt oval in Central Oahu, part of the Hawaii Raceway Park complex and mere minutes from where CART's ill-fated Hawaiian Super Prix would have run four Novembers ago. Apart from several NHRA guest appearances at the HRP dragstrip in the 1960's, this marks the biggest actual race event in the Islands since Ken Miles and Dave MacDonald ran sportscars in Kahuku in October 1963.

'The event came about when a friend of mine moved to Hawaii about four years ago," Burns recalls. "He was a regular fan who used to race in Arizona. He called and said there's a neat little race track here in Hawaii that he'd been going to, and he thought it would be a great idea to bring some USAC sprint cars over. He went to (track owner) Jerry Apana and pitched it; Jerry thought it was a great idea, we got together, and here we are."

Sprint cars at Aloha Tower Marketplace.
Photo by Earl Ma.
With Pacific Air Cargo pitching in $50,000 in title sponsorship, a company 747 left LAX November 1 with a dozen sprinters and a streamlined equipment manifest. According to Boat, "my rig is 73' long, and we carry enough equipment to go anywhere in the United States and race. When we were told we'd get to take the car and the car had to roll onto a pallet, it was quite an undertaking to figure out what you were going to take and what you could do without; there were some hard decisions made.

"I had just enough to get the car to go onto the racetrack. I didn't bring as much as some. There's nights where you don't need anything; there's nights where you need everything in the trailer plus more. I'm hoping and praying we have one of those nights where you don't take the hood off, you don't have any scratches, and you don't bump into anybody...I brought one set of gears and one set of suspension pieces; I'm relying on my experiences that those are the right choices."

The local series made technical adjustments conforming with USAC rules, such as a spec right rear tire and a 1250 pound minimum weight requirement. USAC also permits alcohol versus pump gas, so six Hawaiian drivers opted for injectors and carburetors so they could run on methanol for a 150 hp advantage.

"Our motor here is a really limited spec motor compared to what USAC brings," says 5-time track champion and current points leader Dean Freitas. "We needed to put a pretty good package together, and it did cost us quite a bit of money to make this show. Some people went the extra mile, but some didn't - they decided to run their cars as is."

But the biggest adjustment comes with removing the wings the locals run with every Saturday night from mid-February through early December. Freitas notes "the downforce keeps the car nice and straight and stable and pretty easy to drive. By taking the wing off, you're taking off all that downforce, and our cars are a handful to control. What makes it difficult for us is that we've spent the past 10-12 years racing with a wing. These mainland visitors do this week in, week out. So yeah, they're coming to our backyard, but they're bringing their style of racing to our backyard. So that's where it's an interesting mix where we need to learn their style of racing, yet they need to learn our track."

"We hope to win, but there's no guarantees," Ziehl admits. "The guys here have a lot of knowledge about the track and conditions and how that'll change; that's going to be all new to us, but we'll be used to non-wings, so it's a trade-off. Ideally we'd win both nights, but you can't bank on that."

David Burns and Robert Hall Jr..
Photo by Earl Ma.
As the USAC stars discovered upon their first shakedown laps Wednesday, that statement is valid, and they will have a good bit of catching up to do given a much smaller circuit than what they are used to. Boat says, "I mean this in all sincerity - I would trade my motor with the locals for theirs. I'm trying to find gear ratios to cut my horsepower in half. We just have way too much for this little racetrack, and it's actually a hinderance. My biggest problem is my front wheels don't touch the ground, and I can't hardly steer my car! One of the locals came over, and he can't budge his car lifting it up. Well, he lifted mine three feet right off the ground! That right off the bat tells you the difference between the weights. My front wheels just aren't touching the ground right now. So I've gotta figure out a way to tame my engine down and to get more weight on the front wheels."

Boat, who unlike most of his comrades brought no crew with him whatsoever, called home to Phoenix for technical support. "My father built my engines this year, and he's heard something he's never heard in his life. I told him, 'I've got way too much horsepower - how do I get rid of it?' That's the exact opposite of what I've said my whole life - 'I've got no power, I've got no power, it's bogging, it's bogging."Now I said, 'how do I make it bog?' He just about fell over - I think I heard the chair fall! When the track gets drier, it's going to get even harder to control...we spend all this money trying to get the cars lighter, but if I had a 100 pound block of lead, I would literally hang it from my front bumper."

For another solution, he also plans on hitting the drugstore once back in Waikiki for some common household sponges. "I have a $30,000 motor with all this horsepower, and now I have to put a sponge on the pedal to not use it!"

Despite these discoveries, the visitors expect they will close the gap come Saturday, in keeping with the high level of anticipation building for the main event. Talk about making Hawaii a regular, points-paying stop on the USAC Southwest schedule as early as next year already has both sides buzzing, and Burns revealed that IRL President Tony George called the USAC office after the fact, inquiring about this weekend's races.

"The best thing for us is to get the experience of competing on a more national level," Freitas adds. "Here we do it week in, week out at our local track and compete against the same people every week. I think we've prepared really well, but we won't know until that night if our preparation was good enough. With that in mind, hopefully they'll want to come back and say it was a competitive, fun time here in Hawaii and it would become a yearly series."

In the meantime, before getting down to serious business, the mainland drivers are making the most of their visit, playing tourists at requisite stops like beachside luaus and the USS Arizona Memorial. "This whole thing came to us as quite a surprise," says Phoenix native and rookie USAC pilot Bruce St. James. "We visit other garden spots like Lubbock, TX and El Centro, CA, so being able to come all the way out here was a very unexpected but really pleasant surprise for all of us."

For families such as Boat's, the end-of-term vacation becomes an added bonus. "My wife's probably been to about ten percent of my races, but I guarantee you she wasn't going to miss this one! I have my two girls - a three-year-old and five-year-old, and they're at the beach for the first time here. It's exciting to watch them and all their new experiences. My five-year-old can't get over how beautiful everything is; every word is 'beautiful.'"

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About this article
Series USAC
Drivers Ken Miles , Tony George , Mike Boat , Robert Hall Jr. , Rick Ziehl , David Burns , Bruce St. James