August 18, 2001 USAC SILVER BULLET SERIES Springfield, Illinois Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 41st Annual Running 100-Mile National Championship Dirt Track Race Illinois State Fairgrounds World's Fastest One Mile Dirt Track Appearance of ...
August 18, 2001 USAC SILVER BULLET SERIES Springfield, Illinois
Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100
41st Annual Running
100-Mile National Championship Dirt Track Race
Illinois State Fairgrounds World's Fastest One Mile Dirt Track
Appearance of Four-Time Indy 500 Winner A.J. Foyt and IRL's Donnie Beechler Headline Prestigious 41st Running of Bettenhausen Memorial 100 Set August 18
Racing Return of Hometown Hero Beechler, Foyt as Grand Marshall, Hewitt Seeking 5th Bettenhausen Win Highlights 67th Anniversary of National Championship Racing At Illinois State Fair
** 5 Indy 500 Vets, 3 Former Winners in Field
The return of Springfield, Illinois' own Donnie Beechler and the presence of four-time Indy 500 and Bettenhausen 100 winner A.J. Foyt as Grand Marshall for the 41st running of the Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100, is generating considerable interest as the cars of the United States Auto Club Silver Bullet Championship Series return for the 67th anniversary of championship dirt track racing at the Illinois State Fair. Five Indianapolis 500 veterans and three former winners head a strong field representing at least 4 Silver Bullet championships and over 30 Silver Bullet race victories.
Foyt is an American racing icon and most recently voted "Driver of the Century". His status as America's greatest racing driver was firmly cemented when he became the 1st four-time Indy 500 winner in 1977, but his legend began long before that glorious fourth win. Indianapolis may have been the place that "made A.J. Foyt", but it was his willingness to race on the dirt tracks of the championship trail that endeared him to a generation of race fans. Foyt won more championship races on mile dirt tracks (26) than any other man in racing history, and his performances at Springfield made him one of the state capitol's favorite racing drivers. A.J. began his championship career at Springfield in the Hoover Motor Express in 1957, and captured his first Bettenhausen win during his stellar 1964 season. He repeated as winner of the event in 1965, led all 100 miles in 1967, and took his first ever USAC Dirt Car division win in the 1971 race.
However, it was his performance in the 1979 Allen Crowe Memorial 100 stock car race that still has race fans talking. Battling Rusty Wallace for a USAC Stock Car crown, Foyt came to Springfield and promptly sat that car on the pole, despite a 5-year absence from the track! Leading the first 51 laps, he surrendered the lead and dropped back in the pack. The race was stopped on lap 67 due to a need for water on the surface, and it was in the last 33 laps that Foyt pulled out his bag of magic tricks. Driving his stock car like a dirt champ car, Foyt rode the cushion and the high groove, slinging mud over the fences in his chase for the lead. He dropped to last after a spin, but charged back, at one point passing 4 cars in turn 2. He took the lead passing Don White and Joe Ruttman in turn 2 of lap 93, and sailed home before a standing and cheering crowd. It was his last appearance at the Illinois State Fairgrounds mile.
Foyt's visit to Springfield will be more than ceremonial. Foyt has been co-owner of the car owned by George Snider and piloted by Ed Carpenter, and A.J. will be able to watch current IRL driver Donnie Beechler attempt to make the Bettenhausen field. But most of A.J.'s attention will focus on his grandson, A.J. Foyt IV who will be making his championship dirt car debut in a Foyt owned car at Springfield. In a twist of fate, A.J. IV will be making his championship car debut on the same racetrack and in the same race as his grandfather's debut, forty-four years ago!
Beechler, who has four USAC Silver Bullet wins to his credit, began his career at the now defunct Springfield Speedway and comes home once again with the hope of becoming the first Springfield driver to ever capture the coveted Bettenhausen trophy. In fact, the only Central Illinois driver to ever win the Bettenhausen Memorial is the late Don Branson of Champaign in 1966.
Beechler, a veteran of the Indy Racing league, picked up a last minute ride at this year's Indianapolis 500 with the legendary A.J. Foyt and put himself in the national limelight by sliding the Harrah's Casino Dallara into the field with the 5th fastest speed overall. On race day, Beechler was running as fast as the Team Penske machines when an oil line let go near the end of the race. To date, Donnie has had several impressive runs with the Foyt team, his best being a third at the new Kansas Speedway. Beechler has an excellent mount at his disposal, his car is owned by former title winning car owner Gary Stanton and is powered by a Chrysler engine. With Stanton's car in hand Donnie should be one of the early favorites to capture the first place money. But Beechler will have plenty of competition, as this shapes up to be one of the strongest Bettenhausen fields in memory.
Defending winner Jack Hewitt returns hoping to break a tie with Foyt for second place on the Bettenhausen win list at four. Hewitt, a two-time USAC Silver Bullet champion and veteran of the Indianapolis 500, added last year's 100-mile race to his all-time record 23 wins in Silver Bullet competition. With the victory, Hewitt (at age 49) became the oldest man to win the State Fair championship race. Another former winner in the field is 1997 USAC Silver Bullet champ and two-time (1997 and 1999) winner Dave Darland, of Kokomo, Indiana. Darland, the defending USAC Sprint champ, drives the Galen Fox owned Franklin Power Products Beast chassis and is always a favorite on the dirt. At present Darland is currently 10th in the national points, but with four of the next five events on the dirt, looks to make a late season charge to the front.
The other former winner (1998) in the field is current USAC point leader Peru, Indiana's Russ Gamester driving the family owned Terre Haute First National Bank sponsored Beast. Russ has two wins this year to his credit, on the half mile at Irwindale, California and on the mile at Nazareth, PA. Both tracks are paved ovals. Gamester beat Darland in a thrilling race in the 1998 event, with Darland taking second. Ironically, when Darland won in 1999, it was Gamester who took the runner up slot. Unfortunately, two former winners may be without rides for this year's race. Three-time USAC Silver Bullet champ and 1992 Bettenhausen winner Jimmy Sills seems to have curtailed his racing activities in favor of his west coast racing school, while the all-time leader in Bettenhausen wins may have unofficially retired. According to some sources, seven-time winner Chuck Gurney is not expected to attempt to make the field for this or any other Silver Bullet race in 2001 and is thought to have quit the sport to supervise his son's budding career.
A whole host of veterans, young lions, and Illinois drivers make up the balance of this year's Bettenhausen entry list, which at press time exceeded forty machines. Most of the top ten drivers in the USAC Silver Bullet Series points chase are expected to make the trek to the Springfield Mile, including second place points man and former Rookie of the Year Paul White of Temple, Texas, defending USAC Silver Bullet champion Tracy Hines of Indiana, former USAC Sprint champ and last year's runner up in the Silver Bullet series Brian Tyler, Florida's Dave Steele, young hot shoe Ed Carpenter driving for 1981 winner George Snider, the always exciting J.J. Yeley and Jason McCord. White won his 1st race this year in the Copper World Classic, while Steele won the June race at Pikes Peak. Yeley won the only dirt race so far, the Hawkeye 100 at Knoxville, Iowa, and Kasey Kahne (5th) won on August 2 at IRP. Kahne won at DuQuoin last year as a rookie, and it was that win that helped him secure a chance at a ride in the CART series with 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal.
Also expected to be in the pits race morning are last year's polesittter and defending USAC Sprint Car champ Tony Elliot, Indy 500 veteran Johnny Parsons in a car owned by Benton, Illinois' Ricky Nix, former Hoosier Hundred winner Gary Hieber, plus former World of Outlaws star Tyler Walker in a car co-owned by NASCAR's Ray Evernham and powered by a Dodge engine. A surprise entry comes from Mound, Minnesota driver Roger Rager. Rager, a driver known for his ability to "stand on the gas", is the current non-winged sprint car track record holder at the Springfield Mile, but is best remembered for his run in the 1980 Indy 500 in an old car with an engine block from a school bus! Other drivers include the hottest USAC driver in the year 2000 Jay Drake, sprint car star Derek Davidson, current one-lap track record holder Robby Flock, former NASCAR Winston Cup and CRA sprint car driver Brad Noffsinger and last year's rookie sensation in the Bettenhausen, third generation pilot Bud Kaeding.
The state of Illinois will be represented by at least four drivers in 2001, including Beechler. The 41st Bettenhausen marks the return of Pekin native Manny Rockhold, a veteran of sprint cars and the dirt champ cars, while Bill Schemonia of Murphysboro will attempt to make the 30-car starting field. Galesburg sends favorite son Aaron Fike to make his first start on the Springfield dirt in the RFMS racing Beast. Aaron caused quite a stir in the series, dethroning Jeff Gordon as the youngest winner in series history when he won the Richmond 100 earlier in the year at the age of 19! Aaron stands a good chance to become the first Central Illinois native since Don Branson to win the summer State Fair classic.
Aaron Fike leads a bumper crop of rookies into this year's race, which could include his own brother A.J. who has seen time in the USAC series. In addition to the Fike brothers and Foyt IV, other Bettenhausen freshmen include McCord, Indiana's Michael Lewis and Ohio's Wayne Chinn. An interesting rookie is Iowa Sprint Car star Terry Thorson, who owns the car he has entered.
Last year's Bettenhausen race proved to be one of the more exciting races held in recent years, turning out to be a battle of an old lion and a rising star. A cloudy day developed, and with a fairly wet race track the first Springfield cushion seen in 5 years developed. As a result, fans would get to see drivers use two and three grooves on the track.
Elliot, the 12th qualifier, knocked Drake off the pole when he came within .3 of the track record with a 30.221 lap, a circuit of over 119 miles per hour. Hines started in the 3rd slot, with Kaeding 4th and Hewitt 8th. The surprises in qualifying came from two former winners who did not make the top twenty and had to run the last chance race. Jimmy Sills, the 1992 winner in Gary Stanton's machine, could do no better than 21st in qualifying and had to run the semi-feature, which he won. Other heavy hitters in the semi included Tom Capie, Eric Gordon, and Brad Noffsinger. But the biggest shock was that 7-time winner Gurney, the winningest driver in Springfield history, failed to make the top twenty and had to run the last chance race!
Elliot jumped into the lead at the start of the 2000 Bettenhausen, but the pace was slowed and the race stopped on the 1st lap after Terry Pletch wedged the nose of his car under the backstretch guardrail. On the restart, Keading quickly hunted down Elliot and the 20 year-old surged into the top slot on lap 7. A caution on lap 8 when Randy Bateman bounced off the turn 2 wall slowed the field again. From the restart on lap 15, it was a duel between the third generation driver from Campbell, California piloting a car owned by John Andretti and Rollie Helmling, and the veteran Hewitt. With Hewitt glued to his tail, trying the high and low side, young Kaeding continued to lead with the wily vet waiting for a mistake. The mistake came on lap 86 when Hewitt charged into the lead, and Kaeding was never able to catch up. The 49-year-old Hewitt cruised to the win picking up over $9,000 in the process. Kaeding came in second, receiving an ovation as big as the winner's and a hug from mentor, family friend, and former baby sitter Hewitt in Victory Lane! Drake followed in third, with Darland in 4th and Elliot taking 5th.
Hewitt's day at Springfield moved him up further in many of the championship race statistical categories. His fourth win tied him for second on the all-time win list with Foyt, and he stands second to Chuck Gurney on the all-time laps led list with 288. His 19th Bettenhausen start and 20th Springfield start place him second on the starts list, while his 16th consecutive start at the Illinois State Fairgrounds is just two behind leader A.J. Foyt.
The 2001 Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 will be the 68th National Championship 100-mile dirt track race presented on the Springfield Mile (and the 32nd Silver Bullet series race), upholding a tradition that dates back to 1934, and continuing a tradition of auto racing on the Illinois State Fairgrounds that pre-dates the Indianapolis 500. Racing at Springfield has always been a draw for the great racing drivers of American championship racing, greats such as Indy 500 winners Louis Schneider and Tommy Milton ran at Springfield before 1934, not to mention Barney Oldfield, Johnny Aitken, and Louis Disbrow.
In 1934, the American Automobile Association granted Springfield it's first ever 100-mile championship race (won by Billy Winn) and with the exception of World War II, one has been held during the State Fair ever since. Springfield has a storied history in American championship racing, the Springfield Mile is now the third oldest facility in the country to continuously present championship style racing (behind Indianapolis and Milwaukee) and it was the site of the first live national telecast of a championship car race in 1968. Winners at Springfield include such names as Wilbur Shaw, Jimmy Bryan, Rodger Ward, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Mario Andretti. In all, 9 Indianapolis 500 winners have also won a race at Springfield, and 17 men have used the points earned at Springfield to go on to a national title. The speed, thrills, great racing and great drivers are the reasons that crowds estimated in excess of 50,000 have showed up on race day in the state capitol.
But one driver above all others seems to have earned a special place in the hearts of Springfield's many championship race fans, that being the race's namesake, the late Tony Bettenhausen. Tony Bettenhausen, nicknamed the "Tinley Park Express", was the first three-time winner at Springfield. The championship race was named in his honor after he lost his life in a practice crash while testing a friend's car at Indianapolis in 1961. His last Springfield victory came in what may have been one of the most beautiful cars ever built, Murrell Belanger's blue and gold number 99, and ironically, the 2001 Bettenhausen will be the 50th anniversary of his 1951 State Fair win. Perhaps even more ironic is that the Belanger 99 is the same car that won the 1951 Indianapolis 500, with Lee Wallard at the wheel after Bettenhausen honored a commitment to drive for another team. This May at Indianapolis, son Gary Bettenhausen, a two-time winner (1978-83) of his father's race, honored the late Tony Bettenhausen, Wallard and the car itself by taking the Belanger 99 on a ceremonial tour of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
And so the Springfield tradition continues on the 40th anniversary of the passing of Tony Bettenhausen, and the 50th anniversary of his last win on the "World's Fastest One Mile Dirt Track" with the 41st running of the Memorial race. When practice starts at 9:30 a.m. on August 18th, the USAC Silver Bullet stars will be shooting for over $9,000 out of a purse that exceeds $40,000, as well as a place on Springfield's honor roll with America's racing legends and a piece of American racing history.
Gates are slated to open around 9 a.m. with qualifying beginning at 10:30 a.m. Forty drivers are expected to take aim at Robby Flock's 1994 world record lap of 29.988 seconds, 120.048 miles per hour. When the engines are fired for the 41st running of the Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100, 30 drivers will be trying to break Jack Hewitt's 14 year-old race record of 56 minutes and seven seconds, 106.920 miles per hour.
Tickets are going at a fast clip, and can be obtained at the Illinois State Fair Box Office, or through the promoter Track Enterprises at 217-764-3200, or you can visit them on the web at www.trackenterprises.com.