WM: FF: Irwindale midget weekend wrap-up

Irwindale, CA, Apr. 26 - Tracy Hines and Michael Lewis won the USAC National and Western States Midget Series "Mopar Twin 25-lap Irwindale Main Events" presented by Mission Foods Saturday on the Irwindale Speedway paved half-mile before 5,500 fans.

Irwindale, CA, Apr. 26 - Tracy Hines and Michael Lewis won the USAC National and Western States Midget Series "Mopar Twin 25-lap Irwindale Main Events" presented by Mission Foods Saturday on the Irwindale Speedway paved half-mile before 5,500 fans. The Steve Lewis/Premier Racing Entertainment promoted event offered a $50,000 bonus to any driver able to win both features after starting the second 25 from last position.

Hines, from New Castle, IN, provided the excitement in the second 25 by charging from 25th grid position to finish sixth, 5.406 seconds in back of winner Lewis. The second 25-lap winner also won the 2002 USAC Turkey Night Midget 100-lap Grand Prix at Irwindale last November in a different car. Hines drove the Wilke Pak, Oxi-Clean Beast/Mopar, which carried a yellow ribbon from the cage to designate it as the $50,000-eligible car.

Hines passed three cars on the first lap and he passed seven cars by the end of lap four. However, his car spun to a halt low in the second turn on lap five after being pinched off by another car in traffic. Hines, a 30-year old newlywed of two weeks, restarted at the back of the remaining 21-car field. He advanced quickly to 11th position by lap 10. He was tenth on lap 16, ninth on lap l7, eighth on lap 18, seventh on lap 19 and sixth on lap 21. With no yellow flags after the fifth lap caution, Hines remained more than two seconds behind the fourth place driver at the finish. The purse payoff was $32,000 when the bonus went unclaimed. Dave Steele won the first PRE Twin 25s $50,000 bonus last September at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

Hines started third in the first 25. On lap two he passed initial leader/polesitter Jason Leffler, the three-time USAC National Midget Champion (1997-99) and current NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver. Leffler drove the Western Speed Racing/Team ASE Beast/Ed Pink Ford in which Lewis won the last Thanksgiving GP at Irwindale. Hines, the lap two-25 leader, had a 1.068 second winning margin at Tony Roberts checkered flag.

Runner-up Michael Lewis, in Gary Hansen's Beast/Fontana, started ninth in the second 25-lap race. Pole starter Josh Wise, the tenth place driver in the first 25 aboard his family-owned Beast/Ed Pink Chevy, led the first four circuits. Fourth starter A. J. Fike led laps five through 22. Lewis took command on lap 23 with an inside pass exiting the fourth turn and led to the finish. Fike trailed by 0.844 seconds.

In the first 25, Lewis, Kasey Kahne, Steele and point leader J. J. Yeley followed. Twenty-three of the 25 starters finished and 22 drivers completed all 25 laps. Kahne was fresh from starting ninth and finishing fourth Saturday afternoon in the NASCAR Busch Grand National 300 at California Speedway in Fontana. Kahne was able to practice in his Midget only Friday night for less than an hour. However, the 23-year old rising star from Enumclaw, WA set fastest qualifying time in time trials at Irwindale. He drove one of promoter Steve Lewis' three Beast/Ed Pink Fords. Kahne was only 0.047 seconds off the one-lap track record of 16.718 (107.668 mph) set by Steele last Thanksgiving.

The ten fastest qualifiers in the 31-driver field went directly to the first 25-lap feature. The balance of the field raced in a pair of 12-lap qualifying races that transferred the first seven finishers into the first 25-lap race. Josh Wise and Ryan Durst won the two qualifying races. The eighth place drivers were alternates, if needed, for the features. A Western States provisional berth went to Michael Simpson.

The second 25 had A. J. Fike, Steele, Bobby East and Aaron Fike in second through fifth finishing positions. Seventeen of the 25 drivers finished, with 15 drivers on the lead lap. The only mishap of the evening occurred on the fifth lap when two cars tangled at the end of the backstretch and two Steve Lewis cars, driven by Kahne and Yeley, became involved and spun up the track into the third turn wall. Kahne drove his damaged car to the pits. Yeley lost a lap but finished the race.

Hines said, "The car was definitely good enough. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. It's kind of hard to pass down on the flat part of the track. I couldn't get by them high and low. A car moved down in turn two and pinched me off when I spun. You don't think of winning the money, you just want to win. My car really pulled down the straights, and it was fast getting into the turns. I'm looking forward to returning here Turkey Night in this Mopar car. I know we were good. All speeds here are so close you can't do a slide job if cars are two or three abreast."

Hines continued, "I was not happy with my progress in the second 25. I was good on top, but it bogged down low. They changed the way they did the inversion here and made it harder to do. At IRP (last September) the full field was inverted. They only inverted ten tonight and they were too fast to catch with that much of a head start. It would've been interesting if there had been another yellow flag. If it had been 50-laps, I could've done it." Second 25 winner Lewis stated, "I've been lucky lately. Thanks to Steve Lewis (unrelated) for putting on this race. Tracy (Hines) had us beat tonight."

RACER Magazine added $5,000 lap money for the twin-25s with $100 per lap paid to the first three drivers each lap. The magazine also paid $5,000 for a combined points-fund that was paid to the first three drivers in overall points after both 25-lap races. The winner received $2,500, with second and third collecting $1,500 and $1,000 respectively. Bobby East took the USAC Midgets points lead by three points over prior leader Yeley in both National and Western States Series.

Renowned drivers Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones attended the Twin 25s. Jones signed autographs for fans during the track's usual 6:00-6:30 p.m. autograph session on the front straight as did competing drivers. Jones' No. 83 Hollywood Spring & Axle Offy Midget from the l960s was on loan from the Justice Brothers Museum and on display at the track. Well-known electrical light bulb repair mogul Kevin Olson was in attendance as well as 1972 Thanksgiving Night GP winner Tony Simon (paper-clip straightening entrepreneur Olson won the legendary T'Night race himself in 1983).

USAC President Rollie Helmling also attended. With NASCAR racing in nearby Fontana, racing executives Dan Davis, from Ford, and Kevin Miller, from Mopar, attended, as did Winston Cup drivers Jimmy Spencer and Kurt Busch. Las Vegas native Busch raced a Ford Focus Midget for the first time in the Twin-25s support race (see separate race story). Speed Channel taped the races Saturday night for a two-hour telecast on May 1.

The Lewis-PRE organization made the Twin 25s an entertaining show by having the PVQMRA (local quarter midget racing association in Pomona Valley) racing for fans from 8:00 a.m to 3:00 p.m. in the track's east parking lot. PRE flew Indianapolis striking blonde twins Katie and Kylie Huffman, the IRP Twin 25 trophy girls, by helicopter into Irwindale's third-mile infield during the autograph session.

PRE also hired a Loomis-Fargo armored truck with a two patrol car escort from the California Highway Patrol to bring the huge facsimile $50,000 check to the front straight during pre-race ceremonies. The Huffman twins walked with the check in front of the grandstand and back to Hines in 25th position before the start of the second 25 to motivate him even more. Aerial pyrotechnics that took place during the National Anthem, the four-abreast parade laps and following the second 25-lap feature provided spectators additional showmanship.

Darren Hagen, a 16-year old high-school student, led all the way in the 25-lap USAC Ford Focus California Series feature Saturday on the Irwindale Speedway third-mile pavement. His second triumph in the series followed his main event victory last November at the third-mile clay Bakersfield Speedway.

Hagen started second in Jim McMinn's Stealth and initially battled pole-sitter Garrett Hansen's Stealth for 17 laps. He then had to contest 2002 USAC Ford Focus Champion and current point leader Todd Hunsaker, the fastest qualifier and sixth starter, during the final eight circuits. Hagen held his inside line and beat April 18 Madera winner and six-time Ford Focus feature winner Hunsaker to the checkered flag by 0.203 seconds. Ryan Kaplan, a 16-year old high school sophomore from Chico, finished third, matching his debut performance at Madera eight days earlier.

Beating the experienced Hunsaker, 38, wasn't the only feather in Hagen's cap. He also had defending USAC National Midget Champion J. J. Yeley and NASCAR Winston Cup driver Kurt Busch in the field as well. Both national racing stars made their debuts in Ford Focus "house cars" supplied by Keith Iaia's SCREAM, Inc.-the official USAC supplier of Ford Focus engines for both the California and Indiana FF Series. Yeley finished 15th in the No. 1 Beast/FF.

Busch, who would win his second NASCAR Winston Cup race of 2003 at the California Speedway 500 mile race in Fontana the next afternoon, started and finished ninth in his Midget debut. He was the second quickest driver on the track for much of the race according to AMB electronic scoring. Busch, in seventh place on lap 16, spun to a halt in the third-turn infield when his arm restraints became entangled. He restarted the self-starting Beast/FF and came from the back of the field to pass cars inside and outside to finish ninth.

Busch talked to media members in the press box later about his Midget racing experience. "The Ford Focus Midget has nice balance with the Bob East-set-up. The car is agile and forgiving. It's racy and fun to drive either high or low. You had to find holes to pass," Busch said. He raced the same No. 2 Beast that CART drivers Michel Jourdain, Jr and Patrick Carpentier test-drove at Irwindale several months ago. Formula Atlantic driver Danica Patrick, 21, also test-hopped the same car at Irwindale last year.

"I'm going backwards," Busch joked. "This is something fun to do on an off-night. I'm not use to having an open cockpit." Prior to his successful NASCAR career with Jack Roush Racing, Busch raced at Irwindale during 1999, the track's initial year of racing. He won a Legend Cars race on the third-mile and a NASCAR Southwest Tour Series stock car feature on the half-mile.

Hansen, 18, Brad Galedrige, 16, Bobby McGowan, Ray Neveau, a 45-year old veteran with Midget racing and NASCAR stock car experience , Steve Davis, a TQ Midget veteran, Busch and season-opening feature winner Josh Lakatos finished fourth through tenth respectively. Two brief cautions interrupted the 13-minute race.

Eighteen of the 22 starters finished and 15 drivers ran all 25 laps. A series-high to date 23 cars competed, surpassing the previous high car count of 22 three weeks ago at Bakersfield Speedway.

Group qualifying, using Irwindale's AMB electronic transponders, was conducted at 3:00 p.m. Hunsaker's 14.703 beat Kaplan's 14.712 for fast time honors. All 23 drivers posted qualifying times. Busch's 14.918 was ninth quickest. Yeley's 14.999 was the 12th fastest time.

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Series USAC
Drivers Jason Leffler , Jimmy Spencer , Kurt Busch , Dan Gurney , Parnelli Jones , Kasey Kahne , Michael Lewis , Tracy Hines , Dave Steele , Aaron Fike , Bobby East , Jack Roush , Josh Wise , Ryan Durst , Ryan Kaplan , Darren Hagen , Garrett Hansen , Danica Patrick , Michel Jourdain , Mike Simpson