Saturday, July 2, 2011

On USAC and short track racing

There's always something special when open wheel cars race on a paved short track. The speeds are high, the racing is close, and the fans flock to watch the show.

My home track, Toledo Speedway, has hosted two high profile short track open wheel shows in recent weeks. The Fastest Short Track Show in the World annually takes place during the NASCAR weekend at nearby Michigan International Speedway and packs the fans in the stands for a winged supermodified and winged sprint car doubleheader. There's always a pilgramage of NASCAR drivers, crew members and media too since MIS is just an hour or so away. And the first Friday in July always brings the USAC Sprint cars and Midgets to Toledo for Hemelgarn Racing Night, sponsored by 1996 Indy 500 winning car owner Ron Hemelgarn.

Anticipation always runs high for both shows. The winged cars can run around the high-banked half-mile wide open with lap times coming close to the 11-second bracket. The flat-out speed is matched with a lot of close wheel-to-wheel racing, and that was no exception this year. The USAC cars run without wings, and although they are around two seconds per lap slower the speed is still impressive and the drivers come into the equation as they're running 130 miles per hour with virtually no downforce.

The only thing missing from these shows this season was a full field of cars. For many years, both weekends would jam the pits as much as the grandstand. The MSA Supermodifieds had 16 cars, enough for a good feature but not enough for any meaningful preliminaries. USAC's car counts were way off from the past, with only 12 sprint cars and 17 midgets on hand. In years past, USAC had sprint car heat races with 12 cars trying to race into the feature.

Friday's USAC racing was close and exciting and hotly contested at the front, but the lack of a full field meant there wasn't any lapped traffic to race through, eliminating a major opportunity for the drivers behind the leader to make a move or force a mistake.

Maybe USAC needs to look at recombining the Pavement Championship back into the overall series championship points to draw a full contingent of drivers and teams to the asphalt tracks. The costs of pavement racing have grown, so it's understandable that they've spun that part of the schedule off on its own, but in the grand scheme of things it really doesn't help because now the dirt specialists don't have to run the paved tracks at all to stay in the hunt for the title. Why not find a way to run a balanced schedule, split evenly between paved and dirt tracks and crown the champion as the driver that masters both?

Television played a major role in bringing USAC sprint car and midget racing from obscurity in the early 1980s to their peak well into the 1990s and 2000s. TV has gone away, and much of the sponsorship money has left too. But the racing is just as good if not better than it once was. Maybe someone out there can put together the right package and get USAC back on live TV. With Versus looking to make the move from a niche network to the NBC Sports challenger to ABC's ESPN maybe a newly revived "Thursday Night Thunder" could bring USAC back to the masses. It's going to take sponsors and people with a strong vision to make it happen, and unfortunately those are sorely lacking in the short track world right now.

In the meantime, if you have a chance to visit your local short track please, by any means possible, do it. Even if it means recording a Saturday night NASCAR race on the DVR, get out and enjoy your local track. The drivers aren't multi-millionaire superstars that you read about on Jayski or even on TMZ. They're regular people, just like you and your neighbors. They spend money they often don't have to be there and chase their dreams and the checkered flag. They run hard, and most times, are happy to sign a checkered flag, a photo, or a T-shirt and then actually thank you for asking for an autograph. It truly is racing as it should be.

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