By Brett Bowman
— First off, kudos to all involved who helped make the first running of the Sprint Car Smackdown for the USAC Amsoil National Sprint Car Series the happening that it was. As it turned out, it looks like it was the first of many more to come in the future so it was pretty cool as both a reporter as well as a worker at the track to have had the opportunity to be in on the ground floor of an event that will no doubt go down in history.
In all the years I have been associated with the track, the event was the single-biggest thing to have happened at the 67-year-old facility, at least in my opinion. For years myself along with the likes of fellow race junkies like Greg Griswold, Jerry Davis and Alan Brown just to mention a few, have discussed why a local track wouldn’t adopt a format similar to the Knoxville Nationals and have a multiple-day show to crown a king in the traditional sprint car world.
With a few exceptions, most of the tracks around the state chose to not run sprint cars during the three days of the Smackdown. The one exception was the Paragon Speedway on Saturday night and it had a car count of 47 cars in the pits. Granted, it would have been a stunner had any of those cars at the southern-Indiana track made a dent in the feature, but the bad thing is that by running against the Smackdown it cost fans who more than likely would have been at the local oval to witness the history being made.
Three days of intense racing included plenty of good things, a couple bad and one down right bad circumstance that has the social media in an uproar and that is sure to have ramifications the remainder of the season.
As is usually the case, the staff at Kokomo had the race track in tip-top shape, providing three and oftentimes four racing grooves to give the drivers an opportunity to show exactly why they are considered the best in the business.
Watching Bryan Clauson motor around the track all three nights was truly a blessing. The former Rookie of the Year at the track, who tried his hand in NASCAR country and just this past May competed in the Indianapolis 500, gave all the fans a first-hand accounting why he is regarded as one of the 10 best in the nation. Had it not been for motor problems on Friday night, it’s a definite possibility that he could easily have walked away with three feature wins rather than the two he claimed.
There were so many “hold-your-breath” slide jobs taking place all around the track all three days, but the one that comes to my mind as the coolest was when former track champion Chris Windom used a bonsai move to get underneath Tracy Hines with just two laps to go in Friday’s main event to claim the win.
And to talk of a model of consistency, Lincoln’s Dave Darland simply drove his guts out all three nights as he attacked the cushion lap after lap. Had it not been for Brett Beauchamp’s spin on the 10th lap of Friday night’s race, Darland could just as easily taken that win instead of Windom.
For lap after lap Friday, Darland used a pitbull like tenacity to chase down Hines, throwing everything in his arsenal at the New Castle veteran. Finally, after negotiating the tricky cushion in turns one and two to perfection, he shot by Hines and had pulled away to nearly half a straight advantage before Beauchamp got turned around in turns one and two to bring out the caution and revert the field back to the last scored lap.
From that point on, it seemed like the cushion started to go away and Darland slid back, but when the final flag fell on the event he had closed to within 38 points of the top spot in the chase for the national title after trailing by 99 heading into the event.
Although it was destined to happen with all the big money at stake and the teams being in such close contact for three straight days, Saturday night saw many of the teams and drivers reach their respective breaking points.
First there was Jon Stanbrough going after Levi Jones following a frightening incident that also collected Robert Ballou and sent Ballou to the hospital after his car was completely destroyed, including a motor that had just two races on it.
Then, long after the checkered flag had fallen on Saturday night and podium pictures were being taken of the top three, Hines and members of his team charged into Victory Lane and exchanged words with Clauson’s team with accusations being tossed around. The exchange became so volatile that Jim O’Connor Jr., son of track owner Jim O’Connor, summoned the police to make sure things didn’t get anymore out of hand.
By far the incident in the closing laps that sent Stanbrough head first into the turn one pit entrance wall, then back onto the track directly in front of Ballou. The contact busted the cage on Ballou’s car, knocking the Rocklin, Calif., driver unconscious which resulted in his being transported to a hospital. Although he was released, it was announced that he was going back on Sunday afternoon after experiencing extreme pain in his back.
From my vantage point in the infield, it appeared that Levi Jones, who trailed Stanbrough by just two points in the national title picture heading into Saturday’s program, got into Stanbrough’s left rear and shoved him up the track. Stanbrough, usually as cool as the other side of the pillow, felt the same way as he climbed from his battered car, walked toward the pits, changed directions, then ran full speed towards Jones, who was parked on the front stretch in his car.
Heated words were exchanged between the pair, then after Stanbrough walked away with the crowd roaring its approval, his car owner walked to the track and heated words were then exchanged with crew members of Jones’ team.
Witnesses, including a member of the Sheriff’s Department, claimed they heard Jones state that the contact was intentional although Jones stated on his Twitter account to the contrary.
Having spoken with Jones on many occasions, he seems to be a likable enough guy, but counting the B-main, contact between him and other cars resulted in at least five cars receiving significant damage with three of those cars getting upside down.
Already this year, there have been drivers put on probation for what was deemed “avoidable contact” and just because Jones might be a nice guy and a five-time series champion, the same rules should apply. He drives for arguably the best-funded team in the series while at least two of the cars that he had a hand in getting upside down don’t have a fraction of the resources available to them.
USAC stepped up to the plate Monday and docked Jones 25 championship points and put him on probation for the remainder of the season.
USAC has made similar calls before. When Steve Butler and Bill Rose got together at Terre Haute, series officials suspended Butler, which for all intents and purposes ended his stellar racing career. Then in 1998, after Kevin Thomas felt like he had been done wrong by Tony Elliott and vowed revenge when he and Elliott were running first and second in the points chase prior to a race at the Winchester Speedway with the season winding down, they suspended him for the threats he made. That call by USAC assured Elliott of his first national title.
Simply put, the crash Saturday was one of the nastiest, scariest looking I can ever remember and I thank God that Ballou’s injuries weren’t any worse. But if something isn’t done, the next time all involved might not be so lucky. The rumbling in the pits among the drivers is that if this was an isolated incident, then maybe they could turn the other cheek, but realistically, that isn’t the case and drivers have long memories so if officials don’t make some sort of call, then my fear is that some driver(s) is going to take matters into his own hands and attempt to settle the score.
All season long Stanbrough has said he’s not taken as many chances because he has his sights set on winning the title this year. It would be a shame if he were to finish second and the only reason was because of the points he lost due to Saturday night’s incident.
• Brett Bowman covers the Kokomo Speedway for the Tribune. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the sports department.