SULLIVAN: A Patch of Blue Sky

Patrick Sullivan

The best thing about 2020 is that in a few short months it will be over. It is a year unlike anything our country has experienced in a century.

When the frost finally gave way, suddenly we were confronted with the reality that the entire racing season was hanging in the balance.

It’s been weird, and there are no guarantees that our world will return to some form of normalcy. Around the country, rates of depression and anxiety have spiked, which comes as no surprise.

What we have all needed is a break from the darkness that has enveloped our land and, for many of us, racing has long been an important escape from the pressures of the real world.

As things, opened up there have been plenty of things to talk about.

Kyle Larson’s epic season will be discussed as long as anyone truly cares about the sport and racing remains a viable form of entertainment. Beyond that, it seems as if the actual product of racing as a whole has been incredibly entertaining.

I have seen standout events in every form of open-wheel short track racing covered in this publication.

When it comes to the United States Auto Club, one aspect of the season has probably been a little under the radar. In the Midwest for certain, it is not uncommon for many racing dates to fall to Mother Nature. As a result, the number of midget and sprint car races contested under the USAC banner is actually comparable to past seasons.

As I complete this column, doubleheaders with sprint cars and midgets have been competed at Gas City and Kokomo. These will help offset the expected loss of dates on the west coast.

All of this is good, but two additional events in this troubled year have offered all of us a patch of blue sky.

After a Silver Crown race at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis (IRP) a year ago, I wrote one of the most dismal pieces of my career. I had given up on the race track. Mind you, I have worked at the famed joint for over a quarter-century. The track means the world to me, and embodies so many memories of days gone by.

There was a time when nearly every race here was a real event. Last year felt like the end of the line. No one, it seemed, cared. Enter Kasey Coler, the new general manager.

The oval is under the aegis of the National Hot Rod Association and it is natural that the primary focus is on the dragstrip that borders the oval on the west side of the property. Not that there haven’t been individual general managers who cared.

However, it felt as if the second the NASCAR Truck and Xfinity Series were yanked from IRP, the air went out of the balloon.

Coler was poised to turn this attitude around. We knew the Silver Crown race was coming back, and other sprint car races were added to the schedule.

That was good, but that all paled in comparison when it was announced that The Night Before The 500 would be reprised, with sprint cars and midgets on the card. Yes, the midgets were back at IRP, and they have always been spectacular here.

Not only had the track been the home of The Night Before The 500 for years, but the Steve Lewis-produced Twin 25’s and so many televised midget shows provided one great moment after another. That was the legacy this event was built upon.

Koler and veteran official Bill Carey, who was back in race control, also added a twist. To make it simple, qualifying had an element of bumping. It produced a small moment of magic when talented Courtney Crone, who had qualified well, decided she could do better.

When crew chief Jerome Rodela, a former midget champion himself, raced down to counsel his young driver as she was set to head out, everyone thought cooler heads had prevailed. No. Crone went out, improved her time, and when she removed her helmet and thrust her hands in the air, the crowd responded in turn.

Talented Bobby Santos would take his second Night Before The 500, while Kody Swanson topped the sprint cars. Two of the very best on pavement did not disappoint.

More importantly, the crowd was the best in years and all were into it. It brought back the days when fans mingled with drivers long after the checkered flag had dropped. This felt like the old times, and everyone is pumped about 2021 with Koler leading the charge.

This race alone could buoy the spirits of fans deflated about the prospect of an Indianapolis 500 contested without fans. Yet, there was more.

Ever since Tyler Courtney raced under the checkered flag at the 2019 Hoosier Hundred it was assumed the crown jewel of the Silver Crown series was finished. Not so fast. No work had been done at the Indiana State Fair to transform the infield, and thus destroy the race track.

COVID-19 had also put the kibosh on the State Fair and now the old plant was empty and lonely. Levi Jones and Bob Sargent of Track Enterprises went to work. Let’s just say they skillfully navigated a political minefield.

As early-arriving fans watched Takuma Sato take his second 500 on a big screen, the pit swelled with a healthy field of big cars. Later that evening all watched slack-jawed as Kyle Larson made a bold move to the inside of C.J. Leary and won for the first time in the series since 2011.

It had been a remarkable time for the Silver Crown series. With date after date lost to COVID, suddenly, and underscoring the great work by the respective teams, four races split evenly between dirt and pavement had been contested in two weeks.

Honestly, many felt the round in Indianapolis was the finale. Not ideal, but not bad either. Then, surprisingly, it was announced that Toledo was a go when everyone had written that date off. Then, against all odds, the Springfield Mile was rescheduled for October.

Now we were talking. To be honest, in the middle of May, no one would have believed this to be possible.

It was all so refreshing. In the midst of gloom and doom there was something to cheer about. Two of USAC’s most historic races had been resurrected, and one of the most storied ovals seemed to have been taken off life support and may see great days once again.

One persistent thought comes to mind through all this: Bring on 2021.


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