SULLIVAN: The Grove

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Sullivan
Patrick Sullivan

After a one year absence, it was exciting to see Williams Grove back on the USAC Silver Crown schedule. The big cars on a big half-mile with this kind of tradition seems like a perfect marriage.

From 1949 through 1959, The Grove hosted an annual, non-points paying race for the cars and drivers of the National Championship trail, with Indianapolis 500 winners Troy Ruttman and Rodger Ward among the winners.

In the most recent appearances, Chris Windom and Bryan Clauson staged a memorable duel in 2016, with Kody Swanson winning in a bit of a romp a year later. Adding to the excitement was the news that the regular 410 sprint cars would also be on the card.

Going to places like Williams Grove and Knoxville is always a bit of a risk for USAC, particularly with the Silver Crown series. There is a stark contrast in speed, and style, between a Silver Crown car and a 410 winged sprint car. Where the winged 410 is a power game, a Silver Crown car is about momentum and timing.

Long distance races also unfold differently, and more often than not, an early rabbit is not going to be there at the end.

It would be hard to imagine a better night for racing. Rain had come through the area the day before, washing out the USAC Eastern Storm date at BAPS Motor Speedway, but on this night the temperature was cool with low humidity.

As a result of the unique program and splendid weather, a healthy crowd was on hand. Justin Grant turned some heads as the top qualifier, and some local folks added to his joy by offering up some additional cash for the pole award.

Chris Windom got to the front early, and led to near the halfway point. Even when he appeared to be running away from the field, veteran observers were confident he would come back to the pack. He did. That was predictable.

What few would have predicted is who would now be out front. Steve Buckwalter was racing in his 25th Silver Crown race, and was fresh off a strong eighth-place finish in the final race at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Now the crowd was really into it.

Could it happen?

Could Steve Buckwalter, a man who races at the Grove regularly pull off the minor upset? With each passing lap, it appeared the answer was yes.

What’s not to admire about Steve Buckwalter? He is an outstanding talent who has captured an ARDC midget championship and 50 wins in that series. He has also had good success in sprint cars. He is a hard worker who is involved in every aspect of the sport and has done everything in his power to stay at the top of the game.

Steve is also hardly wet behind the ears. At this stage of his career, and given that there are only a handful of races each season, you just don’t know how many chances he will get to put a Silver Crown win on his resume.

Everyone knew that if he accomplished this at the Grove, it would be an off-the-charts moment.

Steve took the white flag, but Chris Windom was there. Windom had muscled around Kody Swanson to move into second place in a fashion that the four-time champion, as we would hear post-race, didn’t appreciate. All Buckwalter needed to do was negotiate four more turns and he would be in victory lane.

Suddenly, in what seemed like slow motion, Windom made contact with Buckwalter in turn one, nearly lost it himself, and everything changed.

The crowd erupted in protest. They would erupt again, this time in cheers, when Windom had a tire go flat on the restart, allowing Brady Bacon to capture his first Silver Crown win.

From this point on it got silly. I don’t have an issue with the crowd being angry and expressing their displeasure. Steve Buckwalter also had nearly a complete pass when it came to his reaction. I get all of that.

Windom, for his part, said he had problems with his brakes for 40 laps. That happens. He would admit that he had simply hauled in his car too hard and when he tried to take evasive action he clipped Buckwalter.

At Port Royal the next night, he seemed downright miserable.

The one person who really knows what happened there is Chris. Not you, not me, not Buckwalter, and not the fan in the stands. What we know is that there was contact and Buckwalter came to a stop. When you stop on the track, you go to the back.

From there, the oft-stated notion that USAC “wanted one of their guys to win” is absurd. First of all, Steve is a USAC driver. He has raced and won in the midget ranks, and he has been a regular on dirt with the Silver Crown series for several years.

Beyond that, if you really analyze it objectively, it was far better for USAC for Steve to have won. First, it would have been highly popular with the local fans and would be another chapter in the Pennsylvania Posse versus the world narrative.

It would have made many salivate at the thought of a return performance in 2020.

Second, if you are a travelling series, you want all teams to have a degree of success. Good results keep teams interested in showing up race after race.

I can tell you this: nearly everyone felt horrible for Steve and his team, and hoped he could shine in the remaining dirt races.

The second most expressed sentiment is that USAC should have done something. You bet it didn’t look good, and some pointed out that in every USAC driver’s meeting there is a stated penalty for intentional contact.

The key word here is “intentional.” This is for the driver who turns a competitor around under caution, or waits in the infield to broadside them when they go past.

To be honest, the fact that Windom was able to briefly keep going was pure luck. More to the point, if you want a racing organization to assess intent in an incident like we witnessed on this evening, be careful what you wish for.

Where does this end? Think about the number of incidents you will witness over the course of the year in heat races, semi-features and features.

I also learned long ago that what I think I saw and what really happened are often not the same thing. Do we want to go to video review? Should Warren Alston and Nicole Flood have had a special flag on their stand with a picture of a video camera and, hence, the crowd be told, “We’re looking at this in Indianapolis?” I don’t think so.

What happened was unfortunate and, in the end, racing. It’s best to let the competitors sort it out.

Finally, the vitriol directed toward Chris Windom on social media was off the chart, and inexcusable. In what follows, I am going to compile a list of championship-caliber drivers who never made an error in judgment.

…Okay, there it is.

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