SAN TAN VALLEY, Ariz. – The state of Arizona has provided plenty over the years, from the Western World Championships to the Grand Canyon, chimichangas and jet skis.
In the racing world, however, the southwestern state has produced numerous talented racecar drivers, many of whom made their mark in USAC with sprint cars, midgets and champ cars.
Arizona’s racing pedigree includes three drivers who captured championships in at least three USAC national divisions, and it’s that history that deserves a look entering this weekend’s 53rd annual Western World Championships presented by San Tan Ford at Arizona Speedway.
The event will feature the NOS Energy Drink USAC National and USAC Western States Midgets, as well as the AMSOIL USAC/CRA and USAC Southwest Sprint Cars.
J.J. Yeley’s 60 USAC national wins are the most for any Arizona-bred racer. The Phoenix native burst onto the national scene, scorching the Indiana dirt throughout the summer of 1997 with an Indiana Sprint Week title in his first try and victories at both Kokomo and Terre Haute in consecutive races.
After dabbling in Indy cars for a few years, Yeley returned to the USAC ranks in full force, notching the National Sprint championship in 2001 and the Silver Crown title in 2002.
Yeley then became just the second, and most recent, driver to win the USAC Silver Crown, National Sprint and National Midget championships in a single season in 2003, an epic campaign which saw him win a record 24 USAC features, 23 of which were point races.
Jerry Coons Jr. (Tucson) followed Yeley into Triple Crown immortality in the late 2000s, notching back-to-back USAC National Midget crowns in 2006-07, then adding National Sprint and Silver Crown king status to his sterling resume in 2008 to become the fifth to join the club who’ve reigned supreme among all three of those particular divisions.
Coons, from Tucson, Ariz., remains an active driver and boasts 43 total USAC national wins. He made his first USAC appearance back in 1987 and is one of just 10 drivers to capture a USAC feature victory in at least four decades.
Roger McCluskey was a champion in three different USAC national divisions throughout his career, which saw him represent USAC in the International Race of Champions in the 1970s and also represent USAC as the club’s Executive Vice President for a number of years following his driving career.
The Tucson native’s time behind the wheel was stellar, as he won the USAC National Sprint Car title twice in 1963 and 1966, as well as the USAC Stock Car division twice in 1969-70 and was the Indy car driving champion in 1973.
McCluskey closed out his driving career on top, winning his final Indy car start at Milwaukee, Wis., in 1979 before hanging up the helmet on a career which included 23 Sprint, 23 Stock Car, five Indy car and four midget wins with USAC.
Additionally, USAC’s top award each year is presented to a USAC member in McCluskey’s memory, to recognize the standards of excellence in the sport of auto racing so astutely represented by McCluskey during his career as a USAC driver and official.
Jimmy Bryan, from Phoenix, became the first Indianapolis 500 winner to hail from the state of Arizona in 1958.
While chomping his distinctive unlit cigar, Bryan won 19 main events in his Indy car career, all of which came in a relatively short span between 1953-58.
He was the AAA National Champion in 1954 and won the first two national Indy car championships under the USAC banner in 1956-57. In 1957, Bryan won two of the three heats to claim the overall victory in the Race of Two Worlds on the high speed, high banked Monza, Italy, oval.
Ron Shuman, of Mesa, made his mark in any division he competed in, from sprint cars with CRA and SCRA to wing sprint cars with the World of Outlaws and to the champ cars of the USAC Silver Crown Series.
However, his name will forever be intertwined with his unparalleled success in the Turkey Night Grand Prix, the perennial Thanksgiving night AAA/USAC midget race which dates back to 1934.
To put Shuman’s dominance into perspective, he became the only driver to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix four years in a row between 1979-82. No other driver has won more than three total Turkey Night features.
Shuman tacked on additional Turkey Night wins in 1984, ’87, ’92 and ’93. He was also victorious in all three USAC National divisions, taking three sprint wins, 12 midget victories and three Silver Crown scores.
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