SALEM, Ind. – By the numbers, just six drivers in the 60-plus year history of the Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial have won the event consecutively at Salem Speedway.
As impressive of a feat as that is by itself, two of those six have won the event on the famed high banks in four straight years.
To narrow it down even further, only one of those drivers will have an opportunity to become the first five-time winner of the event, not to mention doing so in successive years, when the USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series makes its annual voyage to Salem for the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial on Saturday night.
That driver is Kody Swanson, the owner of a record 29 wins and 29 poles in his spectacular Silver Crown career.
Four tallies each have been added to his resume at Salem in both the win and pole categories over the last four years, a supreme dominance that is unmatched in the event.
In last year’s Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial, as has been demonstrated time and time again, it seems that whenever Swanson comes face-to-face with adversity, it’s a near guarantee that adversity has no fighting chance.
That was the case in 2019 when the Kingsburg, Calif. native had to jump into his backup car early after engine issues befell his primary Nolen Racing ride during practice.
Swanson jumped into the secondary car, promptly put it on the pole and led wire-to-wire to capture his fourth-straight win in the event, equaling a feat previously only accomplished by Pancho Carter from 1974-77.
It’s not an easy scenario for any individual to overcome, but Swanson just makes it appear easy. The reality is, without the amount of preparation they put into it, their night could’ve been toast before it even began.
“Obviously, it was not part of the plan,” Swanson admitted. “We practiced with the primary car, I picked out my best shocks and springs and did all the homework I could on that one and was really happy with where we were for running on used tires.”
Right before the second round of practice started, crew member Chris Phillips noticed that water was coming through one of the nozzle filters. Engine builder Bill Tranter noticed it was a big issue as well, and Swanson was forced to hop out of the primary while the team quickly retrieved the backup car.
Crew members Rick Laughlin and Dale Latty had worked on the backup car leading up to the event to make sure it was ready just in case it was needed.
In a matter of minutes, the backup car went from having travel tires on it to race tires that could be scuffed for qualifying.
The time that was left only allowed for two laps of practice, which proved pivotal for Swanson to diagnose what needed to be done, where he then proceeded to put the yellow No. 20 on the pole before leading all 75 laps en route to victory.
Not to be outdone, Salem is where Swanson owns the Silver Crown one-lap track record of 15.923 seconds, set in 2017. The unprecedented five-time Silver Crown driving champion also owns the 75-lap record for the division at Salem in 2018, the very same night in which he set the new standard in terms of Silver Crown race victories, surpassing Jack Hewitt.
Swanson, along with Pancho Carter, the first of USAC’s six Triple Crown champions to have won driving titles in Silver Crown, National Sprints and National Midgets in his career, are also two of the six back-to-back winners of the Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial.
Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones scored consecutive victories in the event in 1960-61. Greg Leffler did the same in 1979-80, the first of which came amidst his USAC National Sprint Car championship season.
Brian Olson (2012-13) and Brian Gerster (2014-15) each won the James/O’Connor back-to-back with the wing. Gerster is the only other Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial winner outside of Swanson entered to compete in Saturday’s Salem event.
The history of the Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial has taken on a few different iterations over the years, first under the sanctioning of the AAA in the event’s humble beginnings in 1953, then under the USAC Midwest Sprint Car banner in 1956 and its long tenure as a fixture on the trail for USAC’s National Sprint Cars starting in 1961 until 1980, when the series left the pavement and Salem Speedway was simultaneously ravaged by a tornado which forced the high banks to sit idle for a time in the mid-80s until racing resumed.
Following the 2010 season when pavement racing was again absent from the USAC National Sprint Car circuit, the event became a winged sprint car race between 2011-2015 before USAC’s Silver Crown division, which had only turned a wheel around the .555-mile paved oval just once prior in September of 1988, came back into the fold in 2016.
Saturday’s Kentuckiana Ford Dealers Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial featuring the USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series ans Lucas Oil Great American Stocks begins with the pits opening at 1 p.m. ET. Practice rolls at 3:30 p.m. and racing begins at 7:15 p.m.
General admission tickets are $27 for adults and teens, $5 for kids ages six to 12 and free for kids ages five and under.