RACING SCENE column (Part I of II)
By Tim Kennedy
LOS ANGELES – The 25th running of the Budweiser Oval Nationals presented by All-Coast Construction at Perris Auto Speedway was delayed one year by the COVID-19 pandemic. It took place Thursday through Saturday, November 4-6. The delay was worth the wait because the three nights of classic non-wing 410 ci. sprint car racing was outstanding. The A-main event lead changed hands on the 30th (final) lap both Thursday and Friday. Saturday's 40-lap feature winner executed his winning pass on lap 37. All three features were among the most entertaining in PAS racing history and I've seen all 25 Oval Nationals races since 1996.
The PAS Oval Nationals were run this year without a grand marshal and without a colorful, informative printed program for the first time. Uncertainties about the COVID delta variant in recent months made those usual Oval Nationals staples expendable this year. One Oval Nationals tradition that remained was the darkened front straight for Saturday A-main driver introductions from the infield stage. Scott Daloisio, the PAS chief announcer since 1999, introduced each driver individually from the back to front rows, Drivers walked to their cars highlighted by a spotlight.
Temperatures all three nights ranged from the low 80s in the afternoon to the low 60s when racing concluded. Grandstand attendance as usual grew from about a third of capacity to two-thirds Friday and about 90% of capacity Saturday. Southern California notorious freeway traffic jams and work schedules Monday through Friday make Saturday the largest crowd at every Oval Nationals. The pits were crowded all three nights; pit passes cost $50. More than 6,000 spectators witnessed Saturday competition.
Wednesday, November 3 was a sprint cars only practice session from 5 to 9 pm. Fans were admitted free of charge to the grandstand. With 34 pre-entered sprint cars, 27 practiced Wednesday without problems. Tanner Thorson, from Minden, Nev., set the quickest lap of 16.264 with Jake Swanson second fastest at 16.269. The PAS track record is 15.891 (113.272 mph) set by Mike Spencer on 11/2/12. Mike retired in 2018 but spectated from the pits this year. Thorson won the last USAC 98-lap Turkey Night Midget GP at Perris in 2015. He raced this November in a sprint car at the Riverside County clay half-mile for the first time.
Oval Nationals drivers this year were listed from six states—Arizona, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana and Nevada. Some drivers originally came from Alabama, Ohio, and Oklahoma. There were 16 Californians. Nine of the USAC-AMSOIL National Series top ten drivers in points raced in the 25th edition of the event. Only eighth ranked Robert Ballou, a past Oval Nationals champion, remained home in Indiana to work at his “day job”. The top 15 drivers in USAC-CRA AMSOIL points all raced in the 2021 Oval Nationals.
Chassis in the event this year included many DRC, Maxim Triple X, Spike, plus Twister, Ellis and a Viper. Engine builders included Kistler, Claxton (Chevy and a Mopar), Speedway Chevy, 1-way Chevy, Stanton, Rider and Cressman. A-main victories Thursday through Saturday went to a 2019 DRC, Triple X, and a new DRC. Most teams from the Midwest departed for Perris right after Halloween and departed Perris Sunday for the season finale November 12-13 in Arizona. They know costs are less expensive there than in California.
FLIPS: There were six flips this year during the Oval Nationals. Thursday and Friday had three each. Thursday had two in qualifying and one in heat four. Friday had one in the B-main and two in the A-main. Saturday was flip-free. The original 34 pre-entries had five no-shows. Six late entries and use of backup or replacement cars brought the car count to 42 different sprint cars (about the same as 2019). Main event winners Thursday (No. 21AZ Jake Swanson) and Friday (No. 69 Brady Bacon) each received $5,000. Saturday's A-main winner Kevin Thomas, Jr. received $10,000 and the event's distinctive white eagle trophy. He gave the winning crew chief trophy to his wife “Whitney Karen Thomas.”
Thomas drove his own No. 9K DRC to his third Oval Nationals triumph. His other victories came in 2017-18. He joined fellow three-time Oval Nationals champions Bud Kaeding (2001-02-07), Damion Gardner (2009-11-16), and Dave Darland (2005-06-13). Other past Oval Nationals champions who tried to score second victories in 2021 were: Chris Windom (2010) and C. J. Leary (2019).
BUBBY JONES TRIBUTE: On Saturday prior to the first heat race four sprint cars staged four-wide at the starting line. Drivers were Bubby's son-in-law Justin Grant (# 4), and Ol' Bub's three nephews--Rip Williams' sons Cody (# 44), Austin (# 92) and Logan (# 5w). They pushed off and ran slow laps prior to one fast lap after receiving the green flag. Cars 4, 92, 44 and 5w crossed the finish line in that order.) They did so in respect for the late sprint car racing champion, NSCHofF inductee, and one-time Indy 500 starter Norman “Bubby” Jones. He passed away since the last Oval Nationals in 2019.
PAS promoter Don Kazarian said on the PA mic that we are all here tonight because of Bubby. He found this site in the mid-1990s to replace Ascot Park in Gardena (June 1957--November 1990). He prepared the track here for many years until he returned to live in the Midwest. His son Tony Jones followed in his footsteps as a sprint car feature winner and champion. Tony and many of Bubby's family members were in attendance.
J. C. Agajanian, Jr. was in the PAS pits Saturday and spoke with fellow Armenian Kazarian on the PA mic. He plugged the November 26-27 Thanksgiving Midget GP at beach-side Ventura Raceway as the first TNGP scheduled on Saturday night. He then offered five pairs of TNGP tickets to persons in the grandstand with birthdays closest to that of Don Kazarian. Don said his DOB is 8/5/56, so people began bringing their driver licenses to the S/F line crossover gate.
Indiana-based USAC chaplain Tim Spillman spoke at the 4:30 drivers pit meeting each day and gave the invocation prior to the National Anthem at 7 pm each night. He said he is an ordained Assembly of God minister and has been performing those duties for decades. He assisted the late Catholic chaplain Rev. Phil DeRea for years. He started serving as the USAC Midget Division chaplain in 1995. He then was the CART Indy Car chaplain from 1998-2001. In 2002 he returned to USAC Silver Crown and sprint car divisions. He said he is not on salary. His travel expenses are paid by generous donors. While at the PAS event he stayed in Moreno Valley.
Spillman said Dave Darland, 55, who suffered a stroke some months ago has been able to attend races with his wife Brenda. Dave, the popular “people's champion”, has visited racing friends in the pits at tracks near his home. He recognized and conversed with people. However, recovery is progressing slowly. With former USAC official Levi Jones now departed and the new Indy Lights chief, the PAS pit meetings were conducted by Kurt Spridgeon.
Owner/driver Chris Muraoka, from Honolulu, was the first Oval Nationals entrant from Hawaii. The affable 44-year old said his surname is Japanese. He shipped his No. 25 2018 Triple X sprinter and 410 engine to So Cal in a Matson Navigation container. Transit took nine days. He said he races with seven or eight others at a small dirt track called Paradise Speedway (about an eighth-mile) on Maui. He brought his wife and three children (who helped in the pits). He said they were all going to Disneyland in Anaheim Sunday. On Thursday Chris was involved in a two-car crash entering turn one during a heat. He flipped and badly bent his frame. He removed the engine and put it in a spare No. 73 Keith Ford chassis to race Friday and Saturday. A two-car crash in heat four Friday damaged his No. 73x and ended his race weekend.
His Hawaiian racing friend Ikaika O'Brien, from Aiea, Hawaii, entered his No. 11o but it was one of the no-shows. The 51-year old Hawaiian racer works for Matson in Hawaii and with all the cargo shipping backlogs currently he was unable to get away from work to race in Perris. In the past Chris said they both have raced their sprint cars in California at Ventura, Bakersfield, Santa Maria, Kern County Raceway and even Chico.
Pit announcer Chris Holt has been the pit announcer at Ascot and Perris for almost four decades. He interviewed visiting Shane Carson, the NSCHofF inductee, retired sprint car champion, and racing promoter, Thursday night. Shane said he got his motorsports start on two wheels. His racing promoter parents did not like that. Noted sprint car constructor LaVerne Nance got him interested in racing with four wheels and arranged for his first sprint car ride far from his Oklahoma home. Holt also interviewed five-time CRA sprint car champion Jimmy Oskie, now 75. The line-dancing afficionado from Downey said, “I like helping all the young drivers. It gives me a lot of enjoyment.” Jimmy has a wealth of sprint car knowledge to impart.