INDIANAPOLIS — On all three nights there was a nip in the air and a dampness that gnawed right into you. There was no getting around it, autumn was elbowing summer aside.
You noticed it mostly during caution-flag periods or between races at three USAC events — the 4-Crown Nationals at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway and two in north central Indiana, the James Dean Classic at Gas City I-69 Speedway and the twice-postponed Smackdown VII finale at Kokomo Speedway.
But each time you began thinking that the chill was settling in for good, here would come a soft southern breeze from somewhere down Alabama way, or a balmy wind carried in from California, and for a little while the weather no longer mattered.
The wonderful thing about USAC in 2018 is the same as it was in 2008, or in 1998, or in any year, no matter how far back you go: An influx of drivers from someplace else, pitted against the homegrown talent.
Together, they turn the Midwest into a melting pot, throwing off enough heat to keep any grandstand cozy.
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During the 4-Crown, which featured all three of USAC’s national divisions, an Indianapolis kid named Tyler Courtney dominated both the midget and sprint car features. Eldora was cold, and by the time the Silver Crown cars rolled out for their 50-lap nightcap, many fans huddled under blankets.
Then here came that Alabama breeze, in the form of Kevin Thomas Jr., from Cullman, north of Birmingham. He and C.J. Leary, whose family has been around Indiana racing for decades, turned the last 20 laps into as hard a Silver Crown brawl as anyone could remember. When it was over, the lap-leader rundown read as follows: Thomas, 31-33; Leary, 34-35; Thomas, 36-38; Leary, 39; Thomas, 40; Leary, 41-44; Thomas, 45-46; Leary, 47-50.
Five days later, the sprint car troops reconvened at Kokomo for the $10,000-to-win 40-lapper that was meant to cap August’s Smackdown weekend. The pole man was Justin Grant, a NorCal gasser from Ione, southeast of Sacramento, and he is always electrifying at Kokomo. But Grant hadn’t won a USAC sprint race all season, and beside him in the front row was Dave Darland, so popular in these parts that he ought to run for governor.
This time, Grant got the jump, and he led the whole show. If it sounds boring, it wasn’t; Grant’s lunges through thick knots of lapped traffic warmed the place like a gust off the Pacific.
The next evening at Gas City, it was again Thomas’ turn to keep the crowd nice and toasty. He did that by zipping around Hoosier boy Isaac Chapple to lead the last five laps of the feature.
Just another weekend in the melting pot. It has been this way forever.
I moved from New England to Indianapolis in 1997 — yes, I’m a melting pot guy, too — and in my years here I’ve seen some incredible racers roll in. Jason Leffler, Dave Steele and Jay Drake arrived just about when I did, and then along came J.J. Yeley, Bud Kaeding, Kasey Kahne, Jerry Coons Jr., Josh Wise, Ricky Stenhouse, Kevin Swindell, Brady Bacon, Brad Sweet, Darren Hagen, Justin Grant, Cole Whitt, Hunter Schuerenberg, Daron Clayton, Bobby Santos, Robert Ballou, Rico Abreu, Tanner Thorson, and the Swanson brothers, Kody and Tanner.
Just this season, we’ve seen the emergence of an Oklahoma youngster named Jason McDougal, who is thrilling enough to make your hair stand on end. That’s two dozen badasses, off the top of my head.
You’ve got to admire the grit of these outsiders. By relocating, most gave up regular contact with their families, lost touch with childhood friends — no small consideration to a boy in his teens or early 20s — and swapped comfortable living arrangements for a spare bedroom at the home of a car owner or a fellow gypsy.
When I heard recently that McDougal has been bunking at Thomas Jr.’s place, my mind flashed back to the days when Leffler and Drake flopped at Tony Stewart’s house.
And in every case, they moved from local circuits to much tougher national tours, stacking themselves against the best on offer from Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, USAC’s primary stomping grounds. Start with Stewart, add National Sprint Car Hall of Famers Darland, Tony Elliott and Jack Hewitt, and just keep skipping through the years: Indiana’s Kevin Thomas (no relation to the Alabama version), Tracy Hines, Stevie Reeves, Russ Gamester, Eric Gordon, Derek Davidson, Kenny Irwin, Donnie Beechler, Ryan Newman, Jon Stanbrough, Levi Jones, Bryan Clauson, Chris Windom, Spencer Bayston and the astonishing Zeb Wise, who at 15 won his first USAC national midget feature back in August.
Does anything really ever change? Think about a year like 1961, when Parnelli Jones from California, Jim Hurtubise from New York and A.J. Foyt from Texas took the top three spots in the USAC sprint car standings.
Why, just the other day at lunch, here were Iowa’s Lee Kunzman and California’s Bill Vukovich II, both Indianapolis residents now, more than 50 years after they lit up the dirt tracks on their way to the Indy 500.
Outside, the leaves on the trees were turning colors, and despite the sunshine you needed a coat. But all was comfy indoors, where I listened to Vuky and Kunzman talk of old races won and lost, stirring that melting pot.