O’LEARY: Hoosier Pit Pass


STANFORD, Ind. — It is that time of year when the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame distributes ballots to voters for their annual year-end awards.

This year, in the category of Non-Wing Sprint Car Team of the Year, I was very pleased to see Steve and Carla Phillips nominated. While a voter’s routine will likely include examining the statistics to determine who the champion was, who won races, and other parametrics, this process seldom reveals who accomplished the most, with the least.

One way to get a bead on the resources a team has is to walk through pit lane on race night. The Phillips’ hauler is quite humble compared to those of the bigger teams. There isn’t a lot of storage for spare parts and big tools, but then the Phillipses only carry enough to get through the night. There isn’t any air conditioning or television, but they do have a big fan. There aren’t a lot of crewmen in matching shirts, Steve and Carla do most of the work themselves with the assistance of a couple helpers on most nights.

The Phillipses field a DRC for their driver Dave Darland. It isn’t fancy, but they know how to make it work. The No. 71p (black this year) doesn’t have a lot of sponsorship decals, the Phillipses basically run it out of their pockets. Both Steve and Carla are 40-hour/week workers. When they made the commitment to Darland to run the full AMSOIL USAC sprint car season, they depleted their savings to make it happen. After losing an engine early on, Carla withdrew money from her 401K so the team could run Indiana Sprint Week. They stayed in the point hunt all season and eventually narrowed to a close battle between Dave and defending champion Bryan Clauson.

Darland is a racer’s racer. Get into a battle with him and it is like wrestling a pit bull. Two attributes have made him a winner over the years. He is very, very good at racing a sprint car and he is tenacious.  The Sprint Week race at the Terre Haute Action Track is a good example. He was battling Kevin Thomas Jr. for the win and it was a real dogfight.

On the last lap, after trading the front spot several times, Darland drove hard into the bottom of turn one, expecting to take the lead as he powered up the track.
But it didn’t work out. Just at that critical instant, a piece came off the injector assembly, dropped down and wouldn’t let the throttle close when Dave touched the brake. Instinctively, he threw the rear end around quickly and the machine pounded the outside wall with all of the momentum that he had carried into the turn.
When the car was returned to the pits, it appeared that both the chassis and engine were finished.  However, detailed overnight examinations by the engine builder and DRC determined that both were repairable.

Then at Lincoln Park Speedway the next night, Brady Bacon slipped up into Darland as they battled in the feature, bending Darland’s left-front wheel and putting him out of the race. It was a loss of both critical points and purse money for the Phillipses. Darland isn’t the type to whine and moan — following a pointed conversation with Bacon, he just buckled up his helmet strap a little tighter and went back after it.

Steve and Carla found ways to soldier on. In August, they scored three consecutive wins, including capturing the Kokomo Smackdown II. They won again at Riverside in September. Darland is the kind of driver that the Phillipses needed this year. They give him fast cars and the savvy veteran knows how to get the most from his equipment but doesn’t tearing it up trying.

Making the trek west at the end of the season, they kept Clauson in sight. When Dave won the Oval Nationals, the season finale, he tied Clauson for the most victories, with seven. But in the final standings, they trailed by 57 points.

If the Phillipses are selected when the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame presents its awards at the Chili Bowl in January, they will have certainly earned it. Among the nicest and most popular people on pit lane, they are winners and can proudly say that they accomplished more with less. With their personal sacrifice and a ton of sweat equity, Steve and Carla Phillips exemplify what short-track racing is all about.

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