O’LEARY: Hoosier Pit Pass


STANFORD, Ind. — The inaugural Sprint Car Smackdown is on tap at Kokomo Speedway this coming weekend.

A new event this year, it features three nights of USAC’s AMSOIL National Sprint Car Series on the difficult Kokomo quarter-mile oval. The Smackdown is more than a one-off for big bucks, rather it is a foray into the future, probing what might be viable for wingless sprint car racing down the road.

USAC wants a cornerstone for the series and while there are several big events, such as Indiana Sprint Week, help define each racing season, there isn’t one huge mega-event. In truth, Sprint Week is a grind. With the mid-July heat, the consecutive nights of racing, and the travel from track to track, it is about excelling under highly challenging conditions. Understanding this helps understand why it has retained its popularity.

However, when everyone can come together for a weekend at a single facility, with each night’s competition building toward the finale, with a big payday and a dramatic finish, it can become a celebration of everything good about non-wing sprint car racing.

USAC’s Jason McCord and the owners of the Kokomo quarter mile, the O’Connor family, began working on the concept last year. McCord was impressed that the O’Connors had begun looking toward a special event schedule last summer. They agreed to skip Kokomo’s traditional spring USAC sprint car event and started preparing for the Smackdown early.

“The thought was to make it reserved tickets and pre-sell tickets, and you get an idea early on if it is going to be successful,” McCord explained. “The fans have flocked to it. They started selling tickets like hot cakes. So it made sense and we moved forward with the idea and the pre-ticket sales are great and I think it’s going to be a great three day event.”

The Thursday and Friday programs are going to be standard USAC format with qualifying, 30-lap features paying $5,000 to win and $500 to start. Then the finale will pay $10,000 to win and $1,000 to start. All three nights will award national division points, where Jon Stanbrough leads Levi Jones by just six, with Dave Darland less than 100 behind.

Although details have not been released, at the time of our interview McCord said that they were still ‘playing around’ with the Saturday night format leading to the 40-lap feature. “You accrue points through the first two nights, and we’re still finalizing what we’re going to do, but the final night, the top-eight in points after the first two nights will run King of the Hill, like (Terry) McCarl does at Oskaloosa, head-to-head for two laps. Start one-on-one, single elimination, that will decide how the top-eight start, everyone else will run heat races again.”

The King of the Hill elimination process hasn’t been used around Indiana for quite awhile, but it should prove entertaining on a track with a good bottom and top like Kokomo usually has. McCord adds, “It’s going to take somebody that’s using their head, but is on the gas both nights to be in the top-eight to start up front for that.”

Big events aren’t built on one weekend and public relations. If the Sprint Car Smackdown or another similar event is to become USAC’s cornerstone, it will be built one race at a time. If everything comes together and the fans credit the O’Connors with a winner, it has the potential to grow much larger. You will see more cars and more people, year after year.

This poses an interesting question. Is there room for another Knoxville Nationals on the sprint car fan’s calendar? Would they support a non-wing version, as they did the magnificent 52nd annual Goodyear Knoxville Nationals just completed? Would the non-wing fans sell-out the house year after year to enjoy nearly 100 cars competing for a winner’s payday of $150,000 over four nights of racing?

Jason McCord’s view is clear.

“Yeah, I do. I really don’t know if we can look at that scale because we don’t have a facility in Indiana like that. But I certainly think so. The health of this sport, everybody likes to blame the economy and honestly I’m over and tired of blaming the economy for everything. The health of non-wing sprint car racing is still pretty good if you look at every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, there are still a lot of race cars. A lot of people want to come here and race. I don’t know if we can look at that scale of it, but I’d like to think we can start working towards it.”

That is the right answer. The Kokomo facility is clearly not big enough for an undertaking with the scope of Knoxville.

However the O’’Connors (with Bob Sargent) are also promoters at the Terre Haute Action Track, a very fast half mile in a fairgrounds facility with a lot more room for fans and racers.

The Nationals has had half of a century to grow into what it is today, and over it’s life has climbed a lot of steep hills and weathered tough times. It would take a promoter who is committed to the long haul, and many years of great racing. This weekend’s Sprint Car Smackdown is a first step in the right direction.