INDIANAPOLIS — What hooked us all, I suppose, was the romance of racing, that weekly step into the unknown. And that is what brings us back, time after time.
Head out the door to a short-track evening full of excitement and mystery: Who’s going to be fast? Did so-and-so get his new car finished? Which outsiders might show up? Will our buddy remember to save us a couple seats? Man, I hope he saves those seats.
Sometimes, the buzz starts long before you reach the track. Up ahead on the highway, there’s a hauler. But whose? Go ahead, be an old grouch and complain that today’s enclosed trailers aren’t as cool as the ramp trucks of your youth.
That’s true; these unmarked toterhomes and box trailers are too plain for my taste, too. But even in that boxy, generic transporter, there’s a driver or a car owner, maybe both, with sweaty palms, wondering if this might be the night when it all comes together. They might have hauled across three states already to get where they’re going.
Among the thousands of fans who show up, some will have traveled as far as any race team. Others will be rabid locals. All are hoping that between the green flag and the checkered, they’ll see something special.
Yes, there is still plenty of romance in this game. The trick is to leave yourself open to it.
These days, every time you pick up the phone or wander into a race-town pub, someone wants to lecture you about all that is wrong with the sport. Blame that on social media; people are so used to posting their opinions that they now believe the world is dying to hear them. We’ve all got that friend who turns every conversation into his own depressing motorsports talk show.
If some of those mopes would get out more, something might remind them why they fell in love with this stuff in the first place.
Case in point: the eighth annual USAC Sprint Car Smackdown at Indiana’s Kokomo Speedway, which had as many storylines as cars in the pits. For my money, the best two involved Thomas Meseraull and Tyler Courtney.
Meseraull, 38, is a NorCal guy who’s been kicking around Indiana for several years. His driving style is hammer-down. Nine nights out of 10, he’ll charge hard, and on the 10th he might charge too hard. He may be the non-winged world’s answer to Jac Haudenschild, bouncing in and out of different rides, making them all go fast and occasionally pushing one too far.
At Kokomo, Meseraull was in a local car belonging to rookie owner Tom Eades. On Thursday, opening night of the three-act Smackdown, he started the feature outside the front row, passed pole man Brady Bacon on lap nine and turned the rest of the 30-lapper into a driving clinic. Not even Meseraull’s own rim-riding exuberance could beat him. He was thrilling.
The Smackdown format is simple: Points earned on the first two nights lock the top eight drivers into a series of one-on-one “King of the Hill” duels that set the first four rows of the Saturday grid.
Meseraull’s Thursday victory and a seventh on Friday made him one of those fortunate eight and after he won his first runoff — theoretically locking himself into the first two rows — it looked like he had a real shot at the Smackdown’s $11,000 top prize.
But in the second round, an ambitious lunge for the lead put Meseraull on his head, turning Eades’ Cinderella sprinter into a smashed pumpkin. When the Smackdown finale lined up, “T-Mez” started last in a borrowed ride that went nowhere.
But that was low-grade drama compared to Courtney’s saga. The 25-year-old from Indianapolis had already won five USAC features this year. His runner-up finish on Thursday appeared to set him up beautifully for Saturday. But on Friday, Courtney did a most unusual thing: He made a mistake. His first time-trial lap was seventh fastest, but on his second he bicycled hard into the concrete wall. The impact sounded like the ringing of a chassis builder’s cash register.
His Clauson-Marshall Racing team had already unloaded its backup car when someone studying the wreckage said, “Hey, wait a second.”
Yes, the front axle and all the bolt-on suspension pieces were junk, but the frame looked kinda-sorta OK. The right-side downtube was bowed and the left-front shock mount bent, but weighing all that against the cons involved with a backup car — especially the loss of that qualifying lap — they gambled on a hasty rebuild.
That’s one of the great things about sprint cars: For all of their high-tech, expensive parts, they remain just crude enough that “close enough” can be just enough, as long as you’ve got a Tyler Courtney in the seat. He won the B main and hustled to fourth in the feature.
Come Saturday evening, Courtney beat Kevin Thomas Jr., Meseraull and C.J. Leary in his “King of the Hill” matches, earning the pole for the Smackdown. Forty laps later, he was in victory lane.
No honest man could tell you that he saw these storylines coming: Meseraull and his young team briefly looming as favorites and Courtney forced into an underdog role.
But that’s why the flagman waves the green flag and that’s why we show up: Because you never know.