KENNEDY: Looking Back At The Oval Nationals

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Tim Kennedy

LOS ANGELES – The 24th annual Budweiser Perris Auto Speedway Oval Nationals presented by All-Coast Construction on Nov. 7-9 provided outstanding non-winged 410 sprint car racing.

National, CRA and Southwest point battles for the three USAC championships were close. All three titles would be decided in two events at Arizona Speedway the following weekend instead of at Perris as in past years.

Oval Nationals drivers came from seven states (per the program) as follows: California – 22, Indiana – eight, Arizona – seven, Missouri – two and one each from Iowa, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Three drivers now listed from Indiana formally listed other states. They were: Chris Windom (Illinois), Kevin Thomas Jr. (Alabama) and Brady Bacon (Oklahoma), so the state count actually could be nine.

The 2019 season summary for all three USAC sprint car series shows competitive seasons in all three series. The USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Series featured 35 races at 16 tracks in eight states and 12 different winners (Tyler Courtney led with nine victories). Nine races were canceled by rain (including in three other scheduled states).

In the AMSOIL USAC-CRA Sprint Car Series, there were 23 races at nine tracks with 14 different winners (Damion Gardner led with four victories). In the USAC Sands Chevrolet Southwest Sprint Car Series there were 18 races at four tracks with 12 different winners. C.J. Leary scored the most wins at three. The two latter series’ raced only in Arizona and California and had no rainouts.

Second generation driver Leary, 23, won his first USAC National Sprint championship. He won two features – the third race on Feb. 16 in Ocala, Fla., and the 33rd race Nov. 9 in Perris. Leary now has nine USAC National Sprint victories.

Eight of the top-10 drivers in USAC National point standings came west. USAC/CRA had nine of the top-10 in points present and USAC Southwest had six of its top-10 racing. The Saturday 40-lap feature started 28 drivers from eight states: 16 from California, four from Arizona, three from Indiana and one each from Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico and Oklahoma. They raced for a $6,000 first place check and the coveted white Perris Auto Speedway Oval Nationals Eagle Trophy.

Four past Oval Nationals champions were in the field this year. They were: three-time winners Bud Kaeding and Gardner, two-time winner Thomas and Windom. Past Oval Nationals winners spectating in the pits were Rip Williams, Rickie Gaunt and Mike Spencer. Three-time winner Dave Darland, 53, was not present this year. However, Chris Gansen told me he would have put Darland in his second car if he was present.

Car Counts: PAS Oval Nationals 2019 car counts were: 42, 41 and 37 (Nov. 7- 9). The 2018 car counts were: 43, 42 and 40; and the 2017 car counts were 43, 43 and 39. There were 31 cars present for the Wednesday practice night from 5 to 9 p.m.

Nine chassis builders were represented in the 42 sprint cars present this year. Maxim led with 15 cars. Next in order were: DRC – 10; Spike – seven;  Triple X (China) – five; and one each from KPC (Steve Kent), 777 (John Aden), Sherman, Twister and Viper (Glenn Crossno). Two backup cars, an Eagle (No. 4x) and an Okie (No. 12B), did not compete. Maxim also built the most Oval Nationals cars last year. In 2017 Maxim led with 15 cars, followed by Spike with nine, DRC with eight and Triple X with four.

Generous 410 sprint car supporter Mike Grosswendt again added money to the purse via his All Coast Construction firm despite major concerns about the health of his wife. He deserves to be inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. He was the 2018 Oval Nationals Grand Marshal. Tom and Laurie Sertich, long-time USAC-CRA sprint car owners, were much-deserved co-Grand Marshals this year. Both received the destinctiive jackets presented by promoter Donnie Kazarian each year to Perris grand marshals.

The $5 Oval Nationals color printed program was 40-pages and excellent as usual. Thomas and his 2018 Oval Nationals winning car were on the cover. It contained an accurate entry roster, point standings, numerous 5×7 color action photos, a page with photos of all prior Oval Nationals winning drivers/cars, Perris Auto Speedway racing column, California Sprint Week winners photo page and ads.

The daily temperatures at Perris for the 2019 event was in the mid-60s to mid-70s each night. As expected, spectator attendance grew daily to about 90 percent in the front straight grandstand on Saturday. Many thought the grandstand attendance topped the 2018 event crowd. The pits were crowded all three nights.

Matt McCarthy (No. 28m) flipped in the first turn during Wednesday practice. The team replaced the front end and raced the same car the next three nights. There were four flips Thursday: Courtney and Chase Johnson (qualifying), plus Jason McDougal and Sterling Cling in heat five on lap one entering turn one. Friday: one in time trials – Johnson again; Saturday: one – Austin Liggett rollover on lap 36 of the feature.

Five heat races Thursday and Friday were 10 laps each with the first six starters inverted by qualifying times. As usual all were competitive events. Positions one through four advanced to features each night; in order winners came from fourth, sixth, sixth, second and sixth on Thursday; second, first, first, fifth and fourth on Friday. Saturday had four 10-lap heats and transferred only first and second to the feature. Winners came from first, fourth, second and fourth.

The six drivers with the highest Oval Nationals points after the first two nights did not have to run in time trials Saturday. They were: Bacon (283 points), Courtney (266 points), Justin Grant (264 points), Richard VanderWeerd (256 points), Leary (245 points) and Chase Stockon (242 points).

Austin Williams (239 points) was seventh. The top six locked into the first three rows of the feature. They raced in a fully inverted dash by their event point totals; their finishing positions set feature starting positions one through six. They were: Leary, Stockon, Grant, Bacon, Courtney and non-finisher VanderWeerd.

Thursday’s main event saw 27 of 28 starters racing at the finish with 25 on the lead lap. There were three yellow flags at laps five, 17 and 23. On Friday, 20 of 27 starters finished, with 18 on the lead lap. Saturady’s had 24 of 28 starters finish with 21 on the lead lap. Nights one and two, respectively, were named the Bill and Evelyn Pratt mains to honor the late long-time CRA car owners. Last year there were 26 starters and this year had 28 including four provisional starters.

Bacon (Hoffman Chevy) led all 30 laps on Thursday and Friday. Thursday was his first Perris feature victory after 26 prior starts at the track. Saturday had two leaders, Stockon (laps one through 16), Leary (laps 17 through 40). Feature hard chargers were Hunter Schuerenberg (11 positions – 23rd to 12th); VanderWeerd (11 positions -19th to eighth); Thomas (10 positions -16th to sixth).

The 2019 Oval Nationals Ray Scheetz Memorial crew chief award went for the sixth time to Leary’s feature winning No. 19az crew chief Davey Jones, son of National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inductee Bubby Jones. Leary won Saturday’s John Jory halfway lap leader award. Cody Williams won the hard work award.

Champions of the three USAC sprint car series are: USAC National – Leary for the first time, by 18 points over Courtney; USAC-CRA – Gardner for the eighth time by 71 points over Austin Williams, and USAC Southwest – Brody Roa for the first time by 18 points over R.J. Johnson.