ARGABRIGHT: Smiles, Fists And Very Little Passing

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The cold night air draped across the scene at I-30 Speedway Saturday night, but it could not quell the superheated emotions wrought by the 23rd running of the Comp Cams Short Track Nationals.

Only one guy was grinning, and that was Brad Sweet (but then again, he is usually grinning). He stood atop the victory podium with an expression that revealed as much surprise as joy, while a few feet away Greg Wilson and Sam Hafertepe, Jr. appeared to be inches away from fist city.

Wilson had led most of the way on a rubber-down, huggy-pole race track, and on the final lap Hafertepe got aggressive and there was contact. Both cars slid wide, inviting Sweet to scoot up to the table for a $15,000 main course.

To his credit, Wilson restrained himself and only sharp words were exchanged.

The night had all sorts of drama, with relationships redefined. Brooke Tatnell and Wayne Johnson have surely deleted each other from Facebook, while Sammy Swindell and Brandon Wimmer aren’t going fishing together anytime soon.

I-30 is a tight, tough little Southern bullring, the type of track where the boys play a little rough now and then. But what really contributed to the frayed nerves was that circumstances led to a great annual event being diminished by impossible track conditions.

The three-day event attracted a record field of 123 cars, and when you combined the huge field with the Lucas Oil ASCS format of heats, qualifying races and a feature event each night, it apparently led to more use than the racing surface could withstand. On Saturday night the track was taking rubber midway through the heats.

The ASCS format is extremely challenging, because nobody can coast and cruise at any time. Saturday night featured 12 heats and seven qualifying races to set the field for the feature, paying a minimum of $2,300 to start. But with a one-lane racing groove, it almost guaranteed hard feelings after nearly every race.

The Short Track Nationals is a great annual event, and last year provided some of the best racing of the year. The Clay family and their staff at I-30 work very hard to make the event successful, truly pouring heart and soul into their work.

Track operators are like anybody else; life is a little bit of trial and error. This year’s event was surely a learning experience, partly because the main problem — wearing the track out — was related to a record turnout of cars.

The event is poised to become a bona fide great national event, because this year it attracted not just MORE cars, but a greater number of nationally known racers. Plus, the event has landed on the radar of sprint-car fans from all across the country, inspired by word-of-mouth reports of the top-notch racing here over the past few years.

Maybe that’s why frustration was so evident on Saturday night. A great number of people put forth a lot of preparation for a big event like this. Certainly that includes the staff at the race track, but the racers as well. Days, weeks, even months of effort go into making the deals and putting everything together. When things turn out less than hoped for, there is plenty of disappointment to go around.

In the great scheme of things, life will go on. Racers will cool off, and people in charge of making decisions will study Saturday night and work on making it better next time.

And fans, they seem to be the most hardy of the lot. They’re a forgiving bunch for the most part, and most will soon forget any disappointment and get fired up for the 24th running of the Short Track Nationals.

If you consider the success of the first 22 years, the event deserves that.

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