LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – In the span of a half-hour on Saturday night, SPEED SPORT photographer Johnny Blaine Smith went from photographing Saturday night’s 31st annual COMP Cams Short Track Nationals at I-30 Speedway to piloting a 360 winged sprint car in the crown-jewel event.
Smith got the opportunity to jump behind the wheel of Mike Hiyashi’s No. 00 sprinter and tag the tail of the championship night program at the quarter-mile, high-banked clay oval just a couple of weeks after turning his first laps in a sprint car for a senior photo shoot.
Unfortunately, Smith’s competitive debut didn’t last nearly as long as he might have hoped.
The 17-year-old from Wynne, Ark. – a two-hour jaunt east of the track – turned two full circuits at speed in hot laps before washing out of the groove in turns three and four. He tried to save the machine, but it took off over the fourth-corner banking before flipping and coming to rest outside the race track.
Smith quickly exited the mangled machine to a rousing cheer from the crowd, but shook his head in disappointment at the quick end to his night.
“I was so hyped up on adrenaline that the ride itself really wasn’t that bad; I didn’t feel a whole lot,” Smith told track announcer Bryan Hulbert on the frontstretch. “It just went into a four-wheel slide in the middle of the corner … I think I got in a little too hard and just couldn’t save it. I’m okay, though.”
The car was too damaged to continue any further in the night, but Smith still carried a smile at being able to realize a long-awaited dream of piloting a sprint car in competition.
“This was a ton of fun while it lasted; it’s something I’ve dreamed of my entire life and to say I got to debut in a sprint car at the Short Track Nationals … not many people can say that,” noted Smith. “I’m just bummed that things happened the way they did because I felt good about how we got started.
“Huge thanks to Mike (Hiyashi) for letting me do this. Hopefully there will be another opportunity in the future.”
Shaking off the crash, Smith was back inside the third and fourth corners for the main event, behind his camera as Blake Hahn drove to a $10,041 victory in the 41-lap championship finale.
– Seth Bergman came out of his B-Main and was Saturday night’s Hard Charger, advancing from 14th to fourth during the feature and showcasing plenty of speed in his white-and-red No. 23 machine.
Much like runner-up Sam Hafertepe Jr., Bergman believed he would have had a shot at finishing higher in the final rundown if a late caution flag had waved in the final laps.
“That was pretty wild,” said Bergman. “There were a lot of good cars searching for real estate out there. We had a few holes … I know I had this thing up on two wheels a couple of times, but I’m happy with where we ended up.
“We just dug ourselves a hole in the qualifier and had to come out of the B, but to do that and run fourth, it was a pretty good run. I feel like we could have gotten the last step on the podium, but you never know and it just wasn’t meant to be tonight.”
– At the ripe young age of 23, Hahn became the 18th different winner in the 31-year history of the Short Track Nationals on Saturday night, doing so after making the championship feature for the first time.
Hahn’s victory also broke a string of veteran experience topping the prestigious event at the I-30 quarter-mile, after Sammy Swindell won the previous two editions of the race before the weekend.
Youthful exuberance was present within the Hahn crew as well, as his crew chief was 24-year-old Kellyville, Okla., resident Dalton Seigler.
“He and I do this pretty much ourselves,” said Hahn of Seigler. “I’m still speechless we pulled this off, but wow. What a night. The young kids pulled one off here.”
– Speaking of Swindell, the three-time World of Outlaws kingpin and five-time Short Track Nationals winner saw his night unravel quickly after contact with Brady Bacon led to a flip in his heat race.
That relegated Swindell to one of two C-Mains, where he ended up in another incident that ended his night.
– A total of eight drivers made their first Short Track Nationals A-Main start on Saturday night: Hahn, Joe B. Miller (fifth), Harli White (seventh), Dylan Westbrook (10th), John Carney II (13th), Carson Short (14th), Koty Adams (17th) and Chris Martin (18th).
Short was the STN Rookie of the Year by virtue of his finish in the main event.
– Tim Crawley made his event-record 21st STN championship A-Main appearance on Saturday night, but battled mechanical gremlins late in the race and faded to 12th after starting third on the grid.