O’LEARY: Hoosier Pit Pass


STANFORD, Ind. — Driving to Orlando for a business trade show and a weekend of racing, Levi Jones discussed his schedule for the coming year.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve been able to decide what I wanted to do other than racing first,” he said. “Then I filled out the racing around that. My whole life it’s been the other way. I’ve missed weddings and funerals and everything in-between, because of racing the last 10 years. It’s been great, but I’m going to do it a little different now.”

To keep the record straight, Jones has competed the majority of USAC’s sprint car schedule each of the past dozen seasons. Between 2005 and 2011, he earned five USAC national sprint car championships, more than any other driver in USAC’s 50-year history. He finished second the two years that he didn’t capture the title. In other words, over seven consecutive seasons, he didn’t finish worse than second in the national standings. Now he’s stepping back.

“It’s something that I had looked at after the 2010 year,” he explained as he drove. “If you look at what I’ve been able to do, there’s not much more that I need to prove to anybody or myself. You just have to make a decision of what’s best for yourself and your family. I just felt that it was time where being in a hotel room 100 nights a year, and being gone was not something that I wanted to do anymore.”

There is no doubt that the 2011 season made the decision imperative for Levi. In late August, he was leading the national points as the sprint cars wrapped up the Kokomo Smackdown, with Jon Stanbrough, Dave Darland and Bryan Clauson at his heels. Then, just days later, he announced that he had scheduled season-ending surgery.

Jones had seen a specialist in St. Louis and then Dr. Terry Trammell in Indianapolis a week later, and the recommendation was unanimous. He had three herniated discs in his neck and the surgery needed to be performed quickly to prevent more damage. Levi says that it became an easy decision.

“It got to the point where when it shut the nerve canal to my left arm, I didn’t have any strength in my arm and it felt like my elbow was in a vise,” Jones explained.

The procedure went well and he quickly began to rehab. Before the season was over, he was back in the pits as a spectator. He’s made great progress, but is still working at it.

“I went through last summer not having my strength in my left arm and I’m building my strength back up,” he says. “Just my left index finger is the only thing where I can still feel the effects of it now.”

With the decision to not chase USAC’s AMSOIL National Sprint Car Series points, Jones is focusing on winning his third USAC Silver Crown championship. He will again be teamed with last year’s Traxxas Silver Crown champion, Bobby East, on the Tony Stewart Racing team for the dozen races. He will also drive a second machine for car owner Jeff Walker in selected sprint car events, and has been preparing Jack Rogers’ sprint car to race when he wants.

“We’ve been working on it when we had time over the winter, getting it ready to run probably 12 races in it. We can leave home on a Saturday, race, and come back home,” he said with a smile. He calls it an awesome schedule.