RACING SCENE column (PAS Oval Nationals—Part II) – By Tim Kennedy
Los Angeles, CA. - Owner/driver Dennis Gile, from Phoenix, was a first-time Oval Nationals entrant in 2017. The personable and friendly racer is an interesting guy and has a most unusual background for a sprint car driver. He told me he started racing a 360 ci sprint car during 2016 as a rookie in Arizona and earned rookie of the year honors after placing fifth in point standings. He said his best main event finish was second (twice) to champion R. J. Johnson. In one of those runner-up finishes he said he led 29 of the 30 laps before R. J. passed him.
Dennis, 36, completed his second season of sprint car racing in 2017 in his own No. 13 silver & orange Dave Ellis-built chassis. He entered the November 9-11 PAS Oval Nationals with a 410 engine borrowed from fellow Arizona owner/driver Mike Martin (No. 16). It was Dennis' first race with 410 power and he loved the experience. He said he loved racing on the Perris half-mile and enjoyed going fast. He added that he wants to return to Perris to race as often as possible next season. He performed very well in his PAS debut.
So why does he use No. 13 on his sprint car? Dennis said he is not superstitious and that was football jersey number. He was a starting quarterback on his high school team in Phoenix and at Central Missouri State University. Both teams had winning records with Dennis as the starting QB wearing No. 13. Dennis was not drafted in the NFL annual draft, but he was a walk-on QB for the New England Patriots during initial practice sessions. He wore No. 17 with the Patriots but was cut before the season started. Dennis spoke fondly of head coach Bill Belichick and starting QB Tom Brady.
Dennis then went north to Canada to the professional Canadian Football League (CFL) and played QB for two seasons (2004-05) with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He was 6'2” and 220 and had No. 17 on his green/white jersey. His team 2004 record was 9-9 in the regular season for third place in the CFL West Division and 1-1 in post-season. His team against went 9-9 in 2005 for fourth place and 0-1 in post-season. An injury ending his playing career. He still coaches young high school and college QBs.
The Gile No. 13 record at the 2017 Oval Nationals:
> Thur. Nov. 9 – qualified at 17.202, 30th fastest of 43 drivers. Started heat 5 on pole and finished fourth. Started 30-lap feature 24th of 27 and was lapped on lap 23. He lost his brakes and dropped out, placing 28th. He ranked 23rd of 43 drivers in Oval National points after the first of two preliminary nights.
> Friday, Nov. 10 – qualified at 17.216, 32nd fastest of 43 drivers. Started heat 3 seventh and finished in P. 8 of nine drivers and on the lead lap. Started 12th in the B-main and finished 13th of 18 drivers racing at the finish and on the lead lap. He ranked 28th of 44 drivers with Oval Nationals points after two nights.
> Saturday, Nov. 11 – Qualified at 17.370, 28th fastest of 39 drivers who had to qualify (Six drivers with most event points went directly to the Saturday main event.). He started heat 3 seventh and finished eighth on the lead lap. In the B-main he started sixth and finished fourth with nine drivers RAF. (P 1-5 advanced to the feature). In the 40-lap feature, Gile started 21st in a 26-driver field and finished 20th (- 1 lap) right behind track veteran Chris Gansen.
Two of the USAC National Sprint Series drivers were Justin Grant, who is married to NSCHofF driver Bubby Jones' daughter Ashley. They became parents of fraternal twins, a boy and girl, during early January, 2017 while Justin was in Tulsa racing a midget and finishing third in the Saturday feature at the annual Chili Bowl Classic. Justin led USAC National Sprint points from the first race almost all season, except for one race in mid-season. He lost the point lead to Chris Windom in Arizona November 3-4. Both were seeking their first title in the series.
After Oval Nationals Thursday time trials, Grant regained the point lead by one point. Windom won heat two and Grant finished fifth in heat three, so Windom regained the point lead by seven points. In Saturday's main event Grant had to beat Windom by five positions to become the 2017 champion. If he won by only four positions they would finish the season tied. To break the tie the number of feature victories by each driver would determine the champion. Both drivers won four times, so number of runner-ups would have to be determined by USAC officials.
Grant started first and Windom started third; he kept Grant in his sight all 40 laps. Grant led laps 32-33 and finished second to Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Windom was fourth. So Windom won his first USAC National Sprint championships by six points (2290-2284). Windom, 26, also gave his car owners, the Baldwin brothers, their first USAC National Sprint Series car owner title after many years of trying with excellent drivers.
Brady Bacon drove the No. 63 Joe Dooling sprinter that the late Bryan Clauson had raced so successfully prior to his untimely passing a day after his flip at the Belleville (Kan.) Midget Classic. Bacon's car had “Tim Dugger Country Music” on the side. He is a country music singer under contract to former California Lieutenant Governor Mike Curb, a long-time supporter of open-wheel and stock car racing.
Chase Stockon has “Laura Stockon Special” on the nose of his No. 32 DRC chassis to honor the memory of his late mother, who succumbed to cancer several years ago. Chase and his crew stayed in their motor-coach hauler in the PAS pits during the Oval Nationals. He said they towed from Arizona Speedway (near Mesa) to PAS Tuesday. He practiced Wednesday during the sprint cars only 5 to 9 pm practice session. Many teams took parts with no mishaps.
Stockon's team departed PAS right after the Saturday finale and drove home I-15 to Barstow and I-40 to Fort Branch, Indiana. (SW Indiana) to be home by Monday before nightfall. Stockon had not won a USAC sprint feature all year until he came west in November. Then he won back--to-back mains at Arizona Speedway in event 35 and at Perris in event 36 and finished fifth in points.
The Maxim No. 17GP (for Griffin Propane) is owned by Mike Dutcher, of Indiana. His father was a CRA sprint car fan who worked in the 1970s for Walt James, the 1950-70 CRA president and Newhall Land & Farming Co. general manager at the Indian Dunes Park off-road racing facility near Castaic and the I-5 /126 interchange.
WEDDING: Sprint car No. 10 racing twin Richard VanderWeerd, 26, of Visalia, and his fiancee Stephanie Bristol, of Hanford, wed Friday, November 24. The bride is a 27-year old Registered Nurse specializing in neuro-trauma. They met at a sprint car race in Hanford three years ago. Best man of course was Richard's twin brother and No. 88 Maxim driver Jace (one minute older). Their honeymoon site is Aspen, Colorado. The newlywed couple has a three-year old friendly yellow Lab named Callie who is always at their race trailer in the pits.
Current Hoosier Thomas Meseraull, formerly from San Jose, is awaiting the birth of his second child. He said his No. 19az Andy Reinbold car pitted from his main event because a fuel nozzle broke. He flipped in heat two on Saturday and his car was sidelined again. His 2017 Oval Nationals was his most forgettable.
Noteworthy: On the other hand, Brody Roa had his best weekend ever with feature finishes of third Thursday, first Friday, and sixth Saturday. ... Logan Williams, Rip's third son, won his heat races all three nights in John Jory's No. 5 Spike. .. We learned that “the people's champion” and 2017 NSCHofF inductee Dave Darland will be returning to a former sprint ride—the No. 39g Goodnight Racing team. ... Car counts of 43 November 9 and 10 were topped in 2017 USAC National Series only by car counts of 45 and 44 in July and August at Kokomo, Indiana.
The knowledgeable female voice on the second PAS pit mic at the Oval Nationals was Georgia Henneberry, 27, of St. Louis, MO. She does pit reporting at USAC National events. She asked intelligent questions and follow-ups. Georgia has been dating driver Chris Windom for a year. She even interviewed the P. 4 Saturday feature driver and 2017 USAC National Sprint champion Windom following Saturday's main event. They seem to be an ideal racing couple.
Austin Liggett, of Tracy, drove the No. 56 ART/Chevy for owner Mike Phulp instead of usual driver Ryan Bernal, of Hollister. Bernal had started a new job with major public utility Pacific Gas & Electric in Nor Cal and as a new employee was unable to get time off to go racing. So Austin was able to keep the No. 83 Liggett Chevy, an ART chassis owned by his father Tim, parked at home and he became “a hired gun” at The PAS.
The No. 11 Sam McGhee Maxim/Foxco raced by Justin Grant November 9-11 was the same No. 17 Maxim in which he won the 30-lap USAC-CRA October 21 PAS feature. They re-bodied the No. 17 and used their USAC National number (11) to earn national car owner points. The McGhee team will not be racing for USAC points next season. It will compete as a winged sprint car team in 2018 starting with January events in Florida. The driver will be older son Max, who did not race in 2017, but raced winged sprints earlier. So 2017 USAC National Sprint Series runner-up Grant is seeking a new racing team affiliation for 2018.
The TOPP name on the No. 23c driven by impressive five-time 2017 USAC National Sprint feature winner Tyler Courtney does not stand for anything according to the driver. The car owner is Kevin Birchmeir. Courtney told me he had only raced at PAS once before the 2017 Oval Nationals. That was in 2014 when he raced a second Arizona sprinter for Bob Ream's car owner.
In Thursday's heat four, Courtney stated fourth, fell to sixth on lap 1 and was still fifth on lap 9. On lap 10 he electrified the crowd by charging on the outside in all four turns to pass two cars (Darland & Ballou) and finished third. Roa followed him and and moved from P. 6 to P. 4 by also passing the same two drivers to earn the final feature transfer from that heat.
The No. 69 Richard Hoffman Chevy started in the 1950s as No. 7 and No. 98 with the late car owner Gus Hoffman, Richard's father. Richard, a NSCHofF inductee, told me the team has used No. 69 on their cars since the 1980s because that was the number on their Indianapolis 500 entries, including their Eagle. They had about eight Indy 500 entries over the years.
Most successful Hoffman 69 driver according to Richard was Brady Bacon, the 2016 USAC National Sprint champ. This season Brady elected to drive the No. 63 Dooling sprinter in 2017 that Bryan Clauson had raced. Chad Boespflug got the Hoffman 69 ride, won the April 14 Bloomington, (Ind.) 30-lap USAC main and finished sixth in national points. Richard said they are negotiating now with Chad to return to the 69 ride in 2018.
In Thursday's fifth heat rookie and first-time 410 driver Dennis Gile started on pole and ran third or fourth from laps 7-10 against experienced 410 National and regional 410 drivers. He kept Brady Bacon behind him and out of the last feature transfer spot despite intense pressure. Dennis was using a Mike Martin 410 engine loaned to him rent-free by owner/driver Mike Martin for the Oval Nationals.
Thursday's 12-lap B-main started 22 cars and amazingly all 22 cars finished the all-green light, “mucho” passing race with only two cars lapped. The winning time was 3:26.55. Grant, Ballou, R. VanderWeerd and Meseraull earned the four transfers to Thursday's A-main.
Meseraull passed all-time PAS winner Damion Gardner on the final lap, so Damion had to use a USAC-CRA provisional berth (rare for him) and start 26th. Bacon also used a USAC National provisional and started from P. 25. Austin Williams also used a USAC-CRA provisional to start last (P. 27). Gardner said his USAC-CRA championship winning No. 4 Mark Alexander team really needs a new financial backer for 2018. .
Grandstand Predicting: It is fun to predict heat race transfers directly to the feature on preliminary race nights. The strong Oval Nationals field this year made it difficult. Five 10-lap heats Thursday and five more Friday used a six-car inverted starting lineup based on qualifying times. My predictions Thursday from H-1 through H-5 were: 3 for 4 correct, then 2 for 4, 3 for 4, 2 for 4 and 2 for 4. My Friday H-1 through H-5 success totals were: 3 for 4, 2 for 4, 4 for 4, 3 for 4 and 2 for 4. Withe straight-up starts in the B-mains I predicted 3 for 4 correct Thursday and 3 for 4 Friday.
The four 10-lap Saturday heat races transferred only P 1-2 finishers into the 40-lap feature. In order I predicted 1 of 2 in each of the first three heats and zero for 2 in the final heat. In the 6-lap dash I predicted P. 1-6 in order and got P. 1-2-3 and 6 correct and missed on P. 4-5. Try it yourself next year. It is not easy.
The first of two 12-lap B-mains advanced the top five in each B-main to the main event. I predicted three of the five transfers in correctly in each B-main. My top five picks in the A-main finished in P. 4-1-2-5 and 6. Chad Boespflug charged from 13th starting spot to finish third and deservedly earn the hard charger award for advancing ten positions.
YAMAHA R1DT DEMO RACE: The first-ever Yamaha R1DT demonstration race took place Saturday, November 11 during the Perris Oval Nationals. There was an 8-lap heat race plus a 20-lap main event. Eight cars have been built so far in a small shop in San Diego.
The open-wheel cars are tube chassis, purpose-built dirt track cars with a roll-cage over the driver. They are powered by a fuel-injected, in-line four-cylinder engine from Yamaha's RIS production motorcycle. The new racing car is designed to be a low maintenance, low-cost operation, turn-key production race car. National retail distribution, financing, parts and support are planned to help grow the new racing car nationwide.
Eight drivers from diverse backgrounds competed in the heat and feature at Perris. They were:
No. 1 – Dustin Nelson, ATV and motocross racer,
No. 2 - C. J. Greaves, off-road racer,
No. 3 – Natalie Decker, ARCA and NASCAR stock cars driver,
No. 4 – Josh Hayes, AMA Superbike racer,
No. 5 – Cory Kruseman, USAC sprint cars and midgets driver,
No. 6 – Donnie Moran, dirt late model stock car driver who won the Eldora $1,000,000,
No. 7 – Sammy Halbert, AMA Flat Track pro motorcycle racer,
No. 8 – Ken Gushi, Drifting star driver.
Nelson won the 8-lap heat race. The 20-lap main event on the half-mile clay track had three leaders. Gushi led lap 1, Nelson was the lap 2 leader, and Greaves led laps 3-20. They all said the cars were fun to drive and enjoyed the experience. Watch for further developments about this new type of race car.