By Danny Burton
Danny Burton’s Hoosier Race Report appears courtesy of OpenWheelRacers.com
No matter how hard one may try and keep up with all the short track hot shoes, there will always be some who’ll slip through the cracks. Granted, I pay more attention to up and coming open wheel racers, but I can say that I’m quite aware of a few of our fendered brethren too. And after Sunday’s 36th Winchester 400 at the venerable Winchester Speedway’s high banks, now I’m quite aware of a young man named Ryan Lawler. Perhaps you should be as well; maybe this young man may move on to other racing series.
For me, this would be my last trip north to Winchester for the 2007 season. It’s usually a bittersweet time; the cornfields are pretty much picked for the year and you can see for miles across the Indiana landscape. This makes for a great view from the confines of the little truck, but one need not contemplate that winter cannot be too far away.
Having committed to ushering at church, I caught a break as my usher captain (a race fan in his own right), dismissed me early to make my getaway. So I arrived at the track in plenty of time, parking maybe 30 feet from Indiana Road 32.
The good sized crowd would get the added treat of having two of NASCAR’s regulars on hand to try their hand at outrunning the Championship Racing Association’s finest. Kyle Busch has run here before; I saw him here at this race a few years back. He ran very well and showed much promise until his right front tire blew, sending him into the turn four wall. And David Stremme more or less grew up here, a South Bend, Indiana boy who excelled on the high banks of both Winchester and Salem before heading south.
But Lawler would be one for the NASCAR hot shots to worry about as he set a new track record for the CRA here at a blistering 15.189 seconds.
First and foremost, I’m a race fan. I love seeing sprints and/or midgets pushing off and lining up to start a feature. But watching the 40 car field take off from their positions angled out from the front stretch wall was a lovely sight. Often racing is racing and to ignore most other forms of racing is, for me, quite limiting. Blame it on my dad, who would have been 80 this past Friday. He took me to see everything from supermodifieds to sprints to, of course, stock cars.
I paid a bit of extra attention to Stremme and Busch, who had to start at the tail of the field. It occurred to me that here was another place where Indy car racing was dropping the ball. When was the last time you saw an Indy car racer running at a local short track, or even a local road course? But NASCAR’s boys have done this for years and it has paid off. Bring in one or two of the familiar faces, turn them loose on the guys who race at the same track or with the same sanctioning body, then sit back and enjoy.
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only open wheel fan present. Ace photographer Kris Pederson was on the grounds, snapping away for a racing publication. And it would have taken a couple of armies to keep Dave Argabright away; Winchester was to him as a boy just as Salem, down here in the southern part of the state, was for me.
I looked for an open wheel connection other than those two and found it easily in Chris Gabeheart, who drove a midget at one time before turning to late models. His efforts paid off as he would clinch the CRA points championship today. And then there was another racer on hand who made me feel good by his very presence. Stanley Smith ran a few NASCAR races a quite a few years back before a nasty Talladega crash nearly did him in. But he recovered and has run with the CRA on occasion the past several years.
At 1:12 p.m., the green flag waved and all of those NASCAR/TV only fans were about to miss a good race. Brian Scott took the early lead over Lawler, Justin Drawdy, local boy Brian Rievely and Robbie Pyle. Back in the pack Busch and Stremme took turns leading each other as they worked their way to the front. Busch’s day would be over early (lap 85) with a balky wheel the culprit.
Scott held onto the lead over Lawler and Drawdy following the first round of pit stops after a lap 121 yellow. With 20 cars on the lead lap, Scott led Rick Turner, Lawler, Stremme (yep, he was right there), John Van Doom (with recently retired Tim Steele serving as crew chief), Drawdy, Smith, Gabeheart, 2006 winner Scott Hantz, and Tommy St. John.
It was right around lap 150 when Stremme got around Turner for second. And after a re-start for a J.R. Roahrig crash, Stremme took the lead over Scott. The Robert Hamke built #40 held onto the lead and was leading when the race was stopped on lap 194 for a multi-car crash in turn two. Bull Baker was tapped from behind and chaos ensued with several cars involved.
After the brief red flag period (long enough for a quick phone call) the re-start saw Stremme lead Turner, Scott, St. John, Hantz, Lawler, Van Doom, Drawdy, Gabeheart, and Andy Hanson. I counted 25 cars still running at this point. A few laps later Scott put a slide job on Turner to take second. After a lap 213 caution Stremme, Turner, and St. John all pitted. This gave Scott the lead over Lawler, Van Doom, Drawdy and Gabeheart. But Drawdy slowed on the re-start and retired. Jeff Lane crashed on lap 233 and Lawler pitted.
Scott still led, but Stremme was like Pac-Man, gobbling up distance between him and Scott. And after running fourth at the re-start, he passed Scott on lap 276 for the lead. Caution flag #8 flew on lap 307 and Stremme, Hantz, Van Doom, Gabeheart, and St. John all pitted. Now the lead lap cars were Lawler, Stremme (with new tires as opposed to Lawler’s older rubber), Van Doom, Scott, Hantz, Gabeheart, Turner, and St. John.
Here was where I made another of my famous predictions, which was this race would now be Stremme’s to lose. But Lawler had other ideas. Yellow flags flew on lap 322 and again on lap 334 as Scott made an ill-advised attempt to pass Hantz coming out of turn four and crashed them both. Stremme pitted for more tires and re-started sixth after the Scott-Hantz wreck. And so here we were.
60 plus laps to go and Stremme had another chance to catch Lawler, who still led. David was able to get around Gabeheart, St. John, Turner, and was ready to try getting around Van Doom. But as the laps wound down, Stremme had a wheel go bad on him and slowed. Meanwhile Lawler, who had tested at Winchester once and had been to the Labor Day Stock Car Festival here, was on his way to a huge win. Van Doom, from Michigan, was second with Stremme hanging on for third. Rick Turner was a lap down in fourth with Terry Fisher Jr. running steady all day to finish fifth. The second five was St. John, Dennis Schoenfeld, Jeff Fultz, Jim Crabtree Jr., and Andy Hanson.
Lawler proclaimed Winchester his “favorite track” and we can only hope that he comes back someday as has Stremme, who allowed that this was the “most fun I’ve had in a long time.” Maybe you can go home again, Thomas Wolfe?
This wraps it up for Winchester this year. But the CRA heads for Nashville, Tennessee on November 3-4 for the Adam Petty Memorial All-American 400, a gathering of the best short trackers on a historic track, the Music City Motorplex.
So it was a fond farewell to Winchester for another year. I slowly made my way out to the highway and my old truck. I’d not run into very many of my fellow travelers on this day, but had a happy surprise when I did meet up with big Mike. A few weeks ago I wrote an article about Mike’s grandson Andrew (and Drake Besecker) and their current struggles. Mike told me that Andrew is hanging in there. One thing for sure is that the little guy has plenty of folks pulling for him and a very caring family.
Talking with another buddy as I left the track, I reluctantly headed south. Right now it seems like a long way until April and the start of the 2008 season. But soon it will be here, ready or not, and I surely hope to be back at Winchester.
Not much was going on in Indiana over the weekend except, of course, for Lawrenceburg’s FunFest, with the sprint feature won by Kyle Cummins. James Robertson won the Ford Focus feature at Anderson.
Confiscating Kelvin Sampson’s cell phone, I’m…
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