By Richie Murray
Rossburg, Ohio (September 28, 2019)………For Kody Swanson, 2019 was a year unlike any other. The record books will forever show the Kingsburg, Calif. driver having another dominant year with five wins in 10 races and adding an unprecedented fifth USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series title to his laundry list of accomplishments within the series.
They say stats never lie, which is true. However, stats don’t always tell the whole story, a story that’s had its ups and downs, peaks and valleys, heartaches and headaches, yet ended with the thrill of victory and another triumph in a year the 31-year-old driver calls gratifying.
“It’s been a very challenging year,” Swanson admitted. “The thing that’s been great is these guys have been resilient. We won two pavement races with a backup car. Issues will happen in racing and you never know what will happen, but that’s what makes it so gratifying to win a race or a title, when you overcame so much. These guys overcame an awful lot this year and they’re champions with me.”
It’s a story that began over the offseason, when Kody’s former team with which he had won four Silver Cronw driver’s titles in a four-year-span, DePalma Motorsports, closed up shop and sent the hottest free agent on the hunt for a new ride.
He landed at Greenwood, Indiana-based Nolen Racing, the venerable team that had been winners with the series spanning from 1991 to 2018 with drivers Johnny Parsons, Jim Keeker, Tony Elliott, Shane Hollingsworth and Chris Windom.
After a rigorous offseason of prepping equipment, building a relationship with the crew, and adapting to the new environment in general, Swanson and the Nolen team were thrown into the proverbial heat of the fire at March’s season opener in Memphis.
During Friday’s practice that weekend, Swanson practiced both of Nolen’s cars. They had their primary car pulled apart on pit lane during the session after a brand-new driveshaft dealt them trouble. Meanwhile, the team pulled out their backup and Swanson put some laps on it to make sure it was ready to run. Swanson jumped back into the primary with a new driveshaft and proceeded to set the fastest lap of the afternoon.
Fast forward to raceday on Saturday, Swanson took to practice back in the primary before encountering what he described as a fluke engine part issue. Nolen once again had to roll the backup car out where they tweaked on the chassis to get it to where Kody felt it was at its best. Enter qualifying and Swanson promptly put it on the pole position. Enter race time, and after dropping back following an early-race lead, Swanson dug his way back to lead the final 20 laps and score the victory.
“I’m exhausted; I’m elated; I don’t even know what to feel,” Swanson exclaimed at the time. “I’m very grateful. I haven’t been to my day job since Tuesday. I could see the writing on the wall that we were already in a corner then. We had guys that were there into the wee hours of the morning with me almost every night this week, then back at it the next day, just digging for all we were worth to be ready. We got one ready and dug deep enough to get the other one ready just in case. You hate to think you’d ever have a failure and need it, but we did, and it was ready to come in off the bench and do a great job for us.”
Granted, any victory is difficult to come by. Yet, Swanson always seems to make it look relatively easily, although the backstories certainly tell a different tale as was the case in round two at Ohio’s Toledo Speedway in April. However, as with most success stories in racing, chapter one begins “Once upon a time…” somewhere in the race shop, with a crew burning the midnight oil with hour-after-hour of tedious maintenance and improvements. Or, perhaps, on the road, the setting may become a parking lot, as it was with Swanson and Nolen.
“The Nolen Racing 20 and everybody that’s involved is just digging harder and harder,” Swanson explained. “Yesterday, we worked in the parking lot for six-and-a-half hours before the rain came to make sure we’d be ready. Whether we liked it or not at the time, it’s the kind of stuff like that that gives you a chance to finish 100 laps and a chance to win on race day.”
Swanson did just that as the class of the field once again, winning the pole and wiring all 100 laps to capture his second-straight series victory to begin the new season at the Rollie Beale Classic.
Swanson was solid in his dirt debut with Nolen Racing in May’s Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, starting 4th and finishing 3rd. The following night, back on the pavement at Lucas Oil Raceway in Brownsburg, Ind., provided one of the team’s most challenging moments of the season. On a restart just following the halfway mark of the 100-lapper, Swanson was leading after winning the pole for the third consecutive pavement race and all seemed right in Swanson and team’s world. However, his car failed to launch on the lap 54 restart with an engine issue, handing over the lead to Kyle Hamilton who raced away to victory while Swanson settled for a 16th place finish.
Back to the drawing board, the team locked down and went straight to business with a 2nd on the dirt at Pennsylvania’s Williams Grove Speedway and another pristine pole-starting/race-winning performance at Wisconsin’s Madison International Speedway.
However, two weeks later on the high banks of Indiana’s Salem Speedway, Swanson and Nolen Racing were thrust into a painfully familiar scenario. Right before the second round of practice began, crew member Chris Phillips noticed that water was coming through one of the nozzle filters. Engine builder Bill Tranter noticed it was a big issue as well, and Swanson was forced to hop out of the primary while the team quickly retrieved the backup car. Crew members Rick Laughlin and Dale Latty had worked on the backup car leading up to the event to make sure it was ready just in case it was needed.
In a matter of minutes, the backup car went from having travel tires on it to race tires that could be scuffed for qualifying. The time that was left only allowed for two laps of practice, which proved pivotal for Swanson to diagnose what needed to be done.
“In those two laps, I was able to find the things I didn’t like about the racecar and what made me uncomfortable from the cockpit,” Swanson explained. “Immediately, we came in and there was no ‘hey, we’re tired. You figure it out.’ They all jumped in and continued to just battle it out to make it better.”
Swanson described his qualifying run that day as an uncomfortable two laps. Yet, it was good enough for the four-time series champ to win the pole by more than three tenths of a second. Despite all that, Swanson had the hunger for more.
“After we qualified, I came in and wanted to change four shocks and four springs,” Swanson recalled. “Not once did any of the guys give me any grief, like ‘hey, don’t be greedy.’ They just kept after it.”
Swanson promptly put the car on the pole and led wire-to-wire to capture his fourth consecutive Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial victory, equaling a feat previously only accomplished by Pancho Carter in 1974-75-76-77, the very same night he became the 19th driver to join the 100-start club in the USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series.
The following race on the dirt mile of the Du Quoin (Ill.) State Fairgrounds on Labor Day weekend provided yet another grief-stricken scenario during practice, which saw the Nolen Racing team losing power to not one, but two different engines during practice. Fellow driver Patrick Lawson gave up his ride to Swanson for the main event where Swanson charged from 29th to 14th to earn KSE Racing Products Hard Charger honors.
A short week followed and, six days later, the story was written in reverse as Swanson and Nolen executed their smoothest night of the year, getting back to the basics – racing and winning, which they did again for the fifth and final time of the season under the lights of Lucas Oil Raceway at the Rich Vogler Classic after pulling another engine out from under the bench, installing it in their designated backup car and leading all 100 laps.
At the Eldora finale, all Swanson had to do was present his car for the 50-lap feature event and the title was his. But Swanson is a racer and proceeded to knock out one of his better Eldora performances, starting 3rd and finishing 4th to wrap up the title by 60 points over Justin Grant.
The path to a championship isn’t always a point A to point B process, although that’s always the initial goal. And though it was certainly unlike any other year Swanson had experienced in his illustrious USAC Silver Crown career, the end result was as familiar as a comfortable pair of shoes. It’s something we’ve become accustomed to – Kody Swanson standing on the stage celebrating a Silver Crown driver’s championship where, Saturday night, at Eldora, he concluded the decade as the most decorated driver of the 2010s, and in the history of the series, perhaps the likes we will never see again to this extent.
KODY SWANSON’S 2019 USAC SILVER CROWN SEASON BY THE NUMBERS:
638: The number of points accumulated by Swanson during the 2019 season, ranks 1st among all drivers.
404: The number of laps led by Swanson during the 2019 Silver Crown season, 277 more than his nearest competitor, which ranks 1st among all drivers.
103: The number of starts Swanson now has in his Silver Crown career, which ranks 17th amongst all drivers in the history of the series.
82: The number of consecutive Silver Crown starts Swanson has made since 2012, which ranks 2nd all time behind Brian Tyler’s 97 and 1st among all active drivers.
10: The number of 2019 Silver Crown starts, which is tied for 1st along with 8 other drivers.
8: The number of times Swanson finished in the top-five and top-ten during the 2019 season. His top-fives ranks 1st while his top-tens rank tied for 2nd.
5: The number of wins Swanson earned in 2019 as well the amount of Fatheadz Eyewear Pole Awards he’s won and the number of Silver Crown driving championships he now has, all of which rank 1st among all drivers.