The Twilight Zone Racing Season Continues

Looking down towards turn four at I-96 Speedway. - T.J. Buffenbarger Photo

By T.J. Buffenbarger

Your feature winner, Jason Sides! - Mudclodbob Photo

Wyoming, MI — (June 1, 2011) — Last Thursday if someone would have told me the Little 500 would rain out, the leader of the Indy 500 would lose the race after hitting the wall coming off turn four on the final lap, and that I-96 Speedway’s World of Outlaws show would drag out until after midnight after a feature full of massive accidents I would have bet against that trifecta occurring. All of the above things happening just give more ammunition to the twilight zone like reality the racing season has become.

Saturday – Little 500 at Anderson Speedway

I was asked multiple times why I was going to Anderson. Why go with a 70% chance of rain, normally that would cause an audible to be called for a dryer destination? The reason was the Little 500 is not like any other race. The first two editions I attended were completed in the wee hours of the morning after massive rain delays. Promoter Rick Dawson and his crew as determined as I’ve ever seen to complete their marquee event the day it was scheduled. This gave me all of the confidence in the world to head south.

After arriving at Anderson I lingered around the press box knowing that rain was closing in. After sitting out a long thunderstorm, watched the Must-See Racing crew make television (more on this in a moment), the track drying process started and I caught up with a host of people I had not visited with on the grandstand side for a very long time with a plan of heading pit side for a while once the track drying was almost complete.

Soon the sun appeared, I found dinner, and the track was dried out. All was well as cars were called to the grid. Then a pop-up thunderstorm with wicked cloud to ground lightening struck the track. The call was made for people to calmly exit the grandstands, and I figured that was final straw for the Little 500 taking place on Saturday.

This is the only on track action I witnessed at Anderson on Saturday. - T.J. Buffenbarger Photo

In hindsight I should have taken into account how unusual this season has been season. I had no backup plan for a Sunday rain date and did not pack for such a need. So back home to Grand Rapids I went. It was by far not a wasted trip. I visited with a lot of our die hard readers; I met some I had not had the opportunity to speak with before, and came up with a pretty good scoop about a possible major sprint car event to close the season. The disappointment was bitter, but quickly erased with the joy my son had at the zoo the next day.

Anderson Speedway’s officials did put in a valiant effort to get the program in. The storm was rather dangerous appearing from my vantage point. It had been a very long week for their dedicated track crew after having a fatality during a late model program the previous weekend. The Anderson Speedway crew threw everything they had at the problem, but like too many times this season Mother Nature came out on top.

The most unusual part of the situation was O’Reilly Raceway Park completing the Night Before the 500 after a rain delay and the Little 500 being rained out. On several different occasions I’ve seen the opposite happen and would run into people at Anderson that started their night at ORP. I gave half a thought about heading south to see the Night Before the 500, but did not want to make the trek south before heading home.

For those that were able to take in the Sunday race it was a real thriller with plenty of drama including young Chris Windom passing Eric Gordon for the victory. If you haven’t been to the Little 500 make sure to check out my 10 reasons why. Add to them the friendly Anderson Speedway staff that was more than helpful during my abbreviated visit.

Monday – World of Outlaws at I-96 Speedway

At this point you have likely read about the demolish derby that produced one of the largest collections of World of Outlaws carnage I have ever seen in my 30 or so years of going to the race track. If you are interested in reading about the carnage, go here, but there was a lot more going on at I-96 besides the twisted metal. (I’ll give my thoughts on the current condition of the half mile race track further down the page.)

While the crashing dominated most of the discussion about Monday’s event there were several compelling story lines during the program capped off with a good feature.

With all of the rain over the past week, let alone the entire springtime, Mike Mouch and his crew at I-96 did a phenomenal job even being able to pull off Monday’s program. The staff members I encountered were very friendly and I was able to negotiate the concession line for water very quickly. The rain date also boasted a very large turnout that nearly filled the grandstands except for a few empty seats coming off turn four.

Bill Rose almost pulled off the upset win at I-96 Speedway. - T.J. Buffenbarger Photo

If you take out the crashes the feature was actually very entertaining. Following an hour long SLS Promotions/I-96 Speedway farm implement show to rework the track surface Jason Sides led early before veteran driver Bill Rose got by Sides on a restart. Rose led a good portion of the opening laps of the feature, teasing us about writing a great upset story before Sides drove by Rose to take the lead off turn four. Eventually Rose lose power just after taking the white flag. Jason Meyers avoided disaster from 10th starting spot to finish second. There was plenty of entertaining racing back further in the pack as well.


• Tim Shaffer parlayed what appeared to be a disastrous night into a solid sixth place finish. Shaffer’s car would not fire when attempting to warm up the engine. The problem was not rectified in time for Shaffer to make a hot lap session or his spot in the qualifying order.

“We there was a problem with this motor for the past couple of races, but were not quite sure,” said Shaffer. “It’s actually kind of a relief to find out something was wrong with it and it wasn’t just a problem with us”.

The CH Motorsports team did manage to change engines and get the car running in time to take one lap at the end of qualifications. Shaffer then was caught up in the opening lap wreck where he literally had to drive under Steve Kinser, just clipping the top win, and then raced through the field for a sixth place finish.

Tim Shaffer's wing damage after clipping Steve Kinser during the opening lap crash. - T.J. Buffenbarger Photo

• Fastest qualifier Chad Kemenah was in good spirits and gave us some good insight for our twitter readers about the condition of the race track. Kemenah was joined by his lone crew member Adam Brough, father in law Bob Hampshire, and his son Creed on his first solo racing adventure with his Dad. Kemenah picked up a top five finish in the feature.

• To say Lucas Wolfe’s feature at I-96 was adventurous would be an understatement. Wolfe was involved in the opening lap crash, but his team was able to make repairs for the restart. Then while coming off the second corner flames appeared from underneath Wolfe’s car. Wolfe drove around to the work area where a World of Outlaws official promptly put out the fire. The culprit was a fuel nozzle that had fallen off the engine. Just as Wolfe came into the work area the red flag appeared. Wolfe’s team promptly made repairs in time to restart. Later on Wolfe was swept into Paul McMahan’s accident, and once again Wolfe was able to restart and finish the
event in 12th spot.

Chad Kemenah was impressive as well. - Mudclodbob Photo

• Jason Meyers had a few hairy moments and was up on one wheel while encountering the banked transition between the short and long tracks at speed during the feature. Meyers managed to miss the carnage from his 10th starting spot, falling one spot short of a three-peat of World of Outlaws feature victories at I-96 Speedway.

• Darren Long is competing full time in the 410 ranks this season, but has encountered similar luck as his former cohorts that race at Limaland Motorsports Park. I-96 was Long’s third start of the 2011 season.

• Dustin Daggett was the top finishing local driver with an eighth place finish after starting 17th. Daggett was hampered when his nose wing collapsed on the left front during his qualification run. Daggett was soon bumped from the inversion position and ended up playing catch up from that point forward.

• Chad Blonde secured an A-Main starting spot through the heat races but had to scratch due to engine problems. Ironically it was the same engine aliment that caused the team to scratch during the 2010 Outlaw show at I-96.

Team owner Sean Robinson also indicated the team has sold their 360 sprint car engine and is currently focusing on their 410 effort.

T.J.’s Take: The Half-Mile at I-96…

Looking down towards turn four at I-96 Speedway. - T.J. Buffenbarger Photo

For those not from the area or if you have never been to I-96, the facility has a half mile and a smaller track insider of it normally around ¼-mile in length. In the past the infield track did not affect the lines of the front stretch. Last year the infield track was expanded from a ¼-mile to its 3/8-mile distance. To accomplish this borders of the smaller track are now much closer to the inside of the half mile and is much higher banked. Now with high banks of turns one and four right next to the blistering fast big track it creates a tunnel effect. The banking from turns four and one of the smaller track are also a scary obstacle that can launch cars on the half mile back into oncoming traffic.

Last year’s Engine Pro ASCS Sprints on Dirt presented by ARP affair had several near misses coming down the front stretch. Over the winter during the West Michigan Race Car Show I expressed concern over the width of the front straightaway of the half-mile with promoter Mike Mouch.

This year it appeared the straightaway was even narrower before SLS Promotions intervention in the form of a Bobcat plowed through part of the short track to open up some more room. Even with the extra space cars were almost banging wheels during the four abreast parade lap down the main stretch. Heat races, Dash and semi- feature with only 10-12 cars were no problem. When it came time for the main event with 24 on the edge 410 sprint cars the initial and double file restarts proved to be disastrous. Throw in the fact that the stands are in very close proximity from the racing surface with sprint cars going over 120 miles per hour down the straightaway and it scares the heck out of me. Part of me finds the closeness to the action thrilling, as no track I’ve been to gives you a better sensation of speed from a grandstand seat, but also puts spectators frighteningly close to the action.

The 3/8-mile track has been well received by local competitors and has increased the car counts at I-96 for their weekly programs. While I was initially critical of the decision to build the 3/8-mile it has problem to be successful for I-96 Speedway’s local competitors.

The problem is I-96’s two largest racing events, the World of Outlaws program and the AMA Grand National Motorcycle race, are still contested on the half mile. While I understand the attraction of having both of those events on the big track the condition it is now in is not suitable for the blinding speeds of the World of Outlaws sprint cars. I was told when this website started to gain momentum in the late 90’s that you can’t please everyone. I believe the time has come to forgo the half-mile and focus on the 3/8-mile layout or come up with a solution to return the half-mile to a more suitable condition on the front stretch before someone is seriously injured. With two of the best dirt track series in the world visiting I-96 they deserve track layout that matches the quality of both series.

Other notes

• Look for a surprise face to join the Must-See Racing X-Treme Sprint Car Series this week. One clue, “God of SOD”.

• Speaking of the Must-See Series, I tweeted on Saturday about the series possibly going to Bristol Motor Speedway for a special event in October. Details are still being finalized. This is not the only winged pavement series that could land a late schedule edition at a major speedway. Stay tuned!

• Fremont Speedway is the latest track to receive complaints from the surrounding neighborhood about noise after Mother Nature caused two programs that stretched into the wee hours of the morning. While attendance was great in the race track’s favor during a hearing about the situation Fremont area residents should remain vigilant and hopefully good neighbors in the future. Just ask the former fans and teams that raced at Warsaw Speedway how that can work out.

• After the Indy 500 we almost used the headline, “Hildebrandt Steps on It, Wheldon Stands On It for Indy 500 victory”. Even my wife, who is by far not into racing as much as I am, was amazed at the unbelievable finish. Even more impressive was how classy Hildebrandt and his team were in defeat.

This week we will be in full force at the Must-See Racing event at the Berlin Raceway for the fast car slash before T.J. enjoys a weekend in Chicago while Mudclodbob takes on Indiana Midget Week.