By T.J. Buffenbarger
The July event at Crystal Motor Speedway featuring the Sprints on Dirt and National Racing Alliance has taken a night and day difference since my last visit to the event five years ago. The addition of the NRA co-sanction to the event gives it a big race feel when entering in the pit area. I would rate this date on the Michigan sprint car calendar on the top five of the biggest events of the season.
While still announcing on the SOD tour the third date was added at Crystal during a growth period in the series. The race a success car and fan count wise, but just didn’t have the same feel as the opener in April or the Labor Day date. During the off season three years ago SOD officials came up with an idea and sold title sponsor Engine Pro on adding the NRA to this with an increased purse. The idea was warmly received by race fans and energized the date on the SOD calendar. Seeing Randy Hannagan, J.R. Stewart, Max Stambaugh and company is a great addition to a date on the SOD schedule that was thin on cars due to mid-summer attrition.
The rivalry between the SOD and NRA teams is intense but friendly. There are friendships among teams from both series and actually some cross competition between the two outside of the co-sanctioned events. While it is friendly rivalry having the amount of high quality cars double at an event does make the racing more intense. Having this rivalry come to the birthplace of the SOD series seems fitting.
This was my first chance to take one of the co-sanctioned race at Crystal. Saturday night had a similar feel of the opener and Labor Day races, but energized just a bit more by the increased competition. Michigan and Ohio have a natural born rivalry between the neighboring states, and SOD/NRA co-sanctioning taps into that competitiveness for the teams and race fans. The past two seasons the SOD/NRA event has packed the grandstands.
Even with Tony Stewart on hand on Saturday the crowd was not much larger than Crystal had seen the previous two seasons for the mid-season championship. It was great to see a huge crowd for a sprint car race at Crystal without a built in weekend crowd for a holiday or the excitement of being the first race of the season.
After going to the SOD/NRA program on Saturday I wondered how I managed to miss the first two editions of this great event. Now I would look for the race to be a regular part of my yearly racing calendar.
- Randy Hannagan’s suspension from the National Racing Alliance found a solution that worked both for NRA and Crystal Motor Speedway fans when Hannagan purchased a SOD membership and competed as a SOD member during both the co-sanctioned events. This allowed fans from the Crystal area that likely only seen Hannagan once per season to see him compete and NRA to fulfill their suspension by not awarding Hannagan points.
- Tony Stewart continued his weekend off from his day job with the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series at Crystal on Saturday after picking up the victory on Friday at the Tri-City Motor Speedway during his first sprint car start since breaking his leg at Southern Iowa Speedway in August 2013. Stewart looked sharp on Saturday, particularly on starts and restarts. It was fascinating to watch Stewart wait for holes to open up or charge through them at just the right moment during restarts to make passes.
- While Stewart drew cheers every time he hit the race track the loudest reaction of the night was when Dustin Daggett passed Stewart for second during the feature. Their race for the runner up spot was intense, but when Daggett got the upper hand the Crystal faithful went bananas as he closed in on leader Randy Hannagan. Hannagan though was able to slip through the slower traffic quicker than Daggett, which ended up being the advantage that helped Hanngan come out on top.
- Coming off his victory at Crystal look for Hannagan to possibly take a week off next to prepare for the upcoming Knoxville 360 and 410 Nationals.
- Daggett’s second place run and recent win at Eldora Speedway was done so utilizing the team’s oldest engine. The engine has carried Daggett to some of his biggest victories.
- While most eyes were fixed on the battle for position with the top three, behind them Dustin Stroup put together a nice run into a fifth place finish on Saturday at Crystal. The former 305 competitor methodically moved up into the top five and was closing on the lead battle during the later portion of the event.
- J.R. Stewart’s grinding crash during the feature was one of the hardest we had witnessed at Crystal Motor Speedway. Stewart got into the fence coming out of turn four and the situation continued to get worse down the front stretch before getting upside down and slamming into the wall. Eric Smith also had a wild ride off the end of turn one and as far into the trees. Thankfully both drivers were uninjured.
- If you have not had enough SOD / NRA racing the final co-sanctioned event of the year takes place on Saturday at Butler Motor Speedway.