By Richie Murray
Du Quoin, Illinois………What is a special event, you might ask. When you get a chance to watch midgets during the so-called “offseason,” or any chance for that matter, it’s always a special occurrence.
In the biblical sense, however, a USAC Special Event is one that deviates from the norm, one that may possess an altered format or circumstances that aren’t quite as routine as they might be throughout the season, one that doesn’t pay points toward a championship.
That’s the main crux of what a special event means, and you’ll get a chance to see that come to fruition this Saturday, December 15, for the fourth annual “Junior Knepper 55” at the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin.
Throughout the history of USAC National Midget racing, there have been 46 Special Events held since the first in 1982. This Saturday features a unique format in which drivers draw for their spot in line where they will choose their own starting spot in the heat race of their choice instead of one-lap qualifications determining the heat lineups as is the case in the “regular season.”
It’s a changeup that puts drivers on the line to race without points clouding their mind. It’s an opportunity to try things as a team and as a driver that might not be the case in the middle of a summer stretch.
The majority of special events have been during the winter months and, for the most part, held at indoor facilities. But there have been those that have been held during the midst of the season as an interlude to the traditional format. The first one, in fact, came in the month of September in 1982, a 500-lap midget race at the Indianapolis Speedrome won by Lonnie Caruthers and a year later in 1983 by Rich Vogler.
The year 1985 began a string of annual midget races at the newly-built Hoosier Dome, home to the newest team in town, the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. Each year between 1985 and 2001, USAC Midgets rang in the New Year with the unofficial start of the season on the coke syrup-doused concrete surface. Three features took place each year in a single night at the “Thunder in the Dome” with the invited drivers being split into two teams (Team Indiana & Team USA). The top so many Indiana drivers and USA drivers from each feature event transferred to the main event where they’d square off for ultimate bragging rights.
Rich Vogler (1985-86-89) and Jim Hettinger (1994-98-2001) became three-time winners of the event while Russ Gamester broke through twice in 1992 & 1997. One-time winners included Nick Fornoro, Jr. ( the first race in 1986), Roy Caruthers (1988), Mike Streicher (1990), Ted Hines (1991), Kenneth Nichols (1993), Stevie Reeves (1995), Michael Lang (1996), Kevin Besecker (1999) and Johnny Parsons (2000).
The “Summer Sizzle” at 16th Street Speedway, on the grounds of the former home to the Indianapolis Indians AAA baseball team, hosted a four-day event in 1999, which remains the largest total purse in the history of USAC Midget racing of over $140,000. Jay Drake, Dave Darland and Chris Coers won prelims while Jason Leffler won the $20,000 top-prize, plus incentives.
Between 2001 and 2002, a handful of regional events were held in Indiana at Anderson Speedway with Bobby East taking a pair of victories while Shane Hollingsworth and A.J. Felker triumphed at Kokomo and Lincoln Park, respectively. In 2003, Dave Steele scored one of his 12 career victories at Indianapolis Raceway Park. In 2004, Thomas Meseraull won on the pavement of Irwindale Speedway in part two of the Twin 25’s.
Fort Wayne has been a frequent home to the USAC Midgets over the past six-plus decades. In the winter of 2004, it came back under the sanctioning of USAC. Just hours after Tony Stewart acquired the famed “Munchkin” midget in a poker game, the car was dusted off and a driver by the name of Mikey Fedorcak from Gnawbone, Indiana drove to victory. Ah, but as it turns out, it was actually Stewart himself playing the role as a master of disguise. In the ensuing years until 2007, Stewart picked up four additional victories in the car at Fort Wayne while Darland, Rich Corson and Billy Wease each tallied a single.
Josh Wise closed out the 2005 season with a victory at Orlando Speed World Speedway. In 2007, future USAC National Sprint Car winner Blake Fitzpatrick won in the series’ lone appearance at the Ohio State Fairgrounds Expo Center. Dakoda Armstrong was victorious in a 400-lapper at Anderson in 2008 while Brad Sweet doubled-up on consecutive nights at Tri-City Speedway in Granite City, Ill. as a lead-in to the “Gold Crown Nationals.” After seven years, the special event returned in 2015 with Kyle Hamilton taking the “Tony Stewart Classic” at the Indianapolis Speedrome.
The past four years have ushered in a new era of indoor dirt track racing to the list of special events. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (2015), Tyler Courtney (2016) and Christopher Bell (2017) have each notched a victory at the “Knepper 55” in recent years, leading into Saturday night’s event.
Interestingly, nine of the 46 previous special events have been won by drivers who’ve never won a full USAC National Midget points-paying feature: Roy Caruthers, Kevin Besecker, Chris Coers, Shane Hollingsworth, A.J. Felker, Thomas Meseraull, Rich Corson, Blake Fitzpatrick and Dakoda Armstrong.
Those wins can’t be discounted by any stretch as each of those wins were garnered by talented drivers against a field rich in talent. The same will be the case this Saturday when 74 talented individuals put it all on the line for their shot at glory. After all, a win at any USAC event, and at the “Junior Knepper 55,” is a truly special event in any driver’s career.
USAC NATIONAL MIDGET SPECIAL EVENT WINNERS:
9/18/1982: Indianapolis Speedrome / Lonnie Caruthers
9/17/1983: Indianapolis Speedrome / Rich Vogler
1/19/1985: Hoosier Dome / Rich Vogler
1/4/1986: Hoosier Dome / Nick Fornoro, Jr.
12/6/1986: Hoosier Dome / Rich Vogler
1/23/1988: Hoosier Dome / Roy Caruthers
1/28/1989: Hoosier Dome / Rich Vogler
1/20/1990: Hoosier Dome / Mike Streicher
1/19/1991: Hoosier Dome / Ted Hines
1/5/1992: Hoosier Dome / Russ Gamester
1/30/1993: Hoosier Dome / Kenneth Nichols
1/29/1994: Hoosier Dome / Jim Hettinger
1/28/1995: Hoosier Dome / Stevie Reeves
1/20/1996: RCA Dome / Michael Lang
1/18/1997: RCA Dome / Russ Gamester
1/17/1998: RCA Dome / Jim Hettinger
1/30/1999: RCA Dome / Kevin Besecker
7/7/1999: 16th Street Speedway / Jay Drake
7/8/1999: 16th Street Speedway / Dave Darland
7/9/1999: 16th Street Speedway / Chris Coers
7/10/1999: 16th Street Speedway / Jason Leffler
3/11/2000: RCA Dome / Johnny Parsons
3/10/2001: RCA Dome / Jim Hettinger
6/16/2001: Anderson Speedway / Bobby East
6/15/2002: Anderson Speedway / Bobby East
7/14/2002: Kokomo Speedway / Shane Hollingsworth
7/27/2002: Lincoln Park Speedway / A.J. Felker
9/27/2003: Indianapolis Raceway Park / Dave Steele
3/27/2004: Irwindale Speedway / Thomas Meseraull
12/29/2004: Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum Expo Center / Tony Stewart
12/30/2004: Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum Expo Center / Dave Darland
12/2/2005: Orlando Speed World Speedway / Josh Wise
12/29/2005: Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum Expo Center / Rich Corson
12/30/2005: Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum Expo Center / Tony Stewart
12/29/2006: Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum Expo Center / Tony Stewart
12/30/2006: Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum Expo Center / Tony Stewart
1/20/2007: Ohio State Fairgrounds Expo Center / Blake Fitzpatrick
12/28/2007: Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum Expo Center / Billy Wease
12/29/2007: Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum Expo Center / Tony Stewart
7/26/2008: Anderson Speedway / Dakoda Armstrong
10/9/2008: Tri-City Speedway / Brad Sweet
10/10/2008: Tri-City Speedway / Brad Sweet
7/25/2015: Indianapolis Speedrome / Kyle Hamilton
12/19/2015: Southern Illinois Center / Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
12/17/2016: Southern Illinois Center / Tyler Courtney
12/16/2017: Southern Illinois Center / Christopher Bell
Tickets are now on sale for the 4th annual “Junior Knepper 55” at https://usacracing.ticketspice.com/2018-knepper-55-ticket-sales. The race will serve as the final event of the 2018 USAC racing season.
Adult general admission tickets are available for just $19 in advance. Adult general admission tickets at the door are $20, kids 6-12 are $10 and kids 5 years-old and under are FREE! Pit passes are $30 for USAC members and $35 for non-members. Pit passes can be purchased at http://www.TracPass.com/.
Furthermore, on https://usacracing.ticketspice.com/2018-knepper-55-ticket-sales, you may order your 2018 “Junior Knepper 55” event t-shirt now for just $25. Sizes small through 4XL are available, but make sure to get yours soon while supplies last.
Pits open at 8am (Central) on raceday and pit passes go on sale at 10am. Spectator doors open at 2:30pm with a public drivers meeting taking place in the turn one grandstands at 3:30pm. Cars are scheduled to hit the track for hot laps at 4pm.
The race will be streamed LIVE on http://www.SpeedShiftTV.com/ with LIVE audio on the USAC app. As always, you can catch each and every USAC National event a day after the race is run, on-demand, on http://www.Loudpedal.TV/.