By Richie Murray
Salem, Indiana (August 14, 2020)………Everyone’s seemingly been chasing Kody Swanson at Salem Speedway over the past four years; that goes for the entire cast of characters in the USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series with the pavement season debut looming this Saturday night, August 15, for the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial.
Swanson aims to dethrone Pancho Carter as the king of the hills in terms of Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial victories in his career. The five-time series champ from Kingsburg, Calif. is seeking his fifth-straight win in the race. No driver before him has won five, let alone five in a row in the event. Carter won four consecutive behind the wheel of a sprint car between 1974-75-76-77.
In addition to winning the 75-lap main each year, Swanson has won the pole in each of the past four Salem Silver Crown races since 2016 and possesses the Salem Silver Crown one-lap track record of 15.923 / 125.479 mph, set in 2017.
Saturday marks the sixth appearance for the USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series on the 33-degree banked paved oval, an association between the track and USAC that began in the year of the club’s inception in 1956. The first Silver Crown event occurred in 1988 with Bob Frey scoring his first and only victory in the series in a yellow No. 20 that bears a striking resemblance to the car Swanson drove to victory in 2019 and will wheel again this Saturday for Nolen Racing.
Giving chase to Swanson at Salem in recent years are prime contenders, Franklin, Massachusetts’ Bobby Santos, a 10-time series winner who has yet to finish outside the top-four in any of his previous four Silver Crown appearances at Salem, a 4th in 2016, 3rd in 2017-18 and a runner-up result in 2019.
Justin Grant (Ione, Calif.) is the current USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car point leader, but is regularly a contender on both paved and dirt tracks aboard a Silver Crown Car with Salem results of 5th in 2016, 7th in 2017 and a pair of 6ths in both 2018-19.
David Byrne has regularly been fast at Salem, but the results have not been indicative of his competitiveness until last year’s race where the Shullsburg, Wisc. native earned his first top-five finish in the event. Aaron Pierce (Muncie, Ind.) has been solid as a rock at Salem, leading a race-high 50 laps and finishing 6th in 2016, then led the first 30 laps before taking home a 4th in 2017 and then recorded a best of 3rd in 2019.
“Rookie” is a misnomer for Brian Gerster (Fishers, Ind.), who joins Swanson as the only other past Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial winner in the field. Gerster got his two “James-O’Connor” wins in a winged sprint car back in 2014-15, but Saturday will present to him his first challenge in a Silver Crown car at Salem, which comes for the same Ram Engineering team in which he won both.
Three-time STARS Midget Champion and 2012 USAC D1 Regional Midget Jim Anderson (Joliet, Ill.) also anticipates making his Salem Silver Crown debut this Saturday along with series Rookie of the Year candidates Bryan Gossel (Fort Collins, Colo.), a 4th place finisher in his first series start last Sunday at Selinsgrove (Pa.) Speedway, and 2014 USAC Regional Midget champ Kyle O’Gara (Beech Grove, Ind.), who will try to crack a Silver Crown starting lineup for the first time since 2014.
A number of experienced Salem Silver Crown veterans have also entered their hat in the ring for Saturday night, including three-time starter Patrick Lawson (Edwardsville, Ill.), a 9th place finisher in 2016. Kyle Hamilton, the 2012 Silver Crown Rookie of the Year from Danville, Ind., has finished inside the top-five in both of his Salem starts, a 5th in 2018 and a 4th in 2019.
New Castle, Indiana’s Kyle Robbins, the 2018 series Rookie of the Year, earned his best career finish of 3rd last Sunday night at Selinsgrove. His best Salem finish in two starts came just last year, a 10th in 2019. Robbins is joined in the field by fellow two-time Salem starter, 2014 USAC HPD Midget champ Austin Nemire (Sylvania, Ohio), who was in attendance at last week’s Selinsgrove race, but opted not to compete after feeling under the weather on raceday.
Chris Windom (Canton, Ill.), the 2016 Silver Crown champion, had finished as the runner-up to Swanson three-years running in 2016-17-18 until a broken shock knocked him out of contention just 31 laps into the race in 2019. Windom’s teammate, Matt Goodnight (Winchester, Ind.), is back for a fourth Salem start after earning an 11th in 2017, 15th in 2018 and 15th in 2019.
Joe Liguori (Tampa, Fla.) aims to make a third Salem Silver Crown start Saturday after finishing an 8th in 2016 and a 13th in 2019. Liguori’s grandfather, Ralph Liguori, finished 4th in a 100-lap USAC National Sprint Car race at Salem in October of 1966, finishing just behind the trio of winner Mario Andretti, Roger McCluskey and Bobby Unser.
Mike Haggenbottom (Levittown, Pa.) returns for a 3rd Salem start after finishing 12th and 14th over the past two years. Travis Welpott (Pendleton, Ind.) earned a 10th place finish in his lone Salem Crown start in 2018. Derek Bischak (Angola, Ind.), the 2019 Silver Crown top Rookie, was a solid 8th in his 2019 Salem debut.
Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania’s John Heydenreich has experience on the Salem banks in midgets, and just last year, made his first Silver Crown appearance at the track, taking hard charger honors and finishing 11th. Fellow Pennsylvanian Dave Berkheimer (Mechanicsburg, Pa.) took a wild ride at his homestate track of Selinsgrove Speedway last Sunday. The veteran racer finished 19th at Salem in 2019.
Saturday’s Kentuckiana Ford Dealers Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial featuring the USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series & Lucas Oil Great American Stocks begins with the pits opening at 1pm Eastern, spectator gates at 3pm, practice at 3:30pm, qualifying at 5:45pm and racing at 7:15pm.
General admission tickets are $27 for adults/teens, $5 for ages 6-12 and free for ages 5 and under.
Watch it LIVE on FloRacing at https://bit.ly/2Zs7zFP.
JOE JAMES-PAT O’CONNOR MEMORIAL ENTRY LIST:
06 ®BRYAN GOSSEL/Fort Collins, CO (Bryan Gossel)
1 ®KYLE O’GARA/Beech Grove, IN (SFHR Development)
2 PATRICK LAWSON/Edwardsville, IL (Patrick Lawson)
6 KYLE HAMILTON/Danville, IN (Klatt Enterprises)
7 KYLE ROBBINS/New Castle, IN (KR Racing)
16 AUSTIN NEMIRE/Sylvania, OH (Nemire-Lesko Racing)
17 CHRIS WINDOM/Canton, IL (Goodnight Racing)
18 TRAVIS WELPOTT/Pendleton, IN (Welpott Racing)
20 KODY SWANSON/Kingsburg, CA (Nolen Racing)
22 BOBBY SANTOS/Franklin, MA (DJ Racing)
24 MIKE HAGGENBOTTOM/Levittown, PA (John Haggenbottom)
26 AARON PIERCE/Muncie, IN (Sam Pierce)
31 DAVE BERKHEIMER/Mechanicsburg, PA (Dave Berkheimer)
32 JOE LIGUORI/Tampa, FL (Williams & Wright Racing)
39 MATT GOODNIGHT/Winchester, IN (Goodnight Racing)
40 DAVID BYRNE/Shullsburg, WI (Byrne Racing)
43 JOHN HEYDENREICH/Bloomsburg, PA (A.J. Felker)
91 JUSTIN GRANT/Ione, CA (Hemelgarn Racing)
92 JIM ANDERSON/Joliet, IL (Kazmark Motorsports)
94 BRIAN GERSTER/Fishers, IN (Ram Engineering)
131 DEREK BISCHAK/Angola, IN (Derek Bischak)
® Represent a USAC Silver Crown Rookie of the Year contender