By Richie Murray
Speedway, Indiana (November 25, 2020)………A USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget season unlike any other wound up as the closest championship race in series history – one single point between champion Chris Windom and runner-up Tyler Courtney in the final tally for 2020.
A season that began with a two-and-a-half month absence from the racetrack between March and May due to the COVID-19 pandemic, finished with Windom (Canton, Ill.) completing his career Triple Crown with USAC’s three national divisions by earning the midget championship after collecting prior titles with Silver Crown in 2016 and AMSOIL National Sprint Cars in 2017.
Comparatively, early in his career, Windom was an instant success in Silver Crown and Sprints where he has ultimately become one of the winningest drivers of his era. But that wasn’t exactly the case in midgets. After capturing the 2006 USAC Kenyon Midget championship, the then-16-year-old set forth on his USAC National racing career, and competed in Midgets full-time right out of the box, finishing an impressive eighth in the feature his first time out at Arizona’s Manzanita Speedway, which featured a field of 62 drivers in total.
However, few drivers ever had to wait as long as Windom to reach victory lane for the first time in USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget competition, 102 starts to be exact. Finally, that night arrived for him in June of 2019 during Indiana Midget Week at Lawrenceburg. The triumph, as Windom stated at the time, put him at a “loss for words” in victory lane.
He’d win once more in 2019 for Clauson-Marshall Racing, but during the offseason, made the decision to embark on a new venture with Tucker-Boat Motorsports, a rising team with the series that needed a wheelman like him to anchor their ascent toward the top of the standings in the Tucker-Boat Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink – Pristine Auction/Spike/Speedway Toyota No. 89.
“(TBM) runs a top-notch operation,” Windom said at the time. “They pay close attention to detail, as does everyone at the top of the midget standings, but I just felt like I’ve always gotten along great with (team co-owner) Chad (Boat), and at this point I’m at in my career, this is the right move for me.”
The move paid dividends early on for Windom and Tucker-Boat, winning in just their second time out on the 2020 USAC schedule at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla. Throughout the year, no driver and team led the points more often than Windom and TBM, holding the advantage for 20 of the 28 events while winning a total of four features, with additional scores in June at Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville, Ind., July at Jefferson County Speedway in Fairbury, Neb. and September at Kokomo (Ind.) Speedway.
However, the tide began to turn late when a couple subpar performances by Windom were checkmated by strong results for 2019 series champ Courtney, who vaulted to the series point lead following the final race in the Midwest at Haubstadt, Indiana’s Tri-State Speedway on Oct. 10, then extended his lead after the first night of Western World at Arizona Speedway on Nov. 13.
When the following night resulted in engine trouble for Courtney, knocking him out of the race early, Windom stormed back to the point lead by an 11-point margin entering the final “full” points race of the year on Nov. 17 at Bakersfield (Calif.) Speedway.
Having to finish within three spots of Courtney in the feature to snare the title, Windom found himself in quicksand from the start after beginning from the 20th spot on the grid. While Courtney started third and remained near the front throughout, a 25th place qualifying time shuffled Windom back to the outside of the 10th row for the 30-lap main event, forcing him to have to make up a ton of ground in a short amount of time around the 1/3-mile dirt oval.
Courtney ran fourth as Windom was mired in 13th for the final restart with 10 laps remaining when Windom turned up the wick and elevated himself to seventh by the final lap. With Courtney picking up one more position to reach third with four laps to go, Windom needed one more spot in order to outjoust Courtney for the point lead.
That’s when Windom engaged in a seesaw, all-out war between he and sixth-running Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Courtney’s Clauson-Marshall Racing teammate – for the coveted 6th spot on the final lap in turn four, as described by Windom himself.
“I slid Ricky on the white flag lap, and he crossed me over and dove to the bottom,” Windom recalled. “(On the last lap), I was going to the bottom as hard as I could and drove into the back of him and he spun around. I got into him there, but I saw the position, and that was what I needed, one more spot to secure a triple crown. It was a split-second decision and that’s what happened.”
As a result, Windom clinched the series title by a single position, a single point, tying the previous closest final margin for the series championship when Cole Whitt defeated Tracy Hines by the same amount in 2008. By doing so, Windom became the seventh member of the career Triple Crown club of drivers who’ve won USAC Silver Crown, National Sprint and National Midget driving championships along with Pancho Carter, Tony Stewart, Dave Darland, J.J. Yeley, Jerry Coons Jr. and Tracy Hines.
“This is what I’ve worked my whole career for,” Windom said. “The way the racetrack was tonight, we buried ourselves by not qualifying well. It was so hard to pass in the feature without throwing huge slide jobs on guys, and that’s what I had to do to get to the front and get us back into contention.”
While Windom had essentially claimed the crown following Bakersfield, he couldn’t quite enter full celebration mode yet with two “appearance points” races at Merced (Calif.) Speedway closing out the campaign, awarding 50 points across the board to all USAC National Midget licensed drivers and teams as soon as they were pushed off for hot laps. When Windom’s wheels began to roll on the final night, that officially wrapped it up.
“This year, I was fortunate enough to team up with Tucker-Boat Motorsports with the support of NOS Energy Drink to chase the ultimate goal of the Triple Crown,” Windom stated. “Chad, Billy, Colton, Eric, Corey and Cam brought the best cars night and night out to put us in position to accomplish that. This championship was not only about me, as it was a huge accomplishment for TBM to capture their first (of many to come) USAC championship. I will be forever grateful for all the hard work that went into their preparation and fast race cars. Thank you to Lauren Albano, NOS Energy Drink, Toyota, Pristine Auction and all the great partner on TBM.”
Courtney’s bid to become the first repeat series champion since Bryan Clauson in 2010-11 came up narrowly short, but along the way, he did collect five victories, including series debut visits to Port City Raceway in Tulsa, Okla. in May and at Caney Valley Speedway in Caney, Kan. during July. Victories also followed for Courtney at Jefferson County in July, plus a two-night “sweep” of Eastern Midget Week in August at Action Track USA in Kutztown, Pa. and Lanco’s Clyde Martin Memorial Speedway in Newmanstown, Pa.
Tanner Thorson (Minden, Nev.), who made a late surge to put himself in the mix for the championship, finished just 28 points out of the lead in the final standings. The 2016 series champ won the 2020 season opener in February at Bubba Raceway Park, and also captured the victory in the final race of the year. He, Parnelli Jones (1964), Rich Vogler (1984), Billy Boat (1996), Jason Leffler (1999), Tony Stewart (2000) all share the distinction as the only drivers to win both the first and last race during a USAC National Midget season.
It was a 2020 season unlike any other for Thorson who took third in the standings, and a season unlike most for any driver in the course of USAC National Midget racing history over the past 65 years. His first four victories this year came for Hayward Motorsports at Bubba Raceway Park in Feb., Southern Illinois Center in March, Kokomo Speedway in June and Oklahoma’s Red Dirt Raceway in July.
In late September, Thorson joined Tom Malloy’s team where he reeled off three more wins in October at Wayne City, Ill. and in November at Arizona Speedway and Merced, making him one of just five drivers to win at least three races for two different teams in a single season in USAC National Midget history.
Parnelli Jones was the first to do the deed in 1963 for Marv Edwards and Howard Linne. Mike McGreevy is the only driver to accomplish the feat twice, first in 1965 for both Jack London and the Kenyon Brothers, then again in 1969 for owners Howard Linne and Ed Lark. Rich Vogler’s 1988 championship season include 11 wins for Wilke Racers and five for Jonathan Byrd. Jay Drake had been the most recent with three each for Ralph Potter, then Keith Kunz in 2000.
Kyle Larson’s tour of the dirt tracks during the 2020 season was a sight to behold, as it was during June’s Indiana Midget Week where he won four times in six races at Paragon, Gas City, Putnamville and Lawrenceburg en route to capturing the mini-series title for the first time while also tying Bryan Clauson as the winningest IMW driver of all-time with nine victories. Equally impressive was Larson’s streak of 10 top-two finishes with the series, a stretch that started in November 2019 and continued through November 2020.
The presence of Buddy Kofoid with the series in 2020 was exceptional for the Rookie of the Year as he turned in one of the most impressive first-year drives in series history. The Penngrove, Calif. native had pounded on the door all throughout the year with four second-place finishes leading into his long-anticipated first career victory in September at Missouri’s Sweet Springs Motorsports Complex.
Once the dam finally broke, more wins flooded in for Kofoid who closed out the final week of the year with a pair of wins – Western World at Arizona Speedway and the November Classic at Bakersfield (Calif.) Speedway and a fourth-place finish in the standings.
Fifth in the standings was Cannon McIntosh (Bixby, Okla.), who won twice, both in the month of September, at Sweet Springs, Mo. and Gas City, Ind. The Sweet Springs victory was quite memorable with McIntosh erasing a late-race one-second lead held by Windom in traffic. On the final lap, McIntosh ripped around the outside of turn four to nip Windom at the stripe by a half-car length for the victory – the only corner, the only lap McIntosh led throughout the evening, to earn his first victory since joining Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports at the beginning of the season, and the first overall for the team with USAC since August of 2019, 13 months prior.
Speaking of long periods without a win, in his two-plus decades of racing with USAC, one piece of the puzzle had been surprisingly absent from Thomas Meseraull’s resume – a NOS Energy Drink National Midget points-paying feature victory. After many a close call throughout his career, Meseraull finally sealed the deal during Harvest Cup at Haubstadt, Indiana’s Tri-State Speedway in October with an overheating engine and smoke pouring from the headers during the final laps in traffic, then withstood a last lap, last corner surge from Thorson to win by a single car length at the line.
While the San Jose, Calif. driver had previously won at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway in 2004 and at the Southern Illinois Center in 2018, both victories were non-championship, special events for USAC Midgets, making this a long-awaited night for Meseraull to mark his initial tally in the series’ win column after making 89 feature starts since his 1999 debut. Furthermore, he provided RMS Racing with its first ever USAC National Midget feature win in one fell swoop.
Meseraull’s coveted first points-paying race victory was two decades in the making, but just a month and change later, Meseraull was celebrating victory number two in the the series’ first ever event at California’s Merced Speedway. It was the San Jose, Calif. native’s first career USAC National points feature triumph that occurred in his home state.
Justin Grant ran his streak of consecutive years of winning a USAC National Midget feature to four when he notched victory on the final night of the inaugural T-Town Midget Showdown at Oklahoma’s Port City Raceway in May.
Not to be overlooked is the impressive debut season by Daison Pursley (Locust Grove, Okla.), a sixth-place finisher in the standings and the second-best Rookie in the points behind KKM teammate Kofoid. Series veterans Tanner Carrick, 7th (Lincoln, Calif.), Grant, 8th, Andrew Layser, 9th (Collegeville, Pa.) and Cole Bodine, 10th (Rossville, Ind.) rounded out the top-ten in the final points.
Inside the top-ten, for Windom, Kofoid, McIntosh, Pursley, Layser and Bodine, it was each driver’s best career finish in the final USAC National Midget point standings.
Also of note is 11th place points finisher Kaylee Bryson of Muskogee, Okla. who turned heads in her Rookie season with the series. She made headlines in July at Caney Valley Speedway in Kansas by earning a personal best third-place feature finish. Bryson became just the seventh female driver to record a top-five finish in a USAC National Midget feature event that night, joining the late Jeri Rice, Bev Griffis, Sarah McCune Stephanie Mockler, Taylor Ferns and Holly Shelton as the only ones to accomplish the feat.
Bryson’s first career Fatheadz Fast Qualifying time came during time trials at Missouri’s Sweet Springs Motorsports Complex in September. By doing so, Bryson became just the fifth female to accomplish the feat in the 65-year history of the USAC National Midget division along with McCune, Sarah Fisher, Mockler and Shelton.
Courtney led all drivers with 178 laps led and was tied for mast qualifying times with Thorson at five. Thorson not only led the series with the most feature wins, but also in top-fives (20), and top-tens (24). Windom snagged a series-high eight heat race wins and was one of just five drivers to start all 28 feature events in 2020 along with Courtney, Kofoid, McIntosh, Pursley and Windom.
Logan Seavey (Sutter, Calif.) advanced the most positions in a single feature race, charging from the 19th starting position to finish 2nd at Port City in May.
In the end, the 28-point margin between first through third in the 2020 final standings was the second closest of all-time in series history behind the 24-point separation between Tracy Hines, Thorson and Kevin Thomas Jr. in 2015. Ironically, that year marked the most recent season before Windom that a driver earned the final leg of the USAC career Triple Crown.
2020 USAC NOS ENERGY DRINK NATIONAL MIDGET STAT LEADERS
Driver Champion Leader: Chris Windom
Owner Champion: Tucker-Boat Motorsports #89
Rookie of the Year: Buddy Kofoid
Most Feature Wins: 7-Tanner Thorson
Laps Led: 178-Tyler Courtney
Top-Fives: 20-Tanner Thorson
Top-Tens: 24-Tanner Thorson
Fast Qualifying Times: 5-Tyler Courtney & Tanner Thorson
Heat Race Wins: 8-Chris Windom
Feature Starts: 28-Tyler Courtney, Buddy Kofoid, Cannon McIntosh, Daison Pursley & Chris Windom
Most Positions Gained in a Feature: 17-Logan Seavey (19th to 2nd on May 22 at Port City Raceway)