Liguori Holds Off Bettis For $10,000 Children’s Dream Fund 50 Payday

Joe Liguori Jacob Seelman Photo

Must See Racing
INVERNESS, Fla. (March 2, 2024) – Joe Liguori may have dominated the Children’s Dream Fund 50 Saturday night at Citrus County Speedway, but the box score didn’t show how hard he had to work for it.

Holding off challenge after challenge from 14-year-old Colton Bettis in the closing stages, Liguori led the final 39 laps around the quarter-mile oval en route to a $10,000 victory.

Saturday’s race, which benefited the Children’s Dream Fund, was co-sanctioned by the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series presented by Perfit and the BG Products Southern Sprint Car Shootout Series.

Though Bettis got a nose underneath Liguori twice in the final five laps – including once in turn four after delivering a hefty bump to Liguori’s rear nerf bar – the third-generation veteran never faltered.

Liguori kept his car straight and true in the waning moments, ultimately earning an emotional triumph for car owner George Rudolph. It marked Liguori’s fourth career win under Must See Racing sanction.

“This is a big confidence booster,” said Liguori, who broke a drought with the series dating back to July of 2022 at Rockford (Ill.) Speedway. “Sometimes as a driver, I do get down on myself, and we had an awful year up north last year with engine issues … it just seemed like anything that could go wrong did.

“I’ve got some of the best behind me, with George Rudolph in my corner, and on a night like this I’m just the lucky guy that gets to turn the steering wheel. … I’m not sure we can get this trophy home; it’s taller than me!”

With looming weather threatening throughout the afternoon, a format change agreed upon by series officials saw qualifying times set the feature lineup, with an eight-inversion applied after a dice roll.

That meant that Canadian Aaron Willison, who set fast time with a near track-record lap of 11.680 seconds, started outside of the fourth row while 21-year-old Steven Hollinger led the field to green in longtime owner Mike Blake’s iconic No. 81.

Hollinger was the rabbit on the initial start, jumping out to a lead of nearly two seconds and leading the first 11 circuits, deftly maneuvering through traffic after reaching the back of the field on lap nine.

However, a turn-four spin by Bobby Komisarski working lap 12 led to the first of four caution flags on the night and set up a double-file restart that led to Liguori’s winning move.

When the green flag was displayed again, Hollinger spun his tires while getting up to speed off the exit of turn four, allowing Liguori and Bobby Santos III to power past on the high lane into first and second.

“This little motor really didn’t want to spin the tires much, so I was kind of hoping [Hollinger] would [spin the tires] so that I could drive it balls deep into turn one and hope for the best,” explained Liguori after the race. “The first lap, it didn’t really work, but we got that restart, and it gave us a bit of a mulligan.

“Clean air prevailed, for sure,” Liguori added. “The restarts were everything and I know I didn’t make a lot of friends on the restarts tonight, but they’ll get over it, because that’s part of racing. It was a little bit of mind games with some of the takeoffs, but this little 360 [engine] got going as quick as possible.”

After a quick yellow on lap 12 for a spinning Gene Lasker, the middle of the race broke into a long green-flag run, with Liguori nearly getting pinned by the lap car of John Rosploch just as Bettis made a nifty move to take second from Santos a lap prior to halfway.

From there, it was a lap-31 caution for a vicious-looking crash between Brian Gingras and Sport Allen on the backstretch that allowed Bettis his first shot at Liguori on the front row.

Bettis chose the outside, while Liguori restarted downstairs, and the pair battled side-by-side for a half-lap after the restart before a deep dive into turn three by Liguori allowed him to escape with the lead.

The night’s final slowdown came three laps later after Bruce Brantley spun in turn two from 13th, setting up a 16-lap dash to the finish with Liguori and Bettis again restarting from the front row.

It was advantage Liguori when the green flag waved for the final time, but Bettis stayed right in his tire tracks, even delivering a nudge to Liguori in turn three inside of five to go that loosened up the No. 68.

Bettis, however, allowed Liguori to save his racecar and ultimately finished second by a scant .155 of a second in the end. He tipped afterward that he “wasn’t going to wreck anyone” for a $10,000 payday.

“I didn’t want to junk a race car for 10 grand,” Bettis said. “It’s only 10 grand and the race car is $100,000. There will be other races; I’m just so proud of this team for giving us the car to be able to contend all night long.”

Willison, who was coming off a $50,000 asphalt sprint car win in the Open Wheel Showdown at the Bullring at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway in December, completed the podium ahead of Santos and defending Southern Sprint Car Shootout Series champion Daniel Miller.

Davey Hamilton Jr., Dylan Reynolds, Brian Gerster, Scotty Adema, and Dalton Armstrong closed the top 10.

Three-time Little 500 winner Jim Childers, making his return to sprint car racing for the first time since 2002, earned a lead-lap finish in 12th. Hollinger retired after 23 laps with mechanical woes and was credited with 20th in the 25-car starting field.

Event promoter J.J. Dutton, Dude Teate, and Tommy Nichols were involved in a three-car crash during warm-up laps for the feature that caused terminal damage to the trio of cars. They were unable to start.

Saturday night’s Children’s Dream Fund 50 was a non-points special event for the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series. The points opener will be at Sandusky (Ohio) Speedway on April 27.

Michigan veteran Jason Blonde comes into the season as the defending Must See Racing champion.

The results:

Valley Bank Qualifying (best of two laps): 1. 86-Aaron Willison, 11.680; 2. 14-Davey Hamilton Jr., 11.929; 3. 22a-Bobby Santos III, 11.931; 4. 50m-Brian Gerster, 12.026; 5. 61-Colton Bettis, 12.073; 6. 24-Dylan Reynolds, 12.144; 7. 68-Joe Liguori, 12.156; 8. 81-Steven Hollinger, 12.175; 9. 5-Daniel Miller, 12.180; 10. 88a-Sport Allen, 12.230; 11. 25-Arie Luyendyk Jr., 12.347; 12. 10-Brian Gingras, 12.359; 13. 86s-J.J. Dutton, 12.474; 14. 32a-Dalton Armstrong, 12.484; 15. 13-Troy DeCaire, 12.502; 16. 55-Tommy Nichols, 12.536; 17. 67-Scotty Adema, 12.594; 18. 44-Jim Childers, 12.636; 19. 93-Dude Teate, 12.786; 20. 25b-Bruce Brantley, 12.984; 21. Bobby Komisarski, 12.998; 22. 32-Ray Bragg Jr., 13.150; 23. 02-Gene Lasker, 13.279; 24. 6-John Rosploch, 13.619; 25. 85-Rick Holley, NT; 26. 18-Shane Butler, NT.

Children’s Dream Fund A-Feature (50 laps): 1. 68-Joe Liguori [2], 2. 61-Colton Bettis [4], 3. 86-Aaron Willison [8], 4. 22a-Bobby Santos III [6], 5. 5-Daniel Miller [9], 6. 14-Davey Hamilton Jr. [7], 7. 24-Dylan Reynolds [3], 8. 50m-Brian Gerster [5], 9. 67-Scotty Adema [17], 10. 32a-Dalton Armstrong [14], 11. 25-Arie Luyendyk Jr. [11], 12. 44-Jim Childers [18], 13. 7-Bobby Komisarski [21], 14. 32-Ray Bragg Jr. [22], 15. 25b-Bruce Brantley [20], 16. 13-Troy DeCaire [15], 17. 10-Brian Gingras [12], 18. 88a-Sport Allen [10], 19. 6-John Rosploch [24], 20. 81-Steven Hollinger [1], 21. 02-Gene Lasker [23], 22. 86s-J.J. Dutton [13], 23. 55-Tommy Nichols [16], 24. 93-Dude Teate [19], 25. 85-Rick Holley (DNS), 26. 18-Shane Butler (DNS).

Lap Leader(s): Steven Hollinger 1-11, Joe Liguori 12-50.

Hard Charger: 67-Scotty Adema (+8)