2004: New Track, Newcomers and Old Dogs with New Tricks
It was cold and it was long, but those who made it to the end, were fully satisfied. For the Knoxville faithful, it had been eight long months without smelling the methanol and seeing some mud fly. We had all that and more last week. How could you not be excited about an opening night like we had last week? We had newcomers that impressed, a new track that perplexed, a hefty car count (though not a WoO record at Knoxville as announced), a video board and some older dudes who just couldn't stay away (and proved that they shouldn't have). We had some tough wrecks, plenty of track prep, some veteran struggles and 109 cars in the pit area.
The 410 class is in good shape with six new faces in the 410 class. In a night where veterans did not even qualify for the heat races (the top 48 times were all that were taken), all newcomers buckled in for the heats. Two qualified for the dashes. Jason Johnson led the way in the Cox 50D. After timing in ninth quick, he promptly won his dash race and put himself on the pole of the feature event. Throughout the majority of the affair, it looked like a top three finish would be in the offing, but Jason eventually faded to 13th. Billy Alley left little doubt it will be a short learning curve for him in the 410 class. In his first 410 event at Knoxville, he also put himself in the dash, finishing third. He would retire early on in the main event and was recorded in the 22nd position.
Josh Higday is driving for new 410 owner, Brian Ridge. A tough qualifying lap had him in the C. Josh would run second in that to run at the back of the B. Jesse Giannetto had a rough night and did not make the call in the C main. He will be back. So will Washington native, Jason Solwold, who racked up 23 feature wins a year ago. He failed to qualify out of the C, but finished second to Mark Dobmeier at Huset's on Sunday night. Jesse Hockett ended his night in the B after a tough heat race.
No less than ten rookies competed in a 44 car 360 field. Tops among them were Pleasantville's Raeger Phillips and Kansas City's Eric Jobe. In reportedly his first competitive racing event (in any class), Raeger came home second in his heat race. He followed that up with a fifteenth place finish in the feature event. Not bad for your first race ever! Jobe ran second in the B, started 18th and moved forward into the top ten.
Joining Phillips and Jobe as 360 rookies are Bronson Maeschen, who won the first 305 show at Oskaloosa last year, Mike Houseman Jr. and Nate Van Haaften. Dusty Zomer and Troy Meyer, both South Dakota veterans, Brad Barickman, who raced at Eagle Raceway in Nebraska the last few years, Kansas pilot Chris Morgan and New Zealand's Stevie Walsh will also compete weekly. Morgan would have competed here weekly last year with legendary car owner, Gary Mussatto, had the latter not passed away suddenly. Walsh, this year's KIDD driver, roared to victory in his heat race and came home 16th come feature time.
There seemed to be some difference between those who had practiced on the new track surface and those who didn't. The track was pretty soft and developed some ruts that needed tending to throughout the night. That said, I thought the track workers did a great job in providing a racy track despite the challenge.
The track was a quandary for several who had no previous practice on it. When was the last time we saw Lasoski time in 17th, Steve Kinser at 31st quick, and Terry McCarl 48th? Kraig Kinser, who was third in WoO points coming in, failed to qualify for the heat races, as did Daryn Pittman and Shane Stewart. This created the best heat races in memory, this side of the Nationals. Kerry Madsen stormed from 12th to sixth one spot out of a transfer in the first heat. Tim Shaffer came from ninth to fourth in the second heat. Steve Kinser and Donny Schatz would surge from eighth and ninth to second and third in a rough third heat. McCarl would come from dead last to grab the final transfer in the fourth heat.
The choppy track provided no less than three grooves, but it was perilous for some. Jeff Mitrisin smacked the turn two wall hard in his heat. He spent the night in the hospital, but will recover after the scary incident as of this writing. Will Spongebob be back on the side of the car? Let's hope we see Jeff back at the track soon. Ricky Logan had a rough ride in turn one in the B main. Erin Crocker had something break in the steering while running third, sending her straight into the wall in heat race action. Both Logan and Crocker were uninjured.
It appears the Sonner 47 is back. Before a disappointing tip-over in the main event, Moro ran second in his heat, and sixth in the dash. Wayne Johnson had his FattFro 14AJ screaming. He won his heat handily, ran sixth in the dash and was the highest finishing regular in the A main at 11th. Or was winner Mark Kinser our highest finishing local? Mark told some he planned on racing here weekly for awhile. Time (and Karl) will tell.
How about Chad Kemenah? The All Star champ towed in from Ohio on an off-week hoping for two nights racing. Unfortunately, he only got one night on the track, but I doubt he would trade it. Chad blistered the field by two-tenths of a second in time trials, and arguably could have won the feature had the last caution not appeared. Using his patented low groove, he came home second.
Where did all these cars come from?
Wherever sprint car racing is dying, it's not here at Knoxville. By my count, 36 of the 65 drivers competing last week in the 410 class will be here on a weekly basis. I counted seven more that will be here frequently. Others will make their way here week by week. We're going to see a car count hovering around the 40 mark on a weekly basis.
The 360 class saw an opening night count of 44 cars. Though a few will not compete here on a regular basis, some of our guys will make their first appearance in the next few weeks. Nate Mosher was not present, due to his high school prom. Expect this class to field around 40 a week as well.
John Kearney is back! Starting fifth in his heat race in Brian Ridge's 83, he had the lead by the time the field was ready for turn three and showed no mercy the rest of the way. After a good battle with David Hesmer (who won his 60th feature), and Eric Vanderploeg (driving Josh Higday's 24), he settled for third behind Hesmer and Joe Beaver.
Doran Doty returned for the first time since a bad accident in Memphis, MO a couple of years ago. He started his night out by running up in the choppy stuff, and riding around his competition, running from ninth to second behind Hesmer in his heat. His feature came to an abrupt ending on the opening lap when he spun and collected Curtis Boyer. Rod Richards also returned after a lengthy absence. He suffered from mechanical problems.