Let the Mud Fly!
Practice night is upon us, and it’s time to try and hash out what we’ll be treated to on a weekly basis here at Knoxville. No less than five heavyweight rookies in the 410 class, and a former champion returning in the 360 class will keep us on the edge of our seats this year. A new track surface and scoreboard will greet us. The Masters and midgets will return, as will the 360 Nationals, the Summer Classic and the Knoxville Nationals. All systems are go, so let’s take a look at what we can expect this season.
Silly season has already arrived in the form of car and driver changes, so as soon as I type this, things may be changing. One thing is certain; we have to start with the five-time defending champ, Terry McCarl. He’s already armed with a couple of wins in Florida, a second place finish with the World of Outlaws in Louisiana and two third place runs with the All Stars in Kentucky and Missouri. Look for a black paint scheme to return for the champ. Six championships in a row will be difficult as ever for the Altoona pilot as several contenders will again be shooting for him.
Last year’s second place finisher, Kerry Madsen, has latched on with the TK Concrete 55 team. Madsen has already set quick time with the WoO at Texas Motor Speedway and is chomping at the bit after winning the first two WoO shows in his native Australia. Ricky Logan is back in the Gifford 17G to improve on his third place showing a year ago. He has been out early, competing in several WoO and All Star events after returning from a stint in New Zealand. Everyone was expecting Joey Saldana to pilot the Cox 50D this season at Knoxville, but he stepped out to compete on the WoO tour with the Woodward 2 team. Enter the “Cajun Sensation”, Jason Johnson. The Louisiana pilot just completed a successful tour “Down Under”, finishing second to Max Dumesny in the World Series of Sprintcars. He also captured his first WoO win last fall at Texas Motor Speedway and finished second to Chad Kemenah in the All Star season points championship. It’s going to be a treat to watch him every week.
Travis Cram won four features in 2003, and hopes he can ride up the ladder from fourth in the point standings. Skip Jackson will change his number to 2 (from 21). John Robinson is stepping down as owner, but Rob Sirfus will join Skip and his brother Paul in the operations. This team will be a factor week in and week out as usual. Jaymie Moyle will pilot the Stroud 1s this season. Calvin Landis who was 11th at Manzanita with the WoO will return weekly. Wayne Johnson is stepping into the 14 FattFro ride, and plans on attending Knoxville weekly again after a fifth place finish and two feature wins a year ago. Brent Antill, Chris Walraven, Colin Northway (who grabbed his first Knoxville win in last year’s finale), Jeff Johnson (who will try to recover from a crash a couple of weeks ago at the Iowa State Fairgrounds while practicing), Eddie Leavitt Jr. and Mike Moore are all planning on improving their point standings.
Randy Anderson has taken over for Justin Henderson in the Carnahan R19, and shook the car down at Eldora with the WoO last weekend. Lynton Jeffrey has teamed with the Vanderecken 10 to race for the championship at both Knoxville and Huset’s. Mike Reinke will return on a weekly basis in the Cowman 02. Matt Moro will compete in the Sonner 47, while Bobby Mincer will bring his 15 car from Burlington on a weekly basis in the big class. Larry Ball Jr. has taken over the reins of the McCarl 7x.
Gone are Brian Brown, who is running for rookie of the year honors with the WoO, Jon Agan, who will run for rookie of the year honors with the All Stars, and Don Droud Jr. has relocated to Indiana and will focus on midget and non-wing sprint efforts. Henderson will be back in the 360 class in Nebraska, driving for Gary Swenson. Eric Vanderploeg has moved on to another form of racing, and Adam West is back in Canada.
Insert five rookies who will be running not only for rookie honors, but the championship. Jason Solwold notched 23 victories in 2003, driving in both 360 and 410 events in the Pacific Northwest. Solwold, from Sedro Woolley, Washington will be competing for the first time at Knoxville. He’s been following the WoO circuit and sits a respectable 15th in the points. Jesse “The Rocket” Hockett will make the tow from Warsaw, Missouri in search of his first Knoxville win. An impressive showing at last year’s Nationals landed him in the B on Saturday night. Fans will enjoy watching this gas masher.
The top three finishers in last year’s 360 race will make the jump to the 410 class this year. Last year’s 360 champ, Billy Alley, will compete with a 410 for the first time in the US (he competed successfully in New Zealand in one this winter). His fans know he will be one to watch. “The Bulldogg” Jesse Giannetto will also be making the move and has a few 410 wins under his belt. He is looking for his first 410 win at Knoxville, however, and that should not be far off as he has competed a few times already this year in Florida and with the All Stars. Josh Higday is also on the verge of 410 success, and will drive Brian Ridge’s 83 in the 410 class. Josh’s last 410 start at Knoxville involved a vicious crash on the front stretch at Nationals, but look for Higday to bounce back well.
A champion will return in the 360 class. John Kearney is back and has teamed with Brian Ridge’s 83 team. Kearney captured the track championship in 2000, and will tow from Ozawkie, Kansas to lock horns with his old nemesis, David Hesmer. Hesmer, who is by far the leading 360 feature winner in Knoxville history, is hungry for another title. He has won the honor four times (1988, 1997, 1998, 1999), but has waited five long years for another.
Joe Beaver and Johnny Anderson are on the rise, and don’t be surprised if either one makes a habit of ending up in victory circle. The much-improved Eric Mason has gained sponsorship from Murphy USA for this year’s campaign. Michael Jones is ready to grab his first win at Knoxville, as is Doug Wilson. With car counts averaging in the forties and numerous visitors showing up every weekend, it’s anyone’s guess who will take the crown.
New Zealand’s Stevie Walsh is this year’s Knoxville International Driver Development (KIDD) pilot. Walsh will compete in the 360 class. Also competing for rookie of the year honors will be Dusty Zomer of South Dakota. Zomer has piled up a number of wins in the upper Midwest and is ready to tangle with the Knoxville contingent. Brad Barickman, an ISU grad and native of Nebraska will be the new driver of the Wares 10. Jake Peters is rumored to be showing up more this year as well. Always a tough competitor, Jake hails from Wagner, South Dakota. With Jackson, Minnesota running semi-weekly, expect other visitors to make the tow, and make it even more interesting.
Enough talk, “Let the Mud Fly!”