LOS ANGELES, California — The 30+ year old Copper World Classic began as an open competition event in 1976 on the Phoenix International Raceway mile oval. It has been a USAC-sanctioned event since 1980. This year PIR, in Avondale, AZ, again hosted the event as the opening day of a four-day racing extravaganza. The top three NASCAR national racing series took over the track for the final three days. USAC racing took place Thursday, November 6 with USAC National and Western Mopar Midget Series and the K & N Silver Crown cars. Practice sessions started at 10:00 am, qualifying began at 1:30 pm, and feature races commenced at 7:00 pm. Midgets ran 25-laps and the S/C cars ran the traditional 100-lap distance for the "big cars" on a mile track. There were solid USAC fields of 45 Midgets and 28 S/C cars in open pits and under the roof-covered Dick Beaty Garage in the infield.
The list of 45 Midget competitors included NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Nationwide Series drivers Jason Leffler, Shane Hmiel and Josh Wise, plus Craftsman Truck veterans Bobby East, Brian Tyler, Tracy Hines, Dave Steele, Hmiel, Leffler, Kahne, and Newman. The S/C 28-driver field included Newman, East, Hmiel, Tyler, Steele and Michael Annett. In fact, Des Moines native Annett, 22, raced at PIR in both a S/C car and a NASCAR truck. He finished 21st Thursday in the S/C race, and 18th Friday driving the No. 9 Toyota Tundra. Indianapolis 500 veteran Davey Hamilton raced in both USAC Midget and S/C events. East set the fastest qualifying times in both USAC series and won both main events to collect his first ever distinctive, highly-prized, copper globe on a wooden base CWC trophies. He led all 25 laps in the competitive Midget race and led laps 1 and 6-100 in the S/C feature. Outside-running Newman started fourth, passed East on lap 2 and paced laps 2-5. A blown engine in his No. 192 Beast/Chevy caused Newman to stop in the fourth turn; he placed 27th of 28 drivers. People knew he was there and had not lost his touch in the S/C cars.
CWC DRIVERS BY STATES: S/C 28 Drivers—Indiana led with 12 drivers, followed in order by two drivers each from AZ, CA, ID and IL, and one driver each from CO, FL, IA, MI, NC, OH PA and Canada. The 45 Midget Division drivers hailed from the following states: CA-12, IN-10, WA-5, AZ, ID, FL, NC and OK-2 each, and CT, IL, MA, MO, NM, NY, OH and WI-1 each. The driver representation was reflected in the license plates from many different states in the infield and in PIR's outside track parking lots for fans. One can see how this racing event at PIR benefits the local economy in Arizona and makes local chambers of commerce happy.
CHASSIS/ENGINE REPRESENTATION: S/C cars—Beast dominated with 22 of the 28 cars (79%). The other six S/C cars were solo cars from Competition Welding, C & R, Eagle, J & J, Predator and Rick Stewart. Chevy dominated with10 engines. Toyota was next with 5 engines, followed by two each from Ed Pink Chevy, Ford, Kistler Chevy and Mopar, and one engine each from Claxton Toyota, Dynotech, Ed Pink Ford, Foxco, and Speedway Engineering. MIDGET DIVISION: Chassis department—only five builders were represented at the PIR-CWC. Retired USAC driver, long-time car builder Bob East's Beast firm in Indianapolis dominated with 31 cars (69%). Gerhardt in central California built 7 cars, Dan Drinan sent 3, ART and Spike built 2 each to complete the 45 car total. Engine department—Esslinger Ford (in Los Angeles County) predominated with 21engines (47%). Toyota had 6, Mopar 4, Chevy, Ed Pink Toyota, Fontana and Speedway Mopar 3 each, with Ilmor Dodge and Wirth Mopar each building 1 engine to complete the 45 engines represented.
There were 44 of the 45 Midget drivers on the track in the 10:00 to 10:45 am practice session. Most ran up to eight laps. Bobby East was the fastest at 25.947 (138.744 mph) according to AMB electronic timing. Hamilton was second fastest at 26.256 (137.112 mph). There were 27 drivers in the 26 second bracket and all other drivers were in the 27-second bracket with the slowest time 27.821 (129.399 mph). Qualifying with two laps for all 43 drivers who ran lasted from 1:30 to 2:23 pm. The final two drivers to qualify were Bobby East and then Chase Scott, 22. Remarkably, they ran identical fast laps of 26.274 (137.018 mph) to knock Brian Olson, 25, off the front row. Personable Olson is a former Puyallup, WA resident who has raced for Ed Shefchik (No. 99) and in his own No. 71x Midget. He now resides in Indiana and works for Bob East at Beast Race cars on Gasoline Alley near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Olson constructs the Beast chassis, including his own No. 77 light blue 2008 Beast. He had a metal plate removed from his right arm this year after it was installed following a bad crash a few years ago. Olson's father came to Phoenix to assist his son in the pits. Olson started third and was pushed back during three-wide racing from fourth place on lap 4 to to eighth spot two laps later. He was 11th at lap 8 and remained 11th to the checkered flag as 26 of 39 starters finished (67%) with all 26 drivers on the lead lap. Olson plans to race his No. 77 Midget in the November 27 USAC Thanksgiving Night Midget Grand Prix at Irwindale, CA. He had to return to work at Beast during the intervening weeks, so he towed his race rig to Yuma, AZ and stored it at his grandmother's house. He will fly to Yuma and tow his rig to Irwindale a few days before the November 27 Midget classic and then tow it home to Indiana.
Ryan Newman drove the No. 39 North East Midget Association (NEMA) Midget owned by ex-driver Tim Bertrand, 30, who retired two years ago to concentrate on his good job in computer software. His 17-year old brother Todd Bertrand will be driving a No. 48 Drinan/Ford Focus Midget during 2009 in the USAC Northeast Series. The No. 39 Midget from New England is a 2008 Drinan chassis with a new Esslinger Ford engine. That 39 number was Ryan's long-time number in USAC and will be his NASCAR Cup car number in 2009 for Stewart-Haas Racing. Ryan ran as a teammate to the No. 47 Drinan/Esslinger Ford driven by Jerry Frankoski, of Huntington, N.Y, at PIR. Randy Cabral raced the 47 midget this year in NEMA races. Jerry did not qualify at PIR because his car pushed off to qualify and stalled without ever firing. The reason? Jerry forgot to turn on the fuel. The fastest 36 qualifiers made the feature directly and there were four positions open to the top two National and top two Western Series car owners who had a provisional starting spot available. Western point leader Nic Faas and C. J. Sarna received the Western provisionals. Levi Jones and Bradley Galedrige had the national provisionals. Galedrige did not come out, so there were 39 cars on the starting grid. Newman qualified at 27.160 to miss making the race by 0.120. Fast time was 26.274 (137.018 mph) and the slowest time (43rd) was 27.968, only 1.694 seconds off the fastest time. The two-car Bertrand team from NEMA ranks towed west for two and a half days and traveled 2,500+ miles from Suffield, CT to race and did not get to do so with either car. Newman said a new left rear tire did not match up with the three used tires on the car when he qualified it and caused handling problems. The Bertrand Midget team towed the No. 39 Midget to Lee (N.H) Speedway for Newman to race it in the days leading up to the NASCAR Cup race in Loudon, N.H. That mid-September midget race was rained out. Ryan said if they towed the No. 39 Midget to Phoenix for the PIR-CWC he would race it while he was in Phoenix for the NASCAR Cup race. The Bertrand's enjoyed the Phoenix atmosphere, but they were not rewarded for their efforts and were the CWC hard luck team. They hoped to hook up with Newman in 2009 for a midget race together.
Midget qualifiers of note and their starting positions were: Leffler (8th), Kahne (9th), Hmiel (15th) Hamilton (17th) and Wise (18th). The 25-lap feature started at 7:17 pm MST, had five yellow flags (laps under caution did not count), and ended 47 minutes later at 8:04 pm. The total race time was 13:13.190 and the average speed was 113.466 mph. East led by 5 to 15 yards for most of the race and won by 10 yards (-0.279 seconds) over 7th starter Brad Kuhn. Rounding out the top ten were Cole Carter (son of Pancho), Kahne, Leffler, Chuck Gurney, Jr., Darren Hagen, Cole Whitt, Billy Wease and Hmiel. Chase Scott started second and was still second on lap 23 when he slowed and dropped out two laps from the checkered flag. He placed 28th. His slowing car triggered a tangle between the second turn and backstretch dogleg. That incident sidelined 4th place Kody Swanson and 5th place Bobby Santos III. Caitlin Shaw, of Albuquerque, was the only female driver in the field. She started 31st and finished 24th;. All 26 finishers were on the lead lap. The field was extremely competitive and the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 fans sitting in the grandstands (primarily in the first two turns) had to enjoy the midget racing. The wheel-to-wheel action was breath-taking and almost scary at those speeds. Even the uncounted thousands of NASCAR fans located in their motor homes in the infield had to enjoy the fast, open-wheel action. Multiple positions changed hands throughout the large field every lap. Jim Tretow interviewed Midget winner East in PIR Victory Lane, next to the infield media center. It was the final PIR race for the Steve Lewis-owned Team Nine after Steve recently announced his retirement from Midget competition after more than 20 years on the USAC circuit. His three car team of Beast/Toyota Midgets had Hagen (No. 9), Swanson (No. 19) and Steele (No. 91) in action at PIR on November 6.
S/C SERIES: Bobby East's fourth S/C career fast time tied him for 22nd on the all-time list of USAC fastest qualifiers. It was the eighth time he has led a S/C feature. His 96 laps led at PIR gave him 585 for his S/C career and moved him up from 17th to 13th in the S/C Series that has run from 1971-2008. Next in line is 12th ranked NASCAR veteran Ken Schrader's 587 S/C laps led. Steele's 1,901 laps led in 30 S/C races, including 290 consecutive laps led at the start of the 2004 season, is a USAC record. NASCAR veteran J. J. Yeley ranks second to Steele in S/C laps led with 1,606 laps during 35 races. The PIR-CWC purse for the S/C Series ninth and final race of 2008 was $98,000. Prior S/C races this year were held at the 3/4-mile Richmond, VA track, half-mile clay Terre Haute, IN, ORP 5/8-mile paved track in Clermont, IN, 7/8-mile Iowa Speedway, 1-mile dirt tracks at Springfield, IL and DuQuoin IL, and at the half-mile clay Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, OH. PIR hosted the season opener and closer. Jerry Coons, Jr, from Tucson, AZ originally, entered the season ending PIR-CWC with a 20-point lead over past S/C champion Dave Darland. This year 52 drivers and 47 car owners had scored S/C points. The S/C 10:45 to 11:30 am Thursday practice had 227 drivers on track for up to a high of 26 laps. Levi Jones set the fastest lap of 25.888 (139.061 mph) on his 21st lap. East's No. 6 Beast/Ford ran a 26.006 best lap on his 16th circuit. Newman's 25.994 was third best. In the 12:15 to 1:00 pm final S/C practice Newman's 25.743 (139.844 mph) was best and East's 26.182 was 7th best as 27 of 28 cars logged a high of 11 laps. S/C time trials ran 33-minutes from 2:37 to 3:10 pm and all 28 cars qualified. The 1-lap track record is 25.317 (142.197 mph) by Steele on 3/20/04. East's 25.844 (139.297 mph) beat Levi Jones' 25.886 by 0.042 for the pole, with Steele third best and Newman fourth fastest. The slowest time was 32.126 (112.059 mph). There were seven drivers in the 25 second bracket, 16 drivers in the 26s, two had 27s and one driver each recorded 28, 29 and 32-second times.
The 100-lap (100-mile) race started at 8:41 and finished at 9:47 pm for an overall time of one-hour, 6-minutes. There were five yellow flags, and caution laps counted in the S/C feature. Eighteen (64%) of the 28 starters were racing at the finish. Winner East collected $20,500. The most intense racing for positions took place following a lap 79-82 caution. The fifth through ninth place drivers (in order No. 17-Hmiel, No. 10-Jones, No. 92-Darland, No. 29-Bud Kaeding and No. 27-Coons) were virtually nose-to-tail lap after lap to lap 90. Darland moved up two positions on lap 91 and grabbed fourth place on lap 98 of 100 as Hmiel slipped back with an major oil leak problem to 12th place at the end. Hmiel, the son of NASCAR mechanical whiz Steve Hmiel, finished all 100 laps, but he was covered in oil in the pits following the race. "I was slipping and sliding and was in the way," Hmiel told his crew at his team hauler in the infield. Darland won $4,300 and his 4th place points cut 15 points from Coons' 20-point lead. Coons 9th place ($2,200) gave him a 428 to 423 five points victory margin and his first-ever S/C driving championship.
Thirteen of 18 finishers ran all 100 laps. S/C runner-up Cameron Dodson ($9,000) trailed East by 50-yards at the checkers. He drove the Carl Edwards-owned No. 199 RE Technologies C & R/Ford. Dodson won in the car at Iowa Speedway this year and last year in the November PIR race. Steele earned $5,500 for third place. Several S/C newcomers were impressive. Hoosier driver Jacob Wilson started and finished fifth. Canadian Steve Arpin, who told me he is a dirt modified driver, started 24th and finished 6th in his second S/C race. His first outing in the No. 35 J & J car was at ORP this summer in the car raced several years ago by Boston Reid and then Tyler Walker. The temperature at PIR was 72 degrees at midday and it was still 53 degrees shortly after 10:00 pm. The S/C cars will return to Arizona again in 2009 with a two-day event—the 2nd annual Copper on Dirt—at Manzanita Speedway, 15 miles east of PIR. The February 20-21 race dates are actually another triple-header with USAC Midgets and 410 cu. in. sprint cars also on the Manzanita card.
The 128-page, color cover PIR November 6-9, 2008 $12.00 race program had many color photos throughout. As expected, it primarily covered the three NASCAR national series. However, it covered USAC's S/C and Midget Series from pages 108-117 with stories and 12 color photos. The program also had pages of probable entries for both the S/C and Midget divisions, and the full results of the November 8, 2007 USAC S/C and Midget races won by Cameron Dodson (S/C) and Steele (Midgets). There were 21 S/C cars and 39 Midgets in the PIR November 2007 races. ... S/C owner/driver Brad Armstrong, 38, had "Armstrong for Commissioner" on the hood of his No. 08 S/C Beast/Chevy. The veteran USAC driver from New Palestine, IN (20 miles east of Indianapolis on highway 52) won the November 4 election with 69% of the vote for Hancock County Commissioner. He started 21st and finished 15th, two laps down because of "poor handling". ... The No. 91 S/C car driven by Steele was a brand new Beast making its debut. It is owned by Nicholas Motorsports of Naples, FL for whom Steele raced a USAC Midget some years ago. ... The white and florescent orange No. 15 S/C Beast driven by Mario Marietta, 23, is still owned by Beach Motorsports . Mario said all the Beach racing equipment is for sale. Older son Teddy Beach stopped racing after the Orlando, FL race last December. Younger son Todd has a business and no time to race. The No. 15 "lost brakes" on lap 55 and DNF for 22nd position. ...The No. 155 S/C driven by Ryan Smith, 20-year old 2006 USAC Northeast Ford Focus Midget champion from Kunkletown, PA, was in 13th place on lap 71. He said the belly pan of his Beast/Chevy was bent up, causing his throttle to stick and sending his car up into the wall.
The three NASCAR national series then took owner PIR as USAC open-wheelers went to Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix for the 40th annual Western World Championship for sprint cars on Friday and Saturday nights. (More info will follow on Manzy's WWC event next time.) Kevin Harvick (No. 2 Chevy) won the NCTS 150-mile race Friday night. I checked out the Nationwide Series 300-mile race at midday Saturday, November 8 before heading back to Manzanita. It was interesting to walk pit row during the drivers introduction and speak to USAC open-wheel veterans Josh Wise (No. 00 Michael Waltrip-NAPA Toyota Camry), Bryan Clauson (No. 40 Dodge), Jason Leffler (No. 38 Toyota), Justin Allgaier (No. 12 Dodge), and Mike Bliss (No. 1 Chevy). Josh said he doesn't have a definite ride for 2009 without sponsorship. Josh qualified an impressive 10th fastest in the 43 car field and started 10th, ahead of many more experienced stock car drivers and Cup veterans. He was 9th after lap 1, 13th on lap 15, 12th at lap 47, 11th at lap 50 and still 11th on lap 61, one-hour into the race. Josh finished 23rd, one lap down, with 35 drivers still racing at the finish. Carl Edwards (No. 60 Ford) won the 300-mile NNS race and collected $62,270. Sunday's Sprint Cup 500km race (312 laps) was rain delayed just past 40 laps in front of a near full-house as usual. Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Chevy) dominated en-route to his third consecutive Cup championship a week later in Florida. Hard charging future Cup champion Carl Edwards (No. 99 Ford) finished 4th and had to impress all with his determined and positive outlook, PR sense and hard driving style.
The Arizona Republic daily newspaper in Phoenix had major coverage of the PIR NASCAR race weekend. Writers Jim Gintonio, Mark Armijo and Michael Knight, plus staff photographers had their work in print. Featured sports columnist Dan Bickley devoted his entire column in the Monday, November 10 Republic to race winner Jimmie Johnson as a three consecutive NASCAR Cup race winner at PIR, which all but clinched his third consecutive Cup championship--a feat that hasn't been accomplished in 30 years. Bickley's take on Johnson was an eye-opener. It came under the headline, "Johnson is NASCAR's reigning duke of dull." He wrote, "Jimmie Johnson is the Vanilla Racer. ... He represents the yawn of a new era. ... The race was too messy, way too long and the ending was anticlimactic. ... Johnson and his team have marvelous technical talent, but he lacks charisma and personality. It's because he is too nice to hate and too boring to love. ... He is an unappreciated champion. His strength is his durability and ability to finish strong." Bickley added, "If Dale Earnhardt, Junior's results ever match his souvenir sales he could do for NASCAR what Tiger Woods did for the PGA Tour. ... People love their racing. It's just that they don't embrace the champion or the format that has catapulted Johnson to the brink of history. ... Johnson's ascent has been a reign of the mundane." My take on Bickley's comments is that Johnson is a classy, articulate winner who does and says the correct thing. He runs his own charity to give back some of the benefits of his life-style. He is a classic role model that the NBA, MLB and the NFL would love to have represent their sports.