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Eckert's Blog: Ohio Option

4/27/2011
Eckert's Blog: Ohio Option

Carmel, Indiana: Sinatra at Starbucks on 116th Street mingles with suburban chatter as I conjure up another bitches brew. I am now a northsider thanks to John Lee, friend for 25 years. Also at this very instant, it has stopped raining. In the month of April alone, Evansville has taken on eight inches of rain, Cincinnati was soaked by a record 12 inches, and Indianapolis has a shot at a new mark too.

Somehow, through all of that cold, wet gloom, Fremont, Ohio on Lake Erie accounted for my first sprint car race since the World of Outlaws departed Calistoga, California. Last week’s weather was far from pleasant. Tuesday tornadoes ripped through Indiana to drown my initial itinerary of Bloomington and Lawrenceburg by Friday 7pm. Gas City, Paragon, Putnamville, Jacksonville and Macon soon joined them.

Thursday when the weather was nice, I had ambled west on 136 for Brownsburg and stopped at Rob Hart headquarters to check plans for David Gravel. Team 89g was to originally prep for Pennsylvania All Stars with a trip to Williams Grove and Port Royal until green radar and green outlay for diesel decided otherwise. Car owner Ray Cappella calculated that it costs a dollar per mile to run their rig up and down the road now, not counting $200 in PA Turnpike tolls. Ray runs JRC Transportation so he ought to know. Shortening team sights, there was $2500 to win 300 miles away in Burlington, Iowa or $3000 to win 250 miles away in Fremont, Ohio.

I liked the prospect of returning to Burlington, home of the Rogersons, Jamisons, Taegers and other Mississippi River rats who have become sadly distant since our Knoxville Nationals nights of yore. Aside from social reasons, there lingers a desire to purge the memory of my last visit to 34 Raceway, a 1998 All Star parade. Prior to that abrasive abomination however, two previous experiences on the quirky 3/8th mile in West Burlington were favorable. There is a nice banked roundness to 34. Saturday’s grand opening to the Midwest Outlaw Winged Association co-opted the April tradition of a 410 race before the Knoxville opener. I saw two of those: a rain-shortened win by Steve Beitler in ’91 and another in ’95 won by Jerry Richert Jr. But as luck would have it, I did not return to 34 in April 2011.

Friday failures in Bloomington and Gas City sent me straight to the movies. During such times when the excitement of leaving the house to go racing is squashed, leaving the house should probably happen anyway or risk greater depression. Often, this means a tavern or two but these past two wet weekends coaxed me into the theatre, which is rare. Yet in an eight-day stretch, I caught 7.50 matinees of The Conspirator, The King’s Speech, and Win Win. My luck with movies was as good as my luck with racing was bad because all three were excellent.

Exiting the theatre, I noticed a text from Indy Race Parts. As sponsor to the new MOWA, Bernie Stuebgen needed decals delivered to Burlington. At that time, I did not know Fremont was a possibility for Team 89g, only that the bus was leaving around 10am. Saturday morning, I swung down Gasoline Alley for a packet of decals, drove to Gravel’s rig and discovered it was headed east not west. So be it.

Fremont is far from my favorite Ohio oval but by this point, any race was better than no race. I want to enjoy Fremont. It is a cozy little fairground that evokes warm thoughts of Flemington, New Jersey. But like Flemington, Fremont has always struggled to maintain a dirt surface that appeals to me. In a state choked by dry dirt, Fremont stood alone as the slickest and slowest of all. I first visited with All Stars in ’86, initial World of Outlaws event (1990) and four straight Ohio Speed Weeks in 1988-91. It took ten years and the removal of wings to bring me back. Yet even USAC sprints and midgets proved so quiet on Fremont’s black ice in 2002 that I essentially gave up on “The Track That Action Built.”

These storied Sandusky County Fairgrounds staged some of the earliest races on Lake Erie. Like most ovals, it began as a half-mile horse track in 1936 when Clay Corbitt beat the Big Cars with Hisso horses. Corbitt of Columbus was killed at the grand opening of Salem (IN) Speedway in 1947. It took 12 years for a second Sandusky County race in ‘48. The first race on the present Fremont third-mile was won in ‘51 by Leo Caldwell, champion of the first two seasons. Leo later used an ex-Indy roadster to win the only sprint race on the Atlanta high banks in 1964.

Some of the famous faces passing through Fremont included Toledo’s Rollie Beale, the 1963 champ who won the ‘66 Little 500 and ‘73 USAC Sprint Car championship. Beale tried to get two rear-engine Gerhardt Fords into the ‘68 Indy 500. One belonged to Ken Brenn and another to Wally Weir but neither proved fast enough. Another super modified champion who went to broader acclaim was Darl Harrison, track champ three straight times (‘60-62) before winning the ‘67 Little 500 and ‘69 IMCA title plus two more 500s in ’70 and ’75. Darl’s son David and grandson Josh have furthered family tradition and the 2011 opener featured Josh aboard a winged 305 sprint car.

Graduate with the most national impact was Rick Ferkel, who posted the first win of a landmark career at Fremont in 1968. Born in Green Springs, Rick listed Tiffin, Fostoria or Bowling Green as home. Billed as The Buckeye Traveler, he was instrumental in launching World of Outlaws and resurrecting All Stars. Like the Harrisons, Ferkel had a Zero at the 2011 Fremont opener for Chris Andrews, who broke in hot laps and fought to tenth in the B-main. Fred Linder was another Fremont product who went into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. Fred’s son Matt won Friday in Green Valley, Alabama.

As long as men have raced around the Fremont third-mile, Linders and Keegans have been among them. Gug Keegan captured four titles in ‘55, ’67 and ‘74-75 before Mark Keegan raised the bar to eight crowns in ’81-82, ’89-90, ’92-93-94 and ‘97. Jody Keegan was 305 champ in ‘96. Jim Linder landed seven championships in ’65, ’69, ’76-77, ’79 and 1983-84 before his son Mike became king in 2005-06. Other multiple champions were Al Franks (’66, 68, 71 and ’73), John Ivy (410 titles in 2001-02 and ‘04 after 305 glory in ’94), Byron Reed (’03 and ‘07-08), Jim McCune (’58-59), Harold McGilton (‘64 and ’70), Johnny Beaber (‘85 and ’87) and Eric Rankine, who reigned in 1991 and 2000. Rankine now roams America with a Ford Focus midget for son Ross.

For almost 20 years, Fremont was operated by Gary Kern, its former announcer who ruled from ‘76 until Ken Langhals (’95), Kelly Applegate (’96) and Ken Meggitt (’97) took temporary control. The speedway sat idle for two years before Jim Ford reopened in 2000. Ford yielded to Rich Farmer before the 2008 season. As a Farmer, he vowed to lay the blade to the shiny surface. Some veteran racers complained but many fans rejoiced. I was heartened to hear such talk and wished to give Fremont a fresh chance, so I stopped there last June on my way home from New Jersey. Just my luck, a lakefront storm caused Farmer to reduce the water and produce the same ol’ dusty hole in the time it took until the clouds opened up as scheduled.

To their credit, Fremont Speedway could have postponed its 2011 opener a second time and few could have argued. Rain ruined races from Salina, Oklahoma to Port Royal, Pennsylvania. Fremont was drenched all week and hard on Friday to require that puddles be drained on race morning. Rich Farmer had the surface sealed until moments before hot laps when it got ripped and saturated. Rim riders still stalled in the dust and Saturday looked like the same ol’ Fremont. But its ground was so soft that the track tore trenches and crevices that to this starving fan, proved quite entertaining.

Aliquippa, Pennsylvania’s Tim Shaffer showed himself to be Saturday’s top cowboy. “The Steel City Outlaw” is from the same tough guy town as football heroes Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Ty Law and Darrelle Revis. Days before his Steelers lost the Super Bowl, Shaffer was waving his Terrible Towel from the win circle of Ocala (Bubba Raceway Park?) on his first step toward a third straight All Star championship. Tim needed that towel to ice the swelling inflicted by overzealous security along Atlantic Avenue. But like Joe Namath (who Tim will join in the Beaver County Sports Hall of Fame on May 1), Tim tugged on the helmet in Volusia County to finish fourth, sixth, eighth and ninth. Fremont’s fastest at 13.33, Shaffer passed a pesky Brad Haudenschild and pressed Dale Blaney into bouncing wide with six circuits to go. Since Saturday was the 2011 FAST opener, Shaffer’s victory for Aaron Call, Janet Holbrook and crew chief Brian Kemenah was worth $3000 rather than the standard $2500.

Saturday started the 60th anniversary season for Fremont Speedway. Stands were plenty full. There were 41 of the 410 sprint cars, 29 of the 305 variety and a yard of trucks on Eagle 99 Night. Every single Saturday at Fremont carries a title sponsor, sign of a successful track that works within its community. Noise and time restrictions might threaten a less popular place in such a populated neighborhood as Watsonville, California currently experiencing.

Ohio is one of a dwindling number of states with a genuine Friday/Saturday circuit for users of the 410 engine. To better encourage them, the Fremont Attica Sprint Title (FAST) series was created in 2010 as a series within a series. Fridays at Attica and Saturdays at Fremont pay their own point fund and now, FAST adds extra money to 410 and 305 regulars. With regard to the steel block 305s, Ohio profits from perhaps the finest feeder system in all of sprint car racing.

Dale Blaney blasting away from the pole seemed a mismatch but Blaney was hounded relentlessly by Brad Haudenschild, son of Ed, nephew of Jac and rookie to a 410. Danny Smith, Shaffer and Dean Jacobs (Seeling 97) trailed. Half of the 30 laps were in when Kevin Lee laid over in turn four where I watched with Aero Lehman (Lawrenceburg was his first choice too) and the hometown Koons couple who packed Cabo Wabo tequila. The red flag found Blaney leading Haud, Shaffer, Smith, Jacobs, Brandon Martin, Jared Ridge (relocating from Snohomish, Washington to Upper Sandusky, Ohio) and Craig Mintz, defending champion. Haud continued to drive inside Blaney but soon felt Shaffer on his neck. Lap 22 had it Dale, Brad, Tim, Dean, Danny, Jared and Byron Reed from row nine. Tim took second on lap 23. On the ensuing lap, the three-time All Star king was wide exiting turn four and allowed the two-time and defending All Star champ to seal the deal. On the last lap, Brad Haudenschild finally succeeded in passing Blaney, who then dropped third to Jacobs in the final corners. Rounding out the Top Five was Reed, the Hard Charger who advanced 12 spots.

Stan Courtad’s driver Brandon Martin won the first heat over Kyle Sauder, who begins his second season for Dave Jessup. Courtad veteran Rob Chaney drove the Bryan Grove 45. Kory Crabtree tempted the upper dust to win the second heat in the first Fremont laps for the 16-year old, having broken in hot laps previously. Mike Linder won the third heat and told the crowd that he did not think the physical surface was best for such an old guy. Phil Gressman was the 1995 Fremont 305 champ who grabbed Saturday’s final 410 heat with Billy Daugherty spinning sockets on the Genzman 53. Burmeister’s shoe is 305 ace Bryan Sebetto, a rim-rider second in that final heat.

Fremont stops each heat winner on the frontstretch to be interviewed by Brian Liskai before the driver enters the crowd to hand a trophy to a child. It adds significant minutes to the program but appears to be time well spent and an excellent way to build a bond between competitors and their next generation of fans.

Danny Holtgraver towed in from Pittsburgh to pace the B-main until a hole turned him on his head. Holtgraver finished fifth against Attica All Star two weeks ago.

Danny Smith told his friend Ed Starr at Mag Tech that Ocala was rough enough to convince him that his broken back had healed properly. Smith was allowed to convalesce at home in Chillicothe, Ohio because wife Stephanie is a registered nurse. Strapped in for Saturday hot laps but unaware water was being applied, Danny saw straight through my thought process, as usual. “This must be the only race not rained out,” Smith mumbled beneath his helmet. During one Ohio Speed Week with the Fox brothers, Danny told me how the fastest Fremont qualifier never times later than fifth. Smith was second to Shaffer on the watch and sixth in the A-main ahead of Sebetto, Gravel, Ridge and Cole Duncan, who defeated Blaney in the 2011 opener at Lernerville, Pennsylvania.

Danny drifted around to Team 89g to see Cathy Barrows assisting her husband as they kept an eye on Ella and Ethan, remarkable children of remarkable parents. Cathy’s work as a physical therapist and Rob’s distant course kept her from working on a sprint car, something she has enjoyed since helping dad in Australia. During our ride to the races, I found Hart’s atlas and Gravel confessed that he has never read a map. As a teenager, David has long held a Global Positioning System in his hand and kidded us gray hairs that he forgot his compass.

As long as I’ve been watching races in Ohio (28 years), Todd Heller has been in sprint car Number 14H. He made the opening Fremont A-main.

Fremont proved to be one of those head-in-the-sand speedways that refuse to recognize media as electronic in 2011. Do they know that National Speed Sport News just died? Do they know that without the internet, only a fraction of Saturday’s crowd could have confirmed that Fremont was still racing? Do they care? As a peripheral member of Team 89g, I was reimbursed on my $25 pit pass. Aero paid $13 at the front gate and bailed for Bluffton, Indiana after the 410 A-main.

I circled around to watch the 305 feature from the backstretch fence. Watching those boys and girl hop and skip through the waves and swells of turn three was strikingly surreal and just the tonic I needed. And that’s not the tequila talking.

Nate Dussel drove from fifth to first in five laps and threw caution to the wind until he bounced to a stop after 19 of 25. Inheriting command was D.J Foos, who had three lapped cars between himself and Paige Polyak, the lone female followed by Zack Kramer and Dean Jacobs. On the final restart, Dean drove under Zack and Paige but D.J had an eight-car length lead. The kid from Fremont won the first Fremont Federal Credit Union 305 sprint feature of his Fremont career in his Buckshot Farms 11F.

This weekend’s personal chalkboard calls for USAC sprints at Gas City on Friday, USAC sprints at Lawrenceburg or World of Outlaws at Haubstadt on Saturday, and USAC sprints at Kokomo on Sunday. But black clouds are rolling on Wednesday. Lawrenceburg just bailed. So who knows? Expect me where you least expect me.

I’m at Kevin@sprintcarstats or (317) 607.7841.

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Article Credit: Kevin Eckert
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