0912 Sullivan Path

SULLIVAN: A Perfect Night

I think it is fair to say that the first time many USAC drivers and officials laid eyes on Port Royal Speedway a few summers ago all had nearly the same thought.

It was obvious to some that this would be a great place for a Silver Crown race. This is an easy thing to think. Reality, as is always the case, is a whole lot more complicated. Every day on social media someone is sure to proclaim somewhere the Outlaws, All Stars or USAC ought to race. The problem is someone must want you, and that party has to believe it has a chance to succeed at the gate.

Thus, when the USAC schedule was released the date at Port Royal nearly glowed. Two USAC divisions and the 410 winged sprint cars on a single night. Are you kidding me? It was a version of the popular 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway. To use the phrase highly anticipated, at least among devotees of USAC racing, might well be an understatement.

On the way to Port, the USAC sprint cars made a stop at Williams Grove on Friday night. I often read some disparaging remarks about the quality of competition at this track and quick comparisons between this oval and other big-time East Coast venues. Let me stop this conversation right here. It’s the Grove. That alone is magical for anyone with an ounce of interest in racing history.

It proved to be a great night. Justin Grant’s heat race win was so thrilling it actually left his hair a bit disheveled, and then his ragged-edge run on the rail was nearly terrifying. If he was a cat, he would have just used up four of his nine lives. Even if you are a hard-core winged sprint car fan that had to be entertaining. Then to top off the night, Chase Dietz landed on top in the winged feature in an event Hall of Fame announcer Bruce Ellis proclaimed the best of the year.

This was going to be a tough act to follow.

We have all been there. You get keyed up for a big event and it turns out to be an absolute dud. That was the fear at Port Royal. I don’t know if people who come to this plant night after night and year after year get numb to the setting, but I sure don’t. I’m not alone. Looking at the town, the row of houses on the backstretch and then gazing at the distant countryside is spellbinding.

On top of it all was an additional factor for those of us from Indiana. In Indiana, it rained for two months and then with no transition changed to 90-degree temperatures with humidity to match. The weather at Port Royal was nearly perfect, and then the cars arrived in droves. It was electric.

But would the racing hold up its end of the bargain? The answer was a resounding yes. Logan Seavey had total control of the USAC sprint car feature, but at the end few were watching him. Once again Grant, who had to come from the tail, threw caution to the wind. His drive to a podium finish was so gutsy that Anthony Macri acknowledged it on Twitter.

Then Macri came out with the winged cars and did much the same. I couldn’t sit still watching it. Later when informed of Macri’s tweet, Grant said, “I watch the races at Port just to watch that guy run the wall.” That’s called mutual respect and it serves as a reminder that there is much to love about all open-wheel racing.

Then out rolled the big Silver Crown cars. As one might have expected some fans left after the winged feature. Those who stayed received a well-earned treat. Once the race settled in, it looked like we might have a first-time winner. There are few nicer men in this sport than Matt Westfall. Last year the veteran tried to run down Seavey at the 4-Crown Nationals and fell short. This time, he was in control.

Control was the operative word for much of the 50-lap race, but Seavey was charging. In a great irony, Seavey, who admitted his only choice was to keep trying to knock the fence down, finally tagged the wall so hard everyone thought it was over. It wasn’t, but when his wheel cover flew off and landed in the groove the caution flag waved.

That was going to cost Seavey a fine, but at that point he hardly cared. Making a last-lap pass of Westfall, Seavey completed his glorious day and Kristy Bemmes was left with the gut-wrenching task of interviewing a crestfallen Westfall, who predictably, handled it like a professional.

I guess there were winners and losers on this night, but it hardly seemed that way. When promoter Steve O’Neal requested that the crowd be polled about its interest in the return of Open Wheel Madness in 2023, the crowd roared. This was a race that produced a smile on the face of all USAC officials. It had not been an easy year and, thankfully, on successive nights the drivers and teams showcased their talent.

What everyone should have done (and some did it privately) was salute O’Neal and his crew. The Speed Palace is indeed that. I made this same point several years ago. During an era where we have seen tracks close and some who do not invest a dime in the infrastructure there is seemingly some improvement at this place every year. There is investment in the future.

Still, understand this. This race was a big investment, and hence, a big risk. The Tuscarora 50 has a huge purse. However, the difference is clear. That signature event has history and features a known and popular product. It isn’t cheap to book a Silver Crown date and it becomes a tenuous proposition when you know not all fans are going to be enamored with the big cars.

I admit that I don’t know how you could not have enjoyed this race, but then I admittedly love these race cars. Is it the same as Macri, Logan Wagner and Lance Dewease going wheel to wheel at blinding speed?

is not. I would hope that the overall lesson on this night is that there are different forms of racing and they all can be exciting. When you get them all on one night it is even better.End Bug

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