0912 Sullivan Path

SULLIVAN: USAC Nationals

There is an old adage in the promotion world that suggests it takes three years to determine if an event is going to be successful. Exhibit A in support of this theory is the Chili Bowl Nationals. I left the inaugural Chili Bowl easily convinced that I had witnessed the best indoor race I had ever seen. However, my fear was that I had witnessed the last such race to be staged. It’s a proposition that seems ludicrous to even consider today given what the Chili Bowl has become.

At the conclusion of the three-night USAC Nationals held at South Dakota’s Huset’s Speedway, many were asking the same question I pondered on a January day in Tulsa, Oklahoma many years ago. There were some eerie similarities. The three nights of racing at Huset’s were superb. The programs were fast paced and ended around 10:15 each evening. The ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11 hosted by Huset’s announcer Shawn Neisteadt was poignant, classy and moving.

The work put in by event promoter Matt Wood, point person Allison McKinney, and Huset’s General Manager Doug Johnson was evident and was marked by a can-do attitude. Then there is Huset’s Speedway. I last visited this track around 1986 or 1987, and I can assure you it didn’t look like it does today. Wow. So much of the pits and the surrounding area is paved, the video boards were spectacular, the sound system is first rate, and perhaps as important as anything the restrooms were pristine. If you want families to come to the race track, start here.

While some drivers made comments about the racing surface (and remember that not all racers like the same kind of track), there was work being done the minute the night was over. Even more, the track safety team is top notch, and there were plenty of push trucks operated by people who knew their job, and they had amazing equipment on hand to deal with accidents quickly, effectively, and safely. I’m a fan, and I’m not alone.

As for the racing program, Wood envisioned a unique format, similar but different from the popular Trophy Cup, that involved drivers accumulating points over a three night period. The inverts were huge. The fastest within each heat race flight would start eighth in the field, and come feature time the high-point driver would start 12th. To offset the high invert, Sunday night’s sprint car feature was 40 laps and the midgets were tasked with completing 100 circuits, although yellow flags did count. As racers everywhere tend to do, the search was on to discover the loopholes that gave them the best chance of grabbing the 20K top prize for both groups.

A small tweak before Sunday’s event commenced was designed to prevent the urge to sandbag. Should this event return, one imagines the format will be reviewed. Even if there was a problem with the plan of action, the effort to just do something different should be applauded.

There were two major problems. The first was the overall car count. First a disclaimer. I think there are times when car counts are vastly overrated. Here the top teams were on hand, there were three heat races each night and, if needed, a semi. One of the questions I ask is who is missing that I expected to be here and wanted to see? There are some traditional sprint car and midget organizations in the Midwest, and some of those drivers did show up. I must confess there were teams who compete with the USAC Midwest sprint car series I had counted to be on hand.

It is an easy thing to want, but then I’m not spending the money. There is something to be said for competing at the highest level you can, and the premise is that in the end it will make you better. In general I think that’s true. However, it is a bitter pill to swallow if you travel hundreds of miles and race a single heat and a consolation race and end up on the trailer. What I thought would offset this was a nice payoff for just starting the feature. There is also no doubt that come September many race teams have overrun their budget. If a team is racing on a shoestring and then has a problem with an engine or destroys a chassis in the late summer, the desire to jump right back into the fray wanes. Why car count was a problem, and it truly was a small one, is because the format in place was really designed for a larger turnout.

The second issue was the crowd. Everyone wishes it would have been a whole lot better. At a forum during the Knoxville Nationals, Matt Wood admitted that advance ticket sales had not been good. Huset’s is a big place, so it is hard to assess attendance. I thought Saturday’s crowd was decent and hoped that when Sunday came along, the track’s traditional race night, the turnstiles would really whirl. They didn’t. I’m not privy to the financials, nor should I be, but I imagine a fair amount of cash was lost. That’s just unfortunate.

The promotion and effort was there and you always want these things to be rewarded. Several of the locals on hand pointed to specific events in the Sioux Falls area that they felt hampered fan support. Maybe so, but we all would like to think that a big time race is a bit bulletproof.

Certainly much was made of the location, with the suggestion that a race like this should be run at Terre Haute or somewhere in Indiana. I disagree. USAC is a National series that races across the country. It is also important to have signature events in different locales. In 2021, the Oval Nationals return to Perris Auto Speedway and the USAC Nationals could become one of the highlights of the year.

I desperately want to believe that this race can work. The chance for traditional sprint cars to race at world class facilities for big money is something this style of racing needs. We can all lose sight of the big picture. Some of those in attendance admitted that they had never seen midgets race at all, or ever outdoors. Amazingly, 83 of the 100-lap midget feature was run under green in the usual hair raising style that has become part and parcel of this series.

Will that be enough to draw more fans in the future? Was the ability to live stream the event enough to entice fans to make this a bucket list race? One could hope.

Regardless, Matt Wood, Doug Johnson, and Levi Jones have a lot to be proud of. The problem is moral victories are generally losses. Everyone who cares for this type of races has to hope that Matt Wood has enough belief in what he created to give it another go. If he does, some teams need to get the car out of the garage and fans need to get their butts off of the couch.End Bug

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