The 73rd Pay Less Little 500 presented by UAW was another one for the record books, featuring a first-time winner, drama, controversy, and a great race to boot.
One of the biggest story lines surrounding this year’s race was the return of the United States Auto Club (USAC) as the sanctioning body of the Little 500 for the first time since 2009. The Auto Value Super Sprints (AVSS) and United States Speed Ass’n (USSA) also served as co-sanctioning bodies for the nation’s oldest sprint car race.
The anticipation and drama began to play out well before the drop of the green flag. Four cars failed post-qualifying tech and had their times disallowed. Among the four found in violation of a right rear offset rule were Kenny Schrader and nine-time Little 500 champion Eric Gordon.
The four cars were allowed to requalify the following day during the second round of qualifications.
Possibly due to the remnants of COVID regulations still in effect, the event saw a low number of entrants for this year’s race. Only 36 cars towed into Anderson Speedway to fight for one of the coveted 33 starting positions.
Rob Keesling destroyed his car when his throttle stuck and he hit an inside concrete barrier on the first day of qualifications. The barrier launched his machine into the air in a series of violent flips.
Keesling was unscathed, but that left only 35 cars to fight for a bid in the starting field.
This year’s race was one of the coolest in recent memory. On race day, May 29, cool temperatures and high winds were the biggest topic of discussion. A race time temperature of only 59 degrees greeted fans and teams alike.
A good crowd was on hand, but nothing like the pre-COVID crowds Anderson Speedway witnessed between 2017-’19 with sell-outs by race time.
Nonetheless, this year’s starting field was one of the most competitive seen in years. The top 16 qualifiers were separated by less than three tenths of a second. Kody Swanson captured his third consecutive pole position with a four-lap time of 44.124 seconds, an average of 11.031 seconds per lap around the high-banked quarter-mile oval.
A USAC Silver Crown and midget doubleheader the night before the Little 500 at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis was postponed until the morning of the Little 500. This created a hectic and busy start to the day for no less than eight drivers who chose to compete in both the Little 500 and Carb Night Classic events.
Swanson, who had already won a USAC Silver Crown race and then a midget race earlier in the day, got the jump and led the opening lap of the Little 500 in one of the smoothest starts seen in recent years. Swanson looked strong at the start of the race and set a torrid pace with Tyler Roahrig and Caleb Armstrong in close chase through the first 150 laps of the event.
Ten laps later, Swanson would lose an engine cylinder while leading, running one cylinder down for the remainder of the event. Swanson revealed such in a post-race interview.
Swanson handed the lead over to Caleb Armstrong prior to the 200-lap mark, when he ducked into the pits for his first of two mandatory pit stops. From there, Swanson would not lead another lap throughout the rest of the event.
Roahrig, who had run second throughout most of the race, took the lead for the first time of the night from Caleb Armstrong on lap 241. Roahrig held the point until his second, and final, pit stop on lap 387.
The final pit stop for Roahrig proved pivotal in the outcome of the race. Besides Roahrig, front-running cars Kody and Tanner Swanson also chose to pit.
Roahrig beat both cars back onto the track with an efficient stop and, in the process, gained valuable track position. This would ultimately seal the fate for both Swansons.
Roahrig recaptured the lead from Scott Hampton six laps later, and then led the final 108 laps to win his first Little 500 in his sixth attempt.
The Swanson brothers were never able to mount a serious attack the rest of the race, while Roahrig won by a margin of 4.667 seconds over Kody, followed by Tanner.
The top three finishers were the only cars left on the lead lap at the conclusion of the race.
Three-time USAC National Sprint Car Series champion Brady Bacon picked up an extra $1,000 and rookie-of-the-race honors.
Bacon was only three days removed from a spectacular flip that saw him launched high in the air and out of the ballpark at Terre Haute (Ind.) Action Track.
SWANSON’S SHOT AT A HAT TRICK
This year’s Carb Night Classic at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, Indiana provided Kody Swanson a nightmare – but also a unique opportunity – depending upon how you looked at it.
The event is annually scheduled the night before the Little 500 at Anderson Speedway, roughly an hour’s drive away. After persistent rain most of the day, the event was finally postponed until the following morning – the morning of the Little 500.
Hot laps would begin at 9:30 am and would be followed by a 100-lap USAC Silver Crown event and a 30-lap midget event. Swanson had planned to compete in both Carb Night Classic events, as well as the Little 500. It was going to be a long and hectic day to say the least.
On the upside, three-time Little 500 champion Swanson now had an opportunity to win three pavement events in three different open-wheel divisions on the same day.
In 1998, Jack Hewitt swept the 4-Crown at Eldora Speedway, winning the midget, sprint car, Silver Crown, and modified features on the same day on the Eldora dirt. In 2011, Kyle Larson won the USAC midget, sprint car and Silver Crown divisions of the 4-Crown on the same day.
In 1963, Mario Andretti won an afternoon midget event at Flemington (N.J.) Speedway and followed it up later that evening by winning twin midget feature events at Hatfield, Pa.
Swanson earning a “hat trick” in three different pavement open-wheel divisions at two different tracks would certainly be an incredible feat. It was also an opportunity for Kody to win nearly $40,000 over the course of the day.
In the Silver Crown portion of the Carb Night Classic, Swanson took advantage of lapped traffic to take over the point from leader Bobby Santos on lap 64 in the Doran Enterprises/Glenn Farms – Lykins Energy Solutions/Beast/Lanci Ford. He would lead for the remainder of the 100-lapper.
In the midget portion of the Carb Night Classic, Swanson led flag-to-flag in the Jerome Rodela/Rodela Fabrication – Trench Shoring Company/Gerhardt/Ed Pink Toyota to earn the win.
After sweeping both Carb Night Classic events, Swanson quickly began the drive to Anderson, with the hour-drive leaving little time for error in order to make the Little 500. He arrived with time to spare.
Starting from the pole position for the Little 500, his third win of the day – this time in a pavement sprint car – was now within reach.
Swanson would drop a cylinder in his engine early in the Little 500 and would, nonetheless, finish second to eventual winner Tyler Roahrig, coming up one spot short of pulling off the historic feat. It was an incredible performance by a very talented driver.
In total, he completed 630 laps over the course of the day.
As for Roahrig, his victory celebration was as emotional and exciting as one might expect from such a major victory.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” the Plymouth, Ind., driver exclaimed moments after taking the checkers. “I had a big enough cushion there at the end that I didn’t have to get really aggressive. I was pretty confident we were faster than Kody. It was just a matter of making sure I didn’t abuse the tires throughout the closing stages.
“Anytime he’s (Kody Swanson) behind you, you’re always kinda scared.”
Roahrig alluded to the fact his final pit stop wasn’t as pivotal to the outcome as many would expect, due to his dominant race car.
“We beat Kody out of the pits on the first stop around lap 200 and that’s how I passed him. It was just a matter of having a clean stop on our second stop, and we were good to go,” tipped Roahrig. “The clean stops are what got me the lead. But my spotter was reading me off lap times. We were consistently faster. I feel like we had the best car on the track, but the guys in the pits definitely didn’t hurt me.
“This is the biggest win of my career. This is one I will never, ever, forget.”