As Levi Jones was set to depart Speedway, Ind., and head to Pennsylvania, it was in less than ideal circumstances.
I don’t know about Jones, but I instinctively looked at every corner on Main Street fully expecting The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore to be doing a live remote.
Yes, it was late April. But we were in the midst of a full-blown, honest-to-God thunder snow. The winds continued, a little sleet could be found near Dayton, but still we forged ahead, hoping that the four-race Keystone Invasion was not going to be a bust.
It’s not like every foray to the east has gone off without a hitch. Last year the midget tour was hit hard by rain and it has been rare to get every date in.
The rational side of me was convinced that, at least, the opening round was doomed. It was for that reason I sent Jones a text where he assured me he was loaded up and ready to roll. Trust me. I understand how tough and dedicated Keystone State racing fans are. I have spent years marveling at the photos of snow piled up in the infield of various tracks with sprint cars streaming by, as if it was the most logical thing on earth.
What did provide some hope is that we pointed toward Grandview Speedway. Perhaps it is because it is so often the first stop, but there is nothing quite like pulling up hours in advance and seeing fans assembled in front of the gate, or tailgating ready to get in. This is a place where USAC truly gets red carpet treatment.
When we arrived on race day, they were there again. Maybe not in the numbers we have seen, but they were there nonetheless.
The bottom line is that it was cold. It was very cold. It was even freezing cold in the booth. Still, we got the show in, with Brady Bacon continuing his mastery at the oval by winning there for the fourth straight time. Anyone who watched Bacon at Lawrenceburg and Grandview would be tempted to hand him his fourth USAC title on the spot. Matt Hummel had the car purring and Bacon was flawless in traffic once again. At that point, Bacon had not finished outside the top five.
The next stop was Big Diamond, a place where Chris Windom captured his first USAC race years ago. Tanner Thorson is technically a rookie in the USAC sprint ranks, but no one was surprised when he got to victory lane for his first USAC sprint win, with Jake Swanson in the runner-up spot. The great news was that the weather was a bit more tolerable and the crowd was enormous.
Weather looked to be a clear impediment the next day at BAPS Motor Speedway and officials put their heads together and wisely moved the timetable up considerably. It is hard for the quality of racing not to suffer a bit when you elect to compete in the afternoon, but C.J. Leary hardly cared as he was able to score a victory for a Ford-powered sprint car for the first time in a decade. Not long after the checkered flag fell, the rain came. It was a good call.
Many looked forward to the first appearance of the sprint cars at Path Valley, but threatening weather kept the crowd away. Thorson scored for the second time in three days, while Justin Grant and Kevin Thomas Jr., who had a fine tour, rounded out the podium.
Of all the stunning things that happened, at the top of the list was the fact that, for once, USAC beat the weather and got every event in. It had been one of the busiest Aprils in club history. Bacon headed home still the man to beat, Thorson demonstrated he was a force, and Grant and Thomas remained very much in the conversation.
Jake Swanson also had a badly-needed run of strong performances. There was some disappointment that he couldn’t seal the deal at Big Diamond, but without some timely assistance he would not have been able to make the trip. In the end, he was in the top 10 each night and posted two top-five finishes.
Yet, above all the real winner was Curt Michael’s USAC East Coast Sprint Car Series. Several of Michael’s regulars swapped their 360 for a 410, and some did give it a go with a smaller powerplant. Every time USAC makes this swing, they can count on Carmen Perigo and Joey Biasi to give it everything they’ve got. On that count, they never disappoint.
Steven Drevicki is just a good solid racer who has won titles with the ARDC midgets, and he has been the only champion the East Coast tour has ever had. Drevicki had a run of tough luck, but he was the fast qualifier at BAPS and ended the tour with consecutive seventh-place finishes.
Timmy Buckwalter picked up his third fast qualifier of the year award at Big Diamond and raced like all Buckwalters do. They’re just good at their job. Briggs Danner was the top qualifier at Grandview and scored two top-10’s, and he drew raves all week. Nash Ely, new to sprint cars, also acquitted himself nicely and his car control was commented on by former series champion Robert Ballou.
Alex Bright, who has established his credentials several times at the Chili Bowl, was simply sensational. Not only did Bright land in the top 10 in every event, but he was the hard charger in three of the four races. In the two events in which he finished fourth, he improved a total of 26 spots.
While one might argue it would behoove Bright to qualify a bit better, the fact is, when it came time to race he stood on his head.
What this means for fans in the east who would like an opportunity to enjoy traditional sprint cars is that good news is at hand. The USAC East Coast tour is the real deal. They have built an attractive schedule and, as the results above indicate, they have stars of their own. These teams have good-looking cars, well-maintained equipment, and drivers that have proved that they can go toe-to-toe with the biggest stars in USAC sprint car racing.
This was the hope when this series started. When a touring division can pick up a few quality local teams to increase the car count and enhance the competition, everyone wins.
That process is clearly at hand in the east.