Previewing The USAC Season

Decades from now, enterprising historians will have little difficulty piecing together the story of USAC’s 2020 campaign. Thanks to the club’s conscientious media guru, Richie Murray, each individual event has been meticulously documented and, when reviewed sequentially, the key storylines are easy to follow.

Wins, losses and points are, by definition, an essential part of this tale. On that account alone this was a year to remember, as all three national title chases went down to the final event. Yet, if our interested sleuths stop here, they will fall far short of capturing the essence of this remarkable season.

Social context matters in all life endeavors, a reality forcefully underscored in 2020. With the COVID pandemic at hand, it is not overly dramatic to suggest that soon after the traditional opening events were completed in February many wondered if another wheel would turn.

It would be the third week in May before a USAC-sanctioned race was contested outdoors, and in the case of the Silver Crown Series, it took until August before the big cars could stretch their legs.

Defending midget champion Chris Windom will be back and will be tough to unseat. His path got easier when it was announced that Tyler Courtney would spend more time in winged racing in 2021. – DAVE NEARPASS PHOTO

Somehow, someway the USAC traveling crew was able to piece together 60 National events. It was a tremendous effort by the USAC brass and core teams and all scrambled from coast to coast with few days off after things kicked off again in earnest. When the accounting was done, USAC had a new member of the Triple Crown club, a veteran became a champion for the third time, and Justin Grant finally climbed to the top step of the podium.

A retrospective review would reveal that the sprint and midget schedules were not far off from recent norms. Certainly, a five-race Silver Crown program was far from ideal, but even getting that much work done was a minor miracle and required those teams to operate at an unfamiliar pace. On the negative side of the ledger, the lion’s share of west coast races fell victim to local and state emergency regulations.

Perhaps the experience of 2020 was a dress rehearsal for the upcoming year. Hopefully the only obstacle facing all will be Mother Nature but, until things are under control with the pandemic, some early appearances may still be in jeopardy. That said, when the three national schedules were announced, a total of 106 discrete dates were on the card. It is unlikely that the USAC record of 103 completed events established in 1977 will be toppled. Regardless, officials and teams should be sufficiently ragged after a run that began in February in Florida and ends in California in November.

NATIONAL MIDGETS

When the 2020 season kicked off, Chris Windom looked to be in a great position to take the National midget championship and add the one USAC title he lacked to his resume. Tucker-Boat Motorsports had made a splash at the Chili Bowl, and it was clear to all that Chad Boat harbored few second thoughts about stepping away from the cockpit. Chad and Cory Tucker were serious about going to the head of the class, and they felt they had the right man to get it done.

Throughout his career, Windom has been a consistent top-five machine and thus he is always in contention. If there was a primary threat it would come from defending champion Tyler Courtney, who was back with Clauson Marshall Motorsports. Sunshine was nearly unstoppable in 2019 and there was no reason to suspect he would be any less formidable.

Former kingpin Tanner Thorson, teamed with Hayward Motorsports, was a bit of a wildcard as it remained unclear if he and the team were prepared to contest each event. Meanwhile, Keith Kunz was armed with a bevy of talented young drivers, and another emerging group, Petry Motorsports, continued to build their program.

In many respects the 2020 season played out as anticipated. Thorson came roaring out of the gate, Windom was steady and Sunshine was finding his way. By the time the tour headed to a Midwest swing, Windom was rolling while Sunshine was a bit in the doldrums. In fact, persistent rumors claimed that Courtney would put midget racing on the back burner and concentrate on his expanding sprint car program.

Then Sunshine caught fire and, while Chris still seemed in control, his friend was poised to strike. While some dates were lost to rain, the traditional eastern swing proved to be nearly disastrous for Windom. In a blink of an eye everything was up for grabs.

When all headed west to close out the year, Thorson had switched teams but was still stout, and Keith Kunz’s young guns were finding their groove. Nonetheless, the title was largely a straight fight between Courtney and Windom, but with Sunshine now in the catbird’s seat. Then Tyler suffered a jaw-dropping DNF at the Western World at Arizona Speedway.

Now Courtney was tasked with coming from behind at the last full points race at Bakersfield. It came down to the final lap. In an oft-discussed moment, Windom out-muscled Ricky Stenhouse to move into the sixth position at the checkered flag, while Courtney had made his way to third. In the end, Windom claimed the championship by a single point, tying the record for the closest finish established in 2008 when Cole Whitt topped Tracy Hines by the same margin.

The USAC National Midget Series has clearly enjoyed an uptick in popularity. It is widely viewed as a place for young talent to hone their skills, and some clearly arrive with hopes of matriculating to NASCAR. There is also a level of industry investment in drivers and teams.

One clear barometer of the health of the series is reflected in the expansion of the schedule. The 43-race slate is the largest for the series in over three decades. Highlights for the year include an expansion of Indiana Midget Week, with the addition of dates at the new Circle City Raceway on the east side of Indianapolis and the Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt.

The now-traditional Eastern Midget Week will include the first trip for the midgets to the reconfigured Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey and the newly-refurbished Bloomsburg Fairgrounds in Pennsylvania.

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