By RICHIE MURRAY
KOKOMO, IN – Rarely does an event truly live up to its moniker, but Saturday night’s “Sprint Car Smackdown VI” was an apt description of how the final laps and post-race theatrics unfolded Saturday night at Kokomo Speedway.
Tyler Courtney utilized a slider to grab the lead from race-long leader Tyler Thomas on the final green-white-checkered restart to win his second USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car feature at the quarter-mile in as many nights.
Such as it was the night prior when he flipped in qualifying before returning to win the Friday feature at Kokomo, the trail for Indianapolis, Indiana’s Courtney to victory lane on Saturday night wasn’t quite a point A to B type of deal. After fighting engine issues early on in the night, Courtney encountered a maze that took just two laps, but resulted in jubilation for some, heartbreak for others and grass stains for a few who rolled around in the infield after voicing their displeasure with the way things played out down the stretch.
Tyler Thomas simply dominated from the drop of the green every single time action resumed, using the turn two wall as an extension of the racing surface by tapping the right rear rubber against the concrete to propel himself down the back straightaway.
One-hundred-eighty-seven USAC National Sprint Car wins were present throughout Saturday night’s stacked feature lineup, yet none belonged to Tyler Thomas coming in. On the final lap, with victory a near certainty for the Collinsville, Oklahoma native, the yellow flag flew for the spun car of Brady Bacon in turn four. By rule, that set up a green-white-checker, two-lap dash situation.
It became a duel between the two unrelated Thomases – Tyler and Kevin Jr. – when racing resumed. K. Thomas attempted a slider for the lead in turn one on the restart to no avail as T. Thomas sped away once again. On the final lap, T. Thomas banged the turn two wall with the right rear. Just behind him, mimicking the same concrete kiss was K. Thomas, who snagged it just a bit harder and flipped wildly to end his bid at a repeat “Smackdown” victory.
On the next GWC try, Chris Windom was lined up right on the tail tank of T. Thomas in the second position. Windom had no doubt in his mind what his plan was as he immediately dove to the bottom of one to successfully slide up in front of T. Thomas on the top midway between turns one and two. T. Thomas once again hooked the wall, but recovered and was able to slide past Windom into turn three as did Courtney nearly simultaneously. Dropping to third momentarily, Windom, using a diamond pattern off turn three, miraculously dove from the top to the bottom from turn three to four to drive underneath both drivers to reclaim the lead as the white flag waved.
Windom once again slid up to the top in front of both Courtney and T. Thomas running side-by-side in turn one. T. Thomas rocketed around the outside of Courtney first, then nudged the turn two wall with the right rear and split between Courtney and Windom off of two. T. Thomas pulled alongside Windom down the back straight and the two made contact! T. Thomas’ right rear hurdled Windom’s left front, sending Windom sideways as T. Thomas continued on. Third-running Courtney couldn’t completely avoid the carnage either and ramped over the nose of Windom, tearing off the nose of Windom’s car and sending him into a 360-degree spin and ending his race.
During the yellow, Windom took umbrage with T. Thomas. T. Thomas was mandated by officials to stop for a safety check to remove Windom’s steering wheel that was stuck in the left side nerf bar of his car before he could continue at the front of the pack.
Some say the third time is the charm, but that would not be the case for T. Thomas on the third attempt at a GWC finish. T. Thomas changed up the plan and went topside off turn four on the lap 39 restart. Courtney shadowed every T. Thomas movement until turn one when he took the middle and reared back for his shot at the race lead, this time pulling it off successfully. T. Thomas tried to counter to the inside, but lost momentum between turns one and two, but still had one remaining breath left in the tank.
With the white flag in the air, T. Thomas went to the bottom of one and aimed for his last shot, sliding wheel-to-wheel beside Courtney between one and two, so close you could hardly slide a credit card between each’s tires. Courtney anticipated the action, but kept his foot in it and sped around the outside of T. Thomas to remain in front where he would finish off the biggest win of his career just ahead of T. Thomas, Robert Ballou, Scotty Weir and Dave Darland.
One night following a prelim victory at the track in which he made his USAC Sprint Car debut, Courtney added another sweet note to his ever-growing resume by scoring the $10,000 check. Picking up a win at any track in USAC National competition is a tall task, but a win after overcoming so much adversity makes the nectar of success taste even sweeter.
“It’s a lot sweeter,” Courtney exclaimed. “Last night was obviously pretty special getting my first sprint car win at Kokomo. That’s a hard feat to accomplish in itself. To back it up in the biggest race at the track is amazing. Really, all this goes to my guys. They busted their tails all weekend. Tonight, we fought engine troubles all the way up until King of the Hill Qualifying. These guys never give up and this is the least I can do to repay them. To keep coming back from adversity really the shows the kind of team we have.”
“When we turned it over, it hurt the magneto in the engine,” Courtney explained. “Today, it just didn’t fire. We changed one thing and it didn’t run, so we changed another thing and finally got it running. Thank god it did!”
To win, one must first put themselves in a position to win. Despite a few close calls and running between third and sixth throughout much of the 40-lapper, Courtney was there when it counted to score his series-leading fifth USAC National Sprint Car win of 2017 in his TOPP Motorsports/TOPP Performance Race Parts – Custom Pump & Controls/Maxim/Gaerte by TOPP.
“We weren’t a winning car for 99% of that race,” Courtney admits. “But we put ourselves in the right position to stay up there and remain in the hunt and it paid off. We got ourselves into second after Tyler (Thomas) and Chris (Windom) got together and I was able to capitalize on the restart.”
“On the restart, I did exactly what I wanted to do,” Courtney explains. “I was going to make him lift. Sure enough, he did. I got a good head of steam going down into three and was able to rip it pretty good. I slid myself back into one and two and just made sure to protect. This is special. It’s kind of hard to put into words right now. If you ask me a couple days from now, I might be able to. This is the biggest one yet.”
On the flipside of the thrill of victory is the agony of defeat. After answering every bell on an emotional roller coaster ride in which he admits he thought he had the race won at least four times, Tyler Thomas still came home with a career-best second-place finish in his Michael Dutcher Motorsports/Griffin’s Propane – Tri-Star Motorsports – Indiana Underground/Maxim/Fisher. So, so close, yet there is still a sense of pride in Thomas’ voice in what he accomplished Saturday night and what lies ahead for him and Dutcher.
“What makes me feel good is these are the best race car drivers in the country, in my opinion,” Thomas begins. “Last year, I was just pumped to make the A-feature on Saturday night. I’m pretty heartbroken about how this one ended. I guess it’ll just make the first win that much sweeter. I thought we had it, but it’s just not your night sometimes.”
Shortly after the checkered flag, there was a little bit of extracurricular activity that took place on the front straightaway as Windom confronted Thomas following their on-track incident. Words and actions were exchanged and several crew members ended up on the infield grass in a tussle as a dejected Thomas could only look on and wonder what could’ve been. Thomas was deeply apologetic to Windom in the immediate aftermath.
“I was expecting a slider from Chris on the restart in turn one,” Thomas recalled. “I knew if I could just get through turn one smooth and not hit the wall, I’d be in good shape. But he cleared me and I hit the wall. I got back underneath him and I tried to leave him a lane, but it’s so slick on the straightaway. I’m not sure if he came down or if I came up. The bottom line is I ran over his left front. I hate doing that. I don’t race that way. I hate to cost somebody else a win.”
Restart after restart can be mentally wearing on any driver, let alone one seeking his first USAC win. Thomas was flawless on each of them, but it was the final one that bit him.
“I did really well staying calm, cool and collected even after that first time when we were coming to the checkered flag,” Thomas said. “I was doing alright. I knew I could get through turns one and two okay. After the third GWC restart, my mind was going crazy trying to figure out what I could do to get the jump I needed, which was tricky because it was slick. You don’t know whether to slide yourself or go right to the top. I figured if I could just get my momentum up as quickly as possible, I’d be okay. Tyler slid by me and got to the cushion and there wasn’t anything I could do with him after that.”
Robert Ballou’s topsy-turvy race took him from pursuing T. Thomas for the lead in second with six laps remaining to waxing the turn two wall and dropping to fifth, then regathering himself to take his Robert Ballou Motorsports/Deaton’s Waterfront Services – Dickinson Farms/Boss/Ott to a solid third-place finish.
Despite a slider attempt at Thomas on a restart with 11 laps to go, Ballou never believed he had the car to compete for the victory.
“I was too free,” Ballou said. “In six years of Smackdown, if I haven’t crashed, I’ve been too tight the whole race until the last five laps. You just can’t race that way. We were pretty tight in King of the Hill Qualifying, so I went up and watched the race track, came back and Derrick had tightened the racecar up. I knew I wasn’t going to make it past the first corner. I had to go up and do driver intros and I told him this wasn’t going to work. Then, he went the other way too far. It’s just one of them deals. You have to be able to communicate perfectly every time. It’s a shame on me. I’m the one who spooked him and I knew we were going to be struggling at the end. I didn’t think the cushion would build up as high as it did in turns three and four. I was too good too early and I was just a sitting duck at the end.”
USAC contingency award winners Saturday night at Kokomo included Kevin Thomas, Jr. (B & W Auto Mart King of the Hill Qualifying Winner), Chad Boespflug (Simpson Race Products Qualifying Race 1 Winner), Jarett Andretti (Competition Suspension, Inc. Qualifying Race 2 Winner), Chris Windom (Chalk Stix Qualifying Race 3 Winner), Justin Grant (Indy Race Parts Qualifying Race 4 Winner), Dave Darland (KSE Racing Products Hard Charger) and Kody Swanson (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher).
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: August 26, 2017 – Kokomo, Indiana – Kokomo Speedway – “Sprint Car Smackdown VI”
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST QUALIFYING RACE: (10 laps) 1. Chad Boespflug (#69 Dynamics), 2. Scotty Weir (#17G On The Gass), 3. Isaac Chapple (#52 LNR/Chapple), 4. Mario Clouser (#6 MCM), 5. Brady Short (#19AZ Reinbold/Underwood), 6. Logan Jarrett (#29 Jarrett), 7. Travis Hery (#21H Hery). 2:11.53
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND QUALIFYING RACE: (10 laps) 1. Jarett Andretti (#18 Andretti), 2. Chase Stockon (#32 32 TBI), 3. Aaron Farney (#15F DCT), 4. Tom Harris (#5E Harris), 5. Matt Goodnight (#39 Goodnight), 6. Chet Williams (#38 Williams), 7. Colten Cottle (#1RL Lambertson). NT
CHALK STIX THIRD QUALIFYING RACE: (10 laps) 1. Chris Windom (#5 Baldwin), 2. Dave Darland (#40 Hery), 3. Josh Hodges (#74x Hodges), 4. Kyle Robbins (#17R Robbins), 5. Brian Karraker (#23 Karraker), 6. Josh Spencer (#66J Spencer), 7. Parker Frederickson (#34 Frederickson). 2:10.23 (New Track Record)
INDY RACE PARTS FOURTH QUALIFYING RACE: (10 laps) 1. Justin Grant (#11 McGhee), 2. Shane Cottle (#57 Hazen), 3. Kody Swanson (#2E Epperson), 4. Brandon Mattox (#28 Mattox), 5. Tyler Hewitt (#97x One More Time), 6. Cole Ketcham (#41 Ketcham), 7. Robert Bell (#71 Bell). 2:11.67
B & W AUTO MART “KING OF THE HILL” 2-CAR SHOOTOUTS: (3 laps each) Round 1: C.J. Leary (#30 Leary) defeated Brady Bacon (#63 Dooling/Hayward); Tyler Thomas (#17GP Dutcher) defeated Kyle Cummins (#3R Rock Steady); Hunter Schuerenberg (#19 Reinbold/Underwood) defeated Robert Ballou (#12 Ballou) and Kevin Thomas Jr. (#9K KT) defeated Tyler Courtney (#23c TOPP). Round 2: T. Thomas defeated Leary and K. Thomas defeated Schuerenberg Final Round: K. Thomas defeated T. Thomas.
SEMI: (15 laps) 1. Farney, 2. Hodges, 3. Chapple, 4. Swanson, 5. Hewitt, 6. Clouser, 7. B. Short, 8. Mattox, 9. Karraker, 10. Robbins, 11. Goodnight, 12. Williams, 13. Hery, 14. Spencer, 15. Bell, 16. Harris, 17. Frederickson, 18. Ketcham, 19. Jarrett. NT
FEATURE: (40 laps) 1. Tyler Courtney, 2. Tyler Thomas, 3. Robert Ballou, 4. Scotty Weir, 5. Dave Darland, 6. Justin Grant, 7. C.J. Leary, 8. Jarett Andretti, 9. Chad Boespflug, 10. Chase Stockon, 11. Hunter Schuerenberg, 12. Aaron Farney, 13. Kody Swanson, 14. Josh Hodges, 15. Tyler Hewitt, 16. Kyle Cummins, 17. Mario Clouser, 18. Chris Windom, 19. Kevin Thomas, Jr., 20. Brady Bacon, 21. Isaac Chapple, 22. Shane Cottle. NT
**Jarrett flipped during the Semi. Harris flipped during the Semi. Chapple flipped on lap 16 of the feature. K. Thomas flipped on lap 40 of the feature.
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-38 T. Thomas, Laps 39-40 Courtney.
KSE RACING PRODUCTS HARD CHARGER: Dave Darland (15th to 5th)
WILWOOD BRAKES 13TH PLACE FINISHER: Kody Swanson
NEW USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS: 1-Grant-1662, 2-Windom-1569, 3-Courtney-1493, 4-K. Thomas-1484, 5-Boespflug-1478, 6-Stockon-1419, 7-Leary-1288, 8-Bacon-1243, 9-Ballou-1166, 10-Andretti-1102.
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: September 15 – Terre Haute Action Track – Terre Haute, Indiana – “Jim Hurtubise Classic”