By: Richie Murray – USAC Media
Mechanicsburg, PA – Kody Swanson has been the master of the USAC Silver Crown Champ Car Series presented by TRAXXAS throughout the last three-and-a-half seasons.
No driver owns more victories (14) or championships (2) than the Kingsburg, California driver in that span.
However, the master still attests that he remains a student of the sport. That has seeded him with the motivation to continually adjust and seek to find deficiencies in all areas of his racing craft that he feels he has to improve to make him a better driver.
In Friday night’s “Horn-Schindler Memorial” at Williams Grove Speedway, the humble, soft-spoken Swanson transformed into a stone-cold assassin when it comes to Silver Crown racing by running down the dominant Damion Gardner with 17 laps remaining to record his 17th career series victory, moving him up to second on the all-time list alongside Brian Tyler with now just one past legend of the series standing in front of him, the one who made the white No. 63 wrenched by Bob Hampshire the car to beat in its era, just like it is today.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been a more storied racer than Jack Hewitt,” Swanson said. “Also, I was a teammate to Brian Tyler for a little while at the beginning of my Silver Crown career. I feel pretty well connected to those two guys. It’s a pretty special territory to be in. I don’t know if I feel like we belong, but I’m thankful to be a part of it. Brian and Jack had so many huge Silver Crown wins. I guess we’re racking up our own little list here.”
In Friday’s race, however, Damion Gardner held a commanding lead from his pole starting position. The five-time USAC/CRA AMSOIL Sprint Car champ was making just his fourth-career Silver Crown start in only his second visit to the Grove of any kind after a Non-Wing World Championship triumph in 2002.
For much of the 100-lapper, Concord, California’s Gardner led by at least a half-straightaway and sometimes as much as a full-straightway. Yet, to many long-time observers, with Swanson still lurking in the field, the outcome had yet to be decided.
On lap 62, seventh-starting Swanson worked his way past Justin Grant for the second position. Though, just behind Gardner in the pecking order, Swanson remained a country-mile behind the leader until a yellow shortly thereafter bunched up the field for a restart with 31 laps to go.
As opposed to one year ago, the Klatt Enterprises No. 6 of Gardner was the chasee instead of the chaser such as it was in the 2016 “Horn-Schindler” when Bryan Clauson, in the 6, nearly ran down Chris Windom in the final laps for the win.
Gardner was initially able to gap Swanson on the lap 69 restart, but Swanson surely, and steadily, knocked off tenths of a second per lap as the two frontrunners occupied the middle groove on both ends of the racetrack.
Yet, with 17 to go, Swanson hit the topside of turns one and two, cut off the second corner and ducked underneath Gardner for the race lead, but wasn’t quite able to out-drag race Gardner into turn three before he wisely tucked back into line. If at first you don’t succeed, try again is the creed that Swanson would adhere to a lap later, following Gardner and repeating the same exact maneuver on the same piece of real estate. This time, Swanson had enough pull to push himself into the lead.
“I knew Damion was running a similar line as me,” Swanson explains. “I knew from tracking Justin (Grant) down that, once they move to the same spot, it’s so hard to get a run and get beside him without jeopardizing our race and wrecking us both. When tracking him down, I knew there was less than 20 to go and it was time to get creative. I tried the same line I used to get to the lead three times. Once, earlier, I botched it so badly, but I didn’t lose much ground. I thought ‘hey, if I actually do that right, that could be it.’ The second time, I got close, but I really chocked it up hard because I didn’t have enough room to do it without getting into him. But I didn’t want to show him anything either, so I followed him in line and tried to do it right and had a really good head of steam on the next one.”
From there on, Swanson would remain in control for the balance of the race, even surviving a restart with nine to go, to win his second Silver Crown event in a row and become the first driver since himself in early 2015 to win back-to-back series races on the dirt and the pavement in his DePalma Motorsports/Radio Hospital – Hampshire Racing Engines/Maxim/Hampshire Chevy over Gardner, Jerry Coons Jr., Chris Windom and Brady Bacon.
At first glance, it might appear to be another in a long line of patented late-race success stories for Swanson in which he bides his team before he inflicts his competitors with a venomous strike in the final quarter of the race on his way to victory. Instead, Swanson feels this was one of those classic ‘get-up-on-the-wheel’ type of deals for all 100 laps.
“On the miles, we know we’ve been strong late,” Swanson pinpoints. “Tonight, I didn’t qualify well. I told the guys I felt like I blew the second lap and that put us deep. I felt like I drove all 100 laps as hard as I could. There were certain times where I had to take care of it, but it wasn’t a traditional ‘take-care-of-your-equipment’ type night for me. I was hustling really hard to try to get by guys. I had to get by Jerry (Coons, Jr.) and he doesn’t make mistakes. And Justin doesn’t either. You just have to find a way around. Maybe I got by him because I know he had some brake problems and I thought we could pressure him into it a little bit. I know we were forcing everyone to pick It up a little bit. Damion was so good, it was going to take everything I had to run him down.”
“I’d like to say I was saving and it worked according to plan, but I was scrambling,” Swanson admits. “I typically don’t blister tires or wear out brakes, but I did both tonight. These guys I’m racing against, they’re so good at the half-miles and also in a dirt sprint car, I feel like you have to go hard for 100 laps when you come to a place like this. It’s something I’ve struggled to do. Maybe I was just doing my best impersonation of a real dirt guy tonight.”
Of Swanson’s 17 career victories, eight have come on one-mile dirt ovals. Though he hasn’t been uncompetitive by any means on the half-mile dirt tracks, he hadn’t recorded a victory on one since the Belleville (Kans.) High Banks in 2014, Swanson admits the halves have been a bit of a struggle for him at times.
“They’re just different,” Swanson feels. “I feel like I’m as in as good of shape as anybody in these longer races. But you kind of race them different. The miles have certain factors that aren’t as critical on the half-miles, like tire management. There’s a lot of things on the half-miles that other drivers have been better than me at. I’ve tried to identify those and I’ve been working on them to do what I can to up my game like those other guys have on the half-miles to do a good job for my team. They just race differently. The miles have such a uniqueness to them and, on the half-miles, many people say these cars look like bigger sprint cars and they kind of act like it. Guys that have been so dominant in USAC Sprint Cars have been really good in USAC Silver Crown cars on the half-miles lately. That was an area I struggled with and have gone to work trying to get better. I know I’ve still got more to go, but tonight we were good enough.”
In addition to his move up the ranks of all-time Silver Crown winners, Swanson has now recorded victories on many of the country’s most legendary dirt tracks: the Indiana State Fairgrounds, Illinois State Fairgrounds, Du Quoin State Fairgrounds, the defunct New York State Fairgrounds, the Terre Haute Action Track and now Williams Grove Speedway. It’s something that, at one point, seemed impossible not only to fans of the sport, but also to himself. Not too bad for a guy once considered a pavement specialist.
“There was a time in my career, a lot of folks said I’d never be good enough on the dirt,” Swanson recalls. “I still don’t feel like I am. I’m still learning and working really hard. These guys (DePalma Motorsports) give me a really good car. They work really hard, so I’m going to work hard for them and try to get better. To be second all-time is incredible. For me being a guy who’s not supposed to be winning at Williams Grove, it’s pretty cool to be able to figure it out and beat some of the best dirt guys in the nation and to get it done at such a historic track.”
Like last year, the Klatt Enterprises/Beast – Klatt Enterprises/Beast/Ford experienced a similar, yet opposite fate on its Williams Grove run. Last year, the car was the “chaser” with driver Bryan Clauson at the wheel as the No. 6 came on strong toward the end to nearly pull off the victory. On Friday, the same car, driven by Damion Gardner, was the “chasee,” leading the first 83 laps before being overtaken by Swanson. Nonetheless, it was a solid second-place run for the team in just Gardner’s fourth-career Silver Crown start.
“I ran as hard as I could early,” Gardner said. “I just wanted to get to the lappers and put them all down, then ride the middle. I knew Swanson would be coming at the end, the track would get slower and there’d be yellows. I had two choices: if I slowed down, I wouldn’t be as good and he would catch me. Then, if I ran hard, it was going to hurt my tires. We went fast. Yeah, I hurt my tire, but there were other scenarios that played in there. On that track there, you should be able do 100 laps wide open. They told me to lay off for a while and I did, but maybe not enough.”
Fifteen years after his first and only visit to Williams Grove, Gardner is still in awe of the place and holds a true appreciation of one of the capstone dirt tracks on the American racing scene.
“Bad dudes come from PA and the Grove and fast joints like this,” Gardner praised. “This place is historical. It’s legendary. Every time you come here, you want to win. You pay attention to places like this. The fans love us when we come out here; they show us a lot of respect and appreciation. I like to put on a show and these fans really appreciate it.”
Tucson, Arizona’s Jerry Coons, Jr. took a steady, solid third-place finish in his Gene Nolen Racing/KECO – Indy Race Parts/Maxim/Tranter Chevy, but it didn’t come without its trials and tribulations.
“I started to feel the steering wheel getting slippery with about 40 to go,” Coons remembers. “It was pretty early on. It was mainly on my left hand. I kept wiping my hand on my suit down the straightaway. With about 15 to go, the car started to get stiff. Then, we had a yellow come out. Without being on the throttle, it was getting pretty hard to steer, so I knew it was getting pretty low on fluid. With about 10 to go, it was getting to where it didn’t like to turn left very well.”
“Here, you kind of roll into the corner and get the car sideways to where it’s turning to the right,” Coons continued. “I could get it into a set and hold it there. I got myself into a rhythm. A couple times down in turns three and four, if I bobbled at all, lost the front end and had to turn it to the left, it took me a lot to get it back down. Overall, the car was good. We had an ignition box not running right in the first hot lap session. Then, we went through the fuel system and changed the ignition box. After those problems, a third-place is looking pretty good!”
Contingency award winners Friday night at Williams Grove Speedway include Damion Gardner (ProSource Fast Qualifier & KRS Graphics Bryan Clauson Bad Fast Award Winner), Steve Buckwalter (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher) and Austin Nemire (KSE Racing Products Hard Charger).
USAC SILVER CROWN CHAMP CAR SERIES (presented by TRAXXAS) RACE RESULTS: June 16, 2017 – Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania – Williams Grove Speedway – “Horn-Schindler Memorial”
PROSOURCE QUALIFYING: 1. Damion Gardner, 6, Klatt-20.430; 2. Chris Windom, 92, Kazmark-20.527; 3. Shane Cockrum, 71, Hardy-20.552; 4. Justin Grant, 91, Carli/Hemelgarn-20.641; 5. C.J. Leary, 30, Leary-20.652; 6. Jerry Coons Jr., 20, Nolen-20.662; 7. Kody Swanson, 63, DePalma-20.666; 8. Hunter Schuerenberg, 120, Nolen-20.717; 9. Mark Smith, 54, Lane-20.823; 10. Joe Liguori, 4, Liguori-20.831; 11. Brady Bacon, 48, Martens-20.984; 12. Johnny Petrozelle, 08, Cornell/Petrozelle-21.037; 13. Dave Darland, 27, Phillips-21.104; 14. Patrick Bruns, 95, Full Throttle-21.206; 15. Austin Nemire, 16, Lesko-21.429; 16. David Byrne, 40, Byrne-21.503; 17. Steve Buckwalter, 53, SET-21.657; 18. Dakota Jackson, 201, Nolen-21.923; 19. Dave Berkheimer, 31, Berkheimer-23.207; 20. Tyler Courtney, 97, Lein-NT; 21. Joss Moffatt, 32, Williams/Wright-NT.
FEATURE: (100 laps) 1. Kody Swanson, 2. Damion Gardner, 3. Jerry Coons Jr., 4. Chris Windom, 5. Brady Bacon, 6. Joe Liguori, 7. Patrick Bruns, 8. Austin Nemire, 9. Justin Grant, 10. Shane Cockrum, 11. Mark Smith, 12. C.J. Leary, 13. Steve Buckwalter, 14. Dave Daralnd, 15. Dakota Jackson, 16. David Byrne, 17. Hunter Schuerenberg, 18. Dave Berkheimer, 19. Johnny Petrozelle. NT
**Moffatt flipped over the guardrail in turn 1 during practice. Petrozelle flipped during qualifying.
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-83 Gardner, Laps 84-100 Swanson.
KSE RACING PRODUCTS HARD CHARGER AWARD: Austin Nemire (15th-7th)
WILWOOD BRAKES 13TH PLACE FINISHER: Steve Buckwalter
KRS GRAPHICS BRYAN CLAUSON BAD FAST AWARD: Damion Gardner
NEW USAC SILVER CROWN CHAMPIONSHIP (presented by TRAXXAS) POINTS: 1-Swanson-280, 2-Windom-232, 3-Coons-226, 4-Byrne-188, 5-Gardner-161, 6-Bobby Santos-140, 7-Grant-137, 8-Aaron Pierce-133, 9-Liguori-123, 10-Bacon-113.
NEXT USAC SILVER CROWN CHAMPIONSHIP RACE (presented by TRAXXAS): July 20 – Brownsburg, Indiana – Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis – “USAC Hall of Fame / Rich Vogler Classic”