Short track bucket list: Little 500 is a must-see

Annual race at Indiana's Anderson Speedway has 33 sprint cars on a quarter-mile oval.

Short track bucket list: Little 500 is a must-see
Live fuel and tire pit stops
Damages sprint car
Race action
Improvised fuelling rig

ANDERSON, Indiana – There are five short-track races that should be on the bucket list of any serious American race fan.

And by “short tracks,” I’m talking about half a mile or less, and not Bristol Motor Speedway or Martinsville Speedway, because you already know about those NASCAR Sprint Cup venues. Not that they aren’t some of the best NASCAR racing of the season

Here are your five in no particular order:

--The Chili Bowl, held each January in the Tulsa Expo Center in Oklahoma. Hundreds of the best midget drivers vie for one of the 24 starting spots for the main feature. Good luck finding grandstand seats.

--The Knoxville Nationals, sort of the world series of winged sprint car racing held at Knoxville, run in August at Knoxville Raceway in Iowa. The most coveted win in sprint car racing. There are several other good events during the season – if you don’t like the massive crowds that attend the Nationals, pick another race weekend there.

--The NASCAR Craftsman Truck series race at Eldora Speedway in Ohio. Called the Mudsummer Classic, the July race features the trucks and the Sunoco Late Models. Feel free to substitute any other big Eldora race – the World 100, the Kings Royal, the Four Crown Nationals – Eldora seldom fails to entertain, and you need to go there at least once.

--The IMCA Supernationals at Boone Speedway in Iowa, held the first week in September. The International Motor Contest Association, organized in 1915, is the oldest such sanctioning body in the U.S. They sanction races at short tracks all over the county, specializing in dirt modifieds, and those racers tend to converge on Boone for their event, advertised at follows: Six days of racing, four hundred races, 800 race cars, $250,000 purse. This is old school racing. and

--The Little 500 has run for 67 years at Anderson Speedway in Indiana. It is held the night before the Indianapolis 500, and features 33 sprint cars, starting three wide, for 500 laps.

And that’s where we were last Saturday night.

Anderson Speedway is located an hour north, and a world away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The banked, paced quarter-mile was built in 1948 by Joe Helpling, who had a decision to make about his vacant 32 acres: Build a race track, or a bowling alley. A couple of city councilmen suggested a race track, so Helpling, who had never actually seen a race or a racetrack, went to a couple of local speedways and decided yes, that’s what he’d do.

And just a year later, he suggested he was going to run a race called the Little 500 the night before the Indy 500 – 33 roadsters, 500 laps. Most thought he was crazy: 500 laps for cars that sometimes struggle to complete 25-lap features? But 18 cars finished that first race in 1949, and five never even made a pit stop. Sam Skinner won the inaugural event.

Since then, Eric Gordon won an astounding nine Little 500s – he has never been that successful in shorter races, but he just had a knack for this long one. Indy 500 drivers like Jim McElreath won once, back when IndyCar drivers often ran the small tracks around IMS leading up to the Indy 500.

Plenty of past winners

In last Saturday’s race, multiple past winners were in the field, including Shane Cottle, Brian Tyler, Dave Steele, Jacob Wilson and three-time winner Jeff Bloom. Sprint car hotshoes like Jo Jo Helberg, Tony Elliott, Jerry Coons, Jr., Kody Swanson and Jimmy McCune were in the field, too.

Anderson Speedway has a figure-8 course in the middle, and pit crews lined the infield course with spare tires, parts and the most remarkable array of refueling rigs you can imagine, from full-spec sports car and IndyCar-type equipment, to the more common 55-gallon drum on stilts. Refuelers were not required to wear fire suits or gloves or helmets. We presume they were, at least, told they shouldn’t be smoking a cigarette as they refueled the hot sprint cars, which we actually witnessed the last time we were at the Little 500.

The race started pretty close to the scheduled time of 8 p.m., and ended about 11 p.m. The choreography of the track crew was superb, as you would expect after 67 years of practice.

Like the Big 500, qualifying is your four-lap average – which, for the fast guys, was less than 45 seconds for four laps around the quarter-mile. Starting up front is nice, but with 500 laps, just remaining on the lead lap is enough until, say, lap 400 or so.

Two-car battle

For the first 160 or so laps, it looked like a two-car battle between polesitter Bobby Santos III and Caleb Armstrong, but both were caught up in a crash when Brian Tyler’s engine expired.

After the first round of pit stops – everyone would need at least two, one before halfway and one after, for fuel and new Hoosier rear tires – young Kyle Hamilton took the lead after an excellent pit stop, not surprising since the crew chief was Bob East, whose company, Beast, is a top builder of midget and sprint car chassis. His cars have won every USAC Silver Crown championship since 1991, including four with driver Tony Stewart.

Hamilton looked like the car to beat, leading until the second pit stop on lap 347. This stop wasn’t as quick, a problem compounded by the fact that Hamilton wasn’t quite sure where to line up behind the pace car, a mistake he took full blame for after the race. Nonetheless, he’s a driver to watch.

As the race would toward its conclusion, it became a two-car battle between two veterans – Chris Windom took the lead on lap 427, and spent the rest of the race fending off charges from two-time winner Dave Steele. That’s how they finished: Windom, Steele and Kyle Hamilton, all on the lead lap. Fourth place, Jacob Wilson, was two laps down.

Davey Hamilton, Jr. won the rookie of the year title with a sixth-place finish: His father is, obviously, IndyCar driver Davey Hamilton, who is also executive director of the USAC sanctioning body.

It was a clean, competitive race, after which Windom, who last won in 2011, wore a wreath of roses and drank from a bottle of milk. Appropriately, it was followed by champagne.

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