• SHORT TRACK RACING: HOMAGE TO A FORGOTTEN SERIES!

    SHORT TRACK RACING: HOMAGE TO A FORGOTTEN SERIES!

    Hard to believe it’s been nearly 20 years since the Championship Auto Racing Series (CARS) ran exciting, wheel to wheel stock car races on short tracks around Indiana. This series was distinct from and should not be confused with today’s southeastern CARS series that descended from the old Hooters ProCup series, blogs Stephen Cox.

    SHORT TRACK RACING: HOMAGE TO A FORGOTTEN SERIES!The original CARS series was Indiana-based, founded by former ARCA driver Morris Coffman. The concept was built around a spec stock car chassis powered by 305 cubic inch Chevrolet small block engines with two-barrel carburetors that produced about 335 horsepower. The hard compound tires were grooved to limit grip. A completed ready to race car was available for about $20,000, while kits could be purchased for half that price and assembled by the race teams.

    The result was a fun, affordable mid-level touring series that frequented premier Midwestern short tracks including Indianapolis Raceway Park (now Lucas Oil Raceway), Winchester Speedway and Ileana Speedway. The crowds were good. The racecars were fun to drive. They had enough power to slide through the turns but not so much grip that engine prices soared into the stratosphere. For a while – a very short while – CARS provided an excellent platform to learn the craft of stock car racing.

    SHORT TRACK RACING: HOMAGE TO A FORGOTTEN SERIES!I competed in the series from early 1999 until August 2000. My record was marginal, winning two of the series’ smaller events, sitting on the pole at Winchester and finishing sixth in the season points championship. But the competition sharpened my driving skills and introduced me to some great people who remain friends nearly two decades later.

    On September 19, 1999, a bright and cool Sunday afternoon, we put on a pretty good show for Winchester Speedway’s race fans. The top five cars broke away from the field and ran nose-to-tail and sometimes side-by-side on Winchester’s extreme, 32-degree banking for most of the 20-lap feature. My father and spotter, Nelson, coached me up to fourth place late in the event. The whirlwind speeds of Winchester’s high groove took your breath away, especially when running in a two or three-wide pack of five cars, all-vying for a win before a huge crowd at a historic track. I finished fourth in one of the best short track races of the year.

    Series front-runners included many outstanding drivers who had already proven themselves winners at other levels of racing. Mark Fesmire could do no wrong in the 1999 season and left us all in the dust on his way to the first CARS championship title. Indiana short track legend Eddie Van Meter won in front of 25,000 fans at Indianapolis in May 2000. Jeff Cannon was so fast he couldn’t keep tires under his car. Bob Dumke, Tim Green, Wes Bullock, Tim Wallen and other fine drivers competed in my era with many more joining after I departed for the Hooters Pro Cup Series in late 2000.

    SHORT TRACK RACING: HOMAGE TO A FORGOTTEN SERIES!Jerome Branscum, who won the 2003 CARS championship title and later purchased the series, said, “It was a series that we could get into for ten grand and get a nice looking car and we could go racing. I was 44 years old and had never driven a racecar before. It was a real thrill for me. It was the excitement of getting to go racing every week, and on a budget.”

    Going through multiple ownership changes, the series was active as late as 2012 although it struggled to draw entries. It eventually faded away, forgotten by all but a handful of former competitors. The Championship Auto Racing Series existed in the era immediately preceding the Internet, so not a trace of its history can be found online. It existed in the earliest era of digital photography, so traditional 35mm photos are scarce and the few available digital pictures are of poor quality. As far as I can tell all records of its races and indeed, the very existence of the series, have been lost.

    “I would like it to be remembered like it was in the early years,” Branscum recalled, “when you could go racing and it wouldn’t cost you a fortune. You could meet friendly people, race hard and have fun.”

    Stephen Cox: Driver, FIA EGT Championship & Super Cup Stock Car Series, CEO, Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions Co-host, Mecum Auctions on NBCSN.

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  • INDY: USAC MIDGET RACING AT THE BRICKYARD?

    INDY: USAC MIDGET RACING AT THE BRICKYARD?

    Stephen Cox blogs about a new event designed to draw short-track fans back to the mecca of motorsports.

    INDY: USAC MIDGET RACING AT THE BRICKYARD?INDY: USAC MIDGET RACING AT THE BRICKYARD?The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has announced a new event that will be held in the first week of September and hopefully pump up sagging attendance at the Brickyard 400 stock car race. A quarter-mile dirt track will be constructed inside Turn 3 for a USAC midget race,

    Speedway president J. Douglas Boles told the Indianapolis Star, “The short track community in a lot of ways is the heart and soul of racing, so… we thought, ‘Is there a way we could connect with that short-track guy or gal who spends their weekend at the local track on Saturday?’ And we thought this was a good way to experiment with connecting with that fan base.”

    I have an idea that might help. It’s not original, but it’s effective. Let’s start with the track’s biggest event – the Indianapolis 500 – and see if the results don’t trickle down to the Brickyard 400 and every other event held at the Speedway.

    If the Indianapolis Motor Speedway wants short track fans to return to the grandstands, why not allow short track drivers to participate in their premier event, the Indy 500? That concept worked quite well for over half a century. But in recent years the Speedway has promoted a new “ladder” concept and a top tier spec racing formula that has all but barred short-track drivers from participating in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

    In late-2016 I asked Boles if he wanted short-track drivers returning to the Speedway. He responded, “First and foremost in my mind is just really safety… I’d love to see 50 or 60 or 70 cars entering and guys just being able to decide that they have a driver who’s running at Putnamville and we’re going to give him a shot to run at the Speedway. I just don’t think it’s practical anymore.”

    The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is now paying the price for that attitude. Yes, the short-track community is the heart and soul of racing, and no, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has not the slightest connection to that fan base. At least they openly admit it now.

    INDY: USAC MIDGET RACING AT THE BRICKYARD?The cure is simple. Open up the Indy 500 formula and end the spec car era. Encourage short-track drivers to make the Indy 500 their career aspiration. Then you won’t have to beg short track fans to return to the grandstands in May or September. You won’t have to construct special dirt tracks and hold special midget races to con short-track fans into buying weekend tickets to major events that otherwise hold little interest for them. If short-track drivers race at Indianapolis, their fans will follow. No gimmicks required.

    Is there anyone in the halls of power at IMS with the will to make that happen? I’m not holding my breath, but there’s always hope. For the first time, the Speedway’s president is openly admitting that they’ve managed to utterly destroy their once inseparable bond with the short-track community. At least they see the disaster that’s resulted from 25 years of bad decisions that have alienated short track drivers and, inevitably, their fans.

    That’s worth something. Perhaps it will eventually spawn the best news we’ve heard from Indianapolis in a long time.

    Stephen Cox: FIA EPCS sportscar championship & Super Cup Stock Car Series sponsored by http://www.mcgunegillengines.com/and http://www.boschett-timepieces.com/index.php Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions, Co-host, Mecum Auctions on NBCSN

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