By Joe Buckles
Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
The dust has long settled. The congratulatory phone calls and handshakes are becoming less frequent but that first taste of victory remains as fresh and sweet as ever for the U.S. Auto Club’s newest first-time sprint car feature winner.
It’s been over a week since Blake Fitzpatrick rolled into victory lane at the USAC Indiana Sprint Week finale at Haubstadt, but by the tone of his voice one can tell that talented young racer is still savoring the moment as if the checkered flag had just fallen.
“I think I spent two hours signing autographs after the win. It was pretty neat, a special night,” said Fitzpatrick, who has now become a winner in both USAC sprints and midgets.
By capturing the 30-lap feature, the West Terre Haute racer became the first Vigo County driver to ever win a USAC sprint-car feature.
A pair of Wabash Valley drivers have accomplished the feat in the past with Clinton’s Dave Peperak and Chet Johnson of Dennison, Ill., putting their names in the USAC record pages, but when Fitzpatrick drove his First Finanical Sprinter to victory lane he became the youngest Wabash Valley racer to do so.
While one win doesn’t define a driver’s career it can open doors and nuture a winning attitude — a scenario that Fitzpatrick and his many supporters hope plays out in the future.
For the moment, however, they just want to relish a run that many saw coming and predict will play out again in the not-too-distant future.
Entering the final night of the seven race series Fitzpatrick had not only positioned himself for a top-10 finish in points but a pre-race favorite’s role at the high-banked, quarter-mile dirt oval where he had come so close to winning before.
“Going into the night I just had the feeling that it [the win] was going to happen. Everything just sorta fell in place. Things were lined up,” Fitzpatrick said, looking back on how the fateful night played itself out.
“We qualified third quick and was running second with three laps to go. When I got around [Dave] Darland for the lead. I’d come so close to winning at Haubstadt before and always let the win get away from me. I was never able to finish it off until Sprint Weeks,” voiced Fitzpatrick.
“I wasn’t about to let that one get away from me. They say it comes with experience. Whatever it was, it was a very special moment,” he said.
“Things at this level don’t happen without a great deal of support. I’ve been very fortunate to have the backing of my family, friends and Don Smith at the bank.”
Making the victory lane celebration even more special was the fact newly crowned ISW champion Jon Stanbrough was the first to greet Blake as he climbed from his winning mount.
Stanbrough was not at all surprised to have been outrun by the 18-year-old youngster, whom he says has a bright future ahead of him.
“Hes been knocking on the door. He just hasn’t been able to put those laps together … 30 consistent laps. He was able to do that at Haubstadt. He was really fast,” offered Stanbrough.
“He didn’t start up front and had to race his way through traffic. He didn’t get in any trouble. Congratulations to him,” Stanbrough said.
“We’ve been to Haubstadt a couple times this season and Blake was a contender to win then before he crashed. Now that he’s got over that hump maybe he’ll knock off a couple more.”
The recent West Vigo High School graduate concedes his lack of experience at running up front may have cost him a pair of potential wins over the past two seasons.
“You have to put yourself in a position to win, not beat yourself with mistakes. That’s something that comes with maturity. As a driver and team, I think we have matured to the point we are capable of winning races,” the personable Fitzpatrick said.
Joe Buckles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.