TERRE HAUTE —
Open-wheel sprint-car racing, whether it be at the national or local level, has earned a reputation over the years of generating its share of thrills and excitement for its fans and a valuable training ground for drivers seeking to hone their skills that someday might elevate them to the “major leagues” of their sport.
Time spent this past weekend at Lincoln Park Speedway with two of the most recognizable names on the Wabash Valley sprint car scene served up a stark reminder that the glory days when success in one of the most competitive and dangerous forms of racing was often a ticket to bigger and better times has slowly became a thing of the past.
It’s disheartening to discover that the days when a guy could make a decent living winning in a sprint car — while earning a legitimate shot at running Indy — are not only long forgotten but have many of today’s and tomorrow’s stars facing times when it’s just a struggle to make it to the race track.
Witnessing that no team or driver has been totally able to escape a troubled economy, has made it increasingly tougher to gain or hold on to much-needed sponsorship support.
One would think if any driver could escape the troubling times it would be a driver with the credentials of a Dave Darland or the talents of a Chase Stockon or Blake Fitzpatrick.
Listen closely and you learn quickly that not even this trio and their teams are exempt from the rising costs of going racing.
On the surface, it would appear that Darland and Stockon’s days in the sprints are pretty secure, that their 2013 campaigns offer high expectations. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals a measure of financial uncertainty even for these two fan favorites.
That Darland, the perennial frontrunner and title contender, is facing a challenge just to keep his new team is a position where they will be able to run the USAC circuit full time. Stockon hoping to avoid any financially pitfalls that might derail his goals of remaining in a championship hunt throughout the year and Fitzpatrick simply just hoping for a return to racing by mid-summer.
Darland went looking for a new ride in the off-season and landed a spot with the team fielded by Steve and Carla Phillips. While not newcomers to the division, the team has never campaigned full-time in USAC.
“They’ve have had good drivers and cars over the years, but they just haven’t been able to win. They’ve been knocking on the door. The Phillips are working-class people and they will do their best to do the complete schedule,” said Darland.
“I appreciate the opportunity they have given me to drive their race car. With the economy the way it is, finding good rides can be tough. It would be nice to be the one to give them that first win,” voiced the 1999 USAC sprint champ who has 40 USAC sprint feature wins to his credit.
Stockon is hopeful he will be able to follow up on his banner season of a year ago. To do so, he knows his small team has to avoid any potential financial setbacks.
“Our main goal is to finish in the top three in points and have a shot at the championship. I think it’s obtainable ,” said the former Sullivan native. “We started off good with the early races in Florida and should have won at Lawrenceburg, so things have gone well. Financially, it’s always a question mark. No matter who you are,” voiced the two-time winner of year ago.
“It’s always easier to get to the race track when you have good paying nights like we did a year ago. We’re fortunate to have a guy like Tom Burkey at Superior Tanks and Trailers out of Beach City, Ohio, to keep us going. It makes a big difference when you know you have the resources to get to the race track and be competitive each night,” added last year’s Most Improved Driver of Year award winner in the sprints.
Notably absent from the race track thus far in 2013 has been Fitzpatrick Racing out of West Terre Haute. Drivers Blake and Braylon Fitzpatrick hope to be back on track by “mid summer.”
Like Stockon, the pair lost their local long-time sponsor during the off season and are still in search of a backer that will enable them to get back into racing, at least at area ovals.
Like many before them, the local team learned early in the game that it’s hard to compete at national USAC level if you don’t have the proper finances or equipment.
“We learned several years ago even when we were having solid runs, running as well as we were that it was nearly impossible night in and night out to compete with teams like Tony Stewart. You reach a point when there is no payoff at the end of night,” voiced Fitzpatrick.
“When you see a guy like Dave Darland with all the success he had over the years just making it from race to race it tells you how tight the money is. We hope to make some MSCS [Midwest Sprint Car Series] shows and those at the Action Track later this summer,” added the 21 year-old ISU student who has spent time away from the race track working on his goals to attend law school.
Joe Buckles can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.