By Joe Buckles
TERRE HAUTE — Over its storied 38-year history, the Tony Hulman Classic has had its share of losing bouts with the weatherman. Not so with the event’s latest running which played before a large crowd last week.
Making the strong spectator turnout even more surprising was the timing — a rare mid-week show that didn’t seem to deter those facing next day work or school schedules. The smoothly run show had the checkered flag waving at an accommodating 10:31 p.m.
The quick feature made for a great night for all involved, especially for Hulman Classic victor Levi Jones, winner of the race for the third time.
His near flawless performance notched him his sixth feature win at the local half-mile dirt oval. Of current day drivers that compete here regularly, only Jon Stanbrough’s seven wins ranks higher.
Fans fortunate enough to have followed the blossoming career of Jones over the years can quickly attest to the modesty of the Olney, Ill., hot shoe.
Although the 27-year-old has enjoyed his share of success in recent years Jones still appears more at ease behind the wheel of a race car than in front of a camera.
Over the rich history of the Classic, no driver sped to victory in a more impressive or dominating fashion than Jones did en route to becoming the first driver to post back-to-back Classic wins at Terre Haute.
Modesty aside, even Jones couldn’t conceal how well things went in the 30-lap feature. Those kind of nights don’t come around that often in the highly competitive ways of sprint car racing.
“That was a pretty nice race car out there tonight. You definitely had to hold on there at the end. This is how Terre Haute is supposed to be. Some ruts, some holes and slick spots. Thank goodness I’ve been working out a lot,” said a slimmed-down Jones moments following his win.
It was his third checkered flag in a season that has had its share of rain postponements.
“I’ve got a good group of guys to work with here at Tony Stewart Racing. I show up, they ask me what I need. Right now we’re coming up with some pretty good end results.”
The team is under new leadership in 2009. Jimmy Carr, a mainstay at Tony Stewart Racing since its inception 11 years ago, took over team manager responsibilities of both the World of Outlaws and USAC teams over the winter.
The USAC efforts of Jones and Tracy Hines have given all indications of being serious contenders for the sprint car points title.
Insiders say Jones continues to improve as a driver with each passing season. Is he on the path to becoming one the sport’s best ever.
“I’d like to think I continue to get better. I’m definitely getting older so I don’t want to get worse,” said Jones, who will turn 27 next month.
Of course winning has a way of breeding success and harmony both on and off the track.
“People who say winning isn’t everything are those who have never won before. I truly believe that. If you settle for second place it can make for a long weekend in this sport,” said Jones.
With his success in recent years, Jones is the subject of speculation of what direction his racing career might be headed.
He doesn’t hide the fact that he has an eye on IndyCar and stock car racing.
“I went to the Speedway last weekend. Walked around taking it all in. Man would I like to be racing there Sunday.”
He feels his presence and that of several other of his fellow USAC drivers would help boost sagging attendance at the track during the month of May.
“You look at all the people who come [Wabash Valley Fairgrounds] and cheer me on. You’ve got to believe that there would be five times than many if I could make it to the Speedway or Charlotte for the 600..”
“I’m not complaining. I’m just lucky to be with a great team like Tony Stewart Racing. Its a fun time for me right now. I’m getting married in December. Things are sort of clicking right now.”
• Remembering a champion — It was a somber night at the Classic for those who were fortunate enough to have competed against or known Larry Rice over the years.
The popular retired open wheel racer had lost his nine-year bout with cancer only hours before the USAC contingent arrived here.
The record books will show Larry with a pair of USAC Silver Crown driving titles. He was the 1973 midget champion and winner of 19 features, including wins in the sprints and midgets at the Action Track.
Rice shared Rookie of the Year honors with Rick Mears at the Speedway in 1978. While Mears would have the good fortunes to team up with Roger Penske and become a four-time 500 winner, Larry became one of the many short track racers that fell victim to the buy-a-ride trend that would eventually plague championship racing.
He never voiced a complaint about not getting a legitimate shot to compete at Indianapolis or the cruel fate that would come his way later in life. He was that kind of guy.
Many of those who gathered at the Classic took time to share stories of their times with Rice. Former driver and long-time car owner Steve Stapp pretty much summed up just how well liked and highly regarded Larry was with his fellow racers.
“Larry was the kind of guy who just did his own thing. If you didn’t know Larry was a race driver you would never have known he drove race cars. He had great respect from his fellow drivers and as a person he was a class human being. He will be missed,” voiced Stapp.
Joe Buckles can be reached at email@example.com