TERRE HAUTE —
The 2010 Terre Haute Action Track season came to a climactic close over the weekend. Unfortunately, the campaign closed on a near-tragic note for the second consecutive year.
The season finale, Saturday’s Sumar Classic, had all the makings of a great night of racing: perfect weather, a stellar field of cars and drivers and racing surface that drew the praise of competitors and fans alike.
At the end of the night, however, it wasn’t the great racing and wild finish that was the major topic of conversation. Instead it was the unknown fate of injured driver Shane Hmiel.
Even the one person that should have been the happiest competitor in attendance at the track, race-winner Levi Jones, had difficulty mustering a smile at evening’s end.
The horrific crash that many feared had Hmiel’s life hanging in the balance drained the emotions of all those gathered.
Sadly, for the second time in as many season finales at the Fairgrounds, the ugly side of the violent and often unforgiving aspects of open-wheel racing had reared its ugly head.
Much to his credit and professionalism, Jones still found the strength to grant interviews, sign autographs and greet many of his supporters at the end of the long night.
Jones’ father had left the track soon after the Hmiel accident to go to Indianapolis to be with Shane and his crew. Levi was receiving conflicting updates on the condition of his fellow racer and close friend.
Jones was visibly upset with the circumstances surrounding the accident and injuries to his close friend.
“It’s not a good night,” moaned Jones. “Shane is probably one of my best friends in racing.”
“It’s like I’m not even here. It’s that unreal. There at the end I really didn’t want the race to be over. Even with two laps to go because I never like going to the hospital. I’m thankful [Hmiel] is at Indianapolis and has good doctors. He was there for me last year when I needed him. I’ll be there for him now,” vowed the Olney, Ill., racer.
The Hmiel incident overshadowed what was a classic night of racing during the 100-lap feature — probably some of the best ever in the 12-year history of the Sumar Classic.
The racing generated an intense battle between Jones, Dave Darland and Bud Kaeding in the early stages, then Jones and Darland towards the end.
Silver Crown racing was at its finest, fueled with a series of yellow-flag restarts that added drama and excitement at each turn. The closing stages of the race took on more the appearances of a weekly Saturday night shootout at a tiny bull ring rather than one at a big and fast half-miler.
And who better to stage those daring bonsai passing attempts and unnerving slide jobs than two of USAC’s finest, Jones and Darland.
Putting his emotions aside, Jones reflected on his battle with Darland over the closing laps.
“I don’t think I could have raced much harder. I know [Darland] is one of the best at running on the cushion. You know when Dave Darland has a chance to win a race he’s going to be on his game,” said Jones.
On the fateful move that decided the final outcome, Jones said he felt fortunate to be the eventful survivor of the many jabs the pair had thrown at each other over the closing laps..
“[Darland] brought a slider and was wide open when he got to the cushion. He was going to fast. He tipped the 56 car over and I was able to turn underneath him. That’s what built this place. Why it’s fun to come here. It’s awesome to win at Terre Haute,” he said.
Darland’s rare miscue and resulting series of rollovers dashed what could have yet been another win for car owner Brad Fox at the Action Track this season.
Jon Stanbrough had piloted Fox’s sprint car to three wins here in 2010. The veteran car owner and former driver took the chain of events in stride.
“You’re going to have those nights. When you’re going for the win you do what you have to do. Everybody gave it their best shot. We just happened to be the one with the bent race car,” conceded Fox.
Darland accepted defeat like the consummate pro he is.
“It’s a disappointment. We really could have used a win. There were just too many yellows there at the end,” voiced the defending race winner.
“At the same time it was encouraging to the see the race track in such great shape. [Reece and Jarrod O’Connor] who worked the track gave us a great track,” praised Darland.
With his win and Kaeding’s early problems and eventual 15th-place finish, Jones pulled within a single point of the championship lead. The title will be decided this weekend in the Rollie Beale 150 at Toledo, Ohio.
With a strong showing Jones could emerge as both the USAC sprint car and Silver Crown champion for 2010. He faces a monumental week.
“It’s going to be hard to focus on any one thing this week. We’ve got Toledo coming up. Shane’s banged up and I’ve got a baby coming at any time,” he said.
• Injury update — The news continues to be encouraging regarding Hmiel’s recovery. After undergoing neck surgery Sunday, then seven hours of back surgery Monday, Shane was to undergo more surgery Tuesday.
“Everything at this point is unbelievably positive,” said USAC spokesman Jason McCord. “Things are very encouraging for him to return to a normal and productive life.”
• Racing loss — The area racing scene lost one of its staunchest supporters and best friends last week with the passing of Mike Wright. In his many roles in racing, Mike was a major contributor to the sport he cared so much. He will be sorely missed by his many friends and fellow racers.
• Better times ahead — On the brighter side, look for some big news coming out of Crossroad Dragway in the very near future. And while attendance was down for the SUMAR Classic, look for it to remain on the USAC schedule down the road. It appears that Bob Sargent and the O’Connor family are close to gaining promotional rights at the Action Track next season.
Joe Buckles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org