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June 2, 2010

Trackside: ‘Super teams’ have become all too familiar, even in dirt-track racing

TERRE HAUTE — On what has traditionally become one of the biggest racing weekends of the year, it comes as little surprise that two of the most influential and successful car owners in American motorsports walked away with the biggest trophies Sunday.

In a scene that has become all too familiar, it was the “super teams” of Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske that dominated the action at Indianapolis and Charlotte.

The results indicate what some say is a troubling trend: It’s nearly impossible for the “little guy” to remain competitive in a money-driven environment.

The days when a small independently-financed team could hold its own with racing’s rich and elite is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

While on a much smaller scale than that of NASCAR or Indy car racing, the USAC sprint-car circuit has its own version of “super teams.”

Those teams fielded by Tony Stewart, Keith Kunz and Hoffman Racing are clearly standard setters in USAC. Fortunately, the fiercely competitive nature of non-wing sprint car racing makes the sprint circuit virtually immune to total dominance by any one team.

That is not to say the division is free of several problem areas such as dwindling car counts and the rising costs to field a competitive car on a consistent basis — a concern that was clearly visible at the Tony Hulman Classic, one of the key stops and most prestigious events on the USAC Sprint Car calendar.

Last Thursday’s card drew a slim 29-car field. Take away the seven local entrants and it would have been a total embarrassment for USAC and the local promoters.

Winning car owner Richard Hoffman is no stranger to racing. His father Gus formed the team 82 years ago. As his family continues its allegiance to open-wheel racing, the second-generation car owner concedes that his sport is not without its trouble spots.

At the same time, he says it will survive and remains hopeful the sprints will remain as competitive as they have in the past.

“We don’t have the car counts we once did, but we still have quality cars. Our competition is as keen as it ever was. The depth of the fields just isn’t there,” offered Hoffman.

When Jerry Coons Jr. survived a late-race duel with Levi Jones to notch his first Terre Haute Action Track feature win, it propelled the Hoffman Racing feature win total to 76, a mark that is unmatched in USAC circles.

The team has won national titles with drivers such as Robbie Stanley, Dave Darland, Tracy Hines, Rich Vogler and most recently, Coons.

It also fielded cars at the Speedway for Joe Saldana, Larry Cannon, Jerry Grant and Jerry Sneva and it gave Tim Richmond his first ride in an Indy car.

“We usually have five or six wins a year, which is pretty good considering how competitive things have become in the sprints these days,” said Hoffman.

Its latest win was a nail-biter against Jones, whom Hoffman says has become his team’s biggest rival.

“I call Levi our nemesis. When he passed us there at the end, I said he’s gone and done it again. Jerry really stood up in the saddle there at the end. It’s a nice win. I’ve always wanted one of those rifles,” said the elated Hoffman.

The latest edition of the Hulman Classic served up some of the closest racing in its 40-year history. Unfortunately, lengthy track prep made for a long drawn-out affair, drawing plenty of criticism.

Local officials conceded that the evening didn’t come off as smoothly as they would have liked. Prepping a racing surface for a half-mile dirt oval offers challenges, and when questionable weather enters the equation, things don’t always play out according to script.

It’s been that way in the past, the present and likely in the future. It is what it is, dirt-track racing.

Joe Buckles can be reached at jbuckles4@verizon.net.

 

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