News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 6, 2011

TRACKSIDE: Fortunes of dirt track racing at Action Track can be written in the dust

Joe Buckles
Tribune-Star Correspondent

TERRE HAUTE — In the 40 plus years of covering motorsports, it would appear the process of writing this weekly race column would come together rather routinely.

After all, what does it take to write about cars racing in circles for 100 laps on a Sunday afternoon?

It’s never quite that simple, however, when your subject focuses on day-time dirt track racing.

Just ask those who did their best to promote and stage Sunday’s SUMAR Classic. It proved to be a long and sultry day that ended on a note of utter frustration for fans, competitors and officials alike.

The storylines of the USAC-sanctioned and promoted Silver Crown event left an indelible mark on all in attendance. Unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.

At a time when the fortunes of oval track racing at the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds needed a positive shot in the arm, those fortunes were blindsided in dust.

Whether the future of racing at the Action Track survives what is sure to be a barrage of criticism for yet more questionable decision-making remains to be seen.

Whether it came from the drivers, car owners or the fans, there was no shortage of finger pointing when it came time to placing blame for the debacle. Fair or not, all took their shots at the thought process that went into the ill-timed event.

In your classic Monday morning quarterbacking scenario, a number of second guessers charged the show should never have been run in the daytime.

Highly-respected car owners Keith Kunz, Scott Benic, Brad Fox and driver Dave Darland expressed their feelings prior to loading up and heading out of a hot, dusty and quickly-vacated Fairgrounds Sunday evening. Kunz was probably the most vocal.

The highly successful car owner jumped at the opportunity to express his views regarding the need for better decision making on track prep and improvements at the Fairgrounds.

“It’s going down as a sad day. USAC is going to be taking a beating and rightfully so. They weren’t prepared to run a day race,” voiced Kunz.

“They tried it two or three years ago and they ended up with how many crashed cars in turn three? They had to stop and re-work the track and start all over.”

“I don’t know who was making the call to run at day. [USAC] should have known better. They should have refused to do it. They absolutely know better,” moaned Kunz. “What has changed? It’s still the same dirt. The same track. Still the same everything. It’s time they make some improvements in the place. Make it safer and fun place to run again,” pleaded the Columbus car owner.

“Don’t get me wrong. This place has been good to me over the years  but they’ve got to get it back on track. It really looked last year when the O’Connor Family was involved that things were getting back on track, that it was headed in the right direction. It doesn’t remotely look that way now.”

Benic shared Kunz’s frustration. For the second year in a row, Benic was visibly upset on the way he was departing the track. He expressed safety concerns at the half-mile oval. He nearly lost his driver Shane Hmiel in a horrific crash in the SUMAR a year ago.

 He said Sunday’s race was headed in the wrong direction long before the field took the green flag. The decision to race in the daytime was all wrong.

“I don’t know who came up with the brainstorm to go with a day race. What does that do for the fans,’ questioned Benic. “At the end of the day it’s all about the fans. What’s good for the fans. The powers to be at USAC have to see that. I think that’s something they have forgotten.”

“This place has been good to us. Levi [Jones] won five straight. Then Bud Kaeding had a win. It is what it is. I’d hate to see the place go away,” Benic continued. “Hopefully we can come back have a good race. One where everybody does good. That’s what has to happen.”

Fellow car owner Fox was slightly more sympathetic for the decision makers. He sees the need to pump new blood into the Silver Crown series to help boost sagging fan attendance.

He too questioned the decision to race in the daytime.

“It was a surprise they wanted to try a day race. There were good intentions. It just sorta backfired,” said Fox.

“They were trying to get the fans more involved. Trying something different. The track conditions just didn’t help,” said the former driver turned winning car owner.

His driver, Darland, is hopeful that Sunday’s results won’t generate lingering dissatisfaction among the fans for racing at the Action Track.

“Having daytime racing isn’t easy anywhere. I can’t remember the last time I saw a good daytime race. The rain overnight didn’t help,” voiced the Kokomo driver.

“Terre Haute is a special place. One of a kind. I’m sure the fans will be back. It has to be a night race to be good. Everybody is leaving with a bad taste in their mouth about daytime racing. USAC doesn’t need to make a strike two,” he said.

USAC official Jason Smith was prepared for the criticism he knew would be aimed in USAC’s direction after the race was postponed.

“The first thing we had in mind was safety. When we had the crash on the start, not many [officials] saw it. That told us right then it wasn’t going to be a safe deal,” said Smith.

“We had the right people in the right places with the track prep. It was that the situation and circumstances didn’t play out the way we needed.”

Looking ahead, Smith concedes his organization faces an uphill struggle to win back the confidence of the fans.

“We know we’re pushing the pasta uphill. It’s going to be tough. We’ve got to PR to make up with this. If there were any new fans out there today, I doubt if we get them back.

“I hate that because that’s where we’re at right now. We’re really pushing to create new fans, get them interested in what we are doing. Our fan base is typically older fans. We need to reach out to the younger ones.

“We’re going to be beating ourselves up on whether we made the right decision. At the end of the day we didn’t get anybody hurt. We can be thankful for that.”

Joe Buckles can be reached at