TERRE HAUTE —
Possibly nowhere in the sports world does history and tradition play such a key role in an event’s success and future as that found in auto racing.
Especially in the Hoosier state during the month of May. From Indianapolis to Anderson to Terre Haute tradition reigns at a level unmatched at most venues.
On the eve of the scheduled running of the 41st annual Tony Hulman Classic, the air of high expectations remains as much of a part of the event as it did in 1971.
For those fortunate to have been a part of the inaugural Hulman Classic, the memories of that day are as vivid as they were on that sunny Saturday afternoon more than 40 years ago.
The Classic was a two-day affair in its early days, with Friday reserved for qualifying to help facilitate a tight live television format Saturday.
The event was run in conjunction with the telecast of the Kentucky Derby, and Action Track and USAC officials impressively managed to meet the tight time demands of live television.
That first Classic had it all. Thrills and spills transpired as George Snider emerged the victor on a late controversial restart pass. As Snider was celebrating in victory circle, runner-up Don Nordhorn was storming the scoring tower crying foul.
Over the years, the race fed off its early success. While it has had its bumps along the way, the Classic remains one of the top prizes in sprint-car racing.
If you pilot a non-wing sprint car, you want a Hulman Classic win on your resume.
No driver agrees to that assessment more than local driver Blake Fitzpatrick. The West Terre Haute racer anxiously awaits the chance to place his name among those fortunate to have won the Classic.
“Growing up in Terre Haute and going to [Wabash Valley] Fairgrounds for those Classics as kid, I know the history that goes with the race,” Fitzpatrick said.
He expects to have a strong fan following Thursday night and with it the pressure to show well in front of his hometown supporters.
“There’s always pressure at the race track. It’s like that anywhere you go. Usually when you get up to speed at a track the pressure goes away. But this is the Hulman Classic and my home track so it [pressure] will not go away anytime soon,” he added.
History of the event reveals that 20 of the past winners started from either the first or second row, a stat that hasn’t escaped Fitzpatrick’s attention.
“To have chance of winning you have to start up front. You can’t spend your night working through traffic and still have a hope of winning,” concedes Fitzpatrick.
“You have to get off on the right foot. That starts with a good qualifying run and making it through your heat. If you stumble early, it can make for a long night,” offered Fitzpatrick.
The local half mile oval hasn’t always been that kind to the likable driver. He was running second in last year’s Indiana Sprint Week show at the track when a left rear shock bolt broke, ending what could have been a potential visit to winner’s circle.
Fitpzpatrick enters the Classic on an upbeat note.
“Our last time out at the track we hit on the right setup and got a lot better as the night went on. We hope to carry over what we learned then to the Classic,” he said.
The 2011 USAC sprint season has literally been a washout with the circuit suffering from four rainouts since their season-opening swing in Florida.
The five races run to date have generated four different winners, with Damion Gardner the only repeat winner.
He like his chances in the Classic, but Fitzpatrick says everything will have to fall in place for him to win.
“With USAC, you have 15 car-drivers combinations that can win on any given night. It’s that tight. You’ve got to use your head and be there at the end. I like our chances,” he said.
• Pit notes — Clinton native Mario Marietta is off to a fast start in defense of his United States Speed Association title, winning the circuit’s season opener.
His win came in the 30-lap USSA feature at Mt. Lawn Speedway.
• Car show success — A big tip of the hat to organizers of last week’s Welding Cookout Car Show and Military Organization Day at Terre Haute South High School.
Organizer Gregg Dillion handled the car side of the show and estimated over 1,500 students took part in the program that is now in its 20th year.
Colonel Brad Spice was in charge of he military side of the show.
Among those in attendance was Glenn Andrew, who displayed his stock and modified cars that he and son Brett Andrew compete with at Lucas Oil Raceway Park on a regular bases.
Brett manages to get behind the wheel of the modified when he has free time from his wind tunnel engineering duties for Ford Motor Company Racing Division.
He recently took part in the NASCAR tire testing session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway working closely with Greg Biffle. Other wind tunnel clients include NHRA legend John Force.
The former North Central High School basketball standout is in his seventh year with Ford spending time traveling in between his Indianapolis home and the wind tunnel facilities in Charlotte, N.C.
Joe Buckles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.