Special to the Tribune-Star
With two of Indiana’s higher profile race tracks nestled within its boundaries, Putnam County is best known for its open-cockpit brand of racing.
Lincoln Park Speedway at Putnamville has garnered the reputation for its non-wing sprint-car racing while Putnam Park Road Course located near Mount Meridian has long been a popular draw for Indy car and formula type machines testing sessions.
But in a brief span of less than 24 hours earlier this week the western Indiana county became a hot bed for stock car racing.
Lincoln Park hosted Round 13 of the UMP Late Models Dirt Summer Nationals on Monday night with veteran Don O Neal carrying off the night’s $6,000 first-place prize in impressive fashion.
Adding to the stock car flavor NASCAR stars Ryan Newman and Kenny Wallace made special appearances on two fronts. Wallace behind the wheel of a UMP modified at LPS and Newman visiting the manufacturing home of Dixie Chopper Lawn Mowers near Fillmore.
By the sign of the autograph lines at both events the appeal of NASCAR remains as healthy as ever in western Indiana. The popularity of the late models however still remains a question mark.
For whatever reason, the stockers lag far behind sprint cars in terms of popularity and participation at Hoosier ovals. While the caliber of competition and purses for the stockers match that of the sprinters the support by Indiana car owners and drivers for the LMs simply isn’t there.
Take away special events at Brownstown and Haubstadt and it’s hard to find a late-model card in Indiana other than during the UMP Dirt car SummerNationals.
It’s a trend that O Neal finds both disappointing and puzzling. He addressed the issue prior to his winning drive at Putnamville Monday night.
He says the stockers face a stiff challenge in their attempts to sway open-wheel fans in their direction.
“It’s sprint-car country around here. They’ve done it for so many years and it’s not going to change. The fan base isn’t here,” concedes the Martinsville driver.
“Probably more so now than ever before. I wish I could tell you a fix. It’s simply not out there at this point,” voiced Indiana’s winningest late model driver.
While the picture is not as rosy as he would like for the late models in his home state O Neal hasn’t given up hope that some of the diehard sprint-car fans can’t be swayed the stockers direction.
He feels more events like the highly successful Icebreaker 100 and Jackson 100 at Brownstown could generate more interest in the late models.
“If you could get a track like Terre Haute to run a Lucas Oil Series show, I think it would be a big step in getting some new fans. A guy would have to stick his neck out to do something that big,” voiced O Neal, who won the last late-model show here back in 2003.
North Terre Haute racer Kenny Carmichael is probably the most active late model driver in this area.
As both a sprint and stock car competitor Carmichael sees the pro and cons of going late model racing.
“If I lived near Kentucky there wouldn’t be any question that I’d be running a late model every weekend. The purses are that much better for the big shows.There are so many of them,” explained Carmichael, who finished 16th in Momday’s show at LPS.
“The problem around here the closest weekly late model show is 115 miles away. Most tracks are more like 150 miles. The weekly late models show don’t pay as well as the sprints,“ he noted.
“I think there are fans out that want to see the late models. The Dream at Eldora and the popularity of NASCAR could make it happen. It’s just going to take time for the fans to recognize whats out there and for the tracks to book some dates,” he said.
Monday’s second-place finisher at LPS Shannon Babb shares O Neal’s concerns but says there’s still going to be plenty of late-model racing to see.
You will have to travel to Kentucky, Michigan, Illinois or Ohio to see it.
“This type of racing is hard core-dirty-nasty racing. It’s something I love to do. The quarter mile racing has always been my favorite,” voiced the popular Illinois racer.”
“You can’t run off and leave a guy like you can on a half mile. We can put on a great show for the fans. We’ve just to get them to the track.”
• LPS SummerNationals notebook — Kenny Wallace appearance came behind the wheel of the modified fequently piloted by Ken Schrader.
His spirited but eventual losing battle with Paul Bumgardner in the modified main event served up some of the best racing and closest finish of the night. Wallace, Bumgardner and Devin Gilpin waged a three-car battle that kept fans standing over the final two laps.
Joe Buckles can be reached at email@example.com.