Sunday, June 25, 2017

Arizona invader smokes
the USAC/CRA regulars


The author visited the Perris Auto Speedway (PAS) for the June 24 2017 AMSOIL United States Auto Club (USAC)/CRA (California Racing Association sprint car “Moose Racing Night” program. Upon arrival, it was noted that there were 27 entries, divided among three classes; in addition to the 410 cubic inch USAC/CRA class, the PAS ‘Young Guns’ and the PAS ‘Senior Sprints.’  The USAC/CRA regulars were joined by a number of Arizona racers who made the long trip West on I-10.

The ‘Young Guns’ class is open to drivers from 14-25 years of age with no previous sprint car experience in cars powered by cast iron block 360 cubic inch engines and restricted aluminum 410 cubic inch engines to allow drivers to gain confidence racing against others of the same ability. The ‘Senior’ sprint cars are similarly powered and are open to drivers 45 years of age or older.  

The program opened with single-car two-lap time trials and Jake Swanson driver of the Moose Racing #92 emerged on top with a best lap of 16.478 seconds, far off of Nic Faas’ track record of 15.833 seconds.

The ‘Senior Sprints’ 4-car heat race was next, with the number of starters reduced by two cars, as Eddie Tafoya’s car broke during hot laps and Richard McCormick’s #71 was pushed off several times but refused to fire off. The ageless Rick Hendrix was the 'Senior' sprint heat winner as he led all 8 laps.  Next up was the ‘Young Guns’ 6-lap heat which started just three cars, and Hannah Mayhew won by a straightaway over Blade Henderson who lost the engine in his #5 entry on the final lap.    

Each of the USAC/CRA 10-lap heat races started nine cars with the top four cars automatically advanced into the feature starting field. The first heat race was won by pole-sitter Chris Gansen ahead of Max Adams with Gansen’s teammate Mike Spencer finishing third. Quick qualifier Jake Swanson finished fifth and would have to start the semi-main.

Damion Gardner won the second heat race ahead of AJ Bender with the VanderWeerd twins, Richard and Jace third and fourth. The final heat race was captured by Austin Williams who staged a race-long duel with multi-time USAC Southwest champion RJ Johnson with Brody Roa finishing third ahead Arizona’s Charles Davis Jr.

The ‘Young Guns’ feature was scheduled for 15 laps, and at the drop of the green Hannah Mayhew leapt into the lead and built up a half-lap lead over the second place runner 14-year old Joel Rayburn. Around lap ten the engine in Mayhew’s machine began to labor and by lap twelve, her #43 sprint car was continually smoking.

The crowd held their breath to see if Mayhew’s engine would survive when on lap 14 the engine in Rayburn’s car broke as he exited turn four and his car erupted in flames and came to a stop nosed into the inside retaining wall and Rayburn bailed out uninjured as the red flap was displayed. Later in Victory Lane, Mayhew revealed that her car’s engine had also broken, so all the entries in the ‘Young Guns’ class this night went home with broken engines. The “Senior Sprint Cars” followed with a twenty-lap 3-car feature in which all three cars finished.  

Jake Swanson went wire-to-wire in the semi-main chased across the finish line by Tommy Malcolm and USAC Western States midget champion Ronnie Gardner. The night’s ninth fastest  qualifier RJ Johnson started on the pole for the night’s 30-lap feature and immediately took the lead and held on by using the low line with his #51 car’s left front wheel just grazing the inside beam through the turns.

Johnson was in the lead on lap seven when the red flag was displayed for the tangled cars of Brody Roa and Jake Swanson in turn one. Neither car overturned, but the track had to be blocked in order to allow the safety crew to untangle the mess. Both drivers were okay, with Swanson’s 'Moose Racing' #92 car eliminated but Roa returned after repairs.

On the restart, Damion Gardner who had fallen to fifth, charged forward and grabbed third place on lap 11, but he soon slowed in turn three with an apparent steering or brake problem. As Gardner angled his stricken #4 machine towards the work area under the caution flag, Chris Gansen ran over Gardner’s machine and flipped at the head of the front straightaway which brought out the evening’s third red flag.  Neither driver was injured in the accident or the subsequent scuffle, but both cars were through for the evening.

When action resumed, Johnson continued to run his low line as second place Richard VenderWeerd experimented with various lines through the corners but was unable to get closer than two car lengths to the speeding Johnson and held off the challenges of third place Ronnie Gardner with Austin Williams in fourth. The running order at the front did not change over the last seventeen laps and RJ Johnson sponsored by the Phoenix area Martin Auto Museum took the trophy and big paycheck home to Phoenix after he led all 30 laps and never was seriously challenged.   

Perris Auto Speedway will be back in action on July 1 with the “Night of Destruction IV’ that will feature Demolition Cross, Figure 8's, Figure 8 Trailer Racing, Spectator Racing, Formula-X Autocross & CrossKarts, while the USAC/CRA sprint cars will return to action that same night at Santa Maria Raceway for the Doug Fort Memorial.

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