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Midget races big stuff for short-track fans

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To many short-track auto racing fans, the premier events are midget races.

Among the top midget races are the Chili Bowl Nationals, the Belleville Nationals and the Hut Hundred.

The Chili Bowl is probably the top event due to a combination of timing and promotion. There is no competition for either the fans or competitors. Consequently, it gives the top drivers an opportunity to earn bragging rights for the rest of the season.

Four years ago, an additional entry was made to the list of premier midget events — the Gold Crown Midget Nationals contested at Tri-City Speedway at Pontoon Beach, Ill., probably better known to most of us as Granite City.

In order to lure a good car count and the top competitors, the event was introduced with USAC sanction to ensure the participation of its top teams.

The three-day show began Oct. 4 with a total of 49 cars in competition. Of those, three came from the Columbus shop of Keith Kunz Motorsports. In the heat races, Bryan Clauson and Kyle Larson won, while Rico Abreu finished third. This placed all three in the preliminary feature.

Tracy Hines’ performance in the preliminaries put him on the outside of the front row for the start of the preliminary feature. At the drop of the green flag, Hines charged into the lead. Behind Hines, Alex Bright and Brad Sweet fought for second.

In the meantime, USAC Four Crown feature winner Kyle Larson was coming. After disposing of Bright and Sweet, he went after Hines. In Turn 4 of the final lap, Larson tried one last slide job. However, he came up just short and had to settle for second. Sweet came home third, tailed by Clauson, Bright, Darren Hagen, Abreu, Dave Darland, Thomas Meseraull and Brady Bacon.

Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby just missed the preliminary feature win; however, all three of their drivers finished in the top 10 — Larson (2nd), Clauson (4th) and Abreu (7th).

In the sprint car support feature, Clauson scored a convincing win ahead of Sweet, Darland, Coleman Gulick, Meseraull, Korey Weyant, Casey Shuman, Tommy Worley and Kent Christian.

The preliminary program on Oct. 5 fell victim to the weather; and the championship would be determined by Saturday night’s competition.

Last season, Larson, probably the most talented USAC racer, at least since Tony Stewart, wound up on his lid. There’s no question that there was plenty of room for improvement; but Larson is capable of surpassing expectations.

At the drop of the green flag, Hagen charged into the lead from his second-row starting position. However, Larson quickly reclaimed the lead, only to have it go back to Hagen when Larson’s teammate, Clauson, rolled to a stop. He was done for the night.

The race resumed with Hagen being returned to the lead; however, the yellow flag flew again when Brenden Bright flipped down the front stretch. The lead would have returned to Hagen, but he clipped an infield tire and had to go to the work area for repairs. Before the race could really resume, Thursday night’s preliminary feature winner, Hines, was forced to make his own trip to the work area.

When the action resumed, Larson led Sweet; however, it seemed that Larson’s most serious challenge would come from his teammate dash winner, Abreu, who was giving car owners Willoughby and Kunz some anxious moments. They were trading slide jobs in a treacherous cushion. In relating the battle between his drivers, they weren’t sure how long the drivers would be able to maintain the battle and avoid disaster. They decided that the most serious peril was that Abreu’s right rear tire might give up under the punishment.

Larson and Abreu are racing buddies from California; and, while one of them would probably rather beat the other more than any other driver, they were enjoying their work. And the fans got more than their money’s worth.

The Keith Kunz Motorsports team left Pontoon Beach with a $10,000 check and two huge trophies, and all of the cars would roll back on to the trailer. They’ve certainly had worse weekends.

Tim McKinney is an auto racing columnist for The Republic. He can be reached at 372-3936.

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