Tony Stewart’s legion of fans showed up at Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum Expo Center in full force last weekend, intent on watching their hero vanquish all comers.
During the past few years, Stewart and his famous Our Gang Poker Club-sponsored Munchkin/VW have been nearly unbeatable in the cramped confines of Memorial Coliseum. In fact, Stewart was in search of a record 10th feature win at Fort Wayne. Consequently, they can be forgiven for arriving on the scene with overcharged optimism.
Stewart himself is optimistic. He calls his opportunities to race his sprints and midgets his “reset button” to keep his career on track.
Anyone who has seen Stewart in the pits at a local bullring visiting with guys who he raced “back when” has watched him become rejuvenated. In the beginning, he started his own sprint and midget teams in order to give back to the sport. However, since he now has his own NASCAR teams, the strings aren’t tied quite as tightly, and he can race them when they work in his schedule. In fact, his win percentage is pretty good in the World of Outlaws.
When qualifying time came, Derek Bischak set quick time by turning the tight oval in 8.155 seconds, followed by Joe Liguori (8.200 seconds), David Gough (8.247 seconds), Stewart (8.259 seconds), Geoff Kaiser (8.278 seconds) and Brandon Knupp (8.318 seconds).
Bischak, Bobby East, Mike Fedorchak, Stewart and Kaiser won the heat races, while Knupp, Jimmy Anderson and Billy Wease prevailed in the hooligans.
The Friday night feature was barely under way when the air filter flew off of Stewart’s engine. After that, Stewart’s car rolled helplessly off the track. His night was done. The VW motor had contributed all it had to give. The partying that might have been expected to take place after the race would be replaced with changing the VW engine in the Munchkin.
Wease had started dead last in the 14-car feature in which room to pass was at a premium. If that weren’t enough, he got caught in a three-car shunt just past halfway. He was forced to restart on the tail. He worked his way through the field until he reached 14-year-old Cooper Clouse just before the halfway point. They touched wheels, and Clouse left the track unceremoniously.
Wease’s work was not done, however. He still had to turn back the assault of another 14-year-old, Justin Peck. Peck was satisfied with his second-place finish, as it was his first night in a full midget. His driving coach, Indianapolis 500 veteran Ronnie Johncock, was probably even more satisfied.
Anderson came home third, followed by East, Fedorcak. Kaiser, Clouse, Rich Corson, Cory Setser and Knupp.
When Saturday came, Stewart was back at the track with the spare VW engine installed in the Munchkin. By his own admission, the engine was “tired”; however, an indoor race isn’t likely to put too much strain on the engine.
Stewart’s teammate, Fedorcak, set quick time with a time of 8.160 seconds, followed by Stewart with a time of 8.289 seconds. The balance of the fastest qualifiers were Knupp (8.316 seconds), Peck (8.367 seconds), Wease (8.369 seconds) and Bischak (8.394 seconds).
Stewart saw a chance to get by Bischak on Lap 22, and did. However, three laps later, he shot through the second turn and spun out. He was out of brakes. Of course, missing the prize money probably isn’t a big deal to Stewart, but he probably likes losing even less than most of us do.
Bischak’s lead was never seriously challenged. However, there was a pretty good battle between East and Peck for second. East prevailed, but Peck can be proud of his first weekend of midget competition.
You may rest assured that the pressure will be notched up a little for the Chili Bowl.
Indy 500 veteran dies
On Dec. 27, David “Salt” Walther lost the battle that he had long fought, passing away at the age of 65 at his home in Trotwood, Ohio.
Walther started his career racing hydroplanes; however, he seemed determined to win at Indianapolis. Since his father had sponsored Indy cars for decades, he seemed to believe that should be his ticket to ride. He was generally able to parlay financial help from his father with the natural talent and a massive dose of “brave” to put a car in the show.
In 1973, Walther qualified 17th for the Indy 500, and — at the start of the race — he became caught up in a tremendous crash. He survived the crash but suffered burns over much of his body. He apparently became addicted to the painkillers used in his treatment. He is said to have fought that addiction for the rest of his life.
Tim McKinney is an auto racing columnist for The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5632.