View from the Stands (3/26/2013)
by Eric Arnold, Knoxville Raceway Blogger & Twitter Commentator
The 2013 Knoxville Championship Cup Series season is shaping up to be one of the most competitive I can remember, especially in the 410 class. Many teams are coming into the season with experience. Some are brand new teams. And most of them have won races and have excellent equipment. With teams changing from Goodyear to Hoosier tires and harder-narrower tires than they have used before, it will be interesting to see who adapts the quickest to the new tire rules. Twin Features night is always a pivotal night in the points season, and this year it will pay full winnings for both features. Kudos to Brian Stickel and the Fair Board for that decision! The Capitani Classic event is just as important as twin features night and a lot can be gained or lost by making the A main as we saw last season. 2012 saw eight different winners in thirteen weekly shows in the 410 class, and it is hard to believe the competition is tougher in 2013, but it is.
Seven time track champion Terry McCarl is the man to beat. Although McCarl didn’t have a stellar 2012 season in qualifying, he was the only driver to have an average finish of five or better (4.9) in 2012. T-Mac is the clear favorite to win in my eyes and he already has one World of Outlaws feature win in 2013 in Florida.
Davey Heskin was the point leader most of the season last year and showed maturity behind the wheel. He won two features and his equipment held up all season. Losing the point battle late in the season was tough to swallow as McCarl outperformed Heskin at the Capitani Classic. I look for Heskin, with one more of year experience under his belts, to be right there again in 2013.
Dusty Zomer was second in points in 2011 but is coming off of a disappointing fourth place finish in 2012 with no feature wins. I look for the Ingalls #91 team to come back strong this season, win some races, and challenge for the title.
Bronson Maeschen won two races in 2012, including the Capitani Classic, and finished third in points. Something seemed to click last year for Maeschen and he proved he has the ability to compete for feature wins, not just great qualifying times. It will be interesting to see if Maeschen can sustain that type of effort in 2013.
Mark Dobmeier is another driver to keep your eyes on. He also struggled in qualifying in 2012, and then raced his way up front consistently as he was third in average feature finishes with an average of 7.3. Dobmeier won a World of Outlaws feature in 2012 at Huset’s and has the ability to win at any time. The Lunstra 13 team races racing three nights a week, which helps in a lot of ways, but I also wonder if that hinders them at times with not having fresh equipment at the big Knoxville half-mile. Dobmeier is due for a great points season, and this might be his year.
Australian Brooke Tatnell announced he will be making a run at the Knoxville track championship in 2013 driving the #11AU Barry Lewis owned car. Although Tatnell is a veteran with eleven World of Outlaws career feature wins and four career wins at Knoxville, this is his first real attempt to race for a championship at Knoxville. His only other season competing full time at Knoxville was 1994. Tatnell will be a force in the 410 class as a Knoxville Regular.
Another Aussie, Ian Madsen is coming off of an impressive 2012 season where he showed a lot of improvement at Knoxville winning one feature and finishing sixth in points. He also won the Sydney Speedway $50,000 challenge this winter in Australia after starting at the back of the field. Ian will be driving for a new team this season, the #18 Bret Nehring owned sprint car.
Don Droud Jr. will be back in the familiar Gil Sonner 47. Droud has finished seventh in points the past two seasons after finishing second in 2010. They could rebound and be a contender to the championship if they can qualify better. Droud is one of the best drivers in the pit area with a lot of experience.
Lynton Jeffrey was eighth in points in 2012. He didn’t win a feature last season, but if he has the funding and the power under the hood, he can drive his #12 Vortex Wings car to the front.
David Hesmer is coming back after an eight year layoff in the new #1 Bryan Sundby team. This team is focused on winning some races and competing solely at Knoxville. They will have a fast car and I look for them to be tougher in the second half of the season as long as their equipment holds up.
Dustin Selvage is entering his third season in the 410 class. He has performed well at times the past two seasons, and is still looking for his first feature win. Consistency has been his downfall, but I see a lot of potential in this driver. He will change from his family owned team to drive the Williams 7K.
All of these drivers have experience and most have shown improvement. Ryan Bunton and AJ Moeller both had good qualifying efforts in 2012 but their lack of experience showed in features. Dennis Moore Jr. is moving back into the 410 class after racing in the 360 division the past few seasons. Rager Phillips has moved back into the #10 VaderEcken car and were fast at times two years ago when they combined their efforts, especially at the Nationals. Josh Schneiderman was tenth in points a year ago, but that was down from previous seasons. It will be interesting to see if he can rebound in 2013.
Sentimental Favorite: Robert Bell. Let’s hope we see the #71 back on the track in 2013.
Maybe: If Austin McCarl can pull some sponsorship dollars together we could see his #17a back on the track. He is a talented driver who could compete for some wins. I’ve also heard that the #19 of Bob Weuve from Newton might be coming back after taking last season off.
Invaders: It’s already been documented that some teams are planning to visit Knoxville Raceway more often this year to be more prepared for the Knoxville Nationals in August. Listening to recent Winged Nation broadcasts on MRN Radio, Dale Blaney said that he intends to show up on June 1 during the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame induction weekend as his father Lou Blaney will be enshrined. Greg Hodnett also alluded to making a couple of extra trips from Pennsylvania this year to make some laps after being disappointed with his Nationals results missing the Saturday A main the past two years. California driver Rico Abreu has also mentioned that he intends to race a few times in his bid to win Rookie of the Nationals. IRA champion Bill Balog has also mentioned that he will be at Knoxville more frequently this season.
The favorite is four time track champion Clint Garner, who absolutely dominated the points battle in 2012 with four wins. Ganrer will attempt to win his fifth consecutive championship in 2013, which would break the tie of him and David Hesmer with four track championships each. Garner alluded to trying the 410 division in 2013 at the end of last season but his team has since decided to stay with the same program this season.
The drivers hoping to end the rein of Garner are Nate Van Haaften who won two features last season, Jon Agan, Matt Moro, Josh Higday, and Joe Beaver. Agan and Moro both won one feature in 2012 and Beaver was consistently in the top ten. Higday and Moro are both experienced enough, and if they have the equipment and a little luck to stay up front they could do very well. I also think we will see Carson McCarl improve this year in his sophomore season in the 360 class and if he can get a feature win early in the season, that confidence boost might propel him to more wins and be someone to challenge for a top five point finish.
My Wild Cards are Russ Hall, Jamie Ball, RJ Johnson, and Casey Friedrichsen. All of these drivers have the capability to win features on any given night, but consistency is something they need to work on. Thankfully Jamie Ball is healthy and back racing after a serious crash a year ago. Alan Ambers will move up from the 305 class to 360 this year.
Part-Timers: While Randy Martin only runs a part-time schedule, when he is at Knoxville he is consistently in the top five. And with the field opened up to allow 410 competitors to race every week in both classes, I think we could see some teams trying their 360 equipment more frequently to gear up for the 360 Nationals. Brian Brown and Jason Johnson both entered the 360 class twice last season but might do it more often this year when they do show up since they are able to race both classes.
This class is hard to predict but Matthew Stelzer is the defending champion and is likely to be the driver to beat again. Mike Van Haaften and Mitchell Alexander were his top competition a year ago. Cody Ambers and J Kinder will likely show improvement. Matt Stephenson has always been competitive in his #55 and with some rookies coming in I think it will be a tough field of cars. This class is growing, and I have a hunch we will see car counts in this class continue to grow. The one rookie I have my eye on is Newton teenager Jake Strayer, who has had a successful career in SportMods in recent years at Marshalltown Speedway and he started the last race of the season at Knoxville in the 305’s in 2012.
The best part of a new season is that we really don’t know how it will all turn out. From week to week we see teams evolve. Some get better and some get worse as they struggle to keep up with the wear and tear throughout the season. It is the best reality show in my opinion. My favorite part of opening night though is walking through the ticket entrance tunnel and walking up the ramp to my seat, soaking in the environment with some chicken bites, and then watching the push trucks drop the hammer to help fire off the cars. The smell of the methanol is intoxicating as the cars idle by slowly. The anticipation of that first Doug Clark green flag builds. And then the track is packed down tight and the command is given to turn em’ loose! Ahhh it is heaven. As I have grown older a lot of things in life change, but the feeling I still get with that first green flag stays the same and it takes me back to sitting with my father in the stands as a child. Those are some of the best memories of my life, and I hope you make great memories as well this season with your friends at family at Knoxville Raceway in 2013. Good luck to all the competitors and I hope it’s a safe season for all involved.
Eric can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @_EricArnold.