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dsc03309Damien Gardner scored a triumphant homecoming, winning the sprint car feature to open the Louie Vermeil classic at Calistoga Speedway Saturday night, but only after overcoming new car blues that forced him to start deep in the field.

Gardner, originally from Concord and who now makes his home in Indiana, struggled in qualifying with a new car built by Northern California craftsman Rodney Tiner just for this race, and later dropped out of his heat race when a bolt fell out of the suspension after he had scored a transfer spot to the main event.

After finishing second in the last chance race to earn a spot in the feature, Gardner, who currently sits in the second spot in the United States Auto Club national sprint car championship standings, moved aggressively through the field from a 13th starting spot in the main event, getting to the fifth spot in just a half dozen laps.

He took the lead with three laps to go in the 20 lap event, winning a drag race down the backstretch with pole sitter Danny Sheridan, from Santa Maria, who had led from the green flag but repeatedly lost large leads to yellow and red caution periods that bunched up the field.

Gardner dove under the USAC Western States defending champion Mike Spencer, of Temecula, in turn three of lap 13 for the runner- up before making the same move on Sheridan in turn two and getting a run on him down the backstretch for the lead.

“We had a rough go of it tonight,” said Gardner, referring to his struggles earlier in the night.  “Those are the kinds of things you deal with when you build a new car.

“I knew that it was going to be tough,” he said of starting so deep in the field.  “But I had to be patient and when I was, the car got better.”

The battle for the runner-up spot mimicked the championship battle for the Western States series, as Sheridan is trying to wrestle the title away from two time champion Mike Spencer, who is leading the chase for his third consecutive title.  “When you’re leading a race, you don’t always know where to find the faster part of the track,” said Sheridan.

“Coming off turn two, I got the tires over the cushion by just a hair and started to spin my tires, but Damien was right in the middle of the track and found the spot that had better traction” he said about the pass for the lead.

The night was also a successful homecoming for Robert Ballou, originally from the Sacramento area suburb of Rocklin who now makes his home in Indiana while racing on the USAC national tour.  Driving a car owned by Ted Finkenbinder of Fairfield, Ballou passed the most cars of the night, finishing fifth in the main event after starting 17th.

Robby Josett of Agua Dulce, used an aggressive move on a lap 7 restart to move past race leader Alex Schutte before winning the 20 lap USAC Western States midget feature of the Louie Vermeil Classic.  As the two tangled wheels on the restart, Schutte flipped hard into the turn four wall, losing the race lead and his championship points lead as well.

From that point on, Josett dominated the race, building leads up to half a straightaway over Cory Kruseman of Ventura and Cody Swanson, of Norco, who dueled most of the race for the runner up spot before Kruseman claimed it for good, along with the championship points lead for the USAC Western States midgets.

“It was disappointing,” said a dejected Schutte, originally from Redding but who is currently a marketing major studying at Sonoma State.  “We had the dominant car after starting fourth and getting the lead in just two laps,” he said, after struggling with a bent axle to finish 10th, as the last car on the lead lap.

Calistoga Speedway, Louie Vermeil Classic (Sat).  USAC/CRA Lucas Oil Sprint Cars:

Fast time qualifier, Blake Miller, Yorba Linda; 19.078 sec (NTR).  Heat 1 (10 laps):  Robert Ballou, Indianapolis., Ind.; Jeff Ensign; Miller, Scott Pierovich, Alamo; Josh Ford, Oxnard; Heat 2:  JoJo Helberg, Santa Rosa; Darian Clayton, Indianapolis, Ind.; Mike Spencer, Temecula; Kyle Larson, Elk Grove.  Heat 3: Dave Cardey, Perris; Keith Bloom, Anderson; Mike Spencer, Temecula, Greg Bragg, Visalia.  Heat 4:  Jim Sweeney, Placerville, Dave Cardey, Perris; Tyler Schmidt, Hollister; Keith Bloom, Anderson; Rich Griffin, St. Helena.   Semi-Main: Darian Wyndham, Clayton, Ill; Damien Gardner, Indianapolis, Ind.; Austin Williams, Yorba Linda; Rip Williams, Yorba Linda; Shane Golobic, Fremont; Jim Richardson, Graeagle, Matt Mitchell, Yorba Linda.   MAIN EVENT:  Gardner, Sheridan, Spencer, Bloom, Ballou, Clayton, Golobic, Wyndham, Kruseman, Miller, Ensign, Mitchell, Sweeney, Griffin, A. Williams, Richardson, Pierovich, Larson, Cardey, Schmidt, Bragg, R. Williams.


Calistoga Speedway, Louie Vermeil Classic, (Sat.) USAC Western States midgets.

Fast Time qualifier, Ryan Kaplan, Chico 20.927 sec (NTR).  MAIN EVENT (20 laps).

Robby Josett, Agua Dulce; Cory Kruseman, Ventura; Cody Swanson, Norco, Randi Pankratz, Atascadero; Josh Ford, Oxnard; Donny Ebberts, Canyon Lake; Scott Pierovich, Alamo; Jake Swanson, Anaheim; Alex Schutte, Redding.

by Bill Sessa

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