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dsc03309Damien Gardner swept the Louie Vermeil Classic at Calistoga Speedway on Sunday, backing up his preliminary win on Saturday with another trip to victory lane, but only after doing a high speed version of a soft shoe dance on the throttle in a race where tires and fuel were in short supply.


Unlike the night before, when he started deep in the pack, Gardner led every lap from the pole on Sunday night, but had to hold off a hard charge over the last three laps on the half mile oval from Indiana driver Darin Clayton who was on fresher rubber in a race that saw many of the top contenders shot down by flat tires in the closing laps.


When the field was stopped to refuel with three laps to go, water was more critical for Gardner as his crew poured buckets of it on the rear tires in an effort cool them down for the stretch run to the checkered flag.  “From the beginning, I knew that tires would be a problem,” said Gardner, who nonetheless ran the distance on a softer tire than many in the field.  “But I could see my left rear tire,” he said, and he checked it periodically as he went down the straightaways at over 100 miles an hour to monitor how much rubber he had left.


Gardner, a crowd favorite originally from Concord and who now makes his home in Indiana as he races in the United States Auto Club national sprint car series,  rocketed into the lead at the drop of the green flag, occasionally building multi-car length leads over Danny Sheridan and newly crowned Golden State Challenge Series champion Kyle Larson.  Eventually, they and other challengers would fall to tire woes.  With seven laps to go, a crowded pit lane looked more like NASCAR as several top contenders were forced to change flat tires.


Meanwhile, defending USAC/CRA western sprint car champion Mike Spencer, Temecula, stalked Gardner while running in the lead pack in a cautious pace to preserve his tires.


Behind him, however, Darin Clayton, the night’s fastest qualifier, was storming through the field after being forced to start at the rear of the grid when officials determined that his car was lighter than USAC rules allow.  Contact with another car had cost Clayton a right rear tire after only seven laps, making his tires marginally fresher as the race wound down.


On the restart after the fuel stop, the driver from Indianapolis charged under Spencer to take away the runner-up spot and set a course to reel in Gardner, but fell short at the checkered flag.  “I just tried to keep my nose clean and stay out of trouble,” said Clayton about weaving his way through a field of cars with tires more worn than his.  “I still got caught up in two crashes but managed to pull out of them,” he said as he kept his car running to avoid being penalized for stopping on the racetrack.


“I tried to make a run on Gardner,” said Spencer, who stayed on the same tires for all 30 laps.  “But at the half way point, I knew I was using up my tires by racing so hard and I wanted to conserve them so I could finish.”


Hometown favorite Marty Hawkins from Calistoga has his best career finish on the half mile oval, finishing sixth after starting 20th on the grid.  “I just focused on going forward,” said Hawkins, by driving the car as straight as possible to avoid abusing his tires.  “But we also got a couple of really lucky breaks,” he said.  “At about lap 20, I could feel my right rear tire go down, but a yellow flag gave us the chance to change both rear tires on a pit stop,” he said.  “And about the time I felt we were running out of fuel, they stopped the field so everybody could refuel.”


Former USAC/CRA sprint car champion Cory Kruseman of Ventura improved on his runner up finish the night before, winning the 25 lap companion event for the USAC Western States midgets from the pole, but only after losing several positions in the early laps and rebounding late in the race.


While Kruseman was falling behind, the defending series champion Alex Schutte, a Sonoma State student originally from Redding, bolted into the lead from outside row two, building leads as large as 10 car lengths, only to see them evaporate due to yellow and red flag caution periods.  On a restart with three laps to go, Kruseman dove to the outside of Schutte and went on to win when the engine in Schutte’s machine balked at the drop of the green flag.


“We started on the pole with a hard tire and it took a while to come in,” said Kruseman about his slower pace at the beginning of the race.  “I tried to roll around the top, but that wasn’t cutting it,” said Kruseman, before he became more aggressive in traffic to work his way back to the front.


With his win and runner-up position the night before, Kruseman was presented with the Mark Arata Memorial Trophy, a mini-championship for compiling more points than any other midget driver over the two nights of the Louie Vermeil Classic.  The award was presented by the Arata family in memory of the long time midget car owner from Sonoma County.


His win and runner-up finishes over the Louie Vermeil Classic weekend also gave Kruseman the championship points lead in the USAC Western States midget series.

Calistoga Speedway, Louie Vermeil Classic, USAC sprint cars (Sun):

Fast time qualifier:  Darian Clayton, Indianapolis, Ind. (19.340 sec).  Heat 1 (10 laps):  Mike Spencer, Temecula; Robert Ballou, Indianapolis, Ind.; Dave Cardey, Perris; Cory Kruseman, Ventura; Jeff Griffin, St. Helena.  Heat 2: Kyle Larson, Elk Grove; Greg Bragg, Visalia; Keith Bloom, Anderson; Tyler Schmidt, Hollister; Blake Miller, Yorba Linda.  Heat 3: Damien Gardner, Indianapolis, Ind.; Shane Golobic, Fremont; Matt Mitchell, Yorba Linda; Scott Pierovich, Alamo; Danny Sheridan, Santa Maria.  Semi-main (12 laps): Clayton; Geoff Ensign, Sebastopol; Josh Ford, Oxnard; Jim Richardson, Greagle; Andy Forsberg, Auburn; Austin Williams, Yorba Linda; Marty Hawkins, Calistoga.  Main Event (30 laps):  Gardner, Clayton, Spencer, Larson, Miller, Hawkins, Cardey, Forsberg, Pierovich, A. Williams, Sheridan, Bloom, Kruseman, Schmidt, Ensign, Griffin, Bragg, Ballou, Mitchell, Golobic, Ford, Windom, Richardson.


Calistoga Speedway, Louie Vermeil Classic, USAC Western States midgets (Sun):

Fast time qualifier: Ryan Kaplan, Chico (20.795 sec).  Main Event (25 laps):  Cory Kruseman, Ventura; Alex Schutte, Redding; Scott Pierovich, Alamo; Randi Pankrantz, Atascadero; Jake Swanson, Anaheim; Cody Swanson, Norco; David Prickett, Fresno; Josh Ford, Oxnard; Kaplan; Shane Golobic, Fremont; Danny Ebberts, Canyon Lake; Jerome Rodelo; Chris Swanson; Robby Josette.

by Bill Sessa

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