Sunday arrived sunny and warm to wrap up the 49th Annual National Short Track Championships at Rockford Speedway. We cannot remember a time when we came to this even without rain, cold, or both, so three days of sun and temperatures in the eighties found many people not knowing how to handle the situation. The previous divisions had vacated the expanded pits, leaving the super late models and welcoming the Xtreme Sprint Series entries.
The asphalt sprint cars were joined by three winged wonders from the dirt track IRA Sprint Cars Series to complete a field of thirteen cars Sunday. Michigan’s Jimmy McCune topped them all in qualifying, dirt racer Brian Kristan smoked his tires every lap, and Tim Cox was joined by son Jason, who is fully healed from a broken neck earlier. Anthony McCune won the first heat while second-running David Byrne spun before the checkered flag. David Gough won the second heat and all started the 50-lap feature.
Tim and Jason Cox started in front of Byrne, Kristan, Jimmy and Anthony McCune as the green flag waved. Jason Cox led the opening orbits, Tim Cox retired with a broken engine three laps later, and Anthony McCune retired on lap four. John Turnbull spun on lap eight, and the next time around Byrne was in charge. The pace picked up and several cars were lapped multiple times as the contest came to the closing laps. Jason Cox slowed dramatically in front of the leaders before retiring from fourth place with four laps remaining, and Jimmy McCune found his way past Byrne three laps from the finish. McCune celebrated his win by climbing to his wing before coming to the stage.
McCune told the crowd, “I started losing brakes about halfway through. I was trying to save my brakes. I was just lucky.” Giving credit to Byrne, McCune stated, “The way I saw him drive today, he’s going to get one soon.” Byrne remarked on Jason Cox suddenly slowing, “He broke right in front of me and I was already going to pass him on the outside. It sucks, but Jimmy did a good job. It was just our luck. I probably got a million laps around here and ran a USAC race.” Jim Sheets was a lap down in third place, claiming, “This was a first time for me and good results. So we can’t complain. It’s a good short track like Anderson, but it drives totally different.”
The 200-lap super late model finale began with 23 cars in a four-tire race with a 15-minute break at the halfway mark. The caution laps counted, so it would be a challenge to stay on the lead lap. But each caution awarded a lap back to one car, allowing many to remain on the lead lap by the end. James Swan and Steve Rubeck started in front of Jeff Storm, Brad Mueller, Austin Nason, Travis Dassow, Jim Olson and Casey Johnson. Rockford veteran Rubeck quickly placed his car in front and stayed there until the halfway break, surviving restart challenges four times. Dassow’s car had problems before two dozen circuits were scored, Storm’s car spun, Trevor Tichy hit the wall, and Nason did the same before the break.
Rubeck led Mueller, Brian Johnson Jr., Landry Potter and Swan back after the break, but ninth-place Steve Apel did not return, among others. The eighteen survivors took the green flag with Rubeck leading the way to lap 114, when Alex Papini’s car had a fire erupt underneath. During the caution laps Mueller dropped out of second place and Ricky Bilderback retired from the top six. Fifteen cars took the next green flag, slowed by a spun car on lap 134. Potter and Michael Bilderback spun while vying for sixth place on lap 155, followed by Potter parking in the infield and stopping the action with a fire on lap 167. A dozen survivors chose their lanes for the next green flag, and Johnson forged past Rubeck with 25 laps remaining. Unfortunately, just then a car spun and the yellow flag erased his position.
Johnson had his work cut out for him challenging for the top spot again, as Johnson Jr. was in the lane he needed. With nine laps left Johnson found his opening and left Rubeck behind, followed by Johnson Jr., Michael Bilderback and Swan. The only person to win the late model contests on Saturday and Sunday since the late Joe Shear achieved the feat in 1987, Johnson could only say, “Man, I don’t know what to say.” Giving credit to Rubeck, Johnson added, “I worked him over a few times, but it’s all right. I guess Brian (Johnson Jr.) and Steve (Rubeck) were up front there. That was a lot of fun.” The impact of matching the legendary Shear at Rockford set in, Johnson stating, “That’s amazing. I shouldn’t be anywhere near that.”
Rubeck claimed this was like a reality show or a movie, asking the audience, “Were you not entertained? I think I made the right call at the halfway break. For a 15-year old car, we did pretty good.” Rubeck added that even it probably didn’t matter afterwards, he wanted to apologize to Landry Potter for running him over previously. Johnson Jr. could also be proud of his top finish, surprising many by claiming, “I think I was the only one with a two-barrel (carburetor). I’m a little worn out, but that’s good.”
It was still eighty degrees shortly after four o’clock when we said farewell to Jody Deery and our traveling troupe of race personnel. In just four days we would join them one last time at the La Crosse track for the grand finale of the year. We wonder what will be in store next year for the fiftieth anniversary of this weekend.
(Editors Note: Fay Hendricks is a long-time racing columnist and periodically will share her racing stories on Speed 51.com)
Photo Credit: Fay Hendricks