Du Quoin, Illinois -- If there's anything we've learned about the "Shamrock Classic" since its introduction to the USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget schedule in 2016, it's proven three-years-running that it has a knack for producing first-time series winners.
That trend could very well continue this Saturday when the series takes on the 1/6-mile indoor dirt oval at the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin for the fourth-running of the event, round number three of the season.
In 2016, Shane Golobic got the ball rolling in the inaugural event, not content on just running the bottom as he went to the high side to pass leader Shane Cottle on lap 34 and was able to pull away on a late green-white-checkered to win his first career series feature aboard the Matt Wood Racing No. 17w. To date, it remains the Fremont, California driver's only USAC National Midget feature win.
The following year, in 2017, Justin Grant rewrote the record books by becoming the first and, still, only driver in the 64-year history of USAC to record season-opening feature victories in both the National Sprint and National Midget divisions in a single year in his Clauson/Marshall Racing ride.
Ione, California's Grant had decided to take his shot at Christopher Bell for the race lead with 17 laps remaining and, just seconds later, the move proved to be a wise one as he avoided the mayhem and came away with the lead on the ensuing restart after Bell saw his chance of winning fade into the haze as a pair of lapped cars tangled in front of him on the high side of turn four. Bell became trapped in a box with the two stalled cars and the outside retaining wall surrounding him as he looked for an escape. Grant never relented down the stretch to win the first feature of his USAC Midget career.
Last year's edition, in 2018, in his first USAC start aboard the Keith Kunz Motorsports/Curb-Agajanian No. 67, Logan Seavey captured the pot of gold at the Southern Illinois Center, leading all 50 laps to score his first career series win in the season opener. The Sutter, California native used that victory and two others throughout the season to win the series' title, the third Rookie to ever accomplish the feat.
That brings us to this Saturday's event and whether that trend will continue. A myriad of things are at play with a unique format, substituting single-car qualifying for heats and qualifiers that will produce passing points, which will then seed the lineup for the 50-lap feature. Also at play is the Pot of Gold Challenge, allowing the top-four in passing points the opportunity to start from the tail to claim a $50,000 bonus.
That could shake the lineup a bit, but lest we remember that this is an indoor race on a short track which will produce close and, sometimes, hard knock racing. Sometimes, top drivers can miss the show here, and with a stacked field of 58 drivers, anything is in play and nothing is guaranteed.
The list of drivers who can carry the trend of winning their first career USAC National Midget race at the "Shamrock Classic" into 2019 is plentiful. 2016 USAC Silver Crown and 2017 USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car titlist Chris Windom is on that list and he drives for the highly-accomplished Clauson/Marshall Racing team that has played a role in four victories at the Southern Illinois Center under USAC sanction since 2015. C.J. Leary had a pair of fourths to open his Midget Rookie campaign for FMR Racing in Ocala, Fla.
As you might recall, Thomas Meseraull won the most recent USAC appearance at the SIC last December, but that was considered a non-points, special event in the grand scheme of things. The San Jose, California driver put on a show in that victory and is more than capable of repeating the feat this Saturday.
Cole Bodine nearly pulled off a victory last year in Sweet Springs, Missouri, finishing second to eventual champ Seavey. Tucker Klaasmeyer led a combined 25 laps in his first two races of the season. Rookie Jesse Colwell and Tanner Carrick each recorded sixth-place finishes in Ocala to begin the year for Keith Kunz Motorsports/Curb-Agajanian.
Jake Neuman, Terry Babb and Daniel Robinson have finished in the top-ten in past "Shamrock Classics" and can serve as formidable foes against the likes of Derek Hagar and Chris Andrews, both podium finishers in a midget at Du Quoin's "Junior Knepper 55" in recent years.
Nick Knepper has spent more time at the track than just about anybody over the past few seasons as the promoter of the "Knepper 55," but his aim this Saturday is to join his father, Steve, as a fellow USAC National Midget feature winner. Meanwhile, young drivers Karter Sarff, Zane Hendricks and Andrew Layser showed great speed in the openers at Ocala and could stand tall this Saturday.
With it being the fourth annual event, the base winner's share is $4000, meaning if a driver could complete the challenge and win from the tail, he or she would collect $54,000 with the addition of the "Pot of Gold Challenge," which would be, by far, the richest take-home pay any driver has ever earned for a single race in the history of the USAC NOS Energy Midget National Championship.
On raceday, the Southern Illinois Center opens for parking at 8am (Central). Front doors/ticket window opens at 10am. Clear the building/check pit passes & tickets at 11am. Micro Sprint drivers meeting at 11am. Micro Sprint hot laps with heats immediately following at 12:30pm. Public midget drivers meeting (front stretch grandstand) at 3pm. Midget hot laps at 4pm. (All Times Central).
General admission tickets are $20 for age 13 and up. Children's general admission tickets (Age 6-12) are $10. Kids 5 and under are free.
The race will be live-streamed on http://www.FloRacing.com/.
-USAC Racing Press Release
-Photo credit: Rich Forman