USAC Bounces Back
The United States Auto Club’s (USAC) National Midget series endured a painful ten-day period following the tragic loss of Bryan Clauson, but when the cars and drivers got back on the track for the first time since the Kansas heartbreak, a thrilling and uplifting night of racing was the result – and just what everyone needed.
Tuesday, August 16, brought the combined USAC and American Racing Drivers Club (ARDC) competitors to the Clyde Martin Memorial Speedway in Newmanstown, Pennsylvania. Clauson succumbed to injuries sustained on August 6, and races scheduled for the 14th and 15th had been rained out. A thunderstorm rolled through rural Newmanstown late in the afternoon, and it looked like a third consecutive rainout was at hand. The somber mood among the racers, hanging over them like the storm clouds since Clauson’s death, was not dissipating.
But, perseverance by the track crew got the surface into racing condition, and with the evening’s weather still uncertain the cars and drivers took to the track. The result was a magic night.
It was the first visit by USAC to the track, and upon arriving one USAC staffer looked at the speedway and said, “This place is awesome!” Built originally for micro-sprint racing, the track is a mere 1/8-mile oval with progressive banking, the very definition of a racing “bullring.” It stands in marked contrast not only to historic Pennsylvania tracks such as Williams Grove at which USAC has raced many times but also to the Belleville High Banks where the Clauson tragedy unfolded.
Unlike so many dirt tracks which dry up and generate dust storms as the racing progresses, on this night the late-day thunderstorm so thoroughly saturated the track that there was still no dust – and we mean none – by night’s end. The track did more than remain moist and dust-free, it remained so tacky that the race cars were still pulling “wheelies” off the corners on the final lap.
So, with these ingredients – small track, moist evening, tacky surface, and the USAC Midgets – there was a perfect recipe for a great race, and a great race is what was served.
The evening kicked off with a salute to Clauson, who would have been competing here as part of his 200-race “Circular Insanity Tour.” Clauson’s monogram had been stenciled on the infield grass and applied to every race car, and green balloons were released to the sky. Series rookie Carson Macedo topped qualifications with a fast lap of 10.208 seconds. The first heat went off green-to-checker, with top-to-bottom action, and the subsequent heats maintained the highly competitive spirit.
The main event was, in a word, outstanding. Throughout the field, side-by-side and wheel-to-wheel racing was the norm. “Slide jobs,” dirt track lingo for diving under a competitor entering the turn and sliding up in front of him, were incessant. Tanner Thorson, who hails from Minden, Nevada, got the jump at the start from his outside front row starting position, but on lap four he lost control and spun in the first turn, bringing out the yellow flag and relegating him to the back of the pack for the restart. No one paid much attention to Thorson now, as now Pennsylvania’s own Alex Bright held the lead and maintained it while fighting off challenges from multi-time USAC winner and California native Chad Boat and fast qualifier Macedo.
Macedo later secured the lead after passing it back and forth between himself and Bright, and with just four laps to go Spencer Bayston dove to the bottom to slide up in front of Macedo for the top spot. But then Thorson – remember Thorson? – re-appeared on the scene, having battled his way forward all race long. With a lap and a half to go, just 3/16ths of a mile and no more than 15 seconds of time on the tiny track, Bayston’s car did a wheelstand for virtually the entire length of the back straightaway, yet still stayed out front of Thorson as the white flag waved.
This was to be a stand-‘em-on-their-feet finish. Bayston entered the last two corners as the leader, and pulled another wheelie as Thorson ducked to the inside and laid claimed to a fabulous spin-and-win victory with a margin of just .296 seconds.
In this writer’s view it was one of the best Midget races ever witnessed, perhaps beaten only by the 1994 Chili Bowl. In the opinion of the paying spectators it was a standout, as they cheered lustily following the victory lane interviews.
But perhaps most importantly, it was a race that reminded everyone of the reasons they love racing, after ten days of pondering the reasons they hate it. We are now back to the business of racing, and perhaps Bryan Clauson is smiling down upon us.
Image top right by Rich Forman Photo, courtesy United States Auto Club
All other images by Bob Marlow