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DAMION GARDNER WINS THE 21ST ANNUAL OVAL NATIONALS AND LEADS ALL 40 LAPS

CRA ALMOST SWEEPS THE PODIUM BUT CHRIS WINDOM GETS 2ND ON LAST LAP MOVE FROM 4th

November 14, 2016

By Ken Wagner

Itís the proper way to finish the season at the Oval Nationals every year, but I miss so much by not going often in the season. Since there is no one out there writing about what I miss, itís damn near impossible to get all the story lines. Facebook is a nice instant results deal, but the real story is buried somewhere else. Inquisitive minds want to know the inside story, the news that comes in and everything that happens under the covers. Doesnít anyone understand that, I certainly do. We used to have a number of scribes that laid out their side of the story, race after race. Somebody out there needs to step up!

The Oval Nationals has traditionally been the property of the Indiana invaders most years as one of them would sweep in and grab the brass ring more often than not. The peopleís choice Dave Darland did it 3 times as the National boys held most of the top spots each night of most Oval events. They came to town with drivers that had run 3 times the races as the local boys and proved their mettle by working their way to the top. Also our No Cal drivers claimed a few wins like Jimmy Sills and Bud Kaeding who won 3 times. CRA has won only 10 out of the 21, but we keep trying!!!

When Brody Roa won the 6 lap ďSuper DashĒ on Saturday night it looked like the locals would have a better chance than normal to finish well. The only thing that kept the CRA from itís first ever podium sweep was a determined Chris Windom who passed two of the locals on the last lap, wow. But on a night of predominately follow the leader action, Damion Gardner became a three time Oval Nationals winner by grabbing the lead down the back stretch of the opening lap and letting the rest chase him for 40 laps to no avail. He was not going to be caught this race, as his car was fast!

Having only seen the last night of the event this year, it was a little unusual in that the track saw no dust flying and didnít go black slick, as it often does on the third night of racing in the past. Unfortunately, It was not the usual 2 grooves of racing that Perris normally provides, but it didnít stop the slide jobs and usual veteran moves to give us plenty of action to watch in the pack. Picture ďThe DemonĒ, Richard Vander Weerd and Brody Roa in line I, 2, 3 for 39 high speed laps and you got pretty much the gist of the race for the win until the last lap movement by Windom.

Brady Bacon and Chris Windom had their own battle among themselves, going high in the turns and diving under 3rd place Roa nearly every lap as they raced along being frustrated they couldnít make their needed pass. Only a short lived pass of the leader by Richard Vander Weerd down the back stretch mid way thru the race gave us any excitement that we could see a battle for the $25,000. Unfortunately for Richard, he failed to duck back into the groove he had been using, thus letting Damion slip back by to go on unmolested to the end.

There was a lot of excitement thru-out the 40 laps as we held our breath thinking ďcould our top 3 do itĒ and complete a CRA sweep, but it didnít happen. What did happen was Damion drove the wheels off his silver bullet and grabbed his third Ovals victory and was followed by two determined CRA chargers who both should be proud of this accomplishment. They put on a great show for their fans. It was a good year as 44 cars made their way to the PAS Meca to battle for the $25,000 top prize. The weather was not cold and the jackets and blankets lugged into the grandstands were pretty much wasted.

The start was interesting when Bud Kaeding set fast time as six were locked into the feature and the rest had to qualify. Those elite 6 were Brody Roa, Richard Vander Weerd, Damion Gardner, Chris Windom, Brady Bacon and Dave Darland. Bud was burned on his legs when a fuel fitting came undone and he was on fire the night before. He probably was in pain and should have gone home for treatment, but went on to finish 6th in the feature. The heats were not the best as passing was difficult, but in the end 24 cars qualified to run the main and we were ready.

Damion Gardner not only won his 4th CRA championship in a row, but took his 6th CRA championship now leading Mike Spencer and Jimmy Oskie, two others that were 5 time Champions. He was glowing after the win and should be proud of this accomplishment! He was all smiles when I congratulated him and I think he even said he missed having me around? Ha! You could tell this one really meant a lot and it was a true Alexander night for the team.

Austin Williams was the Wagtimes/Lafond CRA Hard charger Award winner this year, his third time, and received the $1030.77 collected from the Wagtimes faithful. He came from 20th to 12th . He also won $1000 for the Tony Jones hard charger award, so he had a good night. He qualified 2nd on the night and was hustling all three days.

Ryan Bernal finished his lackluster three days with getting booted in the main into the wall and on the hook to finish last. No luck for him as he was looking fast as usual. He was 17th and 15th the two prelim nights with ďthingsĒ just happening to the young man. Max Adams finished way back all three nights in his first Oval Nationals. His bad luck continued on Saturday when he flipped in his heat and ran 25th in the main. I think he is the CRA Rookie of the year, but havenít verified yet.

The Indiana boys were led this year by Chris Windom on this western swing for them, as he won both nights in Arizona and had two 2nd place finishes and a 4th to set the standard. He was pretty fast and dominating at times. Dave Darland, Chad Boespflug, Brady Bacon and Chase Stockin were the best of the Hoosier Hammers as those boys can drive. Kevin Thomas Jr drove Robert Ballouís ride on the swing and did well as he is pretty darn good, Too! I haven't heard when Robert will be back racing. Jon Stanbrough had his problems this week as 10th on the second night was his best with 13th and 14th thrown in, not his best Ovals for sure. He still can really drive but didnít follow the USAC trail much this year as his 18th in the point standings suggests. Rumor has it he may retire, but then he didnít say that, so itís just another speculating rumor.

R J Johnson came over from Arizona for a best of 8th and worst of 10th this year as he continues to race hard when he runs with CRA. Mike Spencer continued his string of bad luck, or whatever you call it, as he missed the main on Thursday and ran 23rd and 15th for his best of the three days. He looked good Saturday, but was too far back from the start to mount a charge.

This race day started off from Las Vegas as Terry, Tory and Jordon, two of my grandsons, made the trip down with me. So I didnít come alone. We left at 9am with an expected arrival at lunch with the Wagtimers at 1 oíclock. Unfortunately, Tory had to eat something and go to the bank, so we were 45 minutes late to the Wags luncheon. Whatever! We had a big group of nearly 30 people, including the birthday party for Kristiís daughter McKenzie. Fun times, as I can sure soak up the friendships I have with MY Wagtimers and if the truth were known, I go to the races mostly to see them these days because they still make it special. Donít get me wrong I like my racing, but I miss these people, and each reunion is the best. After escaping from the Steer n Stein where we have been eating since I donít know when, it was off to the track, Jack!

We arrived and unloaded my little Wagsmobile and headed inside the facility. The cars were lined up on the front stretch, so I told my group of 3 to drop their duds and follow me. Unfortunately they all got lost somewhere between the grandstands and the fence and missed the walk and talk with the drivers and looking at the cars. I went out to visit and drop off the shiny tire award that Bethany decided we needed to present last week and I forgot to give it to her so she could go present it, can you imagine! The cars on display were done and heading back into the pit area, so it was a really quick ride through them and back out front to finish collecting more CRA hard charger money.

I just sat on my 3 wheeler near the ticket entrance with my collection bucket and a sign for the award and talked with many as the fed the kitty. Great visits and I collected probably about $140 as I renewed acquaintances with old friends. When it got dark and the cars were on the track, I headed up to the grandstands. It took a while as more people stopped me for a few words. The words I heard that made me proud the most were ďwe miss you WagsĒ, WOW am I blessed! So nice to know as I miss it too, but wonít go back to the weekly long 22 hour roundtrips for a race like the old days. Not gonna happen, but I plan to make the big races as often as I can. Iím even thinking about a little Indiana action next year in the summer, but itís too far off in the future for any talk now.

We now had to gather all the money into the Lafond Jar of Change, and it took a while until the $1030.77 total was in the jar. The last $360 was safely hidden in the Crown Royal box that I gave to Steve Lafond because I didnít want to go thru the explaining to the guard how I was taking in a handle of booze that I wouldnít drink and would be an award later in the night. Last year was a mess until I got the head security guy over to allow me to do my thing. It was easy in the old days as I loaded up the mule in the pit parking and nobody cared. Anyway the Jar of Change was so heavy I assigned Tory to carry it!

Anyway we spent the night in the grandstands with all the Wagtimers who came to watch. A big thanks goes out to Mike Clark for getting our spots saved! We have been in the same places for years and getting seat savers out for this race is tricky business unless you go to the PAS on the way home from Arizona like Mike did. The introís for the big 40 lapper this year were unique, but I think I prefer the lights on and drivers introduced by their cars because you can see them closer, especially if you walk the wall like some do. Just saying?

Tony Jones got on the mike to talk to the fans and in addition to giving All Coast Construction a big pat on the back, he made a presentation to Steve Alexander, the crew chief for the Championship Silver Bullet # 4 that Damion drove to their 4th straight championship. Steve was a one-time driver who actually ran in a Wagsdash before he hung up the driving gloves. Then he put on the mechanicís gloves and look at their lifetime success for so many years. Steve and his brother Mark, the car owner, have a lot of victories in their trophy case and with their crew, have been fun to watch for a long time. Attaboy Alexanders, this praise has been a long time coming. They have 5 CRA championships, including Tony Jones driving in 2007, so this is not a new story. Other greats to drive their cars were Mike English, Mike Kirby and Cory Kruseman to name a few. Good job Tony!

This yearís Oval Nationals Grand Marshal was Super Rickie Gaunt as his voice was always a pleasure to hear on the mike over the years. Unfiltered is a good way to describe Rickie and he didnít disappoint the crowd on this night. His driving was special and he notes his Oval Nationals victory in 1999 is his most important and memorable to him. He has 21 lifetime CRA and SCRA victories with the last coming at Santa Maria in 2015 before retirement. He was part of more ďjokesĒ on others over the years, but his donating Cory Krusemanís helmet to an Indianapolis restaurant that was packed with racing memorabilia, was perhaps the best. His potato launcher was heard on many a CRA trip back east and you had to watch out at some of the motels. His hauler with the bar was popular with the drinking crowd as it showed up at the races often. He is probably happiest watching his boys race and remembering the fun times he had over the years. After the kids came along, I always thought his wife Denise had 3 kids, he got them in so much trouble. Always good to see Rickie, he is a real entertainer. This really speaks to the way he and his fellow drivers of his racing time were so close that you could feel the camaraderie when around them. I canít tell from my place afar that we have that with todayís crop of racers, but I hope so.

After the main we had to go down to the track with the Lafond Jar of Change and wait until Steve himself was done with his main deal, taking winners circle pics. We waited with Austin Williams until Lafond blessed us and Mike Sieffert took the presentation pics of Austin getting the Jar and the handle of Crown Royal labeled Wagtimes/Lafond CRA Hard Charger Award for the Oval Nationals 2016. It is the 25th annual Lafond award and is something that makes all the Wagtimers proud to be a part of it.

Some limited visiting as Mrs Wags was waiting patiently for me and the boys to get loaded up and on the road home. I got to see Julie Shiosaki for the first time in a long time and that was special. She is happy living in North Carolina and traveling constantly for racing, but noted she did have a real job. I wonder if she has any pull to get me some tickets to North Carolina or Duke Basketball, probably not.

We got a quick visit with Joe Godoy as we loaded the car and a few words about his new baby girl before getting on the road about 11 PM. I drove to the Victorville In n Out where some of us chowed down and I gassed up nearby. Jordan wasnít hungry, but as he took over the driving chores I noted a candy bar and some cookies in his clutches. He said the burgers werenít healthy, but the Snickers is? Must be the peanuts? He drove the rest of the way home as I nodded off a bit in the back seat and we got back safely and unloaded a little before they were gone and I was in bed about 3 am. Another reason why I donít do that turnaround alone because that makes Sunday a tired day.

It was great to see everyone and tell stories and reintroduce my two grandsons to the world of racing that was so much a part of my life for so long. Yes, I really do miss it and will plan to do the bigger races next year a lot like this year. I did 12 races this year, more than any since 2013 where I did 30 race days including the Chili Bowl. If I still lived in LA, or the Ventura area where we were looking for a retirement home when her Mom moved to Las Vegas and shot that down, I would do a lot more. Since I quit collecting Wagsbucks for the racers, it releases me from any pressure to be there every week and every race. I miss collecting Wagsbucks too, so it was fun gathering the money for Lafondís Jar of Change this year.

I have a funny story about the money for the jar that amuses me when I think about it. When Drake York took our jar around the wine tasting event at Calistoga and collected nearly $300, I took it home and put it in and envelope. I then put it away someplace same until this past weekend. A few weeks ago I was looking for it to put in my mini-jar of change that I use all year to put my own change in. It counts it as you put it in, so I always know how much I got. Anyway, I couldnít find where I put it. So on 3 occasions I took my office desk and filing cabinet apart looking for it. It was not there. I thought about it for a week, then one day about 3 AM in the morning, I woke up and knew I could find it. I spent an hour looking in the same places and suddenly, at the bottom of a filing cabinet folder, I found a thick envelope and that was it! That is not a safe place, it was a folder of old cards Terry and I have exchanged over time, and there was no reason for it to be there. Nevertheless I had already decided I would cough up the $360 I had in there and so was thrilled my sleepless night allowed me to stumble on it.

As I contemplate a decision to go to Turkey Night, Several things come into play. First, if I go, Iíll miss Thanksgiving dinner with my family and although Terry hasnít commented, I know that look and should be mindful. Second, another trip alone and two days in a motel, alone, and it will be cold! Third and most importantly, I canít get out of my head the number 98. Thatís 98 laps that go on and on and nowadays my attention span is kinda like when I was a young student back in the day, and I canít get that out of my head either. So itís not likely that Iíll go, but itís still a few weeks away.

Over the winter I expect to ponder on racing and think about where it is. Things have continued to scale back with car counts down, the number of rookies coming in down, spectators down, traveling fans down, and wonder whatís to happen in the future. Iím no swami, but something has to change as itís not just in So Cal, but also in No Cal and Arizona, too. Look at NASCAR and NHRA on TV and their crowds are not packed like the good old days either. For the NHRA finals at Pomona this weekend, a helicopter view above the huge grandstands showed what I saw at Las Vegas two weeks ago, maybe a third of the capacity setting there and I know that grandstands was always packed full because I sat in it for years. The 360ís around the state outnumber the 410ís and I always thought the 410ís were the boss. More to think about as I pass m retired time effortlessly.

Part of not being around very much anymore, means I am not in the loop of information like scribes often get. So I have a lot of questions and I wonder if others do too. Is there an information almanac that we can get answers to questions, or are we all going to continue to be mushrooms and fed the drivel like always? Are any dirt tracks in California making money? Are any racers making enough to pay the tire and fuel bill? Are there any new sponsors, and are the old ones still good to help? Do fans plan ahead to go racing anymore? Where are the young people that use to pack the tracks. Is it my imagination that a lot of the fans I know are my age and we are not getting any younger! Does the CRA get any sponsor money anymore? Does the most noticed ďsponsorĒ of CRA, Amsoil, add to the purse at all? Are there any contingencies given out to the racers? Where are the new cars and rookies going to come from? Is California going to continue to decline in racing and increase in taxes?

Thanks to all for the good times this weekend and Iíll look forward to the next time our paths cross. Think about racing and what you can do to help! No not sugarplums, great wingless racing!

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