CHECKERED PAST: Nine Seconds
Warrnambool, Victoria (Premier Speedway)

To drive a lurching, snarling sprint car across a rutted dirt track has been compared to sitting on the back of a raging bull. Each is an attempt to control what sane people see as uncontrollable.

Wichita, Kansas cowboy A.J Shepherd compared the two extreme sports. After busting broncos, Shepherd won CRA and IMCA sprint car races from Ascot Park and El Centro, California to Grand Forks, Minot and Oskaloosa, Iowa. He made the 1961 Indianapolis 500 before the 1961 Hoosier Hundred nearly killed him. A.J lost two careers but not his humor. “At least when you flip a sprint car,” he drawled, “you don’t have to beat it to the fence.”

In real rodeo bullrings, to hang on to an angry animal for eight seconds is the stuff of legend. On figurative bullrings of approximately one-quarter mile in circumference, nine-second laps are so special that they have occurred on only ten tracks: Cottage Grove, OR; Placerville, CA; Grand Forks, ND; Cameron, MO; Pevely, MO; Macon, IL; Bloomington, IN; Oak Ridge, TN; and Path Valley, PA. America remained sole province (Cornwall, Canada came close) until 2015 when Warrnambool, Victoria’s Jamie Veal lifted his hometown Australian arena into the fleet.

Nine-second circuits are exclusive to winged 410 sprint cars but not exclusive to the World of Outlaws. Of the ten records, half were sanctioned by today’s World Racing Group. Other ovals may have pushed the total higher if 360 sprint cars challenged the clock more often. No wingless sprint, super, champ car, modified or late model has ever turned a nine-second lap.

No nine-second laps happened in 2018 or 2019. The topic returned to relevance three months ago when the incomparable Kyle Larson ripped around Pevely in 9.99. Of the ten, I-55 Raceway in Pevely is largest at 442 meters though Auto Racing Records also holds U.S 36 Raceway (Cameron) at 0.275 mile. Decreasing in size is Bloomington (434 or 0.27), Cottage Grove (426 or 0.265), Grand Forks (410 or 0.255), Premier (410 or 0.254), Placerville (354 or 0.22), Path Valley (337 or 0.21) and Macon, which measures 273 meters or 0.17 mile. Macon is so small that Ken Schrader flipped all the way down its backstretch “but only went over once!” Oak Ridge closed in 2006 before Google Earth could erase its hillbilly boast of 0.333.

Macon Speedway opened in 1946 to meet the post-World War II explosion of midget racing. It produced the first nine-second sprint car circuit when the 1992 All Star Circuit of Champions ended an 11-year absence. Tuesday rain gave Wednesday’s mat extra grip that pulled Ohio’s Todd Kane to 9.82. All Stars returned to Central Illinois three times in two years but neither Rod George nor Kevin Huntley went faster. Not until the Interstate Racing Association’s appearance in autumn of 1995 did Wisconsin’s Kim Mock manage 9.76. All Stars retrieved their Macon mark when Ohio’s Gus Wasson went 9.75. Eight years later, Chad Kemenah (Jim Harble 15) clocked 9.39 during the third of four consecutive All Star championships.

7.15.00 Rossburg, OH (Eldora) Danny Lasoski (Chris Jones photo)

Indiana’s Bloomington Speedway became America’s second nine-second circuit in 1994 when Oklahoma’s Andy Hillenburg hammered out 9.91. Missouri’s Danny Lasoski (Gil Sonner 47) lowered its record to 9.85; Stevie Smith (Dan Motter 71m) dropped it to 9.78; Lasoski (Dennis Roth 83) reclaimed honors at 9.67; and Joey Saldana’s 9.38 in 1999 was hailed as Quarter-Mile World Record. World of Outlaws went 15 seasons until David Gravel trimmed Saldana’s mark to 9.30.

Pennsylvania is famed for huge half-miles like Williams Grove and Selinsgrove but four decades ago, tiny tracks sprouted like mushrooms. One was Path Valley Speedway Park west of Kittatinny tunnels on I-76. It took two years to try 410ci on the 600cc showcase. In 1994, the righteous Path tried a regular Friday diet when 9.65 was burned by Bill Brian Jr. Pennsylvania Speed Week first included Path Valley in 1995 when New Jersey icon Billy Pauch (Zemco 1z) notched 9.32. Seventeen summers passed before driver/owner/promoter Fred Rahmer restored Speed Week to Spring Run but neither Logan Schuchart (9.84 in 2012) nor Greg Hodnett (9.87 in 2014) could draw faster than Billy the Kid.

6.28.95 Spring Run, PA (Path Valley) Billy Pauch (Steve Crumbacker photo)

The fourth venue to stage a nine-second circuit was Oak Ridge, where Atomic Motor Speedway was named for the nearby nuclear plant in 1970 much like Atomic of Ohio in 1953. Tennessee’s magical mark on 38-degree banking was almost as secretive as splitting the atom because Saldana (Brad Gray 51) performed his science during a 1997 All Star program stopped by rain. The club owned by Bert Emick then Guy Webb and now Tony Stewart returned to a summer surface that lacked the grip to get below ten seconds. November 4, 2006 was the end of the Atomic age. It is now an I-40 terminal for the Crete Carrier Company.

Northwest Missouri’s U.S 36 Speedway sits between Cameron and Osborn along the old Pony Express Highway. Its dragstrip was ten years active before the bright idea to carve a quarter-mile into an adjacent bowl. Opened on September 23, 2000, U.S 36 became a sporadic Friday home to a small band of sprint cars powered by 305, 360 and 410 engines. When the place booked an actual 410 race with timing beam, Iowa’s Terry McCarl went 9.99. Three years later when the World of Outlaws first arrived, Paul McMahan (Tony Stewart 20) shaved 36 to 9.84.

So many variables go into breaking track records: rain, sun, wind, time of night, time of season, weight rules, tire rules, wing rules, luck of the draw. Engine builders adore the cool air of autumn or February in Florida to help horsepower soar. March 27, 2004 was when the Sierra Nevada foothills sent NorCal hero Tim Kaeding (Roth 83) down Placerville’s ramp to record 9.91. Conditions were so ideal that no one has ever bettered T.K even though Evan Suggs tied Tim in 2007.

River Cities Speedway on the Greater Grand Forks Fairground joined the Nine-Second Club in 2007 when Saldana (Kasey Kahne 9) circled in 9.95. Donny Schatz brought the 9.83 record home to North Dakota until 2009 when Central California’s Jason Meyers blazed an amazing 9.26: quickest lap in sprint car history. Meyers emerged champion of the World of Outlaws in 2010-11.

March in Australia resembles October in America for engine performance. Premier Speedway is renowned as home of Grand Annual Classic (biggest sprint race in-country) and perennial stop for World Series Sprintcars yet none of those pools of talent ever broke ten seconds. Not until a local SRA show in March of 2015 did Jamie Veal’s velocity peg at 9.96. The job paid 10k from Ian Grant, who first offered $5000 then a thousand more for each failed season. Leave it to an Aussie to turn one lap into a celebration.

3.8.15 Warrnambool, Victoria: Jamie Veal (Geoff Rounds photo)

Veal was visible in America during five Australian winters. He made his World of Outlaws debut during Limaland’s Brad Doty Classic of 2014. When the series ended its 23-year absence from Placerville only to see Jason Johnson injured, JJR named Jamie as driver for 13 Outlaw programs that peaked ninth at Eldora. In his own car, Veal was third at Cedar Lake and fourth at Pevely. His third international tour did 15 Outlaw dates for Indy Race Parts producing tenth at Jacksonville and Plymouth, eighth at Putnamville, fourth at Knoxville then sixth at Nationals. Tour Four found eighth at Billings then fourth at Gold Cup 2017.

Reading this recap will remind how Joey Saldana was as good or better against the clock as he was in A-main mode. Saldana (Motter 71m) dragged Cottage Grove Speedway into the Nine-Second Club in 2015 on a Wednesday in West Oregon when the World of Outlaws exited I-5 to the former motorcycle track.

Despite a deadly virus in 2020, atmospheric conditions aligned south of St. Louis. Covid cut schedules so severely that clay on places like I-55 Raceway had not been pounded as hard or often when Outlaws arrived. And because Missouri became viable during quarantine “The Greatest Show On Dirt” hit Pevely prior to its traditional Iron Man 55 when the surface is slower.

Of course, one can compute horsepower, humidity, gear ratio, tire stagger, shock package and wing angle yet still not equal a driver brimming with confidence. Kyle Larson’s lap of I-55 in May seems buried by his avalanche of amazing feats. “NorCal Ninja” owns more 2020 victories than any All Star or Outlaw. He tore through Indiana Midget Week, Pennsylvania Speed Week, Ohio Speed Week, and Sunday night’s Hoosier Hundred from dead last. He is “The Terminator” sent to make racing look easy. This week, he returns to Port Royal to drive a late model, possibly the last class he has yet to master.

But who knows in this crazy Covid campaign? Maybe another governor shuts Port Royal down. Maybe the peerless Paul Silva parks Larson’s sprint car at U.S 36 on Friday night. And maybe they cover Cameron in eight seconds.