Nolen Racing's Coons Finishes Third in Little 500 at Anderson Speedway
ANDERSON, Ind., June 1 — Gene Nolen, owner of Whiteland, Ind.-based Nolen Racing, knows how hard it is to win pavement sprint car racing's biggest race.
He's been very close many times, including last Saturday night when his primary driver, Jerry Coons Jr., finished third in the 68th annual Pay Less Supermarkets Little 500 presented by UAW-GM at Anderson Speedway.
Even the premise of the event is daunting. Take 33 sprint cars, put them on a quarter-mile, asphalt track, and see which one can do 500 laps first. They'll need to make at least one pit stop (most make two), even though sprint cars don't normally make pit stops, and they'll need a push truck to restart since they don't have on-board starters.
There are always crashes. Every year some of the favorites don't make it to the halfway point. A combination of pace and patience is needed, even though the latter is an oxymoron to drivers who crave speed.
Strategy is required.
Even the fans watching are a little dizzy when it's all over. It took two hours, 25 minutes and 14 seconds for the winning driver, Kody Swanson, to complete 500 laps on Saturday night.
This year Nolen, who was inducted into the Little 500 Hall of Fame in 2010, fielded two cars in the race. Coons, a native of Tucson, Ariz., who now lives in Greencastle, Ind., drove the Nolen Racing #3 sponsored in part by Columbus Container and KECO Coatings. One of only six drivers to earn USAC's coveted Triple Crown, he has only been in this particular event three times, but he now has a second (2014) and a third (2016) on his bio.
Shane Hollingsworth of Lafayette, Ind., drove the Nolen Racing #20, which carried logos for the same companies. He was making his eighth start in the Little 500. His best finish to date came in 2011, when he placed third. He had the best results for the team's three drivers in last year's race when he placed fifth.
Hollingsworth started 23rd on Saturday. He was 13th when he spun on the frontstretch on lap 79. He was able to restart, but that put him back in 26th position, five laps down. He had moved up two positions when he brought out the event's fourth yellow around lap 125 when he hit the wall between Turns 3 and 4. He pitted and tried to restart once again, but he called it quits around lap 132. He did 122 laps in all this year, and was scored in 30th position.
Coons started tenth. He ran in eighth or ninth position for the first portion of the race. He made his first pit stop for fresh tires and fuel under that same fourth caution. He was in 19th, two laps down to leader Caleb Armstrong, for the restart around lap 140.
Chris Windom hit the wall in Turn 4 and Jeff Bloom spun into the infield around lap 154 to bring out the fifth yellow. Many contenders pitted under that caution, which brought Coons back into the top 10 for the restart on lap 166.
The worst accident of the night occurred about 30 laps later, on lap 197. Travis Welpott spun and both Donnie Adams Jr. and Jacob Wilson hit the inside wall on the backstretch. Wilson hit so hard that a red flag flew on lap 206 so the track maintenance crew could work on the cement barriers, as two of them had turned over. At that point only the first and second-place drivers were on the lead lap. Third through eighth, including Coons in sixth place, were one lap down. Coons was going as fast as possible at this stage, as he set his fastest lap of the race on lap 211 with a time of 11.678 seconds. His fastest lap in qualifying was a 11.265.
Coons passed Aaron Pierce for fifth place on lap 225. He got fourth on lap 244 when the driver who was second, Billy Wease, and Ryan Litt made contact in Turn 2, and Wease ended up in the grass. The yellow was still out at the halfway point, with Coons fourth, but now the top eight cars were all on the lead lap.
He made his second pit stop under the tenth yellow on lap 320, which was necessary because Tony Main had looped his car on the backstretch. Coons dropped to seventh due to the pit stop and was once again one lap down.
Pierce slowed shortly after the restart on lap 324 to advance Coons to sixth. He moved back into the top five on lap 347 by passing Davey Hamilton Jr.
Other contenders pitted under the 11th yellow on lap 379, which vaulted Coons into second place. The leader, Bobby Santos III, was alone on the lead lap. Coons and the next four drivers in the running order were one lap down.
Around lap 405 Armstrong was pressuring Coons on the outside for second. He kept it up for many laps, making for one of the best battles of the night. There was some contact between the pair on lap 419, and on lap 421 Armstrong finally made the pass stick, putting Coons in third. Santos was still the leader, but he still had to make his second pit stop.
Santos finally pitted under yellow on lap 451, but the pits were closed when he did so. He was penalized for pitting early. At the restart on lap 455 Armstrong was leading, Swanson was second and Coons was third, and the top five cars were all on the lead lap.
David Steele passed Coons for third around lap 460.
On lap 472 the leader, Armstrong, stopped in Turn 2 after contact with a slower car on the frontstretch, giving the lead to Swanson. The top three drivers — Swanson, Steele and Coons — were on the lead lap, and their positions hadn't changed when the checkered dropped on lap 500. Swanson's margin of victory over Steele was 0.784 of a second. Coons was about 8 seconds behind Steele at the line. Kyle Hamilton was fourth, one lap down. Santos ended up fifth, two laps down.
"The Chevy V6 is fun to drive," Coons said in his post-race interview. "We were loose at the end, but it was a lot of fun. We used the same set-up we've had for the last three years, and I want to thank the fans, the track and our team. I had a blast!"
Prior to the start of the race, the track management presented the widow of Tony Elliott a trophy and declared him as an honorary winner of this race. Elliott, of Warsaw, Ind., was tragically killed in the crash of a private airplane last year. He had made 22 starts in the Little 500, and the last eight were as a Nolen Racing driver. His best finish was second in 2008, which came in a Nolen entry. Elliott was inducted into the Little 500 Hall of Fame in 2009.
"It would have been nice to stick it in victory lane for Tony. He was always a lot of fun," Coons added.
The team's next event is the USAC Silver Crown race at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pa., on Friday, June 10.
The team’s complete schedule can be found on its Web site at NolenRacing.com.
For more information on marketing partnerships, contact Restart Communications at LKMRestart@gmail.com.
Photo credit: John Lehmann