Nolen Racing's Swanson Wins USAC Silver Crown Season Opener at MIR
MILLINGTON, Tenn., March 24 — Kody Swanson’s quest to earn a fifth USAC Silver Crown driver championship and Nolen Racing’s pursuit of the 2019 team championship in that series got off to an excellent start on Saturday when Swanson won the season opener at Memphis International Raceway (MIR) in the famous yellow Nolen Racing No. 20.
The Beast chassis is powered by a Tranter-prepared Chevrolet engine and the car is sponsored in part by KECO Coatings, Goodridge, K&N Filters and Wilwood Brakes.
The Whiteland, Ind.-based team and Swanson, a native of Kingsburg, Calif. who currently lives in Zionsville, Ind., came away with a dominating performance even though Swanson had never raced at the three-quarter-mile, D-shaped asphalt track in the past and some mechanical gremlins forced the team to go to its backup car for qualifying and the 100-lap main event.
Swanson won the Memphis 100 by 1.694 seconds after a heated battle with Bobby Santos III, set the fastest lap of the race, led the most laps with 40, won the Fatheadz Eyewear pole, and was the fastest driver in practice on Friday during the series’ first visit to MIR since 2004.
The track is near Memphis, which is known as the birthplace of rock and roll, and both the 23-car race and Nolen Racing’s weekend had as many ups and downs as a gyrating rock star before Swanson brought the crowd to its feet in a thrilling finale when the checkered waved.
There were four main yellows, a couple of called-off restarts and even a closed red in the race, and Swanson was as far back as fourth at one point. He led the first five laps, but then dropped to third when both David Byrne and Eric Gordon got by. Aaron Pierce passed him on lap eight right before Matt Goodnight crashed between Turns 3 and 4 working lap 10. Goodnight was unhurt but there was a problem getting his car on the wrecker, and all the cars were brought onto pit road under a closed-red situation until that problem could be solved.
With the race resumed with 20 laps complete Swanson was still fourth, and on lap 26 he came under heavy pressure from Santos for the first time. The pair battled like there were only a few laps remaining instead of 70, but Swanson was not only able to hold Santos off at that point, he passed Gordon for third on lap 31 and Byrne for second in Turn 3 on lap 32. Santos came with him, however, and Swanson was only 0.134 ahead of him on lap 34.
Pierce had a healthy lead over Swanson and Santos at that point, but on lap 36 Pierce pulled into the pits with a mechanical problem to give Swanson the lead again. Santos was still keeping the pressure up, and was only 0.147 behind.
A yellow flew on lap 42 for debris on the track. On the restart on lap 47 Gordon got by Santos for second but the yellow flew immediately for a bad restart, and Santos got the position back. The green flew again on lap 48, and Santos slipped under Swanson for the lead on lap 49 in Turn 1. At the halfway point Swanson was second, about 0.717 behind Santos.
Santos had a 1.573-second lead over Swanson on lap 58 and Kyle Hamilton was third, only 0.871 behind him. The interval between the top two cars remained about the same for the next few laps, but Swanson was able to put Hamilton 2.709 seconds behind him by the time another yellow flew on lap 66 when C.J. Leary rolled to a stop on the backstretch.
Following the restart on lap 71 Swanson passed Santos for the lead on lap 72 by getting under him in Turn 2, setting the fastest lap of the race by anyone at that point in the process, but he had to give the spot back when another yellow flew seconds later when Austin Nemire and Travis Welpott both had mechanical issues and stopped.
The green flew again on lap 79, and on the following lap Swanson charged under Santos to regain the lead in Turn 3. He was never again headed, but it still wasn’t easy. The top three finishers — Swanson, Santos and Justin Grant — all set their fastest laps on lap 85, with Swanson being the fastest of the entire field with a time of 21.598. There was some lapped traffic that caused some tense moments towards the end too, but Swanson took the checkered for his 25th career USAC Silver Crown victory, extending his mark for the most victories by any driver in the history of the series.
In victory lane Swanson thanked everyone on the team for their hard work. He also gave a special call-out to key team member Kevin Noblitt, who has been in the hospital since March 7 but is expected to be discharged today (Sunday).
“What a great feeling!” said team owner Gene Nolen. “It was a team effort. I’m proud of all of them. Kody drove a great race. I also want to thank all our supporters. Please visit us in the pits after any race!”
Swanson earned the pole during Fatheadz Eyewear Qualifying earlier on Saturday afternoon with a time of 20.830 seconds on his second lap. That was 0.253 of a second faster than the second-fastest driver in qualifying, Hamilton, in the very competitive field. Byrne, Santos and Chris Windom rounded out the five fastest drivers in qualifying.
Swanson’s qualifying run was only 0.027 of a second off the track qualifying record of 20.803 (129.789 miles per hour) set by the late David Steele in 1998.
His qualifying lap was also 0.209 of a second faster than the 21.039-second lap he ran to top Friday’s practice day. He turned 94 laps during Friday’s practice, which was four more than anyone else.
The race was streamed live on FloRacing.com, which is also scheduled to broadcast the other events in the 12-race series.
The second event will be the Fatheadz Eyewear Sumar Classic April 14 on the dirt at the Terre Haute Action Track in Terre Haute, Ind.
For more information see the team’s website at NolenRacing.com and follow @NolenRacing on Facebook and @NolenRacing20 on Twitter. The series’ website is at usacracing.com.
Swanson’s post-race quote follows:
“You can’t ever count out Bobby Santos. It was a tough afternoon of just grinding it out. There was a lot of great racing, and I’m grateful that he [Santos] races me clean.
“It’s been a busy week. We brought two cars here, and we were busy getting them both ready. In practice on Friday we were dealing with a vibration in the primary car. We put a new driveshaft in the primary car and got it ready to go, and also worked on getting the backup car ready.
“This morning in practice we did something that hurt the engine in the primary car, so with the time we had left in practice we put some more laps in with the backup car and got it ready for qualifying.
“It worked out well that we had worked on both cars earlier, because we were able to get the backup car better and sneak out with the pole.
“We had a good car for the race. I think Santos had some trouble at the end. I’m grateful for everyone’s effort on this team, and glad we were able to win one.”
[Regarding the fierce battle around lap 30] “I knew it would be a tough race. There were a lot of people whose cars were handling well, and I got shuffled back to fourth. I just tried to bide my time and get our car to handle better as long as the run went. It had to be a great race for the fans. The top four were in close quarters there for a while, and it was fun racing.
“He [Santos] was really good. On that one restart I got loose for some reason and he got by me. But he was having some engine problems I believe near the end. It was really lucky that we got another good run after that, so we could race him hard again for it. The top three finishers all set their fastest race lap on lap 85, so that shows just how hard we were all pressing at the end. All three of us were giving it our all.
“I’m thankful for all the hard work that all the men and women on this team put in. We overcame a lot to be able to win, and I’m thankful to everyone who put the effort in.
“It was a fun race; I’m glad it worked out!”
Photo credits: USAC photos by Rich Forman