Irwindale, CA. Nov.. 24, 2011 – The first of three main events Thanksgiving evening at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale featured the AMS/Oil USAC Western/Western Classic Sprint Car Series on the Toyota Speedway at Irwindale progressively banked half-mile. The six fastest qualifiers were inverted by qualifying times at the front of the 26 car field. The starter waved the green flag at 7:19 pm and chaos broke out immediately at the front of the field. Kingsburg, Calif. brothers Kody (inside row 2) and Tanner Swanson (outside row 1) made contact and both spun leaving the fourth turn to take the first lap green flag. They continued, but cars in rows 3-4-5 were not as fortunate.
FLIPS: Contact caused USAC Western Sprint point leader Audra Sasselli and Cody Gerhardt to flip several times simultaneously on the front straight. Both cars stopped overturned in mid-track near the starting line. The fuel tank of Gerhardt's No. 40 Western Speed Racing Beast/Chevy was torn from the car and landed in the space between the half and third-mile front straights. The cars of row 3 drivers Tracy Hines (No. 27 Andy Morales 2000 J & J/Shaver “Tamale Wagon”) and fastest qualifier Jo Jo Helberg (No. 7 Helberg Hornet/Hansen Chevy) were involved as well and stopped at the scene. Hines' car stopped next to the outside wall. They were unhurt but their cars were sidelined.
Outside row 4 starter Sasselli, stunned momentarily, soon crawled from her No. 77 Beast/Chevy and limped away with a sore leg or knee. She returned to check her still overturned car, but knew her 20-point lead over Tony Hunt was in jeopardy because inside row 4 starter Hunt evaded the crash. Sasselli, a school teacher and first-time mother this year in March, is a past USAC Ford Focus feature winner at Irwindale. She was looking for her first victory of 2011 and chasing her initial USAC championship.
Injured Gerhardt, 18, remained in his overturned car longer. Track emergency workers came to his aid quickly. They removed him carefully using a backboard. Gerhardt, from Clovis, complained of head and neck pain and was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital for medical attention. He was examined, cleared, and returned to the track in time to watch the 98-lap midget feature. Fortunately, the torn off fuel tank did not leak fuel and did not result in a fire. The red flag was in effect 29 minutes as track crews used oil dry to remove oil spilled from the overturned Sasselli car.
The restart at 7:48 pm had pole-starter Mike Murgoitio, from Idaho, and T. Swanson back in row 1. Officials moved K. Swanson to the back row of the now 21 car field for the restart because of the first lap incident. The restarted race was green all 40 laps. Tanner Swanson, 20, became a first-time TNGP winner in the Swanson family No. 17 Wysong/Losorwith Brodix. He finished second to his brother Kody in the same race last year. The race took 11:17.932 and he won by 3.208 seconds at an average speed of 106.205 mph. The winner had half a straightaway lead by lap 20. He backed off a bit later as he lapped numerous slower cars carefully. He still won by a quarter straightaway. The winner received $2,500 from the $16,305 sprint car purse. Kody, 23, charged forward quickly in the Swanson family-owned No. 75 Wysong chassis and was in P. 4 by lap 16. He took third on lap 20 and passed Murgoitio for second spot on the inside in turn 4 on lap 36 to give the Swanson clan their second consecutive 1-2 finish in the event. The winner ran the fastest lap of the race at 16.546 (108.788 mph) on lap 5. Brother Kody ran the next fastest lap of 16.669 on lap 20 during his charge forward.
Murgoitio finished third in Gary Murgoitio's Eagle/Losorwith Chevy, 4.428 seconds off the lead. Scott Pierovich started 12th and finished fourth (9+ seconds behind the winner) in Ken Pierson's Eagle/Chevy. Tony Hunt, 39, finished fifth (11 seconds back) in Mike Phulps' Eagle/Schwenke Chevy. He won his seventh and eighth USAC titles (Western Sprint and Western Classic Pavement). The inaugural USAC Western Classic Series overall championship went to versatile Geoff Ensign, 21, from Sebastapol. It was his first USAC championship and he was the highest finisher in six of eight W.C dirt track features. He also finished in the top five in three of eight paved track main events. Finishing in P. 6-10 were: Aaron Pierce, from Muncie, IN (Beast/Chevy), Tim Skoglund, of Fresno, (Eagle/Chevy), Ensign (Beast/Chevy), Tim Barber, of Sonoma, (Beast/Chevy), and Shauna Hogg (Eagle/Chevy). Eighteen of the 26 starters finished, with nine drivers on the lead lap. Luis Ramos III, Utah residents Ryan Burdett and Jim Waters, and Gordon Rogers finished 11-14; all were down a lap.
Mike Spencer, the 2008-11 AMS/Oil USAC-CRA 410 sprint car champion on dirt tracks, drove the Rick Hendrix No. 97 from 22nd to P. 15, down two laps in only his second Irwindale paved track event. Another dirt track ace seeing paved track action was 19-year old Kyle Larson, from Elk Grove, CA. He drove the No. 67 Keith Kunz Beast/Speedway Mopar to third quickest qualifying time and started fourth in the six car inverted lineup. The 22-time 2011 feature winner in sprint cars, midgets, USAC Silver Crown, plus World of Outlaws winged sprints and ASCA 360 sprints impressed onlookers. He was in third place on lap 6 when he pulled into the infield with an internal engine problem according to his crew.
QUOTES: Winner T. Swanson accepted congratulations and said, “Thanks. That's not the way to win it. I spun at the start and took out cars of Tracy Hines, Jo Jo and Audra and they would've been racing up front. I looped it and I don't know how I kept it going. I'm glad I got out of the way and rolled around everything. On a cold night it's hard to get heat in the tires. These heavy cars are hard to get hooked up. The cars got here from Indy Tuesday and we missed the first two practice sessions. We put on good shocks.” ... Runner-up K. Swanson stated, “I wanted Swanson brothers 1-2, but not that way. I have no idea what happened. I hate the fact that I contributed to crashing people. Tanner and I both spun at the start and I heard a car flipped and there was oil on the track. I didn't want it to be 1-2 that way. I had to start at the back and passed up to P. 2.” .... P. 3 Murgoitio stated. “We tightened it up too much.” ... Two Western Sprint champion drivers came to the finish line in their cars for the awards. Ensign and Hunt both thanked their sponsors and car owners. Hunt added, “Happy Thanksgiving everybody.”
> Western Sprints – 1 – Hunt 668, 2 – Sasselli 653, 3 – Skoglund 651, 4 – Gerhardt 612, 5 – Ramos 555.
> Western Classic Sprints (dirt/paved tracks) –1 – Ensign 884, 2 – Hunt 878, 3 – Pierovich 807, 4 – Barber 670, 5 – Hogg 655.
> Western Classic Sprint Pavement – 1 – Hunt 491, 2 – Sasselli 455, 3 – Pierovich 443, 4 – Skoglund 413, 5 – Gerhardt 393.
Sprint car drivers ran three practice sessions during the afternoon prior to qualifying from 4:04-4:25 pm. In session one at 12:25, Tracy Hines was fastest at 16.424. Session two at 1:55 had Helberg quickest at 16.361. In session three at 2:50 Helberg was on top of the speed chart again, but at a slightly slower 16.393. The series one lap track record fell last year at the TNGP to T. Swanson's 16.139 (111.531 mph). This year fastest qualifier Helberg came close to breaking the year old mark with his best lap of 16.163 (111.365 mph).