Just Turn All The Dials To The Right
The 16th Annual Budweiser Oval Nationals
Perris Auto Speedway
November 3rd, 4th and 5th 2011

I was stuck on the coast down at Chautauqua and PCH in the land of ratfink. The sun was shining like a lunatic in January. I'm losing and I keep telling myself "it doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how you play the game". I've always hated pithy expressions like that, especially when I'm losing. I'm reaching deep. I'm back in Perris, I ditched work for a couple of days but it's following me like a bad habit. When I got home from the Oval Nationals I dumped all the photos, statistics, notes, programs, memorabilia, autographs and spare parts into a pile on the kitchen table. I tried to make sense of it but I was like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You know that scene where he's zapped by the spaceship and he starts shaping some kind of clay mountain on his kitchen table. Something is speaking to him but he doesn't know what it's means. Thank God for Lance and Tim Kennedy, with their help I start digging out from the avalanche. But I keep asking myself, what the hell really happened?

Perris Landscape
Preparing for the Avalanche

Thursday Night

Ryan Bernal came out with fast time Thursday night like a shot across the bow of the Oval Sensationals. For this seventeen-year old kid to (turned eighteen the following day) to hammer on this hollowed dirt I just thought it insane. He rocked all weekend. He qualified top ten all three races, including top five on Saturday night! With the fast time inverts and all that happens, he had two fight his way out two B mains (Thursday and Saturday night) and made the main events both those nights. His dramatic second place finish in the 2011 USAC 360 West Coast Sprints season brought him rookie of the year honors for that sanction. I can't wait to see where he lands next season, but he just looked so perfect at Perris. I hope the dude is soaking all this up. I see Dad turning that wrench and Mom sitting quiet on the quad watching and protective of what she can't protect. It's her kid but he isn't a kid anymore. Ryan is at the beginning of a career where he will drive many cars for many different owners with outstanding results. But once in a while he will go back in his mind to when it was just the three of them. Back when the track was new, dad was driving the truck and the future smelled like a thunderstorm rolling the across the great Central Valley of his youth.


Ryan Bernal Rocks

Five fully inverted heats by qualifying times, a strange recipe that on a fast track with little passing put most of the slower qualifiers directly into the A main. I'm sure the intention was to mix it up and generate more passing, but that track was wicked fast and nobody wanted to hug it out. Good fast people were sent to the B main including Clauson, Spencer, Mitchell and Shuman. These fast qualifiers had to cycle through the B main Once they cleared the B Main, most got their qualifying times back and were sorted accordingly in the main. But it was interesting that four of the ten fastest qualifiers didn't advance, 2 took provisionals (Mitchell and Austin Williams) and two missed the Main, RJ Johnson and the trumpeted Kyle Larson. From what I read, Larson hasn't missed too many mains this season and it was the beginning of a slippery slope for the precocious lad. Weirdly, the total invert in the heat races favored the middle qualifiers, numbers ten through twenty. Four of the top five finishers came from that bracket, including the main event winner, Nic Faas….


Seth Wilson Returns From His Horrific Crash At Victorville

In short order for the C Main, Ronnie Gardner was hooked up and wins over Danny Eberts and Casey Shuman. Heat 1 fully inverted, Bobby East reminded us of his powerful performance last year. It was Jon Stanbrough, Danny Sheridan, Bobby East and Damion Gardner with Bryan Clauson (6th) and fast qualifier Ryan Bernal going to the B main. Heat 2 inverted Josh Ford gets out front and holds, Chris Windom, Dave Darland and Wes Guiterrez with Mike Spencer (6th) going the to B main. Heat 3 was where Shane Golobic gave Nic Faas a little pause, but it was over soon enough. Faas (blistering16.047 lap), Jones, Golobic and Bloom advance with Larson (5th) and Faria (flipped and finishing 7th) going to B main. Heat 4 fully inverted with Kruseman in control, excellent battles all through the race between R. VanderWeerd and Robert Ballou. It finished Kruseman, R. VanderWeerd, Ballou and Kaeding with Mitchell (5th), Bacon (6th) and Gaunt (7th) all banished to B main. Heat 5 fully inverted. Hines quickly worked to the front with Bragg finally conceding to Schuerenberg. Powerful run by Troy Rutherford in a 360 mighty mite. Hines, Schuerenberg, Forsberg and Rutherford with A. Williams (looking very formidable) and Greg Bragg to B main.


Remember Christian Stover

B Main: Top four to Main Event: Spencer takes it from the front row with Ryan Bernal holding back the racing DNA ocean. We got our first glimpses of greatness from Larson dueling with Clauson. Larson clips Mitchell in turn four and we have the first big wreck, Mitchell, Rip, J. VanderWeerd, C. Williams, Bragg and Alexander. Mitchell came off that track fuming and resorted to a provisional for the Main where he ripped as hard charger, 26th to 17th. Race finished with Spencer, Bernal, Bacon, Clauson advanced to A Main with Kyle Larson sitting out his first main event in a while, perhaps the first interruption of a victory lap that lasted all year.


VanderWeerd's Are Everywhere

Faas came out for Thursday night's main and destroyed. "Goodbye" said astute track announcer Scott Daloisio as Faas checked out. Starting outside of Bud Kaeding on the front row, he ditched the entire pack and danced to a stunning victory. When I say he danced, it was twist and shout. He did the cha cha; he did the mamba. He did a foxtrot in turn two and the bolero in turn three. He samba'd down the front straightaway and to finish he put "the right leg in and you shake it all about and
you do the hokey pokey and you turn it all around". Stunning. I was on the top of the snack bar in the infield where the real critics hang and they all threw him straight 10's! It was perhaps the most dominating performance of the year. Every time I saw Nic that weekend he was electric, lit up like it was all new and exciting and forever.

Nic Faas
Nic Faas Was Lit Up All Weekend

Top five also included Schuerenberg, Kaeding, Spencer and Gutierrez. Wes Gutierrez was twelfth fastest, his fourth place finish in the second heat race put him inside second row which he converted to a top five finish in Night One of the Oval Nationals, yeah, baby! Wide Open blew an engine the next day but the rest of those knuckleheads piled points up for the long weekend. Top eight point getters after the first two nights would be seeded into Saturday nights main first four rows. Those are the Willy Wonka Gold Tickets that get you inside the chocolate factory. Top-drawer drivers that took a beating included Sheridan, Darland, Mitchell, Kruseman and Stanbrough. These are people that mean a lot to me. It's hard to see and rough to write. Tough hearted Troy Rutherford drove a 360 into the main finishing 23rd. It's a long and winding river with big turns ahead. The riverboat captain sleeps restlessly in his cabin, crawls out of his bunk Friday morning, draws open the shades and looks out at acres of rain.

Saturday Day

When Faas ran away with it Thursday, my smart friends told me "that's just virgin track, wait until we get dry slick Friday night and Saturday night and you'll see the mid-west boys take over". Well, it rained all day Friday and Saturday morning we woke up to a track that was heavy as an underwater mortgage. Don decided to run Saturday day show and Saturday night show. Rip Williams told me that had only happened a few times in his career. Mike Spencer continued to set backfires against the Indiana firestorm that he knew was coming, starting with fast time (smoking 16.051) in that strange afternoon show, the muddy intensity brilliantly captured in Jeff Kristensen's Saturday Video see "Prelude". After qualifying, Faas and Schuerenberg were tied for first in Oval National points. Even the C Main rocked with John Aden demonstrating what he is made of.


California Lightning Sprint Driver Stephen Limon, Crew Chief Melissa Laster and Crew David Gutierrez Showed Up Friday for the Show!

Heat 1 fully inverted with the Ripper out front. Golobic slid hard up into Sheridan and Danny paid a price (another one of those pivotal moments that affects a driver's whole weekend). It took the whole race but Windom (from the back) caught and passed both Cody Williams and the Ripper for the win with Kruseman in the transfer spot. Sheridan and Spencer (from fast time to last row) to the B main.


Hard To Imagine Perris Without Jeff Kristensen

Rutherford and dedicated crew wrenched right through the rain all night and dropped a 410 in place of the 360. Got to show it off in heat race two. Must have driven Ballou buggy as he tried to get around him. Ensign crash took out Clauson. Faas was coming but inexplicably fell back to fourth. Jones solid but strangely uninspiring. It was Rutherford, Ballou, Jones and Faas with Hines (5th) and Clauson (8th) to the B main.


Robert Ballou and Keith Ford Racing Missed Saturday Seed By A Quarter Second

Heat 3 had Larson victim of a hit and run, he goes to the back and his stinky weekend continues. Raced back to 5th, too little too late. Faria hits the wall and gets the hook. Ziggy and Buster can't catch a break. Copeland and Gaunt were sharp as snipers. Kaeding battled from the rear and showed the clean hard racing he is famous for. Copeland, Gaunt, Bloom and Kaeding with Larson (5th) and Schuerenberg (6th) to the B main.


I Don't Think I Can Run An Article Without Super Rickie

Heat 4 fully inverted Austin Williams flips (for the first time), J. VanderWeerd tangles with Ebberts and pulls off. The D Gardner finally clears the R Gardner for second but it's not compelling. Mitchell, D. Gardner, R. Gardner and Bezio (360 with teeth) with Stanbrough to the B main. Heat 5 fully inverted with Casey in charge with some excellent racing behind. "Hey, Greg Alexander, that's racing legend Dave Darland you just beat for second place, that's worth the trip!" Further back R.J. Johnson and Bobby East are going at it. Shuman, Alexander, Darland and Johnson with East (5th) Bacon (6th) and Bernal to the B Main.


Perris Fire and Safety Is World Class

B Main was a12 lap dash with top four transferring to the Main Event. Austin Williams flips with a passion, broken shoulder blade. Larson spins and goes to back. Man oh man. Spencer in control with Schuerenberg right there. Bacon is cooking with Bernal in the mix but Clauson is on the gas. He clears Larson and gets in Bacon's face. Jace VanderWeeerd off, Tony Everhart off. Spencer in command, Schuerenberg next, Bacon fighting off Clauson and Hines rounding out top five. Suddenly Clauson, Hines and East all get past Bacon (hits the cushion) and Clauson is now digging for second. Lap nine and Schuerenberg hits the wall in turn two, flips and we are red. That will kill his Oval chances. Line up is Spencer, Clauson, Hines and Bobby East. That's how it finishes despite Stanbrough also clearing Bacon at end and then Golobic clearing Stanbrough. Spencer, Clauson, Hines and East in with Stanbrough out (used provisional), Bacon out, Sheridan out (used provisional), Larson out (for the second night in a row) and Schuerenberg out (flipped, used provisional). Greg Bragg, who started last, also reverted to a provisional for the main. The cold and ruthless heart of the Nationals is revealed in the harsh winter daylight.


Saturday's Strange Show

This Main Event is worth twenty-five laps. Kruseman on the pole and flying. Damion Gardner in second but Windom (from fifth) is blistering in third. Clauson hits the wall in turn two and is done. It's Kruseman, Gardner and Windom with Keith Bloom fighting off a determined Mike Spencer. Windom clears Gardner, Spencer clears Bloom and once again Mike Spencer is chasing his Demon. Kruseman and Windom are pulling away when a 50 cent bolt breaks in his steering assembly ending a brilliant drive and even his Saturday night hopes (started 12th when you needed to be up front). Windom took that lead and flew. Spencer clears the Demon and here comes late to the party Nic Faas just having cleared Levi Jones. Rickie Gaunt breaks turn two. Windom out front, Spencer solid second constantly challenging, Gardner third but Levi is reeling him in. Windom pulling away but a yellow flag reels everyone together. Windom away again, Jones clears Damion and starts challenging Spencer. Watching Spencer and Jones battle is worth the forty bucks I forked over earlier in the day. White flag, It's Windom, Spencer, Jones, Gardner fourth and Nic Faas hangs tough for a top five. Casey Shuman was Hard Charger from 24th to 13th. Some interesting comments from Levi Jones after the race displaying his class, knowledge and competitive spirit. Check out Raceway Video.

Saturday Night

Going into Saturday night Spencer is leading the points. He receives the Dean Thompson High Point Award before the Main Event and profusely thanks his car owner and all the crew. He was at the head of a parade that showered awards all evening. Nic Faas received the Dean Thomson Award for setting fast time, winning his heat and winning the Main Event all one fateful night back in September (let's shout out to the Alexander crew!). Nic also pointedly thanks Ken and Matt from Scott Sales. A group of fans awarded Don Kazarian and the entire Perris staff an appreciation award. Don choked up pretty good, thanking Scott, Jeff Kristensen (retiring), Joe Zulewski (retiring), Captain Can Do Charlie Watson, Kim, the concession staff, Ray, Kevin and just about for everybody helping keep his Perris dream going. I want to get in this parade! I'm going to thank USAC, that race director, Evelyn, boots on the ground and even the backroom in Indy. I can't even count all the great races. Perhaps the coolest award was a car owner Appreciation Award Don presented to reluctant legend Ron Chaffin for fielding the red #50 in every sprint car race ever run at Perris. Kazarian noted with Chris Holt nodding affirmatively that the 50 car was always "the show". Don't get me started with that story…. Don wrapped it up with jackets for Grand Marshall's and longtime flagmen Ed and Bob Ramirez. Oh yeah, after the Main Event local hero Tony Jones, maybe the classiest guy in racing, handing off the first Annual Tony Jones Hard Charger Award to wunderkind Kyle Larson who had charged from 23rd to 13th in the main. Upfront, close, taking pictures and taking in all of this, Don Kazarian's sincerity made it all real. He wanted to acknowledge and show gratitude to certain people and many walked away that night with a soulful feeling for it all.


Matt Mitchell and the Lost Weekend

Qualifying has Kruseman fastest (16.443) with Clauson, Mitchell, East and Bernal. I expect Cory Kruseman to be one of the more fascinating stories for 2012 in the Mark Priestly #7. The four heat races will transfer the top two to the A Main to join the eight top point getters from Thursday night and Saturday afternoon; Spencer (top points at 273), Faas (268), Windom, Bloom, L. Jones, Gardner, Kaeding and Hines. They will be seeded into the front four rows.


The Stars Are Out

With no inversions for these heats, first race had Schuerenberg and Kruseman advance, Larson and Bernal to B main. Larson was leading but Kruseman passed him early and never relinquished despite some pressure on the older star from the younger star, thrilling stuff. Another rising star, Brody Roa packed his right rear and was forced to depart. Poor Larson, again signed up for the semi, he passed us in turn three just pounding his steering wheel in frustration.


Ray

Heat 2 had Ronnie Gardner holding off the formidable Bryan Clauson for most of the race, but RG tapping the wall gave Clauson what he needed and he snuck under but it was no gimme. Then USAC West Coast 360 Champion Richard VanderWeerd also stymied Clauson until the cushion bit him on the white flag lap. Gaunt was his usual super heroic in the third with Rip Williams taking the fourth spot away from Ronnie Gardner at the end. I was expecting great things from Gardner, but he was in a new and unknown car and I don't think that worked out. At least that what he told me a few weeks later when I ran into him at Ventura. I keep forgetting to tell him that great things are ahead.


Classic Rock

Cody Williams was on fire for heat three and nobody had his number. Well, perhaps Danny Sheridan had it but he hit the wall and was gone. Matt Mitchell handily filled the second spot until a broke spring valve killed him. Greg Alexander took over second. Shuman slid him hard and took the transfer. Mitchell and Sheridan to B main.


Perfect Chaos

Four was a heavy heat with a restart due to RJ Johnson being on the gas. Ballou takes the lead but creases a wall and RJ takes it back. He stayed on the gas with Ballou behind him, Bobby East and Dave Darland also in the hunt. Stanbrough continues his disappointing adventure with a Tommy tip over after hitting the wall in four. Ballou in second starts smoking and East goes over his right rear but keeps it together for the second spot. Darland slotting in third, he swarms East for the transfer but the kid holds him off with Brady Bacon in fourth. Darland, Ballou and Bacon to the semi. Somewhere in this mess you have to acknowledge David Bezio. Epic effort all weekend.


John Aden Shows What He's Made Of

Fans get to see two slamming B Mains with the top four from each race making up the back rows of the Main. In B Main #1 Darland took the lead and never looked back. Mitchell was beautiful. Greg Alexander fighting for his last bit of respect but breaks; almost gathers Larson and Ronnie Gardner but they survive for the third and fourth transfers. Ballou is out despite being top eight in points. He matched eighth place Hines but missed the seed because Hines had a better qualifying time! With a loss in the semi, the hardworking Keith Ford Racing team was sidelined. Rip Williams takes a provisional.


Grand Marshals Ed and Bobby Ramirez

B Main #2 is the last chance dance. Brady Bacon a little eager and we have a restart. Second restart after Colby Copeland stalls. Bacon got gas again and they restart a third time after sending Bacon to the back. It was Stanbrough and Bernal out front but a vicious flip by Colby Copeland going into turn one brings out the red. Cars are stopped in turn four and you can hear the Kittle crew talking to Danny about strategy. Bernal is parked right behind them and he yells out "just turn all the dials to the right!" He was doing it all weekend. It's 9:25 pm and the crowd is looking pretty good. Green flag and Bacon has moved all the way up to fourth. Aden is third until Bacon clears him. Now Bacon is pressuring Bernal for second and makes the pass. Stanbrough puts up a fight but he falls too and Bacon is back where he started, out front. It's the only rear to the front run of the whole weekend. It's Bacon, Stanbrough, Bernal and a resilient John Aden. Sheridan takes a provisional; Gaunt, Faria and Bragg are done.


Amber Blair, Ron Chaffin, Mike Spencer and Don Kazarian

They run the Lightning Sprint Main which features Jarrett Kramer leading, Kevin Michnowicz passing and winning and the completely irrepressible Tim Brown third and locking down the 2011 Championship. Tim Brown "I'm just an old guy that wants to be a racer!" brings joy and enthusiasm to the Winner's Circle and I can't wait to get to his story in 2012. I sometimes wonder if Kevin Michnowicz knows how good he is? Shout out to war vet Stephen Limon who arrived early for the races (see photos!) and took a rough flyer in the main event.


Tim Brown Is CLS 2011 Champion

Life is a determined drive to the front and Don Kazarian leads the faithful through three days of drama and weather to Saturday night's main event. A six man invert puts Damion Gardner on the pole, Levi Jones to the outside. Point leader Mike Spencer is relegated to the sixth position and it proves fateful. You deal with chance, you drive with skill, but you sleep with fate. Third parties tell me that Gardner is confident he can win from the pole. He knows the top is slower and he will have to suppress his tendency to power off the cushions. They get this thing going and it's Demon out front with Levi chasing. Spencer clears fifth place Faas but it's a fantastic throw down between these two and 2012 should be completely out of control! Forty lap Main Event and the Demon has half a straightaway lead by lap ten. It's Gardner, Jones, Windom, Bloom and Spencer when Richard VanderWeerd clips a car, gathers Bacon and they both endure a calamitous series of flips, brilliantly captured for posterity in high definition by Tim, Mike and Jeff all filming.


Thanks Don

Green again and Spencer goes to the top to clear Bloom. Spencer again to the top to clear Windom. The intensity of Mike Spencer's purpose and determination begins to take shape and fans like me start to really sit up. Spencer gets on Jones and you can see Mike thinking, trying different lines, prodding, poking and sparking with the nation's greatest sprint car driver. Behind them Bud Kaeding is battling Bloom for fifth. Halfway, the train is wicked fast, the Demon maintains his wide lead but Spencer remains focused on getting around Jones. Further back Mitchell breaks, forget about it, some weekends you should just stay in bed. Twenty-five completed, fifteen to go. Now the Demon catches lapper John Aden but it proves frustrating trying to get around him. Jones and Spencer capitalize, moving closer to the leader while still engaged in a brutal yard by yard fight.


Legends of Ascot Match Race Classic Lineup

Spencer makes a big move, clears Jones but a yellow comes out (Bloom stops in turn one) and they put Spencer back for the restart. Fast start, Demon is good, Jones is straining but Spencer is advancing by sheer force of everything that goes in that little red sucker. He passes Jones on the outside as they fly down the front straightaway and gets the Demon in his sights. Now we are at the crux of the matter. You can visibly see every racing muscle in Mike Spencer's physiology straining to catch his nemesis. You can see every dollar Ron Chaffin has ever poured into that power plant screaming for credibility. Every turn of the wrench under the eyes of Bruce Bromme is demanding vindication. Number two is fighting to be number one and I am back on the coast, fighting ratfink and finally getting my answers. Mike Spencer leaves absolutely nothing on the track but it isn't enough. The Demon had his own demons to defeat tonight and we are done, Gardner, Spencer and Jones. It is almost iconic.


Not A Great Shot But You Get The Idea

All the photographers clump together and wait for the Pace #71 to pull up to victory lane. Further down the track, Spencer climbs out of the smoking and exhausted #50. I instinctively run over and take his picture and he appears surprised. He turns and walks away from me, probably frustrated, disappointed and annoyed by my intrusion. I think I there was a hole ripped in his heart and he's just kind of a private guy. I walk back to the victory celebration but I have no interest. I dig the Demon, but it was the second place effort that slapped me upside the head. I have come to realize that by doing it his way, on his terms, Mike Spencer has become one of the greatest sprint car drivers in the world. I know that isn't news, but I sensed this race that the Perris fans know it too now and I saw a respect delivered that wasn't there before. His family and friends and the whole damn mid west knows it too. Mike went on to win the excellent Legends of Ascot Match race that night. He also went on and locked down his fourth consecutive USAC CRA Championship. Levi Jones went on to win his fifth National Title and Damion Gardner continues his march to the Hall of Fame. Thanks Don for delivering the most bitchen show on earth. We all appreciate each other, but when somebody speaks the truth, it takes on a deeper meaning. I can't make the banquet, but this is my tip of the hat. It does matter how you play the game. Just turn all the dials to the right.


Mike Spencer: All Of The Dials To The Right