By Kevin Triplett
Twenty-three midget cars drivers and crews were on hand Saturday night July 15 at the 3/8-mile Petaluma Speedway for the Jack London Hall of Fame race co-sanctioned by Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) and the United States Auto Club (USAC). In the afternoon before the racing program began, BCRA hosted the annual Jack London Bash Picnic and the 2017 BCRA Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Behrens Park on the Sonoma – Marin Fairgrounds.
Among the race entries were four female drivers- Randi Pankratz, Courtney Crone, 2011 BCRA dirt series champion Shannon McQueen and current BCRA points leader Maria Cofer. Four midget drivers- Ronnie Gardner, Geoff Ensign, Britton Bock and Cory Elliott did “double duty” as they also raced in winged 360 cubic inch sprint cars which were also a part of the evening’s racing program.
Ronnie Gardner in his #68 Stewart chassis midget powered by an Esslinger engine was the fastest qualifier with a best lap of 14.635 seconds, followed by Michael Faccinto who posted a lap of 14.665 seconds and Geoff Ensign third with a time of 14.679 seconds.
At the start of the first 8-lap heat race, front row starter Danny Carroll took the point and the Australian driver now living in Roseville California held the lead throughout in Sean Dodenhoff’s #9C. Frankie Guerrini charged up from his fourth starting spot to run second behind Danny with Gardner third. On the last lap, Alex Schutte in #28 tried a ‘slide job’ in turn three to take third from Gardner but settled for fourth place. Young Mason Daniel finished in the important fifth place as the top five heat finishers kept their qualifying times to determine the starting position for the feature race.
In the second heat race, Cory Elliott charged into the lead at the drop of the green from the outside of the front row and held on despite his #11E machine experiencing an electrical issue which periodically caused the Esslinger engine to nearly stop running at times. Courtney Crone and Michael Faccinto battled hard for second place while David Prickett and CJ Sarna dueled for fourth place. Elliott was first under the checkered flag trailed by Crone, Faccinto, Prickett and Sarna as the top five finishers.
The third heat race featured three of the female drivers starting in the first front two rows, and Maria Cofer led the first two circuits before she was passed by Anaheim’s Robert Dalby in his new #4D Esslinger powered Spike midget. Sixth place starter Geoff Ensign aggressively moved through traffic to run in third place then in the closing laps pushed underneath Cofer to finish the heat race in second place. Shannon McQueen capitalized on Cofer’s detour out of the turn three and four racing groove to finish third as Maria recovered to finish in fourth place ahead of Tyler Dolcaki who charged into fifth on the last lap.
Fast qualifier Ronnie Gardner pulled the number “8” pill on the re-draw for the line-up of the 30-lap feature which placed Courtney Crone on the inside of the front row for the start with Guerrini alongside. The feature race action came to a halt quickly after the initial green flag however, as Nate Wait got tangled up in traffic and flipped the #35 midget in turn one of the opening lap which necessitated a complete restart less Wait’s machine. On the second start, Guerrini blasted into the lead in the F&F Racing #63 trailed by Crone, Ensign, Gardner and Faccinto and the front five cars soon pulled away from the rest of the field by several car lengths.
The night’s first caution flag flew on lap nine for a spin by Sparky Howard in turn two, with his #3 machine soon pushed away to rejoin the field. On the restart, Gardner and Faccinto shot past Ensign as his car had broken a front brake line after contact with another car and Ensign without brakes soon exited to the pit area. On lap ten Daniels pulled his #33M machine into the infield while the racing action continued as Gardner began to press Crone for second place.
On lap 13, Guerrini bobbled in the rough inner section of turns one and two and both Crone and Gardner roared past to drop Frankie to third place. As the leaders entered lapped traffic on the 18th lap, Gardner scooted past Crone and into the lead. On lap 20, young Santa Monica driver Kyle Beilman had a problem with his car’s Mopar engine and coasted through turns three and four and down the front straightaway and off the ramp to the pit area. Although Beilman’s retirement did not interrupt the action, on the following lap after contact with another car, Prickett’s #22Q midget lost a wheel and rolled to a stop on the inside on turn one to once again slow the field.
Under caution with nine laps to go, the crowd began to buzz with excitement as they realized that Gardner who earlier won the winged 360 sprint feature in dominant fashion had a chance to become only the fourth driver in Petaluma Speedway history to win two features on the same night. On the restart, Faccinto charged past Crone for second place before the caution flag flew for a three-car tangle in run four that involved Dalby, Dolacki and Pankratz. The cars of both Dalby and Dolacki were too damaged to continue but Randi restarted her #8 Fontana-powered Edmunds midget at the tail of the field.
On the restart, Gardner encountered his own trouble on the high side of the rough turns one and two and his bobble allowed Faccinto and Crone to streak past. Gardner charged back and passed Crone in turn three on the next lap, but the pass was nullified when the caution flag flew as Terry Nichols’ #1P came to stop in turn three with an apparent broken rear end. On the restart, with Faccinto ahead in the lead Crone and Gardner dueled side-by-side for over a lap, and as the pair exited turn two side-by-side the pair made wheel-to-wheel contact. Crone’s car crossed over from the inside and began a series of end-over-end flips down the backstretch along the outer fence. Behind Courtney, Gardner’s car also turned over once and came to rest on its wheels near the inside of the racing surface.
Ronnie quickly emerged from his #68 car and the track crew pushed his car off the racing surface, while other safety workers rushed to Crone’s #25 Toyota-powered Malloy midget which was resting on its side midway down the back straightaway. Once the car was righted, Courtney slowly climbed out but she soon laid on the ground behind the machine and was tended to by emergency personnel.
After several anxious minutes, Courtney walked with assistance to the ambulance to cheers from the crowd. The author visited with Courtney after the race and is glad to report that after she spent part of Saturday night in a local hospital for observation, Courtney was reportedly quite sore from her rough ride and she and her father Jack returned home to Southern California on Sunday.
The running order for the restart after the red flag was withdrawn with five laps to go was Faccinto, Alex Schutte, Guerrini, Cory Elliott (up from 13th at the start) and Shannon McQueen in fifth. Elliott immediately charged past Frankie to grab third place, then powered into second while Danny Carroll moved past McQueen. On race’s the last lap, Elliott’s machine suffered an apparent rear end problem and suddenly slowed in turn four, which created a traffic jam as the field packed up behind Elliott while winner Michael Faccinto streaked under the double checkered flags.
Fans will remember that at the last BCRA dirt track race at Placerville Speedway, Faccinto left the track in an ambulance after a scary-looking flip which makes his return to victory lane in the Carrillo Rod sponsored #35F midget a sweet one indeed. Frankie Guerrini emerged from the last lap scrum to finish second to cap a strong feature performance, with Alex Schutte third and Shannon McQueen in fourth place. Danny Carroll got caught up in the confusion of the final turn to finish in fifth place, while Ronnie Gardner recovered from his earlier flip to finish in sixth place, one position ahead of Cory Elliott who coasted across the line in his wounded machine.
Maria Cofer edged Randi Pankratz for eighth, with the ageless Floyd Alvis in tenth place, CJ Sarna eleventh and JR Williams who solved his nagging fuel line problems of the past few events finished in twelfth position in his Carson City-based #74 midget. The non-finishers from thirteenth on back were Crone, Nichols, Dalby, Dolacki and Prickett with Britton Bock who grandfather Doug was inducted into the BCRA Hall of Fame earlier in the day in eighteenth place. Bielman in his second ever midget race placed nineteenth followed by Howard, Ensign and Daniel as Nate Wait rounded out the 23-car field.
The mighty midgets of the BCRA return to action on July 22 at Marysville Raceway in an exciting twin-bill with the BCRA midget lites division. The racing program will also feature the track’s wingless sprint car division, economy sprint cars and super stocks on the program with hot laps scheduled to start at 6 PM.