Known by the moniker “The Big Game Hunter,” Austin Williams managed to hunt down the biggest trophy in SoCal on the memorial day weekend by winning the USAC/CRA Salute to Indy race. The annual race is a nod to the Indianapolis 500, held on the evening before the big race, and roots that go back to 1948 when Dempsey Wilson won the event.
Wilson, a four-time Indianapolis 500 starter, and one of the original 13 men that began the SEMA organization, captured the first Salute to Indy race 70 years ago, in what has become one of the longest running sprint car races. From 1948 through 1990 the race was contested in all but five years. After the iconic Ascot Park racetrack closed in 1990, the race was put on ice until Perris Auto Speedway (PAS) was opened in 1996. Since being reborn in the 1996 PAS season, the prestigious race has taken place each year except for 2008 when it was rained out.
Racing historian and PAS track announcer Scott Daloisio explained how the 70th anniversary of the race is actually in its 67th running, despite not being held 11 times since its inception. “Some years in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Ascot Park held multiple races over Memorial Day weekend and each race was titled ‘Salute to Indy.’ In 1971, 1978, 1981, 1982 and 1983, there were two “Salute to Indy” races. In 1980, there was three.”
The event has seen National Sprint Car Hall of Famers Dean Thompson and Bubby Jones won the race the most times with five wins each. However, all of Thompson’s wins came in years when the race was held multiple times. In addition, three of Jones five triumphs took place when the race was held more than one time per year.
Additionally, two drivers have won the race four times. National Sprint Car Hall of Famer Billy Wilkerson is one, and the other is six-time USAC/CRA Sprint Car champion Damion Gardner of Concord, California. Wilkerson and Gardner’s Salute to Indy wins all came when the race was only run one time per year. Gardner was a favorite to win the event again this year.
Standing in Gardner’s way were a list of other hot shoes. Brody Roa, Jake Swanson, the Williams brothers (Cody, Austin and Logan), R.J. Johnson, Austin Liggett and Max Adams were among the challengers looking to lay claim to a part of history.
The Moose Team’s Jake Swanson set the quick time in qualifying, making a statement that the #92 had their eyes set on the big prize. The “Demon” Damion Gardner was fractions of a second behind, with Logan Williams, Richard Vander Weerd and Brody Roa also qualifying with swift times.
Mixed in with the USAC/CRA 410 Sprint Car was the fan favorite California Lightning Sprints (CLS), the 360 Senior Sprints, and the Young Guns for up and coming younger Sprint Car drivers. Once all four groups had finished hot laps and the three preliminary classes finished their heat races, the track had tightened up, providing a front-wheel lifting racing surface for the 410 Sprint Car’s heat races.
Richard Vander Weerd took the first USAC/CRA heat race of the evening. Damion Gardner held off a tough field for the second heat in what was probably the most stacked heat of the night with Brody Roa and Austin Williams in the field. Austin Liggett won the third and final heat to set the stage for the feature event. With 24 entries, it was determined that a semi-main event was not required.
The track staff had made the wise decision to hold the intermission until after the first three classes had completed their main events. This gave the track personnel a chance to dress the track for USAC/CRA main event, giving the drivers a chance to put on their show for the fans.
Once the main event got underway, five cars began to show themselves as the cream of the field with Damion Gardner and Brody Roa dominating the front of the pack. Lurking slightly behind was the black #2 of Austin Williams with older brother Cody Williams #44 behind. R.J. Johnson’s Racing Optics’ #42 was working through the field almost unnoticed after a difficult qualifying session and maintenance issues. The crew had not given up and Johnson had the car moving forward and seemingly getting stronger each lap.
Almost midway through the race the lead cars of Damion Gardner and Brody Roa were battling on the top line when Austin Williams pulled off what many consider the racing move of the night when he dove down in the second turn and passed both lead cars down the back straight to take the lead. Unfortunately one of the cars in the back of the pack spun, bringing out the yellow flag and reverting the field to the last completed lap. Williams game-changing move was all for naught as he had to give the positions back.
The race restarted as it left off with Gardner leading and Roa pressuring from behind. Many times these two cars were side-by-side coming through turn two and were clearly the class of the field. A couple of spins, yellow flags, and restarts were starting to add up the time on the track as the cars continued to drive around the oval. Many were guessing that fuel may become an issue.
When another spin involving several cars brought out a yellow on lap 27, the track workers were frantically working to get the cars off the track without using too much clock. The amount of down-time throughout the race became an issue when the green flag was waved to restart the race and the silver #4 of Damion Gardner seemed to hesitate from fuel starvation. Roa’s green #91 contacted Gardner’s stalled car as the two leaders tangled on the restart, bringing out another yellow caution flag. While these two cars were moved to the work area, the remaining cars were stopped on the track under red flag conditions for refueling.
The race restarted with a four-lap shootout to the end with Austin Williams leading big-brother Cody Williams and an eager Jake Swanson. The previous leaders restarted at the back. Austin Williams held the high ground as Cody Williams began to search around for passing traction. Swanson was able to get by the second place car of Cody Williams, who began to slide back a bit as traction was going away. Max Adams took advantage and moved into third as Austin Williams cruised under the checkered flag for his second “Salute to Indy” win.
AMSOIL USAC/CRA SPRINT CAR SERIES RACE RESULTS:
May 26, 2018 – Perris, California – Perris Auto Speedway – “Salute to Indy”
1. Jake Swanson, 92, Sertich-16.620; 2. Damion Gardner, 4, Alexander-16.657; 3. Logan Williams, 5, Jory-16.809; 4. Richard Vander Weerd, 10, Vander Weerd-16.830; 5. Brody Roa, 91R, BR-16.841; 6. Max Adams, 5M, Adams-16.857; 7. Cody Williams, 44, Jory-16.965; 8. A.J. Bender, 21, Bender-17.075; 9. Tommy Malcolm, 5X, Napier-17.078; 10. Jace Vander Weerd, 88, Vander Weerd-17.081; 11. Austin Williams, 2, Jory-17.082; 12. Verne Sweeney, 98V, Tracy-17.096; 13. Ryan Bernal, 73T, Ford-17.119; 14. Kyle Edwards, 39E, Edwards-17.176; 15. Austin Liggett, 83, Liggett-17.278; 16. Randy Waitman, 90, Waitman-17.383; 17. Chris Gansen, 4G, Gansen-17.435; 18. Trent Williams, 52V, Williams-17.588; 19. Matt Stewart, 23, Bellegante-18.026; 20. Tony Everhart, 55, Everhart-18.211; 21. Gary Marshall Jr., 72, Marshall-18.257; 22. R.J. Johnson, 42, Cheney-18.671; 23. Wayne Rowett, 14, Males-18.676. 24. Joel Rayborne, 12B, Blair-18.844.
First Heat (10 laps): 1. R.Vander Weerd, 2. Bernal, 3. C.Williams, 4. Swanson, 5. J.Vander Weerd, 6. Waitman, 7. Johnson, 8. Stewart.
Second Heat (10 laps): 1. Gardner, 2. Roa, 3. A.Williams, 4. Bender, 5. Gansen, 6. Edwards, 7. Rowett, 8. Everhart.
Third Heat (10 laps): 1. Liggett, 2. Malcolm, 3. Adams, 4. L.Williams, 5. Sweeney, 6. T.Williams, 7. Marshall, 8. Rayborne.
FEATURE (30 laps):
1. Austin Williams, 2. Jake Swanson, 3. Max Adams, 4. Cody Williams, 5. Richard Vander Weerd, 6. Tommy Malcolm, 7. A.J. Bender, 8. Damion Gardner, 9. Chris Gansen, 10. Jace Vander Weerd, 11. Brody Roa, 12. R.J. Johnson, 13. Verne Sweeney, 14. Randy Waitman, 15. Kyle Edwards, 16. Trent Williams, 17. Matt Stewart, 18. Wayne Rowett, 19. Joel Rayborne, 20. Gary Marshall Jr., 21. Austin Liggett, 22. Logan Williams, 23. Ryan Bernal, 24. Tony Everhart.
Lap Leaders: Laps 1-6 Roa, Laps 7-26 Gardner, Laps 27-30 A.Williams
Saldana Racing Products/Racing Optics Hard Charger: R.J. Johnson (22nd to 12th)