What comes to mind when you think of the Indiana racing scene? Some may think of the short tracks in the south, the big flat half mile of Terre Haute or event the late models in Brownstown. All of these options are great options to catch a non-wing or late model race. But in the northern half of the state, one of the major tracks had been in limbo until this year.
Gas City I-69 Speedway was a staple in the Indiana racing scene for many years. Hosting the top USAC series, dirt late model races and even an occasional winged sprint car race. The track had hosted only a couple of special events over the last few years, leaving the track without a weekly following.
But that changed at the beginning of 2018. Jerry Gappens Jr signed a lease agreement with track owner Jack Himelick to operate the track full time and bring back weekly racing. Gappens is a Kokomo Indiana native, but is most recognized for his former role as GM and Executive Vice President of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He spent eight years in New Hampshire making New Hampshire Motor Speedway a premier facility. Gappens efforts in the northeast included more than promoting races, he was able to turn the facility into an all inclusive venue, hosting everything from concerts to game shows. Prior to his work in New Hampshire, Gappens worked under the one and only H.A “Humpy” Wheeler in Charlotte. Needless to say, the current efforts at Gas City I-69 Speedway are what you would expect from a person who worked under the “P.T Barnum” of promoting.
Gappnes has put forth the showmanship promoting effort that every race fan desires. The Indianan speed plant hosted a seventeen event schedule in 2018, with every event hosting a theme for the night, and an intermission contest or give away for the fans. It’s not unusual to see Gappens out front with a microphone talking directly to the fans in his Hawaiian shirt on beach night or hosting a look alike contest during the James Dean Classic. Be prepared to see everything from fans kicking beach balls down the front stretch during intermission or one of their sponsors, which happens to be a donut shop, walking through the crowd handing out free donuts.
The 2018 season didn’t come with out adversity for Gappens and crew. Mother Nature was not very kind to the speedway, raining out multiple events and delaying others. Getting a healthy weekly following at track coming back to life can also prove challenging. The beginning of 2018 seemed to be a little sparse on people passing through the gate but by midway through the year it wasn’t unusual to see a healthy field of non-wing sprints with a solid crowd. But the topic on everyone’s mind regarding Gas City I-69 Speedway was would they get a USAC National Sprint Car Series race.
The track was set to host the USAC National Midget Series during the annual Indiana Midget Week but Mother Nature would ultimately ruin those plans leaving the track up in the air if it would get a USAC race in 2018. The Indiana fan base would then turn attention towards USAC Sprint Speedweek which led the fan base questioning where the week would begin. When the schedule came out for the USAC sprint series, the opening night didn’t have a track scheduled at the time. Historically that date had always been at Gas City I-69 Speedway, which many fans thought would be the case in 2018. Ultimately the date would go to another venue, leaving fans and drivers wondering if USAC would return to venerable old track.
Shortly after the Speedweek date had changed hands the fans and the track got what they had wanted, a USAC National Sprint Car Series event, tabbed as the “James Dean Classic.” The original event was scheduled for September 7th, but once again Mother Nature would take the win for this date. However there was little worry as a rain date was quickly announced, which was perhaps even more ideal than the original date. The new date of September 27th would fall in conjunction with a giant car show event in the towns of Gas City and Marion Indiana, which brings thousands of outside people into the area. The combination of a die hard Indiana racing fan base and the increase in tourism for the car show would see Gas City I-69 Speedway finish its year on a high note, hosting its largest crowd of 2018.
Some of the best local non-wing drivers would show up to take on the USAC National series regulars, with one notable exception. The week of the event would bring a little controversy, as USAC suspended one of its biggest stars Robert Ballou. Ballou was suspended by the series the Wednesday before the event for what the series deemed “detrimental to the sport of auto racing.” The California native is known for speaking his mind, weather it be on social media or in victory lane. The series cites these actions stemmed from 2016 all they way up to his latest exchange with Eldora Speedway, and NASCAR team owner Tony Stewart on Twitter. The series was said to have had several discussions with Ballou on this issue since 2016 which ultimately led his suspension for the rest of 2018 and a forfeit of points money. But the absence of one driver didn’t stop the show from going on and boy did the fans get what they wanted.
Kevin Thomas Jr would take a hard fought victory over C.J Leary and Isaac Chapple. Thomas took the lead from Chapple on lap 26 denying Chapple of his first USAC National win and gaining his 6th win of the season.