Lightning Sprints: Real-Deal Winged Open-Wheel Racing On A Budget

Dan Hillberg at Ventura Raceway. Photo by Lauren Heling

A touring racing series can be a difficult deal to make work for even the best-intentioned. To complicate matters even further, it is more problematic if the touring troupe is a support division.  For most, the story seems to be the same whether they last a year or two or more than a half-decade. They start out with a bright, promising future, but end up fading like a swap meet t-shirt.

One group that is an exception is the POWRi Lucas Oil California Lightning Sprint Car Series. Often referred to as simply as the CLS (California Lightning Sprints), the series is based in Southern California and is in its 26th season of operation. You heard correctly, more than a quarter of a century of racing and it is growing stronger.

The series has always had a great mixture of grizzled old hands and gifted youngsters. That is one of its keys to the series’ success. Presently leading the way for the graybeards is the five-time champion and current club president Bobby Michnowicz. In years gone by, Michnowicz raced 410 sprint cars in the original CRA, the World of Outlaws, NARC, and SCRA.

Stan Sexton at Ventura Raceway. Photo by Lauren Heling

The Veterans

He is joined by other veterans like Dan Hillberg, Brent Sexton, and Jarrett Kramer among others. Hillberg began his racing career with the now long-defunct USRC Midgets in the 1970s. Sexton is a two-time CLS champ. Kramer, who is relatively young compared to the other three at only 36-years of age, won the series title in 2010 and 2018. He leads the standings again this season going into the last six races of the year.

The series kiddie corps features a bevy of teenage stars that has local 360 and 410 sprint car promoters licking their chops at the prospect of having them racing on their tracks. Kids like Aiden Lange, Dominic Del Monte, Eric Greco, Grant & Dalton Sexton, and James Turnbull Jr. are budding heroes and all of them have yet to see their 19th birthday.

Left: Aiden Lange. Right: Cody Nigh.

“Back in the day, when I came out of Quarter Midgets and into TQ’s, there were guys like me who were just going through on their way to sprint cars,” 55-year-old Michnowicz said. “But there were also older guys like Friday Shackelford and Bob McCaw. They were guys who were going to be in that series forever. “

Left: Dominic Del Monte. Right: Eric Greco.

“Our series is the same way now,” the five-time champ continued. “If you just rely on the young guys, you are not going to have a series for very long. This is a series where we have young guys, old guys, and middle-age guys. Some guys cannot or do not want to go any farther, and others are just passing through. That is why there are so many people that race it.”

Using The Series As A Stepping Stone

One of the guys who passed through the CLS years ago was Mike Spencer. He jumped straight from the CLS to the USAC/CRA Sprint Car Series where he won an amazing five championships. Another was “Dynamite” David Cardey, who also became one of the principal stars in USAC/CRA.

Cardey never heard of (or even saw) a Lightning Sprint Car until one year when his mom gave him a car for Christmas. The Riverside, California, resident, who spent three of four seasons in the CLS, took to the car immediately and won numerous main events including all 10 at Perris Auto Speedway in 2003. That season, he also won the series championship. The titled vaulted him into the hot seat of a 410 sprint car in the USAC/CRA Series in 2004.

Dale Gamer (17) and Dan Hillberg (10). Photo by Doug Allen

“Oh man, a ton,” Cardey laughed when asked how his time in the CLS helped him when he jumped into a 410. “I mean, I had no circle track experience before the California Lightning Sprint Car Series. If I would not have had the Lightning Sprint, I would have been a disaster and made a lot of enemies in the 410s. Even though they are way different [in horsepower] they are still similar. So, I felt like I adapted pretty quick because of it.”

The best part for the competitors racing in the CLS is the cars are real-deal race cars at a fraction of the price. The size of a full midget, the CLS cars are chain-driven and powered by motorcycle engines up to 1200cc. Alcohol and gasoline are both approved fuels for the class and cars are allowed adjustable shocks and wing sliders.

Jarrett Kramer.

“It is amazing how affordable this series is,” Michnowicz exclaimed. “To me, there isn’t a better racing series for the money. You can buy a stock motor off eBay for $2,000, throw a fuel system on it, and you are in it for like $5,000 for the whole thing. That motor will win races. You can buy a turnkey car for $8,000 or $10,000 that will win races. You cannot do that anywhere else.”

It’s About Having Fun

“They are like a mini World of Outlaws Sprint Car. They do not have the horsepower obviously, but they get up and go. All the ideas of a full-size sprint car carry over to these cars. The technology is similar, just on a smaller scale.”

Another reason the series has flourished is an old-school concept. It is supposed to be about having fun!

“We have kind of went old-school like back in the 1980s and ’90s when it was fun to go racing,” said Michnowicz, whose crew-chief-wife Wendy accompanies him to every race. “We do not have huge purses, but everybody is getting a check. The cars are affordable and very raceable.  When you show up at a CLS race, we treat everybody equal and we treat everyone with respect. We try to make it fun. At the end of the night, there could be heated things that happen, but we just let it go and move onto the next race.”

James Turnbull.

For the first-23 years of its existence, the CLS was not endorsed by any of the big sanctioning bodies. It was a self-governing group that quietly and purposely went about its business of putting on races in California. That all changed in 2017, when for the first time, the CLS raced under the USAC banner. Under its guidance, the troupe had its first-ever Western Championship at the Bakersfield Speedway in November of that year. The club stuck with USAC in 2018, but for 2019, POWRi became the sanctioning body.

“USAC just did not have the manpower to follow through on everything they had talked about doing,” Michnowicz said with a shrug. “Kenny Brown of POWRi kind of saw what was going on and wanted to be a sanctioning sponsor. Which means, he puts sponsorship money directly into the clubs. We are still the California Lightning Sprint Car Series, but now, we are called the Lucas Oil POWRi California Lightning Sprints. Same people running the club, the same rules, the same everything. It has worked out pretty good for us.”

Jon Robertson.

The CLS 2019 schedule features a total of 17 races on four different tracks. Eight of the races take place at the series’ home track, the Ventura Raceway. The Bakersfield Speedway has five dates including the Western Championship on November 23rd. The CLS hit its original home track at San Diego County’s Barona Speedway, three-times, and one meeting at the Santa Maria Raceway.

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