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TDN Roundtable- Farewell Greg Hodnett-Ballou’s Crime and Punishment-Surprises of 2018-Super DIRT Week Predictions

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Well, it’s been some time since we’ve come up with a brand new Round Table segment, and to be honest we wish we were congregating under a different set of circumstances in a way. In this edition, we say farewell to an amazingly talented driver who was pure class both on and off the track and who’s recent passing still devastates us all. Rest in peace Greg Hodnett….

We’ve also accumulated some other topics as well, it’s been a strange year and it’s coming to a close and we’re going to lay down some food for thought on safety in Sprint Car racing and punishment and crimes with Robert Ballou and Tony Stewart. We also give a nod to drivers to watch out for in 2019 and suprises and disappointments on the national tours in 2018 plus, we make some picks you can take to Vegas for the upcoming Super DIRT Week festivities. (Please……for the love of god, don’t take our picks to Vegas and hold us accountable!!)

Cast and Crew:

Joining us this go round are our very own Aaron “The Human Sand Angel” Clay, Kyle “The Coach”  Symons,  Josh “Read it or get eye Herpes” Bayko, Todd “Try This Beer” Nunes and making his debut with us in this edition is Jamie Weaknecht, inventor of the world famous “Wago Juice” which will be available at Oswego all week long. On the questions, it’s “Screamin” Gary Heeman.

I’m pretty sure every single one of us was devastated to hear the news of Greg Hodnett’s passing in a tragic at BAPS Motor Speedway last week. His character and passion for the sport will be very much missed and creates a hole that almost no one can fill the same way. We all send our thoughts and prayers at this time for his wife Sherry and entire family.  Share with us, your favorite memory of Greg, whether it was a moment you saw him in person, or what his loss means to you and the sport.

Aaron Clay – My memories of Greg Hodnett are few and far between, being from the West Coast.  However, having attended the Knoxville Nationals, I was fortunate to watch him race in-person.  Losing him and Jason Johnson this year, is extremely impactful on the sport.  I hope their deaths open the door for additional safety in Sprint Car racing.

Kyle Symons – I grew up watching Greg Hodnett win races.  I’ve kept great records of the races I’ve attended since 2001, and I watched Hodnett win more races than anyone else I saw races in that time frame.  I garnered a great respect for how ability as a race car driver, but from all accounts he was an even better human being.  My favorite memory of him will always be watching him win the 2009 National Open at Williams Grove.  The place goes nuts every time a Pennsylvania driver picks up a World of Outlaws win there and that night was no different.  Hodnett was every bit as successful of a Pennsylvania transplant as Doug Wolfgang was in the 80’s.  He will be dearly missed.

Todd Nunes – I have to agree with Kyle, watching him win the 2009 National Open was pretty awesome. It was the first time I had been to the Grove, and the atmosphere was absolutely electric. Good Hod was a gentleman on and off the track, and one hell of a talent. I’m gonna miss hearing Bruce Ellis calling his name.

Jamie Weaknecht – Greg was just an incredibly nice guy, not even touching on the fact that he was an outstanding driver. I got to know him a bit through driving for Mike Heffner as my father and Mike are longtime friends. Whenever we’d stop by the shop Greg was always overly nice and was just a fun person he be around. He always had time for fans and despite being one of the best always remained down to earth and humble. When I was growing up, the weekly battles between he, Lance Dewease, and Fred Rahmer were epic. We lost an absolutely fantastic person.

Josh Bayko – I’ve never been much of a sprint car fan, but of the few times I’ve been to big sprint races, Greg was always one of the guys I kept my eye on when he was in attendance. Losing him only cements the reasons I’ve grown from generally not caring about open wheel cars to outright disliking them.

Information will be coming in on the causes of the incident and it’s far too early to determine what has happened to cause the tragedy. Safety issues in Sprint Car racing always seem to come to the top of the priority of many after tragedies like this. We’ve seen some tracks and series take some initiatives, such as at Lernerville with the extra barrier of water barrels last Saturday night. What’s the next step in making it safer while realizing that there will always be risk?

Aaron Clay – Times like this are always difficult, it’s not easy to say what the “next step” is to make the sport safer. With that being said, I think it’s time to make the chassis bigger, around the driver.  We need more strength and more room, surrounding the driver.  We already know that the chassis might flex/break under heavy impact, lets give the driver more room in the event that it were to happen.

Kyle Symons – The cars are safer than they’ve ever been so honestly I think the answer is to put up gates to close these openings while racing is going on.  I would rather see a yellow come out for a driver not being able to get off the track under green flag conditions then I would see a red come out for a crash that ultimately costs a driver his life.

Todd Nunes – Track safety needs to be looked at. Cars have been continually improved upon, but so has speed. Most of our tracks were built 40 or more years ago and configurations have not endured much change since. Wall openings in dangerous places, fences set back several feet from the wall; allowing cars to potentially get atop the fence, tractor tires, etc, have all been named as potentially dangerous to drivers. There are differing opinions all over the place on how to rectify issues. Some tracks have implemented “safer” walls, some sort of foam in or around the walls. Others have tires or water barrels protecting the walls, exposed edges, etc. Money isn’t exactly plentiful for track owners, but safety has to move up on the spending list. Something, as we have learned, is better than nothing, but not all remedies are equal. The answer is likely a mix of track improvement strategies.

Jamie Weaknecht – Track safety definitely needs to improve, that’s a given. Off the top of my head I can think of an alarming amount of safety concerns at just my local tracks, but I think there’s still room for improvement on the car side of it, too. The cars have gotten safer, sure, but other than the wing in the case of a rollover, there’s just not enough to absorb the energy of an impact in a sprint car. You look at every any other form of racing, and at the point of impact the cars have a whole lot of metal or fiberglass to absorb that force. In a sprint car, there’s just not that luxury.

Josh Bayko – Track safety improves a bit every year, sometimes it’s not even noticeable, but in the 35 cumulative years I’ve been going to races, it’s come a long, long way. One can go to just about every track and find some issues that could be dangerous, but in most cases, come back the next year and much of what you saw will generally be addressed. Especially in the case of a tragedy, you’ll see lots of track owners and promoters attempting to rectify their safety issues. It’s truly a shame that it always seems to take a tragedy to get people’s asses in gear, but racing has generally always been reactive, and as long as changes are made, I guess the deaths aren’t for naught.

Well, Robert Ballou and Tony Stewart gave us something to watch popcorn with on Twitter this week as Ballou took a shot regarding the surface at Eldora last weekend in the annual Four Crown Nationals. Stewart replied, in typical Tony Stewart fashion and afterwards, Ballou found himself suspended for the remainder of the USAC season. Firstly, did the punishment fit the crimes? And secondly, should drivers have to avoid any comment that could be construed as negative towards any track that their series race on?

Aaron Clay – First, let me say that I am a Robert Ballou fan.  I like how outspoken he is.  How he is willing to tell you exactly what is on his mind.  His ability as a Sprint Car driver.  With that being said, he took it too far.  No one says that you have to appreciate the track surface every night, but you don’t need to mention it on Social Media.  If you happen to dislike the track conditions, I think the driver should have a word with the track crew and officials, if necessary.  The most they should post on Social Media is that they “didn’t like the track conditions, but they spoke to officials about it”.  Ballou has rightfully been suspended in my mind, it’s like bad-talking the company you work for and expecting them to be okay with it.

Kyle Symons – Robert Ballou has a right to have an opinion, even if he comes off as whiny.  Which is exactly what he does every time he spouts off at the mouth about a race track.  I watched the highlights from Eldora this past weekend and the racing surface was impeccable both nights.  Keep up the great work Tony.  There are many of us race fans who appreciate the great things you’ve done for Eldora, one of the meccas of our sport.

Todd Nunes – Ballou and Stewart have both been known speak their minds in the spotlight. Unfortunately there is a time and place to voice your opinion, and Ballou chose the wrong one. I believe he has been warned in the past by USAC to keep his IMO’s off the interwebs, and they stuck to their rules as they should. The tweet-off was quite entertaining, and it was good to see other drivers chime in with their take on the Eldora surface. I’ve personally seen USAC on Eldora with a foot tall curb and as much bite as you can grab. Sure the speed is cool, but the action is much better and safer with the current Eldora trend of wide, slick and racy.

Jamie Weaknecht – Do I like Robert Ballou’s constant social media whining? No. Do I think he should be suspended? Absolutely not. Everyone claims they want drivers with personality, but then when someone with personality says something we don’t agree with he gets suspended for it. I honestly find the whole act of going to complain on social media as ridiculous and childish; but I think it’s even more ridiculous to suspend someone over it.

We’re wrapping up 2018 in the next few weeks and getting ready to turn our eyes to the off season soon. Give me one driver in either a Sprint, Super Late Model, or Modified that you find most intriguing in 2019, a driver that may be on the verge of great things that people aren’t really talking too much about, and where do you think they’ll end up racing and for whom?

Aaron Clay – Hudson O’Neal was already on-pace for a great 2018 season, before injury struck.  I think 2019 will be even more successful for him, with many big wins, while competing for a Championship.  You can tell he is a young man with no limit on how much success that he could see and it’s really cool to watch him and his Dad race together on the Lucas Tour.

Kyle Symons – He’s getting talked about some since he’s leading the All Stars points, but I’m going to go with Aaron Reutzel.  He’s on the verge of breaking out as a real star in sprint car racing, and I look for him to pick up some major victories next season.

Todd Nunes – We have a several “young guns” coming up thru the sprint car ranks, Parker Price-Miller being one with a ton of potential. I personally watched him come thru the field a couple times this year, overcoming bad starting positions and finishing top 5 against Speedweek and ASCOC talent. Looking around the pits, you can often find him soaking up knowledge of drivers with more years of experience than Parker’s age. This points to a bright future for him.

Jamie Weaknecht – I’m going to go a little off-the-wall here. Jack Lehner is a big-block driver that most guys probably never heard of. He’s a 20-year big-block rookie with a 19-year old crew chief that ran very well in weekly action at Albany-Saratoga Speedway this year. It’s usually just the 2 of them on race nights, but they run clean and are competitive against one of the strongest weekly fields in modified racing. Lehner’s been impressive in select Super DIRTcar Series starts, and has announced he plans on chasing the entire tour next year. He’s definitely going to get his first modified win in 2019, and in a few years time will be a household name in the dirt modified world.

Josh Bayko – I’ll go with Tyler Erb. His career arc since his jump into national touring has been nothing short of staggering. He’s maturing every race and it’s rewarding him with much more consistent finishes. If he returns to the tour again next year, I’d look for him to have at least one win, and probably much closer to five.

National tours are winding up and championship trophies are ready to be handed out. In looking at the season standings in any Sprint, Late Model, or Big Block Modified or EMod/USMTS tour, give me one driver whose season finish was surprisingly good and one that you expected to be better.

Kyle Symons – I’ll go back to Aaron Reutzel on this one.  It looks like he may end up winning the All Star championship in his first season with the Baughman Reutzel Motorsports team, and I never expected that.  One I expected to be better would be Brandon Sheppard.  He may still win the WoO championship this season, but some bad luck has put both Mike Marlar and Chris Madden in front of him heading into the final four events.  I thought Sheppard would have had a huge points lead by now.

Todd Nunes – We all know Davenport – Rumley is a rare and talented combo, but there were many questions at the beginning of this season. In a tour as stacked as the Lucas Oil tour is with Bloomer, Richards, Owens, Pierce, etc, JD has been a consistent front runner. Staying on the same tour, T-Mac has been sub-par this season. Unfortunately the 39 team has really struggled after finishing second in 2017 points.

Jamie Weaknecht – Carson Macedo, I expected him to collect a few wins and be a top-5 points car on the All Star tour, but didn’t expect 5 wins and for him to be in championship contention with just a few shows remaining. Reutzel and Macedo could be really fun to watch for a long time coming. As for disappointment; Billy Decker. He went from nearly winning the Super DIRTcar Series championship to struggling bad enough that he and the Mike Payne Racing team decided to fall off as a full-time tour follower. He had 9 wins a year ago, and now heading into October he’s still searching for his first modified win this year. Hopefully he turns it around in time for the Outlaw 200 and Super DIRT Week, two events he’s had a ton of success in the past.

Josh Bayko – I think  the driver being slept on the most  is Earl Pearson Jr. Most people wrote him off after the last couple years, and this year has been right back to super consistent EPJ we all know and love. The driver I expected to be better is Bobby Pierce. The hype was very real with his move to Dunn Benson Motorsports going into the season, after the crazy success he had in his family ride. His year has seen a few highs, but way more lows, and in all honesty, it’s been pretty underwhelming.

It’s Super DIRT Week Time. So far we’ve seen one year at Oswego that gave us cars that jumped five feet in the air on a surface that was nearly undriveable, and a year that gave us one of the best finishes in Super DIRT Week history. If year three gives us a show that provides the racing that took place last year, can we call Oswego home on a permanent basis and just drop the premise that Central New York Raceway Park (which probably never gets built), should be given the event? And also, give us a 200 feature winner and why you think so!

Kyle Symons – I think Oswego is a good place for the event after Syracuse was torn down.  The facilities can match the event and the racing was much improved last season.  I’ll go with Matt Sheppard to win because why wouldn’t you.  The guy seems to win every race there is to win when it comes to the Super DIRT Series.

Todd Nunes – Oswego has gotten a good handle on the whole dirt thing. Props to them and the SDS community for sticking with them. As for who do I like in the 200? I gotta go with Erick Rudolph. Hes had a consistent season, and has won just about everywhere in the past few seasons. Look for him at the front of the pack.

Jamie Weaknecht – My bread and butter! Super DIRT Week is an event built around history and traditions, which matches perfectly with Oswego Speedway. Had last year’s Super DIRT Week turned out like the first with horrible track conditions, we may already talking about a different facility housing the event. Luckily, last year was a huge hit, and DIRTcar is reaping the benefits from that. Ticket sales are up 8% over last year (which was already a packed house) and the car counts are going to see a dramatic increase as well. For the first time in as long as I can remember, the big-block portion of Super DIRT Week looks like they’ll likely outdraw the Freedom 76er, Outlaw 200, and Short Track Super Nationals. My only concern about the future at Oswego is if it makes financial sense to host the event there once the state funding assistance runs out. If the momentum continues, that shouldn’t be a problem. As for a pick to win? Friesen and Sheppard are the obvious choices, but I’m going with Tim Fuller. He’s 4-for-4 in September and with his win at Fonda can start no worse than 12th in Sunday’s 200.

Josh Bayko – If the surface can be consistently decent, Oswego should be the place, mostly because there is no other track in New York that could even come close to handling an event the size of SDW. And let’s be serious, CNYRP is never being be built. As far as the winner? I’ll go with Tim Fuller. He’s very good in extra distance races.


TDN Roundtable

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