Ocala, Florida (February 16, 2023) - One lap into Thursday night’s Winter Dirt Games XIV USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship season opening feature at Bubba Raceway Park, Brady Bacon’s evening was seemingly finished just about as soon it had begun.
At the end of 30 laps, the Broken Arrow, Okla. driver found himself greeted in victory lane by one of the all-time greats, Jack Hewitt, whom Bacon had just surpassed to move to third on the series’ all-time career win list.
Bacon’s 47th career USAC National Sprint Car feature victory was monumental in several respects. Most notably, he elevated another step up the mountaintop, moving past Hewitt and into a tie with 2002 series titlist Tracy Hines for third all-time in series feature wins.
Best yet, Hewitt was in the audience for the occasion and made his way to victory lane to put his arm around Bacon following his monumental accomplishment, embracing the newest member of the USAC Sprint Car Mount Rushmore in terms of feature triumphs.
“It means a lot,” Bacon beamed. “There aren’t many organizations that have the list of accomplished drivers like USAC does. Being able to pass a guy like Jack Hewitt and guys like A.J. Foyt, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Levi Jones on a list like that is something I’m really proud of.”
By comparison, Hewitt hit win 46 at the age of 50 in 2001. Bacon, just 33 years old, continues to rewrite the history books, much the same as he did on Thursday night. Hewitt, a National Sprint Car and USAC Hall of Fame inductee in his own right, praised Bacon, noting that at his age, he still has a lot left in the tank to someday catch and pass all-time USAC National Sprint Car winners, Dave Darland (62) and Tom Bigelow (52) on the top rung.
“It’s pretty cool,” Hewitt exclaimed. “I raced for 29 years to get that many feature wins. Look how young he is; he’s got a long way to go. I think (Dave) Darland and the rest of them are in trouble.”
Number 47 for Bacon, as it turned out, was a case of misfortune turning into a golden treasure chest as he spun while battling Thomas Meseraull for the fourth position. As he zipped across Meseraull’s nose, Bacon’s rear tires slipped out from underneath him, sending him sliding completely sideways through the middle of turn four.
With his car visibly locked up and dead in the water, so to speak, Bacon received an unexpected assist from the oncoming Jake Swanson who t-boned the idle Bacon on the left side nerf bar, which nudged Bacon’s car just enough to rekindle the engine and drive away with the fourth position still intact.
Bacon steadily moved his way up through the field to third on the lap two restart, to the second spot on lap 21 and finally to the lead on lap 23 by slipping under Axsom between turns one and two in the midst of heavy lapped traffic. From there, Bacon was untouchable in his Dynamics, Inc./Hagner Debris Removal – Tel-Star – Western Flyer Express/Triple X/Rider Chevy, leading the field for the final eight circuits to the finish line.
“I just got really lucky,” Bacon admitted. “I hate it for the guys I collected there but, luckily, got refired. We’ll take it when we can get it. We actually cracked a header on that, so (the engine) wasn’t running at 100 percent, but it probably helped me by making me commit to the bottom and kept my tires underneath me and we were smart through lapped traffic. I was just hoping to salvage a decent finish because my motor wasn’t running as well as it should’ve; the Rider usually runs pretty good. We were able to sneak around those guys in lapped traffic and get the win. I’m definitely happy to start the year off better than we did last year.”
Last year’s first two races in Ocala saw Bacon collect 16th and 15th place results, respectively, after being involved in three separate incidents throughout the first two nights. This particular night harkened back to 2014 and 2020, when Bacon captured the Ocala opener, then carried on to win the USAC championship. Bacon’s latest performance was the record-tying third opening night USAC Sprint Car win of his career. Bacon is now the fifth driver to win three career season openers, joining Damion Gardner, Don Branson, Larry Dickson and Rich Vogler.
After his early race incident, Bacon closed is on the front two of past Ocala winners C.J. Leary, who led the first nine, while Axsom reigned for the next 13 trips between laps 10-22. Throughout the second half of the feature, Axsom was constantly mired in traffic, dealing with having to navigate his way through a double-wide formation that featured Californian Swanson and Englishman Tom Harris side-by-side in front of the leaders.
Bacon punched through to second in much the same way he’d eventually assume the lead, dipping down to the low line in turn one to shoot by and corral the spot. He did just that to Leary for the runner-up spot on lap 21 and once again on lap 23 for the race lead, which proved to be the winning move.
A melee on lap 25 halted the proceedings when Thomas Meseraull (6th) and Daison Pursley (9th) got connected while Kevin Thomas Jr. (8th) came to a complete stop. Pursley remained intact until veering into the infield grass in turn two, the victim of a broken radius rod. All were able to restart and finish the final six laps of the contest.
Meanwhile, Axsom, winner of the 2022 season opener at Ocala, made one last push to the front on the ensuing lap 25 restart. Axsom managed to pull ahead by three car lengths entering turn three while utilizing the high groove. However, each time, Bacon stuck the bottom and was able to fend off and pull away at the exit of turn four to keep Axsom at bay.
In the end, Bacon secured his fifth career Winter Dirt Games feature victory, tying him with Damion Gardner as the winningest driver in the history of the event. Axsom finished second, 1.194 seconds behind. C.J. Leary took third with Justin Grant fourth and Kyle Cummins fifth who was using his third engine this week, this one being delivered to their hotel parking lot at 1:30 in the afternoon after having multiple powerplants expire on them, first during Monday at Volusia Speedway Park and at Wednesday’s practice in Ocala.
Emerson Axsom (Franklin, Ind.) led a race-high 13 feature laps in his Clauson Marshall Racing/Driven2SaveLives – ZMax Race Lubricants/Spike/Kistler Chevy. The 2022 series Rookie of the Year has now finished all four of his Ocala USAC Sprint Car starts on the podium with a 1st, 3rd, 1st and 2nd dating back to the start of 2022. In the process, he nearly became the first driver to collect opening season wins in back-to-back years since Damion Gardner in 2011-12.
For the second straight time this week, C.J. Leary (Greenfield, Ind.) finished his feature run in the third position after scoring a third in Tuesday’s non-points special event at Volusia. The 2019 USAC National Sprint Car champ led the opening nine laps to start off the season in his BGE Dougherty Motorsports/Altoz – Hornbeck Concrete - Highsmith Guns - Elliott’s Custom Trailers & Carts/DRC/1-Way Chevy.
A tumultuous start to the evening turned all right for Robert Ballou (Rocklin, Calif.). The 2015 USAC National Sprint Car champion was forced into a backup car after hot laps due to a mechanical issue, hopped into the secondary car, then drove from his 22nd place starting position to finish 10th in the feature in his Ballou Motorsports/Suburban Subaru – Berks Western Telecom/Triple X/Ott Chevy. That performance earned Ballou the night’s Irvin King Hard Charger honors as well as the ProSource Hard Work award.
USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP SPECIAL EVENT RACE RESULTS: February 16, 2023 – Bubba Raceway Park – Ocala, Florida – Winter Dirt Games XIV – 3/8-Mile Dirt Track
FEATURE: (30 laps, starting positions in parentheses) 1. Brady Bacon (4), 2. Emerson Axsom (2), 3. C.J. Leary (1), 4. Justin Grant (5), 5. Kyle Cummins (10), 6. Thomas Meseraull (3), 7. Matt Westfall (8), 8. Logan Seavey (12), 9. Chase Stockon (16), 10. Robert Ballou (22), 11. Carson Garrett (14), 12. Mitchel Moles (9), 13. Jake Swanson (6), 14. Kevin Thomas Jr. (11), 15. Daison Pursley (13), 16. Brady Short (17), 17. Joey Amantea (19), 18. Brandon Mattox (20), 19. Hunter Maddox (18), 20. Tom Harris (15), 21. Steve Irwin (21), 22. Jadon Rogers (7). NT
Story - USAC Racing
Photo - Chad Warner