It's often said that youth is wasted on the young, a statement most observers of the short-track racing scene will agree with. Young drivers are generally brave, fast and fun to watch, but they lack the experience necessary to parlay speed into victories, often exiting the racing surface behind a tow truck instead of driving to Victory Lane.
Year after year, highly touted youngsters appear at the foreboding Syracuse mile for Super DIRT Week, and while many have been blazing fast, the big money always goes home with a veteran. The only exception to this rule came in 1992 when Richie Tobias won the rain-shortened Miller Genuine Draft 200. Tobias, while short on years, was long on talent, racing heritage and the key factor at Syracuse, track position.
Thus we come to the 2001 Eckerd 200, held the first weekend of October. Many said they'd take Brett Hearn, a five-time winner, and Billy Decker, winner of two of the last three races, against the field. But then came pole day, where the Top 6 were locked in.
Under a blazing sun and with the track smooth and fast, second-generation star Tim McCreadie claimed the pole with another of DIRT's rising talents, Tim Fuller, turning the second fastest time. Fourth fastest was college student and Syracuse big-block rookie Matt Sheppard.
Thursday's second-round qualifying saw old pro Jimmy Horton the fastest of those not already in the Top 6. Just a tick off his pace was another second-generation driver, Ronnie Johnson. Despite the fact that 2000 Mr. DIRT winner Steve Paine sat third, and Hearn and Decker were comfortably ensconced in the next row, many thought the "old guys" were in trouble.
But the veterans had experience on their side. They knew that once they had found something that works at Syracuse, all they needed to do was little things to keep the car fast.
Decker's "big track" Enders-fired Olsen has languished in a dark corner of owner Randy Ross's shop for years, emerging only for trips to Syracuse. Hearn's 2000 pole-winning TEO chassis receives similar loving care.
"Since last year, this car has been to Syracuse for July 4th and Labor Day and that's it," Hearn said. "We massage the body and work on the fuel system, the brakes, the front axle and so on to take what is already good and make it a little better. Winning Syracuse is all about homework. Our basic chassis design is three years old but everything has been tweaked to make it a little more comfortable here."
Friday's Triple 20's qualifying program, which would put 30 more drivers into the feature, was also run on a perfect surface. USAC Silver Crown regular Tobias would electrify the fans with a "right rear in the loose stuff" dash from 11th to the lead in less than three laps in the opener. In the other two heats, conventional Syracuse "freight train races" went to Hearn and Decker.
The "old guys" had the $4,000 heat winner's checks, but popular sentiment remained with the kids.
Then typical Syracuse weather rolled in. A Friday night deluge lasted well into Saturday morning, and the temperature dropped as teams prepared for the afternoon's 358 modified feature. The $25,000-to-win Sunoco 150 went to Budd Christman with Hearn, Rich Ricci Jr., Kenny Tremont Jr. and Jerry Higbie trailing in a race that saw contender after contender run out of fuel.
As teams pondered what the 150 portended for Sunday, the weather got even worse. Daylight brought waves of gale-driven rain interspersed with sleet and hail. In between, the sun shone brightly. DIRT head Glenn Donnelly, known for getting the race in no matter how bad the weather forecast, kept the packers running. With the help of countless fans in their personal vehicles, the track was ready just two hours behind schedule. As soon as rookie Chris Schultz led Billy Whittaker and Dave Camara into the 200 field, the feature was called.
Was Decker worried about the "youth movement?"