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Damion Gardner hard on the throttle at California’s Perris Auto Speedway. (Doug Allen photo)

KENNEDY: Sprint Cars At Perris

LOS ANGELES — Perris Auto Speedway presented a sprint car only racing night during April. Four classes of sprinters raced on the half-mile clay track south of Riverside. 

The featured USAC-CRA non-winged sprints had 21 cars present and raced three 10-lap heats. PAS Senior Sprints and Young Guns used 360 engines and raced together in a six-lap heat and 20-lap main for separate points. Three seniors and seven teens participated. 

The fourth group was the Southwest Lightning Sprints that use wings and 750cc motorcycle engines.

They had 10 cars in the pits and also raced one heat and a 20-lap main. 

This year, PAS management has not allowed streaming of PAS races to viewers at home. Promoter Don Kazarian said in an internet interview that live screening of PAS races last year reduced grandstand attendance by 38 percent. The rights fee to PAS did not compensate the track enough for loss of people in the seats.

With no live screening of PAS races this year, I expected to see more fans present in April, especially for an all-sprint car event. 

Temperature was in the 60s and the stands were about half full. Maybe fans are waiting for warmer weather.

USAC-CRA racing action remains first-rate and worth the trip to Perris to witness in person. 

It’s surprising to realize that USAC-CRA action does not include Damion Gardner, the 10-time series champion. He has retired at age 46. Gardner, from Concord, became the all-time West Coast 410 sprint main event winner in combined CRA, SCRA and USAC-CRA last season. His 108th victory topped longtime record holder Dean Thompson’s 107 from 1974-1985. 

Most likely Gardner wanted to be the all-time winner of main events and West Coast 410 championships before he retired. He also has 16 USAC National Sprint Series feature victories (tied for 37th most all-time with Jud Larson). 

Gardner raced midgets and Silver Crown cars and won one Chili Bowl championship in 2007. He is a cinch to be inducted in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. Gardner scored many of his 410 sprint victories for Mark Alexander, but he also won many mains and championships driving Ron Chapin’s red No. 50 following Richard Griffin and Mike Spencer. 

Gardner’s car owner Alexander sold his multi-championship silver Spike (No. 4 for many years and No. 1 for the last two seasons). It’s now silver with black numeral No. 2j with the same red cage rollbar. The new driver is series rookie James Trumbull II, 21, from Indio.

He turned the 10th fastest qualifying time of 20 drivers with times at PAS in April. He got his start in quarter midgets about 2015 and advanced to California Lightning Sprints . He won his first and only CLS main event on April 24, 2021 at Merced Speedway in his No. 2j CLS car with 26 cars present. He has a great sprint car for his 2023 rookie of the year bid. 

The USAC-CRA 30-lap main in April was memorable. Winner Matt Mitchell, 36, was scheduled to race at Terre Haute, Ind., in his second Silver Crown race as a teammate to Anaheim’s Jake Swanson. Rain moved that event to May, so Matt canceled his flight and raced his own No. 37 sprinter at PAS. 

All he did was set the fastest qualifying time, start sixth in the feature and race to second spot by lap 19. He charged into first on lap 22 via an outside pass next to the wall just before the starters’ stand. He opened a 15-yard lead by lap 27 and won by several lengths over Arizonan R. J. Johnson.

It was Mitchell’s ninth USAC-CRA feature victory and seven have come at PAS. I was present for his last PAS victory on April 30, 2022. That night Mitchell edged another Arizonan, Charles Davis Jr., to record his first victory in six years as he became a part-time racer while building his business in Orange County. 

Although not shown in the USAC results, there were three scary flips during the PAS April event. In heat two Austin Grabowski caught the backstretch wall and took four high end-over-end flips to turn three. He walked away but his No. 72 was sidelined for the night with significant damage.

 Two wild flips occurred in the main event. Rookie Shane Sexton was 17th on lap 18 when another car hit his left front. His relatively new No. 74 veered into the wall and launched into a series of endos toward turn three. He emerged without injury.

The third flip occurred on lap 21 when rookie Turnbull was running 10th entering turn one at speed. He caught the cushion, launching his ride high in the air. It flipped several times onto the embankment and landed back on the track near the wall. Turnbull escaped with bumps and bruises but his car was towed back to the pits on the hook. 

Hopefully, promising rookie Turnbull will not have to miss many races while his car is being repaired.