Bryan Clauson and Damion Gardner during the 2015 Oval Nationals. (Doug Allen Photo)
Bryan Clauson and Damion Gardner during the 2015 Oval Nationals. (Doug Allen Photo)

The Oval Nationals: A 25-Year Tradition

When Perris Auto Speedway promoter Don Kazarian talks about the upcoming 25th running of the Oval Nationals, his excitement is palpable. Who can blame him?  

While the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted auto racing across the land, arguably, no single state was hit as hard as California. Summing up the 2020 season as “brutal,” Kazarian added, “It was not a fun experience. There were numerous times my wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘How long can we hold on?’ It was extremely frustrating not being able to race in California, particularly when I looked at all the race tracks in the Midwest running and having basically record crowds.”  

Kazarian said attendance is up at his track thus far this year, and surmises that one reason for the uptick is that “people just want to get out and do something.” 

When the track, known colloquially as The PAS, opened in 1996, it filled a void created by the closure of Ascot Park in 1990. Fans were thrilled with the new venue and the fact that Hall of Fame racer Norman “Bubby” Jones was deeply involved gave the new enterprise instant credibility. 

The track also featured a state-of-the-art sound system with the public address manned superbly by the late Bruce Flanders, Scott Daloisio and Chris Holt. The action was compelling, but Kazarian and other key stakeholders instinctively knew the track also needed a signature event.  

“When we started in 1996, we were trying to replace, for the lack of a better word, the Pacific Coast Nationals, which was held at Ascot,” Kazarian said. “We got Steve Kinser to come to the first one and drive a non-winged car, but we weren’t getting the USAC stars. A few of the guys would fly out and get a ride, but they weren’t in good equipment and they weren’t competitive.” 

By the time the Oval Nationals was launched there was a healthy rivalry between the stars of the West Coast-based Sprint Car Racing Ass’n and USAC. In time, a partnership was brokered by Kazarian and former USAC President Rollie Helmling and the USAC-CRA series was born. 

With this relationship in place, a platform was established to transform the Oval Nationals into a truly national event and serve as a showcase for traditional sprint cars. 

“Our long-term goal was for the Oval Nationals to be as big as the Knoxville Nationals for non-winged cars,” Kazarian said. “That was our vision.”

The list of winners in the previous 24 editions of the race represents some of the best drivers of their time with Jimmy Sills, Rip Williams, Dave Darland and the late Bryan Clauson already enshrined in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. Other prominent winners include Cory Kruseman, Damion Gardner, Chris Windom, Bud Kaeding, Mike Spencer and Kevin Thomas Jr.

In contrast to winged sprint car racing where several races are recognized as marquee events, few traditional sprint car races garner wide-spread attention.  

The Hulman Classic at the Terre Haute (Ind.) Action Track has a rich history, and on pavement no single race offers a purse to match The Little 500 at Anderson (Ind.) Speedway. Yet, what has always made the Oval Nationals a signature event is because it routinely draws all of the top performers in the non-winged world.  

“The Oval Nationals is 24 years strong and the people involved in it, and the people who have won it, all are a part of a rich history,” said USAC Vice President Levi Jones, a former competitor in the Oval Nationals. “The race also has a big purse.” 

An additional factor that has contributed to the longevity and success of the Oval Nationals is its place on the calendar. By November racing activities have ceased nearly everywhere, thus, those who still have the desire and budget to race have another chance. 

Then there is the matter that with three nights of racing on the card, valuable points are on the table. More often than not, any driver who has designs on capturing the USAC or USAC-CRA sprint car championship must be there. 

In recent years, the USAC national title has been hotly contested until the final lap has been run; so along with the natural intensity that can be found at any prestigious race, title implications have tended to ramp up the drama. 

Given the cancellation of the 2020 edition of the event due to the pandemic, C. J. Leary is the defending winner of the Oval Nationals. When Leary signed in for the final night of the three-day affair, he was locked in a torrid battle for the USAC championship with Tyler Courtney.  

The fact that he came out on top helped secure the title, but winning this race held even greater significance. 

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