Make no mistake about it, in four short years the Springfield Short Track has become every bit the classic that the legendary Springfield Mile took decades to become. In terms of sheer competition, the gritty bullring oval inside the Illinois State Fairgrounds Rodeo Arena produces the kind of dramatic action with which the hallowed name Springfield has become synonymous.
It happened again last night, as Memphis Shades/Parts Unlimited Yamaha's J.R. Schnabel pulled off a stunning last-lap pass on reigning AMA Progressive Insurance U.S. Flat Track Champion Chris Carr to retain the title of Springfield Short Track Champion.
The hard-riding Wisconsinite figured into the lead battle early, challenging Peoria TT winner Henry Wiles for the lead in the first turn, only to yield to both Wiles and a very much on-form Carr before the race was three laps old. Schnabel bided his time early, then retook the second spot from Wiles five laps after Carr passed the Mack Daddy Racing Honda rider for the lead on lap six. For the next four, Schnabel and his Babe Demay-tuned Yamaha YZ450F-based 505 tracked down the fleeing Carr, only to nearly throw it away in a wild slide off line up the front straightaway that saw Schnabel clout the hay bales that lined the outside of the track.
But in the remaining 10 laps of the race, Schnabel clawed his way back into contention, coming from an easy 20 lengths behind the champ to challenge him down the back straightaway after the white flag was shown to the field. Schnabel then took to the inside and put a heart-stopping slide job under Carr into turn three, bringing the packed Springfield grandstand to its feet. Schnabel slid across in front of Carr, who squared it up and dove to low pole, and the drag race to the line was on. In a finish that was almost too close to call, Schnabel scored his sixth career AMA Grand National victory by less than a wheel. They were screaming after the checkered flag, and they kept right on screaming during during the Wisconsinte's acceptance speech, evidence of a popular win.
"The fans were so loud I couldn't believe it," Schnabel said after the race. "That really feels good because then you know that we put on a good show for them tonight. First off, I just have to say that Chris Carr is a great champion, and it is an honor just to be racing with him. Someday I'll be able to tell my grandkids that I was able to race with one of the greatest champions our sport has ever had, and to be able to beat him like that was just awesome."
Though he didn't win, Carr did score a victory in the ongoing points battle between himself and Joe Kopp, more than making up for the points that he has lost to Kopp in the past two races. Carr's runner-up mixed with a 10th by a struggling Kopp moved him back into a more commanding position in his quest for a sixth AMA Progressive Insurance Flat Track title, during perhaps its most pivotal weekend. Carr now leads Kopp by 29 points, 232-203, heading into tomorrow's Springfield Mile, where Carr almost invariably shows well.
Third place went to Moroney's Cycles'/American Honda's Jake Johnson, the New Jersey rider matching his best finish of the season. While Carr and Schnabel were off handling their own personal battle for the lead, Johnson diced with two other Honda riders, Coziahr H-D/National Cycle's Johnny Murphree and SJS Racing/Parker Stores' Rob Pearson. Johnson was fourth on the first lap, but Murphree passed him for the position on lap three. After all three riders dispatched the faltering Wiles, Johnson was able to capitalize on a late-race mistake by Murphree to claim the final podium spot.
The outcome of the race made for some heavy points shuffling inside the top five, as Murphree's fourth-place finish moved to within nine points of third-placed Kenny Coolbeth, who still holds down the spot, 173-164. Johnson's third allowed him to advance up to sixth place, with Schnabel vaulting to fifth, the two passing Johnson's teammate, Mike Hacker, who was fifth coming into the Springfield Short Track but then failed to make the main. Schnabel leads Johnson, 127-118. Hacker is seventh with 111, but will be looking to make up the deficit at tomorrow's Springfield Mile, where he is more than capable of doing so.
Pearson's third fifth-place run of the year also has title implications, as the young Illinois rider is now sitting just outside the top 10 but only seven points adrift of fellow Rookie of the Year contender Jared Mees, who also failed to make the main. Mees sits in ninth with 91 points, followed by Shaun Russell with 87. Pearson is now 11th with 84.
Behind Pearson, Gardner Racing/Walters Brothers H-D's Bryan Bigelow also got past Wiles to land sixth, with Wiles seventh. Coolbeth was eighth, aboard his KTM/Jones Powersports machine. American Suzuki/Parts Unlimited/Yoshimura's A.J. Eslick finished ninth, the factory Suzuki team finally starting to hit on all cylinders with the hiring of former factory KTM wrench Travis Smith. Eslick's teammate, Kevin Varnes, followed Kopp across the line for 11th.
Illinois State Fairgrounds
Results: September 4, 2004 (Round 13)
GRAND NATIONAL (25 laps; 16 riders): 1. J.R. Schnabel (Yam); 2. Chris Carr (Rot); 3. Jake Johnson (Hon); 4. Johnny Murphree (Hon); 5. Rob Pearson (Hon); 6. Bryan Bigelow (Hon); 7. Henry Wiles (Hon); 8. Kenny Coolbeth (KTM); 9. A.J. Eslick (Suz); 10. Joe Kopp (KTM); 11. Kevin Varnes (Suz); 12. Greg Tysor (Hon); 13. Willie McCoy (Rot); 14. Bryan Smith (Hon); 15. Brad Furlong (Hon); 16. Dominic Beaulac (Yam).
Time: 6 min., 12.620 sec.
Margin of victory: .148 sec.
AMA PROGRESSIVE INSURANCE FLAT TRACK CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES POINTS STANDINGS (After 13 of 17 rounds): 1. Chris Carr (232/4 wins); 2. Joe Kopp (203/2 wins); 3. Kenny Coolbeth (173/1 win); 4. Johnny Murphree (164/1 win); 5. J.R. Schnabel (127/3 wins); 6. Jake Johnson (118); 7. Mike Hacker (111); 8. Willie McCoy (104); 9. Jared Mees (91); 10. Shaun Russell (87); 11. Rob Pearson (84); 12. Geo Roeder II (73); 13. Bryan Bigelow (66); 14. Bryan Smith (62); 15. Rich King (60/1 win); 16. Terry Poovey (51); 17. Henry Wiles (49/1 win); 18. (TIE) Jay Springsteen (40)/Kevin Atherton (40)/Chris Hart (40).