On July 9 Billings was treated to a motor event of national significance. After being deluged in a thunderstorm on July 8 that one driver described as leaving the track as “a lake and the access road a river,” the grounds crews, aided by race school owner and four-time national champion Jimmy Sills of Marysville, Calif., put the track back in condition and the checkered flag dropped before a strong crowd of race aficionados.
The American Sprint Car Series sanctioned the race so drivers were racing for points towards the national championship more than prize money. One of the pit crew members of the team that took second place (racing out of Lake Havasu, Ariz.) was a young Australian who would identify himself only as “Scott.” Scott was working on the tour for room and board to sharpen his skills.
“In the States we race six out of eight nights,” he said. “In Australia we only race once a week. It’s tough to get experience, let alone training.”
Like most crews on the national tour, Scott’s traveled with a semi pulling a trailer with the race car. Like most trailers, Scott’s team was equipped with a complete second car in the upper berth, two spare motors, two spare transmissions, several spare “wings” designed to keep the car on the ground and a mobile shop to fix what needs fixing (Jimmy Sills says that there are 20 possible adjustments at each corner of the car).
An owner confirmed that to buy such a setup at “fire sale prices” would cost a minimum of $350,000 but half a million would be more probable. When asked why they would live like gypsies and invest such money to race for $1,000, “points” and the hope of attracting sponsors, the owner said, “You gotta love it.”
Jimmy Sills was in town to teach the fine art of open wheel racing to local hopefuls as a promotion for his longtime friend, former race competitor and owner of the Billings Motorsports Park Speedway, Mike Quigley. When interviewed about his race course, Mr. Sills was filling a water truck to spray and repack the track.
“I have driven a lot of different things on a race track, but this is the first time for a water truck,” he said. “I am amazed at the volunteers that showed up so we could have this race. They know it’s now or never as these drivers are on to the next race immediately after this race ends.”
And race they did. The sprint cars had 650 horsepower, alcohol-fueled motors bolted to 1,400-pound frames driven by modern day gladiators. The three-eighths mile track is considered long, so the speeds are faster than on many tracks.
As the cars fanned out, they kept the American flag standing straight out on a windless night. The roar was bearable and part of the fun as the caution flag stopped the race several times for mishaps. No one was injured.
The winner was Jason Johnson, “The Racin’ Cajun” from Louisiana. This season he has consistently finished in the top four when mechanical issues have not sidelined him.
Johnson started in sixth place and by lap 13 took the lead by taking advantage of restarts after cautions and keeping low on the track. Though he was going slower, he was traveling a shorter distance.
“This time it worked,” he said.
The track has a family section where smoking and drinking are not permitted. I sat there with my wide-eyed grandson. Sitting just to my left was a young woman with a wide-awake 2-month-old baby wrapped in a blanket. The roar of the engines, the dust and the loudspeakers did not cause him to blink. The 2-month-old has been to more races than I have. When his dad stood in the winner’s circle, his mom carried the baby there.
Mike and “Kat” Quigley bought the Billings Motorsports Park last year and have turned it into a fun answer to “what can we do tonight?” Whether it is date night, family night or just an “I’m bored night,” the speedway is an option worthy of consideration. One need not be a “need for speed” sort to have fun. The rules are explained during the race and there are plenty of people to answer a novice’s questions.
What the heck. Buy a program and let your kids ask the racers for their autographs after the race. It’s fun.