Michael picks 'em off in 25-lap thriller
Just when you think things can’t get better, they do.
Last week I wrote that motor racing just doesn’t get any better than the action in the Midget Car Feature race at Western Springs on December 1.
And then, a week later, it did. Last Saturday night’s 25-lap Midget Car main event turned into one of the most exciting races I’ve ever witnessed.
Unlike the previous week’s encounter, this one didn’t run flag-to-flag; and that brought into the equation reigning Midget Car champion Michael Pickens.
He had won the season’s first two feature races, but a rough and tumble qualifying race had seen him start from near the back on December 1 and he just couldn’t get far enough through the traffic to make a bid for a podium placing.
By the time the chequer fell after a race with no stoppages, he’d got only as far as sixth. The race went Brad Mosen’s way after a sensational race-long battle with Shayne Alach that was decided on the final corner of the final lap.
Pickens started from way down the order last Saturday, too; a spin-up in his second qualifying heat put him out of the race and down the grid. The Alach and Mosen fans were delighted and let everyone else know with loud cheering.
Alach started from pole with former champion Graham Standring outside him.
Alach won the start, and Standring dropped back to third, behind Mosen.
In the opening laps, the race looked like being a re-run of the previous weeks, with the Shayne and Brad show in full flight and dominating.
Standring began dropping further down the order. He’s an old school driver who came up in the days when the fast cars started off the back of the grid and fought their way through traffic.
He’s less comfortable with the current practice of starting the fast cars from the front where there’s greater emphasis on car set-up and less on the ability to cut and thrust your way through the pack, Standring’s won more than 90 feature races under the old format, but has struggled to win if he starts from the front few grid rows.
Mosen bobbled and third-placed Bryce Townsend pounced, pushing the yellow HPM Midget into the gap, but Mosen held on and took the attack to Alach before darting past the #11 in Town Bend. Alach glued his car to the Mopar/Auto Trader Midget’s fuel tank, the car standing on its back wheels as he accelerated down the bumpy quarter mile.
Alach lost some momentum in Pine Tree Bend, falling into Townsend’s clutches as Mosen edged out a small gap.
Then Carl Worboys spun in Town Bend and the track went under a full-course yellow caution flag. The field bunched up as the Midgets trickled around waiting for the restart.
And lurking in seventh place was the fired-up Pickens, who had made up 10 places during the nine green-flag laps.
After the restart, Mosen and Townsend squabbled over the lead, with Alach running a charging third. Standring, looking more comfortable than he has so far this season, held fourth, ahead of the in-form Lance Beale and Pickens. Alach got past Townsend and made the move stick after the HPM car bobbled in Pine Tree Bend.
Mosen, meanwhile, was running away at the head of the field. Pickens worked to find a way past Standring, and then the race went yellow again.
At the restart there were 10 laps to run, and Pickens pushed and probed for a weakness in Standring’s defence, finding the way past when the orange #33 hit a bump in Town Bend.
Pickens closed on Townsend and passed him, then got past Alach and a car hit the wall and the race was back under yellow. There would now be a two-lap sprint to the chequer, with Pickens starting right on Mosen’s tail.
And what a two-lap sprint it was. Pickens had the scent of victory in his nostrils and he charged to the outside line and then to the inside in Pine Tree Bend and surged past. A roar erupted from the crowd.
Pickens did his usual series of victory donuts, stalling the Little Rippers Midget as he pirouetted across the grass in Pine Tree Bend.
“It was a very special win,” he said later, conceding that the yellow flag periods had helped his cause. There’s no way you’re going to catch the fast guys without yellows.”
Mosen, who set the race’s fastest lap at 14.787 seconds, was understandably disappointed. “We led the whole thing… I almost feel speechless.”
Speechless or not, the young Mopar ace has shown in the past two weeks that he’s a real force to be reckoned with on the Western Springs clay.
The drivers at the sharp end all are: race winner, Pickens, Mosen, third-placed Townsend, the crowd-pleasing Alach, fifth-placed Standring and sixth-placed Beale.
The crowd missed out on the Sprint Car Feature, the night’s projected headliner – rain began falling, making the track too slippery and dangerous to race on.
But though they had that disappointment, no-one would have gone home really disappointed: they had seen a Midget Car Feature of unparalleled excellence, and a masterful drive by Michael Pickens, surely one of the best dirt oval racers in the world.
Roll on the international series against American Midget racers.