If Riverside's Gary Hicks didn't deserve the Jack Milne Cup title Saturday for winning speedway's main event, he certainly deserved it for his sporting nature.
Hicks, grand-nephew of Jack Milne, a speedway pioneer and the 1937 world champion, had his choice of starting gates in a semifinal heat. He and San Bernardino's Charlie Venegas were tied through three rounds with 11 points (out of a possible 12). Hicks had gate choice because he wears a lower jersey number (3) than Venegas (43).
Venegas, who had just beaten Hicks head-to-head, blew a gasket.
"He gets lane choice because he has a lower jersey number? That's absolutely ridiculous," Venegas told pit coordinator Robin Oxley.
Oxley said the determining factor was jersey number, which typically reflects a driver's racing history, or points for the season. In both cases, Hicks (second in the season standings) held the edge over Venegas.
But when Hicks was asked which gate he wanted, he deferred because he and Venegas had earlier flipped a coin, and Venegas won.
"He put me in a tough spot, but I took a chance and did it anyway," Hicks said. "I wanted to eliminate the problem.
"If you're going to win an event like that, you might as well make it fair for everybody and win because you're the best rider of the night. You want to eliminate any controversy."
Oxley was adamant about not "officially" flipping a coin because starting position for another race had already been determined by jersey number--to the detriment of No. 166 Andy Northrup. Oxley said concerns should have been raised at the pre-race riders' meeting.
Venegas beat Hicks in the semifinal (from Gate 1), so he also had gate choice over Hicks in the final.
But Hicks won the title from Gate 3 with some deft driving through the first two turns, getting a tiny edge on Corona's Scott Brant (who chose Gate 1) and stretching it to victory.
Brant was second, Northrup third, Brad Oxley fourth and Venegas fifth.
Costa Mesa's Bobby Schwartz, the defending champion, barely advanced to the semifinals. The float bulb on his carburetor inexplicably fell off while he was leading in his Round 1 race. He finished last, but followed with two other victories. Because he (and three others) scored eight points, lowest among the 10 advancing riders, he was condemned to the worst starting positions the rest of the night.
INDY RACING LEAGUE
Dick Simon said his Dana Point team is encouraged by its performance in the two races since failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Driver Stephan Gregoire finished fourth in the Longhorn 500 in Texas, and took a somewhat encouraging 11th at the Radisson 200 at Pikes Peak International Raceway.
"I'm pleased because we went to Texas and proved we're capable of running up front," Simon said. "And on the mile track [such as Pikes Peak], only one G-Force [chassis] finished near the front."
Actually, only one finished in the top nine. Simon's team uses a G-Force chassis with an Aurora engine on Firestone tires; Sam Schmidt took second with the same chassis, engine and tire combination, but Dallara dominated the field.
"If we had a couple more laps, we probably would have finished eighth," Simon said. "We came back with a fourth and 11th, with whole cars and engines, and an excited crew. Our crew needed to have some good finishes, and we got those. I feel we'll move through the rest of the season challenging for the top 5."
If not for a flat tire, Robby Gordon might have made history over the weekend at the Grand Prix of Cleveland. Gordon, who qualified 24th, spun out twice but was in fourth place with a car that had a chance to be Toyota's first on the podium.
However, Gordon began losing pressure in his right rear tire and fell from fourth to eighth with only eight minutes left in the timed race. He finished ninth.
"We took a lot of chances, and I spun two times that really cost us," Gordon said. "We're getting close to a podium finish. We've come a long ways. Once we break through on that, it will make it easier to get there every weekend."
Gordon's performance came even though his crew couldn't hear him on the radio. Still, he determined when to change from slicks to rain tires when it began raining, and when to return to slicks after it stopped. In both cases, Gordon made the tire changes laps before the competition.
"We made some good decisions, but we did it without a radio, so some of our decisions were pretty tough," Gordon said. "It worked out well."
* Alex Barron, who drives a champ car for Dan Gurney's All American Racers in Santa Ana, was retained by Roger Penske for Goodyear tire testing this week at Michigan Speedway.
Barron hasn't been in Gurney's Toyota-powered Eagle chassis the last two races; Gurney signed Gualter Salles to a three-race contract to get additional insight into the Eagle chassis.
Salles still has one more race in his contract.
Barron tested Team Penske's 1999 Mercedes Penske Wednesday and Thursday, while Al Unser Jr., tested the Lola chassis.
"Alex is a young, experienced American champ car driver who's not working through the next race, and Roger is looking for someone to test," Gurney said. "He asked me if it was OK, and I said go for it.
"It would be good for Alex, it would be good for us [on his return], good for the other team. We're pleased with the job Salles is doing."
Like Gurney, Penske has been developing his own chassis to compete with the more proven Reynard, Lola and Swift, providing Barron with a unique opportunity to contribute to both race teams.
Salles finished 13th at Cleveland despite losing about 100 horsepower two-thirds through the race, and the tear-offs that allowed him to see through his visor on the rain-soaked course.
"We're making progress," Gurney said from the Mid-Ohio Sports Car course, where Salles tested this week. "We're really looking for the sweet spot on our car and we're getting closer to that."
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This Week's Races
WINSTON CUP, Pepsi 400
* When: Today, second-round qualifying, 3:30 p.m.; Saturday, race (CBS, 5 p.m.)
* Where: Daytona Beach, Fla.
* Defending champion: Jeff Gordon.
* Next race: Jiffy Lube 300, July 11, Loudon, N.H.
BUSCH GRAND NATIONAL, Diehard 250
* When: Saturday, qualifying, 9:30 a.m.; Sunday, race (TNN, 11 a.m.)
* Where: West Allis, Wis.
* Defending champion: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
* Next race: Myrtle Beach 250, July 17, Myrtle Beach, S.C.
CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS, Diehard 200
* When: Today, qualifying, 1 p.m.; Saturday, race (CBS, 11:30 a.m.)
* Where: West Allis, Wis.
* Defending champion: Mike Bliss.
* Next race: Federated Auto Parts 250, July 10, Nashville.