CALISTOGA – Dominic Scelzi and Austin Williams shared the winners’ podium on the opening night of the Louie Vermeil Classic at Calistoga Speedway on Saturday when luck was as important as speed on the half mile oval.
Scelzi was able to keep pace with leaders Ryan Bernal and Chase Johnson from the start of the feature race for the winged sprint cars of the King of the West series but seemed resigned to finish third until both of the leaders were snake-bitten with just a few laps remaining.
The first to fall was Bernal, who took the lead from Johnson with a deep dive underneath him in turn one with eight laps to go in the 30-lap event. But two laps later, Bernal was headed to the pits with a flat right rear tire, giving the lead back to Johnson, who had dominated most of the race from the green flag with a strong run from the pole.
But with two laps to go, Johnson’s torrid pace seemed to take its toll as the car wiggled coming out of turn two with two laps go to and suddenly slowed going down the backstretch, giving up the lead to Scelzi. Johnson coasted to a tenth-place finish as his car was running out of fuel.
“That was a lucky one,” said Scelzi of his third win in the KWS series this year. “Ryan raced like he was shot out of a cannon and Chase ran good too and I felt like I was really a third-place driver tonight.”
“But to win a Louie in a winged car is very cool,” he added, referring to the trophies for the annual event that honor the late Louie Vermeil, a Calistoga resident who directed racing on the half-mile oval for nearly 50 years.
Willie Croft and Bud Kaeding finished second and third to round out the podium and St. Helena driver Rico Abreu finished fifth behind KWS championship points leader D.J. Netto.
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Austin Williams came out on top of a four-way duel for the win in the second half of the racing double-header featuring the Southern California-based non-wing sprint cars of the USAC/CRA series. Williams, who started eighth on the grid, quickly worked his way to the top three. He worked his way past Chase Johnson for third. After taking the lead from Austin Liggett at the half-way point of the 25-lap race, Williams drove away from the field for a half-straightaway lead that evaporated when the red flag was thrown for a three-car crash in turn one.
On the restart, the top four cars, which now included seven-time USAC/CRA champion Damien Gardner, ran nose to tail and were weaving their way through slower lapped cars like a freight train with five laps to go. With three laps to go, Chase Johnson spun while running third, bringing out the yellow caution flag. Before the field could re-group, officials were forced to throw the checkered flag and stop the race at the state-mandated 11 p.m. curfew.
Williams credited his early-race aggressiveness for the win.
“I got through traffic and up to the front before anybody else did,” said the driver from Corona. “But with three laps to go, things got kind of crazy.”
Gardner, who finished third after starting sixth, was disappointed that his strategy of saving his tires for a strong run in the closing laps was cut short by the curfew. But he offered his congratulations to Williams.
“He led the race and he deserved to win,” Gardner said.
The second round of the Louie Vermeil Classic was run on Sunday night.