Lincoln’s Hunt opens season in Roseville

By: Tom Kellar Gold Country News Service
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The first race of the 2008 Western States Sprint Car Series didn’t go as well as Lincoln resident Tony Hunt had hoped. Hunt, a five-time USAC champion, finished 12th in Saturday’s Open Wheel Challenge. Racing for the first time with a Toyota engine, Hunt had one of his wheels fall off his car about halfway through the 50-lap event. Hunt was in fifth place and moving up when the wheel came off but he said he didn’t have the right tire combination after the mishap. The Open Wheel Challenge pitted USAC sprint cars roaring around the AAS oval at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. Founded in 1955, USAC racing counts Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, John Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones among the drivers who have come up through its ranks. In a season that runs until November, Roseville is the first of 16 scheduled stops, including races in Salt Lake City, Bakersfield and Las Vegas. Born into a racing family, Hunt started competing at age five in the quarter-midgets and worked his way through the stock car and road racing ranks before finding a home in sprint car racing. “Just being able to race and deal with different teams and being able to travel and win at different race tracks is something I take a lot of pride in,” Hunt said. “Sprint car racing has always been a big part of my life.” The Sprint Car Series has a well-earned reputation for being one of the wildest events in the world of auto racing, with open-wheeled cars traveling side by side at break-neck speeds. “These are the fastest cars that you’ll ever see at Roseville Speedway,” Hunt said. “They have almost two-to-three hundred more horsepower than the grand-national cars that just ran here and they’re half the weight of a grand-national car, so it’s a little like riding a bull. You don’t know what the car will do a lot of the time. If you make one wrong move and you catch the wheel of another car, it can send you up over the top.” Though Sprint car drivers have a well-earned reputation for being racing daredevils, Hunt says that what sets the good driver apart is his ability to assess risk. “Most race fans think we’re like cowboys, totally fearless, but that’s not really the case,” he said. “A good driver is a guy that has some fear and knows where the parameters are and knows how to take care of his equipment and can get to the front and finish the race. If you don’t have fear, you’re not going to have the capacity to know where your limits are and how far to take the car. I take a lot of pride in having the ability to know the proper mix between aggression and patience.” But given the nature of sprint cars, even a successful driver like Hunt is not immune from mishap. During the 2005 season the driver suffered a broken tailbone when, during a race in Stockton, the car he was driving left the track, going over two fences before finally coming to rest outside the racing facility. “I had a throttle stick and the car decided to leave the race track,” Hunt said. “The car climbed over the fence and then broke through the chain-link fence behind it. Later I saw pictures of the car and I can honestly say that if I had not had all the safety equipment, I would not have survived.” The following week’s race was in Salt Lake City and Hunt soldiered on. “We made a special seat pad for Salt Lake City,” he said. “Living with discomfort every once in awhile is the name of the game. You get back on the horse and hope for the best.” Though the accident didn’t stop him from racing again, it did give him pause to think about his future in the sport. “Mentally it took me some time to rebound from that,” Hunt said. “I wondered if it was a sign that I should be retiring and hang it up. But in reality, time heals and you have the ability to come back from something like that. The following year, we came back and won seven races and a championship.” The new race season will mark the first time that Hunt has aligned himself with Toyota, and it’s also the first year that Toyota has ventured into short-track, sprint-car racing. What’s not new is the bulls-eye on Hunt, whose success and reputation make him a marked man. “There are some new teams who are coming in with good equipment,” Hunt said. “You’re always dealing with people who come into the series who are well-prepared. Everyone brings a very challenging game to our sport. You have to be able to maintain your ability to routinely do what you do every week. Anytime you’re chasing points, there’s anxiety and I just try to remind myself to have a good time and not get too worked up over one point here or one point there.” Hunt, like most drivers, would like his shot at NASCAR stardom, but is at a point in his career where he has realized that dictates success in the auto-racing world is out of his hands. “You can’t be selfish about it,” Hunt said. “You have to realize that if this is what you want to do, you have to put the frustration aside and know that if you love racing, then enjoy what you’re doing and be proud that you have an opportunity to do it.” There was a time when drivers were chosen for bigger and better things, based largely on their talent and their results at the track. But in this day and age, racecar owners are hoping to groom drivers from a young age, who they deem marketable, articulate and able to deal with the media. In essence, NASCAR drivers are not only athletes, but must also serve as product pitchmen. “I’m in my 30s now and they’re taking guys who are 18, when 10 years ago, they were taking the guys who were veterans,” Hunt said. “But I’ve always said that the racecar doesn’t know how old the driver is and if you have enough piss and vinegar in you to go out and get the job done, then you should be able to move up.”