As he begins his 26th season as a USAC Silver Crown car owner, Greenwood, Ind.’s Gene Nolen has set two high goals for his Whiteland, Ind.-based racing team: win the USAC Silver Crown national championship and the Pay Less Little 500 presented by UAW-GM pavement sprint car race May 23 at Anderson Speedway in Anderson, Ind.
To do either is hard. To do both will be even harder, especially considering that racing in the Little 500 will force Nolen Racing’s lead driver, Jerry Coons Jr. of Plainfield, Ind., to compete in two premier races in one day.
The USAC Silver Crown division’s third race of an 11-event season is part of the 70th annual “Night Before the 500” slated for Saturday afternoon, May 23, at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, while the 67th annual Pay Less Little 500 pavement sprint car race will be held later the same night in Anderson, Ind., some 54 miles northeast.
With no traffic, it’s about a 1-hour drive between the two tracks. It’s also two great opportunities for fans that are in the area for the Indy 500 the next day to see some great short-track racing.
But it’s going to require drivers with strong neck muscles because there will be a lot of turning left. The USAC Silver Crown race is slated for 100 laps of LORI’s 0.686-mile paved oval located at 10267 East U.S. Highway 136 in Brownsburg, Ind. The Little 500 presented by Pay Less Supermarkets requires 500 laps on the quarter-mile asphalt oval at 1311 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Anderson, Ind.
Six hundred laps on two short tracks in one day would be enough to make any driver’s neck and arms hurt. Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis’ turns feature 7.5 degrees of banking. Anderson Speedway’s turns are banked 17 degrees.
“You have to try to get comfortable, so you can rest your head and neck as much as possible during yellow flags,” Coons said.
In addition to being a physical test, it’s also going to be a test of logistics for the team.
The race at Lucas Oil Raceway is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. The Little 500 is a five-day festival, but the 500-lapper traditionally begins at 8 p.m. that Saturday night.
Coons will have two teammates in the Little 500. Along with Coons’ #3, Nolen Racing has entered the #5 to be driven by Tony Elliott of Warsaw, Ind., and the #20 for Shane Hollingsworth of Lafayette, Ind. Although Coons races as much as possible, both Elliott and Hollingsworth are just running selected events in 2015 due to family and work commitments.
“I’m not sure yet exactly how we’re going to approach it,” Nolen said Saturday night while Coons shook down one of the team’s dirt sprint cars at a race at Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville, Ind. “We’ll probably have to split the crew up. Some of them will go to the Silver Crown race while the others set things up at Anderson.”
Nolen is delighted to be fielding a car for Coons in the USAC Silver Crown division in 2015. Coons won both the USAC Silver Crown and the USAC sprint championships in 2008, and he won the USAC midget titles in 2006 and 2007. He is one of only five drivers ever to win all three of USAC’s national divisions. He has seven career USAC Silver Crown victories.
“I believe Jerry Coons Jr. is the best driver out there for a combined dirt and pavement schedule, and I’m tickled to have him in my Silver Crown car,” Nolen said. “We run the #20, which is Glen Niebel’s old number.”
Niebel and Nolen were close friends until Niebel passed away on Dec. 11, 1999. Niebel fielded both the Silver Crown and the sprint car that Tony Stewart drove to USAC championships in 1995. Niebel and Nolen often fielded cars together. Niebel had six Little 500 victories as a car owner, but Nolen is looking for his first victory in that particular race. He’s won USAC Silver Crown races at Indianapolis Raceway Park in the past with drivers Jimmy Keeker and Johnny Parsons Jr.
In choosing his 2015 driver lineup for the Pay Less Little 500, Nolen picked drivers who have previously brought his team two second-place finishes and a third in that event. All three would like nothing better than to post both their first Little 500 victory as well as the first one for their car owner, who was inducted into the Little 500 Hall of Fame in 2010.
Nolen entered his first car in the Little 500 in 1996. His first runner-up finish came when Elliott finished second in one of his cars in 2008. The second runner-up finish came just last year when Coons finished second to Jacob Wilson and earned the event’s Rookie of the Year award in a Nolen Racing entry. Hollingsworth’s best finish was third in 2011.
Although Coons is a celebrated veteran of the sport, he has only limited experience in the Little 500 compared to Elliott, who will be making his 22nd start in the Little 500 in 2015 and was the USAC sprint car champion in 1998 and 2000. Hollingsworth has been in the Little 500 six times in the past.
Besides the two races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, there are traditionally three big short-track races in the state that month too, and Nolen Racing will enter all three. The third one — which occurs two days before the other two — is the Hoosier Hundred USAC Silver Crown race that will be held on the 1-mile dirt oval at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis on Thursday, May 21. The fairgrounds is located at 1202 East 38th Street.
Coons will drive the yellow Nolen Racing #20 dirt Silver Crown car in that race, which he has won twice in the past (2011 and 2012). Elliott won the Hoosier Hundred in 2000 and 2001 driving a Nolen Racing car, while Hollingsworth did the same in 2009. The latter led all 100 laps from the pole that year.
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