It will go down as one of the most spectacular races in Lionheart Racing Series history, unquestionably the best in the short history of the Lionheart Retro Series. And in the end, the candy man from Bakersfield, Calif., with a damaged car and buried in fifth coming to a restart and the white flag, slipped through an opening as carnage filled the iconic front straight at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to pick up his first career win.
It’s not how Dustin Wardlow envisioned his first Lionheart victory in any series. A road course ace, sipping the milk and celebrating an unlikely win, leading the race for just 300 feet - the most important 300 feet - to win the biggest race of the season, the I Race for Gage Indy 250.
“I really felt good coming off of turn three,” Wardlow said. “The car felt really good, it was better on older tires and I was light on fuel. I am so sorry to see that happen though, (Jason) Galvin had that won. But I’m still shaking, this is hard to believe.”
The final 2.5 miles around the Brickyard were exhilarating. After a caution with 5 laps to go for a wreck between Dylan McKenna and Ron Hacker, Joe Branch appeared to have the race won. Branch had just passed Galvin, who dominated the event while leading a race-high 40 laps. But track stewards were able to clean things up in time for a one-lap shootout.
On the restart, Branch pulled away from Galvin, with Joe Hassert and Chris Stofer in tow. Out of turn two, Branch defended low. Galvin pulled to his outside, and Hassert used a huge run to go to the top into turn three. As the cars hit the north chute, Branch drifted up, touching wheels with Galvin. Hassert, forced to lift or be put into the wall by the sliding Galvin, pulled in behind the two leaders as they exited turn four for the final time.
Just past the pit entrance wall, with Galvin streaking ahead of Branch, Hassert appeared to shoot for the middle.
“I thought there was some room,” Hassert said after the race.
There was not enough room, Hassert clipped Galvin, turned into Branch and back up the track. Stofer, with a huge run, plowed into the trio, sending Galvin airborne.
“I can’t settle for third. Branch opened the door a little,” Hassert said. “It just wasn’t enough. I feel awful.”
A dejected Galvin, who took the lead on lap one from pole sitter Tony Showen and rarely turned a lap outside the top two, was disappointed a win at Indy got away.
“I’m not mad at Joe, just disappointed at the situation,” Galvin said after exiting his wrecked car. He finished eleventh. “I felt all week that I was the car to beat. I think we showed that today. I’m disappointed about the championship, and I’m sad I didn’t win at Indy. This race meant everything to me.
“But I can’t be mad at Joe. I’m teammates with him on the NASCAR side. Joe Hassert wouldn’t wreck anyone. He made a mistake. It’s just unfortunate that it happened there. We’ll regroup and try to get back after it at Milwaukee.”
Through it all, Wardlow kept the throttle down. Just as he arrived to the crash, a path opened and the Dewar’s Candy driver sailed on for his first victory.
Ryan Otis and Jake Wright avoided the carnage to finish second and third.
“I was coming off the corner and I saw the guys moving around and jockeying for position,” Otis said. “I saw someone scrape the wall and I went to the bottom. Then everything exploded and I just tried to shoot the gap.”
Wright admitted his good fortune.
“I got lucky, I wasn’t expecting to finish third,” Wright said. “I was just hanging back, things were pretty jumbled. I was just fortunate to get through it all.”
Scott Johnson picked up a career-best third, and Travis Jegerlehner rallied from outside the top ten most of the event to finish fifth.
The first 99 laps featured some of the most unpredictable racing ever seen at IMS. Car after car lined up to take a shot at Galvin, often running several laps side-by-side, swapping the lead as they cross the yard of bricks.
Wright, Hassert and Branch all made moves. Each would edge ahead, only to see Galvin pull back in front. After a restart with 25 laps left, Galvin and Hassert resumed command, until Branch made a three-wide pass for the lead with five laps to go, just before the final caution flag flew.
In total, the lead changed a series-record 41 times. Nine drivers led a lap, with Hassert leading 24, Branch leading 15 and Wright pacing the field eleven times.
Five cautions slowed the action for 15 laps, and two big wrecks early thinned the field.
On lap three Dan Geren, making a rare appearance in the Retro series, drifted high out of turn four while running ninth. The Iowa native scraped the wall, then lost control and slid across the track, leaving Brandon Limkemann with nowhere to go. Jack Bogan was also collected, along with Matthew Mercer.
Following the restart, on lap nine, Mitchell Moehler was clipped by James Paulson entering turn one. Paulson continued, but Moehler could not hang on and collected Vincent Bluthenthal and Bart Workman.
The field then settled in, working to green flag pit stops until lap 40. Frank Bieser, damaged on lap two after touching the wall and then clipping Pierre Daigle, lost the car exiting turn four as the leaders passed him. Bieser spun to the inside, collecting Showen, who had just peeled off to pit.
The fourth caution came on lap 71, when contact between a group of leaders on an alternate fuel strategy nearly ended the race for the eventual winner.
David Altman, just behind Branch in a battle for the lead, rubbed tires with Stofer, who was also battling for the lead. As the two came down the front straight, Altman lost control bouncing off the wall and back down into Wardlow. But the Dragonfly Racing driver was able to come in and the pit crew did enough to keep his car competitive.
A series of late race events took McKenna from serious contender, to the cause of the final caution.
With eight laps to go, McKenna bounced off the wall exiting turn four. He’d been running third. One lap later, McKenna pushed up in turn two, touching Hassert. McKenna harmlessly spun into the grass, completing a 360-degree spin and continuing on. But the third time was not a charm.
Caught by the next pack of cars, McKenna entered turn three in the middle of a three wide battle. The car bobbled on entry, touching Johnson before ricocheting back into Ron Hacker, bringing out the fifth and final yellow with five laps remaining, and setting up a finish that will be remembered for ages.
34 cars took the green flag at Indy. 18 saw the checkered flag, 14 on the lead lap.
The last lap chaos had massive points implications. Wright’s lead over Otis shrunk to 29, but it was Galvin who took the biggest hit. Primed to close in on Otis and Wright, the other Bakersfield, Calif., driver instead finds himself 75 points back of the championship leader. Jegerlehner, Galvin’s teammate at AGR Motorsports, used his good fortune at the finish to move up to fourth in points, 107 out of the lead. Wardlow was the biggest mover, up five spots to fifth, 125 back of Wright.
The Lionheart Retro Series takes a few weeks off before heading to the famed Milwaukee Mile for the Milwaukee 150. The race can be seen live on the Global SimRacing Channel at 10:40 p.m. EST on Thursday, June 15.
The Lionheart IndyCar Series presented by First Medical Equipment, the flagship league in the Lionheart Racing Series, is set to tackle its biggest event, the I Race for Gage Indianapolis 500. As many as 42 DW12 IndyCar’s will take the virtual green flag on Sunday, June 11, at 4:00 p.m. EST. That race can also be seen live on GSRC.
For more information on either Lionheart series, visit www.LionheartRacingSeries.com.