Sheldon Haudenschild (Paul Arch photo)
If Sheldon Haudenschild wins the Grand Annual Sprint Car Classic at Premier Speedway this weekend, he will complete a remarkable father-son double.
In 1981, a then baby-faced 22-year-old native of Wooster, Ohio, Jac Haudenschild, first visited Warrnambool for the Classic. By the end of the weekend, Haudenschild had claimed the final, lapping most of the field, including his compatriot Rich Vogler, to defeat Australian stars Bill Barrows and Noel Bradford.
Jac Haudenschild returned a year later to snatch a successive victory, passing the nation’s greatest driver Garry Rush in sight of the checkered flag when the Australian’s Chevy motor spluttered to a halt.
Haudenschild wasn’t the first American to win the race. That honor belongs to Jimmy Sills, who claimed victory in 1978. Sills first toured Australia with Larry Burton and Mike Andreeta in the summer of 1974-’75. It was the first of 14 trips down under.
In 1977, Sills finished third in the Classic behind two of the finest Australian drivers of the era, Garry Rush and Steve Brazier.
The following year, Sills charged from 13th on the grid, taking a lead that he would not relinquish in the final 14 circuits, winning from a tenacious Les Harrower and Noel Bradford.
A year after Jac Haudenschild’s second victory in 1982, Danny Smith claimed the first of six wins in the Classic, just one short of the record seven wins held by Rush, the 10-time Australian champion.
The Classic became the nation’s national sprint car open when Sprint Car Council officials restricted the Australian championship to local drivers in the late 1970s. Being the Australian champion was one thing: winning the Classic against all comers was another.
“I don’t think I’ve made any secret of the fact that I regard this annual race as the most important on the sprint car calendar,” said Garry Rush in 1984. “It brings greater satisfaction than winning the national title.”
In subsequent years, Australia’s greatest sprint car race was won by seven other Americans — Jack Hewitt, Danny Lasoki, Donny Schatz (twice), Joey Saldana, Shane Stewart, Tim Keading and Kyle Hirst.
In all, American drivers have won 17 of the 49 editions. Other Americans — Mike Ward, Greg Hodnett, Chad Kemenah, Jason Johnson, Craig Dollansky, Terry McCarl and Carson Macedo — have placed in the race.
This year, Sheldon Haudenschild is one of 10 Americans entered for the $50,000-to-win race among 119 entries.
He will be joined by Brad Sweet, Carson Macedo, Brock Zearfoss, Justin Sanders, Chase Randall, Cole Macedo, Cory Eliason, Aaron Reutzel and Tyler Courtney.
Haudenschild, Sweet and Reutzel were doubtful starters following visa issues which delayed their trips, but these issues were resolved when the appropriate applications were processed.
Eliason and Courtney have been the most successful of the US contingent racing on the West Coast, while Carson Macedo, who was runner-up in 2018, has taken the most wins in the usually stronger East Coast contests.
Haudenschild and Sweet arrived in Australia a week ago. Haudenschild impressed in his only race to date, but it was against a generally lower class in a 360 feature.
Of the Australians, Jock Goodyer, Lachlan McHugh, Luke Oldfield, Jamie Veal and Marcus Dumesny have been in good form with others such as James McFadden displaying the speed to contend.
With Premier Speedway sold out for the $225,000 three-day feature, the 50th Classic is the most anticipated race in decades.
Half the field will attempt to qualify on Friday Jan. 27, with the other half on Saturday Jan. 28, with the final night on Jan. 29.