Rossburg, Ohio………Thursday, he was medically cleared. Friday, he was back in a racecar. Saturday, he was back in victory lane.
The timeline of events that led to Ballou’s triumphant return to the top after an agonizing eight-month recovery from serious neck injuries sustained in a racing accident last September is as remarkable as it comes.
The storybook journey took the Rocklin, California native and 2015 USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Champion to the front of the field on lap 18 of the 30-lap feature Saturday on night two of #LetsRaceTwo at Eldora Speedway after chasing down Chris Windom in lapped traffic to capture his first win in nearly a year.
Eldora was a fitting stage for Ballou’s return, but it was just happenstance that the first leg of his road back to the racetrack took place at a venue that has served him so well over the past decade. It’s the same place where he earned the first three of his 27 career series victories as well as the first #LetsRaceTwo feature in 2015. But, most importantly, it’s a place – physically and mentally – that put him into a comfort zone as he put into perspective how fortunate he was to have another moment such as the one he had in front of large, raucous crowd Saturday night.
“Being able to come back and race a sprint car again is a victory in my mind,” Ballou said. “I was faced with some circumstances where, in reality, I should’ve died. Obviously, someone wasn’t done with me and I’m still here. It’s sure been a long road. To come back at Eldora, I think everybody was excited fanwise, but I think they were all pretty leery. I’ve always loved this place, though. It comes pretty natural to me.”
Just two days prior, Ballou’s status was still uncertain as he awaited medical clearance from Dr. David Schwartz that would give him the go-ahead to get back behind the wheel of a racecar. Thursday night, he received official word and, from that point, it was a bit of a thrash to get everything ready to go for the next two nights.
“Our new Eagle chassis was sitting in the shop and hadn’t been touched until about a week ago,” Ballou admits. “I said, ‘Hey, there might be a chance we could get going in June, so we need to get the ball rolling.’ I had been going to work every day and spending every night in the shop. I didn’t even get stickers or bumpers on the car until 2pm on Friday afternoon!”
Getting back in racing mode is not only difficult on the psyche after a serious incident such as Ballou’s, the stakes are high when your racing career and your livelihood depends on your results on the track. Ballou admits that the situation is dire in some areas, but his level of success over the past three years has paid large dividends, and bills. Being out of commission for three-quarters of a year, however, put him in a difficult bind when he was sporting a brace instead of a firesuit.
“Fifteen days before I crashed, I bought a house,” Ballou recalls. “I was out of work for 21 weeks and I couldn’t afford my shop and my house at the same time without any income. I was pretty fortunate over the 2014 and 2015 seasons to bring in enough prize money to put a second and third car together and get a truck and trailer. I’ve got all the parts; I just don’t have any money left. If we can keep winning before my parts supply runs out, hopefully we can get our bank account built back up and get back to where we were.”
On the first night back on track, Ballou admits he and crew chief Derrick Bye were a bit behind the curve at the beginning of the night, but each time they hit the track, they got a little more comfortable and a little faster as the competitive juices began to flow again, helping get the two back into the same high-standard mode that drove them to 21 series victories from 2014 to 2016.
“I was pretty rusty Friday night and we have a new chassis that we’re trying to figure out,” Ballou explained. “We probably played it a little too conservative to start. We were trying to play catch up all night. You can’t play catch up in this game. If you get caught behind the eight-ball, the night’s over before you ever get back on the right side. That was ultimately the issue the first night. Tonight, we pretty much picked up where we were left off before the accident.”
Saturday night, it looked like 2015 all over again as the white No. 12 was fast right from the get-go. He timed in fourth, ran second in his heat and began the main event from the outside of the second row.
By the end of lap one, Ballou had instantly climbed to second and was already challenging Windom for the top spot. Ballou dove to the bottom at the entrance of turn one, sliding up in front of Windom to take the lead. However, Windom came right back at Ballou, returning the favor by mimicking the same move that had just been put on him on the opposite end of the track to snatch the lead back in turn three.
“Once I slid Chris and got past him, he got me back in the next corner,” Ballou details. “He was setting a pretty torrid pace that I thought would be difficult to keep up for 30 laps. When you go green for so long like we did tonight, it’s really tough to keep the tires from blistering and, once they get hot and blister, it’s pretty much over with. My car is generally better on long runs as it is. At times, he started getting tricky into one. I was running a lane above him and, at times, it was a little treacherous. There were a few times I thought I was going to knock the fence down.”
Windom and Ballou ripped the high side as they put their right rear tires right up against the concrete to separate themselves as the cream of the crop of the 22-car field. The two were identically as fast as the other, turning similar times around the half-mile with the interval never wavering a tenth of a second in either direction from their five-car-length separation between one another throughout the first half.
“Being able to come back and race a sprint car again is a victory in my mind.
I was faced with some circumstances where, in reality, I should’ve died. Obviously, someone wasn’t done with me and I’m still here. It’s sure been a long road. To come back at Eldora, I think everybody was excited fan-wise, but I think they were all pretty leery. I’ve always loved this place, though.
It comes pretty natural to me.”
-Saturday night Eldora winner Robert Ballou
(Ryan Sellers Photo)
The two entered lapped traffic by lap 10 with much of the back end of the field cooperating by running the bottom, providing them an unobstructed lane up top. The treacherous moment Ballou mentioned came on the 12th lap in traffic as Ballou negotiated the car of Corey Smith. Ballou had committed to the topside as Smith simultaneously headed for the groove up against the wall in turn one. Ballou was able to slip by with nary a foot to spare between his left side wheels and Smith’s right side as “The Madman” continued his pursuit of Windom and the race lead.
With 13 laps remaining, the leaders encountered 15th-running Josh Hodges running the high groove. Windom left the trusty high line to slide Hodges in the third turn. As he slid through the middle of the racing surface, Ballou stayed the course up top and jetted around the outside of Windom exiting turn four to take the top position.
“Chris went to the bottom and left me a wide-open racetrack,” Ballou said. “I had already caught him and I was better in (turns) three and four than he was. He was about the same speed in (turns) one and two unless I really pushed it. It was tough to push it as hard as he was so that I could even catch him in the first place, but I caught him in traffic and, as soon as he left the door open, I had a lot more left in the racecar and I just opened it up.”
Ballou began to check out and seemed poised for victory until the first and only stoppage of the night’s feature occurred with five laps to go when polesitter Landon Simon got upside down in turn three. He walked away unscathed.
One thing Ballou had yet to deal with thus far in his return was leading a late-race restart, but the champ was put to the test in a five-lap shootout. Yet, Windom, nor anybody for that matter, had anything left in the tank to make a bid in the end as Ballou vanished into the distance to take a 1.8 second victory over Windom, Brady Bacon, Justin Grant and Tyler Courtney.
“When there’s five laps to go, lapped traffic has gone away and you’re the leader, you end up being a sitting duck,” Ballou explained. “Eldora’s famous for the restart slider, so I tried to move down. I wasn’t going to slide myself because I’ve seen that bite people as well, but I tried to move down to make sure I didn’t hit the hole after the red flag when the tire pressure started getting lower. Tire pressure drops under a red flag and my tire really lost a lot of air. I ended up hitting a hole anyway. It really rolled up on and got tight on me, then it was tight in the next corner, which made me nervous. There’s nothing to lean on in (turns) three and four and it was still tight. A lap of spinning the tires rose the pressure again and, from that point forward, we were pretty good.”
Canton, Illinois driver Chris Windom led the initial 17 laps as he sought his first Eldora USAC Sprint win since 2013, but would have to settle for second in his Baldwin Brothers Racing/Fox Paving – AMSOIL/DRC/Claxton Mopar.
“I knew our tire was pretty blistered there at the end,” Windom said. “(Crew Chief) Derek Claxton gave me a great racecar, as always. We were good the first half of the race, but I kind of caught traffic wrong and couldn’t pick my way through those battles exactly like I wanted to in traffic. Robert got by me there and he was better than us at the end.”
Two-time series champion Brady Bacon of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma recorded ProSource Fast Qualifying time on both nights at #LetsRaceTwo, and on Saturday, took his best series finish of the season, a third, in his Dooling-Hayward/B & H Contractors – Dooling Machine/Spike/Stanton Mopar.
“Last night, we were a little free in the feature and didn’t tighten it up enough. Tonight, we got a little too aggressive and were a little too tight,” Bacon explains. “We just missed a little bit both nights. We’re creeping up there, though. We were fast at the beginning of both nights this weekend, which is what we struggled with in Ocala, Florida. We’re getting there. We had a few small issues and weren’t quite right, but we were still up there competing for the win. I’m pretty happy with that.”
Troy, Ohio’s Dallas Hewitt, who finished second in Friday night’s feature, was involved in a violent flip in the first heat race on Saturday night in which he made contact with the wall and catch fence. Hewitt was transported to the hospital suffering from a concussion and was awaiting X-ray results on a hand injury at press time.
Contingency award winners Saturday night at Eldora include Brady Bacon (ProSource Fast Qualifier), Scotty Weir (Simpson Race Products First Heat Winner), Aaron Farney (Competition Suspension, Inc. Second Heat Winner), Josh Hodges (Chalk Stix/Indy Race Parts Third Heat Winner), Justin Grant (KSE Racing Products Hard Charger) and Kevin Thomas, Jr. (Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher).
NEXT USAC AMSOIL SPRINT CAR NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: May 19 – Granite City, Illinois – Tri-City Speedway – “River Town Showdown”
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