#63 Kody Swanson and eventual winner #22 Bobby Santos battle for the lead during Saturday’s “Phoenix Copper Cup” at ISM Raceway. (Al Steinberg Photo)
By: Richie Murray – USAC Media
Phoenix, Arizona………Each year, it seems the ongoing tug-of-war for pavement supremacy on the USAC Silver Crown Champ Car circuit is waged between Bobby Santos and Kody Swanson.
In the 2018 season opener, the duo once again picked up right where they left off in a memorable stop at the tri-oval of ISM Raceway where the two fought tooth-and-nail during a side-by-side battle that lasted two laps at speeds nearing 150mph with both never turning a single wheel in the wrong spot.
Although the starring roles remained unaltered on this day, a plot twist had Santos trying to overcome a turbulent beginning in which he dropped to the tail of the field following an early-race pit stop.
Santos’ precision was downright surgical as he rose up the scoring pylon, ultimately surging ahead on the inside of Swanson on lap 80, then rocketed away during the final laps to score his second-straight “Phoenix Copper Cup” victory.
Santos, of Franklin, Mass., became the first to capture a Phoenix Silver Crown victory in consecutive years since Dave Steele won five in a row between 2002 and 2006, something that doesn’t stray too far from Santos’ mind when he competes here in the Valley of the Sun.
“It’s right up there,” Santos exclaimed. “To win back-to-back is really cool. Although, for a minute there, I didn’t expect to be sitting here. We had a good car all day today, but we kind of missed (the setup) at the start of the race. This means a lot. One of my idols is Dave Steele. He owned this place. I feel like he’s pushing me a little bit.”
Santos’ early trouble commenced as he pushed up the racetrack between turns one and two on multiple occasions early in the going, dropping him from his second starting position to 10th by lap ten. Following a caution for a Kyle Robbins turn one spin on lap 17, Santos’ crew chief and father, Bob, made the decision to pull him into pit lane for a few adjustments that seemed to do the trick.
Although Santos would have his work cut out for him, restarting 16th on the lap 22 restart with quite a few heavy-hitters serving as the rabbits that Santos would have to chase down, including a strong Kyle Hamilton who led a race-high 54 laps, plus Chris Windom, Swanson, David Byrne and Justin Grant. Meanwhile, Santos was lurking just behind in sixth by the midway point.
Bobby Santos picked up his third career USAC victory at ISM Raceway Saturday.  In 2009, he won in USAC Midget competition before winning the Silver Crown events in 2017 and 2018. (Al Steinberg Photo)
On lap 53, Windom got caught behind the lapped car of Breidinger toward the end of the back stretch. Windom dove low, flat lining his momentum while Swanson and Byrne chose the high road to cruise past them all to take second and third, respectively.
On lap 66, Hamilton was seemingly in control in his first series start since the 2015 season. Yet, exiting turn four, the pack freight-trained him on the inside as Hamilton slowed dramatically, eventually coming to a rest on the back stretch to prompt a yellow flag.
Thirty laps remained on the restart, leaving a full-out sprint to the finish. Running fourth, Santos quickly disposed of Windom on lap 73 with an inside move in turn three. Two laps later, Santos said adios to Byrne as he bagged second with just a quarter of the race remaining.
Patience was not in the cards at this moment as Santos immediately caught Swanson and pressurized the three-time series champ, putting them nose-to-tail just inches apart. Santos then dove to the inside of Swanson moments later, engaging in a full two-lap, clean, Ben Hur-style wheel-to-wheel war that Santos emerged victorious with on lap 80.
“Racing side-by-side at a place like this is really cool and lot of fun,” Santos explained. “You never know what (Kody) has left. Last year, Kody made a late-race charge and, in another couple laps, he could’ve beat us. I had that in the back of my mind that, at that point, I needed to get past him and get away from him. Racing here, I’ve never had to try so hard and be so up-on-the-wheel for 100 laps. Ten years ago, I used to ride for 50 and race for 50. Now we’re racing for 100.”
From there, Santos had but a few lappers to overcome as a cloud of attrition cast itself over a few of the front runners in the final laps, including Windom and Byrne. But that cloud dissipated for Santos over the 100-miler, as he pulled away for a commanding victory over Swanson, Grant, Eric Gordon and hard charger/top Rookie finisher Cody Gerhardt.
USAC SILVER CROWN CHAMP CAR SERIES RACE RESULTS: April 6-7, 2018 – Phoenix, Arizona – ISM Raceway – “Phoenix Copper Cup”
QUALIFYING: (Held April 6) 1. Kody Swanson, 63, DePalma-25.326; 2. Bobby Santos, 22, DJ Racing-25.363; 3. Aaron Pierce, 26, Pierce-25.438; 4. David Byrne, 40, Byrne-25.550; 5. Kyle Hamilton, 6, Klatt-25.623; 6. Chris Windom, 17, Nolen-25.653; 7. Justin Grant, 91, Hemelgarn-25.836; 8. Eric Gordon, 21, Armstrong-25.893; 9. Jerry Coons Jr., 20, Nolen-25.986; 10. Austin Nemire, 16, Nemire/Lesko-26.012; 11. A.J. Russell, 3, Finkenbinder-26.384; 12. Travis Welpott, 18, Welpott/Gorman-26.569; 13. Cody Gerhardt, 60, Gerhardt-27.450; 14. Bill Rose, 66, Rose-27.466; 15. Kyle Robbins, 7, KR Racing-27.476; 16. Matt Goodnight, 39, Goodnight-27.624; 17. Toni Breidinger, 80, Breidinger-27.914; 18. Jesse Dunham, 126, Pierce-28.262.
FEATURE: (100 laps – Held April 7) 1. Bobby Santos, 2. Kody Swanson, 3. Justin Grant, 4. Eric Gordon, 5. Cody Gerhardt, 6. Travis Welpott, 7. David Byrne, 8. Chris Windom, 9. Matt Goodnight, 10. Aaron Pierce, 11. Kyle Hamilton, 12. Bill Rose, 13. Jesse Dunham, 14. Toni Breidinger, 15. Austin Nemire, 16. A.J. Russell, 17. Jerry Coons Jr., 18. Kyle Robbins. 58:07.875
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-11 Byrne, Laps 12-65 Hamilton, Laps 66-79 Swanson, Laps 80-100 Santos.
NEW USAC SILVER CROWN CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Santos & Swanson-70, 3-Grant-64, 4-Gordon-51, 5-Gerhardt-48, 6-Welpott-45, 7-Byrne-42, 8-Windom-39, 9-Goodnight-36, 10-Hamilton-34.
NEXT USAC SILVER CROWN CHAMPIONSHIP RACE April 29 – Terre Haute, IN – Terre Haute Action Track – “Sumar Classic”