TERRE HAUTE —
One of the top stories on the Wabash Valley motorsports stage last season was the emergence of Blake Fitzpatrick as a legitimate front-runner on the national sprint-car scene.
In what could best be termed as a breakthrough year, the young West Terre Haute racer made his presence felt at the local and national levels.
Posting an impressive campaign that listed six feature wins, including his first national USAC feature victory, the Midwest Sprint Car Series championship the 19-year-old Fitzpatrick paved the path for what many project will be a promising career in racing.
While the well-deserved success of a year ago drew its share of recognition, the relative newcomer to the sport is seasoned enough to know that in the highly competitive world of open-wheel sprint-car racing success seldom comes easy or lingers long.
A driver’s fortunes often are only as good as his last performance behind the wheel of his race car.
With the opening rounds of the 2011 USAC sprint-car season already in the record books, it appears the Wabash Valley driver is on track to continue his impressive ways of a year ago.
Fitzpatrick and his supporters are optimistic that a pair of runner-up finishes in recent events at Ocala, Fla., will set the tone for the upcoming year.
The three-race southern tour started on an ominous note for Fitzpatrick but concluded with runner-up finishes in two of the events, having led laps in two of the three shows.
Fitzpatrick’s car developed mechanical problems as early as the wheel packing session on the opening night show but his fortunes improved the following two nights.
“When we broke the rocker arm that first night I didn’t know what to think. It wasn’t the way we wanted to open the year. That’s for sure,” said Fitzpatrick.
The following night he battled eventual winner Bryan Clauson the entire 30-lap distance, leading the first 22 circuits before settling with a second-place finish.
“We qualified sixth and started third. I lost my line and Clauson got around me there towards the end. I pretty much held on for second,” recalled Fitzpatrick.
Less than 24 hours later he lead early before losing the top spot to winner Damon Gardner but still held on for a solid second-place showing.
“I don’t think we could have asked for a better start to the year,” Fitzpatrick said. “Those second-place finishes were a real confidence builder. I think we have what it takes to run with these [USAC] guys.”
He left the Sunshine State ranking sixth in points under a new USAC point system that will produce a national champion based on dirt track events only.
While he likes what he sees with the new points program, Fitzpatrick says points aren’t a priority as he prepares for the upcoming year.
“It ought to be real exciting and great for the fans, but I’ve just never been much of a points guy. I race to win races. Sorta let the points take care of themselves,” he added.
Like most small independent teams, the West Terre Haute team is feeling the pinch of a troubled economy. Sponsorship support has become harder to find and more increasingly difficult to hold on to.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have the support of Don [Smith] and the guys at First Financial. They make it possible for us to have guys like Bubby Jones and Jay Argo to be part of our operation.”
“To be able to compete with a team the likes of Tony Stewart that can roll out three cars anytime at the race track, you have to come prepared. It doesn’t come cheap.”
Fitzpatrick hopes to include selected Midwest Sprint Car Series and weekly specials to his already crowded 2011 schedule — this while continuing to attend classes at Indiana State University.
Joe Buckles can be reached at email@example.com