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California native Kody Swanson wasn't particularly confident of his prospects when he made his USAC Silver Crown series debut in 2008 on the one-mile dirt track at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.

"I was basically a pavement-racing guy and at the time I didn't know if I would ever get the hang of the dirt stuff," he said.

In a series that requires the mastery of both surfaces, Swanson went to work on his dirt track skills and returns next weekend as the two-time reigning champion of the Bettenhausen 100, an event to be run for the first time under the new moniker.

Since 1961, the Aug. 19 event has been known as the Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 in remembrance of the patriarch of Illinois' "first family" of motor sports after he was killed in a practice crash at Indy in May of that year.

Prior to the 2016 event, which was rained out, race promoter Bob Sargent and USAC decided it would be fitting to honor the entire clan, resulting in the slight change to the official name of the race.

All three of Tony Bettenhausen's sons, Gary, Merle and Tony Jr., followed in the footsteps of their famous father, who at the time of his death was one of the most popular race car drivers in America.

Merle, now 74 and living in Indianapolis, made his "champ car" debut at Springfield in 1970 before his career was cut short when he lost an arm in a fiery accident at Michigan International Speedway two years later.

Tony Jr. made 11 Indy 500 starts as a driver before becoming a CART series team owner. He died in a plane crash in 2000.

Gary, a two-time Bettenhausen 100 winner as well as a two-time Silver Crown and USAC National Sprint Car Series champion, was by far the most popular among fans and the most successful behind the wheel. He had 21 Indy 500 starts with a best finish of third.

"He was fearless, a determined competitor and was always a possible winner in every race he entered," said USAC's Dick Jordan, who's been involved with the organization for over a half century. "He was one of the most accomplished and talented open-wheel drivers of all time and his record reflects that."

Some would tell you that "Gary B" also was one of the most stubborn, making him prime fodder to this day for the "coulda, woulda, shoulda" crowd.

In the early 1970s when the dynamic of the sport began to change, Bettenhausen signed a contract with Roger Penske to become a teammate to Mark Donohue, racing full time in the Indy car series with a smattering of NASCAR Cup events tossed in.

Penske is said to have wanted Bettenhausen to discontinue his sprint car and champ car efforts, Bettenhausen didn't, and the relationship ended when he was seriously injured in a champ car accident on a mile dirt track at the New York State Fairgrounds in 1974.

In hindsight, it's fairly easy to say that if Gary B and his enormous talent had remained with Penske, he'd be among Foyt, Unser and Mears as the winningest drivers in Indy 500 history.

Thing is, though, in the early 1970s Penske Racing was still in its infancy and Bettenhausen, along with everybody else at that time, had no idea Penske would go on to become the most accomplished team owner of all time. 

When it comes to history, the Silver Crown series is among the most storied in all of motor sports with past champions by the name of Foyt, Andretti and Unser. While they were already among the most famous drivers in the world when they grabbed their titles, it's the interesting twist in the way things have turned out in more recent years that makes next weekend's Silver Crown event intriguing for Central Illinois racing fans.

Exactly 10 years ago next weekend, an unheard of teenager from Mississippi stood in victory lane at the 2007 Bettenhausen 100. Fast forward to 2017 and you found Ricky Stenhouse Jr. standing in victory lane at both Daytona and Talladega.

No one knew that '82 Silver Crown champ Ken Schrader would find fame and fortune in NASCAR or that '84 champ Dave Blaney would sire NASCAR's hottest young current prospect. Then unheralded champions Jeff Gordon ('91) and Tony Stewart ('95) became superstars. Few heard of '99 champ Ryan Newman before he won the Daytona 500. 

The list continues with Kyle Larson near the top of the NASCAR Cup standings and Alex Bowman, a former "USAC-guy," being chosen to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. next year at Hendrick Motorsports.

Swanson, with his questions of his dirt racing ability behind him, leads the current crop into next weekend's Springfield event.

Canton's Chris Windom is the reigning series champion and is seeking to become the third driver from Central Illinois to win at Springfield, joining Champaign's Don Branson (1966) and A.J. Fike of Galesburg (2012-13). 

Windom won the series opener this season at Terre Haute, but has since been plagued by mechanical gremlins.

Those woes helped allow Swanson to leap frog over him and into the points lead. Wins on pavement at Lucas Oil Raceway Park (a.k.a. Indianapolis Raceway Park) and on dirt at Williams Grove, Pa., also were pivotal. An event is set for Saturday at Salem, Ind., before next weekend's Bettenhausen 100.

Follow Bruce Yentes on Twitter: @pg_yentes

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