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Kody Swanson celebrates

Kody Swanson celebrates his fourth straight Hoosier Hundred victory earlier this year at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis. Swanson is tied with Jack Hewitt for the most USAC Silver Crown Series wins in history as the tour prepares to visit the Illinois State Fairgrounds Aug. 18 for the Tony Bettenhausen 100.

With a reputation for being a "Master of the Miles," California native Kody Swanson is looking forward to next weekend's Bettenhausen 100 USAC Silver Crown Series race at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.

Swanson not only made his Silver Crown racing debut at Springfield 10 years ago, he scored back-to-back wins at the famed track in 2014-15 and is a leading favorite to grab another victory in this year's Aug. 18 race.

"I've always been fortunate to be with teams that had a great package for the mile races that has allowed us to be competitive," Swanson told The Pantagraph by phone this week. "With my driving style, the dirt miles fit me best in the way they race. Over the course of the 100 miles, they can become a 'precision' track and that's something that I've always enjoyed."

Swanson entered the series — one of the most historic in all of motor sports — with a pavement racing background that serves him well in the series' asphalt events. 

On dirt he's also proven himself to be precise, especially at the state fairgrounds mile ovals in Springfield, Indianapolis and DuQuoin.

Swanson's first Silver Crown victory came at DuQuoin. This past May at the fairgrounds in Indy, he matched a mark set by the legendary Al Unser Sr. in winning the "Hoosier Hundred" for the fourth straight year.

Swanson has another record in sight that he can achieve this weekend in Salem, Ind. With a victory in the "Joe James/Pat O'Connor Memorial" on the paved, half-mile high banks of Salem Speedway, he would surpass Ohio great Jack Hewitt as the winningest driver in Silver Crown series history.

"It's pretty special to make it this far," Swanson said. "When you start out you hope for it, but I don't know that you give it any real thought. I've just enjoyed the ride and focused on each race as it comes. The best thing is, I've worked with and enjoyed having a good relationship some great people along the way."

Swanson's Silver Crown car is fielded by DePalma Motorsports and bears the same number 63 that Hewitt made famous.

In addition to the same number, "we've shared the same crew chief (Bob Hampshire) on dirt and a lot of the same friends and supporters out of Ohio," Swanson said.

Each time Swanson establishes a USAC record, he generally eclipses a mark established in an earlier era by an Andretti, Unser or Foyt, three of the most renowned names in motor sports history.

More recent generations of USAC drivers have included NASCAR champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, just two among what's become in recent years a huge and continually growing throng of competitors who have made a seamless transition into stock car racing's major leagues from the USAC open-wheeled ranks.

NASCAR Cup series front runner Kyle Larson is the most recent. Reigning truck series champion and Xfinity series points leader Christopher Bell is following in Larson's footsteps.

Many longtime observers of the sport believe that young Californian Justin Grant could be next.

Grant was phenomenal in winning last year's Bettenhausen 100 at Springfield, masterfully fending off Swanson's late charge in an event that was entertaining from green to checkered. A.J., Mario, Al, Jeff or Tony never did it better in a Silver Crown car.

"Justin was incredible there last year," Swanson said. "I was good enough to be able to pressure him late. I was hoping he'd make a mistake, but he didn't."

With a healthy mix of "the stars of tomorrow," as well as a seasoned group of USAC warhorses like Jerry Coons Jr., Dave Darland and Russ Gamester, fans can expect more of the same next weekend in a series that has experienced a sudden resurgence.

Many point to the hiring of Andy Hillenburg as the Silver Crown series competition director a few years ago as a turning point.

Hillenburg had a driving career that took him from grassroots sprint cars to an ARCA championship to competing in all three of NASCAR's premier divisions. He also landed a car in the 2000 Indianapolis 500.

Hillenburg relinquished his role when he fell from a ladder and seriously injured his back in 2017. Levi Jones, a former Silver Crown Series champion while driving a car owned and fielded by Stewart, picked up where Hillenburg left off.

"Andy was a big part of the turning point and really got the ball rolling," Swanson said. "Levi's been able to keep the momentum going. They've not only increased the number of cars in the series, the fan base has grown and people are enjoying the bigger fields and good competition."

Swanson also gave kudos to Bob Sargent and his Macon-based Track Enterprises for their promotional efforts at the series' three state fairgrounds races, as well as Silver Crown events at Terre Haute and Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis.

"With all the history and tradition, to be associated with A.J., the Andrettis, we feel fortunate to be able to do it," Sargent said. "And now we're looking at record car counts, a big plus for the fans, and a real revived interest in open wheel racing across the board. Hopefully we'll see the continuation of the pattern of it increasing every year."

Bruce Yentes covers motor sports for The Pantagraph. Contact him at (309) 820-3391. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_yentes

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