Revving Up for the Montana 200

By Beacon Staff

On July 19, Montana Raceway Park hosts the state’s largest motor-sport event, attracting 5,000 spectators and 24 drivers to its quarter-mile-high bank, oval racetrack.

It’s the 18th running of the Montana 200 – the closest thing to NASCAR in the Flathead Valley.

Last year, two-time Northwest Tour Champion Gary Lewis of Bothell, Wash., held off Erick Hargrave of Yakima, Wash., to win by one-tenth of a second. It was the closest finish in the history of the race. Lewis, who won the Firecracker 125 and a race in Spokane leading up to the Montana 200, led 105 laps, including the final 77. Mark Owens of Kalispell, who won the event in 1995, was fifth.

Lewis may again be the favorite this year, but he will face a strong field. Three-time Montana 200 winner Tom Sweatman, rookie points leader Jared Vorse and local stars Troy Schweigert and Alex Lessor, among others, are all vying for the title in a race well-known throughout the Northwest and Canada.

“Drivers wait to race in the 200,” Montana Raceway Park track manager and race promoter Justin Rody said. “They want to battle it out for the purse.”

The winning driver takes home $12,000.

Drivers race cars similar in design to those in NASCAR. The super late model field, which is made up of Monte Carlos, Fusions, and Impalas, is whittled down from more than 30 cars to 24 on Friday evening through a series of qualifying races.

“You have a bunch of desperate men racing each other,” 2007 12th-place finisher Agni Howell said. “Because there are only so many spots, you see really aggressive driving and bold moves.”

Howell would know. The 37-year-old has twice won the last-chance qualifier to join the Montana 200 field. And this year he says he may experiment with new shocks. He’s an underdog, but Howell says the most important thing is staying focused and not overdriving.

After 100 laps of the 200, drivers are allowed a 10-minute intermission to refill, change tires, and tweak any minor problems before returning to the hot asphalt. Rody said the Montana 200 is an aggressive race, one that’s sure to see bumper-to-bumper action coming through the turns. In turn two especially, the banking of the track changes abruptly where it transitions into the straightaway, causing cars to lose traction in their rear wheels and sending them sideways.

“It’s a spectacle for people to see – a big party and a great event,” Rody said.

Time trials begin at 7 p.m. with racing at 8 p.m. on Friday. On Saturday trials begin at 6 p.m. and racing at 7 p.m. Two-day passes are available for seniors, adults, teens, and kids.

“Everyone is on their feet for the first lap,” Rody said. “Then out of turn four you see 24 cars coming at 80 miles an hour headed for the green flag. It makes your hair stand up.”