CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Cleveland Speedway continues its resurrection from near bankruptcy by hosting the popular USCS Outlaw Thunder Tour sprint cars Saturday night. The winged, alcohol-burning speedsters are making their first return to the 3/8-mile clay oval in 12 years.
"This is something we've worked real hard on, and we expect a real big turnout," longtime track public relations/marketing head Steve Hixson said. "Fans want to see something different, and these cars are very popular across the country. Several current NASCAR stars, like Tony Stewart, cut their racing teeth in sprint cars. Who knows? You might see the next big star this Saturday."
Hixson admits the track has taken things slowly since it nearly went to public auction before one of the previous co-owners, Ronni Willkommen, came up with a plan to save it. Crowds, which had severely dwindled last season, have started to come back strong.
"We're rebuilding, but we're not trying to bite off more than we can chew," Hixson said. "We're taking small steps, but the crowds are starting to come back nicely. We hope they come out and enjoy the show Saturday."
That show will feature races in the USCS Mid South and Southern Thunder series and will, according to USCS Racing spokesman Pete Walton, draw drivers from at least six states.
"These 700-horsepower open-wheel cars are, pound for pound, the world's most powerful short-track race cars," Walton said. "The cars will literally fly around the track surface at speeds over 120 mph. It is not uncommon to see USCS sprint cars popping 'wheelies' or doing wheel stands because of the brute force of their engines and their huge 18-inch-wide Goodyear Eagle rear racing tires."
Among the drivers expected to compete are 10-time USCS national champion Terry Gray from Bartlett, Tenn.; current points leader Tim Crawley from Benton, Ark.; Lookout Mountain veteran racer Aubrey Black; and 19-year-old female star Morgan Turpen from Oakland, Tenn., who won two feature races a year ago and was the runner-up for the USCS championship in the 2010 and 2011 title chases. She is only the second woman to reach the USCS victory lane in the organization's 16-year history.
Gates open at 5 and tickets are priced from $17 to $30 (includes a pit pass).