Mattox Named 2020 USAC Most Improved Driver

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For the 2020 USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car season, Brandon Mattox made the conscious decision to step his game up and pay his full attention toward improvement as he chased the full series tour for the first time in his decade-plus career.

The leap has paid off not only in his racecraft and in his accumulation of career-best results, but also in the accolades department, as the Terre Haute, Ind. driver was rewarded for his efforts with the 2020 USAC National Most Improved Driver award.

“It’s super special for me,” Mattox exclaimed.  “I started out as a local kid who just loved sprint cars.  We tried to run the USAC deal whenever they came close and when it was in the budget.  Last year, we went out on a limb and decided that we were going to do (the full tour) and it was the best decision of my life.  I made a lot of friends and we got a lot better.”

The proof is in the pudding for the 34-year-old Mattox who entered the 2020 season with 41 career series starts with one career top-five finish, three career top-ten results and a best points finish of 25th in 2018 in a USAC career that debuted in 2010.

Mattox upped his statistical output to career bests in all categories, starting 24 of the 27 features, while scoring one top-five and four top-ten finishes, and concluding the season with a 12th place standing in the final points.

While the results were decidedly improved across the board, so was the eye-test which showed him to be highly competitive against the series’ established stars.  It was a challenge that Mattox was keen on pursuing, and the dividends have certainly paid off in making him a contender at each event he travels to, and making his name known across the USAC landscape.

“Being from Indiana, a lot of those guys run locally also, so you get the taste of their talents already.” Mattox pointed out.  “I want to be the best I can be in this deal.  I don’t see me going anywhere else.  I love sprint cars and that’s where my heart’s at.  “When I pull into the track, my goal from day one was to just have people know who I am and know they’re going to have to beat us that night.  Once we got to a certain level on the local deal, I felt like it was time to take that next big leap.”

“(As far as) racing experience, these guys are the best,” Mattox continued.  “I say that every time I get to talk to somebody about USAC.  Those (guys) are the best, so if you want to get better, you’ve got to learn how to run with those guys.  It definitely helped our program out, and I feel it got us to another level.  Hopefully, we can build on that and get even higher up the ladder.”

Mattox has made steady improvement on the local Indiana sprint car scene in recent years as well with victories in 2020 at Brownstown Speedway’s Fun Fest, in 2019 at Bloomington Speedway’s Bob Kinser Memorial and a triumph at Chandler Motor Speedway in 2017.  But, taking that leap to USAC at this particular point in his career hinged on one pursuit, to become one of those top players in the sport.  But, along the way, he’s risen to a new level that has translated to more success in his preparation and on the track.

Despite the long nights, the workload, the travel and the other aspects that are involved in competing on a national tour, Mattox finds appreciation in the process, and that you can’t really put it into a true perspective of what it’s like until you’ve done it firsthand as he did throughout the 2020 season.

“It’s a different level of racing, and until you go out on the road and really do that, you think you understand it until you do it,” Mattox explained.  “Once you do it, you get more respect for those guys and what their abilities are, and it helps you.  At this point in my career, I’m just trying to up my own game, and that was our biggest reason to go.  The money’s better, but it takes money to make this all happen.  We do it out of our own pocket.  We’ve got a few people who help us here and there, but we’ve got to do well every night to get to the next race.  That’s important to us.”

“You’ve got to learn how to qualify with those guys, which is something that has been an Achilles heel for us for a while,” Mattox continued.  “But we picked it up, learned how to free the car up, and we learned how to get that speed early.  That helped us out a bunch and, honestly, just the wheel-to-wheel racing with those guys every night.  Those guys race just as hard for 12th place.  I can tell story after story of when I thought I had a guy passed 10 times at Putnamville by the flag stand, and he still ends up back in front of me in turn one.”

One area where Mattox saw exceptional improvement was at a venue not all that physically far from home, but one that had always felt far away from his comfort zone – Kokomo Speedway.  Never being his strongest point, Mattox dug in, and figured it out during late September’s visit to the quarter-mile dirt oval where he qualified fourth in his group, transferred through his heat, started second in the feature and led the first six laps of his USAC career before notching a career-best fourth-place finish in what was truly a night to remember, but a night he also hopes is just the tip of the iceberg and a preview of more similar performances in 2021.

“At Kokomo, we’ve definitely left with our tails between our legs there more times than not,” Mattox recalled.  “That was one of those places where I had to learn to get the car right and learn how to race the racetrack.  That’s actually one of the big tracks I’m excited to go back to because I think we take a pretty good package there and, once again, those guys are good there, even at the local level on a Sunday night show there.  To kind of get on top of that mountain was big for us; it was big for our season, even being late in the season, because it gives us a lot of momentum going into next year too.”

Going on the road involves taking on a new proposition of seeing a variety of new racetracks that haven’t been frequented by oneself.  However, Mattox thrives on it, both as an opportunity and as a chance to encounter new experiences, racing or otherwise.

“I’m excited to go back east.  That was one of the trips that I always said that, before I retired, we’d load up and go out there and do that deal, and we get to go twice this year.  Hopefully I like the first trip, so the second trip will be fun,” Mattox said with a laugh.

“We bought a motor this past summer from some guys out there and instantly made some friends, and they’re all like ‘come to our shop, hang out,’” Mattox explained.  “So, I think it’ll be a fun trip just to get out there.  I like being on the road; I’ve got a family, so I miss being at home after that first night or two, but I like seeing new tracks.  I think it rounds you as a driver.  You don’t fall into the lull of running the same ol’ places.  You’ve really got to learn your car and I think it helps sharpen you as a driver.”

Another reason to go on the road is to right the wrongs of his racing past and avenge prior encounters at certain racetracks that he’d like to alter his lasting memories of.

“I’ll tell you someplace else I’m excited to go is Eldora,” Mattox stated.  “Last year, we kind of got robbed from going there (due to COVID-19 cancellations).  As a matter of fact, I ran USAC there before in years past for the 4-Crown and stuff like that.  I like Eldora.  It’s a neat place and I owe Eldora one.  It got me the last time I was there (in 2015).  It was one of those nights where we had to load it up and left with our tail between our legs and said we’d be back, but we just never really have had the chance to get back, so I’m excited to get back there and turn some laps.”

Mattox begins his 2021 USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car tour with three consecutive nights of racing on Feb. 11-12-13 at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla. for Winter Dirt Games XII, the first three of 50 events scheduled for the year.

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QUEEN CREEK, Ariz. (Jan. 13) — Brian Shirley saw the situation one way. Ricky Thornton Jr. viewed it another.In the first controversial moment of the 15th annual Keyser Manufacturing Wild West Shootout at FK Rod Ends Arizona Speedway, there was simply no middle ground reached between the two drivers who saw their hopes for victory in Wednesday night’s 30-lap Super Late Model feature dashed by an early-race tangle.The pair of top contenders — Thornton logged finishes of first and second in the miniseries’s opening-weekend events while Shirley was just a bit behind with runs of third and fourth — were battling for third place on lap seven of the A-main when their evenings went awry. 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I’m not saying it was all his fault because I did get in there hot, but it was because I wasn’t gonna hit him.”Shirley, 39, of Chatham, Ill., felt that he had cut his rival for position a break on the frontstretch and should have received the same treatment in return between turns one and two. The two drivers were charging hard in pursuit of second-place Jason Papich of Nipomo, Calif., with Shirley running high through turns three and four and Chandler, Ariz.’s Thornton sucked low until Thornton drifted toward the outside guardrail approaching the starter’s stand, prompting Shirley to abruptly cross over Thornton under the flagman and attempt a slider into the first and second corners.“Just coming off of four there, he was on the bottom and went straight to the wall, and I braked for him,” Shirley detailed. “Then I come down, cleared him like a mile, and he just come in there and doored us. They can watch the video. I never touched him.“I can hit the brakes, he can hit the brakes. I’m more disappointed because I braked for him and he couldn’t brake for me. It’s a two-way street.”From Shirley’s standpoint, his aggressive bid on Thornton was merely him reacting to the opening he was presented.“I made a move because when we were coming out of four, he pushed up,” Shirley said. “I was running the high side and he was running the bottom. He would’ve hit me if I wouldn’t have hit the brakes, so I moved down because I had the momentum to slide him. Instead of him turning back down to try and cross me back over he just ran into the left side of the door.“I don’t know what to say,” he continued. “I don’t know what I would’ve done any different. We wouldn’t have even been in the situation if he wouldn’t have pushed up out of four where I was already there. If he would’ve stayed on the bottom I would’ve went right by him without an issue, but he pushed out so then I had to figure out an exit plan.”Thornton, 30, certainly didn’t agree with the tactics Shirley decided to employ.“So I ran the bottom in three and four,” Thornton began. “I didn’t have all my speed down the front straightaway, and I kind of figured someone was gonna slide me. But then we entered and I thought we were good, and then he slid me, like, kind of late in the corner almost.“Watching the in-car (camera footage from his car), it looked like (Shirley) spun out, but, I think because he carried so much speed in the corner, he knew he was gonna destroy the wall so he tried to turn it sideways. When he did, he pretty much parked it (on the cushion), so then I had nowhere to go. At that point I was already back on the throttle. At that point there was no turning down or anything.”When Thornton contacted Shirley’s car, the right-rear deck and quarter-panel of Thornton’s SSI Motorsports Longhorn mount was pulled astray, leading him to limp into the infield with the sheet metal flopping along the track. Shirley’s Bob Cullen-owned XR1 Rocket was shoved into the outside wall before Scott slid into the back of both cars, eliminating him as well. Bobby Pierce of Oakwood, Ill., also slapped Shirley’s car as he passed by but was able to continue racing to a fifth-place finish.Thornton felt fortunate that his 3-race-old car escaped the crash with mostly cosmetic damage, but he was well aware that he lost an opportunity to move a step closer to the Keyser Manufacturing bonus dollars posted for winning three or more races.“It just ripped the whole right side off,” said Thornton, who, with three races remaining in the miniseries, remains alive for the bonuses of $10,000 (three wins) and $25,000 (four victories). “It got the body, left-rear shock, couple left-rear parts just from Stormy getting in the left rear.“It kind of sucks for that to happen, especially on lap six of the race or whatever it was,” he added. “I had a really good car. I took off and I was running hard, but not so hard that I was gonna kill my stuff.”While there was no love lost between the two drivers after the incident — a Thornton team member even expressed his displeasure by tossing a signal stick at Shirley’s passing car in the infield (the stick bounced off Shirley’s car and nearly struck a photographer standing nearby) — they were ready to move on to the concluding weekend of WWS action.“It is what it is,” Thornton said, “and we’ll get it fixed up and try again on Friday.”“Luckily it just looks like a lot of bodywork, but it still ruins your night,” Shirley commented. “We started 11th and was passing him for third so it wasn’t like we sucked. We’ve been trying different things, little bitty things every race we’re in. In the heat race I felt like we were horrible, and then, I hate to say, we just put the thing back to where it was when I won them races last year (three WWS features) and that’s how I went.“We’ll put it back together and hopefully next time circumstances might come out a little different.”

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