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Thu, 2 Jan 2003, 08:33 AM

Do You Believe In Miracles?
By Bob Frey
Photo copyright 2002 Auto Imagery, Inc.





The phrase, "Do you believe in miracles," was made famous by ABC sportscaster Al Michaels at the 1980 Olympics. That was the year that the underdog, to say the least, America hockey team won the Olympic gold medal against overwhelming odds. After being routed by the Soviet Union 10 - 3 in an exhibition game just a week before the Olympics, the American team came back to beat Russia 4-3 in the semi-finals, and then stunned Finland in the final game to claim the gold medal in what had to be one of the, if not the biggest upset in Olympic history. After his two-week odyssey at the end of this year, Todd Stewart knows exactly how the players on that American team felt.


Todd Stewart
With only two races remaining in the season, the Lucas Oil event at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the Automobile Club of Southern California Finals at Pomona, Todd trailed the Super Gas pointís leader, Tom Stalba, by 89 points. In the complicated method of figuring the points, there were three other drivers who also had a shot at winning the championship, Gary Harper, Frank Kohutek and Gary Risk. But if Todd Stewart is playing the part of the Americans, and Tom Stalba is the Russian team, I guess that would make the other three guys Finland, that is, try as they might, they all fell early and that left the title to be decided between the two top guys in the class. Still, with 207 cars and eight rounds in front of him at the Vegas Division 7 event, Iím sure that Todd knew exactly how Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig felt at Lake Placid in 1980. Mike, who scored the winning goal against the Russians, and Craig, the winning goal tender, had to know that their chances were very slim going into that game and still they went out and won. Todd, racing against the best Super class racers in the sport, knew that to win the title he had to win in Vegas and then he had to go at least five more rounds in Pomona. Now that I think about it, I think the hockey team had an easier job in front of it. Most racers will tell you that the key to winning is to take each race one round at a time, and thatís exactly what Todd did in Las Vegas. After disposing of Rod Fuller in the seventh round, Todd beat Arizona native Gerald Turczyn in the finals to keep his faint title hopes alive. But now, a lot like the American team after they beat the Soviets, you had to like Toddís chances of going all the way.

In Pomona, everybodyís schedule was thrown off because of the rain. The sportsman racers, many of who had been in town since Monday or Tuesday, didnít get a chance to race until late Sunday afternoon, and then only for a round or two. The Super Gas class was help over until Monday when the championship in the 9.90 class would be decided in front of a few die-hard fans. Stewart and Stalba actually lined up near each other in the staging lanes prior to round one, hoping to "get in over with early," as Todd put it. But, round one is a random draw, and the two didnít get to square off. After the initial stanza, the drivers are put on a ladder and Stewart, by virtue of his 9.901 in the opening frame, got the bye run in round two. To show that he was up to the challenge, Todd put a perfect 9.900 on the board in that round and that had to get everybodyís attention. A few more rounds, a few more wins and, all of a sudden, the entire season for both Todd Stewart and Tom Stalba came down to one run in the fifth round, a run where they would face each other. Like the Americans and the Soviets in 1980, Stewart and Stalba prepared to face off. No one, probably even Todd himself if he were honest, figured that he would get this far. Now, just like that American team, his fate was in his own hands and, just like the í 80 hockey team, he responded in championship form.


Stewart vs. Dave Coapstick
As the racers were competing on Monday, I was in Los Angeles getting ready for the awardís ceremony, but I kept in touch by checking in with Rick Green and the guys from Fast News Network, the same ones who put all the info up on Drag Race Central at every race. Rick told me about the head-on collision that was coming up and I was as nervous as the two drivers must have been. OK, so thatís probably a stretch, but I guarantee you that there wasnít an American watching that hockey game in 1980 who didnít have butterflies in their stomach. "Stalba never had a chance," Rick told me. "Stewart put an "0" light on him and than ran a Ď90í with a four." At the end of the day, Todd Stewart was the runner-up at the "Finals" but he was the Lucas Oil Super Gas World Champion. Tom Stalba, who had won Indy earlier in the year, was number two, and one of the most improbable comebacks in history had been accomplished. Do you believe in miracles?

For two racers to stage such a classic battle, and to have it be decided in a one-on-one confrontation at the last race of the year is just about as good as it gets. For Todd Stewart and Tom Stalba, the emotions that they were feeling had to be about the same as those two hockey teams twenty-two years earlier. And, just like another ABC Sports phrase, they both now knew the meaning of the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

One last thing. While most people remember that great 1980 victory by the American hockey team, but very few probably remember that the U.S also won the gold medal in hockey twenty years earlier, in 1960, when they beat that same Russian team. Letís just hope that Todd Stewart and Tom Stalba donít wait twenty years to give us another great battle like they did in 2002.





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