In the Thick of the Usac/Cra Championship Hunt, AJ Bender Heads to Perris Saturday

The saying “Good things come to those who wait” seems to apply to AJ Bender’s season in the Avanti Windows and Doors USAC/CRA Sprint Car Series. The San Diego, California resident not only won his first series event at Perris Auto Speedway on April 27th, but he also finds himself locked in a tight, early-season point battle for the USAC/CRA championship.

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AJ Bender photo courtesy of Kenny Lonngren.

Bender should be no stranger to longtime Southern California racing fans.  After moving from Texas with his family when he was five or six years old, he and older brother Bobby eventually became regulars in the California Lightning Sprint Car Series.  Both made big impressions as fast, very capable drivers and in 2008, AJ won the CLS Rookie of the Year award. 

After a few years in the CLS, Bender transitioned into the tough world of USAC/CRA 410 sprint car racing.  He also had planned on competing in the newly created Perris Auto Speedway Young Gun Sprint Car Series (now known as the GAS Chassis Young Gun Series) when it debuted in 2013.  At the time, the Young Guns series was for drivers 14-21 with no prior sprint car experience.  Since he fell within the age range, he was also allowed to run with the Young Guns.  That is, he was allowed to compete with the Young Guns in one race.

At the 2013 season opener, Bender put such a whipping on the Young Guns field that a new rule was introduced.  While there was no official name for the rule, it quickly became known as the “Bender Rule.”  That was due to how badly he whipped the competition.  From that day forward, drivers with USAC/CRA experience were no longer eligible to compete in the Young Gun Series.  That rule still stands today. 

“Yeah, I know about the rule,” Bender laughed when reminded.  “I was very bummed about the rule.  It is hard to believe that was 11 years ago.

In the seasons since his only Young Guns win, Bender, now 31, has honed his skill and has become a talented driver.   While the majority of his racing has been confined to Perris, he has proved to be very adaptable at any track he competes on.  His thrilling win in the sprint car portion at the 2021 Turkey Night Grand Prix at the Ventura Raceway put the fans on their feet at the end of the race.  Over the last few years, he has also scored wins with the occasional ride in a lightning sprint car.  The most recent one of those came while driving for Northern California’s Brian Fonseca at the Ventura Raceway on May 11th.

Any victory is nice, but one that eluded Bender was a win in the USAC/CRA Series.  Considered the premiere traditional sprint car series west of the Mississippi, wins with the group are not easy to come by.  Bender was aware of that, and despite a couple of heartbreaks, he never quit trying.  He had not picked up a win through his first 118 starts in the West Coast group. That all changed on Saturday, April 27th, at Perris.

Bender was not having a spectacular season through the year’s first four races.  All told, he had one top 10 finish.  That came at the Cocopah Speedway on March 23rd when he placed fifth.  In the other four races, he was 12th and 16th at Perris and 15th at the Mohave Valley Raceway.  At the race on April 27th, he qualified ninth fastest and won his 10-lap heat race.  That placed him on the pole for the main.  Over the years, the pole at Perris has not produced a lot of winners.  This night it would be different.

In one of the best races at the track in recent years, Bender, driving the #21 DRC powered by a Shaver Engine and owned by his mom and dad, jumped into the lead, and set the pace for the first three circuits.  The 30 lapper had seven lead changes, and Bender was engaged in every one of them.  Performing flawlessly on the track’s famous cushion, he reclaimed the lead for two laps on lap 11.  He then led laps 14 through 19 and finally 21 through 30.  Unlike many drivers who luck into their first win, this victory was anything but that.  It was a hard-fought-for, well-earned triumph. 

“Absolutely, the feeling was through the roof,” Bender exclaimed of his first USAC/CRA win.  “A feeling of what I have been trying for has finally been accomplished.  But I told my dad when we left for home that night to forget it and go on to the next one.  We have a long season ahead of us.”

“Maybe when I was younger, not that I did not care, but I did not take the time to learn this stuff,” the driver continued.  “We have been with the CRA for a long time but we really never ran a full schedule.  We pretty much only ran Perris.  I feel like in the past four or five years I have done my homework.  You know, taking the time to learn about the car and what I am feeling and what can make me go faster.  I feel like a lot of my progression has been in the last four or five years.  Kind of leading up to it (the first CRA win).  I feel a lot of the time I have been close and I have had good cars.  But it is racing and stuff happens.”

That win lit a fire under Bender.  There have been two races since.  The annual Salute to Indy at Perris on May 25th and the Golden Empire Clash at Kevin Harvick’s Kern Raceway two weeks ago.  The Dallas, Texas-born racer finished fifth and third in those races, respectively.  The results have thrown him into the middle of a red hot championship race.  The top six drivers are only 84 points apart.  Bender is in the middle of the mix in third and is only seven points out of second.

“That alone is really cool,” he enthusiastically answered when asked how it felt being in third place.  “Outside of when I ran the midget two years ago for a full season, I have never run a full season in a series in my racing career.  This was kind of like a cool opportunity.  This year, my dad said, ‘let’s try to run the full season.’ I have always felt like I could be a good points racer because I feel like I am pretty consistent.  On bad nights I try to come away with something out of it.  It (being in the points race) makes me feel a little more confident and solidifies that I can do this.  It is still a long season.  Anything can happen.  I try not to think about it too much, but it is hard not to think about it.  It is cool to see your name on the stuff that they post.” 

Not only is Bender in the thick of the points race but his mom and dad are as well.  In the car owner points, they are second, only seven points back of the leader. 

“That is pretty cool,” he responded about his parent’s lofty position in the owner points.  “Especially since they (USAC/CRA) are offering money and stuff for the entrants.”  

Bender was responding from his parent’s garage while working on the racecar for this Saturday’s event at Perris. The friendly driver tries to work on the car a couple of days a week. It is hard to be there every night as he, his wife Tiffany, and daughter Reagan, who will soon turn five, live near downtown San Diego.  The car is 45 minutes to an hour away in Ramona. 

Family time with his wife and daughter is a big priority.  Between the family, work, and living quite a distance from most of his competitors, he does not spend a lot of time with them. 

“We don’t hang out outside of racing, but we are all pretty cordial to each other,” Bender said of his relationship with the other drivers.  “That is nice.  If they ask me something, I would not tell them a lie.  I would tell them what is going on.  It is kind of cool to be doing that with people you consider to be your friends.  The racing community is kind of like your family.  It is kind of nice not to have grudges or really dislike somebody.  But at the same time, I wouldn’t give them an inch.”

To see if AJ Bender can pick up his second win of the year at Perris on Saturday, the fun begins when the gates open at 5:00 p.m.  The night’s first race will start at 7:00.  Adult tickets are $30.00.  For seniors 65 and over, it is $25.00.  Kids 6 to 12 get in for only $5.00, and children five and under are admitted free. The fairgrounds charges $10.00 for parking.  Advance tickets are available 24 hours a day online at the following website https://www.tix.com/ticket-sales/pas/7/event/1366776 or by calling 1-800-595-4849. For fans who do not wish to purchase tickets in advance, there will be plenty available for everyone at the ticket window on Saturday.

Bender wished to thank Bender Pool & Spa, Matrix Construction Services, Keys Brothers Racing, Lawler’s Towing, No Limit Powder Coating, and Brandit Designs for being marketing partners with him in the 2024 season.

The PAS is conveniently located on the freeway close Lake Perris Fairgrounds, home of the Southern California Fair, in nearby Riverside County.  Take the 215 freeway.  Exit at the Ramona Expressway and go three miles east to the fairgrounds. For directions online, the address to enter is: 18700 Lake Perris Drive and the zip code is 92571.

To keep up with everything happening at The PAS, please visit the track’s social media efforts on Facebook and Instagram and visit the website at perrisautospeedway.com

2024 Perris Auto Speedway Schedule

June 22nd      AVANTI USAC/CRA SPRINT CARS, PAS SENIOR SPRINTS, GAS CHASSIS YOUNG GUN SERIES AND PASSCAR STREET AND            FACTORY STOCKS

June 29th  FIREWORKS SPECTACULAR AND SKY CONCERT” LKQ Pick Your Part Presents NIGHT OF DESTRUCTION                

DEMO CROSS, FIGURE 8’S, TRAILER FIGURE 8’S, MINI STOCKS AND DOUBLE DECKERS

THE FIRST 1,000 GUESTS WILL RECEIVE A FREE HOT DOG COUPON AND A FREE AMERICAN FLAG.

July 13th       AVANTI USAC/CRA SPRINT CARS, PAS Senior Sprints, GAS CHASSIS YOUNG GUNS SERIES, AND PASSCAR SUPER AND FACTORY STOCKS

August 10th   LKQ Pick Your Part Presents NIGHT OF DESTRUCTION: DEMO CROSS, FIGURE 8’S, TRAILER FIGURE 8’S, MINI STOCKS AND   DOUBLE DECKERS

August 17th  BROTHER BRETT CLASSIC AT THE CALIFORNIA RACER’S HALL OF FAME NIGHT, AVANTI USAC/CRA SPRINT CARS, PAS Senior Sprints, GAS CHASSIS YOUNG GUNS SERIES AND PASSCAR SUPER AND STREET STOCKS

 September 7th  LKQ Pick Your Part Presents NIGHT OF DESTRUCTION: DEMO CROSS, FIGURE 8’S, TRAILER FIGURE 8’S, MINI STOCKS AND         DOUBLE DECKERS

September 21st  AVANTI USAC/CRA SPRINT CARS, PAS Senior Sprints, GAS CHASSIS YOUNG GUNS SERIES AND PASSCAR SUPER AND FACTORY STOCKS

October 26th LKQ Pick Your Part Presents NIGHT OF DESTRUCTION: DEMO CROSS, FIGURE 8’S, TRAILER FIGURE 8’S, MINI STOCKS AND      DOUBLE DECKERS

November 8th  27TH RUNNING OF THE OVAL NATIONALS Featuring  AVANTI USAC/CRA SPRINT CARS, PAS SENIOR SPRINTS, GAS CHASSIS                 YOUNG GUN SERIES AND PASSCAR SUPER, STREET AND FACTORY STOCKS

November 9th      27TH RUNNING OF THE OVAL NATIONALS Featuring  AVANTI USAC/CRA SPRINT CARS, PAS SENIOR SPRINTS, GAS CHASSIS    YOUNG GUN SERIES – JERRY DODD CHAMPIONS NIGHT, PASSCAR SUPER, STREET AND FACTORY STOCKS

THIS SCHEDULE IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE.

PAS PR