SWEET YEAR AT THE TRACK: A look back at the top 5 local sports stories from 2019 | TheUnion.com

SWEET YEAR AT THE TRACK: A look back at the top 5 local sports stories from 2019

From thrilling race track triumphs to record-breaking individual efforts, the local sports scene had plenty to offer in 2019.

Here is a look at the top (non prep) sports stories from the past 12 months:


The past year was a dream come true for Brad Sweet.

The veteran driver rose to the top of the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series in 2019, winning 16 races, notching 47 top-five finishes and racing past 10-time series champ Donny Schatz to win his first World of Outlaws Points Championship. Sweet also took the checkered flag at the King’s Royal race, which featured a Series record $175,000 payout to the winner. The Bear River grad even took on the role of promoter for the 49er Gold Rush Classic at Placerville Speedway this past season.

“So much emotion, so much passion, so much hard work goes into a season like that.” Sweet said during a banquet dinner held Dec. 19 at the Foothills Event Center in Grass Valley. “Such a relief to actually win the championship with it being so close in the last month. To beat Donny Schatz, the 10-time defending champion was amazing.”

Unseating Schatz was no easy task, as Sweet and the defending champ traded the points lead back and forth throughout the season. It wasn’t until the Can-Am World Finals in Charlotte that Sweet clinched the points title by placing second in the Series finale, finishing a spot ahead of Schatz. Sweet won the Series championship by four points, the smallest margin of victory in World of Outlaws history.

“I’m very proud of my team and myself that we were able to get through that pressure and hold (Schatz) off,” said Sweet, who drives the No. 49 NAPA car for Kasey Kahne Racing. “It’s special to be a champion in anything, but it’s a dream come true, and to do it like we did made it extra special.”

Sweet wasn’t the only local driver who made headlines on the track. Nevada City native Alexander Rossi won two races in the IndyCar circuit and finished third in the Series Points race in 2019.

Grass Valley native Matt DiBenedetto had the best season of his NASCAR career, finishing in the top-10 six times, including a fourth place finish in Sonoma and a career-best second place finish in Bristol, Tenn.

Add in dirt track racing making its return to Grass Valley for the first time in more than 20 years, and it was a banner year for auto sports in Nevada County.


Twenty-five years.

That’s how long the Barbara Schmidt Millar Celebration of Life Women’s Triathlon and 5K has been in existence.

The tradition continued in 2019.

Women, mostly from Nevada County but also from outside the area, flocked to Cascade Shores in September to participate in the triathlon or 5K race.

“It’s such a cool event,” said Stacey Wiederhold of Grass Valley.

Wiederhold said she enjoys the triathlon because it’s a female-only event run by a nonprofit. She not only competed this year, but also helped by volunteering.

Over 100 volunteers came to help at this year’s event, said Courtney Williams, registration coordinator for the triathlon’s committee.

Having participated in the triathlon before, Williams was excited to be a spectator. She appreciated the female camaraderie that flows from the competition.

The triathlon has been around for so long, memorial scholarship winners from the nonprofit’s early days have returned to participate, including one scholarship winner who now has a master’s degree in nursing.

“We’ve really come full circle,” said Williams.


The 59th edition of the Nevada City Classic offered a day of aggressive racing, tactical prowess and a devastating crash, but the great tradition of the Classic endured.

The fields throughout the day Sunday were somewhat diminished after a multitude of unfortunate circumstances and scheduling conflicts befell the race organization. Nonetheless, the streets of downtown Nevada City were lined with spectators enthusiastically cheering the gathered athletes.

The early races of the day were defined by decisive moves and runaway winners. The finale of the event, the men’s and women’s pro races, were prime examples of tactical racing.

The penultimate race of the day, the women’s pro race, was a patient effort, as three riders broke away at the front early and spent the majority of the race testing each other out with small attacks on the brutal uphill section of the historic course.

Some ominous clouds began to gather over the event as the race went on, but the only lightning Nevada City saw on the day was winner Ellie Velez surging out in front of her two chasers on the very last climb. Velez looked strong throughout the race, putting in several tough accelerations before settling in to work with her competitors. When the time came, however, she was ready with the sprint, and got the win as a reward for her efforts.

The men’s race unfolded somewhat similarly to the women’s for most of the competition. After a flurry of initial attacks a group of three formed at the front of the race, and the leaders spent the rest of the day watching each other, waiting for the decisive moment. That moment came on the final lap, unfortunately in the form of a crash between the leaders on the road. Gavin Murray, riding in third place at the time of the crash after falling slightly back from his fellow frontrunners, made it through the damage unscathed and won the race.

“At the very top of the hill I was just gassed, but they still had some bullets to burn. They attacked on the downhill,” said Murray of the lead up to the crash, “I was happy with third, and then I came around the final turn and see them on the ground.”

Despite the less than ideal circumstances of his victory, Murray raced a smart, hard ride and earned a significant win to add to his racing resume.


Kirby DeLaunay saved her best for last.

On a stage she had dreamed of performing on since she was a kid, the highly decorated martial artists put forth an incredible display of power, precision and persistence, smashing through a world-record 280 bricks in 2 minutes, 41 seconds.

“This was the best day of my life,” DeLaunay said shortly after completing the break. “There are so many people here. So much support, so many people from other states and countries watching live, and I’m just glad to represent our home. Nevada County, we did it.”

In front of a crowd of hundreds at the PG&E Center Stage at Cal Expo on July 23, DeLaunay methodically powered through 55 brick towers, each one stacked five or six high with 2-inch thick bricks.

When the dust settled her hands were bloodied, and she had a new record. DeLaunay’s 280 bricks broken, crushed her previous record of 150, set in 2016.

After the performance, the bricks were inspected and the 280 count was confirmed by official Mel HeBert.

DeLaunay, 44, had set a goal of breaking 300 bricks in less than 3 minutes, and came close, but 20 bricks remained in tact after the break completed. DeLaunay, not one to leave a task unfinished, came out after a brief respite and plowed through the final 20 for good measure.

The break was DeLaunay’s swan song. After nearly 30 years of turning bricks to rubble, the Nevada County native said she is retiring from the discipline.

“I can walk off and retire from brick breaking and be proud,” she said. “I did it.”


With a chance to compete against the best masters athletes in the world, five members from Sierra Gold rose to the occasion and shined on the biggest stage their sport has to offer.

Competing at the Masters World Indoor Track and Field Championships held in Torun, Poland, Sierra Gold athletes claimed six gold medals, three silvers and multiple top-10 finishes.

Earning a gold medal and the title of world champion was Durelle Schimek. The talented thrower won the women’s 50-54 javelin event with a throw of 37.43 meters, beating out the second place finisher by .67 of a meter.

Grabbing the largest haul of medals of the Sierra Gold contingent was Irene Obera, who competes in the women’s 85-89 age group and shined in multiple events. Obera won five golds and three silvers in all, earning the world champion title in the 60-meter run, 200m, long jump, 60m hurdles and 4x200m relay. She set world records in the 60m, 200m and 4x200m relay. Obera took silver in the 400m, shot put, and triple jump.

Sierra Gold throwing coach and competitor Richard Hotchkiss was fifth in both the weight and hammer throws in the men’s 80-84 age group.

Hotchkiss won National Indoor titles in the weight, and super weight throws in North Carolina earlier in the year.

Fellow Sierra Gold thrower Kathy Slouber earned seventh place in both the weight and hammer throws while also placing eighth in the shot put and ninth in the discus in the women’s 65-69 age group.

To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, email wford@theunion.com or call 530-477-4232.

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