Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fighting For The Cause (We're Right Behind You)

I was very young when I started going to the races, and I don't recall some of those times. I think it was a Sportsman race at the Contra Costa County Fair, and I was in and out of the stands. It's been so long. My memory of that day is that I looked at the lineup for the race, there was a yellow #4a car driven by Len Mello, I pointed and said I wanted that car to win and he did well in the race. Don't recall if he won, but that's the day I became his fan. I want to say this was 1977 or '76, but I'm not sure.

My brother was a Mike Green fan, my sister was a Dennis Furia fan. I still recall the arguments me and my brother had over Green versus Mello and who was better. Mike definitely had the better stats. People didn't understand why I cheered for a B Main guy like Len. To me, he is my hero in racing. I can't explain why really. He just became my favorite driver. Boy, when he won that championship, coming out of nowhere, it reinforced my belief that anybody can accomplish anything if they try.

That's my belief, and it got me places in racing. I can remember the final race of Len's championship season. Len could still lose it to Richard Johnson with a bad race, but he was running up front. It just so happened that Green was behind him in Dana Auger's car, a much faster car if I recall. My brother joked it would be funny if he took him out. What I didn't know until a few years later is Mike would have had reason to. He and Richard were friends and Len was not a popular guy. I think me and his wife were his cheering section.

It was a few years later when I talked to Mike and he recalled that race. He said the thought crossed his mind to take him out, but he didn't. That's not Mike's style, and I respect him for that. Always have. He always fielded the nicest looking cars and would settle for second or third and a car that was still in one piece. Sure, he could have won more, but finishing races was important to him. It was in 1989 when I wrote the column that got me kicked out of the pits. The Editor's Viewpoint.

That dam column was sometimes an albatross around my neck. I mean, people loved it. Sure, I get in trouble calling it like I see it, but what the heck. I edited myself many, many times, because I thought I'd gone too far. I'd worry about how much trouble I'd get into for my latest opinion. And, yes, I would get into trouble. People, for the most part, agreed with me and told me so. When I'd get tossed out of the pits, they'd say, "Freedom of the press."

Yeah, sure. To some, I guess I was a spokesman for the little guy, for the racer. To management, I was a pain in the ass. The second offer I had to work in racing was an easy gig. Bert Moreland let me into the pits for putting up the flag and knocking the dirt off the front stretch fence before the races. It got me into the pits for the first time at Antioch. The first time for me in racing was Baylands when I was 15 and Al Norstrom used to sneak me in in his van. Al gave me my first opportunity to really understand the sport and basically took me into his home there for a few years.

The third time I was given an opportunity in racing, the late George Stiles hired me as a score keeper to work with Sharon Smith and Julie. I had already pissed Sharon off before when I had been giving racers my recaps, and they would argue with the posted finishes and get them changed. To me, it wasn't personal. I was just trying to help the racers. But, I can see where she would not like me or want me around. I was moved away from scoring and put on timer/scoreboard duty within the first month or so, and I did not care for that.

I believe I was the last person to run the timer two cars at a time, which was challenging. But, I was good at it. The last straw for me came when I had a different leader on the board than they had on their score sheets about ten laps into a Street Stock feature. Brynda happened to be there. I can't recall the racers involved, but I think one was Ron Parker and the other Brad Coelho. Well, Brynda tells me I have the wrong leader. I'm frustrated at that point. Turns out I was right. I quit that night. If I wasn't going to be used properly, what's the point? This is supposed to be fun.

I focused in on the magazine and learning how to do it right and make it better. That was my second year doing it weekly and the first under The DCRR name. In 1989, I got myself into trouble with that damn column of mine. Rich Richards, a man I respected because he ran one of the best local teams and was an advocate for the racers. He'd call it like he saw it. Buzz Enea had stepped aside as driver after 1988 and Rich needed a driver. This is the brief period before the successful teaming of Richards and Keith Brown.

Mike Green happened to be the driver, and he had a bad night. Brynda had made her son Rod the chief steward, and Rod asked Richards why he was hiring drivers to take out the out of town drivers. Really, that's more of a Terry DeCarlo thing, hehe. Just kidding Terry, but Terry never took any crap. If you gave it, you'd better be ready to receive it. I grew to respect Terry because he's basically a good guy, just don't think you're gonna knock him around and get away with it. Not gonna happen.

Quick side story. Terry had his run ins with racers, two of them were the Gates brothers of Watsonville. Well, the brothers were no pushovers either, so they'd give it back and it continued. Terry and Al Nordstrom brought cars to Watsonville one night. I recall Al's car was running pretty good at that time and he was battling for a top ten when he got stuck in the middle of a payback moment.

What I found interesting about DeCarlo was that he did get respect from one racer, Jim Pettit II. When Pettit came back to Antioch after briefly racing at Merced, DeCarlo ended up with Pettit sponsorship. I'm not saying Terry did anything for Pettit as far as problem's with Pettit's rivals, but Pettit and DeCarlo never had any problems with each other. For the record, I don't think Terry went looking for trouble with anybody, but like I said, there were a few drivers who expected any car with the "a" on it to be a push over. That's probably why Richards chose not to have an "a" on his car.

So, anyway, Green was accused of taking out the out of towners, and I knew Mike better than that. I wasn't gonna let a comment like that slide by, so I basically slammed Rod for saying that about Green. It was brutal, popular, but brutal. I could have phrased it differently and probably should have, but I don't regret my decision at all. I'd write it again. Sadly, Mike retired after that. He was one of the best racers Antioch Speedway ever had that didn't win a championship in my opinion.

It was the second time my magazine had gotten me into trouble. In 1987, Moreland confiscated the 20 or 30 Xeroxed and hand written copies I had made. It wasn't because I had written anything bad, but because I might have. This was late in the season and featured a cover story on Jim Pettit II. In those days, I'd hand wrote the magazine, sell what was needed to print next week's issues and whatever was left got spent having fun.

I was gonna make a name for myself in racing. Nobody was gonna do it for me either. If I got kicked out, I'd come back next week, talk to the drivers in the parking lot and after the races and just keep doing what I was doing. I didn't care. I had a right to publish the magazine, and that wasn't changing. I look back now and think maybe I spent too much time on this and in the end it wasn't worth it. As a body of work though, I'm proud of what I did, successes, mistakes and all.

People might ask me why I didn't just come back in 2002 when I was kicked out again for an opinion in that damned opinion column. I had a right to. I was a paying customer in the grandstands and honestly wasn't selling magazines on the premises at that time. I could have won. There was nothing wrong with my opinion in that magazine and most people agreed with me. So, why not fight?

I've seen people take a stand at the races. Lonnie Fish was vilified for standing up on the safety issues at the track back in 1996. I looked at that with great interest, but Brynda advised me to stay away from it. Out of respect to her, yes, I said respect, I left it alone. But, if you look at the bid proposals in 1997 and how they were graded, Lonnie's efforts helped change track promoters. Was it what tipped the scales? Maybe not, but it helped. I find it interesting that all the people who loved the previous management remained silent when it could have made a difference.

Back in 1996, I think, Jerry Caton was standing up for a purse increase for Street Stocks. At Antioch, the drivers had an informal meeting in the pits, to discuss taking a stand. Track management noticed and called the pit meeting early to break it up. I could name names of who were the first to fold like cheap umbrellas, but I'll just say I stood there with David Rosa and Larry Cates who were like, "What can we do now? The others are gonna race."

One night I happened to go to an NCMA race instead of Antioch. I come back and Jerry Harless was in the parking lot by his trailer. I asked what had happened. He told me that everybody was going to take a stand in the Modified division about a rule change, but he was the only one standing.

It's like this one episode of a show called Are You Being Served. The employees at the department store are upset about what management has done, so they go to their leader of the men's department, Mr. Granger. Now, he's not the kind who likes to rock the boat, but they convince him to go to management's office on their behalf. "We're right behind you, " they say.

So, he reluctantly goes, and management singals him out. He's in trouble. He's looking for the others to back him up for taking a stand for everybody, but they did not. "We're right behind you, " says one of then, and the under his breath adds, "just not so close."

My buddy Don O'Keefe Jr. found that out the first year of Wingless Spec Sprints. Let me tell you, I get credit, and I appreciate it, but without Don, this thing is dead. Don took that division on his shoulders. Ego? I'm not gonna tell you Don's the best racer in the world, but if this was all about a championship to him, he would have won it no problem. He wanted a division and looked out for the little guy. He spent time going to other racer's houses to get their cars ready, and they won features on more than one occasion. Why? Because it's Don, and that's the kind of guy he is.

On that day in 1999, officials were telling him and others what they needed to do with their cars, but they didn't know the rules. Don could quote them any rule without the book, and they didn't know what they were talking about. Well, Don figured out that if somebody didn't take a stand on this, things would go down hill fast. Sure, it's a success now, but people have no idea of the things going on behind the scenes to destroy it before it started.

So, Don loads up his car and heads out to the parking lot. The guys in the pits are clueless. It's a "More points for me" or "That's just Don" mentality. Sometimes you've got to stand up for what's right, even if the people who will benefit don't act like they appreciate it. Well, John Soares Jr. and Don discussed things and Don came back and raced. It was about respect for the division, not individual ego.

So, as I'm having Steve Sutherland escort me from the grand stands, telling me I need to retract that column and offer a written apology, I'm just in shock. Hey, if I wrote a story that was about the races or whatever but not an opinion, and I got out of line, I could see the point. This was JUST MY OPINION. That's all. And others agreed with me, which is why drivers started leaving en mass that year. Now, I bear no grudge with Steve, because he's just a guy trying to keep the peace, not looking to take any stand. I would bet he volunteered to escort me off the premises because he thought it would be better coming from him.

As I walked out of the parking lot, I realized this wasn't fun anymore. I just wanted to have fun, not feel like a crusader. I didn't have it in me to fight any more. This was the man I stood up for kicking me out. How did it come to this? Well, partly because we both had people in our ears bad mouthing the other person to us, and we didn't communicate. People took delight in that. That's part of it anyway. As I say, when you get something you want in life, you'd better believe there is somebody there waiting to try and take it away from you.

I walked down L Street and racers waved at me through the fence. Yeah, funny joke guys. By the way, my comments on track conditions needing to be improved was about making it better for you, but go ahead and laugh. Funny, huh? I recall a meaningful conversation with Bob Brown, who left Antioch within a few months or so after I did. I told him I was done crusading at Antioch. I could fight, but why? I thought I was past that after John got the track.

I only went to Chowchilla because there was something so special about it. Tom and I are a lot alike in some respects, and he poured his heart into that track. I was content to spend the rest of that year at Chowchilla and start going to Merced. That first night at Merced was extremely sad. We're talking four Street Stocks, four Pure Stocks and 10 IMCA Modifieds. It brought a tear to my eye, because the place has a richer history than Antioch. I resolved to use me efforts to help rebuild things, and by season's end, it was not bad.

I'm not gonna tell you it was the best racing, but it was good. In about a two year span, the track was making a nice comeback, and I was happy to be a part of that. As is always the case, though, somebody will come along and try to knock you down. It never fails. I don't know why it has to be that way, but it does. I couldn't take it any more. It's why I left. I forgot why I was doing it in the first place and just reacting over and over again.

Let me tell you something. There is enough ugliness in this world. Look around. Compare things to ten or 20 years ago. I'm not talking technology wise, but humanity wise. Look around and think about it. So, when I get to the races, I want to enjoy myself, make things better where I can but not be on a crusade for a cause. I felt like it was a pointless endeavor. Making Antioch better, Tom versus Chuck, who will run Watsonville, the fall of dirt NASAR, lack of track unity. In the end, who cares? If it's meant to be, we will find a way.

I really hope I didn't bore you too much. This wasn't what I intended to write, but it's what came out.