Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Looking Back: The Early Days Of The Street Stocks At Antioch Part 1

The Sportsman division was lined up along the front straightaway, parking lot style next to each other. The slowest were in the front and the fastest in the back, plus the top two from the semi main. We had about 30 cars, so sand bagging to get at the front if the feature was a risky proposition. Do it wrong and risk being in the semi main. Ah yes, I loved inverted features. Not staggered inverted, but actual inverted features and heat races.

I'm sure the fast guys complained a little, but then they drove to the front. Guys like Marv Wilson, J.D. Willis, Dennis Furia, Dana Auger, Mike Gustafson, to name a few. When 1979 came to an end, some of those drivers retired. The era of the Sportsman division was coming to an end, but something pretty neat was just beginning. It was the Street Stock division.

After the Sportsman division feature ended, some people rushed to the exits. What they missed was a pretty good race in this new entry level division that had started at Merced and Watsonville as well. We had drivers like Scott Busby, Keith Shipherd, Julio Jones, Debbie Clymens and Chuck Carter, all battling just as hard as the Sportsman drivers for the win. Dad always wanted to leave early too, but I didn't. I came to watch this division too.

They didn't do a standard point race that year, but Busby was honored as the top performer. Busby, Jones and Shipherd wasted little time jumping up to the Sportsman class, but Carter and Clymens stayed put. Debbie might have won the title that year, but for a hot shot out of Hayward by the name of Joey Rodrigues. The guy was fast, and he won most of the features that year. Carter was no slouch. To me, he was one of the best drivers never to win the championship in his beat up yellow #66a car. I recall a beat up yellow #66m car out of Merced winning a feature at Antioch, driven by Grant Ford.

Vince Mills, Mercury Skaggs, Barbara Skaggs, another Hayward leadfoot, Jeff Rhoton, Ted Ferre and a guy named John Bellando also joined up that year. The class was growing fast and more people were staying to watch that year. 1980 was the first year I never missed a race at the track. I couldn't. I had to be there. As Rodrigues moved up to make a run at Sportsman "Rookie Of The Year" honors, Rhoton was there to take over, battling Dick King for the championship.

1981 was a interesting year for the Street Stocks. We had the Bellando brothers, John and Dave, and the Brown brothers, Bob and Dennis. Ferre was not to be ignored, and there was this very consistent driver named Duane Hodges, another one of those drivers who never won a championship but was still quite good. This was the final year of the Sportsman class, the return of Stock Cars and BCRA Midgets were a regular attraction as well. It was a year of transition.

I was told by John Bellando, nicknamed "Boom Boom" for good reason, that then track manager Paul Bender told him not to be afraid to wear the black hat. He wore it well. I have a Bellando story from an old DCRR I need to dig up. John claimed in that story that he was not credited for all of his points in 1983, costing him the championship to a talented young Santa Cruz racer named Kevin Pylant. A year earlier, a Watsonville regular named Steve Wilson won the Antioch crown. That was a year noted for a fight in the pits and a suspension for the remainder of the season for Bellando.

Let me tell you, John was probably THE best Street Stock driver at Antioch never to win the title and he would be on my top five of all time division greats. Until Troy Shirk came along, John's 17 wins were the most of all time in the division. Of course, David Rosa surpassed Shirk and is still there to this day. I once saw Bellando come back from four laps down to win a 200 lap Enduro. It so happens I kept score in 1983, and according to my stats, he has a point about the championship. Back in those days, I kept track of the race results, but not points. It wasn't until I went back and added things up that I realized he may have had a good argument.

Fact is, there is such a thing as "NASCAR material" as they used to say, and John probably wasn't it. While the black hat might have worked for Bender, for Dennis Huth it was another story. Therefore, John's high water mark in points was second. He did come back a few years later and won a 50 lap Figure 8 race. There was a rivalry of sorts between the Browns and the Bellandos. All four were fast and competitive. Dave may have seemed to be in John's shadow, but he could kick a butt or two on the track and had the wins to show for it.

Bob Brown was more the conservative one on the track in those days. His Brother Dennis was not afraid to let it all hang out. Dennis visited the winner's circle on more than one occasion in bis battered white #27a car and top fived in points in 1982. Bob went on to contend for the 1985 Street Stock title at Baylands and nearly won the 1989 Figure 8 title at Antioch.

1984 was the year B Mains became a regular part of Antioch's Street Stock show. An up and coming racer named Walt Haas stepped onto the scene a couple years prior, but through consistency, he won the 1984 title. In later years, Walt ran Antioch Parts Depot, where many racers went to get parts or engine work. He went on to be a top star in Street Stocks and Modifieds at Stockton and Altamont. In 1984, Steve Huelsmann won many features, but he was no match in the point race to the consistency of Haas.

A big and talented racer named Ed Shepherd burst upon the scene in 1984 and top fived in the points, as did that season's top rookie, Bert Elworthy. Elworthy was good. He won the title a year later before moving up to a successful Late Model and Dirt Modified career. Back in those days, you never knew who would win. It was wide open. This was before the talented trio of Shirk, Bart Reid and Don Shelton took over.

Shelton actually ran his first race in 1984 is Rob Waldrop's old car, which was nicknamed "The Tank". This was also the year a racer named Joe Morganstern came out and won a B Main and feature in the same night before selling the car to Kelly Daukrsch (I'm sure I butchered the spelling here). Kelly's dad Gary was a Stock Car racer at Antioch in the 70's. IN 1985, we had a string of several different winners in a row to start the season. How many, I don't recall at the moment, but it was high. Shelton, 1987 champion Steve Wagerman, Jim Robbins, Ron Murray, John Humphrey, Duane Hodges and John Keith were among them.

Humphrey was a bit of a local celebrity in that he ran Destruction Derbies and was on TV 20 at one point, dressed as Darth Vader for a Derby. John and Brian Keith were another brother duo at the track, and both had their moments. John had a car that was so beat up that even Bellando drove it in hot laps one night and remarked he was amazed he could win with it. John won several races and is another one of those great racers to never win the title.

The early years of the Street Stock division were an interesting and wide open time. I don't now how many people even remember them, but I do. The division was a doorway for people to get into the sport. Some hit, some missed. It was always nice to see drivers move up and become stars in other divisions. Sometimes things got a little crazy, but it was never boring. Well over 100 drivers won at least one feature, and it was nice to watch the division become something people wanted to stay and watch.

Talking about this makes me nostalgic, and I could go on and on, but I'll end it here. Until next time...