Monday, December 21, 2009

Remembering Merced Speedway

Where is Superman when you need him? Or some millionaire who loves racing? Merced Speedway is closing. I'm saddened just to write that last sentence. It was a race track with a rich history and a great tradition in racing going back several decades. It looks like it's all over now, unless somebody comes in to save the day.

As a fan, I knew about Merced Speedway when I first started attending the races at Antioch Speedway. There was a guy named Duane Noe who came to race. He was pretty fast. I'm ashamed to admit I didn't know of George Steitz or Ted Stofle or Vern Willhoit or any of the many great stars of Merced until years later.

My introduction to the track came in the form of Merced visitors who came to Antioch and kicked a little butt in the 90's and stories written by Gary Jacob. Merced had a similar makeup of racers as Antioch. It was where "the little guy" raced. We always viewed the Watsonville guys as the "big buck guys" though I must admit those boys could drive.

We had a guy named Chuck Carter in the Streets Stocks early on in a yellow #66a car that won quite a bit. One night, a yellow #66m car showed up from Merced and won. It was Grant Ford. Stock Car racers like Regional champion Doug Williams, DeWayne Blundt, Ralph Beck, Andy Ferris and Billy Corn came from Merced and raced. Jeanette Gomes came out in her Street Stock and won. Matt Costa, Duke Haas, Bobby Smith, Greg McDonald, Greg Schwergdfeger, Mark Condell and Darren Thomas also fielded Street Stocks from Merced out at Antioch.

Merced was part of the NASCAR thing. They were in the State point race. Being a Saturday night track, I didn't get a chance to visit until the late 1980's, but I always felt they were a part of my racing family, if that makes sense. Merced, Antioch, Watsonville, San Jose and Baylands in the mid 1980's. That was the stuff.

It was probably Late Model racer Al Nordstrom that got me to Merced the first few times. Might have been a "Tri Track Challenge" series race. Ah, the days when tracks worked together for the good of car count. Bobby Hogge III and Jim Pettit II were locked in a tight battle for Regional points. Pettit had gotten hot lately, but Hogge clinched the title that night. I recall Bobby not being really sure he had won it all. I have a picture of Bobby from that night and one of the Pettit crew getting things together for the feature.

I think Larry Folkner, Bob Williamson and Mark Keys were among the elite of Merced Late Model racers at that time. The Griffins were in charge as part of the NASCAR team at that time, but Merced had certain needs that didn't fall in line with NASCAR, or maybe I should say Scotts Valley. They jumped on the Pure Stock bandwagon before Antioch and Watsonville, and it worked for them. They started this old Super Mod type class called California Modifieds, and that worked too.

People criticize Chuck, and I can't blame them. Like all of us, he has his flaws, but he had some good ideas back then too. NASCAR wanted Merced to jump into the Grand American Modified class, but Corn and Folkner were the only ones ready. The thought was that the Merced drivers would bring their Late Models to Antioch if forced to, but that didn't happen. Sometimes the big wigs in Scotts Valley were clueless. We're talking low buck racers, and a lot of Merced racers didn't have the money to do that.

The Late Models and Street Stocks at Merced had B and even C Mains into the mid 80's, and even at the end, the Late Models had a dozen or so cars. So, what's better, 10 Late Models or two Grand American Modifieds? Had it not been for Griffin's move to the Cal Mod class with Regional points, there would have been problems. And the Cal Mods were a good class that could hold their own with the NCMA.

Mike Palmberg had one. Gordon Rodgers, Dave Laughton and even Stock Car mainstay Ray Morgan. What happened back in those days was Gary Jacob had a list called the "Realistic" Regional point sheet. The list NASCAR released every week didn't tell the real story, but Gary's list projected what drivers were on a pace to do. With only 22 races, Merced's Cal Mod guys had no margin for error. They had only two bad races to lose, where the two track racers at Antioch and Watsonville had over 20 to get rid of to make their best 20.

Well, Rodgers won a lot. He was on a pace to win it all the two seasons Merced used the Cal Mod division for this. He finished second one year and third the other, and Late Model guys did not like this. Scotts Valley didn't like it much either and wanted a change. Merced didn't have many options though. They did bring Late Models back for no Regional points the last year they were in NASCAR. Car count grew, but Merced dropped the class a year later for good, to the disappointment of many. They also dropped NASCAR.

Considering the financial situation, they had no choice at the time. Being on an island of his own, Griffin had to do what he thought would work. It was not a perfect situation. There were driver boycots, rule changes that cut car counts, the dropping of Limited Sprints for the Sportsman class and on and on. Some people got mad, but the show went on. The Griffins loved what they did, and they tried to keep it alive at a cost to them.

For many years, Merced Speedway had a rich tradition of great racing, from the Hardrops to the Sportsman division to the Late Models. So many memories. Some of Merced's top drivers would go to other places and win too.

In the 90's, it seemed sometimes like the track struggled to find itself. The Little Truck division was added. Chuck was so proud of this class, he tried to sell Antioch and Watsonville on it, but both tracks turned a blind eye to it. But you know, this division gave Merced the Stone family, Jack Stanford, Marcus Aue, John Clarke and other new blood that moved up in divisions, so it had a huge impact on Merced Speedway.

IMCA sanctioning was added to the Modified class, and car counts were good there. The legendary Johnny Sass not only announced, but he brought in sponsorship for each race that had a positive impact on purses. Griffin made the track bigger, but the down side was the inside back wall that scared some people off from racing there. But man, the grandstands there, that place was a palace. So much potential.

People were frustrated though. You can talk about positives, like the big special races that continued, free admission to the fans on 4th of July and continued efforts to promote family and community, without talking negatives.

The drivers did strike, and then headed elsewhere to places like Hanford, Madera and Antioch. Chuck stepped in and claimed Larry Folkner's motor one year, costing Folkner the title. Strong track supporter and sponsor Mark Condell attempted to claim a motor in Street Stocks, as per the rules, but he was denied. Tom Sagmiller, a big booster for the track, ended up leaving and becoming one of the loudest voices of management change as the track headed into the new millennium.

Through it all, the show went on. Whether it was 4 cars or 24, races were held, points were kept and champions were crowned. The promoter's grandson, Timmy Post, died, and the track honored him with it's biggest race. Everybody wanted to compete in the Timmy Post Memorial race, which was set up for just the CCMR and IMCA members as it was felt Timmy would have wanted the locals to benefit from the extra money in the purse.

Some criticized the Griffins for not being welcoming to out of town racers, not just in that race, but in general, but it was real simple. Know the rules when you come, play by the rules and there wouldn't be a problem. But that rule book will bite you in the butt, and sometimes it may seem very trivial. Some visitors had no problems, but others did. It depended on who you talked to.

Merced welcomed Rick Petruzzi with open arms. I was amazed. They would boo that guy walking around the grandstands at Antioch, but at Merced they cheered him. He won a championship there.

Before Antioch racer Bob Hansen became a Street Stock State champion and top runner in Modifieds, he brought his big old "tuna boat" race car to Merced and had his first top three future finish. Heck, low buck racer Mitch Enos won a Late Model feature there. I had some fond memories in my early visits to that track. The people were friendly, the racing was good and it was fun.

In 2000, after efforts to make a change at Merced had failed, Tom Sagmiller and his investors managed to open Chowchilla Speedway some 16 miles or so down the road on Friday nights. Despite that, there weren't too many people who ran both tracks. The thinking was one of the tracks might go under, but it didn't happen. Both tracks had something to offer, even if working together was out of the question. I was in the middle, and getting a compromise was next to impossible. I tried.

In 2001, three of us walked the fence, Joe Martinez, Doug Laidlaw and me. Tom never asked me to pick a side, and I never heard it from Chuck either. All I wanted to do that year was help BOTH places, and at the time I had hopes of track unity. I was naive, I admit it, but I am a dreamer.

A week after I received my walking papers from the grandstands at Antioch for my opinion in The Editor's Viewpoint column, I went to Merced Speedway and sat in the stands with Tom and Cindy. It was bittersweet. We had everything going at Chowchilla at the time, growing car counts and attendance. It was a great show. But at Merced, it was doom and gloom. We were cracking jokes, but for me, part of that was to keep the tears out of my eyes.

There were 18 cars that night, ten IMCA Modifieds, 4 Pure Stocks and 4 Street Stocks. A tow truck tows a car off the track and the funeral procession plays over the PA. Somebody says, "I wonder if that's for the crashed car or the track itself?"

It was bad. Looking at the four car fields, I think I quipped, "Somebody's taking the Food 4 Less sponsorship a little too seriously."

But I knew then that I had to help. I love getting into projects that build things up and make them better. I'm pretty good at hype. I think I had done a little something to help the NCMA in it's early years and the Spec Sprints. Joe and I were still doing CRO together and kicking some butt with the news. Both of us were on the same page at the time. I remember the after race meals we had with Tom, Cindy and Buddy where we were talking about what we could do to make things better.

Tom never said he didn't want me to do this. Why? Tom has Merced Speedway in his heart, despite what some people may think. He let me stay at his place a day later so I could do this. Other promoters held me up to certain standards where I had to make choices or I was being bad, but not Tom. He even drove me to Merced Speedway or Cindy would.

I'll tell you something else, as far as this silly feud goes. Tom chose to open Chowchilla on Fridays so as not to hurt Merced, and he could have if he wanted to. He even moved a race in 2001 that cost him thousands, but he only did that to help Merced. I never heard him tell anybody not to go to Merced, and he allowed me to hype Merced races on the PA at Chowchilla.

So, I go to Merced Speedway with my recorder, camera and paperwork and get to work. I start writing about Merced and hyping any point battles, any drivers having good runs and just building things up. I'm in the grandstands announcing these races into the tape recorder for CRO. I started the CRA State point race with Joe that saw two championships won by Merced racers Jimmy Lust and Jack Stanford. I'm doing what I can.

Not long after I started announcing for CRO audio, Matt of Matt & Glass decided I needed to be in the booth with Johnny Sass. What a great honor that was to me. Johnny's the real deal. He's no phony. Matt tells the Griffins he'll pay me for a month, and if they like what I'm doing, they can pay me. Well, they liked what they heard. Thanks Matt. You're awesome.

Now, I can really help make a difference. I'm hyping everything I can. Me and Johnny work good together. I'm noticing car counts are growing, and attendance is growing a little as well. People are starting to get into this thing. The Pure Stocks had been down for a few years, but that year saw it reach double digits regularly. I was pretty excited, and it felt good to be a part of it. We had a good show. Car count wasn't spectacular, but we got two heats, a dash and main event for our three main classes and some good races. Even the Sportsman division was doing okay. Chuck really had that high groove dialed in for the racers too.

At the end of the year, I missed the banquet, but this was because Chowchilla was running big races I needed to be at, not because I didn't want to be there. I'll never forget calling Marlyee on opening day 2002, getting ready to catch a train down there, only to find out I wasn't being brought back. I felt so crushed that day. It hurt. Merced Speedway was in my heart. I felt like the Merced/Chowchilla thing may have had something to do with it, so I withdrew from Chowchilla.

In hindsight, Tom deserved better than that. Sure, there were some things I was unhappy with him about back then, but he deserved a face to face meeting. When I lost Merced, I just didn't care anymore. I spoke about reacting to things and not being happy in another post, and this has everything to do with that. The crusade was over. Had I still had the gig at Merced and been allowed to do both, I would have returned. I love it down there.

And I never had any problem with Chuck or Marylee. Do I agree with everything they did? No I do not. Nobody will agree with anybody on everything. But, what I saw in them when I was down there was two good people trying to do their thing and keep the race track going. They were trying, and they were having a little success in the early part of the decade.

So, I came back a few weeks into the season in 2002. Johnny Sass is at the gate and wants me up in the booth with him. Do the Griffins mind? They don't, and I would love to work with Johnny again. I'm in the pits and people are happy to see me. They want me back there again. I felt welcomed. I'll be honest, the last two years I was doing my thing in racing, I went to Merced when I needed something to make me feel good about being in racing. The Valley is good for that, at least for me.

So, I came back several times that year, and the Griffins invited me to the banquet. I go and present several DCRR State awards plaques. They even awarded me as part of the crew. Then, Johnny put some pictures from the banquet of me handing out awards from the State deal in the track program, along with State points listings. What an honor. Things weren't going all that well for me at that point, so this meant so much to me.

I came back to Merced my last season in racing whenever I could. My friend Chris usually drove, and we always had fun. Things were holding steady with drivers like Ramie Stone, Bob Williamson, John Clarke, Randy Brewer, Raul Rodriguez and so many talented racers putting on a good show. It's real easy to write and announce when you have these guys inspiring you. But, things were falling apart for me. I could feel myself ready to walk away, always going back to Merced for my smile.

When the season was up, I only had one thing that I was looking forward to that could have made a difference for a possible 2004 in racing for me. The Merced Banquet. Well, there was one more thing, but I won't get into it here. Anyway, I had the awards all ready to go and my ride was set. I don't drive, which is ironic when you think about it, but I can get to the train station if I need to. But, I had a ride set up for that night.

So, I'm getting ready with the cheap suit I have. Jim Soares saw it on me at Reno one year and asked me if I was there to take his order. Jim's sense of humor sometimes, but that's another story. Anyway, the time comes, and there's no ride. I never heard from him, and then it was too late. I was crushed. I really was. My heart wasn't in it anymore, but I had taken a box of awards for John Trussler to hand out at Antioch. I decided to go there and do it myself.

The DCRR Sweet 16/Terrific 12 State point race had already seen awards handed out in Orland that year, and that night was gonna be Antioch and Merced. I really felt like I was building something that year that I could make into a big thing for the racers. I could ultimately promote track unity in my own way, through my actions and not just with words. That State point race was pretty neat, and people were definitely into it.

I'm pretty sure the pictures taken at the Merced banquet in 2003 would have gone into the program again, and that would have been a big deal for the State points. Johnny gave away so many prizes for the programs that they sold quite a few. I was a no show, but not out of choice. Then, I get a call from Joe Martinez, telling me I had been awarded a "Team Player" award for my efforts. A trophy actually. I was crushed.

I know the Griffins probably took it personally. I e-mailed them, because I had no phone number to call then. I tried to explain what had happened, but I guess it didn't matter. What more could I do? As the last award I ever won in racing, I can tell you it would have been displayed with pride here had I been able to get it. I know they don't hand those out lightly.

This was when I decided to skip Reno that year, though Don O'Keefe Jr. had suggested I go. I should have, but I was just not into it. John Soares Jr. and I had a few phone calls when it looked like somebody had been trying to get Antioch from him, and after the call letting me know it was okay, I was relieved that I could walk away. I'm sure he thought I'd be there opening day, but I didn't want to just continue as things had been. I needed to go.

And Merced Speedway continued. I know about Chuck's move to grab Chowchilla, and it wasn't cool in my book. It failed, and maybe that impacted the demise of Merced? Adding divisions didn't help things either, I'm sure.The numbers were dwindling over the last two seasons especially. Even the IMCA Modifieds weren't reliable anymore. So sad to see it end like this.

Maybe it should have ended years ago. Perhaps the feud should have ended years ago. Who won in the end? How would things have been now if both sides had buried the hatchet? Woulda coulda shoulda...

I can say that you don't last for some 25 years running a race track without doing something right. I can't fault them for that. They made some big mistakes, but they had some big successes too. I just wish they would have left things in good enough shape that somebody could have taken the ball and ran with it. Who knows what a fresh mind would have brought to the table if given that chance?

Can it be saved even now? I know it seems unlikely. Then again, did anybody think Chowchilla would get another chance? Or Stockton? Orland? You never know. Maybe the final chapter in the history of Merced Speedway isn't written yet. I can only hope.

Let me end this with a thank you to Chuck & Marylee Griffin. Maybe you weren't perfect, but you gave people a place to race all these years.