Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Visit From A Friend And A Few Thoughts About Things At Antioch

I saw an old friend today, Jim Robbins. I really don't see many people from my days at the speedway. I think Ron Brown was probably the last person I saw. You know, we come into each others lives and when we are there, it matters. It's hard to explain. Sometimes it's just that we make a change in our lives. It's not that we don't like people or whatever. We aren't traveling in those circles anymore, so we don't see each other.

Once in a while, I see Jim. He's one of the very few people I hear from. I cherish the friendship. Jim and the whole Figure 8 crew will always have a special place in my heart. Back in 1988, as I was completing the first year of The DCRR (Delta County Race Report at the time), my typewriter was broken. Okay, I had a temper. Maybe I broke it. I had been kicked out of the pits late that season as I recall, second or third time. I lose track.

I was seriously contemplating walking away from racing then. Well, the awards banquet comes up that year, and who should come knocking on my door but Jim. "Don. Where were you? We have something for you at the banquet."

Well, I was probably sitting around feeling sorry for myself that day, but I go. To my surprise, the drivers had taken up a collection and made a plaque for me. Plus, they gave the rest of the money raised for the plaque to me, which went towards a new typewriter. I still have that plaque on my wall with all of the driver's names on it who sponsored it. Those were just the names that could fit on it.

Basically, Jim gathers all the racers around who cared about this, and he presented me with the plaque. I had my picture taken. This was the first award I ever received in racing, and it came at a time when I needed something like this, something that would give me a reason to come back. That was it. I knew I'd be back.

I was happy when John brought the Figure 8 back that one season, because I know how much it meant to Jim. I wish the race had a fighting chance, but I understand the economics behind John's decision to drop it.

Jim's working at Antioch Speedway these days. Times are tough out there. We're talking about things and I'm giving him my observations on how I see things. I've posted some here about it, but I'll get into that more in a moment. I can see Jim is concerned about things. He's third generation Robbins to race at the track, and a fourth generation actually did race there this year.

That's the stuff that resonates with me.

Jim asks me if I want to go out to the track. Do I? I had to think about that. There's a lot of old memories for me there. I'm actually trying to decline this invitation. You can't go "home" again, and I don't think I ever will. But, I go.

We're talking old "war" stories on the way out there. As we go down 10th Street, (I think), I see buildings with boarded windows. I'm hearing about friends who have lost their homes in these tough times. That "change" in the last election seems to be working beautifully, and no, the guy before him was no better.

We're having a good conversation. Jim gets it. He knows what it's all about. Sure, like me he raised some hell back in the day, but he's one of the good people out there who understands what the tradition of racing at Antioch Speedway is all about. They need more of that out there. It wasn't that long ago that it was there. In fact, when this decade started, that track was THE place to be.

He wants to know what's needed. That's kind of how this thing started. I lived and breathed this sort of thing for a long time. I know I got gloomy and negative in my Editor's Viewpoint column when this decade started, but do you think I wanted to see bad things happen? NO!!!

It was a warning. That's all. Things were headed down hill, and I saw it. I tried to offer suggestions. I tried to make a difference. I went to tracks people gave up on and tried to help there too. In fact, I did make a difference in those places. But, I saw the writing on the wall and tried to warn people.

Look at things now. I hope people in Chowchilla appreciate the miraculous comeback of that track. After Tom was removed, it could have been over. I hope the people at Watsonville appreciate what they have. They are very lucky, because it was dying not too long ago. I hope the people at Petaluma appreciate what they have. I hear rumors, but people, if Jim Soares wants to keep running things there, let him. He's earned that right. Don't try to bid it away from him.

Pray for Merced Speedway. I've been down there, and that track is worth saving. It doesn't look good folks. It may be over for them.

So, Jim and I walk through the side gates, and he shows me where Roy Fisher crashed his Spec Sprinter. I hope Roy is doing okay these days. Roy always was a class act in my book. "Rallying" Roy Fisher, as I called him. I gave him that nickname because he always seemed to come from the back of the pack for decent finishes.

Jim's pretty proud of the track in it's configuration. They lengthened it this year. I look up at the grandstands to see Hall Of Famer Harvey Mason is still honored with his section. This is great. Aside from being one of the original local drivers, some would still call him the greatest track prep guy in track history. I'm not going there, but he was darn good.

So, I'm standing on Antioch Speedway. Hallowed ground. I used to say I wanted to be cremated when I die and have my ashes spread on the track and some in the pits. I loved that place. Still do, even though I moved on. Jim and I are telling war stories. Remembering those no longer with us, like Mike Conley. We probably could have spent the day just talking about the good old days.

I'm on the track over in Turns 1 and 2. Wow! There's banking. Guys and gals can really get hooked up out there and go racing. Where was this track a few years ago? John spent some money on this deal. From what I've read on the track's results page, car count stabilized. It didn't grow by leaps and bounds really, but car count loss seemed to stop. That's a positive sign. But guess what? Nobody knows. Therefore, nobody cares.

That's what's sad. Remember when I said good old days? Well, next year is the 50th anniversary of the track. We should be talking about the good new days. We only have the legend of guys like Bill Brown, Gary Pacheco, Darryl Shirk, Dennis Furia and so many others, but you know something? New legends can be built. I know I look at that list of newer names out there and want to know who some of those people are.

Somebody is dropping the ball. These new drivers are already doing awesome things, but nobody knows. No hype. How many nicknames are there that endear them to the fans? Okay, I suppose John is dropping the ball, and this one is so easy to work on fixing if an effort would be made. I know who is announcing. He's okay, but he lacks that something special to really get people excited. I don't know who is writing. Is there a writer?

Hey John, how are you gonna build a crowd up without any hype? Yes, the track looks great, but do you really expect people to come if they don't know anything about it?

So, what's lacking? No publicity and no sense that any of this matters. With Year 50 coming up, now's the time to kick it into high gear. Special memorial races. For who? Well, there was a guy who put that track out there and ran it for 20 straight years. Who was it? Oh, yeah, John's dad. Other special races. Bring back the Meeker Classic? The Shirk Memorial? A race for Dennis Furia? Lots of options. Hall Of Fame night?

Point is, there is a lot of potential. That's the problem. Fans aren't inspired to spend their hard earned dollar there, and there are some names people know who don't race there now, some of whom might be enticed to come race if given a reason to. Public relations. A feeling of being appreciated. That's what's missing. It's real easy to walk away if you don't feel you're wanted or appreciated or that it's just not worth it.

And, the thing is, I doubt John would spend the money if he didn't care.

Now, I'm on the sidelines. I haven't attended a race there in five, make that six years. I don't have plans to, but I see people ripping on the track's lack of publicity who do still attend. So, I'm gonna ask you something. Have you ever thought about picking up a pen and paper and trying to do it yourself? Wanna know a secret? That's how I started. That's how the late Gary Jacob started.

Now is the point where I go into what may seem a defense of John, but it's not. Some people are backing a change. What makes you think it will be any better? Who's gonna do a better job? What exactly are they gonna do after John moves all of his property and leaves the place no better off than it was when he came? Do they have a plan?

I can hear it now. "Oh, you are supporting John."

No, I'm supporting racing. I'm not saying it can't be done, just that you need somebody who has an idea what this whole racing thing is all about. If you were to tell me that a guy like Scott Busby was looking, I'd listen to what he had to say at least. Somebody who has been around. The other thing to consider is what rule changes would come and what divisions would be left homeless. What would be the format?

Honestly, I look at John as a legend in this sport. He learned from the master. But, he got lost along the way. Maybe the haters made him jaded. Some of you have no idea what he dealt with in the first couple years, but I do. It wasn't a big majority, but they made their presence known. Some time midway through the 1999 season, the man lost his smile. He changed. It got to him. Now, this is my opinion.

Why stay then? Isn't it obvious? Money? Get out of here with that. John had other ventures making him money that were much easier on him. He stayed, because racing is in his blood, and he was trying to make a difference. To some, it may not feel like that. To some, he's just a jerk. Until you walk in those shoes, you have no idea. Again, I'm not defending him, just making a point.

Do I have stories I can tell? A few, but what's the point? I don't hate John. Fact is, we can both look back and see the places where we could have done things differently. Life is too short for that. After I was given the boot in 2001, as I wrote about in an earlier post, we spoke and shook hands at the Chowchilla Open Wheel Round Up later that year. Water under the bridge. I left racing on good terms with him, or so I thought. I wasn't officially employed, and I needed to get out. It wasn't fun anymore, and I couldn't do it.

I don't hate John. I still consider the man a friend, and what his family has done for this sport means something to me. Yes, Jim (at Petaluma), even you. Lots of people love to talk, but they'll never do half of what John and his family have done. That's the truth. I would hope that John looks back on the good I did and has some positive memories of me. I will always be grateful for the opportunities he gave me. In the beginning, it was us against the world, because nobody thought we could do it. We showed them.

So, the day with Jim Robbins was pretty cool. I know he cares. I would hope somebody else does too. It's time for somebody out there who is tired of the lack of press and hype to do something about it. Apply for the position and help make a difference. Now is the time.

Complain about the track all you want, but at least you still have a track to complain about. If it's not fun, leave. If you can't do that, offer to help. You just may be surprised. Remember, the guy announcing there now didn't start out as an announcer, but he seized the opportunity when it came. Who will be next?

I understand my name has come up in conversations when people talk about what can help Antioch Speedway, and I appreciate that. It means a lot to be remembered for the good you do, and I thank everybody who has had something positive to say. I always tried to bring something positive and good to the races.

Over at Late Model Racer, I noticed some people already recommending me for PR and announcing at the track. Some nice comments there, like this one by Johnnie Baptista:

Don Martin II (Delta County Race Report) did the job before he was 86ed by Soares. Just like the IMCA rules, Don helped build the track's car count and crowd draw while at Antioch.

and this one by hookdup:

Don spent a considerable amount of his time and his own money promoting our sport. Was an asset to the Speedway and was treated like the dirt John Soares Jr. walked on.

You know, Johnnie at one time helped save The DCRR with a donation in 1992 when I was trying to get my act together. The man didn't really know me that well, but he wanted to support somebody who supported racing. I will always remember that gesture and what it meant to me. Plus, Johnnie is an advocate for the low buck racer as I am and have always been.

As for hookdup, I don't feel "walked on" anymore. That was back in 2001 when I felt that way. I see a lot of things more clearly now, and I'm over most of the bad feelings I harbored. When I was in the middle of it all, it was hard to see things straight. Sometimes you need to walk away and look at it from a distance for better perspective. I do appreciate the sentiment though, and investing in the sport when I could was never a problem to me. I wouldn't have been where I was without the racers.

I rambled on far more than I planned to here. People, it all boils down to this. Life is short. The world is changing fast, and you can judge for yourself if it's better or not. Sometimes I'd like to go back, just to the 80's again. The whole point of racing is to have fun, make friends and build up memories. Talking with Jim today about the old days reminded me just how much fun we did have back in the day. Racing shouldn't be about politics and crusades, but about the fun times.

I do hope Antioch Speedway can continue to be a fun place that builds new legends in the sport for years to come. That's what it's all about.