Sunday, January 3, 2010

Looking Back: The Curl Racing Family

I heard the Curl name mentioned again recently, and it makes me think of another racing family that supported racing at Antioch Speedway that is no longer there. From the mid 70's though the early part of the 00's, the Curls raced at the track and made their presence known. If they weren't racing, they were building cars for people, or both.

Bruce "The Phantom" Curl was a sportsman racer in the 70's, but it's in the 80's when he gained some recognition. He was one of just two drivers from the Antioch area to win the Stock Car championship in the 80's. He drove for Pete Paulsen in the famed "House Of Wheels Special" and won the 1981 championship, a year before Regional points became a part of the deal.

Pete's care were beautiful, red, while and blue paint job, chrome wheels and #66. I believe there were two cars that year with Pete's other driver being Danny Jones. If memory serves, Jim Booth's #72 car was sponsored by Pete as well.

Anyway, the locals had a hard time keeping up with the "big buck" guys who came in from Watsonville and San Jose, but Bruce had his moments. He was even a feature winner during a time when the local guys didn't win many. In 1982, Bruce's son, Bruce Curl Jr., raced, and I believe "Gentle Ben" Gary Ehrlich and Nick Arrington even had cars as part of the team.

Bill Curl didn't race as much, but he did have a competitive car. His rookie season in Stock Cars saw him rank third in the points while his brother was winning the championship. He also enjoyed a top 20 ranking during the very competitive 1984 Stock Car season.

Bill even put 1981 Sportsman State champion Richard Johnson in his car, and I recall them having some good finishes. Johnson was even a top 20 point runner. Bruce ranked much higher. If memory serves, Johnson had some top five success in Bill's car in 100 lap Main Events. I recall the Curls had a hand in getting other local drivers out to the track, and Randy Dahl and Darrel Dodson come time mind for some reason.

Though the Stock car class didn't always have huge car counts at Antioch, they did well in 1983 and 1984. The Curls were a part of that. 1984 was the year local legend J.D. Willis finally won the Stock Car championship after close battles with former Regional champions Dave Byrd and Jim Pettit II the previous two seasons.

Since Willis and Curl were the only local drivers to win Stock Car championships that decade, it made perfect sense for Bruce to team up with Willis in 1985 and put him behind the wheel of his #25a car. The teaming lead to top five point success over the next couple seasons with Willis winning Main Events on more than one occasion. The Curls know a thing or two about building fast race cars, and Willis can drive the wheels off of anything.

Around that time, Curl's teammate, Tony Pato, fielded a car. Tony had his moments, and though maybe he didn't get the results Bruce did, he was there every week. I believe it was Tony's brother Bob Pato who went on to be a respected official at the track. They even recruited Tony after a hard crash into the front wall sidelined him from driving. People respected Tony too, because they knew he was fair.

When the Dirt Modified class was in it's infancy, Bruce and Tony got on board. He had long since established the Curl Racing shop, which many racers used. Since NASCAR was finally getting on board with this class, Bruce started building cars for racers like former Street Stock "Rookie Of The Year" Ron Murray and Tom Williams. Bruce was in the championship battle that year and even led, but it was Johnson who would win the first title for the class. Can you believe that was 20 years ago? Where does the time go?

Bruce had pretty much retired from racing, but he'd come back out and help people get things dialed in from time to time. He helped Ed Leis as I recall. What I recall about Curl Racing was they were poised to be the top shop for building Dirt Modifieds in the area, and at a reasonable price. They were good cars too. However, during that first season, Scott Busby came on board with the Harris Chassis and started his successful Busby Motorsports business.

Soon, everybody had a Harris, which lead to attempts by Bart Reid and Cobra Chassis, and Chad Chadwick and Pro Chassis, to grab some of that business. Don't want to forget about Cline Racing, as Lance Cline had some success as well. Lance Cline and his legendary father Dean "The Blinker" Cline would be a good subject for a column.

Bill came back in a Street Stock in 1987. Money was tight and a Late Model was simply not an option for him, so he had a Street Stock. If memory serves, it was Brian Keith's old car. There was some concern over whether he could run for points as Dean Cline's Street Stock effort a year or so before was stricktly a non point affair due to his previous Stock Car and Sportsman seasons. Bill was top three throughout the first half of the season. He ended up selling the car. Bill still ranked top ten that season.

Bill would jump back into the game as a car builder in the 90's, building for Kurt Breuker, Mark Paulson and Chris Lancaster. Bill even had an occasion to put J.D. Willis behind the wheel of his car, and Willis finished second one night after having been away for several years. Willis came close to joining John Soares Jr. as the only drivers to win features at Antioch in the 60's, 70's, 80's, 90's and 00's. I wonder if John will go for a win in this decade? Curl could have been top ten that season had he wanted it, but both he and Willis finished in the top 20 in the standings.

Breuker ran a Machine shop in Concord and had a reputation for making fast motors. He was top ten in points and a feature winner. The team of Curl and Breuker was fully capable of winning a championship. Though it never happened, they certainly made their presence known.

Through the years, another Curl made her presence known at the track, Bill's wife Sue. The Powder Puff races happened about every year during the 80's and Sue was one of the top drivers. She may have won in the 90's as well. I don't have records of that, but I think she did.

So, Bill decided to put Sue in a Pure Stock and turn her loose on the competition. Well, she won her share of races and even came within shouting distance of the championship. To my knowledge, this is where the Curl involvement at the track ends. Bill and Sue moved from the state, and I'm not sure whatever happened to Bruce. I know I'm probably forgetting a thing or two, but the Curls were definitely an important part in the evolution of the track.

In fact, let me go some place people might not want me to go. It was the late 80's, and Bill and Sue were track officials. Bill's knowledge of race cars made him a good tech official and Sue ran the pit board. The chief steward was John Meyers, who had crewed for drivers like Jerry Garner and Mike Walko in the past.

What happened one night shook things up big time. A tech inspection on the motor of one of the top drivers found that motor to be illegal. Who was that driver? Let's just say not a local driver, but somebody in the Regional point battle. This was to be swept under the rug but for one problem. Bill Curl was one of those guys who wanted to see fair treatment for all and was an advocate for the little guy.

Bill spoke up. I recall writing a column in The DCRR at that time called "And The Knife Was Passed" or something like that. The fallout from that was the Curls were fired and Meyers was removed from his duties. He resurfaced as an official, but that didn't last long. The up shot for John was that when track management decided not to rehire respected announcer Butch Althar, a big mistake in my opinion, they hired John instead. After all, John was a "team" player.

I respect Bill, because he's generally been somebody looking out for the racers. The Curl family contributed to what made Antioch Speedway such a great place to race. These are the type of people who made this race track. Families who spent their Saturday nights at the track and their weeknights building race cars. Where would we be without them? I don't know, but I do know things wouldn't have been the same without them.