Thursday, January 21, 2010

Looking Back: What Might Have Been

Would NASCAR still be at Antioch and Watsonville right now had the Antioch bid gone differently in 1997? Would West Coast Speedways still exist? Might San Jose Speedway still be here? Did the loss of Antioch Speedway as a West Coast Speedways track kill San Jose Speedway? What about NARC?

Okay, I'm bored. I should be moving on from the racing stuff, but the mind has been going on and on about it for some reason. It's not so much a desire to be in the game for me as a nostalgic look back. I recently dug up some of my oldest, hand written magazines from 1985 and 1987. Wow. I was still learning. The desire and passion was there, but I had a lot to learn. I was on a crusade for racing. Sometimes I'd like to go back and slap that kid and tell him to focus on something else, but I do recall having lots of fun back then too.

I'm a Pro Wrestling fan. Yeah, I know, Pro Wrestling? By the late 90's, it had peaked in popularity with WWF against WCW, and ECW trying to make a name for themselves. By the early part of the last decade, WCW and ECW were gone. This has led to many discussions among fans as to what happened. My personal opinion was WWF killed ECW by taking their network deal right out from under them. WCW ended because of that stupid AOL merger with Time Warner. But, anyway...

I still feel West Coast Speedways leadership was just not very attentive to the needs of the individual tracks, for one thing. I may be crazy, but had Brynda been in charge, things might very well have been different. She had some good ideas, but she wasn't in a position to make some of them happen. Rick, I just don't know. A nice guy, but he oversaw the sinking of the good ship WCS, in my opinion. The legacy of "Barky" finally came to an end under his watch, and I'd be hard pressed to explain what, if anything, he did to try and prevent it.

You have to understand, the mid 80's were a happening time with the Late Models. The last really amazing time period. A guy could run his Late Model three nights a week. Watsonville on Friday, a choice of Antioch, Merced or San Jose on Saturday and Baylands on Sunday. They even had a North Vs South deal with the guys down in Santa Maria and Bakersfield. Track unity existed then and made things better.

The bid came up in 1987 at Antioch, and what people don't know is who really won Antioch at the time. John Soares Sr. actually won that bid. There was no newspaper coverage of this at the time. John's wife Gladys was not happy with him for doing that. This is an interesting story, actually, but the result was John got a NASCAR sanctioning at Petaluma for a year and West Coast Speedways (I think it was Cars Inc. at the time) would make sure track management at Antioch was based in the area.

Dennis Huth from Oregon and the late Bert Moreland from the Watsonville area had been overseeing the day to day for NASCAR at Antioch. People were crying for a change and wanted somebody more in tune with the area. Can you imagine what might have been had John kept the track? I mean, he could have easily put Jim or John Jr. in charge at Antioch.

So, WCS had Antioch, Watsonville and Merced as Stock Car tracks and San Jose for Sprint Cars and Stock Cars, at least for a while longer. It was the WAM State Series for Late Model Stock Cars and Street Stocks, plus the occasional Tri Track Series weekends with individual champions for the three race series.

Merced had begun having races for the VMRC Sprint Cars, which at that time may have included carbureted Sprint Cars. The VMRC was based in Hanford, and within a year or two had become a 360 Sprint Car class. Chuck created the California Modified class, and it sort of stayed under the radar for a while.

What was interesting was Rick's assumption that if he just had certain tracks drop Late Models, all of the cars would be forced to go to Antioch. San Jose was first and Merced followed suit. It wasn't as big a deal at San Jose, which was a Sprint Car track anyway. They added 360 Sprint Cars, and the show was fine. Merced, on the other hand, was a different story, but let me back track a bit.

Around 1986, race tracks had begun looking for the next big thing. At Baylands, they had already begun looking at 360 Sprint Cars, which would become huge. At Santa Maria, they tried something called California Dirt Cars, based on the DIRT Modifieds out of Pennsylvania. Without this class, I don't know if Wingless Spec Sprints would even exist today. At Petaluma, John Soares Sr. brought back the Dirt Modified, based on the IMCA Modifieds of Iowa. This would become the next big thing, but it took a while. IMCA came to California and got involved before NASCAR did.

The reality of the situation was had Moreland still been track manager at Antioch in 1988, Dirt Modifieds would have been on the schedule a minimum of 12 times. It took a new management who knew nothing about the area, though they would relocate there, to add California Dirt Cars. This is an example of Rick not being in tune with things. Had he been aware, he would have added the class that people in Antioch wanted as the intermediate class between Late Models and Street Stocks.

People in Antioch were asking for that. There was a complaint that rules were getting too out of hand in the Late Models. Local support fell after 1984 rule changes. As long as the Regional players supported, those concerns were ignored. So, people began talking about bringing a Sportsman class back or Limited Stock Cars that allowed just a little more for Street Stocks. That's one thing Antioch had at that time, a ton of Street Stocks. When car count is in the 40's, you're doing something right.

By 1990, Rick decided he couldn't ignore the Dirt Modified division anymore and they were added at Antioch, Watsonville and Merced. The problem was Merced had little interest, and Rick wanted Late Models dropped to try and increase Antioch car count. We gained one, sometimes two, cars at Antioch from that. This move was clearly a mistake.

What truly needed to be done was to focus in on Late Models, making them more affordable and attracting new racers. I know the talk of there only being 10 cars per week, but if fans are given a choice of ten Late Models or two Modifieds at Merced, what do you think they will want to see? Chuck countered by making his Cal Mod class the headline class for Regional points, a move that did not please the Regional Late Model players or WCS. This was the beginning of the end of Merced as a NASCAR track.

The sad thing was it didn't have to be that way. The Dirt Modifieds should have been gradually introduced there, rather than pushed as hard as they were, and Late Models should have remained on the card, at least until things were in place for Dirt Modifieds. They reintroduced Late Models in 1991 and grew it back to ten cars, but just as buzz was recreated, it was dropped. I'll put that one on Chuck.

So, WAM was no more, and Antioch and Watsonville both had Late Models, Dirt Modifieds and Street Stocks. Antioch, since 1984, had not had the car counts that Watsonville and even Merced had at times. It was still respectable, but B Mains were not a regular occurrence. In 1990, car count had a surprising resurgence. This wasn't due to Merced, but rather because more locals were getting cars. People like Corky Pattrick, Doug Timmons, Mike Gummus and Mark Schrader had cars, and B Mains were needed again.

Meanwhile, Dirt Modifieds were taking off. Curl Racing was there to help get cars together the first season, but Busby Motorsports at Antioch and Bowman Racing at Watsonville were dealing the Harris Modified chassis. By the second or third season, we were having B Mains. The division also served as a place for Street Stock drivers to move up more affordably. While this was nice, nothing was being done to encourage guys to move up from there to Late Models.

When you look at one reason the Petaluma All Pro Series was so successful, it was the fact that drivers moved up and new drivers filled their spots. The Late Model surge at Antioch was dead by 1992, and nothing was being done about it. Car count was even hurting at Watsonville, though both places still had two heats, a dash and a feature.

I heard the argument that if you tweak the rules too much for the little guy, the major players would just leave. That seemed like b.s. to me, because those guys would be there for Regional points. They always were. If any of them were even saying that the rules shouldn't be touched to make it more affordable for the little guy, it was a selfish attitude. I didn't hear much of that, but I did hear the bit about a purse increase. I agreed that at that time, $100 to start the main should have been a guarantee.

But, nothing was done. Rather than top drivers in the Modifieds wanting to move up for the next challenge, they were looking for a way to bring the Regional points to themselves. At Petaluma, meanwhile, John did have a guaranteed pay schedule for not just Late Models, but all classes. Give me this many cars, you get this. Drivers took notice and started supporting Petaluma.

One thing I liked about John was that even when it was down to six or eight cars, he kept the division. Those drivers had always been loyal to him, and the fans still wanted to see those cars. But, doom and gloom greeted Antioch when they dropped below ten cars. The push was on for a change, lead by the top Modified car seller at the place. He helped schedule a big show that produced a still record 83 car field at the season's end, and he went to San Jose, put fenders on his car and showed that the Dirt Modified was ready for headline status.

This was a sad time, a changing of the guard. Could Late Models have been saved? In my opinion, yes they could have. It is my opinion that WCS lacked the leadership to take that stand. At Antioch, however, Brynda wanted to make something happen. She understood the importance of the class and was a fan of the racing it produced. So, she had talks with Sandy at Bakersfield. It's just too bad it wasn't her decision to make.

Rick talked with John at Petaluma to form a Late Model series between the tracks, and John was all for it. It could have been huge. At that time, however, John's division was stronger, and he was concerned when drivers were given conflicting rules and told they would still be legal. He withdrew. It was another disappointment, but I still don't see John as the villain that others painted him to be.

San Jose, Antioch and Watsonville still kept their dates. This was a golden opportunity for Rick to create the WCS Late Model Series, one last attempt to save the class. The fans still loved the division. There was a night when close to 40 cars raced between San Jose and Petaluma, showing that both efforts could survive. However, Rick did not seize the moment to try and create a series, no points were kept and it was dropped for good at the end of the season.

Both Watsonville and Antioch added Pure Stocks to make a new entry level class and Modifieds carried the banner. Street Stocks remained strong. But, there were kinks in the armor people didn't notice. San Jose wasn't pulling it's weight on a consistent basis. Antioch was the money maker and Watsonville did pretty well, making up for San Jose's short comings. He also had to deal with a fair board that was looking to drop the track and outrageous parking fees for the fans.

Still, as long as Antioch and Watsonville were there, San Jose was safe. This was also good news to the NARC Sprint Car Tour, which relied heavily on the three tracks and generally sold very well. Fans loved then and if there was a fault with NARC, it was that they knew that fact. That arrogance was at least part of the reason for their downfall, in my opinion, but that's another story.

I don't believe Rick's "open the gates and run the show" policy was enough to keep things going at Antioch. Things needed to be improved more, and the fair board knew it. The renovation of the grandstands was done because the fair board had high expectations for the place. There's a certain logic to the way WCS did things. Hey, it had the NASCAR banner on it, and people came on that basis. It didn't matter how little that organization really gave to the local cause, it was still a banner. People in the Pure Stocks, fans in the stands, could say, "I'm at a NASCAR track!"

The perception was that they were a part of something special, but just that was not enough to keep Antioch. They needed to offer something tangible. When John Soares Jr. went after the track, he knew that fact well. It's what won him the bid. He was willing to spend big to improve the facility and make it better for years to come. It wasn't just an "open the gates" policy.

I wasn't talking with Brynda that much at the time, but I believe she was keenly aware of that fact. I believe she knew they needed to make something more than the standard bid. Had they offered even half of stuff that John had, who knows what might have been. Yes, it would have been an investment, but if you are committed for the long haul, it wouldn't have mattered. Money would have been recouped in the long run. Was Rick truly committed or just doing what family expected of him? I don't know.

It's difficult to know what might have been. NASCAR really could give a flying freak about these little dirt tracks. That's my opinion, but I think I'm right. Either one of the Bills might have cared, but not Brian. They don't want you to go to a race on Saturday night. Just stay home and watch the "big boys" on TV. That philosophy will do nothing for the sport in the long run. The grass roots dirt tracks are what built NASCAR.

I could guess that NASCAR would still be a part of the track through that five year bid. It's just a guess. NARC would still be around, because they'd have those three tracks, and Chowchilla might even be on the NARC schedule for a date or two. And Chowchilla in NASCAR? Who knows? There would have been a push for Saturdays and NASCAR by some though. San Jose? That's a difficult one to answer.

The writing was on the wall for San Jose. People wanted it closed. If Rick had Watsonville and Antioch money coming in, it would have had a fighting chance at least. They could have kept it as a Sprint Car headline track, instead of trying to use it to replace Antioch, which didn't go over very well. They would have needed to focus more heavily on public relations there. New interest needed to be created. It almost certainly would have lasted longer than it did, but how long? Who knows? Maybe long enough to form a real game plan, maybe not.

The other thing people forget was there was interest in making the San Jose Mile a paved race track and bringing the big boys of NASCAR to town. The plan was rejected, but oh what might have been? When that plan was rejected, did NASCAR even care about the place anymore?

It's an interesting thing to look back on. Hindsight is 20-20, and you just never know what might have been. Maybe Antioch and Watsonville would still be NASACAR right now with drivers winning Regional championships. Maybe WCS would still be around. Maybe there would be another track or two involved. Maybe. Who knows? It does serve to remind us that it can all change just like that.

Tracks close in California all the time. They reopen with new management. Sometimes that's it for them. There is so much more that a promoter has to look at than what banner is hanging over the track. There's more to it than people realize. We all think we know something, just because we have an opinion. Maybe we do, and maybe we have a lot to learn. But we should all be thankful that at least we have race tracks to go to on any given weekend. You never know when that can change.