Monday, January 11, 2010

Standing Up For Change In Racing

Being upset with the promoter is nothing new in racing. It is a part of the business. Sometimes the promoter may have actually done something, and other times it's just perceived that way. Driver boycotts happen. I recall one at Merced in the 90's. It went on for two weeks. The third week, they offered double points and that ended that. Gotta earn enough of those points to go to the point redemption window for the bigger trophy at the end of the season.

I touched on the story of the near boycott we had at Antioch with Street Stocks in the 90's in another post. They wanted more money, but the meeting was broken up when the drivers were called to an early pit meeting. The point leader left and that pretty much killed that.

In 1988 or so, the Late Models at Antioch protested. I think it was about the purse money too. The locals were planning to no show, and only two of them came out. I believe even one of the top regional guys opted to race Merced that night in support of the Antioch boycott, but the track managed to get a decent car count due to some San Jose support.

In 1979, when I was still just getting to know the track, a driver boycott happened. I think this stemmed from a penalty against one of the top Sportsman racers who had been suspended for rough driving. Feeling that those drivers didn't give a damn about them any other time, some of the lesser known drivers still raced and the show went on.

You can never make everybody happy. Should people just shut up and accept it? No, but they should use their heads. If you know what to do and how to do it, it can be effective. Just know that not everybody will be united. People will always look out for their own self interest. It's human nature, and that is what leads to the divide and conquer method.

I wasn't as involved in things and didn't understand all of the ins and outs early on when I came out to the track. I was still pretty young. I knew John Soares Sr. ran the track, and I liked the way the program was run. I also knew he had Petaluma Speedway. This was the end of the "Barky Era" and people forget how important Bob Barkhimer was to racing in California and NASCAR in general.

I think the idea going into the 80's might have been to put the "old timers" out to pasture, but Pops was one step ahead of them. He took Petaluma out of NASCAR. Antioch may have been next if given the chance. Who knows? For two decades, John Soares Sr. had run that track, growing it from the track in the shadows of Pacheco and Vallejo to the last track of the three still standing. Who knows what would have been without him?

They wanted him out. I don't know the whole story, but they did. But John loved racing, just as his sons both do. The Soares family is a racing family. So, he stepped aside for "health reasons" at the time. I believe his son Jim was running Merced, and John Jr. had his eyes on moving up, having already won numerous races on the dirt of Antioch, Petaluma and elsewhere.

So, Pops was at Petaluma, and a lot of racers followed him. He was respected. From the early 80's, that Super Stock division was something to see. I got to see it once a year when we'd go to Petaluma during the Antioch fair, and it was a great show.

Antioch was going through many changes at the time. The Sportsman division was fading due to the rule changes and the Stock Car class was moving up. Jim used to talk about cutting the Sportsman class in 1980 at Merced when his minimum car count was not met and pointed out that Chuck Griffin was one of the drivers on that roster. I recall those conversations, because Chuck had restarted the Sportsman class at Merced after dropping the Limited Sprint class. I lobbied for a Sportsman date at Antioch and got one in 2000, but the fan response was lukewarm at best.

So, Paul Bender had to oversee the transition of the track from Sportsman to Stock Car, and it really ushered in a new era where the local drivers had a harder time competing. There were Regional points now, and the guys from Watsonville came to race. It wasn't just about them having money, though they had the best cars. They could race too. That Dave Byrd, Doug McCoun and Jim Pettit II never got a shot at the big times is disappointing to me. It's one of the failings of the Regional point system, in my opinion.

By 1983 and with Dennis Huth in charge, Late Model Stock Cars and Street Stocks were the show at Antioch, and both classes were finally capable of getting B Mains. It got even better in 1984 as both classes had regular B Mains. We had time trials, full shows, special big races and did it all with just two divisions. Imagine that? It was a good show too.

But, as always, people have to try and make it "better" by tweaking the rules. 1985 was an amazing year for Street Stocks. It gave us new racers like Don Shelton, Steve Waggerman, Ron Murray and Corky Pattrick and so many different feature winners. Car count in the Late Model division fell, and many local drivers were forced to park because they couldn't afford the new rules. Still, it wasn't a bad show.

The contract was up in 1986, and people were interested in running the track in 1987. Tom Adair Sr., whose son had just won the Street Stock title, had been involved in racing for several years and had a good idea what needed to be done. The name kept out of the newspapers was John Soares Sr. Not only did he want the track, but his bid earned him the track. He was coming back home.

People at that time were calling for somebody based in the area to run the track, and John had a place in Bethal Island. Heck, he ran the track for 20 years. He knew what he was doing. He was gonna take care of the local racers. Had this come to pass, the "NASCAR dream" at Antioch may have ended. But what did that dream ever really get us? How much money ever came back to the racers in the form of point funds and purse money?

There was just one problem. John's wife Gladys, the Glad in Glad Enterprises, wanted nothing to do with the track. Petaluma kept them busy enough. So, John had NASCAR people calling him, telling him they would be more local oriented and have people based in the area running the place. Nothing in the newspapers mentioned any of this, probably because John didn't want anything said. The paper simply said that the track may go dark. Apparently, Adair had the next highest bid and felt it should have been awarded to him. Sounds fair to me, but I'm not sure how the procedures go for that.

In the end, Cars Incorporated was formed, basically a name change from Bob Barkimer & Associates that was run by Ken Clapp. Rick Farren was set to take the helm of a group of tracks that once was bigger but at that time included Watsonville, San Jose, Antioch and Merced. Watsonville's Bert Moreland remained involved, but Adair was brought in to help get it going before being released halfway though the year. If Tom was upset about it, I never heard him complain.

A year later, the late George Stiles and his wife Brynda were brought in. In an effort to keep it local, they moved to the area after successfully running tracks in Nevada and Southern California. Now George was one of the people involved in setting up the Southwest Tour, which is where Pettit, Byrd and McCoun all moved up to at one time or another. They didn't know a lot about the area, but they were willing to come in and be a part of the community.

Sadly, George passed away, and Brynda was ready to step in. She went from running the concessions to running a race track in a male dominated field. She made it ten years, so I think it's fair to say she did something right. The critics, including myself, could be very harsh at times, but she continued fine tuning the program and fans and racers continued to come. I look at George's decision to add the (NCMA) California Dirt Car division as very important, because would we have Wingless Spec Sprints now without that?

But, to say that was a controversial decision would be an understatement. Mike Johnson had the gift of talk, or BS if you want to put it that way. Moreland had verbally agreed with John Procopio to add the Dirt Modifieds for 12 dates in 1988, and several of us looked at this class as the second coming of the Sportsman division. Pops had added the class in 1987 at Petaluma and was the first promoter in the state to do it.

Antioch still had Late Models, a huge Street Stock division, the wild Figure 8 and visits from the NCMA and SORA Sprint 100's. Around 1990 or 91, the Late Model class peaked for the final time. It was able to get B Mains again. But car count dropped after that. I don't believe Brynda wanted to give up on the class, because she knew it was important. It just wasn't her call to make. That Street Stock count, however, was so big we needed C Mains and even had a D Main on occasion.

It seemed that it was time to start looking at the future again, so the Pure Stock class was added in 1996, giving the track three primary divisions and the traveling visitors. Again, the critics would come out, and that would include me. But, I stayed out of the challenge that came to the Fair Board's attention in 1996, concerning safely and health issues. I was warned to stay out of it, and I chose to heed those warnings.

Lonnie Fish had some concerns about officiating, and neither track officials nor NASCAR would address them. He took those concerns to the Fair Board and was told they couldn't address anything concerning the track, unless it had to do with health and safety. Fact is, the track had become a bit of a cash cow for the organization in charge, and if you look very carefully, you'd understand just how important Antioch and Watsonville together were responsible for keeping San Jose Speedway alive.

But, no money was being dumped into the track, and it was beginning to show. So, Lonnie went about his work preparing a case for safety and health violations at the track, and that move shocked a lot of people. Some accused Lonnie of wanting to close the track. Personally, I believe he wanted to change the way things were done there, and if going about it this way was the only way he could do it, than that's what he was going to do. I have a lot of respect for Lonnie, and don't kid yourself. If this was about closing the track, it would have happened.

But the track was exposed. Changes were needed to the facility, and there didn't appear to be any willingness to do anything from the management at that time. I had been working at Altamont as the "unofficial" writer at that time when I saw John Soares Jr. and Brian Gray racing a Dwarf Car. That seemed unusual to me. Also, I had heard rumors that John was bidding for Antioch. Could that be true? A Soares at Antioch? I absolutely loved the idea.

Pops remains a hero of mine and I was aware of what John had done in racing. He confirmed that he was looking at the track, and I knew he was serious. He also wanted it to be hush hush until just the right time so no sabotage could occur. And, yes, those games are played all the time. He went on to say he was looking at what he could add to the facilities that wasn't already there that could seal the deal for him.

Armed with what I knew, I began writing about an anonymous bidder who wanted to get the track. I knew what he wanted to do. As an aside, I spoke very highly of the NCMA and keeping them at the track. They were the only traveling club that came to Antioch in 1997 that was brought back in 1998. The Dwarf Cars became All Pro, and NARC shot themselves in the foot with a scathing article bashing John. For the record, if they had kept their mouth shut, they would likely have been back at Antioch and Petaluma, in my opinion. All they needed to do was respectfully renegotiate.

So, while I'm writing about this mystery guy, I'm getting all kinds of inquiries. Who is he? Oh, he's somebody who cares about the track. We're gonna lose NASCAR, they said. What does NASCAR really do for this place? Hey, it's a fair question, and by the way, where is NASCAR when short track America could use the help? They are telling you to stay home on Saturday and watch their race on TV. Oh yeah, after using short tracks across the country to build themselves up, they told them to all go to hell. Thanks a lot guys.

At Altamont, I was told by Andy Herbst about a higher up in NASCAR who wanted me fired. I wasn't on the official staff. Andy didn't want me to leave, because he knew that I was doing what I could to help Altamont. They got all sorts of ink because of me. I was feeling the heat though. I'm not kidding when I say that had the bid gone the other way, my butt would have been kicked out of Antioch. And, I doubt I would have come back outside the fence in 1998.

But, that's not what happened. I recall announcing in the magazine, once John gave me the green light, that he was bidding for the track. Pops told a story of how he ran into Brynda at the post office or some place. She called him a lair, because he had said he would never do this. Honestly, he wasn't doing it for himself. He was doing it for his son. Call it a lie if you must, but as I told him, I saw no problem with it. Most fathers will do what they can for their sons. It wasn't personal.

Man, it felt like the world was against us. They were rallying the troops against us at that last banquet, which I write about elsewhere. I believed in Antioch Speedway. I believed in John. I stood up for what I believed in. John was totally up front with me, and when I told drivers what was going to happen, I knew that was going to be the case. They knew they were getting the truth from me. Me and Jackie were totally committed to the cause.

The newspaper slammed John without even coming to him for any information. They talked to the few drivers who were leaving, without getting a balanced story about how others felt. It hurt. We never had the ink in the paper after that, although part of that was because of who we had sending stories to the newspapers. I'll leave it at that.

We had meetings at a pizza parlor before the year was even up. John told everybody what was to come, and it happened that way. He answered all questions, and it started to feel like we had a fighting chance. Some of the troops were staying put and fighting for Antioch Speedway under the All Pro Series banner. Oh yes, we have a chance.

1998 starts off with rain, and lots of it. We had something like five weeks in a row of rainouts. John is making improvements with lighting, new clay, pit concession stands. A new pit restroom was coming. Complete reworking of the pits. And, he's doing it with a smile on his face. Then, leading up to the season, Joe does his TV show. One episode with soft ball questions for Rick at Watsonville, and another with hardball questions for John at Antioch. John just hits them out of the park.

Opening day finally comes. Maybe we should have waited, but we couldn't. Drivers were getting impatient. So much was being spent on improvements that money needed to be recouped. The show went on. It was a mess, and it got even uglier come main event time. Jack and I were to share the announcing, but Jack didn't get the memo and took the microphone for the whole night. So, I get to talk with Joe during yellows and between races. Antioch is to be his center piece for the show, but the mains were an absolute mess.

I can't even defend that, but this was not a show representative of what it would be like. The Dirt Modifieds, yellow checkered. Street Stocks, yellow checkered. Joe is furious. His precious show is ruined. The Pure Stocks roll out with a ten minute time limit to get ten laps in, and he's packing his cameras. I tell him to film, but he declines. He never liked the class anyway, and his bitterness over the track management change is showing. This is really what it's all about now. Joe had long since turned the show into his own bully pulpit, but that's another story. The Pure Stocks go flag to flag with no yellows, close race, best race of the night, and he's not filming it.

What am I gonna do, he asks me? It was a mess. I advised him to pick out highlights, show finishes, use any interviews he had before the races and come back again. It will get better. But, he can't do that. He trashes the show on TV. This was indicative of the attacks we had to deal with. I recall walking up the stands during an intermission early that season and being handed a flier expressing disapproval of track management. Some people weren't gonna give us a break, no matter what.

We just kept plugging away. John kept preparing good race tracks, I kept writing and announcing, everybody did what they had to do. If I had another job handed to me, I did it. We were a team. Racers saw what was going on, and they couldn't deny it was good. Fans kept coming. It wasn't so bad. It was actually pretty good. The show was going on, every bit as good as before. A few names at the top changed in the Modified class, but so what? We were making new stars.

I recall a night when we were having PA problems and Kevin Beard adjusted things to make it better. We ended up with no sound for the stereo. I didn't know what all the dials did yet, but we didn't have a National Anthem that night. I ended up signing it, and the crowd joined in. What a moment that was. I bought a new wireless microphone so I could do on track interviews. We were fine tuning everything.

As the season ended, nobody could deny that the track was better than ever. John decided I should MC the banquet. I can't tell you what a nervous wreck I was. I sponsored several special awards that I felt were important. I recall how the people at that banquet were totally into what we were doing. It felt so special. And it was like, you ain't seen nothing yet.

As happens with success, everybody wants to come on board. Why not? It's successful now. That's okay, we welcomed everybody who wanted to come. In 1999, we added Spec Sprints. The work involved in that meant no time off during the offseason for me and Don O'Keefe Jr., but the results speak for themselves. I was still loaded with things to do that year, even more than a year earlier, but I didn't mind. Jackie was on board full time too. It was for the team.

But, I did see the smile fade from John's face that year. You have no idea the hate that was thrown at that man. Words are one thing, but actions are another. Some people definitely crossed the line. There was also back stabbing going on behind the scenes. Who isn't important, but it got worse in 2000. It bugged the hell out of me, but it took a heavier toll on my sister at times. I think she was just trying to protect me.

What's funny is 1999 was probably our best season with 2000 a close second. We had so many cars we had to open a new section of pits. Four divisions regularly needed B Mans. It should have been a happy time, but by the end of the season the negative stuff was getting to me. I know it was bothering John too. How could it not? You put your heart and soul into this, and this is what you get?

I had full announcing duties at that time, the points, designing and sending the ads to the paper, the programs, other odds and ends and I MC'ed the banquet again. This included even more special awards that I sponsored. Two years in the books. Could I handle a third year? Did I want to? I made a commitment, so I came back.

The show was still good. Lots of cars, lots of fans in the stands. Everything appeared to be okay. I know the track hasn't seen such success since, but there were problems. More backstabbing. People trying to stir the pot. I continued to do my job to the best of my ability, but I went elsewhere for fun. Why not? Work was done. I'm going to this new track in Chowchilla, where you get a $25 fine for not having fun. It still amazes me what Tom accomplished there. People may have seen him as just an angry race car driver, but he brought about change because he stood up for what he believed in.

I rarely missed a race at Chowchilla, and I had to find rides every week. No, Don didn't take me all the time and neither did Johnny, the person I used to travel with. I had to get there. I wanted to help. It felt like they had hit on something down there that was good for racing. It also felt like maybe we could make a connection between Antioch and Chowchilla somehow. I was naive. My eyes were opened wide the last five years that I was in the sport. I think maybe I needed to learn those lessons, but it changed the way I looked at things.

The biggest problem in 2000 was John and I didn't talk. Maybe at the track, but not as much on the phone. He was pissed at me, and I was pissed at him. I felt like I had done so much for the place and was being treated like I owed more. I was being held up to higher standards than anybody else. And, people were bad mouthing me to John. Why? They wanted me gone. My attitude, quite frankly, was if what I had done wasn't good enough, then to hell with them. I'll leave. Maybe not the right move, but it was where I was at.

The thing is, we should always be willing to communicate, especially when we feel something is bothering us or somebody is bothered by us. John and I should have talked. I admit I am sensitive and can be reduced to tears easily sometimes or even pissed off, but when I think about what is said, I will understand if it comes from the right place.

People wanted us to fail, even then. Sure, it was far from failing, but what goes up, must come down. For the next few seasons, car count dropped slowly. It was so gradual that some people probably didn't even notice at first. Things weren't being done that had been before. That's part of the reason. But attitudes contributed to it. Us against them will not build a community, and both sides were guilty of that.

I understand people being upset. There are people right now who want to help, but they don't even know what to do. You can see it in the pits and the stands. What happened to this place? Yes, it looks nice, but what happened? How did we get here? Can we even get it back? These are the questions that need to be answered. Every track will have it's ups and downs, but that's how it goes.

I'll tell you part of the problem is selfishness. Everybody needs to look in the mirror on that one. Maybe it's the driver who chooses to "retaliate" on the track for what was really just an accident. Maybe it's the guy who chooses not to race because one call went against him. Maybe an official is out there playing god instead of doing their job. Maybe John let anger or frustration push him into a decision. Maybe it's a little of everything.

It's all about whether or not the cause is worth fighting for. If you love being at the track, then fight for it to make it better. Would you rather have John running the track or no track at all? If he is back this year, can you support racing for the good of that track? When the next opportunity comes for change, can you be prepared to make it happen? It starts with you.

I'll make it real simple. I'm nobody special. I was just a fan in the stands who wanted to make a difference. I got lucky, but it took some neglect on most other aspects of my life to get me where I did. I had no life. Racing was my life. If I made a difference, then great. I'm just somebody who thought he could help bring positive changes to the track. I chose to act on my ideas, and put forth the effort. That's what it takes.

I don't know what else to add to this long rambling post of mine. Not even sure why I wrote all of this, but if you read it, you are a real trooper. Remember to love your family, enjoy yourself and bring something positive to whatever you do. In the end, that's all that really matters.