Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The End Of The Sportsman Division: A What If Scenario

I had an interesting thought last night that I thought I'd share here. Looking at the state of racing the way it is now, had the 8-10 car Sportsman field we had in 1981 occurred in the last couple years at Antioch Speedway, it probably would still be a part of the program. Back then, it had to go. Car count wasn't considered to be high enough. The Street Stocks, in their third full season back in 1981, had about 20 cars. The Stock Cars, absent during the 1980 season, still had about the same car count as the Street Stocks. Paul Bender had also brought in the BCRA Midgets that year, and they had a good car count as well.

Car count started going down as they went to the full bodied cars, and during the last couple of seasons, some of the cars didn't even run wings on them anymore. The first track to drop the division was Merced. Jim Soares was track manager at that time, and he has told me in the past that he told the drivers there that if they couldn't give him ten cars, he'd have to drop the class. Well, it happened. Ironically, according to Jim, Chuck Griffin was one of the racers missing when the count dropped under ten, but years later, Chuck brought the division back to Merced.

It was 1998 when the Limited Sprints completed about a decade long run at Merced. That group became a club, and Mark Amador took the newly formed Renegade Sprints to the pavement of Altamont, Madera and Stockton. Enter Luis Miranda, a Pure Stock champion in the past at Merced. Luis was the early leader in the effort to get the Sportsman division back at Merced, and they started having races at Merced in 1999.

Just a couple years later, I had heard buzz that Chuck was planning to pay this division more and make it the headline class. You'd think this would go over well, but instead, the Central Valley Sportsman club was formed. There were a dozen cars, and the guys wanted to take the show on the road. Chowchilla gave them dates and Antioch brought them in for an exhibition race. This was at the height of the comeback, with guys like Miranda, Kevin Freitas, Keith Van Houton and Robb Schropp among the competitors.

You know, there are times for clubs, and there are times to just shut up and race. That may have been one of those times. I was talking with Don O'Keefe Jr., and we both agreed that it was the right move to keep Wingless Spec Sprints as a division at the track, not a club. But, that's a side issue. Let's get back to the Sportsman division.

Almost all of the "big stars" had retired or headed elsewhere. 1977 champion J.D. Willis was brought back from a short retirement by Buzz Wadsworth and George Viscia to drive a Stock Car. 1979 champion Dennis Furia had retired. 1978 champion Marv Wilson won his final race, a 50 lapper, at Petaluma in 1979 and sold his car to Sam Houston. Buzz Enea and Sal Belleci retired at the end of the 1980 season. Then you had the drivers who followed the man, John Soares Sr., to Petaluma Speedway and the Super Stock division.

But, a few drivers were willing to go down with the ship in 1981. Having narrowly missed winning the championship in 1980, Houston decided to come back. Coming off of a State championship, Richard Johnson returned. Jerry Garner was ready to step up and be counted. Al Nordstrom was hoping to get a little glory having been a B Main runner the previous few seasons. Then there was Len Mello, a competitor at the track since the early 60's, who only had one feature win in that time. Len's son in law, Buzz Enea, offered his support in a bid for Len to try and go out a champion.

A few stars of the past, such as Dana Auger, Mike Green, Gene Millard, John Soares Jr. and 1980 champion Mike Gustafson, came back occasionally, while racing at Petaluma some as well. Street Stock graduates L.C. Green, Tom Leopold and Frank Blasquez joined the class, and 1980 rookies Scott Busby and Keith Shipherd ran some races at Antioch and Petaluma. We also saw the occasional visit of veterans Henry Lentz, Jerry Hentrick and Dean Cline.

It was a bittersweet time for me and other Sportsman fans. Car count, as I said, was generally in the 8-10 car range. Mello, Johnson, Houston, Garner, 1980 Street Stock champion Joey Rodriguez and Nordstrom generally made every race, and then you saw different drivers. Depending on who showed up, you could see a dozen cars or more.

There really was something special about this class. I can't explain it. It was unique. But, one by one, they all fall down, Hardtops, Super Modifieds, Sportsman and even the Late Model Stock Car division, as we knew it at least. Those old feelings resurfaced in 1993 when we had 8-10 Late Model Stock Car drivers again willing to go down with the ship and a fan base that didn't want to see it go. When I look at Petaluma and John Soares Sr. deciding that 6-8 Late Model Stock Cars was still worth fighting for, I can't help but smile. He never gave up on them.

The thing about John was there was a loyalty. Not that there weren't problems, but he was loyal to his guys and they were loyal to him. At least that's the way it seems to me. Had he still been at Antioch in 1981, I wonder what direction things would have gone. Certainly there would have been more Sportsman divers willing to race weekly. That didn't happen, unfortunately.

We knew it was the end of an era, so we enjoyed it for what it was. Mello came out and drove the season of his career with 7 feature wins. Houston had five and might have been a stronger force had he not elected to miss a couple of races getting a new car ready. Johnson provided the stiffest competition to Mello, but the State champion came up short in the end. Garner had a strong showing in fourth with three wins to his credit.

When I look at it now, it makes me wonder if it could have been saved. I felt the same about the Late Model class, but this one really stuck with me. Maybe as fans we look at that first division we fell in love with with a fondness above all of the others. I wasn't always thrilled with the way things had gone at the track in the early years following the loss of the Sportsman division, and it just seemed to me like the place had lost something when Soares Sr. left. I don't know.

In this day and age, there probably would have been a follow up season to that last season. There is nothing out there really strong right now, or nothing that looks like it's going to get really big, at least not at Antioch. So, why wouldn't it be back? I can just imagine it. Mello would have came back. He had the car, so why not? Rick Bollinger was his crew chief. And making it more interesting would have been Buzz Enea returning to run wheel to wheel with him. Belleci would have been looking at it real hard and may have fielded a car before the end of the season.

Nordstrom would have been back going for his first win, maybe in a new car that he and Ken Gonderman built. Ken would have raced a little as well. The Green brothers would have been back. Auger would have raced a little in a car he would end up selling. Rodriguez would have stepped it up a little more. Garner would have remained a force. There would be new names in the field. Car count would have bumped up slightly, maybe 12-16 cars per week. Not big, but a nice little show to compliment the Street Stocks and the Byrd-Pettit-Willis battle in the Stock Cars.

Stock Cars would have been called the "headline" class, but the purse wouldn't have been all that different. It's just that the Regional points would have gone to the Stock Cars. It would have been a period of adjustment for sure, but fans would have still enjoyed the Sportsman division. The occasional visits of guys like Soares Jr. and Gustafson would have been welcomed as they left the track with the hardware that night.

And who would have won the 1982 Sportsman title? Probably Buzz Enea. Buzz was due, and he was fast. Houston would have probably been his nearest contender. I'd say Johnson, but he ended up going to Sprint Cars. Mello would have won a race, but staying in the top three would have been hard. Top five maybe. Mike Green would have been a factor, and there's probably a name I'm not even thinking of who would have been a factor, but what the heck. It's all just speculation. I'm thinking Enea wins in 1982, Mike Green wins a year later, Houston wins a close battle with Auger a year later.

Then we have a champion I'm not even sure about. It might be John Bellando or Ted Ferre from Street Stocks. Maybe one of the Curl brothers. I'm not sure, but car count gets to the point where there is a B Main again. Maybe a Regional point chaser is put in a Sportsman. Pettit seems a likely candidate at that time. He did win a Figure 8 championship at Watsonville in 1984. Perhaps Willis is back in the familiar #2a car with the flames on the side. Oh well, it never happened. But it sure would have been cool if it had.

From $99 Hardtop Auto Claimer Cars to Limited Sportsman and finally just the Sportsman division, these cars had a heck of a run at Antioch from 1961 to 1981. It was a sad day to see it go, and it's too bad the Sportsman revival of Merced never caught on here. The Hardtops are certainly a neat division, but man, those Sportsman cars were something to see.

The sport is constantly evolving, and it's a vicious little cycle. Racers are always pushing the rules, and the rules get modified to allow more. It becomes more expensive to be competitive on a consistent basis. Drivers end up parking. Once upon a time, the Stock Cars were the Street Stocks, but they evolved just in time to take over for the Sportsman division. The Street Stocks were born, though they are pretty much the Pure Stocks of today. The Super Stocks aren't that much different from the 80's version of the Stock Cars.

By the end of the 70's, the writing was already on the wall for the Sportsman division, but it just didn't get bad at Antioch until 1981. We still had B Mains just a year earlier. It's funny, though, because had the 8-10 car count existed now, it would probably still be here. I don't know why, but it was just a thought that hit me last night, so I thought I'd put it to words. Sometimes, timing is everything I guess.

Antioch Speedway
Final Sportsman Points 1981
1--Len Mello-----------499 (7)
2--Richard Johnson----426 (1)
3--Sam Houston-------409 (5)
4--Jerry Garner-------393 (3)
5--Joey Rodriguez-----313
6--Al Nordstrom-------202
7--Dana Auger---------189 (3)
8--L.C. Green----------159
9--Jerry Hetrick-------133
10-Dean Cline----------117
11-John Soares Jr.-------91 (1)
12-Keith Shipherd-------76
13-Tom Leopold---------70
14-Scott Busby----------68
15-Mike Green----------65
16-Henry Lentz---------57
17-Gene Millard---------47
18-Rob Amerime-------42
19-Mike Gustafson------37
20-Frank Blasquez------35