Monday, May 31, 2010

My Visit To Vallejo Speedway

Vallejo Speedway 1993


Pictured above is where the grand stands used to be at Vallejo Speedway on the hill side.

My First Visit To Vallejo Speedway

I probably was 8 or 9 years old when I first started attending races at Antioch Speedway. My memories really don't go back before 1977 or 1978. My parents probably took me to the races before that, but I don't recall. At that time, Vallejo Speedway was still in existence, but dad and I always went to Antioch. I know he really enjoyed going to Vallejo Speedway and Contra Costa Speedway before that, because he used to tell me stories about the drivers. When I began researching things, all of his stories about those racers began to line up with the facts. My uncle Ken even lent me his scrap book from the time when he and his brother Don raced at Vallejo. It's a track that has always fascinated me.

The place was known for the Hardtops, but everything from Sprint Cars to Midgets to Super Modifieds to Super Stocks and Street Stocks raced there. In the 70's, there was six division racing there, and Hardtops competed right to the end. Had I gone in 1978, I could have at least caught the tail end of things and watched champion Barry Pries, Terry DeCarlo, Tom Thompson, Bob Richardson, Del Quinn and all the racers in the Hardtops. It's kind of a sad thought to me to know I was going to races at that time and never went there. I hadn't even heard of the track until after it closed.

The stories my dad and racers who had been there told me made me want to learn more about it. There was a time when they ran shows where the Sportsman division, Hardtops and even Super Modifieds competed against each other. They did it at Vallejo and I've heard stories if it happening at Dixon as well. The 60's and 70's were a great time for racing, and I'm glad to have at least had a taste of it at Antioch.

By the way, Don O'Keefe Jr. has an excellent Vallejo Speedway Hardtop Page with lots of pictures that can be viewed HERE.

Anyway, George Acree's legendary Quarter-Mile Clay oval, the Vallejo Speedway, closed at the end of the 1979 season. In 1993, I finally made it to the site of the track on my way home from a race at Petaluma Speedway.

What was the big deal, you ask?

Well, when Contra Costa Speedway in Pacheco closed it's pits in the name of progress--a highway--at the end of the 1960 season, the drivers and many fans headed for Vallejo Speedway. During the 80's, I began to pay closer attention to my father's stories about Vallejo Speedway and legendary racers like LeRoy "Go Get Em" Geving, Chet Thompson, Phil "Bang Bang" Pedlar, "The Sundrop Kid" Larry Damitz, Rich Govan and Steve Mentch. As I became more of a racing fan and decided that racing was something I wanted to spend my time researching and writing about, I did more research about Vallejo Speedway in the sixties and seventies.

I began listening to any stories my dad or former Vallejo racers like Del Quinn, Steve Mentch, Terry DeCarlo and Roland Lokmor would tell me. Years passed and I continued to hear stories that the track was still there, and then one day I got a chance to check it out for myself. I was coming home from Petaluma Speedway during an afternoon race in June of 1993. With camera in hand, I went past the broken down fence with a camera and a tape recorder in hand, paying no attention to the No Trespassing sign. I was finally going to see the famous Vallejo Speedway, where racing legends were made.


The front straightaway.

Joe Valente Looks 'em over
and the green flag waives.

I walked around up on the hill (the top picture), just surveying the track and decided to start on the front straightaway, where the drivers would race to "Jumpin" Joe Valente's green flag as Speed Reilly called the action from the press box. I was feeling the ghosts of races past. I could almost hear the roar of the engines. Wow! Then, coming from the infield, there were three young boys hunting gophers with a big knife. One of them remarked about how there were a lot out there and snakes too. Well, there went the mood for the moment. I wasn't there just to see Vallejo Speedway as it was in 1993, but to get a picture in my mind and a feel for what it was like back then. So, I kept going.


Turns 1 & 2 under the weeds but still in tact underneath.

Hey! Who put those houses there?

As I walked up to end of the front straightaway, I began to form a picture in my mind again about how it was. The fastest drivers had to start in the back of the fully inverted fields. I could just picture a late race restart between Damitz and Pedlar on the front row. They race past Valente's green flag, trying to lead the lap, Damitz up high and Pedlar down low as they enter Turn 1. Damitz finds the bite up high and takes a slight lead exiting Turn 2 and... Hey! Who put those houses so close to the turns? Talk about killing the mood. Oh well, I kept going.


Pictured above is the back stretch from the perspective of Turn 3 facing Turn 2.

Hey! Maybe they could
re-open this place.

As I walked down the back stretch, I was amazed at how good of shape it was in considering the track hadn't been raced on for some 13 years. If I didn't know better, I'd say the occasional 4-Wheeler came out there and played around. Anyway, I walked down the back stretch, those pesky houses behind me, and the "Spirit Of The Track" again taking hold of me. I could picture Quinn or Ken "Flip Top" Gandy leading the pack for one more lap, looking for that checkered flag. Again, I could just feel it. Oh no, a tangle between Gil Richardson and Paul Stornetta forces a yellow flag, and Gandy will have to restart with Quinn on the front row next to him. Can he hold him off one more time? A crazy thought overcame me at this point. Hey! Maybe they could re-open this place.


The back stretch concrete was still in tact.

In the middle of the back stretch it dawned on me that the concrete wall was still in good shape the entire length of the track. In fact, some of the wood was still there too. Just think, this is where a bill board advertising Vallejo Masonry or Johnny Franklin Mufflers might be, but then, who has time to notice these things with 20 roaring Hardtops battling for main event glory! I was still in awe of the fact that I was on a track that had run hundreds of racing programs and the fact that it was still there, but not in racing condition. How sad.


Turns 3 & 4 were in perhaps the worst shape of the track, but you could still tell it was there.

Coming down the stretch

Turns 3 & 4 were in rough shape, but what do you expect after all those years? Still, I could make out the turns clearly, and the mental picture of Thomson racing Pedlar coming out of the final set of turns as Reilly makes the call was in my mind. Wow! It must have been a great place to race and watch the races.


A quite spacious Vallejo Speedway pit area.

There's still plenty of room in the pits

I aimed the camera towards the pits and took a shot. Wow! They still had plenty of room for pit parking. Maybe, if they... Nah, I knew the track was dead, and it brought a tear to my eye. I walked the pits and saw a few of the old lights from the track and some tires and a fender and other stuff. This is where the drivers all hung out before and after the races. This is where they shook each others hands or settled their differences.

I could feel the ghosts of heroes past that I would never get to see. I must confess, it brought a tear to me eye, but I was glad I visited. I had always wanted to and this was my chance. I was happy to at least pay my respects to a track I never knew, but had come to have a great respect for. With that in mind, I walked away from Vallejo Speedway, but there was one more place I had to go.

The End Of An Era

I'm not sure how the story goes exactly, so I won't go too far into details. Basically, Acree had owned the property the track was on and let a trailer park on it. It was a park for old retired people. Well, these people weren't happy to have a place to park their mobile homes. They began bitching to the city about the noise. Well, they won in the end, and the track was closed. Before I left, I just had to take a snap shot of this place that had ruined everything for the racing fans and drivers (I have edited that picture from this post). It opened in 1961 and ran it's last race in 1979.

Even Vallejo Speedway 2 had it's nightmares trying to bring racing to Vallejo, and I never understood why. Steve provided a nice venue for the kids to come race, and some of them have grown up top be the stars we see today at some of the area tracks. It seems to me that in these tough times, having a place to go race and watch the races would only be a positive for the community, but what do I know?

Final Thoughts

It can all go in an instant. It doesn't matter what the track means to the people involved. There are always those who would come in and take it away. It took them over 15 years to finally build houses on Vallejo Speedway. It's all houses now. The fans flocked to the races at Baylands until the end, but it didn't matter. An even better example is San Jose. They packed the stands there for special Sprint Car events. The board of supervisors wanted a concert venue. The racing community wasn't all that loud in protest either. The board had their way. Well, to an extent.

The track closed in San Jose at the end of 1999. I started hearing rumblings a year later that there were insiders trying to save things, but there was already enough damage done that nobody wanted it. Those nice grandstands were demolished. The concert venue fell through. Are you ready for the irony? San Jose Speedway lives, but it's not what you think. It's a one eighth mile dirt oval on the property, where they race motorcycles and go karts. Not exactly what the fans and racers really wanted, but I don't want to put down the effort that is there.

The point is, any of these tracks can be taken from us, and there are some places that have people looking for an excuse to make that move. It's not even a question of if, but when they will go after another track. Will the racers and fans even put up a fight when it happens, or will they just accept their fate?

Vallejo Speedway was a track that evoked passion from all of those who considered themselves regulars, fans or racers. They had a strong presence in Racing Wheels and the area newspapers. The had a strong fan base that formed their own club. If a racer could win at Vallejo, they could win at any of the area tracks, and they did. As time passes, the memories fade, and that's a real shame. I guess that's to be expected as a casualty of time. It's over 30 years later now. Has it been that long. One thing is for sure. There will never be another Vallejo Speedway, or at least not like it was before, but may the memories of those days gone by never die.