Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Point Battles Get Closer, 360 Sprints Return To Antioch

Open wheel fans get two classes of Sprint Cars and the Dwarf Cars as part of the five division program at Antioch Speedway Saturday night. The Dirt Modifieds get a week off to prepare for the big race. Some interesting things happening in the 50th consecutive season of point racing on the three-eighth mile clay oval.

The Over/Under number this week is 54.

Wingless Spec Sprints (14), Dwarf Cars (16), 360 Sprint Cars (8), Super Stocks (10) and Mini Trucks (6).

Keeping Those Dirt Modifieds Together

There has been enough carnage in the Dirt Modifieds this season that promoter John Soares Jr. was faced with two options. He could let it continue and watch the car count fall below ten, or he could try to do something about it. The high, or low, point, came a little over a month ago when crashing got so bad that two cars were destroyed and one driver was injured and will be out for the rest of the season. Unconfirmed reports are that two drivers were in fact suspended that night.

One of the problems was a track rule where no more than three double file restarts occur in the Main Event after yellow flags was not enforced. The Dirt Modifieds had several caution flags and just continued with double file restarts until the end. The fault in that instance lies with track officials for not enforcing this rule. Three of the reasons Soares even brought this rule to the track with all divisions was to prevent crashing right after restarts on particularly rough nights, protect the cars and speed up the race. Sometime conditions simply call for single file restarts.

Well, going into this race, Soares implemented a single file restart rule on all restarts for the Dirt Modifieds. In my opinion, this is a good idea. I know that when I was at Merced in the early part of last decade, they ran single file restarts in all classes, and it actually made the racing better. The fact is, Antioch's Dirt Modified races have had a history of being brutal. It used to amaze me in the mid 90's, during the Regional point era, when there would be 30 plus cars every race, and they almost always had ten or more yellow flags in the Main Event. But, the racers always came back for more. They can do better, and they have to do better before nobody can afford to race. Hence, Soares took action.

The "one and done" rule was also added to get racers to be a little more respectful out there. There were still several yellows last week, and six of 14 starters finished, but some drivers earned a trip to the pits after one yellow flag. The danger of this rule is that it can be applied unevenly. If a drivers spins somebody out, does the driver who spins or the one who contacted that driver get the black flag? Do you try to gauge intent of the contact? Inevitably, it will cause some to complain about the fairness, but if it cleans things up, it can be a good thing.

Respect and unselfishness are a key too, and both are up to the drivers. Is it wise to be overly aggressive for a position early in a race? Is it better to take a third, or crash going for second? The other thing that made me think was Tommy LaLiberte in the Wingless Spec Sprints. He had a problem on the back stretch and started to slow, losing the lead. What a lot of racers will do is park for a yellow, or if they get a flat tire and park, rather than exit safely. When it's safe to leave, it's probably a good idea. A good many racers will not do this. They want the yellow for the chance to fix things.

What irritates me about that is how many times I have seen a driver going for their first win or a rare win, only to get a yellow flag because somebody was selfish. I know you can't always get out of the way, but some can. And why does it matter about getting back out there? Look at the point standings and tell me there are a bunch of people racing hard core for points they way they did 10-15 years ago. These days, it's more about the racing that night than the points. But, I'm drifting here.

The idea of trying to clean up the racing is a good one. I wonder if just the Dirt Modified drivers have been taken aside for a meeting of their owm with track officials to discuss the situation. They can talk about what they are seeing out there and those types of things, and maybe that would help. Crashing will happen regardless, but racing can be better. It's ultimately in the driver's hands.

I'll end this part by recalling a wacky idea Don O'Keefe Jr. had that he was told wouldn't work. When we started Wingless Spec Sprints for John in 1999, most of the drivers in the class pitted together, and it promoted a community within the division, Don was pretty much the "unofficial" official and helped keep things peaceful. The racing was good out there, and the drivers were respectful of each others equipment for the most part.

Don suggested the other divisions should do the same thing and pit together, and he was told it couldn't happen. Eventually, even the Spec Sprint division stopped doing that. Seems to me, Don had it right, but what did he know? Maybe, if you have the guys parking together like that, they think twice about doing something stupid and wrecking somebody they park with? Nah, what the heck am I thinking?

Press Not Going Away Quietly In Spec Sprint Race

In the Wingless Spec Sprint division, Tommy LaLiberte had a reason for getting back on the track last week and trying to finish the race two laps down. Despite all of the winning he has done this season, Tommy's lead is only 20 points over David Press. That lead would be less had he not salvaged a seventh place finish to the second Press earned. In fact, he probably gained ten points by doing that. In the win column, LaLliberte leads all drivers in the class with five feature triumphs to two for Press, but the competitive class has seen four different drivers (Press, LaLiberte, Rowdy McClenon and Jeff Kindt) win in the last four races.

With just two point races remaining on the schedule (this week and September 18th), it's clutch time for for the drivers, and there is a reason Press is still in the hunt. He has won championships at Watsonville, Petaluma and the NCMA Select Series. In fact, his 2008 Petaluma title came just two points ahead of past Antioch and Chico-Placerville champion Bob Newberry. There's a reason Press has won these championships. He knows how to make those points ad up through consistency. Now is the time for the driver who wants it the most to step up and claim it. Odds may still be in LaLiberte's favor, but he will need to shake off the mechanical problems that have hit him these past few weeks.

It was another Press who stepped up big last week and claimed his first podium finish of the season in third. Making a late race pass on Jeff Lee, Trevor Press claimed the third spot and is now within 14 points of Chuck Bradshaw for fourth in the standings. Bradshaw had been running up front early in the Main Event before spinning. T. Press also had a second in his heat race, and that also helped keep him 37 points ahead of Jeff Kindt for fifth in the standings. Kindt was impressive in winning his second feature of the season last week.

Jeff Lee enjoyed a good night as well. The 14th ranked driver matched his season best finish in fourth after battling with the likes of David Press and top ten ranked Dan Gonderman early on. Unfortunately for Gonderman, he had mechanical problems in the Sam Davies #99 car, or he likely would have had a double top five night after grabbing a third in the Dirt Modified Main Event. Roy Fisher continues to get more comfortable behind the wheel of his #21 car, and his fifth place finish moved him into the Top 20 in points. Another pat on the back goes to Jeff Bantum. The Top 20 ranked driver took a checkered flag last week with a lead lap sixth place finish.
It's Clutch Time For The Dwarf Cars

While five time champion Ricardo Rivera and Nick Squatritto may have been a little more flashy and have garnered much of the attention in Dwarf Car competition this season, Jerry Doty has been right there with them, quietly earning his points in the green #55 car. While Squatritto has been slumping a bit and Rivera has been finishing well as usual, Doty had been collecting top five finishes. In fact, his most recent effort resulted in his second win of the season ahead of Rivera, putting him into a two point lead over Squatritto. Rivera in only six point out of the lead.

With three races left counting this one, it is time to step up. Rivera has five feature wins this season and over 40 in his career. Both Squatritto and Doty have two each. Rivera has been fast and consistent this season, and if not for skipping a race. he would be leading now. Doty appears to be peaking at the right time, but can he keep up this pace? Squatritto shot out of the gate like a cannon, collecting both of his wins early in the season. It's definitely gut check time for him. He continues to be one of the faster drivers at the track, but he will need to cut back on the mistakes and get it back up to the front if he's to have any shot. Odds favor Rivera, who has been there and done that, but anything can happen.

One driver who knows how tough Rivera can be in the championship race is Tony Carmignani. It was last season when Tony led the battle foe quite a while, but Rivera got hot late and beat him by just 16 points. Tony has missed some races this year, but he still ranks ninth ahead of rookie Tom Brown. Last time out, Tony picked up a third ahead of Robert Meshoh. Mesloh, a feature winner at Antioch this season, ranks 16th in the standings, while also top ten ranked at both Watsonville and Petaluma.

Getting back to Tom Brown, the rookie keeps getting faster and faster in his short time in the class. Tom was third in the Mini Truck points last season and won the first two features in that class this year before moving up and earning a second place feature finish early on. Tom was the Trophy Dash winner last time out. Earning a top ten finish and heat win last time out, Clayton Dortzback continues to rank 50 points ahead of Dan Liston for fourth in points. Liston actually moved past Mike Corasro by four points in the standings on the strength of his fifth place feature finish last time aboard his pink #12 car.

The 360 Sprint Car Audition Continues

It's well known that Soares would like to establish his own Winged 360 Sprint Car program. There are several good reasons to do this, not the least of which is the fact that Sprint Cars are a popular division with many fans and having a good program of his own can help get him a seat at the Civil War Series table. This is something he would love to have, and it starts by building a car count with some drivers willing to travel to other Civil War tracks. Though other things have taken the focus from Soares, such as getting Merced Speedway up and running and putting on the big Dirt Modified shows, the 360 Sprints are still here on the schedule this week and twice next month.

This is an important time for the division, and drivers wanting a presence at Antioch Speedway should be ready to step up now. Last time out, they delivered ten cars, which was their best of three dates this year. At the top of the list is 360 Sprint veteran Craig Smith, who has been a front runner everywhere he's raced. Smith won the most recent Main Event, beating another open wheel veteran Eric Rossi. These two are welcome additions to any Sprint Car roster. However, it is a newcomer challenging Smith for the point lead after three races.

At the moment, Smith leads rookie Ryan Rusconi by 28 points. A champion at Delta Speedway last season, Rusconi's debut in a 360 Sprint Car at Antioch this year was a feature victory, but a week later he flipped to end his race. Last time out, he was a heat race winner, putting him 16 points ahead of past Antioch and Petaluma champion Art McCarthy. Art would be a little closer if not for the crash in the previous race that eliminated him and Keith Collins.

Collins is no stranger to Antioch Speedway. In fact, some of his biggest success occurred at the track. Keith won a Street Stock feature at Antioch and was top 20 ranked before becoming a founding member of the NCMA and the point runner up for the group in 1988. A tear later, he won his first Main Event in that group before moving up to 360 Sprints. A few years later, Keith won his first 360 Sprint Car Main Event at Antioch, so it wasn't too much of a surprise to see him return to action at Antioch.

2009 Wingless Spec Sprint champion Billy Aton and past Marysville Pacific 360 Sprint champion Jeremy Burt are fourth and fifth in points at the moment. Aton has two second place Civil War Series feature finishes at Petauma Speedway this year in his rookie season. Burt won the two Main Events at Antioch last year that led to more dates being added this season. It is known that there are several drivers with cars in the area, and the track is hoping to attract as many of them as possible. If car count can be built into the 15-20 per race area in the future, good things could happen. Bigger Sprint Car events, such as the Civil War Series, are something many people would love to see at Antioch.

Berendsen Trying To Get To End Of Season In Top Five

It's been a challenging season just keeping his #88 Super Stock on the track every week, but second generation racer Eric Berendsen hasn't missed a race. His goal this year is simple, just maintain his top five point status. He's currently fourth, but his most recent effort offered a mixed bag of results with a heat race win using an old pieced together motor, and a Main Event DNF with a blown rear end. Running on a low budget as it is, Eric's motor problems resulted in him running one of his dad's old motors that had been sitting in the shop. It gotten him back to the track, but what it has left in it remains to be seen.

The Berendsen family has been going to the races for years, starting with Eric's father Carl, who is friends with third generation racer Jim Robbins and has been going to the races for some 40 years now. In the 80's, Carl and Jim bought their first Street Stocks, formerly belonging to Chuck and Bobbi Carter. Carl raced for a few years, and when he wasn't racing, he was helping somebody else when he could. As the 90's came to a close, his son Carl Berendsen II started racing, and soon after, Eric joined the ranks.

Carl II had some top three point success for a few years, while Eric was a top five driver and feature winner in Pure Stocks before moving up to Street Stocks. A few years back, Eric seemed headed for a top five season in Street Stocks, but late season bad luck derailed that. He had hoped to be a feature winner this season, but his motor problems seem to have derailed that and caused him to focus more on hanging on to the top five. His brother Carl's car, meanwhile, remains parked for the time being.

As he did beat Mike Gustafson to win that heat race last time out, Eric would seem to be capable of getting the most out of what he has. He was planning to just get a finish in the feature that night, but his competitive spirit got the better of him as he was battling Larry Damitz for a top five finish when the rear end problems occurred. As the moment, Eric is 46 points ahead of Lloyd Cline for fourth and 54 points behind likely "Rookie Of The Year" Fred Ryland for third.

Cline has been running pretty well lately, but when he missed the start of the last feature and tried to rejoin on the restart, he was black flagged. Cline is trying to hold on to his second straight top five season, and after Gustafson won his third feature of the season last time, Cline's advantage is still 54 points. Unless he stumbles badly with three races remaining, he should be able to maintain that. With drivers like two time Street Stock champion Michael Newman, two time Limited Late Model champion Lori Brown, Jon Haney and Mike Calhoun racing in recent weeks, there is more opportunity for point gains.

Larry Damitz will be counting on that. His deficit to Mitch Machado is at 26 points after finishing third behind Machado at the most recent race. Machado has collected five feature victories so far to two for Damitz. Last week, Damitz made a trip to Merced on the off week and impressed with a heat race and Main Event win. He hopes to carry that momentum with him this week. As two time winner Ryland is only 18 points behinf him for second, he'll need to run strong to stay ahead of him.

One question still remains. As the division's 12 Main Events have been divided up between Machado, Damitz, Ryland and Gustafson, will a new winner emerge this week? If there is a new winner, judging by the way they have fibnished in recent races, perhaps Jon Haney, Michael Newman or Lloyd Cline could be leading candidates. We'll find out Saturday night.

The Old Guys Still Racing And Having Fun In Mini Trucks

They've been there, done that and could write a book about it. Two of the track's most respected veteran drivers are in the Mini Truck division, and they both started racing some 50 years ago. They are Pete Paulsen and Dean "The Blinker" Cline. Paulsen's familiar red, while and blue #66 cars and trucks have been a part of the show for years, and may people consider them to be among the nicest looking machines at the track. For a while, Pete fielded two trucks with familiar paint jobs, and both he and Joe Cambra were top three ranked and feature winners.

Pete's "House Of Wheels Special" #66 Stock Car was driven to a championship at Antioch in 1981 by Bruce "The Phantom" Curl. Of course, he started racing Hardtops at Vallejo and Pacheco, and he built a replica car of one of those cars this year. Pete loves cars and promotes custom hot rod car shows. He also promoted Delta Speedway during the "golden age" of that track when Mini Stocks, Modified Mini Stocks, Dwarf Cars and even Figure 8's were run on the 1/8th mile dirt oval. He won a couple Modified Mini Stock titles along the way. That's just some of what the man has done, and he's truly one of the good people of the sport.

The Cline family name has been a part of Antioch Speedway nearly since it opened. Winning well over 40 Main Events in his career, Dean could have several championship trophies on the mantle if that was what he wanted. Fact is, twice he abandoned a point race while leading, because that's not why he does it. He races for the fun of the competition and being out there among friends. If and when Antioch ever has a Hall of Fame, Dean is one person whole belong in it. He's won Main Events in Sportsman, Stock Cars, Street Stocks, Pure Stocks and Mini Trucks and ranked high in all classes and won the only championship he went after in Stock Cars in 1979.

Dean's son Lance followed him into the sport and became one of the most respected car builders in the track's storied history. Many of Lance's cars won races and even championships, and it's people like him who have helped build the track to what it is today. That Dean is still out there racing after all of these years is a testament to his dedication to the sport. Recently, he came within a whisker of winning another Main Event, finishing second. After hitting a tractor tire last time out, he may not be there this week, but there are many people who hope to see Dean out there with his trademark red light lit on the roof of his truck as he charges down the straightaways.

Somebody needs to step up and beat Travis Dutra. With six feature wins this year in his #99 truck, Dutra is well on his way to the championship at this point. The 2009 point runner up leads one time winner Dan Wagner by 94 points. Wagner's hold on second is nearly as strong as Ray Bunn has been a no show the last two races. While Ron Mayberry has come on strong of late to take over fourth, the battle is for fifth. Cline took over the position with his start in the last race, but that lead is only five ahead of hard luck racer Jerry Carpanello. Jerry was unable to start the feature after problems in his heat race.

This Just In

It was just announced on the Merced Speedway web site that both Merced Speedway and Antioch Speedway will be UMP sanctioned in 2011. Antioch is already sanctioned, but Merced will be it's sister track in California as Yreka went from UMP to IMCA in an attempt to boost car count. Currently, Troy Foulger is 12th in this region with half the starts of the leaders. It is hoped that bringing Merced into the fold will increase the presence of the drivers in this area. Promoter John Soares Jr. also indicated in the news release that he hoped other tracks would follow. Prime candidates to follow this move could (and I emphasize could as this is speculation) be Hanford, Chowchilla or Chico. Time will tell.

It also is an indication that Merced may be considering staying with Sunday racing in 2011, though we will let the track make the official announcement when the time comes. This move was made to strengthen the ties between the two tracks and give the drivers national and regional championships to shoot for, and that should be a positive in the long run. I'm sure UMP would love to have more of a California presence, and it will be interesting to see if any other tracks get on board. In the past, Antioch sanctioned the Hobby Stocks with UMP as well, and Fred Ryland ranked second in the nation in feature wins last season. However, nothing was indicated as to whether other division will be involved at this time.