Thursday, August 26, 2010

Random Thoughts

I again contemplated not writing this, but I decide to do it anyway. The big weekend at Merced and Antioch is upon us, and that is a big part of this week's post, along with a few other things. Also, Dennis Daniel offered his preview on the big event. Might as well jump in.

Merced Speedway Ready For Big Show

Well, the West Coast Nationals is set for this Saturday at Antioch and Sunday at Merced. When the race was announced, it was said that they expected 80 cars to be at Merced, but let's be honest here. If they get 40, it's a success. This is not a shot at Merced. I'd love 80 cars to show for this race. As near as I can tell, the record turnout for a Dirt Modified show at Merced is 39 for the 9-11 Memorial race in 2002. With IMCA, they want all the IMCA tracks to be dark so the racers will go to Boone, Iowa for the Nationals. That is a big deal, but again, let's be honest. There is only a small group of drivers towing there from California, and even less from Merced.

As I recall, Rich Firato came to Chuck Griffin with this idea for a $3,500 to win race for Modifieds and $3,500 to win for Street Stocks that year. I believe he had considered Chowchilla at the time, but he went to Merced. Chuck booked it, and the man everybody loved to hate even gave the grandstands for free that night. They already did that for the July 4th races, which attracts a huge crowd for the fireworks show, but then to offer something like this for free too? Hate on Chuck all you want, but sometimes that man did some pretty cool things. And, the 9-11 Memorial Race attracted 39 Modifieds and 49 Street Stocks the first year. I remember how good it felt to see that many racers at Merced.

So, even if 80 cars don't come for the first West Coast Nationals event at Merced, if they hit 40, that may be a track record going back to when they started the class in 1990. This is an example of John Soares Jr. rolling the dice and trying to do something big. He says he wants to put Merced Speedway back on the map and make it a place for big shows. This will do it. I do advise caution, however. Don't read too much into the numbers if they aren't as big as you'd like to see. It may take time. From what I have been hearing, though, things are going well there so far. I give credit to John and the entire team there. The enthusiasm I am seeing there hearkens back to Antioch Speedway in 1998 when John took over there. People are on board and rallying for the cause. Hopefully, the lessons were learned that will help this place sustain that momentum.

Just who is coming and how many cars, I don't know. I hear Top 5 ranked UMP National racer Stormy Scott, who won the $5,000 at Antioch earlier this year, is coming. I hear Jimmy Ray is coming in from New Mexico as well. The usual money chasers, Randy & Ryan McDaniel, Duane Cleveland, Kellen Chadwick, Scott Busby and Bobby Hogge IV are said to be coming. Haven't heard Jim Pettit II mentioned, but he may have a tour race. The key for Merced getting into the 40's is the local support. At least 20 or 25 cars from the area need to be there. The cars are out there, so I hope they come. Certainly, local favorite Alex Stanford, Ryan Porter, Paul Stone and Bob Williamson are anticipated, for starters, and any of the four are capable of winning the big bucks.

This is a big deal for Merced racing, and that can't be overstated. Merced once mattered in the hierarchy of dirt tracks. It was part of the old NASCAR State deal and some of it's drivers won state titles, including legends like Ted Stofle and George Steitz. It was the M in the WAM Series in the late 1980's. With Soares' recent announcement that Merced is joining Antioch as part of the UMP Modified family, Merced drivers again have a shot at Regional and National glory. I know it's not the IMCA that some want and what worked well for Merced for years, but this can work too. Having two tracks not too far apart from each other to earn points from makes good things possible too.

It all starts this weekend. What a statement it would be for a local driver to bag the $3,500 first prize. It could happen. In fact, an Antioch and Merced win by that driver could be possible as well, and it would earn that driver an additional $1,000. Has a Merced area driver ever earned $8.000 for one weekend of racing? The competition should be tough, and whoever does win will have earned it. Sunday will be a big step for the new Merced Speedway, and lots of people will be watching to see how this goes. Events like this can help launch bigger and better success.

And The Winners Were

The first two runnings of the 9-11 Memorial race paid the same purse, though car count dropped in the second year. They ran this race four years with the purse dropping in the third year. It was unfortunate that the drivers didn't stay on board with this race. Having announced the first two races, I can tell you it was a good show.

What I recall from the first year's 50 lapper in the Dirt Modified class was not who won, but who finished second. No disrespect to Scott Busby, because the $3,500 first prize may have been his biggest payday ever for a win in this division, and he led all 50 laps. However, IMCA State champion Johnnie Baptista, about as low buck a racer as they come, managed to hold off Southwest Tour champion Jim Pettit II for the $1,500 runner up prize. Pettit won $1,000 for third as Steven Williams and Steve Pemberton rounded out the top five. Williams had to come through the C Main, which he won, and the B Main, won by Bobby Hogge IV.

What else was cool about this show was the $3,500 first prize for the Street Stocks. I don't know if even George's shows at that point paid the division that much, and 49 cars competed. In the end, it was three time Merced champion Darren Thomas who would score the biggest win of his career. Future Chowchilla champion Mike Shepherd won $1,500 for second with veteran Tim Ragsdale a $1,000 third as Chowchilla Hobby Stock champion Red Williams and Watsonville Street Stock champion Doug Hagio II made up the rest of the top five.

When people talk about the previous management at Merced, events like this should also be remembered.

And The Pure Stocks Got Paid Too

It was the policy at Merced that the entry level, non Camaro Pure Stocks not be paid, or they were considered "professional" and forced to move up from this class. This rule ultimately ended the class. The track eventually followed suit with Chowchilla due to drivers asking Merced for the opportunity by adding the Hobby Stocks. But, in 2002, Hobby Stocks and Pure Stocks both were part of the show. In 2003, some drivers in the Pure Stocks ran Hobby Stocks on off nights for their class and were forced to move up since Hobby Stocks got paid. This, in my opinion, was a mistake as those drivers were not that competitive and only wanted to race. The intent of the rule was to keep the "ringers" out, but Chuck generally was an law and order type of guy when it came to rules. By early 2004, the division didn't have enough eligible drivers.

I maintain that the Pure Stocks and Hobby Stocks were two distinct and different classes, and it was disappointing to see them go. Watching them race was a highlight to my visits there as drivers like Raul "Showtime" Rodriquez, "Rockin" Robin Fast, "Mighty" Mike Hamilton, Aaron Widick, Lester Beavers and "Crazy" Deak Sherrell were some of the stars.

It was another star who shined brightly on practice night the Friday before the 9-11 Memorial Race that first year. With $300 being sponsored to the winner, Dan "The Man" Holcomb collected the win over "Cruising" Chris Shelton and Speedy Davis. Watching drivers like Shelton and Joaquin Miranda, the heat winner that night, get their first wins was another highlight for me. As for Holcomb, well, Dan went on to win the Pure Stock championship in 2003.

These days, the Four Bangers fill the void left by the absence of the Pure Stocks, and car count is up in the class this season.

Back At Antioch

The challenge this weekend will be getting through Saturday night in one piece to race at Merced. That $3,500 first prize is enticing, and though car count has dropped off slightly in recent weeks, I can see Antioch getting past the 40 car mark. With $5,000 on the line in June, the track went past the 50 car barrier, and I can see that happening again this week. Antioch has had somewhere between 25-30 "track regulars" compete this season, and I would expect most of them to race. The last driver to win was "Mild" Bill Wallace, and a win by him would be huge. One driver who has been running strong lately is Dan Gonderman. The double division racer has enjoyed back to back top three finishes and was a winner not that long ago. I don't know if Nick DeCarlo and Bobby Motts Jr. will be there to help kick off California's "open show" season, but they would be welcome additions.

Fact is, a list of pre signees hasn't been released, though the names of Hogge, McDaniel, Cleveland, Chadwick, Busby, Scott, Stanford, Porter and DeBeneditti are anticipated for both shows. Odds are pretty good that the winner will come from that list, but that's why they run the races. No matter how fast they are, you never really know who is going to win until the checkered flag flies.

And After The Break...

Following the break on September 4th, three are three more point races to run at Antioch and some close championship battles to decide. Ken Radabaugh and Patty Ryland are in dead heat in the Four Banger race, Nick Squatritto holds a slim lead over Jerry Doty with Ricardo Rivera not too far behind in the Dwarf Cars and the Hobby Stocks and Super Stocks are not that far apart at the top of the point list. In the Wingless Spec Sprints, Tommy LaLiberte added points to his lead over Merced title contender David Press last week, but frankly, I was a little disturbed to see people standing up and cheering on the video when LaLiberte hit the wall head on in Turn 4 trying to take the lead. It's part of what I was talking about as far as people being desensitized to the crashing and how dangerous it can be. Tommy wasn't uninjured, but still...

Anyway, the show will continue at Antioch Speedway, and I'm betting John had to feel pretty good about last week with one of his better car counts and fan turnouts. Maybe not so coincidentally, there was a front page story about the track on the cover of the times the week leading up to the race, and I wonder how many of those fans were in attendance for the first time or the first time this year. It certainly helps to put the word out.

John mentions in that story he has the track for the next three years and he's not planning to go anywhere. Merced has gotten much of the attention this season, and it did need it to give it a fighting chance to get going. I'm sure there are those wondering what John will have in store at Antioch for 2011 on several levels. The only thing I can tell you is he's opened the gates at the track and run 13 consecutive seasons, and the show continues to go on. The fact that the man is still doing this at two tracks at a time in his life when others might slow down a bit shows the passion he still has for the sport. What happens next year will depend on how he wants to do it, but I'm hoping some of that "1998-1999" spirit returns in 2011. It's working wonders for Merced Speedway so far.
Merced Spec Sprints

The two Wingless Spec Sprint races at Merced Speedway have had six and eight cars, beating any point night the class had down the road at Chowchilla Speedway this season. After only David Press was motivated enough by that track's promoting of the class to show up for the second round of the Tri Holiday Classic series, the division was dropped from the schedule. This is where Soares comes in with a four race season at Merced that is asking the area drivers who wants to come race at Merced and keep the division's presence in the area.

After David Pres recovered from a flip in his heat race to win the feature last time out, he chased 2001 Chowchilla Winged Spec Sprint champion Steven Williams across the line last week for a second place finish. Williams was in the car his father, 1982 NASCAR Regional champion Doug Williams, ran in the first race. Dan Gonderman was third ahead of many time NCMA champion Scott Holloway and top Antioch rookie Trevor Press. Last year's Chowchilla champion Kris Koontz, Bill Didion and Doug Gandy were also there to represent the class.

From what I can gather, Holloway won the heat race, which may be the first win this year for the man who has won many races with the NCMA in his career. Holloway is not in the points battle, but Press holds a two point advantage over Gonderman and 16 points over Koontz. Gonderman is driving the #99 entry of Sam Davies, who hails from Tracy these days. It's nice to see people supporting the Spec Sprints at Merced, and hopefully this continues.

Chico Spec Sprints

Actually, the regular show returns Friday night at Chico with Gold Cup Week just around the corner. Jimmy "The Jet" Pettit, Terry Schank Jr. and Jay Youngman only have four points separating them in a close battle, while Randy McDaniel leads Darin Ruley by 12 points in Dirt Modifieds and Heather Bartlet leads Scott Rogers by 19 points in the Street Stocks. Jason York's lead over Brett Miller is the biggest in 410 Sprints at 25, and the top Chico drivers will be joined by Tim Kaeding this a week, which will make that show even more interesting.

A week earlier, the Spec Sprints completed their first Hunt Magneto Series season at Chico with another good turnout. The series ended at 11 races at the August 21st racing program had been canceled at Marysville after the tragic death or Merle Shepherd. Terry Schank Jr. is the first Hunt Series champion by 12 points ahead of Taylor Simas. It would have to be considered a successful first season as only one race failed to generate enough of a car count for a B Main. The Hunt Series will still have a race during the Gold Cup in September for the top 30 drivers who have raced in half of the races, and another special event is scheduled at Petaluma on the 25th of September.

The last two regular Chico shows produced season highs of 19 and 20 cars, showing that the interest has been peaking at the right time. The division has been a nice addition for Chico in recent years and has produced some great non winged Sprint Car racing for a crowd that enjoys this type of racing. I'm still wondering if some sort of series could be worked out between Chico and Orland in the future. The tracks are close enough that it could be a winner, and Orland has had over a dozen cars of their own this season. Plus, the two tracks have worked together with other classes in the past.

In Fact

It was rumored on line that Mini Stocks would be at Chico this week, which is not true. The track's regular four divisions are booked for "Championship Night" and there wouldn't be much room. In past seasons, Chico and Orland had a Street Stock series with a two track championship. Orland even had it's Mini Trucks racing at Chico once or twice a year for a few seasons. In 2003, the last visit of the class, Brad Ray won ahead or Richard Dozier and Ed Dearing.

When you think of it, a Mini Truck class makes sense at Chico in that it has a unique look to it, and they generally produced double digit counts when they appeared there. 410's in a two track series at Orland might not be possible, but Mini Trucks, Street Stocks and Spec Sprints would be a possibility. Who knows at this point. Orland is reestablishing it's program and rumors are beginning to circulate about what the future holds for Chico. However, working together would be win win for both tracks if done right.

Orland Powder Puff On Saturday

Last weekend, Orland Speedway had it's best car count of the season with some Marysville visitors in the Mini Stocks lifting the count in that class to 10 cars. The Mini Trucks had 13. Not originally on the schedule for that night, Wingless Spec Sprints still produced seven cars. The Street Stocks had seven with some new drivers in the field, and all four rosters are well into the double digits this season. It's not easy trying to make a race track run these days, and in some places it's more difficult than others. I'm happy they are making it work in Orland, and from the looks of the finishes, lots of different drivers are winning in all classes. Nobody is dominating this thing. That makes it more interesting as well.

Last season at around this time, the track ran a a Powder Puff Race for the Street Stocks and one that combined Mini Stocks and Mini Trucks. If you are keeping track, it was Anne Ladtka winning the Street Stock race ahead of Shelly Martin and Susan Bailey. Meanwhile, Tracy Barbo won the Mini Truck/Stock race in a Mini Truck ahead of the Mini Stocks of Barbara Crain and Brenna Johnson. It's events like these that make it a family affair. Last week, they held a bike race for the kids. The week before, they raced vans.

The Show Will Go On At Marysville

Paul Hawes wanted to meet with all track personnel and the widow of Merle Shepherd before deciding on the future of Marysville Raceway Park. It was decided to run a race for the track's regular divisions on September 18th and one in October, both point races. They will crown champions at the awards banquet as scheduled and they will plan for the 2011 season. The show will go on. Somehow, I think Merle will be looking down on the track and smiling when he sees the racing taking place at the track he loved. And, that's the way to honor the man's memory.

Parting Shots

It's time for the 50th running of the Johnny Key Classic. This race started on the paved San Jose Speedway before moving to the dirt of San Jose Speedway located at the fairgrounds. The race was brought back at Watsonville in the last few years and has become the biggest race at Ocean Speedway. The drivers already locked in for Saturday's race include Tommy Tarlton, Kyle Larson, Tim Kaeding, Ronnie Day, Brent Kaeding and Peter Murphy. Prior to the feature, a six-lap dash for cash will also be held with those six drivers battling it out to decide how they will start the first three rows of the main event...Speaking of Sprint Cars, Kyle Larson won the King Of California Series Championship after his fourth place finish at Placerville last Saturday. Kyle managed to beat his car owner and 13 time series champion Brent Kaeding...Two time Petaluma champion Alissa Geving should end up with the GSC Rookie Of The Year title as the fourth ranked driver this season...It is likely that we will hear the plans for the GSC Tour for next year soon and it sounds like it will be just what the 410 Sprint Car series needs. Dan Simpson will reportedly be the new owner of the series...The rumored revival of the NARC Sprint Car Series appears to be off, but that may be a good thing. Meanwhile, the proposed series of USAC will go by the name Western Classic and have eight races each on dirt and asphalt. I, for one, like it better that day. Let this series make it's own name for itself.

Michael Paul Jr. went into the record books as Petaluma Speedway's first driver to win four consecutive titles. Paul wrapped up #4 in style by beating a season high 18 car field for a $1,000 Dirt Modified feature win. What's next for this division at the track that actually brought the class to California back in 1987 is anybody's guess, but hopefully it continues. It's been a tough year for this division at Petaluma, but it can get better...After hearing the talk about Dirt Late Models running on pavement, Madera Speedway promoter Kenny Shepherd has offered drivers a chance to come test the viability of running the cars there. This comes after a discussion on the Late Model Racer forum. It will be interesting to see what comes of this...Late Model drivers have been told that the purse will be cut slightly at Victorville as track management thought it best to let them know ahead of time to avoid any problems. Speculation is that at least ten drivers may still be ready to race there this Saturday...Chowchilla Speedway returns to action Saturday night with Dirt Modifieds as part of the card along with the Sports Mods, Valley Sportsman, Hobby Stocks and Four Bangers. Interestingly enough, the money show at Antioch may draw point leader Ryan Porter and third ranked Alex Stanford away as was the case back in June. Past Merced Hobby Stock champion Andrew Krumm would seemed poised to take the lead should that be the case.