In The Valley, everybody had an opinion on the Tom Sagmiller-Chuck Griffin feud and who was right and who was wrong. Why am I going there? Joe's picture got me thinking about it. "Hey look, it's Tom at Merced."
No need to rehash things. What happened that fateful night in 1997 changed the course of racing in the area. Actually, it was a series of things that year that built up to that moment. Was Tom right? Maybe, maybe not. Can you blame him for being upset? Not me. I understand. I also understand the other side. Not picking a side here. What's the point?
A year earlier, Tom might be considered the "Golden Boy" at the track. He was champion in the Street Stocks that year. He did things to help promote the track. The Street Stock division had a claim rule. A track sponsor who raced there attempted to claim Tom's motor. Track officials stepped in and overruled the claim. For the record, Tom told me he didn't care. The driver who made the claim left the track and raced at Antioch for a couple seasons.
In 1997, Tom was on his way once again, but things started happening. I can only say I understand the feelings. When it gets to be too much, bad things can happen. I was tossed out on my butt more than once for taking a stand and supporting the racers, so I know. Maybe I had it coming too, but I stand by what I did. In that, I felt a sort of kinship with Tom.
I had a crazy thought. Had 1997 gone differently, could Tom have been appointed by Chuck as his successor? It's an interesting thought, and one that I had to think about as I looked at that picture of Tom on the tractor. It's all water under the bridge, but I wonder. Up to that point, Tom had done things to help the cause for Merced Speedway and he had a desire to do what he could. Who knows?
But 1997 was the fork in the road. A whole new course. Tom would be tested in his resolve and how much he wanted to be involved in the sport. Chuck's dedication to run Merced the way he always had remained intact, and the feelings were never resolved. I believe it was Tom's desire to get Merced Speedway at that time and run it the way he felt a race track should be run. That didn't happen. He wanted to promote a race and raise funds for a community group when the season was done. Chuck blocked that. Considering how many racers were ready to come, it may have been preventative action.
Whatever the case, it was in 1999 when Charlie Ruth and Tom discussed the crazy idea of Chowchilla Speedway. In 2000, with investors on board, it because a reality. What the promoters up in Reno must have thought of the upstart promoter in 1999 would be interesting to hear, but Tom was determined to make this happen. He was determined to be a part of things and to make it better for the racers. He understood what it was like to be on the reviving end of questionable calls.
Chuck, meanwhile, stayed the course. To him, this Chowchilla thing had to be a fluke and an attempt to hurt Merced. At first, there was some truth to that, but at that point, Tom became a promoter. Running a race track became more important than any rivalry or feud. That had to take a back seat. Fact was, I witnessed Tom encouraging drivers to support Merced too, he allowed Merced to be mentioned on the PA to the fans and he even changed his schedule at a cost to him in order to help a race at Merced. So much for the feud, at least as far as Tom was concerned.
Tom would tell people he was ready to work with Merced for the good of both tracks and he was interested in getting IMCA sanctioning at Chowchilla for the good of the racers. Chuck stated the only way to get anywhere close to that point was to pay a fine for what went down in 1997 and offer an apology. Nothing Tom did to work with Meced since opening Chowchilla in 2000, including being a Friday night track, mattered. Now, I'm not here to judge. I understand both sides. I see where Chuck was coming from, and he's not as bad as some would make him out to be. I see Tom's point of view at that time too.
I walked the fence in 2001, and there were three of us doing that. Joe Martinez, Doug Laidlaw and myself worked at BOTH tracks, and Joe and I spent many, many hours talking about this unity thing and how we could make it happen. Could we? Obviously not, but we wanted to. Doug stayed out of the politics, which made him smarter than me. I always liked that man, and he was a good flagman.
I was getting frustrated though. There was pressure coming in to pick a side, and I just didn't want that. Screw sides. I want what's best for racing, and a unified Chowchilla and Merced would have been, in my opinion. But Chuck had taken his stance and wouldn't budge. Tom did everything but what Chuck wanted to make it happen, and that didn't matter either. IMCA refused to get involved for the racers and chose a side, which is one reason I'm not a fan of that particular association.
I'll tell you where I was with it. I heard what Paul said in Reno in 2001 about what needed to be done to bring Chowchilla into IMCA. Pay the fine. Tom was not ready to do that. As I heard from one of Tom's closest advisers, not Tom, "That would mean Chuck won."
Well, I was disappointed to hear that, but I had an answer. I was ready to pay the fine for Tom, and at that time, I could have. I'm not a rich person, but this needed to happen. I could give Tom the money and all he'd have to do is give it to Chuck. It wouldn't cost him a penny, and at this point, why not? Let's move on from 1997, for crying out loud, and do what's best for racing. I was serious. Thing was, there was rain coming, and Don wanted to get a jump on the storm, so we were leaving early. Probably for the best. Had I seen Tom before I left, I was prepared to do this.
You know the rest, because nothing changed. Eventually, Chowchilla moved to Saturday nights, and I absolutely hated that move. I felt Tom was getting the wrong advice, and the move was a hit and miss proposition. I understand why he did it, but to Chuck, it was another slap in the face. I chose to work with Chuck, because through all of that, I still respected the man and wanted to see Merced Speedway and it's great tradition come out okay.
Chuck did what he's always done though any crisis at the track. Open the gates, run the show and let everybody know that the track will pull through and deliver as promised. Merced started having a bit of a comeback in 2001 when I was announcing full time, and this continued and peaked around 2005. Times were good when Chuck made his next move. He would go after Chowchilla. The time was right.
To be honest, I had heard mention a time or two in 2003 that people wanted Chuck to make a move then, but he also talked about finally retiring and grooming his replacement at Merced. After the final straw for me, missing the Merced Speedway Awards Banquet that I had looked forward to attending in 2003, I was ready to retire, but the feud continued. Some people never learn to let go. I understand the why, but there are times to rise above the hate for the greater good too.
Chowchilla had always had it's rough patches. Honestly, we are lucky Tom and Cindy made it last as long as they did. Tom had figured out a system, and there were always certain nights when it was so good that it offset the losses from the bad nights. 2007 would be no different had it been allowed to play out as it had in the past. But, the deal was done, and Tom was pushed out through what seemed like a back door deal. But hey, it's business.
I'm sure the fact that 2005 and 2006 were pretty good years at Merced factored into Chuck's decision to come in and take over. And, who knows, had a few other things been in place, it might have had a chance. Chuck brought IMCA to Chowchilla, but by then, nobody cared. Fact is, these two tracks were entirely different animals. The promoters had different styles, and those worked well for them at their respective places. Chuck didn't make it through the 2008 season at Chowchilla. That could have been the end of that track.
Meanwhile, if anybody wondered if Tom cared about the sport, wasn't it obvious? He did everything he could to keep the big races he'd had at Chowchilla going at other tracks. He eventually landed a nice track prep deal at Watsonville and has earned rave reviews for it. But, he no longer runs Chowchilla Speedway. Victory was Chuck's, or so it would seem.
Unfortunately, 2009 was a terrible year for Merced. The track had endured it's weak moments from time to time, and I'm sure they thought they'd pull through again. They always had before. But, this time was different. Several key sponsors had left Merced Speedway. By the end of July, it got very ugly. At the last race, Chuck announced that he was retiring after over 20 years as promoter. He tried to find a successor during the off season, but it was not to be.
Did the move to take over Chowchilla help bring about the end of Chuck's run? Maybe. Who knows and who really cares at this point? That would add a certain degree of irony to it. The fact is that these two tracks could have been huge together, and both had something to offer to a two track series. At 16 miles apart, it would have been perfect. Had somebody else opened Chowchilla, maybe Chuck would have been receptive, but then, would it have ever opened without Tom? No. Not a chance.
And, that's the kicker. There was no winner in this feud. We got a new track, which was nice. The track continues, but without the man who started it all leading the way, it's just not the same. Chuck didn't get to continue CCMR with a hand picked successor. His run at Merced ended the way critics said it would, but over a decade later. So to say he didn't know what he was doing would be wrong. There were some good races and seasons at Merced during Chuck's run, but a disappointing ending.
Technically, it was a draw. Neither man is the promoter at either track, though I know Tom is important to both Merced and Watsonville. He should be running Chowchilla now, and had that deal been struck between Merced and Chowchilla ten years ago, who might be running these tracks now and what would the shows be like? Perhaps it was meant to end this way, and maybe part of Tom's legacy, the existence of Chowchilla Speedway itself, will be next. That would be a shame.
I loved seeing the picture of Tom on the tractor at Merced, and I know how proud he is of that track now and being a part of it. The fact that he's there is a victory in itself. His racing career could have ended that night in 1997, but it didn't. He has learned and grown from there, and he's definitely done his part to make things a little better for the racers.
I like Tom and Chuck. They both have done good things for the sport. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and none of us are perfect. At times, we get pushed to our limits, but it's what we learn and how we deal with those moments that makes us who we are. Maybe that day was just too much to overcome, and it just had to end the way it did. So be it. I've thought about it a lot through the years. It doesn't matter now. It is what it is. But, if you are keeping score, it was ultimately a draw.
The good news is that both tracks are still up and running, and Tom is still involved in a lesser, but still important role. Where the two tracks go from here will be up to John Soares Jr. and Kenny Shepherd to decide. I wish nothing but the best for all involved.