Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Back When The Stock Cars Came Back To Antioch In 1981

It really doesn't surprise me so much that the Late Model Stock Car counts were big enough to generate C Mains at times during the 80's at Watsonville, Merced and San Jose, but not at Antioch. Antioch always was more of a Sportsman track. It's more than that, though. In 1980, the Stock Car division was dropped from the Antioch schedule, while Street Stocks ran for points for the first time.

I'm really not sure what the thinking was. 1978 was Bob Meeker's championship season. It wasn't that long after that when he passed away, and Antioch ran several 100 lap races for him in the 1980's. The Bob Meeker classic was a big deal because it honored one of the greats, and it was a race everybody wanted to win even more than a usual Main Event.

The division ran a limited schedule in 1979. I'm not sure what the thinking was on that. Perhaps they were trying to generate bigger car counts at Petaluma and San Jose? If you're keeping notes, 1979 was the year Dean Cline won the Stock Car title by just two points over Donna Walton.

So, the division lost two years of momentum entering the 1980's, and they were set to become the headline class in 1982. Could they even get a good enough car count? Well, of course they could. Then, there was the matter of the NASCAR Pacific Coast Regional point race that was coming. The local racers were in for a storm of the toughest competition they could handle. The reality of the situation was that there would only be one locally based Stock Car champion during the Regional point era at Antioch.

Who was that guy? Oh, you betcha, it was J.D. Willis. It wasn't easy for one of the greatest drivers in Antioch Speedway history. Nobody won more features at the track than he did, but Willis had to contend with two of the best drivers NASCAR ignored from the West Coast. Of course, I'm talking about Dave Byrd and Jim Pettit II. Both drivers gave a preview by visiting the track in 1981 and scoring feature victories. Pettit was just 16 at that time, and he would do a lot more winning after that.

The battle in 1982 and 1983 went about the same each year. Pettit shot out of the gate as the early point leader, was overtaken by Willis and Byrd and Willis loses close in the end. Byrd won both titles by a total of ten points. This was a great rivalry. I recall Billy Foote carrying a banner in front of the stands on the final night in 1983 declaring Byrd the champion, to the anger of die hard Willis fans. Billy could get pretty loud in his cheers for Byrd. The Willis fans had a pin created by the Nifdee Speedo button people proclaiming, "Today is Thanksgiving, stuff a Byrd."

But, let me get back to 1981. The question of whether there would be a car count was answered with a yes. Pete Paulsen, who had Danny Jones driving his car to a top five season a few years earlier, put local ace Bruce "The Phantom" Curl behind the wheel of his familiar red, white and blue chrome wheeled #66 car. Bruce's brother Bill Curl made his Stock Car debut, along with John "Chad" Chadwick. "Gentle Ben" Gary Ehrlich was a part of the show as well.

Debbie Clymens and Vince "Beep Beep" Mills moved up from Street Stocks, while former champion Willie "The Silver Fox" Myatt returned after racing in the Sportsman division. Newcomers like Larry Rapp, Chris Morgan and Jeff Skaggs, brother of former Sportsman and Stock Car racer Vince Skaggs, joined up, and car owners Buzz Wadsworth and "Vicious" George Viscia fielded a car that would end up being the ride for J.D Willis.

While visitors like Pettit, Byrd and John Keldsen raced and won features, the local racers were the stars of the championship race with Bruce Curl winning seven times on his way to the track title. Runner up Ehrlich had four victories, while Myatt had two. Consistency led to a 3-4 point finish for Bill Curl and Clymens, ahead of Myatt. The division was strong enough to make it, already out drawing the Sportsman class. They even ran some races head to head with them.

With the carrot of Regional points dangling over the head of the division, racers from the San Jose and Watsonville areas pretty much had their way with the show from 1982 to 1993 with Willis the lone exception in the track championship battle. Other locals, like Buzz Enea, Sal Belleci and Bert Elworthy, came within shouting distance of the title during that time. Nobody from the area launched a serious run at the Regional championship in the Stock Car era.

One of the things that hurt the Antioch Stock Car run during the 80's was the lack of new local entries as the decade came to a close. By 1984, it looked like things were picking up, and the track started running B Mains on a regular basis, but rule changes in 1985 put an end to that. Street Stock drivers started retiring rather than moving up and giving this division a try, cost being one of the factors. However, there was enough support coming from out of the county that the races were still good and the fans enjoyed the show.

It really wasn't until the Dirt Modified division debuted in 1990 that the local drivers started getting behind a new division, and several Sportsman drivers returned. But, that's a story for another time.

I'll just point out that the chain of order in divisions works best when drivers can move up without spending an arm and a leg to do it. Speed costs money, but budget should be kept in mind too. If the locals don't get behind it, it's likely it won't work out in the long run. The lure of the NASCAR Regional points drew the competition from out of town and kept it alive. Some might say it was needed, but had it not been there, things may have progressed in another direction with a more wide open and unpredictable outcome.

I recall conversations with people, such as Stock Car and Sportsman racer Ron Brown, who were pushing hard for a Limited Stock Car division in the late 80's. The Street Stocks were drawing huge fields and it was becoming a division of haves and have nots. So, the thought was to create a division that allowed a few things in the Street Stocks, such as bigger tires and creating this Limited Stock class, while still keeping a Street Stock division too. Many of the top drivers of that time were definitely interested.

I think at that time it might have been a good move. We could have seen Limited Stocks as a good middle division and drivers may have been more inspired to move up from this class to the Late Models Stock Car class. Of course, middle divisions have a way of taking over when their car count surpasses the top class. The Dirt Modifieds were the class we added, and they ultimately did just that. If you look at quality of race and total car count, was it the right move?

I'm not going there. What's done is done. Change always comes to racing and always will. Some changes aren't good and some are, but when it's done right, it can be the best thing for a track. And, the Late Model Stock Cars worked into the #1 spot at the track and earned that status. Their return in 1981 was just the signal that changes were coming and this division was ready to take the lead at the track.

Antioch Speedway
Final Stock Car Points 1981
1--Bruce Curl Sr.-------444 (7)
2--Gary Ehrlich--------370 (4)
3--Bill Curl-------------348
4--Debbie Clymens----330
5--Willie Myatt--------270 (2)
6--John Chadwick------236
7--Larry Rapp---------233 (1)
8--Vince Mills----------189
9--Chris Morgan-------150
10-Jim Coleman--------134
11-Jeff Skaggs----------133
12-Buzz Wadsworth----131
13-Jim Booth-----------114
14-Jim Pettit II---------106 (1)
15-J.D. Willis-------------98 (1)
16-Joe Garza-------------86
17-Dave Byrd------------79 (1)
18-George Viscia---------79 (1)
19-John Keldsen---------68 (1)
20-Dave Edjecomb-------54