Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The End Of The Sportsman Division: A What If Scenario

I had an interesting thought last night that I thought I'd share here. Looking at the state of racing the way it is now, had the 8-10 car Sportsman field we had in 1981 occurred in the last couple years at Antioch Speedway, it probably would still be a part of the program. Back then, it had to go. Car count wasn't considered to be high enough. The Street Stocks, in their third full season back in 1981, had about 20 cars. The Stock Cars, absent during the 1980 season, still had about the same car count as the Street Stocks. Paul Bender had also brought in the BCRA Midgets that year, and they had a good car count as well.

Car count started going down as they went to the full bodied cars, and during the last couple of seasons, some of the cars didn't even run wings on them anymore. The first track to drop the division was Merced. Jim Soares was track manager at that time, and he has told me in the past that he told the drivers there that if they couldn't give him ten cars, he'd have to drop the class. Well, it happened. Ironically, according to Jim, Chuck Griffin was one of the racers missing when the count dropped under ten, but years later, Chuck brought the division back to Merced.

It was 1998 when the Limited Sprints completed about a decade long run at Merced. That group became a club, and Mark Amador took the newly formed Renegade Sprints to the pavement of Altamont, Madera and Stockton. Enter Luis Miranda, a Pure Stock champion in the past at Merced. Luis was the early leader in the effort to get the Sportsman division back at Merced, and they started having races at Merced in 1999.

Just a couple years later, I had heard buzz that Chuck was planning to pay this division more and make it the headline class. You'd think this would go over well, but instead, the Central Valley Sportsman club was formed. There were a dozen cars, and the guys wanted to take the show on the road. Chowchilla gave them dates and Antioch brought them in for an exhibition race. This was at the height of the comeback, with guys like Miranda, Kevin Freitas, Keith Van Houton and Robb Schropp among the competitors.

You know, there are times for clubs, and there are times to just shut up and race. That may have been one of those times. I was talking with Don O'Keefe Jr., and we both agreed that it was the right move to keep Wingless Spec Sprints as a division at the track, not a club. But, that's a side issue. Let's get back to the Sportsman division.

Almost all of the "big stars" had retired or headed elsewhere. 1977 champion J.D. Willis was brought back from a short retirement by Buzz Wadsworth and George Viscia to drive a Stock Car. 1979 champion Dennis Furia had retired. 1978 champion Marv Wilson won his final race, a 50 lapper, at Petaluma in 1979 and sold his car to Sam Houston. Buzz Enea and Sal Belleci retired at the end of the 1980 season. Then you had the drivers who followed the man, John Soares Sr., to Petaluma Speedway and the Super Stock division.

But, a few drivers were willing to go down with the ship in 1981. Having narrowly missed winning the championship in 1980, Houston decided to come back. Coming off of a State championship, Richard Johnson returned. Jerry Garner was ready to step up and be counted. Al Nordstrom was hoping to get a little glory having been a B Main runner the previous few seasons. Then there was Len Mello, a competitor at the track since the early 60's, who only had one feature win in that time. Len's son in law, Buzz Enea, offered his support in a bid for Len to try and go out a champion.

A few stars of the past, such as Dana Auger, Mike Green, Gene Millard, John Soares Jr. and 1980 champion Mike Gustafson, came back occasionally, while racing at Petaluma some as well. Street Stock graduates L.C. Green, Tom Leopold and Frank Blasquez joined the class, and 1980 rookies Scott Busby and Keith Shipherd ran some races at Antioch and Petaluma. We also saw the occasional visit of veterans Henry Lentz, Jerry Hentrick and Dean Cline.

It was a bittersweet time for me and other Sportsman fans. Car count, as I said, was generally in the 8-10 car range. Mello, Johnson, Houston, Garner, 1980 Street Stock champion Joey Rodriguez and Nordstrom generally made every race, and then you saw different drivers. Depending on who showed up, you could see a dozen cars or more.

There really was something special about this class. I can't explain it. It was unique. But, one by one, they all fall down, Hardtops, Super Modifieds, Sportsman and even the Late Model Stock Car division, as we knew it at least. Those old feelings resurfaced in 1993 when we had 8-10 Late Model Stock Car drivers again willing to go down with the ship and a fan base that didn't want to see it go. When I look at Petaluma and John Soares Sr. deciding that 6-8 Late Model Stock Cars was still worth fighting for, I can't help but smile. He never gave up on them.

The thing about John was there was a loyalty. Not that there weren't problems, but he was loyal to his guys and they were loyal to him. At least that's the way it seems to me. Had he still been at Antioch in 1981, I wonder what direction things would have gone. Certainly there would have been more Sportsman divers willing to race weekly. That didn't happen, unfortunately.

We knew it was the end of an era, so we enjoyed it for what it was. Mello came out and drove the season of his career with 7 feature wins. Houston had five and might have been a stronger force had he not elected to miss a couple of races getting a new car ready. Johnson provided the stiffest competition to Mello, but the State champion came up short in the end. Garner had a strong showing in fourth with three wins to his credit.

When I look at it now, it makes me wonder if it could have been saved. I felt the same about the Late Model class, but this one really stuck with me. Maybe as fans we look at that first division we fell in love with with a fondness above all of the others. I wasn't always thrilled with the way things had gone at the track in the early years following the loss of the Sportsman division, and it just seemed to me like the place had lost something when Soares Sr. left. I don't know.

In this day and age, there probably would have been a follow up season to that last season. There is nothing out there really strong right now, or nothing that looks like it's going to get really big, at least not at Antioch. So, why wouldn't it be back? I can just imagine it. Mello would have came back. He had the car, so why not? Rick Bollinger was his crew chief. And making it more interesting would have been Buzz Enea returning to run wheel to wheel with him. Belleci would have been looking at it real hard and may have fielded a car before the end of the season.

Nordstrom would have been back going for his first win, maybe in a new car that he and Ken Gonderman built. Ken would have raced a little as well. The Green brothers would have been back. Auger would have raced a little in a car he would end up selling. Rodriguez would have stepped it up a little more. Garner would have remained a force. There would be new names in the field. Car count would have bumped up slightly, maybe 12-16 cars per week. Not big, but a nice little show to compliment the Street Stocks and the Byrd-Pettit-Willis battle in the Stock Cars.

Stock Cars would have been called the "headline" class, but the purse wouldn't have been all that different. It's just that the Regional points would have gone to the Stock Cars. It would have been a period of adjustment for sure, but fans would have still enjoyed the Sportsman division. The occasional visits of guys like Soares Jr. and Gustafson would have been welcomed as they left the track with the hardware that night.

And who would have won the 1982 Sportsman title? Probably Buzz Enea. Buzz was due, and he was fast. Houston would have probably been his nearest contender. I'd say Johnson, but he ended up going to Sprint Cars. Mello would have won a race, but staying in the top three would have been hard. Top five maybe. Mike Green would have been a factor, and there's probably a name I'm not even thinking of who would have been a factor, but what the heck. It's all just speculation. I'm thinking Enea wins in 1982, Mike Green wins a year later, Houston wins a close battle with Auger a year later.

Then we have a champion I'm not even sure about. It might be John Bellando or Ted Ferre from Street Stocks. Maybe one of the Curl brothers. I'm not sure, but car count gets to the point where there is a B Main again. Maybe a Regional point chaser is put in a Sportsman. Pettit seems a likely candidate at that time. He did win a Figure 8 championship at Watsonville in 1984. Perhaps Willis is back in the familiar #2a car with the flames on the side. Oh well, it never happened. But it sure would have been cool if it had.

From $99 Hardtop Auto Claimer Cars to Limited Sportsman and finally just the Sportsman division, these cars had a heck of a run at Antioch from 1961 to 1981. It was a sad day to see it go, and it's too bad the Sportsman revival of Merced never caught on here. The Hardtops are certainly a neat division, but man, those Sportsman cars were something to see.

The sport is constantly evolving, and it's a vicious little cycle. Racers are always pushing the rules, and the rules get modified to allow more. It becomes more expensive to be competitive on a consistent basis. Drivers end up parking. Once upon a time, the Stock Cars were the Street Stocks, but they evolved just in time to take over for the Sportsman division. The Street Stocks were born, though they are pretty much the Pure Stocks of today. The Super Stocks aren't that much different from the 80's version of the Stock Cars.

By the end of the 70's, the writing was already on the wall for the Sportsman division, but it just didn't get bad at Antioch until 1981. We still had B Mains just a year earlier. It's funny, though, because had the 8-10 car count existed now, it would probably still be here. I don't know why, but it was just a thought that hit me last night, so I thought I'd put it to words. Sometimes, timing is everything I guess.

Antioch Speedway
Final Sportsman Points 1981
1--Len Mello-----------499 (7)
2--Richard Johnson----426 (1)
3--Sam Houston-------409 (5)
4--Jerry Garner-------393 (3)
5--Joey Rodriguez-----313
6--Al Nordstrom-------202
7--Dana Auger---------189 (3)
8--L.C. Green----------159
9--Jerry Hetrick-------133
10-Dean Cline----------117
11-John Soares Jr.-------91 (1)
12-Keith Shipherd-------76
13-Tom Leopold---------70
14-Scott Busby----------68
15-Mike Green----------65
16-Henry Lentz---------57
17-Gene Millard---------47
18-Rob Amerime-------42
19-Mike Gustafson------37
20-Frank Blasquez------35

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