Friday, March 15, 2013

Chowchilla Speedway To Rise Again?

I once joked about a statue they needed at the entrance of Chowchilla Speedway.  Picture Tom Sagmiller with his hat turned backwards, pointing the way to the gates.  Inscribed at the bottom of the statue are the words, "Give us your tired, mistreated, suspended, disenfranchised and under appreciated racers, and we will give you a fun place to race.  At Chowchilla Speedway, we put fun first, and there's a $25 fine if you're not having fun."  

Just when you thought you heard the last of Chowchilla Speedway, it looks like it may be back again.  That's the report that first surfaced on the Late Model Racer forum today (March 14).  I'm going to say a few things here that I think are useful, but they are also just my opinion.  Others will disagree.  Most importantly, I endorse and support the idea of opening this track again, and I hope it happens.

It was reported that "The Flying Cowboy" Jack Stanford is behind this idea along with Dale Ferriera of Hondo Boats.  The idea is for eight races this year to get it going, and they are trying to find out who is willing to get on board with this effort so they can plan accordingly.  Dale has driver contact info cards on the counter at his business to further gauge driver interest.

Tom Sagmiller and his investors really started something here. It was amazing to see what this unlikely race track managed to accomplish under Tom's leadership.  Nothing since he was there has ever come close.  Tom periodically asked me to come back, and I always appreciated that he took time to contact me just to say hi and see how I was doing.  I was tempted when he called last year, and if the track had been down the street, you probably would have heard me announcing there again.

Tom and I had our disagreements.  I won't get into the Spec Sprint thing.  He did it his way and still had success with it.  My way would have been better in the long run, but there's another thing we discussed.  I wanted to see more emphasis on local involvement from Chowchilla.  When Antioch started way back in the 60's, John Soares Sr. made a big deal out of locally based racers and had a local point race.  This was important, because Antioch needed to establish a local base of cars, so John went so far as to have a local point race and crown a local champion.

Immediately, Tom saw locals like the Tatum brothers, Chuck Crews, Joe Smith Jr. and Jack Van Hoff, to name a few.  By year two, there were about a dozen local Hobby Stock racers.  I wanted to see a locals race for local bragging rights, some involvement with the local high school, cars on display in town and anything to get this wonderful little town behind the track.  The newspaper supported us from the moment I started submitting stories, and I always appreciated that.

Opening that track in Chowchilla was huge for the town and showed great leadership on Tom's behalf.  They absolutely blew it by letting him go.  That too is my opinion.  Chowchilla Speedway was successful partly because it wasn't run the traditional way.  If it had been, it might have closed that first year.  Chowchilla defied tradition and put on some of the best races you would see anywhere in the state.  It was about fun.  Remember that?

Chuck Griffin came in and tried to do things in a more traditional manner, even bringing IMCA with him.  He was rejected.,  Kenny Shepherd wanted to do the same thing, and though it got a little bigger than Chuck had it, he was never fully embraced as the promoter.  John Prentice came in and I think it was a case of trying to do too much too soon.  Kenny dropped Modifieds in favor of Sport Mods for a reason.  Back to the basics.

But, I'll just say that if they couldn't have Tom back after Chuck gave up, it should have been Chowchilla Barnburner promoter Joe Diaz Jr.  Why?  The man comes from a racing family.  He knows what it takes.  He was successful in promoting his winter racing series AND he's based in Chowchilla.  Let a guy who knows the community run the track.

I'll never forget the complaints we had at Antioch in the mid 80's about wanting a local person to run our beloved track.  Somebody who knew the community.  We nearly got John Soares Sr. back at that time.  When the NASCAR establishment got the contract, they moved people to the area to oversee the track. 

Now, Chowchilla's Jack Stanford steps into the picture and there's hope again.  You're dealing with a poor economy, so I think you need to keep that in mind when putting it all together again.  The Hobby Stock rush of 2000-01 showed that locals wanted to race, but they wanted to stay on budget and learn.  In this day, that means Four Bangers and Hobby Stocks should be a big part of the equation.

We shouldn't underestimate the Sport Mods at Chowchilla.  You know how we have the class at Watsonville, Antioch, Petaluma and Hanford now?  Those double digit car counts at Chowchilla helped make that happen.  Sport Mods may need to be the top class at Chowchilla with Hobby Stocks and Four Bangers also on the card.

I'm not saying Modifieds shouldn't be there, but as a promoter, you have to consider what you can afford to race.  This thing needs to be grown from the bottom up to form a solid foundation.  This means Spec Sprints, Dirt Modifeds and Limited Late Models probably don't fit in at the start unless they are okay with a low purse.  You may be able to call in the Sportsman class or Okie Bowl Hardtops for an appearance or two.

Resort to gimmicks used in the past, like grudge matches, mechanics races, hot dog races and that sort of thing.  Community outreach will be important.  Heck, consider getting a high school racing program with Four Bangers.  If you build it, they will come.  You see, Tom bucked the trends to make it happen, and Jack could use a similar mindset to rebuild this program.

I've even looked at radical measures for holding races if you have car counts in the 4-8 car range in some divisions.  If you can't get two heats and a main out of a division, run a Heat race (6-8 laps), invert it in a semi final (8-10 laps) and then average the points straight up for a 15 lap final heat.  Total the points and there is your winner for the night.  It makes each race that night important towards having an overall winner and can make that small field more interesting.  You can still award your points based on total points for the night for your overall point race.  Just a thought.

What I do know is getting local support behind the program is a good idea, and having somebody based in town running the track ties in perfectly with that.  If you work on establishing a program with your core classes, within a few years, you will have a solid foundation, and it won't cost too much in purse money to get it started.  Occasionally, you can get sponsors to increase the those purses.

I would guess the Sport Mod class could be in the 8-12 car range, Hobbys are in the 6-8 car range with Four Bangers about the same.  Hype these guys up everywhere you can.  Spread the word, create the excitement.  Make that fan sitting in the stands want to come back, or better yet, get a car of his or her own.  With affordable classes you can do this.  Bring in bigger classes on occasion, but don't forget the classes that got you there.

Well, that's just my opinion, and you know what they say about opinions.  I just want to see this work out.  I see where things went wrong in recent years, and fighting a tough economy is part of the problem. If you want to make it work long range, you must think outside the box and you must start with classes people can afford.

While I'm hoping this all works out, I should point out that this track has held races since 2000.  That would make this the 14th season.  Here's a crazy idea.  If you open those gates, how about a Hall Of Fame night?  It's not so crazy when you think about it.  I could think of a few people deserving of such an honor at Chowchilla Speedway, but that's for another time.  We'll see how this story develops.