Sunday, April 14, 2013

Are Late Models On Their Way Out At Petaluma Speedway?

Allow me to go back a few years if I may.  It ties in with what I want to say.

It was 2000, and I had gone to pizza with my friend Chris.  Brian Beard was filming the races or had somebody filming it (he may have been racing at the time).  Jim Soares walks over to me, eating a piece of pizza.  He smiles and says, "So Donny, are you still in the family?"

This wasn't so funny at the time.  I was a little ticked off at his brother at that time as he was at me, but I was still doing my best.  But, that's Jim's sense of humor.  I can't claim to have been a big fan of his, but I do respect him.  I respect the family.  With Jim, you pretty much know where you stand.  I respect that.

So, when word came that 2002 would be John Soares Sr's final season at Petaluma, I heard rumors.  I know John Jr. was interested in the place.  Track unity would continue to grow stronger.  Jim ended up getting it.  I know what went down, but that's really not important.  I felt the track was in good hands.

Jim was talking about things to do in 2003 to get things on track.  I liked what I was hearing.  Let's keep things going there, build it stronger, strengthen the ties between Petaluma and Antioch.  I remember saying we could do this or that, and Jim turns to me and says, "There is no we."

Understood.  I'm at Antioch anyway, I said, and by we, I simply meant Antioch and Petaluma together, meaning John and Jim working together.  The bigger meaning of "there is no we" didn't dawn on me until a few years later.  John and Jim really weren't working together.  I've commented on that in this blog and how I doubted John Sr. would be happy about it.  My opinion, of course.

Antioch Speedway lost it's B Mains in Dwarf Cars and Spec Sprints after Jim started those classes at Petaluma.  I'm not bad mouthing him for that, just pointing it out.  Antioch also started running Late Models and 360 Sprints at that time, but John tried not to book over Petaluma for the most part.  Petaluma didn't lose much.  In short order, though, they had a solid Spec Sprint and Dwarf Car class.

Jim stepped up and did what needed to be done at Petaluma.  The stories I heard of how well he treated the drivers were impressive.  The man even had a sign put up honoring the late Jim "Grumpy" Booth.  When Jim took the reigns, the only classes that were showing life were Street Stocks and Dirt Modifieds.  All divisions started gaining cars in the immediate years following.

And, Jim is doing this while people are trying to build a minor league ball park, a shopping mall or whatever other lame idea they had for the fairgrounds property.  He simply booked the races and held them week in and week out.  I got word this year that Jim wasn't calling the shots at Petaluma this season.  This is the first time in decades a Soares wasn't running the show there.

I was unsure what to say about that.  I only know the rumors, and it would be wrong to report a rumor.  For a decade, Jim Soares steered that track through rough waters and put on some good shows.  This is just the latest accomplishment for the man they call Dr. Dirt.  A premier track prep man, Dwarf Car champion, promoter and on and on.  I respect Jim for what he's done to help the sport.

So, let me put it this way.  If Jim is not in charge because it's his choice, then good for him.  Nothing wrong with stepping aside when the time comes.  Some people don't know when to quit.  Some don't know how to quit.  Going out on your own terms is the way to go if you can.  On the other hand, it something else is at play, well, I disapprove.  But what do I know?  I'm just a blogger at this point.

Rick Faeth is now the one calling the shots at Petaluma, which is fast turning into an open wheel venue.  Nothing wrong with that.  I tend to favor Stock Car racing, but good racing is good racing too.  As somebody who helped found the Spec Sprint division in California, I say put on a show.  I know there are some people at Watsonville who are bitter about the open wheel direction of things there.  But, why wouldn't you start a 360 Sprint Car class if you could get the cars?

For over three decades, Petaluma was the home to California's biggest Late Model race, the M. Maselli & Sons race.  This race started as a Super Stock event, and Scott Bloomquist once competed, among other top notch talent.  It is a tradition.  I love that there is a Johnny Soares Classic for BCRA Midgets, but the M. Maselli & Sons race was a tradition.  Drivers and fans marked it on their calenders. 

Well, it's gone now.  Bye bye.  I didn't know what to say about that, so I held off.  John Soares Sr. held onto this division when all other bay area venues retreated.  He knew its value.  He also knew the value of not messing with the rules and trying to keep the core drivers happy.  It nearly died 20 years ago, but he wouldn't let it.  Antioch killed it's class when it had twice what Petaluma had at it's low point.  John knew what he wanted.

When Jim took the reigns, he actually gained a few cars.  He did what he could to make the race big.  I guess the race has become less of a priority.  No consideration of transferring it to Dirt Modifieds, or even better, Street Stocks.  Just bye bye.  Was Petaluma giving signs that the Late Models days are numbered?  I just watched and observed.  This is just my opinion.  Nothing more.

However, the Late Model purse has been cut.  Particularly disturbing is the to start money, now at $150.  These cars aren't cheap.  One of the secrets to Spec Sprint success early on was that Don O'Keefe Jr. and I assured John Soares Jr. that he would get more cars with better to start money.  There can only be one winner.  Antioch paid $75 to start that first year and $100 a year later.  Hence, the big car counts that occurred.  Not rocket science.

When you cut the purse on the Late Models, you send a message that the division isn't important.  The purse and the big race being cut is pretty obvious.  Oh sure, you can say the drivers made you do it or whatever, and that's fine.  But, I doubt drivers will suddenly rally to "save" the class.  It may get eight to ten cars on average, but drivers aren't likely to go out of their way to support it.

So, basically, if management is okay with 8-10 cars per race, then that's fine.  It may be safe for a while.  On the other hand, if that's all there is, whose to say the budget axe doesn't fall again?  Maybe it drops to $500 to win and $100 to start.  If that happens, will there even be 8-10 cars?  I'm not saying the class is dead now, but this isn't a good sign for the future.  Enjoy Late Models at Petaluma while you can folks.

If the Sport Mods can grow at Petaluma and we see a little more life out of Dirt Modifieds, I would bet there would be more temptation to get rid of Late Models.  If you are wondering where some of the money is going, look no further than the Mini Stocks/Hornets division.  This is where I have to say I understand what is happening.

Once upon a time, Petaluma had a thriving Mini Stock and Pure Stock division.  The results were new stars that made it all the way to 360 Sprints and Late Models.  They started at the bottom  Well, Pure Stocks died a decade ago.  I'm not sure why it happened, but it did.  Mini Stocks are on life support.  This is why the Hornets class was added last year.

Petaluma is top heavy.  They have plenty of what most fans want to see, Late Models, 360 Sprint Cars, Spec Sprints, Dirt Modifieds.  However, they need that entry level class.  The class that's most affordable to get into that doesn't require a big purse.  You can develop new talent for the future.  It's a good thing.

It wasn't too long ago, on Jim's watch, that Mini Stock car count was in the mid to high teens.  So, an effort is being made to try and get it back, while also trying to launch the cheaper Hornets class.  I believe the two classes are being run together now, but one has to wonder how long that will be the case if Hornets get enough cars of their own.

So, I have no problem with building up the entry level class  Actually, I like a lot of what Petaluma has to offer, and Rick seems to have a good game plan.  I'm just a little disappointed in the moves being made that could spell the beginning of the end of Late Models.  Part of it is just the times we live in.  Promoters can't afford to pay Late Models.  So, enjoy them while you can.  You never know when the axe will finally fall on this division at Petaluma.