Sunday, April 14, 2013

Twenty Years Ago This December

The Decision That Changed Antioch Speedway

I wrote about the decision to drop the Sportsman division at Antioch in 1981.  It was the end of an era.  The one saving grace in that decision was the drivers knew during the season that their days were numbered.  Several racers followed promoter John Soares Sr. to Petaluma to join an amazing Super Stock division.  It speaks to the man's character that so many racers wanted to race for him.  Even at Merced, promoter Jim Soares told the Sportsman drivers in 1980 if they couldn't give hm ten cars he would have to drop them.  That cut occurred during the 1980 season.

Do you want to know a big reason why  I always respected John Soares Sr. and consider him to be one of the best California racing promoters ever?  The man was a visionary.  You know that Dirt Modified division headlining at race tracks all over the state?  He's the one who brought it to California back in 1987, and he crowned the first champion in 1988.  But, this post isn't about Dirt Modifieds.  It's about the division that produced some of the best racing of the last 30 years, Late Models.

Why bring up John in this context?  Well, it was back in 1992 or so when he had six drivers in his Late Model class and fans that wanted Late Models at the track.  He did as well.  The "group of six" included Jack Dempsey, Dick Lynch, Dan Haulot, Rod Arnold and Don Iverson.  And these drivers weren't happy with the situation.  In fact, they were prepared to park.  Some "experts" would have called the division dead then.  I mean, Antioch had twice that in 1993, and it was declared dead. 

Well, John went and met with the drivers and worked it out.  The famous pay scale sheet (I've heard John Soares Jr. had something to do with this) came out during that time frame.  Drivers in all classes at Petaluma knew to the dollar what they would be racing for based on how many cars took the green in the Main Event.  The Late Models made a remarkable comeback.  How remarkable?  Over two decades later, Late Models still race at Petaluma.

I won't sit here and tell you Late Models were strong at Antioch and Watsonville.  I will tell you that 12-16 cars per race still brought the fans, and a roster that included Steve Hendren, Bobby Scott, John Silva, Ed Sans Jr. and Larry Damitz put on some amazing races.  It was worth fighting for.

I did an interview with parts distributor and Harris Modified salesperson Jim Bowman in which he echoed my sentiments.  He felt Dirt Modifieds should be the in between class, bridging the gap between Street Stocks and Late Models.  It would feed cars into the Late Model class.  That's the way it was back east.  The Harris salesman most people know, on the other hand, wanted Late Models out of the way.

When you look at the numbers, you can see the point.  In 25 races, the Late Models never had a B Main that season at Antioch.  Car count fell under 12 (no less than 10) five times.  Meanwhile, the Dirt Modifieds had B Mains about every week, which is what had been happening for a couple years prior.  The locals were building Dirt Mods.  Dirt Mod car count wasn't as big at Watsonville, but it was healthy.

So, there was a growing movement to hand headline status to the Dirt Modifieds.  I liked the class well enough, but I felt we needed to fight for Late Models.  I believed it could come back, but we had to do something about the escalating cost and the purse.  Drivers weren't crazy about adjusting the rules, but I had more than a few drivers agree with me on the purse issue.  They weren't always getting $100 to start, and it was $600 to win at best on a regular night.

Just two or three years earlier, there was a renaissance of sorts in the Late Models.  The year Jim Pettit II won his third Antioch title, we had several local drivers and there were B Mains.  For a regular division to really thrive, you have to have solid local driver support.  If you rely mainly on out of towners, you get in trouble if they stop visiting.

I recall talking with Antioch management and being advised not to write about the situation.  She was in talks with Bakersfield about putting a series together.  Unfortunately, the final decision was not hers to make.  I tend to believe the Late  Models would have been back the next year if it were up to her.  So, I held the story for a week, only to see a story in the newspaper.  Oh well.  At least it was being discussed.

Late in the season, Petaluma had the Masseli & Sons race, and many drivers wanted to go to that.  Regional points were over.  Rather than book a special show for some of the traveling classes, Antioch attempted to go head to head with Petaluma and ended up with six cars.  Some opportunists wanted to say that this represented what the Late Models had.  Shame on them for that outright lie.

But, the situation was dire.  Scott Busby wanted to showcase what the Dirt Modifieds really had, so he got with track management and the West Coast Nationals was booked.  Never let it be said that Busby couldn't get things done.  He most certainly could.  He lined up sponsors, recruited drivers and a track record (to this day) 83 Dirt Modifieds ran that race in 1993, won by Mark Welch.

Furthermore, Scott would put fenders on his car for the Steitz race at San Jose and run with the Late Models.  The aim was to show the speed of these cars.  The push was on for headline status and Regional points for the Dirt Modifieds, but no decision was made at that time.  For all the drivers knew, they would still be on the card in 1994.

On a personal note, I had a couple Late Model drivers tell me they planned on putting DCRR Racing News on their cars.  I was honored by that.  Rob Waldrop and Chris Lancaster had done this in the past, and Don O'Keefe Jr. featured it prominently on his Spec Sprint.  It meant a lot to me to know people thought that much of what I was doing that they would help me advertise the magazine like that.

The banquet came in Late November/early December (I forget the date), and drivers were planning to order new equipment.  Antioch management told them they would be back, so the orders (for new cars in some cases) went out on Monday.  Well, not long after that, they got the letter from NASCAR.  It was over.  I'll never forget hearing about that in Reno and putting the word out in the magazine.  I was disappointed.

The next year, the division ran at San Jose for a season as a sort of compromise.  They were moved from one region to the other, but it wasn't the same.  How could it be?  The Dirt Modifieds had the cars, so you couldn't argue the move.  What I did find interesting was the drivers who thought they would get a Regional championship that never did.

The story didn't end there.  Steve Hendren won that San Jose title, and the West Coast Speedways promoter got together with Soares to create a four track series for Late Models in 1995.  This would have been huge.  The problem was Soares didn't like what he was hearing on his end as to what would be allowed in this All Pro Series Late Model Tour.  In a move to protect his drivers, John had to back out.

Well, the Late Model dates at the three other tracks remained.  Fans wanted them.  The problem was, rather than make a point race and promote and build this effort, they simply ran these races without much hype.  No effort was made to build this into something.  One night, there were 22 cars in San Jose and 16 at Petaluma, showing that there was still something left.

This is what always frustrated me about management of the tracks on the NASCAR side.  They were managing things, sure, but not really promoting them.  A final opportunity to hold a stake in the Late Model movement fell by the wayside.  It wasn't even about headline status at that point.  Modifieds had that.  It was about having something fans wanted to see.

I'm sure I'll upset people with this, but so be it.  Dirt Modifieds had the car count (into the 30's at Antioch), but the racing couldn't compare to Late Models.  I'm sorry.  If you think 10 plus yellow flags every week is good, than you are a trooper.  I don't know how those guys afforded to fix things up and come back every week, but they did.  There were things track officials did in an effort to play fair that just made things worse.

What I remember was the Dirt Modifieds rarely went flag to flag without a yellow at Antioch.  I think you have to go all the way back to before headline status, and then all the way to the week after Mel Maupin died.  So, were talking at least seven seasons.  Late Models were faster and smoother.  Period.  Better racing.

That's not to say Dirt Modifieds weren't good.  In fact, I think it took the turn for the worse only when headline status was given to it.  Not sure why.  Were Regional points that important?  I don't know.  Management couldn't be unhappy since car counts were high and fans kept coming back.  Maybe I'm the only person with this opinion, but who cares?  I'll say it anyway.

Late Models should have been saved in 1994 at Antioch and Watsonville.  Or, they should have been a part of the CarQuest Tour out of Bakersfield.  There were at least three dozen cars in the area at the time, and they should have been fought for.  John Soares Sr. did it at Petaluma.  Maybe we still have Dirt Modifieds as a headline, while Late Models run every other week at Antioch and Watsonville.  Something should have been done.

What I found ironic was the Dirt Modified stars who ended up running dirt Late Models anyway.  That seems to prove Jim Bowman's point pretty well.  Drivers would have moved up anyway.

Late Models still live.  The tour has it's issues, but it still exists.  Petaluma and Santa Maria held on to their classes all these years. And, the Dirt Modifieds are headlining at tracks 20 years later.  They've gotten pricier, causing some concern.  However, the next big thing seems to be Sport Mods.  It's a recycling of those Dirt Modifieds.  Don't go thinking it's all old equipment either.  There are newer cars in the field already, so one has to wonder what will happen in the long run.

Lest you think I'm ripping on Dirt Modifieds, let me just say I am not.  Based on car count, they have proven their worth.  The numbers don't lie.  Something had to be done back then, and that was the decision that was made.  I just believe the Late Models should have been fought for.  They deserved it, in my opinion.  Think of all the great racing they produced through the years.  But, what do I know?  I hated it when they dropped the Sportsman division too, but that's another story.