Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Looking Back: The Creation Of The Spec Sprint Division Part 1

I will admit sometimes I look back and  wonder if I would do my part in racing if I could do things over again.  Would I do something else?  What humbles me is the idea that had I not been at Antioch Speedway and elsewhere, things would have been different.  I say that not to brag, but I know the part I played.  I only wanted to make a difference.  I think I did.

One area is the Spec Sprint division.  I played a part in starting this division and was even mentioned in a national racing magazine article by Norm Bogan a few years back.  I'm actually lucky to have been involved like I was.

After the Open Wheel Round Up at Chowchilla in 2001, I wrote an article for The DCRR that Don O'Keefe Jr. has put on his web page.  It looked at the division to that point.  

What follows here is a look at the effort to start the Spec Sprints and the things Don and I did in helping give this division the most successful start a new division has ever had at Antioch Speedway.

I was working on this story when my window inexplicably shut down.  It may have been a good thing, because I went back farther than I needed to.  This was to be a story about my involvement in starting a division that is now in its 15th season at Antioch Speedway with several other tracks running it as well.  I'm talking about Wingless Spec Sprints.

I will point out that from the moment I talked with NCMA founder Mike Johnson, I was sold on the concept of this type of racing.  Through the body style changes on these cars, the racing has been good.  It's gotten better through the years.  Mike told me we could get drivers from all back grounds and car counts in the 20's or even 30's.  I believed him, and I worked hard to help make it happen.

I wrote for the NCMA from the first year through the sixth season and was on the Board as Secretary for five years.  I helped get Mike back into the fray when we co-founded the CMA in an effort to unite the different groups who ran similar cars.  We took flack for this, but we helped bring about positive change too.  I left when Mike wanted to add Hardtops to the mix.

Let me clarify that I actually like Hardtops, but we needed to build the division we were running.  Mike had a couple Hardtops and had a buddy with a couple cars, so this Hardtop craze we have going could have started back in 1995.  Instead, Mike buried the hatchet with the NCMA, and car count grew in the club for the next few years.  I was happy to see them finally achieve B Mains.

The story might have ended there, but in 1997, change was coming to Antioch Speedway.  John Soares Jr. was bidding for the track, and I threw my support behind him wholeheartedly from the moment he told me he was doing it.  This was something I do not regret.  Let me tell you about the first conversation we had about the future of the track and what would run there.

John was planing to drop NASCAR.  Fine with me.  Keep the three primary classes.  Fine with me.  Bring Dwarf Cars in house.  Drop the Northern Stars and bring in BCRA races.  Renegotiate or drop NARC.  Nothing was set in stone at that point until people developed foot in mouth disease.  He was planning to drop the NCMA.  Red lights went off in my head.

I loved the NCMA.  I know it's hard for some people to believe, but it's true.  Even now, I love that Ed Amador has kept this club together.  So, I told John he shouldn't do that.  They will give him 16-20 cars per race at Antioch, and many of these guys were from the area at the time.  I think I had a hand, along with Jim Booth and one or two others, in influencing this decision.  I would do it again.

The waters got rough for me.  I had a problem with Racing Wheels Magazine printing my stuff, and Gary Jacob was ghost writing my stories and getting them printed without my name in the byline.  I know he meant well, but track management was upset with me.  They had good reason.  I was asked to come to the open wheel race at the end of the season to cover the NCMA, so I did.

The NCMA President at the time tried to get me to back off of my endorsement of John, who I still wasn't naming at that time as per his request.  Well, I told him that I knew what I was doing and that it would work out for the NCMA in the end.  I understood his concern.  Truth be told, track management had told NCMA leaders that I had a positive effect on their situation, so I know what I was doing was betrayal in her eyes.  I don't blame her for being upset.

In 1998, John ushered in a new era in Antioch Speedway history, one that continues to this day.  The NCMA had several dates at the track, and John authorized me to keep points for the club.  I recalled Antioch titles won by Mike Johnson, Scott Holloway and Stan Cargo, and I wanted to do this for the club.  Before proceeding, I asked the NCMA Business Manager at the time, and he gave me a green light.

Out of respect, I used the NCMA point system, rather than Antioch's.  John was planning to honor the top ten at the banquet, including a nice championship jacket.  I was happy to do this for the NCMA.  There was a problem, though.  The NCMA publicist did not like what I was doing and told me I had no right.  I informed him that I was trying to help and had permission from NCMA leadership.

Of course, he went to that individual, who denied authorizing me, and I was called a liar for volunteering to help.  I was hurt by the accusation, but it worked out.  The publicist took over the points, and I officially didn't have anything to do with things.  I was still happy to get the ball rolling, and anther champion was crowned as a result.  The NCMA's top five Antioch point earners were honored at the banquet.

During the season, there was a double booking at Antioch and Placerville.  Don O'Keefe Jr. and I had caught the error, and Don knew the NCMA was planing to honor Placerville.  John was advertising the NCMA and had no idea until he was informed of the situation.  The disaster was averted, and it could have been ugly had he not known until no cars showed up that night.

Being the business man John is, he had a plan to make sure the NCMA cars were there when booked.  He sent Don to an NCMA Board Meeting with an offer.  They would receive the Dirt Modified purse ($600 to win and $100 to start) and be given 12-14 dates at Antioch to join the All Pro Series.  If they wanted to run NCMA dates outside of that, he was fine with it.  Without getting into details, the offer was rejected.

The wheels were spinning and John was talking to Doc Brophy about trying something different with the carbureted Sprint effort.  Part of the idea was to run wings.  I believe Brophy came out for hot laps and ran a 360 Sprint Car race with that setup.  There were overheating issues and other problems.  I knew of the discussions, but I was soon given the offer I couldn't refuse.

Don O'Keefe Jr. is a details man.  When he heard the details of the CMA in 1994, he said no thanks.  That wasn't the right time.  Maybe I should have taken heed then, but I was stubborn.  Well, John and Don talked car count (minimum 12), purse ($300 to win and $75 to start for 12 cars, bigger at 17) and about 12 race dates.  The new project was put in Don's hands and probably expected to fail.

Well, if you know Don, you know he can make things happen, but Don didn't want to do it alone.  So, he recruited me.  He was telling me what could happen (I've heard this before from Mike), but I know something about Don.  I could trust him.  He's always been a good friend to me, probably my best friend.  He has a good reputation, and I knew he and I would make a great team.

To Be Continued...