Saturday, June 22, 2013

Looking Back: The Creation Of The Spec Sprint Division Part 3

At the Placerville swap meet, Don and I saw a low buck racer with the NCMA who had been picked on a little bit.  Who it was isn't important, but we walked up and said hi, and his response was, "I'm running with the NCMA."  Of course, he ended up in a Wingless Spec Sprint and even led some laps in one of the Darryl Shirk Memorial races.  Man, some of these guys were being pressured by the club, but all Spec Sprints were was another place to race.

The other thing we saw was the NCMA schedule with dates at Antioch and Petaluma booked over.   I was not pleased, because I remembered that date in 1998 at Placerville.  I had gone to bat for the NCMA and continued to do so in the face of the animosity, but I had to tell John about this.  If I didn't I would have let him down, and I couldn't do that.  It was not easy telling the Business Manager that all of their dates were pulled, but I had to do it.

After all of the hype, opening day was coming.  Don and I both felt we were on the mark with 12 cars.  This in itself would be a huge feet.  How many cars did the Dirt Modifieds, Hobby Stocks, Four Bangers, Limited Late Models and Mini Trucks have for their openers?  I think none of them had more than four cars.  Well, we had 12, and that's because two teams had last minute problems and had to debut at the next race.

Don and I did everything we could to guide this class.  I arranged a heat race since everybody would be in the feature anyway, where drivers could earn their first wins.  This was to encourage these guys to hang in there.  We inverted the features with fastest in the back to encourage passing, but a couple drivers weren't happy with that after a while.  It got changed after Gonderman's back of the pack win in a 17 car field.

Don had told me that our influence would shrink when this thing took off, but he also said car count would grow and other tracks would start this division.  I loved the sound of that.  But, Don was back in the pits dealing with any issue that arose.  When there was a misinterpretation of the rules, Don loaded up and took it out of the pits to stand up for the racers.  They would have let him go, but John went out and talked to him.

People claimed Don started this class for himself, but the realty is Don never wanted to be a point racer.  With his knowledge and ability, he could have dominated if that was the goal.  He wanted a division for the racers to learn in and veterans to come back to.  I still get a kick out of his response to a person who told him he was mad at a certain racer because he couldn't beat him.  Don won the feature that next week.

You see, Don actually made trips to Doc Brophy's house twice to set up his car.  I was with him.  Doc won both Spec Sprint features on those occasions.  He made trips to help Andy Archer, who was also a Main Event winner.  He was quick to help anybody who asked, because he knew if he made them better, the show was better.  I don't know that Spec Sprints could have happened without Don.

I can also add Don's decision to print full color autograph sheets out of his own pocket so the drivers could get out of their cars before the feature and sign them for the kids.  Or, the fact that he lined up a sponsor from Santomauro Racing that we gave to the hard luck racer of the week to help them out.  He was always coming up with things like that, just as he had during his time in the NCMA.

Then there's Ron Rodda.  You see, this was seen as a "bastard class" by some in the Sprint Car community and openly mocked.  Ron has built a reputation as being tough but fair.  He is a true Sprint Car fan, and he came out and supported some of these shows with stories and photos.  I believe Ron played a role in helping us establish this division, and he's a writer I have always respected for his honesty.

There's another interesting note that is lost in the record books.  John Soares Sr. wanted Spec Sprints at Petaluma, so we held a three race point season for that.  Don won his first mini championship and a Main Event there.  I know he's not driven by things like that, but it's nice that he won it.  Pops liked the class so much he booked a fourth date at the last minute late in the season and got his best car count of the four races.

So, we never had less than 12 cars at Antioch that season.  We made it as high as 17 cars and had a total of 31 cars.  NCMA guys did join up, but if we had depended on them, we would have failed.  We brought a whole host of new racers to the fold.  Dan Gonderman joined his father as a track champion that year.  It was not easy at times because we had people trying to hurt the cause, but we knew what we were doing was right.

What was interesting was the NCMA landed on their feet as they always do.  Really, it has always been a resilient club, and 25 seasons speak for themselves.  However, they booked several $1000 to win races one year, and Spec Sprint racers came out and won all but the night Antioch had a date booked.  Spec Sprint racers supported the NCMA when they could, which was fine by me.

On the final night, as Don and I were standing there thinking about the great season we had, we talked to many of the happy racers.  We knew we had taken it where we could.  We knew John would take it from there.  We knew without our effort, it never would have made it, and we knew without a great group of supporting racers, it never would have been possible.

The next season, Spec Sprints had their first B Main.  The NCMA continued their push towards asphalt.  Chowchilla brought back the Limited Sprints.  A year later, Orland got on board and we were hearing rumblings of Chico and Marysville.  Watsonville was next and then Petaluma.  Now, we even have the Hunt Series.  And drivers have come from all ranks to run these cars.  The names are impressive.  Chico had a weekend with an amazing 70 cars.

But, I'll always be proud of what Tom Sagmiller and I did in 2001 with the Open Wheel Round Up.  We had 32 cars.  In many ways, that was the race that made promoters take notice.  I used my paycheck from that race to pay the heat races, because it was always about the racers to me.  Tom announced over the PA that the race was my idea, and NCMA people came over and congratulated me.  All I ever wanted was a successful class that anybody could race.

I am so proud that the Spec Sprint division is in it's 15th season and that the NCMA has 25 seasons in the record books.  I love that on any given weekend, racers have those two choices, along with Watsonville, Chico, Petaluma, Marysville and Orland to choose from.  I'm blessed that I've been lucky enough to make a difference in racing, even all these years later.

It's one of the things I'm most proud of.  Without John handing this off to Don and I, it never would have happened.  Without a good friend like Don O'Keefe Jr., I never would have been seen as somebody who could do this.  I've never driven a race car, and some people would say I'm not a racer because of that.  But, what I've always been an advocate of is affordable and safe racing that creates a good car count and a fun and family friendly racing environment.  I believe we accomplished all of that with Wingless Spec Sprints.