Friday, November 21, 2014

Through All The Changes, Racing Has Continued To Endure

Things change in racing.  You can count on it.  Back in the late 1950's and 1960's, tracks in Oakland and Pacheco closed.  These two tracks were extremely important to the Bay Cities Racing Association and the legendary Hardtop and Midget divisions they had at the time.  It was the end of the great BCRA circuit of Pacheco, Vallejo, West Capital and Oakland.

Of course, BCRA survived and adapted as they always have, but by the mid 1960's they had gotten out of the Hardtop business.  The Midgets of the 1970's were still an amazing show.  They ran on any track they could get.  There was Fremont, which became a home track for them.  They ran indoors.  They raced where they could, and there was still no shortage of race dates.

In the 1960's, Bayshore Speedway gave way to Champion Speedway, and then Champion Speedway was closed before the 1970's came along.  By then, NASCAR had become THE sanctioning body in Northern California.  Bob Barkhimer saw to that when his CSCRA merged with NASCAR.  The man had many tracks when he made that move in 1950, another key moment in racing history.

In the 50's, NASCAR and BCRA ruled Northern California.  To show you the kind of guy Barky was, he loaned BCRA money to keep them afloat in hard times in the early 70's.  It wasn't about competition between them, and he was quick to point out his love of Midget racing.  He was a top driver before he was one of the greatest racing promoters to ever live, and he is in the BCRA Hall Of Fame.

In the 1970's, the racing climate changed again.  Clovis and Kearny Bowl closed, and then Tully Road San Jose Speedway closed.  It was in 1978 when the drivers went from the pavement to the dirt of San Jose Speedway at the Fairgrounds.  In short order, Vallejo Speedway was closed and West Capital Speedway ran it's final race in 1980.

It was also during this time when Barkhimer retired and sold BBA.  His legacy of tracks was still strong, but changes were in the wind.  Many of Barky's guys ended up out of NASCAR, the first being John Soares Sr., who had the foresight to get Petaluma and make it an independent track.  His promoting career was already more than two decades old, and he ran Petaluma until retiring at the end of the 2002 season.

The Barky Legacy tracks had a boon period in the 1980's, peaking around 1985.  At it's height, the Stock Car and Street Stock circuit ran Watsonville on Friday, Merced, Antioch or San Jose on Saturday and Baylands on Sunday.  There was lots of good racing to be had.  I call it the last "Golden Age" of Nor Cal racing, but that's just my opinion.  Racing went on regardless.

In the late 1980's, there were two major changes that happened.  We lost Baylands, which had become a very important track not just for Sprint Cars, but Stock Cars as well.  They raced everything there.  For a time, David Vodden and investors tried to relocate, looking at the site in Vacaville of the old Vaca Valley Drag Strip.  It would have been a good site, but you know how politics are.  Soares brought all of those divisions to Petaluma in 1989, and the All Pro Series was born.

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that even during that time, the track in Vallejo still sat dormant.  Some 15 years later (in 1993), I walked that track and the houses were just starting to encroach on the territory in Turns 1 and 2.  Makes you wonder about the racing seasons that could have been, but you know how politics are.

Speaking of which, NASCAR had an ambitious plan for San Jose Speedway in the late 1980s.  They still ran the San Jose Mile for AMA Motorcycles and Silver Crown cars, and the thought was that this could become a one mile track for the Sprint Cup and other special events.  NASCAR wanted this, but the powers that be did not.  The idea was shot down.

Some cite this as the beginning of the end for San Jose Speedway.  Maybe it was.  The track lasted for over a decade after that, but things began to change.  Super Modifieds were done and replaced with Sprint Cars before the end of the decade.  In the 90's, it was the closing of the mile track and then a falling off of 410 Sprint Car count.  Then came rumblings of a proposed concert amphitheater.

In the 1990's, an effort came about to bring racing back to Altamont Raceway Park.  It was grass roots, and it was successful.  It began the most successful run for the track, despite the intense heat during day races and heavy winds and cooler temperatures at night.  Many champions were crowned in it's decade plus run.

Merced had pulled out of NASCAR at the end of the 1991 season.  I was aware that the powers that be didn't care for the Cal Mod division that nearly produced a Regional champion in Gordon Rodgers for two straight years.  In any case, Chuck Griffin made the track independent in 1992, and they later became a big IMCA supporter.  This left three tracks in the Barky Legacy, Antioch, Watsonville and San Jose.

San Jose was falling on hard times.  It cost $5 just to park there.  The 410's faded and gave way to 360 Sprints, and Dwarf Cars, Mini Sprints and NCMA Modifieds took turns as the support class.  The Late Models had long been gone from the card there and were replaced by Dirt Modifieds at the other two tracks.  It was a change that some liked and some hated, but racing went on.

Then, change was in the air once again.  It's my belief that Antioch and Watsonville's success under NASCAR propped San Jose up during the hard times.  Had Antioch still been in the fold, who knows what may have happened in 2000, but John Soares Jr. swooped in and grabbed Antioch with a successful All Pro Series program that gained Antioch its biggest car counts ever early on.

This change created a major problem that changed the face of the racing scene once again.  Rick Farren, who had been in charge of the BBA tracks since 1988, struggled mightily to maintain San Jose in 1998 and 99.  Plus the Board Of Supervisors were busy sharing the pipe dream of an amphitheater.  One has to wonder what might have been if Rick could have guided San Jose through just a season or two more and outlasted the threat.

As it was, he walked away.  Can't say I blame him, but in taking his stuff and leaving, it became harder for those looking or who were asked to come in and take over to want to invest in the place.  It looked like the end of weekly racing in San Jose, which went back many decades.

It also spelled the end of NARC, the premiere Sprint Car tour in Northern California since 1960.  NARC found themselves dis invited from Antioch and Petaluma when Soares Jr. took over Antioch.  People cite that as the cause of NARC's downfall, but Golden State Challenge Series promoted tracks would give them the boot as well, leaving San Jose, Watsonville, Tulare and Bakersfield.  NARC was doomed.

Nobody wanted to see San Jose close.  This was a game changer.  There were people at the fairgrounds frantically fighting to save the track and bring somebody new in, but it was too late.  Within a couple years, the board had those huge grandstands demolished for the amphitheater that was never to be.

In the late 1990's at Merced, there was a rumble in the area.  The promoter was not on the "most liked" list of many racers.  There were years when drivers came all the way to Antioch or Hanford rather than race at Merced.  Car count would start to grow there and the collapse after an official decision or rule change was made.  The list of unhappy racers grew with each passing week.

In 1996, Tom Sagmiller won the Merced Street Stock championship.  In 1997, he was well on his way again with an over 100 point lead, but track management was not happy with him.  Sagmiller began getting penalized and disqualified repeatedly until one night when he lost his cool from the harassment in a very public scene.  Sagmiller was black balled from the track he loved.

In much the same way I would be at Antioch when I got tossed, Tom wouldn't go away.  He fought for the racers and for change from outside the gate, and some of the stories I've heard still make me laugh.  I sometimes wish I could have been there for that.  The first thought was to make a promoter change, but winning the bid proved unlikely.

However, Tom and friend Jim Sanders of the Merced Community Action Network were able to go over the numbers and gain an understanding of what went into running the track.  Tom wanted to help Jim raise money by running a special race at Merced for the MCAN at the end of the 1998 season, but track management shot that down when it looked like it wold be the biggest race at the track in years.

It was in 1999, when word was already out that San Jose was doomed, when Tom had that fateful meeting with investor Charlie Ruth at Chowchilla.  It was the berth of Chowchilla Speedway.  Investors, led by Ruth, got behind Sagmiller, who was the promoter.  Chowchilla Speedway became the little track that could, and we needed something like this.

But, with volunteer labor and donated equipment, Chowchilla Speedway opened in 2000.  NARC got on board in an effort to save the group, but they were done before season's end.  Some thought the speedway would close, but they underestimated Sagmiller's determination and the loyalty he inspired.

Car count grew as the season went on.  Then, George Steitz brought his Dirt Track Shoot Out race to Chowchilla in 2000 for the season's end.  Some of the biggest races in the state took place at Chowchilla, and Sagmiller fast became one of the more popular promoters with the racers.  And this was a positive for Merced Speedway as Griffin had some of his best years in this decade and also promoted some huge events, even giving some big races to the fans for free.

So, the first decade of the 2000's got off to a good start.  By mid decade, car count was up at some tracks.  In 2002, John Soares Sr. stepped down at Petaluma, but it was his son Jim who took over and guided the track through a bit of a come back.  Watsonville had a bit of a hard time for a year or so, and then Farren announced his retirement.

There was speculation as to who might get the track, and Sagmiller was an interested party.  He and Steitz had taken a look at Hills Ferry in Newman as a place to run car races, but that idea was abandoned after they promoted a few motorcycle and go kart shows there.  Some welcomed the news that Tom would get Watsonville, others hated the idea.

Then, Dwarf Car ace John Prentice entered the picture and won the bid for the track.  This ushered in big changes for what is now called Ocean Speedway, including the addition of a Sprint car program and the return of the Johnny Key Classic that ran for years at San Jose.  IMCA came in to sanction Modifieds, and car count grew.  All car counts did initially.

The decade wasn't without threats to the tracks.  Jim Naylor's Ventura Raceway was threatened by an amphitheater, but the track fought it off.  Antioch Speedway was threatened for a time by the BART extension, but that too failed.  Petaluma has outlasted the threats of a minor league ball park and a shopping mall.  Why the threats against fairgrounds when these places bring people together in the community is beyond me.

The days got even darker, and it looked like doom and gloom for racing.  Stockton 99 Speedway was closed for future redevelopment.  Madera was closed for a future shopping mall.  Altamont was closed when the promoter went beyond the agreement and pissed off the neighbors.  Hanford was closed when Dave Swindell walked away.  Orland was closed when the Turners walked away.

The old feud at Merced resurfaced when Tom Sagmiller was booted from Chowchilla and Chuck Griffin took over.  Griffin had good numbers at Merced at the time, but Chuck's Chowchilla bombed faster that the movie Gigli.  Chowchilla closed within a year, and Merced was next.  I'm looking from the sidelines at the time, and I thought things were doomed.

But, they weren't.  Only Altamont has been unable to reopen since then.  Kenny Shepherd stepped in to save Madera and did the same for Chowchilla for three seasons.  John Soares Jr. and Mike McCluney attempted to fight the negativity and reopen Hanford.  Though it failed after a few races, Bob Dias managed to end that season with races.  Scott Woodhouse runs things there now.

We got Stockton back with Tony Noceti at the helm.  Tony even opened up the Stockton 99 dirt track inside the horse racing track at the fairgrounds. and Orland came back through a group effort for three seasons.  Last year, veteran promoter Mike McCann took the reigns in an effort to try to take things to the next level.

Change happens as legends pass away.  John Padgen retired, handing the reigns at Placerville to Allan Handy.  Dennis Gage is in charge of Chico, and both tracks live on.  Sadly, John has passed away, but he has left a legacy of great racing memories that fans and drivers will never forget.

The man who brought us Santa Maria Speedway, Doug Fort, passed away.  They've had a few management changes there since then, but fans have been enjoying great racing there in the years that followed.  Bakersfield Speedway hasn't struggled all that much through the last two or three decades and has some of the best racing in the state.

Mel Hall promoted Grass Valley's track for years and moved to Marysville in the 90's when Grass Valley's track was closed by the fairgrounds.  He passed away in the early part of last decade, but racing has continued.  They honor Mel with a race every year, which is much deserved.

In the last decade, we had to say goodbye to true legends Bert Moreland, John Soares Sr. and Bob Barkhimer.  Racing fans owe thanks to these three for all they did to build up our sport.  I wish there were races held in their honor, because they truly deserve to be remembered.  Petaluma finally had the first Johnny Soares Classic for BCRA Midgets.

Two people active in the sport to the end who passed away were Gary Jacob and George Steitz.  As a racer, George had a Hall Of Fame career at Merced and Watsonville.  But, he is also remembered for his big "family reunion" type races at the end of year at San Jose and later Chowchilla, called the Dirt Track Shoot Out.  These were some of the biggest racing events ever in the state.

If you read about a race in Wheels, DCRR Racing News or one of the many publications out there, chances are Gary Jacob wrote it.  He loved racing and he loved spreading the word about it.  He was a hard core fan who dedicated his life to the sport.  He worked hard to increase car counts in big races and let people know about races at tracks that had no writers.  When he passed away, it left a void in the sport that may never be filled again.

Through ups and downs and major changes in the sport, auto racing endures.  The worry has been about tracks closing down, and it's very real.  People want to take it away from us and replace it with nothing.  But, there are some good promoters out there taking the financial risk to keep tracks open and racers supporting the cause, so tracks have been brought back from the brink.  Tracks that were closed have come back again.

In the last few years, we've heard the story of Hayfork Speedway opening in Trinity County and holding it's first races.  After being closed in the 1990's, Rocky Hill Speedway in Porterville came back.  John Prentice opened and closed Chowchilla Speedway last season, but local racer Jack Stanford brought it back.  Now, John Soares Jr. and Oval Motorsports Inc. will promote the track.

Racing is alive and well in California in 2013.  Maybe car count isn't what it once was in some places, but we still have races every week.  There are still big money shows and new track champions being crowned.  It's something to be appreciated and not to be taken for granted.  It can always be taken away.

I don't know where it's going next, but I hope for the best.  I say if you are a fan and see something that you think you can help improve, let them know.  Maybe you want to sponsor.  Maybe it's a race idea.  Maybe you can help them spread the word with hype, written articles, a web page or fliers.  Don't be afraid to offer.  You never know what can happen.

This is all just a rough look at some of the history and some of the moments that changed the sport.  But the great part of it all is there is still history to be made at a track near you.  A new winner, a new champion, a veteran driver winning another title, a photo finish.  Who knows what will happen next?  Maybe a new track will open up.  Who knows?  Here's to the many great moments in racing, past, present and future.