I'd love to go back with a camera, my recorder and watch these races, do recordings and cover that action. I'd love to go back just to see my reaction when Len won his first Main Event that year. I'd love to see all of those race cars again in living color. I'd love to... Anyway...
Back in 1999 Chuck Griffin had the vision to bring this division back to Merced Speedway. It was a replacement for the Limited Sprint Car class of which Mark Amador had taken the presidency. Mark decided they needed to race pavement. Some of them did, and some helped build the Wingless Spec Sprint class at Antioch in 1999.
Anyway, I'm drifting. It's just that when I see an idea put out there by men who have done this before, I get excited. What am I talking about? In a moment, but first, more Sportsman history...
In 2000, while I was going to Chowchilla, some of the Sportsman guys were wanting to book dates at other tracks. Ed Marion was the driver representative. Well, having watched them race at Chowchilla and having followed their previous season at Merced through Gary Jacob's stories, I immediately fell in love with the class.
Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, compares to the Sportsman division for me. It never will. I love Spec Sprints. I love Street Stocks (2000 and before). I love all the divisions, BUT the Sportsman division is my first love. Maybe it's because when you are a kid at the races, you latch on to that first class and it becomes special to you forever. I don't know.
I approached John about bringing this division to Antioch for an exhibition race, and he was okay with the idea. Remember, John started in this class. He won a championship (or was it two) at Petaluma. He built some really fast race cars back in the day. John was one of the fast drivers on the track. The fans booed him, but he kicked his share of butt out there.
Okay, so I'm drifting again. With the date booked, I made a special souvenir program for Antioch Speedway. They came and raced, and this was my brief report and the answer to the trivia question posted above...
Mike Chandler #10 battles Luis Miranda #21m early in the Sports,man Main Event at Antioch. Photo by Green Flag Photography
CHANDLER WINS SPORTSMAN RACE AT ANTIOCH
ANTIOCH, CA...JULY 29...In the first Antioch Speedway visit of the California Sportsman division since 1981, Mike Chandler won the 12 lap exhibition main event ahead of series point leader Mike Friesen. It was Chandler's first feature win of the year.
The California Sportsman division paid Antioch a visit from the Merced area, and they brought a six car field for this exhibition event. Bringing back fond memories of the 70's, this division was a hit with many. Chandler won the eight lap heat race. Chandler had the pole for the main event, but outside front row starter Luis Miranda led the opening lap before spinning in Turn 4. Chandler gained the lead ahead of Friesen and Ed Marion. A Turn 2 pass on lap five gained Gary Hildebrand third, but Rob Schropp used a front stretch pass on lap ten to take third. Chandler would hold off Friesen to score the victory as Schropp finished third ahead of Hildenrand, Marion and Miranda.
Luis Miranda #21m is a former Merced Pure Stock champion and was a guiding force in bringing the Sportsman class back to Merced in 1999. Photo by Green Flag Phtography
Mike Friesen #9 won the first two Merced Sportsman titles during it's revival and finished second in their visit to Antioch. Photo by Green Flag Photography
The nostalgia boom sort of built in the years that followed. I was in Sacramento on my birthday a couple years later when Mike McCann brought the Cascade Hardtops down from Oregon for a California trip. That visit led the Mike's good friend Chuck Prather starting an effort in the area, which led to the creation of two Hardtop efforts in California. We also saw a return of the classic Super Modifieds. Through it all, the Sportsman division continued at Merced (as highlighted in a recently posted article on the blog).
Okay, now comes the cool part... It's probably a bit of bench racing, but when I see the names of the talkers, I take notice. I grew up watching some of these guys and their fathers race. Sal Belleci a former Sportsman Rookie Of The Year, started it with this post on the Antioch Speedway Days Of Old Facebook Page
Old man dreaming. How about a skinny car winged sportsman with 15 inch engine setback, 375cu in 10 degree heads, unlimited rear tire size and stagger, on alky. Hella side bite without all that rear steer.......lap times in the 14's probably have a heart attack. Like I said ....just dreaming.
Last year, I toyed with a fantasy scenario where Sal's good friend and another great of Sportsman division past, Buzz Enea, and Mike Green collaborated on keeping the Sportsman division around in 1982. Sort of a what if scenario in which I did my best to guess who would have came back and who would have joined for the 1982 season that never happened. I was gonna play it all out with stories and all of that...
But, it was fantasy, so I dismissed it...
Anyway, speaking of Green, his son Dusty responded to Sal's comment. So did Jerry's son Mark Garner and some guys who used to race that division, including Dave Oswald, Allan Nordstrom and Al Artero. Talk about a flashback. I recall an interesting scene on the track in 1980 between Nordstrom and Oswald. I'm kind of sorry my mind went there first, so...
Actually, Dave was one of the first drivers I met when I was a kid. I used to hang out in the garage of Marion Heaton, so Dan Hatfield, Oswald and Rick Brophy are among those I met back then. I see that Hatfield has resurfaced on the racing scene in recent years.
As for Allan, well, I learned so much from him when I stared getting involved in the sport. He took me into his home there for a while, since I didn't seem to make it home a lot back in those days. Between going to the races with him and hanging out with his son, I was almost like a member of the family. Where does the time go?
I can see it now... Well, put it this way, if a serious effort were made to bring this back... I don't want to get ahead of myself. We do get a lot of bench racing on the internet. John has a lot on his plate, and this kind of thing would need a leader to spearhead the effort.
Spec Sprints had Don O'Keefe Jr. and I handling things as it got off the ground. Ron Brown was there to lend his support to the Limited Late Model effort as it began. Bruce Curl Sr. and Curl Racing was there to help build the Dirt Modifieds when it was just an idea. Lance Cline was there to build cars when Four Bangers got started, and... Well, you get the picture.
I would love to see Sportsman Division back at Antioch. You know, Conrad Cavallero was there to guide Nor Cal Hardtops in those early days. Who would step up to do the same for the Sportsman class? You couldn't expect the Merced guys to come running. From my experience, a lot of them don't like to travel as much as the Bay Area guys do. You may be able to get them for a date or two, but...
So, who would step up and convince John to do this thing at Antioch? How quickly can they get cars together? Are there any old cars sitting out there that can be restored? Well, it all sounds like a great idea. Will it ever happen? While I would never say never, I don't expect anything to happen.
But, this talk and the names involved in the discussion got me thinking. Thank you Sal. Typing this brought a smile to my face...