The cars are filling the pits at Antioch Speedway as I post this. IMCA Modifieds ($2500 to win), Sport Mods ($1750 to win) and Late Models. It's gonna be a cold night, but the racing should be good with all that money on the line....
I'll be honest with you. After 1999, when the subject of Mark Garner came up, I'd get a little cranky. I'm not gonna get into why in this column. You see, I liked Mark. He was a bit of an underdog, and I saw a lot of potential in him to kick a few butts out there. For about a year, I lived a couple blocks from him. I used to go to his house and chatted with his father, who had a Sportsman car at the time. I loved those cars. Jerry won some races that year too.
Mark and I even raced bikes on a little oval track some of us ran on the street in front of my house. We were crazy kids. The whole thing ended when one of the kids crashed and broke his leg. Whoops...
In 1996, Mark started racing Dirt Modifieds. His dad retired and Mark got to learn from somebody who really knew. Jerry used to run the circuit. In 1969, he was Stock Car State champion, back when that meant something. Top three at Petaluma and Antioch, but he raced everywhere he could. Mark learned the way a lot of drivers learned back then. See, we used to have lots of cars showing up every week, and we had B Mains. Just making the Main Event was an accomplishment.
Well, Mark made it into the Top 15 in points in 1997. Believe me, that was an accomplishment. If you were Top 5, that was about as good as being a Champion. Top 10 was big. There were drivers who ran every week that year and didn't make a Main Event. So, yeah, he did good.
Then came the change. John Soares Jr. took over. I believed, and still believe, it was for the best. There was a push from the old management to recruit everybody from Antioch to San Jose to run Dirt Mods there. I recall a conversation I had with Kent Bickford. He wasn't going, and he told them as much. Kent's a rebel. I don't always agree with him, but there are things I do respect about him. I don't think some people liked seeing Kent do as well as he was doing in a Modified.
Anyway, the newspaper had a story about how screwed Antioch Speedway was gonna be with Soares in charge. Really? And you know this, how? You've only been reporting for a couple years, and you know NOTHING about John Soares Jr. About that time, a driver who was going to San Jose that season was quoted as saying there would only be B Main drivers left at Antioch, because Hogge, Busby, Wadsworth, Cass, Chadwick, Torres, you get the picture, were all going to San Jose. Who it was, I'll save for another time, and he says he was misquoted anyway.
John said, and I agreed, that we would make new stars. The fact is, this has ALWAYS been the case at the track. The era of Ken Gonderman, Gary Pacheco and Bill Brown gave way to J.D. Willis, Dennis Furia and Marv Wilson. Then, it was Dave Byrd, Jim Pettit II, Bobby Hogge and that Willis fellow again... New stars always step up when given the opportunity.
Now, Mark Garner was already on the rise. There's no reason to believe he wouldn't have been a Top 10 driver in 1998 even with all of those other guys racing. Those Cobra Chassis were more dialed in and getting faster. Bart Reid was faster, Kenny Neu was fast and Mark was too. He immediately became a Top 5 competitor. He won his first race. It was not his last either. He was Top 5 in 1998, Top 10 a year later, took a year off and was Top 10 once again in 2001. He even went to Chowchilla Speedway and won.
I hadn't seen much of Garner in the results until he got back into it a couple years ago. He was back in a Limited Late Model and he was winning races last season. He was Top 5 in the points again. That's the guy I knew could be a front runner at Antioch way back when, and then I saw the most amazing thing last night.
Of course, the focus was on IMCA as you'd expect. In the midst of that, Mark was stuck in a heat race with defending champion Larry Damitz and 2014 runner up Mike Hynes. He put that car up on the high side and drove around Hynes in Turn 4 at the midway point of that heat race and took the lead. That car is "Best Appearing Car" worthy from what I could see, not that they do those awards these days. I don't know if they do.
Mark was looking good in the feature. He just took third from John Keith when he had mechanical problems. He ended up fourth. I don't know what his plans are for 2015, but it was a nice showing for the second (or is that third?) generation racing Garner? It wouldn't be a big surprise to me to see him improve on last season's fourth place ranking. We'll see when the division returns in a couple months.
Here's some footage from Mark's impressive heat race win