Thursday, January 1, 2015

Limited Late Models Part Of Today's Big Antioch Speedway Event

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The big money is on the IMCA Modifieds and Sport Mods this week, but it is the West Coast Nationals after all.  Four days of Modified Excitement with a different third division for each race.  This being Day 1, New Years, it is the Limited Late Models.  This is a class that first premiered at Antioch Speedway back in 2000.

Back in the late 1980's, I recall talking with drivers who wanted a Limited Stock class as a between class.  The Late Models were getting too pricey for the locals, and there were Street Stock drivers looking to do a little bit more. I did polls on the subject back then, and this Limited Stock class would have had 15-20 drivers supporting it, while most would have stayed with Street Stocks.

The track would eventually go with Dirt Modifieds, but there was another driver pushing the envelope.  Ron Brown wanted to take his Street Stock and make adjustments, including bigger tires, to run with the Late Models.  That idea was also rejected. I appreciated seeing Ron looking out for the low buck racers, but that's Ron.  If he could help somebody out, he did.  He wasn't a Gold Wrench Award winner for nothing.

Jim Bowman and I had a conversation about where the Dirt Modifieds should have been in the pecking order back in 1992.  He was of the opinion that it should have been a feeder class into Late Models.  I agreed with that.  I even ran a story that drew the ire of a prominent Modified racer who was lobbying for the extinction of Late Models.  But, it made sense. 

If we kept Late Models from going too much further with the changes, this class would have been reasonable for some Modified drivers to get into after a while.  They would have moved up eventually.  Look at it this way.  Scott Busby, Bart Reid, Bobby Hogge IV, A.J. Kirkpatrick and Eric Jacobson were some drivers from the Antioch and Watsonville circuit who made the move.  Keep Steve Hendren, Robert Miller, John Silva, Larry Damitz, Ed Sans Jr. and the guys in the mix, and Late Models would have been poised to end the 1990's strong.

But, NASCAR and racing in general has always been like that.  Price a class out of existence and drop the class with the remaining drivers scrambling to race something else.  It happened with Late Models in 1993.  It happened with the Sportsman class in 1981.  The Dirt Mods have lasted for 25 years, but we have Sport Mods now. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

After the success in 1999 of Wingless Spec Sprints, John Soares Jr. wanted a Late Model class at Antioch.  At the time, his alliance with his father at Petaluma prevented him from starting a class, but he could start a Limited Late Model division.  This would be a car using an older Late Model chassis, and to keep his father off his back, John called them Super Stocks.   No Late Model in the name, but that's what they were.  A working man's Late Model.

Not surprisingly, Ron Brown got on board with this by finding three cars, one for himself, one for his wife Lori and one for a low buck Dirt Mod racer named Clay Twigg.  Ron really wanted this thing to succeed.  Another Late Model enthusiast, Jerry Harless, was on board with this, and a returning Sportsman champion, Mike "The Blue Knight" Gustafson was in as well.

This class was gonna happen.  The first objective was to start racing and build a car count.  Ron Brown was the first champion two years running, but drivers like Street Stock champion "Dynamite" David Rosa, Chester Kniss, Brandi Ford, and George Conner were in on the ground floor with this thing.  It was happening.  Late Model racing was back at Antioch.  This was Late Models as they were a decade or so earlier, but Late Models nonetheless.

What happened next showed that John's idea was popular.  Two drivers from Ruth Motorsports in Chowchilla, Jerry "Hood Pins" O'Hagan and Mark "The Missle" Odgers had cars, and Chowchilla Speedway added the class.  One Watsonville racer who had been supporting Chowchilla, Mike Meazell, built a car as well, and he was one driver who pushed for races at Watsonville.  It happened.  Suddenly, three tracks were doing it, and George Steitz sponsored a series between the three tracks.

In 2002, Gustafson was the Antioch champion and Jerry O'Hagan was the man at Chowchilla.  Meazell, a past Watsonville Pure Stock champion, won the track's first Limited Late Model crown and won at Chowchilla as well.  In fact, I believe he won the Steitz Series title too.  Ken Gregg won it a year later and three straight at Watsonville as guys like Fred Lind, Rich Barbaccia, Jeff Mead, John Harville, Paul Salaiz, Gene Blakeman, Steve Bisordi and Steve Ewbank had cars.

At Antioch, they were getting car counts in the high teens.  Everybody was getting involved.  Daniel "Hot Rod" Hodges, returning Street Stock ace Mike Martin, Pure Stock graduate Ty Duggins, Mikey Slaney, Bill Bihn, "The Hit Man' John Asher and Jeremy Petrell were among the ones who joined the fray.  This class was taking off.

Then, the changes filled the air.  John Soares Sr. had retired at Petaluma in 2002.  I know John Soares Jr. wanted to run Late Model races at Antioch, and he had begun booking CarQuest Late Model shows already.  Once Watsonville got on board, the hard core among them wanted to go the Crate Late Model route and open things up.  After a couple of decent seasons, car count sort of faded at Chowchilla.

Then, Antioch added a Late Model Show, and four years into Limited Late Models, Watsonville opened things up.  Antioch continued running Limited Late Models with drivers like Lori Brown, Ty Duggins, Jeff Silva and John Asher taking their turns as champions.  But, car count took a hit.  Antioch had added their own Crate Late Model show in 2007.

While the Crate Late Models never got too big of a car count, they generally had 8-10 cars.  Limited Late Model Car count dropped.  In 2007, Larry Damitz joined the ranks to race with his grand nephew, Chevy McGinnis, and the class was lucky to field a half dozen cars in 2008.  That championship was won by Gustafson, but a change was coming.

Street Stocks were still getting a dozen or more cars per race.  Track management elected to merge Limited Late Models and Street Stocks with Street Stock drivers allowed to do more to their cars in 2009.  I refer to this as the end of the Street Stocks, though this first championship was won by Jeremy Mendes, who raced Street Stocks the year before.

The Limited Late Models in the class had a late start, but they were the dominant cars in the field.  Gustafson was a distant second after a late start, and Damitz and Mitch Machado were also fast.  I personally count this as part of the Limited Late Model heritage and at best the last year of Street Stocks as we know them.  What came next was further prof.

What was left of the Street Stock class pretty much disappeared, and the half dozen cars the Limited Late Models had two years earlier remained.  These drivers remained dedicated, and new competitors gradually joined the mix.  Machado was fast and he won that first championship, but Damitz would win three of the next four, interrupted only by Hobby Stock graduate Jim Freethy.

The track attempted to make a play for those lost Street Stock drivers by running a Super Hobby Stock class for three years.  After two titles won by Gene Haney and one by Jim Robbins, the class was dropped.  It was interesting to note that John Bellando and two time Street Stock champion David Rosa were among the competitors in this class.  David got to race with his teen age daughter Victoria, who was a top three competitor.

The Limited Late Models didn't stagnate.  Car count increased.  In fact, this division gained more than any of the other classes in 2014 and had car counts in the teens. 

Last season, Damitz won the championship over Mike Hynes by 30 points.  Of the divisions at the track, the Limited Late Models and Sport Mods seemed to have the most loyal support, as Freethy, Mark Garner, Peggy Sue Jarred, Gustafson, two time Petaluma champion Mike Learn, Cecil Henry and John Evans were also among the top ten Limited Late Model drivers.

Today marks the opening day for the Northern All Stars Limited Late Models at Antioch.  It has been reported that these drivers will earn points at all three Oval Motorsports tracks this season for an overall championship in addition to the track championship.

Antioch drivers have supported Merced, where Roy Hart Jr. was the top point earner ahead of Freethy last season.  Larry Damitz is a recent past champion at Merced as well.  Whether Hart, Buddy Thatcher, Ronnie Cole or any of the Merced racers come to Antioch today remains to be seen.

Placerville and Chico have Limited Late Models, and it's not surprising that Ryan McDaniel, Duane Cleveland and Matt Micheli are among the roster.  In fact, McDaniel beat Cleveland and 2014 Placerville champion Micheli for the Chico championship this season.  Whether or not we'll see these guys in Limited Late  Models remains to be seen, but it's likely that some of the Chico stars will show up with Dirt Modifieds for a run at the big money.

And so, Antioch Speedway management has to be pleased with the progress of the Limited Late Model division to have them as part of this big Dirt Modified blowout race.  The track will have Late Models as part of Friday's show.  The Limited Late Models could even compliment Late Models with somebody making a move up at some point.  In fact, I think seeing some of these drivers or Dirt Modified drivers moving up to Late Models is something track management is hoping for.

Whatever the case may be, Limited Late Models put on a good show of their own.  There were several different winners last season.  Even if 80 something year old Damitz may be seen as the man to beat today, it's anybody's guess which driver will be celebrating New Years with a victory at Antioch Speedway.  We'll know more in a matter of hours.

A Limited Late Model race From May of 2014 at Antioch Speedway