Monday, April 13, 2015

Chowchilla Speedway Turns 15 / Of Pure Stocks, IMCA And Merced

First of all...

Just A Kid From The Grandstands:  My Time In Auto Racing

Available on Lulu in Paperback And Hard Cover

Don's California Racing Recollections:  Best Of The Blog And Beyond

Available via print on demand at Lulu in Hard Cover or Paperback

Also, what could be a series of informative books...

Short Track History Project at Gofundme

Additional info on the Short Track History Project  HERE

So, at this point, we are waiting for Merced results, but we can tell you three things that we've been told...

John MacDougall was second in the IMCA Modified feature.

Darren Miguel started last in the Mini Stock feature, it ran in the opposite direction and he won.

Mark Garner won the Limited Late Model feature ahead of Buddy Thatcher.  Scott Van Gelder was also there.

This is a Merced and Chowchilla Speedway column, but one quick Antioch note.

The official report from Antioch Speedway lists the Hobby Stock results as under review.  What we wrote in the previous article is how they finished, but the official site will make the final ruling.  We will update the story when we know something.  As of now, the finishes are posted on the site for Antioch, and that's what we used.

Again, the Oval Motorsports Website will have all of the official information for all the tracks.   Merced and Antioch will be racing this Saturday, Chowchilla is this Sunday!!!

Sagmiller's Chowchilla Dream Lives On Thanks To Soares And Oval Motorsports

Sagmiller Was Just Plum Crazy

I've written extensively about the early days of Chowchilla Speedway.  The track was built as a reaction to the way things were run at Merced Speedway, and they had their first season in 2000.  When Tom Sagmiller opened the place and began racing on Friday nights so as not to conflict with Merced, the hope was that the two tracks would eventually work together for the good of the sport.  Tom realized that this had to be about racing, not grudges, AND he also realized this race track promoting thing was a lot of work.

This was 15 years ago.  Has it been that long?  Chowchilla Speedway was in many ways a community project.  They formed RACE, which had several investors who backed this thing.  The late Charlie Ruth was the man who brought Tom to the Chowchilla Fairgrounds and said, "Hey Tom, how about we build a race track here?"  There was no tradition at Chowchilla Speedway.  Yeah, once upon a time in the distant past, but everything was new.  Tom loved the idea of starting from scratch.

People can say what they want about the man, and they do, but Tom is a man who believes in stepping up and making a difference.  He did things like car shows and bringing in sponsors for the Trophy Dash trophies, to just helping with things at Merced Speedway before things went south.  People were unhappy, so Tom wanted to give them a new option in Chowchilla.  People claimed even then that he wanted to kill Merced Speedway, but that wasn't really it.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Chowchilla Speedway ultimately saved Merced Speedway.  Really?  Yeah, you heard me.  Tom got guys to come back and race at Chowchilla who had been parked for a while, and slowly they also started racing at Merced again.  He opened the eyes of Merced management to Hobby Stocks with the Camaro and Firebird cars that were illegal in Pure Stocks.  He also introduced the concept of ladies races for a special series.

Tom was like that.  He'd try anything if he thought it would work.  He thought outside the box, and that was what Chowchilla needed to survive.  Other promoters pointed a finger at him, but if he hadn't done it that way, there would be no Chowchilla Speedway.  He may have messed up here and there, but he was genuine and a lot of people respected him.  He really was a racer running a race track for the racers.

When I stepped into the picture, which I've written about in my books, I was only at Chowchlla to support a few Sprint Car guys who had supported Wingless Spec Sprints a year earlier in Antioch.  They wanted to run winged races like they had in Merced, and Don O'Keefe Jr. and I went to support them, as they were about to be invaded by the NCMA.  You know, Don helped set up Richard Greer's car, and Greer won that night to defend the local honor.  Richard was on cloud nine that night, and this class was allowed the chance to develop without NCMA interference.

This was the third race of the season, as I recall, and there's this guy on a golf cart taking "$25 fine if you're not having fun" and stuff like that.  He has his hat on backwards, friendly guy.  This was the second or third time I met Tom, but this time registered with me.  I was hooked on what this track was doing.  I can't explain why.  Antioch Speedway had a huge field, and Chowchilla was just getting started.

Maybe losing San Jose had something to do with this.  Losing that track hurt the racing community, and it didn't have to happen.  Rick Farren should have fought harder, in my opinion, but I get why he didn't.  His heart wasn't in it, and you have to do what feels right to you.  But, on the heels of that track's demise, here's Chowchilla Speedway.  It was this little miracle in The Valley.

I had to go.  I know certain people did NOT like me going there, but I went anyway.  I handled all my duties professionally at Antioch and went to Chowchilla on my off night to see if I could help it take hold.  It needed hype.  It needed cars.  It just needed people to know.  I wrote articles for racing publications and newspapers, and it was amazing to see this track grow.  I even got to announce there.

I've written some about this in my books.  Tom booked a big Hobby Stock race (inspired by my friend Joe Martinez in our CRO chat room) because no other dirt tracks were doing much for the class.  It was a success.  He booked my open Wheel Round Up race, and we had over 100 open wheel cars, including a then record 32 Wingless Spec Sprints.  He gave George Steitz's amazing end of the year "racing family reunion" race a place to race, and it flourished.  He started the Freedom Series.

He did anything he could think of.  He offered low ticket prices with a family budget in mind, because he knew if you didn't have fans, you didn't have anything.  Attendance grew.  He didn't force drivers to join his association to race, AND he allowed guys to come race despite what may have happened with them at their own home tracks.  Just keep your nose clean in Chowchilla.  He encouraged racers to come from everywhere.

I'll let you know a secret.  The four promoters who have come since Tom left and between the arrival of John Soares Jr. and Oval Motrsports have struggled, where he succeeded.  But, they keep trying.  Why do you suppose that is?  I think it's partly due to the fact that Tom was successful in showing how it could work in Chowchilla.  Nobody has quite done it there as well as he did.

And Then Came Soares And Oval Motorsports

It might be dead now, but for one thing.  John Soares Jr. wouldn't let it die.  Yes, the same "evil" Soares who has stepped in and saved Merced Speedway when it was left for dead too.  We live in a difficult time now.  Without people willing to invest in these places and make the necessary improvements, they will all fade away.  More and more people want these tracks to just go away.  Without the support of the racers, they don't stand a chance.

Unlike other promoters, John actually saw something in Tom.  Oh, it was a bumpy first meeting, and I took a lot of heat for trying to push unity between the tracks.  It cost me a position I loved at a track I loved, though the bright side was I got to find out how special The Valley racers at Merced and Chowchilla Speedways were.  And, eventually, John and Tom started working together, kind of like a mentor trying to bring along an apprentice in a way.

Oh, I know Tom had his way of doing things, but he learned from John too.  They did a Limited Late Model and Dirt Modified series together.  When Tom lost Chowchilla, John gave the Freedom Series a home in Antioch for a while.  The difficulty of running holiday shows ultimately ended Antioch's effort to run on those nights, but John and Tom tried for a while.  And, John brought Tom on staff to help with track maintenance when he took over Merced Speedway.

What I try to impress upon people is that John is a racer too.  He's won championships, won races with NASCAR, raced and won in other countries, built fast race cars that have carried several drivers to victory.  He's done it all.  He learned from the master, his father.  John has done many good things at Antioch, and he wanted to do the same for The Valley.

He came to Merced, because he saw something special there.  Oh yeah, he raced there in the 1960's and 1970's, his brother was GM there for a few seasons and he knew how to bring it back.  He went with the other track again and eliminated the inside back wall, moved the lights, brought in some new clay and on and on.  He did that because he wanted to give the guys a good race track.

He started running big money Modified shows with the biggest purses the track had ever had in that division.  He brought Late Models and Sprint Cars in for races, and even added the World of Outlaws.  All because he saw the value and potential of Merced Speedway.  It was and is a special track with a great racing tradition, and he wanted to see it continue.

When Chowchilla became available, John was again concerned that a track people loved would close.  Some might say let it close.  Other promoters failed, two of which couldn't even complete a full season there.  Local racer Jack Stanford at least got it back after the last debacle nearly ended it.  Kenny Shepherd gave it a valiant effort, but it never really popped for him in the way it had for Sagmiller.

But, Soares saw the potential.  Not only did he get the track, but within days of the winning bid, he made the announcement of a big race for the money in January.  How many tracks have $1500 to win Sport Mod features?  Well, John did.  Plus, bigger money for Modifieds.  Fred Ryland's Sport Mod win contributed to his decision to go for the IMCA National championship.  Ryan McDaniel just came for the money and took the big Modified win.  Not a surprise coming from that family.

On that cold winter's night in January, Chowchilla Speedway under Oval Motorsports Promotions was born. A new era began, an era that can become very special for this track if the drivers continue to support it.  Big things will come.  I say this knowing John and what he has done in the past.  He's done it before and he can do it again.

We have a CAM (Chowchilla, Antioch, Merced) or AMC series, if you will.  Three tracks united, and you never know what can happen next.  John and his wife Donna have the vision, and I believe it can happen if the people believe it too.

So, 15 years ago in Chowchilla, Steve Stone won his Street Stock championship, Mike Johnson won the Modified title and a newcomer named "Rebel" Red Williams was Hobby Stock champion.  George Terry won the Sprint Car title, and a new racing option came to be.  Now, IMCA Modifieds, IMCA Sport Modifieds and Northern All Stars Hobby Stocks and Mini Stocks have championship races to contest.

For Sunday, I've already heard confirmation of Keith Brown Jr. coming with his Sport Mod.  You know Fred Ryand will be there.  Nick Lawrence is coming with his Hobby Stock.  Odgers Racing will be there.  It's not even a week away now.  Chowchilla Speedway will roar with the sound of engines this Sunday thanks to Oval Motorsports, and also thanks to Sagmiller.  Without Tom's initial effort, this track would never exist.  Without Oval Motorsports, the 2015 races might not have been booked.

Of Pure Stocks, IMCA and Merced Speedway

Put Them In The Hall

I had an interesting conversation about Merced Speedway last Saturday night.  You see, I will sing the praises of this great race track all day and night.  I didn't get there until the late 1980's, but I was hooked when I finally made it.  I always loved to see the "m" cars come to Antioch.  I've researched this track's history a bit, and I know more of its past.  My core tracks (Antioch, Merced, Watsonville, Petaluma and Chowchilla) mean a lot to me, but all of these California tracks do.

Well, I was telling this guy how there needs to be a Hall Of Fame at Antioch and Merced.  It needs to happen yesterday.  ASAP.  He agreed and said that he'd like to see it happen at Merced and didn't know where to start.  I'll make it very easy for you, because I doubt people will disagree with what I have to say here.

The Mt. Rushmore of Merced Speedway legends would be Vern Willhoite, Dennis Moomjean, George Steitz and Ted Stofle.  These four should be inducted first, all four of them.  I REFUSE to debate this.  They are in, end of debate.  Not only were they great at Merced, but they won at other tracks as well.  They represented Merced very well.

Now, I know there are many others worthy of the honor, but even they would say put these four in first.  To be sure, there were some greats before these guys.  Tommy Ashlock, Charlie Brown, Cliff Stofe and Jack Oldenhage come to mind.  I think if I were to add one more inductee to the first year, it would be Johnny Sass.  I'd love to present that award myself.  The guy is a legend in my book and the decades long track announcer did a lot for Merced Speedway.

One of the things that Johnny had a hand in was lining up the big sponsors for the weekly races and for the track itself.  He also did the souvenir programs for years.  Merced Speedway had a super market chain, a bank and an auto dealership sponsoring it at one time, and it wasn't insignificant either.  It allowed Chuck Griffin to offer free admittance for the big Fourth Of July races for a few years, AND give away the track's biggest ever Modified show at that time, the 9-11 Memorial.

See, here's the thing that bugs me about the Griffin bashers.  He wasn't a bad guy, and his wife Marylee was a sweet heart as far as I'm concerned.  Yeah, I know Chuck could be a hard ass about things, and we all could get frustrated with him.  However, he did some good things for that track as well.  And, there were big races sometimes.  The $10,000 to win USAC Midget race, the big Outlaw Stock Car races in the late 1980's (The Steitz race before the San Jose Steitz race).

Hail To The Merced Speedway Pure Stocks

I've said this all before, but Chuck knew instinctively in the 1990's that he needed new blood out there, and that meant entry level classes were a must.  He came up with two ideas, the Little Trucks and the Pure Stocks, and both paid dividends for that race track.

I want to focus on the Pure Stocks here, but I'll repeat my past comment.  Ramie Stone, Troy Stone, Paul Stone, Steve Stone, John Clarke, Marcus Aue, Jack Stanford, Jack Mounce, David Ipock, Kevin Lockerby, Jerry O'Hagan, Bob Terry (okay he'd been there a while).  Thank you Little Trucks.  Chuck was on to something there

Now, before Antioch and Watsonvlle and those other tracks got on board with Hobby Stocks, Chuck created Pure Stocks in 1991.  Almost like an Enduro car like Baylands American Stocks.  He had a pretty good Enduro at Merced for a while with guys like James Watson, Steve Strickland, Mark White and Chris Lancaster competing.  There may have been Pure Stock races in 1990, but points began in 1991.

1991 gave us our first future racer in a higher division, champion Alice Hitchkiss.  Alice and Bob Hotchkiss both raced Modifieds in the 1990's.  Ron Henri was next in 1992 before the Camaro domination of "Slowpoke Rodriguez" Luis Miranda and Andy Welch occurred with one title for each of them.  Chuck had a reason for dropping Camaro and Firebird cars.  He wanted a unique identity for Pure Stocks, and most of these drivers ran bigger cars.

Critics disagreed, but car count got up into the high teens as "The Flying Pumpkin" #55 car of Lee Willite won the 1995 title.  Then, we had the big Ford of Johnny O'Brien Jr. as 1996 champ.  Now, Willhite never moved up, but O'Brien ran Street Stocks, Welch was also a Street Stock racer and Miranda briefly ran Streets before making his big mark on the track.

You see, Miranda's father painted many of the old Sportsman cars back in the day, and they were gorgeous race cars.  When the Limited Sprints left in 1999, Luis convinced Chuck to start the Sportsman class again.  We even saw the return of a future Hall Of Famer, Sportsman legend "Rapid" Rod Poor, in the Bill Baker car.  I don't think Luis is in California these days, but he has to be happy knowing the class is still at the track 17 seasons later.  We need more cars out there, though, but they are out there.

Speaking of Sportsman drivers, Ed Marion won the 1997 Pure Stock championship.  His wife Beverly took over the Pure Stock and was a pretty good shoe herself, while Ed built a Sportsman.  Then came "The Corn Dog" Nathan Corn.  The Corn family goes back to the 1950's, and you have other racing family members such as Ray, Billy, A.J., Dennis and there are a lot more of them.  Nathan eventually went to Chowchilla, won a Street Stock title and raced Modifieds as well.  He was good.  He was fast.

Speaking of fast, Duane Fast ended the 1990's as the '99 Pure Stock champion   Duane went on to enjoy IMCA Modified success, while his wife "Rockin" Robin Fast and son Jared Fast got into Pure Stocks and Hobby Stocks.  Wes Hogan was another Ford man and a past Stock Car racer and Figure 8 champion.  Wes won the 2000 Pure Stock crown before moving on to the track's tech official duties.

Robin Fast and "Mighty" Mike Hamilton had an amazing battle for the 2001 championship, won by Hamilton.  He was good.  It's a shame he didn't move up.  A star was emerging that year named Raul "Showtime" Rodriguez, and he was the 2002 champion.  He has gone on to multiple Hobby Stock titles.

Dan "The Man" Holcomb was the 2003 champion, who would be the last champion.  The division began to fall apart when Merced followed Chowchilla's lead and added Hobby Stocks.  Since Hobby's paid and Pure Stocks didn't, guys went there.  They ran six Pure Stock races in 2004, the last being on April 17.  One of the "characters" of the division , "Crazy" Deak Sherrell, won three races and was the leader when it faded away.

There were many others in this class through the years, such as Joan Widick, Aaron Widick, Bam Bam Sherrell, Lester Beavers, Dale Falkenberg, Lorraine Mounce, Eddie Brand, Greg French, William Sisk, Shane Hausmann and Aaron Days. Days went on to enjoy Stock Car success at Altamont as the final Pacific Coast Regional champion in 2001

IMCA Sanctioning For Other Classes?

I read a comment from Raul Rodriguez Jr. talking about the merits of IMCA sanctioning in other divisions.  I'm somewhat on the fence on this and skeptical.  IMCA has definitely gotten a hold of Modifieds and Sport Mods in the state, which allows travel back and fourth between the tracks without complications.  But, I've yet to see the sanctioning make another division fly in California.

Obviously, there has been an attempt with IMCA Stock Cars for several years at Kings Speedway.  This year, Bakersfield and Porterville have joined Hanford in this endeavor.  Would it work at Merced and Chowchilla?  Chowchilla had support last year with this until race day start time was changed.  That made it difficult for those Hanford guys to come race.

Would Merced area racers build cars, and by that I mean could we get double digit car counts within a year?  We don't need another six car division.  The advantage of doing IMCA Stock Cars is it's already started and you can book in a way that brings the guys from down south.

I have noticed some place in California is running IMCA Hobby Stocks according to IMCA's State point listings, but I haven't figured out where.  Might that be a cheaper alternative?  When Chuck added Four Bangers to the mix in 2007, I believe they were IMCA sanctioned as the Sport Compacts for a few years and were starting to grow.  So, could one of these three options be possible?

Again, I am on the fence.  One thing I liked about Merced's Pure Stocks vs. Hobby Stocks was they looked different.  They weren't just a car that looked like a Street stock but went slower.  The unique look of the division makes a difference, in my opinion, but there are other factors to consider.

When it comes to building these cars, county and city regulations can make it more difficult for a racer to build a car at home.  I sometimes wonder if that's a factor in declining car counts.  New ways need to be looked at to work around that problem as it develops.  For instance, Charlie Ruth had a shop in which several drivers got to work on their cars.

When I look at what Merced is doing these days, I want to say four divisions and the Sportsman and Limited Late Model classes are enough.  We need to build them all up.  The problem comes from the idea that we are working the Hobby Stock drivers hard, and it's not cheap even for them to come back on a weekly basis.  The Sportsman and Limited Late Model classes are not doing as well as hoped when this schedule was booked.

Having divisions with at least double digit (10-12 cars minimum) car count is important.  And the prime four classes are right on the line, though they slip under the line too.  A fifth division with the ability to produce cars is not a bad idea if it can help give all of the classes weeks off without killing total car count for the night.  Some have suggested Dwarf Cars, but how many locals will get on board with these admittedly neat little race cars?  There was a time in the mid 1990's when the Nor Cal Dwarf Cars called Merced Speedway home.

I think starting from the bottom is the key, and that would mean a bone stock car of some sort.  I'm not sure the track would go IMCA unless maybe it was the fledgling IMCA Stock Cars.  Nothing has been discussed.  The Mini Stocks aren't likely to ever wear an IMCA tag again unless the majority approached management with the idea.

The goal for me would be to see about getting cars back in the classes we already have, because there are more cars out there in all of them than we are seeing.  However, I wouldn't be against IMCA Stock Cars if it were booked in a way in which driver support would come from down south AND we knew that initially 6-10 cars were bring built in the area.

I do see the merits of an entry level class.  Pure Stocks and Little Trucks added many talented racers to the fold, and some of them still race to this day.  If you add a class that has that kind of impact on the track, it would be a good thing.  If you can inspire more support for the divisions we already have, it's even better.  Whatever it takes to grow car count, increase attendance and honor the great heritage that is Merced Speedway, I am all for that.