Sunday, April 3, 2016

Stone Opens Merced Speedway Season With Win, Diaz Pays Tribute To Fore With Victory

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Stone Opens Merced Speedway Season With Win, 
Diaz Pays Tribute To Fore With Victory

New Merced Speedway promoter Ed Parker was delighted at the big turnout of cars and fans for the Merced Speedway opener.  Photo by Zoe Sandoval

A new era in Merced Speedway racing has begun, and over 60 race cars filled the pits to usher in the era of Promoter Ed Parker and General Manager Doug Williams.  When Doug Laidlaw's checkered flag flew on the IMCA Modified Main Event, it was 2014 champion Paul Stone scoring the impressive victory.  Michael Shearer dazzled the crowd with his flag to flag romp in the 20 lap Hobby Stock feature, while 2014 champion Chris Corder put on another driving clinic in winning the Mini Stock Main Event.

Before winning in the John Fore Jr. tribute car, Rick Diaz had the car on display under the grandstands and met with fans, including Zoe Sandoval.  Sandoval Family Photo.

The night started on a somber note as the track paid tribute to John Fore Jr. during the opening ceremonies.  Fore, a top 5 IMCA Sport Modified competitor just a couple seasons ago, died in a work related accident prior to the start of the racing season.  The track is running nine lap heat races in Fore's honor this year and has added The John Fore Jr. Memorial Sport Modified Race to the schedule on October 8th.  Paying tribute to his fallen friend, 2014 champion Rick Diaz wheeled the #9d car to the season opening victory in the Sport Modified Main Event.

Doug Laidlaw was a welcome sight back on the flag stand at Merced Speedway after being gone for a few years. He poses with his daughter Chelsea for a picture.  Laidlaw Family Photo

Like his brother and cousins, Paul Stone is a champion, and he's won multiple IMCA Modified titles at both Merced and Hanford.  When he put his fast #66p Stone Motorsports entry on the track Saturday night, the fans found out why he's a champion as he dominated the race in collecting the feature win.  This left the battle for second, and that went in favor of 2011 champion Bill Egleston ahead of Randy Brown. "Rookie Of The Year" hopeful Bruce "Bubba" Nelson won a spirited duel with Ricky Thatcher to finish fourth as Thatcher was lapped late by the flying Stone.  Nelson had to head to the hospital afterwards to be with his wife, Shannon, who just gave birth to their baby boy.  Stone and Nelson won the nine lap heat races.

Get there early.  Cars are mud packing and there's a line waiting to get in.  Photo by Zoe Sandoval.
Rick Diaz was definitely fast in the IMCA Sport Modified feature, but he had his hands full with 2000 Chowchilla Street Stock champion Steve Stone.  Stone ran with him, but Diaz was just a little smoother in collecting the satisfying victory.  Defending champion Josh Hensley grabbed the final podium position, while veteran Gary Tucker made a late move to finish fourth.  Tim Elias was fifth. Nine lap heat race wins went to Diaz, Hensley and Welch.

As if the great racing wasn't enough, there was a local band playing under the grandstands before the races.  Photo by Zoe Sandoval

In the Hobby Stock race, Michael Shearer got behind the wheel of the #73 car that his wife Kristie had raced last season, while she moved over to the #32 car. Michael started up front and set the early pace as Kristie worked her way up from deep in the pack.  Kodie Dean gave chase early on ahead of defending champion Kevin Joaquin.  Jennifer Corder was third in the early goings before an off track excursion dropped her back and gave Joaquin his opening.  Ben Lewis II and Andrew Krumm made it a five car a battle up front while K. Shearer worked her way into sixth.  Just past the midway point, Joaquin slipped past Dean for second, but a lap later, Dean and Joaquin made contact with Joaquin hitting the front wall.  Both drovers restarted in the back.  As M. Shearer led the restart, Krumm and Key battled for second.  On lap 18, K. Shearer made a strong outside move in Turn 2 to pass both of them.  It was a 1-2 finish for Shearer Racing as Michael finished ahead of Kristie.  Krumm settled for third ahead of Lewis and George Silva.  Dean, M. Shearer and Joaquin were the heat race winners.

Announcer Dale Falkenberg in the middle is also working to make race night at Merced Speedway an event that fans won't want to miss.  Photo by Zoe Sandoval

In Mini Stock action, Corder Racing was back as 2014 champion Chris Corder returned and brought rookie Destiny Carter with him.  Corder picked up where he left off last season by winning his heat race and then scoring the feature victory.  Heat race winner Jeff Amos was second with Robert Jackson rounding out the Top 3.  Paul Lauretti was fourth in his first start, followed by Dennis Copus.  Amos and Corder were the heat race winners.

Racing resumes at Merced Speedway next week with IMCA Sport Modifieds headlining the show along with Hobby Stocks, Mini Stocks and the first appearance of the Valley Sportsman division.  For further information, go to the official track website at
Sportsman Division Returns To Merced Speedway

Jeff Bistow #14 gets ready for some practice at the first playday.  Photo by Destiny Carter.

Saturday night racing continues at Merced Speedway this week with the IMCA Sport Modifieds, Hobby Stocks and Mini Stocks being joined by the Valley Sportsman division. It is sure to be a great night of racing on the fast quarter mile dirt oval.

It was a sometimes difficult season last year, but the popular vintage Sportsman division somehow made it through. On Legends Night last year, the division's high car count was reached at 6 cars. The win went to hard charger Eric Seely.

A champion was not crowned last season, though points were tallied and Marcus Lung was the uncrowned champion. Lung won most of the Main Events last season, with other wins being recorded by Sealy and Jeff Bristow. However, the plug got pulled on the division for a couple months, and the future looked to be in doubt.

It was largely thanks to the efforts of Kenny Birdsong and Mike Palmberg that the promoter at the time, John Soares, was convinced to put the division back on the schedule for Legends Night. They responded by giving the track 6 cars, and they were given one more race, won by Lung.

You probably won't find a bigger booster for the division then Birdsong, who had his car at every race last season. Birdsong is very excited about the coming season and has done his best to try to recruit new drivers. In fact, he reports that a couple of new cars are being built that could be debuted at some point this season.

Aside from Lung, Birdsong, Bristow, Sealy and Palmberg, who were the top 5 ranked drivers last season, past champions Mark Odgers and Mike Friesen were the only other drivers to field cars last year. Both drivers competed one time, with Friesen being a part of the 6 car field on Legend's Night.

But, the question remained, what could they do to save the division from extinction? At one time, the division posted a car count in the teens during the early years of the revival. Champions in the early years included two time titlist Friesen, three time champion Kevin Freitas and Keith Van Houten. Van Houten drove a beautiful car built by Bill Baker, who also had Sportsman legend Rod Poor driving for him during the first season in 1999.

Luis Miranda was one of the founders of this division as the idea came about because of him.  He played a major role in convincing promoter Chuck Griffin to start it up again in 1999. Griffin himself was a Sportsman driver back in the 1970's and part of the roster when then promoter Jim Soares pulled the plug on the division in 1980. The departure of The Limited Sprint division in 1998 gave Griffin the opportunity to bring back the division he loved.

It was in the early years when the division was at its strongest with racers like Robb Schropp, Ed Marion, Gary Hildebrand, Billy Mattos, Tim Leidich, Mark Jump and Miranda on the roster. When the Sportsman class started to be able to produce car counts in the 10 to 12 car range, Griffin proposed making the division his headline class in 2001. It was at that point when the drivers had decided to form a sort of club and race at Chowchilla with eyes on Antioch and Stockton.

The division really had a lot of people talking in the early days of the revival, but after the club talk began, the momentum seemed to slow down a bit. Still, Griffin remained committed to this division and continued to book dates even when the car count dropped to 4-6 cars. Racers like Dennis Barcellos, Neill Barcellos, Odgers and Rich Altamirano were the champions during that time.

There might have been concern over the division being dropped as car count wasn't good and Soares was taking over, but they need not have worried. Soares, who himself was the 1969 Petaluma Sportsman champion and State champion and ranks third on the Sportsman division All Time win list at Antioch Speedway, liked the division and wanted to see it continue.

For a while, things started to pick up as Mike Hausmann and Shane Hausmann, both champions in the division (with Mike winning it three times), got on board. Other hard chargers like Tim Prothro and Mike Henault helped make the show special to see. In fact, car count again hit double digits for a time. Unfortunately, that momentum went away once again.

As Henault won the 2014 championship, some of the rules had been changed around with bigger motors being allowed into the fray. This began to upset some of the racers, who parked their cars. This led to the low car counts that were seen last year as the top five drivers were basically the ones keeping it propped up.

Birdsong and Palmberg were the two spearheading the movement to get the drivers back out to the track. Reports are that we should see 6-8 cars showing up for the season opener, and Birdsong further asserts that there could be as many as 12 cars showing up at some point this season. Even if a field of 6-8 cars shows up for these races, it will be an improvement over last year and a start towards rebuilding the class.

Tim Prothro #23 brought his car back for a playday and will be back for more this season.  Photo by Vicki Prothro.

Word is that the top five drivers from last year will return, and Odgers should be seen a time or two as well in his Vern Willhoite tribute car. Furthermore, cars fielded by Jeannie Canepa and Mike Hausmann are said to be coming.  We should be seeing the car of 2014 point runner up Tom Prothro, who was at one of the play days a couple weeks ago. Word is that we will be seeing cars we haven't seen in a year or two.

The Sportsman division hearkens back to the "Glory Days" at Merced Speedway in the 1970's when the winged division was the headliner at tracks in Merced, Watsonville, Antioch and other places across the country. As the modern movement for the Hardtop division brings back nostalgia for those old cars, there is a desire to see the Sportsman division grow and thrive and perhaps even find other race tracks on which to compete.
However, the immediate goal will be to reestablish this division at Merced Speedway. Enthusiasm about virtually everything going on at Merced Speedway is at a high not seen in years. The Sportsman drivers are hoping to capture that momentum and build this class back up again. Their first opportunity will be this Saturday night, and they have 8 more race dates set for April 23rd, May 14th, May 21st, June 18th, July 16th, August 6th, August 13th and September 17th.

For further information on the Sportsman Division and other happenings at Merced Speedway, go to

Modern Era Sportsman Champions

1999 Mike Friesen
2000 Mike Friesen
2001 Kevin Freitas
2002 Keith Van Houten
2003 Kevin Freitas
2004 Kevin Freitas
2005 Dennis Barcellos
2006 Dennis Barcellos
2007 Neill Barcellos
2008 Mark Odgers
2009 Rich Altamirano
2010 Mike Hausmann
2011 Mike Hausmann
2012 Mike Hausmann
2013 Shane Hausmann
2014 Mike Henault
2015 Marcus Lung*
* Not officially crowned