The Golden State is home to 15 or so sprint car tracks, and at least five organized sprint car tours. On any given weekend, as many as a dozen of those tracks might be active!
From El Centro near the Mexican border to Chico in the northern Sacramento Valley, California's sprint car racers make up one of the larger dirt track racing "scenes" in the US. You'll find California really does have it all when it comes to sprint car racing!
A state spanning nearly 1000 miles from north to south has room for more than one kind of sprint car racing. California's sprint scene has two major regions, divided roughly by a line between Santa Maria on the coast and Fresno in the Central Valley. North of that line, characteristic of the state's agricultural valleys, winged sprint cars predominate. But in the more urban south, non-winged sprinters are most common. And at the tracks along the line, you can often see both, though rarely on the same evening.
Northern California fans have a need for speed... the speed of winged sprint cars; and, until recently, winged midgets as well. Gary Patterson's horrifying crash in a non-winged sprinter at Calistoga in 1983, followed by the closure of Fremont's Baylands Raceway in 1988, signalled the end for non-winged sprinters in the North.
The top of the heap in Northern California is the Golden State Challenge tour, representing California's best winged racers, driving 410-cubic-inch "Outlaw style" race cars. And GSC's best teams are good enough to challenge the Outlaws at their own game. Typical car counts in the 30s show that Outlaw-style racing is alive and well in Northern California, despite the perennial dominance of Brent Kaeding, many-time "King of California". The GSC series makes frequent appearances at Chico's Silver Dollar Speedway, Hanford's Kings Speedway, and Tulare's Thunderbowl Raceway, with occasional visits to Bakersfield, Calistoga, Placerville, Santa Maria, Watsonville, and Marysville's Twin Cities Speedway.
But since San Jose Speedway fell to the wrecker's ball, and the Northern Auto Racing Club faded from its former glory, the less costly iron-block, iron-head, winged 360s predominate at the local level. The 360s are clearly the wave of the future in Northern California. In fact, as of this writing in 2002, only Chico's Silver Dollar Speedway still runs 410s on a weekly basis, and many of the 410 regulars at Chico are also GSC regulars. Marysville, Placerville, and Petaluma serve up a regular dose of winged 360 action. And before its demise, San Jose Speedway made a huge splash with the 1997 Trophy Cup, a two-day event for winged 360s with a $70,000 purse, the largest in 360 history. Each year's version gets even richer! Look for a repeat of this popular season finale, now held at Kings Speedway
The exception to the winged 360 trend is Antioch's low-buck spec sprint car series, a non-winged carbureted 360 series that started in 1999.
Many see the winged 360s as a training ground for future NARC and Outlaw competitors. But because the 360s are so numerous, a few regional challenge series have sprung up for the local heroes. Notable among these are John Padjen's California Sprint Car Civil War Series, centered around Silver Dollar, Twin Cities, Petaluma, and Placerville Speedways, and the California Rebel Cup, circulating between Bakersfield, Kings, Tulare, and Watsonville.
USAC is trying to make inroads with a non-winged Western States sprint car series, with modest success to date, thanks in part to an all-pavement schedule in an area where sprints don't run on pavement. The new Irwindale Speedway, a paved half-mile in the heart of the Los Angeles basin which opened in March 1999, should give a boost to the USAC pavement tour's visibility.
But USAC is the exception. If the various track promoters could be persuaded to pull together, a Northern California 360 tour -- on dirt -- could rival NARC for excitement and participation.
Curiously, in 1997 the Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) midget series went against the winged trend, and removed the wings by popular vote of the membership. One goal was to draw a few cars north from the non-winged USAC Western States midget tour down south, another to capitalize on the popularity and TV exposure of the USAC midgets. And it seems to have worked!
Figuring they can do better together than separately, BCRA and USAC have put on a couple of jointly sanctioned shows, and they will do so again in 2002. BCRA runs a mix of pavement and dirt tracks throughout Central California, with an active vintage exhibition tour accompanying the modern midgets on many dates, and a winged "Midget Lites" series as well.
Dirt race tracks are few and far between in Southern California. The reason is obvious: most were bulldozed long ago under the region's all-conquering urban sprawl. But the few remaining tracks serve as refuges for faithful fans of non-winged sprint car racing. A brief history of the SoCal scene will help explain today's almost religious fervor for the wingless wonders.
From the beginning of the Automobile Age, Los Angeles has been a powerhouse of auto racing. Today's superspeedways were foreshadowed by the high-banked Beverly Hills board track of the '20s. The legendary Miller Indy cars hailed from the L.A. area, and the first short-track racing under the lights took place at Legion Ascot in the '30s. The Indy roadster revolution of the '50s likewise sprang from Southern California shops. And road racing's modern street course era began at Long Beach in the mid-'70s.
But for some reason, winged sprint cars never caught on in the Southland. The longtime hub of the Southern California sprint car scene, Ascot Park, was always a bastion of the "traditional" non-winged cars of the California Racing Association. At Ascot, backing it into the corners was the law of the land. And the racers and fans saw that it was good...
But all good things must end some day. Ascot Park disappeared under the developer's bulldozer after the 1990 season, leaving the CRA without a home, and CRA's transition to a touring series left it with dwindling car counts and crowds. Each new track proposal met fierce opposition from angry residents and was quickly shot down. For a while in the mid-'90s, it appeared non-winged racing -- in fact racing of any sort -- was history in the Los Angeles basin.
With the CRA in shambles, its members formed the Sprint Car Racing Association, and tried to regroup around the few remaining Southern California tracks and Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix, a longtime host track of the non-winged cars.
But things turned around in early 1996. Perris Auto Speedway (The PAS!) was built expressly to take Ascot's place as the playground of the non-winged set. Seizing the initiative, Perris management quickly signed on as SCRA's home track, leading the faithful to the Promised Land of side-by-sideways racing once again.
Non-winged sprint car racing is again live and well in the Southland. The roar of the SCRA's 410-cubic-inch sprinters reverberates off the dam behind The PAS! most weekends. And when it doesn't, the limited non-winged cars of the Southwest Bandit Sprint Car Series often pick up the slack. The Outlaws put in an occasional appearance at Perris, but they are the exception that proves the rule.
At the other end of the Los Angeles megalopolis, wingless 360 sprints, the similarly topless USAC Western States Midget Series, and occasional SCRA visits keep the crowds at Ventura Raceway coming back for more.
And in early 1999, a new paved 1/2 mile and 1/4 mile oval has opened up in Irwindale, an L.A. suburb roughly halfway between Perris and Ventura. USAC Western States midgets and sprints, both non-winged, make frequent visits to this highly touted urban short track, and the legendary Turkey Night Grand Prix midget race makes its home at Irwindale these days..
El Centro's Imperial Fairgrounds runs a couple of SCRA dates at either end of the racing season, being too hot for much action in the summer months, and that's about it for sprinters south of the Tehachapi Mountains.
Caught between the winged wars to the North and non-winged racing to the South, the border tracks provide an opportunity to see both games at their best.
Both Kings Speedway in Hanford and the Tulare Thunderbowl Raceway have chosen to go with winged 360s as their main attractions, and both schedule a number of Golden State Challenge dates. But Kings is also one of the home tracks of the Southwest Bandit Sprint Car Series for limited non-winged cars, and Tulare has lined up at least one SCRA show a year since 1999.
Meanwhile, Bakersfield Speedway in Oildale leans toward the non-winged cars, serving as a frequent host for the Bandits and SCRA, with an occasional GSC weekend thrown in for good measure.
Santa Maria Speedway doesn't seem to favor either, as they have an eclectic schedule with a couple of GSC and SCRA dates, the winged 360s of the Rebel Cup and the roofless Bandit 360s, the odd USAC midget show, and a one-night stand by the Outlaws in September.
See the California Tracks page for the skinny on the local racing scenes.
As you might expect, there are a horde of hero drivers in this populous state. Read about them here.
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