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From start to finish,
Tatum loves track
Record Staff Writer
Published Sunday, Mar 26, 2006
STOCKTON - Chuck Tatum remembers sitting in the grandstands under a warm sun
60 years ago and watching the cars kick up the dust coming out of the corners.
It was a beautiful sight for a racing fan, and he admits it's going to be sad when the engines go silent in September.
"You really hate to see it go, it's been a special part of this town," Tatum said. "As a race fan at the time, there was nothing better than when the track opened."
The quarter-mile track owned by Billy Hunefeld opened on May 27, 1947. A crowd of more than 8,000 fans showed up and the first race was won by open- wheel legend Billy Vukovich, who would go on to win two Indianapolis 500 races and died tragically at the same track.
Tatum, 79, had no idea he was sitting in a place that would be there six decades later.
"Oh no, I never would have suspected that it would still be here," Tatum said. "My only thoughts at the time was how happy I was that racing was in Stockton. I was a huge fan, and at the time had to drive to Oakland to watch races."
He would later become a driver himself and worked for track owner Billy Hunefeld, who owned a bowling alley, promoted boxing and wrestling, and had put on racing programs at old Baxter Stadium years earlier.
"My grandfather wasn't really a racing fan at the time, he was a promoter," Chris Hunefeld said. "He thought it was a good business move."
Construction on the track began in March 1947 and finished by the middle of May. Stockton 99 looked much different back then.
There were grandstands on both sides, the capacity was 10,000, and the track was dirt, not asphalt.
Stockton Mayor Woodrow Coale was in attendance to watch the Tuesday night races, and Greyhound buses brought fans from downtown Stockton to the track, which was then on the outskirts of town on Wilson Way.
Tatum said he doesn't remember how much he paid for a ticket to watch the Midget races, but believes it was less than two dollars.
He does remember how good Vukovich was.
The Fresno driver was already a big name on the West Coast when he came to Stockton. He won the Indy 500 in 1953 and 1954. But in 1955 he had a 17-second lead at Indy when he became involved in an accident involving lapped traffic and was killed at age 36.
"It was very sad, and I will say there was little doubt who the star was that day at Stockton," Tatum said. "He was a great driver and had a way with the fans."
Tatum said opening night in Stockton was a success on every level. The headline in The Record the next day proclaimed "Vukovich wins Inaugural."
Tatum can't believe it's been 60 years.
"Sixty great years, and now it's ending," Tatum said. "It will be tough."
Contact reporter Scott Linesburgh at (209) 546-8281 or email@example.com