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For Clapp, nothing but cheers

Bob Highfill
Record Staff Writer
Published Sunday, Mar 19, 2006

Speedway 99 co-owner and promoter Ken Clapp stands at the racetrack in Stockton during a practice day Saturday

Credit: CLIFFORD OTO/The Record

Ken Clapp was as a paperboy when he was eight years old.

The last stop on his route was a filling station near his family's home in Walnut Creek. Clapp would set down his empty bag and hang around the station, admiring the cars in the service bay. He was enamored with the midget car, hardtop racecar and late-model stockcar that often were on display. Something gripped him as he looked at them in wonder.

"I got hooked," said Clapp, who will turn 67 in April. "It was the beginning of the end of going any further playing sports beyond high school."


Clapp played football, basketball and baseball at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, but his passion for auto racing and its history was born at that service station and has burned strong ever since.

Clapp turned his passion into a distinguished career that has spanned five decades and has covered the gamut from driver and promoter to owner and consultant. Clapp helped build auto racing's popularity on the West Coast, especially in Stockton, where since 1976, he has been the promoter of Stockton 99 Speedway. The most successful quarter-mile short track between Los Angeles and Seattle will begin its final season in April after 60 years of operation because of its pending sale to developers.

"When I leave Stockton that last night, I'll probably have a wet eye," Clapp said. "I wouldn't be human if I didn't."

Clapp said the 99 Speedway is going out with a bang. The season runs from Apr. 2 to Sept. 16.

"We've just got all kinds of stuff going on," Clapp said. "We've never had a schedule like this before."

Clapp promoted his first race 40 years ago. He built a reputation for being fair and honest, traits that helped him move from the grassroots level to the upper echelon of NASCAR, the nation's premier racing association.

"He loves auto racing and he shoots straight," said NASCAR chairman Brian France. "He has a passion for it and he's always mentoring people and helping new track operators."

Clapp is on a first-name basis with the giants of the sport, yet he still likes working at the small tracks.

"He's directly responsible for who comes to the track," said Chris Hunefeld, whose family and Clapp are co-owners of Stockton 99 Speedway. "If Ken wasn't here, there wouldn't be any races. It's a known place and Ken has made that happen."

Part three of a four-part series

March 5
Pacific athletic director Lynn King knows a successful sports program is about more than wins and losses.
March 12
Mike McCarroll is a jack-of-all trades as general manager of the Stockton Ports
Ken Clapp is closing out a career in Stockton after a hall of fame run in motorsports
Next Sunday
Sac-Joaquin Section commissioner Pete Saco oversees the state's second largest high school athletic association.

Clapp made his dream career happen with tenacity and hard work. There were plenty of twists and turns along the way.

Clapp enlisted in the Navy after two years at Diablo Valley College and was discharged in 1960. He moved to Oxnard, where he sold Chryslers and Dodges, and worked for an automotive engineering firm. He didn't like either job, so he became the business manager of his mother's high-end clothing company and learned the complexities of running a business.

"That was a better education than any college," Clapp said.

All the while, Clapp was entrenched in auto racing. He rented racetracks and put on shows in Northern California in the mid-1960s, as he learned the business and made contacts. In 1968, he helped open Sears Point Raceway, now Infineon Raceway, and managed the marketing and public relations department. He lost his job in 1970 when the track was sold to Filmways, but the new owners hired him to sell the track. Clapp searched the country for a buyer, but gave up after six months.


Race official Mark Vincelet starts a practice session during Saturday’s “Play Day” at Stockton 99 Speedway

Credit: CLIFFORD OTO/The Record

"I didn't sell it but I met with some of the real movers and shakers of the industry," Clapp said.

Clapp then worked in marketing and sales for Auto Week magazine, but left when the company wanted him to re-locate to the East Coast. Clapp didn't want to be away from his two daughters, so he took a job with an auto leasing company in the Bay Area. The business dried up during the gas crisis in 1974. Clapp then worked in marketing for a high-performance engine company and later for a kitchen remodeling company.

Finally, Clapp received the phone call that would change his life.

"It was from Bill France, the president of NASCAR," Clapp said. "The France's are NASCAR."

The France Family is one of the foremost sports families in the country. They own NASCAR and 13 major speedways, including Daytona and Talladega. France hired Clapp as the marketing director for West Coast operations out of Scotts Valley. He took over promotions for seven racetracks in California, including Stockton 99 Speedway, the only one of the seven that still is in operation.

"We hit the ground running," Clapp said. "That was the beginning of the beginning."

Eventually, 19 tracks were operating on the West Coast. The sport, a staple in the Southeast, was making its way west, and Clapp was at the forefront of its growth. He was rewarded for his efforts in Dec. 1983, when Bill France Jr. promoted him to be the vice president of western operations.

"That was an enormous day," Clapp said.

Clapp retired as an officer with NASCAR, but he still is under contract as a consultant. Clapp's knowledge of the sport and its history has made him a sought-after consultant in Hollywood, too. Clapp has consulted on several movies, including "Steel Chariots," "Herbie," and an IMAX documentary on the history of NASCAR. His latest project, "Talladega Nights," starring Will Ferrell will be released this summer.

"I've been working on that for about six months," Clapp said. "It's going to be good. It's funny and it was by far and away the most fun I've ever had doing a movie."

Clapp recently was asked by NASCAR to help promote the Los Angeles Motor Speedway in Fontana. He also stays busy managing a wholesale nursery business and a huge memorabilia collection.

"I've got a wife and a bunch of kids, stepkids and grandkids," Clapp said. "I'll always be involved with NASCAR."

Clapp said the future looks strong for short-track racing, but track operators must be more saavy than ever.

"The short-track business across the country needs to stay sharp because we are fighting for dollars," Clapp said. "You really have to be on your game. You have to put on a good show."

Ken Clapp has been putting on good shows for 40 years.

This season marks the end of an era at Stockton 99 Speedway, an era that Clapp helped build and foster.

Contact reporter Bob Highfill at (209) 546-8299 or bhighfill@recordnet.com

About this series

They are the men we seldom hear about, quiet and unassuming, yet deeply involved in making their teams, their programs and their sports run like clockwork. They are the quiet leaders

Q&A with NASCAR Chairman Brian France

Published Sunday, Mar 19, 2006

Brian France is chairman of NASCAR, the nation's premier auto racing association. The France family is one of the foremost sports families in the nation, with an estimated net worth in the billions. France's grandfather and father started NASCAR and built it into a powerhouse with sophisticated marketing that rivals any professional sport. France spoke with Record reporter Bob Highfill about NASCAR's future, and one of its stalwarts, Ken Clapp, a consultant with NASCAR and the co-owner and promoter of Stockton 99 Speedway.

Q: How long have you known Ken?

A: He goes all the way back to my grandfather (Bill France) and father (Bill France Jr.). He played a signficant role in developing NASCAR on the West Coast. He was my first mentor. I lived in his house when he had the short-track program. I learned a lot from him and we've remained close friends for 25 years.

Q: Why is Ken good at his job?

A: He loves auto racing. It starts with that. He shoots straight and he just had a passion for it. The other thing he did with me and other young people was he was always mentoring people and helping new track operators. He enjoys talking about the history of the sport and the fundamentals of the sport. He always has a lot of perspective to share.

Q: What will his new role be with the Los Angeles Speedway in Fontana?

A: I'm not too familiar with it, other than that he is going to play some role in creating more awareness in Southern California and be a resource for them. He'll do a lot with NASCAR digital and consult on special projects.

Q: To what do you attribute NASCAR's explosion in popularity?

A: The television coverage is so much better than it was five years ago. The camera angles, on-board cameras and graphics bring the sport to life. It translates well to TV.

Q: Do the drivers contribute to NASCAR's growing popularity?

A: There's certainly no question. The drivers are regular people that come from all over the country. I think the sports fans can relate to them.

Q: The drivers seem more accessible to the fans and media than athletes in other sports. Is that something NASCAR stresses?

A: It is, but NASCAR doesn't mandate it but tries to convince the drivers that they are partners with us. It's in their best interests to be accessible. That's been our theme for a long time. We tell them it all starts on the track, but there are a lot of things we're working on and you're a beneficiary of that. A vast number of our drivers understand that and its importance in growing the sport.

Q: This week, Bill Lester became the first African-American to qualify to race in a NASCAR cup event since Willie T. Ribbs in 1986. Is that a significant development for NASCAR?

A: I think it is. It's always about taking steps forward. Sometimes you take 10 steps forward. This is well earned for Bill. He's a talented driver and he's been in the truck series and some of the other series. I hope he does well. He's been a big help in our diversity programs with advice. He wants to see the sport get bigger. He knows in the back of his mind that it's significant, it's important.

Q: What is your diversity program?

A: We decided a number of years ago we could do a better job at diversity. It was going to be one of the growth areas available to us. There are a variety of initiatives to create more awareness with African-Americans and Hispanics and anyone else. One of them is our driver diversity program, where we take cars to tracks, like Stockton's, and we work with sponsors to fund opportunities for minority drivers who might not otherwise have the opportunity to drive for a complete, full season. Hopefully, they would move up the ranks. We're giving these ground floor opportunities and we're starting to see it pay dividends.

Ken Clapp Honored

Promoter Ken Clapp, who has operated Stockton 99 Speedway for most of its 60 years, will be inducted into the Motor Sports Press Association Hall of Fame during the MSPA's 43rd annual postseason Awards and Green Flag Dinner on March 8 in Oakland.

"It was quite a shock," Clapp said. "It's a great organization, and I'm honored."

Clapp is on special assignment to conduct projects for NASCAR and has been responsible for helping NASCAR racing develop on the west coast.

Allison Duncan also will be honored in Oakland. Duncan, who finished second in the track standings at Stockton 99 Speedway and the Tri-Holiday Sweepstakes standings, will be given the MSPA's stock car criver of the year award.

Fans are welcome to attend the event. Information: (408) 733-6135 or (510) 339-9450.

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