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Stockton 99 heads for the finish line
Record Staff Writer
Published Sunday, Mar 26, 2006
STOCKTON - Dave Philpott is sure that Stockton 99 Speedway is going to get a
heck of a farewell party.
The 60th and final season at Stockton 99 begins April 2. and it promises to be an emotional journey to the finale on Sept. 16. Some of the most famous names in track history are going to drive their haulers through the back gate and unload their cars and their memories.
They figure the rugged little oval deserves the proper send off.
And that means one more season of good, hard, bumper-to-bumper short track racing.
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"The best way to honor that track is to go out there and have a great year of racing," said Philpott, a former race champion from Tracy whose family has been involved with the track for 40 years. "That's what it's always been about. Exciting racing, good competition, giving the fans their money's worth."
Philpott, 46, is returning as the crew chief for his son, Justin, 16, and may drive a few races. He's just one of several former champions and stars drawn by the final season.
Harry Belletto of Modesto will drive once again, Ron Strmiska Sr. and Ron Strmiska Jr. of Manteca are back, and Dave Byrd also is returning, along with many others.
"My first thought when I heard the stories of the closing was that we had to go back," Byrd said. "It's such an exhilarating ride as a driver and is steeped in the story of our sport. With everyone that is coming, it's going to be a great season."
Even Stockton 99's most famous graduate, 1977 champ and Daytona 500 winner Ernie Irvan, said he got the urge to return at least for a practice spin when he heard the track was closing.
"If I was out there, yeah, it would be tempting to at least take a practice lap for old time's sake," Irvan said. "It's a shame it's going away, it's well known nationally as one of the toughest short tracks around, and the reputation is deserved."
They are showing respect for a track that challenges the drivers and has usually had strong fan support.
Stockton 99 became the first NASCAR track west of the Mississippi when it joined NASCAR in 1954 and has been home to stars such as Irvan, Jack McCoy, Johnny Brazil and Allison Duncan.
While other tracks came and went, Stockton 99 has operated without interruption for 60 years.
That streak is scheduled to end, but some still will not allow themselves to believe the engines will stop running in September.
Pete Anderson Jr. fell in love with racing watching from the grandstands at age 5. Last season he became the first Stockton resident to win the premiere NASCAR Western Late Model title.
And he's holding hope that a miracle could happen.
"There's a part of me that doesn't believe that it will close," Anderson said. "I just won't believe it's closing until I see it."
The old track is unlikely to get a reprieve. Track co-owners Bob Hunefeld and Ken Clapp said the sale of the property to land developers is pending, but expect the transaction to go smoothly.
"This is it, and I understand why everyone is so emotional about it because I'm emotional about the track closing," Clapp said. "I think by September I could be a mess."
Philpott's memories of a lifetime at the track came flooding back to him when he went to Stockton 99 for the first time in three years for a practice session. He was a young child when he would go to watch his father, John Philpott. Other members of Dave's family raced at Stockton 99, he won two titles in the 1990s and now he's training Justin.
"It's already a little emotional," Philpott said. "I wanted to come back
because it was the final season and I wanted Justin to get a season here because
it is the best training ground around. We have a full season ahead, but to stand
here and think that this is it makes you kind of sad."
Belletto also considers racing a bonding experience. His sons Jeff and Steve drive, and family dinners are often filled with talk of the latest races and controversies at the track.
"Our family fell in love with racing at that track," said Belletto, 63. "I started at the Stockton 99 in 1970, would bring the family along, and everyone loved it."
It can bring families together, and tear cars apart. It's a tight, dangerous track that was a challenge for drivers from the first race.
Stockton 99 opened in 1947, and one of the first decisions made would affect the drivers for six decades.
Founding owner Billy Hunefeld and partner Stan Moore disagreed whether the turns should be flat or at a steep angle. They compromised and did one turn each way.
Competitors have been vexed for six decades.
"Man, I remember those nasty turns, and how hard it was to judge them," Irvan said. "That's what made it so difficult, and the reason the drivers are always so competitive. I always said if you could win at Stockton, you could win anywhere."
And sometimes Stockton 99 makes you wait for those wins. Philpott didn't win a race until his 16th season, and Belletto finally got a track title after 26.
"Something makes you keep coming back, and when you do it, it's amazing," Philpott said.
The closing of the track is drawing drivers from all divisions. John Medina of Galt had made a deal with his family that if he ever won the American Limited Stock title, he'd quit. He won in 2004 and kept his promise last year.
"But I heard about the track closing, and I built a car," Medina said. "We have to be there. And once you're there, you race hard."
After the first green flag waves on April 2, the drivers will concentrate on winning races and championships. And many said they will put off thinking about the final day as long as possible.
"When the bulldozers come, I'm going to be sick to my stomach," Belletto said. "Until then, let's go racing."
Contact reporter Scott Linesburgh at (209) 546-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Stockton 99 Speedway