Tempers have often flared at Speedway
By KELLY JONES
BEE STAFF WRITER
Last Updated: April 1, 2006, 08:49:01 AM PST
Saturday nights have been all right for fighting — and racing — at Stockton 99 Speedway since the track opened 60 years ago.
Whether fueled by bumping and scraping on the track, trash talking in the pits or alcohol in the stands, Stockton 99 has always been one of the more rowdy places to be.
And it all started in the first season, 1947, according to an historical account on stockton99speedway.com:
Promoter Billy "Hunefeld imported a track technician named Jack Zuiker from Illinois to help guide reconstruction of the track surface, but the project got started late in the week and the following race was held up until 10:15 p.m. as they tried to finish the work. Only one event was flagged off before it was decided to cancel the show for the night, a move that sent angry fans to the ticket booth demanding their money back. As the mob grew louder, they began to shake the booth, which sent the hapless agent inside running out the back while several fans helped themselves to their own form of refund before the black and whites arrived to restore calm."
Heated exchanges have continued through the years in the pits and grandstands, sometimes turning physical and often becoming a spectacle requiring third-party interference.
"That's adrenaline," former driver and current track announcer Wayne Pierce said. "A fan will get a dose of adrenaline from watching. That's a sport that just excites all five senses."
It doesn't take much to get something going.
"Sometimes, you had to rub people up against the wall to see if they wanted to race," said 1961 Hardtop champion Dick Ramsey, formerly of Ceres and now of Sparks, Nev. "When they announced my name, people either cheered for me or booed like crazy."
The grandstands resemble a patchwork quilt of different camps. Blocks of colors are visible of fans wearing the shirt of their favorite driver.
It's unheard of for fans of the Bellettos to sit anywhere near fans of Dave Byrd. No one sat within earshot of David Philpott's cheering section and rooted for anyone but him — not out loud, anyway.
Pierce said NASCAR fans' trademark loyalty, from their clothes to their vocal nature, helped fuel dust-ups, too.
"Years ago, you used to have people go to the races to see the fights," said Philpott, a two-time Late Model track champ.
The crowd sitting in the stands in turn 1 was particularly well-known for abusing drivers. Philpott remembers being parked there once when a red flag stopped action to clear a bad wreck.
"All of a sudden, 'Bam!' — something hit the side of the car. Here comes the golf balls," he said. "When the M80 firecrackers came under the car and blew up, that's when I was outta there."
Debris on the track or no, Philpott said it wasn't as dangerous as staying put. Even during caution flags, cars that slowed in turn 1 were likely to be pelted with coins. It wasn't an area drivers liked their children venturing into, either.
"We didn't let 'em go to the bathroom by themselves down there," Philpott said. "It was out of control."
Tempers also flare on the track, sometimes out of frustration. Drivers who spend considerable time and money building their cars hate to have that work wrecked by a competitor.
Pit crews and fans extend on-track battles. Post-race finger-pointing, yelling and shoving, and more, aren't uncommon.
"Back in the '80s and '90s, it was very rough," Modesto driver Bob Strandwold said. "People would throw beer cans and bottles over the fence. People wanted to fight. It got so bad you couldn't walk into another competitor's pits after the race."
Strandwold said that attitude eased in the mid-90s. The fighting was tolerated because that's just how Stockton 99 was. People were mad at each other and they wanted to stay mad at each other.
"People were there to win," Strandwold said. "Crew members would protect their driver, protect their team. It wasn't a bloodbath, but it seemed like it."
Frustration spilled off the track for Modesto driver Ed Andreetta, the track Hardtop champion in 1957. He remembers being unable to get around Buck Wenzel during one race. Wenzel had a slower car, but he was blocking well.
Andreetta said he pushed Wenzel's "beat-up Mopar" down the strip, building up enough speed so Wenzel could make the upcoming turn and be clear of Andreetta's path. Andreetta let go, and Wenzel crashed into the wall.
Wenzel approached Andreetta with a crowbar in the pits after the race.
"He took a swing at me," Andreetta said. "By that time, everybody was coming over. I went down like he hit me and crawled out under everybody's legs. I was way out there (in the field) and left them to do the fighting."
Andreetta said the two drivers became good friends later in their careers.
"Sometimes, you have to let bygones be bygones," he said.
The ability to scrap one weekend and borrow parts the next wasn't unheard of. The pat answer of "That's racing" applied to a little bumpin' and bangin' in and out of cars.
"People have gotten mad over the years from racing hard," Manteca driver Ron Strmiska Jr. said. "Everyone gets mad at everyone. We're still a big family."
Bee staff writer Kelly Jones can be reached at 578-2300 or email@example.com.
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