2006 99 Schedule

Don't kiss the trophy girl, and other stories

April 2, 2006, 06:16:08 AM PDT


Start and sometimes deciphering the rules requires a judge -- a crooked one at that. But 99 Speedway was my beat starting in 1978, when I joined the Stockton Record, and continuing off and on for several years after I joined The Bee. In the 18 years I spent writing motorsports columns, I loved most of my Saturday nights at 99.

Unfortunately, the place didn't always love me back.

Jim Shiels, the track's feisty statistician and a good friend, called one day to say I had been banned from the track. Track manager Whitey Rich disliked my suggestion that a higher fence might keep wheels from flying into the audience. A phone call to track co-owner Ken Clapp -- a master of marketing who knew that bad publicity was better than none -- rescinded the ban within the hour.

Whitey wasn't the only one who didn't appreciate my prose. A note appeared on the pit fence one Saturday night, offering me a one-lap headstart and promising the racer who caught me the privilege of hanging my testicles on the pit gate. Always suspected it was a mechanic who wrote that note, since many of the drivers I knew would have had trouble spelling testicles.

Others were less clever if not more intimidating, simply threatening to beat me to a pulp. Invariably, they were dating a driver.

Three racers had a chance to do me in. An editor wanted a first-person story from inside a race car. The track went along and found a Late Model Sportsman race car for me to drive against three of the track's fastest, including points leaders Ron Strmiska and Norman David. During hot laps, a notoriously slow hobby stocker blew past me. Oh, the ignominy -- I had to go faster! I tried, but soon I had spun to a stop in the middle of the track facing in the wrong direction. Worse, Strmiska's grill headed for my windshield.

He missed, but not by much.

The 1979 battle between Strmiska and David remains one of my favorites. Stories about the gentleman from Manteca and the sneering Modesto cowboy in the black hat almost wrote themselves. There were never any fistfights, but there were plenty of allegations of cheating -- which David always laughed at but refused to deny.

There were many such duels, each accompanied by bumps, banged fenders and flaring tempers. Unfortunately, when writers describe what happens on the track they inadvertently become involved. The racer deemed at fault in any accident usually believes he's being maligned in print and blames the messenger.

Kenny Boyd was too classy to worry about that stuff. He would become the winningest driver in the history of the track, but when we first met he was still chasing Dan Reed, then Strmiska, then Jim Reich, then Ivan Baldwin, then Reed again. He was also chasing a young woman who kept stats for him and kept him calm when things didn't turn out right. One night, after the racing was over, Boyd earned his most important victory ever. Cindy agreed to marry him.

By the time his incredible streak ended in 1990, the entire country was in awe -- including me. NASCAR called his feat unparalleled at any of its tracks. He always kept the streak, and his wins, in perspective. Such wisdom is earned.

All great champions need someone to push them, and Boyd had probably the most popular racer ever to turn left at 99 -- Harry Belletto. Called "Hard Luck Harry," "The Gentle Giant" and "Hard-Charging Harry Belletto," I think of him as "Happy Harry" -- always grinning.

The other drivers weren't always grinning back. One night, Belletto spun out Lathrop's Tim Gillit. After the race, as Harry was leaning on his car, the 5-foot-8-inch Gillit came charging through the pits. As Gillit arrived, the 6-4 Belletto stretched out one long arm and put his hand on Gillit's forehead -- stopping him cold. He kept it there until Gillit cooled off.

That trick wouldn't have worked with the man who raced for milk. Dan Reed, who won five track titles, wouldn't have left the track until he got even -- and then some. Ernie Irvan wouldn't have telegraphed his intent, swinging only when he could connect. And a fight between any of the Bellettos and Troy Beebe would have been worth paying to see.

But Ivan Baldwin would have laughed it off. "Ivan the Terrible" was the best racer I saw in 18 years. It wasn't that he had more talent, he just knew how to win. Sometimes he would run low so his rear tires would kick dirt and gravel onto the windshields of those behind; sometimes he would nudge the leader aside; sometimes it was pure psyche.

Baldwin wore thick glasses and swore he couldn't see without them. Before each race, he made a big deal of taking them off. Yet, he had no trouble seeing the checkered flag.

Once printed, reporters often forget their stories. But some moments can't be forgotten: Driving up Wilson Way and seeing Wild Bill Farren's race car rushing up behind. The laughter of Crazy Dave Ollar. The sight of Kevin Gottula's wife popping out of her seat as if shot from a toaster, when her husband kissed the trophy girl. (From then on, Gottula shook the trophy girls' hands.)

It's not the racing at Stockton 99 Speedway I'll remember. It's not the pretty cars or the wrecks or the fights or even the moments of grace. It's the people -- the racers, fans and officials. It's a privilege to ride down memory lane in their company.

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