Local drivers have lit up Stockton 99
By KELLY JONES
BEE STAFF WRITER
Last Updated: April 1, 2006, 08:49:01 AM PST
They have flocked from all directions to race at the famed bullring that is Stockton 99 Speedway.
Three-time champion Dave Byrd came from Los Gatos. Ernie Irvan initially commuted from Salinas en route to winning the 1977 track championship before going on to Winston Cup stardom.
Two-time champs Fred Hunt and Dave Philpott hailed from Tracy, Tim Gillit from Lathrop. Eric Schmidt came down from Roseville to win the 2003 title.
But it's the area immediately south of Stockton that has produced the most successful drivers at Stockton 99 Speedway.
Scan the list of champions for a primer on the biggest players in the track's legacy. In 36 of the 57 years trophies were awarded in the feature division, the champions came from Modesto, Riverbank, Ceres, Manteca, Ripon and Turlock.
Until Pete Anderson Jr. did it last season, no Stockton driver had won a Late Model title at the hometown track.
The names boom like giant footsteps: Belletto. Boyd. McCoy. Reed. Strmiska. Baldwin. Beebe. McGovney. Gaalswyk.
Then there are those major players who aren't as highly touted but have been important contributors: David, Dorrity, Goularte, Reich and many others.
With the imminent closing of Stockton 99 Speedway, a huge part of the local racing tradition will end.
"That's where we spent a lot of our summers," two-time Late Model champ Steve Belletto of Modesto said. "Even the guys who don't go out there anymore still like to know it's there. It's not good that it's going away."
Belletto and father Harry account for five championships. Ken Boyd of Ceres and Dan Reed of Riverbank are the only drivers with five championships at Stockton 99.
Johnny Brazil of Manteca won four Hardtop crowns and holds several track records, including the fastest lap around the quarter-mile paved oval — 11.899 seconds in a Super Modified in 1985. He also has the most career main-event victories — a fitting 99 — in four divisions.
Track co-owner Ken Clapp named a handful of drivers from the area as some of the track's all-time greats. The first name on his list: Ernie Irvan, who worked in Modesto and lived for a short time in Ceres and Manteca.
NASCAR lists Irvan's hometown as Modesto, the city with which people still associate the 1991 Daytona 500 winner.
"There have always been a lot of race car shops in Modesto," Clapp said. "When you have a lot of shops, you're going to have a lot of good drivers."
The opening of Stockton 99 in 1947 gave local drivers another racing option. Modesto 99 was a quarter-mile dirt track that was popular with midget drivers. It sat at the southwest corner of Highway 99 and Hatch Road.
Stockton's quarter-mile was paved in time for the 1948 season. The two co-existed until Modesto 99 was sold following the 1957 season. It made sense for Modesto drivers to head north.
"More drivers came from Modesto than Stockton for so many years," said three-time Modified Hardtop champ Jack McCoy of Modesto. McCoy went on to star in the Winston West Series, where he holds the career record for victories with 54.
The first Stockton 99 champion from Modesto was Ed Andreetta, who claimed the rookie of the year title in 1956 at the age of 35. He won the feature division Hardtops championship in 1957.
Andreetta only raced four years and won titles at Stockton and Merced. Seven of his 25 career wins were at Stockton 99.
Andreetta won the title driving for Modesto car builder Harry Goularte, who let Andreetta get behind the wheel when his regular driver, Joe Soares, entered the Army.
"My first race I had the fifth-quickest time," Andreetta said. "In Merced, they'd tear me down every race. Everyone else was cheating, and they still couldn't catch me."
At 63 years old, Harry Belletto of Modesto has been racing at Stockton 99 more than half his life. Once known as "Hard Luck Harry" for finishing second in so many events and points races, he finally won a Late Model Sportsman title in 1995.
Belletto won his second championship in 1997 and a third in 2002. He holds the track record for Late Model victories with 89 and is tied for second with Reed with 90 total main-event wins. Boyd has 72 total wins.
Belletto was early in his career at 99, in the mid-70s, when Reed was in the middle of his championship stretch. Belletto said like many drivers, he tried to learn from the examples set by Reed and Modesto's Jerry Weaver.
"They were just far superior than anybody else," Belletto said. "Everybody tried to race to beat those two, and of course some others. But those two were probably the innovators for going fast."
Ivan Baldwin was a Modesto resident when he won the Late Model Sportsman title in 1984. Baldwin went on to build cars for Winston Cup stars like Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt in North Carolina before his death in 1996.
Weaver dominated the Early Model division with 26 victories in a two-year span, claiming the 1968 and '69 championships.
Family legacies are prominently intertwined with that of Stockton 99. Notable are Modesto's Bellettos, Davids, Dorritys and Gottulas, Manteca's Strmiskas, Ripon's Gaalswyks, Riverbank's Reeds and Escalon's Holmeses.
Harry Belletto said every parent wants to see their kids do well. Watching sons Steve and Jeff win is the next-best thing to winning himself.
"For me, I know more than the next person about it," Belletto said. "I know what they're feeling. You'd like to say that they're a chip off the old block."
Steve Belletto won the 2000 and '01 Late Model Sportsman titles at Stockton 99 before moving up to success in the NASCAR Southwest Series.
Dave Reed won the Street Stock championship in 1990, 10 years after his father Dan's last title. Henk Gaalswyk won the Hobby Stock title in 1983 and helped his son 16 years later when John won the Late Model Sportsman championship.
"When I won the championship, I think that was special for my dad, definitely," John Gaalswyk said.
Bee staff writer Kelly Jones can be reached at 578-2300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.