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99 Speedway 1946
(before completion)


Billy Vukovich at Stockton 99 Speedway in 1947.

Stockton 99 Speedway, Early Race. Note the goal posts in the infield, St. Mary's High School played football there!!

Sunset Drive

Stockton 99 says goodbye with final races on Saturday

photo adam golub/the bee

Last Updated: September 17, 2006, 06:34:05 AM PDT

STOCKTON It felt like a vintage night at Stockton 99 Speedway with a standing-room-only crowd, enough


 drivers to require qualifying races and quality competition the quarter-mile track became known for.

The Central Valley sent the 60-year-old track out with a bang Saturday, the last night of the short track's storied history. Close to 6,000 people packed the stands, reminiscent of crowds that at one time turned out on a weekly basis but hadn't been seen in more than a decade, even for other major events.

"This used to be a weekly thing," Modesto driver Harry Belletto said. "Fourth of July races and open shows from 1990 and back. Every week was a big deal."

Belletto, a three-time champ at 99, said he felt more emotional than he expected greeting people and preparing for one last race. After 30 years of racing, he didn't think one more night would mean much more than any other. But he did have a "this is it" moment that felt odd.

Longtime official Ron Roach said coming to Stockton 99 every week was something people just had to be a part of. Sitting under the lights with a cold beer and the roar of engines filling the senses was a must for thousands over the years.

"This is home to a lot of people," Roach said. "I imagine there will be a lot of people who just come sit in the parking lot just to look. I've seen 'em and I think they will still drive through just to reminisce."

There was a packed race card schedule for the overflowing crowd with two 100-lappers, fireworks and a school bus destruction derby among the festivities. The schedule wasn't half over at press time with the StockCar Racing League Wild West Shootout, led by two-time track champ Steve Belletto in the 50th lap, yet to see the checkered flag.

Chad Holman only needed to start the American Limited Stock Car main to win the championship. But the Stockton driver won the 30-lapper and enjoyed a lengthy celebration at the end of the front straightaway near Turn 1.

That's where he ended up after burning a series of donuts. He saluted the fans from the hood of his car and was pulled down by his father Dave, who ran from the pits for a hug. The Holmans were sprayed with bottles of champagne by the pit crew as family and friends passed out championship hats.

"This is something I've dreamed of for so long and it's just amazing," Holman said. "To win the final race at this track and to finally win the title is just awesome."

Saturday was a night when no one seemed to mind if the race action went long.

People seemed to want to savor every minute possible. There were past champions in attendance, from Modesto's Ed Andreetta and Jim Reich to Manteca's Ron Strmiska Sr. and Ripon's Henk Gaalswyk.

Whitey Rich is considered a track dignitary, a driver for 10 years before he and wife Ann ran the facility for 31 years. Their son Dean was a celebrated statistician. They made the trip from their home in Oregon to greet old friends and soak up the track atmosphere one more time.

"We thought we'd really done something," Rich said. "We're proud of what we'd done. We had to turn away crowds when I left here (16 years ago)."

Rich said Stockton 99 was one of the first short tracks in California to run a full stock car program. He said the owners doubted he could make it work, but Rich said he had no doubt the drivers would be a major attraction.

"Those kids knew no fear," Rich said. "They went into the corners three and four wide. Nobody ever told 'em they couldn't do that. We had some good competition then."