" THE SPEC SPRINT EXPLOSION "
by Norm Bogan
(In the June 2009 issue of Flat Out Magazine)
As California Sprint car racing costs escalated, a number of longtime competitors considered calling it quits. Sprint Car 410 cubic inch or 360 cubic inch aluminum block engines ranged in price from $25,000 to $40,000, whether installed in winged or non-winged racecars. The ultimate lightweight chassis with an engine weighed in at around 1100 pounds. Cars sporting hollow bars, drilled or machined holes in items like brake rotors, light weight wheels, machined motor plates and a multitude of products created from exotic metals soon appeared on the scene. Any excess metal in the engine blocks is machined away to gain a weight advantage, making the parts from stronger materials, but much more expensive.
At the local tracks, competitors began to miss an event or two, because they just couldn’t justify over-extending their racing budgets to continue to buy and replace expensive light weight components. Over the years, longtime racers had to deal with the escalating cost of replacement parts. These are not the World of Outlaws traveling band that has sponsorships to offset most of their expenses. The affected racers are the Saturday night, local venue guys, that race for love of the sport, not for fame and fortune. The total purse for this group may be close to what a fifth place WOO finish would pay.
In August of 1998, Bay area racer, Don O’Keefe Jr. and Antioch Speedway track announcer, Don Martin sat down with the blessing of Antioch Promoter, John Soares to lay out a new direction for local sprint car racing. The focus was to provide rules allowing racers to compete on a more equal footing within their budget at their local track.
The new creation would be called Wingless SPEC Sprint racers. SPEC is an acronym for Sprint Parts/Economy Class. The first rule, a car could not weigh less than 1800 pounds, including the driver. This made light weight components unnecessary and allowed an older chassis to be compatible and competitive. Second, the racecars would be fitted with a cast iron engine block and heads, with fuel fed through a 500 c.f.m. 2 barrel carburetor, less costly than injection systems and sporting a self starter, eliminating the need for a fleet of push trucks.
The self starter (most cars bump start with the starter), also limited the compression ratio, which if too high, the car will have a hard time starting or would tend to tear the starter out of the block. Finally, tires were pretty much open to what was available, but the right rear at that time was usually a McCreary MC3, that racers acquired as “takeoffs” from some of the 410 winged teams.
Suddenly, the costs were reduced and the heavy metal stowed in the back of the shop became more attractive. Out came the solid bars and steel radius rods, drag links and wheels, because they didn’t need the lightweight stuff to be competitive. The components were more durable and attrition was lessened. Competitors from other classes such as the stock car ranks looked at SPEC sprints as a chance to go open wheel racing as many could use their current cast iron power plants and drop them into available used sprint car rollers.
Now, if you took a Wingless SPEC Sprint and entered it against the lightweight 700-900 horsepower engines in the premier classes, your chances would be slim, but against similar configured cars, you have parity. Some fans may bemoan that these cars don’t go fast enough, but if you don’t have a stopwatch, you can’t tell how fast they are going. With a field of say, twenty cars meeting these specs, you will be treated to a lot of excitingly close, side-by-side racing and most fans will not care “how fast they are”!
For the first race in 1999, Antioch fielded twelve cars with the high car count of nineteen for the year. There were a total of thirty-four drivers competing, producing nine different Main Event winners and nineteen different Heat Race winners. The Charter Member Drivers, who believed in this concept and stuck it out to make it work were; Andy Archer, Travis Berryhill, Richard Brophy IV, Rich Butler, Dan Gonderman, Jim Janssen, Eric Mentch, Don O’Keefe Jr., Rich Panfili, Phil Pedlar, Jim Perry Jr., Jeff Pike, Keith Shipherd, Darryl Shirk, Larry Teixiera and Roy Winters.
Some the inception of the SPEC class, a few of the rules have been adjusted with a number of other tracks in the northern California area adopting the format. This has brought about the rebirth of sprint car racing at venues, which normally operated mostly stock car classes. Seven or eight tracks now run a class of compatible racecars, allowing drivers to travel to other venues, especially for that end of year special event and be able to pass the tech inspection.
As you stroll the pits, you will find a few greybeards, who as younger men, competed with CRA, NARC or USAC and still seek the thrill of taking it hard into turn one. On the other extreme are a bunch of fuzzy face kids, who are not yet licensed to drive on the state highways, but have no problem trying to show the old guys how slow they are going into the corners. While the seniors came from an era when you had to be twenty-one to race, these kids are just entering high school, with some sporting ten years of race experience, advancing through Go-Karts, Quarter-Midgets, Micro Midgets and Mini Sprints.
Some of the things that helped promote the SPEC class since the beginning at Antioch was Don Martin’s interviews and stories with the drivers, giving them notoriety with the fans. Don O’Keefe Jr. set up a website with updates to keep fresh information on the internet about this group of racers. Ron Rodda, whose “From the Grandstand” column appeared in Racing Wheels newspaper and on Hoseheads sprint car website, was an early supporter of the SPEC sprint effort. Lance Jennings of scrafan.com established a section on his site devoted to the Wingless SPEC Sprint racing at all the venues and with regular updates, so fans could track their particular hero even if he raced out of town. Debbie and Keith Shipherd have a site, specsprint.com that also keeps information current on the activities at the various venues. Debbie has supplied photos of the class for years to various sites to further promote these local racers.
Don’t expect to see many tractor-trailer, “stacker” haulers in the pits; most arrive with a pickup truck towing either an open trailer or conservative enclosed trailer, with minimal spare parts. You will also notice old time camaraderie amongst the competitors, often having some kind of pot-luck after the show to savor the enjoyment of the evening. If a driver suffers a malady during the race, his foes will probably arrive with parts and labor to get their buddy back on the track. While a victory is always celebrated, these racers gain satisfaction from just being able to compete.
This type of racing allows the more mature racers to extend their racing careers, while not feeling the pressure to perform in the top classes of sprint car racing. For the youngsters, it gives them an opportunity to gain valuable experience in a relaxed atmosphere, before being thrown into the caldron with the stars of the sport. An added benefit is that the older racers act as mentors to these young rookies, imparting wisdom that has been accumulated over the years.
A group that has been active for a number of years is the NCMA (Northern California Modified Association), trace their roots back to 1988, have adopted the SPEC sprint genre, but originally employed additional body work to simulate the popular Modified racers of several decades past. NCMA races on both pavement and dirt, while the other clubs concentrate on the dirt tracks.
Wingless SPEC Sprints began racing at Antioch in 1999. 2001 found the Orland track enlisting in the action and in 2002; Chowchilla added their name to the roster. The CSRA club out of Sacramento joined the fray in 2003, followed by Marysville in 2004. Watsonville, Chico and Placerville signed up in 2005 and Petaluma added the class in 2007.
Currently, six northern California tracks run regular Wingless SPEC Sprint schedules. Chico and Watsonville offer Friday night competition, while Petaluma, Marysville, Placerville and Antioch provide Saturday night venues. Year-end special events are planned at Petaluma on September 26, for the Wingless SPEC Sprint Shootout, then on to Silver Dollar Speedway on October 10 & 11 for the Chico SPEC Sprint Nationals and finishing on October 16 & 17 at Marysville Raceway Park for the Marysville SPEC Sprint Nationals.
Each fall, Petaluma Speedway hosts an event called “Run what you Brung” which is open to the Wingless 360 cars and the Wingless SPEC Sprints. Three years ago, veteran racer Darrell Hanestad claimed the victory in a carbureted Wingless SPEC Sprint over the more powerful injected 360 cars.
It has been my personal experience to have enjoyed some of the most competitive racing with this class of sprint racers. The star of the evening may be fourteen or in his mid-70s. A number of the younger drivers are on the fast track to immortality, racing at the highest levels of open-wheel discipline or aiming toward that valued NASCAR mount, while others are perfectly happy being able to race at a level that is comfortable for their family and racing budget.
FERNLEY — Big things are going to happen next spring when the oval track season begins. Fernley is now the home of the "King of the West" travelling 410 sprint car series.
Asked about the move, KWS series owner Dan Simpson said, "I think there is a lot of room for us to grow in Northern Nevada.
And my feeling is there are more motorheads here than there is in all of Central California."
A veteran racer himself, Simpson grew up in Spokane, Wash. where his father worked on a crew for a dirt track
racer. However, when it was time to start racing, he chose to be a road racer and mainly campaigned with the SCCA.
This all changed when his daughter Danielle was born. After that he spent the next two decades focused on his
business ventures and raising horses.
When his daughter turned 21 he started looking for something they could do together. One of his employees
suggested racing a Dwarf car but Simpson wanted something different.
Then he discovered Spec Sprint Cars, which are wingless cars that use an engine rule to keep them inexpensive.
To help his daughter get started, he built a practice track on his property.
It was an interesting and somewhat scary proposition watching his daughter race.
"Her skill levels weren't there and boom, she was out there just hammering it," he said. "When you take somebody
off the street that's never raced, it's scary and she's had some nasty wrecks."
Things changed when Simpson himself began to race a Spec Sprint Car.
"I said, 'aw,' this is it. I was 60 and it was just a lot of fun so I was hooked," he said.
After a year, he moved up to the winged 360 sprint cars but noticed there were many wrecks and much trashed
equipment in that series. Then he took a look at the Golden State Challenge series that uses 410 sprint cars and
noticed they didn't have so many wrecks.
He added that when they did, those wrecks were spectacular.
The 410 class uses winged sprint cars and are just like those used in the World of Outlaws. So both he and his
daughter began to race these cars.
And over the years they've both been involved in some of those spectacular crashes but so far neither have
Reflecting on the difference between racing on pavement and dirt Simpson said, "I honestly think dirt track racing
is the hardest form anywhere. The skill level is amazingly high as the track is changing every lap, the turns are
different, drivers are tearing it up in front of you and you're coming up on lap traffic in two laps.
"It's amazing to me, having driven some sophisticated road racing cars is that I thought we were pretty skillful
until I got on the dirt. I will never in the remaining years of my lifetime be able to conquer and develop all these
Any tire-to-tire contact in sprint car racing usually results in one or both cars begin launched. As a result the
drivers are strapped into a containment seat, their arms are tethered and their knees are positioned in brackets
to hold their legs in place.
In the sprint car world it's not of a matter if a person car is involved in a flip but when, so all the safety equipment
keeps the amount of injuries to a minimum.
After a few seasons with the 410s, Simpson noticed the series was going downhill and losing cars.
"About four and a half years ago, Brent Kaeding, Maury Williams and others came to me," he said. "We were
talking about how our car counts had gone down, promoters didn't want to pay any money and this was at the
beginning of the season so it was already looking bad."
Thinking about the problem, and after a second meeting, Simpson told them a committee wouldn't work. Then
he volunteered to be the turkey, or the guy everyone could scream at.
"As soon as I said that, we had the financial crash and the world went to hell in a hand basket. And no good
deed goes unpunished," he said.
At that time it was called the Golden State Challenge and soon become the Golden State King of the West Series,
which Simpson took over in 2008.
"I looked at it, could see what needed to be done but I wasn't sure we could accomplish it," he said. "I felt if I
invested some money we could make it fly. Then Goodyear came along, gave me sponsorship and we couldn't
have done it without them."
With Goodyear's departure from dirt racing this year, Simpson is very appreciative of their support. Now, he
looks forward to working with the Hoosier Racing Tires, as they will supply tires for dirt racing.
The first year was a struggle but now things have turned around. The average car count is 28 per race, up from
14 and while it can vary from 50 to 26 cars, Simpson said the perfect car count is 32.
This move to Northern Nevada came from an inquiry by the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino. They asked if it was
possible to put a dirt track for a race in one of their parking lots.
His answer was, "Yea, I could put it there but it's going to be a mess, it'll be awful, no body will be able to see
anything and you'll have dirt everywhere. And after we're done, you'll hate us."
Next suggestion was a stadium but that didn't fly so one of his staff began to inquire at towns in the region that
had tracks. The best response came from Fernley and then the tourism people got involved.
"I'm not thinking we're not going to turn the world upside down and we're going to have to try really hard. But I
think what we've got that Rich Cable (who built the track at Fernley.) didn't have is a form of racing that is super,
super exciting. It's the best fan based racing in the world," he said.
Simpson now has a 10-year lease on the track. He's also changing the name to the Reno, Tahoe, Fernley Speedway
and the when the usual car classes run, those events will be called the 95A series.
The longer name includes both Reno and Tahoe so when people query this area his series might also be listed.
With spring not that far away, there is a lot of work being done to the facility. The goal is to make the racing safer
and the fans more comfortable.
Replacing the track lights with LED units will make it brighter and better for video. Eventually, there might be large
screens and a LED billboard at the track's entrance.
The track itself is being reshaped to bring the inside edge lower to make it wider with more banking, improving the
fencing as well as moving the Outlaw Kart track more to the center of the infield.
"We're going to try and have the track like they've never seen it before and all the races can be followed on a smart
phone," he said. "But big plans are always superceded by the ones you don't get done."
The coming winter will determine just how much of those changes, which include extending the bleachers and adding
nice bathrooms, will be finished for the season opener.
As far as the KWS shows go, he said, "We're trying to get it all down to where we can get 'em in and out in two and a
half hours. And then if they want to stay and come over and visit with us in the trailers and get us to sign autographs
and do all that it's great."
He knows when families attend the races, their children are only good for about three hours. So before the racing
begins, he'll have drivers go up in the stands to meet their fans, both younger and older.
On the KWS race nights, the Outlaw Karts will be the filler event for intermissions and Simpson plans on using one
of the regular car classes to round out the program.
There will also be a T-shirt trailer that sells not only shirts but will offer model cars for the younger fans.
He'll also bring in some names to help the season get off to a good start.
"We're going to try and open up in May and I'm hoping to open the series up here," he said. "I think what will happen
is that we're going to bring fans good entertainment."
Helping the cause are two drivers from the World of Outlaws, Jac "The Wild Child" Haudenschild and two-time Outlaw
champion Jason Meyers. Others include the Kaedings and veteran Jimmy Sills.
"The names will help draw the people but what really will get 'em is after they see one race and see these guys
swapping the lead four and five times a lap," he said.
One thing in his favor is that the King of the West series has some devoted fans, some of which attend every race while
others will attend many of them. So larger crowds are anticipated for these events
While Simpson knows there are challenges ahead, he's optimistic about the future.
"The entertainment value I think is phenomenal but what we've got to do is get it introduced properly," he said.
So this coming spring Northern Nevada will see some really hard core, exciting and action packed racing, 410 sprint