" 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.