SOME MEMORIES OF SANTA MARIA
April 15, 2016
By Ken Wagner
Wags Wanderings 3
It is hard to describe the feelings I’ve always had the first time I went to a race track as the burn of expectation came over me on the way to any track. And after doing that for probably over 50 dirt tracks in my long list, it always comes out in intense anticipation and that feeling never failed me. Santa Maria is one of the most unique tracks when I think back to the many trips there with baited breath, but in no way was it just another track. When it gets down to it, on the way to any race track I always had the feeling that I really needed to be there as quick as possible!
I was really ready to go for my visit at Santa Maria, especially after also a first time visit to Ventura for a Friday night TQ midget show with go carts on the bill. I had heard of the small beach located oval, The raciest little track by the sea, and had met one of the T Q drivers in the grandstands at Ascot which led me to go there. They didn’t run sprint cars so it never occurred to me to check it out. After watching him (I forgot his name Jack something) race and almost winning, I was sure glad we went, it was a fun experience. We spent the night in the parking lot after a lot of bench racing and in the morning headed up the coast to Santa Maria for another first visit, too! As we pulled into the parking lot early in the afternoon, we were pointed to a parking spot about midway outside the back stretch and backed up to the fence. Pulling into the place, the view of the track, the black and white checkerboard grandstands, the big trees and the quiet peaceful scene was already special to me. It looked like everything was set into a steep hill and looked good.
The ticket booth was at the bottom of the hill that had a paved “road” up to the track walkway behind the grandstands and on down in to the pits on the other side. In today’s world, I would have taken the offered ride in a small people mover that some of the old folks took advantage of. Back then I was in my 30’s, so it was easy walkin’ for me and my bride and we shuffled up the hill. When you get to the top of the walkway, you began seeing the track off to the right and it was smaller than most tracks I had been to, except Ventura’s visit the night before. I was looking straight down the front stretch towards turn four and it was pretty neat and I couldn’t wait to see the CRA on it that night.
The grandstand was situated in front of the small building that housed the snack bar, the beer booth and the stand alone T-shirt booth, with the announcer’s perch above the snack bar. On both sides of the grandstand was a slanted area below the walkway down to the crash fence surrounding the track and one above the walkway that went to the top of the property where it flattened off behind the many trees that were on the hillside. So standing on the walkway looking up away from the track, you could see a 10 foot tall wall of dirt that had to be negotiated to get up there for seating. For years it was not uncommon for some of the more inebriated patrons to fall down the hill and laugh! We quickly discovered that you could bring the short legged beach chairs to sit in and dig a small trench to put the bottom bar in it so you wouldn’t slide down the hill. This way the fans had their own private areas and could stretch out for more comfort than in the hard wooden grandstand seating. We went and got our own chairs and tried it in the low area the first time there and on later trips moved up to the preferred higher “trenches” that allowed you a view that was more than spectacular!
From up there, you could see it all! Watching the sprinters coming in the gate and unloading inside the oval pit area was a sight, as was checking out the fans as they parked, then came up the ramp to get to their seats. You could see a view of the parking lot behind the back stretch fence and of course, the entrance activity of the road from the freeway. Highway 101 was off to the left of the track slightly elevated and you could scope out the traffic as it roared by both ways. The haulers that came from the North stood out as they went to the off ramp down the road a short ways and returned on the road to the track. You would always note the haulers that missed the turnoff coming from the South as they would go to the next off ramp, turn around and come back by before heading into the track.
There wasn’t much you missed as it was all laid out before you to take in, especially if you came early to see the racers pull in and unload then take the trailers back out to park outside the 4th turn. It was years later that the pits were moved to the outside of turn four with only stockers inside the oval. It was so mesmerizing, I relished every trip there to see that scene and be part of it. The racing was always very competitive, even the WOO in those days as I saw a few of their races before I realized non-wing was my favorite and settled into my CRA preferred choice. In the 90’s, I think, they eliminated the beach chair areas, both up above and down below. They poured concrete down along the walkway at both ends of the grandstands and sold the “chair” spaces for a couple of bucks. I met a lot of fans up on the preferred high seats including Grove Hill and Dean Mills, both videographers of note. Grove is semi-retired doing the Trophy Cup only, while Dean is still traveling the racing road around the country taping USAC the most.
I remember Don Gilchrist was the CRA publicist back in the day and he always announced at Santa Maria. He knew the cars and drivers, making it particularly informative in my early days watching CRA, while I was still getting to know all of the racers. My first race there had to be in 1981, 10 years or so before Wagtimes ever got started, so I have only brain memory of that first visit, but you never forget. Bubby Jones won that race and I remember it was a battle between him and $human. Besides the racing that was so exciting that night, my most remembered part of that event was after the races were over and we headed out to the Wagsmobile. I thought someone had thrown black paint on the rig. As I got closer, I noticed it was covered with what looked like slugs, those slimy creatures found in the woods. But, nooooooo, pulling one off, I found out it was mud as the racing caused the cars to throw mud on my rig over the fence! It was stuck pretty good with some areas fully covered and that included the top. I couldn’t clean it there so we took off and camped overnight somewhere on the way home. In the morning, most of it had dried and fell off, but the smudges still had to be power washed off. Needless to say, I never let them park me there again!
I look back and can still remember many races there and the campouts that we shared with a lot of others. One time at a WOO show, the crowd was sooooo big, they had us park on a just harvested gourd field to the left of the regular parking as you pull into the track. I had learned all about the feared word “ANTS” years before this particular race, so I knew to treat my tires and anything hanging down on the ground with a cleansing agent ( BAB-O in those days), and that today is known as Comet cleaner. It is a white powder that is used to clean bathroom sinks and tubs. Anyway, I had already done my duty when a bigger, fancier and plusher motorhome rolled in and parked near us. Four guys rolled out and set up camp and started grilling steaks and drinking beer. We chatted and I told them about my very important little trick and offered to loan them some BAB-O, but alas, they said they didn’t need it. After the races, we were just settling down with a few friends having a little toddy and talking about the racing that night when they came out of the pits and opened the door to their rig……………………
A lot of cursing was heard immediately as they were really on fire expressing themselves loudly, so much I had to go check on them. I leaned in to ask if they needed help, but could see right away, it was too late. A proverbial city of ants totally covered everything inside, including the floor, ceiling, walls, cabinets and apparently the bedrooms too! I have never seen anything like it before. They told me instead of cleaning up after the big steak dinner and taking out the trash, they just left it all setting out and went on to watch the races, with plans for cleanup later. I don’t remember how long they cursed and cleaned, but it was well after we went to bed, it was so awful. They sent someone for some ant spray and if memory serves me right, they finally took off to a car wash to finish the job. I guess they didn’t believe me?
I met Jim and Holly Hedblom in the Santa Maria parking lot years ago when they had pulled in and parked next to us. Jim came over to ask if we had any Charcoal starter as they had forgotten to get some and wanted to cook out. They were from Burlington, WA. and had made the trip down South in their pickup with a camper on it to watch the races. We got along well, so much so that he invited us to come up to Skagit for the Dirt Cup in June. Jim and a friend of his named Evert built wings for sprint cars in their spare time, so they were involved in racing. His real job was working for the state highway department and I don’t remember what he did.
When we left that race, we kept in touch enough that the next year when he invited us again, I said yes, but Terry couldn’t go due to our kids and her work? I flew up to Seattle on Wednesday before the three day Dirt Cup event and he picked me up at the airport, which was an hour drive to his house, and we started north. He and Holly had two kids and I would be stealing one of their beds for my 4 day stay.
After settling in, Jim and I went off to a local racers house, Jerry Edson one of the local hot dogs, where I met Don Fenton, the motor man, and we benched race a bit. Don had gone to school at one of the big sprint car engine builders, Gaerte, in Indiana and was pretty good at his job. Then we went over to meet his parents, Dorothy and Troy and I became friends with the family to this day, even though his parents are sadly gone. For years we spent a lot of time together at Knoxville, even though the boys played golf each day, Dorothy hung with Agnes Johnston, a longtime friend who kept her trailer at the track during racing season, and always feed her crowd on Saturday each year.
The next day we went to the track and it was even farther North up the road going towards the Canadian border. When you got off the interstate and went east toward the track, you were in a beautiful forest until, Wala, a big parking lot and a racetrack appeared. I couldn’t really see the track from the parking lot, but it was campout city as the fans tents and RV’s plus many racers haulers filled up a lot of the big lot. So, as soon as we were inside, I saw it was a smaller3/10 mile oval that looked like fun! In those days, there were a lot of sprint cars going to the Dirt Cup, at least 80 or so that year. There were some great drivers amongst them and one from Canada, who shall remain nameless, that was shall we say a few years behind in equipment and ability. He was a fan favorite and had come for years.
There were a few California drivers up from the California badlands, mostly Northern Cal guys because it was a wing event, and the locals were out to beat them. It took years, 1992 to be exact, before they finally did beat the southern invaders, but the racing was really good. The infield held all the cars and so the show was in front of you. I remember getting hooked on the donuts and ice cream from the snack bar, but when the racing started, my eyes were glued to the track. That first of probably 8 or 10 trips up there was an eye opener. The cushion was like no other I had ever seen as it wasn’t a heavy buildup to bang against like some, but a more flat short version that you had to be careful running against, or you would find the wall you’re next stop. They had some farmer tool that would go cut it up when they wanted to adjust it, then iron it back in. Before the races, they had all the drivers come out of the pits and line up for introductions. Nice and then the two National Anthems were played.
After the first night of great racing I discovered everyone liked standing around a camp fire and having a few toddy’s. It was totally unlike CRA events as fans and racers gathered to bench race until it was time to hit the sack. My biggest memory of that night hit me like a ton of bricks, almost literally. I normally don’t drink at the races, unless I celebrate with the winner afterwards, but I was getting thirsty. I asked Jim’s partner Evert where I could get a drink of water. I think he misunderstood my request, or not, and he went and got a little jar of white liquid for me to drink. Remember I was thirsty and the snack bars were closed and I saw most people drinking beer around me. Soooooo, I took the jar and tipped it up and took a good swig, but immediately knew I had been had. Man, it was my first taste of Moonshine and I am lucky I didn’t spit it out or collapse. Actually it was already down my throat before I knew it, but boy that memory was a strong one I’ll never forget. I was over being thirsty, but still ready for a coke!
I learned a lot that weekend as Jim did some wing business, Don did some motor work and I got to know a few racers that were fun. I made a lot of friends that trip; many who I still see along the way. Iwill never forget how Jim and Holly took care of me like I was their brother for 4 days. I remember the driver who had his hauler pulled by a logging truck (?) and he was pretty good. He was one of many who offered me a drink after my Evert episode, and I learned to politely abstain. Great times were had and I still see Jim and Don at races in Northern California almost every year.
There were many other great memories in Santa Maria, but one stands out because we had a total power outage at a CRA race, something that I had never seen before. It was a great day that Aug 10 of 1996 when we had done our usual wandering around the little town and finally headed to the track. We got settled into the grandstands to visit and did the usual things for back then. I collected Wagsbucks and talked with every early bird and was looking forward to another great night of racing. Unfortunately at 3:42 PM, power went out for 8 West coast states and there wasn’t a glow at Santa Maria. As the afternoon wore on with our waiting for the power to come on, it started to look grim. They still ran qualifying and used the auxiliary power to announce the times. They said 7:30 would be the drop dead time and when that time hit, we saw the rigs coming in to load up the cars, so we knew we were done. There was no power at our motel when we got back there, but there were some lights on Broadway Ave and we found a little Mexican restaurant open with lights and we ate with 11 other Wagtimers. The motel was lit up when we returned and the next morning on the way home, Terry dropped me off at LAX for my flight to Knoxville and the annual Knoxville Nationals.
The thing I forgot to mention was that I wrote a full madeup race report for Wagtimes that had qualifying, heats and a feature with plenty of action and a win by an inch for Verne “Shrimpmaster” Sweeney over $human and Griffin. When Bruce Bromme Jr read it, he called and complained because his car had flat tires and other maladies that kept him from winning, and he was serious, NOT! Very few noticed it was a fabrication, but those that realized the fake race, said they enjoyed the story! I think I wrote at least one more fake race later on in Wagtimes, but don’t remember the details.
One of the most shocking times at Santa Maria was when a car flipped coming around turn 4 and suddenly the driver came out of the cage and hit the ground as the car rolled over on him and kept on flipping. It took the air out of everyone as he just laid there a bit and then he got up unhurt. Egads, that was a real heart stopper! We learned two things about that experience: 1) the newly designed seat belts were something different and apparently the mount location failed. As far as I know, the idea was scrapped. 2) The driver never drove a sprint car again!!! I have forgotten his name, but he was known to the crowd.
An interesting fact in CRA lore is that there are a few one time only winners at Santa Maria than most tracks we ran at. The narrow groove there meant if you could get the lead and run the strong groove of the night, no one could pass you. It worked a lot over the years and only a mistake could beat you. The list of drivers that only won at Santa Maria in their careers include John Andretti, Kim Craft, Bobby George, Ed Organ and Bill Von Helmolt, all retired now! I think I was there for all but Ed Organ’s victory. Cody Williams has his only win there, but I’m sure there are more to come for him. I know Ascot had 16 one time winners, but they had way more CRA events.
There are a lot of places to eat in and around Santa Maria, including the many streetside cookers that are around town serving up great barbeque. North toward San Luis Obispo is a place called McClintock’s that everyone loves. Great food and deserts with a water pouring technique you don’t see just anywhere. The waiters stand on a chair and fill your water glass up. Sometimes the newbies make a little splash, but fun to watch them learning! The usual lunch place for us, even today, is Jocko’s a restaurant in a little town called Nipomo just 10 minutes north of the track. Their double burger defies getting it in your mouth; it is so big, but worth it. The have great steaks and pork chops, too. It used to be an after race place for the racers and fans, but they don’t stay open late enough anymore and Chili’s or, ugh, Denny’s are all that’s close by. Another popular place was Jack’s, where you could get big pork tenderloin, or the largest French toast or a host of other goodies that made it worthwhile. We used to take a big crowd there for breakfast and had fun until one time after we had eaten; the always friendly manager came outside where we were continuing to visit with many other diners, and told us very sternly to move along as we might keep customers from stopping in. Yep, that was the last time we went there and started going to the Texas Roadhouse there for future lunches when there was too little time for a Jocko’s visit. There was also a Jocko’s Jr right at the highway 101 on ramp in Nipomo, but it was a burger only place and fast food.
There were some really exciting close finishes at the track but none closer or more exciting than the Danny Sheridan and Mike Spencer duel on August 11, 2012. It turned out to be Danny’s last of 7 CRA victories in the Kittle Motorsports little blue bugger # 18 as Danny was winding down his driving to spend more time with his son and pregnant wife. On that day Spencer was the fast timer in the little red sucker with Danny 4th. The feature started off with Danny coming from the 8th starting spot with Mike behind him. Danny took the lead from Jace Vander Weerd on lap 9 and looked like he was fast and going to run away with this one. BUT, it wasn’t that long until he had Mike on his tail. They were battling so close until Mike took the lead on lap 23, but Danny didn’t give up. The last seven laps were spent swapping the lead every lap with the Local crowd standing and cheering their local driver on, yet Mike had Danny covered at the start finish line every lap! On the last lap Danny took the lead just past the flagman and had a small lead around turn two and down the backstretch. Then they came around turn four side by side with Mike on the bottom barely with the lead heading to the finish. Somehow Danny was able to roll around the top and inch by at the checkers for the most exciting race I ever saw there. You couldn’t tell who won from my vantage point, but Showtime was the call and the crowd went even wilder. It was his only CRA win at Santa Maria to go along with one Manzanita and 5 Perris wins.
This race was even more exciting to me personally because I had been traveling with the team a few years prior to that race, so I was one of them. So I felt it was my win, too. Danny and the crew were blown away with sheer joy and when he returned to the rig where me and many others were waiting to cheer him on, his $2500 check was red with white polka dots!!! The promoter was Chris Kearns and this date was supposed to be a Wags event, but I didn’t raise enough money, so I called it off. That check is in my garage on the wall, a cherished memory of those days with Danny and the Kittle team. Someday I will find the tape of that race for my joy, too! OH I did collect $250 or so and gave that to Brody Roa, alonf with our first handle of Crown Royal whiskey for his troubles that night.
Kim Craft had an up and down career in his red # 72 Kenzo Okubo backed sprint car. He had a serious crash that left him in the hospital for 3 months and when he got out, he wasn’t ready to drive yet. His wife really discouraged it, but Kim worked hard to get healthy and passed the test to race again. I had spent more than a few weekday nights at his place in Hacienda Heights watching him and Kenzo and a couple of others work on the car. Watching was always fun. I even took a trip with the team to Manzanita for a wing show he wanted to drive in and became a limited mud scraper.
Anyway on June 29, 1991 Mrs Wags and I headed to Santa Maria for what turned out to be a real fun race and the second closest finish ever there for me. Kenzo had given me a message for Terry from Kim that said today he was going to win! He was on the pole so staying there for 30 laps was going to be a chore. I wasn’t a doubting Thomas, but was ready to see what happened. Gary W Howard was lined up next to him and the track was going to be tough with no low groove and a very slick surface. Kim took the lead on the start and was rolling along with a big lead until he hit the wall a glancing blow on lap 13. He began slowing with a little handling problem and backed up to Howard who began to press him from there on. Behind them there was little passing on the one groove single file track that night as Lealand McSpadden and Cary Faas where far enough back, and with lapped traffic in there, that they thought they were going for the win.
Anyway Kim held on with a shaky front end from his wall bump and Gary pressed him hard. Coming around turn 4 on the last lap Gary was on the bottom actually pulling ahead of Kim, but he left enough room for Kim to get by and that’s what happened. Kim was scraping the wall as he inched by to nose out Gary by a foot or so and got his only CRA win of his career. Finishing in a tie for third was Lealand and Cary (never seen that before?) as they gave it their all, but as I mentioned before, they both thought they won. There were no complaints from either one since it wasn’t for the win. That was an exciting night and in the winners circle Kim’s crew said they didn’t know what to do!
That’s enough for now as I will try to continue the Santa Maria theme next time, because the memories are great from there.
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