This weekend’s SRL Winter Showdown Open at the state-of-the-art Kern County Raceway Park may seem like a new idea on its surface. It is, without question, a bold gamble by the SRL management team. And one, based off the initial entry list and fan interest, that has a good chance of succeeding. But the Collins family and Brian Olsen have been in the short track game for a long time, promoters of the old Mesa Marin Raceway that Kern County has de facto replaced. Students of the business, they know the Winter Showdown is not just a great idea for 2015. It’s a call back to the 1970s and 1980s, the days when the West Coast late model scene put on some of the biggest shows in short track racing.
Today, the balance of Super Late Model competition resides in the Southeast and Midwest. Not only are most of the series that compete in SLM-style cars based in those regions, but most of the big money races reside there. No race is bigger than the Snowball Derby though races like Oktoberfest, Winchester 400, Florida Governor’s Cup, All American 400 and others give it a run for its figurative and literal money. And for most of today’s fans, it’s always been like this.
But if one goes back two generations, that Late Model scene changes dramatically. Thirty to forty years ago, the West Coast region was the hot spot for drivers to race. From late September to early November, a series of big-money “open competition” shows would take place every weekend up and down the region. Promoters would consult each other so that they did not have any scheduling conflicts and the result was a nice logistical roadmap for drivers and teams. Races would run pretty much in order running from north and eastern parts of the region to the south and western parts.
The result of this coordination and consideration was spectacular. Open competition rules under the NASCAR Grand American umbrella would often attract up to 100 cars to attempt to qualify for the big season-ending races, pitting regional legends like Mike Chase, Don Harper, Jim Thirkettle, and Ivan Baldwin up against Midwestern heroes like Mike Eddy, Larry Detjens, Mark Martin, Dick Trickle, and Tom Reffner. Both groups of drivers split the wins 50-50, elevating the West Coast regulars into the national spotlight while also encouraging the Midwestern drivers that they could come west and expect to compete to win.
Teaming up with 51’s Third Turn, take a ride through the 1979 autumn racing season and see what race fans had to look forward to.
September 29, 1979: Don Harper started an Indian Summer hot streak by claiming the Silver State Classic at Tahoe-Carson Speedway (NV), the unofficial start to the big-money shows to close out the year. The sixty lap show payed him a cool $5,000 to win. Local track champs Harold Long and Graham Ely followed Harper across the line. Harper also set a blazing fast new track record during the event, setting a 13.647 second lap in qualifying.
October 7, 1979: California’s Jim Thirkettle fought back from a mid-race spin to pass Wisconsin’s Dave Watson with just five laps to go and win the Budweiser 200 at Colorado Springs International Raceway (CO) in front of 8,000 fans. Rising star Rick Carelli finished third. The Colorado Springs 200 would also be won by Tom Reffner in 1977 & 1978 with Larry Detjens going on to win the event in 1980 and local driver Mike Bonicelli taking it in 1981. Elsewhere, Harper won $4,000 of the $20,000 purse in the Stockton Invitational. Frank Swords finished second with Tim Williamson third. It was the last great run of Williamson’s career – the 1979 NASCAR Winston West Series rookie of the year and points runner-up would be killed in a practice crash at Riverside in just three months time. Other notable drivers who would win the Stockton event during its history were Joe Ruttman, eventual NASCAR Northwest multi-time champ Ron Eaton, and 5-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series champ and Hall of Fame nominee Larry Phillips.
October 13, 1979: Watson gets his revenge with a dominant effort in the 5th annual “Saugus 330” at Saugus Speedway (CA), featuring a 220 lap A-Main. Watson led every single circuit to go on top of his $5,000 winners check. Sixty drivers turn out to compete in the race with NASCAR Winston West champs Jim Robinson and Jimmy Insolo finishing 2nd and 3rd respectively and ASA star Mike Miller finishing 4th. Insolo, Thirkettle, and Ron Hornaday Jr would all win the event in other years.
October 14, 1979: Harper won a major open comp event for the third straight weekend as he outpaced Eaton and Chase to win the Western 150 at Shasta Speedway (CA). Detjens finished behind the trio in 4th. He would go on to win in 1980 while other Ruttman, Chase, former Winston West champ Bill Schmitt, and NorCal great Jimmy Walker would also add their name to the winner’s list during the era.
October 20, 1979: Detjens scooted to the lead on lap 4 and never looked back as he won $9,500 in the 80-entry strong Holley Carburetors 200 at Mesa Marin Raceway (CA). Northwest regular Eaton kept travelling down the California coast and finished second with Miller, Watson, Roy Jackson, and Canadian and former Oxford 250 winner Don Biederman rounding out the top-six. The Mesa Marin Fall Open wound up being the longest last of all the Open Comp races, spanning to 2005 as a NASCAR Southwest Series event when the track closed. Other winners during the late 70s and early 80s included Mike Chase, Thirkettle, Miller, and Phillips.
October 28, 1979: 113 drivers made the trek to Craig Road Speedway (NV) for the 11th annual Silver Nugget 150. Don Harper continued a late autumn hot streak with his $9,000 wire-to-wire win. His win was certainly far from uncontested with defending event champ Mike Miller making a late charge and pulling to Harper’s outside before losing it in the marbles and falling back to fifth. Dave Waton’s sixth place finish garnered him an extra check for being the champion of the Western States Open Competition mini-series, a points fund rewarding those who made it to the Colorado Springs, Saugus, Mesa Marin, and Las Vegas races. A handful of drivers you may have heard of failed to qualify for the 1979 running – Don Biederman, Joe Ruttman, and Dick Trickle. This race in 1980 also became the site of Mark Martin’s furthest foray west. Other notable winners during Craig Road open shows were Detjens, Phillips, local legend Oren Prosser, and former Indy 500 racer Roger Mears.
November 17, 1979: The Warner Hodgdon 200 at Ontario Motor Speedway (CA) didn’t get to go its scheduled 80 laps due to rain, but fans still saw a spectacular Late Model field assembled. Thirkettle took his second major win of the autumn holding off Watson and Ron Esau. Legendary Bobby Allison finished 4th with brother Donnie also fielding a car and taking home 6th.
It’s hard to say what changed for the region, but most of the open comp shows that had been so popular at the turn of the decade were gone by the mid-1980s. It was likely a litany of factors. The rise of the American Speed Association in the Midwest meant increased big-money autumn shows like the Winchester 400, All American, and World Cup kept the ASA regulars closer to home during October. Southern events also increased in popularity thanks to Bob Harmon and his ALL PRO Series. NASCAR began more stringent rules regulation of their Grand American Stock Car class in 1980, cutting down on the ability for drivers outside of the region to cheaply make their cars legal to race in the big-money races. And lastly, promoters in the region simply didn’t work together as closely to help the logistics of ‘open season’ out. Some moved their races, like Craig Road’s Silver Nugget and All-American’s Rose Classic to the spring, while others scheduled their season-enders on top of each other.
Saturday’s SRL Winter Showdown Open may thus be the biggest race in the West in about 30 years. It’s tough to expect just one event to return an entire region to its previous glory. But with the right people at the helm and strong fan support, those who attend this weekend’s race may be able to see the start of something big. Whoever raises the winner’s trophy and the $25,000 check will not only claim a career-defining victory, but continue the legacy of short track racing’s biggest stars before them.
— Story by Tim Quievryn, 51’s Third Turn // @thethirdturn
— Photo Credit: Midwest Short Track Racing Memories Facebook group