Hooniverse goes to a dirt-oval race at Calistoga Speedway

XKOW_Race15 We here at Hooniverse love our motorsport. When we’re not shouting the highest praises for Australian V8 Supercars or writing about the hooptie racing series the 24 Hours of LeMons, we’re letting you know what racing you can keep track of over the pending weekend. However, we have probably been neglectful of the roots of American racing: short-track oval racing. This is quite a shame, as I recently learned. After a visit to their factory in West Sacramento the previous day, Flowmaster invited Hooniverse to a night of half-mile dirt-track racing in California’s wine country. XKOW_Scoreboard Calistoga Speedway’s half-mile dirt oval sits on the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga, a horse racing track converted for use with open-wheel hot rods in 1937. As is the case with many California dirt ovals, Calistoga resides essentially in a neighborhood; catch fencing and about 100 feet of buffer are all that separate the track’s east wall from residents’ backyard fences. Local hero Louie Vermeil owned cars and put on races for nearly 40 years, ensconcing himself in local dirt-rack lore. Today, classic wingless sprint cars run in the annual Louie Vermeil Classic, but we visited Calistoga instead for the King of the West, a series for racecars that are little more than a few feet of tubing, immense wings, cartoon-sized tires, and 410 cubic inches of methanol-fueled internal combustion spitting out 900 horsepower in anger. XKOW_Garage2 Long before the races and even before the drivers’ meeting, teams unload their cars from transportation that runs the gamut from stacker tractor-trailer setups to full-size pickups tugging open trailers. Nearly all teams are composed of families, in many cases at least three generations deep in Northern California’s dirt-track tradition. Some families own cabins or follow their kids’ traveling sportsteam around; these families spend their Saturday nights at California’s dirt ovals. XKOW_Pits The pre-race atmosphere manages to be pretty laidback once the the teams push the cars to the infield pits, a dirt area on the oval’s southern side. Most of the intense work has been done during the week in the owners’ shops or garages beforehand and most adjustments won’t be made until after the drivers have run hot laps. The foil covers over the rear bodywork keep the methanol from heating in the 30-gallon fuel cells. There’s not really much to the 410 sprint cars; King of the West’s technical regulations are pretty simple:

  • The 1984 or newer sprint car tubeframe chassis must have a wheelbase between 83 and 90 inches. The wing sizes are all standard.
  • Steel front axles with torsion bar or coilover front suspension (or a combination thereof) and non-adjustable shocks are required. Independent rear suspension is not allowed.
  • Minimum weight is 1,425 pounds.
  • Engines must be naturally aspirated, 410 cubic inches or fewer, and running methanol only with two valves and one spark plug per cylinder. Flowmaster mufflers are required on the exhaust.
  • Hoosier tires run on each corner. Brakes are only required on the left side of the car and are inboard on the axle.
  • The series mandates an assortment  safety requirements, including rollcage and driveline scatter shield under driver’s behind, along with FIA- or Snell-rated helmet and mandatory head-and-neck restraints.

XKOW_Exhaust Every King of the West car runs a 410-cubic-inch powerplant based on the Small-Block Chevy V8 (You can run other engine designs, but the SBC design is the gold standard). The purpose-built motors run aluminum blocks and heads with pushrods and a points ignition system designed to work with methanol and without a battery (Batteries are just dead weight). The cooling system is rudimentary with a small radiator and a water pump; methanol burns cooler than gasoline. Most drivers we spoke with said each motor comes with a price tag well north of $50,000, which can last a full season of racing, though power seeps out of it toward the end of its race life. Bigger operations rebuild their 410s every two or three races. In the early 1980s, California’s sprint-car racing scene found itself in a tough position. The dirt ovals typically reside close enough to neighborhoods that noise complaints threatened to end the racing. Racers claimed that early mufflers sapped power from the grunting engines, but Flowmaster (whose factory we visited the day before) developed a niche market with a less-restrictive muffler that didn’t reduce airflow (and consequently power) from the big sprint-car motors. Today, Flowmaster supplies mufflers for all King of the West cars. XKOW_PushTrucks The track’s infield actually contains a concession stand and a football/soccer field, on which was an array of trucks, Land Cruisers, and Jeeps (and a Saturn Vue) equipped with a flat panel on the bumper. These act as the sprint cars’ de facto starters, since starters are extra weight and complexity. The push trucks align the push panels on the racecars’ rear nerf bars, giving them a running start out of pitlane where the drivers bump-start the V8s. XKOW_TowTruck Should the cars lose power or drive and come to a complete stop, Calistoga’s 1970s Hot Wheels-esque Dodge tow truck, equipped with a proper manual gearbox, sat ready to snatch the disabled racecar. XKOW_Food As one might imagine, the food at such an establishment belies its mundane surroundings. I did not try a burger, but I consumed a small mountain of incredible chili-and-cheese-slathered nachos during the warm-up laps. XKOW_Tearoffs If you’re a fan of IndyCar or even Formula One, you’ve likely seen drivers remove tear-offs (clear tapelike sheets) from their helmets’ visors a couple of times per race after collecting bug guts and road grime. Dirt-track drivers apply a whole stack of tear-offs to their helmets at the beginning of a race night and will frequently go through most, if not all, of them by the feature’s end. XKOW_Cockpit The drivers’ office is generally pretty sparse: A removable-hub steering wheel, an ignition module, and an oil temperature gauge were standard in just about every cockpit. Some added a water-temperature gauge, a lap timer,  a tachometer, or a painted inspirational message. XKOW_Driver After a short drivers’ meeting, the drivers made their final checks before settling into their seats, separated from the hellish fury of 900 horsepower by a few inches and a firewall. They donned their helmets, head-and-neck restraints, and arm restraints and waved for their push trucks. XKOW_Race00 XKOW_Race0 The push trucks then bump-started the winged devils, which whizzed out of the pits onto the freshly watered mud. The racers cruised around at idle, at once both bringing their race motors up to temperature and packing down the soft mud. The racecars are eerily silent at idle; only the slight chugging of the cam and some assorted squeaks and rattles are audible as the cars cruise past, mud flying off the immense rear tires. As engines reached operating temperatures, some drivers flicked the throttle open and the cars leapt forward like an uncontained explosion, but the noise never soared above a bassy grunt. XKOW_MuddyDriver The laps at idle pitched up impressive amounts of the unpacked mud. Big gobs stuck onto the cars everywhere and when the cars returned to the pits, crew members swarmed the car with putty knives and plastic scrapers to remove the mud balls from the wing, body panels,and nerf bars. This ritual continued after every run for the entire night; mud is weight and detrimental when every pound matters. XKOW_Rico1 We were tipped off that Rico Abreu in the #24 was likely one of the favorites to win the 25-lap Main Event at the end of the night. Abreu’s operation was an impressive one and it so happens that one of his friends and racing buddy’s is NASCAR driver and local Kyle Larson, who cut his motorsports teeth racing the Northern California dirt-track circuit. XKOW_DominicClose Among the drivers was 17-year-old Dominic Scelzi, son of drag racing legend and Gary Scelzi. Gary has high hopes for his son as a drag racer, but he mentioned that he wanted Dominic to learn car control in the massive 410 cars before dropping him into something with 100 times the horsepower. XKOW_MuddyDriver2 Sprint cars run impressive stagger to accommodate the banking of the track and to put the power down while sliding sideways and scrambling for the grip created by massive power-to-weight ratio. Basic stagger is accomplished with tire size, the right-rear tire sometimes running with a differential of 12 inches’ diameter over the left rear. Note the likely dozens of pounds of mud kicked up on the wing’s underside. Moments after this photo with the car idling, the team scraped all of the mud off and sent the car out for more hot laps. XKOW_ColbyCopeland2 After the warm-up laps, drivers came in for a brief respite before hot laps, a chance for each driver to see what kind of car they had underneath them and to make adjustments before qualifying. Drivers and crew fight a losing battle with the dirt, its splatters lingering all night as they did on Colby Copeland’s sprint car. XKOW_Cleaning As ever, Copeland’s crew scrape off the mud to make sure sponsor logos are legible and to remove every ounce of extra mud. XKOW_Race121 Hot laps gave the first real indications of what 1-1/2 pounds-per-horsepower really looks like. Calistoga’s 1/2-mile oval is the biggest on the King of the West schedule, meaning that the speeds are truly incredible. On a track where an 18-second lap indicates an average speed of 100 miles per hour, 15 of the 20 drivers turned laps faster than 100 mph on average. The big winged cars flashed by at tremendous pace at the end of the straight, perhaps 125 mph, before aiming deep into the turn and sliding through it to the back straight to do it again. XKOW_RaceSmokey After 30 minutes or so of hot laps, during which cars would run a few laps, make a quick adjustment or three in the pits, and then run some more, each of the 20 cars took a crack at qualifying. The field ran one at a time, each getting an outlap and then just two flying laps to set a time. The top three times each earned pole for a six- or seven-car qualifying heat, the winners of which qualified for a spot in the eight-car trophy dash. The other five trophy dash cars were culled from the best five non-heat-winning qualifying times. Got that? Rico Abreu set the pole during qualifying with a 16.939, the only sub-17 second lap. XKOW_Race00-2 Drivers manhandle the sprint car’s brute strength through the turns with surprisingly minute and precise adjustments. A dab of throttle or a tiny stab at the brakes rotates the car while the drivers makes steering adjustments. Dominic Szelci before the race mentioned that the most hooked-up cars require the least amount of steering correction and usually perform best in a given race. Drivers constantly manipulate the throttle and brake (even on the straights to manage the immense wheel stagger), and watching the cars turn in for the first curve on the knife edge of control, it was clear that these drivers possessed intense nerve matched with infinite precision. If you’ve ever scoffed at oval-track racing for lack of skill, you’ve clearly not seen the sheer physicality and subtle nuance required to race on dirt. XKOW_Race3-24 The three Trophy Dash-qualifying heats ran as the shadows grew long and gave the first taste of trying to comprehend several of these lightning-fast beasts running side-by-side. The first six-lap heat sprang into existence and ended before I even had a chance to ask where the hell I should be looking. The cars flashed by one after another, frenzied like a pack of hyenas unleashed on a zebra physical therapy farm. What they weren’t, however, was loud. I’d been handed a set of earplugs in anticipation of incredible noise levels, but with the cars having to register under 95 decibels at 50 feet at some tracks, I never even plucked the plugs from their plastic packaging. Some may consider this patently stupid, but I left the racetrack without ringing ears just the same. Some may say that incredible noise is an integral part of racing, but the real truth here is that the engine note is still aurally pleasing and the unbridled fury of the cars at full tilt makes up any decibel deficiencies. XKOW_Race0-2 Bud Kaeding, a former King of the West champion, in the #0 car won his heat to earn pole position in the trophy dash. Bud is a third-generation dirt-track racer, his father Brent and grandfather Howard having etched their names deeply into the California dirt-oval history books. Racing runs thicker than 50W in the Kaeding blood. XKOW_CarWork The heat races concluded just as the sun hung low in the sky, just clearing the trees west of the track and lingering directly in drivers’ sightline at the end of the back-straight. Race organizers halted the racing until the sun had set, both as a courtesy to drivers and to create the right ambiance for the headline races. This allowed teams to make adjustments and tighten up the cars before the Trophy Dash. XKOW_MuddyDriver3 This maintenance included knocking off the ever-present mud from the car. In addition to the body panels, the loam clung to exhaust headers and mufflers, though the short bursts of racing largely kept it from cooking onto the exhaust system. XKOW_SpareAxle Naturally, things break or need tuning in racing. Teams keep a pre-loaded front axle handy in case the driver bins the car into the fencing. Most teams can swap in a spare in a minute or two. Tires of slightly different sizes are kept around, too, to allow adjustments in stagger. XKOW_RearEndSwap These 410 sprint cars don’t have a proper transmission, instead running a driveline that goes straight into the rear end, sometimes with a reduction gear. Methanol produces enough power through the whole powerband to make up for lack of separate gears. One team said they were running somewhere around a 5.23:1 ration in the rear end, but they can gear the car for more than 6:1 on quarter-mile ovals. The quick-change style of rear end allows the teams to make fine adjustments to the gearing. Jonathan Allard’s crew swapped out the gearset just before the Trophy Dash. XKOW_SpareDampers Another way of making fine adjustments to the car: Dampers. Teams had varying amounts to choose from, but Bobby McMahan kept a bucket full of them at the ready for his #25 car. XKOW_SpareHeaders More spares hung around in the pits, including a serpentine set of 410 headers. XKOW_Driver0 The heat races make or break a night of racing. Jason Statler neither qualified in the top five nor won his heat race, leaving him out of the eight-car Trophy Dash, which also determines the starting order for the Main Event race at the night’s end. He paused after his heat race to consider changes to the car before discussing them with crew. XKOW_Backdrop The sun eventually started to dip below the tree line. The grandstands held a couple thousand race fans while the pits and infield came to life.. XKOW_McMahon_Helmet For some veterans, this was all old hat and the break was a welcome chance to catch up with their extended motorsports family. Driver Bobby McMahan from Elk Grove has driven sprint cars for more than three decades because, as he said, “That’s what Dad came home with.” His father had driven before him and his son also races the winged 410 cars, having started racing two-stroke quarter midgets. XKOW_Jarrett Younger drivers, like Jarrett Soares, get in their work between races. Even at the grassroots level, several drivers had their Twitter handles embroidered on their SFI suits. Soares, a King of the West rookie this year, was driving Calistoga for the first time, also his first time on a half-mile circuit. He ended the night with some mechanical woes, but after the race, he gushed wide-eyed with excitement to a fellow driver over the incredible top speed on the longer track. XKOW_Paparazzi_KL NASCAR’s Sprint Cup was racing the same weekend at Sonoma Raceway just down the road, allowing some local heroes to drop in for a visit. Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson (black hat, sitting) dropped in to see his friend Rico Abreu race, the two having raced on dirt for a long time together. Larson gave a short interview with the P.A. announcer, but it was clear that he was just there to have fun and enjoy grassroots oval racing. XKOW_Paparazzi_CG Chip Ganassi (far right) came along, too, though he tried to maintain a low profile. XKOW_Paparazzi_JG As with Larson, NASCAR legend and native Californian Jeff Gordon (left) dropped by the racetrack, sans public relations team. He mingled and hung out with people he’d known from his beginnings in California sprint cars, seeming entirely at ease and almost thankful to be away from the micromanaged bedlam of a NASCAR weekend. XKOW_Watering With the sun’s face hovering just over the horizon, the water tanker made a couple more circuits to wet down the track. Not long after, push trucks lined up three-abreast to pack down the freshly watered mud while the eight drivers who’d qualified for the Trophy Dash climbed in behind their cars’ respective wheels. The stadium lights blinked on and the oranges and purples of the sunset dissolved into darkness beyond the treeline. The push trucks lined up behind the sprint cars and they rushed out of the pits one-by-one. The drivers dumped their cars into gear and the 410-cubic-inch engines whirred to life in turn, eight of them running in pairs paced by a lone truck. XKOW_RaceNight The pace laps, it turns out, last longer than the race itself. The green flag dropped and Bud Kaeding scampered away from the other seven. With only six laps deciding the winner, the margin for error is virtually nil. Kaeding nailed every corner, clocking six straight laps at faster than 100 mph. In 106 seconds, he had run off with the race, itself a frenzy of blurs and sideways skids. But Kaeding had outrun all of that, leaving the scrap behind and pulling out a 2.881-second margin of victory, an immense gap when 7.7 seconds covered the eight-car field. Kaeding rolled out in front of the grandstand to collect his trophy and leave a few brief thoughts during the P.A. interview on the race before heading back to his pit to tighten down the car for the feature race, the “A Main” in the parlance of the dirt oval. XKOW_NightRace2 The race night only featured the King of the West series, so there was no “undercard” to fill in the between-race gaps. The long pause between the Trophy Dash and 25-lap A Main built the tension. The long push-truck runs to start the field meant an abundance of build-up, but when the green flag waved at the start stand, the awesome sight of 20 open-wheeled cars careening into the first turn at more than 100 mph left mouths agape while the brain tried to comprehend the blurs. Almost unnoticed in the chaos was #24 Rico Abreu slipping from P6 to second place in the opening lap before methodically running down polesitter Bud Kaeding. Kaeding made Abreu earn the position, but the #24 simply outran Kaeding, who would eventually finish fourth place, one spot ahead of his dad, Brent. Jonathan Allard and Kyle Hirst finished on the podium and seemingly could have challenged Abreu on a late restart, but the blue sprint car was not to be beaten. XKOW_Rico2 Abreu received his victory plaque and oversized novelty check in front of the grandstand, much as Kaeding had been handed his trophy. The crowd seemed overwhelmingly excited for him, cheering loudly and crowding around on the dirt track for a chance to take a photo or see his car up close. What stood out, aside from the dominance of Abreu’s performance, was that others took joy from the result and that, unlike other figures of grassroots racing, Rico had fans, people who will almost certainly remember he and others from the track as legends and household names in the California circle-track tradition. Rico_Helmet Nowhere was this more apparent than at the following day’s Toyota Save Mart 350, the NASCAR race at Sonoma Raceway. As Abreu walked through the hot pit toward Kyle Larson’s space late in the day, a young fan and his father stopped Rico to chat. The youngster opened up the helmet bag he toted, shyly producing a bright-orange karting helmet and a permanent marker. His father spoke up, “He brought the helmet because he’d hoped to run into you here.” Abreu paused for a minute. Among the huge-dollar rigs surrounded by dozens of huge-name drivers at a race worth tens (if not hundreds of millions) of dollars, an aspiring driver had stopped him–who had taken home $3,000 in prize money the night before at Calistoga–for an autograph. He uncapped the marker and signed the helmet’s crown. The young racer watched every stroke of the pen. Disclaimer: Flowmaster provided travel arrangements and accommodations for this visit. [All photos copyright 2014 Hooniverse/Eric Rood]

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