Hanford Gets New Direction

California's Hanford Speedway is heading in a new direction thanks to the leadership of Peter Murphy. (Paul Trevino Photo)
California's Hanford Speedway is heading in a new direction thanks to the leadership of Peter Murphy. (Paul Trevino Photo)

Newly arrived from Australia, Peter Murphy saw Hanford Speedway for the first time in 1988 as a crew member for Steve Kinser. He couldn’t have known then that the three-eighths-mile oval in California’s San Joaquin Valley would become an important part of his life.

Now, nearly 30 years later, he’s running the joint.

The valley’s sandy loam soil produces most of the fresh fruit and vegetables that America eats. The region’s racing roots run as deep as those of the crops. It was home to three generations of the Vukovich family as well as Indy car drivers George Snider and Johnny Boyd. The shop of builder Fred Gerhardt, whose cars were a major force in Indy Car racing during the 1960s, is a short drive from Hanford.

The Hanford Speedway dirt has been pounded by some of the best in the business, from the legendary Al Pombo and Marshall Sergeant in the 1970s to seven-time California state sprint car titleholder Steve Kent decades later.

In more modern times, the grids have been filled by names familiar to sprint car fans nationwide, including the Scelzis, Macedos and Kaedings, among others.

In February, before COVID-19 restrictions hit the world, race-starved fans streamed down the interstate from Fresno, anxious to shake the offseason. They had reasons to be enthused — a new season, a spiffed-up race track and a new promoter.

It was a new chapter for the track, now known as Keller Auto Speedway, and for the expatriate former sprint car driver. The deal to take control of the track was completed only weeks before the season was to start. Brandon Morse, who had promoted the track in recent years, wasn’t looking to sell until he heard a rumor and picked up the phone. On the other end of the call, Murphy confirmed his interest in running the track.

“I had been working on a deal to manage Skagit and it didn’t come together,” said Murphy, “but that triggered my desire and I knew I wanted to have a go at this.”

But it’s not as if this was Murphy’s first “go” at race promotion. For the last seven years, Murphy has promoted the Peter Murphy Classic at Thunderbowl Raceway in Tulare, Calif., raising funds for the Northern Auto Racing Club’s Benevolent Fund.

“It’s a certain look I’m after, and I’m almost like a dictator about what I want,” Murphy said candidly.  But it’s all in the name of putting on a show while promoting sprint car racing with an evangelical passion, especially for 410s.

On race nights, he combines the attention to detail of a demanding Fortune 500 CEO and the flair of a circus ringmaster, while jogging, walking and running all night at a pace that would blow up a Fitbit in a heartbeat.

“The world is changing and now there are more things that people can do on their phone,” contends Murphy, explaining what motivates his style of promoting.  “We have to look out for the people in the grandstands and make a good impression so they will come back and maybe bring more people to our sport. It’s important to put on a show and do things differently to keep people excited because everybody has other things they can do.”

A record crowd for opening night was still streaming through the gates and past the newly installed banners promoting title sponsor Keller, a local car dealer, as the sprint car heat races were winding down on that February night.

“There are more people here tonight than there has been in a while,” noted former track champion Craig Stidham. “This is bigger than when the World of Outlaws come here,” contended a woman named Jeanette, who has been taking tickets at the front gate for 11 years.

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