RODDA: Merced Speedway Rises To The Occasion

Ron Rodda

LINCOLN, Calif. – When the Hangtown 100 USAC National Midget Series event at Placerville Speedway was canceled amid COVID-19 restrictions, Merced Speedway saved the day by becoming the host track for a non-point event.

Shortened by one day, the remaining pair of events featured excellent racing on opening night, and followed that up with a memorable show the next night.

Placerville’s event uses a format much different than the typical USAC National race format, leading to that race being for show-up points only. Merced used the normal USAC format instead, but since it was already set to be a race for appearance points, that plan was kept.

With no Turkey Night the following week, Merced hosted the final two USAC National midget shows of the year. Opening night had four lead changes in the first 10 laps and it was Thomas Meseraull taking the lead on lap 10 and going on to win 30-lap race around the quarter-mile dirt oval.

Saturday night was even better for 30 laps on non-stop racing that, simply put, was frantic.  Five official lead changes, numerous unofficial ones, and no slowing after the first start drew a red made for an amazing main event. Tanner Thorson was the leader during the four laps for the win, edging Buddy Kofoid at the line.

Merced Speedway was not exactly a nationally known track, but that has changed with the shows the USAC National Midgets had the week before Thanksgiving. With 54 and 52 midgets plus support divisions in the pits, the overflow pit area was in use, something that is rarely seen for years at the Central Valley fairgrounds oval.

Merced has hosted racing since 1946, with a five year break in the late 50’s. When things were going well, it was a place to be. When they weren’t, getting cars and fans was a challenge. Promoter changes, race night changes and track remodels during more those times were not an answer.

In December of 2018, S and S Promotions took control of the track. Chris Shannon and Paul Stone are S and S, two local men who made an excellent decision right away by hiring Doug Lockwood as general manager.

Lockwood, an All-American soccer player at one time, would race online but due to his soccer commitments he was unable to attend races on the weekend. When Chowchilla Speedway opened and raced on Friday nights, he contacted the track and asked if they had anything for him to do. He soon began working to stage the cars prior to the races.

His future in racing took shape during his senior year in high school in 2001 when he and his racing friend, Steven Williams, hustled from graduation to the track to race while Lockwood did his job for the track.

After Chowchilla, Lockwood raced karts for a bit and then helped SCRA during the year the series switched to 360s. That led to him becoming race director at Kings Speedway in Hanford, Calif. After that period, he worked for Chris Kearns and the USAC West Coast Sprint Car Series.

In 2015 Lockwood left the West Coast to work for the World of Outlaws as a corner worker before becoming race director the following year. He eventually tired of being on the road and came back to California and took over the West Coast Sprint Car Series and Western Midget Series for USAC.

At the end of 2018 Lockwood left USAC to work full-time at Merced Speedway as S and S Promotions had signed a five-year contract to promote the track. He also became part owner of USAC West Coast Sprint Car Series with Kearns and USAC brought him back to run the Western State midget program. Lockwood’s days of working as a glazer are in the past as he has been full-time in the racing industry since 2015.

The huge change that came with S and S Promotions taking over Merced was the reshaping of the track.

“We took over the track in December of 2018. it’s when we got the contract,” Lockwood said. “We got moved in come January and it literally rained the first three months of 2019.  We got to the middle of March and we had already lost two practices and the first race and we hadn’t done anything to the race track itself. Outside we remodeled several things but we could not do anything to the track since it just kept raining.

“Finally it let up and we reshaped the track. We lowered the infield three and a half feet, using that dirt to build up the banking. We brought in 102 loads of clay, built the shape that we wanted, and Paul (Stone) brought his car out to make sure it was what he wanted.  Following that we had a little private test session, and the opening came a week later.

“We lowered the infield as much as we could without getting into water and power lines.  The infield at Merced used to be a football field so when we lowered everything we hit a lot of galvanized pipe used to water the field but no longer in use so we took it out.”

The resulting track boasts an impressive 23 degree banking and the width was increased from 38 feet to 52 feet at the most narrow point.

It took numerous phone calls to Levi Jones to get the USAC National show in Merced, but it was a huge success. Next November Merced is planning on another two-day event, with the second night being particularly special.

Opening the season with another ASCS National event, the track is scheduled to host a Sprint Car Challenge Tour race mid-season and the USAC West Coast Sprints and Western States Midgets together during a couple of events. The USAC-CRA tour will likely be a part of Merced’s 2021 schedule.

The northern tracks in California have lacked an injected non-winged series and Lockwood is hoping to change that in 2021. With the combination of USAC West Coast Sprint Car Series and Western States Midgets, a plan is taking shape to change things.

“What I’m trying to do is, say we get 14 to 16 races, we’re going to do a north and a south with half the races in each section,” Lockwood said. “There will be a points championship for both but the points fund will still be in the overall.”

Pairing the two USAC divisions and having some northern tracks involved will be great, if only COVID-19 would go away. The fact that California has had as much racing this year as we did was only possible due to support from numerous sources.

“The reality is, without the sponsors and without the broadcasters kicking in extra money, we wouldn’t be able to have races,” Lockwood said. “We’re not getting rich with fans, we surely not doing it without fans. We just happened to have good people in our corner that are able to help make it happen.”