RODDA: VIPs Of California Racing

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LINCOLN, Calif. – In the past, racing in the Golden State was made possible by promoters, sponsors, race teams and fans.

That is only three fourths correct this year since fans are generally not allowed in the grandstands due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The track in Susanville has been able to have fans for a while, but getting any information out of that place has proved fruitless to the point it may as well be on located on the moon.  Marysville’s quarter-mile has recently been allowed a huge 100 fans, and only that because the local collegiate baseball team was successful in receiving permission for that many, so the track sought and got the same deal.

No other track in the state, to our knowledge, can have fans, which leads us to recognize the VIPs of racing in our state, the videographers.

Without streaming, a group of tracks that have been racing with some degree of regularity very likely would have been dark the entire season. Whom do streaming companies rely on for their product? The videographers, and California is home to the person with the longest running career in that field, Dean Mills.

Mills first started going to Placerville Speedway when his father, Don, first helped with and then raced stock cars. His father was the 1981 Rookie Of The Year at Placerville, but a couple years later stopped racing due to the cost. By age 11 he had his first job in motor sports, running the old scoreboard that was outside turn one. He turned on the one to go light for then flagman, Kenny Urton, whose son became long time successful sprint car racer, Kevin Urton.

His mother, Beverly, was scorekeeper at Placerville and Chico, a task she fulfilled for 20 years. Part of his father’s stock car team was an attorney who started shooting video, Mills took interest, and on May 5, 1984 at age 14, made his debut with the video camera on the turn four hill at Placerville. Now 36 years later, he continues to document racing, stating he has 14 years left in his career.

“I thought I was really good right away, but I was really terrible and it took many years to get good at it,” Mills said. “We would take the video (VHS) to a pizza parlor, play it, everybody watched with racers gathering there, and that’s what we did with it.

“You have to be willing to be very critical of your work, you have to love the racing, and you have to love the process of documenting races,” Mills continued. “Thirty-six years later, my moment in life is when it’s my camera, 24 race cars, and my love of shooting video.  There’s no gold pot at the end of the rainbow, you’re never going to make any real money doing this, you just have to have a passion for it, and I still do.

“It took me 8 to 10 years to realize the your job is to follow the best race on the track at any given moment.  I’m watching the driver in second-place and rooting for a good race.  If he passes the leader, then I’m still watching the driver in second. I’m rooting for a good race, not who wins.”

Mills realizes he is benefiting from the up tick in streaming this year, but he worries that when fans are finally allowed in the stands, they won’t come back. When fans are able to come back, he wants to start a campaign of some sort to help get fans back to the track.  Recognizing fans are needed to make it all work, Mills is concerned how the transition to opening the front gate will work.

His resume as a videographer is impressive, having done 11 seasons with USAC, nine years with SCRA, a lot of World Of Outlaw races and All Star events. Video became his full-time job on Feb. 2, 1991 due to an unplanned career change.

“I lost my job for going to the final race at Ascot”, admitted Mills. “I took the Friday after Thanksgiving off when it was not approved. They let me stay on while I trained my replacement. I filmed the final Ascot race, Stan Fox won the Turkey Night Grand Prix, I chose to call in sick for the next day and take the rap for that. I lost the last job I ever had that did not involve cameras.

“I’m proud that I was at the final race at Ascot and sacrificed a job for it. It sent me on my life path although my mother, to this day, said she never should have introduced me to racing. But she’s my biggest fan.”

His career highlights include the stint working with USAC and getting to see Dave Darland set the record for USAC National wins. In 2014 he was living in California but still followed USAC all season to shoot video when Darland set the record. Another special time was being the videographer for SCRA since Ron Shuman was a childhood hero for Mills.

“I got to cover Ron’s final season, his improbable championship night when he came from two spots back on the final corner of a race at Perris Auto Speedway to take the final championship by two points over Richard Griffin,” Mills said. “That was a highlight I will never forget. Shuman won and retired on the spot. I also won the North American Sprint Car Poll media member of the year and that’s a highlight.

“My ultimate goal is to follow my mentor, Greg Stephens, into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame one day. I’m in my 36th year, I’m going to cap it at 50, and there won’t be a 51st year. I still love what I do and I still want to do it.”

Mills was part of what he believes was the first ever streamed event, the Belleville Midget Nationals in 2008. It was the company that became the Cushion and they hired him to do the event. In 2009 he streamed USAC races with his camera, computer, and a hot spot.

“In 2009 we tried to do the Turkey Night Grand Prix and we crashed servers since it had something like a 10,000 person limit,” Mills recalled. “It was a free stream. But streaming is not what my primary function is. What I do this for is to document races. Every race I shoot I am documenting history. What matters most to me is making sure the races get documented.”

When time is available, Mills works on creating a database of his entire career and some day every race he has shot will be on a web site. He will include the work of now retired, Grove Hill, who shot video for 20 years. Mills is determined to make certain that, “Grove’s work is remembered and is preserved for future generations.

“I take great pride in the work that we’ve done over the years and there is great honor in what we do,” Mills said. “Myself and people like me who do this over the country, there is a tremendous honor in what we do as a collective whole, documenting the history of our sport.”

Using his timeline, Mills has 14 more years to add to his immense collection of video. Wherever he shoots for these years you can be certain it will be done with professionalism and heart.