On a crisp winter day, we visited the site in West Sacramento, Calif., that was once West Capital Raceway. It seems unimaginable that the heavy clay that helped mold the Gold Cup Race of Champions has been gone for 37 years.
The track produced a legacy of excellence in Northern California open-wheel racing that is recognized as a crucial component in the growth of sprint car racing.
National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inductees Johnny Anderson, Jimmy Boyd, John Padjen, Gary Patterson, Jimmy Sills, LeRoy Van Conett and Kenny Woodruff were all regular faces on Saturday nights at “West Cap,” a quarter-mile clay oval that was located less than six miles west of California’s state capitol building.
The track was easily accessible from Interstate 80. A monument, dedicated in 2003, exists as a small reminder of the place where Mike Larson, father of racing superstar Kyle Larson, and many others fell in love with auto racing.
“I tell people now, that back then West Capital was the center of the universe to me,” the elder Larson said.
Mike Larson was bitten by the racing bug early in life. He first attended events at West Capital when he was 5 years old, sometimes going with his father or with family friend and fellow kindergarten buddy Tim Green and his family. Larson quickly became a huge fan of Van Conett.
“My dad liked the races but didn’t want to go as often as I wanted,” explained Larson. “So one late Saturday night, I was kind of complaining that it was killing me that I didn’t know how LeRoy had finished that night. So my dad says, ‘Why don’t you call the sports department at the Sacramento Bee or Union and ask them?’ So I did — every time I couldn’t go to the races. Now, I think back to then and think what that call must have gone like in the sports department. ‘Hey Joe, it’s that little kid who wants to know how that LeRoy Van Conett guy did tonight.’”
Such was the adoration by race fans who were lucky enough to have experienced what some would call the “glory days” of short-track dirt racing in Northern California.
The concept of the legendary West Sacramento race track was formed in 1946 with locals who wanted a place to push the boundaries of their automobile creations. Cars first hit the track in 1947. The track was originally known as Sacramento Speedway or Capital Stadium and was later renamed Capital Speedway.
In 1972, the name was changed to West Capital Raceway and Don Tognotti and Leo Wyrsch took over from former promoter V.C. “Mac” McGowan. They modernized the facility with a new main tower that housed the concession stands, press box, scorers’ booth and announcers’ area.
West Capital Raceway featured supermodifieds as its main Saturday night attraction. When the supers took a night off, supplemental dates featured sprint cars under the Northern Auto Racing Club sanction, midgets with the Bay Cities Racing Ass’n or open-competition special events such as the annual three-race points series known as the Tri-Holiday Sweepstakes.
Track champions from 1972 through ’79 included Mike Wasina, Richard Wyrsch, Johnny Anderson, John Viel, Jerry Belville, Wayne Sue, Joe Hill and Nick Rescino.
Jimmy Sills is etched in the history books as the all-time, one-lap track record holder. He turned an 11.882-second lap in October 1979.
From 1973 to a single event in 1980, West Capital Raceway was instrumental in the sprint car boom that swept the region. The Gold Cup was the star attraction in the history of West Capital Raceway. Winners of Gold Cups from 1973 through ’79 were among the best drivers, mechanics and car owners on the planet. The 1973 version of the race was groundbreaking.
After spending two seasons racing in Pennsylvania, Jimmy Boyd returned to his home state in pursuit of the biggest purse of the year. At the time, the Gold Cup paid more than $2,000 to win. The race was 100 laps long. With a Charlie Lloyd chassis built in Pennsylvania that was unlike anything in California, Boyd established a single-lap track record that literally had West Capital Raceway scorers Whitey and Pat Alger wondering if the clock had malfunctioned. Boyd’s lap of 12.631 seconds was nearly a second lower than the previous record.
When the 100-lap feature began, Boyd jumped into the lead and never looked back. He led every lap for a $2,200 victory.
Gary Gerould, a veteran motorsports commentator, was the track announcer at the time.
“There is no doubt that Boyd took it to a different level,” said Gerould. “His car was a step up in class and after that ’73 Gold Cup, the elite drivers wanted to be driving sprint cars. Supermodifieds were suddenly second fiddle. It was the start of the sprint car revolution out here.”