California’s Placerville Speedway, 30 miles east of Sacramento, is a tiny quarter-mile track that’s about as tight as a thick rubber band.
The track is nestled into a hillside on the grounds of the El Dorado County Fair in a region best known as the jumping off point for miners — later known as “49ers” — who joined the great gold rush in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains more than 150 years ago.
Fans from the town have loyally filled the grandstands every week since 1965, watching sprint cars spit the track’s distinctive red clay over the fence. But early this season, the crowd and the car count swelled to historic levels for a spec sprint/360 combination show. The 94 cars were more than anyone could remember ever squeezing into the hillside pit area and fans wandered every nook of the fairgrounds looking for a place to park.
In late June during the Boys and Girls Club Dirt Classic at the infamous half-mile Calistoga Speedway, 67 cars — a 410/360 combination show — spilled out beyond the pit area into the grassy knoll and late coming fans were forced to park on the back side of a nearby golf course.
It was a dramatic difference from dwindling car counts and lagging fan interest some of those series were suffering. The growing car counts and enthusiastic crowds were the result of a revolution in Northern California sprint car racing.
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The discontent in the ranks of the Civil War Series for 360 sprint cars and the non-winged Hunt Magneto series had been building for more than a year. The match that lit the dynamite was hurt feelings over an extra $20.
When the dust settled, fans were greeted with a new organization for winged 360 sprint cars; a revamped Civil War Series; a new owner for the Hunt Magneto series; and the King of the West series betting on nostalgic memories of a historic sanctioning body and a new marketing plan to rev it up.
For the last several years, all three of Northern California’s traveling sprint car series were operated by Prentice Motorsports, which also sanctions the All Star Modified Tour and promotes weekly racing at Ocean Speedway. As complaints from drivers piled up over poor communication, late payouts and lost sponsors, car counts in the Civil War series began to go soft. An increasing number of drivers chose to race at their local track and avoid the traveling series.
But a decision to charge teams an extra $20 to draw a qualifying pill — after they had already paid their pit fees — turned discontent into outright rebellion and car counts plummeted even further as teams boycotted the series.
“We had to find a way to get our sport back again,” said car owner and third-generation racer Rod Tiner.
Tiner, looking for advice, reached out to Matt Wood, the owner of Elk Grove Ford near Sacramento who fielded the winged sprint car driven at the time by Bryan Clauson.