Spirited Exhibition

South Sound Speedway is a tidy little 3/8ths mile paved oval, just south of Tacoma. I had been there twenty years ago to spectate. Around the same time, a Street Stock racer named Tom Curvat had given me the opportunity to try out his Olds on the now defunct Portland Speedway. That was the last time I had tested a car on an asphalt track anywhere.
Enter West Coast Vintage Racer Dick Nelson. Nelson purchased my Maxim Midget about four years ago. When he called with an offer to let me drive the car at South Sound, I jumped at the chance.

What an eclectic group of race cars! Six Midgets were on hand, three Volkswagens, my old Pontiac, a Chevy II and a Flathead. The big bore class was equally diverse; Sprint Cars and Super Modifieds from different eras, a dozen in all. Most were powered by small block Chevys but there was an inline six (GMC), at least one big block and the fabulous Ranger.
WCVR don’t race for a purse. They provide a show in exchange for track time. The club will generally arrive a day in advance to test and tune at leisure. Then on race night they join the regular program as an added attraction.

Nelson practiced in his powder blue ’72 Trostle Sprint Car on Friday, warmed up the Midget and even gave teenage Trista Churchill a try out. On Saturday unfortunately, the Pontiac fell ill. Nelson suspected it had dropped a cylinder and eventually it lost oil pressure all together. Apparently my disappointment was evident and that prompted Nelson to offer up his Sprint Car for one of the hot lap sessions.

Now this was a whole different deal. Nelson’s car is his baby and one of the most competitive in the club. I was thrilled to try it out but didn’t want to take a chance of hurting it. Even spinning it out might lead to disaster. I pushed off and was immediately impressed by how easily it steered. I was a bit tentative at first and left the bottom groove open for the faster drivers to pass. I tried to run a consistent line and not make any sudden moves. When no one dove in underneath me, I would edge to the inside and accelerate hard coming out of the turn. The car neither pushed toward the wall nor felt like it wanted to swap ends. The steering responded to the slightest movement. There was no wandering even under braking. On the straightaways, the car was an absolute rocket and kept pulling as long as I kept my foot in it. Too soon, the checkered flag appeared and I returned to Nelson’s pit. “Wow,” I told him, “what a sweetheart of a car!” Nelson smiled like a proud Papa. My face was etched in a smile as well; the adrenalin rush lasted into the night.

The club got to qualify individually and Nelson was fifth fast. In the heat race I was startled by how hard everyone drove. There were no strokers, these guys really race! Veteran Pat Bliss snatched the lead in Del McClure’s GMC. Behind him there was much brake smoke (even a little nudging) and jockeying for position. Fast Timer Glenn Walker in Marv Price’s “Eight ball” sliced through the pack like a hot knife through butter. Others like Kirt Rompain in Bart Smith’s beautifully restored Tipke offset roadster advanced his position as well but Bliss hung on for the win. Nelson held his own, crossing the line in the third position.

Bliss claimed the Trophy Dash also but scratched from Feature due to a leaky head gasket. On the initial start, Nelson charged past Jeff Kennedy to lead but Dave Craver spun the Ranger forcing a yellow. The restart was a carbon copy up front. Nelson took the Trostle high and wide, leading down the back straightaway. Rompain, who had worked on his mount right up until final call, would not be denied in this event however. Taking full advantage of his inside weight, stormed past Nelson and won the Feature going away. Nelson placed second and a relative newcomer named Milt Foster finished a position or two further back.

Foster is a typical WCVR participant. The son of a short track racer, Foster always had an interest but didn’t climb behind the wheel until age fifty five. “I married young,” he says, “and put two kids through college.” He found an old Super Modified that reminded him of the racing he observed as a kid and decided to restore it. Glenn Walker strolled up at his first race and offered to put a set up on the car. “So I wouldn’t kill myself,” Foster laughs. “That’s the best thing about the club, (the veteran’s) willingness to help out,” he says. That and the pre-race track time which afforded him the opportunity time to learn how to race.

After the Feature I was waiting in Nelson’s pit to congratulate him. “Man, you drove that thing harder than I would have,” I exclaimed. “I always drive like that!” Nelson grinned. Later this month he will celebrate his eightieth birthday. Spirited exhibition indeed.

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