As central San Joaquin Valley racers begin preparing for the 2017 season this week, Tommy Tarlton took a moment to reflect on an emotional 2016.
Tarlton, scion of a three-generation Easton racing family, is now the face of the Tarlton Motorsports sprint car team that his father, Tom, engineered to launch Tommy’s driving career. The Tarltons celebrated a second straight King of the West sprint car series championship this year with driver Kyle Hirst of Paradise.
The Tarltons got support from another Easton-based operation, Roth Motorsports. “We would not have run 2016 without Dennis” Roth, Tarlton said. Another Easton racing family, the Venturas, saw patriarch Jack Ventura die in July. Tarlton called the season “more of a tribute, respect for the Venturas, getting the job done.”
The close-knit, family bonds that epitomize the Easton-area racing families extended to Carson Macedo of Lemoore, who drove the Tarlton car to the 2015 championship. Macedo is Tarlton’s cousin’s son. Tarlton said winning that 2015 title with Macedo “was way sweeter because it was family.”
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The Tarlton-Hirst relationship wasn’t the same – and boiled over in August at Ocean Speedway in Watsonville. Tarlton, who ran a light 2016 schedule as a driver, finished fourth in the 56th Johnny Key Classic that night. Hirst drove another team’s car in that race and ran across the track during a red flag to confront Tarlton after blaming him for causing an accident that ended Hirst’s night.
Don’t expect to see Hirst back in the Tarlton No. 21X this season. Tarlton said he’ll race some in 2017, and Cole Macedo – Carson’s younger brother – will continue to drive a team car, mostly in the Hanford King of Kings 360 series. Plans are still up in the air for the Tarlton No. 21.
At least 19 Valley racers are headed to Tulsa, Okla., this week for the indoor Tulsa Shootout, the start of the 2017 racing season. It comes two weeks before the 31st annual Chili Bowl, one of the season’s biggest midget events, on the same quarter-mile clay track inside the Tulsa River Spirit Expo, one of the largest clear-span buildings in the world.
The Tulsa Shootout features nine classes racing Wednesday through New Year’s Day. It traditionally attracts a mix of veteran drivers – for instance, Hanford’s Michael Faccinto, runner-up in the 2016 U.S. Auto Club Western States Midget season championship points, is entered – and up-and-coming racers. Most from the Valley have or are cutting their teeth at the area’s fifth-mile tracks, Lemoore Raceway and Keller Auto Raceway at Plaza Park in Visalia.
All four of the Visalia track’s 2016 champions are entered in Tulsa: Jake Hagopian of Fresno (Super 600s), Justyne Hamblin of Hanford (Non-Wing 600s), 11-year-old Caeden Steele of Fresno (Junior Sprints) and 12-year-old Joey Ancona of Concord (Restricted 600s).
Steele and Ancona also won Lemoore championships along with KJ Snow of Kingsburg (Non-Wing) and Jake Andreotti of Castro Valley (Super 600s). Snow, 20, and Andreotti, 14, also are headed to Tulsa.
Promoter Ken Shepherd announced the 2017 stock car schedule for the one-third-mile paved oval alongside Highway 99. It has eight nights of racing beginning with the March 11 season opener. Each event has a minimum of 175 feature laps between the Late Models and Jr. Late Models.
Matt Erickson of La Grange was the runaway 2016 champion in the overall Late Model series standings. Rick Thompson of Fresno was runner-up.
The Jr. Late Models series is the only one in the country designed for drivers ages 10-16 racing full-size cars. In the inaugural 2016 season, 12-year-old Dezel West of Las Vegas beat 14-year-old Austin Herzog of Clovis by 20 points, 409-389, for the championship.
Herzog is a third-generation driver at Madera and helped the family enjoy a special Father’s Day last year – both Austin and his dad, Bryan, won feature races that weekend.
Among other 2016 Madera champions: Cody Gerhardt of Madera (Wing Sprints), Kevin Thompson of Fresno (MSTs), Thomas Suarez of Sanger (Hobby Stocks) and Jillaun Holden of Fresno (Toyota Sedans).
Tulare Thunderbowl Raceway – The third-mile clay oval run by the Faria family hasn’t released a 2017 schedule, but the season opener is certain: the World of Outlaws national touring sprint car series visits March 17-18. It’s in the middle of the series’ annual California swing that’ll also be in the Valley on March 24-25 in Stockton and March 31 in Hanford.
Keller Auto Speedway at Kings Fairgrounds – Bubby Morse, promoter at the three-eighths-mile clay track in Hanford, has a 2017 schedule set that includes all of the major sprint car series plus the track’s own King of Kings 360 sprint car series, which has five Friday night dates, a Saturday night season finale on Labor Day weekend and open competition dates in October and November. Fourteen-year-old Giovanni Scelzi of Fresno won last year’s King of Kings season title.
USAC – The 2017 schedules are out, and the 16-race Western States Sprint Car series includes six stops at Tulare and Hanford – the last on May 20. Visalia’s Vander Weerd brothers, Jace and Richard, were second and fourth, respectively, in the 2016 season points behind champion Brody Roa of Garden Grove.
▪ Richard Vander Weerd looks to improve on his 2016 season runner-up finish in the USAC/California Racing Association sprint car series (behind champion Damion Gardner of Concord) that includes two Valley stops, April 8 in Tulare and Sept. 9 in Hanford.
▪ The Western States Midgets have one Valley stop, April 8 in Tulare. There are also three dates at Bakersfield Speedway.
▪ The national Silver Crown sprint car series returns to the one-mile paved Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, its first trip west since 2009. Kody Swanson of Kingsburg came up five points shy of winning his third straight series championship in 2016; his Ohio-based DePalma Motorsports team won the owners’ championship. Swanson, by the way, is getting his 2017 season started at the Chili Bowl.
Sprint car news – Carson Macedo, 20, drove in 86 races last year, mostly in the Midwest. For 2017, he will barnstorm the Midwest with Indiana-based Joe Gaerte Racing in a winged sprint car – after he spends about a month racing in Australia and New Zealand.
▪ Roth Motorsports will focus on California in 2017, taking at least a season hiatus from the Outlaws tour. Roth will give sponsorship support to his 2016 driver, Joey Saldana of Indiana, as he competes for Matt Wood Racing in the car that the late Bryan Clauson intended to barnstorm.
Mini sprint 2016 recaps
Information provided by track promoters
Keller Auto Raceway at Plaza Park top 5 in points
Junior Sprints points: 1, Caeden Steele; 2, Gauge Garcia; 3, Eli Bookout; 4, Drew Mowry; 5, Dalton Parreira (Rookie of the Year)
Nonwing 600s: 1, Justyne Hamblin; 2, Ben Worth; 3, TJ Smith; 4, Jimmy Leal; 5, Danny Valdez
Restricted 600s: 1, Joey Ancona; 2, Brody Fuson; 3, Garth Kasiner; 4, Katey Syra; 5, Garrett Twitty (Rookie of the Year: Brandt Twitty)
Super 600s: 1, Jake Hagopian; 2, Ben Worth; 3, Tucker Worth; 4, Jake Andreotti; 5, Paul Javaux
Lemoore Raceway track champions
Junior Sprints: Caeden Steele, 6 wins, 9 top-10 finishes
Restricted 600s: Joey Ancona, 3 wins, 11 top-10s
Nonwing 600s: KJ Snow, 3 wins, 10 top-10s
Super 600s: Jake Andreotti, 4 wins, 9 top-10s