Out-of-towners score feature victories on opening night of Valley racing season

Season-opening racing in the central San Joaquin Valley on Saturday night saw two wire-to-wire victories in Tulare and a hard-charging win in Madera.

Thunderbowl Raceway

David Gravel of Connecticut won the World of Outlaws 35-lap feature and D.J. Johnson of Stockton won the U.S. Auto Club West Coast 30-lap main event as the California sprint car season got underway a day late. Friday’s races on the one-third-mile clay oval in Tulare were rained out. (The track announced that a makeup date will be determined.)

Gravel, who started last season on the national Outlaws tour driving for the Fresno-based Roth Motorsports team, got the jump from the outside front row when polesitter Willie Croft of Roseville did a wheelstand. Outlaws regular Shane Stewart challenged a couple times but never got past Gravel. Croft held on to third place.

Kyle Hirst of Chico, who spent the winter barnstorming Australia, returned to the Roth team’s California car and was impressive early as one of the few drivers able to make moves on the high side of the track. But Hirst and Roth’s Outlaws driver, Joey Saldana of Indiana, were among those who got caught up in a tangle on a lap 15 restart, with Saldana’s car flipping. Hirst ended up 15th and Saldana 17th.

It was a tough night for other central San Joaquin Valley racers, too: Carson Macedo of Lemoore, back in the Easton-based Tarlton Racing car for a cameo (Macedo will be competing nationally this year), was 10th; Dominic Scelzi of Fresno was 13th; and DJ Netto of Hanford was 14th.

Seven-time Outlaws champion (including the past two seasons) Donny Schatz failed to advance out of the last-chance qualifier. So did Campbell driver Bud Kaeding in the Oakhurst-based Williams Motorsports car.

The Outlaws continue their California swing Friday and Saturday at the Stockton Dirt Track.

In the USAC race, Johnson scored his first career victory on the circuit, holding off Brody Roa of Buena Park and Richard Vander Weerd of Visalia. Landon Hurst of Riverdale was fifth and Jace Vander Weerd of Visalia sixth. Danny Faria of Tipton flipped and finished 24th.

The series is back in action Saturday at Bakersfield Speedway.

Madera Speedway

Three-time track champion Matt Erickson of La Grange started ninth but grabbed the lead on lap 28 and never let go, winning the 100-lap LoanMart Late Model Series feature on the third-mile paved oval.

Ryan Philpott of Tracy was second and David Ross of Colton third. Eight of the 22 starters finished all 100 laps including Ryan Hart of Dos Palos (sixth) and Rick Thompson of Fresno (eighth). Howard Holden of Clovis was ninth and Ronnie Roberts of Fresno 10th.

A familiar family name finished first in the inaugural Jr. Late Model division, with Austin Herzog of Clovis leading all 50 laps. Thirteen started in the division for drivers ages 10-16.

Other division winners were Kevin Thompson (MST), Ben Lewis Jr. (Super Hobby Stocks) and Jason Lawton (Toyota Sedans).

Car owner Ron Chaffin dies

Longtime sprint car owner Ron Chaffin of Madera died Feb. 29. He was 77.

Mr. Chaffin, owner of Madera Produce, campaigned mostly outside the Valley with his signature red No. 50 sprint car. His teams scored 66 USAC/California Racing Association wins and six championships (2005 and 2008-12) with drivers Damion Gardner and Mike Spencer, and eight Southern California Racing Association titles (1995-2000, ’02-’03).

The Chaffin team also had five USAC national victories.