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Racers Start Their Engines This Weekend

The dawn of every new sports season arrives with a sense of anticipation and optimism for the coming year. But the hopes of short track auto racing fans are different from those of “stick and ball” sports fans, whose primary concern is the fate of their favorite team. What short track auto racing fans dream of is large fields of fast cars and talented drivers at their home tracks and in their favorite racing series. Sure, the fans want their favorite drivers and teams to do well, but it’s the overall health of the sport and general on-track competition that is of the greatest interest.

Short track auto racing on asphalt and dirt ovals of one-fifth to one-half mile has struggled of late in Superior California because of the recession and because there are so many entertainment options these days. Still, short track racing is by far the biggest professional sport in our region, with more ticket buyers, participants, events, and money paid out than in any other sport.

Since at least the 1980s, Silver Dollar Speedway in Chico has been the most successful of the region’s short tracks. But Silver Dollar hasn’t been immune from larger trends that have cut into racecar counts and attendance.

Yet as Silver Dollar gets ready to start the 2011 season this weekend, March 11 and 12, there is more optimism than usual. The good feelings are the result of a new promoter at the quarter-mile clay oval, and an unusual kickoff event.

Former Oroville resident Paul McMahan is among the World of Outlaws racers scheduled to compete at the Silver Dollar on Saturday.

The new promoter is Dennis Gage, who recently signed a three-year contract to run the speedway. Gage was the track announcer during the 1980s and ’90s. More recently, he has helped oversee operations at All-American Speedway in Roseville. Gage brings a can-do attitude, which was evident during a press luncheon on Thursday. Days of rain had turned the track, pits and every unpaved surface of the Silver Dollar fairgrounds into a quagmire, and everyone was talking about the weather forecast.

“We’re not wimps at this race track,” Gage promised. “We’re going to race this weekend if we have to bring in the cars with helicopters.”

And those cars will be quite a mix. On the card for tonight, March 11, are nonwing sprint cars and midgets. Saturday night features the World of Outlaws winged sprint cars. It’s a new combination for Silver Dollar’s Mini Gold Cup, which serves as a preview of the four-day Gold Cup in September. At least 100 racecars are expected to participate over the course of the two-day event.

Here’s another reason for optimism: The United States Auto Club, the World of Outlaws and the Bay Cities Racing Association are all sanctioning part of the racing. The U.S. Auto Club hasn’t run at Silver Dollar in 15 years, and these organizations have not necessarily played well together in the past. But, as World of Outlaws executive Roger Slack said Thursday, “We’re all in this together.”

Racers from all over the country will be tossing clay at Silver Dollar this weekend, including USAC national sprint car champion Bryan Clauson from Indiana, World of Outlaws legends Steve Kinser from Indiana, Sammy Swindell from Tennessee and Donny Schatz from North Dakota, and perennial West Coast sprint car champions Brent Kaeding and Tony Hunt.

Overall, Silver Dollar has 35 events scheduled this season, not to mention a new major sponsor in Wells Fargo. The weekly series that runs on Friday nights from April through August will be similar to past years, with winged sprint cars as the featured division. However, there will be more four-division shows this year, as well as a new series for limited late models, Gage said.

Details for this weekend’s Mini Gold Cup and the entire season are available on the track website, www.silverdollarspeedway.com.

Elsewhere, racing begins at Shasta Raceway Park in Anderson on Sunday, March 20, with a 200-lap enduro, mini stocks and bus races. I’ll have a preview of the full 23-race season in coming weeks. http://www.shastaracewaypark.net/

Other regional track openers include Orland Speedway on April 16, and American Valley Speedway in Quincy on April 30.

Paul Shigley is senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a frequent contributor to Planning magazine and loves the smell of methanol and 50-weight motor oil. He lives in Centerville. Paul Shigley may be reached at pauls.anewscafe@gmail.com.

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