Whether it is because they can shake hands with a famous driver or simply receive an adrenaline rush from seeing a pack of the fastest, most powerful race cars in the nation, Mercedians are counting the days until the "World of Outlaws" Sprint Cars invade Merced Speedway.
Friday, March 29, might as well be a holiday for race fans in Merced. Guys like Billy Mattos, who says he is "around 50," are planning tailgate celebrations in the afternoon that will last into the next day.
Mattos said the talk of the racing world is whether Memphis, Tenn., driver Sammy Swindell can score a hat trick -- he won the first two World of Outlaws annual events at the speedway. Swindell will be back, but he may find the track a bit different. It's been reshaped and widened for the new season.
"Unadulterated horsepower is the draw -- a pack of 26 cars roaring by," said Mattos. "Drivers that never lift their foot off of the pedal, steering cars so powerful they can pop the front wheels six feet into the air when they accelerate -- there's no better adrenaline rush in racing."
The party planning has begun. Campers and pick-ups will be outfitted for the special event. Hotels will be filled.
"There will be good food, plenty of beer, and a lot of race-talk," said Mattos. "For nationally known drivers like Swindell to stop in Merced is a treat for everyone. These are drivers we see on TV -- and you can walk up to them and talk to them. It's better than NASCAR."
One of the attractions of seeing the World of Outlaws is that reserved tickets come with a pass into the pit area. Fans can walk up to drivers and crews preparing for the race, then return to the grandstand to see the show.
That inspired Mike Sanford of Atwater and a group of family and friends to purchase 16 reserved seats.
"We watched the "Outlaws" on TV, then we read in the Sun-Star that they were coming here," said Sanford. "Most of us have never seen the Outlaws in person."
Sanford, a nurse at Mercy Medical Center, jumped at the opportunity to witness the World of Outlaws.
"It's extreme racing -- more speed and more moves than stock car racing. There are big-name drivers in the field and you can get close to them in the pits.
"It should be interesting to see in person."
Mattos, a die-hard race fan, said Merced Speedway's big grandstand would be the best place to see the Outlaws.
"We have one of the best, if not the best, dirt track racing facility in the state," Mattos raved.
For Billy Baker, 72, of Merced, the third annual visit of the World of Outlaws to Merced ranks up there with the greatest of races he's been to -- and he's been to a lot of them since his dad took him to Merced Speedway 60 years ago.
"This is like the Indy 500 being in Merced," he said. "But the difference is that a common fan can shake hands with a driver and talk to him."
Baker, too, likes Swindell, but he said he has loyalty to the Kaeding family, California's royalty in sprint car racing. Tim Kaeding scored a win against the invaders from across the country at Antioch Speedway in the fall.
"I'd be happy if Swindell won because he's an older driver, but, if a Kaeding won, I would be happy, too," he laughed.
Tami Smith, a hospital volunteer from Merced, said a single ticket was all she needed to buy.
"I went last year to the race and it was awesome," she said. "It was very thrilling. I prefer to be sitting up near the top of the stands."
Smith is going by herself, but she won't be alone.
"Merced is a small town even though it may be a city," she explained. "Everyone knows everyone."
Who will she be cheering for?
"Sammy Swindell, of course," she said.
World of Outlaws notes:
The World of Outlaws cars and drivers will roll into Merced March 28 and unload at Merced Speedway on March 29. Included in the March 29 event will be modified stock cars sanctioned by the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA), which is the track's premier racing division.
Fans who purchased $40 reserved seats will be allowed in the pit area until 5 p.m., when cars will begin practice. Reserved tickets are available through the World of Outlaws website, woosprint.com.
Both the World of Outlaws and the IMCA modified stock cars will have a complete program of qualifying events prior to the feature events.
General admission tickets ($35 for adults, $15 for children) will be available on the day of the event at Merced Speedway, 900 Martin Luther King Way, inside the Merced County Fairgrounds.