MERCED — Mike Villanueva is back racing at Merced Speedway, and hes after the track championship in the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) Modified Stock Car division, which takes center stage at the speedway Saturday night.
The born and raised Merced tree man has been a fan favorite from his days of playing football in Merced High School and the city league through his new-found career as a stock car driver that began eight years ago.
Villanueva, who is the 2007 Track Champion at Kings Speedway in Hanford, says a championship at his hometown track has eluded him for a variety of reasons.
There were ups and downs in his career, but none stranger than being knocked from the championship battle by a volleyball injury.
Who ever heard of a race driver being injured by playing volleyball, laughed Villanueva. I wrecked my Achilles tendon and was out for the season.
The story got him national recognition in Speedway Illustrated, which featured him trying to play volleyball in a Merced park with a bunch of young women.
It means a lot to me to be a champion in Merced. Im racing for those points this season, he explained. With racing being on Saturday nights, I should be able to make every race. Thats important.
Drivers receive points for their finishing positions throughout the season.
At the end of the season, the driver with the most points, not necessarily the most wins, is crowned champion of his division.
For years, Villanueva worked on friends cars, preparing them for racing at the quarter-mile, clay oval. His break came in 2005. When driver Marcus Aue was inured, he and car owner Dennis Hall convinced Villanueva he earned a chance to drive by being a dedicated pit crew member.
I wound up buying the car and Im still racing it to this day, Villanueva laughed.
Villanueva advanced his skills, constructing eight modified stock cars in his home garage in the past six years. Top local drivers who compete at Merced Speedway now drive them.
Its my passion now I see car building as helping my friends that are racers, he explained.
Now, the passion is alive in his son, Justin. Following in his Mikes tradition, Justin is a Buhach Colony football player who has raced go-karts since he was five. Hell jump right into a modified stock car this year, much like his dad did.
It used to be a one-man racing operation, now its a two-man effort me and my son.
Justin Villanueva will take the car out for a ride during practice each week at the speedway.
Father and son see the IMCA Modifieds as a middle-ground division. Its the biggest class of stock cars in the nation.
We can go anywhere in North America and race the rules are uniform, says Mike Villanueva, who has ventured to Arizona, Nevada and Oregon to race his car. The cars are the best of both worlds theyre not amateur or street cars, they are a real race car but less expensive than the top dirt cars like late model stock cars and sprint cars.
The growth of the IMCA SportMod division at Merced Speedway has speedway general manager Doug Williams seeing a bright future for the historic quarter-mile, clay oval.
There has been tremendous interest in the SportMod division, Williams said. We had 18 SportMods on Saturday night, and the next day I was contacted by three more drivers who are coming next week. Add in the two or three under construction and the cars coming back after wrecking, and we should have a field of 24 cars.
On Saturday, the speedway will have a big show with IMCA SportMods, and IMCA Modifieds being featured. Car counts should be high because sister track Antioch Speedway is hosting sprint-car races and not stock cars.
The first visit of the year by the Super Street Stock division to Merced Speedway is also on tap Saturday night. The tracks Super Street division allows cars from Antioch Speedway and the West Coast Super Stocks (WCSS) to compete.
The Hobby Stock division, which has grown weekly in car numbers, is also on the card.
Admission prices are $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens and the new reduced price for children is $6. A family four pack of two adults and two children admissions is $28.
Merced Speedway is located at the Merced County Fairgrounds, with the parking lot and entrance on W. 11th. St. in Merced.