School's still in at Merced Speedway

June 1, 2013 

School is out for most of Merced County's students already. But not for the drivers in the International Motor Contest Association SportMod classes at Merced Speedway.

The SportMod division is the fastest growing class for dirt racers at the Speedway, and their sole goal is to be faster each week. Their "report cards" are checkered flags. Two weeks ago, after a thrilling race with side-by-side battles, the first two drivers to see that flag were from Bakersfield — John Piker was the winner followed by Nick Spainhoward.

Unfortunately for local drivers, racing isn't graded on a curve.

To celebrate the achievements of area students, the Speedway is hosting the "School's Out IMCA SportMod Spectacular" this weekend, rewarding students under 13 with free admission to the four division program.

Why do drivers come all the way from Bakersfield to race at Merced? Because the IMCA makes it lucrative.

"We're here because there is no race in Bakersfield this weekend," explained Piker. "IMCA points for the national championship, the regional championship and the state championship are up for grabs, so we are here."

For most area drivers, a track title would be enough. Atwater's Darren Thomas and Matt Sotomayor of Sanger are in a battle for that trophy.

"I keep making changes to the car and I love the track more and more," explained Sotomayor. "I'm not competing for the national points like the Bakersfield guys, but I'm definitely interested in being the Merced Speedway champion."

And so is Thomas.

"I'm shooting for the top right now," he said. "Matt and I are really close in points. Running for points through the season takes a lot of commitment."

A construction worker who commutes from Atwater to San Francisco, Thomas has little time left to work on his car on weeknights. But he's got experience on his side. He's been racing 20 years, and was champion of the Merced Speedway Street Stock division in 1992, '93 and '94. He has won the track's Sept. 11 Memorial Race four years in a row.

Sotomayor, an IT consultant, recently moved to the area from Watsonville.

"The drier surface of the track threw me for a loop. It's like learning to race all over again," he said, noting that coastal tracks are usually moist with fog. Oh, and it's warmer here.

"It's going to be near 100 degrees on Saturday," Sotomayor said.

"I soak a rag in ice and wrap it around my neck," he explained. "The wind hits it when I'm driving and it keeps me cool."

Sotomayor, who was fifth two weeks ago, saw a 4-point lead over second-place Thomas grow to 7.

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