A recent Modesto Bee article ("All revved up," Aug. 11, Page A-1) told about autocross racers from around the West descending on the abandoned Crows Landing Naval Air strip for a weekend of racing and competition.
That event pales in the memories of those of us who presented the major nationally sanctioned Trans-Am Sedan Race nearly 46 years ago on that same rugged concrete facility.
For that one September weekend in 1967, all the eyes of the auto racing world were on our little town of Modesto, with a whopping total of 45,000 residents, as the major factory racing teams brought world-class drivers to compete for the Gallo Trophy. In addition, the Sports Car Club of America staged two full days of local and regional sports car racing, and many residents got to compete close to home.
I was brand-new to town, having arrived in May 1967 as an aspiring young CPA, ready to set the world on fire, or something like that. My accounting partner, Pete Bertozzi, was a member of the Modesto Junior Chamber of Commerce, and he encouraged me to join, saying, "The guys are promoting some sort of a car race over on the West Side, and you may be interested in getting involved."
You bet I was interested, having been a lifelong motor racing fan. I immediately joined the Jaycees and was appointed business manager for the race at my first meeting. We were off and running.
Our original committee linked the Jaycees with the Ecurie AWOL sports car club and also introduced me to my two lifelong partners and closest of friends, Chuck Billington and Jack McCoy. Others on the committee included Al Menshew, Terry McGrath, Gary DeHart, Jack Broughton, Jack Rudy, Gary Johnson, Skip McLaughlin and many others.
Skip was a marketing vice president for Gallo Winery and a close confidant of Ernest Gallo. He was instrumental in making many of the contacts with the sanctioning SCCA group, as well as extracting the magnificent sum of $5,000 from Ernest as an "advance" against possible losses. This also placed the Gallo name on the event and on the trophy.
We attracted major teams from all the automotive factories and some of the top drivers in the country. The race was won by Jerry Titus, who went on to be a series champion before he lost his life in a crash at Road America.
Other notables included Peter Revson (heir to the Revlon fortune) and Mark Donahue. Both drivers went on to race at the Indy 500 and both were killed in subsequent racing accidents — Donahue on the Formula 1 circuit in Europe.
However, we were lacking one really big name, and Skip and others pressured the Ford/ Mercury Cougar team to send former Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones to our event.
Right up until race weekend we still had our hopes, but alas, this never materialized, and it had a major impact on our event.
We needed about 8,000 attendees to break even. Skip drove Mr. Gallo around in an open convertible on the pace lap and said, "Look at all the people," and Ernest growled, "Yeah, about 5,000, and you are losing your shirt and my $5,000." And so it was.
The base commander had given us approval, pending a complete cleanup by Monday morning, so while the winners celebrated, we Jaycees were crawling under the stands picking up chicken bones and beer cups. The sailors were ecstatic — they had had a few days of fun, they had the exclusive beer concession, and what they did not sell, they drank.
Jack and Chuck sold more racing tires that weekend than any other in their combined careers, due to the abrasive concrete surface of the runways. In fact, Jack had his brother Bob McCoy crank up his Ceres recap shop, which went nonstop for 48 hours.
We briefly discussed repeating the event the following year, but were informed that the prize money we would pay would double, from $5,000 to $10,000. We had already lost our money and Ernest Gallo's, and none of the wives fancied picking up chicken bones another year.
And that is the "other" Crows Landing story.
Hagerty is an Oakdale real estate developer active in community nonprofits. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.