Rare is the story of a stock car driver who begins his career at age 31 and finds instant success.
Josh Hensley of Ballico is that guy. He’s a standout newcomer in the Merced Speedway Hobby Stock division despite racing against an experienced field.
If you ask how long he’s been racing, he’ll matter-of-factly state “since last year.”
“I went to the Speedway about 15 years ago, when I was a teenager,” he explains. “I hadn’t been back until last year to watch the World of Outlaws event.”
Hensley, who runs an auto repair shop on Main St. in Merced, seems destined to be a racer the day he bought an auto trailer.
“I had this trailer, so I thought I should buy a race car to put on it,” he laughs. “First I thought I would get a mini-stock so I could learn about racing. Then I found a great deal on a hobby stock.”
The hobby stock isn’t just any hobby stock – it is a 1977 Camaro once driven by Merced racing legend Marshall Weaver. Weaver nicknamed the car “The Money Maker” because he won with it so many times.
Weaver, who is in the same business as Hensley, told him “The Money Maker” was just down the street, sitting at his shop, waiting for a new owner.
Hensley put number 86 on the old white Camaro and took it to the track.
In his rookie year, he finished third in the points, topping some of the track’s best drivers.
This year, “The Money Maker” hit pay dirt with wins early in the season, putting Hensley in the lead for the championship.
Then bad luck struck. The car was disqualified after finishing third in the Ted Stofle Classic. It was 50 pounds too light.
“I didn’t allow for fuel weight,” Hensley admits. “I passed the weight check every week until the big race.”
With the setback, rival Kristie Shearer of Los Banos surged into the points lead. Hard charging Raul Rodriguez of Atwater came back from retirement and quickly moved into second. Now, Hensley and “The Money Maker” are in third place.
Hensley records week’s wildest ride
Last Saturday night at Merced Speedway, George Silva was passing Hensley when the two hooked bumpers, causing Silva to climb the wall and flip his car over while Hensley drove on.
“It was the craziest thing,” Hensley says. “They threw the red flag. I saw George climb right out. He was all right.”
Hensley made friends with fellow Merced mechanic and racer Silva earlier this season, and even helped him in the pits at Antioch Speedway two Saturdays ago when Merced Speedway was dark because of the fair.
“He didn’t know what had happened and he was mad,” Hensley said.
Silva soon found out just how the accident happened.
Hensley got spectacular footage of the rollover from a camera mounted in the back of his car. The two drivers realized it was just a racing accident after Hensley posted the video on his YouTube channel.
In it for the long run
With the season just half over, Hensley has his sight set on the championship. He needs to make up 17 points to top Shearer.
“Last year I missed some races. This year I’m planning on making every race,” Hensley said. “I’ve got the biggest fan club in the stands cheering me on, too.”
His son Matthew, 7, daughter Jadelynn, 3, and his wife Kim join his parents, cousins and extended family in the grandstand every week.
“I believe we can do it,” he says of regaining the lost points from the disqualification. “Raul (Rodriguez) came out of nowhere to be in second place. We can come back from our setback just as quickly.”
IMCA SportMods tonight
Merced Speedway will present a four-division show this Saturday night.
Joining the Hobby Stocks will be the International Motor Contest Association SportMod, Valley Sportsman and Vintage Super Modified divisions.
Michael Shearer of Los Banos will try to make it two wins in a row in the SportMod class. In the championship point tally, Ramie Stone of Winton leads the pack, with Rick Diaz of Los Banos just four points out.
Merced Speedway is located inside the Merced County Fairgrounds, 900 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Merced. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens and $5 for children 6-12. A family four-pack of tickets admits two children and two adults for $30.
Racing begins at 7 p.m. The grandstand opens at 5 p.m.