Merced Speedway returns to action this Saturday night with a blockbuster event featuring six divisions of racing, along with its annual “Legends of Merced” program that honors the stars and cars of decades gone by.
After an unprecedented three week layover that began with the speedway being used to stage fire crews attacking the Detwiler Fire, the track went into its summer break. Owner Ed Parker added the IMCA Modified and SportMod classes to the “Legends” program on Saturday to make up for the show canceled during the fire.
“This is a rare opportunity for fans to see several generations of actual race cars, running on the race track as they did in decades gone by,” says speedway Race Director Doug Williams, a native Mercedian. “You will be able to see local automotive racing history – from the days when racers used ingenuity and junk yard parts to create race cars to the present purpose-built cars of today made by professional chassis builders.”
Taking center stage at the event are the cars of the Valley Sportsman class. The narrow body stock cars - such Chevrolet Corvairs and Ford Falcons with roof wings added - were popular in the 1970’s. The hobby stock division, a staple of the show since 1970, will also be part of the program.
“The hobby stocks have remained consistent since the 1970s to now,” says Williams, who drove a Camaro at the speedway in 1980.”The hobby stock cars stood still in time – many of the same Camaros raced back then are here today.”
Completing the full card of competition will be the Fourth Annual Wayne Albright Memorial race for the Bay Cities Racing Association’s Midget Lite cars. A large field of winged, open wheel cars powered by 1000cc motorcycle engines is
The IMCA Modified and SportMod classes are featured at hundreds of speedways nationally, and have become the current top attraction at the speedway. Cars and drivers in the IMCA classes compete for starting positions in the 20 car feature events. They race for purse money as well as national and regional points.
Griffin, Sass to be honored
Johnny Sass, 88, has seen it all when it comes to Merced Speedway.
“I guess I am the only survivor from day one,” says Sass of his 70 year relationship with the fairgrounds clay oval. “I even got hurt racing my ’34 Ford Jalopy in the 1950’s. Al Pombo slid his car sideways on the backstretch and I T-boned it on the driver’s side. “I broke my nose and the gear shift went into my arm.”
Former speedway racer turned track owner Chuck Griffin and the speedway’s long-time announcer Johnny Sass will be honored in this year’s Legends of Merced program.
After his crash, Sass reluctantly got out of driving and became the track’s pit steward. He called car lineups on a loud speaker, his voice drowning out the noises of engines.
“One day the announcer got sick,” Sass recalls. “I was reluctantly recruited to announce in the grand stands. I knew all the drivers by nicknames I had given them so I just went with it.”
Sass, along with his late wife and scoring assistant Eva, were fixtures in the press box for 60 years. Eva passed in 2015.
“I enjoyed every minute of it,” he adds.
The track had only two classes of cars - Stock Cars and the Valley Sportsman cars. NASCAR sanctioned the races during the time period. Sass’s booming voice became legendary as he called the races week after week.
Sass teamed up with Chuck Griffin in 1985. Griffin had also been a driver, and raced at the track in the 1960s and 70s.
Griffin sold the track to Antioch’s John Soares in 2010, who sold it to present owner Parker prior to the 2015 season.
“Honoring those who are still alive is key to preserving history,” says Williams. “My memories come alive when I see my childhood heroes – Johnny Sass and drivers like Dennis Moonjean – at the speedway today.”
Saturday night at Merced Speedway
On the Track: The Legends of Merced Speedway will honor retired drivers with a Valley Sportsman parade lap, heat races and a feature event. Vintage Supermodifieds from Fresno’s former Kearney Bowl will have a demonstration race. The IMCA Modified, IMCA SportMod, Hobby Stock, and BCRA Midget Lite divisions will each have a complete program of qualifying races and a feature event on the quarter-mile clay oval.
The Pit Area will open at 2 p.m. with the grandstand opening at 5. Racing will start at 7. The admission prices are $12 for adults, children 6-12 years old are $5. Kids 5-and-under are free.
Gates Open: Pit Area – 2 p.m., Grandstand 5 p.m.