Ballico’s Scott Dahlgreen, 59, is reaping big rewards from a little car.
His teenage years were filled with hot summer evenings spent cruising 17th Street in Merced and heading into the Fairgrounds for Merced Speedway’s weekly program. Today, his Dwarf Car is a time machine – taking him back to the
heyday of local car culture.
“Back 40 years ago, you couldn’t find a place to sit at the speedway unless you got there early in the afternoon. The track was very popular with the families of servicemen at Castle Air Force Base,” recalls Dahlgren, 59. “I watched the races from the fence and dreamed I would be racing at Merced Speedway someday.”
Dwarf Cars have miniature replica car body styles from the 1930s and early 40s. There are little coupes, sedans and panel trucks. They are powered by modern 1,000 CC motorcycle engines. Divers stuff themselves into the little cars for big thrills. Dahlgren drives his at speeds as fast or faster than most of the different types of race cars.
Last season, speedway owner Ed Parker brought the cars back after more than a decade’s hiatus. The track successfully hosted its first Western States Dwarf Car Association Nationals.
This Friday and Saturday night, the Dwarf Car Nationals return to the quarter mile fairgrounds clay oval. Three classes of dwarf cars – Sportsman, Veterans, and Pros – will race in a complete program of heat races and features each night. More than 80 cars are expected from most of the states in the West.
Dahlgren bought his first Dwarf car for $600 back in 1998. Merced Speedway held dwarf car events upon a smaller oval inside the quarter mile oval.
Today, the cars race upon the big oval, which is wide enough for two and three cars to run side-by-side.
“Racing is back in a big way – there is a lot of interest in Dwarf Cars,” Dahlgen says. “That questions from potential racers - the growing numbers of fans fans – makes it feel like it did back when I was a kid.”
Dahlgren, a farm equipment manager, secured a “ride” driving one of the cars owned by the Galt-based Winter Race Team.
As senior member of the Winter Race Team, Dahlgren works in the pits with two-time Pro Division champion Ryan Winter and his brother Justin. Dahlgren competes in the veteran division.
“I’m trying to be consistent,” Dahlgren says. “There are four national events, and consistent top finishes could be a path to the championship.”
OLDER, BUT FASTER DRIVERS
Dahlgren’s top competition comes from Kevin Bender of Rocklin, who has been crowned champion of the Veteran Division for two years straight. Dahlgren finished third and sixth in the point standings in the past two seasons.
“Merced Speedway is a bigger quarter mile – you can run at the top of the track full throttle,” says Bender. “We’re going to have a good time there.”
The Veteran Division was split off from the Pro Division when the car counts got too large. A driver has to be 48 years old to race in the Veteran division.
“I like it that there are two divisions. Sometimes us older drivers have faster lap times than the Pros,” says Bender. “Even though us old drivers haven’t slowed down, we are more patient. We’re seasoned and we don’t want to beat on our cars because it means we will have to work every night of the week to be ready for the next race.”
The Pros are younger and more aggressive on the race track.
“They race every lap being extremely hard on their cars and their competitors,” says Bender. “There is a lot of wear and tear.”
One of the hard chargers in the Pro Division is Bay Point’s Danny Wagner, who is the reigning champion.
“The attraction to Dwarf Cars is that they are fast and small, which makes them very hard to drive. They are overpowered, and ‘twitchy’ – move the steering wheel an inch and you make a big change to where you are on the track,” says Wagner. “What makes racing at Merced Speedway exciting is having the width to pass – you have a good chance to come all he way from the back of the pack to win.”
The class rules keep the cars basically the same. Drivers can change shocks, springs, and angle or length of the bars in the suspension. Any ¼” to ½” adjustment can give the driver ability to move to the front.
“You can only make very small changes to the suspension of the cars,” Wagner explains. “Little things make a big difference on a little car – one of those little adjustments does a lot.”
Wagner points out that finishing last still earns the driver money in economical dwarf car racing. He won’t settle for last, though.
“I’m coming to the track with a lot of spare parts. We’re running back to back nights, so we have to be prepared,” he says. “I’ll even bring a spare engine – though I don’t need one that often. Usually, if you change the oil, you can get about three years of racing out of an engine.”
Friday and Saturday night at Merced Speedway:
The Dwarf Car Nationals begin at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday night. Merced Speedway’s Hobby Stock, Mini-Late Model, and Valley Sportsman divisions join the program on Saturday night. The grandstand opens at 5 p.m.