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Checkered Past: Rail Tale


We who have seen these World of Outlaws in each of their 41 seasons are a dying lot. Melodramatic maybe but stone dead reality. Maintaining perfect attendance however, warranted only a passing thought. Adventure was my motive. I had seen the World of Outlaws a thousand times but never on the end of a train.

California is the only state that seems to grasp train travel. Yes, its proposed high speed/high cost bullet is political football. But existing rails provide convenient service for millions. I demanded an ocean view and no route linking me by bus, the lowest form of human steerage.

I had two days and 521 miles between San Marcos and Brad Sweet’s Placerville promotion, rained out six months before. Haste and distance could have been reduced by skipping it. But my bullring sense said the tiny track would double the action of Stockton or Calistoga, and such prejudice proved true.

San Marcos is not serviced by Amtrak, so my first train was a North County Transit District hybrid appropriately titled Sprinter, which spit me out in Oceanside to catch Pacific Surfliner. One stop was Angels Stadium to show how folks with no car still see baseball. Train II ended in the bowels of Los Angeles at Union Station, an elaborate 80-year old network of tunnels and platforms to thrust travelers in every direction. “Silver Streak” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” are two of my favorite motion pictures filmed there.

Monday travel was complicated by my burning need to see the Oakland Raiders at 6:30pm. Amtrak guaranteed no sports lounge so I stepped off at Ventura Raceway and dragged luggage to Motel 6. Maxwell Industries has made me familiar with downtown. I upgraded headphones at Goodwill, hit Great Central Steak & Hoagie, and grabbed a tall Stone Delicious IPA pre-game.

I rounded Chestnut to see a tour bus docked at 91-year old Majestic Theatre. I had seen George Lynch (Dokken) there around 2000. Bus belonged to “Little Steven” Van Zandt and Disciples of Soul. Readers would be wise to listen to Little Steven’s “Underground Garage” rollicking mix of old songs, new songs, movie dialogue, and Van Zandt’s razor wit. In a perfect world, I would have celebrated Raiders destroying Denver with Garage Rock presented by “Silvio Dante” and his merry pranksters, but starting times for gridiron and guitars did not jive.

Tuesday morning started seamlessly: 11am motel checkout; 11:30 train. There was, however, no station to sell tickets and no kiosk that survived vandalism. No one could keep me off that train to San Luis Obispo (where Jan Opperman played QB), but I preferred to board with an actual ticket.

This may as well be that part of the story when I reveal myself as the last American with no cellphone. I had one; I could not pay for it consistently; I then enjoyed not having one, not worrying about recharging, not ignoring people, etc. Conductor pointed to payphone shouting, “1-800-USA-RAIL.” I did recently acquire a debit card. Operator read confirmation code and I was legal beagle.

Pacific Surfliner along Carpinteria State Beach to Santa Barbara along El Capitan State Beach was why I chose rail. As a motorist, I’ve always aimed for rivers, lakes or ocean views but can never stare too long without disaster. That is the luxury of a train. It veered inland to sidestep Vandenberg Air Force Base to Grover Beach that I first visited in 1987 when Fred Marks and Les Kepler of Pismo Beach rented quad cycles for any Outlaws who wanted to play. Our driver Rich Bubak broke his collarbone and completed his rookie season in pain.

Coast Starlight sees no coast for 150 miles between Avila Beach and Monterey Bay. Not coincidentally, this was my least favorite portion of the journey. Once we reached “Shark Tank” home of San Jose hockey, the sky was dark and water was ominous. I was somewhere behind the grave of Baylands Raceway Park. Four trains included Wifi; the last one did not, which thwarted plans to arrange a car to meet me in Emeryville.

Taxi cabs are dead as fried chicken, but Denny’s found one. I should have headed to Berkeley for cheap motel, recreational sedation and revolutionary spirit but instead instructed cab to El Cerrito. He drove like Middle Eastern Wild Child. Terrace Inn did not answer their door. I dragged down San Pablo Avenue to Hotsy Totsy, where bartender promised Uber so I celebrated with three of their signature screwdrivers. Waiting to tip may have been a big mistake because she changed her mind about helping.

Back on San Pablo Avenue risking public intoxication, I rolled luggage in direction of America’s Best Value Inn that cabbie passed. I finally found it but no vacancy. I walked under I-80 into Richmond and sat at a bus stop to wipe sweat. There across Carlson Boulevard like a mirage was Forty Flags Motel. In daylight, it offered hourly rates and working girls who resembled linemen from the Raider practice squad. But at 3am, Forty Flags was a sight for sore feet.

Richmond/San Pablo was destination for two reasons. It is home to Randy Mussell (Lynx the cat) and Greg Callow, who have extended lodging many times. But I only saw Randy on his way to an airport to Austin, Texas. I also knew Richmond as base for World of Outlaws communication. My editor Cristina Cordova Suarez and cameraman James McMahen shuttled me to Placerville, Stockton and Calistoga via my red light district. For good or ill, I have suffered no editorial screening for 20 years. I wished to lobby against excessive punctuation in person.

On our way through Sacramento, I told my new friends how there were once about 30 mechanics working with the World of Outlaws and like football kickers, shuffled team to team. That much has changed very little.

2.05.89 Jacksonville, FL: Joe Gaerte (Max Dolder photo)
2.05.89 Jacksonville, FL: Joe Gaerte (Max Dolder photo)

Kyle Larson’s crew behind Carson Macedo included engine wizard Joe Gaerte and Marty Williams, who spent 13 seasons at Tony Stewart Racing. Marty worked alongside Eric Prutzman prior to Prutzman joining Kasey Kahne Racing. Williams came to help Gaerte after Heath Moyle was injured… Lee Lindgren tried to help Shane Stewart. Lee knows NorCal dirt from his time with Tyler Walker, Tanner Thorson and the Allard brothers… Colby Copeland got crunched at Placerville and repairs were headed by Trevor Canales, who first visited P.A. with Paul Silva and Rico Abreu… Scott Martin (tagged as “Gilligan” by Bud Kaeding for his roots on an island in Washington) won the Gold Cup with Daryn Pittman but without Cori Guy, who left Dennis Roth for Australia’s Jesse Attard after Attard was evicted from Fred Rahmer’s shop for wrecking both of Fred’s sons… Kraig Kinser’s crew included Jett Carney, who I had not seen since Casey Minks stuck us on a Greyhound from El Paso to Phoenix to fetch trucks.

Knowing that always-fun Trevor Green and crazed members of his South Australia family were in Sacramento helped hasten my journey. Their occasion was the wedding of Trevor’s niece Kayla, who has raced sprint cars from Sydney to Chillicothe, Ohio. She is the daughter of Darrell “Mouse” Green, winning World of Outlaws wrench with Jac Haudenschild and Pennzoil then Oz King with Max Dumesny. Kayla’s mother is Heather Miller, daughter of Jerry, who plundered Placerville around 1990. Trev retired his broken back to Green Brothers Welding and seems to be doing great judging by the gifts bestowed on me.

One eye on the clock as Placerville promoter Brad Sweet looked ready to win his own promotion for the second straight year before reduced to seven cylinders. Still he finished sixth and snared the point lead. He surrendered the lead to Macedo, who was then passed by Shane Golobic approaching the white flag. Justin Sanders came on strong for third for the Von Schriltz 121 team that provided Golobic’s initial World of Outlaws win at Antioch in 2013. Tim Kaeding crossed fourth assisted by two generations of Rodney Tiner.

Kyle Larson spun in his heat, won midget feature, spun again to start sprint feature, then sailed clear to sixth after final joust with Rico Abreu. His mother thought a Marion County Sheriff’s badge would make me laugh. She also thought a sponsor should help cover the cost of outfitting locals with World of Outlaws-approved tires to raise car counts.

9.11.19: Gary Patterson and I have been on the wrong side of county sheriffs
9.11.19: Gary Patterson and I have been on the wrong side of county sheriffs

Shane Golobic revealed how his father John’s true World of Outlaws highlight was clocking quickest at Chico but that it become unofficial because he missed his spot in line. John knew the difference between how many folks won a single World of Outlaws race (53) and how few (16) ever repeated. The winning car belonged to Matt Wood, who recently became Shane’s father-in-law when Sarah said “Yes!” Golobic occupied one of six midgets and kept Kyle honest.

I watched P-Ville from the World of Outlaws tech trailer above turn three. Chunks of cushion rattled off the rig. Scales were below. Golobic’s arrival was pure joy; Macedo’s was polar opposite. Interesting that same words expressed each emotion.

For two years, I’ve told myself I don’t care anymore. Yes, I still love racing but am no longer obsessed with the next one. But when a likeable kid like Jacob Allen is counting down the laps to his first World of Outlaws victory, that same old nervous excitement gnawed at me. Jake’s ignition box quit two laps from glory. At least the 20k stayed in the Shark trailer with Logan Schuchart’s second straight Stockton score.

Stockton did not seem significantly different than three years ago when I last visited. The track is slightly closer to the crowd but still rough. One hole in turn one threw Tim Kaeding in the toolies. Donny Schatz hooked it too, yet somehow completed a pass for second over David Gravel. Absence of mufflers is baffling and delightful all at once.

Calistoga was splashed and started late. Track record fell when Gravel averaged 113.47 on 0.494 mile. Yes, the only half-mile in California is no half-mile at all. Call me curmudgeon but there was a time when throttles did not open until sundown. This is seldom an option in counties with curfews. Gravel led every lap.

Sweet was second and swapped point lead for third straight race with Schatz, who scored fourth behind Schuchart. Macedo managed fifth followed by Pittman and Dominic Scelzi, who walked his new German Shepherd through downtown during the day. In his third dirt start of 2019, Jojo Helberg outran Bud Kaeding as last car running; Jojo’s father Fred was modified champ at Petaluma and was all smiles that someone let him wheel-pack. Last summer, I attended Fred’s 50th wedding anniversary bash in Rohnert Park.

September 11 brings its own sorrow but this last one was compounded by the death of Oakhurst car owner Morrie Williams, who succumbed to cancer at age 85. Williams was an original. He raced hardtops at Madera and Kearney Bowl against Howard Kaeding and remained in racing long enough to hire Howard’s grandsons. Morrie shipped sprint cars to Iowa every summer and Australia each winter. Three times, his Zero emerged as top car in California with Jonathan Allard, then once more with Bud Kaeding.

12.16.17 Morrie Williams was 2017 King of the West
12.16.17 Morrie Williams was 2017 King of the West

Morrie Williams first shipped a sprint car to Knoxville Nationals in 1994. It came in an 18-wheeler when that was odd. Morrie’s driver was Darrin Howard, who became 1995 Rebel 360 winner at Kings as first Zero Hero. Greg DeCaires took over in 1996 and beat NARC at Placerville. British Columbia’s Jim Carr became Morrie’s wheelman in 1997 and beat NARC at Antioch. They went to Dirt Cup where Carr first learned to race but when Williams arrived at Nationals; Mike Peters was his pilot.

Australia’s Peter Murphy was up next. Pete did five seasons and turned the team international by importing crew chief Ashley Smith, who never left. They topped NARC at Tulare and were third with World of Outlaws in Houston. Morrie celebrated 40 years in auto racing in 1999 with one year as Number 40 when Murphy crossed fifth at Dirt Cup. They mined Silver Dollar for three Friday feature wins in 2000 and two in a row at Skagit. In winged invitational, Murphy dusted Kasey Kahne for $5000 on Sacramento Mile before Zero added leg of Pacific Fall 360 Nationals. Murphy finished second in 2001 Mini Gold Cup and first on Friday in June. Pete convinced Williams to strip wings for SCRA at Santa Maria and finished fifth in style that Murphy came to dominate. They were 2002 Golden State winners at Santa Maria and Chico while posting two more Friday features at the latter.

At the end of 2002, Williams went 360 racing with Tim Kaeding at Kings and won two Rebel races in a row. Ashley had worked at Knoxville for Dennis Moore Jr. and summoned DMJ for sixth at Pacific Fall Nationals. Moore won six in 2003: three with Golden State at Tulare, Watsonville and Gary Patterson Classic at Calistoga; Chico; Cameron, MO; and Huset’s Speedway.

Williams shipped pieces and personnel to Australia for all three “Outlaws Down Under” in 2004-06. DMJ drove first. Dennis defeated Golden State series at Kings early in 2004 then returned to Iowa. Ashley tapped Trevor Green and the Aussie mates won at Skagit. Moore was back for 2004 Nationals, another win at Cameron and second at Trophy Cup at Hanford. Moore and Morrie were third at Tulare in 2005 in the best World of Outlaws run by either driver or owner to that point.

Jonathan Allard assumed control in 2005 and stayed with Williams for eight seasons. They were second with World of Outlaws at Grays Harbor and eighth on Mount Maunganui. They won 2007 Gold Cup prelim and were third in 2008 final. They traveled to 2010 Kings Royal, Don Martin Memorial and Summer Nationals at Williams Grove. They were second in 2012 Mini Gold Cup and finally cracked Saturday grid at Knoxville. Jon lingered in New Zealand to start 2013 so Williams phoned phenom Kyle Larson, who took Zero to third at Vegas. Allard was third at Gold Cup and second at Antioch.

Bud Kaeding became Morrie’s driver in 2014 and was still standing six years later. Against the World of Outlaws, they were fifth at Stockton, Antioch and Hanford then third at Chico. Just last week, Bud finished ninth in Morrie’s final Gold Cup. Friends knew the end was near because Williams did not attend. Four days later, he said goodbye.


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