If you attended last year’s return of “The Louie Vermeil Classic” at Calistoga Speedway I’m sure you saw Louie’s old “Model A” tow truck that was given to the Wolleson family after Louie’s passing. The Wolleson’s love and dedication to Calistoga Speedway and the Northern Auto Racing Club went hand in hand with that of the Vermeil’s. Charlie Wolleson was a long time car owner and NARC official. Their son Mark grew up to drive the family owned sprinter and in July of 1981 he pulled off the race track and passed away from heart failure while running in the Semi Main event at Calistoga. He was only 25 years old. The following night, Mark’s mother Barbara and the rest of the Wolleson family watched from outside the pit entrance as a lap of silence was done in Mark’s memory. Barbara returned home just a few miles away and didn’t return to the speedway for the next 26 years. Even in her absence she would raise money each year for the “Mark Wolleson Semi” that was run during the first few Louie Vermeil Classics back in the mid 1980’s. After Louie stepped down as the NARC president, Charlie Wolleson also stopped coming to the races and the Vermeil race was no longer held. Over the years Barbara’s heath deteriorated and the family heart condition along with diabetes kept her in a wheel chair along with many trips to the hospital. When I first spoke to Barbara about the return of “The Louie Vermeil Classic” last year, you would never guess she was sick at all. She was so excited and right away started raising money for “The Mark Wolleson Semi”. Her only stipulation was that ALL of the money that they raised went directly to the racers. So with a collective effort of family and friends they raised $2500 and paid for two beautiful trophies for each nights Semi winner. Then on the opening night just days after her last stay in the hospital, Barbara Wolleson sat in her wheel chair with an oxygen bottle helping her breath as she looked out over the speedway where she last saw her son race over 26 years ago. Charlie Wolleson drove the “Model A” tow truck as he push started Louie’s old racecar that was being driven by son, Dick Vermeil. That night was a magical night for healing and remembering, and even though a major error omitted any mention of “The Mark Wolleson Semi” from the racing program, by the end of the weekend Barbara and her family were glowing and proud to have been part of the event.
I spoke to Charlie and Barbara just a few weeks ago and she was all ready talking about this year’s race. She must’ve liked the way USAC put Louie’s picture on last year’s trophies because she asked if we could have a picture of Mark put on the semi trophies. Charlie mentioned that it might be a little tougher to raise money this year, but that Barbara was determined and already making phone calls.
Last Saturday my son had just pulled in from his very first hot lap session in a sprint car when I got the call that Barbara had passed away. I had to sit there and think about how nervous I was, while my son was so excited to fulfill a dream of getting to drive a sprint car. I thought about how a nervous mother watched as her son lived out his racing dream and how she continued to raise money for other racers who she didn’t even know just because they shared the same dream. I’m sure some of the greatest times she had were spent with her family at the races and I can completely understand why as a parent, Barbara Wolleson wanted to help out other young racers, knowing the joy it brought to her own son.
Yesterday I spoke to Charlie Wolleson and he said that Barbara didn’t want a funeral or any big fuss when she was laid to rest. I think the best way we can honor her and remember her is to help her family raise the money she was determined to gather for this year’s race. We all understand that times are tough right now, so I know that even as little as $20 with a short note asking that it be added to the “Mark Wolleson Semi” will be greatly appreciated. I can promise you that every dime you send will be paid out to some racer over Labor Day Weekend.
It is the giving spirit of people like the Wolleson’s that made last year’s race so great and they are just one of the families that make Calistoga so special to me.
Barbara Wolleson was a dedicated mother, grandmother and great grandmother and she’d been married to one man for over 58 years. She was 76 years old.
May she rest in peace.
You can send your condolences and/or donations to;
Calistoga, Ca 94515