Wings off for Calistoga sprint cars at Vermeil Classic By Bobby Gerould – Calistoga, CA. August 22, 2008. …For the first time in nearly 23 years – sprint car racing without wings will return to Calistoga Speedway with the running of the Louie Vermeil Classic August 30-31, 2008. Sanctioned and promoted by the United States Auto Club (USAC) the event features two nights of CRA Sprint Cars, and Western Midgets doing battle on the historic half-mile dirt track.  


It was September 28th, 1985 when the last non-wing sprint car meeting was held at the track which is known for its long straight-aways and tight turns. Depending on which expert’s brain you pick – non-winged sprint car racing at Calistoga vanished due to a combination of safety concerns, politics, public relations issues, and a trend toward winged sprint car racing in the region.


In the late 1970’s, there may not have been a bigger hotbed for non-wing sprint car racing than the Napa County Fairgrounds which houses Calistoga Speedway (70 cars jammed the pits for the final race of the 1978 season). National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inductees Leroy Van Conett, and the late Gary Patterson are drivers who furthered their legend with their mix of skill and bravery in Calistoga Speedway exploits.


While not all veteran railbirds think safety was the key issue in the demise of the non-wing car at Calistoga, it is undeniable that the 1983 racing death of the iconic Patterson at Calistoga shook many racers to their core. Patterson died in a violent non-wing crash directly in front of the main grandstand.


But with time comes change. Tommy Hunt, Vice President of Western Operations for USAC says, “A modern sprint car is better and safer than it was over twenty years ago. The (roll) cage structure, full containment seats, the Hans Device, all help keep the driver in a better situation in case of an accident.”


Plus, says Hunt, the cars handle better in the turns. “The shock packages on the sprint cars of today coupled with wider tires and wheels make the car more stable than it was when they last raced at Calistoga in the mid eighties.”


USAC has, in recent years, successfully campaigned non-wing sprint cars at half-mile tracks across the United States such as Terre Haute (IN.), Williams Grove (Mechanicsburg, PA.), and Manzanita (Phoenix, AZ.). The USAC CRA series uses the half-mile Perris Auto Speedway in Southern California as a home base.


As a former driver, Hunt also knows that despite any and all gains in safety, racing a sprint car is inherently dangerous. “A sprint car is a serious racecar that can bite you. Winged, without wings, it doesn’t matter. “


So who will be brave enough to strap in without a wing on Labor Day weekend?


A new generation and a few from the ‘old guard’ are ready to test the wicked half-mile in the 21st century. Leading the entries for the extravaganza are Tim Kaeding, Hall of Fame driver Brent Kaeding, Damion Gardner and current USAC-CRA points leader Mike Spencer.  


Both Kaeding men run without a wing only a handful of times per season. Tim is entered in the very potent Roth Motorsports #83 jr. Brent Kaeding is the second ranked driver on the Calistoga Speedway all-time feature win list. “BK” of Campbell, CA has 21 victories on the half-mile, eight of them coming without a wing during the glory days of the now defunct Northern Auto Racing Club (NARC). Brent will drive his own #69 Maxim.


Gardner is towing his own #71 from Indiana while Spencer, from Temecula, CA. will drive the Ron Chaffin #50. Other sprint car competitors anticipated include: Garrett Hansen, Kevin Swindell, Blake Miller, Danny Sheridan, Shane Golobic, Daron Clayton, Andy Forsberg, Jesse Hockett, Rip Williams, David Cardey, Tyler Brown, Mike Benson, and many more.  Peter Murphy of Australia is expected to compete Sunday night.

The confirmed midget drivers generating a buzz include Robby Flock, 16 year-old Kyle Larson, Johnny “Lightning” Rodriguez, Shannon McQueen, Travis Berryhill, Justin Grant, Scott Pierovich, Nic Faas, Michael Faccinto, and ‘double duty drivers’ Golobic and Hansen.


The fun starts at 1pm Saturday August 30th with a wine tasting event featuring live music and a display of WRA Vintage Sprint Cars and Midgets. Super Bowl winning coach Dick Vermeil will greet race fans at the wine tasting event. ($8 per person. 21 and over only).


Cars are scheduled to be on the track by 5:30 PM each night. Tickets for each race night are $25 (General Admission). Call (916) 863-7223.