Gary Jacob Autobiography
The following was a joint project by RacingWest and Gary Jacob. Original Article
One other racing memory of my youth was one time when we were attending the State Fair in Sacramento. As we walked around, we heard the Winston West cars warming up on the mile dirt track. I begged to attend, but my father gave me the choice of attending the race and getting a new toy truck. As a young boy, of course the toy truck won out, but that was one of the last times that racing took a back seat. Since we lived in Turlock, my favorite race drivers growing up were Turlock residents like Bill Bryan, Farrell Jones and Ray Donaldson. We primarily attended Stockton 99 Speedway when it was a Friday night race track and we started buying the racing publications that were on sale there, like Racing Wheels from Vancouver, Washington and National Speed Sport News. The writer who was covering Stockton quit and I realized that I could do that. My original plan was to cover Stockton each week and go to Merced Speedway every other week, but it immediately became a two track every weekend deal. Besides Stockton and Merced, our special events consisted mainly of super modified events at San Jose, Clovis, West Capital and Kearney Bowl, but we were also big fans of the NASCAR action on the road course at Riverside and attended those events for over 20 years before that track closed in 1987.
In 1973, Stockton moved their racing to Saturday nights and I had already built a relationship with Watsonville Speedway, which was then a sister track to Merced. Watsonville became my Friday night home and it has been that way for 29 seasons as I make the 100 mile trek over Pacheco Pass over 20 times each season. There was one season in 1978 when Watsonville tried to be a Saturday night track and I moved my Friday night racing to Vallejo that season. Since Vallejo had a strict curfew and was always over by 10:30, I frequently came home through Sacramento and caught the feature action at West Capital on the way home. For a couple seasons in 1974 and 1975, the paved San Jose Speedway ran a Wednesday night show using the Watsonville Speedway dirt track stock cars and that saw me attend over 30 events in San Jose in a single season. 1971 was the first season where I attended over 100 events and I have been over the 120 mark annually ever since, peaking out at 162 races in 1994. Ron Hedger in National Speed Sport News runs a race attendance contest each year and I have won the Media division over a half-dozen times by attending more racing events than any other person in the world in a particular year. Merced was my Saturday night home track until the late 70’s when I started bouncing around from special event to special event. Mesa Marin Raceway opened in 1977 and I attended a lot of shows there in their first decade before NASCAR came up with a Southwest Tour and Northwest Tour and started taking the top stars away from Mesa Marin. The early years at Mesa Marin were especially exciting as they used completely inverted starts and drivers like Ivan Baldwin, Sonny Easley, Jimmy Insolo and Jim Thirkettle were spectacular in their drives through the pack. Before the invention of the Touring series, there were special events throughout the west and I covered them all, like the big year end race at Craig Road Speedway in Las Vegas, the week long Speedweek Series in Washington and Canada, the old Saugus 330’s, a 500 lap race at Ascot Park won by Winston West legend Ray Elder and the many races that midwestern stars like Larry Phillips, Mike Miller and Larry Detjens would come west to win. Off the west coast, I attended the Florida Speedweeks action in February for 15 straight years (not so much for the Daytona 500, but for all the short track racing that accompanies it). I also made about six summer trips to the midwest, mainly keyed around the traveling UMP Summer Nationals for the dirt late models.
In the early 90’s, Antioch Speedway became my Saturday night home as the dirt late models were the featured division at Watsonville, Antioch and Merced at that time. I was also introduced to the Outlaw Kart action at Red Bluff and Cycleland. With the younger age of the competitors, I get more feedback on my writing from the outlaw kart scene than all the other racing combined. My attendance at the Red Bluff winter series has fallen off in the past couple seasons as the special events in January and February in Arizona have become so numerous. With the invention of the CarQuest Dirt Late Model Tour in the late 90’s, that series has become my primary Saturday night function.
The fact that I live where I do has been a key component in my ability to cover so many things at so many places. If I lived further south, I would have never made the Oregon, Washington or Northern Nevada trips that I have. If I lived further north, I couldn’t spend 9 or 10 straight weekends each winter driving to Phoenix or Las Cruces, New Mexico. The only time that I fly to a race is the Midwest or Florida trips as the furthest that I have driven home from an event was a 19 hour run from Eunice, New Mexico on a Sunday night last fall. The toughest drives that I have forced upon myself were the several years that Pahrump, Nevada would run their biggest event on Saturday night in September, then I would drive all night to catch Elko, Nevada’s biggest race the next afternoon, then drive all the way home. For many years, I told myself that I had a 600 mile rule on how far I would drive to attend a race, but that went away when I started attending Winter Heat races in Tucson and now I make at least a couple races a year in Las Cruces, New Mexico each year. I am often criticized for driving past better events to attend some four division show with 28 total cars somewhere in Central Nevada, but I love the fact that I have been able to get so many different drivers’ accomplishments in print over the years.
I have never really considered racing myself as I tried Malibu Grand Prix a couple times and wasn’t very good. I saw how much time my brother had to spend on upkeep on his race car and knew that I would never be able to devote that kind of time to a racing effort and still do what I love to do. My brother Daryl raced in the NASCAR winged sportsman for several years at Merced and Watsonville. He was never a front runner, but I do remember one night where I hustled back from a day race at Carson City, Nevada to see him racing during the fair at Merced that night. He led nearly all the way in the main event only to get passed late in the race by Mike Holzer. Daryl suffered a fatal heart attack in 1988 while towing home the last race car that he purchased, a stock car from Johnny Brazil Jr. My father Richard devoted the final years of his life to accompanying me on my long road trips in order to help drive me home. He enjoyed the racing too, but his primary motivation was to get me home safely each weekend. Health issues forced him to stop attending races in August of 1999 and he died in June of 2000. He was always willing to do whatever was needed to keep me on my hectic pace and having to do it by myself over the past couple years has been very different.
For many years, I only wrote about the races that I attended. Since Modesto’s Jack McCoy was a top runner on the Winston West circuit for so many years, our local papers would often have Winston West results that weren’t in the racing papers, so I started doing small stories on those events. My friendship with Don Low spread my coverage over Southern California as he started providing notes on the events that he attended. Even Jim Thirkettle’s elderly father Bill Thirkettle was providing me notes on the Mesa Marin races that I couldn’t attend. One of the west’s top writers, Nadine Strauss, didn’t think that she could write the Lakeport stories in the early years there and was providing me with notes to work off of. The popularity of the internet sent this outside coverage to a new level as more and more tracks were willing to post their race results, point standings, etc on their internet web sites, but would never think of putting together a race story. This fact and my untiring dedication to my effort has allowed me to expand my coverage to nearly every race track in states like Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. The past couple years, I have attended my normal 150 races, but have written nearly 1,000 race stories each season. As I become more familiar with what is happening at each of these tracks, my desire to attend an event there increases and that has seen me make the monster drives to Eunice, New Mexico, Aztec, New Mexico, Ely, Nevada, Elma, Washington and others. In many ways, it is a sad reflection on the state of auto racing promotion here in the western United States that I need to be the voice of some many different racing facilities in so many different states.
Readers consider me to be much more stock car oriented rather than open wheel minded. That is partly due to the fact that the sprint car scene had so many writers when I started and the stock cars had virtually none and the fact that the stock car shows seem to have more organized shows with much less dead time as they race so many classes in the modern events. The Friday night track that I attend, Watsonville, put the cars on the track for practice at 5 PM. If you go to another Friday night track, they often won’t be starting anything until after 7 PM.
People often ask how I have been able to perform at this level for so long without getting burned out. I don’t have a real answer, but I do know that my desire to attend every race that I can physically make it to is still there at the highest level. Of course watching the events when you know so many of the competitors is much different than a fan who knows no one. Once an event makes it onto my annual schedule, it seldom falls off. I think the fact that I have never held a salary paying position in the sport has allowed me to not get caught up in the political nature of the sport.