The non-winged sprint cars of the California Racing Assn., after starting off with three races in Arizona, will make their debut Saturday night at Ascot Park in the fourth round of the 56-race Parnelli Jones/Firestone series.
At first glance, it would appear that nothing has changed from last year, when Ron Shuman won 14 main events and took the season championship home to Tempe, Ariz. After three races, Shuman is on top again with 384 points to 369 for Jerry Meyer of Brea and 356 for Lealand McSpadden, also of Tempe.
But a lot has changed.
Shuman is driving a different car for a different team.
Last year, the Shoe drove a Challenger for Ed Ulyate of Laguna Hills, but when Ulyate decided not to defend his car owner’s championship this season because of business conflicts, Shuman had to go looking for another ride.
“I couldn’t help noticing that every time I got beat last year, it seemed like the guy driving was in a Gambler,” Shuman said. “So, I decided I ought to find me a ride in a Gambler this year.”
The opportunity arose when he was asked by Andy Morales to drive the legendary Tamale Wagon, a Gambler chassis. Andy is the son of the late Alex Morales, a car owner for more than 30 years. Morales’ cars won six CRA championships before his death last year.
The Tamale Wagon, driven last year by Mike Sweeney of Carson, finished second in the standings, but the younger Morales decided to switch drivers when the champion became available.
Sweeney, who has finished second in the CRA for four straight years, is driving a Shrike this season for Joe Kasparoff’s Super K team from Montebello.
“I’d never driven a Gambler before, but I knew their reputation,” Shuman said. “I didn’t put a deal together with Andy (Morales) until the first week in February so we didn’t have much time getting acquainted but I have been impressed with the way he works. He changed the car’s setup last week to suit me and we won our first race.”
Shuman, after finishing third and fourth in first two races at Phoenix, came back to win last Saturday night at Tucson’s Raven Raceway.
The Tucson win was Shuman’s 41st in the CRA, even though he was only a part-time racer until last season, and moved him into fifth place on the all-time list. Ahead of him are Dean Thompson, 103 wins; Bubby Jones, 77; Bob Hogle, 63, and Jimmy Oskie, 58.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to Ascot because it’s a driver’s track,” Shuman said. “The best motor doesn’t always win, and the best set-up car doesn’t always win. You might have the car set up perfect to run up top, but if the cushion goes away, you’ve got to get to the bottom.
“That’s where the driver comes in, knowing when to go up or go low, to maneuver the car so you go toward the front. Ascot always has two grooves, the bottom and the cushion, and sometimes I make a third groove for myself, up between the cushion and the fence.”
Shuman, 36, scored nine of his 14 sprint car wins last year at the Agajanian family’s Gardena track.
“The Gambler is definitely better for Ascot, too,” he said. “It gets a lot of forward bite, and it’s loose enough to go through the corners and still fast down the straightaways.”
Shuman may find the competition a bit tougher this year as two-time CRA champion Brad Noffsinger of Huntington Beach appears ready to return to sprint car competition after a year with the Winston Cup stock cars. Noffsinger finished third in last season’s NASCAR rookie standings but his car owner-sponsor, Mike Curb, decided against returning to the national circuit full time.
Curb is sponsoring Noffsinger, the 1986-87 champion, and Eddie Wirth of Hermosa Beach, the 1985 winner, in this year’s sprint car series in a pair of Shrikes owned by Jack Gardner of Anaheim.
Even though 56 CRA races would make for a busy enough season, Shuman also plans to run a midget in the United States Auto Club’s Western States regional series as often as he can.
“I race for a living, so I need to drive every opportunity I get,” he said. “I’ll drive the midget for Skip Schuck of Camarillo probably 12 to 15 races. They usually run Thursdays and Sundays, so there won’t be much conflict with the CRA (which runs Saturday nights).”
Shuman won two races in Schuck’s car last year, one at Ascot in the first time he sat in the car and the other at Hanford.
Although he is a World of Outlaws veteran and the CRA champion in sprint cars, Shuman’s national reputation was made in a midget car at Ascot where he won the Turkey Night Grand Prix six times, including four in a row between 1979 and 1982.
No one else has ever won more than two Turkey Night races in a row, and the last to win two was A.J. Foyt in 1960-61.
Midget races will come in for more attention this year because they will be spotlighted every Thursday night, starting April 6, as part of ESPN’S weekly Thunder Series. Eight of the races will be from Ascot, including the opener.
STOCK CARS--Season openers are scheduled this weekend for both Ascot Park and Saugus Speedway. Ascot will open Sunday night with a NASCAR Winston Racing Series pro stock main event, plus bomber ovals, Figure 8s and hobby stocks. With 1986-87 champion Ron Meyer out of competition this season, the Ascot championship is expected to be between defending champion Fred Estrada, who nosed out Meyer on the final day, and perennial contender Marcus Mallett. John Koulouris, a former Porsche Owners Club slalom champion, will contest the series in a Camaro.
Saugus will get its season under way with a factory stock enduro and destruction derby on Saturday night. NASCAR’s Southwest Tour will open its season March 25 at Saugus, with the track’s regular sportsman schedule getting under way April 1.
MOTOCROSS--Supercross champion Rick Johnson, who broke his wrist in a mid-air collision during a practice ride in Gainesville, Fla., a week ago, says he will return to racing in the final Supercross event of the season, June 10, in the Coliseum. Doctors, however, say it may take three or four months for the shattered wrist to mend completely.
Johnson was preparing for the 250cc outdoor season opener when he and Danny Storbeck hit while sailing over a jump and Storbeck and his bike landed on Johnson. Coincidentally, Jeff Ward, Johnson’s chief rival for several years, returned from an early season leg injury to race at Gainesville and finished third behind Jean-Michel Bayle of France and Jeff Stanton, the new Supercross leader, from Sherwood, Mich.
SPORTS CARS--Bruce Leven’s Bayside Porsche 962 will be going for an unprecedented third straight win Saturday in the 12 Hours of Sebring. Oddly, the Bayside team has had different drivers each year. In 1987 it was Jochen Maas and Bobby Rahal, in 1988 Klaus Ludwig and Hans Stuck. This year the drivers will be James Weaver and Dominic Dobson, who also will drive the new Bayside Texaco Star in the Indianapolis 500 and selected Indy car races. . . . Stuart Hayner, 1988 Corvette Challenge champion from Yorba Linda, has signed with Les Lindley to drive a Camaro in the Trans-Am season, which will start April 15 at Long Beach.
FORMULA ONE--Nigel Mansell, frustrated at not winning the world Grand Prix championship in a race car, has turned to golf while waiting for the racing season to start March 26 in Brazil. In his European tournament debut, Mansell shot an 87, 18 over par, in the opening round of the $400,000 Baleares Open in Palma de Majorca, Spain.
DRAG RACING--Eddie Hill recorded the world’s fastest top-fuel dragster speed of 291.82 m.p.h. during an unofficial tune-and-test day at Houston last week before the completion of the postponed Supernationals. That bettered Connie Kalitta’s official record of 291.54 set last month during the Winternationals at the Pomona Fairgrounds.