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MOTOR RACING / BRIAN MURPHY : Prosser Back in Driver’s Seat at Saugus

Oren Prosser, still roaring at 50, will turn back the clock tonight at Saugus Speedway.

Prosser, perhaps the most prolific driver to race in the speedway’s 52-year history, will get behind the wheel of the No. 90 car owned by Joe Heath and formerly driven by Keith Spangler for tonight’s twin 50-lap races for double points. Prosser received the offer from Heath and Cal Northrup, who is Heath’s crew chief and Prosser’s son-in-law.

For longtime fans, seeing Prosser tearing up the one-third-mile paved oval will warm up memories of days gone by. For newer fans, it will be a chance to see the driver who won championships in 1964 and again in a four-year stretch from 1969-72.

Prosser, whose language remains as salty as a piece of beef jerky, is all too happy to oblige.

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“Yeah, the old bald-headed (son of a gun) will be out there,” Prosser said. “I feel fine and I tested the car on Tuesday. It ran good.”

The bucolic Prosser’s attitude reflects that of an old-timer whose days of glory are too numerous to remember. When asked when was the last time he raced competitively, Prosser was stumped.

“Shoot, what was it, 1987?” he asked rhetorically.

Prosser then cupped a hand over the phone at his auto repair shop and yelled to some co-workers. “Hey, when was the last time I raced?”

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A stream of muffled answers provided no concrete answer.

“I dunno,” Prosser said with a chuckle. “Maybe ’84? Or ’85?”

An easygoing nature belies Prosser’s love of adventure. He doubles as a “half-(hearted) cowboy” and roped a few calves last week at a celebrity rodeo.

“I had a great time,” he said. “I figured I’d be too old but I roped the (heck) out of that (calf).”

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He’ll be looking to rope a good time tonight too.

Whistle stop: Saugus Speedway tonight will pay tribute to one of the Old West’s great outlaws with the running of the Buffalo Tom Vernon Memorial Train Race after the main events.

Buffalo Tom Vernon wasn’t exactly an upstanding citizen but certainly a citizen worth noting. It was Vernon--he took the name Buffalo Tom because he idolized Buffalo Bill Cody--who pulled off the last known train robbery in Southern California on Nov. 10, 1929.

The site of that robbery was on the train tracks directly behind what is now Saugus Speedway. Saugus spokesman Lee Baumgarten said that old photographs of the train, which derailed after Vernon had lifted the spikes from a section of the tracks the night before, show old Bonelli Stadium in the background, where rodeos took place before Saugus Speedway opened in 1939.

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The speedway’s train races, popular fan attractions, feature three jalopy cars stripped to the basics and hooked together at the fender. There is a driver in the lead car and a rider in the caboose; only the lead car has an engine. Send about a dozen of these three-car “trains,” out on the track, make them race in a figure-eight and you have a show as wild as the Old West.

Baumgarten said that the curator of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Museum will be interviewed by the public-address announcer at intermission to discuss the legend of Buffalo Tom Vernon.

And by the way, Vernon pulled off one more train robbery in Cheyenne, Wyo., before being caught and sentenced to life imprisonment at Folsom Prison. He was released, however, in 1964, a “small, nervous, aging, gray-haired man,” according to documents.

Change of plans: Tonight’s Winston 100 for double points in the Sportsman Division will be handled differently than in the past. Instead of one 100-lap race, the Sportsman cars will race two 50-lap events.

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The first 50-lap race will be held directly after intermission. Then, the Grand American Modifieds and the Outlaw Minis will race preceding the final 50-lap race.

The twin-50s should have an enormous effect on the points battle, which has come down to a two-man race for first. Second-year Sportsman racer Lance Hooper of Palmdale leads veteran Gary Sigman of Carson by just seven points, 270 to 263.

Hooper is coming off of a second-place finish last week at Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino where he set the night’s fast time of 13.532 seconds.

Looking ahead: Saugus officials soon will be expected to announce the finalizing of plans for the year-end, four-track race series that traditionally closes the season for Sportsman cars.

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Saugus will play host to the first of the four races--to be called the NASCAR Western States Challenge--on Sept. 28, with subsequent races at Orange Show Speedway, El Cajon and Silver State Speedway in Las Vegas. Also planned is a series-ending cocktail party and awards banquet in Las Vegas at the Showboat Casino.

Don’t stop me now: Jalopy driver Mindy Drake, who has made a name for herself as one of the most successful women drivers in Saugus Speedway history, holds a strong seventh place in the points standings despite not having raced in the figure-eight races.

Drake, however, plans to change that on Aug. 24, the next time Jalopies run at Saugus.

“I’m point hungry,” Drake said. “I’m starting to lose a sense of challenge just running the ovals.”

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So what’s the problem?

“My soon-to-be father-in-law won’t let me,” Drake said with a chuckle. “But I’m working on it.”

It’s not just her soon-to-be father-in-law who’s leery, though. It’s also her soon-to-be father-in-law’s son, Hobby Stock driver Russ Wolff, who is having second thoughts.

“She’s thinking about the figure-eight, but nobody’s real happy about that,” Wolff said. “I guess we’ll buy her a neck brace and see what happens.”

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Making a comeback: Until it bowed out as a venue for the sport five years ago, Ventura Raceway was a regular stop on the Southern California Speedway motorcycle schedule. For tonight only, the 500cc, alcohol-burning bikes with no brakes and one gear will make a return, in the Speedway Summer Classic.

“I’ve always considered the Ventura Raceway my home track, as I spent so many years competing at the Commotion-by-the-Ocean,” Bobby (Boogaloo) Schwartz said. “The Ventura track is longer than most of the tracks on the race circuit and I remember how I used to set up my bike, so I think I’ve got it dialed as far as gearing is concerned.”

Also appearing tonight will be a full program of New Zealand Side Cars, which carry two riders, have three wheels, feature 1000cc motorcycles and also have no brakes.


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