When promoter Jim Naylor of Ventura Raceway introduced entry-level International Motor Contest Assn. sprint cars to the West Coast in 1994, the thought of scheduling an open-wheel race during a stock car program was considered akin to inviting Hatfields and McCoys to the same party.
But Naylor's brainchild has proven successful.
The IMCA sprints--powered by less-powerful, 360-cubic-inch engines than the 410-cubic-inch-powered cars that compete in the Sprint Car Racing Assn.--made their debut on the track's opening night of the 1994 season as part of a stock car program.
Only three cars showed for the debut and blown engines claimed two of them in heat races, so the scheduled seven-lap main event became an exhibition of hot laps.
It was not an omen of things to come, however.
Since then, the IMCA sprints have risen to the top at Ventura.
Main events are 30 or 40 laps, instead of the 15-lap contests held in the first season.
Car counts have ranged from a low of 17 to a high of 33 in 1999.
Of 53 drivers who have scored points in 15 races at Ventura, 13 have competed at least 12 times.
There are five Ventura regulars in the top 20 of the IMCA national points standings.
More telling, on nights when the sprint cars race before the IMCA modifieds--which used to be the premier class at Ventura--the crowd heads for the exits after the sprint car feature faster than Laker fans in the fourth quarter of a blowout.
The car counts increased slightly that first year. Skoal tobacco funded a two-car team, but many other vehicles appeared to be vintage-class rejects.
The Skoal cars were driven by Gary Howard, who lived in Ventura but has since moved to Anaheim, and car owner Daryl Rogers of Palmdale.
SCRA regulars Cory Kruseman of Ventura and Ron Shuman of Tucson each stepped into Rogers' car and won main events that season.
The only points championship won by Skoal in its many years of racing sponsorship is the 1994 IMCA sprint car track championship won by Howard at Ventura.
Troy Rutherford of Ojai, who is 10th in the SCRA standings, used the IMCA series at Ventura as a stepping stone to the SCRA. He competed in four races with one victory in 1995, was chosen IMCA West Coast rookie of the year after winning nine races in 1996, and was selected SCRA rookie of the year in 1997.
Ventura was the first track on the West Coast to feature IMCA sprint cars, which have since caught on at other tracks.
Santa Maria Speedway holds sprint car races under IMCA sanction, and Perris Auto Speedway--which serves as the SCRA home track--hosts unsanctioned races for 360 sprint cars.
"It's not at all amateurish," said track manager Cliff Morgan of Ventura. "I think a lot of people at first thought it would be a low-level, crash-and-bash thing, and it hasn't turned out that way at all."
Said Naylor: "With sprint cars, [specifications] tend to be the same throughout the United States. What makes this class so attractive is that anybody can do it."
Kevin Kierce of Reseda holds a 44-point lead over Chris Wakim of Simi Valley for the track championship with four point-scoring races remaining. Kierce is ninth and Wakim is 12th in the national standings.
Kierce raced 410 sprints in the 1980s at now-closed Ascot Park in Gardena and has been racing 360 sprints since the first season at Ventura. He says the smaller engine and the special rear tire required by the IMCA help make the class more fun.
"I find that at the SCRA level, the guys who are having the most fun aren't always the guys who are winning, because it's so fast and intense," Kierce said. "The tire takes the horsepower game out of it, to where it almost takes more technique."
Howard moved up to the SCRA in 1995, but returned to the IMCA ranks this season after racing a limited schedule for two years.
"I was so impressed with the growth of the class," Howard said. "I think that's because you can have 13 or 14 different winners in a season, rather than two or three, and that's why the enthusiasm has grown."
Sean Woodside of Saugus finished second and Bill Sedgwick of Acton was fourth in the Coors Light 200 Winston West race Sunday at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash. Woodside trails points leader Brandon Ash by 17 points after eight of 14 races. . . . Bobby Boone of Palmdale won the 30-lap U.S. Auto Club Western Midget Car main event Saturday at Ventura Raceway. Greg Edenholm of Agoura won the 20-lap USAC TQ Midget feature. . . . Greg Pursley of Newhall finished third in a 75-lap Late Model race Friday at Mesa Marin Speedway in Bakersfield. . . . Dusty McDonald of Simi Valley leads Gerrit Cromsigt of Pine Mountain Club by six points in Irwindale Speedway's Late Model points standings. McDonald won the 40-lap main event Saturday, and Cromsigt finished eighth.