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See You At The Races!!!

 The Best Little Dirt Track In America
by Norm Bogan

“The best little dirt track in America” is the way that Ventura Raceway describes itself.  For those who viewed the ESPN Thunder series in the mid-90s, you may recall this tight little track hosting some great USAC Midget races.  One of the most scenic locations for a race facility, it is also one of the friendliest venues in the country.

I have visited nearly two hundred racetracks over the years and refer to Ventura as my personal favorite.  Arriving at the track around noon, I checked in with the staff and found the Promoter Jim Naylor at work on the grader doing track prep for the evening.  Spending a few minutes with Competition Director Cliff Morgan and other staff members, we discussed the latest innovations at the facility, this year’s attendance and the competitor participation (car counts).  All reports were positive, reflecting the attitude of the track personnel in presenting an outstanding program for the fans and making this a friendly place for the racers to compete.  The track has a good ticket program for the fans, offering senior, military and student discounts, while the younger kids are free.  The top dollar ticket was twelve dollars, not too bad by today’s standards for a great evening of racing.

One of the first things you notice is that the track has all of its own equipment. There are graders, water trucks, tow trucks, a paddlewheel, skip loaders, fire truck and an assortment of quads, mules and a golf cart, all in the track color scheme, each with a unit number.  Another item that impresses is that the safety crew fills the infield during the racing action.  Each member is outfitted in matching fire suits operating a quad or mounting the fire truck to respond to any incident.

As one takes a seat in the grandstand overlooking the quarter-mile banked oval, you can look right and see the Pacific Ocean with waves rolling onto the beach about two-hundred yards away, observing surfers and sailboats.  To the left is the mission town of San Buenaventura, with Spanish style homes on the slopes of the mountain backdrop.  Looking straight across the track you view the Ventura County Fairgrounds and the various exhibit buildings.  Just beyond turn three, passes the main rail line on the West Coast and as trains pass by they blow their horns for the fans.      

Ventura like so many local venues runs several classes including Street Stocks, Pony Stocks, four cylinder Modifieds, IMCA Modifieds and the headliner 360 VRA non-wing Sprint Cars.  In addition, they have an annual vintage Motorcycle race, plus occasional visits by Dwarf Cars and other race clubs, including the SCRA 410 Non-Wing Sprints.

While I generally follow the SCRA circuit, this was an off week and time to head for Ventura.  Many said that Midgets couldn’t run on this bullring track, but those great ESPN shows proved otherwise.  In 1993, it was time to test the track with sprint cars.  Again, with a few alterations to the track, it was possible to create some of the most intense racing on this little track.  With a twenty-car starting field, you’re in traffic in about half a lap. 

After several years of SCRA sprint car action, the track established a 360 class for those running on a limited budget, being able to buy old equipment and run competitively.  What started with about six or seven cars soon grew to about fifteen and by 2000, they often had thirty car fields.  Some of the racers were former CRA or SCRA racers, who couldn’t afford to run at that level, while another group decided to move up from either one of the stock car classes or from the open wheel TQ and Mini-Sprint fields.  An interesting phenomenon began to occur, when some of the retired racers decided to come back and run in this class, where there was not as much pressure or as strenuous a schedule.  As the car count increased, it was decided to split the field into the young guys and the old men.  With enough cars to support this, drivers over forty-five competed as seniors, while the youngsters ran as VRA regulars.

Last year, Cory Kruseman, a Ventura resident and nationally known sprint car driver, established a sprint car driving school operating at the raceway.  Many fans have taken the course, just to get the feel of driving one of these fire-breathing beasts and got hooked.  A number of the students have purchased equipment and are now weekly participants in sprint car racing.  Kruseman’s school has processed several hundred students, including fans, crewmembers, car owners and many racers who want to move into sprint cars and come to learn from one of the masters.

On this evening, there were thirty-four regular sprint entries and fifteen seniors for a total of forty-nine entries.  A field that any promoter would love to see, these cars are powered by a 360 c.i. engine with the ASCS restrictor intake gasket and use a spec Hoosier tire, which can run several races to help keep costs down.  Talking with several of the competitors, it was the consensus that one could get a complete car together for about 20-25 thousand dollars.  There are those that beat this price and most will exceed it, but this is an “economical” form of sprint car racing compared to the traveling organizations.

In attendance was an icon in stock car racing from the sixties through the eighties, Roarin’ Oren Prosser, who won hundreds of features and numerous championships, mostly at the old Saugus Speedway.  After attending the Kruseman Driving School, Oren Prosser Jr. invested in a racing operation to compete at Ventura.  He conned his Dad, at sixty-one to return to active duty for the first time in an open wheel racer, running with the senior class.  Oldest driver in the field this night was John Richards, admitting to sixty-nine years.  Cory Kruseman’s SCRA car owner, Harlan Willis, played switch as he drove for Kruseman tonight.  It was déjà vu for the former TQ, Midget and CRA sprint pilot, who retired about six or seven years ago.   

This evening’s program consisted of Pony Stocks and now I know where all the Pintos ended up, although there was a Toyota and BMW in the field.  The IMCA Modifieds also ran with a good field of cars.  The sprints were the headliners and they put on some good races, with four heats for the VRA and two heats for the seniors.  Two SCRA regulars, Marc Hart and Casey Shuman running regular VRA cars captured heat race wins, while Harlan Willis took his seniors heat race.  Luis Espinoza, a VRA regular won the Semi, with SCRA rookie candidate, J.J. Ercse aboard the Kruseman school car finishing third for a transfer to the feature.

The senior sprint feature saw sixty-one year old Jim Porter taking the victory followed by Bobby Moody.  Willis and Prosser suffered mechanical woes this evening and fell out of the feature.  The VRA feature found defending track champion Gary Howard finishing ahead of spectacular youngster, Greg Taylor and steady Chris Wakim.

A number of SCRA fans were observed in the stands as well as visiting SCRA drivers, crewmembers and car owners in the pits.  The big guys have a lot of respect for this program and facility.  

It was a full program, but the show was over before eleven and the happy fans were on their way to prepare for the Easter Bunny.  This is a unique facility as the staff consists of some of the biggest race fans and programs reflect this.  A lot of brainstorming is done to keep the show fresh and interesting for the loyal fans.  Over the years, this group has taken the program from Speedway Motorcycles, Go-Karts and TQs to several classes of stock cars and now the sprint cars.  The management has worked hard to involve local merchants and businesses as part of the track presentation for the fans. 

Ventura Raceway is a must for racing aficionados, allowing an opportunity to enjoy an outstanding facility and a great racing program.  This was not my usual Saturday fare, but a refreshing alternative.  Consider spending a Saturday evening at “the best little dirt track in America.”        






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