Track History

Share Button

logoIn 1937, as the Model A was dominating America’s roadways when a promoter with the colorful nickname of “Fancy Pants” came to Calistoga with a ‘fancy’ idea. He believed the town’s horse racing track was ideal for another kind of horsepower. He persuaded the town’s leaders to promote a car race on the Napa County Fairgrounds. About a dozen cars showed up for an afternoon of hippodrome-style speed exhibitions. It was the beginning of a tradition that has endured for over 70 years.

Except for the years of World War II, when all racing in the nation was put on hold to conserve fuel and rubber, Calistoga Speedway has hosted open-wheel race cars. From spindly wire-wheeled wonders with four-cylinder engines to midgets and the V-8 powered, winged and modern sprint cars of today, Calistoga’s first racing heroes were family names that are still found in the Napa Valley, such as Figone, Normi, and Pacheteau.

The first races were sanctioned by the Bay Cities Roadster Racing Association and later the American Racing Association. The track hit its stride as a racing destination under the nurturing hand of another well-known Calistogan, Louie Vermeil, owner of the former Owl Garage on Washington Street, whose association with the track spanned over 40 years. Initially, he was a mechanic and later a car owner. By 1960, Vermeil and others had formed the Northern Auto Racing Club, now known as the Golden State Challenge Series, to boost the professionalism of sprint car racing. For the next 25 years, Calistoga Speedway was known as the “home” of the Northern Auto Racing Club while Vermeil presided as president.

Some things have changed over the years. Admission price in the early years was a mere 55 cents. The fastest cars of the hippodrome days took more than 30 seconds to turn a lap on the half-mile oval. To be sure, they were daring speeds at the time in rough cars with narrow tires. But they seem tortoise-like compared to speeds of modern sprint cars, which rocket down the long straightaways twice as fast at more than 120 miles an hour.

Over the years, Calistoga Speedway has hosted some of the best drivers of their eras. Indy car veterans Jim Hurtubise, Bob Veith, Freddie Agabasion (’52 Indy pole winner), and Earl Motter raced here in the ’50s and ’60s. Some of the best race car drivers of the next generation took their place, including 20-time World of Outlaws champion Steve Kinser and Tony Stewart, who has gone on to win championships in the United States Auto Club, the Indy Racing League, and NASCAR stock cars. Many of the drivers on the track’s all-time win list became nationally known for their talent, even if they raced primarily in Northern California, as the track gained a reputation for requiring the best effort of the area’s best drivers in order to win.

Today, Calistoga Speedway continues its tradition of presenting special events for some of the region’s most competitive racing series, including the winged sprint cars of the traveling Civil War and Golden State Challenge series and the traditional sprint cars and midgets of the United States Auto Club.

by Bill Sessa

 

Louie Vermeil

The Green Bay Packers had Lombardi.

The Yankees had Steinbrenner.

Northern California sprint car racing had Louie Vermeil.

When automobile racing first caught the public’s imagination, it was Vermeil who led it into respectability as professional entertainment. When its popularity boomed after World War II, it was Vermeil’s steady hand that guided it to prosperity and created a nationwide reputation for Calistoga Speedway that continues today, two decades after his death.

He had a life-long love for the speedway and sprint cars and a strong, unwavering sense of what they needed to succeed. Some would call him stubborn. Others would call him dedicated and determined. Like Lombardi or Steinbrenner, the square-jawed, bulldog of a man, Vermeil stamped his own distinctive style on both.

Louie Vermeil’s love of racing was sparked while he was still in high school in San Mateo. By the time he was 20 years old and living in Calistoga, his interest in the sport revved up considerably, working for a local mechanic who also had a race car.

By the late 1930s, a promoter was looking for someone to help organize racing to improve its appeal to the public. With Vermeil’s help, they formed the American Racing Association (ARA) to sanction events, including races at the fairgrounds in Calistoga.

Vermeil was a charter member of the Bay Cities Racing Association, one of the oldest sanctioning bodies in the country for midgets that still exists today.

By the mid-1960s, the ARA had outlived its purpose. Vermeil, ever the architect of racing organizations, formed the Northern Auto Racing Club (NARC), the forerunner of the Golden State Challenge Series. Although the club was a traveling series, it considered Calistoga Speedway its home, hosting up to 11 races a year to sold-out grandstands.

Vermeil was president for the next 20 years. But his style was more like a general. He ruled from his post underneath the announcing tower, now long gone, that sat in the infield along the front straightaway. Clipboard in hand, Vermeil directed races like a choreographer. Ever mindful that racing was entertainment, his rules were intended to give the fans their money’s worth to make sure they came back.

Vermeil left racing in 1985 after creating the legacy of Calistoga Speedway, paving the way for a generation of racers who barely knew him.

-by Bill Sessa

 

Past Track Champions and stars include LeRoy Van Conett, Billy Anderson, Johnny Anderson, Brent Kaeding, Chuck Gurney, and Steve Kent.

 1968    

 Mike McCreary

 1982    

 Hank Butcher

 1996    

 Ronnie Day

 1969

 LeRoy Van Conett

 1983

 Chuck Gurney

 1997

 Randy Tiner

 1970

 LeRoy Van Conett

 1984

 LeRoy Van Conett

 1998

 Randy Hannagan

 1971

 Lem Tolliver

 1985

 Brent Kaeding

 1999

 Bud Kaeding

 1972

 Billy Anderson

 1986

 Rick Hirst

 2000

 Steve Kent

 1973

 Billy Anderson

 1987

 Shane Scott

 2001

 Steve Kent

 1974

 Billy Anderson

 1988

 Brent Kaeding

 2002

 Jason Meyers

 1975

 LeRoy Van Conett

 1989

 Steve Kent

 2003

 Dennis Moore, Jr.

 1976

 Johnny Anderson

 1990

 ??

 2004

 Sparky Howard

 1977

 LeRoy Van Conett

 1991

 Tim Green

 2005

 Steve Kent

 1978

 LeRoy Van Conett

 1992

 Steve Kent

 2006

 Steve Kent

 1979

 Mike Andreetta

 1993

 Steve Kent

 2007

 Brent Kaeding

 1980

 LeRoy Van Conett

 1994

 Steve Kent

 2008

 Brent Kaeding

 1981

 LeRoy Van Conett

 1995

 Paul McMahan

 2009

 Shane Golobich

 

All-time track record
Mark Kinser – 16.057 seconds

Non-wing Sprint track record
Blake Miller – 19.335 seconds

First driver to break 100 mph in qualifying (sub-18.00 seconds)
Tim Green

Track record for “360” (Civil War Series) sprint car
Chuck Gurney, Jr. – 17.846 seconds

Midgets track record
Shannon McQueen – 20.470 seconds

All time feature winners

1st – LeRoy Van Conett – 31 wins and 8 track championships
2nd – Brent Kaeding – 21 wins and 2 track championships

Print Friendly