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Petaluma Speedway – Standing the test of time

In the Golden State, raceways are plentiful but few have the history of Petaluma Speedway. Last year, the track celebrated 60 years of racing but it has been seen at the site for much longer – 84 years in fact. 

The first recorded automobile race at the site where the speedway sits was in 1936 when local racing legend Ed Normi won the 30-lap race held at Kenilworth Park’s one-mile horse racing track. In 1948, a remodel of the grounds saw the current grandstands built where racers in the 1950s and 1960s competed on a quarter-mile dirt oval although configurations as large as 1/2 mile to 5/8ths are remembered over the years. Accomplished racer turned promoter Johnny Soares came along in the early 1960s and built the track to its current 3/8th mile configuration and racing has been the Saturday night attraction ever since.  

Petaluma Speedway is located 40 miles north of San Francisco and 20 miles west of the Pacific Ocean. It is known for its native adobe clay surface. The dark, almost black, surface is so tacky it tries to pull your shoes off when walking across it and provides all the traction racing cars can handle. The cool moist marine air that rolls off the Pacific Ocean nightly provides just the right environment for a dust free racing surface. Decades ago, during a building boom, developers needed a place to dump that local adobe clay and Soares used it to his advantage. He allowed them to dump their dirt in exchange for the use of heavy equipment that was used to build up a hill on the backstretch where the pit grandstands now stand. He also built up the banks in the turns and built the on and off chutes we see today. 

The track has always hosted the best racing divisions available while supporting a strong weekly division. Petaluma currently runs 360 winged sprint cars, wingless spec sprints, dirt modifieds, super stocks, mini stocks and 600 micros as their track divisions with visits from the ASCS National Sprint Car Tour, Sprint Car Challenge Tour, King of the West/NARC 410 Sprint Cars, USAC/BCRA Midgets, USAC CRA and USAC West Coast 360s on their schedule yearly. The local racers are loyal and one current streak that dates back 40 years shows just how loyal. Shawn “Iron Man” McCoy has over 800 consecutive starts and has not missed a super stock race since the 1980 season. He doesn’t see himself hanging up his helmet anytime soon as he just drove to a second place finish last July 11th, finishing one spot behind winner Steve Studebaker who’s been racing at the track himself since 1983. 

The Soares Legacy

At an early age Johnny Soares fell in love with his lifetime partner Gladys and the two married in 1938. They had three children, John M., James and Joyce. John and Jim went on to race themselves and promote tracks like their dad. The elder Soares was a force to be reckoned with during his 17 years driving race cars. He raced midgets, hard tops, roadsters and stock cars in the 40s and 50s. He raced midgets with the Bay Cities Racing Association and later won the first two Hard Top Championships the association held in ’49 and ’50. One of his big accomplishments was winning a NASCAR Grand National race on May 30th, 1954 at the half mile Carrell Speedway in Gardena, CA. He led the final 211 of 496 laps driving Charles Vance’s 1954 Dodge, the first ever of that make to win in California. Later, this division turned into the NASCAR Cup Series we know today. In 1990, he was inducted into the Bay Cities Racing Association Hall of Fame, a year later into the Motor Sports Press Association Hall of Fame as a driver and promoter and in 2002 he became a West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame member.      

In the late 1950s, when his driving career was ending, Soares became a key member of the Bob Barkhimer & Associates team. The group promoted 20 plus racetracks. Soares, along with Jerry Piper and Bert Moreland, managed tracks in Antioch and Petaluma among others that would hold races seven nights a week back then. According to Osborne, Soares would fly back and forth from the tracks that ran on the same night. He not only built Petaluma into what we see today, he also built and promoted Antioch Speedway and had a hand in the long gone West Capitol Speedway’s layout as well as several other tracks. Soares and wife Gladys took over full ownership of Petaluma Speedway from Barkhimer and Associates in 1976 and held it until his retirement in 2002.

Soares was a trendsetter. In 1987, he was the first promoter to start a dirt modified division on the west coast. Now, more than thirty years later, the division is still going strong at Petaluma and is a staple at others. According to Osborne, “John was a promoter. To get the stories and results out we would type out 34 copies and send them to all the papers. When he wanted the results to get into National Speed Sport News, he got a machine that we would put my race report in and it would spin that connected to the phone line. It was the predecessor to the modern day FAX machine. He wouldn’t let me call till after midnight when the phone rates went down.” Osborne chuckles and goes on to say, “He was always trying things from open shows to luring the best racers to compete at his track. He didn’t like dusty tracks and he didn’t like any downtime. He would say he never wanted to give the fans a chance to wish they were somewhere else.”     

Once “Old Man” Soares, as he was commonly referred, got ready to retire, he tabbed his son Jim and his wife Karen to take over Petaluma. Jim had a long understanding of how the racing business worked having promoted Merced Speedway way back when and he was also the man responsible for preparing and maintaining Baylands and San Jose Speedway. His prep acumen earned him the nickname “Dr. Dirt” along the way. Karen and her twin sister Marilyn handled the concessions as well as other duties such as running the pit booth, etc. Jim and Karen took the reins of the Petaluma Speedway in 2003 and never looked back. Jim created the “Johnny Soares Classic” after his father’s passing in 2007 and was a force in the Northern California racing scene. 

Faeth in a New Leader

Eventually, retirement came closer for Jim and he too kept an eye on the guy he wanted to succeed him. Retired midget racer and former Shasta Speedway promoter Rick Faeth recalls, “Well, he started showing up at Shasta and always used the same excuse that he was in Corning at Mike Ryan’s rummaging through vintage parts. Not sure if it was the truth, but he would watch the races and then split without even talking to me. I’d be like ‘what the hell, he didn’t even say goodbye.’ By my 4th year at Shasta, we were getting ready to leave Reno after the promoters workshop and we get our cars loaded and it’s dumping snow and getting dark. Jim says, ‘let’s go back in and have one more pop’. So, we go in and he proceeds to tell me that he’s got a young guy in mind that he wants to take over. Had his eye on the guy for some time, thinks he’s trainable. So, I’m like ‘who?’ And he says, ‘YOU, ya big dummy’ in a George Sanford voice. So, I told him I had commitments to do one more year at Shasta and then soon after we consummated an agreement and I took over in 2012.”   

After promoting Shasta Speedway for five years and getting some experience, Faeth learned a lot from Jim, “Jim was whip smart, very mechanically inclined, and I’m convinced the guy could fix just about anything. He just wasn’t the most gifted person socially. He didn’t suffer fools lightly and could be a hard ass. But he was fair and he stood by his staff when there were mistakes. That’s called loyalty and it is can’t be bought. That’s the most important thing I learned from Jim. That, and don’t lose a racer over a $50 squabble. Jim prepared the track my first two years, but by 2014 he was wanting to do more vintage midget excursions and less track prep so we were doing it on alternate weeks. Mine sucked, so he’d have to spend his weeks fixing my errors. By August, he had been diagnosed with a rare brain disease and within three weeks he was gone. I soldiered on and continued to struggle. I brought in the legendary George “Dry Slick” Hawkins during an off week to move dirt and watched him. Something seemed to click because I developed my own style of grading, prepping, and watering and it seems every year we get better and more consistent track surfaces. When I say consistent, sure the place is a hooked up, fast joint, but what I strive for is to have the track as wide and as smooth as possible because I hate seeing broken race cars in my pit area,” said Faeth.

When asked about how he become interested in promoting races, Faeth said, “I don’t know that anyone ever starts out wanting to be a promoter. If that was the case then they should probably go seek some psychiatric help. I wanted to win the Indy 500 but that wasn’t in the cards. My earliest memory was when I was actually Bob Barkhimer’s paper boy when I was a kid. I used to ask him questions about the industry and he always complained that everything he ever tried he lost his ass on except for hardtops….HAH! I remember picking Rick Farren’s (former promoter of San Jose, Watsonville and Antioch Speedways) brain a time or two when I was helping to book BCRA events. I asked a lot of questions of Bob & Nadine Strauss (former promoters of Lakeport Speedway) who were extremely helpful. I don’t know, I had a lot of support from folks that encouraged me to give it an attempt so when the opportunity was presented; we signed up. Now, 14 years later we’re still banging our head against the wall.”

“Right out of the box we were able to cultivate a relationship with Ed Coughenour of Pit Stop USA that has helped our track and series with brand recognition as well as sponsorship revenue and a mountain of contingency opportunities for the racers. That was our first big high. Certainly, being able to obtain a pair of contract extensions in order to keep the venue open are right up there. Jim Soares warned me that I might only have five years tops here. We’ve been here nine years with two more to go on the current contract so those have both been big pluses. I’ve always been a huge supporter of female racers. I believe it is really the only sport that women can compete on the same platform equally as men. Some race nights we’ll have as many as a dozen female racers competing here at Petaluma Speedway in various classes; that’s diversity working. I’m extremely proud that we’ve had back-to-back female wingless sprint car champions in Shayna Ensign and Angelique Bell. In terms of lows, the loss of Marcus Johnson really took a lot out of my sails personally, and for the entire local racing community. There was no doubt in my mind that he would have been another successful racer to emerge from a four generation racing family.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has set the world on its head and affected everything from restaurants to racetracks. Petaluma is no exception, “Being a state fairgrounds run entity we have oversight from various bureaucratic offices. We have our safety operating guidelines in place and are awaiting the call to reopen from the county public health department,” said Faeth. 

That call from the local county did come and Petaluma Speedway was one of the few tracks to go all in and hold as many races as possible. Between the pandemic spikes and area wildfires cancelling a few, Faeth and his crew managed to hold 18 races, all with no fans in the stands. They shuffled some dates to Sundays so Flo Racing could broadcast all the races live on their network which helped some but it was not ideal. In 2020, Petaluma Speedway was there providing all the local stars a place to race regardless.

The hopes for this pandemic to be controlled in time for the 2021 season is high. We all want to see Petaluma Speedway’s loyal fan base and all other tracks for that matter to once again fill the grandstands to see high speed race cars sliding sideways on the gumbo clay. The track has faced adversity before. An attempt to turn it into a minor league baseball park failed but a shopping center has been built only feet away from the pits creating an uneasy feeling of the city closing in. The entire fairgrounds facility is facing the looming end of a 30 year lease in 2023 and there are talks of a major reuse of the land that may or may not include the track.

“Old Man” Soares built a track that has seen a million laps turned and has possibly entertained a like number of fans over its 60 year history. The Soares name will forever be associated with the track that has stood the test of time for now and will continue being the fastest 3/8 mile dirt oval in Northern California into it’s uncertain future.

For more photos visit the digital edition of Dirt Empire Magazine: https://issuu.com/dirtempiremagazine/docs/dem_feb-mar_2021_-_final/40

Photo by M&M Photos

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