The grandstands were packed full at the Stockton 99 Speedway for a rare mid-week race as the legendary quarter-mile oval played host to the annual Firecracker 125 featuring the Ron Strmiska Memorial for the Stockton Late Models and three other divisions on Wednesday night.
Strmiska was always a fan favorite and in 2015 the annual Fourth of July race was christened the Strmiska Memorial in his honor after the local racing legend, nicknamed the “Manteca Missile,” passed away in late 2014.
Strmiska began racing at the 99 over 45 years ago, winning track championships in 1978 and 1979, and spawning two more generations of drivers with his son Ron Jr. and grandson Ross.
Ross Strmiska qualified second fastest just behind his teammate Christian Roche, of Escalon, but problems in his heat race relegated him to the sixth row in the 22-car starting field which was led by Salida’s Seth Holman and Stockton veteran Dennis Byers.
Several early yellow-cautions, including one on lap 10 for a huge pile up that ended the night for Roche and Chris Lyons of Granite Springs, caused race officials to opt for single file restarts on lap 15.
Holman continued to lead until Modesto’s Adam Coonfield and season points leader Sammy Solari, of Escalon, slid under him on lap 22.
Strmiska, meanwhile, methodically worked his way up through the field before squeezing his way past Solari on lap 46 to take over second. He then set his sights on the leader and patiently stalked Coonfield for several laps before sliding by him on lap 64 after the pair went side by side for several laps.
“We had a good game plan tonight. I wanted to race smart and get to the front as soon as we could. Once I got to third I knew I was faster than the leaders,” explained Strmiska after the race. “When I got to the front I was able to save the tires while the others had to chase me.”
The plan worked to perfection. Once in the lead Strmiska never looked back, surviving a couple more restarts and easily holding off all other contenders to take the checkered flag as the crowd stood and roared its approval.
“This means everything to me and my family. I know how big this race is from when I was a kid and grandpa was running it,” said Strniska. “This is a dream come true. I think the only thing bigger would be winning the Daytona 500 or something like that.”
Coonfield held on for a hard earned second, followed by Solari, former two-time track champion Justin Philpott of Tracy and Stockton’s Greg Potts.
“I tried and tried and tried, but I had nothing for Ross and I sure wasn’t going to wreck him,” Coonfield admitted, laughing. “I am happy. Getting a second in this race is awesome.”
In other race action, Justin Scantlen of Valley Springs held the top spot through the first half of the 30-lap Bomber main until he tangled with Stockton’s Rick Roberts while battling to hold the lead on lap 14.
The pair was sent to the back of the 17-car field for their transgressions, opening the door for Robert’s teammate Rob Dueck, of Manteca, to take over as the alpha dog.
Dueck seemed to have the race well in hand until Roberts suddenly reappeared on his tail with four laps remaining.
After the two teammates went door to door over the final two laps Dueck was able to grab the checkers by half of a car length for a hard earned victory.
“That race was amazing. I drove hard, got some breaks, had a great car and some luck,” said Dueck as he celebrated his second win of the year with Roberts in the pits. “All of a sudden I see him coming (Roberts) and I thought to myself ‘Oh oh. I’ve got to go.’ It was so much fun.”
Josh Cross, of Manteca, controlled the early portion of the 30-lap B-4 main, but he soon found the orange car of Barrett Sugden of Stockton filling his rear view mirror.
Sugden hung on to the rear bumper of Cross for a few laps before diving under him in turn #2 of Lap 12 to take the lead.
Sugden would never look back, crossing the finish line a whole straightaway ahead of Cross and Joe Flowers, of Manteca, for the win and a clean sweep (race, dash, heat and qualifying) of the night’s B-4 proceedings.
Despite only six cars lining up to start, the 10-lap Mini Cup feature was marred by several yellow-cautions before Aaron Thomas, of Napa, was finally able to claim the victory over Atwater’s Alden Phillips.
Racing returns to the 99 Speedway on Saturday, July 14, with a program featuring the Gun Slingers Wing Sprint Car Series, BCRA Midgets, BCRA Vintage Midgets and California Hard Top Association.