By DALE BOSOWSKI
Special to the Bulletin
STOCKTON — In only its third year, the annual Night of Champions race at the Stockton 99 Speedway has quickly become one of the most popular events on the season schedule.
Once again a huge crowd packed the grandstands on Saturday night to see the return of some of the greatest drivers in the long history of the ¼-mile oval. Among the returning alumni were former track champions Ken Boyd, Harry Belletto and his sons Steve and Jeff, Dave Byrd, David Philpott, long time track promoter Ken Clapp and Steve Johnson.
Both the fans and their driving heroes were thrilled to take pictures and swap tales in an autograph session before the night’s main events.
One new twist in this year’s event was that several of the veterans elected to compete in the Stockton Late Model feature.
Steve Johnson was back behind the wheel in competition for the first time in 18 years and the Belletto’s prepared two of their old cars, including Harrys fabled #74, for Jeff’s son Nic Belletto, who qualified seventh of the 25 late models trying to make the 100-lap main event.
“That is the first time that car has been out of the barn in about five years,” explained Steve Belletto. “Nic drew the short straw so he has to drive it.”
Family patriarch Harry Belletto supervised the action as the crew prepared the cars
“It is always a thrill to come back here. I love the smell of the smoke and tires and I still love to see the cars go fast,” said Harry, a former four-time track champion who is currently confined to a wheelchair as he recovers from recent back surgery. “I wish I could be behind the wheel of a car tonight.”
The fans were especially thrilled to see five-time track champion Ken Boyd, of Ceres, return to competition for the first time in almost 15 years in his beautifully prepared #9 blue and white Coors Light Chevy.
At age 65 Boyd still looks almost exactly as he did in his driving heyday.
“It is great to be back. You still turn left, but the braking and applying the gas is completely different from what I used to drive,” said Boyd, referring to the current crate engines which produce less horsepower and roll through the corners differently. “I am still trying to get used to this package, but it is all good.”
Despite qualifying 12th behind pole sitter Jacob Gomes, of Manteca, Boyd was optimistic about his chances in the race.
“I plan to feel things out at the start and then go from there,” said Boyd, who clearly still has his competitive fires burning. “I still think I have a chance to win this or I wouldn’t be here. “
During driver introductions Boyd stood next to third generation driver Justin Philpott, a two-time track champion who grew up watching his father David, also a two-time track champion, compete against Boyd on a regular basis throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
“I was 10 years old the last time you drove here,” teased Justin, causing Boyd to break into a smile.
A pair of Manteca drivers, Jacob Gomes and Guy Guibor, led the field, trimmed to 18 cars with a B Main, to the opening green flag.
Guibor was able to wrestle the early lead as Gomes, Philpott and third generation driver Ross Strmiska, of Manteca, all barked at his heals.
Guibor was able to hang on to the top spot until Gomes got to the inside of him on lap 72. Following a multi lap side-by-side battle Gomes was able to finally gain the upper hand and take the lead, which he held to the checkered flag.
“I knew he had a great car (Guibor) and the only way I could get him was on a restart so I waited for it and we finally got our opportunity. I love racing Guy, he is awesome,” said Gomes “This was so cool tonight to be racing all these guys I grew up watching here.”
Veteran John Moore, of Granite Bay, was also able to slide past Guibor to finish second, while Guibor, Philpott, Nic Belletto and Ross Strmiska rounded out the top six.
“The car just got a little tight at the end of the race and the track got really slippery the final 20 laps. It felt like were on the dirt and I was just hanging on at the end,” said Guibor. “Next time we just have to work a little harder and do a little better.”
Afterward in the pits Boyd had a chance to reflect on the experience as fans swarmed around him to talk and get his autograph.
“It was a little rough out there, but the car isn’t tore up much so it is all good,” said Boyd, who finished just outside the top 10. “I am really glad I could do this for the fans, my old crew and my grandkids.”
Joey Stearns, age 14 of Linden, went wire-to-wire in the 17-car Bomber feature to pick up his second consecutive victory.
“I just ran my race and tried to stay out front, “said the future star. “This is the best handling car I’ve ever had.”
The economic B-4s continue to gain popularity as a season high 17 cars took the grid for their 25-lap main.
Joe Flowers, of Manteca, picked up his third win of the season by holding off a determined Dave Kong, also of Manteca, throughout the second half of the 25-lap race.
The 99 Speedway will be hosting a program featuring the Gun Slingers Wing Sprint Car Series, Legends of Kearney Bowl and BCRA Midgets next Saturday, August 19th and Stockton Late Models, Bombers and Grand American Modifieds the following Saturday, Aug. 17.