By DALE BOSOWSKI
Contributor to the Bulletin
STOCKTON — A large crowd turned out on Saturday at the New Stockton 99 Speedway to witness what is traditionally the biggest race of the season – the Firecracker 100 – and second leg of the annual Tri-Holiday series.
They did not go home disappointed.
Before the race it was announced that the event will now be called the Ron Strmiska Firecracker 100 in honor of the man christened the “Manteca Missile” who passed away last fall. Strmiska began racing at the 99 over 45 years ago, winning the track championships in 1978 and 1979, and spawning two more generations of successful drivers with his son Ron Jr. and grandson Ross, who qualified third for Saturday’s Pacific Challenge Series late model feature.
Jeremy Doss, of Upper Lake, earned the pole with fast time in qualifying and used it to full advantage by taking the early lead over John Nesmith, veteran Eric Holmes of Escalon and Strmiska.
Oil on the track in turn 3 of lap 20 sent most of the 22-car field careening out of control in every direction which resulted in a massive pile up that looked like something out of the Blues Brothers movie.
The race was red flagged for over 20 minutes as workers cleaned up the greasy track and broken race cars. Doss, Strmiska and Nesmith were all forced to the pits with fatal damage. When the race finally resumed Holmes, who managed to just skate through the mess, had the lead followed by Manteca’s Jacob Gomes and Tracy’s Justin Philpott.
Gomes quickly got by Holmes a few laps later and held the lead over the next 50 laps before veteran driver John Moore, of Granite Bay, began to nip at his heals. Gomes got a brief reprieve when a yellow caution came out on lap 74, but as the cars crawled around the course waiting to go back to green Gomes car slowly came to a halt in turn 2 with a faulty ignition giving Moore the top spot without having to make a pass.
Once in the lead, Moore was in no mood to give it up as he held off a very determined Holmes over the final laps to capture the checkered flag.
Holmes managed to get along side of Moore, but the two touched and that caused Holmes to cut a front tire. Holmes was able to pit during a late yellow caution and work his way back to the front, but once again all his efforts to take the lead were stymied by Moore.
“I tried to save my car the entire race. I let him by (Gomes) because he had a better car and I thought I could get him at the end,” explained Holmes, who was making his first start of the season. “I ran him (Moore) hard at the end but our tires got hooked together and it sent me spinning a bit. The car never really came back to me.”
Joel Courage Jr. of Manteca, also worked his way into the mix near the end, but was forced to settle for third after he began to lose left front tire pressure in the closing laps.
“Man that was totally wild. This is our best finish ever. We have been just riding around in these things trying to learn so to get a top three finish is just awesome,” said Courage, who was involved in a serious wreck in the Memorial race and had to be pulled from his burning car. “It was really beginning to push in those last laps and it was all I could do was hold on to it.”
I was an emotional win for Moore, who lost his son, JD, in a 2005 testing accident at the 99 as he prepared for his late model debut in that years Firecracker race. John would race in the 2005 Firecracker and win it, dedicating the victory to his son.
“To be in the Firecracker at Stockton is one of the coolest things you can do in stock cars in California. When I started racing Modifieds I watched this race and said want to be a part of this,” said Moore. “Winning the Firecracker in 2005 and winning tonight are the two most important things I have ever done. JD was riding with me tonight.”
Moore was presented with a first-place trophy that was originally won by Ron Strmiska back in the 1970’s.
After the race Ross Strmiska reflected on the night’s events and his grandpa.
“We just got in that oil and went straight into the fence. This was a big race for us because grandpa always loved these special races. It was really cool and a big honor to find out this race was going to be named for him and I really would have liked to win his old trophy back, but it wasn’t in the cards tonight. Maybe we will dig out another one and try to win it back.”
Tracy’s Jeremy Wood chalked up the fastest time in qualifying, but was forced to start the 17-car Legends of the Pacific main in the eighth position due to the invert draw.
It mattered little as Wood twisted his way through traffic like Chubby Checker to grab the lead on lap five. He never was seriously challenged during the remainder of the 35-lap race although Cameron Austin followed close behind him to the finish waiting to pounce if Wood made a mistake.
“We are having such a phenomenal season, it has been just amazing,” said Wood, who has racked up five straight wins. “We made some late changes to the car to make it more racy and it paid off. The competition is so tough that it doesn’t matter how good your car is because if you can’t make passes you can’t win.”