Calistoga Speedway: In The Heart Of Wine Country


(WOMR file photo)

Over the Labor Day weekend I will be catching some some really great wingless sprint car and midget races at the famed Calistoga Speedway, in the heart of the wine country, at the Napa county fairgrounds.

I thought that I would give you a little flavor of the rich history that underlies this racing facility.

In 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.

For those who have never experienced the Calistoga Speedway, it is a must for the sprint car and or midget race fan.


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