By Mike Adaskaveg
The Valley Sportsman stock cars are strange looking racers with big metal wings on the roof, fat tires and skinny bodies. They are an endangered species – once plentiful at tracks throughout the Central Valley, they can only be found at Merced Speedway, where they will highlight Saturday night’s program.
For drivers like Kenny Birdsong and Mike Palmberg, the cars are a link to the 1970s and 80s – when they were the most popular cars there were. Today, they are an anomaly in racing –still being raced competitively when other cars of that era are now in museums.
“I jumped that fence right there to get into the speedway to watch Vic Irvan race in a Valley Sportsman car,” explains present-day driver Kenny Birdsong. Irvan’s son, Ernie, rose to NASCAR fame and was also at Merced Speedway to see the Valley Sportsman cars race back then.
Birdsong proudly proclaims he was “born and raised in Merced”. He remembers the days when there were 60 or so of the cars in the pits, vying for one of the 24 starting positions in the feature event.
“I built my car as a tribute to Rod Poor,” Birdsong explains as he points to his car’s 1968 Pontiac Firebird body – which has been chopped and channeled the exact way Poor’s car was. “He was very popular and won lots of races.”
Birdsong recently retired from his electrician job. He decided to get into racing not to win money, but to have fun.
“It is a dream come true,” Birdsong continues. “In high school I built a scale model of this car. Now, I built the car.”
For fellow Mercedian Mike Palmberg, driving a Valley Sportsman car is an honor because of the division being the training ground for some of the nation’s top drivers – like Ray Elder and Jim Rich – who rose to national fame in NASCAR.
Palmberg’s dad, Pete, raced a Valley Sportsman and gave his son a chance behind the wheel when he was 17. Palmberg will be driving his “new” Valley Sportsman car Saturday night at Merced Speedway.
“It (Valley Sportsman) is no longer the premier division, but it is the most unique division of race cars anywhere today,” Palmberg says. “I’m happy we can keep the division alive. I’d like to see it build up to have more cars. There were so many cars back in the day that there had to be heats and two qualifying features to get into the main event.”
Kenny Birdsong has his son, Chris, taking the wheel of the Firebird for some of the races.
Big Racing Weekend at the Local Speedways
Merced Speedway hosts the Valley Sportsman division, plus IMCA SportMods, Hobby Stocks and Mini-Stocks. Merced’s Josh Hensley has a commanding 60-point lead over Mariposa’s Mark Odgers in the SportMod division. Odgers will need a lucky break to catch Hensley. Merced’s Darren Miguel is just four points behind leader Chris Corder of Stockton in the Mini-Stock division.
Chowchilla Speedway is back in action Sunday afternoon with a 3 p.m. starting time. A great field of cars is expected as the fairgrounds oval is the only track in the state with IMCA Modifieds and SportMods racing on Sunday. Hobby Stocks and Mini Stocks are part of the three-division card. Kevin Joaquin of Sonora is the driver to be in the hobby stock division at both tracks, and Gary Hildebrand of Turlock was able to do that last week at Merced Speedway.
Merced Speedway is located inside the Merced County Fairgrounds, 900 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Merced, Calif. Chowchilla Speedway is located at the Chowchilla Madera County Fairgrounds on S. 5th Street in Chowchilla.
Admission at both tracks is $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens and $8 for children 6-12. A family four-pack of tickets admits two children and two adults for $32. Racing begins at 7 p.m. The grandstand opens at 5 p.m.