Kenny Birdsong and his Firebird Valley Sportsman Car. (Mike Adaskaveg Photo)

By Mike Adaskaveg

Merced Sun-Star

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.

“These cars are fun to drive, but they can wear an old man out,” Birdsong says. “I live by the motto ‘do it or you’ll forget about it’. That applies to building and racing a Valley Sportsman.”GaryTucker

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.


Gary Hildebrand (93) passes Kevin Joaquin in Hobby Stock feature action at Merced Speedway. (Photo by Mark Brooks, Sonora Sports Photography)

            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.





LAP AFTER LAP – Jeff Decker (84) got inside Paul Guglielmoni (22) but was unable to pass him as Guglielmoni pulled ahead on the straight aways.

Paul Guglielmoni knew Jeff Decker had beaten him time and time again, but he wasn’t about to have that happen in Saturday night’s DIRTcar Late Model Stock Car main event at Antioch Speedway. Guglielmoni drove perfectly to score his first win in the nationally sanctioned division, out-running Decker and Troy Foulger in a spectacular finish.

Paul Guglielmoni

Paul Guglielmoni

Guglielmoni, from Vacaville, saw the front nose of Decker’s car along side his driver-side door going into the turns lap after lap – and through several restarts – but he was able to pull away as they headed down the straightaways.

“Jeff (Decker) was fast, and he raced me clean,” Guglielmoni said in victory lane. “I just kept watching the score board and tried not to make any mistakes. I don’t think I’ve been able to beat him on a restart in a few years. I just tried to be consistent and hit my marks.”

Guglielmoni drove flawlessly. Decker, from Morgan Hill, tried the low side of the track, but it did not give him the traction needed to get past Guglielmoni in the turns.

“I’m glad Paul (Guglielmoni) won – he deserved to win,” Decker said. “Paul ran the perfect line. I tried to get underneath him to pass, but my car couldn’t get enough bite down low. I was driving offensively and defensively at the same time – trying to pass Paul and stay ahead of the guys behind me.”


Dennis Souza is checked by paramedics. He was o.k. after this 100 mph flip going into the first turn.

One red flag flew when the car driven by Dennis Souza of Pescadero flipped going into the first turn. Souza was freed from the upside down late model and unharmed by the 100 mph crash.


Richard Papenhausen (4p) was passed by Troy Foulger – alongside him speeding down the back stretch.

Guglielmoni maintained the lead at the restart, while Troy Foulger of Martinez worked his Oakley based Bill Bowers late model through the pack. Foulger pressed hard to get by Chico’s Richard Papenhausen.

Closing ground on Guglielmoni and Decker, Foulger was making a run for the win. With the white flag waving, it was Decker on the inside and Foulger on the outside – both sharing Guglielmoni’s back bumper. Papenhausen was right behind the top three to cross the line in fourth. Danny Malfatti of Hayward scored his best finish to date in taking home fifth place.

“What a race!” Foulger said as he congratulated Guglielmoni after the victory. “That was fun. Paul (Guglielmoni) had a perfect run.”

Guglielmoni thanked his crew chief, Milt McGinnis, after the race.


Troy Foulger, left, and Paul Guglielmoni reflect on a fun feature event.

“We had a great car, a smooth track, and clean racing – that made the difference,” Guglielmoni said.

A Different Ryland Victorious in IMCA SportMod Feature 

            Everyone was wondering if IMCA National point leader Fred Ryland of Brentwood would continue his streak and win a 10th IMCA SportMod feature event Saturday night.


Patti Ryland (7) keeps Ron Brown at bay on a restart.

But it was a different Ryland who took the checkered flag – Fred’s wife Patti scored her first career win on her third time out in an IMCA SportMod racecar.

Patti Ryland, who works in the aerospace industry, was launched to stardom in the speedway’s hobby stock division and became one of the division’s most winning drivers. This year she moved up to the IMCA SportMods.

“My goal was to finish in the top five,” Patti Ryland laughed in victory lane. “I guess a win is a top five finish.”

A happy Patti Ryland heads for victory lane.

A happy Patti Ryland heads for victory lane.

Fred Ryland was stuck back in the pack, working his way up to the front. He was in the new car number ‘7J’ and his wife was driving his old number ‘7’ car.

“I kept waiting for Fred to show up,” said Patti Ryland. “I looked at the scoreboard lap after lap and never saw another ‘7’ appear. I was wondering what happened to him.”

Right behind Patti Ryland was Antioch’s Ron Brown, who was sporting a colorful new SportMod.

“Second on my second day driving – not bad,” quipped Brown. “A few changes and I will have this down.”

Brown moved from the speedway’s limited late model division to the SportMod division.

Ryland’s local rival, Keith Bown, Jr. of Pittsburg finished third in a valiant drive to catch Ron Brown (no relation).

“Everybody was fast tonight,” Keith Brown, Jr. said. “The bottom of the track was not all the way in yet. I did what I could down there.”

Paul Mulder of Pleasanton was fourth, with Fred Ryland challenging him at the finish.

Fred Ryland leads the nation in the hotly contested IMCA SportMod division. His goal is to be the first national champion from California.

“I have my plan in place,” Ryland said. “The guys from Iowa will be the ones to watch as their season gets into full swing. I know what I need to do to win the championship, and will be trying my best to do it.”

High School Sophomore Teves Wins in Dwarf Car Division


Adam Teves (10) leads Thomas Leiby (99) who finished third. (Photo by Paul Gould, Track Photographer.)


Concord’s Adam Teves, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, scored his second win of the year in the Dwarf Car division. Teves was able to build a lead that Bay Point’s Danny Wagner could not shrink.

“I wasn’t worried at all about who was behind me,” Teves said in victory lane. “I just decided to race the track – and drive the fastest I could by finding the best line lap after lap.”

Wagner was bearing down on him at the finish.

“It was just too late by time I got to him,” Wagner said. “I was hung up in traffic and he (Teves) was pretty fast.”


Smooth and Fast – Roy Fisher was alone at the top in the Wingless Sprint Car Feature. (Photo by Paul Gould, Track Photographer) 

Fisher Fast

Veteran Roy Fisher of Antioch won the Wingless Sprint Car feature unchallenged.

“This is the best track surface that I have ever raced on,” he said in victory lane. “It is the smoothest it has ever been – which suits my driving style.”

Ryan Sieverling finished second, with Marcus Smith third. NFL star Jeremy Newberry scored fourth, followed by Rick Panfilli.

Hobby Stock Feature Under Review

            Brian Zachary of Oakley unofficially won the Hobby Stock feature. No official results will be posted until track officials review technical inspection findings on all of the top five cars.

Saturday Night (April 18) at Antioch Speedway

            IMCA Modified stock cars headline the program at Antioch Speedway on Saturday night April 18, with the Northern All Stars Wingless Sprint Car, Limited Late Model, Hobby Stock, and Dwarf Car divisions each in a full program of qualification races and feature events.

Antioch Speedway is located within the Contra Costa County Fairgrounds, 1201 W. 10th St. in Antioch, Calif. Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for senior citizens, and $10 for children 6-12. Children under six years old are admitted free. A family four pack of tickets is $40. Secured parking is offered by the Fairgrounds for $5. Racing begins at 6:30 p.m.