California Sprint Car
Civil War Series
June 1, 2013
360 Sprints - BCRA Midgets
Fairgrounds Parking Fee: $5.00
All persons must be at least 14 years of age to enter the Pits. Persons 14-17 years of age need both parents/guardians to sign and notarize a Parental Consent Form and submitted to the office prior to entering pit areas.
Placerville Speedway History
Handy Racing Promotions keeps Placerville Speedway strong - 44 years strong.
By Bill Sullivan
Lynden Johnson was the current president, Sonny and Cher had a hit song titled "I Got You Babe" and a gallon of gasoline was a mere thirty-one cents. The year was 1965 and something new was introduced in the small town of Placerville - the sport of auto racing.
Placerville Speedway opened its 44th year of operation this season as one of the best Saturday night racing programs on the west coast. So just how did this racetrack come about? It all started when two men had a vision of bringing great family entertainment into a rural community.
Formerly known as Anderson Field, the arena and main grandstand that is now known as Placerville Speedway was originally built by the El Dorado County Fair during the winter months of 1956. During the opening ceremony for the 1957 county fair, the newly constructed field was dedicated on Aug. 16 to the late Leo J. Anderson.
Anderson was a local veterinarian, rancher and teacher who passed away after a sudden illness in 1955 while serving as president of the El Dorado County Fair Board. In the beginning, Anderson Field was used for various fair activities and later became host to the El Dorado High School Football team.Eight years later, fair manager Warren Jewitt teamed up with a man by the name of Bruno Romani and auto racing was born in a county best known for agriculture and gold discovery.
Romani was a successful auto-racing promoter who operated tracks in both Roseville and Auburn. Constructing a clay racing surface around the perimeter of the football field, Jewitt and Romani created what was originally known as "Hangtown Speedway," Auto racing took place here for the first time on June 18, 1965. That year the small town of Placerville became a racing community as local residents packed the grandstands to capacity for every event.
In the beginning, the track was host to hardtop racers which were passenger cars made no later than 1953. Drivers competed for points between Placerville Speedway and the old Auburn Raceway, under the sanction of the Central State Racing Association (CSRA). Sacramento driver Don Nelson became Placerville Speedway's first CSRA champion late that summer.
Gene Gillihan, who still owns and operates a local radiator shop around the corner from the speedway, was one of the early drivers at Placerville Speedway. As a local native and businessman that continues to help nearly any racer who asks, Gillihan knows what professional sports mean to a small foothill town like Placerville.
"Placerville Speedway was one of the best things to happen to this county and is a great source of family entertainment. After they built that track, people took an interest in racing as families. It really involved the whole community from day one," Gillihan said. "This community is lucky to have something like that to this day."
Like most retired racers, Gillihan has much memorabilia and a tale that goes with each piece of it. One photograph pictures three sets of brothers lined up in front of their cars. The racing suits were nothing more than a pair of tennis shoes or boots, white jeans and T-shirts. "Racing was so less expensive then it was pretty common for brothers to race together. It was a lot of fun but it was amazing we never burned up in those kind of clothes, we were our mother's biggest nightmare,'' Gillihan said.
Although he no longer drives Gillihan is still very active in the local sport, helping area drivers with radiator work as much as he can. Two of the drivers featured in the old photo he commented on are also still involved, Dick and Sonny Wessels. The Wessels brothers operated Placerville Auto Parts across the street from the track until last year when they closed their doors and retired.
When Gillihan raced, he drove side by side with many drivers who now have children or grandchildren racing. Examples include last names like Sellers, Morrison, Bradway, Burt and Crockett to name a few. One of the biggest names to compete with Gillihan and the Wessels back then was a driver named Doug Gandy.
A former resident of Pollock Pines, Gandy became one of the track's top drivers, eventually winning titles in 1975, 1977 and 1978. Now over the age of 60, Gandy resides in Oakhurst and has remains active in the sport within the wingless sprint car ranks and as an event vendor, selling his famed "Gandy Kettle Corn."
"I have some great memories at Placerville, " said Gandy. "I'm not quite sure what we would have done as a family back then if they hadn't built it. It's a special place to me and I look forward to coming back. I'm not too old yet to stop racing but when I am I will always appreciate those days racing here and all the great fans."
In 1968, management of "Old Hangtown" was taken over by local businessmen Al Hinds and Rich Hirst. The eager duo worked hard to bring the speedway and the community together in the early years. Their commitment to the fans and area businesses built a legacy that lives 43 years strong and their success is well recognized by the drivers and speedway personnel today.
In 1972 Hirst and Hinds added a claimer division to the program and three divisions raced weekly for points. In addition to adding stock cars to the regular program, they added special events such as powderpuff derbies and sponsor races before resigning in 1973.
Although he was no longer involved with the management, Hinds remained very active in the local sport for the many years that followed. He attended the events weekly up 2004, when he passed away. In honor of his commitment to the sport and the community that surrounds it, a special race has been scheduled in his honor on Saturday, May 5, with the fourth annual "Tribute to Al Hinds" featuring the Civil War Sprint Cars and additional winnings.
The following year the duo stepped down from their successful reign and Placerville Speedway underwent a series of short-term custody changes. The next three years saw management become a team effort between four individuals, Bob Rodriguez, Tom Snider, John Henderson and Andy Kovach. While the other three eventually resigned, Kovach stayed involved and teamed up with the late George Stefanski of Placerville in 1975. Much like Hinds, Stefanski was all about improvement, enlarging the track and making several facility enhancements. The local team operated the track for four years, during which time Super Stocks joined the program and hardtops transformed into super modifieds.
In 1979, Kovach and Stefanski sold the track promotion to David Grizzel who operated under the same format until 1981 when the duo of Al Youngblood and Arnold Brink took over the business for a single year. In 1982, racing promoter, John Padjen, came aboard at the request of the fairground to rescue the community icon that was beginning to struggle in the way of management efforts.
Already a successful motor sports promoter in Sacramento, Dixon and Chico, Padjen moved in and molded the foothill race facility into the successful, competitive track it is today. According to archives of the Mountain Democrat newspaper race dates were sporadic prior to Padjen's management, varying from Friday or Saturday evenings to Sunday afternoon.
Padjen established a consistent Saturday night program following his first race in April of 1982 to improve safety and visibility for both drivers and fans. He also chose to change the name of the track from "Hangtown" to Placerville Speedway so the sport became associated with the community.
"Hangtown had a nice ring to it as a name, but many people didn't realize where it was," said Padjen. "Everyone knew where the town of Placerville was so that was the reason the for the change in the name."
During his reign, which spanned more than half of the 42 year of operation here, Padjen and his staff have improved the racing program to new levels. His reign has been witness to many of the track's notable events.
During Padjen's term, technology launched new divisions and canceled others. The year he took the track over was the first year that sprint cars raced on the weekly program. In 1989 the super modifieds were replaced with today's Limited Sprints, which have since become the most populated open wheel racing division in California and Oregon.
Through the decades, divisions such as Super Stocks transitioned into California Modifieds, Claimers became Street Stocks and both divisions have since transformed into Pro Stocks and Pure Stocks.
Lap times for sprint cars have dropped from the 13-second mark into the nine-second neighborhood and safety equipment has been greatly improved for both spectators and drivers alike and is always a top priority. Mike Nichols of Folsom is the only driver to lose his life in a racing accident at Placerville Speedway. The tragedy occurred when he crashed his sprint car into the turn-two wall in 1988.
As Placerville Speedway opens its 44th season, a new era of racing promotion will begin as Handy Racing Promotions Incorporated assumes the promotership of the facility after being awarded a five year contract with the El Dorado County Fairground. While the new management team will bring many improvements to the facility in the years to come it will carry on a family tradition. Alan Handy (aka Alan Padjen) has worked alongside his step father, John Padjen for more than 30 years in the sport of auto racing and is dedicated to the growth of the sport that has been the livelihood of his family for decades. As John and Robbie Padjen gracefully step out of the spotlight, the next generation of auto racing promotion begins with an attitude and an approach that is sure to keep racing strong in both Placerville and Chico for years to come.
"With over 30 years in the business my Mom and Dad wanted to take a step back and slow down a bit more," Handy said. "But we have always worked together as a family and I've been right beside him learning the business for over 30 years. I am not trying to fill his shoes and I give him all the credit in the world for what he and my mom have accomplished. But I have been around racing my whole life and I am ready to roll. It's a big undertaking but I am ready to do it. I've had all these thoughts and ideas for the last 20 years about what I would like to do to continue the success my parents have started."Despite the continued rise of operation costs and a n economy that continues to be troubled, Placerville Speedway has reached a milestone, with 44 years of continued operation as one of California's oldest and most successful motor sports venues. The facility that was once known as home to a "Small Town Saturday Night" is now nationally recognized in the nation as one of the crown jewels in dirt track racing.