“Danny just drove into the corner too far and his front end went, you know, back here.” Jerry pointed toward the rear quarter panel. “He drove in over his head, yeah. You need to let off the brake in order to make the turn. You just can’t drive in full throttle. It was just a rookie mistake and it had to be Dad. So then for a while he was Daniel, not Danny. The next day, Sunday, was my granddaughter’s birthday party, so Danny comes walking in carrying his daughter, you know, and I say, ‘Hi, Daniel.’ He says, ‘Hi, Dad,’ in a low voice. It’s always been that way. Whenever he was in trouble as a kid it’s Daniel. ‘Daniel, get over here!’ ”
Few relationships are more complicated as those between a parent and child. It was one thing for Jerry to call it a rookie mistake, but when I suggested it had been caused by a lack of experience, Jerry bristled.
“He don’t have lack of experience. He drove a Sportsman a few years ago for two races and he finished fifth and lowballed himself and it wasn’t near the car I had. He just needs a good shake.”
For any driver, the jump from one class to the next higher can be a big move, but the jump to Sportsman is the most ambitious. The Sportsman, as Danny told me, is a lot less forgiving than a Street Stock and more expensive. To build a brand-new Street Stock might cost $10,000 (Danny has built two); a Sportsman might be between $60,000 and $70,000. And each year there are technical changes, new features like aluminum heads to keep the car competitive, and in three years the car is already outdated. Tires cost $108 each, and drivers generally need to buy two each week. Rims are $80 each; Jerry Gay bought 16 at the beginning of the season. He also paid $1500 for the fiberglass body. And these are the small expenses.
I asked Danny about the difference between driving a Street Stock and a Sportsman.
“There’s a huge difference: weight, brakes, tires are bigger. You got way more horsepower. My car’s got about 430 horsepower. Nothing on this car is stock, versus last year: all suspension, driveline, all that kind of stuff was stock parts. These are easier to drive than the others. I think it’s because you’re so comfortable and the car reacts so good and is so responsive. The other car’s a lot more wishy-washy. You don’t have to turn the steering wheel very much in this car, only a little bit. In that other car you’re turning it all around, you’re working it pretty good all the time. Of course, in this car one little mistake would cost you a lot more, that’s for sure, but that’s just because the class is more expensive. It seems like when you get loose in this thing and you’re going to get bumped, it seems to me like it’s easier to save her when you get out of control, because for one thing the rear end’s not locked solid, both wheels don’t spin together. They’re locked when you’re on the gas, but when you’re not, they’re free, so that helps control the car. And this car has almost 200 horsepower more, all lightweight. The car weighs 300 pounds less. The brakes are bigger, the tires two inches wider, all that.”
So a big difference between Street Stock and Sportsman is the money it costs to run them. But there’s little money in victory. The winner of the Sportsman-class main event receives $800 for first place, about twice what the winner of the Street Stock division gets. Second-place Sportsman gets $600. There is additional money paid for the fastest qualifying time in each division ($25 to each class) and to the winner of the heat race (another $25 to each class). At the end of the season, all points winners get paid the same, regardless of class. Top finisher receives $1000 for the year; second place gets $800; $600 goes to third. The winning Sportsman driver who collects the most passing points in a race receives $200. But this money — even for the winners — isn’t nearly enough to pay the driver and his crew for their time and expenses.
So either a driver has to have good sponsors or be wealthy. Jerry Gay has his own shop where he does metal fabrication, welding, and automotive work. Being self-employed allows him to adjust his hours to work on his car, but his day job will never make him rich. He shares the ownership of his car with a man in Ramona: Jerry owns the car and the other man owns the motor. Danny’s day job is working for a guy who owns a mortgage company and on the side buys and sells about 10 to 15 houses a year. “They’re pretty much always dumps,” Danny told me. “We go in, fix them up, and he sells them. We work all over the place.” A major benefit of the job is that his boss lets him take time off for racing and travel to other tracks in the fall after Cajon Speedway closes.
Danny bought his Sportsman — a ’99 Monte Carlo with a 355 Chevy motor — at the beginning of the year, then he and his crew chief, Heath Parsons, and the rest of the crew worked on it through the winter and spring. In March, they began running it at the practice sessions at Cajon Speedway. The season at Cajon runs from April 7 until October 6, but not every division runs every week. The Sportsman class might run five weeks in a row, then take a week off. Besides the Sportsman there are street stocks, bombers, modifieds, ponys, legends, speed trucks, boat races, destruction derbies — where station wagons back into each other until only one is able to move — and train races: three cars linked together by a metal bar with a person in the front as the driver, a person in the back as the brake, the middle car empty, five or six trains doing eight laps on a figure-eight track and a crash every race. These more exotic races are crowd pleasers that elicit sneers from the serious drivers and their pit crews, because the primo class is the Sportsman and the primo race is the Sportsman’s 40-lap feature, even if most of the fans come to watch the clown stuff. On a good Saturday, 95 to 100 cars will be racing before an average audience of 3000.