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Racers crack down on big spenders

WHITE CITY - A $995 claiming rule has been in effect for the mini stock class at the Southern Oregon Speedway ever since it opened in 1996.

The rule has been there for a simple reason: to keep costs down for the speedway's beginning class.

If someone could claim your car for less than one thousand dollars, you'd be a fool to bring out a fancy car with an expensive engine.

Only one claim had been made since the track opened, until last Saturday when Dean Combs put in a bid for Patrick Lanigan's 1981 Mustang that had won six straight races.

Lanigan had the right to refuse the claim, which he did, but it cost him a $100 fine and a two-week suspension.

"I don't understand it," Lanigan said as he sat out Saturday's race. "We're out here to have fun. All this does is stir up trouble."

So why did Combs submit his claim? He wanted to make a statement, namely that the mini stock class in general, and Lanigan in particular, are spending too much money in what is supposed to be an affordable class of cars.

"He's ruining the spirit of the class and someone needed to step up and nip this in the bud," said Combs, who recently sold his car. "I don't like creating controversy and I don't hold a grudge against anyone. But it's not right that someone is out there spending thousands of dollars to win."

It's no secret that several mini stock drivers invest $3,000 to $5,000 in their cars these days, but Combs said Lanigan has put more money than that in his engine alone.

Lanigan disputes that claim, adding that his victories haven't come by wide margins.

"I'm not dominating the races," he said. "I haven't been winning by that much."

Lanigan said he has about $5,000 invested in his Mustang, which features a 2,300 cubic-centimeter, four-cylinder engine.

" the time you put in a competitive engine, a racing seat and harness, a racing gas tank and a good set of tires, you're in the neighborhood of $4,000," Lanigan said. "It adds up real quick."

Combs disagrees, and points to a car he recently sold for $800 as proof.

"That car finished fifth in points four years ago," Combs said.

Combs was at the track again Saturday looking to claim the car of Lanigan's brother, Tom, which leads the mini stock points race. But before he could dig into his pocket for the money, the car was claimed by Tim Lanigan, the boys' father.

An obvious solution to the problem would be for promoter John Skinner to raise the claiming price to, say, $4,000. But that would, in effect, defeat the purpose.

* * *

The most hotly-contested race Saturday came in the pro stock main event, where Frank Word III overhauled Tony Walker on the 22nd lap to win the 25-lap race.

Points leader Jim Walker, Jr., finished third.

Tony Walker owned the lead from the seventh to the 22nd lap, when Word slipped past him on the backstretch.

In other main events, Chad Bauer of Brookings won the sprint car race, Medford's Gary Fitzsimmons claimed the dwarf car race, Jim Hill took the mini stock event and John Wayne Cahill won the super trucks competition.

* * *

Dan Menne has been one of the top sprint car drivers in Oregon and California for the past decade, but the former two-time Southern Oregon Speedway points champion is running an abbreviated schedule this season.

Several factors went into the decision: burnout, three young daughters that he wanted to spend more time with and a major sponsor no longer supporting his team.

Menne hasn't done badly in his infrequent trips to the track this season. He finished third behind Bauer and Cale Carder Saturday night. He was also third at a Northern Sprint Tour race in Portland, seventh at an NST event at Yakima, Wash., and he won in his only other appearance at the Southern Oregon Speedway this season.

Menne wasn't so fortunate Friday at Chico when a malfunctioning torsion bar kept him from finishing.

"It's been tough to keep up with the guys who are racing every week," said Menne, who finished third in the NST point standings in 1999 and fourth last year. "You get into a certain rhythm, a certain groove, and you lose some of that when a month goes by and you've only been behind the wheel once or twice.

"But I still enjoy it."

Menne's bigger problem is the loss of sponsorship that had been worth $6,500 a year. His car, a 1998 Maxim, is already outdated, he said.

"If I could get another big sponsor next year I would race full-time once again," said Menne, who began racing in 1982.

* * *

Attendance at the speedway is up nearly 100 percent from last year, said owner John Skinner, who attributes the increase to better weather, the return of the sprint cars and weekly gimmicks such as Saturday's "Go till you blow" event, where the cars were drained of their water and oil.

"Studies have shown that only about 30 percent of the people out here are hard-core race fans," Skinner said. "The rest are just here to be entertained, and they like the special events."

Saturday's attendance was estimated at 2,300 - 1,800 in the main grandstands and 500 in the pits.

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail dhunt@mailtribune.com