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Sprint cars catapult into spotlight as opener nears

After staging 10 races last summer and watching the car count grow and seeing record crowds, speedway promoter John Skinner decides to put the sprints in the limelight

Mail Tribune

WHITE CITY - In the eyes of local stock car racing fans, the sprint cars became the leading class at the Southern Oregon Speedway last year.

They are clearly the fastest cars on the third-mile clay oval, reaching speeds of nearly 100 mph. They possess the most horsepower. Their wrecks are the most spectacular.

And as of Saturday at 6 p.m., when the speedway embarks on its seventh season, the sprints will officially become the track's premier class.

"They bring out the biggest crowds - people go crazy over them," Southern Oregon Speedway promoter John Skinner says. "They're so exciting to watch."

Skinner hesitated to make the sprints his main attraction in past years because the car count was low and the purse money he had to pay out was relatively high. The cars cost the most to build or buy - between $30,000 and $50,000 - and the most to operate.

But after staging 10 races last summer and watching the car count grow to about 20, and seeing record crowds pack the track, Skinner decided to put the sprint cars in the limelight.

They'll replace the modifieds as the premier division and will be on the track 16 times this summer.

"I'm hoping the car count will continue to build throughout the summer and that we can get some good rivalries going," Skinner says.

One rivalry that's expected to resume is between Billy (the Kid) Nutter and Dan Menne. The pair has staged some spirited duels at the White City track in past years but never for a full season.

Both are also making comebacks in 2002. Menne raced only 11 times last season while Nutter also ran a limited schedule due to a bad back.

"He (Nutter) came out late last summer and kicked my rear," says Menne, a rancher from Fort Jones, Calif. "That guy can still drive."

Menne purchased a new Maxim Chassis and Gaerte motor. He'll be going full-bore this summer, competing not only at the Southern Oregon Speedway but also on the Northern Sprint Tour and the Civil War Series in California.

The local speedway will play host to NST events on June 25 and July 15.

Menne is so enthused about returning to a full schedule - he plans to compete in 45 events - that he's been spending time in the gym, lifting weights and riding an exercise bike.

"I think it's going to help," Menne says. "People don't realize it, but you can get worn out in a long race. This (working out) is going to help my stamina."

Nutter, meanwhile, missed most of last season with a bulging disc in his back. He contemplated retirement but, after receiving a cortisone shot, visiting a chiropractor and undergoing a series of exercises, he returned for the final two sprint races at the White City track and won them both.

"I was ready to walk away from racing at one point but then I went out and helped a couple guys and the urge came back," Nutter says.

Another sprint car driver to keep an eye on this season is Cale Carder, one of the drivers Nutter assisted last summer. Carder ran exceptionally strong at the speedway's test-and-tune session last Saturday.

"He's gotten to be real fast," Nutter says of Carder. "He's going to win some races, no doubt about it."

A couple of notable changes

have been made for the modified and pro stock classes.

A new eight-inch tire will be bolted onto the modified cars. The tire is made of a softer compound than the old one and is expected to give the cars more traction and, in turn, more speed.

In the pro stock division, a weight minimum of 2,700 pounds - including driver - goes into effect. The new rule isn't likely to be popular with the top drivers, who weighed in at about 2,500 pounds a year ago.

"It's going to slow us down a little and that's frustrating," defending pro stock points champion Jim Walker, Jr. says. "It's like we're becoming a limited late-model class."

With 139 career victories, Walker is the winningest stock car driver in the history of Southern Oregon. He bagged 12 wins in 20 trips to the track last season and added four seconds and two thirds.

Walker's toughest competition might come from his brother, Tony, who was the pro stock points runner-up last season.

Frank Word III, who finished third in points in 2001, is also back and will compete in the modified class as well as the pro stock class this season.

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail

Sprint cars catapult into spotlight as opener nears