(STOCKTON, CA--August 10, 1997)--What started as a sluggish event turned into a barn- burner Saturday night at Stockton 99 Speedway when 2,209 fans were treated to a highly entertaining Mega Power Tri-Track Challenge race for Late Model Sportsman. A series of yellow flags and crashes slowed the early pace, but all was forgotten after series point leader Dave Byrd and second place challenger Steve Belletto waged a classic side-by-side duel over the 100-lap affair's final 35 laps with Belletto winning for the first time in the eighth race ofthe 10-event series that involves Stockton 99, Madera Speedway and Altamont Raceway Park.
Tim Bost of Rocklin and Modesto's Bob Strandwold occupied the front row as 20 potent cars took the initial green flag with Strandwold getting the early jump. Los Gatos' Byrd, who started fourth, got past Strandwold on lap eight before the early race tedium set in. Paul Beaty of Modesto and Nathan Tucker of Sonora collided just past the flagstand to draw a lap-11 yellow that allowed the field to regroup with Byrd still at the point 12 laps later, Tucker got tangled up with Mike Walker of Citrus Heights to bring out another yellow that eventually evolved into a red as the NASCAR track officials tried to determine which car was guilty of dropping oil on the track.
Byrd led the re-start followed by Bost, Strandwold and two Belletto's--daddy Harry and son Steve, both of Modesto. Troy Errnish of Fremont's attempt to turn Stockton's tight quarter-mile paved oval into a super speedway by running three-wide failed moments later when he collided with Walker on the front straight and collected Wayne Pierce of Stockton in the process. Yellows continued to fall as the field tried to sort itself out and get into a single run. Ron Strmiska, Sr. of Manteca gained fourth on lap-34 only to fall back to 10th on the next go-round as he was hit in turn four by Bost. On lap-4l, the senior Belletto gained the front spot and started to pull away, but slowed just past the halfway point and exited to the pits with a broken hub handing the lead back to Byrd, with Steve Belletto advancing to second setting the stage for what Belletto would later describe as: "The best race I was ever involved in. It was the closest for the longest."
Starting on lap-65, all eyes were riveted on the front-runners as the two staged an l l-lap side-byside battle with Belletto finally closing down on lap-76. Even then, the distance between Byrd's front bumper and Belletto's rear panel could have been measured with a yardstick as Byrd made several unsuccessfiul attempts to get under the leader off the turns. Byrd got one more lead lap under his belt on lap-92 after a restart; but it was short lived as Belletto grabbed it back on the next circuit, this time for good as the crowd applauded both drivers' efforts.
At the finish, after Byrd, the top-five was completed by Mike David of Modesto, Strandwold and Billy Clarkson of Orangevale. Byrd won the six-lap Mega Power trophy dash with Steve Belletto second. As a result, the two collected the same amount of points on the evening, thus, Byrd still retains a 42-point lead in the 10-race series standings (438-396).
As a companion to the Mega Power Late Model event, a 50-lap Grand American Modified feature was staged that was as competitive as any to date in the '97 season. Jason Philpot of Sacramento brought the 19-car field to the first green and led through lap-nine before bowing to 16-year-old Thomas Meserall of San Jose, making only his second Stockton 99 appearance. Meserall won his first race at the 51-year old Speedway on July 26, but lost the apparent victory as he came up a disheartening seven pounds light in a post race weight check.
The first of four yellows was displayed on lap-18 as Jim Rose of Manteca broke and tagged the front wall. One lap later, four time 1997 feature winner Paul Guthmiller of Manteca retired for the night with apparent engine problems. By mid-race, the top-five consisted of Meserall, defending division champion Robert Miller of San Jose, Robert Knittel of Lodi, Philpot and Howard Hoffman of Tracy. Hoffman was the next to exit on lap-32 allowing current point leader Steve Stacy of Stockton to advance to the fifth spot. On the subsequent re-start, Miller utilized his experience to wrest the lead away from Meserall going down the back chute. Two laps later, Meserall gathered it back together and launched a charge against Miller to re-gain the point on lap-38 with Knittel following suit to move into second.
A yellow on lap-41 gave Miller another shot at Meserall which was again successful as he took the lead for good. Miller brought it home the winner for the first time in 1997 and 24th for his Stockton career. The remaining top-five consisted of Meserall, 1996 Roseville track champion Eddie Laws of Yuba City, Stacy and Knittel. With six GAM events left in the season, Stacy enjoys a comfortable 144-point lead (1059-915) over Knittel.
The racing action was completed on the night with a 21-car field of Pick-n-Pull Pure Stocks scrambling for 20-laps. Adarn Ramsdale of San Jose from the pole was the early leader before bowing to Doug Lane of Stockton on lap-five. Jeff Lovelace, also of Stockton, slid to the third spot on lap-eight. The evening's fast timer and new track record holder Scott McHale of Modesto joined the fray on lap-12 with Lane and McHale running laps 15 and 16 side-by-side with Lane holding tough until coming into lapped traffic in the form of Lodi's Cindy Quarnstrom. Lane collided with Quarnstrom taking himself out of contention as McHale scampered home to post his first career feature win ahead of Lovelace and three other Stockton drivers--Kannai Scantlen, Mark Mays and Royce Niceler.