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Wednesday, March 04 2015 @ 08:46 AM PST

The History Of Thunderhill According To David. Part Three

General News

When last we met, Thunderhill Park was about to open its doors, participating in the birth of a race track and joining the harsh reality in motorsports venue operations. Like most new parents of a neonate, we weren’t exactly sure what we were doing. The track was done as far as we could go. We had a trailer for timing and scoring and another trailer which was basically a place for the stewards and for Pauline Laskin and her race central crew at the grand opening. The track had no curbs and remarkably few walls. The chosen weekend was Halloween and the San Francisco Region of the SCCA was ready. Since 1988 the Club had, in varying degrees, anticipated this event. The buzz within the road racing world and the local community was at an all-time high.

We rented tents for Linda Rogaski and her crew to sign people in. Bill Dwyer and his T&S crew did all that needed to be done to hook up the timing systems. Bob Stegal handled the announcing set up and my crew and I went about promoting the event in the North Bay and getting ready as best we could. We made a deal with a host of local service clubs to come out and sell food and drinks. We printed an event tee shirt to honor the occasion. We found an ancient pull broom and arranged to have a tractor at the event with a spinning brush on the front. We hoped for good weather and told everyone that Craig T. Nelson, “The Coach”, would be racing. I never told anyone that Paul Newman and/or Tom Cruise would be here. In the SCCA ranks National Club President Nick Craw was entered to race in his 240 ITS “Z” car and there was more. We used radios that were donated to us by the Northern California Kart Club [NCK] even though the SCCA had their own radios. There was no com line but we had these really neat, soon to be destroyed, wooden corner stations with tops. The tops may have been the fatal mistake.

As that famous day approached I set up all the staff and crossed my fingers. That day was actually a three-day SCCA weekend. On Friday we held opening ceremonies with our District 3 Supervisor, Dick Mudd welcoming the SCCA to Glenn County. Most of the Glenn County Supervisors were present including good friend and many-time Chairman of the Glenn County Board of Supervisors, Mike Murray.  Craig T. Nelson spoke at the ceremony as did Gary Meeker, SCCA President Nick Craw and the man responsible for it all, Tom McCarthy. You will remember that it was Tom McCarthy who came up with the idea of building a club-owned track as a solution to the faltering status of the SFR/SCCA at the two premier tracks in the area. Lee Mosele was still at Laguna Seca and Sears Point was being managed by Glenn Long who reported to track owner and developer Skip Berg. Tom never doubted that the club could build a track in California and it was his dogged persistence that kept us going when the outlook was bleak.

On Friday there was a symbolic cutting of a ribbon for the grand opening and then attention switched to racing. The event was titled, “The Budweiser Thunderhill Grand Opener”, thanks to Bob Carter owner of the local Budweiser distributorship. Roger Eandi was the Chief Steward in charge with his gang of officials including Al Brizard, Dick Grundy, John Graham, Bud Gorham, Dick Templeton, Glen Wilhelm, Carl Molfield, and Bob Corbitt. Linda Rogaski and the Dwyers rounded out the team.  

There were nine race groups at the time with IT being huge from ITS to ITD.  The Club added a 10th group which turned out to be good for me. It was made up of various vintage cars. My Grand Opening entry, a PT Mitsubishi I had been running all season, ended up in this race group over a disagreement with tech. This is a long story that defies gravity. Suffice it to say that the renewal of a log book on a car formerly owned by a steward is not a guarantee. Roll bar thickness was the alleged issue, so no new log book and no race class victory for me in the grand-opening event at Thunderhill ! Damn! Thanks to Roger Eandi, the Mitsubishi was allowed to run in group ten.  I got on track but it was a hollow victory. I did not win as I wasn’t really in the class.  I recovered.

At the grand opening, Burrows Oil provided the fuel rig and the fuel for the racers. It was a farm trailer that Bob Burrows rigged up so that we would have fuel. We had two types, 110 and 100 octane but no 91.

Winners that day included:  Tom Fogarty in FV; Eric Christiansen in the 440 class; Chuck Billington in CSR; Chuck West in FM; Lee Lucas in S2; Darrell Benner in FC; Al Gambetti in FA; Steven Bresoe in SS2; Frank Emmett in SP; Jon Norman in GT3; Jack Skibo in GT2; Jay Norris in AS; Don Inferrera in GT1; David Fraser in DSR; Rich Bontempi in EP; Noel Hayward in GP; Don McCoy in FP; Jon Becker in GT5; Ray Hiett in HP; Norris Rancourt in PE; John Beckwith in PB; James Sheppard in SGT; Clint deWitt in SSB;  Chuck Meyer in PT [My class]; Tom McCarthy in SSC; Wayne  Richter in ITD; Mike Tygeson in PC; Mike Benzon in SR - [Spec Racer]; Ed Demayo in CS; Bob Cartwright in SF – [Spec Ford];  Brian Forester in FE; Tom Lepper in RS – [Radial Sedan]; Sean McKenna in ITC; [An Oka car]; Phillip Hawkins in ITA; Ceasar Villalba in ITS; Robert Gordon in ITR; John Collins in CP and Reynauld Watt in the Group 10 vintage class. Do you think we had enough classes?  Of the winners Hiett was from Reno Nevada and Gordon and Collins were from Portland, Oregon. There were a great many entrants from out of state including Nick Craw who worked in Denver but called the east coast home [I think Connecticut]. Lee Lucas earned the best lap time among the winners in his S2 at 1:10.078 with Chuck Billington second fast in his CSR at 1:10.144. These are both in the 89 miles per hour range. ]

Among the other highlights that weekend was the pee-gravel on the side of the track as a result of construction. Reportedly Tom Foster’s CSR car got a rock under a drive belt and lost an engine.  As if to out-do the gravel, officials’ added tires on the outside of the turns. Nick Craw was a victim at the start of the ITS race as he was pushed or drove off of turn one and collected a tire under the Z-car air dam. The delay was enough to end any chances of his owning a trophy from this historic day.

Another highlight included a pumpkin carving contest. There is no record of the winner. We also had a Halloween costume contest that certainly Bob Corbitt must have won based on the photos. The pumpkin contest made a huge mess but we cleaned it up.
As Sunday wound down Craig T. Nelson left the track for the nearby Willows airport for his trip home. The next time we saw him, in a manner of speaking, was when his Lear Jet buzzed the front straightaway at a level that resulted in the now famous picture taken from the hill where the water tank rests by local Steven French.  It shows the top of the plane flying past the timing and scoring trailer heading south. It was awesome but some anal retentive types wanted to turn him into the FAA to which I responded, “Nelson was not flying the plane” and that was the end of that.

The weekend event drew a huge turnout of spectators, $15,000 worth in fact with each one paying $10 to get in to see what this SCCA road racing was all about. My wife to be, Terry Taylor was there with her two boys, Dan and Brian and some family friends. She remembers fondly the $30 tab to get in. This was and remains to this day the largest spectator gate ever received at Thunderhill Park.

Those spectators and many of the racers purchased tee shirts and a limited supply of Thunderhill merchandise adding another $10k to the weekend till. The balance of the income from that weekend was and remains the constant of rent and some service fees. It should be known that Thunderhill does not benefit from the number of entries or spectators in most cases and, in fact, relies on relatively fixed income streams from track rent and services.

Today, food, fuel, tires, merchandise, garages, and the skid pad are vital to the success of the facility. If we had to rely on track rent, the rent would be higher and the track would be smaller in many ways. This is a good time to say a BIG THANK YOU to anyone who has ever rented the track, put on an event, purchased gas and food, bought a tee shirt or Go Pro camera, used the skid pad and rented a garage. Without you Thunderhill would not be what it is today. Thank you! Please keep doing all these things as we move forward past our 20th anniversary year in 2013.

When the Grand Opening ended it turned out to be a great event. The people of Willows and Glenn County knew they had a road race track in the town. In Glenn County, most people think of circle tracks when they hear the name “race track” since there was a circle track in Willows long ago before the I-5 freeway went right through the infield.
The next phase of Thunderhill Park focused on building the business base and a host of loyal, supportive and regular customers. We have been blessed over the years with a long list of men and women who have made Thunderhill their track and who come back time-after-time to put on events and attend other people’s events.

Among the stories on the horizon is how we turned the SCCA street car school into a major source of revenue that eventually became Hooked-on-Driving and how we were able to add motorcycles to the schedule despite initial local objections which resulted in a lasting partnership with the good people at the American Federation of Motorcyclists [AFM]. We’ll also explore the addition of the final mile and the incredible utility we were able to achieve with our Roger Eandi Club house despite some pretty strange inputs and resistance. Vern Vierra built the Club house and once again it was Richard Siri and his team of Art Siri and Steven Crawford who made the final mile a reality.

Stay tuned. 


Part one can be found HERE

Part two can be found HERE