Sam Solari, of Escalon, continued his recent hot streak with another strong performance to earn a convincing victory in the sixth annual “Night of Champions” 100-lap Stockton Late Model feature at the Stockton 99 Speedway on Saturday night, Aug. 6.
Several former track champions including Dave Byrd of Seaside, Ken Boyd of Ceres, and David Philpott of Tracy, returned to their old battleground for the night’s activities which included a poignant tribute to Steve Belletto, who tragically passed away late last year from COVID-related pneumonia at the age of 56.
Known for being fierce competitors on the track and gentlemen off of it, the Belletto family has a long and storied history of more than 50 years of competition at the 99 Speedway beginning in 1970 when Steve’s father Harry Belletto, of Modesto, started racing at the historic quarter-mile oval. Over the next 45 years he would amass a record 89 main event wins and three track championships.
Steve and his younger brother Jeff would soon follow suit, capturing two track championships each, while their older brother Rick preferred to remain in the pits, building and preparing the family-owned race cars. One of the family’s greatest highlights occurred in the 1999, July 4th Firecracker 100 where Harry proudly led his sons to a 1-2-3 finish as the packed grandstands went wild.
After longtime track announcer Wynne Pierce, current promoter Tony Noceti and former track owner and promoter Ken Clapp shared some thoughtful and heartfelt memories of the family, Harry Belletto took the microphone to briefly address the crowd from the start/finish line on the main straight.
“I want to thank Tony for setting this all up and to Ken Clapp for letting me race here and being my friend. And most of all I want to thank all the fans for showing up to support and cheer for us all these years,” said Belletto. “It is always special to come back here.”
Steve Belletto’s familiar Hotwood sponsored #30 racing car, driven by his brother Rick, led a parade lap before the start of the Stockton Late Model feature which included Jeff Belletto behind the wheel of his father’s legendary black and yellow #74 Monte Carlo in the middle of the 18-car field.
Starting in the second row behind Tracy’s Justin Philpott and Stockton’s JoJo Stearns, it took Solari only 13 laps before he slipped under the pair to take over the top spot in the race. Solari would act as the bell cow for the remainder of the race, with a couple of yellow-cautions being the only obstacle that kept him from completely checking out from the rest of the field.
“It is so fun to drive this car right now. I have a great team, great sponsors and Mike David really has this car dialed in,” said Solari, who has posted three wins in his last four starts. “This one means a lot. Steve Belletto built my engines for years and he was a special guy. In fact, this car has one of his engines in it.”
Stearns would finish second while defending track champion Gary Shafer Jr. survived a controversial late race wreck with Kimberly Rouse, both of Stockton, to grab third.
Making his first start since 2013, the night did not go as well as Jeff Belletto had hoped for. He touched the outside wall about a third of the way through the race and was forced to pit under the ensuing yellow-caution for repairs. Belletto was able to return to the track, but the incident left him an ill handling car the rest of the way which he still managed to bring home to an 11th place finish.
“Nick (Steve’s son) was actually supposed to drive tonight, but he got sick so I kind of drew the short straw and got thrown in there. I gave it all I had, but the car was off a bit so I just did the best I could for my brother,” explained Belletto, as he was surrounded by a sea of well-wishers in the pits after the race. “Tony, Ken and everybody here at the track did a fantastic job. This was a great tribute to my brother.”
The B-4s produced another exciting feature as Manteca’s Joe Flowers notched his fifth victory of the season.
Flowers immediately jumped in to the early lead at the drop of the green flag and then spent the rest of the 25-lap race desperately fending off the repeated challenges of his stepson Josh Cross, the defending division champion from Manteca, and Stockton’s Andy Rumsey. Flowers survived several side-by-side battles and on more than one occasion used lapped cars to shut the door on Cross, who in turn managed to hold off the hard charging Rumsey to salvage second place.
“Oh man. I knew once I got out front I had to go because I saw them coming. I was running full throttle all the way around the track,” admitted Flowers, who entered the night trailing Rumsey by just three points in the season standings. “There was a lot of lapped traffic, but everybody had to get through it. We were all giving it 110 percent.”
Seth Holman, of Salida, went wire-to-wire over Lodi’s Branden Jones for his second straight win in the Bomber class and Stockton’s Scottie Crawford picked up his second consecutive win in the B-4 Juniors division.
Racing returns to the 99 Speedway on Saturday, Aug. 13, with “double points” on the line for the Stockton Late Models, Bombers, B-4s and B-4 Juniors. The Legends Touring Series is also on the program.