Larry Tankersley of Stockton survived the blistering heat, multiple cautions and a host of on track challengers to take a hard-earned victory in Saturday night’s prestigious Strmiska Firecracker 125 for the Stockton Late Models at the 99 Speedway.
Contested annually on the Fourth of July weekend, the event honors the late Ron Strmiska. Nicknamed the “Manteca Missile”, Strmiska’s racing career at the 99 Speedway spanned over 30 years and was highlighted by back-to-back track championships in 1978 and 1979.
“This means a lot to me to win this race. I started out here racing Ron Strmiska and I miss those days,” Tankersley said in victory lane. “It is great that the Strmiska family is still out here supporting this track and I have tried to do the same thing.”
While his son Ron Jr. and grandsons Robert, Richard and Ross have continued the family’s long racing tradition in a variety of roles, a new chapter was added this Saturday when Robert returned from his home in Lexington, North Carolina to pilot the iconic pink and black #90 at the 99 Speedway for the first time.
Robert Strmiska, whose credentials include crew chief for two-time NASCAR champion Austin Dillion of Richard Childress Racing and 18 wins in 23 starts as a driver in his own Mini Stock over the last two seasons in the North Carolina area, started the race in the second row of the quality 20-car field, just behind Tankersley and Granite Bay’s John Moore.
As the trio fought it out in the opening laps they were quickly joined by Escalon’s Sam Solari, Miranda’s Greg Potts and Lodi’s Arron Shankel, creating a wild six-way battle royale for the lead. The fray lasted just a half dozen laps before Strmiska got loose in Turn 1 and took Potts with him into the wall.
After a quick trip to the pits for repairs, Strmiska was able to return to the race at the back of the pack, but unfortunately Potts, who was making his first appearance since winning the season opener, was done for the night.
“It was fast, but I made a rookie mistake,” admitted Strmiska after the race of using his father’s #90 car. “I didn’t give Potts quite enough room and it wrecked both of us.”
When the race resumed Solari continued to push Tankersley for the lead and after multiple attempts he was able to slide underneath of him to take over the top spot around midrace.
With an open track ahead of him Solari slowly started to pull away from the pack, but just as he seemed to be taking control of the race another caution popped out on lap 85. As the cars slowly circled the track under the yellow flag Solari suddenly dipped into the pits and parked with a rear end failure.
With Solari on the sidelines for the night, Tankersley once again jumped into the lead. He would remain there for the rest of the race, enduring a multitude of caution restarts and fighting off numerous challenges, including one by a resurgent Strmiska, who had worked his way back up to the front before spinning into the Turn 3 wall on lap 100.
“The restarts were killing me because I wasn’t taking care of my tires properly, but we were able to improve towards the end to hold on,” explained Tankersley. “It was tough. But at the end of the day, we won.”
Numerous accidents, which brought out the yellow-caution flag an incredible 15 times during the race and eliminated over half the field, left Salida’s Tim Spurgeon and Tracy’s Chuck Dozier to round out the top three. Following his second accident, Strmiska once again returned to the track and despite being two laps down to the leaders, he was able to salvage seventh place.
“We were able to fix the car and we got back up there, but the car wasn’t the same and we just didn’t have enough for Larry,” Strmiska said. “At the end we were running on just seven cylinders.”
By picking up his second win of the season Tankersley was able to increase his lead in the season standings over Solari, but the 2016 track champion is facing a major dilemma in the near future.
“I am supposed to go to Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August and miss one race. I already have the room and everything else in order so I have to decide if I want to take that loss, go on vacation or go for my second championship here,” explained Tankersley. “But either way I am enjoying myself.”
The always entertaining B-4 division put on another great show as 16-year-old Jordan Mast, of Manteca, picked up his first career win in thrilling fashion.
Mast bolted past pole sitter Steve Ford, of Sonora, on lap 5 and then spent the remainder of the 25-lap main snaking over, under and between several back markers to fend off Rocklin’s John Sproule and Orangevale’s Mario Novelli for the victory.
Mast’s task was made a bit easier by the absence of Manteca’s Josh Cross and Joe Flowers after both drivers suffered engine failures in practice that sidelined them for the main event. The duo has dominated the division over the last four years with each winning a pair of titles.
“The car was loose all day, but we finally got it under control for the main. I can’t thank my dad and everyone else who has helped me enough for all they have done for me.” Mast said. “It kind of sucks that Josh and Joe were not racing tonight because they are the fastest guys out here, but a win is a win so I can’t be bummed about it. This means so much.”
Tyler Holden, of Clovis, went wire-to-wire for the apparent win in the Street Stock feature, but was later disqualified giving the win to Brian Miller of Railroad Flats.
Stockton’s Natalie Harper saw her four race winning streak come to an end when she was unable to catch Livermore’s Dustin King in the 10-lap B-4 Junior race.
Season points leader Gomes, of Manteca, will be seeking his fifth win in six starts this season when the Spears SRL Southwest Tour Series roars into the 99 Speedway for Round #6 of the JM Environmental Wild West Shootout on Saturday, July 15. The Super Late Models will be joined in Stockton by the Spears Pro Late Models, presented by Sigma Performance Services. The Spears Modified Series, which will be making its first appearance at the historic quarter-mile oval, and the NCMA Sprint Car Series.