Third generation driver Justin Philpott, of Tracy, survived a grueling, caution filled race to capture the checkered flag in the Sunday evening annual 4th of July Ron Strmiska Memorial Firecracker 125 for the Stockton Late Models at the Stockton 99 Speedway.
Ron Strmiska, nicknamed the “Manteca Missile” began racing at the 99 Speedway in 1969, winning back-to-back track championships in 1978 and 1979. His son Ron Jr. and grandson Ross would continue the family’s racing legacy at the 99 when Ron retired from the cockpit and the popular 4th of July race was renamed in his honor after he passed away in late 2014.
Philpott and young gun Colby Potts, of Stockton, led the strong 19-car field to start the main event. Philpott was able to take the lead as Potts and a host of others, including the familiar Strmiska owned pink and black #90 entry driven by Manteca’s Guy Guibor, all maneuvered to get to the front.
A continuous string of spins and crashes throughout the race produced a total of 15 yellow-cautions that resulted in a revolving door of cars at the front of the pack.
After being shuffled back in the field following an altercation with Potts on lap 45, Philpott would patiently work his way back to reassume the lead with 20 laps remaining in the race after Guibor and Potts spun while battling for the lead.
“We had a decent car and if we could have stayed in front we would have been alright, but we were just a little bit off,” said Guibor. “I got together with a couple cars, but it was just hard racing.”
Philpott would survive a couple of more restarts, along with a chrome horn bump courtesy of Stockton’s Gary Shafer Jr. that nearly put him in a spin, to take a hard-earned victory.
“I didn’t want to push too hard early on so I could survive, keep the fenders on it and have a shot at the end,” explained an exhausted Philpott after the race. “We had a great car, but it got ugly out there. Just 50 laps at this place is difficult let alone 125. It was a survival contest tonight.”
A disappointed Shafer settled for second place, just ahead of Stockton’s Joey Stearns, while Guibor somehow managed to finish fourth despite going airborne on the front straight after a close encounter with Escalon’s Sam Solari, who just as amazingly came home in fifth.
For Philpott, a three-time track champion, the race was special. His father, David Philpott, also won two track championships racing against Ron Strmiska.
“We are not running for a championship this year so we came here specifically to win this beautiful trophy,” said Philpott as he hoisted the American flag winner’s trophy handmade by track announcer Robert Daniel. “We came here to make everybody proud and keep the heritage of this place going.”
Showing no ill effects from a serious crash into the pit exit during the previous race on June 12, Linden’s Allen Rider cruised to a dominating win over Manteca’s Joe Reichmuth in the 25-lap Bomber main.
“I felt a little shaky at first, but after the first practice tonight we got it back together,” admitted Rider. “After that I felt fine and just went with it.”
Josh Cross, of Manteca, went wire-to-wire in the 18-car B-4 feature, holding off Stockton’s Nick Hall and defending class champion Joe Flowers, of Manteca, to notch his second win of the season.
The race was scheduled for 25 laps, but ended under a checkered-yellow three laps early due to a pile up on the back straight, which was fortunate for Cross who had suffered a broken water hose and was beginning to overheat at that point.
“That was exciting. I was just holding on in the final laps because the car was getting really hot,” said Cross. “I’m glad we made it to the end, I was really nursing it home and the radiator hose blew on the last lap so I was glad they called it early.”
Jordan Lovelace, of Stockton, held off Chase Lopez, of San Leandro, to take the victory in the 15-lap B-4 Juniors race.
Racing returns to the 99 Speedway on Saturday, July 17, with a program featuring the Stockton Late Models, Kearney Bowl Modifieds, Mini Cups, B-4s and B-4 Juniors.