By Mike Adaskaveg
Sons of drivers shined at Merced Speedway last week, as they began their rookie seasons in the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) SportMod Division.
Tanner Thomas, an 8th grader at McSwain School in Atwater and Gavin Espino, a freshman at Merced High School, aren’t old enough for a driver’s license, but they successfully competed with drivers who have decades of experience. They will both be back in action for the second race of the season on Saturday night.
Thomas finished 11th in the 18 car main event. Espino followed in 12th. Both boys moved through qualifying heat races and raced the entire feature with their cars being unscathed.
The Espinos, both in fire suits, walked through the pits on race night, Paul Espino explaining the ins and outs and etiquette of stock car racing to son Gavin.
“Dad told me to remember it is my first race – take the outside lane and stay out of the way of everyone,” Gavin Espino said. “He said to scan the field of cars ahead of you and always look for an escape route if a car spins or crashes in front of you.”
The younger Espino has been going to racetracks since he was a six years old. He raced go-karts and 600cc micro sprints. Gavin got his first SportMod as a hand-me-down from his dad when he purchased a new car over the winter.
“It felt really great from the drivers seat– it actually felt safer to be in a full size race car,” Gavin Espino said in comparing his go-kart to his SportMod. “The car gave me a lot of confidence. I adapted to it easily.”
For proud father Paul Espino, his young son’s success was pleasantly surprising.
“He handled the car well – it was an unreal feeling to se him lined up next to me on a yellow-flag restart in the feature,” Paul Espino, who finished eighth, said. “I thought I was showing him the ropes, but he did better than I did in my first time driving a SportMod.”
Paul Espino moved up to the division in 2012 after success in the four cylinder “Mini-Stock” division.
“He was cautious until midway through the feature,” Paul Espino said of his son. “Then he began testing the waters more and more.”
Classmates of Gavin Espino were in the large crowd watching the program. He focused on his car and the race he was in, remembering his dad’s words of advice as he drove through the 20-lap event.
“Be mindful of the cars around you, and have fun no matter if you finish last or first – is what dad told me,” Gavin Espino said. “And yes, I did have fun.”
From Washington, DC To Merced Speedway
Less than 18 hours before driving in the IMCA SportMod feature, Tanner Thomas and his dad Darren stepped off a plane from Washington, DC, where McSwain School students visited historic sites on a class trip.
Tanner Thomas drove the car his father raced on asphalt in the 90’s. It was parked in a barn for 17 years, dusted off and made race ready with a new engine for the 2016 season. He moved up from “cage kart” racing.
“I told Tanner not to race – just drive the car and get the feel of it in your first couple of races,” Darren Thomas said. “Practice sessions are nothing like the drop of the green flag for 18 cars racing for 20 laps.”
Tanner Thomas took a deep breath and drove out for the feature event.
“It was scary. I couldn’t believe I was out there on the track – especially when I saw the people packed in the grandstands where I usually sat,” Tanner Thomas said. “I just kept in my lane. I worried about getting in front of faster drivers.”
Darren Thomas’s watchful and experienced eye was on his son.
“He listened to me. He stayed out of trouble and kept the car straight,” Darren Thomas said. “I’m proud of him.”
For Tanner, success was finishing the race without a dent in the car.
“Being able to race and come home with the car the way it was when we got to the track was a great feeling,” Tanner added.
Saturday Night at Merced Speedway
The IMCA Sport Mods will be the featured class on Saturday night. Vintage Valley Sportsman cars will make their first appearance of the season. Hobby Stocks and Mini-Stocks are also on the card. All divisions will race in a complete program of qualifying heat races and feature events.
Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for Senior Citizens 65 and older, $10 for students with a valid student identification card, $5 for children 6-12 and $30 for a family four-pack of two adult and two child tickets. Children 5 and younger are admitted free.
The grandstands open at 5 p.m., with racing beginning at 7 p.m. Merced Speedway is located within the Merced County Fairgrounds, 900 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Merced.