By Mike Adaskaveg
When Jerry Holzer was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951, he had no idea how his life would change after returning home.
He had a “ride” as a motorcycle racer before serving his country. Two years later, he returned to Merced to dust off his bike and ride again.
Fate would have a different path for Holzer.
“I met this girl named Billie, and she didn’t care much for motorcycle racing,” said Holzer, now 88 years old. “We went to Merced Speedway, and they were racing jalopies – she said she’d rather see me driving one of those.”
That began the storied racing carrier of Jerry Holzer, who will be honored Saturday night in the annual “Legends of Merced Speedway” program at the Merced Fairgrounds oval.
Each year, the track celebrates its rich history on “Legends” weekend. Honored are the drivers who brought national stock car racing attention to the city starting with its (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) NASCAR affiliation and continuing with its present day (International Motor Contest Association) IMCA sanction.
After coming back to the city in 1953, Holzer got a job at E and H garage in Atwater. He continued racing at the track until 1975.
“They had a half-built jalopy sitting there and I asked if I could take over the project,” he recalled. “I took to stock car racing as well as I did motorcycle racing. It was something within me that gave me that ability.”
Holzer won some of the tracks biggest races. The old ’32 and ’34 Ford jalopies are a fond memory for Holzer.
“We pulled them from the junk yards, gutted them out and put roll bars in,” he explained about the jalopies. “We tweaked the engines. We tried different things to get more compression out of those old ‘flat head’ Ford engines – so we could go faster.”
At first the VFW ran the stock car races at the Fairgrounds. Then came NASCAR.
“We started with jalopies and $99 cars and wound up with NASCAR Sportsman division cars – real race cars – and they became the cars being raced for a long time,” Holzer said.
Some of the sportsman cars live on in the present-day Vintage Valley Sportsman division, which is on the program for Saturday’s “Legends” night.
“In the old days anyone could afford to race on their own,” Holzer explains. “A lot of people wanted to be drivers. There were a lot of cars trying to make the feature. Now, sponsors are needed to help with the cost of a racecar -it may be a different way to get a race car, but it is still racing and still a lot of fun.”
The pinnacle of Holzer’s career was in 1968, when he beat friend Dennis Moomjean for the NASCAR track championship by two points. Moomjean was considered impossible to beat at that time. NASCAR invited Holzer to race at Daytona, but he declined, choosing to stay close to his family. He and Billie had five children by then.
“Winning a track championship is the hardest thing to do,” Holzer said. “It means you have to race a whole season without your car breaking down. You can’t crash, either. You have to finish up front in every feature event.”
Holzer is modest about his accomplishments.
“ I wasn’t too bad in the 25 lappers but in the long races I was hell for a while – until something happened to the car or the tires and I dropped back,” he said.
Billie passed away six years ago, after 53 years of marriage. Son Mike took over his father’s stock car for a few seasons after 1975.
“Billie would have loved to be here on Saturday night,” Holzer said. “I’m on the uphill side of 88, and I am very fortunate to be honored.”
There will be a full program of IMCA SportMod, Hobby Stock, and Valley Sportsman races at the Legends of Merced celebration.
Legends of Merced Speedway Schedule:
3:00 p.m. Pit Gates Open
5:00 p.m. Grandstand Opens
7:00 p.m. Racing Begins – Parade of Legends
Seniors 65 and older $10.00
Students with an ID – 13 to 17 – $10.00
Children 6 to 2 $5.00
Kids 5 and under FREE
Family Pack 2 adults and 2 children $30.00