By Mike Adaskaveg
Matt Van Hoecke will live on in the memory of Merced Speedway racers and fans, as Saturday’s program raises funds for the American Cancer Society in his honor. A speedway fixture for 30 years, he passed away from prostate cancer nearly three years ago.
Van Hoecke found a way to become a racing innovator. While working in the Sun-Star mailroom and advertising departments for 20 years, he nurtured his hobby of shaping fiberglass, honing his skills until he could begin a side-business.
Van Hoecke learned his craft at a local boat shop. Then he began making fiberglass pieces for Foster Farms to earn some extra money.
“He was on the pit crew for driver Andy Ferris at Merced Speedway on Saturday nights, when he put two and two together – fiberglass could be used to make car bodies,” brother-in-law Dell Humbert recalled. “In no time, he was shaping wooden molds that would be used to make fiberglass car bodies.”
Van Hoecke creatively dubbed his business “Matt and Glass”. It is a play on his name, using the two components that comprise fiberglass – the woven fiber matt and the gel coating that turns hard and becomes glasslike.
“Within five years he was able to quit his job at the Sun-Star and make his skill a full time job,” Humbert explained. “He was making fiberglass bodies for kiddy-car rides, go-karts, and every type of full size car that raced-especially sprint cars. The wooden molds he carved were stacked with a forklift, as high as the ceilings, in three buildings across the street from the fairgrounds. There were hundreds of them.”
Matt and Glass Bodies were so in demand that they were being rushed to drivers across the country underneath Greyhound busses that departed daily from Merced.
Cancer Challenges Van Hoecke and He Beats It for 10 Years
Van Hoecke was 50 when he learned he had prostate cancer trying to challenge him. Like a racer, he put his foot down on the pedal harder, and didn’t let up.
“We’d be on the way to cancer treatment in Fresno, and he would demand I stop at Hoosier tires to pick up some tires for a guy who needed for Saturday’s race,” Humbert said. “He branched out – he had a full speed shop in a trailer and would never let down any racer who needed a part.”
As cancer continued to spread within him, Van Hoecke was still trying to work – even from his wheelchair. When Humbert and Van Hoecke’s wife, Debbie, decided to shut his business down, Van Hoecke would still get calls for parts.
“He couldn’t tell anyone no – he would send me to the trailer to find that part,” Humbert added.
It was 10 years after being diagnosed, that the race with cancer ended for VanHoecke.
His hundreds of softwood molds, which had to be waxed regularly to be preserved, rotted from neglect after the business closed.
Remembering Van Hoecke on Saturday
“As a family, we’re thankful that the track, its drivers and fans are remembering Matt,” Humbert said. “It’s wonderful that this race program is happening and that it will benefit the fight against cancer.”
Dell Humbert, his wife Janice, and sons Robert and Geoffery will be selling ribbons that Debbie Van Hoecke made, to raise funds for the American Cancer Society. Merced Speedway promoter Ed Parker will donate one dollar to the organization for every ticket sold on Saturday night.
This Week at Merced Speedway
The weekly racing season at Merced Speedway comes to a close on Saturday night. The next race program will be The SportMod Nationals on Oct. 15. It will be the speedway’s biggest event of the season.
This Saturday night, the track champions in the IMCA Modified and SportMod divisions will be celebrated with champaign and trophies. Randy Brown (438 pts.) of Chowchilla leads Winton’s Ramie Stone (407 pts.) in the IMCA Modified division. In the IMCA SportMod division, it is Rick Diaz (530 pts.) of Chowchilla who leads Merced’s Mike Drake (477 pts.).
Double points will be up for grabs in the speedway’s Hobby Stock division. Michael Shearer (229 pts.) of Atwater leads Sonora’s Kevin Joaquin (186 pts.).
Racing begins at 7 p.m.
Grandstand Opens at 5 p.m.
Program will be approximately 3 hours or less.
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