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August 25: Three-Way Mini-Stock Battle

By Mike Adaskaveg

Merced Sun Star

High school senior Allen Neal of Los Banos is a rookie tied for first with rookie Lee Ragsdale in the mini-stock division. (Mike Adaskaveg Photo).

Lee Ragsdale of Winton shares the top spot in the championship point battle with another rookie, Allen Neal. Ragsdale has a photo of late Merced Speedway promoter Ed Parker and his son, Cody, the hood of his car. (Mike Adaskaveg Photo)

Two rookies, 20 years apart in age, are tied in points for the championship in the Merced Speedway Mini-Stock division. Lee Ragsdale, 36, of Winton and high school student Allen Neal of Los Banos are locked in a dead heat going into the home stretch of the season.

In striking distance of the top two is second season driver Tyler Jackson, of Sanger, who scored his first career win last week.

The speedway’s Mini-Stock division, which is for four-cylinder sub compact cars, has grown to a record 32 drivers this season. Mini-Stocks are on the program on Saturday night, along with the IMCA Modified, IMCA SportMod, Hobby Stock and Valley Sportsman divisions.

Ragsdale and Neal met for the first time this year in the pit area of the speedway.

“He’s a quiet kid with a great future in racing,” Ragsdale says of Neal. “He’s a dominant driver out there. Its pretty cool to have two rookies tied for first.”

INEXPENSIVE AND FUN

The late Timmy Post, whose grandfather Chuck Griffin previously operated the speedway, introduced Ragsdale to racing.

“I moved from Stevinson to Atwater, and Tim was my first friend,” says Ragsdale. “He got me a job as the turn two official.”

Life’s twists and turns took Ragsdale to Tennessee for a decade. He returned, contacted Post’s brother Neil Barcellos, who landed him a job at the speedway as a push truck operator.

“I paid my dues and became friends with many racers,” Ragsdale continues. “Through building friendships I was able to get sponsors and secured a ‘ride’ for this season.”

Ragsdale, who is a State Certified Welder by trade, was offered that ride in a car owned by Jennifer Rogers and Jerry Tubbs. Midway through the season, Ragsdale’s sponsors, Nick Baballe of Stevinson and Rick Paglino of Atwater, bought the car for him.

“I’m out there having fun,” he says. “That is what racing is all about.”

NETWORKING FOR A CAR

Neal is a senior at Pacheco High School in Los Banos. He was racing karts but had to quit because he did not have the money.

He met Merced Speedway driver Nathan Corn as 10 year olds kart racing at the Chowchilla Barn Burner, and the two boys became friends.

“Nathan said he had a mini-stock sitting at his home in Catheys Valley. It belonged to Merced Speedway announcer Dale Falkenberg,” says Neal. “I called Dale and asked if I could drive it – and he said sure.”

With the help of his grandpa, Glen Forman, who used to race in Utah, Neal rebuilt the ’89 Honda Prelude to prepare it for racing.

“We got new rims and tires, went through every connection, checked the fuel injection and replaced gaskets,” he says. “It was a fixer-upper because it just sat outside too long.”

With no budget, Neal was not able to afford a trailer. Corn offered him the use of his trailer for the season. Neal, his mother Christina Payton, and Forman haul the car to the track being towed behind an old 1980 Chevy motorhome.

Neal is still searching for that first win – his best finish was a second.

“We don’t race for money. We race to win a trophy. Sponsors are important – we want to show them a win because they cover our expenses,” Neal adds. “It feels good being in the lead for the championship after coming in as a rookie and not knowing what to expect. Now, we need that win.”

Tyler Jackson of Sanger lines up to race in the Mini-Stock division, his car flying a flag honoring his late uncle, Robert Jackson, who also drove in the same division. Jackson won his first feature last Saturday night. (Mike Adaskaveg Photo)

MAN ON A MISSION

Jackson won driving his late uncle’s Acura. Robert Jackson, who raced with his nephew at the speedway, was killed in a street accident in June. Tyler Jackson flies a flag in his honor from the back of his car.

“His loss was devastating,” Tyler Jackson says. “He found a car for me to drive and then we wound up buying it.  I have two mini-stocks sitting at home – his and mine. Now, I’m driving his.”

The season started off rough. Jackson ran out of gas his second night out and finished 12th. Months later, he was raising the checkered flag in victory lane.

“It felt unbelievable to win. All through the race I was expecting someone to come around and pass me at any minute, but no one ever did,” he says. “I felt my uncle was watching over me. He would have been proud to see me win.”

Now that he has a taste for winning, Jackson wants more.

“I’m going to try to continue my winning ways,” he adds.

Lee Ragsdale at Speed on the backstretch of Merced Speedway (Mike Adaskaveg Photo)

SATURAY NIGHT AT MERCED SPEEDWAY

The IMCA Modified, IMCA SportMod, Hobby Stock, Mini-Stock and Valley Sportsman divisions will each race in a complete program of qualification heats and a feature event.

The pit gate opens at 2 p.m. and the grandstand gate opens at 5 p.m. Racing begins at 7 p.m.

Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for Military and Students with school ID, and $5 for children 6-12 years old. Children under 6 years old are free. A family four-pack of tickets is $30.

Allen Neal (5) passes Bryant Desaire of Denair on the backstretch of Merced Speedway (Mike Adaskaveg Photo)