By Don Martin, II
When Antioch Speedway opens for its 57th season of All Star Series racing this Saturday night, they will do so without Larry Damitz. During the offseason, we learned that he passed away. On March 11th, many of his friends and family came to remember him at a special memorial service. His three race cars were on display.
Larry started his racing career back in 1953 and competed or helped others at the race track every year since.
“I’m really not sure what got me started in racing,” Larry shared in an older interview. “I’ve always liked cars and I started working on cars when I was nine. I’ve always been interested in automobiles. Another guy and I knew of a Hardtop that was halfway completed, so we went over and finished it off and started racing.”
He was hooked. He continued to race his Hardtop at the old Vallejo Speedway and Contra Costa Speedway in Pacheco. The competition was much tougher than it is today.
“They had one class, and they had enough cars that they had a C Race,” Larry recalled. “Every car in the Main Event could win. There were always some Main Event cars in the B Main.”
Winning seemed to come easy for Larry in Limited Late Models at Antioch. At 87-years-old, he was still winning and was track champion for the fifth time in six seasons. However, he paid his dues to get that first win.
“I didn’t win a Main Event until 1963,” said Larry. “Everybody that comes out here and they think in their first year they’re supposed to clean house and win a Main Event. They race all year, two years, don’t win a main and they quit.”
By the time Larry was done with Hardtops In the mid 1970’s, his resume included three track championships and a win in the Chet Thomson Memorial 100 lap race. He was second to Gene Dudley by just 8 points at Vallejo in the 1960’s. The highly competitive Super Stock division awaited. He was Vallejo champion in 1978 and Petaluma champion in 1980 and 1981. For good measure, he raced on Friday nights in Chico when he could make the tow and won 11 times in 1977.
It was 30 years into his career when he started racing at Antioch Speedway. He won his first Late Model feature there in 1984. He broke a shoulder blade in a crash there in 1985. After recovery time, he returned and won 10 Main Events in 1986, finishing second to Ed Sans Jr. in points.
“Back then, the configuration of this track was altogether different than any other track,” Damitz recalled. “It was fun to drive. It was a lot of fun. They had it banked right up to the wall, and you had to run right around the wall. I just wanted to come back and run on that track some more.”
Larry ushered in Late Models at Petaluma in 1987 by winning the first championship. He then took on the role of crew chief for his nephew, Milt McGinnis, who won the next two championships. He started racing and winning again after that, but he again took on a helper role with Jim Pettit II. He let Jim drive his car at times in 1991 as Pettit won that Antioch championship.
“Winning the championship definitely wouldn’t have been possible without Larry Damitz and everybody’s involvement in the the whole Sundrop Racing Team,” Pettit recalled. “I mean, there were no balks or anything about me driving their car.”
After that, Larry won another three Late Model championships at Petaluma. Track statistician Harlan Osborne counted 58 wins just in a 20-year span at Petaluma from 1987 to 2007, and there were more than that. As the current decade came around, Larry entered his 80’s with no signs of slowing down. Why was he doing it? He loved cars, he loved the sport and he loved people. Winning was just the icing on the cake.
After finishing second to Mitch Machado in 2010, Damitz won five of the next six championships and two more at Merced. Jim Freethy bears the distinction of being the only driver during that run to beat him for a championship. He wasn’t planning to quit. He would have turned 88 in May and had every intention of competing in his familiar blue and orange Limited Late Model once again. He had over 60 wins just at Antioch, and estimates are that he won over 150 Main Events in his career along with 17 track championships.
The loss of Damitz hit the people at Antioch Speedway pretty hard. Promoter John M. Soares raced with Larry for many years. As Soares enters his 20th season as Speedway Promoter, he had a crew put a special monument to Larry where he used to park. He was an inspiration to many. It wasn’t just that he could still win races at that age, but because he was a genuinely nice and down to earth guy.
On My 13th, Antioch Speedway will hold the Larry Damitz Memorial Race in Limited Late Models. This Saturday night, there will be a special Memorial Lap as Antioch Speedway opens with DIRTcar Late Models, Limited Late Models, Wingless Spec Sprints, B Modifieds, Hobby Stocks and Dwarf Cars. For further information, go to www.antiochspeedway.com.