|Photo courtesy of Doug Cook/The Daily Courier|
Aaron Atkinson and his brother-in-law Brandon Schildts work together at Prescott Valley Speedway to get Atkinsonís factory stock car in shape for the dirt trackís 2014 season-opening races on Saturday.
Special to the Tribune
PRESCOTT VALLEY - Aaron Atkinson came to the 2014 season opener of Prescott Valley Speedway (PVS) on Saturday afternoon to continue rekindling his passion for factory stock-car racing.
Atkinson, a 36-year-old Glendale resident, towed his black, small-block 1979 Chevy Malibu into the dirt track's pits to race in the Stock Car Racing Association (SCRA) Factory Stocks competition, and he was anxious to get going.
Aaron said he had visited PVS (formerly Prescott Valley Raceway) for practice in the past, and that his friends and family have raced here as well.
And yet while he enjoys the atmosphere at PVS, he came to Prescott Valley this weekend because of the dwindling options for factory stock racers, among others, in the Phoenix area.
In 2009, Phoenix's Manzanita Speedway closed, leaving a huge void for drivers there. Aaron said that back in the early 1990s, it wasn't uncommon for 40 to 45 factory stock cars to show up for a Friday night race at Manzanita.
"Over the years, especially with Manzanita closing, a lot of people have kind of either got out of it, had kids, I don't know," Aaron said. "In '07, '08, '09, tracks were closing, people were losing their jobs. If we can get 29, 30 cars (at PVS), man, we'd be rockin'. We'd really put on a great show."
With PVS in the fold, hope seems to spring eternal, to a degree, for all involved.
"I like the guys that run here. I like the promoter. I like the way they run the track," Aaron said. "It's a class act. They treat us with respect."
Aaron first got involved with racing cars as a teenager in 1991, although he became enamored with them long before then.
It was a natural progression for Aaron because his father, Joe Atkinson, is a car enthusiast. In fact, Joe serves as the president of the Arizona SCRA Club.
SCRA started in 1972 in Phoenix. In its heyday, SCRA had 75 member drivers, although that number has dwindled in recent years because of the high cost of travel and operating a racecar.
"I started running when I was in high school, moved around the country (for school) - around the world (for my job)," Aaron said, "and I've been in and out of these cars the whole time between now and then."
Aaron raced modified cars for a while, but when doing so became too expensive, he returned to running factory stocks.
Factory stocks are budget friendly because you can buy most of the parts for them at junkyards, even though those parts have become more difficult to find these days in a tough economy.
"A lot of it's getting scrapped," Aaron said. "To the salvage guy, a car like mine is worth more in scrap iron than it is in parts anymore."
Factory stock drivers try to get around that by surfing the Internet for parts they can find within 200 miles of where they live.
Aaron's Malibu is one of the so-called metric cars, which were built in the early 1970s and early '80s and are cheaper and easier to find than vintage cars, such as the Chevy Camaro, for example.
Over the past five to six years, more factory stock drivers have turned to metric cars because they're cheaper.
Aaron also likes to tinker with his Malibu, which he's had for four-plus years now. He put a Chevy Monte Carlo's nose and a hood scoop on his car "because it looks cool." As for his tires, he runs on G60 Hoosiers, which are specifically designed to give solid traction on dirt tracks.
For Aaron, racing is a nice distraction from his job at the Toyota Arizona Proving Ground in Wittmann, northwest of Sun City. His wife and two children drove up from Phoenix to watch Aaron race this weekend.
"I love it because I can afford to do it," Wittman said with a laugh. "It's an entry-level class, but you have a lot of competition here. It's very, very competitive."
Aaron's brother-in-law, Brandon Schildts, 30, serves as his crew chief. Schildts didn't grow up in racing, but he grew to enjoy it simply by being around the Atkinsons.
"The reason why I come out here is for the adrenaline - to make sure that Aaron's car's good and to make sure that everybody's safe," Schildts said. "This is a hobby, so it gives you a really good work/life balance being able to go into the garage on weekends."
Joe Atkinson, a 57-year-old retired auto mechanic who restores cars, said that the Arizona SCRA factory stock division, which used to run at Manzanita, will make PVS its home track this summer.
Back in 2009 at Prescott Valley Raceway, Joe added that they'd have 25 to 28 factory stock cars for every race night. But when the track closed in 2011 due to the bankruptcy of the adjacent Yavapai Downs horseracing track, it was a setback.
"We've been gypsies since then, trying to find somewhere to run big enough races," he said. "We've towed to Tucson and everywhere else."
With the raceway here returning for its second straight season after the shutdown, there were 14 factory stocks in the fold on Saturday.
The hope is that PVS will continue to draw in more factory stock drivers and the SCRA will one day thrive again.
Joe added that the fans at PVS have been fantastic. They've received the stock car racers with open arms, which hasn't always been the case for that division.
"You've got the higher-dollar cars, and the nicer cars (that race)," he said. "But the owners of these cars put their heart and soul into it. And it's like anything else - they're passionate about what they do."
Racing resumes at PVS, 10501 Highway 89A, at 1 p.m. this Saturday.
General admission is $15 for adults and children ages 11 and up. Kids 10 and under get in free.
Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc