Life and loss at the Silver Dollar Speedway
A local family’s heartache and determination to keep racing
The power-to-weight ratio of a modern winged sprint car is phenomenal. The average 410-cubic-inch, methanol-fueled engine mounted just inches from the driver’s knees is capable of producing more than 800 horsepower.
Forged of aluminum and titanium, these engines account for much of the vehicle’s total weight of roughly 1,400 pounds, slightly more than a deluxe golf cart and less than a smart car. The characteristic wings mounted atop the cars operate conversely to airplane wings, generating the downforce necessary to keep the vehicles on the ground as they scramble and slide around dirt tracks at speeds of up to 140 miles an hour, spitting sparks and spewing mud high into the grandstands.
The people who pilot these elegantly brutal machines can be forgiven their small superstitions. Even the most skeptical drivers generally honor age-old wards against bad luck—avoiding the number 13, the color green, and adhering to the more esoteric “no peanuts in the pits” rule. In a sport where fate’s fickle finger can determine victory and defeat, costly crashes and breakdowns, and even life and death, a little good luck can’t hurt.
But Michael Tarter’s pre-race ritual is something entirely different. Each night before strapping himself into the blue-and-white No. 35 car owned by his father, Howard, and formerly driven by his brother, David, he takes a moment to have a conversation.
“See this dent over here,” Michael said, indicating a damaged corner of the Tarter Racing team’s trailer. “That’s from the accident.”
He was referring to the June 8 incident in which an exploding tire and wheel killed 30-year-old David as he prepared for a night of racing at the Silver Dollar Speedway. While the accident easily could have forced members of the Tarter family (who’ve raced for 13 years and whose roots in the sport go even deeper) away from the track for good, they did what they felt David would want them to do: They kept driving.
Team Tarter always tries to park as close to the exact spot where David fell as possible, and Michael takes a moment near the dent before climbing into the cockpit for every big event.
“I kneel down and we talk,” he said. “Every night before I race, we just have a little conversation.”
Michael sometimes says it feels like his brother is sitting on his lap when he’s driving. If the weight isn’t enough reminder, there’s also a small medallion on the dash given to him by a friend shortly after David’s death. It reads, “Never Drive Faster than Your Guardian Angel Can Fly.”
“David was one of those people who you were always glad to see,” Howard Tarter said, standing in the pits near the team’s trailer and Friday-night headquarters. “I think that’s the best compliment you can pay somebody. I’m biased, obviously, him being my oldest son, but anyone who knew him will tell you the same thing. He loved people, and he loved helping people. We lost a good one.
“He had a mischievous streak in him,” Howard continued. “He would get into trouble occasionally, and as a matter of fact that’s one of the reasons racing was such a godsend. At the time we started racing, he was hanging with some people who were getting into some trouble.
“He was going to drop out of school and all that, and racing became the carrot that turned that around. He went back and finished school, because if he didn’t he wasn’t racing.” The Tarters are longtime Chico residents, and David a graduate of Fairview High School.
The Tarter boys started racing Outlaw go-karts—high-powered small vehicles equipped with the necessary safety features and horsepower to race—13 years ago, at ages 17 and 14, explained Howard, who himself had previous racing experience, working with his brother on a Winston West (a precursor to NASCAR) team, and a love for the sport dating back to his junior-high years. He went to driving school and had wanted to race, but said the opportunity and funding never lined up at the same time.
He gave up his own racing aspirations when the sport’s hectic schedule conflicted with raising the boys, only to rediscover the sport on a smaller, more manageable scale later.
“We did all kinds of things to keep the kids from having too much spare time; scouts and bowling and baseball,” he said. “It all worked for a while, but as time goes on kids lose interest. Racing was something that they never lost interest in. As soon as we started racing, it became a passion for them.”
Howard said his sons liked racing’s immediate effort/reward format: “You’re going to get rewarded for what you do that night, not when the season ends in weeks or days or months. The other side of that is, if you don’t do well, you can go back and try to fix it the next time.”
He said the sport’s competitive nature also appealed to the boys who, separated by only three years, maintained a level of sibling rivalry on and off the track that sometimes became problematic. Howard said the boys’ mother stopped attending races in their go-kart days because the conflict sometimes upset her. She almost started attending again before the accident, but Howard said he thinks it would be too painful for her following David’s death. Despite her absence, he said, she’s still interested and supportive and expects a phoned report immediately following every race.
The family made the transition from go-karts to sprint cars six years ago, with Michael driving the car for two April-to-August seasons. They stopped racing sprints for a few years, until David started driving last season. He was voted the speedway’s 2011 Rookie of the Year.
“He was a very respectful driver,” Silver Dollar announcer Troy Hennig said of David. “There’s some people that come into the sport and go balls to the wall, thinking, ‘I’m gonna show you I’m as good as you are without learning.’ David didn’t have that mentality. He was very respectful of other drivers and of the tradition of winged sprint cars.
“On the track there are people who have a reputation of not being able to drive in a straight line, or who make it hard for other people to pass them. But David had that respect, and he was careful. He knew that if he crashed his car there wasn’t a lot of money to put it back together, so he had to drive it smart and not only finish the race but finish without crashing. He was smart, respectful, and he got a lot of praise for that. He was always competitive, but very respectful of other drivers.”
“He loved to help people,” Howard added. “He’d always be off helping fix someone else’s car, sometimes even when he should’ve been working on his own. It probably cost him a few wins, but, well, that was David. Racing was the center of his universe.”
Casey Schmitz, a 15-year-old sophomore at Chico High, is an Outlaw go-kart racer and a proud member of Team Tarter. David, whom he calls a father figure, started bringing him to the races at age 6, and he’s been hooked ever since. He knows more about cars than most adults and, spinning around the pits on the team’s quad, seems to be living an adolescent gearhead’s dream. Except, of course, for the night of the accident.
“I was actually working on the same tire,” Schmitz said of the fateful night. “I couldn’t get it on so he tried it. I was standing a few feet away when it blew. I got blown back but wasn’t injured.”
Other crew members also worked on the tire, which refused to bead correctly on the wheel. After finally getting it on, David was inflating the tire when it exploded, sending pieces of the metal wheel like flying shrapnel. By all accounts, it was a freak accident.
“What happened to David was a perfect storm of factors that may never come together again,” Howard said. “A wheel that had an issue somehow, a tire that just didn’t want to seat, and a circumstance where it came apart right in front of him and he just had no chance.”
Howard was absent from the pits that night, as he and Shelley were visiting relatives in the Bay Area. The accident occurred shortly after 5 p.m., just as the elder Tarters were getting back into town. They beat the ambulance to the hospital.
“We couldn’t see him right away, and didn’t know what his condition was, but we knew it was bad from reports from the people here.” Howard said. “He’d lost a lot of blood and he was not responsive when he got to the trauma room. When we got to see him he was all bandaged and looked OK, but it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to make it. We were able to spend some time with him, but quite honestly I think he was gone before he left the racetrack.”
Howard said the racing community’s response was immediate, and overwhelming. That night, more than 150 people showed up to hold a vigil outside the hospital.
“There aren’t words to express the gratitude and love we have for these people,” he continued. “The outpouring of support has been phenomenal. I have nothing to compare it to, but I’ve never seen the like. I’ve never even heard of anything like it.
“I can’t think of a person out here who we’ve ever interacted with that didn’t offer whatever they could, from condolences to food to money to racing parts and their help putting the car back on the track, if that’s what we chose to do. It goes on and on. When we had his memorial service, we had to have it here because there was no other place big enough. No words can do it justice.”
More than 1,500 people from all over the country attended David’s June 16 memorial service at the race track. Almost immediately, a David Tarter Memorial Page popped up on Facebook, which today has more than 1,300 friends. None of the team’s sponsors backed out, instead offering to help more, covering the team’s fuel and pit expenses if they chose to keep racing.
“There was never any question we’d keep going,” Howard said of the fact Team Tarter is still racing, and in fact never missed a race, with Michael stepping into his big brother’s shoes the weekend after the accident. “The day after David died our crew chief came to me and said, ‘Just so you know, we all got together and if you want Michael in the seat, we’re here for the duration.’
“I went to Michael and said, ‘If you want to do that it’s great, but you don’t have to.’ He said, ‘No, it’s absolutely necessary to finish the season for David, then we’ll see if we go beyond that.’ Now we’re making plans for next year. And Michael, God bless him, is doing way, way beyond what anyone thought he’d be capable of doing. I can’t imagine the pressure on him.”
As Michael is married with two small children (son Kahne and daughter Bristol, ages 20 months and two months, respectively), they also wanted to make sure his wife, Kendra, was behind his decision to race.
“I know accidents happened,” Kendra said. “It makes me nervous sometimes, obviously, but I trust him, and if he feels like this is what he wants to do, I’ll support him.”
Unless she’s in the grandstands with the kids (who are too young to be admitted to the pit area), Kendra is a constant presence in the pits, often alongside Nicole Moore, wife of crew chief Russell Moore, and David’s girlfriend, Lizzie Merrigan.
David and Lizzie were introduced by mutual friends two years ago, and began dating about six months before he died. “We were such good friends by the time we started dating that it was all very whirlwind, with talks about marriage and kids and getting a house together,” she said. “Even though it was quick, when you know you’ve found the right person, you just know.”
Lizzie was standing mere feet away when the accident occurred. She said David was the most amazing man—and from the most amazing family—that she’s ever met: “He was so joyful and full of life and friends with everybody. He knew people everywhere we went. Some of his friends had a nickname for him, ‘The mayor of Chico,’ because he knew so many people and touched so many lives.”
Nicole and Kendra are lifelong race fans and help work on the car, which stays at the Moore home in Paradise. Kendra and Michael have been married two years and met at the go-kart races in Red Bluff three years ago. The women explained that Russell, Howard and Michael spend an average of 30 hours a week on the car.
“We really are like a great big family,” Nicole said. “Our daughter is only 10 months old right now, but our kids will probably also be involved with the races. Kahne already loves to help his dad work on the race car. He runs around with a little wrench.”
“And of course, they all love quad rides,” Kendra added.
Howard said the team’s weekly schedule runs as follows: On Mondays they get together to do any necessary maintenance and repairs. Thursdays they plan for Friday and load the trailer. Friday is showtime; pit gates open at 4 p.m., and they often aren’t loaded and heading home until after midnight.
“We try very hard to account for time for everybody,” he said. “Even then, it’s very hard, and everyone sometimes feels like they don’t have time for themselves. But we’re all dedicated to this team and to the direction we’re pointed. We think it’s pretty healthy, because we’re mindful of everyone’s needs besides racing.
“This is a fire we all share. It’s burning inside all of us.”
Drivers at the Silver Dollar Speedway are ranked by points accrued throughout the season for qualifying and for placing in races. Separate points are awarded to the owner of the car to account for different drivers. With only two races completed, David ranked 30th of 45 racers at season’s end on Aug. 24. Michael had six starts, making it to the main event three times and finishing 14th. The Tarter team ranked a respectable 12th place in owner’s points, the sum of the brothers’ efforts.
Though not top ranked, no one can deny the Tarter Racing Team has heart. On the second-to-last night of the season, Howard said they were still contemplating whether to compete in next week’s 59th Annual Gold Cup.
The Gold Cup, as race announcer Hennig explained, is one of the most prestigious sprint car events in the world. Only four competitions in all of sprint racing have bigger purses ($20,000 for first place), and all of them are on half-mile tracks; the track at Silver Dollar Speedway is a quarter-mile, making the Gold Cup a favorite of fans from all over the United States, Europe and Australia. The event attracts an average of 15,000 fans annually for a week-long party capped by four days of racing.
“We are very much underpowered out here,” Howard said. “We’re way down on horsepower to the fast guys. The Gold Cup brings the best in the world, and they have the best of equipment. If we come out here and run it, we’re probably going to get run over. But it’s a great event, and you love to be a part of something like that even if you know you’re going to run at the back.”
Howard explained the team’s 410-sized engine is old and in need of upgrades (“We have a really strong foundation but the rest is what we can afford”) and a smaller 360 engine is away being repaired in Oklahoma (“As underpowered as our 410 is, that 360 is a monster; we’re competitive with that engine.”)
“It’s the way it is with a low-budget independent racer. You race when you can, and you better have sense enough to know when you can’t. You end up hocking the refrigerator to buy tires. We’ve almost went down that road,” Howard said.
“Unfortunately, in our sport the more money you can spend to get the better parts the faster you can go,” Hennig said. “A lot of it is that motor. You can buy a new one for $50,000 or a used one for $18,000-$20,000 that’s not as good. It’s hard to beat guys with that much experience and the best equipment.”
There is also the constant threat of a costly crash, which with sprint cars is not so much a matter of if, but when. Hennig said even the smallest accident can easily cost $2,000-$3,000 in repairs. Some average prices are $1,000 for a top wing, $1,200 for a rear end, and $800 for a front end. Nicole and Kendra said a small bump a few weeks ago resulted in the car needing a new tire, which cost nearly $600.
And it’s important to note that, unlike NASCAR and Grand Prix racing, local racers rarely are sponsored by big companies with deep pockets. The Tarters’ sponsors aren’t the likes of Goodyear and Mountain Dew, but instead include locally owned Budget Landscaping and Mike’s Muffler Shop.
Despite the risk, Hennig is hoping Team Tarter competes: “People from around the world have really been moved by the accident and the Tarter family, and a lot of them, from as far away as Australia and New Zealand, come to Chico for the Gold Cup. I think it would be really special for them to see that car out there on the track.”
Despite the recent tragedy and concerns about the costs of remaining competitive, there is no sense of morbidity, or defeat, at the Tarter camp. Racing for them is, first and foremost, about fun. There are still lighthearted conversations and jokes around the pits, and the extended Tarter clan still enjoys the thrills and chills exclusive to auto racing. When Michael’s bumping around the track in No. 35, he’s not contemplating life and death, but just driving and doing the best he can.
“Drive,” he said when asked what he thinks about while on the track. “Just go. Stay smooth, smooth and on the gas, don’t screw up, and just drive.”
From what his family and friends say, David wouldn’t have it any other way: “Above all, he loved to have a good time and loved for everyone around him to have a good time,” Howard said. “We all feel like he’s still around, having a good time, encouraging Michael, calling him a dumb ass when he screws up and slapping him on the back when he does good.
“We still feel him. I don’t think it’s necessarily anything supernatural or metaphysical. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but we all do feel a little bit of a presence sometimes.”