PHOENIX – Five 2016 inductees – John Bickford, Mike Duncan, Johnny Key, Al Pombo and Jim Thirkettle – officially became members of the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame during June 23 ceremonies at the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa, Calif.
Their induction brings Hall membership to 134. The West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame, founded in 2001, has enshrined 14 classes beginning in 2002.
The annual event, held before a packed ballroom crowd on the eve of Sonoma Raceway’s NASCAR Sprint Cup and K&N Pro Series West weekend, was emceed by Ralph Sheheen, the voice of FOX’s Supercross coverage and a member of the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame board of directors.
Bickford, from Vallejo, Calif., was inducted by his step son Jeff Gordon, a four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and current member of FOX Sports’ NASCAR broadcast team.
“I would not be here without him,” said Gordon of the man who guided his racing career on and off the track from an early age. “He’s obviously relentless, doesn’t give up and doesn’t take no for an answer. Nobody’s more passionate.”
Among Bickford’s party was his 89-year-old mother, a cancer survivor.
“She’s relentless and competitive; everything I have in me,” he said. “It’s an absolute honor to be up here. I’ve looked at the list of (Hall of Fame members) and it’s hard to believe I’m on the list.”
Duncan, a Bakersfield, Calif.-area rancher, played professional baseball in the Oakland As organization before turning to stock car racing. Talent for one equaled success in his newfound passion according to Vance Palm, a longtime friend who handled Duncan’s induction.
“He started pretty late on the race track but his focus and drive out of the batter’s box translated into racing,” said Palm of Duncan, who won back-to-back NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championships and finished more than 60 percent of his races among the top 10.
Duncan, nearly 40 years old when he began racing a late model car previously campaigned by Kevin Harvick at the old Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield.
“I can’t tell you how honored I am to be part of this (Hall),” he said observing that he’s again part of a racing family he has missed since retirement. “We looked out for each other. It was a great time.”
The late Key, inducted by longtime racing writer and photographer Dennis Mattish, was a two-time Racing Roadster Inc. champion and four-time San Jose (Calif.) Speedway champion. He won 54 features plus three “open” events in 1952 – including eight victories in seven days. Key was killed in a midget race in Cincinnati in 1954.
“Johnny arguably was the greatest and most popular driver of his time,” said Mattish, recalling Key’s love for purple satin shirts – worn well before driver uniforms existed. Mattish recalled that newspaper headline writers loved him since his name fit even the narrowest columns. The native Texan who raced out of Salinas, Calif. was known as “The Lettuce King.”
Among those accepting for Key was his daughter, Patty, who as a child was a trophy presenter – to her father. She once told him, “If you don’t win, I can’t give away this trophy. I was so scared but he’d made up his mind he was going to win – and he did.”
Pombo, who raced in four decades and retired from competition in 1970, won more than 500 features in a variety of stock-based cars, as well as seven NASCAR State of California titles. Born in the Azores, Pombo raced out of Fresno, Calif. and passed away in 2010 at age 85.
“He was a legendary driver who always was a step ahead of the field,” said inductor Kenny Takeuchi, who as writer and track announcer followed much of Pombo’s career. Noting that rules required frequent winners and point leaders like Pombo to start at the rear of most fields, Takeuchi said Pombo “always drove into the next corner and avoided accidents. He was one tough driver (who) knew his cars and knew his engines.
“He was a good friend to all and beloved by friend and foe alike.”
Pombo’s son, Anthony, accepted for his father, along with fellow competitor Jim Eiland.
“He was humble; told a lot of stories on himself,” said Eiland. “He was very smart, very humble. I was very blessed to get to know him.”
Thirkettle, Sylmar, Calif., was inducted by West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame board member Ed Justice Jr., whose family joined the Hall in 2012. Thirkettle, 71, won seven championships at Saugus (Calif) Speedway and Mesa Marin. He two NASCAR K&N Pro Series West races among more than 125 victories throughout the western United States.
“He was the consummate sportsman racer that battles (and wins) against the better-supported teams,” said Justice. “Many feel Jim could have gone on the big circuit (NASCAR premier series) and have been very successful.”
Thirkettle, winner of a U.S. Auto Club (USAC) stock car race at the old Ontario Motor Speedway, also posted a trio of top-10 NASCAR premier series finishes at Riverside International Raceway. He was known affectionately as “The Candy Man” by his legions of fans due to the color of his No. 5 Chevrolets.
“You’re only as good as the people behind you,” said Thirkettle, singling out attendee and engine builder Doug Jones “as my secret weapon.”
“This is a real honor – and the longest speech I’ve ever made,” he concluded.
The 2017 West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame will be held again at the Meritage Resort next June. The date will be finalized with release of NASCAR’s 2017 scheduling of activities at Sonoma Raceway.
About the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame:
The West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame was conceived in 2001 as a means of recognizing significant contributors and contributions to the sport of stock car racing. The mission of the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame is founded to preserve history and heritage of the important role west coast stock car competitors have played in the sport’s development and continuation and to recognize, through annual enshrinement, of outstanding individuals and groups within the sport such as, but not limited to, designers, engineers, mechanics, drivers, race track owners, promoters, publicists and members of the motorsports media.