Interview with 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Vic Kurten

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West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame 2012 Inductees

Founded in 2001, the West Cost Stock Car Hall of Fame recognizes significant contributors to Stock Car Racing development and history – including designers, engineers, mechanics, drivers, racetrack owners, promoters, publicists and members of the motorsports media. The 2012 class will be inducted during a gala event June 21 during the NASCAR weekend at Infineon Raceway.
PIR sat down recently with several of the honored members from the 2012 class to discuss some of their most cherished NASCAR and West Coast Racing memories.

Vic Kurten:

“It All Started With Two Tires”

With an established career in the wholesale roofing business, Vic Kurten never imagined that he would become involved in NASCAR or West Coast Stock Car Racing. Asked to sponsor two tires for a race, Kurten was hooked and went on to become a prominent Ford car owner during the 1970s. Partnered with the late Sonny Easley, Kurten’s car won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West’s first race at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway.

How did you get your start in NASCAR?

I was in the wholesale roofing material business, in fact I still am. One day I went out to lunch with one of my customers and they had a fellow that was involved in racing. They wanted to know if I would sponsor two tires. I said ‘Ya, why not.’ I did and from there I go involved with Sonny Easley.

How did you get involved with Sonny Easley?

My customer was a friend of his and he was racing at the time. He wanted to know if I would be interested in helping him out. At that time I had about fifteen roofing material wholesale yards, plus I owned a tile company in Northern California. So, we got involved with Sonny at that time and NASCAR. And it generated for five years, he was killed Jan 5, 1978. Between the years of 1977 and 78 we were fully involved with him. Went to a lot of races. We went one year through the full circuit, which were 25 races. We actually went into Canada in that particular series. Anyways, we went on the Western Coast Circuit. You know its kind of a carnival thing, everybody was in those days, and everybody worked together. We put on a show, basically is what we did. Just like they do today, only it was a lot closer.

How was your roofing business affected by West Coast Racing?

For example at Riverside, I would take the customers out. Get them tickets. We had a lot of people out there watching the Riverside race. It was a really good race; of course the track is no longer there. It wasn’t just about the company; we involved the customers into the racing. At Ontario, when that was going – it’s Fontana now, but when it used to be Ontario, I would bus a load of customers out to the races. Got them tickets and we raced out there. It was a customer-related event with NASCAR. It worked out really well. Everybody enjoyed it. My Dad loved it, my kids enjoyed it. My whole family loved it.
Those days you would go to Riverside and they would unlock the gates and let the family in first. Ten minutes later they would let the fans in. They could go through the garage and meet the drivers and get autographs. It was a different world than it is today, that’s for sure.

Besides owning Sonny’s car, what other ways were you involved in NASCAR and West Coast Racing?

After Sonny passed away I got out of the business because I sold my company. Eighteen months later I had to take it back because it went bankrupt and we had to start over. But, in that time we did very well so I got involved in the Southwest Tour and sponsored a car. [We] got in with Calvin Ashley who was a super truck guy and helped him out. [We] Won the championship with Ron Peterson at Irwindale. He was a roofing contractor who also raced. At Irwindale we would take everybody out when I got involved this last time with different drivers. We would sit up on the deck there. One year we had a suite. From then out we would have it catered up on the deck. We did that up until two years ago. It was very successful and the customers loved it. That basically was my involvement in NASCAR. I wasn’t a mechanic or anything, but I sponsored the car. And owned it. Lot of funny events that went on through the years. I knew the Pettys’, I knew Bobby Allison, I knew Cale Yarborough and Benny Parsons. I knew them to say ‘Hello’. Every year they would come out to Riverside and we would race against them. They would call us the ‘California Prunies.’

I bought an engine one year from Junior Johnson and he said you better not bring that back south. Which we didn’t. It was kind interesting. In those days you could cheat, just don’t get caught. And they did! Ever since Bobby Allison pumped the gas through his roll-bars, he had two more gallons of gas than anybody else. They caught him on that one. It was a very pleasurable part of my life.

Did you grow up a race fan? Was your family involved in racing?

I didn’t get involved until I got involved in this. Then I got into boat racing and I got a couple of boats in the 206-207 flat bottom boats. I got involved with racing when I got involved with Sunny. All because of two tires.

What does it mean to you to be recognized by the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame?

It is quite an honor to be recognized. Although, I did have a partner in this, Gerry Langford and I’m surprised that he didn’t get inducted. He would probably be better than I would be. He was the fellow that introduced me to Sonny. He was more involved in the day-to-day business. I was more in the sponsorship. It is quite an honor. I look forward to going up there.

I never thought I would have gotten inducted. I did help a lot of drivers, but that was part of my life and I enjoyed doing it. It was fun and I didn’t expect anything. We did it till we couldn’t do it anymore.

If you had to pick one person from the sport that made a lasting impression on you, who would it be?

Kenny Clapp. He and I got a long very well. He was a very pleasant man. He was enjoyable to be around at the race track. As an individual and not so much a team, it was him. He is a class act. I respected him quite a lot.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered in NASCAR and West Coast Racing?

Financially, it was always dragging. I figured out one year that if we ran 25 races and if won all of them – and if I paid the crew, we would have only made $65. I didn’t pay them directly, I would feed and room them on the road. Anyways, if we had won all of the races that’s all we would have made. It was a financial thing, and that was my end of it.

What differences do you see today in Stock Car Racing compared to when you first got involved?

The biggest change is now how much money is involved. When we were running, I think Richard Petty told me, that it cost him $10,000 to run a race, back in my time. And he had STP sponsor for lifetime. Anyway, today it’s a big business. It’s a lot different. It’s a big show, it’s all dollars now. Of course you wanted to win then, and you still do. But, TV brought it into its own. The fans still have a good time. Of course in the bad times, the fans have been down. If you look at the last couple of years, you notice the seats aren’t all filled. You can get to Bristol now, which used to be sold out for years.

I just think that it’s too commercial for me. I still watch it, but it’s big business. It’s a different show. Not as personable or friendly as it used to be. Here again security is so great, you don’t get in unless you have a pit pass. Whereas before, they would let the fans in after the race. It just changed, it’s big dollars, it’s big business. Millions and millions of dollars. It’s a different world. It would be tough for us to compete in today’s market, unless we had a good sponsor. In the old days you could get people here and people there [sponsors] and I paid for a lot of it. It’s just a totally different concept.

Also, everybody goes to a race to watch a wreck. To a car owner that’s the last thing that you want to see. Sad but true, that’s why people watch the races. Today they are getting into where the fans aren’t getting the action that they were getting during the 80’s and the 90’s when Earnhardt was going. There was more crash and bash, it isn’t there anymore. It’s a big buck deal, so nobody wants to bash their cars around. Watch the races today, they are boring. It’s good over there [Phoenix International Raceway] because it’s a short track. Any short track is fun to watch because everybody is right there in front of you. It’s better to watch it on TV then it is to go to them. But, you have to have the fan base. That’s what the people want. There again, it will be interesting to see what happens. I think it’s one of the biggest watched sports and probably still will be for years and years to come. They have to get back to reality a little bit as far as getting a little bangy and a little closer. Short tracks will do that. The big ones, here again, it’s big dollars, those cars cost a lot of money today.

So, where do you see the sport going?

I don’t think they should be faster [cars]. I think they should be slower. It would break them in again. You have to have 43 people; you have to have 43 cars to race in a race. The fans aren’t going to come watch 10 cars, because the back guys that are running they have to be part of it and of course the top 10. It’s all dollars. They have all the money. So where it’s going, I think it’s got to be a little more even and that’s never going to happen. In other words, everyone is playing on the same field. You are limited to this and limited to that. You can spend what you can spend. It’s not that way. I don’t think it will ever be. It’s the only way you can ever get it to come back again. If you put everyone in the front row, basically.

When we raced back years ago at Martinsville, we were racing; believe it or not, we knew we couldn’t win against the heavyweights. So, NASCAR put us in this section where we could pick out who we thought we could beat out of 10 cars. If we would win, we would get more money. Beat these 10 cars. It was the back end. Not everyone knew that, NASCAR never told anybody that. But, you had to get people into the race. These guys couldn’t race. We knew we couldn’t win, so we were in the category back in the back end. If we stayed in, we were paid accordingly.

What is your top moment in the sport?

We went to Canada. We had a car hauler and trailer. We pulled the car behind the hauler. In the back end of the hauler there were tires and different parts for the car. In the front end we had it closed off with a door, which is where we slept at night. Six beds in there and a fridge. My job at any race was to get the beer because we could drink after the race. We had a cooler and we would fill it full of beer. Once the race was over, we could pop it right there in the pits. We had 20-30 cases of Coors to go to Canada. We put them in the front end of the truck. Well, when we got to the border, of course they inspected the truck and they inventoried everything. Going in and out we couldn’t bring anything out with us. They didn’t check the front end of the truck, just the back end. While when I got to the track, word got out that I had Coors beer. In Canada, they didn’t have it. I made more money selling those 25 cases of beer than I did at the race. If we had got caught with that beer at the border, we would’ve sill been at the border.