Eddie Wirth, after 15 years of racing motorcycles in national competition, switched from two wheels to four in 1978 and this year reached the pinnacle in his new sport--sprint car racing--by winning the Kraco-California Racing Assn. championship.
Wirth, 40, will receive the rewards of his championship season Saturday night at the 39th annual CRA banquet at the Anaheim Marriott.
His win broke the five-year monopoly of Dean Thompson and Bubby Jones, who had finished one-two (or two-one) for five straight years, Thompson winning in 1980-81-82 and Jones in 1983-84. During the Thompson-Jones era, Wirth slowly moved toward the top, finishing 17th in 1980, his first full season on the sprint car circuit, fifth in 1981, fourth in 1982 and 1983 and third in 1984.
Long before he won his first sprint car main event in 1981, the redhead from Hermosa Beach was a familiar figure at Ascot Park, home base for the CRA. He rode there in American Motorcyclist Assn. events and became known as a TT steeplechase specialist. He still holds the Ascot track record on the TT course, set in 1966.
Two years ago, Wirth became Ascot's only two-event record-holder when he set a one-lap sprint car record of 18.732 seconds, which is 96.092 m.p.h. around the half-mile dirt oval.
There are some sprint car followers who feel Wirth still relies more on two wheels than four. In his late-season struggle to beat Mike Sweeney for the CRA title, several times he found himself upside down. Once during the Pacific Coast Nationals in late October and again during the Don Peabody Classic in November.
He was hospitalized overnight with a concussion after flipping during a heat race in the Pacific Coast Nationals but came back two nights later to pick up vital points on Sweeney with a seventh-place finish in the CRA portion of the four-night event. In the Peabody, the year's final race, Wirth rolled his car on the second qualifying lap and damaged it so badly that it could not be fixed in time for the main event.
When Sweeney failed to set a fast time during qualifying, however, Wirth was assured the championship even though he could not drive his car in the main event.
Sal Acosta and Glen Kawabe offered Wirth a substitute ride in their car, which had been qualified by Stan Atherton, and the new champion responded with an eighth-place finish. Acosta had been an associate of Wirth's during his motorcycle career and was his first crew chief when he switched to sprint cars.
Sweeney finished second, 25 points short of winning his first championship, but he had a remarkable record with 36 consecutive top-10 finishes at one point during the 46-race season.
For the first time since 1972, the car owner's championship was not won by the No. 1 driver's car. Bruce Bromme, owner of Thompson's Bromme Gambler machine, edged Wirth and Steve Davis, co-owners of Wirth's No. 77 Stanton Challenger, in the owners points race. It was Bromme's fifth such title.
Saturday night's banquet will mark the end of an era for three-time champion Thompson and the series sponsor Kraco Car Stereo.
After 14 years of racing sprint cars, Thompson announced his retirement at the end of the season, which he finished on a high note by winning the Peabody race for his 103rd lifetime CRA win and his 117th overall checkered flag. Kraco announced the end of its six-year series sponsorship to concentrate on its Indy car program with Michael Andretti.
Final standings: 1. Eddie Wirth (Hermosa Beach), 1,882 points; 2. Mike Sweeney (Carson), 1,857; 3. Brad Noffsinger (Huntington Beach), 1,794; 4. Dean Thompson (Carson), 1,721; 5. Jeff Heywood (Huntington Beach), 1,270; 6. Bobby Michnowicz (Carson), 1,156; 7. Rip Williams (Garden Grove), 1,102; 8. John Redican (Sepulveda), 1,012; 9. Bubby Jones (Glen Avon), 945; 10. Billy Felts (Rialto), 918.
MOTOCROSS--The 10th annual Skoal Bandit Golden State Nationals, sanctioned by the Continental Motosports Club, opens an eight-race series this weekend at Quail Canyon, near Gorman. Sportsmen will race Saturday with pro classes Sunday. Most of the nation's top riders will compete, including defending champions Broc Glover of Yamaha in 500cc, Jim Holley of Yamaha in 250cc and A.J. Whiting of Suzuki in 125 cc. Other contenders include national supercross champion Jeff Ward on a Kawasaki and European riders Jackie Vimond of France on a Yamaha and Mark Banks of England on a Honda. The season closes March 1-2 at Quail Canyon.
ROAD RACING--Jeff MacPherson of Santa Ana led from wire to wire to win the opening New Zealand round of the Tasman series at Mt. Manganui. Paul Radisitch of New Zealand was second and Cary Bren of Newport Beach third. MacPherson, who drove Super Vees in the U.S. last year, plans to contest the European Formula 3000 circuit this season.
ALL-AMERICA--Tickets are still available to the public for the second annual American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters Assn. banquet honoring the 1985 Skoal All America racing team Friday night Jan. 10 at the Queen Mary. Most of the 12 drivers selected on the team are expected to attend.