Mike Sweeney, a third-generation Southern California race driver, is about to become an Outlaw.
For 11 years, the 28-year-old driver from Lomita has been driving wingless sprint cars in the California Racing Assn., primarily at Ascot Park. The last two years he has finished second in the standings, to Eddie Wirth in 1985 and Brad Noffsinger in 1986.
This year Sweeney will join the World of Outlaws, a barnstorming group that crisscrosses the country, racing winged sprint cars in 83 events in 20 states.
The Outlaws' season will start this weekend at Ascot Park with races today and Sunday afternoon on the half-mile clay oval.
"I like to race, and I like to travel, and the Outlaws fill both of those bills," Sweeney said. "There's more money to made with the Outlaws, too. I felt like I was stuck in the same groove the last 11 years running every Saturday night at Ascot."
After the two Ascot races and one Wednesday night at Hanford, however, Sweeney will temporarily leave the Outlaws and return to the CRA for its opening weekend beginning next Saturday at the Imperial County Fairgrounds in El Centro.
This weekend, Sweeney will be in the same Frank Lewis-sponsored car he drove last year--with billboard-size wings attached--but will have a new Stanton Challenger when he returns to the Outlaws next month in Texas and Oklahoma.
"You put wings on, you take them off," Sweeney said. "The car is interchangeable. This is the same car I drove with wings in the Pacific Coast Open when I won the B main and it's the same one I won in without wings last November at Ascot."
Sweeney's grandfather, Tom (Blackie) Driscoll, raced jalopies at the old Culver City and Western Speedways and midgets at Gilmore Stadium. His father, Max, raced locally for more than 20 years before he died in 1982 of injuries sustained in a midget race three years earlier.
"I was only 20 when my dad was in the accident," Sweeney said. "I'd won my first CRA race that year at El Centro with my dad as my mechanic, and I was sure he wouldn't have wanted me to quit. Racing was in our family's blood. I'd been racing with my dad since I was 6. Actually, we were more like brothers. He was only 16 when I was born.
"If anything, I think my dad's death gave me inspiration to go as far as I could as a race driver, to race harder. Sort of like I was still racing for him."
Mike was strapped into his first quarter-midget at 6 and drove his dad's sprint car at El Mirage Dry Lake when he was 9. He raced motocross until he was 17 and old enough to race his dad's sprint car. In his first race, at Speedway 605 in Irwindale, with only a week's practice on the pavement, young Sweeney startled his elders by setting fast time among 62 drivers. He finished 10th.
Although he has spent most of his career with the wingless CRA circuit, Sweeney is no stranger to the winged cars. He spent five months in Australia in 1981-82 driving them in 30 races. He set seven track records and won six main events.
"I really think I prefer winged cars," he said. "They are much more stable to drive and when you get upside down they're not nearly as violent. It's like the difference between throwing a wad of paper and a rock. The paper grabs more air and slows up. It's the same way with the wing."
After a year with the Outlaws, Sweeney would like to take on NASCAR's Winston Cup stock cars. Toward that end, he enrolled in Buck Baker's driving school in Rockingham, N.C., where he got one of the big Grand National cars up to qualifying speed.
"I loved it," he said. "I want one good, hard year with the Outlaws and then I'd like to follow Ken Schrader into the stocks."
Schrader is the former sprint car champion who beat Bill Elliott to the wire in last Thursday's Daytona 500 qualifying race to win a starting position in the second row.
All of the Outlaw veterans, headed by seven-time champion Steve Kinser of Bloomington, Ind., and four-time Ascot winner Sammy Swindell of Bartlett, Tenn., will be here to open the season. Other challengers include Brad Doty of Fredricksburg, Ohio, and Bobby Davis Jr., of Memphis, who finished 1-2 in last fall's Pacific Coast Open; Pennsylvania's Bobby Allen and Keith Kauffman and Arizona drivers Ron Shuman and Lealand McSpadden. From the CRA ranks, defending champion Noffsinger and 1985 champion Wirth will join Sweeney in the winged car show.