Mike Sweeney isn't sure how much longer he'll race sprint cars, now that he has reached the tender old age of 31.
You see, Sweeney, who will defend his championship of the Firecracker 50 Saturday night at Ascot Park in Gardena, began his racing career when he was just 7 in the quarter sprint cars.
The Carson native was just following in the racing footsteps of his father, who had just followed in his father's footsteps.
Indeed, racing has been a family affair in the Sweeney household. And lest you think it will end when Mike hangs up his helmet, guess again. His son, "Little Max," named after Mike's dad, who died as a result of injuries suffered in a sprint car wreck at Ascot, is about to get his first ride with his pop.
Little Max is just 10 months old, but poppa Mike says he'll teach him everything he knows. A big grin comes to Mike's face when he thinks about his son behind the wheel someday of a machine that looks like an overgrown dune buggy but generates the same power that the Chevy Cosworth engines of Indy car fame do.
"He'll be racing just like us," Mike said.
Wearing snakeskin cowboy boots, jeans and a loose blue shirt and sunglasses, Mike sat in his sponsor's Anaheim auto shop recently and talked about his career. Currently, he is racing on the California Racing Assn. circuit for Alex Foods Inc. At the halfway point of the CRA season, he ranks second in points to Ron Schuman of Arizona. Alex Foods is also in second place in the team standings.
"Racing Indy cars was my dream all of my life," Sweeney said. "Nowadays it's all money, though. Millions. I'd have to put out $200,000 just to get my rookie course in. I'm a little too old to start that."
But Sweeney would like to take a stab at stock cars "if I get the chance." He attended a stock car driving school in South Carolina last year.
Andy Morales of Alex Foods isn't sure stocks would be such a good idea for Sweeney.
"I don't think you can take a guy out of these (cars) and put him in the Grand National (cars)," he said. "These guys are really more suited to Indy type racing."
So Sweeney finds himself too old to start racing Indy cars and the odds stacked against him doing well in stocks. Right now, however, he has found a spot driving the orange and black Tamale Wagon sprint car for Alex Foods. He has won five races this year and, according to owner Alex Morales, Sweeney should "win it all for us."
"Mike is the best thing that has happened to us in a long time," Morales said.
Andy Morales, who was working on the car, agreed.
"He is a smooth driver, consistent. He is not erratic."
Sweeney says his consistent performances come from experience in the cars. He has been on this level for 14 years and has learned to pace himself.
"Sometimes I feel racy, sometimes I don't," he said. "Anyone that says he can win every race is a liar."
The sprint car is a funny looking machine with immense power. It is not unusual to see a majority of them in a big race pop wheelies at the starting flag because they are lightweight vehicles. In fact, Alex Morales has mounted a picture of the Tamale Wagon with its wheels off the ground on his office wall.
The sprints weigh about 1,300 pounds, about the same as a Volkswagen Beetle. But on the track they average about 90-100 miles an hour, with a top speed of another 10 or 15 possible on straightaways. The gear box consists of just one speed--forward. In most races, the left front tire never touches the dirt track.
They are costly. In Morales' shop on Thursday, the Tamale Wagon was getting the finishing touches for Saturday's race as Sweeney looked on. A sign near a service bench read: "The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys."
So true in this business, said Sweeney. The Tamale Wagon cost $40,000 to build. The best first-place purse on the CRA circuit is $3,000. If he wins a race Sweeney gets to keep 50% of the purse. He get's 10% less if he just finishes.
Alex Morales says there is no extra pressure put on Sweeney to win. After all, this is his first season with the team.
"But he knows he should win it," Alex Morales said of the driving titles.
Victories have become an even bigger incentive for Sweeney lately, because he has been out of work as a movie set electrician due to the writers' strike against movie producers. He says he has been called to work on out-of-town sets but has had to turn down the jobs because they conflicted with his racing schedule.
He has one consolation about racing. "There aren't a whole lot of drivers around," he said.
Sweeney doesn't do much work on the cars he drives now, unlike his days at Carson High School where he longed to leave the classroom to get home and tune up his vehicles. He said many people at Carson were sympathetic to his needs.
"I got A's all through gym class without ever going," he said. "They would say, 'Go home and work on your cars.' "
He did. Today he finds himself asking how much longer he will continue.
Well, let's see. Little Max should be walking soon. . . .