Camarillo's Gary Curtis is a changed man.
The change noted by most of Curtis' friends and associates has occured on the one-fifth-mile dirt track that forms the Ventura Raceway at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Accident-prone for years, Curtis seems to have taken a crash course in driving safety. He has finally learned that to finish first, a driver must first finish.
"I feel I'm racing the same. I haven't changed any," Curtis, 24, insists. "I still crash a lot, but the only difference I see is that my car has held together real well this year."
A difference the competition sees, however, is in the win column. Curtis has amassed 11 oval-track main-event victories and eight figure-8 main-event wins in little more than half a season of racing. He has also won seven heat races and four trophy dashes.
"Late last year I rebuilt my engine and it ran real well at the end of the season and it has continued this year," Curtis said. "I've learned how to make my car stay together and handle better each year, but one thing for sure, I either do very well, or I don't finish."
A 1971, modified four-cylinder Ford Pinto is Curtis' dominant machine this year, and the banged and battered powder-blue No. 55 with the simulated shark fin on the roof has been in the winner's circle this year more than other Mini-Stock drivers care to remember.
Ventura Raceway promoter Jim Naylor remembers the old Curtis well.
"When Gary first came out here he drove about the same, but he was always high on the track and he crashed a lot," he said. "He's not that way anymore. He is a heads-up driver that can now get through traffic without crashing. He has a good motor and right now he is the guy to beat."
Curtis' closest competitor, Rock Ake, Jr. of Moorpark, has only three oval main-event victories. Yet the season points championship is not a lock for Curtis. Because of his win-big-or-not-at-all tendency, Curtis holds only a 225-point lead over Ake. A couple of main-event victories for Ake, with Curtis finishing out of the running, could make for a close championship race.
The figure-8 championship could also be in line for Curtis, who trails Ake by 240 points in that category. Curtis has been coming on strong and has surpassed Ake in figure-8 main-event wins, eight to seven.
The rest of the field is more than 500 points behind the leader in each category.
"He has changed. He wins a lot," Ake said of Curtis. "I think the difference is that he is usually in the race to the end this year, where last year he didn't finish a lot of races."
"There are a lot of good competitors at the track, like Rock Ake, Bill Floyd, and Nick Magley," Curtis said. "They are real good drivers, but sometimes you get on winning or losing streaks. Last year's champ, Paul Moore, has had car problems all year and that's the way it seems to go, in streaks."
Moore, a close friend of Curtis, was instrumental in Curtis' venture into racing.
"Paul and I were friends and when Naylor started stock-car racing here four years ago, we talked about it and thought it would be fun, so we gave it a shot," Curtis said. "Moore built my roll cage for me and that got me started racing."
Moore said that he and Curtis, along with about six other drivers, were the beginning of the Mini-Stock division at Ventura.
"Gary is definitely not the same driver," Moore said. "He was always fast, but you could always count on him crashing or hitting the wall.
"He's still wild, but he is under control at the same time. Everything is going well for him and he really knows how to make his engine run good and fast now."
Curtis' parents and their business, Curtis Welding in Oxnard, are his main sponsors and his main reason for racing.
"My parents really like racing a lot," Curtis said. "They bring all their friends to the track and they have a great time every week.
"Their welding shop makes a big difference in my racing. I don't know how some of the guys make it every week without a welder available."
Curtis said his recent success has not tempted him to try a bigger track, such as Saugus Speedway, but he does hope to make his name better known on the NHRA drag-race circuit with his super-gas-class 1968 Chevy Nova.
"I run at Palmdale, Bakersfield, and other tracks whenever I have time between stock-car races," he said. "Next year I hope to get into the national points series that travels around the West. I can make some decent prize money on that tour."