It takes a lot to keep a stock-car driver from defending his track championship. In Harrison (Bart) Bartholomew's case, it took abdominal cancer.
Bartholomew, 30, would love to be among the six drivers battling for the lead in Saugus Speedway's Hobby Stock division points standings entering tonight's Fourth of July showcase running of the track's lower-level division.
But for Bartholomew, last year's division champion, this season has not been a battle of bumpers but one involving pain and weakness. In February, while gearing up to open defense of his title, Bartholomew began experiencing sharp pains in his midsection. A visit to the doctor, a diagnosis and the first of two operations quickly followed.
What hasn't followed is racing.
Although Bartholomew said he has made great strides toward recovery, he has given up hope of going behind the wheel this year.
"It takes quite a lot of strength to race," Bartholomew said. "I don't have it."
What Bartholomew has is a loyal legion of fans. Upon the announcement that Bartholomew was ill, fans erected four poster-sized get-well cards on the wall beneath the track's grandstands. They collected hundreds of signatures. Bartholomew, who lives in North Hollywood, also has received sacks of mail from well-wishers.
Bartholomew, who prides himself on handing out autographed pictures to youngsters after races, said he plans to attend tonight's races and thank those who have shown their kindness. His message in return is that he will be back on track next season.
"I've been saying to everyone: 'Don't worry. It isn't serious.' And it isn't," Bartholomew said. "My doctor says chemotherapy has been very effective. I just don't want people to make too big a deal out of it. I'm going to be out of circulation for a while, that's all. Next year, I'll be back."
Add Fourth: As usual, Saugus' annual Fourth of July program will close with a bang.
At least 25 minutes of fireworks and music will immediately follow the largest destruction derby of the season, which will include about 30 battered cars, more than double the number in a typical lineup.
New leader: Bill Sedgwick of Granada Hills has moved into the lead at the season's halfway point of the NASCAR Winston West Series after last weekend's 200-lap win at Portland Speedway. It was Sedgwick's 10th career win, placing him 19th on the series all-time list. More importantly, it was Sedgwick's second of the season.
One month ago, it seemed there was no beating Rick Carelli of Denver in a Winston West race. Carelli, who continues to lead the NASCAR Southwest Tour, won the season's first two Winston West races but has dropped to third in points after finishing outside the top five in two of the past three races.
Sedgwick, with 856 points, holds an 11-point lead over four-time champion Bill Schmitt of Redding, Calif. Carelli has 821 points. Ron Hornaday Jr. of Palmdale is fifth with 775.
Familiar face: Simi Valley's Steve Nickolai, Saugus' Street Stock division champion in 1989, has returned to the track after a one-year hiatus.
Last season, Nickolai, 39, left Saugus for greener straightaways, competing in the Sportsman division at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield. However, success was slow in coming and Nickolai was quick to return to Saugus.
"We didn't do too well at all," Nickolai said with a laugh. "It takes a lot of money to run up there. We just couldn't get a motor to stay together very well. I got very discouraged. Our best finish was 10th (in a main event)."
Despite missing two main events, Nickolai has climbed to 11th in the Saugus Sportsman points standings.