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Midget Cars Prove Perfect Fit for Cofer

November 17, 1994|SHAV GLICK

John Cofer, the U.S. Auto Club's western regional midget driving champion, has no illusions of a career in Winston Cup, Indy cars or Formula One.

"I'm happy where I am," he said when asked about his long-range ambitions. "Midgets go fast enough for me, and I enjoy the competition. Besides, I'm too busy to take a lot of time off to race somewhere else."

During the week, Cofer, 29, helps his father-in-law run a hay and cattle ranch near the Oregon border. He has to drive 285 miles from his home in Macdoel to Sacramento to catch a plane to compete.

"We have 800 acres in alfalfa and about 5,000 acres of pasture land on both sides of the Oregon-California line," he said. "I grew up on a vineyard in Sonoma Valley--a third generation rancher--so I know about harvesting a crop, but learning to be a cowboy is new to me. I don't know which is harder, learning to ride a horse on the range or drive a race car."

With the championship already assured, Cofer has two more dates this season--Saturday night at Ventura Raceway and Thanksgiving night in the 54th running of the 100-lap Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix at Bakersfield Speedway.

"I'm looking forward to both of them because all the national drivers come out for the last couple of races, and I've had good success at both Ventura and Bakersfield," Cofer said. Of his five wins in 24 races, three were at Ventura and one at Bakersfield. The other was at Calistoga. He holds the track record at Ventura of 12.02 seconds for the one-fifth-mile dirt oval.

Cofer drives a 160 cubic-inch midget owned by Dwaine Esslinger of South El Monte. Jeff Wahl of Edmunds Autoresearch of Corona designed and maintains the chassis, and the Ford engine is prepared by Esslinger and his son Dan, a former off-road truck racer.

Like many drivers, Cofer was raised in a racing atmosphere. His uncle, John Batto, raced a double-A fuel dragster in the '60s, and his father, Glen, and grandfather, Herb Batto, were racing enthusiasts who took John to the races from an early age.

He made his midget debut in 1988 and won his first main event in 1990 at Granite City, Ill., when he and his grandfather, then 80, spent their summer driving from race to race in the Midwest.

Cofer's fortunes changed in the summer of 1993 when Wahl asked him to drive the Edmunds car for the Esslingers.

"I knew all about the car," Cofer said. "Hank Butcher had raced it and he had influenced me to drive midgets a few years earlier."

Cofer's first race with Esslinger was at Ventura.

"We drove all the way down, and it was rained out," he said. "It was a long way to go for a hamburger."

In last year's Turkey Night Grand Prix, Cofer finished third behind eight-time winner Ron Shuman and Robby Flock and ahead of such nationally known drivers as USAC champion Steve Reeves, Stan Fox, Sleepy Tripp, Jimmy Sills and Butcher.

Despite running little more than half a season in '93, Cofer finished fifth in USAC points.

"We decided we were going to run for the championship before the '94 season," Dwaine Esslinger said. "Johnny got off to a slow start when Tony Stewart won most of the early races, but once he got the lead in the eighth race, he never lost the lead."

Motor Racing Notes

VINTAGE CARS--The Vintage Auto Racing Assn. will conduct two days of road races this weekend as part of the Chrysler Grand Prix of Palm Springs. Races on a 10-turn, 1.6-mile street circuit adjacent to the Wyndham Hotel will feature Cunningham race cars from the '50s against Ferraris, Jaguars, Maseratis and Aston Martins of an earlier era. Among the drivers entered are Brian Redman, Hurley Haywood, Paul Newman, Wayne Taylor and Vic Edelbrock. Races will start at 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Briggs Cunningham, who brought sports car racing to America after World War II, will be guest of honor at the vintage racing festival. . . . The Walt James Vintage Race Car Gathering will take place Nov. 26-27, featuring midgets, sprint cars and roadsters, at Willow Springs Raceway. James was president of the California Racing Assn. for 20 years.

POWERBOATS--Bruce Penhall and Dennis Sigalos, former world speedway motorcycle champions, won the world offshore championship in modified class last Sunday at Key West, Fla. They finished second and first in two heats to climax their first year of racing powerboats. Tom Gentry, who set a speed record of 157.428 m.p.h. last month at San Diego, remained unconscious and in critical condition Wednesday after flipping his boat during the Key West championship.

HOSPITAL REPORT--Page Jones, 22, has regained consciousness and is responding to commands while rehabilitating at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood from head injuries suffered Sept. 25 in a sprint car accident at Eldora Speedway in Ohio. . . . Clinton Anderson, 36, who won the International Hot Boat Assn. hydro championship moments before crashing at Firebird Lake last Saturday, remains paralyzed in critical condition with a broken neck at Barrow's Neurological Institute in Phoenix.

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