Angelo Marcelli is part of the heart and soul of Redwood Acres Raceway. He’s one of a select few active drivers still racing at the track for more than 35 years. A four time track champion (2000, 2002, 2004, 2013), he has a unique perspective spanning his early days as a youngster attending the Hard Top races in the 1950s to being a driver in the technical paved racing of today.
A native of Eureka, Angelo is the owner of Marcelli’s Ravioli and Sausage Factory, a business first established in 1927 by his grandfather on 3rd & G in what is now called Old Town Eureka. They moved the deli to the current location on 5th street in 1953, and opened the cafe around 1973.
“I grew up close to the track. Went to a lot of the midget races. I went to the Grand National race they had there in the 50s that went around the big horse track. We had a pizza place in the 60s and a lot of the Hard Top drivers including Harold Hardesty came in there when I was 14.”
The first race behind the wheel for Angelo at Redwood Acres came during the mechanic’s race in Manuel Arruda’s #84 in 1976 (top left). By the end of the season he had his own car at the track, a brown primer colored ’57 Chevy (top center), and by 1978 he was driving a silver-gray ’64 Chevelle (top right). “The cars were right out of the wrecking yard so it didn’t take much to get going, so I got one. Each year it keeps evolving and next thing you know you’re there. As you move up you get hooked on it, for sure. I love it, missed maybe a handful of races. Never missed a full season in 37 years. No sense in having a race car if you don’t race it.”
“I always liked old cars, just never got into the aspect of building them. When I started racing I liked it so I was just going to dabble in it. I’m still dabbling apparently.”
In 1978 Manuel Arruda’s brother, Frank, took apart one of the cars and transformed it into the gold painted Chevy Nova, built in a one car garage. “He was sharing space with a washer and a dryer,” Ange says. “He had a helluva time gettin’ through there, with an old stick welder.”
“When I started Redwood Acres was fairly dusty, then got to a dry slick track. Some days you couldn’t tell where you were going but some days it would turn out good; depended on the heat, the sun, how well it was prepared. They tried different chemicals in it, some worked, some didn’t. Back in the Hard Top days you couldn’t even see the track from the grandstands some days.”
“If you needed something to go racing we’d go out to the pickups and took them. You’d see the hoods go up out back where they’d steal starters, radiators… you go out and your pickup won’t start; ‘Oh, I forgot, let me get your starter, I got it on the car….’ , put your starter back on for you. But none of that stuff fits now, its all after market stuff now. Back in the day any Chevy starter would start any Chevy, and any radiator we’d bolt in.”
“Back in the 70s they were stock cars with the frames that came with them. Then everyone went with Camaros and cut the front clips off them. Then they started going fabricated clips. Walker and Pries were probably the first to bring out the fancy Chevelles, ’66s, stuff like that. That started the trend. We were always behind the trend of bigger tracks. But the money won back then, that was just the way it was. When I look back those were the best races we had, back in the dirt days. It’s just not the same today. It’s fun, but not like back in the days when we’d have all these parties: ‘Dusty Fans & Dirty Drivers’ parties during the Open Comp days in the late 70s, baseball games against the dragsters.”
In 1979 Angelo’s Nova tangled with Don Graham and ended up hitting the front straight wall hard (pictured above). “Back then we didn’t have the collapsible steering wheels so it pushed the whole shaft right up in my chest. The ambulance comes over and the wheels were all bent out and they asked me where I was at, and I was bullshitting them and said (in dazed voice) ‘DAY-TON-A’. Next thing you know they put me in the ambulance and I said ‘No I know where I’m at!’ and they said ‘No, we have to take the first thing you say’. I guess it’s right; they err on the side of caution.”
“The walls now are a lot harder than they used to be. I told Rich: ‘Maybe the cement’s curin’!'”
“If you have fear you can’t get into the car. I’m sure it’s in your mind somewhere more than when you were younger, but part of it is we never had the money to fix anything. I always run more cautious than the guys who had new bodies hanging in the garage every week. I was working two jobs to go race. We just couldn’t afford to wreck it all the time. So I’d let off before somebody else would, but I wasn’t in it to be a super star, I was in it for the fun of it. Until we really started winning, I think I had more fun, with no expectation to do well. In the old days I won a lot of B-Mains because technically I had a B-Main car most of the time on dirt. Hell, before if we made a top race, if we could run with the big guys, we were pretty proud of it. If we finished third in the old days we’d be partying for a week.”
Reluctantly, Angelo addressed the controversy Fergy Ferguson continues to raise many years later over the Suitcase Race. “Well, we had a Suitcase Race, we put on clothes, and got back in the car and raced. That was something that I didn’t think he should have brought up…” His son Mike sitting at a nearby table at the resturaunt starts laughing, having never heard this story before.
Fergy had said that while he was taking care to stretch the pantyhose on over his fire suit, he was surprised to look over and see Angelo shoving his racing shoes in, destroying the nylons, going for speed over being presentable. He believes to this day that Angelo had cheated to win. Angelo responds flatly “Well, he always says that. I was just quicker because I was the young buck. And I was legal so I won.”
“We used to do stuff like that all the time for crowd entertainment. And they used to race just cars off the street out there. 3 Laps. They’d tape the windows and tape the headlights. Way back one guy wrecked his girlfriend’s car out there, a Mustang, put it right into the fence. One time a guy just got out there after the races and took off onto the track. We used to have to park the grater across there because people would try and sneak their cars in and start racing while we were loadin’ up to leave.”
“I was a Six Rivers Racing Association board member almost right from the start when I began, and then president at the end, just to close it down. It was not like a promoted track; we had meetings every Tuesday and the body would come and we’d vote on rules and how we wanted the track to be. We had our battles and its a tough sport but back then we got over it a lot faster than today. You’re mad at the time but the next day you’re best friends again and the guy would loan you anything he had, it wouldn’t matter if you just wrecked him.”
“We hung all the lights, picked up rocks on the track, hauled the clay, laid the clay, we built everything out there, the board members. We had car washes just to put money in it, do everything around town just to get the season started. We raced a year for nothing, nobody got a dime, just to put it back in the club.”
Mike Marcelli, Angelo’s son and crew chief, continues: “That’s something the younger guys don’t understand about these older guys; they busted their ass just to race. They come out now and the grass is mowed, the track is clean, concrete all through the pit area, and they still bitch. Try to get the car level in the pits or jack it up in a mud infield- you put a piece of wood under the jack to get it up.”
Angelo replies: “And the guys before me- we always put it in perspective. You look in those old cars and it would be like driving a bus. Those old midgets, the old roll cages, your head was the first thing to hit. They wanted to race.”
In 1983 the SRRA brought in clay from Union street to change the feel of the dirt track. “Then we got to a clay track, what I call bay mud. I didn’t like the the clay they put in and what we called Outlaw Cars, big wedge bodies. We thought it would be really good but what it did it sucked the horsepower right out of it. We went to the wedge cars and the money cars started coming in and they pushed these home builts out of the program. The wedge cars, the high horsepower cars liked the clay we put on. The low buck guys aren’t going to like anything that hurts them. Whoever’s gettin the advantage is going to like that. It was hard to race with them.”
Probably the last place you want to end up during a race is upside down. “First race, new car just built, never drove it before, the throttle stuck” Angelo explains. “My wheel hit a tire when it flipped me. We were trying to get it straight to get it on the trailer, this wheel back into the frame firewall, gas tank fell out, everything, just trying to get it straight enough to get it on the trailer, and Frank says ‘You know, we could get this drivable’. I said ‘Yeah, if you can get it fixed I’ll run it”.
Mike continues: “It was all bent to Hell. We had a water truck on one end and a grater on the other, pulled the thing straight and went out and won the B Dash, B Heat, transferred to the A Main. That’s back on dirt, that’s what you could do. The difference between the old days and the new days is every angle in your front end means something now. It’s just a different day.”
Angelo concludes: “There’s probably not much that has happened out there that hasn’t happened to me at least once. We’ve been on fire, been upside down, we’ve been in the walls, we’ve been on cars. Probably the worst one I was in was when Randy Olson spun that guy in the Open and Jim Walker just missed him. I hit that guy and went spinning through the infield. Kind of knocked me out…caught on fire. I think that was the worst one I ever had.”
In 1988 new promoters brought a paved track and NASCAR sanctioning which opened up the track to host the Southwest Tour and Winston West races.
“When it was paved we lost a few drivers that had done well on clay- the Henells and Ron Peters. A few of them backed off, not racing every race. Back then when we were racing Super Stocks, before templates, you didn’t have to change much to run with the Southwest Tour and they wanted the local cars to run against the tour for the fans. But NASCAR was for NASCAR- they didn’t do nothing for you, just cost you a bunch of money.”
“I liked the asphalt right away. I used to go to Anderson and we had Lakeport and Ukiah. It was cleaner but was harder to drive; on dirt you can horse it around and get it to do what you want to do, on asphalt if you aren’t right on the money you’re in a lot of trouble. It’s a real fine line. You’re set up has to be right there. You were spinning out before you knew you were spinning. I’d be sitting in the infield and wonder ‘Now just how in the Hell did that happen?'”
Mike Marcelli: “Randy Olson took me under his wing and taught me a ton about chassis and how to set up for asphalt. It’s obvious to everybody now that if you aren’t perfect when you leave the garage, geometry-wise, you are going to have a bad day.”
“Most anybody can go around and qualify and be fast,” Angelo says. “But it’s when you’re in traffic and making that almost instant decision when you feel it in your butt when you’re slidin’. When I first raced on pavement I must have spun that thing twenty times a race, but now I can feel that thing and just automatically react. Jim Walker’s a natural, that guy can miss anything, and he’s probably the best thing that ever hit here. That’s one guy who could have made it big time from here. When he won Riverside and raced at Daytona, he had the talent, there was just no doubt about it.”
“I watch and follow NASCAR, went to Phoenix 10 times in a row. Used to go down to Riverside, was there when Walker won. If Walker was going to the races we were going. Riverside was better than Sears Point, almost an oval with the S’s in it. Went there every year for years. There wasn’t any kind of Open Comp we didn’t go to in Redding, Roseville, even if I wasn’t racing in them, we’d go watch them. We just never had the kind of money to compete in those kind of shows, and I don’t like to be in everybody’s way. I don’t want to be the one who screws everybody up.”
“I think we won the B-Main in Ukiah once. Made B-Main a couple of times at Anderson, but they’re 150 lap races in 200 degree heat. It was miserable. I liked the tracks but they were too small compared to Redwood Acres, you were just in a turn all the time.”
“Back in our day we knew what we come from, we weren’t gonna go to Daytona. We raced and then went over and finished a keg of beer, went out and argued about the races and fought and did all our rollin around and would be best friends next Saturday. It’s at every track not just ours, but each generation you get people who think they’re the next Dale Earnhardt. They don’t mind wrecking people now. If you can’t get by them, spin them out. That started after we went paved.”
Angelo has been track champion now four times since 2000 and he’s seen the technical side of racing take over since the old dirt days. “Back in the day you’d go over to John’s wrecking yard and you got a motor, put it in your car and went runnin.”
Mike concurs, “When we were on dirt you’d throw some Monroes on there and you’d go racing. Now the shock package is multi-valving, the right valving for each corner of the car; you have to be down on the shocks or your car ain’t working. Guys like my dad with experience can still drive the car and make it go fast, but one mistake and you’re gone. The things we have seen change from when we started in 1976 to 2013 are ridiculous. It’s just night and day.” Both say a lot of the local guys who know people back in North Carolina working in NASCAR get the latest technical information and can use that advantage at the track here. “A couple of tenths is forever on a race track”, Angelo adds.
“I went to the Gold Cup over in Chico and saw a couple of the old hard tops they had in the museum. They were tore all to Hell but you look in the back and they had a military gas can – the old jeep cans – in the back for a fuel cell behind the driver’s seat with a strap holding it in, and half inch water pipe for roll cages. It brought back memories when I’d see those guys come flippin’ down the track at Redwood Acres. Them guys had cajones, man. Or stupid, one or the other.”
While the cars and the track have changed, the constant for Angelo and Mike remains the relationships formed through the years with the other folks at the track.
Frank Arruda Jr. was Angelo’s first crew chief in 1976 and has been with him ever since. Says Angelo of his old friend, “His brother Manuel got me started and Frank kept me in there. He’s my main man. Does the body work the ducting, changes tires, does everything the crew guy does. If we get in a wreck he’ll go out the next day and start working on it. He’s a machinist, was in the Marines, went to work with Redwood Kenworth, retired there. He’s been with me forever and there isn’t anything on there he can’t do.” Frank is joined on the team by Angelo’s son and current crew chief, Mike, and mechanic and former long time driver Casey Dungan.
“We had some of the top of the line drivers between Jim Walker and Larry Pries. Tom Wyatt would come over from Medford. Jim Walker and Bill Schmitt of Redding had some of the best races you’ll ever see. Don Harper, Valerie Harper’s brother, Larry Detjens was around here, and Don Hood. Hank Hilton was really good, Kenny Wallan, Don Price. Me and Don were real good friends. The old timers; Fergy of course, and Jack Clark- he was a good writer too (columns in the Stock Report). I don’t think there was anybody out there we didn’t like runnin with.”
Mike Marcelli likes to talk about a driver they were particularly fond of: “Hank Hilton, in his later years, with his cane, won a main out here with the tour, that was the highlight of our day. We were just sentimental towards him anyway. We ran against him on dirt for a championship and we broke and that guy went and got a part and he gave it to us. We finished second to him. He was a helluva dude. One time we’re in Redding and we’re struggling and that guy walks over and says ‘Here’s part of your problem…’, and he set our front end settings, caster and camber, by eye; no gauge, no nothing. We went out and ran better than you can believe. He got us maybe half a second.”
“That old guy helped me in Ukiah too”, Angelo says. “Walked up and said ‘Hey, you’re hittin the throttle where you’re supposed to but you’ll spin out every time at this track. Right at the apex you’re gone, so you have to hit it right before, or right after.’ The big joke with us is that we’d be struggling with the car and Hank would come over with a ball of string. I’d say ‘We got all these tools’ and he’d say ‘All you need is a ball of string’,” Ange says laughing.
Angelo has particular admiration for fellow driver and friend Don Price. “Don was the best at never using a tape measure. He’d put the clip on the car and just stand back and look at it and I thought this guy’s out of his mind. You go to measure it when he’s done he was within a sixteenth, just eyeballing it. But Don Price could do just about anything.”
“Don Price was incredible,” adds Mike. “And that’s what the younger generation doesn’t get, that all those people that you’ve met, and all those people that were amazing to you. Still to this day, Don and my dad are best of friends.”
Angelo concludes: “I’d never trade the friendships and things that we’ve done in racing, the people were just fantastic. That was the best form of racing and group of drivers, before or since, between here and Redding. And it was that way around the country.”
Angelo clinched his fourth Sportsman championship September 14th 2013. On that night Jim Walker came out to race in the local Sportsman class, winning the Trophy Dash and Main Event – the Memorial Race – held in honor of their friend Larry Pries.
Huge thanks to Angelo Marcelli and his son Mike for their generous support and tremendous passion for the history of racing at Redwood Acres Raceway.
All archival photos are courtesy of Angelo Marcelli.