By DOANE YAWGER
When racing is mentioned, Sunny Phillips’ eyes light up and she becomes quite animated. It’s lots more than a casual hobby — more of a way of life to her.
Four years ago, Phillips told her son Dustin if she survived breast cancer she would go racing with him. She has been “clean” for some time and now is the track director at Tom Dash Speedway in Atwater.
“I am having a blast, meeting new families,” Phillips says. “It’s a great family atmosphere. I wanted to do something with the boys, something fun and outdoorsy. Whether you win or lose, your family supports you.”
The 53-year-old former Patterson woman who now calls Atwater home retired two years ago as a captain after 17 years as a full-time Cal Fire firefighter. She was stationed from Hollister to Patterson. Her firefighting efforts also lead to involvement with Halters of Hope in Newman, which cares for horses displaced by wildfires.
Dustin Phillips, 11, will be a sixth grader this fall at Atwater’s Elmer Wood Elementary School. Like his mom, he relishes every chance he gets to compete at the racetrack and has been running in the Junior Outlaw winged sprint car series, carrying the CAT sponsorship colors on his kart which resembles the much larger sprint cars many famous racing drivers compete with across the country.
Phillips says Dustin would drive a shopping cart if it had a motor. He says he just loves machinery and all his life is devoted to his first love, racing. Some day he wants to compete at the Chili Bowl racetrack in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His favorite race car drivers are NASCAR stock car racer Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Ryan Blaney and Rico Abrieu, who races sprint cars and in the NASCAR Camping World truck series.
“Anything with wheels on it he would race. We’re competitive. There’s not a lot for kids to do these days. A lot of people don’t know we (the Atwater racetrack) is here. It’s been operating for almost 30 years,” Phillips says.
There are four women who race at the Atwater track which is in the city’s industrial park, she points out.
Tom Dash Speedway is a 5/8-mile dirt oval track with banking and an adjoining nine-turn pavement road course that’s a half-mile in length. The Atwater Kart Clubs-sanctioned racing features go karts with 125-cc outlaw engines. The flathead engines develop 20 horses and are powered by methanol. Competitors reach speeds of 50 mph and their bodies are suspended only two or three inches off the pavement.
Phillips and her husband Phil started Big Dog Motorsports two years ago. They have six sons from ages 11 to 28 and five of them have raced. Before a race she’s often up until midnight or 2 a.m. making sure the race cars’ tires are aired up, the fuel tank is full, the engine is tuned and other racing details are squared away.
Dustin said he’s driven by the thrill of racing, the adrenaline rush. In the speedway’s Winter Series with more than 35 competitors, he won six races. His mom says racing has taught him respect and the crucial importance of safety.
“It’s fun racing with your mom,” Dustin says. “I just like the thrill, the challenge. It’s so fun. I have no fear; you get over that.”
Phillips says the track runs all year round, with a season running from October to March and the summer series going from April through September. For more information, call up www.atwaterkartclub.com or call race director Kevin Vaught at (209) 761-5858 or Phillips at (209) 606-4069.
“I love it; I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” Phillips says.
— Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.