(4/13/21), Alex Nieten, Sacramento, CA, … Justin Sanders has spent the past handful of years swiping a myriad of checkered flags, and this season he aims to add a feat absent from his accomplishments: a touring championship with the NARC King of the West Fujitsu Sprint Cars.
The twenty-eight year old has been competing on Northern California’s bullrings for more than a decade. Like most drivers, he underwent a learning process and
steadily improved across his early seasons, picking up wins here and there. And then 2015 happened.
The Aromas native made a total of twenty trips to victory lane in 2015. He spent so much time in Marysville’s winner’s circle the track might as well have converted it to Sanders’ personal parking spot, claiming 11 of their feature events on his way to a track championship. Watsonville’s Ocean Speedway also saw him earn their overall points championship that very same season.
Sanders hasn’t slowed since his breakout 2015 campaign, amassing nearly 50 victories to grow his already lengthy career win list. Now partnered with Larry Antaya and piloting his Alkaline 88/Fire Protection Management number 16A, the duo hopes their combined experience and plan for the season can propel them to conquering California’s best sprint car drivers en route to a NARC title.
Just as with any sprint car operation, the path to a championship begins in the shop. Having worked with different car owners and his own program over the years, Sanders knows the value of being as prepared as one can be well before entering the pit gate. Whether it’s one more adjustment to the car or one more part added to the hauler’s stock, he’s always in search of the next step toward being as ready to go as possible.
“It’s just a lot of preparation,” Sanders said of what’s most important heading into the season. “If we can get our preparation down right, and we get our priorities right, we’ll be fine. If we can’t, you’ll see it, and that’s where we’re going to show weakness.”
Looking to the track, the 2021 schedule favors Sanders. Of the nineteen remaining events, seven of them are split between Ocean Speedway, Placerville Speedway and Chico’s Silver Dollar Speedway. From 2017 to 2019, Sanders tallied a ridiculous 30 feature wins across the three facilities. In a still young 2021 season, he’s already tacked on two wins apiece at both Silver Dollar and Ocean.
“I think, honestly, the reason I’m pretty good at those racetracks is because I raced there a lot,” Sanders said, crediting his extended track time. “I raced Placerville on a weekly basis. I ran Watsonville for a long time on a weekly basis, and I ran Chico a lot too.”
The laps Sanders has turned have translated to success when competing with NARC. His last five series starts between the trio of tracks yielded three victories, a second and a fourth. It’s also worth noting the fact that five of his six career King of the West wins have taken place at the three Nor-Cal ovals. The one other win? Well, that occurred at Stockton Dirt Track last season aboard Antaya’s car. Stockton happens to host the 2021 season finale which could play into Sanders’ hands should the team need one last good run to secure the title.
While the NARC calendar promotes several races where Sanders has proven speed, he knows earning the title will require consistency at every event and, consequently, improvement at tracks he isn’t as familiar with. The series visits six facilities outside of those already mentioned, and Sanders has prioritized learning and finding speed.
“It’s just laps, laps and experience, I think, is a lot of it,” Sanders said of what will be required to get the results he’s aiming toward. “That’s where I’m kind of lacking in the Tulare, Hanford department. Hanford, I’ve had good speed there. I just haven’t got a win there yet. I just think I need to race there more… I’d have to say Tulare has been my hindering track. Actually, the last time I was there at Trophy Cup I actually had pretty good speed. I hope I can take that and have some good speed when we make it over there.”
Perhaps the biggest factor in the team’s pursuit of the championship is recently broadening their racing ventures. With COVID-19 regulations erasing much of California’s 2020 racing season, Sanders and Antaya loaded up and traveled to the Midwest to face some stout competition. The team joined the All-Star Circuit of Champions for last summer’s Thunder Through the Plains. Antaya credited the experience for many of the gains he’s made as an owner.
“We definitely learned a lot of stuff on the road with the other teams we raced with,” Antaya noted of their 2020 travels. “Justin’s got a relationship with a lot of people all over the country, I don’t. I learned a lot myself as an owner and trying to be more hands on with learning how these sprint cars actually work, which I did improve quite a bit. We learned a lot about shock packages, setups, wing angle…”
The team proved to be quick learners. After struggling the first few nights with the All-Stars, Sanders netted top-5s in three of the final four events they entered. Sanders anticipates the added experience of facing some of the country’s best drivers on new racetracks will lead to success chasing the NARC crown.
“What really helps there is everything is just so unfamiliar,” Sanders tipped of the Midwest experience. “You get out there and you’re racing with unfamiliar guys, unfamiliar racetracks, just all these unfamiliar settings. It took me a good four-to-five races to just get acclimated with the tire I was running, the fast pace on the format, the guys I’m running against. You’re running the same tire all night with the Thunder through the Plains deal… It was kind of a culture shock, going out there and doing it. So now, you get back to California, and it’s kind of like a breeze. Everything’s more slow-paced throughout the night. We’re kind of more used to what’s going on. We’ve got more time to prepare, have our tires ready and have our equipment ready.”
As the NARC season unfolds, expect to see the white and black 16A competing up front night in and night out. Whether it’s a technical Placerville or a hammer-down Stockton, Sanders has proven he can contend. Throw in a favorable schedule, Sanders’ plans to improve at tracks he’s struggled with and the team’s growing experience, and their title chances look even better. And while they know the many challenges that come with facing the top talent of California over the nine-month tour, they’re confident their talent, resources and approach will lead them to the thick of the championship fight when the series rolls into Stockton for the finale in November.
“I know we’re competitive enough,” Antaya claimed of their NARC title chances. “We’ve got the best equipment that you can have. We’ve got things that people don’t have. We’re doing things other people aren’t doing, and we’re going to apply that and hopefully it pays off.”
If you want to see Sanders and his fellow competitors in action, the NARC King of the West Fujitsu Sprint Cars schedule can be found on narc410.com/schedule/. Next up for the series is the Peter Murphy Classic at the Thunderbowl Raceway in Tulare on Saturday May 15th. Can’t make it to the track? All events this season can be viewed live on FloRacing.com