(12/10/2022 – Alex Nieten) Sacramento, CA… Heading into 2022, Willie Croft planned for this to be his last year as a full-time competitor to cap an excellent career, but after a personal-best finish of second in NARC 410 Sprint Car points, he isn’t quite sure if he’s ready to hang up the helmet.
Long before he became one of the most familiar names in California, Croft’s passion for sprint car racing began as a young fan in the stands.
“When I grew up, my uncle took us to the sprint car races, his kids and myself,” Croft said. “Once they moved out of town, I would spend my summers down there, and he would take me to Baylands and some San Jose stuff. Before he moved out of the Sacramento area we would go to Placerville on a weekly basis. That’s kind of how I got involved in racing. I knew from the very beginning this is what I wanted to do.”
As he aged into his later teenage years, Croft slightly faded away from the sport as he discovered other interests as many high schoolers do. However, a chance encounter at one of his friend’s garages reignited his fire for racing.
“One of my friends, one day we were at his house, and I was walking by the garage that was open and there was a sprint car in there,” Croft reflected. “I was like, ‘Where’d this come from?’ My buddy Jason was like, ‘My dad is helping this guy, Rick Hirst.’ It wasn’t my father-in-law, Rick Hirst. There’s actually another Rick Hirst who raced.
“So, one thing led to another and I met this guy, Rick,” Croft continued. “I found myself, whenever went over to Jason’s, working on this car rather than hanging out. We were really heavy into skateboarding at that time, so instead of doing any type of skateboarding or going downtown to skate for the weekend, I was helping Rick with his car and then eventually going to the races with them.”
After his introduction to the hands-on, mechanical side of the sport, Croft would go on to meet a handful of personal influences as he navigated the early parts of his career as a crew member and, eventually, the beginning of his time behind the wheel.
“I met Mike Wasina from there and was helping Wasina when Rick wasn’t racing,” Croft said. “I ended up actually buying my first racecar from Mike Wasina and an engine and open trailer. I met Roger Crockett and Brian Crockett, who let me actually keep my car at their house and helped mentor me, how to maintenance a car and what not.
“Meeting Rod Tiner, I learned a lot more from Rod and going racing with him and his brother, Randy Tiner, at certain races,” Croft continued. “I was learning and talking to Rod on the way home, asking, ‘Why’d you do this or why’d you do that?’
‘One of my best friends is Paul Silva,” Croft added. “Once Paul started, I helped him quite a bit in the very beginning. I still do when I don’t race, whether it’s Knoxville Nationals or whatever it may be. Learning from Paul I learned how to be organized, how to be clean, how to have everything sorted. He does everything 100%, in my mind, correct. It kind of taught me a lot, opened my eyes up and helped me with my own program on how to be 100% ready.”
Croft has maintained that mindset of being fully prepared through the duration of his more than two decades racing sprint cars. The approach has helped him remain one of the steadiest forces of the California circuit year in and year out and construct quite the resumé.
In 2004 Croft scored his first NARC victory, topping the prestigious Mini Gold Cup at Silver Dollar Speedway. Among his dozens of overall sprint car wins are also a Faria Memorial (2016), Dave Bradway Jr. Memorial (2018), and three Trophy Cup features. Croft added his name to the list of Trophy Cup champions in 2014.
Throughout his career, Croft primarily wheeled his familiar, personally owned No. 29, but his talents also landed him opportunities driving for famed car owners such as Clyde Lamar and Kevin Rudeen.
Croft entered 2022 aiming to make one last run at a NARC title aboard the No. 29 after posting a best effort of third on two occasions in 2007 and 2013. Early on, Croft appeared poised to battle eventual champion, Dominic Scelzi, down to the final race. He posted seven top-fives in the first 10 races including a victory at Willamette Speedway in Oregon. Bad luck plagued the second half of his season, but he still held on to the runner-up spot in the final standings.
A challenge Croft battled throughout the year is a rotation of crew members. Croft serves as his own crew chief and maintains his car throughout the week, but during the year he didn’t have a set team traveling with him to each race. While the lack of a consistent crew created some difficulties in race day routine, Croft found himself feeling appreciative of the fact that a variety of capable hands were willing to help when needed. The experience reminded him of his own path.
“It’s pretty rewarding,” Croft said. “I always think back to myself as a crew guy when I first came around the sport. I ate and breathed it. Sprint car racing is all I wanted to be around. I wanted to learn anything and everything I could learn, and I had really good people to learn from, the likes of Mike Wasina, Rod Tiner, and Brian Crockett.
“That was me looking up to them, and, you know, it’s so weird, I don’t look at some of these younger people looking up to me in that way but maybe they do,” Croft continued. “It’s pretty gratifying to have guys that want to come help me, that want to go win races and work in my tough environment that I try to keep. I try to keep a standard of having everything organized and clean. It’s that part of me that I can’t do anything without knowing I’m 100 percent prepared.”
Croft’s efforts as a crew chief adjusting to a different team through the season didn’t go unnoticed. At the NARC Championship Awards Banquet, Croft was presented the Billy Albini Mechanic of the Year. The recognition filled Croft with emotion and provided one of the top moments of his career.
“I still think about it every day,” Croft said. “I think about that moment and how much that trophy really means to me. Billy Albini was one of the best. I feel fortunate to have been able to talk to him even just in passing… I was really caught off guard. I still get a little emotional thinking about it. It’s just a really, really cool award to have. The trophy goes back, but I still have the ring. I still have the memory of being on it that’s going to stick with me for a lifetime.”
Now, Croft sits in somewhat of a limbo as 2023 looms. A variety of factors are in play that he must consider before deciding on what, if any, racing plans he’ll make.
Croft owns a business, Amerikote Powdercoating, which occupies much of his time. This year he sadly lost one of his longtime supporters when Dave Wasney with Holey Smokes BBQ passed away. Croft also continues to have a major role in his son, Cole’s, blossoming racing career in karts. Cole has the same passion for the sport his father showed at a young age, and Willie puts plenty of time into working with him as he makes his own way towards sprint cars.
“It’s a little hectic at times. I’m not going to lie,” Croft said of balancing his son’s racing. “I’m putting myself in a position where I’m trying to do anything and everything I can do to give him the best equipment, the best car and setup that I can give him, but I don’t know anything about them (the karts). They’re not like a sprint car. They’re opposite of how you set a sprint car up.”
Though Croft remains uncertain of his racing future, he is confident in one area. If he does decide to continue competing, the 50-year-old plans to race often with the NARC 410 Sprint Cars and potentially try to challenge for a championship.
“I wish I could just say I’m going to run the NARC schedule again because I had a lot of fun, and there’s a lot of good people in the sport that run that series,” Croft explained. “There’s a lot of camaraderie, and that’s what I want to do. If I’m going to race, I want to race with the people I like racing with and the people that look out for us as a series with Jim (Allen) and Brent (Kaeding). I feel like that’s where my heart is. If I can make it happen, that’s awesome but I just don’t know.”
It won’t be long before the NARC season opener in March is around the corner and Croft is faced with making his decision. Everyone who has watched sprint cars in California over the past two decades knows this local legend has nothing more to prove, but how does the man himself feel about his career? Will he be satisfied? Overall, he’s conflicted. Like any racer, there is always one more event he’d like to check off the bucket list. However, if he does choose retirement, Croft feels complete and happy with the career he’s put together and the invaluable relationships he’s formed along the way.
“Thinking back to when I was asked, ‘If you race sprint cars, what level do you want to compete at?’” Croft recalled. “I said, ‘I just want to win a Golden State Challenge (NARC) race.’ So, to have done that, winning Trophy Cup, Mini Gold Cup, some of the other races, it’s pretty satisfying. But, then I think about it and I want to win an Outlaw race. I think that’s a top prize in sprint car racing is winning an Outlaw show.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” Croft added on if he’s content with his career. “I guess I’ll know 10 years from now or something like that when I sit back and think about. It’s tough. Are you ever satisfied? I’m probably not. I probably would want to win some of these other races before I was completely satisfied.
“You know what, though? It is what it is,” Croft continued. “I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve met a lot of good people. I still want to be around it. I will be around once my son does get into it. So, am I satisfied? Yes, in that aspect. I am satisfied to be able to live my dream and meet great people, meet my wife, but you always want to do better and you always want to win more, and you always want to win the bigger races.”