On three blazing days in April, the Guam International Raceway Park was transformed into a global exhibition of motor and steel. The annual APL Smokin’ Wheels weekend is the largest and longest-running motorsports event in the region, featuring local and international competitors who show off their skills in off-road endurance races, drifting competitions, motor-cross races and other challenging events. And they do it in everything from off-road buggies and ATVs to race cars and even home made vehicles.
Some 7,000 people walked through the gates of the Yigo race park during the three-day event to catch the high-flying action from Guam and world class drivers. The competition is now in its 35th year and continues to flourish. Smokin’ Wheels coordinators are already planning the details for next year’s event, even as they face an expiring lease for the raceway in 2018.
At the head of operations is Guam Racing Federation President Henry Simpson, a local racing legend who witnessed the birth of the motorsports competition. Simpson was just 19 when he came to Guam in 1967 where he quickly fell into the motorcycle scene. “I fell in love with the island, and riding and by 1971, I started my own motorcycle shop called Island Suzuki,” he said. “We always needed places to ride, so I got permission from the Calvo family to run a motocross track on Route 17.”
For three decades, avid Guam racers would use Jose and Herminia Calvo’s southern property to practice and run races practically rent free. Over the years, the events would get organized and disorganized, until 1978, when the newly formed Guam Racing Association was approached by the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company for a cigarette promotion. It was the start of the long-running Winston-Salem Smokin’ Wheels event. “It had the double entendre of spinning wheels and smoke coming out of it and smoking at the time,” Simpson said. “It was our first race and everyone thought it was a real success so we invited drivers from Japan to come the
Tragedy, however, struck the track in 1979 when a club member was killed during
“It was hard to carry on because we thought we were going to lose the track,” Simpson said. “The Calvo family really pulled through to let us use the track. We were told to fix whatever went wrong so it would be safer in the future. RJ Reynolds Tobacco said they still wanted to do it, so they gave us more money to fix the track up to get it insured. So we made sure we had more safety rules in place.”
The racing association always knew their time would eventually end on Route 17 when the Calvo family began its expansion. By the mid-1990s, the sites were set on a new location for races, this time in Yigo.
In 1997, Senator Lawrence Kasperbauer oversaw the passage of Public Law 24-141, laying grounds for a new raceway park named, “The Jose and Herminia Calvo Memorial Off Road Park.” Funding followed and construction began on the Chamorro Land Trust property in Yigo in 1998.
The Guam Racing Federation was born at around the same time, becoming the governing body for off-road events. By 2001, Guam Smokin’ Wheels had returned with races taking place on the newly-built park.
The legacy would continue for Smokin’ Wheels, as it became an annual event for Guam drivers and also welcomed renowned international competition including Malcolm Smith, Ivan “Iron Man” Stewart, Rory Chenowith, Hiro Matsushita, paraplegic racer Yukiwa Watanabe, among many others.
This year the highly anticipated entertainment weekend and family event kicked off on April 7 with Street Night on the drag strip with racing and championship qualifiers. The dirt kicked up the next day with MX Heat races, ATV and UTV Motocross action and the Trophy Kart off-road buggies and trucks official timed practice. There was plenty more to see the next day with the AK Toyota Tacoma test course and the Show Off Guam car show featuring dozens of classic and modified rides.
The itinerary was just as loaded on Sunday with the Jesse Salas Memorial Off-Road Enduro. The truck and buggy-filled three-hour challenge was renamed for Salas who was volunteering last year when he was accidentally struck and killed.
The last day of Smokin’ Wheels also featured the 85cc Minibike Endurance Race, Mid-Open ATV Endurance Race, Open Motorcycle Endurance Race, Off-road buggies and truck endurance race, 4X4 mud drags, Mini-Mid ATV Endurance Race, and Drifting with Proline Drift Series. In traditoin, the event welcomed international talent, including Japanese Pro D1 drivers Manabu Fujinaka and Yuki “Dart” Izumida and female pro Rie Shinmi.
Drifting is a relatively new addition to the Smokin’ Wheels event, one that’s exploded since it landed on the ticket. “Maybe we had 10 drivers and now we have 20,” Tom Akigami, who coordinates the smaller pocket events said. “It’s taken a while, but the island’s drifting scene is still growing. At Smokin’ Wheels, this is where you’re going to see the most spectators on the stand. It’s cooler, the sun is going down and you have all these cars going at it. Everything can be seen in front of you inside the oval. The crowd gets really excited watching them go head-to-head.”
In the background of more recent Smokin’ Wheels events, Guam’s best barbecue fanatics were urged to compete in the Jack Daniel’s Smokin’ Grills competition where they would battle it out to win over judges with chicken, pork and beef entries. It’s been a big draw for competitors and their families who come to support them. Next year Akigami wants the event expanded to allow for audience participation. Typically, the competitors only prepare enough food for judges, with some for themselves, friends and family members who come by.
“I decided to bring it back to its glory days and we got the Micronesian Chefs Association involved to improve that portion,” he said. “There are talks about making it a Kansas City Barbecue Society sanctioned event where people can purchase tickets to sample foods.”
Akigami continued, “We’d have more than just the judge’s portion. We’d have a People’s Choice category, too. I was inspired by going to beer festivals where you get a cup to sample and 10 little tickets to sample your choice of ten samples. If you want more, you buy more tickets. What’s going to draw more competitors is if we put out better prizes especially if there’s sampling, if people can vote, that’s the big play. They’ll work twice as hard if the prize is bigger.”
Expanding the grilling competition, however, means another draw to the Smokin’ Wheels weekend will be adjusted. There won’t be a Show Off Guam next year although there’s still an opportunity for the best rides to show up at Smokin’ Wheels. With a smaller show and fewer cars competing, Akigami is expecting the heavy hitters of Guam’s mod scene to exhibit their vehicles.
Smokin’ Wheels has been a Guam signature event for decades, but the federation faced one of its biggest setbacks in 2006 when the military had its eye on the property for a shooting range. The construction stopped on the racetrack until about 2015. “It stopped our future, and we didn’t know where we were going to be,” Simpson said. “It took a long time to work it out, slowing us down.”
Next June, the federation’s lease will be up and Simpson is moving fast to secure another contract with a 50-year lease to keep the park open. “We really need to lock it down so something like the military coming to take it wouldn’t happen again,” he said.
The next Smokin’ Wheels is expected in April, 2018 and the federation will continue to work with Tropical Productions, Inc. on production and promotions. Working with outside help for more than five years allowed the federation to concentrate on maintaining the track, getting more participants on board and ensuring the event activities improve each year, Simpson said.
“This has grown into a super family outing because we start with the little kids who race on the tracks,” he said. “It’s a multi-generational draw and we think it’s going to be a real quality of life benefit for all the young military guys who come out here, too. Overall, we think it’s got a super bright future.”