In our 20th season, we now continue with our tribute to our former champions, by looking back to the 2004 season. For the first time, in Spears Srl Southwest Tour Series (formerly the SRL Wild West Shootout) history, the schedule expanded beyond its base three tracks: Altamont Motorsports Park, Madera Speedway and The New Stockton 99 Speedway. Mesa Marin Raceway, as well as Shasta Speedway, were now included with one race each, to make an 11-race schedule.

The move led to the addition of drivers to the north and the south. But as the series moved into its fourth season, the parity of the competition was evident, as the fourth different champion was crowned. Two-time Stockton 99 Speedway Champion Steve Belletto put together a strong and consistent season, to take home top honors by two points over Rick Ruzbarsky. It was the closest finish in series history. It also kept the title in the Central Valley of California.

In 2004, Belletto was coming off two full-time seasons in the NASCAR Southwest Tour Series. He was the Rookie-of-the-Year runner-up in 2002, finishing eighth in the championship standings. He followed that up with a seventh-place effort in 2003. He secured five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in those two seasons. The competition in that series set the table for Belletto’s title run in the SRL, in 2004.

“Without a doubt it prepared me to win the SRL Championship, Belletto recalled. “I was racing a lot of really tough guys over there. It just made my game better. My equipment was prepared better, and it just made me more prepared to compete for the championship in the SRL”.

Prior to his NASCAR Southwest Tour seasons, Belletto was a strong contender at Stockton as well at Altamont, with occasional starts at Madera Speedway. He had the track championships at Stockton and was the NASCAR Whelen All American Series championship runner-up at Altamont in 1995. Belletto also had success in the Tri-track Challenge Series, which ran at the SRL’s three homebased tracks. He garnered three wins, 10 top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in only 15 starts, over three years. But it was his SRL Championship that Belletto was most proud of.

“It was a real big deal to me to win the championship back then”, Belletto admitted. “A lot of guys have won championships at their local tracks, and I think I won two at Stockton, back to back, but it was big to win a series championship. It was especially big with the people I was racing with. Dave Byrd, Kenneth Boyd, Ron Strmiska, Rick Ruzbarsky and David Philpott were just some of the really good guys racing in the series. It wasn’t like there were only a few guys that could win. There was a good handful of guys that could win every night.”

The top-10 in the championship standings also included drivers like Jeff Anthony, Ryan Foster, Mark Smith, Joey Zampa and Troy Ermish. But there was one driver in particular, that Belletto had his most intense battles with. He was a driver that would also eventually score a title in the SRL series, after a wealth of track titles throughout the state.

“I would have to say that Dave Byrd was my biggest rival in the series. He was my biggest rival at Stockton. I think between him and I, I think we put a lot of butts in the seats, during our time in Stockton. I was racing Dave Byrd for the championship and it is always tough racing against him. Dave and I had our pretty fierce battles, and the problem was that he wanted to win just as bad as I wanted to win. That’s where the problem was.”

But with time, two former SRL rivals and champions became friends, after the on-track rivalry was finished.

Belletto continued, “It’s funny, we were always racing against each other. After I stopped racing and helped my son in racing, I’d see Dave and we would talk, and we kind of became friends after that. During that time we were racing, and like I said, we both wanted to win. Neither one of us wanted to lift.”

Belletto finished his championship season winning a single race, while finishing in the top-five on seven occasions. He graced the top-10 nine times, leading 104 laps and earing $9,425 for his efforts. The series averaged 25.5 cars per event with 61 drivers scoring championship points. Statistically, it wasn’t the most glamorous season, but it was a calculated one by the Modesto, CA driver. It was something that he learned as the car owner, and the main man behind the wrenches, as he relayed.

“I was one of those guys that not only owned the car, but with help, I repaired the car and maintained the car. I built the motors, transmissions and rear ends. I was a full-on, hands-on guy. If I didn’t have a car that was capable of winning, I would rather take a third or fourth than tear the car up. I would rather take my car home with a third or four place finish, not torn up, and come home to work on it to make it better.”

His driving style was also a result of some expert advise from a fellow racer, his father Harry Belletto.

“When I first started racing, my dad told me “You will see guys come into racing and they are bouncing off of everybody’s car, and hitting the wall. By the time that they learn how to figure out how to drive, and how to get the car around the track, they are driving a bent-up, tore-up car. You need to be able to go out there, run the race, and finish all 100 laps.” That was always my mindset when it came to driving, and that is how I drove.”

Belletto always had a very recognizable car, as an SRL and Southwest Tour Series driver. It is rare to have a sponsor that supports a team for as long as Steve has had, with his friend@Les Scott. But the duo maintained a relationship through many years, and for that Steve was very thankful.

First, I’d like to thank my parents, and then I’d like to thank Les Scott with California Hotwoods. He was a tremendous sponsor and help with my racing program. He really kept my racing program going, that’s for sure.”

The next scheduled event, for the SPEARS Southwest Tour Series, is the $10,000-to-win “Spears Manufacturing 100 presented by Traffic Management, Inc..” at Irwindale Speedway on April 25th.

Photo Credit: The Original SRL Photographer David Misco.