Racing: Passing the championship torch

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In this 2012 photo, former Hollister racer Johnny Lomanto, left, and current sprint car racer Tony Gualda, right, pose for a picture in Lomanto’s trophy room. Lomanto was inducted into the Motor Sports Press Association Hall of Fame in March of 2012.

Johnny Lomanto’s house on Valley View Road is like any other house. It has a living room, a kitchen and a cement walkway. It’s normal.

But inside, after two right turns, Lomanto’s house changes from the typical interior.

As carpet changes from gray to a deep red, trophies of all sizes and colors surround visitors. It’s Lomanto’s trophy room and it’s full to capacity with memorabilia of Lomanto’s racing career that started seven decades ago.

He’ll add another accomplishment to that room on March 7 when he is inducted to the Motor Sports Press Association Hall of Fame in Oakland.

That award will add to his existing 400 trophies that celebrate Lomanto’s racing accomplishments dating back to 1946. The room is impressive, especially to a 5-year-old boy, who dreams of racing.

A little more than six years ago, that kid – Hollister racer Tony Gualda, now 12 – was introduced to Lomanto and his prized trophy room. The second he saw the trophies, some of which stand three feet tall, he fell in love with the idea of racing.

“Well it’s big,” Gualda said. “It’s kind of hard to explain. Seeing pictures of him racing and stuff. It started it all. It’s a big influence to me. When I met him and I saw all the stuff, it really made it that much more that I wanted to race. It’s big.”

And Gualda has since done just that.

Gualda, who is nicknamed “Little Tony,” earned a third-place finish in his first season racing for the 600 cc 5/8 Restricted series at the Delta Speedway in Stockton. Gualda led all rookies in points at the Delta Speedway. He has raced in some form since he was 6 years old.

His love for the sport dates back to that fateful day more than six years ago when Lomanto saw Gualda and his father Tony Gualda building a go-kart across the street.

Lomanto watched the Gualdas prepare the go-kart and decided it was the best time to introduce himself. The soft-spoken 85-year-old man remembers his introduction to the Gualdas fondly.

“Well, I seen the go-kart out there so I went over there,” he said. “And I started talking to him. And I got interested watching him race and stuff.”

Lomanto served as a mentor of sorts for the sponge-like Gualda, who idolized Lomanto for his stories of racing.

The Hollister farmer, who harvested walnuts, apricots and prunes on the Central Coast, first started racing anything with wheels and an engine in 1946. He was only 17.

“I know my dad – see I wasn’t old enough – had to sign to let me do it,” Lomanto said.

His racing career almost started as an accident.

His older brothers built a car designed for racing, but the person who was expected to drive it was too afraid, Lomanto said.

“The guy that was supposed to drive it chickened out and so I jumped in the car,” Lomanto said. “I think I won the first race. The reason why the brothers couldn’t go is because they were all married.”

Once Lomanto crossed his first finish line, he was hooked.

“It was fun,” he said. “It started getting fun so I got into it more and that kept going. We kept going all over the place in other towns and places like that. That’s where we started.”

For the next 10 to 15 years Lomanto raced almost constantly, visiting race tracks all around Northern California, including Sacramento, San Jose and Fresno. Eventually, Lomanto’s racing career – and the sport – started to slow down and Lomanto married his wife Babe.

He returned to the farm, but it was short lived because he found his next love – motorcycles. In 1957 at the age of 30, Lomanto traded his four wheels for two.

“I started riding motorcycles and they started having gypsy tours here in Hollister so I got involved with that,” he said. “I was riding motorcycles for fun, but at a gypsy tour in Angels Camp, they had a race, and I got into that. Then I got into it again, and that’s what started it all.”

He continued: “Anything with two wheels and a motor. Let her go.”

He quickly became a dominant fixture in Northern California motorcycle racing.

“He is a legend,” the elder Tony Gualda said. “He raced against some of the biggest and historical names in racing.”

Lomanto’s love for motorcycles is so intense he would do anything to ride his bike around town, he said.

Four years ago, he had to ask the Gualdas for help getting his bike started. In 2008, just a few weeks after having knee surgery at the age of 81, he asked the Gualdas for help riding his bike.

With the injured knee, he couldn’t kick start the bike and wanted to use Gualda’s truck to start the engine.

“We tied it up to the back of the truck,” the elder Gualda said. “I wasn’t sure about it but he was all right with it. As long as he was OK with it – OK.”

It wasn’t until 2011 that Lomanto finally stopped riding his motorcycle.

“I still have a motorcycle,” he said. “I figured it’s time, time to quit.”

Instead of riding and racing, Lomanto turns his nearly 70 years worth of experience into advice for the young Gualda.

“I want to see him do well,” Lomanto said. “He is real interested in racing. I want to help him out as much as I can. He’s had quite a bit of success already. I’m proud of him because he has started winning and he is interested in it. That’s the main thing.”

And Lomanto’s interest in “Little Tony” is a godsend for the older Gualda.

“I’ve never driven a race car so having Johnny around was priceless,” Gualda said. “He was around to give motivation and just let him know and give him the inside scoop on what a driver would be thinking. He (my son) took a lot of it in.”

The elder Gualda continued: “He (my son) has a certain spot he has to be sitting down in prior to racing. And that’s Johnny. He needs to see the track even though he isn’t out there yet. He needs to focus, focus before the race. Tony took that and he followed it. It’s worked pretty good because he has done well in his career so far.”

Focus and winning – along with having fun – are the most important things that Lomanto has instilled in Gualda.

“You need to win races,” Lomanto said bluntly.

So far, Gualda has listened.

“Focus and going out there and getting on the gas and do what you can and go out there to win,” Gualda said. “Don’t go out there to get second or third. Whenever I go to the races, I want to win. That’s another thing I learned from Johnny. I enjoy racing because I want to win. It’s a fun sport and something I love.”

Lomanto couldn’t be happier helping him accomplish those goals.

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