AMERICAN racer Ron Esau, who drove in the inaugural stock car race at Calder Park Thunderdome, passed away last week at age 67.
The Californian second-generation racer was a veteran of speedway racing on the US west coast, winning the inaugural Southwest Tour Late Model title in 1986 and racing in NASCAR Cup and Truck Series and ARCA events.
Esau was one of a host of west coast racers to join the visiting NASCAR Cup Series stars in tackling the Thunderdome, and was one of 24 Americans to drive in the inaugural race in February 1988.
FLASHBACK: The Thunderdome’s million-dollar race
However, he was originally meant to make the trip to Australia as a mechanic, not a driver, until tragedy intervened three weeks prior to the race.
Fellow west coast veteran Jim Robinson, slated to race at the Thunderdome, suffered severe head injuries in a racing crash that left him in a coma.
Esau brought his driving gear to Australia for the purpose of helping setup the cars of fellow west coast racers Ruben Garcia and Brad Noffsinger, while he also hopped in Dick Johnson’s car to help with setup.
Then Robinson’s family asked Esau to race Jim’s #78 Oldsmobile, but he still had to overcome a few obstacles to make it to the grid.
“We thought we were all set until Jane told us that he’d allocated the money (for Robinson’s car) to other places and that the deal was off,” Esau told the Los Angeles Times after the race.
“The family didn’t want to spend any more money, but we had Jim’s motor there and it was fresh and the car was ready to go, so with Ruben Garcia’s help, we raised enough money to race anyway.
“The Melbourne papers got a hold of the human interest story . . . and the stories led to our getting some sponsorship money from Eurovox, an Australian car stereo manufacturer. The official entry listed it as the Jim Robinson Fund car, with Eurovox as a secondary sponsor.”
It meant Esau missed most of the mid-week practice running, but he repaid the faith by qualifying the best of the Winston West entries in fifth, behind the all-Alabama Gang front row of Neil Bonnett and Bobby Allison and the all-Australian second row of Allan Grice and Robin Best.
Come race day he was the only driver to seriously mix it with Cup Series stars, running as high as second and battling with and passing his hero Allison, before losing an engine just past half distance – Esau donated his share of the prize purse to help pay Robinson’s medical bills.
Esau returned to the ‘Dome twice more, both times with his own equipment.
He raced to ninth place in the Christmas 500 in December 1988, and two years later finished an outstanding third in the rain-shortened 1990 Christmas 400 behind Cup Series stars Terry Labonte and Ken Schrader.
A few years ago, Esau posted a pair of videos to his YouTube channel of still photos from his times racing at the Thunderdome, which are embedded in this story.
Esau continued to race well into the 2000s and helped play a role in the careers of several young racers from the southern California region that were pursuing NASCAR, including Brendon Gaughan and 2020 Trucks Series champion Sheldon Creed.
A celebration of Esau’s life will be held in Lakeside, California on April 3.
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