By Troy Hennig
Roseville, CA (12-1-2021)…It is with a heavy heart that I announce to the public that long time racing promoter John Padjen passed away the morning. Padjen was 87 years old. Padjen had a bigger than life personality that catapulted him into being one the best West Coast racing promoters of all-time.
John was my mentor, he was my friend, but most importantly, he took me in as part of his family. I worked for the Padjen family from 1999 to 2010. I am thankful that him and Robbie took a chance on me, just 24 years old at the time, in the winter of 1998 to take over as the lead announcer at the famed Silver Dollar Speedway in Chico. Believe me, I didn’t take their trust lightly and dedicated my life to seeing that place continue and prosper. Twenty-two years later, Silver Dollar Speedway is still my home away from home.
The day I knew I was really part of the family is when I got tricked into blowing into the Padjen breathalyzer. John had jokingly asked if I had been drinking alcohol one night after the races. He basically said I want you to blow into this and see how high you can make the bubble rise. Little did I know, the trick to this test was to cover the exhaust hole as you blew, because if you didn’t, the result was not fun. I went to blow as hard as I could and before I knew it, I was covered in a thick, black smokey substance. Once the smoke had settled, the room erupted in laughter. I was covered from head to toe in black. Yes, I was one of many people who fell for one of Padjen’s practical jokes.
My children affectionately called him “Sucker Man.” John always was happy to see my kids and when he saw them, he routinely pulled out lollipops to give them. Of course, he would later admit, his was just trying to sugar them up a bit to be a little rowdier for my wife Kylie and I who were still learning how to be parents.
I last spoke to John in the middle of September. He was eager to get a recap of how the Gold Cup did. He always filled our conversations on the phone with questions about how many fans attended, how many cars showed up and was it a good race. Even just a few weeks ago, his mind was still in race mode. Shortly after our conversation, I received a private message from his daughter Johna who thanked me for keep her dad in the loop. She said he was so happy to hear from me and that he really missed being connected to the racing world.
Below is a story I wrote on behalf of John when he was elected to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame along with other tidbits. Please read and remember John Padjen.
Speed and horsepower have always been a part of promoter John Padjen’s life. When Padjen turned 18 years old he was hired as an electrician for Southern Pacific Railroad. He worked 42 years for the railroad until he retired in 1994. “I guess you could say I have always been fascinated with things that go fast,” said Padjen.
In 1962 Padjen began his first involvement with racing as a pit steward at Auburn Speedway. “I saw a lot of con artists in my days running that pit gate,” said Padjen with a smile. In 1973 Gene Welch approached Padjen about going in as partners to promote West Capitol Raceway. Padjen accepted and began his career in what would lead to him being one of the most successful promoters on the West Coast. In fact, some 35 years later, Padjen was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame located in Iowa. “This is the crowning moment for me and my family,” said Padjen. “My wife Robbie, our children and a lot of family members have been the reason for my success,” said Padjen. Upon his passing, John and Robbie were married for 53 years.
Going back to 1978, West Capitol was headed for a closure. Padjen and family were able to relocate their dirt track racing promoting to Silver Dollar Speedway in Chico. This is where the Gold Cup Race of Champions continued to shine and became an event that fans flocked to from all over the world. This four-day event in September featured some of the best sprint car racers in the nation led by the popular World of Outlaws. Special post-race activities also attracted thousands of fans, many of whom have camped all week at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds.
In 1982 Padjen added Placerville Speedway to their business. It was a nice combination between the weekly Friday night schedule at Chico and the Saturday weekly racing at Placerville. Son Alan, morphed into running the day-to-day duties at Placerville Speedway. Alan also continued the family legacy when he promoted Silver Dollar Speedway for a few years. Daughter Johna, worked in the office and spent most of her life involved with the family’s racing business. “We tried our best to make this a family business,” said Padjen. “Robbie and I were always so proud of how they all stepped up to help us out in various ways.”
Padjen led by example. His hard work and determination exemplified his desire to produce entertaining auto racing for thousands of fans. In addition to his success at Placerville Speedway and Silver Dollar Speedway, Padjen’s resume includes a wide variety of racing promotions including the management of the historical West Capitol Raceway in Sacramento, the resurrection of the Silver Crown 100 champ car race at the Cal Expo mile in the mid 90’s and the promotion of traveling campaigns including the Golden State Challenge Sprint Car Series and the Civil War Sprint Car Series. His success at Silver Dollar Speedway for the annual Gold Cup Race of Champions has long been recognized nationally for decades as one of the biggest weeks of racing on the World of Outlaws tour.
Padjen received numerous other awards throughout his time promoting races. He was inducted into the MSPA’s Hall of Fame for his career-long dedication to promoting events at West Capitol Raceway and at Silver Dollar Speedway in Chico and Placerville Speedway. Padjen received the highest honor in the industry of motor sports promotion when he was named the 2006 National Auto Racing Promoter of the Year. It was his fifth year of being named as a regional nominee, but it marks the first time in his stellar career that he received the highest honor.
“My dad loved everything about racing,” said his son Alan. “He worked hard, but he also played hard. He was known for his on-track promotions, but a lot of the fans enjoyed seeing him after the races and being the life of the party.” Alan credits his mom with the idea of moving the Gold Cup from West Capitol to Chico. “It was my mom’s idea to move the Gold Cup. Dad said it wouldn’t work but mom was right,” said Alan. “Dad was so proud of the Gold Cup. He waited all year for it to come around.”
Silver Dollar Speedway will bring back the John Padjen Classic as part of the Silver Cup Race of Champions in March of 2022.
Details about a celebration of life will be announced in the coming weeks from the family.