Final tribute to a racing legend

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Racers and fans accustomed to spending Saturday nights at Petaluma Speedway returned to the track last Sunday to honor the late Jim Soares, whose death the week before ended his family’s 54-year history of promoting races at the speedway.

Soares, 68, who semi-retired from the track a year ago, died Sept. 7 after a short illness.

“Jim really had no other sports interests,” noted Rick Faeth, Soares’ business partner who had taken a more direct role in promoting and managing the speedway over the last two years. “He was a motor head who loved racing.”

Soares was praised for his loyalty to his employees, sponsors and racers and his dedication to fans. “When you had his loyalty, he would walk through walls for you,” contended Ron Lindgren, who has worked at the speedway for eight years.

“Jim’s heart and soul and his whole life was at Petaluma Speedway,” noted Ed Coughenour, whose company, Pit Stop USA, sponsors two of the track’s racing series. “There are people who give to the sport and don’t ask for anything in return,” he said. “Jim was dedicated to that.”

Known affectionately across the racing industry as “Dr. Dirt” for his nearly alchemistic ability to turn clay and water into finely groomed race tracks, Soares was often asked by other promoters to prepare their racing surfaces. But his involvement in racing went far beyond his ability with a water truck and grader.

As the son of legendary racer and promoter John Soares, his family roots in the industry stretch back to a so-called Golden Age, when auto racing exploded in popularity to provide weekly entertainment to a post-World War II population eager for excitement. The next star driver of the Indianapolis 500 could be discovered racing at a fairgrounds track.

He learned the racing business from the ground up, working a variety of jobs at race tracks promoted by his father, including the Petaluma Speedway.

The younger Soares struck out on his own in the 1970s to promote Merced Speedway, while also organizing indoor midget races on the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.

He crafted and groomed dirt race tracks at San Jose Speedway and Baylands Raceway Park in the ‘80s, and took on the role of promoter at Petaluma Speedway following the death of his father in 2000.

Jim Soares also followed in his father ’s footsteps as a driver, occasionally racing dwarf cars, midgets and sprint cars. In his semi-retirement, Soares restored a 1950’s-era Kurtis midget and drove it in vintage exhibitions across the western U.S., including at the Petaluma Speedway just three weeks before his death.

“In the last year, we went from track to track so he could drive that midget,” recalled Karen Soares, his wife of 42 years. “He was a lot more relaxed and had a lot of fun, and it was something we did together,” she said. “It was the most time we had together in years.”

In addition to his wife, Jim Soares is survived by brother John, Jr., sister Joyce, sisters-in-law Marylyn and Donna, stepson Tim, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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