Ron Strmiska, the patriarch of a racing family that started competing on local tracks in 1969 and continues today, two generations later, died Wednesday after a lengthy illness. He was 73.
Known locally as the Manteca Missile, Strmiska and his pink car won back-to-back Stockton 99 Speedway championships (1978-79) in the Late Model Division. He drove regularly until 2000, when he retired after running in the Stockton 99 season opener.
Strmiska’s love of the local tracks carried on through sons Ron Jr. and Ryan, who both became drivers, and through Ron Jr.’s sons Ross and Robert. Ross Strmiska drives in the SRL Spears Southwest Tour Series and is fourth in the season points standings, while Robert Strmiska is the car chief for NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Austin Dillon.
“From what I remember, when he raced you didn’t want to be on his bad side,” Robert Strmiska said. “He had the short Strmiska temper that made you to not want to be in his way. But my memories are more of him being the nicest guy to be around. I was as close to him as anyone and I wouldn’t be around and where I am in racing if not for how good he was to family.”
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Said Ross Strmiska: “We were raised by our grandpa through racing. He’d babysit while my dad was working on the cars, because grandpa didn’t work on them much, he’d just race them. I definitely got the temper, but if I got half his talent I should be grateful for that. Even now people come up to me who I’d never met, just to tell me stories about how hard he’d race, but then after the race would come over and share a beer with them.
“It wasn’t about racing when we were with grandpa because he was our idol – just grandpa to us. The older I got, the more I realized what he meant to the racing community. I know that once the helmet was on he’d wreck you to win.”
The three generations of the racing Strmiskas harken back to a time when local and regional racing primarily was a family passion – a part of the sport that has waned through the years.
“There are a lot more people with money who buy their way into racing,” said Ron Strmiska Jr. “The teams with the family that works on the car together and then hands them down to generations, that’s just not the same anymore.”
Strmiska Sr. was born in Wisconsin in June 1941, and the family moved to Banta when he was an infant. He and his wife Retha, the two sons and daughter Shelly (Bognaes) moved to Manteca in the mid-1960s, and soon got into racing.
“The family always fielded nice cars and were always competitive over a lot of years,” said five-time Stockton 99 champion Ken Boyd of Ceres. “That says a lot about a family so dedicated to racing. This will be a big loss for the racing community.”
Three-time K&N Pro Series champion Eric Holmes of Escalon grew up with the Strmiska boys and had an intimate view of both the tender side and the racing side of the elder Strmiska.
“I’d gone fishing with him on a Sunday in June 1993, and the following Saturday raced against him,” Holmes said. “We had a run-in and he ended up crashing. I came back around and he jumped into my car and smacked me in the head. I gave him a week off, but two weeks later we were fishing together again.
“Outside of the car he was the nicest guy around. Inside the car it was all about racing. I was only 17 and he put a beating on me.”
Strmiska continued attending races after leaving the driver’s seat in 2000, and son Ron Jr. stopped racing in 2004. Two years later, Ron Jr. returned to Stockton 99.
“I went back to Stockton and won the first 100-lapper,” Strmiska said. “The track got together all the old track champions to recycle the old trophies to give out that first year, and the trophy I got was one my dad had won in 1979. That was a pretty special day to come back after two years off and have him give me that trophy.”
A private family service will be held Wednesday morning and will be followed by a celebration of life at 11 a.m. at PL Fry and Son Funeral Home, 290 N. Union Rd., Manteca. A reception will follow at Chez Shari at Manteca Golf Course, 305 N. Union Rd., Manteca.