You may not know his name, but Sam Rodriguez was one of the best dirt sprint car racers to hail from the state of Florida.
The now-retired Rodriguez currently resides in fourth place on the all-time Florida sprint car win list, with 90 career victories in the state.
Rodriguez never had any intentions of becoming a sprint car driver. It actually took some coaxing. In fact, Rodriguez was 36 years old when he first strapped into a sprinter.
After retiring from sprint car racing in 1997, the now-74-year-old Rodriguez now spends his days relaxing on his boat or watching his grandson, Aric Almirola, compete in the NASCAR Cup Series from the comforts of his Tampa home.
Rodriguez’s career packed a lot of punch. Although he occasionally competed on pavement, and without a wing, he made his mark in a winged sprint car on the southeast clay. Just one of his Florida feature wins came on a paved track.
“Racing, for me, started when I was a young man, as a spectator,” Rodriguez explained. “My dad (Jose’ ‘Cheo’ Rodriguez) and I would go to Phillips Field and Plant Field here in Tampa and watch the local stock car guys – Pancho Alvarez, Dick Hope, and all those guys. When they shut Phillips Field down, they kept Plant Field open. We continued going to Plant Field.
“Years later I opened my own business, R&S Auto Body. One day my buddy Johnny Delgado, a guy I grew up with and we’re like brothers to this day, says, ‘The sprint cars are gonna be running Plant Field this weekend. They need push trucks. We need to make push bumpers for your truck and mine.’ So, he came to my shop and we cut up some steel. I put one on my Ranchero and we put one on his truck.
“Jan Opperman, Chuck Amati and all those guys were there. It was probably 1974, give or take. I get out there and every time they’d push Opperman out, I’d get behind Opperman and push him off. After I’d push Opperman off, I’d drive around and go park in the corner to watch the race,” Rodriguez shared with a hearty laugh. “That was really my first experience with sprint cars.”
A quick stint driving karts, competing with his son, would light his competitive fire and ultimately land him behind the wheel of a sprint car.
“As time went on, my son Joey and I started running go-karts. We used to sprint and road race WKA National kart events. We ran Daytona and all over the country. As time goes on and he got older, he discovered girls. He got to be 17, 18 years old and we were floundering, running a little bit of road racing, not a lot.
“I’d been going to East Bay and watching the sprint cars. One night, a couple years later, my buddy Ron Amorelli calls and says they’re running sprint cars at the Florida State Fairgrounds and asked if I wanted to go. So, we go over there one Friday night to watch the sprint cars. The Castle Products representative was there. They sold detailing products for cars, like soap and wax, and I’d met him through my business. He was doing some sponsoring at the Florida State Fairgrounds. He had a few too many beers, I think. I’m getting ready to leave and he says, ‘Dude you oughta buy one of these things.’ I told him no, I don’t need to get into this stuff.
“So, we go back the next weekend and he’s there again. It just so happened Roland Johnson was there racing. They had a Gambler car they had run for a little bit and it was up for sale. The Castle guy says, ‘Come on, man. Buy that car and I’ll help you out and sponsor you.’ So, I ended up buying the car towards the end of 1984.”
After a few practice nights, it was time for his first night of sprint car competition, which Rodriguez remembers vividly.
“It was different,” he recalled. “I was used to racing something that was a lot lighter. When you hit the brakes, it slides and stops. This thing weighed more, Even though sprint cars are light, it was just a different application from where I came from. It was just a little bit uncomfortable, but just different. I’m trying to turn the car. With a go-kart, you bump your ass to the side and you can make it slide. I wanted to make the sprint car slide. I bump my ass and it isn’t happening.
“That was the first night, on Friday at the fairgrounds. The next night was Lake City. Roland (Johnson) and those guys talked me into going to Lake City. We go to Lake City and I’m running mid-pack and the power goes out. We’re running down the back straightway wide open and it goes stone black. You could only see reflections, and fortunately nobody crashed. I think we wound up in the top-six somehow.
“That’s how it all started.”
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