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Two fire engine crews and a pair of ambulances stage routinely at the Calistoga Speedway to respond quickly to the overturns and crashes that are an inevitable part of sprint car racing.

But few accidents are as serious as the one Saturday night that took the life of Tyler Wolf of Redding, a 20-year-old racer already years into his pursuit of speed and power with a level of enthusiasm that his parents simply had to support, said his father, Chuck Wolf.

Tyler Wolf was only 6 when he started racing go-karts near his family's home, his father said Monday.

He was a serious contender by 19 when he was named 2011 sprint champion at his home track, the Silver Dollar Speedway in Chico, beating out more experienced drivers, track operator Dennis Gage said.

"It's really an achievement for a young driver," Gage said.

Wolf's father said his son's talent was derived from passion and hard work, owing to limited finances that required he work on his own race car and seek out extra jobs to support his hobby, in addition to the labor he provided to his father's sand and gravel company.

"He was really good at what he did because he had to work so hard," Chuck Wolf said.

Tyler Wolf was one of 24 drivers who started on the half-mile dirt track Saturday in the last of a series of races celebrating the Calistoga Speedway's 75th anniversary, his father said.

The race was to be the last of the sprint car season that takes drivers, mostly from the West, to rural communities around California to compete for prize money and status, Gage said.

Sprint car racing has "its own culture, it's own family," said Carlene Moore, CEO of the Napa County Fair Association, which runs Calistoga Speedway.

About 1,500 people were at Saturday's event to watch drivers, mostly from Northern California but also Oregon and Nevada, Moore said.

Wolf crashed on the second turn somewhere around lap six during the 30-lap race around the half-mile track, she said.

No other drivers were involved, Moore said.

"It is a huge loss for his family but also for the world of people who care about the drivers who in essence risk their lives to bring them entertainment," Moore said.

On Monday, a bouquet of purple and orange starflowers had been placed on the rim of the wall circling the track above the black and gray skid marks in long slashes and circles where Wolf's car struck the concrete wall.

Calistoga Sprint car racer Mike Benson, 41, stopped by the hard-packed dirt track late Monday afternoon after work.

Benson was a few cars behind Wolf when the young racer crashed.

"I knew it wasn't good, you just want to know he's OK," said Benson, who met Wolf this year at a Chico race.

Crashes are common, and drivers train to extricate themselves and others, but they are usually not serious accidents, said Benson, who works in pool construction and races most summer weekends with a five-man team from Calistoga.

From his perspective, it appeared Wolf's car hit the wall head-on. A hit like that can mean the car's center, and the driver, take the brunt of the force, he said.

The excitement of sprint car racing comes from the speed and acceleration of vehicles that are relatively light-weight -- about 1,400 pounds -- with engines two or three times more powerful than a regular passenger car, Gate said.

On dirt tracks, especially, like the one in Calistoga, "they're very hard to control," he said.

The cars may reach 150 mph on the straightaways and come out of curves at 100 or 110 mph, Calistoga Fire Chief Steve Campbell said.

Whereas some tracks, such as the Silver Dollar, host weekly races, the Calistoga Speedway has six to seven a year attended by 1,500 to 5,000 fans, each one staffed by two ambulance and two fire crews, Campbell said.

Spinouts and crashes are "very, very common," and there are usually several each race night, Campbell said.

"Everybody's fighting for position," he said. "Sprint cars are very powerful and very fast."

But the safety features mean few people are seriously injured, he and others said.

Racers must wear approved suits, gloves and shoes, padded helmets strapped to their cars to prevent neck injuries. They have five- or six-point harnesses and cages around the seat areas aimed at limiting impact.

Improved safety equipment means "the days of danger and motor sports are narrowing and narrowing and narrowing," Gage said. "This is a very unusual thing to happen."

The last fatal crash at the Calistoga Speedway was in 1983, when well-known driver Gary Patterson was killed. The track hosts a memorial race in his honor on Memorial Day weekend.

"You see guys wreck all the time and just come walking out of the car like nothing happened," Chuck Wolf said.

Chuck Wolf was only about 50 yards away when he saw his son enter the second turn on his third lap and suddenly veer off in a straight shot into the concrete wall and then roll several times.

Wolf must have struck the wall in a particular way to suffer the head trauma that took his life, Campbell said. Anyone close could see it was a significant injury, but most at the racetrack probably had no idea how serious, he said.

Campbell said a helicopter ambulance was en route to the scene when paramedics had to begin CPR and decided to take Wolf by regular ambulance to the nearest hospital in St. Helena, where he was pronounced dead.

The loss, said his father, makes it hard to imagine going on.

"I knew this could happen -- you know what I mean? -- but you never think it could happen like this."

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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