Several years ago, announcers at various California race tracks noticed a collection of drivers from the Mountain Area were making regular appearances in events like demolition derbies and several-hundred-lap Enduros.
After a while, it became clear the group of motley racers were inextricably bound together, as each mountain team provided assistance to one another, even if it meant giving up a part or taking time out of the race to help fix up a vehicle.
It’s not clear which announcer came up with the name, but once “Mountain Mafia” was heard over the microphone at the LoanMart Madera Speedway, the group’s main track, it stuck with drivers as tightly as their friendships.
“I think you could call it a form of grassroots racing,” said Jeff Kirby, Yosemite High School’s welding teacher who mostly drives in demolition derbies. “It’s just kids from the mountain coming together.”
“It’s all based on our friends,” added Jeff’s brother Jake Kirby from Ahwahnee, an Enduro driver.
“We all constantly help each other out.” said Jake. “We look out for each other, we love each other, and we want everybody to be along for the ride.”
Throughout the years, the Mountain Mafia has relied on three things, multiple drivers said; friends, fun, and furious on-track action.
“If you think going to Knott’s Berry Farm or Six Flags Magic Mountain is fun, with those rollercoasters, it’s nothing compared to riding in the passenger seat in one of these cars,” Jeff Kirby said.
That covers the action and fun, but what about friends?
“There’s more contact with people in the Mountain Mafia during a race than everybody else,” Kirby laughed. “Our thing is we compete against ourselves and each other for the bragging rights when we come home.”
Those bragging rights, though highly valued, don’t keep the group from helping out.
During a 35-lap barrel race at the Madera Speedway last Saturday, when Jason Sitton of Oakhurst’s number 75 car suffered a bent control arm, six Mountain Mafia members gathered behind the vehicle and repeatedly pushed on its rear end to try and bend the arm back into place.
“That absolutely helped,” Sitton said as he watched the vehicle, driven by his son Todd Cosentino head back out on the track. “Without them I don’t think we would have been able to get it out there again. It’s not perfect, but it’s working.”
Despite the idea racing has long been a male-dominated sport, the group gladly welcomes female drivers like Nastasia Dodd from the Bass Lake area and Marisa Odgers from Mariposa, who won the track and state championship in a 4-cylinder division in 2009.
Age doesn’t get in the way either. While Robert Smith, or “the Gambler” as he was playfully called due to resembling Kenny Rogers, is one of the older drivers, younger drivers like Tanner Mah, 20, take part too.
“It’s always a great time,” Mah said. “It’s just a bunch of people hanging out, having fun. I don’t know what I would do without these guys. I’d probably get in trouble.”
“We go out, let her rip, and have fun,” Smith added. “Without this, it’d be a boring life, I think.”
Before Saturday’s Pumpkin Smash at the Madera Speedway, the final race of the season for many of the drivers, the group gathered to trade jokes and stories at Jake Kirby’s house, their traditional activities before what they call “game day.”
As they hit the road for Madera with their cars, a wild collection of orange, pink, and fire-red colors shining in the sunlight, it was clear though Saturday was the last race of the season for the Mountain Mafia, they are all anxious for next year.
“We love the wild side of racing,” Jason Sitton’s wife Teri said. “Our yards may be full of the carnage from a past race but one thing’s for sure. We definitely know how to have fun.”
And though winning may not always be the goal, Saturday could have been called Mountain Mafia day, as its members swept several events.
In the demolition derby, Cody Gauthier of Oakhurst, 19, won in his first-ever derby while driving Jeff Kirby’s car that he helped build in Kirby’s class as a high school student.
“It's definitely an adrenaline rush," Gauthier told Speedway writer Ronald Montez. "I didn't expect to win at all. I figured I'd go out there and take a few hits because I'm the rookie and just go have fun."
Then, Britt Wasson and Mike Robinson won both the 35-lap barrel race and a 225-lap Enduro main event.
The LoanMart Madera Speedway will host its final race of the season on Nov. 20, with the King of the Wing National Sprint Car series and other races .
Details: Jason Sitton, (559) 658-0295. LoanMart Madera Speedway, (559) 673-7223, www.racemadera.com.