By TONY LACAVA, Californian sports editor email@example.com
When Ricky Shelton hauls his USAC Midget race car into the Bakersfield Speedway pits tonight, it won't be anything fancy.
No custom-painted hauler and matching trailer.
Just a borrowed flatbed truck transporting a borrowed race car powered by a borrowed engine and equipped with a bevy of borrowed parts.
Shelton, once one of the brightest stars on the circuit, is starting over.
And ever so humbly.
The career of the 1997 USAC West Midget Rookie of the Year, who still owns the Speedway's one-lap Midget speed record (12.331 seconds), took a decade-long detour that he wouldn't wish one anyone.
Shelton is a recovering methamphetamine addict.
You've heard of Breaking Bad?
William Richard Shelton IV was broken, badly.
He went from behind the wheel to behind bars, from rehab to relapse.
He bottomed out at Corcoran State Prison.
Shelton's return to Bakersfield Speedway tonight will be a victory in many ways, even before he lights up his 400 horsepower racer, but none of it would have beenpossible without support from family and friends, on and off the track, during and after his 10-year tangle with the highly-addictive drug.
Shelton, a Bakersfield resident since 2011, has raced only a handful of times in the past 15 years and only once since 2009, but has reunited with his longtime buddy and talented crew chief Tim Hindman of Long Beach, their fledgling Full Circle Racing team poised to make its local debut at the third-mile clay oval.
Shelton, who grew up in Huntington Beach, knew what his passion was ever since his grandfather, Dick Shelton, plopped him in a Quarter-Midget race car at age 5. The kid was a born racer, earning checkered flags while other kids his age were playing T-ball.
He raced the smaller, open-wheeled cars until he graduated to a more powerful Micro at 14, then a three-quarter or "TQ" Midget by 16 and finally a full-blown Midget racer by 18.
One of his rookie year highlights actually unfolded at Bakersfield Speedway. In a race televised nationally by ESPN, Shelton's second competition in a Midget car, he led the first 28 laps before his right rear tire blew out two laps from the finish. With Hindman as his crew chief, Shelton went on to win two races and the USAC championship that season.
Life was great, not only for Shelton, but his best friend and sidekick Hindman as well.
Talent-hungry teams in the Midwest took notice, and before the next season, Shelton had landed a job driving for the high-powered WIlloughby Racing Team out of Columbus, Ind., and Hindman hooked himself up a crew job for another team back there as well.
Shelton took third in the USAC National Midget series for Willoughby.
In 1999, while driving for Larry Martz Racing, a team partially funded by current NASCAR star Tony Stewart, Shelton was the national points leader and frontrunner for a USAC title. But one night while competing for a then-record $40,000 purse at 16th Street Speedway in Indianapolis, an accident changed the course of his career.
"I was passing another driver for the lead on the outside, we banged wheels, I had a flip and broke my neck," Shelton said.
Shelton was out of racing for four months, and actually moved in with Hindman and Hindman's wife, Eileen. He got back behind the wheel "for a laundry list of people," but, he said, burnout had finally settled in. By late 2000, Shelton made his way back home to Orange County.
"That's when the demons came involved," he said. "I got involved in drugs at that point, worst kind you can be involved in."
"It doesn't take but a couple times and you're hooked," he said. "At that point, it was a filler for a lack of racing."
Shelton's addiction led to crime, and then to prison.
Asked what kind of trouble he got into between 2001-2010, Shelton hesitated, then said: "Where do I start the list at.
"It just turned into 10 years of hell."
He said he was in and out of incarceration on a "revolving door" basis for a majority of the decade.
He met his current wife, Karie, who is also a recovering addict, in 2005 during a three-year stint at the Delancey Street Foundation rehab facility in Los Angeles. After they graduated from the program together, Shelton relapsed and was busted for possession.
His served 24 months at Corcoran State Prison.
It was during that sentence, he said, when he hit bottom. "I thought I lost my family, my girlfriend and my newly born daughter."
Reality sunk in.
"I realized that I needed to become a man, a father and husband, and get back to life. It was a life changer. My wife stuck by me, family stuck by me."
Stability, at last
After his release in 2011, Shelton, 36, has become grounded in Bakersfield, where his grandparents, Dick and Patsy, who raised him, also live now.
William works full-time as a parts salesman for Quinn Caterpillar. Karie is a stay-at-home mom, and their daughter Hayden, 5, will start kindergarten in the fall.
"We now own a house, two vehicles and a trailer and we're racing again," Karie said. "We are living life."
The passion to race came back strong last year for both Shelton and Hindmen, 40, who lives in Long Beach.
"To be quite honest, I convinced him to go back (to racing) because it's his passion," said Karie, who said she had virtually no exposure to racing before meeting Shelton.
So in 2013, the Full Circle Racing team was born, the moniker an apt description of Shelton's life story, and also a symbol of the paths of two buddies who went their separate ways only to re-merge so many years later.
"We're right back where we started," said Hindman, who was the best man at Shelton's wedding, as Shelton was at Hindman's. "It was a natural change to come back and do what we're doing. We're going back to having fun as friends."
Shelton and Hindmen whet their appetites by borrowing a car for the annual Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix at Perris Auto Speedway in November. It did not turn out well.
Shelton crashed in a qualifying race, their hopes cartwheeling to an unceremonious stop. He was banged up and sore, but avoided serious injuries.
It did not dampen the spirits of Shelton or Hindman. Karie, to be sure, sweat a few bullets.
"It scares the sh-- outa me every time I watch him race," she says. "But I am 100 percent behind him. ... I told him before he got back into the car (at Perris), 'as long as you don't break anything more than a finger or toe.'
"Then he did eight flips and didn't break anything."
Back on track
Since then, the Full Circle partners have been doing everything their lean budget allow to get up and running. The passion is back, if not the cash.
"There's been a lot of phone calls, lot of hard work, lot of asking old friends and people who could help and give us parts," Shelton said. "We're looking to get back into the sport slowly, enjoy ourselves and have some fun."
One friend, northern California Midget racing legend Floyd Alvis, provided an extra car. Another racing buddy, Shane Scully, came through with an engine to use for the season. Others loaned parts. Full Circle secured two Southern California sponsors: Hall Ass (short for Hall and Associates) Racing, and Monster Seal, and the partners do whatever they can out of their own wallets for the patchwork vehicle.
"We don't have a penny in the bank, but we have a lot of friends," said Hindman. "We're fortunate that a lot of good people in this business actually gave us a shot. We're scrapin'.
"It's a passion and, for lack of a better term, it's a disease. We're doing everything we can just to find a way to hit the track."
Both Shelton and Hindmen know that any potential sponsors will want to see a track record before committing to FCR, and their return is going to be a process.
"We're going against people who have more (money invested) in their trailer than we have in our whole race team," Shelton said. "Me and (Hindman) have gone from being with best teams in country to trying to run our own team on a very, very small budget, and hoping for good things to come. We pretty much have a car and a few extra wheels; that's about it. No spare parts in case something gets bent."
Tonight's Speedway race will be the Western Midget circuit's third of the season, following stops in Peoria, Ariz., and Madera. Full Circle is hoping to run seven or eight of the final 16 stops.
"Of course, it's to win," Shelton said, without hesitation. "We'd love to win the race, but realistically, to break the car in, get laps in, get the comfortableness back and head to the next race."
Hindman echoed his partner's sentiments.
"If we can get out there and be competitive this weekend and roll it back onto the trailer with no scratches and bends, that's gonna be such a great night."