By Joe Verdegan
(Editor’s Note: This column appeared in the June 2016 issue of Full Throttle Magazine.)
When is the last time the Super Late Model class has had five legitimate rookie-of-the-year candidates at Wisconsin International Raceway in Kaukauna? Well we’ve got five of them this year. They include Menasha’s Mickey Schallie (who graduated from the Sport Truck ranks), Ashwaubenon’s Jake Carpenter, third generation driver Brandon Reichenberger of Appleton (son of Mike Reichenberger and grandson to Jerry Reichenberger), and Oshkosh’s Trevor Vandermolen (son of veteran Pete Vandermolen and Taylor Vandermoss.
At Norway (MI.) Speedway Green Bay’s Hayden Watzka will be taking a year off from racing but vows a return to the third-mile, paved oval in his Super Late Model in 2017. Recently “Fast Freddie” Gignac dusted off his number 10 Super Late Model and practiced with his grandson Tyler Radavich. Radavich will run at Norway on Friday nights and race in the Late Model class Thursday nights at WIR. Gignac, who hasn’t raced in more than three years, is said to be competing on a part time basis at Norway in 2016.
The announcement in mid-May that Seymour’s Ty Majeski would sign as a developmental driver with Roush Racing to me speaks volumes of the talent we have on the short track scene not only in Wisconsin but also in the Midwest.
At 21-years-old Majeski is still “young enough” per se for the NASCAR teams, who seem to pluck these kids out of the weekly short track ranks earlier and earlier each year. I still remember watching the NASCAR awards banquet in 1989 and Dick Trickle winning his rookie-of-the-year award in Winston Cup. He jokingly stated (in typical Trickle fashion) thanks to NASCAR for all they do for us young guys.” At the time Trickle was a spry 50 years old.
I’ve been writing about Majeski for more than five years both here in my “Verdegan’s View” column and for the Green Bay Press Gazette. I can tell you he comes across as a humble young man, who’s extremely focused and driven. And the fact that he’s a top pupil at UW-Madison also speaks volumes that he’s also one smart cookie.
What Majeski’s opportunity has done for me personally is I may be more willing while channel surfing to stop and watch a NASCAR or ARCA race, hoping to catch a glimpse of the polish kid from little ol’ Seymour, Wisconsin. We wish him the best!
Locally the month of May drew some unseasonably cold weather. We were left wondering if we were ever going to see some warm, summerlike weather. Rookie Luxemburg Speedway promoter Eric Mahlik got his initiation into the dog-eat-dog world of weekly race track promoting. By all indications the “buzz” so to speak was a good one. Many drivers, who had left the third-mile, clay oval in recent years for various reasons were back. So were the fans. Opening night was a home run.
The following week Mahlik was forced to deal with the ultimate catch 22 for a race promoter: “To race or not to race?” Well despite bitterly cold temperatures, Mahlik and his business partner Ron Cochrane decided to race. They had plenty of cars but the front gate took a hit — as expected. Heck — as much as I love racing I’m not even sure I would have sat out in those blustery conditions.
“We wanted to work out the bugs with our own staff knowing we’d take a bit of a hit,” said Mahlik. “I give anyone in this promoting business all the credit in the world. It’s a tough racket and very time consuming. But we’re all in on this deal.”
We were happy to return to Oshkosh Speedzone for their season opening race. We saw several familiar faces. They had a whopping 172 cars in the pit area as they were the “only game in town” so to speak. Track promoter Jeff Lemeisz announced to the crowd their current “battle” if you will with county leaders, and their overall annual rent getting jacked up. Fears of the track possibly closing have fueled Lemeisz and his team to launch a “Save The Track” campaign.
With the track at Manitowoc Expo facing its final year its very understandable why Lemeisz and company have legit fears that the track could indeed shut down, and become some sort of concert amphitheater as has been suggested.
My gut tells me (and I hope I’m right) that the track won’t close. We will keep a close eye on the developments down at the Speedzone. The facility is second-to-none and we sincerely hope the track can remain open, and all the huff and puff surrounding a suggested closing is merely “politics” at best.
As this 2016 racing season kicks into full swing, there are a few tracks I’ve never been able to get to – simply because my own schedule in prior years working at local race tracks prohibited me from getting there. People cannot believe as long as I’ve been involved in this sport that I’ve never been to Road America, for example. IRA sprint car ace Mike Kertscher is employed full time at RA overseeing their programs there. He’s promised me the “full meal deal” in terms of a tour of the joint. I just may take him up on that this year sometime.
I’ve never been to Cedar Lake Speedway, either. The USA Nationals or the Masters are a distinct possibility. I also have never been to the old Tri-City Raceway in Fountain City, which is now Mississippi Thunder Speedway. They are hosting the big $40,000-to-win modified show in direct competition against the IMCA Supernationals at Boone. The Supernationals are still a big deal, but for some Wisconsin Modified teams the novelty or newness of the week long circus in Boone has worn off over the years. They are capping the entries at 120. That show is on my bucket list this year as well.
My good buddy Mike Randerson is hosting an event racing history buffs will be sure to attend. It’s Oct. 1 in Freedom and it’s a show called “The Evolution of the Race Car.” It’s a fundraiser for the Freedom Area Historical Society. Mike’s got exhibitors who’ll be bringing race cars from many different generations and styles. Mike’s got vintage Indy Cars coming, as well as Sprint Cars, Modifieds, Midgets, Stock Cars and Drag Racers.
There are several coming from Wisconsin and actually from coast-to-coast. In fact I’m curious to see a car from around 1920 that raced on the wooden board tracks out east. I talked to “Land Shark” Jeff Schroeder recently on the phone and he is restoring the old Bryce Spoehr coupe he acquired from Bryce’s crew chief Cal Breitrick. The show will be held Oct. 1 at Rickert Park in Freedom with a rain date of Oct. 2. I’ll be doing a book signing there and I can guarantee you it will be a show you will not want to miss.
The local racing world lost another great one in former track announcer Jerry Rhode, who passed away at the age of 82 in early May. Rhode was an inspiration to me as he was the first track announcer I had heard as a youngster. I enjoyed his fast-pitched, feverish delivery. He was great at getting the crowd fired up and playing up the rivalries. He had his nicknames for the drivers as well. I remember lining up my own races with my Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars as a kid on my bedroom floor. I was Jerry Rhode announcing and he was my inspiration which led to a very fulfilling 30 year announcing career both locally and regionally. I was very grateful Jerry was able to tell me his stories when I interviewed him for my book “Life In The Past Lane – A History of Stock Car Racing in Northeast Wisconsin from 1950-1980.”
One of the most amazing feats Jerry pulled off was basically having 100 percent attendance during his announcing career. He never missed a show. Jerry hung it up after the 1977 season, where at Shawano he was replaced by Lyle Kriegel. That’s a pretty impressive track record.
We’re hoping to catch up with many old friends at a pair of book signings in the month of July. July 22 the annual “State Line Challenge” race at Norway (MI) Speedway will take place. This year they’ll be honoring a former track champion in Kent Pearson, who passed away a year ago due to cancer. I got the chance to meet Pearson the summer before his passing at his supper club in Aurora T & T Supper Club. (One of the best steaks you’ll ever eat BTW). We’ll be hosting a book signing up there with a couple of retired veterans — Norway’s Joe Haferkorn and Vulcan’s Ron Baciak. Haferkorn had a very diverse racing career — starting out with the Winged Modifieds, switching to paved Late Models and then when IMCA introduced the Modifieds to the area he ran an IMCA Modified for several seasons, many of those with his son Tom Haferkorn. Baciak was a front runner in the Winged Modified days.