Race fans continue to honor the Larry Detjens legacy
By Bert Lehman
Editor, Full Throttle Magazine
On Aug. 1, 1981 the local racing scene was changed forever.
It was on that night that Larry Detjens of Wausau, a driver many felt was well on his way to being the next driver from Wisconsin to make it to NASCAR, lost his life in a racing accident at Wisconsin International Raceway in Kaukauna.
Now, 33 years later, the memories of Detjens are still vivid to many race fans who remember watching him race.
Ron Wimmer still feels the loss.
“When he was lost it just put a hole in our heart and stomachs that still isn’t healed properly,” Wimmer said. “We know where he could have been and what he could have done. He was a great race car driver and a true friend.”
Wimmer, who didn’t own State Park Speedway at the time, but does now, remembers when the Larry Detjens Memorial race started in 1981.
“It’s quite traditional to have memorials for very popular drivers so when it got started it was pretty successful,” Wimmer said.
The Larry Detjens Memorial race has helped keep the Larry Detjens legacy alive for race fans young and old. If you talk to drivers who participate in the race, they have nothing but good things to say.
“He was a special peach of a guy,” said Super Late Model driver Mark Mackesy, who also married Detjens’ daughter, Margo. “He laughed, was mild mannered, always smiling. He never seemed to get excited about anything.”
Super Late Model driver Tim Sauter said his dad and Detjens were fierce competitors, but only on the track.
“I can remember a couple of times I think my dad needed some gas money to get home and Larry was willing to give him gas money to get home from Slinger,” Sauter said. “He was a good ambassador for racing in general.”
Current drivers said it is an honor to compete in a race that remembers Detjens.
“Obviously he was a great race car driver, but he was a fan favorite, and respectful,” said current driver Chris Weinkauf. “Everybody should want to look up to him. I think the fans have taken that over the years and driven off of that. To be here and race in some of these races is an honor.”
Scott Wimmer, Detjens’ nephew, said he was five years old when Detjens passed away, but he still remembers time he spent with Detjens.
“I remember going to races that he was racing in. Larry, no matter how he did, if he finished last or won the race, I’d come up to the car and he’d pick me up and throw me in the air, and set me in the race car,” Scott Wimmer said. “He always took time for his family, for his friends, and especially the race fans.”
Tom Reffner, who raced against Detjens, said Detjens was a “fair guy” and a “true sportsman.”
“Larry was one of the best guys you could have on the track,” Reffner said.
Detjens’ daughter Margo was 12 years old when he passed away.
Margo said she remembers her dad’s racing career starting to take off.
“He was getting more opportunities to go to other places and race other series,” Margo said. “It (1981) was one of his best years.”
She said he had around 20 wins in 1981 when he passed away.
When asked if Detjens was good enough to make it to NASCAR, she said he had opportunities to move up.
“Yeah, I think that was the feeling in the family,” Margo said.
Ron Wimmer agrees.
“Larry was a super guy,” Ron Wimmer said. “Some people we lost just way, way too soon and he was one of them. We think a lot of times, the path that he would have followed, because my kids were in NASCAR, we knew that Larry would have been there too.”
When Detjens raced locally, he raced six nights a week, according to Margo, with his home track being State Park Speedway in Wausau.
“My mom and I went everywhere. She worked on the car with him and she was the tire girl,” Margo said.
Margo said she also remembers going to a lot of the bigger races. Sometimes these trips turned into family vacations.
“We always went racing and we’d go right back home,” Margo said. “The Minnesota State Fair was a huge race and he won it and we got to stay for two extra days with the family and make it a family trip.”
Margo said she remembers how other drivers treated her dad when they traveled.
“Going out to Vegas we went out there and everybody just treated him so good and just welcomed the family,” she said.
She added, “He was highly respected everywhere he went. They still do a memorial race for him in Las Vegas. They just last week had the Slinger Nationals which is in memory of him. He had a great personality and he drove so clean and was a great sportsman that everyone looked forward to meeting him. They called him “The Detj” and they said wherever he went hehad a smile on his face. He always helped everybody out. If they beat him he was happy that he could help.”
And being able to remember Detjens every year with the Larry Detjens Memorial race is an honor for the family, Margo said.
“It’s like we’re blessed to have this opportunity to remember him every year. That makes you feel so good, that part of your family is important to other people,” Margo said.
Detjens’ grandson, Conrad, added, “From what everyone always says he was one of the nicest guys and sportsmanship was everything. It didn’t matter if someone was beating him or they weren’t beating him, if they needed help, he’d help them in a heartbeat.”
It’s easy to get a sense of the sportsmanship Detjens displayed during his racing career by listening to his own words.
A search of YouTube found an interview Detjens did in June of 1981 at an ARTGO event, less than two months before his death. He was racing at a track that was an extremely small . The person who conducted the interview told Detjens the track was a contact track and the best way to pass a driver was to take them into the corner faster than they were ready to go and then get under the driver. The interviewer then asked Detjens if that was the type of racing he was accustomed to.
Detjens responded, “No, on the contrary. Most of the racers that we race with, the faster man goes around without bumping or banging .”
(This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of Full Throttle magazine.)