The green flag drops on 2018
By Joe Verdegan
By the time you’ve read this the 2018 racing season is upon us!
It’s always an exciting time – even for an old guy like me. Even though I’m closing in on the half-century mark I get like a little kid when the month of April rolls around.
I’m not sure if it’s the new paint schemes that the vinyl lettering gurus come up with each year? Or if it’s the track food at your favorite track? Maybe it’s reclaiming those rows of seats you’ve been sitting at for the past several years? Or it’s seeing folks you haven’t seen all offseason?
Whatever the case is there is something special regarding the opening of race season. Granted, social media may let the “cat out of the bag” so to speak, taking away some of the “surprise” or “mystery” element of seeing those shiny new race cars at the season openers. By the time your local season rolls around many dirt tracks have already gotten laps in at specials in Nebraska or Iowa. The pavement season seems to get rolling a few weeks later than the dirt trackers do.
At any rate everyone should make an effort to get out and support their local race track. Don’t pester people online with “any results from the track?” Or “who won tonight?” Get off your can, plunk down your $10 or $12 and support the sport. There is absolutely NO substitute for actually being there.
I recall doing a television appearance on Fox 11 with Lowell Bennett a year ago. Lowell made a great point speaking about how there is no substitute for “live, local entertainment.” I could not agree with Lowell more, and weekly short track racing most definitely falls into that category. I hereby commend all of the weekly track promoters in 2018 – whether it is a club run show or an independent promoter. Those track promoters nowadays have to work twice as hard than they did 10 or 15 years ago to put butts in the stands. There is more competition than ever for the ever-shrinking entertainment dollar.
Our base of hardcore race fans who used to chase races two to three nights every weekend is shrinking fast. They are dying off. They are moving up north. They are chasing their kids and grandkids to baseball and soccer tournaments all across the state. We’ve almost lost a generation of racing families with the advent of soft technology and social media. We are all enslaved (I’m guilty of this as well at times) to our personal mobile devices and kids these days aren’t as willing to learn hands on trades like welding, fabricating, auto body, etc. That has a direct effect on our sport.
So this year bring a fan to the races.
My first race of the year was the Icebreaker 100 at Dells Raceway Park April 22. The event had been postponed two weeks due to weather as it was originally scheduled for April 8.
DRP is owned and operated by the Lensing family of Lefthander Chassis fame. Major props to their staff for getting that facility ready for the event. Several inches of snow were dumped on the grounds Tuesday. Their employees burned the midnight oil. A bulk of snow was removed but two huge piles remained standing in the infield as a reminder of what was there just a few days earlier.
Thirty Super Late Model teams and 16 Great Northern Sportsman Series (GNSS) checked in to do battle. Other track promoters please take note: This proves you do NOT need to jam pack five or six divisions into a show. With a two division show it sort of made the event “special” as staff were not pressed for time to jam pack everything in.
For me working as the public relations director for the Fox River Racing Club (FRRC) at Wisconsin International Raceway in Kaukauna and announcing and P.R. at Norway Speedway it was good to see both race tracks represented. Both fans and drivers were anxious and itching to get some racing in, and the near-capacity crowd showed it.
Representing Norway were a pair of regulars – Escanaba’s Robby Iverson and Norway’s Joey Pontbriand. Also semi regular and a guy you could almost call a fulltime short track racer – Dalton Zehr from Menominee. Dalton was the closest driver to give Ty Majeski a run for his money. But truthfully it’s no secret that Majeski, with his ace crew chief Toby Nuttleman, are on a whole other planet when it comes to their program. It’s like the perfect storm with those two. Nuttleman is the modern-day Howie Lettow as far as short track crew chiefs are concerned in the Midwest. Nuttleman was the crew chief for veteran ARTGO/ReMax Challenge series standout Steve Carlson for many seasons.
Iverson put a “muscle move” on Freedom’s Brent Strelka in one of the qualifying heats to earn a spot in the big show. The two traded some paint in the 100-lapper, so Strelka gave Iverson some of that back. It was great to see and after all, isn’t that what short track racing is all about?
Strelka wasn’t the only driver representing WIR. Green Bay’s Chad Butz, Montello’s Bobby Kendall and Cambridge’s Casey Johnson were also on hand. Dells is a home track of sorts for Kendall as he lives in nearby Montello. Sporting a brand new race car, Kendall got caught up a wreck and his car wound up resembling more of a modified than a Super Late Model. Johnson, who is a hired gun for Chase Motorsports on Thursday nights at WIR this year, was wheeling the John Beale No. 5 and drove to a solid fourth place finish. Johnson remains one of the busiest short track racers in the Midwest, racing not only WIR weekly but also the ARCA Midwest Tour, TUNDRA Super Late Model series and other specials around the Midwest.
GNSS driver Andrew Meyerhofer of Kaukauna showed up with a sixth place finish.
It was great to catch up with race team members we hadn’t seen in several months. There was just a general “positive buzz” floating around the track on race day. It was nice to be able to spend most of the day outside in a short sleeve shirt as it had been quite a while since we have been able to do that.
The three race “Pavement Pounder” series presented by Winnegamie Home Builders Association at WIR this summer has prompted some asphalt teams to build or buy SportMods for not only the series but also to play on the dirt at the local ovals. Neenah’s Braison Bennett, Appleton’s Corey Kemkes and Evan and Ethan Beattie of Little Chute all have plans on competing in the three race series June 14, July 19 and August 16. The show was a huge hit at WIR’s quarter-mile oval last season in late August as the fans got a kick of seeing the open-wheel SportMods slip and slide around the track. Look for many new faces in that three race series this year at WIR.
For me personally this year, I’ll be at WIR weekly Thursdays and Norway Friday nights. I look to catch shows here and there and may even bring the grandkids a time or two. I’ve got a handful of race tracks in Wisconsin that are on my bucket list and time permitting, I’d love to catch a show at some of those facilities at some point this year. If I do I’ll be sure and share my tales here in my column in Full Throttle.