Catching Up With: 4-Time Wissota Mod National Champion Leo Burkhardsmier
Leo Burkhardsmier is considered one of the legends in North Dakota dirt-track racing. Not only because he was recognized for his famous “Flying 8-Ball” on the side of his race cars, but because he won. A lot . The Bismarck driver, especially in the 1990s driving his Wissota Modified, was a dominant as there was in racing. He won four straight Wissota Modified national titles, winning more than 100 features during that span. In fact, he is considered the winningest driver in North Dakota history with more than 1,000 wins. Burkhardsmier not only was a four-time Wissota national champion — one of only modified drivers, along with Ron Jones to win four straight national titles — and was a three-time winner of the Dakota Classic Mod Tour. Burkshardsmier also won the Jamestown Stampede three times in the hobby stock class.
He won many, many features at the Red River Valley Speedway in West Fargo, Buffalo River Speedway in Glyndon and at Jamestown Speedway in his career among numerous other tracks. “Leo is a very competitive person and a very good racer — just look at his record,” said long-time Fargo-Moorhead racer Bob Sagen, who has been friends with Burkhardsmier since the early 1970s. “If you’ve ever raced with him you would know how competitive he is.” The Flying 8-Ball, by the way came as a result from Butch “Superfrog” Anton of Moorhead. He decided to put the 8-Ball on the car early on and it became a trademark on Burkhardsmier’s race cars. Burkhardsmier, who was inducted into the Dacotah Speedway Hall of Fame in Mandan in 2017, started out in the street stock class in 1968. He eventually worked his way to the hobby stock class.
When he raced the hobby stock class at West Fargo, he drove a 1988 Thunderbird that was as fast as any car around. Under the hood of that car was a 440 Mopar Big Block engine that flew around the half-mile at West Fargo. “We won about everything they had to offer with it,” Burkhardsmier said. That type of motor was also the one in he ran in his modified in the 1990s that shot him to driving stardom in the state. “Everyone was using small blocks and I had six of the 440s,” Burkhardsmier said. “I had run those motors my whole life. Everybody said it wouldn’t work. We just took right off with it. People couldn’t believe it.” There was one downside to the engine — it could blister the tires on the car, particularly if there were no caution flags. But the engine also piled up feature wins at tracks all across the region. In 1996, he was the first Wissota driver to record a perfect 30 nights of 55 points (winning the heat and feature race). “His engine program was awesome. He had 100 horsepower on everybody,” Sagen said. “You can’t fault him for that; he just outsmarted us.” His dominance put a target on the driver’s back. In fact, because he won so frequently, three North Dakota tracks formed an alliance in the 1990s, Burkhardsmier said, over a rules dispute on roof height, effectively banning him from competing at those three tracks for a year. As a result, he continued to race a lot at West Fargo and also raced at Buffalo River in Glyndon and at other tracks outside the area. “We’d travel around a lot,” Burkhardsmier said. Eventually, Wissota placed a cubic inch limit on motors in what Burkhardsmier called “Leo’s Rule” He drove for Fargo businessman Larry Skalet for several years and won a lot of races during that time. Burkhardsmier also credited a strong pit crew with helping him during a four-night-a-week racing schedule. “Some people win 1-2 features a year. If we only won two features on a weekend, we were going down the road (saying) ‘what do we have to do to get four,’” he said. “They weren’t satisfied.” At age 60, Burkshardsmier retired from racing after the 2011 season because of concerns over his health. In 1991 he had quadruple bypass surgery and in addition, he had issues with his neck. “It got to the point where the doctor told me, you can keep doing this, and either have a heart attack or end up in a wheelchair, whichever comes first,” Burkshardmier said. Burkhardsmier sold his long-time business, Leo’s Transmission two years ago and is enjoying retirement. Some top competitors during Burkhardsmier’s career included Marlyn Seidler of Underwood, John Corell of Jamestown and Hank Berry of Sidney, Mont. All three are still racing and are competitive in their 60s, for example. Another long-time friend is Jerry Lamb of Lisbon, who celebrated his 50th year behind the wheel in 2019. “In the sport, you meet a lot of people — a lot of special people and a lot of good people,” Burkhardsmier said. “I ended up knowing a lot of people.”