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  • tombergie01

How I Became a Race Fan, and Why I'm Still One

Late models racing three-wide during an NLRA race. (MIke Spieker/Speedway Shots)

I get asked this question a lot from non-race fans, like family members — why are you a race fan? I don’t think there is one clear answer to that, so it’s a bit hard to explain in a few words.

First I should clarify, I am not a car buff or gearhead. I have close to zero mechanical ability and have little interest in how race cars work like some do. So that certainly is not the appeal for me like it is for some. My dad raced for a while in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and after he walked away he became a fan. My dad had interest in the mechanical side of race cars himself, I did not.

Part of it is, being at a racetrack in the summer is all I’ve pretty much known.

When I was a kid made many trips to Canby, Madison, Redwood Falls and Montevideo — all tracks within an hour of our house in Clarkfield. We knew some of the drivers who raced and followed them.

We’d make trips to Viking Speedway once a year during the 1980s when we went to a lake cabin near Alexandria. That was a big deal. We’d go to a special race once a year at Grove Creek — I think it was called the RC 1000 — near Grove City, Minn. Soon we were going to Viking almost weekly in the late 1980s. Then it was I-94 in Sauk Centre from time to time, Casino Speedway in Watertown and well, you get the picture.

Some people hunt. Some people fish (my grandpa took us many times). Some people camp. We went to races. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

So beyond it being all I knew, I look at different things that have kept me around it for four decades. First, it’s the people you meet. I’ve met some great people growing up in racing, and even moreso since starting the RaceChaser blog. I’ve gained a few good friends out of this blog, and for someone who isn’t a great friend maker, that is a blessing.

My best friend of decades and I share a love for racing. Many long trips to Aberdeen, Huron, West Fargo, Cedar Lake (Wis.), Kasson, Deer Creek…you get the picture.

I love the noise. I love hearing cars wind the RPM as they go down the straightaway. I stood at the end of the front stretch at Viking during a late model heat, and many those drivers were cranking. Gave me goosebumps. And if you’ve ever sat in the grandstands at Viking Speedway for a 24-car modified feature and felt the grandstand shake at the start of a race…you know what I am talking about.

I love the skill involved involved. To operate these machines within inches of each other and sometimes the wall at those speeds is incredible to me. Sometimes I watch and think it’s just amazing to watch how hard and fast drivers operate these race cars.

I love the camaraderie between drivers. Drivers who are willing to help their competitors out in a pinch. Or step up to honor fellow drivers, such as the late Jeff Carpenter of Valley City, with two big memorial races last May.

I love the rivalries that develop in racing. Frankly, there isn’t enough of those around anymore which is one reason I think fan attendance has declined.

I love three-wide racing. Enough said.

I love talking to longtime drivers like Tom Corcoran or Bob Sagen or Clarence Washburn, for example, about racing.

I love seeing the diehard fans get into it every week to support their drivers. The ones who are genuinely disappointed if their driver has a rough night. Those are the fans who make racing great.

See, it wasn’t a short cut-and-dry answer why I’m a race fan, but it pretty much sums it up.

Thoughts on Retirements

Some very prominent drivers in the RaceChaser area have retired recently. I did a blog in late September on Jason Thoennes of Garfield retiring after two decades of modified racing, so no need to go over that. Same with Jerry Lamb of Lisbon, who is retiring after racing for 50 years.

I’m old enough to remember when Nassau, Minn., driver Jeff Wildung ran an IMCA Stock Car at Madison in the 1980s, and then moved into the late models, where he raced for more than three decades and made a name for himself. Wildung announced his retirement on his Facebook racing page earlier this month. Wildung won some big events like the Wissota 100, several Challenge Series races, NLRA races and a Wissota National Championship. Not to mention countless track championships at Madison and Viking. It’s a very decorated late model career that covered a lot of years, for sure.

I don’t know Jeff personally at all, and but as a fan I wasn’t always thrilled with the way he raced at times, especially earlier in his career. Not sure how to describe it, but maybe unnecessarily aggressive when he clearly had the fastest car and didn’t always need to be. At Madison he could be bit of a hot dog on the track back in the day, at least from my viewpoint. But he seemed to outgrow that as his career went on.

I do know this — Wildung sold tickets at Viking and Madison for years he raced. He had a big following at Viking for a long, long time. And frankly whether you like drivers like him or not, you’d show up to see if someone could beat him in his prime.

Which is why when a long-time prominent driver steps away like Thoennes, Wildung or Lamb, there is a void. And finding people to fill that void in terms of fan interest is not easy.

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