RaceChaser Notes: Will Miller, Ryan Gierke, Chris Mensen, Brendan Mullen Make Early Noise
I like this blog to tell stories of drivers — their background, how she/he is doing now, their goals. And I don’t focus only on only drivers who win a lot, even though I’ve done plenty of features on drivers who’ve won or win on a regular basis (Tim Estenson, Jonny Carter, Brock Gronwold, John Kaanta to name a few).
An example: I interviewed 14-year-old Kate Taves, second-year POWRi Minn-Kota Lightning Sprint driver, at Buffalo River Speedway on Sunday. Taves is just starting out her racing career, but the story angle is the family connection: her dad, John, raced in the modifieds in the Red River Valley for many years, and her uncle, James, was a super stock driver in the region. James is also the Got Turkey? guy you see on race cars locally. So it’s cool to see the Taves name back on the racetrack.
A couple of examples of the stories behind racing: Will Miller, who has raced 13 years in the IMCA Hobby Stock class, had yet to win a feature, or even a heat race, in his career. The Millers are a low-budget racing team, trying to do the best they can with limited resources. They have fun at the track wherever they go. But Will had never won before, and he wanted a win bad. He got the first one on Sunday at Buffalo River Speedway and he was on cloud nine. It speaks to years of persistence and sticking with racing, even though at times the sport can be frustrating. I think there were a lot of fellow drivers happy for Will on Sunday.
Another example: Chris Mensen of Carlos is in his seventh season in the Wissota Modifieds. It’s a tough class to even finish in the top five in at I-94 Sure Step and Viking Speedways, let alone win. He had wins previously in the Wissota Midwest Modified class, but no A mod wins in seven years. He broke through on April 30 for his first A mod win, beating a pretty stacked field at I-94 Sure Step Speedway. Another example of persistence and sticking with it. Mensen isn’t one of the big-money spenders, either so you are happy for a driver to get rewarded for years of working and working.
Ryan Gierke, 17, won the Wissota Modified feature on May 1 at I-94 Sure Step Speedway. It was his first win in an A mod; his first career win came in July 2020 in the midwest modifieds at KRA Speedway in Willmar. What made his Wissota Mod win even more significant, to me, was the drivers he beat — Brady Gerdes, a multi-time track champion at Viking at I-94; defending I-94 champion Dusty Bitzan; Tyler Peterson, who is off to a torrid start with five wins this season; and Shane Sabraski, who has more than 700 wins in his career. That’s just the top five.
Gierke has nine top fives this season already. He late father, Bob, would be proud of his development as a driver.
—Brendan Mullen of Grand Forks is an up and coming talent in the Buffalo Wild Wing NOSA sprint class. He won two NOSA races last year. But the 18-year-old crossed another significant feat off of his list on May 7 when he won at his home track, River Cities Speedway in Grand Forks. Keep in mind who finished behind him: 2019 NOSA champion Nick Omdahl, 2020 RCS champion Austin Pierce and veteran Wade Nygaard, who has 142 career NOSA wins. That’s a pretty damn good group to beat.
—East Grand Forks sprint car driver Nick Ranten set the quick time in qualifying on Friday at River Cities. It was the first time he had accomplished the quick time.
—Skyla Miller of Harwood recorded a career-best runner-up finish in the IMCA Hobby Stocks Friday night at Red River Valley Speedway.
—It was a good weekend road trip for Tyler Peterson of Hickson to central Minnesota. He won Saturday at Ogilvie Raceway and then on Sunday at Granite City Motor Park. He leads the area modified drivers with five wins this season.
—Parker Anderson of Phillips, Wis., whom I expect to be a contender on the Steffes Street Stock Tour, had a great week last week. He won four features in four days — Thursday at KRA, Friday at I-94 Sure Step, Saturday at Ogilvie and Sunday at Granite City. He’s won his last five starts. If you are looking at a potential contender for the Wissota national title, this guy is well on his way. He has nine wins already.
—It’s early yet, and as I’ve mentioned I am not going to judge crowds or car counts too much until we get into June, but Viking Speedway has to be encouraged by its early Wissota Midwest Modified and Wissota Street Stock numbers. Last year the midwest modifieds hovered around 10 or the low teens, and on Saturday, there were 20. There were 19 street stocks on hand. The super stocks had been drawing well, too, although there were only 14 for a $1,000 to win, $100 to start race last week, which made little sense to me.
Viking, by the way, was wrapped up by 9:30 on Saturday and ran a good, efficient show, even with taking time to prep the track.
—The Steffes Street Stock tour kicks off this week, starting Friday at I-94 Sure Step Speedway and then following with a doubleheader at Viking. My prediction is there will be at least 25 streeters or more at these races. And a lot of cars capable of winning. The tour points will count the best 12 finishes out of 20.
--I watched the Dirt Race Central replay of the Wissota Modified feature on Friday at I-94 Sure Step. What a charge Brady Gerdes of Villard made over the final 10 laps. He erased a more than three second lead, without the benefit of a caution, to edge defending I-94 champ Dusty Bitzan on the final lap. That was an incredible display of speed by the 2X.
—I’ve been going to races for a long, long time. This week there were two wrecks that made me even take a pause. The first was the video of Elzetta Bitker’s wild rollover off the backstretch at Red River Valley Speedway on Friday. I’ve never seen a Legends car flip like that. I checked with her mom, Sharnel Bitker, on Monday and Sharnel said she’s going good — dealing with shoulder and neck pain. She was back in school at Ada-Borup on Monday which is good news.
The second crash was the Lightning Sprint crash by Patrick Brejcha of Wahpeton on Sunday at Buffalo River. That car just took off and flipped off of turns one and two. The 60 car was heavily damaged but Brejcha was OK.
Some of these crashes are spectacular and damage a lot of race cars, but most of the time, there aren’t serious injuries. It’s a testament to the safety equipment of the modern race cars that neither of these drivers were seriously injured.