Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

Don’t think auto racing is worth watching? A visit to the track can change that.

Luc Anthony

“Street stocks” race at Eagle Valley Speedway near Jim Falls, just one of several race tracks that dot rural western Wisconsin.
“Street stocks” race at Eagle Valley Speedway near Jim Falls, just one of several race tracks that dot rural western Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is home to plenty of sports fandom subcultures. We have our kubb hotspot in Eau Claire, and you have to imagine there would be an audience for organized curling and speed skating leagues, considering the number of Olympians produced in this state.

One of the more-underrated, yet more-significant, sports subcultures in the Badger State is one we have heard about for years, yet one that you probably either adore or ignore, both with a passion: racing.

I fully admit the following: I used to thoroughly look down upon auto racing. Not my thing culturally, to be honest, though at least two of my four aunts/uncles on my mother’s side of the family follow the sport regularly, sometimes intently. To me, it was a bunch of cars going around a track, a bunch of southern accents (NASCAR, especially) and a photo of guy in a mustache showing up on SportsCenter every week or so.

That changed for me in 2001, when that year’s Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s preeminent race – was promoted at a new level of popularity on a new TV network. The sport seemed to be moving to a higher echelon of sports visibility, so I figured I would give it a view. The race that February did provide drama, featuring a close finish featuring an emotional first-time win by the brother of one of the TV commentators … and, as we discovered as the evening wore on, the death of the man many call the Michael Jordan of racing, Dale Earnhardt – the mustached guy

I fully admit the following: I used to thoroughly look down upon auto racing. To me, it was a bunch of cars going around a track, a bunch of southern accents (NASCAR, especially) and a photo of guy in a mustache showing up on SportsCenter every week or so.

I always saw on ESPN.

No, I never converted to a racing fan, but I do pay enough attention to know who is at the top of the sport. I make a point of seeing at least the end of the Indianapolis 500 the day before Memorial Day; I suppose that is the recognition of the tradition.

What I still had not yet grasped was local racing action, the dirt-track speedways dotted across the Upper Midwest. You hear the commercials; what’s a WISSOTA mod (a modified vehicle with the WISSOTA association) or a pure stock (street vehicles that could be purchased by the public)?

One abnormally cool July evening, I found myself at Eagle Valley Speedway near Jim Falls, on a promotional night for one of the radio stations where I work. I had never seen auto racing of any sort in-person and, to be honest, there was part of me that felt out of place among the crowd – the sizable crowd, enduring a northerly gale and betting the rain would not come (which it didn’t). Four hours of laps, heats, and the main event awaited.

I got an opportunity most die-hard racing fans will never get: driving on the track, in the station vehicle waving the American flag during the national anthem. This was slow, only 20 mph, but you get the feel for what the drivers’ perspective, the stands gradually appearing, the embankment getting ever-steeper, the dirt getting ready to be kicked-up. Clear me out, and get the real racers in.

Small cars – with imbalanced fins that provide balance on the track – start to rev-up, and then, it is full-throttle racing time. You feel the vibration of the engines in your chest. You see the cars going 120 mph, skidding at an angle to negotiate the turns, the threat of a rollover imminent (a couple usually happen each night). Perhaps as a fan, you have your favorite driver. The sound, the speed, the clouds of dirt, the jockeying for position – if you like sports, you like this.

The Oxford dictionary defines “athlete” as “a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.” We consider racing a sport, so the people who participate in that sport have to be athletes – athletes who take time on their weekends to go to small rural tracks and potentially risk their lives for some prize winning, for our entertainment. These guys know what they are doing. Their fans reward this excitement with loyalty … like in any sport, really. No matter your cultural background, you will appreciate this slice of the western Wisconsin sports scene – if you don’t mind a little dirt on your lap.

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