Dirt Track Destination
Red Cedar Speedway is home to generations of racers and their fans
Full disclosure: On a Thursday night, I drove to the races at Red Cedar Speedway in Menomonie in a 2014 Kia Forte. It’s comfortable, gets good gas mileage, and has a touch screen with a map. I like this car. I’d even say I’m proud of it.
But on that evening, I had to park my Kia in “the pits” on the backside of the race track, just down from cars that were much faster and much louder than mine, owned by people who are familiar with every tiny piece and part of their vehicles. I, on the other hand, am still not sure what some of the buttons on my dashboard do.
"There's no other feeling like it: it's loud, the energy, the shaking in your body." – Jarrett Loe, Racer
Suffice it to say, I am definitely not a car enthusiast or racing fan. I attended a few races when I was a little kid, so I was familiar with the basics. Cars drive fast in a circle. It’s loud. There’s a concession stand. But like any sport, I assumed there was much more to the competition and the culture than I understood, and as my 11-year-old son and I exited our embarrassingly quiet and un-souped-up compact, I hoped to glimpse a bit of the larger world of dirt-track racing.
Red Cedar Speedway was more than happy to oblige.
Most of our tutorial came courtest of Larinda Hessler, marketing director for the race track, who picked us up in her golf cart and gave us a tour. She offered tons of excellent information about individual competitors and the organization behind the Red Cedar.
“Most other tracks are privately owned, but we’re run by a board of directors,” she explained. Since 1971, the Red Cedar Speedway has brought in more than 20,000 people each year to race and watch racing. “Some of the neighbors complain about the noise and the people and wish we would move the track out of town,” Larinda said, “but we offer huge benefits to the Menomonie economy.”
As we passed dozens of racers working on their cars, along with their teams, families, enormous trailers, RVs, and more types of tools and equipment than I knew existed (much less could ever name), a bigger question distracted me. How do people get into this sport, as fans or competitors?
“Well, I married into racing,” said Larinda. Her husband, Josh, not only competes, but is also vice president of Red Cedar’s board.
For those who don’t have a loved one to serve as a racing ambassador, let’s start with some basics. First, the racing you’ll see in Menomonie is NOT the sort of thing you’ll see on television, NASCAR or otherwise.
“Racing on dirt is way more exciting than blacktop,” said Dan Gullikson of Roberts, who paused to answer my questions right before he went on to win his division. Dirt tracks are shorter, and the driving is a little grittier. Racers drift around the corners, bounce off each other, and occasionally send sprays of dust and gravel that shower front-row spectators like the splash zone at an aquarium show. Cars zoom by only a couple of dozen feet from the bleacher seats, their speed sparking adrenaline and their noise reverberating through your torso.
“There’s no other feeling like it: it’s loud, the energy, the shaking in your body,” explained racer and Eau Claire native Jarrett Loe.
As is the case with most sports, the rules and procedures get complicated, especially to newcomers. There are numerous types of cars: late models, super late models, modifieds, street stocks, pure stocks, hornets (which, as far as I could tell are just regular cars, like my Kia), not to mention sprint cars, go-karts, and other types of dirt track vehicles that don’t race at Red Cedar. And then there are the flags. Green means “go,” yellow means “caution,” and checkered means “you’re done!” This sounds easy enough, except there are many more, and lots of rules to accompany each flag. What I learned sitting in the stands, though, is that unlike other sports, where a lack of familiarity with the policies and practices can impact a spectator’s enjoyment, clueless racing spectators can revert to the basics. The fastest car wins the race. All that remains is to pick a favorite and cheer.
As my son and I enjoyed the full Red Cedar experience that evening, I did manage a glimpse of what drives so many people to participate – and it’s not horsepower or prize money. At its heart, racing is a fundamentally family-oriented sport. Every car needs a driver, but it also needs a full team of people to change tires and complete repairs, and more often than not, that team is the racer’s family. Driver Ashley Wahlstrom from Rice Lake explained that she got into racing at the age of three because of her family, and now she’s the one behind the wheel. In between races I chatted with Roger, Chad, and Gunner Cummings, three generations of racers who call Red Cedar home. (Roger was one of the founding members, in fact.) The youngest racer on the track that evening was Sam Mars, son of Menomonie racing celebrity Jimmy Mars, who is only 15 years old. He can’t yet drive a car down the street, but because of his dad and his family, he tears around the track while the audience cheers.
I have to be honest. Some aspects of car racing are going to feel harsh to some modern entertainment seekers. The noise really is incredible; hearing protection isn’t required, but it should be. The exhaust smell can get a little overpowering, too. But as my son and I quizzed drivers Calvin Iverson and Parker Anderson (both from Eleva) after the race about what it takes to win, I watched these guys relay their expertise while they made fun of each other, with kids running around and their families busying themselves with the cars in the background. Car racing makes community a big part of the experience, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Red Cedar Speedway in Menomonie.
I was so excited by our racing excursion that, on an empty stretch of I-94 on the way home, I drove my Kia faster than I ever had before. I didn’t hit triple-digit miles per hour, but I got close, and I experienced what all those drivers described: a little adrenaline and the connection with family, with my son, egging me on from the seat next to me.