Racing in Sauk Centre MN began for me in the summer of 1969. Our moving truck came up the interstate ramp to see a cloud of dust which turned out to be the Sunday afternoon races taking place at the old fairgrounds track. If you wanted to win at "Centre Raceway" you had to deal with the stars of the time. Terry Merten ruled the "B Stock" class (which meant big V8's) driving his familiar green Edsel, while Lee Vogt was the face of the "C Stock" class with his sharp looking 55-56 Chev. The "fast guy" list at that time included John Terfehr in Jack Korton's Merc, LeRoy Frieler in the Lake Henry Implement #36 (you can still find an Elrosa #36 winning today), Mick Engle in his burnt orange 56 Ford, Emil Polipnick & Don Leonard in the #88 White Knight, and the grand daddy of the sport, Bob Ufkin driving the #26 Mopar. There were many more, but this group comes to mind quickly.
The birth of I 94 Speedway came in 1991 thanks to Dick Johanneck and his team. A lot of people drive race cars, but only a few become true racers. Dick is a true blue "racer", and he built the finest racing facility of it's time that quickly became the place to be if you wanted to race the best.
As I look back, this is what I will remember...
Packed grandstands down the back stretch, thru the 3-4, and down the main straight. (I always wondered what I was missing up in that 3-4 turn in 1991 and 1992).
The first year with Championship Sprints. Ron Carlson wins the championship, and we all found a new appreciation for the cars with one speed. Flat out.
The modified division's 1st year Champion Ryan Muzik dealing with the likes of Jamie Lemke, Shawn Kirwin, Dave Stork, Dann Olson, Terry Merten (same guy), Ricky Kluver, and Gary Reents.
Six heats, 3 qualifier semi's, and a feature of 24 modifieds and Late Models virtually every week. Remember when we had to worry about getting out of the track before midnight due to the car count?
The introduction of two time late model champion Jim Bruggeman. The #44 was challenged by names like Hinkemeyer, Fegers, Cryderman, Wildung, Hillig, Legatt, Nesbitt, and Klug.
Multi Champions: Eugene Dick, Jim Bruggeman, Jamie Lemke, Steve Johanneck, Larry Rossell, Pat Henry, Scott Brandt, Kevin Woeste, Loyal Skuza, Bryan Roach and Dave Stork. (apologies if I missed anyone)
Doug Clark: His first pit meeting. The wild eyed drivers quickly learned that this guy was in charge.
More Doug Clark: Remember the night that he sent Dick Johanneck's #7 LM to the pits for what Dick called a "little bump" up in the 3-4? Try that with the boss a few times.
Even More Doug Clark: When a 15 yr old Donny Shatz crashed his primary sprint in practice, rolled out the back up and set fast time: Doug asked me "what did you say that boy's name was?" Then he said,
"I will tell you this, if he lives to be 25, he will be winning World of Outlaw Championships." This should tell you what Doug knows about the game.
Note: Waltrip flattened his rented car by crushing the wall in the practice session. (Dick arranged for another car in time for the feature for Mr. Waltrip to drive)
Buzz Cripe's (in Bloomquist photo above) transformation from many time Champion LM driver to one of the best flagman in the business. (It was tough to fake it with Buzz. He had already seen it all from the drivers seat.)
The night Harry "the Horsethief" Johnson drove his sprinter into the catch pond. Completely underwater, wing and all. He reported that his shield fogged over in the late summer night, and he simply tried to get off of the track. Unfortunately, he rolled in the pond. The wrecker guys voted quickly as to who was going swimming with the hook to get him safely out. Harry was mostly concerned with his engine!
Thanks to Dick Johanneck for allowing me to drive his wicked Late Model on the freshly paved I 94. After about 10 laps at about as fast as you should drive someone else's racecar, I came in thinking maybe the right front was going flat. The vision of the smirk on the face of Dick and Buzz is very fresh in my mind as I got out of the car to explain this "tire deal" to them. Buzz explained later that the sensation was "simply the left front lifting off of the ground a little bit." I cannot help but think that these two veterans must have been thinking get this guy back to the booth where he belongs!
The first time Shawn Kirwin got his modified on the asphalt, his crew chief mentioned "just get a feel for it". Shawn went out for practice, warmed the engine for a half of lap, and then did what he does best. Dropped the hammer. He drove that car "dirt style" for about 8 laps as fast as it can be done. He pulled in. As he got out, the crewchief walked around to the right rear which was bubbling, hissing air, and just about flat. Shawn exclaimed "it's perfect!". The crewchief then explained that "features are 30 laps, and we cannot afford to put tires on every 8 laps or so." It only took them a week or so to re-work the #10 Genuine Draft Modified to be one of the fastest on the track.
All of those LM and Modified invitationals. I particularly remember the modifieds. At the start of one of them, the car count and driver quality was so unmatched that it sparked a line that I still get ribbed about today. As I finished the introductions, I told the crowd: "IF YOU LIKE MODIFIEDS, YOU NEED TO GET READY. THIS IS GOING TO BE LIKE GETTING A DRINK OUT OF A FIRE HYDRANT. YOU ARE GOING TO GET WAY MORE THAN YOU BARGAINED FOR IN A HURRY" They did. We all did.
I will remember the hard work of all of the track staff. Special mention to Karla, Mary Beth, and scorers Illa and Rox.
The Saturday mornings listening to Jason and his Pit Talk radio show with all of the great interviews.
Thanks to the drivers, crews, the people that paid the bills on the cars, and those that did all of the work to get those racecars back every week.
The track has gone silent, but the memories will stand for ever as I liked to say "I 94 Style!"