Listen: Dirt Tracks - it's been a tough season this wet summer

MPR’s Tim Kelly visits I-94 Speedway racetrack at Sauk Center. Kelly talks with the owner of track, various drivers, and fans attending a very muddy racing season.


1993 Northwest Broadcast News Association Award, award of merit in Sports Reporting - Medium "A" Market category


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TIM KELLY: Race driver, Colin Braun, warms up the engine of his late model car in the pit area just outside the 3/8 mile high banked clay oval track at the I-94 Speedway in Sauk Centre. It's about an hour before the Friday night racing starts and drivers are taking their cars onto the track for a few warm-up laps. The 28-year-old Fergus Falls resident is a serious weekend racer. His late model machine is the best of the four classes of cars run at Sauk Centre. It's an expensive hobby.

COLIN BRAUN: $20,000 to $30,000 is what most guys have in them. That'd be engine and complete. The way we do it, it pays for itself, once you buy the initial investment. But as we race, whatever we make, we put back into it. But we don't really put any of our own money into it.

TIM KELLY: This is the third season of racing at the Sauk Centre track, which runs from May 1st through early October. It's the second operation built by owner Dick Johanek. He boasts that this track and a new one he's opened in Fergus Falls are superior to most of the small fairgrounds tracks in Minnesota. But he says the weather has hurt everyone equally this season. Johanek says a bigger track, more prize money, and a better facility helps him draw fans and better drivers.

DICK JOHANEK: Our big stress is family-oriented and clean facility. And yeah, your spectators and your drivers will seek out. If they're competitive, these are the kind of places that they want to run. If they're not competitive, then they'll go to the smaller, old fairground tracks and run with that crew there, then their big heroes in a smaller circuit.

TIM KELLY: Not all drivers have a $30,000 investment in their car. Drivers like Pat Henry of Sauk Centre spend as little as possible on their hobby. Henry drives in the Sportsman's class, cars once driven on the street, but now are painted up, stripped down, and fitted with safety gear. Henry, who works as a diesel mechanic during the week, says he loves fixing engines, driving cars, and the thrill of going fast.

PAT HENRY: It's like when you had your first car and you was driving a little too fast on a gravel road somewhere and a corner snuck up on you, and you just about went off the edge. And it's that way all the way around. It's a bag of emotions that's hard to explain, but it's different. And sometimes, well, like all the drivers will tell you, it's the butterflies at the line before you go out that they don't like. Everything else is OK. Because once they wave the green flag, you forget about all that. You're too busy doing what you're doing.

TIM KELLY: Drivers aren't the only ones thrilled by engines and speed. Most of the hardcore fans are equally addicted. Racetracks survive on the support of dedicated fans, most have an allegiance to their favorite drivers and to their favorite track. Keith and Janice Kraft of Saint Cloud are among those most dedicated fans. Keith Kraft says they're Friday night regulars at Sauk Centre.

KEITH KRAFT: We've been out here ever since the track-- this track opened. We went to Princeton before this track started. We've been going to races every Friday night for about six years.

TIM KELLY: The National Speedway directory lists 36 raceways in Minnesota. Each operation is fighting for success in its part of the state. The way Johanek describes it, racing as a highly competitive business. He admits his motivation for building the Sauk Centre track three years ago, and another in Fergus Falls last year was to try to knock another nearby track out of business. Johanek has been in auto racing since 1956. He says he sees little difference between running a racetrack and driving a race car.

DICK JOHANEK: When you're driving a race car, your competitive. Is that correct? When you're running a business against another competitor, that's competing in it. So you can put it on wheels or put it on ground, and it's competition. And I guess, that's where I strive is in competition.

TIM KELLY: Dick Johanek owner of the I-94 speedways in both Sauk Centre and Fergus Falls. I'm Tim Kelly, Minnesota Public Radio, Sauk Centre.

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