It’s barely 4 p.m. on a Friday night in July, and already the pit of the Manitowoc Speedway is filled with trailers, race cars and groups of pit crews and racers making last-minute adjustments.
Tonight is a big one — the Harbor Town Showdown, an Interstate Racing Association race that draws in the biggest names of dirt track racing. Some of the pit crew members refer to the IRA fondly as the “NASCAR of dirt track.”
It’s the type of night that sells out the entire grandstand.
One crew is circled up by a blue trailer, talking shop as they wait for their driver. The group is made up of five boys — Matt Myers, Brett Gutschow, Ben Kruse and Bradon Mattson — plus Rosey, who won’t provide his last name, much to the amusement of his friends.
Interstate Racing Association brings teams and drivers to race at Manitowoc Speedway on Friday, July 1. In the picture are grand national racing cars.
Nights at the racetrack are dusty, dirty and loud. That’s why the boys love it. They joke that they’re in this for the beer and the girls, but they’re really in it for one thing — the speed.
“You don’t know what’s gonna happen,” Myers said. “One wrong move can mess you up, but one right move can make everything go well for you.”
It’s not necessarily difficult to get a job in a driver’s pit. Each of the crew members are unpaid volunteers, people who love racing and their driver. Without a paycheck, they’re more of a support staff and a cheering section than anything else to the driver.
Matt, who has worked with Balog for more than six years now, has the most experience out of the group. When he was first getting started, he looked for the best driver in his area to work with. He picked out Balog and gave him a call. The next race, he had a spot in the driver’s pit.
“He was right at the top, so I figured I’d start out at the top,” Myers says. The other boys laugh, but they all agree. Balog is quickly rising as one of the up-and-coming racers in the business. He recently won a World of Outlaws race, the NASCAR of dirt track racing. He’s ranked in the top 50 drivers in the world this year, and he’s only getting started.
So it’s a good place for this group to start. For some of them, this is only their second night at the races alongside Balog. But they like their chances, and they’ll have a good time on the way, win or lose.
“We just have a passion for racing,” Myers said. “It’s like a drug.”
Essentially, dirt track is the same as any type of racing — cars race for a set number of laps around a curved track, with a man on a platform furiously waving flags to remind the racers of which lap they’re on.
The excitement comes not only in the start and the finish, but in what comes in between. In what is commonly referred to as side-by-side action, cars often stay dangerously close as they top speeds of 70 mph, rounding corners, spinning out and sometimes veering off the track with a smoking engine.
Although most start by buying their car, each driver and their pit crew make major adjustments to the wheels and engine, outfitting each part of their car with a new improvement meant to improve speed and agility.
These are drivers who often possess a wealth of knowledge about their own vehicle but a significant lack of professional training. So it’s not odd to see a car at the head of the pack putter out to a disappointing last-place finish as a result of a smoking engine, a shaky axle, or on occasion, an entire door falling off.
It’s an expensive hobby. But then again, the word “hobby” isn’t one that most of these drivers would use to describe their time on the track. They’d prefer something a little more intense — “passion,” or perhaps “lifestyle.”
Dirt track racers are used to skeptics. They’ll say the same thing over and over — “People don’t get why we do this. I guess you have to be raised in it. It’s just what we do.”
That was certainly the case for Brandon Wimmer, who pulls up to his trailer on the back of an ATV with his 2-year-old daughter in tow.
He grew up in the grandstands of speedways in Indiana, and first took to racing as a 5-year-old in the seat of a go-kart. As a senior in high school, he only went to school four times a week, reserving Fridays for traveling to races.
Since he was young, the pits of speedways across the Midwest have been home for Wimmer. This is where his friends and family come together, where he feels most comfortable. And it’s been that way for as long as he can remember.
“It’s hard to say what [racing] really means to you when you can’t imagine your life without it,” Wimmer said. “It’s something I’ve loved for so long, I just can’t imagine not doing it.”
For drivers like Wimmer, the racetrack is home. He loves racing so much that he travels to Australia and New Zealand during some off-seasons just to avoid spending months without time in a car.
When asked why he loves it, Wimmer struggles to respond. How can he give an explanation to a lifelong love, the only lifestyle that he’s known? It’s a question most drivers can’t find the right words for.
Of course, it’s the speed, he says. It’s the competition. It’s the energy, the excitement, the feeling that anything is possible after the first flag is waved and the race is begun.
But it’s also the people, the men and women who help in the pit and share beers after races and hug one another like family. And for many drivers, this passion for speed and this passion for family are intertwined, hand-in-hand in responsibility for bringing them back to speedways week after week.
For Wimmer, the moments he spends in the driver’s seat feel as if time is almost slowing down. Despite the adrenaline, the pressure and the pace, he describes that moment as calm, a time when he feels utter control over himself and his car. And that, for Wimmer, is why this sport means so much.
“It’s the hardest thing to describe,” Wimmer said. “But believe me, there’s just nothing like it. There’s nothing like it at all.”