Late Model Talent in 1980s Got This Fan Hooked

Mitch Johnson won a lot of big late model races with his #00 car.

The race chaser blog did a feature story on Red River Valley racing legend Rick Aukland (you can read that elsewhere). I remember the first time I ever saw Aukland race.

It was a late model special at Madison (Minn.) Speedway in the mid 1980s that my dad and I attended. Aukland and Rick Egersdorf (from the Twin Cities area) pulled into town. I believe Willy Kraft of Lakefield was also there.

The late model class wasn’t huge in numbers in that western region in that era. If you approached 10 weekly that was a pretty good night. There were some good local late models in those days.

But when Aukland and Egersdorf pulled in, wow. These two did stuff with their cars that we weren’t used to seeing. They drove their car much harder into the corners and ran about anywhere we wanted to. I remember my dad thinking those guys were insane for how they drove. Honestly, their driving was at a whole new level as we soon figured out. I don’t completely remember who won that race but I’m 90 percent sure Aukland outdueled Egersdorf for the win. Egersdorf went on to win a ton of big late model races in the Upper Midwest, including the Gopher 50.

That was the night that got me hooked on late model racing and it’s an addiction that hasn’t left me 30-plus years later.

Aukland certainly went on to stardom as a national touring late model but there were a lot of big-time drivers from the Red River Valley back in the 80s.

Hickson, N.D., driver Mitch Johnson and his familiar Northwest Auto Body #00 (pictured above) was fast wherever he unloaded, particularly at his home track in West Fargo . Among his big wins included the John Seitz Memorial in Grand Forks, the Dacotah Rumble in Aberdeen (three times; at $10,000 that was the highest-paying Wissota Late Model race at that time), the Jamestown Stampede (nine times), the Hibbing Labor Day Shootout (four times), the Silver 1000 at Proctor (1995), to name a few. He also won 13 NLRA Late Model races and three Wissota Late Model Challenge Series events. The guy was damn good.

I’ve heard a lot of stories about Jack McDonald — he was a little before my time. Maybe sometime I’ll catch up with him for a RaceChaser blog. His son, Jay, is one of the best modified drivers I’ve seen in this part of the country.

Speaking of the eastern North Dakota area, you had some drivers like Bob Sagen, Don Gumke and Mike Bruns who were good late model drivers in the 80s at RRVS who later raced modifieds for a long, long time and ran well. In Fergus Falls you had the #82 of Steve Thorsen whose career was cut short because of back problems, but that guy could wheel a race car.

There was a guy named Ron Droog of Aberdeen, S.D., who drove the yellow and red X car who was as tough as nails. I saw him run some specials, and saw him hit the Gopher 50 in Owatonna a couple times. He had a nasty crash with the backstretch wall at Owatonna one year (track was the roughest I have seen for a big event).

Aberdeen also had a guy named Rich Thomas, who is still racing in the late models in his 70s. He drove the Coca Cola #3 late model for a long time. Another late model driver from that area who I heard was talented — unfortunately never saw him in person — was the late Doug Dinger. He drove the #73 car. He was killed in a snowmobile accident in 2001. Fans remember the ageless Roger Swenson from Watertown? Drove the #1 car a long time and I think drove the #06 car towards the end of his career.

Down in southern MN, closer to where I grew up, there was a late model driver named Willy Kraft of Lakefield, Minn. The first time I ever saw Willy race was in Madison; he was driving the Hardee’s #83 machine. Willy Kraft, a lot like Aukland, could drive about anything. He also had success building modified chassis with his Kraft Kars business. I remember a Busch Tour race one year at Viking where Willy had worked into the top five, broke, went back into his pit and welded the repairs (Busch Tour let you do that in those days) and came back out. Guy was amazing.

In eastern Minnesota you had guys like Egersdorf and his brother Steve from the Twin Cities area, Lance Matthees (Winona), Jerry Legatt (who drove the Fegers house car for many, many years), Jeff Hinkemeyer (St. Cloud), Steve Fegers (Twin Cities) and Jim Bruggeman (White Bear Lake). In western Wisconsin, Jerry Redetzke, Duane Mahder and Leon Plank (Eau Claire) came to mind (in the 1990s, Jimmy Mars, Pat Doar and John Kaanta rose to prominence and have stayed there ever since). Joel Cryderman and Tom Nesbitt from Thunder Bay, Ontario were highly competitive. You had Harry Hanson of Eveleth starring on the Iron Range. I know there were several others but those names jumped into my head.

There was a lot of late model talent in those days and the racing was terrific. Unfortunately many drivers from that era have retired. Lance Matthees, age 62, is still racing; he won the $2,500 to win NASCAR late model race at Cedar Lake in Wisconsin in August.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t high quality late model drivers today, especially in this part of the country (Ricky Weiss, Dustin Strand and Cole Schill are younger drivers who come to mind), but I think the 1980s was wonderful time to grow up watching racing.

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