Below is the first book review to come out on “Life In The Past Lane – The Next Generation.”
It was written by Chris Clough and appeared in the Door County Advocate.
Hope to see you all December 2 at Titletown Brewery from noon to 3 p.m. for the book launch!
Joe Verdegan’s latest book brings local dirt-track racing history up to date
Christopher Clough | USA TODAY NETWORK-WisconsinUpdated 9:45 a.m. CT Nov. 24, 2017
GREEN BAY – Joe Verdegan has authored two books on the history of short-track auto racing in Northeastern Wisconsin, but that history is being brought up to the present with help from a new angle – Verdegan’s own.
Verdegan, a racing historian and freelance racing columnist for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, is releasing “Life in the Past Lane: The Next Generation” on Dec. 2 at a book sale and signing event for local publisher M&B Global Solutions at Titletown Brewery Co.
The book is the third in his trilogy of area racing history. The first book in the series, also titled “Life in the Past Lane” and released in 2015, covers the dirt tracks of the area up to 1980, when the sport was falling into a depression. The second book, published last year, chronicles the history of Wisconsin International Raceway in Kaukauna, one of the premier paved short tracks in the state.
The new book picks up where the first left off, looking at the renaissance of dirt-trackin’ in the area that started in the 1980s, peaked around the turn of the century and is again in jeopardy for various reasons. Chapters focus on star drivers, the tracks and promoters, from Manitowoc and Chilton north to Antigo, with Thunderhill Raceway in Sturgeon Bay and Luxemburg Speedway having roles to play.
As with his previous books, Verdegan relied on interviews with the people who were directly involved, but for this time period he was able to add his own perspective as a track announcer, columnist and sometimes promoter.
“The biggest difference (for the third book) is, I was an active participant for most of it,” Verdegan said. “So it’s more first-person.”
But the book is still packed with the stories told by the promoters, drivers, track workers, racing writers and other participants. “I pretty much just let the drivers and promoters tell their stories,” Verdegan said. “I could have interviewed a hundred more people; I’ve known three generations of family racers. That was the tough part, deciding who to interview and who not to interview. There were some very difficult decisions along the way.”
Much of the Thunderhill story focuses on Bryan “Woody” Wodack, who promoted the track from 2003 to 2016, a lengthy tenure for local facilities. Another chapter is devoted to Todd “Felix” Dart of Algoma, the track’s winningest driver. The “Dirty Ladies” chapter, on female dirt racers, opens with a segment on Kelsy-Ann Hayes of Sturgeon Bay, who races – and wins – in the sportmod class at Thunderhill and Luxemburg.
Chapters related to Luxemburg go into the promotional tenures of Kelly Hafeman and Rick Goral and the on-track successes of Benji LaCrosse, a hometown hero who put Wisconsin modified racing on the national map when he won the IMCA Supernationals, the class’ biggest and most important race, in 2005 and the IMCA National Championship a year later.
“He’s a Luxemburg racer who rose to national fame,” Verdegan said of LaCrosse. “In my opinion, he could’ve risen to NASCAR level, he’s that good, that smooth. He can go to any track in the country and be a threat to win.”
THE RISE AND FALL OF DIRT TRACKS, AGAIN
Verdegan’s book delves into the rise of a then-new class of racers, the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) Modifieds, which coincides with the rise of dirt-track racing not just in Northeastern Wisconsin but across the Midwest in the mid-‘80s.
Noting the ever-increasing costs of fielding a late-model stock car, IMCA drew up rules for modifieds that aimed to dramatically cut those costs, including allowing lower-finishing racers to claim a higher-finishing racer’s engine for $325, thinking the low claiming fee would discourage expensive engines.
IMCA Modifieds first appeared in Wisconsin at Seymour Speedway in 1984, Verdegan said, and became part of the regular program at Luxemburg a year later. When Thunderhill re-opened in 1993, the modifieds were the stars of the weekly shows.
“IMCA Modifieds were the saving grace (for local dirt tracks),” Verdegan said. “When they were introduced to Luxemburg, they really took off around 1989, ’90 … It did save racing in Northeast Wisconsin, no question about it.
“It was an affordable division. Guys couldn’t afford to run a late model, but with the claimer motor (in the modifieds), guys couldn’t afford the risk of losing an expensive motor in the claiming area.”
IMCA bolstered the weekly shows with cost-conscious classes for stock cars (a less-wild class than the late models), the less-expensive modified-style sportmods, hobby and street stocks, and dirt-track racing boomed across Northeastern Wisconsin.
Verdegan said the peak came “probably (in) the late 1990s, early 2000s – the crowds were solid, car counts were up.”
But if something hits a peak, there’s also the slide down from it. Today, local tracks struggle with attendance, car counts and sponsorship, and most tracks are on a county fairgrounds that carry a rental fee. The Manitowoc County Expo Center, where its track sat, was sold to the Meijer store chain.
And, costs for the racers continue to increase, as always. Plus, there’s the question of attracting new fans to the sport in a time when so many other sports and entertainment opportunities exist.
“We’re losing a generation of race fans,” Verdegan said. “Years ago, kids didn’t want to play with mobile devices; they looked forward to, ‘Hey, I’m gonna build my own race car.’ It’s happening less and less.
“Now, a lot of your base of hardcore racers have died off or moved. Fans would go religiously to the races two, three nights a week. Now, there’s so many choices. Promoters now have to work three times as hard for fewer fans. The profit isn’t there anymore. It’s become more participant-driven, making the money on the back gate (racer entry fees).
“Racing goes in cycles. I’ve been involved with it pretty much my entire life.”
However, Verdegan said, his new book isn’t meant to be an obituary, a fable or a repair manual for the local clay ovals.
It’s just meant to be enjoyed by those who were there and those who wish they were.
“Just enjoy the stories,” Verdegan said. “It’s a history lesson. Just take the trip down Memory Lane.”
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Local auto racing historian and columnist Joe Verdegan signs copies of his new book, “Life in the Past Lane: The Next Generation,” during the fourth annual M&B Global Solutions holiday book sale from noon to 3 p.m. Dec. 2 in the Tap Room of Titletown Brewing, 320 N. Broadway St., Green Bay. Verdegan also will have copies of his previous two books on auto racing in Northeastern Wisconsin available for signing. His books also are available at local sellers and Amazon.com.