JACKSON, MINN. – There was a dirt track with bleachers on the Jackson County Fairgrounds. Horse races and other events were held there during the county fair.
There were numerous dirt tracks in the region — southwest Minnesota, northern Iowa, eastern South Dakota — drawing sizable crowds for car racing on weekends. Several members of the Jackson VFW had taken in those races, and they came up with the idea of promoting car racing shows at the fairgrounds track.
“A few guys came down to the Okoboji Speed Bowl in Milford [Iowa] and checked it out,’’ Max Lundt said. “My dad was one of the people that met with the guys from the Jackson VFW, and they started up racing in 1954.”
Wilmer Lundt was Max’s father. He made the short trip from Iowa to Jackson on Saturday nights and was the track champion in the first three summers of competition — 1954 through 1956.
There are many generational sports, none more so than auto racing. Waldo Lundt was a farmer in Greenville, Iowa, and financed his son Wilmer’s driving. Waldo was a “jack of all trades, mechanical,’’ and he became friendly with A.J. Foyt, Jim Hurtubise, Eddie Sachs, Rodger Ward and other stars of Indy racing.
“When Grandpa was older, they would let him drive his car right down Gasoline Alley to the garages,’’ Max said.
Wilmer wasn’t a mechanic, but he was a driver — gone every weekend running sprint cars on dirt tracks. Max tried to follow him, but he ruined the car in his first summer, “got balled up between Turns 1 and 2 in Jackson,’’ and called it quits.
The VFW had a long run as the promoter of sprint car races in Jackson. “There was a nice profit every year,’’ Merle Johnson said. “The VFW purchased ambulances and other emergency equipment for the city with the money.’’
When the bottom line became iffy, the VFW gave up as the promoter. A couple of private operators leased the track from the county and kept up the race schedule.
The future was in serious doubt, and then in March 2015, Tod Quiring, a businessman and race fan from nearby Windom, bought the track from the county for $500,000.
Quiring is the owner of Mainstream Holdings, a company that has done very well taking over other businesses and putting them on a successful path. Luke Lundt is Quiring’s president and CFO. He’s also Max’s son, Wilmer’s grandson and Waldo’s great-grandson.
“I think the track would have been weeds in a couple of years, if Tod didn’t buy it,’’ Max Lundt said.
And Merle Johnson?
He’s a lifelong fan and supporter of sprint car racing in Jackson. Merle’s son, Doug Johnson, is in his third year of managing the track and working to fulfill the sizable hopes that Quiring has for the future of the Jackson Motorplex.
Competition for kids
You think baseball has a problem with an aging fan base? Auto racing has it worse. NASCAR’s TV ratings have been in a steady decline for a decade. And in that same time, the average age of a viewer for a Cup race has gone from 49 to 58.
Maybe that can be explained partly by cord-cutters. What can’t be explained is the diminished ticket demand and smaller crowds at the tracks.
Quiring competed in sports at Windom, and also made time for frequent Saturday night visits to the Jackson dirt track.
“First, I went with my family as a kid, and then with my buddies,’’ he said. “I was there in 1985 when Jeff Gordon came to race against our best sprint car guys as a 14-year-old. To remember that, and then to see what Jeff became … that’s cool.
“Getting the younger people involved, getting parents here with their kids, and then the kids with their friends … that’s definitely the challenge. There’s so much summer competition for young athletes now that keeps families busy.’’
Quiring didn’t flinch at the challenge. Instead, he has put the Jackson facility through a three-phase improvement:
“Phase 1, we cleaned it up and put in a new grandstand with suites. Phase 2, we took the pit area out of the infield, put down truckloads of gravel and moved the pits out back. Phase 3, we redid the track this year, from a half-mile to four-tenths.
“That makes for better racing, and it’s easier on the equipment.’’
The Jackson Nationals were held for the 40th time on June 7-9. The World of Outlaws, the stars of sprint car racing, was the featured attraction. There was a 35 percent increase in attendance with the improvements.
Quiring is the sponsor for two Outlaws teams. He’s trying to put Jackson on the map as the main June stop for Outlaws fans across the country — as Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway in Ohio is in July and the famed Knoxville Nationals in Iowa are in August.
Ambitious? “Of course,” Quiring said. “We’re now equipped for bigger events. We’re having the Lucas Oil Late Models, a national series, here on a Wednesday night [July 18]. Top stock cars on this track … that’s new.
“I think the fans are going to love it — late models on a four-tenths track that’s wide enough for passing.’’
It was a steaming Friday night at the end of June and the crowd was small. This weekly card did not include the sprint cars with the 410-cubic-inch engines, the ones used by the Outlaws to generate 900 horsepower. The 360s were the main attraction, and there were also the 305s and non-wings, that are cheaper to run and bring in younger, developing drivers.
Derrick Lusk, 24, lives on a farm near Jackson and works it with his father, Gary. No surprise, Gary drove for almost two decades and was called “Gabby’’ by all area racing fans.
Derrick started in Go Karts and advanced to sprint cars. Gary was managing the team, Derrick Lusk Racing, but then, “We were butting heads all the time,’’ Derrick said.
Derrick took a shot in 410s, but it was too competitive and too expensive. He’s settled into 360s with Brad Kaderabek and his son Aaron as the crew.
On this Friday, Lusk finished third in the main event for the 360s. Was there a fan club to see the hometown racer take on rivals from other locales?
“When I was in school, I tried to get kids to go to the races in Jackson without much luck,’’ Lusk said. “Now, I have a few close friends that are usually here. That’s about it.
“The good news is the racing. Last year, most of the time we had 20 cars. This year, we haven’t had fewer than 30. It’s taken some time to get used to driving the new four-tenths configuration, but everyone likes it.’’
No doubts about future
Tom Savage Sr. was the public address announcer in Jackson for a decade in the dirt track’s earlier years. He is a historian of sprint car racing in this region. His compilation of hundreds of photos includes driver Jack Egge winding up on the hog barn that used to reside behind the far corner of the Jackson track.
“I’m not a bit concerned about the future of auto racing,’’ Savage said. “When the very popular Bill Vukovich was killed in 1955, that was going to be the end of motor sports. Here we are more than 60 years later still going.
“Man and his machine will always be trying to beat man and his machine.’’