Hey there, speed racer

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 19, 2008 - 3:24 PM

The Elko Speedway is different things to different people -- a sport, a social scene, a family outing or a unique place to take visitors from abroad.

Corey Miller of Elko was watching the earsplitting auto races at the Elko Speedway one recent Saturday evening with his two cute daughters: Paige, 7, and Faith, 5. As a family, they come to the racetrack almost every weekend, Miller said, so naturally, the girls possess their own pint-sized versions of the racetrack's most covetable accessory: noise-canceling headphones.

After acclimatizing to the skull-rattling thunder of cars topping speeds of 90 miles per hour, a newcomer noticed something more: The sport has been crassly commercialized -- even at this regional level. In addition to the cars being decorated with all manner of logos, the Elko Speedway track is lined with ads for Miller Genuine Draft, the Minnesota Twins, Mystic Lake Casino and the reelection campaign of Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. Popular Australian winemaker Yellow Tail has sponsored a Yellow Tail Fast Lap award. The track also has hosted a special evening for Harley-Davidson riders.

Sue and Irene Kotula, mother- and daughter-in-law from Prior Lake, were at the races with two gentlemen they met while trekking in Nepal: Mingma Ongel Sherpa and Passang Tenijing Sherpa. How was Passang enjoying his first all-American auto race? "It's very fun," he said, and then laughed nervously.

"He thinks it's scary!" interjected Irene.

For all the families and friends, there were, to be sure, plenty of singles (especially bachelors) drinking beer and flirting. A guy should be cautious when approaching a woman in this environment, though; more than one was there to watch a boyfriend. Besides, the racers command most of the women's attention.

"It's a plus to see them in their outfits," said Amanda Meyer of Chanhassen, who was there to catch a glimpse of her speed-racer boyfriend in his manly jumpsuit.

Eventually, as we hollered with various folks in the stands, we learned that the pits, the cordoned-off area where racers repair their cars, is the plce to be.

After smooth-talking our way in, we met Jonathan Eilen, a successful late-model racer (and truck driver by day) from Hampton. In fact, he was that night's winner of the Yellow Tail award (in which he averaged 98.788 miles per hour).

Never mind that he, too, had a girlfriend waiting in the stands. He was cute; we made small talk: Are steep gas prices affecting the sport? Why, yes, he said -- but mostly the cost of transporting his race car in its custom semitrailer truck. "I think it was $800 last time we filled up. Last year it was $500."

Did he feel as fierce as he looked in that fitted, fire-retardant jumpsuit?

"It's just like wearing underwear," he said, flashing a winsome grin. "Or pajamas," he added, rather belatedly.

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

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