Ryan Varner sped his black Chevy around the Shakopee track Sunday afternoon, getting a feel for how well his tires would grip the corners.
The 20-year-old from Minnetonka is in his fourth season racing at Raceway Park and was running second in his class heading into the final day of races. But there won’t be another season for Varner — or for any other driver. After nearly 60 years of cars thundering around its paved oval, Raceway Park has held its final races, ever.
“I can’t get enough of it,” said the young man who started racing go-carts when he was 6. “It’s just such a sad day here. Everybody knows each other, helps each other. It’s too bad.”
There was a time when a trip to Raceway Park stirred passions for the squeal of tires and the rumble of revving motors. On Sunday, it seemed almost that way again as race fans stood in long lines waiting to get into the quaint track that made racing up close and personal for generation after generation of Minnesota motor sports enthusiasts.
It’s too bad the lines weren’t like that more often in recent years, said race announcer Kevin Busse. Maybe, then, this day wouldn’t have come.
“It’s nice to see,” he said of the folks waiting to get in as drivers took test laps. “But another part of me says, ‘Where’ve you been?’ ”
For Busse and the other unabashed race fans, this tiny track that got its start in 1956 ignited a lifelong love of the sport. Busse visited as a child and, 18 years ago, became the announcer. “It’s been a dream job,” he said of calling races every Sunday and summer holiday ever since. “I saw it once and I was hooked.”
That was a common refrain Sunday. Whether it was coming from “old-timers” who used to race here in the 1960s and 1970s and brought home title after title — Don Belkengren, Ron Olson and Rick Stine — or youngsters like Varner, Drew Yeoman and T.J. Christensen, competing at Raceway became an addiction that trumped almost everything else.
Olson, who won 15 track titles from 1955 through 1969, was a bricklayer during the week. He became a track legend on the weekends. Belkengren, who raced here from 1967-72, waited until after the racing season was over to schedule his wedding. He and his wife will have been married 43 years on Sept. 20.
“We lived out here,” Stine said. “We planned our lives around this place.”
Sherry Bailey, who moved to Minnesota from Alaska in 1972, said coming to Raceway Park was a way to entertain the family and meet friends in a new home. It became a part of her family fabric. “We always enjoyed it,” she said of twice-a-month visits and every Fourth of July. “My grandson really got into it.”
So much so that her 19-year-old grandson, Christensen, caught the racing bug and has reignited the family’s regular visits. A couple of weeks ago, she said, another of her grandsons — who has Down syndrome — got to ride in one of the cars around the track. “It’s a family thing,” said the Bloomington woman, who planned to stay until the last race of the night Sunday.
There have been rumors of Raceway Park reopening at another site in Shakopee, that maybe Sunday wasn’t truly the last day. Busse said he would like to think so. But others aren’t as hopeful. Owner John Hellendrung wasn’t talking Sunday. Plans now call for the track to become home to an asphalt recycling plant to be built by Recovery Technology Solutions.
Despite the huge crowd Sunday, Busse said, there just hasn’t been enough fan support in recent years to sustain the place. Drivers and fans said they probably will go to Elko Speedway to get their racing fix in the future. For many, it just won’t be the same. For some, live auto racing will stop being a regular part of their lives.
Barry Barber sat in the stands with his two boys as cars completed their test laps. He has been bringing his sons or friends to the track a couple times a summer for the past six years, he said. Barber said he likes racing, but more than that, he loves the “closeness” of Raceway Park.
He loves that the roar of the cars is only 40 feet away, that one of the drivers is a guy who works on Barber’s car and that the sponsors who cover signs surrounding the track are businesses he knows and frequents.
“It’s close, it’s local guys and it’s been fun,” he said.
Will he go to Elko now that Raceway Park is closing? “Probably not,” he said.