Duane Fredrickson still remembers being 7 years old, pulling his red Radio Flyer wagon filled with drive shafts around what would become Elko Speedway.
The speedway, located in Elko New Market, is celebrating its 50th racing season, which kicks off Saturday. The track has come a long way in that time, but when Fredrickson was still pulling around car parts, it was just a patch of gravel-filled land with potential.
Fredrickson’s neighbor and the speedway’s first owner, Charlie Hanson, gave Duane and his brothers odd jobs around the track.
“My earliest involvement was we would go over to Hanson’s Junkyard — that’s what we always called it — and Charlie [Hanson] had a front-end loader with all these cars sitting there,” Fredrickson said. “He would tip the cars up on edge so they would be standing up, and then my brother Bob and I would go and take drive shafts out.”
Hanson welded the shafts together to create posts for a barrier that helped protect spectators from debris and cars. The barricade stood for 35 years before recently being replaced.
“[If] you knew where to look a few years ago, there was a crack in the concrete wall and you could see one of those old drive shafts in there,” Fredrickson said. “So, that’s where I started.”
More than five decades later, Fredrickson is back at the Speedway working on its marketing and promotions.
Though the track still has remnants of its history, the Elko Speedway is barely recognizable from what it was a half-century ago.
Many of the major renovations started in the 1990s when the track was paved over and a figure-8 was added. The overhead lighting, which used to sit on top of wooden poles, has been updated.
When Elko Speedway’s current owner, Tom Ryan, purchased the property, more updates followed.
“When Tom Ryan acquired it, he really took it to the next two or three steps above that with the bleachers and the seats and the concession stands,” Fredrickson said. “He’s the one that really took it into what it is today.”
Through the changes, the speedway has managed to flourish, add attractions and hit milestones that contribute to its success today, even while other tracks, like Raceway Park in Shakopee, closed in recent years.
One milestone happened about 28 years ago, when Elko Speedway became affiliated with National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).
“When that [affiliation] came in, that was a change because it tied us into a much larger picture,” Fredrickson said. “It helped from the marketing end of things because … everybody knows the name of NASCAR and what it is. It gave us credibility in a lot of ways and it raised awareness, there’s no doubt about that.”
Elko Speedway has also added a grandstand, where it has hosted live concerts, including national acts like Styx and Bret Michaels from Poison. Then, in 2014, the speedway opened a drive-in movie theater.
The live music and theater additions are all part of giving the track a more family-friendly image, something that Elko Speedway has been trying increasingly to promote, said media manager Wil Crombie.
“Elko is always seeking out more entertainment and ways to bring families and people of all ages in to share the experience that is Elko,” Crombie said. “We’re not just a racetrack, we are a drive-in theater, we’re a concert venue and we’re bringing in all sorts of entertainment to complement people’s experience at Elko.”
Recognizing the past
In honor of the track’s 50th season, Crombie will add before opening day a new section to the speedway’s website — http://www.elkospeedway.com/ — aimed at commemorating the past.
“We are adding a track history section on our website, which will contain all of our track champions from the 1960s all the way up to today,” he said. “We will also be adding our hall of fame section, so that is exciting.”
Elko Speedway will keep evolving, Crombie said. Currently, the track is moving toward digital media outreach for its racers, fans and casual visitors. In the past two years alone, Crombie produced more than 100 new videos for Elko Speedway.
“We’re entering into the digital age,” he said. “This year is actually the last year that we’re going to send out a mailer through postal services.”
Despite the changes Elko Speedway has seen, the competition and the community have stayed the course, Fredrickson said.
“It’s another generation that’s come along,” he said. “You’ll see someone who you probably raced with their parents. … Then you see mom or dad looking over their shoulder trying to help them out. It’s generations deep for some.”
Janice Bitters is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.