SAUK RAPIDS – TJ Inderieden can't go anywhere at Granite City Motor Park without fans, race car drivers or track staff coming to shake his hand, give him a fist bump or just say hi.
Born with Down syndrome, the gregarious Sauk Rapids resident is popular at the speedway for his cheery attitude and love of racing.
But the 27-year-old is more than a super fan. He's a competitor, too, and one of the only — if not the only — dirt racing driver with Down syndrome in the region.
"As far as any kids with disabilities racing, I'm not aware of it," said Tom Inderieden, TJ's father. "I haven't come across it at all."
Tom has been around dirt track racing for more than four decades. He raced and then transitioned to pit man for his brother-in-law, Rick Iees, who competed in the WISSOTA circuit until he was injured several years ago.
TJ grew up in that world, with weekends dedicated to tinkering with modified cars between heats at the dusty tracks.
"He was sitting right here until Rick quit racing — a little boy in diapers watching Uncle Rick at the racetrack," said Sharon Iees, Rick's wife and Tom' sister, sitting in the Granite City Motor Park bleachers July 18.
"When he got older, he started hanging out in the pits," Tom said. "He's very sociable so he got to know all the race car drivers."
TJ transitioned from the grandstand to the driver's seat five years ago when the track owner in Brainerd suggested TJ practice in a Hornet, the lowest-cost race car commonly used by beginner drivers.
TJ doesn't have a driver's license, but he's known as "Steady Eddie" behind the wheel, said Sharon, who admitted she was scared to death when Tom told her TJ was going to compete.
But the previous owners of the Sauk Rapids track encouraged TJ to race. And Tom made sure TJ was confident driving his car.
"TJ grew up like any other little boy," Sharon said. "He was driving four-wheelers, snowmobiles. So why not put him in a race car? It's not like anyone can just do it. TJ really had to learn to drive that race car and he doesn't mess up."
TJ's mom, Mary, said she had a similar reaction to TJ racing.
"When this whole thing came about, I said no," she said. "But I was watching him and realizing all of these guys that race against him are very protective of him."
Tom said TJ doesn't get rattled during races. He voluntarily starts at the back of the pack and just drives his own speed.
"TJ races a good race. He holds his line," said Brian Riedemann of St. Cloud, who has been flagging races for the past decade. "TJ is a great kid and a great competitor. He listens well. I wish I had more racers like him."
A few years ago, Riedemann started what he calls the flag man's invitational, where racers from different divisions compete in an annual event where TJ starts on pole and his fellow racers agree to let TJ be the victor.
"It just took off. All the drivers love being in the race with him," Riedemann said.
Riedemann organized the third flag man's invitational race for TJ on July 18 with a purse that grew from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,200 throughout the evening as fans continued to donate.
As TJ held his line in the middle of the track throughout the 10-lap race, drivers in modified and stock cars sped up next to him, then pulled back. Dust kicked up from tires created a haze that lingered before filtering down on a grandstand full of spectators.
TJ's fans filled a section of the bleachers from top to bottom with folks from 5 months old to 79, most wearing shirts and blaze orange caps with TJ's number 3 on them.
"They want TJ to have the feeling of winning," Sharon said, noting it's a big deal for racers to choose to compete in the extra race, where they could suffer engine problems or other damage. "They're really racing tonight. It's not a small thing."
After crossing the finish line ahead of 19 other cars, TJ drove onto a ramp where his family, fellow racers and Riedemann were waiting with a large trophy to celebrate his "hat trick" of invitational wins.
"How was that race?" Riedemann asked.
"It was fast," TJ quipped before thanking his family, fans and competitors at least four times.
Tom said he hopes TJ inspires other parents of children with special needs to realize their kids are capable and can accomplish their dreams.
While Sharon watched TJ revel in the celebration, she wiped a tear — and a little dust — from her eye as she recalled TJ watching NASCAR races as a kid. His favorite part of every race was when the winners were pulled from their car and cheered by their competitors.
"He was practicing that," Sharon said, "before he even raced a car."
Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299