The cars in the parking lot are scarce when we pull into a space. A strong, chill breeze blows from changeable directions, making me wonder if we have enough cold-weather gear. I fuss with the backpacks as Ted and Jerry retrieve the chairs from the trunk. The wind direction changes again, wafting cold down my shirt and bringing to my nose the scent of fried food and grilled meat. My mouth waters, and I envision cheese curds, hamburgers, and the sliced pickles I always pile high. Then nearby engines rumble to life; I straighten up, my gaze riveted to the pit area, seeing the Modifieds, Late Models, and a Hornet or two. The rough idles of finely-tuned high performance engines vibrate through the ground, up my feet and into my chest, and I suddenly know despite the cold, the wind, the possibility of rain, it’s going to be a great night.
It’s the 56th season opener here at Cedar Lake Speedway, and I’m having a hard time checking my speed to the guys’ pace as we approach the entrance. But in keeping with the theme of the Midwestern Wanderer, this isn’t just a place we enjoy.
The story goes like this: back in 1956, Elmer Cook (a local of New Richmond with a 160-acre farm) was in the bulldozing and construction business. Work was slow, so he decided he and his crew would build a new driveway across the swamp on his property to connect with County Road CC (then called Swede Road). After the project was completed, Elmer and his eldest son Bob were picnicking on the lawn. Elmer commented on how the bowl of the swamp would make a perfect racetrack, and after talk turned to auto racing, asked Bob what he thought of building a racetrack.
The question fired Bob Cook’s 14-year-old imagination. Plans were made, and Bob himself was on the bulldozer the next morning at 6:00 AM when construction began on the 3/8-mile oval. The track was roughed out over three weeks, and the first race took place in 1957 with a field of 12 cars and 85 spectators. The Cook family has continued to add on and improve the grounds as well as the racing. In 2001 they brought on five new partners – Ron Bernhagen, Brad Both, and the Kaufman brothers Bob, Chuck and Steve. Cedar Lake signed with NASCAR as a Home Track in 2008; they also host the Late Model Masters in June and USA Nationals in August as well as the World of Outlaw and IRA sprint cars – all marks of high prestige on the racing circuit! To this day, according to Bob Kaufman, Bob and Marge Cook are still very much engaged with the activities on the track.
We get our tickets from the smiling gal behind the window and head to the gate. They have a barcode scanner now; no more stamps on the hand to get in and out, just the ticket scanned in, scanned out, scanned in again. The smell of food is stronger, and my stomach growls; we’ll stake out our places, and then it’s time to eat!
We get great seats, the three of us – top bleacher row, just to the left of the flagman’s stand, where we can see all four turns of the track. We could have a less-obscured view from the stands on the backstretch, which sit up higher. Ted and I even tried out that side for comparison once, but if the skies are at all clear, the setting sun hits those seats directly, intensely. so we mostly just stick with the side we’re accustomed to. I point out to Jerry the new indoor arena where they hold the Motocross races and miniature car racing – quarter midgets, slingshots, micro sprint cars! Even better, new this year, a general admission ticket to the track is good for the arena, too! Bob said it was to encourage and develop interest in all classes and cars. “Sometimes it’s not at all what people expect,” he adds. A lot of parents devoted to the sport teach their kids raceway driving with these scaled-down models, from the age of 5 on up.
As we settle into place, Ted and I spot a birdnest perched high on one of the track lights. At first I assumed it was a bald eagle nest; the Speedway is right near the Apple River (and Cedar Lake, naturally), and the nest itself was a large, bulbous pile of sticks. Then I got a good look at the head of the bird through my zoom lens and my jaw dropped – it was an osprey! (Lousy picture – but the head had a clear black stripe across the eye and back, and the aggressively-hooked bill was dark.) I asked Bob if there are any plans to remove the nest. “Funny thing about that,” he laughs. “We tried that once, three, four years ago. We figured they’d build somewhere else.” After all, as he points out, why would you want to raise your kids near a noisy, dirty track? But the osprey family simply rebuilt the nest right where it had been, so they decided to leave the birds alone – and the ospreys have been back every year since.
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A class at a time, the cars growl their way onto the track for hot laps; engines roar, tires spin and dust flies. The track officials have decided to keep the track a bit dry this weekend – it sends more dirt into the stands, but at the beginning of the year, fast, dry track conditions are safer for the drivers as they accustom themselves anew to the winter-made changes in the oval.
I half-close my eyes to protect them – my safety glasses don’t do much to keep out the fine dust – and shield my covered food, thrilling to the thrum of powerful motors vibrating through the air and into my chest; it’s loud despite my protective earplugs. Even the grit is part of the experience, one I would miss if this were a tar track.
Once hot laps are done, there is a lull. I finish my cheese curds and burger quickly, already crunching on the dirt coating my lips despite best efforts to brush it off. I put on a second pair of socks; all around us, people are bundling up in blankets, coats and hats. I find myself wishing for the sweaty evenings of full summer and eye with envy the sensible fellow a row over who wore his winter Carhartts, but mostly I’m bouncing in my seat, anxious for the races to start.
It’s an exciting night. There aren’t many cautions during the heats, so there’s plenty of uninterrupted racing. There was one moment where my heart was in my mouth – during the first heat for the Late Models, car #8 had raced start to finish, losing a little ground but still finishing in the top five, when a huge gout of blue-white smoke poofed out behind the car. I knew the driver’s night was probably done; that kind of a cloud usually means the engine has blown and it’s burning oil. But as it slowed and stopped, a fireball spread across the entire passenger side of the car, flames curling upward. All around me, I sensed and saw people gasping, standing, watching and waiting. But the emergency crews were there, the driver got the car into the infield and himself out of the car without mishap, and all was well.
Because nasty weather had been spotted moving east from the Twin Cities, the track officials kept the program moving along; we got in a full night of racing, and still didn’t get wet.
A lot of people are puzzled, sometimes confused, by what attracts someone to the racetrack. It’s noisy, it’s dirty, it’s dangerous – there are even some people who think it’s dull (“What do you want to watch that for? All they do is drive around and around in circles!”). And all that, from a certain perspective, is true – and that’s okay. But for myself, Ted, our Dad, Jerry, our buddy Ivan, friends Don and Greg…
The “noise” is the heart-echoed thunder of a human-built machine of power and speed; the “dirt” is a tangible connection between ourselves and our drivers down on the track; the “danger” – and it is very, very real – is the dance of human defiance against cold odds and probabilities and we appreciate our drivers all the more for their skill in meeting and defeating it head-on.
So if you understand all that, and you’ve never been out to Cedar Lake, make the time… and hear the thunder.