Round And Around
by Fay Hendricks
Before Hall of Fame Induction
We joined many others on Saturday at the Wisconsin Automotive Museum in Hartford, Wisconsin, just north of the fabled Slinger Speedway. The special Racing Roundup radio broadcast was limited to only 90 minutes of talking with some of racing’s legendary drivers as well as paying tribute to Slinger’s 60 years of operation. Thanks to Dick Melius and High Groove Marketing, this all took place the week prior to the initial induction of the Southeastern Wisconsin Short Track Hall of Fame that will be ensconced in this facility. Melius is one of seven offspring of the hugely successful and popular Miles “The Mouse” Melius, mostly remembered for his winged modified roaring around Wisconsin’s dirt tracks with the left front tire high in the air. It’s been 40 years since the senior Melius has raced, but in his 20-year career he accumulated ten championships in midgets, stocks, and modified ranks, as well as 21 track titles at places like Slinger Speedway, Cedarburg Fireman’s Park, Wisconsin State Fair Park (now the Milwaukee Mile‘s infield), Raceway Park in Beaver Dam, Hales Corners Speedway, and Rockford Speedway.
The big surprise of Saturday was when Bobby Allison talked via phone about his first years in Wisconsin and the influence of Melius. As a young racer standing only five feet, four inches tall and weighing in at some 120 pounds, Allison put together his first car and won his first race, according to his conversation. Allison’s parents weren’t keen on their son racing, so sent him to Wisconsin to get a job. “What my parents didn’t know”, claimed Allison, “Was that there were race tracks all over in Wisconsin.” Allison found his dream place, and was quickly adopted by The Mouse. “We were at The Mile”, claimed Melius, when he noticed the young Allison, “And I thought he was the smallest guy. We were at Slinger one night and we took him home to stay at the house. He’s been a good friend every since.” Allison no longer pilots his own plane to race in several states during the week as he used to while competing in NASCAR’s top division, but he said, “Mouse was one of the earliest influences on me. We’ll come next Saturday.”
Melius is one of the first twenty to be inducted into this year’s Hall of Fame next Saturday. We understand that the occasion is already sold out, so look for more news afterwards. Other modified standouts from the past 50 years include Billy “The Cat” Johnson Jr, a fellow competitor of Melius who amassed 18 track titles of his own at Slinger, Cedarburg, the Fair Park, Hales, and the old Sheboygan County Fairgrounds oval, now Plymouth Dirt Track. Etchie “The Flying Grandpa” Bietzer was another of that era who garnered eleven track titles at Slinger, the Fair Park, Beaver Dam, Cedarburg, Hales, Oregon (the quarter-mile inside what is now Madison International Speedway or MIS), and Plymouth. Biertzer’s real name, by the way, is actually Edwin.
Fuzzy “The Hound” Fassbender was christened with the name of Ernest, and was one of the first to introduce a modern body on his modified instead of the old coupes and sedans of past decades. Fassbender earned seven track championships at Hales, Beaver Dam, Cedarburg, Slinger and the Waukegan dirt track. Ken Markwardt notched seven championships by concentrating on Plymouth, Chilton, and Francis Creek 141 Speedway. Carl Kulow managed to garner five crowns at Slinger, the Fair Park, and Plymouth, and Ken Tlougan’s name was among these tracks as well. Willie “The Rabbit” Goeden earned nine crowns at Plymouth, Francis Creek, Beaver Dam, Cedarburg, and Hales in his modified, then another three after joining the late model ranks. Johnnie Reimer, dubbed the Caledonia Clipper, has 16 track titles to his credit at Waukegan, Rockford, Blue Island, Wilmot, Hales, Oregon, Sycamore, Santa Fe, and Lake Geneva one of the few to run both dirt and asphalt.
The sportsman ranks had to begin with Frank “The Farmer” Smith, who notched seven consecutive track titles at Hales, Cedarburg, and Slinger simultaneously, as well as another pair of championships at the Fair Park, then went on to earn three more crowns in a late model at Hales and Cedarburg. Roger Regeth garnered four sportsman championships before going on to gather six more in his late model. Gino Wagner was a household name, as well as Dick Duston, who had six sportsman titles at Hales Cedarburg, and the Fair Park before his modified championship at Wilmot. The fairgrounds oval at Wilmot was moved a couple decades ago and the quarter miles at Hales and Plymouth were expanded. Waukegan went from dirt to asphalt, then back to dirt before closing for good, and the Oregon half-mile once was bisected to make the quarter-mile, then became a dirt track for a short time before becoming Capital and now MIS.
Bill Johnson Sr. and Rollie Heder were the ones who began Slinger Speedway, and had the vision to bring in houses along the adjacent property. The original residents were all race families to ensure there would be no complaints, including the families of Heder, Johnson, Melius and others. The tiny quarter-mile dirt playground would later see many changes, but the first 30 years saw most of the original legends on a weekly basis. Harry Woerner was responsible for building cars for some of the drivers in the Hall of Fame, getting a nod for his craftsmanship in the era of the homemade car.
John Kaishian began owning property in his teens, became owner of Hales Corners Speedway in his twenties, then Midwest Bleachers and Midwest Racing News, and also promoter of what is now the Milwaukee Mile. Dick Binner was the original founder of what would become Midwest Racing News. Happy Laack was the founder of the Eastern Wisconsin Stock Car association that would take care of running the races at hosting tracks, a novel approach then and now. Duane Sweeney was the formidable short track flagman who would pound your car as you went by, progressing from on-track flagging to the infield, then from flagstands, and became the USAC and Indy 500 starter until his retirement.
Over 150 track championships were earned by the first class of 13 drivers. This was achieved by racing many times a week in short seasons that went from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. We recall over 110 sportsman cars who raced four times a week at three tracks for one overall championship in the 1970’s, and ran dirt and asphalt tracks every week in the same car without a quick change. Fassbender said it best, “I didn’t race to be famous. I just wanted to race.” It was common for the racers and their families to gather after each night and enjoy each other’s company, no matter what happened on the track. . Because the seasons were short, racing had to be squeezed into those limited weeks. There were no race tracks operating on Mondays, but the rest of the week was filled with places for races. Sometimes a driver could compete six nights as well as Saturday and Sunday afternoons, with admission up to a dollar by the end of the 60’s.
Your scribe remembers when the modified car counts dipped below 40, bringing an end to their long run at Slinger. When the sportsman audience fell below 3,000 at Hales Corners, the Thursday all-sportsman races were cancelled. Tracks used to publish their crowd count and purse every week, and racing really was fun. A driver could earn more then than now, and didn’t spend a fraction of what today’s racers shell out. The sons of Johnson, Fassbender, Goeden, Biertzer, and many others have gone into racing remembering the camaraderie of the past, and wonder where it went. Through the years racers decided it was easier to pay someone to build their car and engine, then fancy scales and setups came along. Tires were specially built for different types of tracks, after-market equipment became more available, and so was safety equipment. This all cost money. The days of funding your own team became too costly, more sponsors were needed, and the fun was replaced by bills. This is why we so value the racers of the past, for they brought racing to every neighborhood and shared themselves with all.
The onerous task of getting this memorial started began with John Surges, founder of the restoration club Vintage Modified Stock Cars (VSMC) and editor of VMSC newsletter, Bob Ralston, who contributes to VMSC newsletters, Dave Magnus, former racer and VMSC contributor, Pat Heaney, former racer and Hales race historian, Dan Erikson, former racer and founder of IRA sprint car web site, and Bill Behm, the current president of Milwaukee Stock Car Racing Association. Dale Anderson of the museum in Hartford, worked with this board to make the dream a reality. Next year another 20 inductees will join the first group, with Aaron Solsrud and Whitey Harris two of the names leaked out in advance. Many of the greats are no longer with us, which makes those present even more valuable.
If you are in the neighborhood, make a point to visit the museum and view the wonderful salvation of cars, motorcycles, and engines of yesteryear at the Hartford building. Also inside is the million-mile Saab that made the headlines recently, as well as an entire steam-powered locomotive. Many of the vehicles are rotated on loan from their owners, but upstairs the Hall of Fame is permanent. For hours and directions, you can visit www.wisconsinautomuseum.com and make your plans. We won’t be there next week, but look for our final race of 2007 when we return to Music City Motorplex in Nashville for another version of the All American 400. The event is now a non-points contest for the ASA Late Model Series and the CRA late models.
ASA Challenge Series champion Travis Dassow was also at Saturday’s event, and will be headed to Nashville as well. The Wisconsin youngster was very happy to race in a NASCAR Craftsman Truck race recently, and will be headed to Phoenix for another one after Nashville. At age 20, Dassow would still be a year shy of the minimum age to start racing when the legends ruled. At the age of 15 when he became late model rookie of the year at Dells Motor Speedway, Dassow would have been a year short of the standard to even enter the pit’s a few decades ago. Dassow is one of the modern era of racers, beginning about the time of kindergarten enrollment and progressing through various race machines and engines. If the old records are awesome, today’s extended months of racing and young beginnings could set even higher standards. If it weren’t for the cost. That’s why we call it the good old days.
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