DETTMANN: The Historical Slinger Nationals

Matt Kenseth (8) races his son Ross Kenseth during the 2014 running of the Slinger Nationals at Slinger (Wis.) Super Speedway on Tuesday night. (Doug Hornickel Photo)
Matt Kenseth (8) races his son Ross Kenseth during the 2014 running of the Slinger Nationals at Slinger (Wis.) Super Speedway on Tuesday night. (Doug Hornickel Photo)

SLINGER, Wis. – It’s the biggest and most prestigious race in the upper Midwest. Many will argue it’s one of the top-10 short-track racing events in the country.

It’s the Slinger Nationals at Slinger Super Speedway, the fastest quarter-mile in the world, nestled inside a rural Wisconsin community about an hour north of Milwaukee.

But what is the Slinger Nationals?

Folks around here are happy to tell you the story of the Slinger Nationals.

“This has always been a great track; it’s always fun to come back,” said NASCAR superstar Matt Kenseth, a six-time champion of the event. “The Slinger Nationals is always a special event for me. I enjoy coming back here.”

This year, Kenseth, a native of Cambridge, Wis., about 90 minutes from Slinger, celebrated the 20th anniversary of his first Nationals checkered flag.

Others have conquered this 34-degree high-banked oval and the names that have are like a who’s who in auto racing. Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Butch Miller, Rich Bickle Jr., Alan Kulwicki, Joe Shear, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin are just a small sample size of the drivers who have tried Slinger and Slinger Nationals.

Most recently, Kyle Busch has challenged the track and won the 2011 Slinger Nationals. At that time, he called it one of the most important victories of his racing career.

One of the most famous short-track racing fields ever assembled took place in 1987 at Slinger.

In that field included Allison, Earnhardt, Davey Allison, Bobby’s son, Kulwicki, Martin, Ted Musgrave, Miller, Robbie Reiser, Bickle, Lowell Bennett, Tony Strupp, Shear, Conrad Morgan and Al Schill. In that mix are NASCAR Hall of Famers, plus winners of hundreds of features and a couple handfuls of track championships.

However, there was some belief the mystique of Slinger Nationals was fading.

The tough economic times hit the auto racing community hard. Drivers and sponsors lost more money than they were putting in and were doing so more rapidly than in previous years.

At the 2011 Slinger Nationals, only 26 cars entered an event once well-known for attracting more than 70 super late models.

The Slinger Nationals started in 1980 by track owner Wayne Erickson as a ploy to get the late Dick Trickle to race at Slinger.

Throughout the middle of the 20th century, Trickle was the king of short-track racing in the Midwest. He won more than 1,000 features in his short-track career.

Trickle told Erickson time and time again that he couldn’t compete at Slinger because of schedule conflicts. For years, Slinger, which opened in 1948 and became an asphalt track in the mid-1970s, has raced on Sunday nights.

One night in 1980, Erickson approached Trickle at a race in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., about an hour north of Madison, to beg him to come and race. Trickle said to him if Erickson held a Tuesday night event, he’d do it.

That’s what Erickson did and in a matter of months the Slinger Nationals was born.

However, in the last five years, car counts across the country have diminished and Slinger was no exception.

Before the 2013 season, Wayne Erickson’s son, Rodney, and former Slinger late model driver Todd Thelen assumed the promotional duties of the race track and went right to work.

For the 2013 Slinger Nationals, Rodney Erickson and Thelen got Superseal onboard to sponsor Nationals and put up a $9,999 top prize for the feature winner, a record payout for a Wisconsin asphalt short-track racing event.

“You just don’t see that in asphalt racing anymore,” Thelen said.

“I don’t think the economy is back yet, but we’re trying to weather the storm and move forward with good sponsors, like Superseal,” he added. “It helps keep you on the map.”

Last year, 35 cars entered the event.

For the third straight year, Steve Dorer, a driver originally from Michigan, but lives in Florida, competed at Slinger Nationals. In the last two years, he said he has been impressed with the direction the track is going, especially with Nationals.

The word has continued to spread.

This year, 42 cars entered the event, the first time its brought in more than 40 super late models since 2008.

“It’s a huge race; it’s nationally known,” said Chris Wimmer, the winner of this year’s Slinger Nationals, which was held Tuesday.