For Slinger Drivers, It Felt Good To Finally Go Racing

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Casey Johnson works on his race car in the pits Sunday afternoon at Slinger Super Speedway. (Nick Dettmann Photo)
Casey Johnson works on his race car in the pits Sunday afternoon at Slinger Super Speedway. (Nick Dettmann Photo)

SLINGER, Wis. – After a career-year in 2019, Casey Johnson was eager to see if he could either match it or exceed it this season.

He won two features with the ARCA Midwest Tour on his way to winning the championship, his first with the series. He was second in the coveted Red-White-Blue Championship at Wisconsin Int’l Raceway in Kaukauna, Wis. He also won his second-straight super late model title at Wisconsin Int’l Raceway. In all he won 12 features, the most he’s won in a super late model in a single season.

“We had a lot of momentum,” Johnson said.

Fellow super late model driver John DeAngelis Jr., who finished third in last season’s ARCA Midwest Tour standings, also had big plans this year after solid performances in 2019. Among those was a third-place finish at the Slinger Nationals, second in the Dixieland 250 at Wisconsin Int’l Raceway and fifth in the Howie Lettow Memorial 100 at Madison Int’l Speedway in Oregon, Wis.

“We were going to run a lot of bigger races like Anderson (Indiana) and the Redbud, Winchester, Nashville and the (Snowball) Derby,” he said. “We weren’t really going to points race too much.”

That anticipation was erased in an instant.

On March 11, Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. That diagnosis set off a chain reaction that signaled a changed world. The NBA quickly suspended its season after Gobert’s positive test.

From there, several sports leagues and events followed, including the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, by either suspending seasons or canceling events. Other hallowed sporting events that were either canceled or postponed include The Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500, The Masters golf championship and the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Then, governments swooped in closing schools and businesses deemed nonessential, and millions of people, numbers not seen since The Great Depression nearly 100 years ago, lost their jobs. States around the country instituted restrictions about public gatherings and the need to stay home.

This was done in hopes of stopping the spread of a virus that so many knew little to nothing about.

As the days and weeks wore on, fears from many increased, including small business owners. Among those are short-track owners such as Todd Thelen of Slinger Super Speedway.

On April 26, the planned opening day for Slinger came and went with no fans in the stands or cars on the track. The calendar said it was racing season in Wisconsin, but tracks were dormant with gates locked.

Drivers, crews, fans and promoters wondered one of two thoughts: When will the 2020 season start? Or, will there be a 2020 season?

“I had a real strong feeling about that,” Johnson said.

About the frustration and weirdness of not being at a race track when his calendar said he should be, Johnson said, “You look back at your Facebook timeline and it’s reminding you that last year you were at the Joe Shear Classic or you set fast time. Now you’re sitting on your couch or mowing your lawn, doing yard work, something like that. It’s just not right.”

Johnson said his car has been on jack stands for weeks ready to go racing and he, like many other drivers, wondered if and when that might happen.

On May 12, Rep. Rick Gundrum, who represents the Slinger area in the Wisconsin Legislature, posted an interview with Thelen on the Wisconsin Assembly Republicans YouTube channel. In the interview, Thelen talked about how Slinger was impacted by the shutdown being implemented to businesses around the country. Thelen pleaded his case as to why Slinger should re-open.

Thelen also told Gundrum in the video he feared Slinger, which opened in 1948, would be gone if forced closures kept him from opening the track. Thelen also questioned why a condo development with hundreds of workers would be deemed essential and not his business.

A day later, on May 13, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers’ extension of the Safer-At-Home order. Evers initially put the order in place days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in mid-March. That order was set to expire April 24. But, days before that, Evers extended the order to May 26, which triggered a lawsuit by lawmakers in Wisconsin.

On May 14, Thelen sat at a computer and announced in a Facebook Live post that Slinger would open for the season the following Sunday. Unfortunately, several inches of rain in the region forced the track to cancel the opener and delay it one more week.

On Sunday, a summer-like day greeted racers, their crews and fans at Slinger to open the 73rd season of racing. Throughout the day and evening, it was a happy reunion for drivers, crews and fans. It was also a relief.

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