Mostly gone are the day of short track heroes in the Late Model ranks. Kids come and go like a gold rush in the sport of auto racing as they eye the prize of big dollars in the NASCAR world. Years ago, men cut their teeth on the short tracks and later became weekly heroes for us all across the land. Few remain from that mold, and fewer are still racing. Steve Carlson is not the last, but he is one of the few remaining short track gladiators who can live to tell the tail of a long career as a weekend warrior.
When Carlson first strapped himself into a racecar back in 1975, he had no idea how far it would take him. Right from the get go, he was a contender. As he moved up the ranks on the short tracks in Wisconsin, he became one of the elite. Now his name is spoken with the best of them along with Trickle, Shear, Bickle, Kulwicki and Kenseth.
“I do it for fun,” said Carlson. “We have had lots of success over the years, but I don’t look at the trophies because we are always looking to the next race. Last year we decided to return and run ASA Midwest for a second full season, and I think we will do that again in 2011.”
Some people that run in that ASA Midwest tour almost wish Carlson would take a year, or two, off so someone else can win the championship. Carlson will be going for his third in a row in the series. In fact, he even missed a race in 2009 and still won the championship.
“ASA Midwest is a tough series. There are a lot of really good drivers in there,” said Carlson. “Winning in it is very difficult. It’s really good that they were able to pick up and keep a strong series going after NASCAR left after 2006.”
NASCAR had an important part of short track racing in the Midwest and several times over Carlson was at the banquet taking home the big check as the series champion. Five times he did it under the NASCAR banner and another four times under the ARTGO banner. He won 67 races which was second to only Dick Trickle.
“ARTGO was tough too. When I first got into that series it was Dick Trickle, Rich Bickle, Butch Miller, it was a tough deal. But you learned to race with the best and we stayed with it as others moved on and we were there all the way through the NASCAR years.”
Those NASCAR years were some of the glory years for the region and for racing in the Midwest. Things are still very healthy in Wisconsin when it comes to racing.
“The NASCAR years were great, we went to a lot of different tracks and we travel all over and it was a lot of fun,” said Carlson. “Being the champion got us some good money and we got to go to New York. NASCAR treated their champions really well.”
“Nowadays, there are so many racetracks within three hours of my race shop that it’s crazy. There are third miles, three-eighth miles, half-miles everything you could want. You can easily race three or four nights a week if you wanted too. The rules match so you can take a car anywhere.”
One place Carlson always takes his car is LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway for the Oktoberfest each fall. Although he has only won the race once, it is still the biggest event on his calendar each year.
“Since 1975, I have only missed one show,” said Carlson. “It gets bigger every year. I have only won it once, but I have been second or third more times than I can count. Four days long, partying every night, it’s a big deal.”
Counting his one win, he has been on the podium a total of 12 times in the Sunday main event at Oktoberfest. There have been several near misses, just like in 2009 when he banged wheels with Travis Sauter in the closing laps only to end up second again.
However, one of the toughest guys he ever raced against won the event five times in the past. When asked about who was the toughest guy he had ever raced against he had no hesitation.
“Joe Shear was the toughest guy I ever raced against,” said Carlson. “For many years you would pull into the pits and if Joe Shear was there he was the guy you had to beat. He was fair and fast.”
Over the years things have changed in racing like the addition of crate motors and that has really changed the thought process on Late Model racing. Carlson himself had a crate car that was untouchable for a while. He won the Kings Ransom 300 at Memphis in 2008.
“They split Late Models up when Crate Late Models came into play,” said Carlson. “We ran them in other series, but then we all figured out that they are better on some tracks then the built engines. We saw people do that on the ASA Midwest Tour. They have since not allowed them to come back.”
As for the kids that are quickly taking over the sport.
“When I started racing you had to earn a better car,” said Carlson. “You would race a car for a year and then sell and upgrade the next year. Some of these younger guys come out and they have got better stuff then I have got and it took me all these year to get what I have got. The sport has really changed.”
One of these days Carlson might wake up in the morning and figure it’s time to walk away from the sport. Don’t count on that happening anytime soon.
“When it stops being fun,” said Carlson with a smile. “As long as I am fast I am going to keep racing. I like working with young drivers. Its close, but never as good as driving yourself.”
Carlson doesn’t have any plans to run in another other series or truck across the country to run one of the bigger events. He’s happy racing close to home and being the guy that everyone looks as the guy to beat every week.
I don’t even look at all that I have won,” said a humble Carlson. “Maybe someday I will look at the stat sheet. I think it’s just cool that I became that guy that everyone wants to beat.”
Championships and Honors
2009, 2010 – ASA Midwest Champion
10 Career ASA Midwest Wins (Most All-Time)
1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 – NASCAR Midwest Champion
1990, 1991, 1994, 1996 – ARTGO Champion
67 Career Midwest/ARTGO Wins (2nd All-Time)
4 Career Late Model North Series Wins
3 ASA National Tour Wins
2 Sunoco National Tour Wins
7-Time Keith Fleck / Miller 100 Winner at Hawkeye Downs Speedway (IA)
7-Time National Short Track Championship Wins at Rockford Speedway (IL)
7-Time Dixieland 150 Winner at Wisconsin International Raceway (IL)
2000 Oktoberfest Winner at LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway
1984, 2007, 2008 - Late Model Track Champion - LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway
1978, 1979 - Hobby Stock Champion – LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway