Nodak workers say they’re part of ‘a big family’

There is much more happening at Nodak Speedway than cars circling a three-eighths mile track on Sunday evenings.

The lead-up to Sunday’s races begins six days earlier as the track preparation team headed by Jeff Barta works to get the circuit back into racing condition. Barta said it takes about 24 hours of man power to repair the track after a night of racing. He and two others work about eight hours Monday.

Barta and his team are constantly at the mercy of Mother Nature as the elements play a large role in how prepare the track. They monitor the track the next few days and adjust to whatever the weather brings.

“You’re trying to make three different groups happy,” Barta said. “You have to make the drivers happy so they come back. You have to make the fans happy so they come back. And you have to make the board happy.”

If rain adds extra moisture to the track, Barta’s team spends the day “mushing” the soil with the help of what Barta called the “big wheels.” When the heat dries out the track, moisture is added to the track via the water truck. Barta said roughly 160,000 gallons of water were used on the track last week to withstand the high temperatures.

Barta said he knows the pressure of pleasing the fans in the grandstands as he was once a disgruntled one himself, constantly complaining about the track conditions. Nodak Speedway officials told him if he could do a better job, he should volunteer. That was 10 to 12 years ago and Barta has been part of the track preparation crew ever since.

Race day: Hours before gates open

The racing starts at 6 p.m. and the gates open an hour earlier, but the Nodak Speedway staff arrives anywhere from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Korie Huettl arrives at the track around 2 p.m. to take her position at the pit gate. There, Huettl and two others sign in everyone who uses the pits, including drivers, pit men, media members, fire and rescue workers, EMTs and the track prep team. She also collects the drivers’ W9 forms so they can issue them checks at the end of the night.

Huettl has been working at Nodak Speedway for three years, but she was familiar with the track long before that.

“We’ve gone to the races forever because my husband (Ron) used to race,” Huettl said. “He took over the secretary position and they just needed more help.”

Huettl works beside Judy Mock, who has been working at Nodak Speedway for 16 years.

Inside the gates, lap counters and scoring officials Jen Kurz and Dusty Lawson are busy getting transponder numbers from any track newcomers so their times will appear on their computers. Keeping track of laps and lap leaders is nothing new to Kurz, who began keeping track of that manually when she was 15 years old.

“I like competition,” Kurz said. “It’s about the family. It’s something I grew up with. My dad raced my entire life and I grew up near a racetrack.”

Kurz’s father, Dennis Chapman, races in the International Motor Contest Association Sport Modifieds division.

Kurz worked at Nodak Speedway for seven years before moving to New Mexico, continuing her role as a lap counter and scorer. She’s been back at Nodak Speedway for the past three years. Deb Chapman, Jen’s mother, serves as the secretary on the board of directors.

On the track, flag official Lance Peterson is doing anything he can to help out. Sometimes he’ll assist in watering the track and other times he’ll hop on a four-wheeler and help throw big rocks and other debris off the raceway.

“I’ve been going to the races since I was three years old,” Peterson said. “I’ve been into it my whole life. I’m a wheel junky. I love it.”

Green flag flies

Roughly 10 minutes prior to the first of many green flags, the racer’s prayer is performed over the loud speakers by 16-year announcing veteran Larry McFall before the playing of the Canadian and American national anthems.

When that’s finished, race director Gaylen Helgeson and race coordinator Misti Flory communicate to the radios in the drivers’ cars that those in the first heat of the night are allowed to enter the track. After a couple laps to test the tackiness of the track, Peterson waves the green flag and the night’s festivities begin.

Up in the press box, McFall is joined by Nodak Speedway Vice President Lindsay Lawson on the microphone. Lindsay Lawson, Dusty’s father, has assisted with the announcing duties for 10 years and became the vice president in 2009. The announcing duo keep the crowd updated with an assortment of driver facts and witty banter. Nick Hulberg became the third member of the team this year and handles post-race interviews, as well as driving the pace car before the features.

In the infield, Jim Clifford and his fire and rescue team watch for any potential dangers. Clifford says he looks for smoke coming from the cars, which could lead to engine fires. He also looks for car debris on the track. In the case of a rollover, Clifford keeps an eye out for spilt gas. He is in constant contact with Helgeson and the rest of the track officials.

Clifford isn’t foreign to flames as served as a firefighter for 33 years for the U.S. Air Force before retiring in 2008. He began volunteering at Nodak Speedway when a fellow firefighter at the Minot Air Force Base asked him to be part of the fire and rescue crew. This is his fourth year back as part of the crew after working there from 1972-92.

Like so many others who work at Nodak Speedway, Clifford has been around racing his entire life. Clifford was born in Welcome, Minn., and his mother used to take him to the local racetrack – Jackson Speedway – every Friday night.

“It’s almost like a big family,” Clifford said. “Once you have racing in your blood, it stays with you.”

Communicating through caution

Cautions are part of racing, but while the drivers slow to a crawl, the Nodak Speedway staff is at its busiest. Peterson waves the yellow flag to signal the caution and Flory radios that information to the drivers. She’ll also tell the drivers where to go on the track to avoid the wreckage or emergency vehicles.

Helgeson communicates with officials near the track as to who should be assessed the caution and that gets relayed to Flory, who alerts the drivers. The guilty party is told to move to the back of the pack for the restart. Flory will also list off the positioning of the cars for the restart.

This is Flory’s first season at Nodak Speedway and she has held the same position at Basin Speedway in Williston for the last three years. She’s been working with Lindsay Lawson and McFall, who venture to Williston each week to announce, and was asked to join the staff at Nodak Speedway.

“My favorite part is the community of working with the other people that are up (in the press box),” Flory said. “It is a stellar staff Nodak Speedway has from Gaylen to Dusty to Jen to Lindsay and Larry. When you’re working with an outstanding group of people it makes it an exciting job.”

As the caution continues, Peterson is looking for flat tires, broken front and rear ends and anything else that could be hazardous while the drivers are slowly circling the track. Peterson said his least favorite part of the job is black flagging a driver and dealing with his or her wrath as a result. But Peterson knows what to do in those situations.

“The best way is to point our finger at them and if it gets really bad we call the sheriff,” he said. “We don’t have to deal with that and if anything happens they can come to the (board) meeting. Other than that, when we throw the flag it’s our call.”

When Helgeson gives the word that the track is clear of any wreckage and debris, Flory alerts the drivers that the caution lights will be down on the next lap and reminds them of how many laps they still have. Peterson gets the message as well and waves the green flag as the cars come out of turn four.

The family connection

Huettl, Kurz and Flory go from Nodak Speedway workers to fans when family members take the track. Huettl’s son Jordan races in the IMCA Sport Modifieds division and she leaves her post at the pit gate to watch him race. On June 23 – the last time the Sport Mods raced at Nodak Speedway – Jordan took the checkered flag in the feature race. He also won the first feature race of the season and is currently fourth in the points standings.

Chapman also competes in the Sport Mods division with Kurz watching from the press box.

The most memorable family moment involved Flory on June 2. For the first time, Flory’s husband Joe and son Dalton finished 1-2 in an IMCA Stock Cars feature race. Joe bested his 16-year-old son by 1.158 seconds.

“It was totally unbelievable,” Misti Flory said. “Words can’t even express it. I was so excited yet I had a job to do. I had to wait until later to express how excited I was. It was a very emotional event. It was happy tears.”

A week later, Dalton won his first career Stock Car feature race.

Capturing everything

Nodak Speedway photographer Betty Nordstrom has been capturing the races through her Nikon D70 camera off and on since the ’90s.

“The combination of racing and photography makes the perfect match for me,” Nordstrom said.

Nordstrom used to set up in the infield near corner three, but since there is no guard rail anymore, she shoots from the north end of the grandstands. Nordstrom said she likes to capture the action shots where the dirt is flying.

When the race is over, Nordstrom emails photos to Nodak Speedway webmaster Darin Shorts, who puts the images on the website.

Nordstrom has taken so many pictures in the last four years that she’s burned out two cameras. She sells her pictures on CDs that she gives to the drivers. The money she raises goes toward purchasing more camera equipment.

All five classes of cars will compete tonight in a Fourth of July Special. Heat races begin at 6 p.m.

Mike Kraft covers racing at Nodak Speedway during the summer. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.