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Fast, Loud and Proud

Late model stock cars work the high banks of Wagner Speedway.

My love for photography and race cars came from the same place — my father. When I was around 13 years old, Dad took me to Thunder Valley Dragways near Marion and brought along a borrowed 35mm camera. I was fascinated with his ability to take photos that looked as good as those I saw in racing magazines. A few years later he purchased a camera for me, and my own photographic journey began. Every summer I attend as many races as I can, camera in hand, across South Dakota. If it’s fast, loud and brightly painted, from super-accelerating dragsters to wide-sliding sprint cars, I love the spectacle. Here are some of the state’s racers and places where you can see them.

A photo by my father, David Coppess, got me started in photography. Two “wheel standers” were flying down the quarter-mile track at Thunder Valley Dragways in Marion when we were there in 1976. The Rapp family had started the drag strip 10 years earlier, and it’s still a big attraction today in Turner County. Thunder Valley is one of just two drag strips in South Dakota. The other is Sturgis Dragway, east of Sturgis.

Drag racing seems easier to understand than many sports. Two cars line up for a straight shot of 1/8th or 1/4th mile. The first to cross the finish line wins. However, there are subtleties, like the tire-smoking “burnout” that prepares tires for a quick launch down the drag strip.

Dale Garber, a drag racer from Pierre, has had success, but he says it comes and goes. “One year I couldn’t lose and the next I never went further than the first round of eliminations, but I love the adrenaline rush.” At right, Joe Wolf of Pierre leaves a smoke trail as he does a burnout in his flame-painted dragster at Sturgis Dragway. 

Friday nights have been rip-roaring fun in Aberdeen for a century, thanks in large part to the Brown County Speedway at the county fairgrounds. The one-third mile track is busy from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Racers come from the Dakotas, Minnesota and even Canada to compete. The family atmosphere allows kids to visit the pits after races and win matching trophies with their heroes.

Tori Wendell has been racing since age 13.

The South Dakota Mud Racers hold eight weekend events every summer at tracks in Mitchell, Canova, Tripp, Canistota, Platte, Woonsocket and Fulton. The variety of classes — ATV, Street, Sportsman, Super Stock, Pro and Pro Modified — is part of the fun for the mudders and fans. Kevin Hohn remembers his first race in 1999: “I drove my street-legal Jeep and placed second. I had a blast and won some money, so I decided to build for the sportsman class. That started a 22-year career in mud drags with my daughter racing with me in her Jeep for several years.”

John Otte of Ravinia led a pack of winged sprint cars out of Turn Two at Wagner Speedway in a race last summer. Sprint cars attain high speeds due to their low weight, high horsepower and large wings that keep them connected to the track.

Tori Wendell has been racing stock cars on dirt ovals since she was 13 and is only the second female to win at Wagner Speedway near her hometown of Fairfax. Wagner Speedway is a 3/8ths mile dirt oval that draws big crowds on Friday nights, thanks partly to a reputation for hosting community benefits and special events. Many South Dakota racetracks generously assist local groups with fundraisers.

Wendell also won at nearby Stuart, Nebraska, last summer, and then her boyfriend Kyle Moos proposed to her in victory lane.

“I had two wins and a marriage proposal in three days,” smiled the young manager of Wagner’s NAPA auto parts store.

However, auto racing hasn’t always been so kind. She had a bad crash in 2021, rolling her car and sustaining a concussion and broken nose. Why does she continue to race?

“The thrill,” she laughed. “Nothing compares to it.”

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the July/August 2022 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

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