Matt Kenseth returned to Slinger Speedway for practice Monday, pausing to chat with media before getting back to tweaking his car for the 35th Annual Miller Lite Nationals. Now the only six-time Nationals champion, Kenseth earned his first Nationals win in 1994, following a prestigious list of racers who found success on Slinger’s high banks. Bobby Allison was the first superstar to come to Slinger, flying his own plane here to compete at Slinger. Allison never won at the Nationals, but he won the hearts of Wisconsin’s racing community. Sharing stories with the crowd and making a point of racing his way into the main event instead of being a provisional, Allison ended each visit by flying over the track and dipping his win before returning back to Alabama.
Kenseth recalled those years, “That was always the draw for the Slinger Nationals. The guys when I was growing up to watch were always Trickle, Shear, Reffner. You always had a lot of guys from ASA and NASCAR who would come down to race. There was always a ton of guys, like Schrader, Allison. There were a lot of cool guys who raced here back in the day. I always thought that was the neat part.” Mark Martin, Alan Kulwicki and Kyle Busch claimed Nationals titles. Dale Earnhart, Davey Allison, Neil Bonnett, Michael Waltrip, Kyle Petty, Ernie Irvan and many others did not. Dick Trickle, Joe Shear and Rich Bickle Jr. each posted four Nationals titles for Wisconsin racers, and the winning hardware was named for our first winner, Larry Detjens. With the exception of Martin, Butch Miller and Busch, all the Nationals winners hail from the Badger State.
Kenseth will face five-time winner Lowell Bennett and a host of other challengers Tuesday. Two-time Nationals champion Miller returned to works on Kenseth’s car instead of racing. A photographer presented Kenseth with an old Checkered Flag Racing News from 1988, in which Miller was winning a lot of races when 16-year old Matt “The Brat” was coming into the race world. That paper got your scribe her start eight years earlier, and much has changed since then. “It’s funny, Butch was saying you know it’s been twenty years,” joked Kenseth, “And I thought he was so full of it. Then I realized it has been twenty years. It’s crazy. I don’t know where the time goes. I sure don’t feel it was that long ago and sure don’t feel that old. Time goes by in a hurry, I guess.” Kenseth said, “Butch is fun to be around. I enjoyed racing against him all the time, sort of, but he always beat me. Him and Troy helped me a lot through the years, helped (son) Ross a lot. A really big race was when Ross won the All American 400, and the Winchester 400. Hopefully we can win tomorrow. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Racing with his son is a rare treat, stated Kenseth, explaining, “It’s fun to race with him. I hope when it comes to Tuesday I hope we finish first and second. We haven’t done that yet. It’s fun to watch him. I get to see things on the track that I normally don’t see.” Kenseth added, “I didn’t get to race any late model stuff last year. It’s fun to come back and mess around and come up with ideas. I get caught up a little bit. The stuff changes pretty rapidly. It’s a lot different than it used to be. Everything changes. The track’s not a lot different, the cars have changed a lot through the years.”
Kenseth was asked about sporting his old number eight on the car, explaining, “It’s fun to come back up here and race, build a car and run the eight on it again. It’s been a lot of years since I ran one of those. I can run Madison and Slinger, get that car back out. There’s people who saw me race that car, there’s probably some who don’t remember that number.”
While others consider Kenseth a star, Wisconsin’s second NASCAR champion declared, “I still wonder how it all happened. A lot of days it still doesn’t seem realistic. It still surprises me. I don’t really think of myself as really being that great. There’s a lot of really good race car drivers out there, a lot that I raced against that I felt like were way better than me and never really had a chance. They never made it for whatever reason, so I was really fortunate to meet some great people along the way and be in the right place at the right time. When Robbie (Reiser) and his dad gave me a chance to drive their Busch car and moving up that way, I had a lot of things go right. I had a lot of great people let me drive their cars. That’s what got me here.”
Asked if he would consider running his own race track, Kenseth quickly replied, “No way. There was a time when my dad was running Madison we talked about it and everything. But with me not living up here, and all the stuff we do it would be more of a headache. One thing about owning a race track is that nobody’s ever happy, or everybody’s never happy, I should say. That would be too stressful for me. I like everybody to be happy.”
Among those in the pits Monday afternoon were Mark Kraus with his 12-year old son Derek, who was making his first start in a truck. We found Becca Kasten here while her former crew chief Toby Nuttleman worked on Ty Majeski’s mount. Kasten no longer races, having competed only twice last year and now lives in North Carolina, where she is attending seminary and enjoying her high school sport of golf. Defending Slinger super late model champion Steve Apel and brother Jared were here to set up Paige Decker’s car, claiming they made it fast. Whatever the teams learn from practice will be shelved whenTuesday’s weather rolls in. No one can predict what will happen.
(Editors Note: Fay Hendricks is a long-time racing columnist and periodically will share her racing stories on Speed 51.com)
Photo Credit: Fay Hendricks.