Nick Panitzke had what many short track racers would consider to be a dream season in 2019. The Minnesota native won nine races, finished third in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national point standings and was crowned track champion at LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway (WI).
But along the way, he forgot the most important part of the sport: having fun. Ultimately, it took a moment with his son Cameron for Panitzke to realize that he needed to do something to put the fun back into racing.
“We got pretty serious with the NASCAR deal. Me and family go to the race track together and towards the end there, we needed to get wins and if we didn’t win we were pretty aggravated, pretty upset,” Panitzke told Speed51.com. “We got so used to winning we weren’t having all that great of time doing what we were doing. I didn’t know it at the time but my son was picking up on all that.
“At the end of the season, we scrambled and got him a go-kart and got him out to a race. He finished fifth or sixth or something like that and he pulled in with tears in his eyes. I go, ‘Buddy, what is wrong? Are you okay? Did you not have a good time or what’s the matter?’ I was as happy as could be because he did totally awesome for his first race, I couldn’t have been more proud. He said, ‘Dad, I’m sorry but I didn’t win.’ That’s when it all kind of sunk in and reality set in. It’s been quite a few years since we had actually had a good time racing.”
After that fateful night, Panitzke made the decision to pull out of asphalt racing and make the switch to dirt for the 2020 season. He began his racing career on dirt before geography forced his hand to the asphalt ranks to further his career. Now with the help of former Dirt Late Model Dream and North/South 100 winner Jimmy Mars, he returns to where it all started.
“My kid is starting to race in go-karts and he’ll be racing at Cedar Lake Speedway (MN) and I thought it would be a good time to give it a try,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do it, I started out on dirt doing the go-karts and the only reason why I ever went asphalt racing was because I lived a mile from I-94 Speedway and if we wanted to go big car racing I had to go there. Here I am twenty years later, looking to do something different and try to enjoy it and have a good time with it.”
Panitzke’s 2020 goal will not be set by the win/loss column, but by the good times has with his son as he gets him ready for his first full year of racing. He’ll put his time behind the wheel on the backburner while helping Cameron find the fun at the track, no matter what the results look like.
“Now that my son’s starting I want to make sure he sees the good and the fun in it,” Panitzke said. “I’m not going to say we’re for sure going to find that but putting a lot of focus on his racing and showing him that we can go out and have a good time a handful of times at the dirt track and enjoy it, whether we finish last or tear the right rear quarter panel off every race, there’s fun in it and we’ll still have a good time. No matter what, we’ll be laughing and enjoying our time together at the end of the races. I don’t want to be one of those dads that takes everything my family’s worth out of the time and out of the money and leaves them with the leftovers. His racing is first and foremost and I’m happy with the leftovers.”
While he switches to dirt for 2020, Panitzke will not completely rule out a start or two on asphalt over the course of the season. However, he mentions he won’t make a habit out of it due in part to financials.
“I’ll likely do one or two asphalt Super Late races this summer in someone else’s car but I won’t own my own equipment. When you own your own truck, trailer, cars, engines, and everything it takes to go down the road, it’s a major financial burden. We’ll be towing to the dirt track forty-five minutes from home with my every-day pickup and an open trailer.”
With his son’s racing career beginning to take shape and without the stresses of going after a national championship, Panitzke is ready to have some fun in 2020.
“It’s a perfect time to make the transition and to live out a dream of mine racing Dirt Late Models and spending the summer with my family and doing a lot of racing with my son.”
-Story by: Koty Geyer, Speed51.com State Editor (IN/MI) – Twitter: @kgeyer3
-Photo Credit: Forte Design