WEST SALEM — Carter Christenson’s back home, back to running some adrenaline-rushing laps nearly every Saturday night and enjoying some quality time with his father, Ken Christenson, Jr.
Laps around the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway’s five-eighth’s oval track, that is.
It’s a track where his father raced at — quite successfully — for many years. It’s a track where he spent a few nights helping his dad as a kid, but he was simply too young to grab an air wrench and change a tire or slide under the car and pull on some wrenches.
Besides, there was summer soccer to play and other summertime activities that took priority for Carter. Sure, he raced go-karts for a while, but through his high school years Carter didn’t race anything.
“There was probably five or six years where I didn’t race at all. At the time we just didn’t have time for it. I was in summer soccer and other sport things and it just kind of conflicted,” Carter Christenson said.
“Now we have plenty of time to do it.”
And he’s doing it far better than ever before. Christenson, who was involved in wrecks in two of the first three races of the season, is back on track — literally — as he led the Tobacco Outlet Plus 25-lap feature race for several laps last week before settling for a seventh-place finish.
Considering it is only his third full season tucked behind the wheel of a Late Model machine, Christenson is feeling better about himself, the car, and the entire racing situation.
“Of course I am really happy with last week’s finish. It is definitely a step in the right direction,” Christenson said.
“I can’t thank the crew enough. They sometimes butt heads, but it is a good thing as they are just trying to get me to go fast.”
Christenson’s gone fast all right. Sometimes too fast for his own good, pushing his No. 02 car to the edge, then past his driving ability. It’s called a learning curve and he’s admittedly still learning with each lap, each turn, each race night.
The racing lessons continued Saturday night, but it’s obvious Christenson is paying attention.
Saturday night, for example, he qualified 17th in the 25-car Late Model field with a fast-lap time of 20.515 seconds. That set the stage for what hoped was a big night during two, 20-lap features Saturday night in what is tabbed a “Fair Time Special.”
The feature races were not finished as of Tribune press time.
“I certainly think I have made some huge steps during the years,” said Christenson, a 2013 West Salem High School graduate. “I have had some comments about that, too. Some of these guys have been racing out here for 15, 20 or more years, so it is hard.
“It is kind of cool to race against them and know you can compete.”
Carter, at 22 years old, knows a big reason why he is able to compete with the likes of Steve Carlson, Nick Panitzke, Tony Leis and Brad Powell, to name a few, is because of his father. Ken Christenson has been able to transfer his knowledge of chassis setups, or shock and suspension systems and overall racing to his son.
Without that knowledge, Carter said, he wouldn’t be where he is. And the time they spend together working on the car is something that can’t be measured, or replaced, by anything else.
“I would certainly say the time with my dad is a huge thing for why I race,” Carter said. “Otherwise, we don’t really get to spend much time together, other than working on the race car. We kind of connect in that way.
“I would say, for me, it is definitely more fun driving the car right now. My dad probably agrees with that, as he would probably rather be driving the car. He said it is my time now; I am glad I have him as the main brain for the race car.”
A race car that is always challenging, always testing the depth of their knowledge. There is far more to it than simply setting up the suspension that forces the car to turn left.
“It is certainly crazy how the car can change from one lap to the next, especially during the feature. Some people on the hill (fans in the grandstand), they don’t get how your car will change during a race,” Carter said.
“It is really confusing to a lot of the people, especially there is just a lot to learn with your setups and stuff, especially with your stagger and your diagonal (cross-car measurements, weight ratios).
“Even if you are like a quarter inch off, your car can just go the opposite direction you want.”
The good thing is that if that happens now, Carter is able to be at the race shop and help his dad work on the car. A bio-medical engineer, Carter spent time working in Minneapolis after he graduated from Western Technical College. Now, he’s back near his hometown as he works at Gundersen Health System.
“I work at Gundersen now, but I was working in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis, and driving back and forth every weekend to do racing,” Carter said. “Now that I have a job in town, it is a lot nicer.
“Certainly, there are weeks we will spend five nights working on the race car and that is certainly quality time. He knows a lot, and even he doesn’t know everything.
“The thing I mostly worry about is the car, mostly. Back when I was working in Minneapolis, when I would wreck the car, it would normally be my dad, maybe on other guy, working on it during the week.
“I would always feel bad. He always says he loves working on the car, but I wanted to be there.”
Now he is, and the Christensons have a car that can no longer be ignored.
“My first couple of years I had a couple of wrecks, big wrecks that were due to me just overdriving the car. I am certainly a lot more cautious now I that more experienced,” Carter said.
“I know my limits right now.”