It rained on Nick Panitzke’s parade last year, but it didn’t wash out the party.
And while the damp ending stole his chance of putting an exclamation point on his 2017 season by washing out the Late Model feature at the Oktberfest Race Weekend, he left the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway with what he wanted the most — a championship.
Friday night, Panitzke will be officially honored as the Kwik Trip Tobacco Outlet Plus Late Model track champion at the 2017 Champions Banquet at the Stoney Creek Inn in Onalaska.
The banquet, where Dean’s Satellite Sportsmen champion Randy Humfeld and Auto Value Thunderstox champion Adam Moore, along with many others will be honored, brings a formal ending to the 2017 La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway season.
And before you ask, yes, Panitzke plans to return in 2018 to defend his title. And it’s a good bet his chief rival and the driver who had won four consecutive titles before Panitzke interrupted the streak — Steve Carlson — will be back, too.
“We will be there. We plan on making the trip,” Panitzke said. “We are going week-to-week, which seemed to work out pretty well last year. We are going with the same mindset, to go out and try and win races and let the points shake out where they may.”
The 2017 season-ender was washed out, but it by no means spoiled a memorable season for the 27-year-old Panitzke, a Lonsdale, Minn., resident who drove three hours — one way — to race at the West Salem facility.
“I mean, we certainly wanted to race it out, but what can you do? It is a bummer, but I am proud of the way we prepared for the race at Oktoberfest and with the way we qualified,” Panitzke said.
“To be honest, I thought we had a good shot at it.”
Panitzke entered the last race of the season with an 11-point lead over four-time defending champion Steve Carlson, and pushed that to 15 points (which turned out to be the final official margin, 742 to 727) with a second-place qualifying effort out of a stocked 27-car field.
All that is history, Panitzke said, but it remains perhaps his best season of racing overall as he finished eighth in the Whelen All-American Series national points standings.
A season that was — once again — a family affair.
Panitzke, whose pit crew consisted of his wife, Morgan, and father-in-law Brian Johnson, was also joined each week by his mother-in-law, Tami, and his 5-year-old son, Cameron. While a six-hour round trip to a race track every week for five months is not ideal, it was a great bonding time for the family, Panitzke said.
“To be honest, this is just what me and my family do,” Panitzke said. “When we get off work, we go to the shop and hang out as a family, then we go to the race a family.”
That won’t change for the 2018 season, Panitzke said, although there is one thing a bit different this year — he has sponsorship. Unlike last year when he entered the season with a bare, sponsor-free hood, he has maintained two sponsors.
“We created a couple of newly formed relationships with three different (sponsorship) partners. We just signed back with Mountain Dew (Gillette Pepsi Cola of La Crosse) on the hood for the full season,” Panitzke said.
“It is nice to have that newly formed partnership going into the season instead of mid-summer. Having that backing and support, including that of Coulee Region Diesel Repair, is so big.”
While his sponsorship is on track, Panitzke admitted he has done little on his car since the season ended in October.
“I have been so busy at work I haven’t even thought about racing,” said Panitzke, who is a machinist at QA1 Precision Products in Lakeville, Minn. “The car is sitting in the same spot where I parked it after Oktoberfest. I need to start thinking about the things I am going to do, the things I am going to fix.”
Panitzke said he won’t totally rebuild the car he raced last season — a car that was new to the track in 2017 — but he will improve and update some things.
“We got a good 28 races on it last year,” Panitzke said. “There are parts and pieces that take a beating over the 28 races, so you need to replace them.”