When Jesse Pokszyk was cutting his racing teeth — as the learning curve in racing is often called — there was snow in his face, a seatbelt-less seat under him and two skis out front.
Pokszyk, you see, didn’t learn to race stock cars the conventional way. He didn’t slide into a go-kart seat, then a lower-tier stock car, then into a sleek, high-powered machine called a Late Model.
The 34-year-old Friendship, Wis., man you see behind the wheel of the No. 2 Late Model car at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway each Saturday night had to make a big transition of sorts.
Yes, seasonal was one. And going from a studded track to four tires was another.
Pokszyk took a far different route as he grew up racing snowmobiles, first on oval tracks, then snocross, which is the wintertime version of motocross. He was so young when he started that the first motorized sled he recalled jumping on was Artic Cat’s popular “Kitty Cat,” which did a fast crawl over the snow.
“Snowmobile racing was just a way of life when I was kid,” Pokszyk said. “From the time I was probably 6 years old, I was racing.”
That hobby-turned-passion flew directly in the face of something else that was very popular in the Adams-Friendship School District at the time — boys basketball.
The Green Devils were a hugely successful program in the 1990s and into the 2000s under coach Steve Klaas and qualified to play in the WIAA Division 2 state tournament in 1996, 1999, 2001 and 2002.
It was a tough time for Pokszyk, however, because he was forced to choose between snowmobile racing and basketball.
“When I was in high school, we went to state three out of the four years. We had a pretty good run of athletes,” Pokszyk said. “I quit playing basketball because I raced snowmobiles in the winter. And once I got to high school, it kind of conflicted with practice. I chose racing over that (basketball), and it has just kind of been like that the rest of my life.”
Pokszyk was wildly successful in snowmobile racing, earning a coveted factory ride from Polaris when he was 18. He raced in the semi-pro division and had a tremendous experience.
“It is pretty tough, but I am glad I did it with the experiences I had and the friends that I made. We raced in Canada; we raced out West and out East, in New York. Most of the guys I was racing against, it was their full-time job,” Pokszyk said.
“It was a tough deal, but from the time I was a kid that was my goal to make it their (earn a factory-sponsored ride) and we did. I wouldn’t change it for nothing; I am glad we did it.”
Pokszyk raced with the Polaris team as an 18- and 19-year-old, but there were a couple of things that made him question his future in the sport.
One, while he was pretty darn good at racing snowmobiles he always had this nagging thought that wouldn’t leave him alone: “Would he be good at racing stock cars, too?” And two, he was getting tired of all the injuries associated with snowmobile racing.
“I always wanted to race cars when I was younger, but by the time I was in my mid-teens, I had started getting pretty good at snocross, and my dad didn’t want me to make the transition,” Pokszyk said.
“And like I said, it was a tough deal (racing snowmobiles); I broke a lot of bones.”
So Pokszyk transitioned out of racing snowmobiles and began building his own Late Model stock car. At 23, he was ready to race it and began competing at a number of regional Wisconsin tracks at Wisconsin Dells, Marshfield, Plover and Madison. He even stepped up and did some ARCA Midwest Tour and Tundra Series racing, too.
There were not a lot of things that he could take from snowmobile racing and transfer to racing stock cars, but there were some intangibles that crossed over.
“In the sense of the skill required riding a snowmobile or driving a car, there is probably not much crossover. But the attitude, the work ethic and how hard you try and what you put into it and what you get out of it, the stuff I learned as a kid, it still carries through,” Pokszyk said.
“I like to look at it as if doesn’t matter what you are racing. We could go out there and race bathtubs; it comes down to the attitude. It is how much you put into it, and that stems from racing snowmobiles when I was a kid.”
Pokszyk said he enjoyed racing stock cars at the various tracks in Wisconsin, and in the upper Midwest for that matter, but it took a toll. An employee of the Adams County Highway Department, Pokszyk was able to squeeze his racing around his full-time job, but there were three other things even more important.
Spending time with his wife, Lisa, and daughters Keagan (10) and Kenzie (8).
“I was getting a little burned out with all the traveling and everything we had done,” Pokszyk said of racing at different tracks each weekend. “Getting over here last year and now the start of this year, having a good, strong car has kind of rejuvenated me a little bit and put a little drive back in me.”
Pokszyk has plenty of drive all right. He has been one of the surprises of the Fairgrounds Speedway season. Perhaps not to himself or those who know his skills and competitive spirit, but to the rest of the Late Model field and the fans.
Pokszyk, who pilots a car once drive by Steve Carlson, has not only been highly competitive, but he won a feature race on June 17 and currently sits ninth in the Tobacco Outlet Plus Late Model points standings. Considering this year’s Late Model field is the deepest it has been in years with 25 or more drivers competing each week, Pokszyk knows what he has done — so far — is something to feel good about.
“It has been a great time. I love coming over here and racing. It is a great crowd, it is a great facility,” Pokszyk said. “The show just goes so smooth, and it is a great group of drivers over here.
“It is intimidating. This is one of the strongest fields of cars (in the state) that is here on a weekly basis. On any given night, if Ty (Majeski) comes in or someone else comes in, it is still a pretty talented and full field. There are 10 different guys that could win every night, depending on how things to (with the lineup).”