While his operating cash flow for his weekly racing venture is directly linked to his performance each Saturday night, Nick Panitzke is far from a seat-of-his-pants kind of guy.

Quite the opposite, actually.

Panitzke, a 26-year-old from Lonsdale, Minn., began putting the pieces — roll cage, chassis, shocks, transmission, motor — together for the current La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway season last fall and winter.

A regular at the Oktoberfest Race Weekend at the Speedway, he didn’t compete for the first time in years, although he was at the event, helping other drivers.

It was all part of his plan — financial and strategic — in order to compete in the Tobacco Outlet Plus Late Model Division this season. He knew what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to do it.

And he was going to do it without the use of social media. More on that later.

“I have always had a place in my heart for La Crosse, for the track down there. It is pretty special to me,” Panitzke said. “It means a lot to me to run well there.”

BRUCE NUTTLEMAN, Special to the Tribune
Nick Panitzke, a 26-year-old Late Model driver from Lonsdale, Minn., is shown in the reflection of his driver's side mirror before a recent race at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway.

Near the midpoint of the regular season, Panitzke has been the surprise of the Late Model Division. Not to himself, but to those who attend the races on a regular basis. He has won the most features (three) and leads the point standings by 16 points (307 to 291) over four-time defending track champion Steve Carlson.

With seven regular-season features, plus the season-ender at Oktoberfest yet to go, Panitzke is the man to beat. His black No. 22 car has been at the front of the pack, or pushing to the front, each Saturday night.

And he’s done it by digging into his own pocket, as he does not have a sponsor’s logo splashed over his hood, his front fenders or his rear quarterpanel.

He welcomes one and all sponsors, but he’s not using a laptop to pursue them. Or following what others are saying about him in the never-stop world of social media. No shout-outs for this guy.

“It is just really not me, to be honest. Instead of looking at what everybody is doing with their lives, we worry about our own,” Panitzke said of why he’s not on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or doesn’t even use email. “That is just the way I am. I am not a guy that sells anything I have or have done.

“I am not good at patting myself on the back or anything like that. I am not opposed to it. I love reading articles (about racing) and seeing stuff on the La Crosse site, but when it comes to what we do, I prefer to let everybody else think what they want.”

Panitzke, who works as a machinist at QA1 Precision Products in Lakeville, Minn., has turned his La Crosse Speedway venture into a family affair of sorts. His wife, Morgan, their 5-year-old son, Cameron, along with his father-in-law, Brian Johnson, a former racer himself, and mother-in-law, Tami, make the 3-hour trip from Lonsdale to West Salem each Saturday.

His parents, Jon and Kim, live another 2½ hours north of Lonsdale in Sauk Centre, Minn., but have made the trip to see him race on several occasions.

It’s his family, he says, which has helped him keep racing in perspective.

“It is all based on a budget; we just do what we can do. I’ve got a family, a house, a job. Ten years ago, I would have put every dime I had into racing and if the other stuff has to wait, it has to wait,” Panitzke said.

“I learned really quick that if you don’t have fun racing, it will not go well. If you are racing and wondering how you are going to make your house payment, it’s not a lot of fun and it affects your performance.”

The “family time,” as he calls the trip to and from La Crosse, includes some racing talk, but it is not dominated by it.

“We know the things we have to do when we get to the track and we make sure our plan is developed, but we talk about what happened during the week. It is a fun outing, where the trip up and back is pretty quality time for us,” Panitzke said.

“On the way back we talk about how the race went, but we laugh and enjoy it. My wife, Morgan, she is the one who talks me into racing the most.

“Usually, well a lot of drivers have it the opposite way, they (spouse) wants to talk you out of going racing. We are having fun doing this; it’s part of our plan to have our family be a part of it.”

Winning, or at least being very competitive, was part of the plan, too. That is why Panitzke said he put some “serious thought” into how he was going to compete against Carlson, a short-track king who won the 2007 Whelen All-American Series national short track title.

He wanted to be in control of things, as in how his chassis was built, how his front and rear clips were built, how his shocks were built.

So what did he do? He built nearly everything himself.

“I built a roll cage and basically started from there,” Panitzke said. “I built my own shocks, my own front and rear clips, my current chassis. If you do everything yourself, you have everything in your control and don’t have to rely on other people or companies that make those parts.”

Panitzke admitted his focus was more on making sure the car was right than on driving it. Once he found out he had a pretty fast car, he’s thought more about how he drives it.

He drove it hard, but smart, last week when he hung around in third place for a number of laps, the waited for the leaders to sort themselves out — i.e. burn up their tires — before chasing them down.

The strategy worked, and he picked up his division-leading third feature win of the season.

“A lot of racers think about racing instead of thinking about the car. I always have the car on my mind and what I can do to it,” Panitzke said. “It is important to me to know, and understand, what each thing does and how it affects everything else.

“I did a lot of work on the car in the offseason and have been focusing more on driving the past two weeks. When you are only racing six or seven times a year like I was (in a Super Late Model series), you don’t get put in enough positions, like when you are up front, or close to the front.

“It is right there at your fingertips, and the more times you get put into that situation, the smarter you can be.”