When you are in first place and have been for much of the regular season, there is no need to change course for the biggest racing event of the season.
Or that is what Nick Panitzke is telling himself heading into the 48th annual Oktoberfest Race Weekend.
Panitzke has waited 46 days for this moment, and the Lonsdale, Minn., driver isn’t about to throw caution to the wind and jeopardize his chance at dethroning four-time defending Late Model track champion Steve Carlson.
Panitzke, who was uncertain how many weeks he would even race at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway entering the season, takes an 11-point (737 to 726) lead into tonight’s 40-lap Late Model feature race, which will cap the season and determine the track champion.
The Sportsmen and Thunderstox titles are also among those championships decided tonight as well as the first day of the four-day Oktoberfest Race Weekend gets underway at the West Salem facility.
“It has been a long wait. We did some racing in between to keep up to speed, but I am glad it is finally here,” said Panitzke, who finished eighth in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national points standings.
“It has been a few years since we have been to Oktoberfest and I am excited to finish this thing off. The biggest thing is I just want to keep doing what I have been doing here and finish it out strong. We are going to do what we initially started out trying to do, and that’s race to win.”
Panitzke, 26, will have his hands full, as wily veteran Steve Carlson, who won the 2007 Whelen All-American National short-track championship and has won the last four Late Model track titles at the Fairgrounds Speedway, won’t go away quietly. Carlson is almost like an NFL coach on a bye week, as with significant time to work on his car, it is almost guaranteed he will have his car in tip-top shape and be charging for the title.
Carlson has incentive, too, as he is chasing a fifth consecutive Late Model track championship, something that has never been done in the history of the division.
“It is important for me to run well regardless of the points situation,” Panitzke said. “I just want to run the best we can and not even think about points.
“I have had a lot of fun this year, as it kind of brought racing full circle. Racing has been a part of my life for a long time, and racing here (Fairgrounds Speedway) has brought some of the joy of it back to me. I am a racer at heart, and when you are struggling to make things happen it takes some of the fun, some of the pride you have, away.”
Panitzke intends to have 40-laps of fun tonight, but there are some others in addition to Carlson that would love to steal a bit of his thunder. Cole Howland has almost quietly went about having one of his best seasons.
Howland has not won a feature race, but has used solid, consistent performances to grab third place in the points standings. In 15 starts, Howland has six top-five finishes and 14 top-10 performances. He’s been a threat to win several times this season, and could easily put it all together tonight.
It’s just another good driver Panitzke must pass en route to a track title.
“Looking back on it now, five months ago I never expected to have the season we’ve had. I sure hope to keep it going for another night,” Panitzke said.
“The biggest thing is we had a couple of sponsors step up in Mountain Dew and Coulee Region Diesel Repair. That kind of jumpstarted the season. Before that, we certainly couldn’t commit to the whole season. We are very thankful (to sponsors) for that.”
Panitzke had a tough decision to make before the 2017 season began, as he lives about 5 minutes from the Elko Speedway in Elko, Minn. For a number of reasons, he decided to commit most of his time to the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway, nearly a 3-hour trip (one way) from his home. But, Panitzke said, the nearly 6-hour round trip has not been a hindrance or an issue.
In fact, he said it has become valuable “family” time as his wife, Morgan, 5-year-old son Cameron, along with his father-in-law Brian Johnson — a former racer — and his mother-in-law, Tami, has used the travel time to catch up with each other and form and even tighter bond.
“To be honest, the trip has never bothered us. We have used the time as a way to catch up, as family time. It is definitely a family deal for us, as we all love to do it,” Panitzke said.
“I have a track five minutes from me, but the La Crosse Speedway seems like my home track to me. Everybody is excited to go racing and continue racing.
“We picked something we could afford to do at a place that is pretty near and dear to my heart. After putting all of the pieces together, it is the best thing that could have happened to us. I would love to come back, certainly.”
First things first, Panitzke said, as he has some unfinished business to take care of tonight.