WEST SALEM — Ryan Brown, the 28-year-old La Crosse man whose only race experience before this season was on an Xbox, had a career moment Saturday night.
And there was electricity, all right, just a different kind.
Brown tailed Jonathan Eckelberg for several laps of an eight-lap heat race, then made his move to the inside. Brown made his car stick to the low groove, then powered past Eckelberg to win his first career race in the Tobacco Outlet Plus Late Model Division.
A La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway crowd estimated at 3,000 gave Brown a rousing ovation as he pulled into Victory Lane, stood on the door of his car, and pumped his arms skyward.
It was a significant accomplishment for Brown, who turned his lifelong dream of racing into a reality this season.
“I take it one step at a time. I don’t want to try and take too big a chunk. Long-term goals are something I would like to set,” Brown said.
“What I originally set for a long-term goal, I have already surpassed my expectations for the whole season in the first half. So far, I am pretty happy with where I am at and I want to go faster.”
Halfway through his rookie — and only — season in a race car, Brown has shown steady progress. He has turned heads by being 19th in the standings (entering Saturday night) out of a field where 32 drivers have earned points.
Each week he learns something new while looking out of his windshield instead of staring at a television screen. The speed of a Late Model race car is hard to compare to an Xbox, he said, as is the adrenaline rush of racing side-by-side.
“Just being out on the track, especially in a crowd, learning when you are coming up on slower cars and when faster cars are coming up on you, the approach you need to take coming into a corner, and coming out, is the big thing,” Brown said.
“Either making passes or getting out the way to not cause a wreck, that has been my big thing, just keep the car going around the track and not the car passing me.”
Brown is admittedly still cutting his racing teeth, but he’s shown he is not hesitant to test his skill.
“The last race, or two races ago, is the first time I put a bumper to somebody to make a pass. It was a little bit nerve-wracking because I didn’t want to wreck him and I didn’t want to wreck myself,” Brown said, breaking into a smile.
“But we both made it through and I made the pass and after that it was a big adrenaline rush.”
So was Saturday night when he was able to maneuver his way past Eckelberg without making contact, then stealing the lead from him.
“Personally, I think I am getting more comfortable to the point where now I am feeling out the car, trying to get adjusted to the car in order to drive the track better,” Brown said.
“As with racing of all types, you have issues you have to overcome.”
As far as setups, you always have hiccups along the way. Just recently I had a slight engine issue and had a few other issues, some leaks on the car. Getting though those has been a little bit of a struggle, but we have been able to come back every week.”
And now, he comes back with a heat race victory under his belt.
HELPING HAND: Tony Leis, who is off to a strong season in the Tobacco Outlet Plus Late Model Division, ran into some tough luck during practice laps Saturday night. Leis, who entered the night third in points, had serious engine trouble during practice. According to track officials, Leis had to change engines in order to continue his night.
The new engine came courtesy of the Chris Skrede team.
CARLSON TAKES 6-FOR-6: Four-time defending Late Model track champion Steve Carlson was able to hang tough on the outside lane, then power past Cole Howland to win the 6-for-6 race.
Howland was second, followed by Nick Panitzke, the points leader entering the night.
DEVIN DOES IT: Devin Schmidt, who drives a 2016 Ford Fusion, powered that car to a heat win in the Late Model Division. Schmidt, who makes a four-hour drive — one way — from Belle Plaine, Minn., to race every Saturday night, was able to hold off a hard-charging Brent Kirchner for the checkered flag.
WELCOME BACK: Brian Hesselberg, a Bangor driver who had missed a month of the Dean’s Satellite Sportsman Division season after a nasty crash, came roaring back Saturday night.
Hesselberg won the 6-for-6 race — an event for the six fastest qualifiers on a regular race night — by edging Steve Bachman for the checkered flag. Points leader Randy Humfeld took third.
FIRST WIN: Nathan Borchardt, a Sportsmen Division driver from Prior Lake, Minn., won his heat race Saturday night, making it is first win ever at the Fairgrounds Speedway.
DRIVER AUTOGRAPH SESSION: More than a thousand fans packed the Fairgrounds Speedway’s front stretch before the Saturday night racing program began. Their mission? To get a photo taken with their favorite driver and, of course, get his or her autograph.