WEST SALEM — The action was intense, even hair-raising, late Saturday night at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway.
With seven laps left in the 25-lap Tobacco Outlet Plus Late Model Division feature race, the top 10 cars in the 25-car field were jostling for position, sometimes within inches — or less — of each other. Tony Leis and Cole Howland, who had both staked claim to the lead for a number of laps, found themselves stalked by hot-running Nick Panitzke, Brad Powell and four-time defending track champion Steve Carlson.
The six-pack of cars was jammed together coming out of Turn 4, and a wreck seemed destined to happen.
Instead, Panitzke somehow found a sliver of daylight, shot through it, took the lead and held it for the last six laps to snare his division-leading third Late Model feature win of the season.
Powell, a former track champion, shot low and grabbed second place, then held it. Carlson, who has one feature win this season, also made it through the tight quarters and settled for third place.
Panitzke, a driver from Lonsdale, Minn., who insists he’s running on a week-to-week basis, found himself in Victory Lane once again. He’s also atop a hot and heated points race with 307 markers.
That’s 16 ahead of second-place Carlson (291).
“Honestly, I did not think I had the car to win tonight. The motor was kind of fouling up on me, I think because of the (wet) weather,” said Panitzke of a night where showers hit the West Salem facility around 6 p.m.
“We were not quite geared up for this type of weather, with the jets (in the carburetor). I had some other issues going on with the carburetor, too. I think the car was definitely hooked up well, we’ve just got some engine work to do over the week and hopefully we will be a little better next week.”
That’s scary news for the rest of the Late Model field, as Panitzke has been the surprise of the season so far. His black No. 22 is fast, but that’s not the only thing that has kept him ahead of the pack.
A veteran of a number of Midwestern series, including the ARCA Midwest Tour and the Big 8 Series, Panitzke has shown Fairgrounds Speedway fans he can be a strategic driver, too. He spent much of the first 15 laps running in third place before making his move.
“You’ve got to be smart there. My car, it didn’t fire off like the other guys’ cars. Honestly, they were just faster at the beginning of the race and I just had to be smart there and make sure I stayed out of that mess,” Panitzke said.
“Those guys, they seemed to get kind of excited at the start of the race. There is plenty of laps, and even though there is 25 laps, these tires still do wear out. I thought if I took it easy in third, bide my time, they would come back to me.
“We had no intentions of staying in third, even though it may have appeared that way. Honestly, I just had to bide my time and let them come back to me instead of me chasing them down.”
Powell and Carlson appeared to have the cars to chase Panitzke down, but both got penned in by other cars for parts of the race.
“The car is good, but I just kind of get in the wrong lane. On the restarts I pick the wrong lane and lose some spots, and it is hard to gain them all back,” Carlson said. “This is a pretty rough year. We are scuffing up a lot of body panels, but we’re having fun. We’ve got a long ways to go.”
Powell knows Panitzke has put the Late Model field on notice that he’s the driver to beat, but he simply smiled when asked if he could catch Panitzke.
“He has got a good car. His car is strong and we’ll see. I’ve got more tricks up my sleeve,” said Powell, who made a nifty move with six laps left when he went low, then stole second place.
“That is racing, though… Hopefully you pick the right move. I just aimed for the bottom and went. It (car) doesn’t take off right away on restarts, but it takes a few laps and it gets pretty good.”
WET START: While the level of racing has been cranked up this summer at the Fairgrounds Speedway, General Manager Chuck Deery is waiting for the weather to cooperate.
Saturday night’s crowd, estimated at 1,200, was late arriving after two bands of showers hit the West Salem area. Three complete race programs have been rained out, and Deery said it has either rained, or had a serious threat of rain, on seven of eight race nights this season.