County fair features only dirt-track Figure 8 race in the stateBARNUM – Surrounded by the sounds of loud engines in the pits, Gerry Finifrock stood in his scuffed-up boots, oil-stained jeans and John Deere racing gloves talking proudly of his 1977 Plymouth Fury.
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
BARNUM – Surrounded by the sounds of loud engines in the pits, Gerry Finifrock stood in his scuffed-up boots, oil-stained jeans and John Deere racing gloves talking proudly of his 1977 Plymouth Fury.
The full-sized car’s orange paint is faded; its body is beat up and banged in. Still, turning tight corners, accelerating on straightaways and piercing eardrums with its roaring engine, the reliable vehicle is perfect for the annual Figure 8 competition at the Carlton County Fair.
“It’s been on the track for 15 years in a row and counting,” said Finifrock, laughing with his pit crew Saturday. “I think it’s a record.”
Finifrock is as reliable as his Plymouth when it comes to racing. The 34-year-old welder from Barnum loves everything about it. Racing since he was 16, Finifrock has been in every Figure 8 race since 1994. His car is always ready to go and its heavy engine is always the loudest.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the sound of these engines with these stacks,” Finifrock said. “Anybody in this sport loves that.”
The sport is quite rare. Not common around the state, Figure 8 racing is only held twice per year. According to Carlton County Fair Board President Steve Loucks, a race in Shakopee, Minn., is held on asphalt, while Barnum serves as the only dirt-based track statewide.
“It’s been 25 years now,” said Loucks Saturday evening during the opening heat races. “These guys can sure put on a pretty good show.”
Loucks noted 25 years ago, good friend and Cloquet native Ron Hammitt thought of the idea for the races. Shortly after, a Figure 8 track was designed, an oval dirt surface was added and races took off.
Loucks, from Carlton, won the first event and competed for eight years before moving to his role as president and grandstand events manager. He noted Friday is the oval races, Sunday the demolition derby and Saturday, the Figure 8 competition.
“The demo derby used to always be the big thing on Sunday, but now, this is the biggest,” Loucks said of the Figure 8s, which fielded 37 cars in seven heats Saturday. “We fill the grandstand every year for this one. It’s pretty cool. Rain or shine, we know it’s going to happen.”
Despite rain and thunderstorms throughout Saturday, Loucks said it was a good night in the stands, with people packed shoulder-to-shoulder to watch the daring sport. Heat races started in the evening, with the features closing that night underneath the track’s lights. Winners took home trophies, award winnings and pride.
Finifrock, who won the 2002 feature and said he’s been close on other occasions, placed third in his opening heat Saturday following a caution flag and restart. He wasn’t concerned with his finish, but enjoyed explaining the sport and the technique involved with it.
“You’re rubbing and banging into cars and it’s legal,” he said. “It’s very unique. You’re driving fast and have the element of crossing.”
Crossing the intersection. The moment when cars fly across the middle of the figure-8-shaped course during laps is by far the most tactical and dangerous part of the race. Some ease off the gas, others don’t. Crashes occur.
“They knew that I was going to run them over; that’s just what I did,” said Loucks about his former racing days. “Nowadays there are new rules where you can hit the driver’s side door without having a penalty. These guys are experienced and know what they are doing, but we usually see one get whacked pretty hard throughout the weekend.”
“I’ve been in a couple where you just close your eyes and hope for the best,” added Matt Peterson, a mid-sized car racer from Mahtowa. “It looks a lot closer from the stands than it does from the car.”
That’s why Cloquet 13-year-old Dillon Hoff has been going to the races for the last few years. The eighth-grader enjoys the wrecks most.
“I just like to see them crash,” he said, holding his pink lemonade before the features began. “I’ve come to watch the horse races every year, too, but I think it’s cool how fast these guys can drive and turn.”
Also watching, Duluth’s Mike Ciurleo enjoys the intersection best.
“You’re putting [yourself] in front of traffic,” said Ciurleo, who has been attending the races for about six years. “It just adds excitement. You wonder who is going to yield first, and hope nobody gets hurt.”
Peterson hurt his competition Saturday. The 29-year-old, who works for the city of Cloquet, won his opening heat by nearly half the length of the track. He darted from the starting line and never trailed.
“It’s takes a lot of luck,” Peterson laughed, noting his brother, Kellen, also raced in the full-sized division, “especially when it was that muddy like it was tonight. It’s really just a lot of fun for us.”
Peterson, who won the 2010 feature race, said he pulled his car out of the garage a few weeks before race day and tuned it up quickly.
“We just put a new engine in it, too,” he said. “The races used to be a little bigger a couple years ago, but it’s expensive and takes time. Yet, what the Carlton County Fair does here for us is just awesome. I give my hat off. We’re going to keep it going as long as we can.”
And for now, Finifrock’s 1977 Plymouth Fury still has the record.