$50,000 win ‘the biggest’ ever for Kewaunee County dirt-track racer LaCrosse
CASCO – At the end of a racing season that saw successes few part-time local racers have experienced, Benji LaCrosse topped it off by winning what he said is the biggest show of his career.
That takes some doing for LaCrosse, who's won a ton of big races — and a national championship — in more than 21 years competing on dirt tracks across Wisconsin and the country.
But LaCrosse might have eclipsed his previous accomplishments with his win Oct. 16 in the inaugural World IMCA Stock Car Championship at Batesville Motor Speedway in Arkansas.
For sure, it was the largest first-place purse he'd ever earned — $50,000. According to state racing historian and writer Joe Verdegan, it's the second-largest payout ever to a Wisconsin driver in a dirt-track race, surpassed only by the $100,000 won by Jimmy Mars in the late-model Dream race in Eldora, Ohio in 1997.
"This is pretty much the biggest," LaCrosse told the Kewaunee County Star-News about where the win ranks in his career. "I've never won a race with this amount of money at one time."
And that's not all that made LaCrosse's 2021 season special.
Add in two $10,000-to-win wins in IMCA (International Motor Contest Association, an Iowa-based sanctioning body for local short-track racing across the country) Stock Car races this summer — the June 26 Land of 10,000 Lakes show at North Central Speedway in Brainerd, Minnesota, and a second straight King of the Creek win July 22 at 141 Speedway in Francis Creek — and LaCrosse's car pulled down more than $70,000 in prize money in just 17 races.
And that's in what's generally not considered IMCA's premier class of race car.
The Modified class is considered the top of the line for IMCA at most of its tracks, with most of the big-money races, in which LaCrosse also races. There, he won two of the biggest races of the year at The 'Burg Speedway in Luxemburg: the $7,000-to-win Eric Van Iten Memorial and the $3,500-to-win Mod Mania race. Those were among his five wins at his home track, leading to his fourth Modified season points championship at The 'Burg (along with a Stock Car title there in 2001).
Between the two cars, LaCrosse figures he earned somewhere in the neighborhood of $92,000 in racing purses this year. Not bad for a racer who picks and chooses the events in which he competes — 47 races, 13 wins in total — instead of running a steady three- or four-times-a-week schedule. Pretty incredible, actually.
"I can't believe it," LaCrosse said. "It's a dream come true, to do something that's basically a hobby and turn it around and make that kind of money … We all work really hard to get to where we are. To be able to do something I do with total passion and do what we did, it's amazing."
Lots of competitors, and lucky numbers
To win the World Championship race, LaCrosse beat a large field of stock cars from across the country. Ninety-five cars and drivers from 16 states entered, with a Wisconsin contingent that included 2021 The 'Burg Stock Car champ "Hot" Rod Snellenberger of Pulaski.
LaCrosse finished third in a preliminary feature at Batesville three days before the 71-lap main event to qualify for the final 30-car field. Starting from the seventh spot, he took the lead on the seventh lap and fended off challenges from Batesville hometrack racer Peyton Taylor, who nosed ahead at the start-finish line on two occasions before LaCrosse immediately pulled back ahead. He held off Taylor in a two-lap dash to the checkered flag following a late caution period.
LaCrosse said he wasn't sure if he was surprised about his Batesville win against a stacked field of entries, many of who race three or more races a week. He did compete at Batesville three weeks before in a $50,000-to-win Modified race, finishing seventh, but he noted a number of his fellow Stock Car competitors also ran that Modified race, arguably nullifying any edge he might have gained from extra experience.
"It's hard to say," he said. "We don't run as much, don't run every night. I'm kinda shocked that we had a setup that good to be able to compete with drivers that run three, four nights a week. But the setup was there, the car worked phenomenally. And when it's good, you gotta take it, because you never know when the next time comes."
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He also said Batesville Motor Speedway is a far different type of track than The 'Burg, so his driving style needed to be different. Both are clay ovals, but Batesville is a 3/8 mile track with relatively short straightaways and longer, sweeping turns, while the Luxemburg oval is a little shorter at ⅓ mile and has tighter, slower corners. That might have played into LaCrosse's hands a bit, as he has a reputation as one of the smoother dirt-track drivers in Wisconsin and a track shaped like Batesville would suit a smooth driving style.
"(Batesville) is bigger, more round, a lot more about momentum," LaCrosse said. "(At The 'Burg) you really slow down for the corners,"
Those who are superstitious — and racers are known to be a notoriously superstitious bunch — also might put some stock in the fact that when it came time for entries to draw a number to determine the order they would go out for qualifying laps for the preliminary race, Joe White, who co-owns LaCrosse's Stock Car with White's brother Jim, drew No. 54, the number long associated with LaCrosse's cars.
Then, White drew an 11 to determine LaCrosse's starting spot in the preliminary feature. 11 is the number on the Whites' car when Joe is driving it instead of LaCrosse.
"Fifty-four and 11, those are our lucky numbers," LaCrosse said with a chuckle.
His other two big-money Stock Car wins also came against big fields. The Minnesota race, the middle one of a three-race series, drew 78 entries for a 24-car feature and the race at 141 Speedway drew 85 entries for 24 spots in the main.
Reducing the schedule
Those aren't the biggest fields LaCrosse has competed against in his career, or beaten. He won the Modified class at the 2005 IMCA Super Nationals in Boone, Iowa, considered then and now the most prestigious IMCA race, its equivalent of the Indianapolis 500 or Daytona 500. LaCrosse was one of 340 Modified entries attempting to make the 33-car feature that year.
One year later, he was the IMCA Modified national champion, earning points by racing three, four or more times a week from at least May into September, not just on the dirt tracks of northeastern Wisconsin but elsewhere.
But by 2008, LaCrosse chose to get out of the grind of racing close to a fulltime schedule during the season. He said he felt he was missing out on family and everyday activities, and he always held down a full-time job while owning, helping prepare and racing his modified.
"It's a lot of work. It takes away from everything you do," LaCrosse said. "Now we just jump around and go for the bigger money shows."
LaCrosse spent the next 10 years picking and choosing his appearances at the track, but before the start of the 2019 season, White got him back into the stock cars in which LaCrosse cut his racing teeth.
LaCrosse said when he got started in Stock Car in late 1999, White was racing in the class and helped him out a bit, and the two have been friendly ever since, even after LaCrosse dropped the stockers a couple years later to concentrate on his Modified.
"Three years ago, he just came over by me and said, 'Hey, want to drive my stock car?' I would never have done it myself. With my Modified, there's too much to do," LaCrosse said.
So for the past three seasons, LaCrosse has raced the Modified, which he owns, and the Whites' Stock Car, most often both on the same race program. There are vast differences between the two cars — the Modified is a smaller, lighter-weight, higher-horsepower machine while the Stock Car is a full-bodied, heavier car — so there are vast differences in how one drives them.
"They don't drive the same at all," LaCrosse said. "The best way I can explain is, if you drive a (GMC) Suburban (a large SUV) and then drive a little, tiny car. The Modified, you slide in the turns and kinda steer with the rear wheels (by working the brakes and throttle). The stock car, you can drive around like a regular car. They're so much different, but you just adapt."
LaCrosse said he doesn't expect to race again this year, and his big 2021 season isn't changing his plans for a similar schedule in 2022. With a day job at De Groot Construction in Green Bay and with a family of two daughters and his significant other, Carrie, the 44-year-old said, "I'm happy where we're at."
Plus, the purses won need to be balanced against the cost of racing, and because he doesn't own the car in which he won so much money, he gets a percentage of the earnings instead of the whole amount.
"A lot (of the '22 season) will be the same as what we did this year," LaCrosse said. "We'll see what develops. I like doing that, where we can pick and choose."
Hopefully for LaCrosse, the picks and choices meet with the same success as they did this year. Which he still finds almost unbelievable.
"Just to win one big show is incredible," he said. "To win three? I mean, holy (cow)!"
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: $50,000 win 'the biggest' ever for Kewaunee County dirt-track racer LaCrosse