March 18, 2009
It’s a word you don’t hear too much through the din of doom and
gloom these days. But, if you want to hear more of it, try hanging
around the pit area of a race track. Not a superspeedway. That kind
of racing needs to lighten up a bit with the inflated cost and its
presumptuous political correctness. Go to a back-roads short track.
That’s where you’ll find folks with unbridled passion. The heart of
the week for thousands of racers is Saturday night.
Among them are a few incredibly special characters who simply
emanate their joy in life and their desire to experience every bit
of it. Who could ever forget the engaging spirit and infectious
humor of any conversation with dirt modified driver Rex Merritt or
open-wheeler Johnny Heydenreich or supermodified master Bentley
By any measure, however, a USMTS modified driver named Mike
Spaulding from up in northern Minnesota leads the pack of
merrymakers, living life to the max. No matter where or when it
might be, with Mike there’s always an action story lurking in the
background. Take the photo at the top of this Tearoff.
That’s Mike in 1991, and he had just won at Bemidji Speedway, his
home-town track. Look at the darkness around his eyes, a little
above that smile. Something doesn’t appear right. And it wasn’t.
The day before, the Buffington Rodeo had come to town. Mike, who’s
taut as a tiger, quick as a cat, decided to sign up for bull riding.
“When I drew Rooster,” he recalls with a grin, “all the cowboys
oohed and awed. The clown came up to me and said, ‘When you get
tossed off, just look for the nearest gate and I’ll take care of the
rest.’” Remarkably, Mike did pretty well, hanging tough on the
monster for four seconds.
The next day he woke up, shook himself all over, and felt so good he
decided to give it another shot. His wife Sue was seriously
This time Mike wasn’t even out of the gate before he was skyward.
After crash-landing with a thunderous thud, he stood up – shakily –
and, wham, he was airborne again. “That bull kicked me in the back
and popped me about ten feet.”
Mike couldn’t linger longer at the rodeo. The race car was back at
home, all loaded up for the Sunday evening show at Bemidji Speedway.
Mike copped the heat and the A Main.
Right after that picture was taken, he turned to greet the crowd and
toppled over unconscious onto the clay. He was rushed to the
hospital, his lungs dangerously filled with fluid from the bull’s
The injuries were serious, but come Friday, Mike looked out of the
hospital window, and there in the parking lot was his crew and his
#17 all loaded up again. After all, they were leading in points at
Buffalo City, and it was running that night. There was living to do,
so Mike pulled out those IVs and they were down the road. He won the
feature that night. “All I can remember is sitting in the truck
afterwards and people coming by, tapping on the window, saying ‘good
race.’ I was so sore and so medicated I could hardly move my hand to
Today, 14 years after leaving a $100,000 job to go racing, Mike is
the high-energy social director of a loose-fit, tight-fit band of
road warrior racers who call themselves the Barnyard Nation. Al
Hejna, John Tesch, Scott Green, and Tommy Meyer are members, along
with Mike’s teammate for 2009, Corey Dripps. All season long this
motley assemblage will crisscross the Midwest by day, racing
furiously in USMTS events under the lights. As soon as the races are
over, out comes the beer, the laughter, and that megaphone Mike uses
to charge up the fans who know to flock to the Barnyard pit area.
And the night shall be filled with music.
© 2009 Lew
Boyd, Coastal 181