WAGNER - The Wagner Speedway has survived some tough years, but Rod Pattison has Friday nights in the small town roaring once again.
The 3/8-mile dirt track that was once frowned upon in Wagner has regained the town's trust, thanks in large part to Pattison engaging with the community and looking for ways to give back since he rejoined the speedway two years ago.
"I'll make no bones about it, this track was not very well received by the community a number of years ago because of some outside people that promised the community things and never fulfilled their end of the bargain," said Pattison, while he counted a strip of 50/50 tickets for a fan who brought a sack full of canned foods for Horsepower for Hunger Night.
The track met its worst day in 1997 when vandals burned the press box of the Wagner Speedway to ashes. As time went on and new owners came into the mix, the track was losing fan support due to the lack of community involvement from outside shareholders.
"Some of the previous outside people involved only cared about themselves and making money to line their pockets," said Pattison, who has worked to find ways of giving back to Wagner.
Organizing the Horsepower for Hunger Night is one of many ways Pattison and the Wagner Speedway have been impacting the community and giving back. Fans who bring nonperishable food items to a race that night will receive 50/50 tickets and opportunities to win chamber bucks.
As Wagner resident Mark Ober walks up to the ticket booth with a sack full of canned goods before entering the speedway for a Friday night race, Pattison exchanges a laugh and a handshake with the local race fan.
"The track is run by a bunch of good people that know what they're doing, but it never used to be this way," said Ober, glancing at the hobby stock cars zipping by during warm-ups. "Thanks to Rod, I don't have to drive to Sioux Falls to watch sprint car racers anymore."
Ober, an avid local race fan, has seen the track at its lowest of lows. But weathering the storm was well worth it to Ober, as he said Pattison and Wagner Speedway owner Lynn Fischer have the track looking better than ever before. Fischer has a deeply rooted background in racing and took over the majority of the speedway operations in 2007. The track struggled during Fischer's early years, but his passion for racing kept him determined to revive the speedway.
"Since the Fischer family came on board, the track got better and better each year. But when they brought Rod back two years ago, things really started to take off," Ober said.
While Pattison joined the Wagner Speedway 10 years ago as the announcer, health concerns prompted him to take two years off in 2014 with no intention of coming back.
In 2016, the track closed for the season after a decade of struggling to turn a profit. The owners were faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to invest more in the speedway.
Invest it was. The owners upgraded the speedway that summer, building a new set of bleachers and installing new lights and light poles.
"Getting Rod back was incredibly huge for the track," said Fischer, who raced throughout his whole life. "He is exceptional at communicating with the other tracks, and he is also exceptional at bringing enthusiasm to our track."
Perhaps the most important upgrade the speedway made that year was approaching Pattison, convincing him to come back to the track. Only this time with much more responsibility.
"I kind of do a little bit of everything around here, and I love it. Racing is a brotherhood," said Pattison, who is the speedway's marketing coordinator, public relations specialist, ticket handler and announcer.
From a fan's perspective, Ober said the renovations have been great.
"I love racing, and we are lucky to have this nice of a track in the community. And people are starting to see the potential of the speedway," Ober added.
With his experience as a former raceway announcer at the sprint car capital of the world, the Knoxville Raceway, Pattison used his ties to make one of the biggest improvements in the raceway's history: lighting the Wagner Speedway track with the same lights that lit the track legendary racers Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne raced on in Knoxville, Iowa. The iconic raceway replaced its lights with a new set two years ago, and a friend of Pattison who helps run the Knoxville Raceway gifted the old lights to the Wagner Speedway, which now shine bright on the race cars whipping around the dirt track.
"On a national scale, dirt track racing is on a decline, but Wagner Speedway is unique in the fact the we are growing," Pattison said. "This is a very expensive sport to be a part of, but it is one big family."
The Wagner Speedway added two new classes in 2017, the Nebraska 360 sprint car series and 305 sprint car series.
Before Pattison, there were no food drives, donations and benefits. The impact he has has on the Wagner community, especially in the past two years, has clearly been felt.
Mike Frei, president of Commercial State Bank in Wagner, said the wet summer that area farmers have been battling has hurt the overall economy of the town, but the weekly activity at the speedway has revved up the community this year.
The speedway is helping attract fans and drivers to the small town, which helps diners and local gas stations see a nice boost in revenue, according to Frei.
"The recreation that Wagner offers to the community has been helping balance our economy this year, and the Wagner Speedway is a big part of that," Frei said.
According to Pattison, the Wagner Speedway brought 19,000 total people at the end of last year's season, which saw a total of 14 races.
"Small-town South Dakota is looking for people to come to their town, and we are bringing 19,000 to a community of 1,500 people," Pattison said. "Whether it's gas station stops, or dining and hotel reservations, the community is economically benefiting from the speedway."
While two raceways in southeastern South Dakota shutdown their tracks within the past two years, Wagner Speedway is bucking the trend. The former Huset's Speedway - most recently known as Badlands Speedway - was shutdown in 2017. In Huron, the Dakota State Fair Speedway didn't race in 2018, after the previous promoter retired and a replacement couldn't come aboard.
"We wanted to try and capitalize on those tracks closing, and it's working," Fischer said.
Although the speedway brings in racers from neighboring states, the majority of the racers are in-state or locals, according to Pattison.
Clifford Houser, a Kimball street stock racer who grew up watching his father race, said he came back this year because of how well the track felt during his first time racing on it in the 2017 season.
"I love the track, and it's a fast track that allows me to keep following my hobby," said Houser, after climbing out of his streetcar style racer speckled in mud. "The strong fan support makes it that much better."
Driving down from his hometown of Madison, Matt Goth and his father scrape the globs of mud off his hobby stock race car after his warm up round.
"It's a hobby that connects my dad and I, and we love coming down here to race" said Goth, who helps his father scrape mud off his race car. "The track is very well kept, and I plan to keep on racing down here."
Aside from the new sprint car classes, this year's regular season races included dirt late models, pro stocks, B-Mods, hobby stocks and B-Buzzer and Wissota super stocks.
The 2018 season brought about the most racing classes in the speedway's history, with a total of seven racing classes this season.
The energy level is high heading into the latter half of the season, which wraps up Sept. 8. The season kicked off May 5, but experienced nine race cancellations due to the heavy moisture the Wagner area has been dealing with all summer.
Despite the elements, the Wagner Speedway rumbles on.
"We are committed to this race track, and we are going to keep the racing tradition alive in South Dakota," Pattison said.