By Tony Bennett
Start Your Engines
AMSOIL Speedway Draws Racers from the Region and Beyond, as Well as Fans Who Love the Sport
Since the 1960s, the roar of race-car engines has been regularly emanating from the Head of the Lakes Fairgrounds in Superior during the summer. Back then, the track was called Tri-State Speedway before the name was later changed to Superior Speedway. And then, in 2011, it was renamed AMSOIL Speedway. Today, time and money is being invested into Speedway facilities and concessions operations to ensure that Friday night races continue drawing drivers and fans for years to come.
The Speedway is managed by Douglas County and an
organization called Head of the Lakes Management Group (HOLMG), which comprises four board members: Joe Stariha, Crash Carlson, Gus Omundson and Steve Loucks.
The chairman of HOLMG is Joe Stariha, who also serves as an AMSOIL Speedway promoter. He says that his love for racing all started when he met his wife, Jodi, in 2001. “We started going to the races with her family. I had been to a few races in my life, but not on a regular basis, by any means,” Stariha said. “A few weeks in, I was hooked. I just absolutely loved it. We started doing more and more of it, going to different places – to Superior, to Hibbing, to Proctor. I just really fell in love with the sport.”
Today, WISSOTA’s membership comprises about 50 race tracks.
Five years later, the Starihas were inspired to get more directly involved. “We started a racing series in 2006 [at Proctor Speedway, Superior Speedway, Hibbing Raceway and ABC Raceway] called the Como Modified Series,” Stariha said. At the time, he had served Como Oil and Propane as co-president and chief financial officer for many years, which earned him the moniker of “Como Joe” in the racing world. “It worked out really well,” he said of the Como Modified Series. Then in 2010, he joined the Proctor Speedway board, and it wasn’t long afterward that the Superior Speedway management opportunity went up for bidding.
“Our Proctor board got the racetrack contract, and we did that for about three years just as board members,” said Stariha. “After those first three years, the four of us board members that more or less did the majority of the work at the Superior track bought that out.” 2017 is the seventh year in operation for the Head of the Lakes Management Group LLC, the organization that now runs the speedway with Douglas County.
“It’s a passion,” Stariha said. “My wife and I really like the races. We like being around the drivers and fans.”
Stariha noted that the track’s renaming from Superior Speedway to AMSOIL Speedway was one that has provided great visibility and support, thanks to its corporate title sponsor: AMSOIL Inc. Headquarters for this leader in synthetic oils and lubricants – which has a global enterprise – are right here in Superior. And no business understands oils and lubricants like AMSOIL.
AMSOIL has long used data from racing teams at racetracks throughout the country in its constant commitment to excellence. As its website explains: “Few applications are tougher on lubricants than racing. The ability of AMSOIL synthetic lubricants to withstand intense heat, elevated horsepower and massive torque has made us a fixture at all types of racetracks. Our synthetic lubricants have helped teams operating off-road trucks, stock cars, high-powered boats, motorcycles and snowmobiles capture countless checkered flags and season championships. We believe that Racing is Research™, and we use the data collected from racing to tailor the complete AMSOIL product line for even greater levels of performance.”
“They’ve [AMSOIL Inc.] been a great sponsor for the last seven years. We can’t thank them enough for all they’ve done for us.”
– Joe Stariha, Head of the Lakes Management Group Chair
In fact, the company has long supported racing and prior to becoming the Superior Speedway title sponsor, it was serving as the title sponsor of the WISSOTA Promoters Association as part of the AMSOIL Dirt Track Series. WISSOTA was founded in 1981 by board members, track association members and promoters from eight racing tracks in Wisconsin and Minnesota (hence the combination of “WIS” for Wisconsin and “SOTA” for Minnesota in its name). Today, WISSOTA’s membership comprises about 50 race tracks in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, as well as Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario in Canada.
“2010 was our first season and I just pitched it to AMSOIL, and they really liked the idea of sponsoring the track,” Stariha said. “They’ve been a great sponsor for the last seven years. We can’t thank them enough for all they’ve done for us. They’ve provided us uniforms for our employees, motor oil and everything we need for our equipment, nightly prizes for the drivers and sponsorship dollars.”
Stariha also said the Speedway is undergoing the second phase of a major lighting project “that’s probably been 20 years overdue. We put phase one in two years ago and phase two is
going to go in this summer. If it wasn’t for AMSOIL’s support, most of this stuff couldn’t happen. They’ve been just a great partner.”
Jodi Stariha says that for her, racing was always an interest. She didn’t come to it later like her husband did.
“As a little girl, I grew up racing,” she explained. “It’s always been in my blood. My dad and my uncle actually used to pit for Jimmy Eliason, back when he raced. So they were very involved with that. And obviously, that brought us to the racetrack a lot. It was my love.”
In fact, she was her husband’s gateway into the world of racing. “I carried him into the speedway along with me,” she says. “And then we started our Como Mod Series, following and racing and sponsoring different cars – traveling a lot and doing a lot with the racetrack, wherever we could help.
“It’s been good,” she said. “I feel like, once racing is in your blood – it’s in your blood. You just continue to do it.”
This year, Jodi Stariha has taken on a huge new challenge in addition to co-owner duties. She’s revamping the Speedway’s concession stand in a ground-up reimagining that will ironically keep her eyes off the track on Friday nights more than she might like – at least for the time being. The name of the new concession undertaking is “JoJo’s Grab and Go.”
“That’s a whole new experience for me – being at the racetrack, but having to actually miss watching the races. I’m busier in the kitchen now,” she said. “We just wanted to see our concession stand doing better than it was doing.”
“I want to bring new foods to the track each week. I want to do Friday night specials.”
– Jodi Stariha, owner of JoJo’s Grab and Go
Stariha’s idea, which she pitched gradually over a few years, was to take total control of the track’s concessions and offer people better quality dining options. “They decided to go ahead and lease it to me this year, so I’m actually the sole proprietor of JoJo’s Grab and Go; I own it myself,” she noted of this enterprise, which employs 15 to 20 people on Friday nights. “I want to bring new foods to the track each week. I want to do Friday night specials – different meals that we’re just going to offer once a week.”
Interestingly, she intends to make soups a big part of the plan, as well as other homemade foods, although she stressed that “We’ll carry the favorites, always.” Items of the delicious, deep-fried variety are included in that “favorites” category, of course – no racing event would be complete without them.
Over the past 20 years, Jodi Stariha’s main job has been to serve as owner and operator of Mirror Images Day Spa in Duluth. However, her work history has also provided a good background in concession experience. “The funny part of it is, I used to work for Dolores Johnson when she and Johnny Johnson had the track, back when I was going to school,” she said. “I actually worked the pit concession stand many years ago.
“We basically are doing what Proctor [Speedway] has,” she explained of the new JoJo’s operation, “how you go through the line with a hot food tray that you basically slide the stuff down into – the standard hot dogs, hamburgers, brats. People can go through the line and grab what they want. Otherwise, you can order at the window for your walking tacos, nachos, things that are hotter. We want to make the lines move faster and make people happier. That’s my focus.”
There are three main concession stands at AMSOIL Speedway. “JoJo’s Grab and Go is the front stand,” she explained. “JoJo’s Pit Stop is in the pit area for the drivers, and then JoJo’s Express is on the back stretch on the fan side with a window that opens into the far end of the pits.”
It’s a big undertaking for anyone, but considering that Stariha still has her day spa, it means that her every available minute during the latter days of the week is occupied. “I’m done with the day spa at 2 in the afternoon on Thursday and then I work until 8, 9, 10 on Thursday night. What I’m doing at that time is stocking inventory full at all three concessions, so they’re ready to go for Friday. That’s when I’m precooking my chilis and doing that kind of stuff. On Fridays I’m there from 8 in the morning to probably 1 a.m. I’m definitely hands-on.”
Stariha says that revamped concessions operations have been “a big investment” and include some updating of the kitchens. She has also purchased new grills. “I wanted to have grills, so everything is cooked fresh. Things aren’t being wrapped and brought to the back stretch or the pits,” she said. “We also went to a computer system that is all done with iPads. We spent $3,000 on that, so I can track how many walking tacos or hamburgers are being sold per hour. I know what I need in each place, so it runs more smoothly.” In all, she noted, an investment of about $10,000 was made to enhance concessions operations.
Like the Starihas, Bobby Wherritt, the race director and flagman at AMSOIL Speedway, loves the sport. As a kid, Wherritt made trips to Superior Speedway. “I would always come to Superior on Friday nights with my dad before I was working,” he recalled. “It was the Daytona of dirt tracks. It was a bigger racetrack – nice and wide. They raced late models, which we never had in Ashland. It was like home. It was special.
“I would always come to Superior on Friday nights with my dad before I was working. It was the Daytona of dirt tracks.”
– Bobby Wherritt, Race Director and Flagman
“For years, I was a flagman at both Superior Speedway and ABC Raceway in Ashland and by going through that process and getting to know the sport better, I started to follow the steps of a race director,” Wherritt said. “It’s multitasking at its best, which is what I love about it. You have your pit meetings for all the drivers, you have your Hot Laps that you have to put on, you have to make sure your heat races are all dialed in. There are umpteen different things to keep in mind as a race director. But the fortunate part is that we have a great crew with us that makes it all that much easier.”
Wherritt’s flagman duties are also crucial. “The biggest key with being a flagman is [that] you have the safety of all the drivers, the officials and the fans in your hands,” he explained. “For example, if there’s debris on the track, you have to make sure you or the officials are spotting that. If there’s a wreck, you’re doing your best to stop the other racers from making contact with that accident. As much as you have the best seat in the house, you can’t just sit and watch racing with your feet up. You have to pay attention to the good, the bad and the ugly. There’s more pressure than one would think.”
As is the case with most, if not all, of the people involved with putting the races on, Wherritt works mainly out of devotion to the sport while also working full-time; in his case, as a carpenter. “It’s my passion,” he says of his raceway duties. “I don’t ever call it a job. I absolutely love doing it.
“Hats off to the drivers,” Wherritt added. “They have their full-time jobs, and they’re putting every penny and every second they have into that car to make sure it’s race-ready.”
Keith Kern is one of those drivers, so he can attest to the massive amount of work that goes into getting a car (in his case, a Super Stock model) ready to race. He starts prepping months in advance.
“Usually around January, we start pulling the car apart, going through and fixing anything that needs to be fixed,” he said. “Then we start going out and trying to get some sponsors for the upcoming season.”
At the time he was interviewed for this article, Kern was working eight hours at his day job (he owns Jimmy’s Saloon in Superior) and then another eight in the garage getting everything in order for his racing car. And in addition, he’s a Superior city councilor who serves the Ninth District.
“Economically, the Speedway is an asset to the city of Superior.”
– Keith Kern, City Councilor and Racer
It’s his love of racing that keeps Kern going. “I’ve been doing this for 17 years,” he said. “My family used to own a car when I was younger and that’s how I got into it. If I wasn’t doing this, I don’t know what I’d be doing. I don’t know if I could go to the races and actually watch them if I wasn’t sitting in the driver’s seat.”
Aside from the obvious enjoyment that the fans, owners, employees, and drivers all derive from the races held at AMSOIL Speedway, there’s also a benefit to the economy of the area, Kern points out.
“Economically,” he noted, “the Speedway is an asset to the city of Superior. At the Northern Nationals at the end of the year, there are people coming in from five different states and probably two Canadian provinces. That’s a lot of people traveling here and spending money, whether it’s getting gas or hotel rooms.”
For his part, Joe Stariha is focused on ensuring that the fans keep coming to kick off their weekends by attending races at AMSOIL Speedway. Whether he’s explaining that investment of $100,000 into the track’s lighting to improve safety and visibility, or how social media initiatives help connect people to what’s happening at the Speedway, his enthusiasm is evident.
In the end, it’s all about that Friday night magic – and ensuring the magic remains for generations of racing fans to come. P.S.
Tony Bennett is a Twin Ports-based freelance writer.