With a first name like Axel, how could someone not become a race car driver? Seriously, a decision made at the age of 16 became a life changing event, and even today, just mentioning the name Axel Dahlberg brings smiles to race fans that remember that era of auto racing and revive fond memories from fans all over the state of Wisconsin.
Axel Dahlberg was a racing machine. Racing as many nights as possible at area tracks, he ran at places like Boyceville, Milltown, Eau Claire, Durand, Wausau, Stillwater, Neillsville, Shawano, DePere, Shakopee, St. Paul, Superior, Duluth and in Fort William and Winnipeg in Canada. An early circuit included Stillwater on Wednesdays, Superior on Fridays, Rice Lake on Saturdays, fair races (of which there were many) on Sunday afternoons and Proctor on Sunday nights. A typical feature race win at Rice Lake in those days paid $200 to win, a healthy amount of money in those days. Costs were a lot different back then, remembers Axel. “I had a 1956 Chevrolet with a 283 engine in it. The whole car cost $1,800 and I could make nearly a thousand dollars a week, if I ran good.”
Axel learned about engines and cars from his father, also named Axel, at the Dahlberg Garage located in Poskin. He started racing at the Rice Lake Speed Pit at the age of sixteen in 1953, the first full year that the Speed Pit raced. He started in the Stock class, driving a 1937 Ford two door numbered #56-15, which was the phone number for the family residence. In 1955 he moved up to Modifieds, driving a ’34 Ford coupe and in 1957 he drove Late Models.
In 1958 and 59 Axel drove Midgets before returning to the Late Models which he drove until the early 1970’s. The Golden Era of Wisconsin Auto Racing, written by Father Dale Grubba, devotes a chapter to Axel, entitled “Axel Dahlberg, Rice Lake Champion.”
In that chapter, Axel is quoted about his days racing midgets. “Looking back, I don’t know why I ever drove one; I never felt comfortable,” said Axel. One of Axel’s worst wrecks occurred in a midget. “Those were the days before roll bars and I managed to flip five times at Shakopee and live to tell about it.”
In 1957, Axel is credited with having one of the greatest seasons on any driver in Wisconsin racing history. Driving a 1932 Ford couple with the first overhead V8 Ford Thunderbird engine in the state, he took fifty seven firsts, nineteen seconds and eight third place finishes including three of the five monthly championships at Rice Lake and the Season Championship.
As quoted in the book, some of the drivers Axel remembered racing against in the 50’s and 60’s included Bud Havel, Don Koepp, Dick Briesemeister, Harold Mueller and Russ Laursen, three of whom are Rice Lake Speedway Hall of Famers.
One of the most humorous moments in Axel’s long racing career involves a promotion at Rice Lake in 1957 where Axel raced a horse around the track. Having turned the quick time trial on the night in question, Axel earned the right to race a horse in a one lap race. The horse was provided by Tom Barr and named “Buck”. The race was scheduled to be one lap but because of wet conditions was shortened to a half lap, starting on the back straightaway. With the horse getting a running start, Axel managed to nip Buck at the line by a nose.
Axel also had a stint racing motorcycles in Colorado before returning to Wisconsin to race. In 1973 he made the switch to some asphalt racing and drove for famous car owner Gene Wheeler on both dirt and asphalt in eastern and southern Wisconsin. He also made some racing appearances driving Late Models in Iowa before wrapping up his career in the 1980’s, driving asphalt Late Models in southern Wisconsin.
Axel won the first two Auqafest trophy races at Rice Lake in 1964 and ’65, the ’63 Late Model Season Championship, the ’64 Semi Modified Point Championship, and the first Firecracker special for Semi Mods in 1964.
Axel is given credit for thirteen feature wins at Rice Lake in the ‘60’s driving cars numbered #73 and #43 but numerous feature wins before that time are undocumented due to lack of records.
With one of the longest and most colorful careers of any driver in Rice Lake Speedway history, Axel, (aka Sonny), now resides in Deerfield Wisconsin.
Ladies and gentlemen, Hall of Famer in the driver category, Axel Dahlberg.