Dean Harrington and Rice Lake Speedway Share 60 Years Together

By Ed Reichert

RICE LAKE, WI - When the first green flag of the 2012 racing season dropped at Rice Lake Speedway on Saturday, April 14, it marked a milestone for the speedway. The track started its 60th consecutive year of presenting dirt track racing at the one-third mile oval on the north side of Rice Lake, which makes it the oldest continuously operating dirt track in northwestern Wisconsin and one of the oldest in the entire Midwest.

And for Dean Harrington, it also marked a significant moment; Dean has been there every race night for those 60 years. First as a driver and then as a car owner, along with being an association official and then finally a track employee, Dean has done it all and seen it all as the little dirt track has grown and matured over the years as racing and the way of life in northern Wisconsin has changed and evolved over the past 60 years.

How did Dean get started in the sport? Here is his story. “There was a little dirt track that got started on Rice Lake’s south side around 1950. It didn’t last long as they had some issues, but a friend and I went out there one day to the races, and before the program was over, we decided we had to have one of these cars for ourselves,” Dean said.

So they began a search for an appropriate car and ended up buying a 1934 Ford coupe with a flathead motor, which they turned into their first race car. When they bought the car, the previous owners comment was, “So you two think you’re going to race cars,” and that’s how Dean came up with the number for the race car. From that point on, and for all the time he raced, his car number was “U2”.

The car was called a “modified” and when the Rice Lake Speed Pit, as it was known then opened in the Fall of 1952, Dean was one of the original competitors that raced on the flat, fifth mile oval. The track was called the Speed Pit because it was built on the site of an abandoned gravel pit in a glacial river bed. There was only one class of cars at that time, and the car was mostly stock, as it still had its fenders and running boards on it. But it wasn’t long before drivers began “souping up” their cars and a second class, called the Stockers, was started.

Dean always raced in the Modified class, and he always did all the work on his own cars, building the roll cages, redoing the frames and building his own engines. He was always a Ford man too, and while he drove cars at times for other owners that weren’t Blue Oval cars, every one of his race cars was a Ford and Ford powered.

There weren’t many cars at the start, and Dean remembered that there were races with only eight or 10 cars in the field, but gradually the interest grew and more cars and spectators started coming to the shows. Admission was only one dollar at the beginning and it cost only a dollar to get into the pits. Interestingly, the pit money collected was used to set up a benevolent fund of sorts, and many drivers that were hurt while racing received cash to help them out with hospital expenses, etc.

And it was dangerous. Dean remembered that there were a lot more accidents back then, the racing was far more dangerous and many more drivers and track officials were hurt in those days. He also talked about several injuries to pit personnel. In a couple of instances, race cars climbed the dirt banks that were the only protection for the pits and some serious injuries were inflicted to people in the pits.

In its 60 years of racing, there has never been a fatality on the race track at Rice Lake and the only person to suffer a fatal injury was when association president Harry Steel from Barron fell off the back of the grader while the track was being prepared one afternoon and was crushed by the packer.

The track was originally owned by four individuals but when three of them complained that they weren’t making any money, the fourth person bought them out. His name was Dr. R.A. (Doc) Doctor, a dentist from the Chetek area. He allowed the Indianhead Stock Car Racing Association to be formed and they gradually, over a period of years, bought the track from Doc. Dean had many fine things to say about Doc, who was very good to the racers. The association was struggling, and couldn’t make their payments on the track, so Doc allowed them to pay him a percentage of what they made, thus allowing them to continue racing. All Doc wanted was the concession stand, in which he did very well.

Dean said Doc was a smart man at making a buck. “If there was no one buying food at the concession stand, Doc would take some butter, put it in a frying pan and simmer it. He would turn on a fan and blow that smell toward the crowd and before you knew it, the concession stand was packed with people buying again.”

As well as driving, Dean took a leadership role in the running of the Indianhead Stock Car Racing Association, serving as President on several occasions as well as holding other board positions.

As Dean’s racing career blossomed, he started to branch out and race at other tracks. He stated that he raced at around 30 different tracks, mostly in Wisconsin and Minnesota but also up in Canada as well. Such places as West Duluth, Proctor and Twin Cities Speedway were frequent stops on the racing trail.

But the first big trip he made was all the way to Winnipeg MB. He said that they were invited to go up there and race by the locals, so they drove up to Winnipeg and raced on an asphalt track in the 1957 Western Canadian Stock Car Championships. They had to buy tires for the asphalt, but Dean said “they didn’t work worth crap!” so they ended up buying some recaps to race on. After they raced there, he and Axel Dahlberg towed their cars all the way to Fort William (now Thunder Bay) to race at the fairgrounds there.

“What a trip that was,” Dean related. “The roads from Winnipeg to Fort William were terrible back then. I don’t know how we made it with the trailers we were using then.”

One of Dean’s interesting stories involved racing at Fort William. “I was starting on the pole for the feature race and I had Jerry McDonald right behind me and Al Massaro beside me. McDonald started beating on my rear bumper before they dropped the green flag, and Massaro was pinching me off too. Before we got to the first turn both of us rolled over! That SOB tipped both of us!”

When the Modified turned into Super Modifieds, and eventually got too expensive, the car counts dropped. Rice Lake dropped the class and made the Semi Modifieds, which soon became the Late Models the top class. Dean made the switch over, buying a Ford from Leo Kadinger that Dick Briesemeister had raced successfully and Dean never missed a beat or a night of racing.

When he was out of action briefly due to an injury, he put his son Steve behind the wheel of the race car and became an owner. Interestingly, Steve, a retired firefighter, was just elected mayor of Rice Lake in the Spring election of 2012. Finally, in the early 80s, Dean had neck surgery and the doctor told him his days of racing were done.

Would Dean have continued racing if the doctor would have let him? “Absolutely,” Dean stated. “ I still had some good years left in me. But it just wasn’t worth the risk.” Dean’s last race car was a 1980s Mustang.

So Dean moved on to the next chapter of his racing involvement. While continuing to be an active member of the racing association, he became a track employee. He watered the race track and cleaned the toilets. “All the glamorous jobs,” Dean kidded. Dean’s late wife Ione was also very involved at the track , for years selling spectator tickets and also pit passes.

When the Modified class was started at Rice Lake, Dean did the teching for that class and when they started to weigh the race cars, Dean took over the job of running the scales, a task he still does to this day.

Does Dean still get excited about opening night? “Yes,” he said with a gleam in his eyes. When I interviewed Dean at his rural Shell Lake Wisconsin home, it was the night before the track’s first practice session, and he was more than anxious to get to the track the following day. His son Steve says that if there weren’t racing every summer, Dean probably wouldn’t return in the spring from Oregon, where he now winters.

“Racing is different these days,” Dean said. The season used to start later and we raced into the end of September before we went to the last race in Canada. There are more classes now and everything is a lot better organized now. But it’s still racing.”

Dean lost many of his trophies in a fire years ago, but he still has a few in his garage behind his house. He also has a few special mementos from racing, including the Cromwell helmet that he first used when he started racing 60 years ago. “That will go into the Rice Lake Speedway Hall of Fame some time,” Dean said.

Dean hinted that this might be his last year running the scales. “It all depends on how I feel,” He said. But as I headed to my vehicle to leave after the interview, Dean gave me a wave and said, “see you tomorrow at the track,” and the gleam returned to his eyes.