While the racing season may already be in high gear for many drivers at the upper echelons of the sport, short tracks across the nation are heating up for some of the hottest action of the season. As the temperatures heat up, so will the engines of those drivers with a true heart for what made this sport great, including those at Wisconsin’s famed ¼-mile Wisconsin International Raceway (WIR). As the season begins at the track that began the racing careers for well-known drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Dick Trickle Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth, RacingJunk.com had an opportunity to slip Behind The Wheel with a driver who is doing his part to bring back the racing division that put this track on the map.
“The Dean” of WIR’s ¼-mile late model division, Pete Berken, who once held court as a sportsman champion in both the 1970’s and 80’s, is now doing his part is to keep late model racing alive and affordable on the smaller oval. Although the 65-year-old retired Appleton, WI native now spends time between Florida and his hometown in Wisconsin, Berken’s heart has always been with the hometown racetrack that made his boyhood dream come true.
As Joe Verdegan states in his book Wisconsin International Raceway: Where the Big Ones Run!, “when you think of a driver who pushed the envelope and worked every possible angle of any ‘gray area’ in the rulebook, Pete Berken comes to mind.”
Unlike many drivers today who often find their passion for racing from family members, Berken found both his love for brute classic cars and hometrack racing while working alongside two fellow employees at a local gas station in Appleton, WI.
“I had a couple of buddies that were building a Dodge Dart to compete with at our local racetrack, and after a few weeks they invited me assist in their pit stops,” said Berken. “I was hooked after that!”
As his passion for high speed autos grew, Berken decided to try his hand at building his own high-powered race car.
“A buddy of mine and I decided to get together and build a car that we could take turns driving at our local dirt track – Apple Creek Speedway,” said Berken. “This was actually my first time behind the wheel and I have to admit that it was a bit intimidating.”
Despite Berken stepping away to allow his buddy to complete the first racing season, he would soon find his groove and eventually become a hometown hero. In 1974, Berken would once again team up with a friend to purchase a Dodge Charger that they would each race on both dirt and asphalt tracks throughout Wisconsin. Though he competed at many tracks, Berken said that he knew that his true heart for racing belonged to Wisconsin International Raceway from his first time at this track.
“There was just something about racing a powerful late model on a challenging ¼-mile,” said Berken. “In fact, this car was the first of its kind to win on this track.”
Within several years, Berken would become a dominant force at WIR, where his vast knowledge as an experienced mechanic would pay off to obtain three sportsman class championships during his reign from 1980-1985.
Despite his love for WIR, according to track specialist Verdegan the sportsman phenom would incur some legal trouble that would send him packing for a short period of time. “Berken was leading the points at the end of the 1985 season at WIR, but on the second to last night of the year, the tech officials were checking stuff and indicated that the driver’s spindles were illegal,” Verdegan said. “Berken was suspended for one week and therefore stripped of the 1985 title. Due to this there was some real bad blood for a while.” (via Wisconsin International Raceway by Joe Verdegan).
After the fall-out, Berken decided to try his hand competing in the traveling ARTGO Challenge Series. “After things went south at home, I decided to prove that I had what it took to compete for Rookie of the Year in this Midwest late model short track series, where I even had an opportunity to compete against guys like Dick Trickle and Mark Martin,” said Berken.
Although Berken returned home with a runner-up finish in the rookie standings, late model race fans now knew the name Pete Berken. After going home and taking a break from racing for some time, Berken would pick up where he left off in 1994 – racing late models. Although he would return to WIR, Berken, who was also running his own auto repair business called Pete’s Auto Repair, began running Super Late Models on the ½-mile track where he would eventually retire from his driving career.
He’s stepped out of the car now, but Berken has found his new purpose at the track that started his career and is currently doing his part to help the next generation of young drivers discover a new-found passion for old school late model racing.
“I was approached a while back about bringing an affordable late model class back to WIR’s ¼-mile track,” said Berken. “I am trying to teach young drivers that it is possible to go racing in real, old-school late models vs. having to spend a ton of money just to enjoy being a part of this sport.”
According to Berken, the idea for the new ¼-mile late model class at WIR is to encourage teams to resurrect older chassis laying around and put them back on the track. “We’re also like the sport trucks in that we’re self-sufficient as we don’t cost the track any money on a nightly basis,” Berken explained. “Any prize money we race for, which is minimal, is rounded up through sponsors.”
These full-sized late models look nearly identical to the super late model and late model classes, which battle on the bigger, D-shaped half-mile paved oval weekly. As Berken returns to his roots of racing to show off what his new late model class, as well as his race coaching skills, can do when this new class begins its racing season at Wisconsin’s hidden treasure of a track, on June 8, race fans can already begin enjoying action at this track. To find out more about hometrack racing at Wisconsin International Raceway visit WIRMotorsports.com.