Interview with Dells Raceway Park owner - Wayne Lensing

For most of his life Wayne Lensing has associated himself with automobiles. His love affair with the auto industry began by working at a garage after school as a child, which provided his introduction to race cars. Eventually becoming a successful race car driver himself, he now is the owner of multiple automotive related businesses including: Lefthander Chassis, which builds race cars, Historic Auto Attractions, a museum that has many well-known vehicles, and this past March bought the Dells Raceway Park, which has stock car racing every Saturday night during the season.

 Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Wayne to discuss his life, his businesses, and what his plans are for the future.
Let’s start by telling me a little about yourself. You’re not originally from the Dells are you?

WAYNE LENSING: No, I’m not from the Dells. I’m from Roscoe, IL. Well, actually I was born in Iowa. I was born in a town called Decorah, IA. That is a town about sixty miles from Prairie Du Chien, WI. It was a very laid back town.  So when I moved to Belvedere, IL to go to work for Chrysler, it was a whole new life. Back there it was all about - If you don’t get’er done today, what the hell’s wrong with tomorrow? (laughs) You know up here, it’s like; you get this done today plus a few other things. You know, its very hurry, hurry, hurry.

So what we do now is we manufacture race cars called Lefthander Chassis, and I’ve been doing that for like twenty-six years. When I was a young man, I’m sixty-four now, but when I was a young man I used to race myself. I raced here and at several other tracks. Then I started building race cars. I quit Chrysler, which I worked at for thirteen years, and made it a sole source of earnings. And throughout that period of time I started a storage facility, Lensing Storage in Roscoe, and also I got a really large museum . . .

I saw the brochure on that. The Historic Auto Attractions (a thirty-six thousand square foot museum that houses a large collection of famous and historical vehicles and memorabilia) looks pretty cool! So you own that too?

I do, I do, and that would be the thing to have here in the Dells! That would be perfect for the Dells, but they sell the land here by the spoonful!  (laughs)

I was amazed at some of the pieces that were featured in the brochure . . .

You would not believe it, that’s NOTHING compared to what is inside.

Did you open it yourself or did buy it from somebody?

No, I opened it myself. I built a building and slowly started collecting. In the year 2001 we opened her up. Last year was our tenth anniversary and jeepers, it’s really growing! We get a lot of people out of the Chicago area. We get people from all over. A lot of bus tours.

As a collector myself, on a much smaller scale, I know how that can be rewarding.

I enjoy it. I enjoy it as a thing of life. It’s very expensive, but . . .

I was going to say; with all the famous and historical items you have in there, that stuff must have cost you a ton!

Money to me don’t mean nothing.  I don’t care about money, I like hard items. (laughs) Like I love the Dells. It’s hard to make ends meet, but I do build the race cars. One of the reasons I bought the Raceway is because I’m coming up with a new low-dollar car. Affordable for somebody that works for a living to buy, but yet goes fast & gots noise to it. That’s what people want! (laughs)

You said you used to race here before you bought it?

Yes, years ago before I built racecars. I raced myself at Rockford Speedway and at Lake Geneva, WI – they used to have a racetrack there – I raced there all the time. I went around to different parts of the country including here. Also, we won the Track Championship at Rockford in 1976-1979-1980 and Lake Geneva in 1978-1980. We won over 100 features in my career.

So growing up, did you always want to be a driver?

Well, I loved racing because when I grew up, every small town had a fairgrounds. Fairgrounds had a racetrack for racing horses usually, with stands that had a canopy over it. So, back around the turn of 1959-60, they started racing cars on these tracks. Hobby stocks like this, but they’re Supers – and God that grew so fast! I mean, one garage was racing against another garage to compete to see who had the better garage. I mean, small towns were doing this. They would have fifteen to twenty cars out of just a small town. It was just amazing how many cars they had.

So, well we moved to a small town called Calmar, IA and I worked for the Ford garage after school. Just doing different things like whatever, tinkering and small shit, and then they built a race car. They let me go with them to the races in Decorah, and I was the water boy or whatever on the race car. They took this old school bus, cut the back off of it and threw it away. Drove the car up in the back with some ramps. It was quite handy! (laughs)

So, how can you help but not be in the pits, being around watching it that close, smelling that gas and that oil, and those tires. I said: God I’d like to do that sometime! Then I moved to work at Chrysler and I went to a local racetrack - Rockford Speedway- and jeez I said: I’d like to try this! My brother-in-law said: Well, then let’s go get a little junker. We went to the junk yard and got an old 58 Chevy, and then the next week we raced it – and we won the very first time!

You actually won the first time you raced?

I won the very first time! So I got so hooked . . .

I can imagine.

I mean, totally, totally hooked. So what I did was, the next week out we got in a wreck lap two - I ripped the right front wheel clean off the car! I had to leave it sit outside in the parking lot area because that’s outside the pits.

So, we got a frame and all the stuff needed to fix it. We get back and the car is gone! A junker went and stole it! Hell, I didn’t know it, but they were coming around grabbing those cars and stealing them for junk. So I was all done for the year!

The next year I bought a 56 Ford and we went out and we won the Season Championship. Won eight features that year, everything was perfect. That was my career. I wanted to do something with racing because I loved it.

That’s a cool story! So all these years later . . .

I’m still in it. I started Lefthander in 1982. I raced before that, and I’m hooked on it. My son too.

He’s into racing as well?

He’s a race driver and I’m quite proud of him. He does all the test driving now as I’m 64 years old. He is only 28 and has good reflexes.

Eventually someday do you think he’ll take over the Raceway?

Ah, I don’t know. I really haven’t thought about that. I don’t think about retiring. I enjoy what I’m doing, and if I need a cane or wheelchair so I can still get around - I’ll still do it!

So how did you come about purchasing the Raceway this year? How did it all come about?

How I found out about this racetrack is from the guy that used to own it. He knew I had Lefthander Chassis, and called me up about it. So, I met with him up here in the Dells. We worked out a number, because he wasn’t opening up this year. He was planning on. He was gone. It was done. Let it go back to the bank, he was going to quit on it. It just didn’t work. He was in it for five years. He wanted out, and him and I worked out a deal. Finally, I bought it. It was late March.

Of this year?

Yeah, I just bought it. Then, I put in a new Victory Lane over there so the fans can get next to the driver. That was my vision. Victory Lane, all the feature cars go in.

To get their picture taken, and stuff like that?

Yeah, all there in Victory Lane.  Also, Roush Racing, they’re a big name down South. I called them up and told them I want to build a two-seat car, and I want to put a NASCAR body on it that looks really up and just sleek and pretty. And they gave me one, for the cause. I mean, that was awfully nice of them. That’s going to be out in the next one or two weeks.

What we're going to do is have kids get in a drawing if they want to ride in it. We’ll have a drawing and they’ll go over to Victory Lane, get in the car, and take a lap or two with a driver. They also can get theirs picture taken with some trophies.

That sounds like it would be fun to do!

That’s family entertainment. I want to have the Raceway perfect for families. Eventually we are going to put a large playground over there. A big one for kids, because sometimes mom and dad just want to have a cold beer while the kids just want some popcorn and to be able to do something.

That sounds like a good idea, having it in an enclosed fenced-in area. Do you have any other plans for the parks future?

I got a bunch of visions, we’ll see if some of them will work. Over there, I’d like to have a crosswalk going all the way across where the fans can go down into the infield. See the cement barrier I got in the front there? I want to continue that all the way around the track on the inside. Let fans go down in there and walk around, see things up close.

You’re just going to do this little by little?

Oh yes, yeah I’m all cashed out now. (laughs)

So tell me a little about the types of cars that race here at Dells Raceway Park.

OK, there are four divisions. The ones that are out there now are called Bandits. That’s an entry level car. They go out and get those from the junkyard. They put a roll cage in them and they go off and have a good time. You aren’t supposed to modify the motor, you aren’t supposed to do nothing but put a roll cage in it for safety and go race in it to have fun.

Then what they do is move up to what we call a Pure Stock. A Pure Stock is a bigger car. They got a few things they are allowed to do to them, but they are a glorified hobby stock. Then the next class up from that is a Sportsman. They get to do all kinds of things on it, but it’s a stock frame yet, from the factory. They modify the motor some, put in different things to help it handle.

Then our top class is the Late Models. My son here, he’s nineteen; you’ll see him here tonight. He races here. He’s been here for like five years. But anyway, that’s the Supers - they’re the high priced ones. That’s why I’m trying to build a new car, to almost fall in place of that, because that is a class that’s dwindling. There aren’t a lot of people that can afford it. The motors in one of those is anywhere from sixteen to twenty-five thousand. And if you blow it the first night, you’re still out sixteen to twenty-five thousand! (laughs)

To replace it . . .

Yeah, I mean the expenses are just terrible.

What’s your favorite aspect about owning your own racetrack?

Well, my favorite part about the racetrack is the people. I enjoy being around people and entertaining people. Seeing the satisfaction that I can do for them, and that’s the same thing I have for my museum, because you can make money at certain things you do like. It’s nice to be rewarding and also do things for people.

Getting to see people smile . . .

Oh, to watch them enjoy race. If they didn’t enjoy themselves, that almost like hurts me! I wouldn’t know what to do.

Well looking around, you must be doing something right because everyone I see seems to be enjoying themselves. I see a lot of happy people.

Well, another thing is if I wouldn’t have bought this track, it wouldn’t have been racing this year. Once things go into foreclosure, it would have been gone. I don’t want to say what I paid for it, but the price was right. We both agreed on a price. He was happy with what I offered him, and I was happy with what I paid. It’s hard to find it both ways, so we both ended up being happy with it.

So what’s the hardest part, so far?

Oh, that’s an easy answer. The hardest part about owning this race track is - I opened this track - I bought it in March. Tried to open it in May, and I have no experience. I’m going through a learning curve . . .

Flying by the seat of your pants?

Oh my gosh! The 1st week we opened, we had a great crowd - that was the 19th of May. The next week the crowd was just terrible! It was the very last weekend of May, I said: What’s going on here? Well, low and behold, I find out there is nothing but school graduation parties. Events, people going out, just parties, parties, parties. So now I already made notes. Next year on slow weekends I need to have events that don’t have a lot of money involved. If you don’t make as much, you can’t spend as much.

Tell me what a typical day for you entails on a race day?

Well, I got my own airplane and I live at an airport. It’s a fly-in community, Popular Grove, right there on the edge of Belvedere. So, yesterday I already I knew I was going to get up at eight or nine, and head this way at eleven.

So you’re a pilot too?

Yeah. So I headed this way about eleven. I’m here about twenty minutes to twelve. I drop down in Baraboo. I’ll usually cruise through town just to snoop. I like it. I love the Dells. So, I drive around, snoop a little bit and grab a hotdog or something somewhere.  Then I’ll mosey out here. Get out here around twelve or so. I usually open the gates around one. So, if I have things I have to hand out or do, I do that.  Then it’s idle time all the way till two-thirty, so I just kinda relax.

Scott Sauerbrei, he runs the whole track. He manages the track for me. To make this work I got sixteen events a year, and luckily we have no rainouts yet, but for those sixteen events I have to make enough to live the whole year. To pay for insurance, taxes, and all the other things. To run this place for one night, it takes sixty-five to seventy people to make all this work. Between the officials, the people down there cooking, the ticket takers, the gift shop . . . that’s what it takes.

That’s a lot of mouths to feed.

Yes, it is. So I got to be careful how I do it.

You mentioned insurance. Due to the inherit danger of racing, I imagine that it’s pretty expensive for something like this?

Insurance for this thing is about eighteen thousand a year. It covers workman comp, accidents, of course if someone falls in the stands, etc. When they come out and look over your facility, they‘ll check it out and see how much of a risk you are. They told us we got one of the better ones in the country because they like how the fences are laid out. They’re in good shape. They like the double fence. See in the inner fence? There are two rows of fences. They like that because there are some places you can go and sit right next to the track. They like everything we got about this thing.

What’s the most exciting thing you ever seen in a race here?

Some of the exciting stuff is when they go across the finish line and they are side by side. You don’t who is going to win, I mean that is exciting!

Do you have a photo finish type thing?

Oh yeah, we have transponders. When the go across that line right there, they know who won right away.

Have you seen any crashes since you bought it?

Oh yeah, but it’s been fairly clean. Not been too bad.

Anything odd or out of the ordinary happen? Like have any animals sneak onto the track?

When I first bought this, for the first month, there was this fox that would show up. A red fox. So, I thought hey that’s cool, it can be our mascot. I said, I like that fox, don’t you dare chase him off! (laughs) He used to hang around and walk through the bleachers, but now that all the people are around here, he kinda moved out.

Has any famous drivers ever raced here?

Oh yeah. If you go in the gift shop there is a whole list of famous racers. I mean, Dick Trickle was very famous; he’s won the championship here a few times. Yeah, there are a lot of famous drivers that have been here.

I’ll wrap this up by asking, what are your hopes and dreams for the future?

Well the thing I want to do is that I want to grow the race base of cars and fans because it’s got to be family entertainment. That’s my whole thing, whatever it takes, whatever I can learn, whatever it takes to have family entertainment.
Well I definitely plan to bring my family here someday. Thank you Wayne for taking the time share your experiences and giving me a crash course on stock car racing! For more information, please visit his website: