Volunteers help keep the Southwest Speedway race track runningKen Decker is a man who has worn, and still wears, many hats at the Southwest Speedway.
By: Colton Pool, The Dickinson Press
Ken Decker is a man who has worn, and still wears, many hats at the Southwest Speedway.
He has been the rural Dickinson dirt racing track’s promoter and financial advisor, president of the Roughrider Racing Association, raced cars for more than 30 years and does whatever he can to help the track keep operating smoothly — and currently, he doesn’t get paid a single dime for it.
“I’ve pretty much been involved with it since 1971 in every different aspect,” said Decker, who currently instructs racers as the track’s radio man. “I refused to get paid because I love the sport. We try to get as much free help as we can so we can buy equipment and so we can get the best race track possible.”
Money isn’t easy to come by at the Southwest Speedway, which has led the track to rely almost entirely on a volunteer effort. Some workers get paid, but not handsomely.
Darcie Dennis, the Roughrider Racing Association president, certainly knows how important volunteers are to the race track.
“None of this would be possible without the help of the volunteers,” Dennis said. “They’re the ones that run the show, or help it run. It’s a ridiculous amount of hours. I wish there was more we could do for them. Without them, we would not have a race track, and that’s the bottom line right there.”
The Southwest Speedway pays approximately $6,425 to drivers on a regular race night — $3,365 goes to the top 20 finishers in the IMCA Modifieds, about $1,700 a night in Wissota Street Stocks, about $1,000 for Pure Stocks, and about $360 is paid to the Thunder 4s.
It means the track needs to draw an average 650 fans each night simply to break even, not including concessions. However this year, most race nights have had large fan turnouts and the concessions are seeing profits, meaning the Southwest Speedway will likely turn a profit this season.
“With our fan counts, we’re definitely in the green this year,” Dennis said. “There’s been years in the past where it hasn’t been so great.”
It’s why it is standard for the Speedway to depend on the volunteer efforts.
Even racers, including Mark Selle and Dwight Burwick, said they might give around 30 to 40 hours on any given week to support the track.
“I have late nights out there, prepping the track, watering it, blading it, straightening it, all that good stuff, trying to get it as smooth as possible,” said Selle, a past RRA president and current Pure Stocks driver.
Countless drivers have worked diligently on the track to keep it at a continuously high-quality level, even when things don’t go the way they hope.
“Lenny Makowski rolled his (Modified) car, and came out the next day and worked at our track until 4 in the morning,” Dennis said. “It’s volunteers like that, that can come from rolling their car and totaling it out completely, to coming back and working a track and making it perfect.”
Selle said volunteering to keep the race track going often can take a toll on his personal and professional life.
“With my job, I’ve been busy and with my family and everything too,” Selle said. “I’m a firefighter in town and we have meetings on Thursday nights, which ends up being a big night for prepping that race track, so it falls on Dwight and everyone else to kind of get things going”.
With the amount of hours needed to get the track ready for a night of racing, and volunteers only able to spend so much time for it, several people are needed to lend a hand.
“There are a number of volunteers that have dedicated tons of time,” Burwick said. “They spend countless hours doing this stuff.”
Though the track remains consistent track year in and year out, one of the biggest difficulties the Roughrider Racing Association has is finding a way to keep their volunteers coming each year.
An individual that usually helps recruiting volunteers for the race track is a promoter.
Almost every official race track across the United States — big or small — has a promoter. This year, the Southwest Speedway does not. This makes it even more difficult finding people to help.
“It has been a little chaos this season,” Decker said. “We definitely need a promoter.”
A promoter usually works a large number of hours to promote the track around the area. The position extends from recruiting help to putting up flyers, selling and giving away tickets and helping answer questions from fans and the media.
“Bob Klein (last year’s promoter) still runs around and ties up some loose ends, so as of this year we still kind of have one,” Dennis said. “But as far as next year, we are praying that someone steps forward because we’re still nervous about next year.”
The amount of commotion leading up to the Speedway’s race days can be stressful for its supporters and volunteers. But nothing quite compares to the pandemonium of race day.
“It’s like any other sport,” Decker said. “There’s going to be some chaos, and some different things that happen out there. It’s hard to do and most people that aren’t involved with the racers want to sit in the stands, drink beer, and watch the races. So it’s hard. But there’s always going to be chaos.”
Most regular fans don’t get to sit in the pit area, meaning most of them don’t get to experience the efforts and coordination between workers and drivers that is necessary to make the track run smoothly on race nights.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re getting pulled in 18 different directions,” Dennis said. “There’s a mixture of everything.”
Lindsey Decker, Ken Decker’s daughter, sits in the control tower on race night, running the transponder system for the race cars — the transponders send information back to a computer in the tower that measures laps, speed and lineups for each race. If anyone knows what it takes to get a night of racing going, it’s her.
“It’s a lot of work,” Lindsey Decker said. “But if you have a love for racing or a love for a certain driver, just to be out there and volunteer and see everything that happens on the pit side definitely puts a different perspective on how racing is and how it works.”
Despite all the labor and countless hours of work volunteers put in to help the track, everyone agrees it’s a worthwhile effort.
“In the end, when you watch a show come together and you watch a packed grandstand, it makes everything worth it,” Dennis said. “And for some crazy reason, I love it.”