Event brings back memories of drag-racing days gone by

Dennis Van Alstine of Duluth still suffers lingering effects of a stroke he had two years ago. His speech is slow and occasionally slurred, but his passion for drag racing remains unchanged.

Dennis Van Alstine of Duluth still suffers lingering effects of a stroke he had two years ago. His speech is slow and occasionally slurred, but his passion for drag racing remains unchanged.

Van Alstine, who turns 67 on Oct. 20, is among a group of local drag-racing enthusiasts who hope this week's time trials along Garfield Avenue, in which cars race against the stop watch, revive interest in the sport. And they hope for the prospect of a drag strip, where two cars race side by side, returning to the area.

The history of drag racing in the Northland is as rich and long as a quarter-mile strip, but local drag racers haven't had a track close to home since the Keewatin International Drag Strip closed after the 1997 season. The closest is Brainerd International Raceway.

"Hopefully, the Garfield event will help bring a real drag-racing track back to the Twin Ports," said drag racing historian Mark Lann of Duluth. "I'd like to see this be a stepping stone toward that, because it's a real pain to go and race in Brainerd all day, and then come back here at three in the morning. And I strongly believe there is great economic potential for it. Just look at the millions that Brainerd brings in."

Van Alstine grew up street racing in the late 1950s and early '60s and quickly became known as "Dennis the Menace." He founded the Twin Ports Drag Racing Association in the 1970s with Rod Anderson, the father of three-time National Hot Rod Association world champion Greg Anderson.


Back then, Van Alstine and Rod Anderson considered drag racing at safe, organized venues to be the wave of the future. Today, the NHRA claims to be the No. 2 motorsport in the U.S., ranking only behind NASCAR. Brainerd's showcase event each summer typically draws more than 100,000 spectators over four days.

"I learned the hard way that you break a lot of parts street racing and become known as a renegade," said Van Alstine, who once covered a quarter mile in his 1968 Camaro in 10.3 seconds at 136 mph. "We had to take it off the street and put it where it belongs."

From 1974-76, Van Alstine managed Apollo Dragways, an eighth-mile asphalt drag strip south of Superior -- off Wisconsin Highway 35 -- near Pattison State Park. The drag strip, which now is the site of the Copper Creek Motorsports Park go-kart facility, attracted crowds and helped spawn a new generation of drivers.

Besides Greg Anderson, NHRA professional drag racers Warren and Kurt Johnson and Jason Line, as well as local stalwart Vern Laurin Jr., all trace their roots to Northeastern Minnesota.

Van Alstine said he never had an incident at Apollo where there was a serious accident or neighbors complaining about noise.

"I was finally starting to turn the corner to where the track would make money," Van Alstine said.

But the asphalt at Apollo wasn't properly installed and quickly began deteriorating because of the area's extreme weather conditions. The contractor was sued but declared bankruptcy, according to Van Alstine, leaving investors in Twin Ports Drag Racing Inc., including Van Alstine, out of money.

But he said with financial backing, there is potential to have another drag strip near Duluth.


"You get the money, I'll get the permits," he said.

In the meantime, Van Alstine and other drag-racing enthusiasts believe Sunday's time trial has the opportunity to show how safe and exciting the sport can be. While risk is inherent in the high-speed sport, accidents are rare on the NHRA circuit.

"From what I've gathered, organizers are going through all the hoops to make sure this will be a real positive experience for everyone involved," said local engine builder Kevin Talbot. "We're happy that for the day, at least, we're getting a chance to showcase some high-performance talent."

Van Alstine still builds engines and vows to drag race again someday, even after his stroke. And, if local drag-racing enthusiasts get their wish, it will be close to home.

Jon Nowacki is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune
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