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Superior driver hopes to keep wheels turning at AMSOIL Speedway

Modified stock car driver Al Uotinen heard his name mentioned over the radio system at Amsoil Speedway in Superior during a race last month and assumed the worst.

Modified stock car driver Al Uotinen heard his name mentioned over the radio system at Amsoil Speedway in Superior during a race last month and assumed the worst.

"Race director Chris Stepan came on and said, 'Al, I don't know if you know this yet or not,' " Uotinen said. "As soon as he said that, I thought, 'Oh no, what did I do? Did I jump the start or something like that? They're going to dock me a couple spots.' "

Instead, Stepan was congratulating Uotinen for becoming the fifth driver since 2003 to complete 500 straight laps at the track. Uotinen, of Superior, recently surpassed Super Stock driver Dale Gangl for fourth on that list with 550 straight laps and has no plans of stopping now going into tonight's racing at Amsoil Speedway.

Modified driver Don Copp of Brule holds the record with 721 straight laps completed. Uotinen admitted he has taken some extra pains to make sure his car is race ready.

"I never thought much about it before that," Uotinen said of hearing the news from Stepan. "It's really cool to just be in the top 5, but to top 721 would really be neat. To be No. 1 -- that's what we all go for, but I'm not going to let it change the way I race. I'm still going to stick my nose in there when I need to."

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John Kimmes with Amsoil Speedway began keeping track of laps completed at the beginning of the 2003 season. It applies only to feature races.

Uotinen's streak began on June 12, 2009, and has lasted through 26 shows and has included two perfect seasons.

"I have past results going all the way back to the beginning of the track (in 1962) and after reviewing them, I am pretty confident that these five are the only ones to have reached that 500-lap plateau in the history of the track," Kimmes said.

Uotinen, 51, is one of the area's oldest drivers racing in the Modified division, considered local dirt racing's second-highest level. He has won about 15 track championships between Superior and Ashland, including the Modified title at Amsoil Speedway in 2010. He won the Como Modified Series in 2008 and is currently first in the Modified points standings at Superior.

"There have been a lot of things going on this year," said Uotinen, who works as an auto technician at Kari Toyota. "I will probably only get between 25 to 27 shows in this year. That is the lowest amount I've ever done, and I've been racing for more than 30 years."

Uotinen said he has continued to race as he always has, but he admitted the streak crossed his mind three laps into a race earlier this month when the engine on his Modified began "missing," meaning a piston on the engine wasn't firing, or was firing at the wrong time. Something similar had happened to a friend of his during the opening night at ABC Raceway in Ashland, and he wound up blowing the engine.

Uotinen had a dilemma: pull off the track and save the engine before it potentially blew, or try to complete the race and carry on his streak. Uotinen stayed on the track but didn't lollygag it. He finished third.

"I thought of the streak and was like, 'Noooo. I can't pull off,' " Uotinen said. "The streak was the first thing that came to my mind, and I didn't want to end this now, so we stuck it out. It wound up just being a sparkplug, so it all worked out."

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Uotinen hopes that trend continues. He knows all about the "Sports Illustrated jinx," which is occasionally applied to other media, including the Duluth News Tribune.

Uotinen is crossing his fingers, knocking on wood and even buying a case of rabbit's feet, but three things will help him even more than luck: experience, consistency and respect from the other drivers for being a clean racer.

"It's a little added pressure," Uotinen said. "Hopefully that media jinx doesn't come into play (today), but to be honest I'll probably go out there and not even think about it. You can't think about anything else when you're racing."

Related Topics: SUPERIOR
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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