Inside Dirt Late Model Racing
Column: Sponsor Ranta plans major push in '17
Arnie Ranta has become a very recognizable Dirt Late Model sponsor and team owner over the past decade, but, above all else, he’s a life-long Dirt Late Model fan.
“I’ve got five decades, almost six decades, in Dirt Late Model racing,” said the friendly 68-year-old native of northeast Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region who now lives outside the Twin Cities in Stillwater, Minn. “I’ve seen it evolve from back in the day with Ed Sanger (a former World 100 from Waterloo, Iowa) and guys who ran back in the ‘60s. | Complete Speedweeks coverage
“It all kind of started for me at Superior (Wis.) Speedway where we had the Canadians vs. the Duluth, Superior and Twin Ports regulars. The first time I went there with my cousin I don’t think I was 10 years old, and it bit me. I was hooked, and it’s just taken off. Almost all my life, in all my spare waking moments, I’ve had to get to a Dirt Late Model race.”
Today Ranta is part of two serious Dirt Late Model operations — he’s the major sponsor of Chatham, Ill., driver Brian Shirley’s Bob Cullen Motorsports effort that plans to chase the World of Outlaws Craftsman Late Model Series for the second consecutive year and he serves as the team owner for upstart full-fender racer Brent Larson of Lake Elmo, Minn., who might follow the WoO tour as well — but he remains the same fan-at-heart who has spent so many years eagerly traveling to speedways across the map to see his beloved division.
“I’ve been all over the country for Late Model races,” Ranta said recently from his home while recovering from a minor hernia surgery. “I worked as a contract employee (construction site manager) for 3M (Company) so I traveled a lot (during the 1980s and early ‘90s). I was anywhere from Wausau, Wis., to North Carolina to Eugene, Ore., to West Virginia to Decatur, Ala., but much of the time I was on the East Coast and down in the Southeast so I certainly came in contact with a lot of (Dirt Late Model) tracks. I’d find out what tracks ran on the weekends and where the specials were and I’d drive to ‘em.
“I think by the time I got done with that job (upon the birth of his son Adam, now 24 and working in U.S. Bank’s mortgage department) and settled down here in the Twin Cities I had over 100 different tracks under my belt.”
With such a deep, abiding interest in the sport, it was only natural for Ranta to migrate from spectator to active participate. So, as the used snowmobile business he launched after leaving his position at 3M began to flourish, his Ranta Motorsports logo started to appear on local race cars and his desire to dive in deeper gradually increased.
“I started in 2001 on a real small scale on a spec series up in northern Minnesota,” Ranta said of his entry financially to Dirt Late Model racing. “A couple friends of mine had been involved in dirt racing and I helped them a little bit with their cars. It started off with 500 bucks (in sponsorship), and it’s kind of evolved from there.”
Ranta paused, and then added with a hearty laugh, “Or maybe lost control, I don’t know.”
Indeed, Ranta felt a pull toward Dirt Late Model racing that he couldn’t disregard.
“I just felt I needed to get more involved,” who Ranta, who graduated form the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 1971. “The more I got to know the guys and the track owners and the different sponsors, it was more important to me to get more and more involved.”
In 2006, Ranta got serious, joining forces with Terry Casey of New London, Wis., to bring the hard-charging racer who excelled in WISSOTA spec-engine action to the Super Late Model ranks. They raced together for several seasons and enjoyed some memorable moments, including a stretch early in 2008 that saw Casey capture three Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series events in a five-race span at East Bay Raceway Park in Gibsonton, Fla., Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway and Swainsboro (Ga.) Raceway.
“Terry was the first one we went traveling with,” Ranta said. “I laid eyes on that guy and I could see, with his reckless abandon, that if he got settled down a little bit he had strong potential. I could see Terry was special, and I thought, What the heck? Let’s go try it. I approached him on it, and away we went.
“Terry was a hit with the crowd. His reckless abandon kind of caught on with people. There was no question, if there was a little bit of bite in that track, he was gonna be all over it. He was capable of coming from 15th place on a local level and winning a race … I saw him do it several times. And even with the big guys he could do it — his first big win at Brownstown there in a Lucas (Oil) show, he came from 16th.
“It was a lot of fun with Terry,” he continued. “We backed off a little bit for a few years and then we tried it again when I went as a full-fledged owner in 2012, but both of us hadn’t kept up with the technology and we really struggled. I had spent some time away from it as did Terry and when we went back to it we never got the results that we wanted.”
Ranta went on to briefly help Dan Schlieper of Oak Creek, Wis., and, in 2015, sponsored Jordan Yaggy of Rochester, Minn., on the WoO tour. Once Yaggy and his father, Steve, decided to back off their extensive traveling for ’16, though, Ranta decided he wanted to find a new driver to support on a national circuit.
“I still had it in me,” Ranta remarked. “I wanted to do something, so then I went over with Brian Shirley.”
Shirley, 35, had an existing friendship with Ranta stretching back nearly a decade. It took until the off-season between the 2015 and ’16 campaigns, however, for the two to band together formally.
“I probably met him eight, 10 years ago, at the racetrack,” Shirley said of Ranta. “He asked about sponsoring me back then. He contacted a buddy and got my number and called me. We talked a little bit and he said he was interested in me. He liked how I ran the (UMP DIRTcar) Summernationals and was competitive in the regional deal and said he thought I was gonna be a good, standout racer. It just happened at the time that his sponsorship would have conflicted with (Ed) Petroff’s deal (with Shirley), so we just didn’t work a deal out.
“Three years ago I talked to him that winter. I stayed in contact with him, we talked some more, and he said, ‘Hey, I’d really like to do something with you, but I got first dibs on these guys, Yaggy and them,’ and I said, ‘I understand. I don’t want to go behind anybody’s back and cut them out.’ So we just waited, and a couple years later it so happened that Yaggy was slowing down (from traveling), and last year he knew about me teaming up with Bob (Cullen of Chilton, Wis., for 2016) and wanted to look into putting a national team together to run the deal.”
Ranta thought he could be the catalyst that propelled the new pairing of Shirley and Cullen out on the road.
“Those guys were gonna run some of the regional races and then some of the other bigger ones,” Ranta said. “Bob had the equipment and Brian was gonna do the driving and maintain the cars, but they were just gonna do it on a somewhat limited basis. I just kind of chimed and said, ‘What if we do a little better? Let’s try one of these series. Let’s at least go to Florida where it all begins (for Speedweeks) and let’s see what we do. If it doesn’t work out, nothing ventured, nothing gained.’
“That’s really how it evolved,” he added. “I want a Midwest guy to win one of these (national) championships, I really do. In my heart of hearts, I wanted Terry to be that guy, but it just didn’t work out so Brian was the next in line. He needed the help, he had the potential and I had a liking for Brian, so away we went.”
Shirley parlayed a solid Georgia-Florida Speedweeks in 2016 into a full season as a WoO regular. He won three times on the series and was in contention for a top-five finish in the points standings until a wild, flipping accident on Sept. 3 at Lernerville Speedway in Sarver, Pa., left him with a concussion that forced him to miss the next night’s event (he slipped to ninth in the final points).
It was a respectable performance for a driver who hadn’t tested himself on the WoO tour since running most of the schedule in 2007 as a Rookie of the Year contender for Petroff, but Ranta is certain it could have been better.
“We got to a point where we didn’t get any better and everybody else got better,” Ranta said. “We went down there (to Speedweeks) with a good setup, but little by little we just didn’t measure up. I think Brian had to drive the car a little harder than he wanted and we just didn’t have quite what we needed. Then Brian had the accident, so that took care of that. Once that crash happened we were in free fall (in the points).”
Ranta wasn’t discouraged by the quiet conclusion to the ’16 season. In fact, everything that happened last year — on the track and, especially, off of it — encouraged him to plot his most ambitious racing effort ever for ’17.
Ranta, of course, dealt with a serious health scare in 2016 when he was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer. He had surgery for prostate cancer two years ago, but the cancer was found to have spread to his bladder, pelvic tissue and seminal vesicles so he underwent two months of radiation therapy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
“I didn’t go to any races in June or July last year,” said Ranta, who still managed to attend about half of Shirley’s events in ’16. “The radiation took a lot out of me. The only communication I had was just with the guys when they called me and what I watched on DirtonDirt … I didn’t come around (to the track) again until the USA Nationals (in early August at Cedar Lake Speedway in New Richmond, Wis.).”
According to Ranta, he’s now on hormonal therapy and the growth of his cancer has stabilized. But he understands the treatment won’t stop its progress, so that uncertainty about his future has made him more cognizant of living life to its fullest.
“I won’t get rid of it. I know that,” said Ranta, who is scheduled for his six-month checkup on Feb. 27 immediately after returning from his 2-week-long trip to Georgia-Florida Speedweeks. “I’ll probably have to have bladder surgery one day, but if it can be contained and managed, all the more reason for me to do these things that I’ve wanted to do. The immediacy is more apparent now.
“That’s why I’ve gotten real serious about racing again. I thought, By golly, with this cancer, with this thing going on, I hate to say it, but I don’t know how long I have, so I’m gonna make sure I make the most of my time.
“I’m going for a (WoO) championship this year for sure with Brian,” he asserted. “I’m throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it to make sure he has every opportunity to win it.”
Putting more financial clout behind Shirley’s Cullen Motorsports assault this season isn’t the extent of Ranta’s ’17 plans. He also has formed a complete race team of his own for Larson, a 39-year-old former open-wheel modified regular who has known Ranta for more than a decade.
“He’s a good clean racer, a hard charger,” Ranta said of Larson. “We talked many years ago about how one day I’d like to get involved with him, and the circumstances just now kind of presented themselves (after Yaggy decided to cut back on his racing). I really wanted someone else coming up to kind of follow in Brian’s footsteps and learn from Brian, so I thought, I’m gonna find a guy who’s in a position to be able to do this traveling. I looked around, and last April I walked into Brent’s door — his shop is only 10 minutes down the hill from my place — and I said, ‘Are you ready?’ And he said, ‘You bet!’ ”
Ranta initially purchased a Rocket car from Yaggy and later obtained a Club 29 machine and sent Larson off to learn the Dirt Late Model ropes last year by running a portion of the Summernationals Hell Tour and other special events. Now Ranta has four Longhorn Race Cars and a half-dozen Pro Power engines amassed for Larson, whose father’s business, Hanco Corporation, is also providing sponsorship help.
“We’ll see how we stack up down there at Speedweeks with Brent and then decide what we’ll do,” Ranta said of Larson, who headed south last week to spend several days testing in Florida with Shirley. “We may continue on (with the WoO), or we may run the Summernationals.
“This is a great learning opportunity for Brent to work with Brian and see this in front of him. This is gonna be his big deal. He’s gonna be on his own, but he’s gonna be able to get some notes from Shirley. It’ll mature him and make him better much quicker. We’ll see what he’s got.”
Ranta has no uncertainty about what he expects from Shirley in ’17. For the driver known as Squirrel, it’s championship-or-bust.
“Whatever Shirley needs to compete with these guys, he’s gonna have,” Ranta said. “That’s what it takes. It’s not only God-given ability with the man behind the wheel. You’ve gotta have the equipment, you’ve gotta have the staying power — and when you wreck something and break something, you’ve gotta make sure the next day you have a new one in place and ready to go. Brian is able to race that way now instead of having to worry about the equipment. We’re gonna give it all we have.
“This year I think is the year. We’re covering all the bases. Last year was the learning curve, and this year we’re gonna go after that championship. We’ve certainly got a team put together in all regards — from the equipment to the driver to the hauler to the manpower — so we feel we have everything we need to win that championship or, at least, certainly to be in the mix. All of us have a strong, positive attitude, and I made sure the finances were there to do this thing right.”
Buoyed by Ranta’s additional support, Shirley is ready to tackle the 2017 season with his confidence at an all-time high.
“Let me tell ‘ya, I’ve never been in a better spot in my life than I am now because of him,” said Shirley, who has four Longhorn cars and fresh Andy Durham-built engines at his disposal. “I just want to show how appreciative I am of him by giving it everything we have this year.
“The whole team, we’ve been going to the gym every day. We’re worked hard every day in the shop. We’re all committed to doing everything we can to give a full effort to going after Mark (Richards and Rocket Chassis house car driver Brandon Sheppard) and (Shane) Clanton … they’re the top of the heap, but honestly, with (2016 WoO champion) Josh (Richards) going where he’s going (to the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series after leaving his father’s house car), it leaves the door wide open for somebody to win the championship. It ain’t gonna be easy, but we feel like we’ve got a shot.
“I know Sheppy will be tough, Clanton will be tough, (Rick) Eckert will be tough, but Josh going has really opened up the door. If we do our homework and do what we need to do, we can be right there. Before mid-season (in ’16), we were right there as a top-three team. We just gotta put it all together and implement the things that we learned.
“You think you know how to run a team to compete on that (national) deal, but you don’t until you do it fully,” he added. “I honestly thought for years that I knew what it took. Then when I went out there last year, it was a big eye-opener. This year we’re gonna be geared up and have enough equipment to not fall behind. You can bet your ass we’re gonna give it all we got.”
Nothing would make the 2017 season more satisfying for Shirley than to celebrate a WoO championship with Ranta, one of those Dirt Late Model benefactors that helps keep the division rolling.
“In my mind, he’s done his fair share for the sport,” Shirley said. “Racing needs guys like him. It’s all about the love of the sport for him.”
Just listen to Ranta talk about what drives him to be so deeply involved in Dirt Late Model racing and it’s apparent Shirley’s assessment of him is correct.
“I think I partly live vicariously through those guys — you know, maybe that’s me in that car!” Ranta said with a laugh. “I feel like I’m giving them an opportunity that I didn’t have. I wanted to race … I raced snowmobiles, not that I was particularly successful; I was a better wrench than I was a racer. Since I’ve been a little guy, though, race cars have always intrigued me, but I’ve never really had the chance to do it. I suppose I could’ve taken the chance to drive, but I was always busy with my job. So now I have the financial ability to be able to help somebody, and I get a lot of satisfaction from that. It’s real important to me.
“Everybody can’t be the driver. Everybody can’t be the (engine or chassis) tuner. But we all have a place, and me being involved allows these guys to get out there and compete at this level. I’m real excited to have this opportunity to go after that championship with Brian and bring along a new guy (Larson) that doesn’t have the experience along.
“And this is my recreation … to hop on a plane and go for a weekend some place as a getaway, maybe a place I haven’t been to or to see some new friends or find out what’s going on in the racing circles and shake a few hands and give a couple, ‘Atta boys!’ All that camaraderie we get, the phone calls, it’s all fun for me, and the more I’m around it, the more involved I want to get.”
Ranta is definitely all-in this year — and ready to sit with Shirley and Cullen at the head table during November’s WoO awards banquet.
“I think we’re flying a little bit under the radar,” Ranta said. “All the chat is about how these four or five other guys are gonna win the championship … they’ve already got a couple of guys’ name tags on the championship. Well, I beg to differ. We haven’t run a race yet, and we’re ready for ‘em. I think Shirley’s gonna have a helluva year and Larson might even surprise.”
Ten things worth mentioning
1. Ranta lives alone (he separated from his wife, Colleen, more than a decade ago) in the awesome town of Stillwater, Minn., a favorite stop for the DirtonDirt.com crew during our annual visits to the USA Nationals at nearby Cedar Lake Speedway. (We adore the Oasis restaurant!) “Everybody falls in love with Stillwater,” said Ranta, who calls himself “a river guy” since his home sits on a bluff overlooking the St. Croix River that runs alongside Stillwater.
2. Ranta provided Shirley and his crew a taste of his hometown last summer during a break in the WoO Wild West Tour. “They had a few days off so Brian kept his rig and cars over at Brent Larson’s shop and worked on them during the day and then I’d pick those guys up in the late afternoon,” Ranta said. We went on a riverboat ride, a paddler, on the St. Croix and had lunch (at one of Stillwater’s many restaurants), and I took ‘em all around the Twin Cities. They really enjoyed that. It gave them a change of pace from all the traveling.”
3. With Ranta being a Stillwater resident, I had to ask him for an update on the construction of the bridge over the St. Croix River about a mile south of the town. We’ve seen progress on the span during our USA Nationals trips in recent years, but I’ve wondered when the new bridge will finally be completed to reduce traffic backup that often occurs on Route 36 entering Stillwater — a problem exacerbated by the regular raising of the lift bridge in the middle of the town. “It was slated (to open) late fall this year, but that’s not gonna happen,” Ranta said. “It’s about 80 percent done, but there’s still a lot of work to do. I think they’re looking at August of next year, so hopefully before the (2018) USA Nationals.”
4. Race cars aren’t Ranta’s only love. His home garage is filled with a variety of other motorized vehicles. “I’ve got too many toys,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve got a motorcycle here in my office right now, two in my house, four in the garage, a half a dozen Corvettes. People come over and say, ‘What the hell?’ I call them my ‘artwork.’ When I walk in after a hard day’s work or whatever I did, I just open that garage door and it smells good and looks good. I’m not hanging Picassos … I’m keeping motorcycles and sports cars. I’ve been a sports car guy with either Vipers or Corvettes for 25 years. It’s what I enjoy.”
5. While speaking about his native Arrowhead Region of northeast Minnesota, Ranta noted that the area produced a very well-known racer: six-time NHRA Pro Stock champion Warren Johnson, a native of Virginia, Minn., who happens to be Ranta’s second cousin and has some Dirt Late Model history. “Warren used to build Dirt Late Model race engines in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s,” Ranta said of the now 73-year-old Johnson. “I saw him last year … he was grand marshal at a parade up there the Fourth of July weekend. It was wonderful to see him again, especially away from the work setting because he’s a really intense man. We had a lot of fun. We talked about his dirt days when he built many WISSOTA engines and a lot of big engines, big-block engines, for Late Models.”
6. Ask Shirley about Ranta’s snowmobile business and he’ll shake his head in amazement. “When I first met him he took me to his shop where he kept all his snowmobiles in this big warehouse,” Shirley said. “There were like 400 snowmobile sleds, all lined up perfect, organized … I’m telling you, you wouldn’t believe how organized this guy was. They were side-by-side, not a half-inch out of line, and he moved every one of them by himself at like 68 years old. And the warehouse never had any heat — and it was a brick warehouse. Can you imagine working in a brick warehouse in Minnesota in the winter with no heat? He just had a little cubicle area as an office for his computer and the people who came in and bought the sleds, and he kept a little heater. That’s one tough son of a bitch right there.”
7. Ranta laughed when he recalled Shirley’s reaction upon seeing the unheated, 30,000-square-foot warehouse that housed Ranta’s snowmobiles. “Brian, when he first came in there, he said, ‘My goodness! How do you do it?’ ” Ranta recalled with a smile. “I said, ‘Well, when the customers come by, two things happen when I keep it cold like this: I work a little faster and talk a little faster, and the customer makes his mind up a little quicker.’ There wasn’t time for wine and cheese and cookies or anything like that with that cold … it helps make up your mind pretty quick. But that’s what I did (went without heat) for years to keep the cost of the overhead down and it worked pretty well. You dress for the occasion and it works.”
8. I was typing this column, my computer’s spell-check kept automatically changing Ranta’s name to “Santa.” I just happened to find that funny. I imagine the drivers Ranta has helped over the years wouldn’t disagree with calling him Santa.
9. After Shanon Buckingham of Morristown, Tenn., won last Saturday’s Cabin Fever 40 at Boyd’s Speedway in Ringgold, Ga., he posed in victory lane with his team members for a traditional post-race photo. But one person in the shot — the man standing directly to Buckingham’s left — wasn’t a crew member or even an acquaintance of Buckingham. According to a Facebook post by Buckingham’s wife, Amanda, no one from the race team was able to identify the guy who pulled off a superb photo bomb. “After (victory lane) was over he looked at Shanon Buckingham and said, ‘Hey, so where are you guys from anyway?’ ” Amanda wrote with a crying-laughing emoji for punctuation. “We aren’t mad … he’s given us a lot of laughs.”
10. The staff at Virginia Motor Speedway in Jamaica found a majestic visitor on track property last Friday: a bald eagle with a broken wing. VMS general manager Clarke Sawyer and his employees sought out assistance from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehab to rescue the bird. “It’s not every day that you get this close to a bald eagle,” a post on the VMS Facebook page noted. “To say Clarke was excited would be an understatement.” The track’s Facebook writer also mentioned where the bald eagle was discovered perched: “If you ask me he was waiting on the guardrail for some dirt racing!”