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Inside Dirt Late Model Racing

Column: 'Tough as nails' Ranta gave all to racing

March 16, 2023, 7:48 am

Boiling down Arnie Ranta to his essence was never difficult. He was a Dirt Late Model guy to the bone, and he absolutely reveled in that fact.

There was no ambiguity about the driving force inside Ranta, a former team owner and longtime supporter of the sport who died Saturday at his home in Stillwater, Minn., following an eight-year battle with cancer. He was 73.

“He loved it,” said Terry Casey, the New London, Wis., driver who brought Ranta his first national attention as a Dirt Late Model sponsor in the late 2000s. “He just really got into it.”

“He was definitely a fan,” added World of Outlaws Case Late Model Series regular Brent Larson of Lake Elmo, Minn., who drove for Ranta from 2016-18 and still displays the Arnie Ranta Motorsports logo on his car. “He knew all the tracks and had all of his favorites. All across the country, he had been to them. If we were going to a track that was new to us, he’d tell us all about the area and the scenery around the track and the surface that they raced on. He was very tuned in to everything that was going on. He just loved Late Model racing so much.”

Ranta grew up in northeast Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region and started going to races at the dirt track in Superior, Wis., with his cousin before he turned 10. He quickly became hooked on the sights and sounds of racing and, as the years progressed, especially the Dirt Late Model division.

An obsession was lit.

“Almost all my life, in all my spare waking moments,” Ranta said in a 2017 interview with DirtonDirt.com, “I’ve had to get to a Dirt Late Model race.”

Not long after graduating from the University of Minnesota-Duluth with degrees in history and political science in 1971, Ranta found himself with plenty of opportunities to take in Dirt Late Model events. Through the 1980s and into the early ‘90s he traveled extensively as a construction site manager for the 3M company and spent much of his time in the Southeast, allowing him to hit plenty of races. By the time he came off the road and settled down in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area following the birth of his only child, Adam, in 1993, he had already visited more than 100 tracks.

Ranta’s infatuation with Dirt Late Model racing naturally evolved to a deeper involvement. Once the snowmobile and trailer sales business he launched in Saint Paul, Minn., took off, in 2001 he put up $500 to sponsor a friend who raced locally on a spec-engine series in northern Minnesota. That deal led to sponsorship arrangements with other drivers, and by the mid-2000s he was backing the Dirt Track Racing Association series in Minnesota and Wisconsin and even spent a short stretch promoting and directing the oval in Superior, Wis.

The big jump in Ranta’s racing endeavors came in 2006 after he met Casey, a hardscrabble Badger State racer who was tearing up the competition in his backyard but yearned to test his talents on larger stages. Meeting Ranta proved to be Casey’s opportunity to spread his wings.

“I always strongly believed you’re only as good as your competition, so I drove to Superior and I drove to Cedar Lake (Speedway in New Richmond, Wis.) every weekend and then Arnie came to me at Cedar Lake one night and asked about sponsorship,” Casey, now 54, recalled. “Nobody turns down a sponsor, so I guess that’s how it got started. He asked me what my goals were and I told him, ‘Get out of here (to race nationally),’ and I think that’s something he wanted to do, too.

“I think he liked our work ethic, too. That’s something he talked about all the time, the drive my wife (Lori) and I had to be better and get out and race against the best competition.”

With Ranta providing sponsorship to help Casey his program, high-profile success ensued. Most notably, Casey broke out in 2008 as a rookie on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series with an early-season hot streak during which he captured three features in a five-race span at East Bay Raceway Park in Gibsonton, Fla., Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway and Swainsboro (Ga.) Raceway. Their partnership dissolved soon after Casey’s ’09 Speedweeks ended with his memorable run-in with Josh Richards at East Bay, but his years with Ranta were unforgettable.

“Arnie was good to me. I’m grateful,” said Casey, who underwent successful triple-bypass surgery in December and is planning to return to Dirt Late Model action on a limited basis this season with a self-owned car. “That was my goal, to get there, go do Lucas Oil or World of Outlaws race and travel, and we had some great times.

“People know who we are because of those years. People still know you, still remember you when you walk in the pits. He helped my racing career.”

The Arnie Ranta Motorsports logo, splashed on the sides of Casey’s No. 42, became familiar to the Dirt Late Model world as well.

“Honestly, if you think of Arnie Ranta, you think of Terry Casey,” said Brian Shirley of Chatham, Ill., another driver who would carry Ranta’s name on the national scene. “That was definitely what got him on the map, when Terry started making some noise and doing good. Them two came into the spotlight together. That’s when you saw that Arnie Ranta was real serious about backing racers.”

Shirley, 41, became one of Ranta’s boys in 2016, parlaying a friendship with Ranta that began several years earlier into a sponsorship deal for Shirley’s effort with Wisconsin car owner Bob Cullen. With Jordan Yaggy of Rochester, Minn., the son of Ranta’s good friend Steve Yaggy, pulling off the WoO tour after the ’15 campaign and curtailing his schedule, Ranta shifted to assisting Shirley’s WoO travels. It was a short relationship, lasting just a couple years, but it brought Shirley closer to Ranta and gave him a glimpse of the Minnesotan’s grit.

“Just getting to know him, how he ran his snowmobile operation, that guy was tough as nails. He was a fighter,” Shirley said. “That guy told me about his snowmobile days and selling them, and he took me to his shop (before Ranta’s deteriorating health forced him to retire and close the business), and up there in Minnesota it’s cold, and that guy, he didn’t even have a heater or nothing in the shop where he kept the snowmobiles. He had a little spot, a little office, right inside the shop there where he would talk to people about the business aspect of it, but the warehouse, where he worked on the sleds, it was cold, and I think he would move like 400 or 500 sleds a year and he would tote them around by himself, just using this little dolly.

“People don’t realize, he was one tough cookie. He really was a tough man and earned everything that he got. I can’t even imagine the fight that he put up in the last couple years with the illness and everything he tried to live with. He even told me he was spending money to do things (with treatments) just to go above and beyond, so I can’t imagine what he put himself through.”

Shirley praised Ranta for always being “that guy who was there to help guys when they needed help.” He also was well aware of Ranta’s love for racing from his countless hours spent talking with him.

“He liked to be involved and he liked to know what was going on, so when we were sponsored by him, we’d talk a lot,” Shirley said. “Arnie was retired and had more time on his hands, so you spent more time through the week debriefing him, letting him know what we doing. He wanted to be involved. That’s something Arnie was passionate about.

“I kind of think that’s what brought him and Brent (Larson) together, because Arnie really wanted to be in the shop, spending time there, so that helped that situation along because they were close and he could go over to the shop.”

Indeed, location played a role in bringing Ranta and Larson together. They met in the mid-2000s when Ranta was sponsoring the DTRA series and Larson was among the drivers, and Larson’s proximity to Ranta — Lake Elmo is a short drive from Stillwater — gave them a connection. Shortly after Ranta was first diagnosed with cancer in 2015, they decided to team up.

“I called him on Easter of 2016 to wish him Happy Easter, and he told me that the cancer was a little more real then,” Larson recalled. “It was pretty evident he had some serious things happening, so he said, ‘We’ve always talked about going racing. Let’s go do it. Why don’t you think about what you want to do and how you want to go about it?’

“I thought about it for a week, talked to my family some, called him back. I said, ‘Let’s run a handful of races with the (DIRTcar) Summer Nationals this year, then run a bunch in 2017 and maybe we’ll go for the World of Outlaws rookie deal in 2018.’ He just jumped on board. It wasn’t a week and two days later and we had a car and a couple motors sitting in our shop.”

While Ranta’s constant battle with multiple myeloma, a fast-spreading blood plasma cancer, prevented him from attending as many races as he would have liked during his 2016-18 run fielding Larson’s equipment, he was supportive when he could make it to the track. Larson recalled one particular moment during 2018’s Lucas Oil Series event at Deer Creek Speedway in Spring Valley, Minn.

“He had high expectations and put some pressure on, but when we did well he was down there to congratulate us and give us a pat on the back,” Larson said. “I remember when had been having some struggles a few weeks in a row and we ran the Lucas race at Deer Creek. I did a slider on Joey Moriarty (for the final transfer spot in a B-main) … I don’t know, Bobby (Pierce) did a slider (trying) to win (the feature) and it was probably the same story but he did it and (Jonathan) Davenport and crossed over (to hold on for the victory), but Moriarty didn’t lift to cross over and I kind of stuffed him a little bit.

“(Rick) Schwallie (the Lucas Oil Series director) was down there afterward chewing me out and Moriarty was chewing me out, and Arnie just had the biggest grin on his face and said, ‘Now you’re racing like you want it. That’s what I like to see.’ He appreciated the effort and being willing to lay it all on the line. The other guys didn’t quite see it that way, but Arnie was real happy about it.”

Larson, 46, fondly recalls how personable and conversational Ranta was no matter the situation.

“These poor guys like Arnie who sponsor race cars just get chewed up with guys calling all the time (seeking sponsorship),” Larson said. “One of the funny things with Arnie was, these guys would call him thinking they were going to try to start a relationship and get some money, and a lot of these (sponsors) probably don’t take the time to talk to racers that call them but Arnie would sit on the phone with these guys for a couple hours a week a lot of times. I think he probably never had any intentions of giving a lot of these guys money, but he’d keep talking to ‘em for hours. Some of these guys probably got more than they bargained for without getting any money out of it at the end of the day, but it didn’t bother him to sit and chat if you called him.”

Larson bought out Ranta to assume ownership of his team in 2019 but remained close to Ranta. Two weeks ago he spoke to him for the final time.

“Arnie was pretty rough that Wednesday I talked to him,” Larson said. “I talked to Jason Rauen (an Iowa driver who also has been sponsored by Ranta) the next day and told him, ‘Arnie’s not doing very good,’ and Jason said he was gonna fly up and see him. Then Arnie called me not a few hours after I talked to Jason and he was all chipper and chatty and excited that he was gonna get out of the hospital — he had pneumonia from Covid — and he really took the time to tell me how proud he was of Mel (Larson’s wife) and I for keeping the team going.

“A lot of people don’t know, but I bought that team from Arnie — the bank and I did anyways — in 2019, and it’s challenging to own your own team. We have people who help us make it happen, but we definitely don’t have a sugar daddy to keep us going. Arnie just encouraged me to keep going with it and keep growing and getting better. He just had some really nice things to say. He told me he loved me. It was just a really good conversation, and it seemed like he was doing well. I certainly didn’t think it would be my last conversation with him.”

According to Larson, Ranta took a turn for the worse the following day. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he made more than 300 visits for cancer treatments, had told him his body was not healthy enough for any more so he was at his home with his 29-year-old son for his final days. Larson visited Ranta last week and, despite Ranta being unable to communicate, offered his buddy some parting words.

“I thought he might be aware of what I was saying,” Larson said, “so I just told him how much we appreciated him and that he left a good mark on the world and we wouldn’t be out here doing what we’re doing if he didn’t give us a good shot at it.”

Larson paused, and then added, “He gave a lot of people a shot. That’s the kind of guy he was.”

Ten things worth mentioning

1. Ranta was honored during last August’s USA Nationals at Cedar Lake Speedway with a Competitive Excellence Award. He received a plaque emblazoned with the names of the 16 drivers he either fielded cars for or sponsored over the years: Terry Casey, Brent Larson, Brian Shirley, Jordan Yaggy, Jason Rauen, Mike Marlar, Dan Schlieper, Kelly Estey, Joel Cryderman, Jeff Provinzino, Caley Emerson, Brian Birkhofer, Alan Mondus, Ed Wakefield, Dave Else and Bob Broking.

2. Jeff Provinzino’s brother, Joe, a well-known Minnesotan who owns Joe Provo Racewear, wrote a Facebook post that detailed his unique connection to Ranta. “Twenty-five years ago Arnie wanted a logo made up with his name,” Joe Provinzino wrote, referring to the Arnie Ranta Motorsports logo that has appeared on many race cars. “Well, my brother Nick drew the first four letters on a piece of paper and that’s all there was on the paper. I saw it and I finished off the logo but never said anything to my brother as I finished (it) … so when he saw it he said, ‘Sweet, let’s show Arnie.’ Well he loved it, and for 25 years this logo hasn’t had one change to it.”

3. Because Ranta decided to donate his body to the Mayo Clinic for research and learning purposes upon his passing, his son, Adam, is planning a Celebration of Life for his father at an venue near Stillwater, Minn. He also expects to invite some of the people who were closest to Ranta to participate in another memorial when the weather warms up. “I know he just talked about going out on a boat on the St. Croix (River),” Adam said, describing his father’s desire to be remembered with a trip along the waterway that borders Stillwater. “He’s always liked to go out on that dinner cruise for a few hours with just a dozen or a dozen-and-a-half people, but I thought we should probably do something a little bigger and invite more people — and it’s not exactly boating weather right now, but maybe we’ll that later in the summer or fall with some people.”

4. Brent Larson’s plans for the weekend were to run the WoO events at Smoky Mountain Speedway in Maryville, Tenn., and Boyd’s Speedway in Ringgold, Ga., but the three shows were called off by wet and cold weather forecasts. Larson, however, had already flown south on Tuesday to make final preparations on his cars, which he had left inside his trailer at fellow WoO regular Chris Madden’s shop in Gray Court, S.C., following last month’s Speedweeks to save miles on his rig.

5. Speaking of the WoO cancellations, combined with Tuesday’s scrapping of this weekend’s Lucas Oil Series doubleheader at Atomic Speedway in Alma, Ohio, and Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway because of unfavorable forecasts, the possibility exists that this year could mark the first time since 2005 that neither of the two national tours runs a race in the month of March. The WoO needs to run off its Illini 100 preliminary program scheduled for March 31 to keep the streak alive.

6. Shirley confirmed that team owner Bob Cullen ultimately did decide to purchase the Team Zero Race Car he borrowed from Chris Ferguson’s team to run in Speedweeks events at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla., and Golden Isles Speedway near Brunswick, Ga. “It’s sitting in the corner of the shop covered up for now,” Shirley said. “Our goal is, we’re gonna run these Rocket cars, but we have option to try something different.”

7. In this week’s Fast Talk, my DirtonDirt.com colleague Robert Holman wondered what Shirley would do with the porcelain throne — or more specifically, toilet — he received as his trophy for winning Saturday’s Toilet Bowl Classic feature at Clarksville (Tenn.) Speedway. As Holman noted, it was his understanding that the toilet Shirley won for capturing the race in 2013 had been put into “official” service — a fact Shirley confirmed. “The year we won, probably a couple weeks later we hooked it up and that’s what we use in the shop,” he said of the fully-functional toilet that promoter William Scogin adorns with event and sponsor decals to bestow on the race winner. “Scogin always puts the past winners (names) in the bowl, and obviously with the water, the names stayed in there for a long time but eventually they started peeling up and I pulled them up.” Other than that, every time someone visits the bathroom in Shirley’s shop they’re reminded of his Toilet Bowl victory. As for his latest commode trophy, he said it’s probably headed to the new shop that Cullen built in Wisconsin a year ago.

8. The news of Jonathan Davenport’s ride with Kaulig Racing for April 9’s NASCAR Cup Series event on the dirt-covered Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway certainly pleased 2021 series champion Kyle Larson, who of course has first-hand knowledge of J.D.’s driving prowess from his Dirt Late Model starts in the K&L Rumley Enterprises No. 6. Larson spoke glowingly of Davenport and his inclusion in the Bristol race during a media appearance last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. “I race him all the time and get beat by him all the time, and I have very similar equipment to him and I think similar setups and stuff,” Larson said of Davenport. “Typically I feel like I can get in anybody’s car and go faster than them, and I can’t go as fast as Jonathan does. I’ve got a ton of respect for (Davenport). He’s really good, and he’s the bar right now, for sure, when it comes to Dirt Late Model racing. I’m excited to see him have this opportunity and I hope he does really well because then it will show how good dirt guys are. Still not gonna get the recognition that (Formula One driver) Kami Rainkonin gets (for making a NASCAR start), but, you know, it will show to fans that dirt racers are extremely talented.”

9. By the way, keep an eye out for FloRacing’s short film on Davenport, “Dirty Dollars: Jonathan Davenport.” The behind-the-scenes look at J.D. is superb — I’ve gotten a sneak preview of it — and could be released as early as Friday.

10. Another well-known Dirt Late Model name entered in Bristol’s NASCAR on Dirt weekend is Tyler Carpenter of Parkersburg, W.Va., who will compete in April 8’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event in a No. 41 vehicle from the Niece Motorsports stable. Carpenter previously ran a Niece Truck in last year’s dirt race at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway, finishing 36th after technical trouble knocked him out 65 circuits into the 150-lap race.

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