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FK Rod Ends Arizona Speedway

Racing 'best medicine' after champion's death

January 11, 2017, 7:46 am
By Todd Turner
DirtonDirt.com managing editor
Chad Mahder. (DirtonDirt.com)
Chad Mahder. (DirtonDirt.com)

QUEEN CREEK, Ariz. — Just two months after the toughest day of his life, Chad Mahder climbed back into a race car last weekend at Arizona Speedway.

While Saturday’s 13th-place finish in the opening round of the Keyser Manufacturing Wild West Shootout was his first race since his father Duane’s unexpected death, the 31-year-old machinist from Eau Claire, Wis., figures getting behind the wheel of a Dirt Late Model is natural for a member of a long-time racing family. | Complete Arizona coverage

“I think this is probably the best medicine for me is to come out and go racing,” Mahder said Sunday while preparing for the second round of desert action.

Chad is carrying the banner in Arizona for the Mahders, one of Wisconsin’s most famous racing clans with the late Duane, his brother Ron, Chad’s brother Shawn and Ron’s son Cory competing successfully across several WISSOTA divisions in recent decades, popularizing the familiar No. 55 cars.

Duane’s devastating November death in a work-related accident at a trucking depot shook the family’s foundation and sent shockwaves through the racing community that the Mahders have long been a part of.

Chad and his wife Shelby were relaxing in the living room when the doorbell rang late on the fateful night of his 64-year-old father’s death.

“It was a police officer standing there and he actually come right in the house and sat the both of us down and told us what happened,” Chad recalled. “I wasn't even emotional about it at all. I was just dumbfounded. I’m like, ‘How the hell can that happen?’ I didn't want to believe a word of it. When I started calling my family members and got them rounded up, I actually had to go and tell my mom myself about it. Yeah boy, that was the hardest thing I've ever done for sure. … it ain’t something I’m going to forget.”

Competing in Arizona is just the start for Mahder in continuing his racing career without his father, the 2001 WISSOTA Challenge Series champion and a veteran racer involved with racing on various surfaces — dirt, pavement and ice — over more than 30 years.

“I figured ultimately I was going to have to bite the bullet on it and I’m going to have to do it sooner or later, so we just come down here (to Arizona),” said Mahder, who is driving a J.R. Haley-owned car on the miniseries that runs through Jan. 15. “We’ve got all kinds of support so it’s working out.

“It was just a very unfortunate accident and the family’s doing about as good as they can do now with that happening. It’s just going to be some changes and we’re going to have to move on.”

Moving on will mean a new status for Chad, said Mark Matthews, a crew member for fellow Eau Claire drivers Jerry and Jake Redetzke and long-time friend of the Mahder family.

“He lost his mentor, besides his father and besides a role model,” Matthews said in a phone interview. “I guess what I’m looking at there is Chad’s biggest struggle is he’s Chad Mahder instead of ‘Chad Mahder, Duane Mahder’s son.’ ”

Growing up a racer

Like many sons who grow up with fathers who are dirt track racers, eventually becoming a driver was a quest for Chad and his brother Shawn, who is three years younger.

“We all lived at the racetrack every weekend growing up,” said Chad’s cousin, Cory, “and it is all any of us kids wanted to do when we were old enough.”

Chad and Shawn were pre-teen shop rats when Duane was at the height of his racing career, doing their part for the successful No. 55 race team that toured several states that make up the upper Midwest's WISSOTA country.

“I remember we were going out on a tour there, all through North Dakota, just my dad and my brother and I,” Chad recalled. “He won a couple of races and it was just the two of us and people were pretty impressed with that. We were out there with a pickup truck and an open trailer and it was a lot of work but we got her done. We had a good time. We did that many times.”

After Chad graduated from high school, his father allowed him to start competing in the Late Model division with a second near-identical car in the 2004 season.

“It was a backup car my dad had,” Chad said. “We each had a WISSOTA motor under it and that's how I started racing. I drove his backup car and them two cars they look the same. Had the same paint scheme and everything.”

Cory Mahder remembers that “when Chad first started racing, he followed the exact same path Duane did, jumping right into Late Models. Chad put a bunch of older used parts together on one of Duane’s old chassis so that he could go race. There was never anything new on Chad’s car like there was on Duane’s, at least not for a few years.”

Soon enough, though, the two were battling it out with one Mahder or another in victory lane at tracks like Rice Lake Speedway, New Richmond’s Cedar Lake Speedway, Menomonie’s Red Cedar Speedway and beyond. Although he was in his early 50s, Duane Mahder got a late-career boost when Chad began racing.

“Duane definitely stepped up his game,” remembers Ron Mahder, Duane’s brother and a two-time WISSOTA super stock champion. “There was no give-me’s there. I think he’d rather beat Chad than be beaten by him.”

Chad, too, noticed a difference in his father competitively when father and son began racing head-to-head.

“Maybe late ‘90s, early 2000s, I always felt like my dad was a pretty conservative driver, and then when I started racing again, it seemed like he picked it up a bunch,” Chad said. “Some people said he always drove pretty hard in the corner and was on the gas quite a bit and that was right when I started racing.”

Chad recalls a stretch between Fridays at Red Cedar and Saturdays at Rice Lake when they were both regularly grabbing checkered flags.

“I would win one at Red Cedar, and he would win the following night at Rice Lake,” Chad said. “We would come back to Menomonie the next week, I’d win again, we’d go back to Rice Lake and he would pick off another one. We went for three weeks like this. We was having a real good time then.”

His father, however, always had a better time if he was the one getting his photo taken in victory lane.

“It always seemed like when I started racing I could remember leading a handful of different races and I thought I was doing pretty good and then he’d be the one to pass me,” Chad said. “Then I would have to follow him and then kind of learn what he was doing.

“There was a couple of times I did get around him back in ’06 and ’07. I remember up at the Rice Lake, I was starting to figure out how to get around that place pretty well and I do remember taking a couple from him in the final few laps.

“I remember up in Proctor (Minn.) one time they had their Twin 25s. They had two features in one night and I remember I come up from the back and I got up to his rear bumper and just as I got to his rear bumper he went and tried a different line on the track and I drove right on by him. That was a pretty fun night for me — he didn’t think it was so funny.”

The Redetzkes’ crew chief Mark Matthews was always impressed when fathers and sons like the Mahders and the Redetzkes were able to race against one another.

“I’ve never turned a lap in a race car, so maybe I don’t know about this, but I just can’t understand how a father and son can say it was just like another race car out there,” said Matthews, who noted differences in the Mahders’ driving styles.

“Duane was a real finesse driver, and Chad was up on the berm, banging off the berm,” Matthews said. “They’d come in and Duane would say, ‘Why were you up there? The fast line was around the bottom.’ And Chad would say, ‘What are you talking about? I was about to pass you.’

“When the race was done, it was father and son … but on the track, they weren’t giving an inch to each other.”

The loss of a father

When word filtered through Eau Claire and beyond about Duane Mahder’s death, the racing community paused to mourn.

“There was quite a few Late Model people that did show up” at the funeral home, Ron Mahder remembered. “Cards and flowers from all over the seven states that he raced.

“Duane had a lot of friends. There was a lot of people that either got on Facebook at the funeral home (website) or sent flowers, and the cards that he got … there’s a lot of heartfelt people in the racing community trying to support the family at a bad time.”

Chad remembers calls, texts and messages from numerous drivers, including three-time NLRA champion Brad Seng of Grand Forks, N.D., and four-time WISSOTA Challenge champ Pat Doar of New Richmond, Wis.

“As far as fans and sponsors, even my Dad's sponsors from way back, 15 years ago, they call up and talk for an hour. Some of them even stop by,” Chad said. “Some might live a half hour away and they just stop by and talk for a while so there is a lot of support from places I never expected really.”

Ron Mahder expects that support will continue for Chad’s racing once the regular season gets rolling in Wisconsin.

“His dad was always there, just like I am for my son,” Ron said. “We were pretty close-knit … he’s got good people around him so he’s going to have good support, but it’s going to be a different experience.”

Chad is adjusting to the fact that his father will no longer be watching from the grandstands, no longer lending a tip in the pits or suggesting a better way to attack the racetrack — sometimes with criticism that stung.

“He was at darn near every race I went to and he was always, every time I come off the track, he was always criticizing me — and that can be a little different jumping out of the car and nobody says I did anything wrong,” Chad said. “There was multiple times when we would get out of the car and he will say I did a great job. When I catch him talking to his buddies about it, telling them, then I guess that meant a lot.

“I guess what comes to mind first is all the times ... I remember winning races and he’s saying, ‘Well, you didn't handle this lapped car very well or you didn’t pass this guy. You could have seen that coming.’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s different in the driver’s seat.’ ”

Matthews, who was at many of the same races with the Mahders while working with the Redetzke operation, says Duane and Chad were “two strong-willed people” who didn’t always see eye-to-eye on racing strategies. But he’s certain that Chad would always consider — and now cherish — what Duane had to say.

“Duane was one of the smarter guys in the pits. He did it the hard way with no money,” Matthews said. “Chad wouldn’t necessarily ask his dad for (help), but I can guarantee you, every time Duane talked, Chad listened. Now there’s going to be a learning curve.

“Chad is one of the best — if not the best — chassiswise and driverwise (in the area), but he lost his security blanket there.”

Cory Mahder believes their relationship “really groomed Chad to be his own person, and has allowed him to be just as successful on his own. Duane wasn't able to make it to all of the races that Chad went to the past few years, but would always call anyone willing to listen to talk about how it went.”

Matthews is convinced that, even with his father gone, Chad’s ambitions will lead to more success.

“I think he’s awesomely talented. He just hasn’t had a chance to prove it in a lot of ways,” Matthews said. “That kid has got that distant stare all the time” that he’s seen in drivers like Hall of Fame racer Billy Moyer in the pits while considering their race cars.

“And in that distant stare, they’re just constantly thinking, ‘What do I need to do to make it better?’ Chad’s definitely got that, and it’s cool to see.”

Chad Mahder file

Age: 31 (birthday July 3)
Hometown: Eau Claire, Wis.
Family: Chad and his wife Shelby are expecting their first child in May
Chassis/engine: Black Diamond/Vic Hill
Crew members: Steve Hoffmeister, Mike Larson, Shawn Mahder, Kent Wallbeck and “Bulldog”
Late Model career: Over 13 seasons, he has more than 60 feature victories, including a career-high 14 in 2007. He’s a three-time career winner on the OneMain WISSOTA Challenge Series.
Biggest victory: The 2015 John Seitz Memorial at River Cities Speedway in Grand Forks, N.D., paying $9,200-to-win in one of the season’s richest WISSOTA events.

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