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Racing with a heavy heart, Saunders ready to ‘put on a show’ in Pavement Pounder at WIR

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Brock Saunders

Racing with a heavy heart, Saunders ready to ‘put on a show’ in Pavement Pounder at WIR

By: Joe Verdegan

Brock Saunders will be racing with a heavy heart at Wisconsin International Raceway on Thursday night.

Last Saturday, the 26-year-old Appleton IMCA northern sportmod driver attended a burial service for his grandfather Gene Wheeler. For decades, Wheeler was a legendary car owner on the local and regional racing scene, fielding top-notch equipment for drivers on dirt and asphalt tracks, including J.J. Smith, Roger Regeth, Wheeler’s son Rod Wheeler (Saunders’ stepfather) and former NASCAR competitor Jim Sauter.

With Gene and Rod Wheeler’s fierce passion for racing, Saunders said it was a “no-brainer” for them to tow their No. 5 racer to compete in the weekly racing that night at Shawano Speedway’s half-mile.

“With Grandpa Wheeler being sick, we’ve pretty much been sticking to racing just one night a week and that’s been at Shawano,” Saunders said. “This year has been a struggle a little bit, so for the Pavement Pounder race at WIR to pop up this week we sure need it.”

Saunders has been wheeling sportmods on dirt ovals for 10 seasons. In the six Pavement Pounder specials at WIR, he’s captured two of those wins. It’s an annual event where dirt sportmod drivers can do something different and burn up some of their bald, used tires on WIR’s quarter-mile paved oval.

“Truthfully, we don’t change a whole lot with our car for this event the whole nine yards like some other teams do,” Saunders said. “We change some shocks and play with caster and camber, but that’s about it. They limit the rules with things like ride height and that, so you can’t really turn it into an asphalt car for one event and that’s good.”

With no time trials for this race, drivers draw for their starting spot in their heat races and the top finishers then draw again for their starting spot. With the race only 20 laps and the paved track relatively flat, a starting spot near the front can be a bonus.

“You can run the outside line a little bit but it’s tough, real tough to do,” Saunders said. “It’s a little bumpy and a good draw can be 75% of the equation. Some guys get loose and you can get underneath them. When guys get that dirt brushed up onto the track from underneath their chassis, it’s tough and you can lose all of your momentum. Because it’s asphalt you’re really hard on the brakes, so much more than on dirt and the rear end is hiked way up. It’s WIR. It’s fun and it’s something different for a night. These dirt cars can put on a show for the fans.”

To keep costs down running the Pavement Pounder, Saunders and his crew scrounge through their pile of used tires and pick four that have little, if any, tread remaining from weeks of dirt-track racing.

“They aren’t necessarily racing slicks per se, but pretty close,” Saunders said. “You don’t want completely bald tires for this race, but something pretty darn close.”

The car Saunders will be wheeling Thursday is the same Madman chassis he won a pair of Pavement Pounder races with the past two years.

“I’d like to think we’ve got a pretty good setup from the past we can refer to,” Saunders said. “The used tires we’re running we like to call our shop tires – the ones we use to scale the car. They are pretty close to being shot. This is a great chance to use them up.”

Team members on Saunders’ racing effort include his wife Ashley, his dad Scott Saunders, stepfather Rod Wheeler and his mother Tina.

“We’re sure going to go out and win one for Grandpa Wheeler,” Saunders said. “He was included into the track’s ‘Circle of Fame’ a couple of weeks ago. As a car owner he won track championships at WIR and on the local dirt tracks. We’ll do everything we can to put it in victory lane.”

Saunders’ car is sponsored by Badger Race Wraps of Appleton, Appleton Auto Recyclers and MGD Industrial of De Pere.

Saunders is one of three drivers who have captured Pavement Pounder wins. In addition to Saunders’ two victories, Neenah’s Kevin Bethke has captured three Pavement Pounder wins. Waupun’s Jeff Steenbergen won the first event in 2017. Racing gets underway at 6:30 p.m.

WIR notebook: Montello’s Bobby Kendall has been the man to beat in the super late model class, winning three features in a row. The “Stan The Man” Memorial Race will be run for the super stock class on the quarter-mile as well Thursday. The event honors Kaukauna legend Stan Gracyalny, who raced locally into his late ’70s. Retired racers Tom Reffner of Rudolph and Gene Coleman of Menominee, Michigan, will be added to the track’s Circle of Fame.

Joe Verdegan / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin / Aug 5, 2020

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