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A generational giant in dirt Late Model competition is still going strong at a trio of Iowa dirt tracks. Ed Sanger, 68, of Postville, Iowa, is a contemporary of two NASCAR Whelen All American Series national champions. He raced with the series’ 1982 inaugural season champion Tom Hearst; and placed second to 1983 Central Region champion Roger Dolan. Dolan went on to win the series’ national championship in 1987.
Sanger was enshrined in the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame in 2004. Among his estimated wins totaling more than 500 is the prestigious Yankee Dirt Track Classic, a rich 100-lap event at Farley (Iowa) Speedway in 1983. The track’s 2009 version of the event is scheduled for September 16-19. Almost a decade earlier, Sanger won the 1974 World 100 at Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway in Ohio; and the Falstaff Classic at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1975.
Today, Sanger continues to race at three Iowa dirt tracks operated by Keith Simmons. Simmons owned the car in which Hearst won the 1982 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship.
Simmons’ Iowa dirt tracks include Farley Speedway on Fridays, Dubuque Speedway on Saturdays and West Liberty Speedway on Sundays.
Sanger, who assembles his own cars and engines, sets his own pace at the tracks, and goes racing when he wants to race.
“Today I go racing to enjoy it,” Sanger said. “If it’s fun, I’ll do it. If not, I won’t. I’m having a wonderful time in my life, and I still want to win.”
Sanger, then a Pontiac garage mechanic, began building race cars and then driving them in 1965. By 1966, he was driving his home-built Pontiac Late Model car three nights a week on the local circuit that included tracks in Waterloo, Independence and Monticello, Iowa.
Racing purses typically paid only the top six feature finishers, Sanger noted. Monticello was the best paying at $200 to win. Waterloo and Independence paid out 50% of the front gate admissions. Feature races were lined up fully inverted.
He switched to a Chevrolet in 1968. Dubuque (Iowa) Speedway hosted its first events and Sanger also added the Cedar Rapids track to his schedule.
The early 1970s saw Sanger build a new Monte Carlo race car that saw the profitability of his racing increase. He had quit his mechanic’s job to go racing for a living in 1970.
“I won $108,000 in that car over 1970 and 1971. My expenses were about $5,800 a year for pit passes, tires and everything it took to run the car. Our tires lasted a half season. Then we’d turn them around and run them the opposite direction for the second half of the season. We used six tires for the entire 1970 season.
Sanger built a new car, this time a 1973 Chevelle, for the 1973 season and owned six more cars, each with its own driver and crew.
In 1974, he began to travel and won a lot of races, and started using his winnings to buy farmland, which he continued to do throughout the 1970s. The car-building side of his operations peaked at about 40 cars in 1980.
The 1970s were Sanger’s prime years as a driver, based on his own formula.
“I think a driver matures between 34 and 38 years old, those are his best years,” Sanger said. “By that time, he’s got the experience, the instincts and the thought process that really show. I turned 40 in 1980, but we still had some pretty good years ahead.
While he kept driving his own race car, Sanger was overworking himself and something had to give. Instead of building and selling his own cars, he became a dealer for Howe chassis. He built cars that NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star Bobby Allison drove in special appearances at Cedar Rapids in 1983 and 1984. Allison’s son, Davey, joined his dad in a Sanger-built car at the track in 1984.
The 1983 season also marked the closest Sanger came to winning a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series regional championship. Over the final seven races of the 60-race season, Sanger chased four big money races, while Dolan was able to win three points races that ultimately brought him the regional title. That fall, Sanger won the Yankee Dirt Track Classic at Farley.
Sanger returned to finish seventh in regional points in 1984.
Sanger made a huge move in 1985, when Helen Rae Smith of Ames, Iowa, put together a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team. Sanger was crew chief for the effort that included Phil Barkdoll, Sterling Marlin and Morgan Shepherd as drivers, and young crewmen such as Larry McReynolds. Dave Marcis took over operation of the team the following season.
Sanger made his only NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start for Helen Rae Racing in the spring 1985 event at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway. The start was made to help Sanger learn more about the cars on which he was crewing. Sanger qualified 29th and finished 26th and was running at the finish.
“The car we ran at North Wilkesboro was a show car, but it gave me a real seat-of-the-pants feel and helped me learn how they worked. When the race was over, we made notes upon notes before I even got out of the car.”
Sanger moved to the team’s engine department, working for Leo Jackson. He remained with the team until 1990 when he returned to Iowa to take care of his expanding farming operations that needed more than an absentee owner. He didn’t return to dirt-track racing on a part-time basis until 1992. By 1997, he was competing in up to 60 races a year.
His pace was slowed with a serious accident in 2005 and he didn’t return to racing on a regular basis until 2007.
Sanger owns a pair of dirt Late Models, one a GRT Chassis and the other a Rayburn. He builds his own engines with the advice and machine work provided by Curt Woolin of Automotive Engine & Machine.
Twenty-one-year-old Willie Gibson is Sanger’s full-time mechanic and crewman.
“I’ve never seen energy like Willie has,” Sanger said. “He makes the calls on everything we do.
“Willie has a future in this business. If he stays with it, he’ll be a great crew chief. He’s got his eyes wide open and he has a lot of enthusiasm. When I’m not racing, he’s helping someone else at the track. He’s very well-liked.”
When not at the track, Sanger and his wife, Teri, operate their farm. In addition to being able to operate farm machinery, Teri is the family “computer wiz.”
Sanger supports Simmons’ promotion of his three primary NASCAR Whelen All-American Series tracks.
“I’ll stand behind Keith,” Sanger said. “He cares about racing. He’s here for the long haul, not just to make a quick buck.”