Alaska’s baby grand racing division has a special place in the heart of Tonya Klayum. Her grandfather brought cars to the division to Alaska in the late 90s when he was a dealer and and had a three car frachise.
Klayum’s grandfather, Larry Theobold, and her dad, John Klayum, both raced the cars for several years. One night, when Klayum was about 16, her dad was unable to make the race, and the team needed an emergency fill in.
“The track opened for the season and my grandpa said my dad couldn’t make it so he asked if my brother could run the car,” Tonya Klayum said. “He’s younger than me and he was actually working at the track so that was a no-go. So he was like ‘well, what about Tonya?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve give it a try.’ I hadn’t even driven a clutch before. So we got in there and that’s just kind of how it started for me.”
After Theobold sold all his cars when he sold the franchise, Klayum and her family got out of racing for several years before she got back into it about five years ago, almost by accident. Klayum’s boyfriend was perusing Craigslist one night and saw someone advertising a race car.
The same style baby grand her family had known for years.
“He said, ‘Hey, do you know this car?’ and I said, ‘Oh yea, I used to race with that guy over at North Star Speedway,’” Klayum said. “And we kind of read the ad a little more and it ended up being free to a good home and I said, ‘Well that can’t be true.’
“So we ended up calling him and it was legit, so he actually gave us the race car for absolutely nothing. It’s an awesome car. We had a little bit of work to do to it but aside from that it’s been awesome for us.”
Klayum now drives her baby grand at Alaska Raceway Park, a third-mile asphalt oval in Palmer, Alaska. She won the track championship in the Extreme Fun Center Baby Grands at Alaska Raceway in 2017, her first season at the track. She currently leads the points in the division, while also pulling double-duty driving sprint cars at the track.
Klayum’s success at Alaska Raceway has caught the eye of owners across the state. Another chance encounter got her a seat in the sprint car.
“I had a guy at the track approach me who owns a sprint car,” she said. “He’s actually one of my customers at work and he came in and I didn’t really know it was him driving the car until he came into my work and he was like, ‘Hey good racing out there.’ And I was talking to him and I said, ‘You guys are crazy running the sprint cars on asphalt. I can’t believe how fast you go,’ and all that good stuff. And he goes, ‘Well do you want to drive it? And I kind of shook it off like it was a joke. ‘No I don’t want to race your car, I don’t want to hurt it.’ And he just kept coming back. He said, ‘You’d be really good at it, your driving is awesome, you should really give it a try.’ So we did get in a sprint car toward the end of last season, actually after the season closed.”
A rented out track allowed Klayum to do some hot laps in the sprint car to get used to how different it drives from the baby grand.
That’s all it took. On opening day at Alaska Raceway this season, the team broke the track record.
“So that was a huge deal,” she said.
Right now, the plan is to run both divisions this season. Klayum said she’s still getting used to the difference in driving style – “I was just amazed at how different it was.” While she’s become accustomed to exactly how the baby grand is supposed to feel, it’s taken some time to get used to the sprint car.
“I know absolutely nothing about it aside from just watching the owner and seeing him go around the corners drifting,” she said. “So it’s definitely a learning curve on how to pilot both of these cars the way its supposed to be.”
This year, in both cars, is about playing it by ear. While getting as many wins as possible, and ultimately a championship, is the goal, she said the team is all about staying positive either way. The competition at Alaska Raceway has gotten better and better as the series has grown, and after some big set backs last season, this year she just wants to make sure they run as best as they can.
For her, racing is about more than just wins and championships. It’s about keeping the family legacy alive.
“It’s been a lot of fun, and that’s the biggest thing is just kind of keeping it in the family,” she said. “Just over the years, all the hard work my family has put into it time and time again. I mean, the whole week used to revolve around race cars. It still does, just on a smaller scale. It’s not a whole team any more, it’s just a single car.
“My Dad races late models so he’s always there to help us out and he has so much knowledge about the cars, and my grandpa, he has so much knowledge. We’re still learning. We don’t know everything about the cars, myself and my boyfriend, but we’ve also got two kids and they’re just cloud nine about it. It’s just awesome how family-oriented this racing team is, so that’s our biggest deal.”
Racing will return to Alaska Raceway Park on June 8 with NASCAR/INEX races featuring GCI Late Models, Extreme Fun Center Baby Grands, the Legends of Classic Country 100.9, Pruhs Construction Thunder Stocks, Sportsman Stocks, Mini Stocks, and Sprint Cars.