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Neumann racing into his golden years

In February, Roger Neumann, 76, of Osakis, had the chance to drive a race car in the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Las Vegas Speedway. (Echo Press photo by Amy Chaffins)1 / 3
Neumann started racing at Viking Speedway in Alexandria back in the mid-1970s. (Contributed photo)2 / 3
The racetrack crew at Las Vegas Speedway helped Roger Neumann get into a race car when he took part in the Richard Petty Driving Experience in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Contributed photo)3 / 3

There's just no slowin' down 76-year-old Roger Neumann.

"I've had a lot of heart trouble - 18 years of it - but I don't let that slow me down. If you don't think about it, you don't know it," he laughed.

With a record like this, you can't blame a guy for flooring it and feeding his need for speed: Roger has 11 stents in his heart, he's had coronary artery bypass grafting three times, he has survived four heart attacks and caught several cardiac episodes before they became full-fledged heart attacks.

"I've been there and back," he said with a grin.

So why not kick 'er down and drive as fast as you can?

On February 19, Roger did just that when his family surprised him with a trip to the Richard Petty Driving Experience in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Richard and Lois Neumann were on their first family vacation in Las Vegas with all four of their children, Al, Chris, Randy and Darla, and eight of their grandkids.

Everybody but Roger knew about the surprise - even his doctor. His cardiologist cleared him for the racing surprise. Roger thought the trip to the doctor was for his annual pre-snowmobile racing check up.

So, at dinner on February 18, Darla surprised Roger with news of his racing adventure.

Roger said, "I told them I was glad it was the night before so I didn't have a chance to get nervous. I got a little nervous about two hours before, and I never get nervous about racing, but once you start the car up, you couldn't hear yourself and what the heck, [the nerves] were all over then."

After signing in and taking part in a mandatory, two-hour pre-drive class, Roger suited up in his race gear and zeroed in on the car he wanted to drive - a Dodge Avenger with 43 painted on the side.

Roger is a Dodge man.

The crew helped him get in the 600 to 700 horsepower stock car and buckle in.

"They said, 'Go ahead and rev it up to four-grand.' They also said, 'Don't spin the wheels,' but I did a little," Roger said with a grin.

And he was off for eight laps on the Las Vegas Speedway.

"That's one heck of a big track - it's huge - it's a mile and a half track.

"The first couple laps I took it easy because when I came off that big curve - you know it's a 20-degree angle - when I come off that big curve the pro that drives ahead of you was really close to the wall and I thought no way am I going to get that close."

After that warm-up lap, he kicked it into gear.

"Lois said it looked like I was out for a Sunday drive, but I hit 180 miles per hour in the straight-aways," Roger said.

"I hit that corner at 180 miles per hour and it kind of shocked me because I thought I'd be sliding. Halfway through the corner you put it in the floorboard again and that's how you run it," he said.

A professional driver stayed ahead of each driver to pace their speed and direct them to speed up or hold the speed they were at.

"I turned [the track] in 45 seconds, which they said was really respectable. That ain't real fast, but you got the guy in front of you holding you at that speed. I would have liked to have that guy go a little faster, because I know I could have gone faster."

Roger said the other people in his racing group were a bit inexperienced. "They were these young, hot dog kids who probably go 100 miles per hour out here on the road, but not on the racetrack. I had the fastest time for laps averaged... all of them, they didn't come close.

"I think I kind of shocked the younger drivers and racetrack staff a little bit because I don't think they were looking for me to drive like that," Roger said. "It was fun and I wanted to do that my whole life."

While Roger zipped through his laps, he roared past his family cheering trackside.

Lois said, "They all went out there to see old gramps race. They were all out there taking pictures. He went awful fast, let me tell you."

The Neumanns' daughter, Darla, said, "My daughter and niece kept saying, 'He is so cute' in his uniform, helmet and name tag. He looked like one of the pros and he was just beaming."

Roger said the glory of his old stock car racing days came flooding back. He raced at Viking Speedway in Alexandria back in the mid-1970s.

"What was so ironic about [getting to drive a race car in Las Vegas] is that Lois had never seen me race a car, ever," he said.

"Nope. While he was racing in Alex, I was home milking cows," Lois said.

The Neumanns have been married 56 years and Lois said there's never been a dull moment.

"It's a wonder anyone can keep up with Roger," Lois said. "They can't."

Darla said, "'The Rocket' was [my dad's] nickname years ago. Our little 'stick of dynamite' has never been a big guy and as we all watched with tears in our eyes as he climbed in the car to get ready to drive, we couldn't help but chuckle as the one-size-fits-all driver's seat was modified, again and again with various sizes of pads to get Dad in the right position to reach the gas pedal. It was just such a great blessing and gift to be able to see my dad so happy and enjoying something so much.

"Sunday Nascar race days will never be the same," Darla said. "He has stood in the winner's circle at the Las Vegas Speedway [in 2006] and now he has driven a Nascar on the track. Can you imagine that feeling alone? It was amazing!"

Darla added, "You never know when you will get the call informing you someone you love so much is in critical condition or no longer here with us on earth. Always make sure you have some good memories stored up because someday it will be all you have left."

Roger still races vintage snowmobiles and has won many, many races and trophies over the years.

He said, "I live an exciting life. I know guys that never raced in their life and they go out and run a car, but it means a little more when you've raced, especially at my age."

Follow #AlexMN @EchoPress Reporter Amy Chaffins on Twitter at @AmyReview.

Amy Chaffins

Amy Chaffins is a journalist working for the Echo Press newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota.

(320) 763-3133