Speedway: Thoennes, Zimmerman reflect on now Hall of Fame careers
Dave Thoennes of Alexandria and Dave Zimmerman of Elizabeth have both been around race tracks for decades.
Thoennes, 64, spent most of those years under the hood. Zimmerman, 55, has been behind the wheel. Both don't mind being behind the scenes, but at least for one night, the two were front and center as they were honored at the Viking Speedway as the 2017 inductees into the local oval's Hall of Fame this past Saturday night.
"It's always a big accomplishment when you can get something like that," Thoennes said. "It means a lot to me and my family."
Thoennes got his start in stock car racing in 1971 at the age of 18. He worked on pit crews during those early years with drivers like Roger Briss, Butch Folken, Jim Nieland, Dick Klug, Larry Crouse, Arnie Bitzan and Scott Kielmeyer.
It wasn't until 1980 that he got behind the wheel himself. Despite a season that included nine straight feature wins in the Sportsman Division that year, Thoennes decided he would spend his time helping other drivers chase track championships.
"I don't know," Thoennes said when asked why he stopped driving himself. "Dennis (Bitzan) wanted to drive and I thought I'll let him drive and I'll help him out. Then my son took over driving."
In 36 years, Thoennes has owned or co-owned cars and served as the crew chief for some of the Viking Speedway's best drivers. He's been a part of three Late Model track championships, two at the Viking Speedway and one at the Madison Speedway.
He teamed up with Bitzan to take two Sportsman and three Modified track championships at the Viking Speedway. The two currently co-own a car driven by Dusty Bitzan.
Drivers often get the accolades on race nights, but guys like Thoennes can sit in the background and be proud of their role in helping those cars run right.
"You take a lot of pride in it when you get one to work good," Thoennes said. "It's not that easy. You might think it is, but it's a real tough job to get one to really work good."
Thoennes is always getting a lot of practice. He owns and operates Thoennes Transmissions, along with TRE Race Parts.
Aside from working on the race cars, he's served on the Viking Speedway Board of Directors. He's been involved with what is essentially a feeder program for the speedway in helping out with the Runestone Go-Kart Association, where he won multiple track championships with his son, Rick, driving.
Racing has always been a part of this family. Rick eventually moved on from go-karts and into the Modifieds and eventually the Late Model Divisions. His wife, Elaine, and daughter, Jen, worked in the track's sign-in area and scoring tower. Dave currently has four nephews and two grandchildren who race.
Elaine had to know she was in for a life of spending time at the track when Dave took her to the Viking Speedway on their first date.
"She kind of took a lot of interest right away," Dave said. "She's probably more active in racing than I am today. She still works in the scoring tower and does a lot of the behind the scenes stuff for the speedway."
Things have changed dramatically with the race cars since Thoennes got his start. That constantly keeps his mind turning.
"Always trying to make it better," he said. "There's always new things. It's like computers, they keep changing and getting better. It's just something a lot of people really can't do."
Thoennes says back when he got his start in racing, drivers had to build a lot of their own stuff. Now almost anything for a car is available for purchase for those who can afford it. He says the only thing drivers can't buy is experience, which Thoennes has a lot of over his career.
"That's the most instrumental thing I think there is," Thoennes said. "No matter where you go. You try to teach your kids stuff that you learn from experience, and they like to learn it the same way we did - by experience. It's so important."
Zimmerman 'honored, a little surprised'
Zimmerman says he was honored when he found out about his entry into the Viking Speedway Hall of Fame but also a little surprised.
Rarely has Zimmerman raced a full season at the local track.
"It's many years back that I did, probably in the late 80s, early 90s," he said.
Zimmerman liked to go where the money was a lot of nights. New tracks also meant a new challenge, and he's faced a lot of those over the years - racing at more than 40 tracks in seven states.
"I've followed the Late Model Challenge Series some," Zimmerman said. "They were all higher paying events, and you learn more when you go to different tracks."
Zimmerman has jumped behind the wheel in the Modified Division, but Late Models have always been his favorite. He drove a race car for the first time at age 15 and has been there now for four decades.
In 1987, he won the first Nascar Late Model Race ever held in Minnesota - the Winston 24 at the Viking Speedway. He's celebrated feature wins at 11 different racks and won numerous accolades, including the combined points championship at the I-94 Speedway in Sauk Centre and Fergus Falls in the mid-1990s.
He also took the first-ever Fall Classic win at the Viking Speedway in 2003. His resume at the local track includes 18 Late Model feature wins.
"There's a lot of things that stand out," Zimmerman said of what he's most proud of in his career. "Winning some of the big events. A lot of it is just the friends I've made over the years and winning some of the big special events."
Zimmerman said those relationships he developed were instrumental early in his career.
"A while back, a lot of the racers were like a family," Zimmerman said. "We helped each other. There were a lot of great drivers and they helped me along the way. Good sponsors. You need that backing. It's key."
One of the guys behind Zimmerman from the beginning was his brother, Craig. Craig co-owned the first car Dave drove at the Weetown Speedway near Fergus Falls in 1978. He was by his side for years as Dave racked up wins across the region.
"He was pretty much everywhere I went and helped me on the car during the week," Dave said. "He traveled all over."
This past March, Craig died unexpectedly from a heart attack. Dave says part of the honor of being inducted into the Viking Speedway Hall of Fame belongs to his brother.
"I think he'd be pretty honored too because he was a big part it," Dave said.
At age 55, Dave has cut back his time behind the wheel. It used to be two, three times a week. He still enjoys the competition that comes with being on the track, but he says he wants to still be competitive if he's out there.
Zimmerman has driven some brand new cars for other owners, but has owned just two of them himself in nearly 40 years of racing.
"Especially in today's day and age, these new cars are very expensive," he said. "For a while, you didn't need the latest and the greatest to keep up. You just needed good stuff and used stuff would work. But technology has really taken over now the last five, 10 years, and the costs with that have went way up too."
Zimmerman admits that has taken away some of his passion for getting behind the wheel.
"You need a lot more high-dollar equipment to be competitive and the payouts haven't changed forever on a normal weekly," he said.
This year, Zimmerman is behind the wheel of a Limited Late Model. That's where he feels he can be most competitive right now.
He's raced in that twice at the Viking Speedway this summer, taking second both nights. He hopes to see that become a regular class around the area.
"They just started a new class at I-94," he said. "I think that class will grow."
(Former Echo Press editor Tara Bitzan contributed to this piece)