Viking Speedway: 15-year old Sward steals the show in the opener
Opening night at the Viking Speedway in Alexandria is special for every driver, but the Sward family will remember Saturday night's opener perhaps more than those they have already experienced or anything that will come in the future.
Those season openers are about new beginnings, and for Nelson's Bryce Sward, maybe it's the start of a successful new era at his home track. Sward is 15-years old, but he raced like a seasoned veteran in his second season in a Late Model to capture his first-ever feature win.
"It's unbelievable," Sward said. "I'm completely speechless. All I have to say is I'm thankful for all my sponsors and all my fans for getting me here. If it wasn't for the sponsors, I knew I wouldn't have gotten here. It's definitely fun."
Sward was still getting congratulated by fans and other drivers after the final races ended—a smile never leaving his face. He was confident that his car could hold up against the rest of the 13-car field in his division. Things felt good during practice runs on Saturday afternoon, but that can be somewhat fleeting from race to race, too.
"We went out for the heat, and we just had some terrible issues—it didn't handle right, didn't feel very good," Sward said. "Then they watered the track, and it looked real good. I knew we would be real fast, and we went out and it was definitely the best car I ever drove."
Sward started out front in the feature and led from start to finish. That doesn't mean he wasn't anxious on every lap as they started to wind down. Herman's Dustin Bluhm and Alexandria's Ryan Mikkelson were second and third behind him, respectively, and Sward was not taking anything for granted no matter how much distance he gained.
"I was thinking about that every time I came around, 'Gosh, is this going to end?' I was getting nervous, but coming down to the white flag, I knew I had to keep calm," he said. "Got to stay calm, got to stay calm. I didn't want to mess up because I knew they were not that far behind me. I messed up just a little bit, but I managed to do enough to win, and it feels great. "
Sward raced go-karts for 10 years at the small track across the parking lot from the Viking Speedway. Going from go-karts right into a Late Model under the lights at the local oval might seem like a big step, but that wheel time he gained as a youngster has paid dividends now.
"I think go-karts prepared me quite a bit, knowing what to feel in the car. Is it loose? Too tight?" Sward said. "All those types of situations. Throttle control is pretty big in that too, just knowing when to stop and when to go, where's that edge? I think it's prepared me quite a bit."
It helped Sward enter this season confident that he could do what he did on Saturday.
"I feel pretty confident, but I don't want to be too confident," he said. "My mom always tells me, 'You're going to have bad nights and good nights.' I say, 'I know, I know.' I feel pretty confident with our equipment and our car that we'll be pretty good through the year."
Sward was enjoying the moment with his friends and family on Saturday, but he hopes this is just the start of a special season.
"We have some goals set," he said. "My goal at least is to get the track championship here, and then try our hardest to do it in Fergus Falls. That's all our goals, and just have fun and keep it in one piece."
Bangsund enjoys another opening win
Alexandria's Andrew Bangsund can relate to a driver like Sward.
He too got behind the wheel at the Viking Speedway at a young age 13 years ago. Now at 29-years-old and after three track titles, he's in a much different place. As a father now with two young children, he doesn't chase those overall championships like he used too, but wins like he got on Saturday are still special when they come.
"Opening night is great," Bangsund said. "It's always new cars, new motors, something is new, and you're excited."
For Bangsund, it was a new engine in his No. 70 Street Stock that had him excited about a new season. He had run it at the WISSOTA 100 near the end of last season.
"We knew it was good, but we didn't know it was as good as we saw tonight," Bangsund said. "Just having Justin Vogel in front of us. I've ran with him for so many years, and we have the same motor. He broke, so that really helped us out. We just tried hard, did a lot of tire work between heats and features and it worked out."
Bangsund started from the third position, while Vogel started out front. Vogel held that spot for much of the 15-lap race, but Bangsund knew an opening was coming before he made the pass with about five laps left.
"I could smell gear lube, and he was smoking for about three laps before that," Bangsund said. "I knew something was going to happen, and at that time I decided it's time to go. The last three laps, I probably drove a little too slow, but when you get out front you just never know where everybody else is."
Vogel was not able to finish the feature as Alexandria's Brett Miller came in second, and Jim Williams of DeGraff was third.
Bangsund had his young daughter in his arms as he shared the win with friends and family by his car and trailer after the races ended. It's one of many feature wins over his career, and one of two or three now on opening night.
This one is a little different now. Instead of possibly jumpstarting a run at a track title, Bangsund is content with it being just another memory at his home track.
"In 2012 was our last track title," Bangsund said. "We actually just ran for fun (in 2014) and ended up second in points. Now with the kids, we go camping. We have things planned for the summer, so we won't be here every week."
Gronwold, Crouse, Johnson all win
The speedway's opener featured all five of its regular classes as three other drivers joined Sward and Bangsund in getting their seasons off on the right foot.
Fergus Falls' Brock Gronwold won the Midwest Modifieds Division, with Starbuck's Cody Lee in second and Ron Saurer of Dalton in third.
Viking Speedway veteran Jeff Crouse of Alexandria pulled away from the field in the Super Stock Division. Dalton's Trevor Saurer was behind him in second and Glenwood's Matt Miller took third.
In Modifieds, Kensington driver Zach Johnson stole the lead from Villard's Brady Gerdes late to get his season off on the right foot. Gerdes was second, and fellow Villard driver Brett Hoium finished third.