Brandon’s Dustin Bitzan was as excited as any driver at the Viking Speedway to get the season going this summer after the way things finished in 2019.
Bitzan had a torrid final handful of weeks at his home track last year as he erased a deficit that at one point felt insurmountable against another talented young driver in Villard’s Brady Gerdes.
“I think it was the end of June or beginning of July, we really weren’t paying attention to the points,” Bitzan said. “We were just talking and said, ‘We’re over 100 points behind first place. It’d be impossible to catch up.’ Things started coming together. The car started working good, and we got it all figured out. By the last night, we were tied up.”
Gerdes and Bitzan’s race for a championship highlighted the final regular night of the season last summer as Gerdes held on to finish second and take the points title. Bitzan was fifth that night in the Modified feature, and while it wasn’t the outcome he wanted, it was easy to keep things in perspective heading into the offseason.
“We knew we were going to be starting behind Brady in the feature,” Bitzan said. “Brady is tough. He’s a heck of a driver. We gave it everything we had and came up a little bit short. We were happy anyways because it was a pretty good last run of the year.”
It was a confidence boost that left Bitzan believing that the 2020 season would be a good one, and that’s exactly how things are turning out. The 29-year-old is in his fifth season driving a Modified after spending almost six years behind the wheel of a Midwest Mod.
Every season, Bitzan has gained more comfort in that Modified class, and he’s driving like one of the top competitors at the track each week now. He won Saturday night’s main event at the Viking Speedway by dominating down the stretch of the 20-lap feature.
Bitzan raced in Fergus Falls on Friday night and got into a small wreck. He finished the race, but at the back of the pack, and he and his crew worked all Saturday to get the car ready ahead of the 6:30 start time in Alexandria.
It took a while to get things firing on all cylinders. After an early caution, Bitzan took off after the restart and bolted to the front of the line. He created more distance with every lap that went off the board.
“After that restart, (the car) really came to life. It was glued down and just kind of checked out on them,” he said. “The main thing that’s running across your mind is no cautions. It seems like they’ll always come back to haunt you when you’re in the lead. You don’t know where everyone else is racing on the track, so you’re not sure where to go. It was just continue to hit my marks lap after lap and try to stay calm in there. Keep my momentum up and not make any mistakes. That’s hard to do when you get nervous and you’re watching the laps count down.”
Bitzan has found quite a comfort in his second season with this same car. He has raced every Friday night of the season at Fergus Falls this summer and finds himself currently leading those Modified point standings at the I-94 Speedway. Saturday was his second overall win of the summer, and just once has he finished outside the top four.
“Everything has been going good,” he said. “I was excited to get the year started, and then everything got pushed back. The way we came off last year, I was excited because I figured we would be good right away. We had the same car as we had last year, so I felt like we were going to get off to a good start, versus fighting with a new one trying to get it dialed in.”
The win on Saturday put Bitzan two points up on Gerdes in the Modified point standings through three weeks at the Viking Speedway during this shortened summer due to the pandemic. Early on, he has proven to be one of the drivers to beat in his division.
“We’re here just to have good finishes, be consistent every week and try to get as many as we can,” Bitzan said. “If we’re there at the end of the year for the points, that’s great, but I typically don’t let the points get to me. It seems like when you start watching that stuff, it starts catching up to you.”
Good night for local drivers
Bitzan’s win was part of a big night for local drivers on July 25.
Alexandria’s Rick Nelson is a 20-plus-year veteran driver at the Viking Speedway, and he held off the pack in the Limited Late Models feature. Nelson battled a car that didn’t feel quite right all night and still found a way to edge Nick Panitzke in second and Ryan Mikkelson in third.
“I think we had a car to win, but it was missing all night,” Nelson said. “I didn’t know it when we took off on the start. It was blubbering a little bit the whole race, and I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be good.’”
Nelson found a way to hold on down the stretch.
“I had to back out of the throttle to get it to quit and then take off real slow,” he said with a smile. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this all night.’ But it worked, so I just kept doing what I was doing. (It’s fun) when stuff is not working good and you get one. If it was working good and you didn’t get it, I would have been mad.”
Jason Cook made it two Brandon drivers to find victory lane on Saturday. Cook won the Super Stock feature by edging Travis Scott of Glenwood and Alexandria’s Jeff Crouse.
Jack Koranda of Bluffton won the Street Stock feature ahead of Ryan Satter and Craig Gardner. Fergus Falls’ Brock Gronwold also got a win in his Midwest Modified by beating Ron Saurer in second and Osakis’ Matt Thoennes in third.
Drivers will be back on Aug. 1 with the fourth week of racing at the local speedway, with Limited Late Models, Midwest Modifieds, Modifieds, Street Stocks and Super Stocks all set to run.
VIKING SPEEDWAY RACES -- JULY 25, 2020
LIMITED LATE MODELS TOP-FIVE FINISHERS - Rick Nelson, Alexandria; Nick Panitzke, Lonsdale; Ryan Mikkelson, Alexandria; Dustin Johanneck, Litchfield; Larry Fitzsimmons, East Bethel
MIDWEST MODIFIEDS - Brock Gronwold, Fergus Falls; Ron Sauer, Dalton; Matt Thoennes, Osakis; Shawn Olson, Alexandria; Corey Storck, Morris
MODIFIEDS - Dustin Bitzan, Brandon; Danny Bayer, Elrosa; Tyler Kaeter, St. Cloud; Brett Hoium, Villard; Ryan Gierke, Villard
STREET STOCK - Jack Koranda, Bluffton; Ryan Satter, Dent; Craig Gardner, Eagle Bend; Mark Blom, Glenwood; Tanner Horn, Wadena
SUPER STOCK - Jason Cook, Brandon; Travis Scott, Glenwood; Jeff Crouse, Alexandria; Roger Host, Watkins; Trevor Saurer, Dalton