Viking Speedway: Three decades near the front of the pack make Dennis Bitzan a natural fit for HOF
Farwell's Dennis Bitzan finished in the top five of the season point standings 22 times during his 30-year racing career at the Viking Speedway in Alexandria. A look back on his life at the track before he and Alexandria's Elaine Thoennes are honored on Hall of Fame Night on July 30.
ALEXANDRIA — Farwell’s Dennis Bitzan thought he was taking a year off from racing at the Viking Speedway in Alexandria during the 1994 season. Bitzan and his wife, Tara, were getting married that year and there was planning and work to be done on their farm site and with his masonry business.
Tara and Dennis were pouring concrete one day that summer when Dennis got a call from Phil Merten. The Merten brothers, Phil, BJ and Terry, were in need of a driver. Terry had driven the family’s car up until that point but needed to step away.
“That was in the middle of the season in 94 when Terry, he got hurt and they needed somebody to fill in maybe a week. They didn’t know,” Dennis said. “I said no problem. That following Saturday, I started driving and I stayed with them for 11 years. As a fill in, right? I don’t know if I would have been racing anymore. I didn’t have a car anymore. We were working on that house and getting married. They came along and said all you need is your duffel bag, your helmet and suit and then get in.”
Bitzan said he does not know if his racing career would have been rejuvenated if not for that phone call and the Merten family wanting him to drive that summer season. The group found fast success together, winning the Modified track championship in Alexandria in 1995.
It was one of five track championships that Bitzan won during his 30 years behind the wheel at the Viking Speedway. That long, successful career as both a driver and car owner make Bitzan a natural fit for the speedway’s Hall of Fame.
Bitzan and longtime friend Elaine Thoennes will be recognized as the 2022 inductees during the Viking Speedway’s Hall of Fame Night during the races on July 30.
“It was an honor,” Bitzan said of getting the news on the Hall of Fame. “I never really thought I was that good or anything that could result in the Hall of Fame. I’m really honored.”
A model of consistency
Bitzan’s career accomplishments tell the story of a driver who is fitting to be in the Hall of Fame.
A passion for racing ignited in him when he was 11-years old. His cousin, Arnie Bitzan, was racing motorcycles at the time. Dennis, now 59, liked to go along to the track and help out where he could with Arnie and his uncle, Arnold.
“I was 11 and Arnie was two or three years older than I was,” Bitzan said. “One day, there was an extra motorcycle when we got to the track. I asked my uncle Arnold, ‘What’s that for?’ He said, ‘You’re going to drive that one today.’ I drove that day in my first race. I was like, ‘Oh, this is nice. I like racing.’ We did a few more races between when I was 11 and 12.”
In 1981, Bitzan purchased a 1967 Chevelle built by Alexandria’s Dave Thoennes. Dave, a longtime driver, car owner and builder of race cars, is Elaine Thoennes’ husband and a 2017 inductee into the Viking Speedway Hall of Fame himself.
Bitzan drove that No. 52 car to many feature wins and a track championship in the Sportsman Division during that first season. He almost made it back-to-back track titles in 1982 before losing the championship by one point to Greg Muzik.
That’s how Bitzan’s career unfolded over 30 years of driving. Always in the mix for feature wins and track titles.
His five championships in Alexandria spanned three different decades from his first in 1981 to his last in his 10x Modified in 2009. He finished runner-up six times and in third place six more.
Bitzan finished in the top five of the season point standings 22 times. He was named the Rookie of the Year in both the Sportsman and Modified classes and was named the Modified Sportsman of the Year in 2007, 2008 and 2009 — an honor given by his fellow drivers.
“The key is you have a great team and that the car is put together well,” Bitzan said of what led to so much consistency over his career. “Then all you got to do is just drive it to keep it up front. It’s really that nothing falls off and the car is set up so it’s competitive. It’s not just the driver. It’s the whole team that makes this thing work.”
Bitzan loves the camaraderie that comes with working on the cars as a team and going to the track each week feeling like they have a car that is capable of winning.
“I think it’s just the competitive part of it, just trying to be that first-place car,” he said. “That drive to keep getting better working on the car, driving the car…It’s a good feeling going to the track every night thinking you can win that race. That’s how hard we worked during the week to prepare for that race. Knowing that, it’s a good feeling every time you drive across that track.”
Still around the track
Bitzan retired from driving in 2014, but knew he wanted to stay involved at the speedway.
He teamed up with Dave Thoennes as co-owners of the 10x car that Dustin Bitzan now drives.
Together, they have become one of the most consistent teams at the Viking Speedway in the Modified Division, consistently running near the front of the pack.
“I enjoyed every bit of my driving career, but now it’s a little less stressful,” Dennis said. “I still get worked up and excited before the race for Dusty because I want him to do well. We really, really enjoy it.”
The people around the track have been one of the most enjoyable parts for Bitzan during his racing career, and he was grateful to many who helped him along the way. The Merten family helped jumpstart his driving career again, and Dave Thoennes played a big role in Bitzan getting his start. Thoennes was also part of Bitzan’s team late in his career, including those championship seasons in 2008 and 2009.
“That’s pretty much where it started,” Bitzan said. “Back when we started in 1979 with my cousin, Arnie, Dave was involved then already. Dave was racing then, and he pretty much got Arnie going and then I jumped in with him as a pit man. Shortly after that, I turned 16 and could get into a car myself. Dave was there the whole time all through those first years.”
That relationship with the Thoennes family makes it fitting that Bitzan and Elaine Thoennes went into the speedway’s Hall of Fame in the same class. It will make the ceremony on July 30 all the more memorable for two people who have given much of their life to the local track.
“Dave and her have been involved with my racing career the whole time,” Bitzan said. “Their son, Rick, and I shared a car in about 1992. He drove Sauk Centre and I drove Alex. We shared that same car back and forth and I spent a lot of time at Dave and Elaine’s through those years working on the car. Every aspect of my racing career has pretty much been around Elaine and Dave, so it’s a real honor to be going in with her and sharing that evening with her.”