Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Remembering Red Dralle

Red Dralle, a northeast Iowa racing legend from Waterloo, passed away early Tuesday morning after suffering a stroke late last week. Below are my thoughts, memories and a few conversations I had with Red over the years. Photos of Red's final feature win and his son Rick's first feature win follow at the bottom.

Racing has always been a sport that people either love or they hate. Generally, if you ask someone if they've ever been to a stock car race, you'll get one of three answers. They'll tell you that they've never gone, that they've gone only once and didn't like it or that they spend their entire summer taking in the sights and sounds at their local track.

As a kid, I felt the passion early and made the 26-mile trek north every Saturday in the summer with my family from our home in Vinton to Independence. We all cheered on who we wanted to win every night. Regardless who you wanted to see win, however, you became familiar with who was hard to beat, who you didn't like and who, for whatever reason, you hoped didn't draw the same heat as your favorite driver.

Over time, you not only became a diehard fan, but you felt like you knew anyone and everyone who rolled out of the staging area and onto the track for that next event. You heard stories about various drivers; some stories you chose to believe and some that you simply wanted to believe because you knew how these guys drove. You knew who was a good driver and who was a dirty driver - who was a good person and who was a bad person - because you watched them in action every summer as you were growing up.

As a kid, racing was somewhat of a mystery. We held our idols on high pedestals and we looked down to our perceived enemies as the villain even though we really didn't necessarily know who we were cheering for or against. We wanted "our guy" to win at all costs and, should anyone beat him, that driver immediately assumed the role of the enemy.

I clearly remember opening night of the 1989 season at Independence Motor Speedway. It was the night before my 15th birthday and I was as excited as ever to get back to the track to watch my favorite Late Model driver, Rick Wendling, win on the first night of the season.

At night's end I was not only disappointed that Wendling would enter the second week tied for last in the points, I discovered a new villain. Red Dralle won the opening night feature that season and, being a kid, immediately I didn't like him. Yeah, I'd seen him race before and knew he was good. That only made things worse for me. That meant Wendling would have a deeper hole to dig out of after just one week. Dralle was the points leader. That wasn't right. From that point on I decided I didn't like Red Dralle.

Being an observant kid, I started to listen to those things I heard about these drivers that I had never met - most notably, Red. The things you heard as a kid, though, and even sometimes as an adult, can only lead you to laugh about them years down the road. I mean, over time, the perceptions you had and the things you heard growing up didn't always match what you came to know. Even if they did, they can still be worth a good chuckle.

Over the years, I heard stories about Red, probably similar to the stories heard by many other race fans in eastern Iowa. I'll never forget one night in Independence when a group of people sitting around my family was talking about Red. It was just after hot laps and Wayde Russell was driving a car owned by Red. The car didn't make it off the track and needed assistance from the push truck. I heard one of the guys sitting around us say, "Russell took too many hot laps, he ran out of gas." I was dumbfounded at this idea since hot laps were only a couple laps long and it was crazy to think anyone would run out of gas. The guy in front of me continued, "Red's cheap. He only puts so much gas in the car for hot laps. He doesn't want to waste fuel so he only wants his driver making a couple laps. If he goes too many, he runs out of gas."

True story? Yeah, I did hear that conversation. Beyond that, no, I didn't know if there was any truth to the accusation about Red being cheap. It did, however, and still does bring on a good laugh whenever I think about it.

There was another time that Red pulled into the pits and signed in to race, but never made it onto the track. Again, people started talking. "All he wants are his show-up points so he can start up front next week. He had no intention of going on the track. Hell, there isn't even a race car in that hauler, it's full of watermelons."

True or not, those are the types of stories we've all heard about Red Dralle over the years.

I started working at Independence in 2000. I had seen Red at various times leading up to the start of that season, but I had never talked to him, let alone had a lengthy conversation with him. I don't even recall if I spoke a word to him that year aside from checking him in every week.

I admit that I was somewhat intimidated by Red based on the stories I had heard, how hard-nosed he was and how he spoke his mind. I've always joked that I'm the type of guy who has no filter - if something enters my mind, it immediately comes out of my mouth regardless of the situation or circumstance. In the end, I may have relief and at other times I may have regret, but I've always felt I've spoken my mind, no matter the outcome. Red Dralle took that to the next level. Not only did he say whatever was on his mind, but with just a few short words you knew where he was coming from, you knew what he meant and you knew there was no regret - ever. Some people may attribute that to personality and, while that may be true, I attribute it to passion.

Red Dralle had a passion for racing that I've never seen equalled by anyone as long as I've been around the sport. He wanted to win and he wanted to win his way. He was good and he knew it, but so did everyone else who bought a ticket or pit pass on any given night. The man won the final race he ever entered at Independence in July of 2003. What more proof do you need than to see a guy go out on top?

Over the years, I got to know Red a little better. We had occasional chats at the track - the basic things everyone talks about... what's right in the world of racing and what's wrong with it... how it's changed for the better, but mostly how it's changed for the worse... remembering the glory days when racing was fun and not a business.

I was lucky this past year as Red stopped by the check-in table on his golf cart every night for the first couple months of the season. On opening night, Red drew his son Rick's number for the heat lineup. Drawing a very low number, you could sense Red's excitement. Every time another car pulled through the gate, he'd say, "How many are there now?" He was excited, he was interested, he was passionate. "We should still be on the front row, right?" He may not have been a driver anymore, but he was still just as big of a race fan as ever.

There was another night when I was walking from the concession stand back to the pits and he stopped in front of me on his golf cart. He asked me where I was going and I told him I was just walking back to the pit gate, that I was fine to walk and he didn't need to give me a ride. "Get on here, you're coming with me." I knew this wasn't a conversation or him asking to do me a favor; Red was simply letting me know how things were going to proceed from there. I laughed and got on the golf cart. He asked how the track was and how many cars we were going to have. It was a pleasant chat until we got back to the check-in table where the scorers were marking down the latest arrivals.

"Here you go!" he said. "Look at this! I'm giving the guy a ride all over the grounds, this has gotta get me something. It's gotta be good for a front row, right?" Red was lobbying for a good starting spot for Rick.

I laughed it off, but Red kept going. "C'mon, that's gotta be good for something. I'd have left you back there if it wasn't going to get me the front row!" With his recognizable half smile, Red drove away.

While Red was known to have a tough exterior, there were moments when he wasn't afraid to show his emotions. I was lucky enough to be present for one of those times. On July 7, 2007, Rick Dralle earned his first career Late Model win at Independence on a night I happened to be doing victory lane interviews. Red was there that night and it felt as though he was in victory lane before Rick even rolled to a stop.

"What did you think of that?" Red was grinning from ear to ear, the happiest and proudest I'd ever seen him. He was the first to congratulate Rick as he got out of the car. The passion of the sport, the pride he had in his son, the years of hard work, it was a moment that helped define who Red was.

One other conversation I had with Red in 2010 stands out above all others. It was following the races on June 19. Rick's hauler was parked right by the pit gate so there was always the chance that Red was going to get a word in before you made it out of the pits. On this night, he made sure he let me know that we made a mistake with the race procedure.

"Hey, get over here!" he yelled before I even turned to exit the pits. "You know what I'm going to tell you, don't you?"

I had an idea, but I wasn't sure. I thought quickly for a moment and decided, no, I better not offer Red what I was thinking. If it wasn't the same thing, I didn't want to give him TWO things to question. I simply replied, "I'm not sure, was it something to do with a lineup?"

"Damn right, you know it was. How many nights can a guy miss before he has to start at the back? If you miss a night, you have to start at the back that second week, right?" Red was upset that one of the other Late Model drivers was given a front row starting spot in his heat despite missing the week before.

As I explained to him that a driver had to miss two consecutive weeks before being forced to start at the tail upon returning the third week, Red stood there shaking his head. "Oh, I thought it was one week. They must have changed that."

As the conversation hit a brick wall and I turned to leave, Red said, "Hey, you know why they have that rule, don't you?" I laughed and said, "You?"

"Damn right, it's because of me. A lot of the rules at these tracks are because of me over the years."

The look of frustration and anger in his eyes seemed to change to pride and honor in the blink of an eye so I said, "It's the same thing about the show-up points, too, right?"

Quick to respond, Red said, "Yep, that's because of me, too. We always knew what we were doing." With that, I laughed and walked back to my car as he returned to Rick's pit area.

Looking back, that was the last conversation I had with Red. I realize now that from our youth through our adult years, some opinions change while others are confirmed; regardless, memories remain with us for a lifetime. In the end, I can say only one thing. I really liked that guy.

All photos included below are courtesy of Scott Tjabring/Action Track Photography

Red Dralle (4) battles Dale Hackwell Jr. during Late Model heat race action on July 12, 2003.

Dralle battles Greg Kastli during the Late Model feature on July 12, 2003.

The final Late Model feature win of Red Dralle's career came at Independence Motor Speedway on July 12, 2003. Dralle went out a winner as it was the final time he got behind the wheel of a race car.

Rick Dralle's first career Late Model win came on July 7, 2007. His father, Red, was the first person to congratulate him in victory lane.

Red Dralle looks on as his son, Rick, is interviewed in victory lane for the first time in his career on July 7, 2007.

Red Dralle strikes a pose in victory lane following Rick Dralle's first career win.

Red Dralle (far left) was one of many to share a moment in victory lane during Rick Dralle's first career Late Model win.