Johnny Sauter never gave it any thought that there wasn’t a race named in honor of his late father until he was asked if he’d mind.
Jim Sauter was a standout on the central Wisconsin and regional scenes from the 1960s into the ’90s and a winner on the highest levels of short-track racing around the country. Dick Trickle and Joe Shear were his peers. He went on to race in NASCAR and see his sons follow his path.
“My dad was not a limelight kind of guy,” Sauter said. “The fact that there was never a race in his honor never even entered my mind, because I don’t think that’s something he would have wanted, honestly, just knowing how he was.
“But for me, it’s not even about Jim Sauter the race car driver, it’s about Jim Sauter the dad. … I think he was a hell of a race car driver and an even better father figure. I think he was the ultimate. Quite frankly, when I take a look around at the rest of the world and see what’s going on, I realize now how lucky I was to have the family I have.
“That’s what I’m more pumped about. To me, it’s almost more of a celebration.”
So cue the band and start your engines.
The ARCA Midwest Tour’s first Jim Sauter Classic 200 is set for Saturday night at Dells Raceway Park in Wisconsin Dells, a track close to the late driver’s heart. It will be the most lucrative event of its type in the state – certainly this year and possibly all time – with the winner guaranteed $15,555 with a chance to make an extra $5,000.
Johnny will be there, even though he has a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race the following afternoon in Darlington, South Carolina.
“Growing up … Jim Sauter was the ARTGO champion in ’81 and ’82 and was really my first hero in racing,” said Gregg McKarns, the Midwest Tour promoter whose father, John, co-founded ARTGO, the regional series after which Gregg’s series is patterned. McKarns got the idea for a Jim Sauter Classic from a crewman who works in the series and cleared the idea with Johnny Sauter.
“It’s overdue and I’m glad it’s happened to pay tribute to a Wisconsin short track start,” McKarns said. “He had won the ’83 All-American 400 (in Nashville), the 500-lapper at the Minnesota State Fair, he won National Short Track Championships at Rockford. He won the big events of the day. … I’m glad it all came to be.”
Jim Sauter died almost seven years ago at age 71, so he was around when Johnny won an ASA title, a couple of NASCAR Xfinity races and a bunch of truck races, but he didn’t get to see him win the 2016 truck championship.
Jim insisted his kids make it in the racing world on their own, he usually preferred to have a car to drive if he was going to be at the racetrack and was “never the cheerleader type,” Johnny recalled. But he always seemed to know what was going on, usually had advice and helped when he could.
Four of Jim’s 12 children have raced super late models. Jay and Tim both made it to NASCAR, and Jay won four truck races. Jim Jr. didn’t get that far, but he is planning to compete Saturday.
Johnny’s first race of any kind came at the Dells in 1996 in a sportsman car with no testing. Jim Sr. guided him some in building and setting up the car and got him a trailer to get it to the track.
“I think he went to the racetrack with me maybe once or twice right out of the gate to get me on my way,” Sauter said. “The thing I remember him telling me the most was, he goes, ‘If you want to do it bad enough, you’ll find a way.’ It’s like he’s standing here today telling me that.”
It wasn’t always smooth.
“I hate to admit this, but I think I hit a lot of stuff the first year I raced and wrecked a lot of radiators,” said Sauter, now 43.
“I still remember the first time I came home from my first race, my dad went and sat me down the next morning and he drew me a picture on a piece of paper of the racetrack, showed me exactly what I was doing wrong. Just kind of ran through some stuff with me, and I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
Jim also told Johnny if he could learn to race at the Dells he could learn to race anywhere. Trickle later told him the same thing. An unrelenting, one-third-mile bullring, the track now has asphalt in the low groove on both ends that add to the challenge of getting the car handling right.
Jim grew up in Minnesota, so Elko Speedway or Shakopee Raceway Park probably would have been considered his home track, Johnny said. But the Dells became his second home after settling in Necedah, about 40 minutes away.
“It’s weird to describe, but when you grow up somewhere or run at a racetrack a lot you feel a lot of pressure to run good there. At least I do,” Johnny said. “It’s a tough place though. Your stuff’s got to be right.
“The cool part of the Dells – and I’ve always said it – is there’s a second groove there, so at least you can race. If you can’t work the bottom, you can work the top. So I just love that part. It gives you options.”
Sauter has won four of his past six starts, including a 125-lapper in August during which he and Ty Majeski, his sometimes teammate in the truck series, put on a spellbinding all-out, close-quarters battle, the likes of which can make short-track racing so compelling.
Now he is bracing for a similar night Saturday, followed by a drive to Milwaukee, a brief hotel nap, an early morning flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, and a quick drive to Darlington Raceway.
“If you run good there’s a little thing that people forget about called adrenaline,” he said. “I’m telling you, that thing can fuel you for days.
“I can’t miss my dad’s race for anything in the world. I just think it’s cool and I love racing at the Dells, so what the hell, let’s go do it.”