Minnesota competitor Nick Panitzke proved to be one of the biggest surprises of the 2017 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series season.
The 27-year-old competitor typically only runs a handful of races every year, but last year Panitzke decided to embark on a full schedule of racing at Wisconsin’s LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway.
It proved to be the right call for Panitzke, who would go on to win his first LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway Tobacco Outlet Plus Grocery NASCAR Late Models track championship in addition to the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Wisconsin State championship.
“I use to do some touring stuff and we kind of made the switch to start racing at LaCrosse,” Panitzke said. “I really didn’t know that I was going to do a full season at LaCrosse Speedway. I just started getting going and we were having fun. The crew liked it, I liked it and it kind of worked out for us. It’s two hours from home and the travel is OK and it worked out for the whole family and the whole team. Honestly the more we kept going the more we kept having fun.
The decision to compete full-time at LaCrosse was a major change for Panitzke. Before last year he’d never chased a NASCAR track championship before and had only raced a handful of times at NASCAR sanctioned tracks.
“It’s the first time I’ve been part of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series,” Panitzke explained. “I’ve done a couple races here and there, just racing at my local track here in Minnesota in Elko. Just because I’m really close to the track we’d run there every so often. We were never really in it for NASCAR points.
“Honestly I wasn’t too aware of the NASCAR points structure or the points situation until this (past) year and actually halfway through the season we got to thinking, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool. We should really try for this.’ It made it exciting and it made it fun and gave me something to really shoot for.”
Panitzke scored five victories last year at LaCrosse, but he entered the season finale with only an 11-point edge over local racing legend Steve Carlson. A second-place qualifying effort bumped his edge to 15 points over Carlson, but Mother Nature intervened and rained out the season finale, handing Panitzke his first track championship by that 15 point margin.
In addition to his incredible season at LaCrosse, Panitzke was also successful elsewhere. He added a victory at Madison Int’l Speedway in Oregon, Wisconsin, as well as a victory at his local NASCAR track in Minnesota, Elko Speedway.
Across 28 starts at all three tracks, Panitzke ended 2017 with seven victories, 20 top fives and 27 top 10s. His results at LaCrosse and Madison were also more than enough for Panitzke to comfortably capture the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Wisconsin championship last year by 122 points over Carlson.
U.S. state and province champions are determined by the best 18 finishes at tracks within the respective state or province.
He also finished inside the top-10 in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series National standings, finishing eighth in the nation among all NASCAR Division I competitors.
After having so much fun racing for – and winning – the track championship at LaCrosse, Panitzke says he’ll be back for more in 2018. He said he may even expand his racing schedule and try to better his eighth-place result in the National standings this year.
“To be honest with you I had such a good time this year racing at LaCrosse, it’s really brought the racer back out (in me) and my whole team,” Panitzke said. “It’s great to be able to get back to a place that the competitiveness comes back out in you. All the things that we love to do as racers, it all kind of came back out at once. To me it would be crazy not to try and go do the same thing. Now that we’re more in the loop on how the NASCAR points structure works, maybe we’ll try to get to some more races and try to better our eighth-place finish and for sure try to go back for the state and track championships.”
LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway will open the season on April 22 with the Budweiser Frostbuster Race, which includes the season opener for the Tobacco Outlet Plus Grocery Late Model class.
The results were extra sweet for Panitzke, who makes a living working for QA1 Precision Products as a machinist, because he says his strong results really helped fund his racing efforts.
“I’m the type of racer who works for everything I’ve got. Everything comes out of pocket,” Panitzke said. “The past few seasons I’ve been doing five or seven races per season and not really being able to do much more than that. This year I think we might have had 28 shows, so it made a huge difference being at it every single week and getting better that way. If we did well enough the week before we’d go to the next one and it would help it kind of fund itself. It just makes a big difference being in the seat every week. I think you have to now a days with the competition level.”
Panitzke did get a little bit of financial help halfway through the year that really helped his small family team get up and down the road. Gillette Pepsi Cola of LaCrosse jumped on board with the team, putting the Mountain Dew logo on his car. He said their financial support really helped the team make the most out of their season at LaCrosse.
“We got partially through the season and I picked up a couple of sponsors from the area and they kind of insured that I made it to the rest of the races throughout the season at LaCrosse,” said Panitzke. “We had Mountain Dew on the car. For the second half of the season they came on board. They really wanted me to finish out the season and make sure I got to every single race that LaCrosse had to offer. I really have to thank them for stepping in. They were the first ones to step in and say ‘Hey, we really like seeing you out here. It is exciting to watch. Please show up, what are you going to need to show back up to every single one of these races?’”
Panitzke also gave a lot of credit for his success to his crew, which is comprised of his wife Morgan, his father-in-law and championship winning racer Brian Johnson and his mother-in-law, Tami Johnson. Racing as a family makes winning races and championships that much more rewarding for Panitzke.
“We travel to the track as a family and leave the track as a family,” said Panitzke. “My mother-in-law takes my son (5-year-old Cameron) up in the grandstands and they watch while we race. We get back together after the race and haul back home together. So it’s kind of a big family deal for us.”
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