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Trackside with Dr. Bob Leonard at Earl Wagner Mural and Knoxville Hall of Fame Night


The mud really flew at the Knoxville Raceway Saturday night in at the Knoxville Championship Cup Series in some of the best racing of the season. Brian Brown of Grain Valley, Missouri regained the lead in the 410 season standings, Justin Selvage from Indianola, Iowa won the 360’s, and for the second weekend in a row victory in the 305‘s went to local favorite 17 year old Tasker Phillips of nearby Pleasantville.

I’ll get to the races in a bit, but right now some backstory. It was also the 32nd Annual Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame Night, and Earl Wagner Mural Night. When Brian Brown took to the victory stand, he told the sprint car world “this is for you grandpa!” It was a nice family moment for the crowd to share, particularly because grandpa also came to the victory stand that night–and on his own merits. Grandpa is George Lasoski, of Higgensville, Missouri and besides being Brian Brown’s grandpa he is also father of sprint car racing legend Danny Lasoski. Danny is also a four time Knoxville Nationals Champ, and a former World of Outlaws Champion, among other accomplishments. Quite the racing family.

Other inductees into the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame were John Beaver of Knoxville, Don Sonner of Des Moines, and Rodney, Roger and Gary Jordan of Pleasantville. There were lots of tears in the crowd at these introductions, in part because these kinds of ceremonies tend to do that, but also because John Beaver didn’t quite make it to the victory stand. He passed away the night before this proud event. At the track, we all paused for a moment of silence in Mr. Beaver’s memory, and it would be OK with me if we did so now too…

Earlier in the day, over in Pleasantville, approximately 125 people gathered to honor the memory of a man who was a retired fireman, a former mayor, and member of the county Board of Supervisors. He was also one of the best, if not the best driver in the early history of the Knoxville Raceway. The man’s name is Earl Wagner, and they tell me that he was one of the major forces in racing that helped build the legend of the Knoxville Raceway. Apparently, in those early days, if you wanted to win at Knoxville you had to beat Earl. The mural was the dream of several people who cared a lot about the man. Earl won his first feature event at the Knoxville Raceway in 1958 and was the season champ that same year. He defended it in 1959, and won a total of 43 features before he retired from racing in 1974. He is well known for driving in moccasins. Artist renditions of his moccasins, several of his sprint cars, a portrait of Earl, a bar, and one of a couple of his buddies sitting on a bench complete the mural. Earl was elected to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2008. While he lived to see the mural finished, he didn’t live to see the dedication Saturday. He died in 2009.

Shortly before Earl Wagner died, I had the opportunity to interview him in his home, surrounded by his friends and family who were trying to raise money for the mural, which wasn’t going to be cheap. I was interviewing him and the others for my radio program IN DEPTH. I asked his wife Harriet “what will it be like coming around the corner and seeing Earl plastered all over the wall?” Before she could answer, Earl piped up, from his wheelchair and around his oxygen tubes something like, “it won’t be anything new, she’s seen me plastered lots of times before!” Harriet shook her head, and the half dozen or so more people in the room burst into laughter. And they laughed for along time. After the interview was over, I asked Earl and Harriet if they wanted me to cut that part out before the interview aired, and they both said no, that it was the truth, and I may as well leave it in. So I did. From Butch Smith tells me, it was a good thing, because donations started rolling in from people who mentioned how much they enjoyed the interview, in particular that part of it.

It was nice to be at the ceremony at the mural, and again to see most of the people I met there at the races that evening.

And speaking of races, since Earl was from Pleasantville, it was nice to see another fine racer from Pleasantville, 17 year old Tasker Phillips win the 305’s. Mrs. K tells me that she is fond of Tasker because “he just gets out there and goes!” He won his second race in a row, second for the season and career third Saturday night in a 12-lap race. Mathew Selzer led for the first three laps, then Mark Widmer passed up top in turn two to lead in lap four. Although Widmer led for only three laps, it seemed like a lot longer. A yellow brought a restart on lap seven and Phillips moved into second place. Another yellow on lap nine tightened things up again, and right then while people around me were telling me how good Tasker was up high, he dropped to the bottom of the track in turn two and took the lead. He was so far ahead at the checkered flag that by the time the other place winners crossed the finish line, Tasker was home with his feet up on the couch watching the Speed Channel. Not really, it just seemed like that. Widmer, Stelzer, Matt Stephenson and Marty Stephenson trailed.

In the 360’s Saturday night it appears that the third time was a charm, as it took three starts to get the race going. In the first start between turns one and two Matt Moro ended up on the inside berm between turns one and two. In the restart 360 points leader Clint Garner got turned around in turn two, and out came the yellow again for a restart.

Chad Humsten took the lead and held it for three, only to be passed by Dustin Selvage. There was a lot of lapped traffic in this race and I spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to pick out the leaders from the followers and some darn good passes I thought I saw amongst the leaders turned out to be lapped traffic. Thankfully, I didn’t point this out to anyone. Humsten ended up second, Gregg Bakker third, Josh Higday fourth, and Johnny Anderson fifth. I’ll point out here that I actually spent much of the time during this race admiring the passing skills of Clint Garner, who spun out in a lap one and after he was sent to the back he wound up ninth in this 20 car race. Watching him pass was fun. Another five laps and he might have been in contention.

Regardless, the race is over when it’s over. Mrs. K told me that she and Mr. K sat right below Dustin’s family. His grandfather is Ray Grimes, former Race Director at the Knoxville Raceway. She says the whole family was quite happy with Dustin’s win, as one might expect.

In the 410’s Brian Brown passed Davey Heskin in the second lap and held the lead till the end his only real challenge coming from three yellows and one red. Heskin held second through the mid point of the race when Australian native and now Knoxville resident Skip Jackson took second place. Mrs. K had told me to watch Skip, because he was getting itchy to get back on the victory stand, and so I did. And, he was doing great in second, but couldn’t quite get close enough to Brown to get a chance at passing him. Then toward the end his car developed what my grandpa would say was a “hitch in his getalong,” and several cars passed him.

And here came Wayne Johnson who had started in the seventh row and with lots of fine passing he wound up in second place. Wayne became the talk of the town last week when he brought his new car in on a flatbed, which I hear is rarely done anymore. Following Brown and Johnson in were Heskin, Bronson Maeschen, and Jackson.

When Brown crossed the finish line a man wearing a Brian Brown t-shirt jumped up in front of me and waved his hat and yelled “Winner, winner chicken dinner!” And I thought well, that’s nice, the winner getting a chicken dinner as well as a trophy and the prize money. This guy was so happy he must be getting to eat too.

As I drove home that night, thinking about the races and this article, I began to wonder if I was planning on spending too much time on the backstory–primarily Earl Wagner (I’m sure all of the Hall of Famers have deep backstories, I just don’t know them), and not enough time on the front story–the racing. But as I save this file one last time, I think not. Sometimes the backstory IS the front story.

That’s it till next Saturday night, and I’ll see you in the concessions line…

Dr. Bob Leonard

P.S. And here I have to put a plug in for our guys doing the race coverage, Derek Cardwell, Jamie Brockman, and Eric Wade. They do a great job, and knox more about racing than I ever will. I enjoy listening to them, and believe you will too if you don’t already listen.