Jake Ryan Appreciates Every Lap Around Elko
Jake Ryan appreciates every lap he makes around Elko (Minn.) Speedway.
Ryan, 29, of Farmington, Minn., leads the NASCAR Big 8 Sportsman division point standings at the famed three-eighths mile Minneapolis-area track. Ryan is in a come-back year of sorts. Along the way, he is surmounting the anguish of the loss of his father, Dan Ryan Sr., with whom he shared a close bond, many good times and much racing success.
Ryan doesn’t shy away from assessing his racing these days.
“Maybe I was a silver spoon racer before. Now I’m a hard knocks racer. I’ve never stopped learning about racing and I’ve learned much more about life. I respect my fellow racers more than ever. Racing people are my extended family. Even back in high school, I should have been playing football. I chose to go racing instead. At Elko I feel like I’m where I belong.”
Winless so far in 2012, his record includes 10 top-fives and 11 top-10s in 11 starts. The Big 8 Sportsman division is Elko’s NASCAR Finalist Division II.
The NASCAR Finalist Division program recognizes drivers who compete in support divisions at NASCAR Whelen All-American Series tracks. With “Division I” being each track’s top division, the NASCAR Finalist Division line-up at each track highlights drivers competing in their second, third, fourth and fifth tier divisions. A NASCAR-licensed driver’s best 14 finishes are counted toward their final point total for the year. Points are kept separately for dirt and asphalt tracks.
Paved track NASCAR Finalist Division leaders this week include Division II Zack Clifton, Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Division III Scott Sundeen, Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway; Division IV Ken Cassidy Jr., Waterford (Conn.) Speedbowl; and Division V Jack Purcell, Raceway Park in Shakopee, Minn., and Elko (Minn.) Speedway.
NASCAR Finalist Division leaders on dirt tracks this week include Division II Chuck Schutz Jr., Grandview Speedway in Bechtelsville, Pa.; Division III Craig Whitmoyer, Grandview; Division IV Jeffrey Jones, Junction Motor Speedway in McCool Junction, Neb., Adams County Speedway in Corning, Iowa, and I-80 Speedway in Greenwood, Neb.; and Division V Jeremy Auten, Adams County.
Ryan started out in racing as a crewman for his dad who drove Super Late Models. By 15, he hot lapped a Thunder Car and eventually began competing in a one of his dad’s old cars. He won the Sportsman division rookie-of-the-year award at Elko in 1999. In 2003 Dan turned his car over to Jake and they chased series events and big-money specials. Their biggest payday was a $10,000-to-win event at the old San Antonio (Texas) Speedway. A second-place finish at the historic Tennessee State Fairgrounds track in Nashville was another highlight.
Things changed suddenly in 2005 when Dan was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a progressive debilitating disease from which there is no recovery. It affects nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain.
“We raced on the road as much as we could in 2005-06, and then went back to racing weekly at Elko in 2007-08,” Ryan said. “We won a big tour race at Elko in 2008, but we finished second in the track (and state) points. The one thing that has always eluded me is a Super Late Model championship at Elko.”
Dan Ryan passed away on Jan. 2, 2009. Afterward, Jake raced very little and then not at all.
“I felt a lot of strain, but I was still at the track even though I wasn’t racing,” Ryan said.
He brought his Big 8 Sportsman car out of a silenced race shop this year in hopes of performing well enough to get it sold. His proceeds from the sale will be used to freshen his Super Late Model engine and get that car back on track. Elko’s Big 8 Sportsman cars are one rung below Super Late Models.
“I’m happy to be competitive again. Nothing meshed with me in my life like going racing with my dad. He was my best friend and our bond was special. When I’m at Elko, all those memories make me feel like I’m at home. I’m happiest when I’m at that track and I love racing there.
“My biggest goals are to win a Super Late Model championship at Elko, and win my dad’s memorial race (the annual Thunderstruck 93 at Elko in September). I’m not really a good quitter.”
Ryan’s crew members include his brother-in-law Troy Gilbertson, Ryan Bouma and Dan Moore. Sponsorship is provided by K.W. Saloon.
Ryan’s friends and racing wives formed an organization called “A Race Worth Winning-ALS” after Dan’s passing. Since then, the group has been able to donate more than $275,000 to the ALS Association’s Minnesota/North Dakota/South Dakota Chapter. The group’s donations are earmarked for research and medical equipment in Minnesota. Their website is www.araceworthwinning.org.