Area stock car driver still racing after six decades
By Janelle Fisher
GREEN BAY — What started as a trip to the races with a friend more than 60 years ago has turned into a decades-long stock car racing career for Jerry Muenster.
At 81, he’s still racing – and winning – at Shawano Speedway.
Muenster said he entered the world of stock car racing after attending a race with a friend in 1960.
“A friend of mine and I went to the stock car race at De Pere, and we enjoyed the race, so we thought, ‘We have to try this one day,'” he said. “So we put our money together and put together $200 and bought a race car.”
Muenster said he started out as a mechanic, while his friend drove the car at races.
“We started racing and he was the driver, his name was Doug Nelson,” he said. “I was always a mechanic, and so we started doing that. We were having a really good time with it.”
Muenster said that after Nelson was involved in an accident and was unable to race, he had his first opportunity to get behind the wheel.
“He was injured in a truck accident, so he was immobilized,” he said. “I came to see him in hospital and he said, ‘Well, I can’t drive for a while, we’ve got all this money in the car, so you’re going to have to drive and earn some money back. ‘ So that was it. It got me going. The following weekend, I was running.
Muenster said it didn’t take long for him to realize he’d rather drive than be a mechanic.
“Once I drove, I liked it a lot better,” he said. “But I still like the mechanical ending of this one. I still built the cars and assembled the engines and stuff for me and my son.
As he progressed through the racing world, Muenster said he was lucky to have a mentor, Earl Ness, to help show him the ropes.
“He kind of took me under his wing and showed me what to do and how to act,” Muenster said. “After I first let him through he said, ‘Well, you’re all alone’ and he just laughed, but he helped me anyway.”
He said he also enjoyed the opportunity to mentor young riders over the years.
“(There have been) several over the years that I’ve helped because they’re nice kids,” he said. “I like to help young people”
A race to remember
Muenster said one of the most memorable experiences of his racing career came in 1994 when he qualified for the Super National Race.
“We went to the Super National Race, in Boone, Iowa,” he said. “We had around 300 modified cars trying to qualify for a 33-car field, and I qualified.”
After 50 laps, Muenster said he finished in fourth place – the best he had in a Super National Race.
“They started the race three cars wide and I finished fourth in that race,” he said. “It was my best shot at the Super National. It’s a big deal for the modified IMC (International Motor Contest Association).
Always in the race
After more than 60 years of racing, Muenster said he still loves the thrill of racing – still at the Shawano track every Saturday night this summer.
He even won a race last month – his first win in a while.
“I finished first and that qualified me for the main event and gave me a good starting spot,” he said. “So that was fun. It’s been a while since I won.”
Muenster said the cheering crowd at the race that night went wild to help him celebrate his victory.
“I thought the crowd was going to rip the roof off the stand,” he said. “My family was there, and they were all excited.”
Muenster said even off the track he has acquired a number of fans who like to show their support, which makes racing fun.
“Fans get so involved,” he said. “I now have fans contacting me on Facebook and they are also so excited about the races. Some of them I didn’t know before, and it’s really fun.
It’s the support of the racing community – both fans and fellow runners – that Muenster says is a big part of what has kept him coming back for more.
“It’s mostly the camaraderie between all the people in the stands and the fans,” he said. “The fans come after the race and we talk, and I met more nice and interesting people there than anywhere else. I really enjoy this part. And I love competition, speed and racing in general.
Even as a seasoned veteran, Muenster said races can be a little daunting at times.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking sometimes to make sure you have all your ducks in line, because once you’re on the track it’s too late to fix anything,” he said. “It’s always nice no matter what, and my grandkids come to help me get ready – getting in the car, the helmet and all the safety gear.”
A family matter
Although holding the title of oldest rider in his family, Muenster can no longer say that he is the only one.
He said members of his family run at sites all over the state, carrying on the legacy he started six decades ago.
“My son also races at WIR (Wisconsin International Raceway) and with me at Shawano,” he said. “I have two grandsons, JJ and Jerry Vanderloop, and they both race modified versions, and JJ races a late model in Kaukauna at WIR. They both race Outagamie Speedway and sometimes in Luxembourg. Their dad, Jay Vanderloop, he really has both feet in. I also have a running granddaughter, Lauren Muenster, and she races at Beaver Dam and 141 Speedway.
Muenster said one of the things he loves about running is that it’s a great family activity.
“Racing in general is just good for the family,” he said. “It keeps families together and it’s good for young people.”
Muenster said it’s not just race day that brings families together — but rather all the hard work that has gone before that makes these races possible.
“The kids are in the garage working on the cars on the weekends and during the week,” he said, “and they have their little buddies coming in, and it’s a really good group of people in all. I think it’s good for family relationships.
Now 81, Muenster said he has no plans to stop anytime soon.
“I plan (to keep running) as long as the guy upstairs lets me,” he said. “I’m glad I can still do it. People think I’m crazy at this age, but I’m only 79 plus two. 79 is my race car number.