The Northpole Nightmare

Bill Balog | Contributor

Contributor

My mother and father are originally from Northern Wisconsin. My dad had raced his whole life. My parents moved to Alaska around 1974-1975 and my dad continued to race stock cars there. He built his own cars and engines before he eventually got into late models. My father was successful up there and every once in awhile he would drag the car back to Wisconsin and race the bigger teams from the area with moderate success. Eventually my father got into winged, sprint cars and did really well at that. Every now and then he would head to Washington to race for another team at Skagit and did alright.

I kind of got a later introduction to sprint cars than most people. I was into snowmobiles and motocross. I raced ice oval, grand prix-type snowmobiles, a little bit of snocross and up in Alaska there are some cross country races that are really cool. I was fortunate enough to win a couple of those. I’d also do a little bit of motocross in the summer time but obviously, the summer is pretty short in Alaska.

When I was 20 I got my first sprint car ride. I raced 360 sprint cars in Fairbanks every Saturday night for a few years. At that point, I started racing asphalt late models for a guy up there. We eventually moved the team to Washington state to compete there. We ended up blowing up the couple of motors that he did have, one right after the other, so I never really got to race.

In the meantime, I had traded my pickup truck for a sprint car frame back in Alaska. My dad assembled the car and built an engine for it and I raced that. He dragged it down on a little open trailer, and he left it with me. I think I raced the car probably about 12 times. I raced it at Skagit a few times and I raced it at Grays Harbor a few times. I did okay. I didn’t set the world on fire but I did okay. There was another limited, steel block, 360 series and we did pretty good with them, we won quite a few of their races.

I ended up talking to a guy back in Wisconsin that had a 410 car that he competed in The Interstate Racing Association (IRA) with. To be honest I really didn’t know much about The IRA at the time. It was kind of a weird situation. I didn’t really know the guy, he was kind of a friend of a friend of my dad’s, and lived close to my dad’s hometown.

At that time we also established that the late model thing just did not work. It turned out my car owner had gone bankrupt and he never told me. The deal was totally done.

I put the sprint car on our trailer and my brother in law and I hauled it to Cameron, Wisconsin. We decided to run with The IRA and I was able to win Rookie of the Year.

The first thing I had to tackle with The IRA was figuring out how to get a hold of the 410 and try to figure out why it was so much more difficult than the 360. I’ve never to this day been able to afford a crew chief so I had to figure out everything for myself.

As a result of being from Alaska, I had no history or anyone who’d done this in the past to go to for answers. There is so much racing knowledge that gets passed down from racing generation to racing generation and in Alaska, we didn’t have that. It also didn’t help that nobody knew me at that point and no one was helping me so I struggled for a really long time before I kind of got things figured out a little bit.

At the time I didn’t really know how to drive a 410, but I thought I did. We had the car so tight that I’d try to break it loose and it would end up spinning out. No one would explain to me that I actually had the car so tight that I was spinning out and I can’t blame them because I don’t give out a lot of information either. Once I figured it out though I got going good.

So we went out and won Rookie of the Year but I didn’t win any races. My car owner decided to call it quits in the offseason and I actually took a loan out and bought the motor we ran, off of him. We took the motor and had it freshened, and the freshening almost equaled the total I bought the motor for. I hadn’t planned on that.

I put my car together and put the motor in it. Ron Wuiff and I got together. He owned a car that had some success with a couple of decent racers. I won my first race in that car at Red Cedar Speedway in 2006. I ran that car the whole year. We went to some Outlaw shows and we also hit some now defunct, National Sprint Tour shows. We actually ran pretty good at some of those races but I think having the field split up helped out.

Billy Balog is the most successful racer in Interstate Racing Association (IRA) history
Bill Balog took down The Outlaws at Beaver Dam in 2016 Jeffrey Turford

The following year Ron and I ran one race and we got in a fight. I left the team and my cousin and I started running all over the place with a little, open trailer for the next 2 years maybe running about 20 shows a year.

In 2008 we ran the whole IRA deal and won our first championship. I’d kind of gotten our stuff together a little better. I’d bought an enclosed trailer. I kind of had taken Ron’s setup philosophies and what I’d learned over the years and kind of blended them together and I started to learn more about things like shocks.

I don’t have it written down but I think in 2008 or 2009 we won 4 races, then the next year we won 8 and the next year we won 16. It got to where we could consistently win between 15-18 races a year.

One thing I feel was instrumental in our team’s success is that I’ve been a mechanic my whole life. I’m very comfortable with wrenches. I can’t build an engine but I could probably fix one if it broke. I think being a mechanic outside of racing is probably the biggest thing that helped me find success.

As a result of not having a lot of equipment, I’ve always had to really make sure I took care of what we do have. You really have to protect the car. Once I had my front end knocked out a couple of times I learned pretty quick that I needed to be protective of the car on the track or I wasn’t going to be able to race the following weekend.

I also have a really strong notebook. For a while, I didn’t keep one because I really didn’t think I’d be racing long enough in a 410 for it to matter. I just didn’t think I would need a notebook for the next time so I just never kept one. I eventually started to keep one and it kind of surprises me sometimes to this day how big it is, to be honest.

We had a lot of success and won several races and championships with The IRA and I no longer had any desire to chase another championship with them.

The IRA are a bunch of really good dudes. They are working people but for me, there’s a lot of pressure to win an IRA show. The IRA shows aren’t meant to support a professional racer because The IRA isn’t for professional racers. Their races pay $2,500 to win and for me, I have to win them or I’m not going to be able to pay the bills. My family didn’t really come from money. I’ve been fortunate to have my cousin who’s helped out over the years with his business which allowed me to acquire better motors. Other than that we race off what we make.

I want to go out and travel more so bad that you wouldn’t believe it. I’m headed to Williams Grove this weekend and I’m gambling a lot just to run that weekend. I have a team that wants me to drive for them next year that wants to run IRA races and to be honest I’m probably going to end up trying to drag them out of town.

One thing I did, and believe strongly in, is that whenever I could get away and run my car against other competition I did. I really believe that’s what the other guys in Wisconsin need to do. I haven’t really told them that, but if they can’t see it then it really isn’t my problem.

I can remember going to Princeton in my old Gambler with a 360 in it for a World of Outlaws (WoO) show. I made the feature through the B and I actually had to beat some 410’s to do it. I got lapped by Brooke Tatnell and I think Terry McCarl was in 2nd. I was between them on a restart. Terry was trying to kick me off the race track, he was SO mad. I should have just pulled off but honest to God, I just did not know any better. When Brooke hit the gas he was gone and I was sitting there holding the whole field up. It was a TV race that night and I was an idiot.

Early in my career I also went to Knoxville and got smoked. The next weekend there was an IRA race in my backyard and I decided to go back to Knoxville because I wanted to figure out what in the hell I was doing wrong there.

I struggle to this day is Knoxville. I’m definitely getting better there but we’ve never gotten the place figured out. The place doesn’t click with me and I just don’t know why. I just don’t run good there generally and I can’t really explain it. I was in the B that first weekend and I didn’t transfer. I thought I was going like hell but I just wasn’t I guess. I wanted to go back that next weekend and try it again.

I hadn’t been to Pennsylvania until 2 weeks ago. I should have done that a long time ago but I was never able to do it. I was never able to get any fuel money to go or any of that stuff. I couldn’t understand why all of these young kids are coming up and they are racing at like every major race track in the country. One week they’ll be in California and the next week you’ll see them at Eldora. I didn’t get to any of them. I just kind of thought screw it I’m going. In the meantime, I have kids and a family so traveling is a little bit harder but that’s what I want to do.

To be honest, even after beating The WoO, I still try to just stay out of their way when I race with them. I don’t know that I’ve ever really had that much confidence where I could say that I can go anywhere and compete.

I feel like being my own crew chief sometimes holds me back when I race against the best racers. Sometimes I think I need someone to keep me focused. Sometimes when I start talking to myself I’ll tune myself right out. I have to really watch that and that’s probably where I get myself in trouble more than anything else.

Billy Balog is the most successful racer in Interstate Racing Association (IRA) history
Billy Balog is the most successful racer in Interstate Racing Association (IRA) history Jeffrey Turford

There’s this guy, Ernie and he’s from Pennsylvania but he lived in Alaska and he’s been my dad’s friend forever. He’s 55 years old, he retired after working as an engineer his whole life and I hired him to help me because he wanted to go sprint car racing for a year. I had to pay him somehow and so we decided to try The National Sprint League (NSL) because it was new and Tod Quiring was paying good money. The purses weren’t huge compared to an IRA purse but the money at the end of the season for the championship was huge.

I was so nervous in the first couple of races. I didn’t want to crash anybody. I ended up getting more comfortable as the year went on and we ended up winning a couple of their races and running 4th in points. I thought we competed well, we didn’t have too much trouble. We did junk a car or two, but it was definitely a positive experience. If the schedule worked for me I would definitely consider doing it again.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve transitioned from being a mechanic to a full-time, professional racer. I’m still not sure if I’ve made the right decision yet but I do feel that I should have done this transition a long time ago.

I had 3 or 4 years where I worked for a towing company in Milwaukee. I would work Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday and then leave to race Friday-Saturday-Sunday. I just wasn’t making a lot of money there. I was considered part-time. I wasn’t getting any insurance and it just wasn’t working out. If I worked a whole week I could maybe buy 2 tires. I asked myself “Why am I doing this?” I realized I could have been using that time to attract sponsors. I figured I could micro-manage the team and figure out a way to save money to buy those tires rather than work all week for them.

I talked to my wife and we decided that’s what I was going to do. I think you could still hold down a job and run the whole NSL deal but if you want to make sure everything is right it just takes so much time to work on the car. It’s a lot of work and I couldn’t really focus on it properly if I was working another job.

I don’t know if I would want this living for my kids, it’s not as great as everyone thinks, that’s for sure. I’ve always had a high level of desire to win and I think that doesn’t change when you’re in the car. You do think about whether or not you have a good chance of making money when you go somewhere.

I went to Eldora last weekend and lost my ass. I started in a good starting position and immediately fell to the back of the field. I was pissed off. I was riding around the track and about ¾’s of the way through the race and the track had taken rubber. I had just put brand new front tires on. So not only were the rears wrecked, I’d gone through a tire on each corner of the car. I was just thinking the whole time “God you’re an idiot, just pull off”.

One of my weaknesses is that I have a little bit of trouble talking to people and getting a hold of sponsors. I really don’t get that much help. I’ve got a couple of product sponsors that help out and I’ve got a couple of friends and that’s it. There’s no Caterpillar on the side of my car or Casey’s General Stores. To really be successful I think you really need to be more presentable than I am or more comfortable socially. I’m a 100% sure that aspect of my personality is holding me back so I’m definitely trying to work on that.

Down the road, I’d really like to travel more. I’ve never been to Florida and to be honest, I’m not sure I’d like the reality of racing in Florida. I’d like to race all of the major sprint car tracks in the country and maybe have a little more security as a driver. Ideally, I’d like to have a couple of hired guys and a truck and trailer that I don’t have to borrow. I’d just like to maybe just make our team a little more legitimate and have our team be a little bit more competitive. The Pennsylvania trip I’m about to make is really exciting to me. I’m not expecting to make a lot of money. I expect to go in there and get my ass whupped but that’s what makes you better. I guess if I could just get a little more stability, strengthen our program and be a little more competitive I’d be pretty happy with my racing career.

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