MANDAN, N.D. (Dec. 21, 2023) – The idea for a traveling Modified series in his home state came while John Gartner was not far from the sand and surf at Daytona Beach.
The founder, and director of the Dakota Classic Modified Tour since its inception, can now look back at 34 years of great racing, great racers and countless new friendships.
“I never dreamed it would be this successful, but I always knew we had drivers who would support it and that we could always bank on the hospitality of fans in North Dakota,” said Gartner, after selling the long-running series to a governing group of promoters representing the tracks hosting tour events. “There are a lot of tours out there, and a lot of people have called us over the years asking us how we did it.”
“For 34 years, we kept the same philosophy of a good payout, lots of contingency prizes and treating everyone fairly,” he continued. “And it worked.”
Jamestown Speedway, Dacotah Speedway and Nodak Speedway are the longest-tenured tour tracks, followed by Southwest Speedway and Williston Basin Speedway, and finally Saskatchewan’s Estevan Motor Speedway.
The tour saw its first green flag in 1990, made the switch to Friesen Performance IMCA Modified sanctioning in 1998 and added IMCA Sunoco Stock Cars in 2008. The two divisions combined for a record 191 entries in 2015; drivers from 17 states and Canada followed the 2017 tour.
“This tour has always run in July and really showcased the talents of a lot of drivers. Two of the biggest things we’ve done over the years is going with IMCA for the sanction and with IMCA.TV as the title sponsor and broadcast partner,” Gartner said. “I pushed real hard to add Stock Cars and to have one sanctioning body for the two divisions and that’s worked out very well for us.”
“First we started getting more Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas cars,” he explained. “Then the Arizona guys started coming up. Our drivers were going there to race in January and said good things about us, plus it was too hot for them to race in Arizona in the summer.”
Gartner first discussed a tour with Evan Schoenfich during the RPM Workshops in 1990, convincing the Minot promoter that Modified drivers would follow a North Dakota-based tour. He came up with the Dakota Classic Modified Tour name during a subsequent conversation with Jamestown boss Terry Voeltz.
“Virtually everyone told me it wouldn’t work, but we had a pretty good car count that first year,” Gartner recalled. “We’ve been to 13 different tracks in all since then, three of them in South Dakota early on.”
The tour has faced more challenges off the track than on it, from a tornado to flooding, then the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing tire shortage, but the good memories far outweigh the bad.
“There are so many, like watching Hank Berry, who I used to race with, all those years and Leo Burkhardsmeier and Joren Boyce, who were both so dominant,” Gartner said. “We had a lot of good drivers and it was a big deal to race with them.”
“I remember Steve Arpin winning all five Modified features (the sixth was rained out) in 2007 and when Ricky Thornton Jr. towed here in an open trailer with two spare tires and won the tour (in 2015),” he added with a chuckle. “Making the feature is a big deal, then Tom Berry Jr. won all six of them (in 2022).”
Now retired following a 22-year career as a school administrator, the last 15 of them as principal of New Town High School, Gartner will return to the track this season as crew chief for son Scott, who will race a Modified at Jamestown and a Stock Car at Mandan.
He’ll also return to a busy role as grandfather to Riley, Reed – the family’s fourth generation driver – Renner, Wren and Blake.
The 2024 Dakota Classic Tour starts July 6 at Jamestown Speedway, followed by dates at Nodak Speedway, Estevan Motor Speedway, Williston Basin Speedway and Southwest Speedway before the July 11 finale at Dacotah Speedway.