Natalie Klemko races her WingLess Sprint series vehicle during a recent competition. Klemko has been racing sprint cars for three seasons.

Drivers satisfy need for speed at Wilmot Raceway

By Jason Arndt
Staff Writer

Natalie Klemko’s auto racing roots run deep.

Klemko, who grew up in the Village of Bristol, is the daughter of former Late Model driver Mike Klemko and remembers spending her Saturday afternoons watching the race trailers pass through town with her brother, Chris.

“We knew there was racing that night and my dad would take us,” she said. “My brother grew up wanting to be a race car driver.”

Natalie Klemko, who grew up in Bristol and attended Westosha Central High School, is a competitive sprint car racer at Wilmot Raceway.

Klemko admits she initially did not have the same ambition, instead playing volleyball and basketball at Westosha Central while focusing on a career as a professional cyclist.

Klemko, who attended Midwestern State University in Texas on cycling scholarship, won four national titles and raced for the U.S. National Team at two World Championships.

She later earned an undergraduate degree from the Texas school before garnering an MBA at DePaul University in 2016.

Klemko, meanwhile, had a goal of representing the United States as an Olympic cyclist before injuries derailed her aspirations.

While she worked on her master’s degree, her brother, Chris, revived Klemko Racing Team after he joined the Wisconsin WingLess Sprint Car series in its inaugural year of 2015.

“There were only five drivers in the class that season. I went to all my brother’s races the first couple of years; I was a nervous wreck watching him,” she said. “Then, finally I asked him if I could race.”

“As a lifelong athlete, my competitive side was coming back and I needed a sport.”

Klemko, in her third season, said many people were not initially receptive because she is a woman.

Klemko, however, saw the response as motivation to show others she could compete with them.

“It is very understandable, it is a very dangerous sport, but I am just kind of headstrong like that,” she said. “The more people that didn’t think I could do it, or be capable of it, the more I just wanted to prove people wrong.”

She credits her brother, Chris, who operates a garage in Bristol, for helping her get started in the industry.

“I wouldn’t be in it, if it wasn’t for him. He basically gave me his car from his first year, so it was easy to get into the sport that way,” she said. “I am super grateful for my brother, I wouldn’t have any of this without him.”

Klemko, who competes at Wilmot Raceway, won a heat race in 2018 before adding a second this season, where she has finished among the top 10 in three races.

Klemko, meanwhile, is not the only competitor with area roots to enter the racing circuit.

Jordan Paulsen, of Trevor, started racing when he was 15 years old in 4-cylinder street strokes using a 1998 before rising to the Sprint car series with Klemko.

Like Natalie, Paulsen said Chris’ entry into the WingLess Sprint Car series propelled his interest in racing.

“I barely missed a race from there out and always tried to help out with the car,” he said. “Three years later, I started in bandit race and have now been racing a sprint car for two years.”

Jordan Paulsen helps a boy get into his WingLess Sprint Car as part of a Wilmot Raceway promotion during the 2019 Kenosha County Dairy Breakfast at Mighty Grand Dairy in the Town of Brighton in June (Jason Arndt/The Report).

Addicted to adrenaline
Paulsen, a recent Wilmot Union High School graduate, said he became addicted to the sport after watching races at Wilmot Raceway.

Witnessing races first-hand is unlike experiences people have watching them while at home.

Paulsen notes the common question asked is, “Why would I want to go spend money at the track when I could be at home watching the race?”

“It is not the same experience, it is not even close,” he said in response. “There is something about it, once you do it, it is hard to get out of it.”

Natalie agreed, adding the adrenaline intensifies once anyone gets behind the wheel of a racecar.

“It is all about the adrenaline we get driving the car, you can’t replicate that doing anything else,” she said.

Overcoming fear
Getting behind the wheel comes with fear, which includes a major crash causing injury, but people on the racing circuit quickly adapt and overcome this initial anxiety.

Klemko remembers her first race, starting in the back row, with several vehicles in front of her along the dirt track.

“I remember my first night, a car spun out in front of me, and I T-boned them and I didn’t really know how to pull it out of gear, so I was just pushing them,” she recalled. “I didn’t know how to stop because I wasn’t expecting that.”

Paulsen had a similar experience, stating, “It was scary and it was different.”

The fear dissipates as people garner more experience on the racetrack, according to Klemko.

“The thrill and fun of it just overrides that after you get going,” Klemko said.

Since both started racing, neither have experienced a major crash, but there is always the possibility.

“The saying goes, is that it is not a matter of if you crash, it is when and how bad,” Klemko said. “It is inevitable in this sport. It is just a matter of when.”

Getting started
Becoming a race car driver begins with finding a race team, or having a friend or family member involved in the sport, Paulsen and Klemko each said.

“You can buy a sprint car online, but to understand how to maintain it, take care of it, fix it, you need to rely on support from racing friends or family,” said Klemko, who credits her dedicated pit crew of Kevin Hinich, Joe Panek and John Cronin.

The pit crew has bolstered Paulsen’s knowledge of racing cars and general maintenance of vehicles after he took initial technology education classes while a student at Wilmot Union High School.

Technology education courses included, but were not limited to, automotive repair classes.

“I was invoked in every shop class that Wilmot High School had,” said Paulsen, whose father, Marc and friend Joey Tanski helps him with his vehicle. “Then the pit crew taught me everything I needed to know about sprint cars.”

In addition, sponsorships are a key aspect to hitting the racetrack, noting they help offset expenses associated with buying and repairing vehicles.

“Sponsors help out a lot. You just got to go out there and make a good sponsorship proposal,” Paulsen said. “A lot of my high school English teachers went over my sponsorship proposals to make it look professional.”

As for costs, the racing series both are involved in is the most economical as opposed to other divisions.

“Our engines cost around $6,000, so it is very economical sprint car class,” Klemko said. “The division above us, they cost anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000, just for the engine.”

The economical alternative has helped the WingLess Sprint Car series grow exponentially in the last five years.

Since the series started, participation has grown from five to more than 40 drivers in 2019, according to Klemko.

“This is why this class is growing so quickly, it is more affordable,” she said.


1 Comment

  1. Mike Babicz says:

    Well done article. Come see them race at Wilmot Raceway.

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