Christensen excels on the track

Each Saturday night during the summer racing season at Jamestown Speedway, everyone at the track is afforded the opportunity to rub shoulders with a North Dakota dirt track pioneer.

Michael Savaloja / The Sun Veteran driver Leann Christensen takes turn 3 during a heat race in her Bomber at the Jamestown Speedway on June 19.

Each Saturday night during the summer racing season at Jamestown Speedway, everyone at the track is afforded the opportunity to rub shoulders with a North Dakota dirt track pioneer.

Granted, after over 20 years of racing at the track her presence is often times overlooked as her yellow No. 24 Central Dakota Pure Stock blends in as one of over 100 cars and drivers that trek to the speedway each weekend.

But, never-the-less, when Leann Christensen strapped herself in behind the wheel of the Street Stock she helped build with her own two hands to go out and race with the boys in 1981, the Eckelson, N.D., native claimed a small part in the state's racing history.

Christensen is considered to be the first woman in North Dakota to break into the sport -- that's still heavily dominated by males -- as a driver.

"Some didn't like it at all, and others were fine with it. I knew I was the first woman in North Dakota to start stock car racing," Christensen recalled. "It's good now. I think there is respect both ways. I respect a lot of the other drivers and they respect me, and I now have so many friends and fans from racing."


The passion for mechanics and racing started early for Christensen, growing up as the lone sister of three older brothers on the family farm roughly five miles north of Eckelson. The early tinkering on tractors and farm equipment naturally evolved to cars as a fun and competitive pastime.

It all began for Christensen when she started building demolition cars for her brothers, George, Gordon and Richard Klein, from 1974 to 1979.

"When I was young I helped my dad (Louis Klein) work on machinery, so my interest in that type of stuff started at that time. My brother Richard ran in a demolition derby and it seemed like a fun thing, so when I was old enough to start working on them I did," Christensen said. "Gordon also drove them a lot. At that time gals couldn't run with the men in the demolition derbies, so I built the cars and my brothers drove them for me."

Having spent years under the hood of a car, the itch to finally climb inside one of the machines she'd built reached a breaking point and in 1979 Christensen competed in her first derby at Jamestown. But it didn't take long for the new driver to realize that dirt track racing was her true calling.

"I thought racing would be more fun. It's more than just working on a car for a one-time deal. You can work on them and, hopefully, run them longer than that," Christensen said. "I drove my cousin's car in a powder puff (at Jamestown Speedway) in 1980, and the next year I had my own race car."

The cousin's car Christensen drove was a Street Stock owned by Steve Klein, who was one of two cousins Christensen had racing Street Stocks at the time. Neal Klein also raced at Jamestown, as both he and Steve were also from the Eckelson area.

"I raced in Jamestown most of the time and would go down to Lisbon once in awhile. I also tried Fargo a couple of times," Christensen said. "If I could have a good night and stay close to my cousins, or maybe beat them, that was fun. They both were really good and it was nice to be competitive with them. When I did I knew I really accomplished something."

One of the highlights of Christensen's racing career came during track championship night in Jamestown in 1983. Christensen battled wheel-to-wheel with Jamestown's Rick Wilson, before over taking Wilson to win her only career Street Stock feature victory in the closing laps.


Wilson was the Street Stock track champion that season.

"I was behind (Wilson) the whole way and finally got by him on the last lap," Christensen said. "I raced against Rick for a number of years, and he was always competitive so when you could beat him that was good."

Christensen finished behind Wilson to take second in the Street Stock point standings in Jamestown following the race, her best career points finish. More recently, Christensen captured a pair of fourth-place finishes in the Central Dakota Pure Stock point standings at Jamestown Speedway in 2006 and 2007, complementing a host of top 10 points finishes at the track.

Christensen's husband, Larry Christensen, even got into the racing fray when the pair married in 1985. Larry co-drove the couple's Street Stock from 1986 to 1994.

"I knew he would enjoy racing also, so I had him run the car in a pair mechanic's races," Christensen said. "The following year he took up racing as well."

Christensen continued racing at the track until 1994, when Jamestown Speedway became affiliated with WISSOTA. The change meant Christensen's Street Stock was no longer legal for WISSOTA's Street Stock rule book, and the driver took a break from racing until her return in 2001 in the Bomber class.

Christensen, 50, who currently works as a rural mail carrier, has been driving her current machine -- a 1970 Buick Skylark with her trademark No. 24 on the side -- for the past five seasons.

"I always raced No. 24," Christensen said. "When I was in high school my basketball number was 22, but back when I started racing you couldn't double up on numbers and 22 was already taken. I just added a 2 to it and got 24."


As far as still being able to hold her own with the boys, Jamestown Speedway general manager Joanne Dieterle explained Christensen hasn't missed a beat.

"She definitely can run with the guys, that's for sure. She's not intimidated," Dieterle said. "I think they all respect her. She's been around for a long time and has paid her dues."

Christensen said as long as she's still enjoying it, she'll continue turning circles.

"I've thought about quitting again and retiring, but it's hard to quit. It's just so addicting," Christensen said. "I just say I'm going year-by-year now.

"As long as I'm still competitive and enjoying it, I'll keep going."

Sun sports writer Michael Savaloja can be reached at (701) 952-8461 or by email at

Savaloja is the sports lead writer for The Jamestown Sun.
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