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Tim Baldwin: Stampede is more than simply racing

Grand Forks' Dustin Strand, the 2016 WISSOTA Late Model national champion, will be attempting the Stampede three-peat this weekend at Jamestown Speedway. Cody R. Papke / CRP Photography

EDITOR'S NOTE: Baldwin is the track promoter at Jamestown Speedway. The 46th annual Jamestown Speedway Stock Car Stampede begins this Friday night at 7 p.m.

It's humbling to be a part of something as special as the Jamestown Speedway Stock Car Stampede.

It's been going on for so long, with so many of the same dedicated folks partaking in it year after year. But when it comes to putting it all together we can take for granted just how big of an event it truly has become.

Over the years—dating back to 1972—different traditions have taken root. For the top racers the primary goal seems to be getting their name on the back of the annual T-shirt, which lists all the event's past winners. It's become a prestigious honor among the drivers to have their name on that shirt!

But even for the average drivers, like myself back in the day, simply qualifying for the 24-car main event is considered an achievement. When competing against 50 or 60 cars in a division—sometimes more—it's certainly a feat in which to be proud.

I still carry the thrill of qualifying for my first big dance back in 2002 with me. I made a last-lap pass for the LAST qualifying spot and I about jumped outta the car!

But there's more to the Stampede than simply racing. For many, the week starts Wednesday night by coming to camp at the Stutsman County Fairgrounds to catch up with old friends. By Friday, the fairgrounds will be filled with close to 200 campers.

Campfires, a chili cook-off, and even a bean bag tournament are just a few of the unofficial events going on amongst the campers prior to the main attractions, which officially fire up Thursday evening with the driver Calcutta Auction. Stampede drivers are auctioned off to the highest bidder during the annual Calcutta, with proceeds being split between the lucky bidders of the winning drivers and a local charity.

Also beginning Thursday, and running throughout the weekend, a full-size race car simulator will be available for anyone wishing to see what it's like to wheel a car around the track. Thursday is capped off with a pre-race dance for all attendees at the fairground's stage.

The first dedicated fans will be lined up outside the main grandstand by 7 a.m. Friday—I kid you not—waiting for the gate to open in order to make sure they can reserve their seats of choice. Pit gates open for racers at 10 a.m., and by noon we'll have registered anywhere between 150 to 200 cars, while drivers have their haulers settled into the pits.

This is just one of the giant projects that long-time, dedicated volunteers have made to look easy. A crew led by Kent Warren keeps campers organized throughout the week, while Wilbert Buck keeps all the early-arriving racers organized in a way that keeps the pits in orderly fashion. There also needs to be a shout-out to the gate workers, registration folks and the "four-wheeler brigade," who make sure the racers get to where they need to be once they are through the pit gates.

From this time forward it's basically organized chaos until the last checkered flag waves Saturday night. Volunteers from area speedways are a major help. We have guest wrecker operators, scorers, technical officials and more who all help make the show a success.

The show itself will include about 30 qualifying races Friday night, with somewhere in the vicinity of 250 to 300 cars in attendance. The name "Stampede" is fitting for how the racing action feels that night, as the cars just keep coming and coming!

Perhaps the only tradition that rivals the names on the shirts occurs Saturday morning. This is when the annual free breakfast takes place, which is organized by a local church group each year and has grown over the years to become an event in and of itself.

Again, the crew of dedicated fans will be at the gate bright and early to get their seats for day 2—feature night. It's always risky to start naming people or groups, because I'm sure I've missed more than a few who've been around longer and done more than they get credit for.

I've shared these details to show what a festival the Stock Car Stampede has become over the course of its now 46 years of existence. It's nothing I, or any of the folks involved with putting it on this year, can take credit for. If anything, we're just making sure the ship has fuel and is ready to sail when everyone arrives to make the weekend what it is.

The Stampede is a weekend we all think is centered around racing. In actuality, I believe it's centered much more around traditions, friendships and memories.

Racing is fun—it's the sport we all love—but the people you meet, the good times had, and the memories you'll look forward to talking about next year is the best part about the Stock Car Stampede.

Each year at some point during the Stampede, ever since I started working at the track back in 2005, I take my headset off and look around. I look around in awe of all that is going on and all the people who come to share the weekend with us.

It's incredibly humbling, and it's a feeling I hope never goes away as we keep working to make the Stampede a better event each and every year.