‘It’s a blast’ for drivers as dirt track racing returns to Thunder Bay, Ont., after 30-year break

Getting behind the wheel of a race car is in 15-year-old Austin Polonoski’s blood.

Polonoski was one of 80 drivers taking part in Wednesday night’s racing at Thunder City Speedway, located on Highway 130, just behind the Oliver Paipoonge municipal office.

It’s Polonoski’s first season as a driver. In fact, it was just his third race in the number 317 street stock car.

“My dad’s been racing since I was a baby, since I can remember,” Polonoski said before the race. “And I’ve always loved growing up watching him.”

“I’ve fallen in love with the sport, I’ve always wanted to race. And that’s what I’m doing now.”

Polonoski’s car was one of 80 that hit the 3/8-mile track on Wednesday, from four-cylinder Hornets up to 600-plus horsepower WISSOTA A-Mods.

About 1,800 fans of all ages packed the grandstands as the cars roared around the dirt oval.

Prior to his race, Polonoski — who’s not yet old enough to get his Ontario driver’s licence — was all smiles.

“It’s going great,” he said of the 2022 season. “No damage yet with the car. I’ve been driving out there safe and smart, and every time I’m in the car, I just keep getting faster.”

It was Polonoski that first brought up the idea of racing to his dad Shawn, who’s got decades of race experience.

“Once I get good enough to race in my dad’s class, A-Mod, and line up against him in a race,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

15-year-old Austin Polonoski waits to hit the track in his number 317 Street Stock car at Thunder City Speedway. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)

Shawn Polonoski, Austin’s dad, is sitting out for now, while he heals a bad back, but he chuckled when he heard about his son’s goal. 

“He’s got a lot to do before then,” he said. “I think he’ll be racing the street stock for a few years.”

Shawn Polonoski said it was a bit nerve-wracking to see his son hit the track for the first time, but plenty of coaching is going on.

“We’re coaching him every time he comes off the speedway, what he’s doing wrong,” he said. “Videotaping him, showing them how to enter the corner and explaining stuff to him.”

“He’s just learning each time he’s on the track.”

Wednesday’s races brought drivers from around the region, with drivers from: Thunder Bay, Kakabeka Falls, Oliver Paipoonge, Shuniah, Gorham, South Gillies, Neebing, Murillo, Dryden, Fort Frances, and Tyndall, Man.

Dayton Brady’s A-Mod car is based in Kakabeka, but he drives to Thunder City Speedway from his home in Fort Frances every week to race.

A helmet sits waiting for its driver at the Thunder City Speedway, which hosts dirt track racing every Wednesday night. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)

“I was watching it for a long time, and then I got old enough and was able to get my own car,” he said prior to Wednesday’s race.

“It’s very competitive, and it involves a lot of thinking, too,” he said. “We’re running on dirt, but it almost feels like you’re running on asphalt, in terms of the way the cars work through the corner.”

“Everything’s a lot shorter out there than it is when you’re sitting on the side, watching,” Brady, who’s been racing for eight years, said. “It’s a lot faster.”

Working in the shop makes all the difference 

One of Brady’s competitors on Wednesday was Thunder Bay’s Colin Chaschuk, who was driving the number 621 A-Mod.

“I just had the interest,” he said. “I used to race snowcross back in the day, in the 2000s.”

“Then I took a break, took on my business, and then needed to get back into some sort of racing,” Chaschuk said. “I really enjoy the dirt car racing in the summertime.”

Fifty per cent of the race is won in the shop just on prep of car, and it’s just endless hours between me and my family and my pit crew that go into this-Colin Chaschuk

This is Chaschuk’s sixth year racing cars, and his first in an A-Mod.

“I went five years in a B-Mod,” he said. “It’s time. I mean, there’s always money involved, but I mean, it’s all the efforts that go after you win the race.”

“Fifty per cent of the race is won in the shop just on prep of car, and it’s just endless hours between me and my family and my pit crew that go into this,” Chaschuk said. “If your heart’s not dedicated in it, well, that might show in your results, too.”

Cory and Dan Bertrand, brothers who both race Midwest Modifieds, were back on the track after a bit of time off on Wednesday.

“After a couple of beers in the garage last year, I decided to buy a race car,” Cory Bertrand said. “Once I had one, my brother had to get one too.”

Added Dan Bertrand: “It’s as simple as that.”

Dan Bertrand said his family has always been into racing, and he and his brother have some motocross and snowmobile racing experience.

“It’s just a blast,” he said. “We come out here every Wednesday night, and spin some laps and it’s a real good time. Good facility.”

80 cars were registered to race at Thunder City Speedway on Wednesday night. They included A-Mods, Super Stocks, Midwest Modifieds, Street Stocks, and Four Cylinder Hornets. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)

As for Wednesday, Cory Bertrand was hopeful it would be a better night than the last time he and his brother hit the track.

“We were out for the last few weeks,” he said. “We had a little incident with that concrete wall over there.”

“Hopefully got the car fixed up good, ready to go.”

Even without the need to make post-crash repairs, there’s plenty of preparation that goes into race day.

“You spend pretty much all week in the garage getting everything ready,” Dan Bertrand said. “Come here and check out the track, see what the track’s looking like, whether it’s tacky or gonna dry out, and what the weather’s doing.”

“Few little adjustments to the car here and there, and kind of just make sure everything’s in check.”

If you build it, they will come 

Norm Nadin, who co-owns Thunder City Speedway with his brother Louis, said actually constructing the track was a very long process.

Drivers from Thunder Bay, Rosslyn, Neebing, Dryden, Shuniah, Fort Frances, and Tyndall, Man., were at Thunder City Speedway to compete on the dirt oval on Wednesday. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)

“We had a former partner, who unfortunately passed away, Richard Schutte, it was a dream of his to build a track in Thunder Bay to try to revitalize something we had 30 years ago and was very, very popular,” Nadin said. “He asked us to join him, he [knew] that we kind of have the construction knowledge and background to be able to build a track.”

“It kind of started with just a bit of a dream, and put some equipment together and filled up a swamp, and here we are with a racetrack.”

Dealing with that swamp, however, certainly proved to be a challenge.

“It took like 10,000 or 20,000 loads of fill just to be able to think about building a track,” Nadin said. “That took probably close to 10 years just to fill the swamp up.”

About 1,800 people took in the races at Thunder City Speedway on Wednesday. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)

“Then we started importing the proper materials, the clay and the sub base to build the track. So it was quite intensive, a lot of loads of dirt.”

Nadin said the track was designed to be fast, to allow passing on the straightaways and not just in the corners.

“That always makes for really good racing,” he said. “It’s catching on.”

“People are coming out, enjoying the evening, and we hope friends just tell more friends and this thing keeps getting more and more popular.”

And if that proves to be the case, Nadin said he has plans to expand Thunder City Speedway’s offerings.

“Moving forward, we want this to kind of turn into an amusement centre,” he said. “We want to have monster truck shows, we want to have smash-up derby potentially somewhere down in the future.”

“We want to have maybe Country Fest and stuff like that,” Nadin said. “So we want this to be a a very family-orientated place to come and enjoy.”

In the meantime, racing will continue to take place at Thunder City Speedway every Wednesday night. For a full schedule, visit the track’s website.

The pit area at Thunder City Speedway. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)
Back To Top