SHETEK TOWNSHIP - A lot of kids want to be race car drivers when they grow up. Bill Bergeron jokes that he's achieved half of that dream.
"I got to race cars, but I haven't grown up," Bergeron said, smiling.
Bergeron, a lifelong fan of auto racing, first started driving his own race car a little more than 30 years ago. Now in his 60s and retired, Bergeron said he still competes in two Formula Ford races a year.
Photo by Deb Gau
Bergeron said he does most of the maintenance on his car, except for the engine. It takes hours of work to check “every little bolt” and make sure it’s ready to race, he said.
"It's a marvelous feeling being out on the track," Bergeron said.
Bergeron, a Shetek Township resident, said his interest in cars and racing started when he was a kid.
"I used to follow the Indianapolis 500 on the radio," he said.
Bergeron didn't try racing himself until he was in his 30s, partly because buying and maintaining a car was too expensive. But once he started racing, he found there was nothing like the rush.
"It's even better if you're trailing close behind somebody ahead of you, or if somebody's stalking up behind you," he said. "Then you're really cooking."
Bergeron races at a course in Brainerd, in events offered through the Sports Car Club of America. The SCCA is the sanctioning body for a variety of auto racing events, Bergeron said. Many well-known racers, including Paul Newman, Michael Andretti and Danica Patrick have raced in SCCA events. While Formula Ford racing is "more of a grass-roots" sport in the U.S., he said, it's very popular in England.
The events Bergeron competes in are road races. Although racers drive on a paved surface, he said, "You're on a track that goes left and right, uphill and downhill."
Bergeron's racer is a manufactured car, but he says he does most of the maintenance on it, except for the engine. The car is low to the ground, with a steel tube frame and a fiberglass body. There isn't a lot of room inside - in fact, the steering wheel is removable to allow the driver to slide into the seat. Bergeron said its top speed is 140 miles per hour, although it helps to be in a competitor's slipstream to go that fast.
Provided you're going straight ahead, driving at high speeds isn't as difficult as it might seem, he said. "What's really difficult is going around a 65-mile-an-hour curve at 65." Scarier still is racing in the rain, he said.
Even in good conditions, racing can be physically difficult. In addition to being well strapped in for safety, drivers wear flameproof garments underneath jumpsuits and helmets. Suiting up for a summer race, Bergeron said, is a bit like putting on snowmobiling gear to go out and mow the lawn.
Bergeron said he was most serious about racing in the 1990s and early 2000s, when he won several SCCA regional championship races. He still keeps the trophies in his office, which he jokingly referred to as his "shrine." But now, he said, "I'm just there to have fun."
"If you want to go real fast, you have to spend a lot of money," he said. Crashes can be a major setback, as well as travel time. SCCA racing venues are few and far between in the Midwest.
"One of the things I had going for me was desire," Bergeron said of his racing career. "You really gotta want to do it."
It also takes a lot of support to keep going, Bergeron said. Bergeron said he named his race car Delphine, after his "better half," Delphine Breyfogle.
"Without Delphine's support, this wouldn't have been possible," he said. It's not easy to be in the stands during a road race. You can only see part of the race course at once, he said, and it can be nerve-wracking waiting for a car to make its next lap. "I don't think I could do that."
Getting a chance to meet up with other racing enthusiasts is another big part of his hobby, Bergeron said. Traveling to the Brainerd track for racing events on holiday weekends means getting back in touch with old friends. Between the camaraderie and the excitement of the race, he said, "Memorial Day weekend is the greatest weekend in the whole world," he said.
Bergeron said he's come to the end of this year's racing season, and will be putting his car away for winter. But he plans to be back next season. As he's gotten older, he's thought more often about calling it quits.
But once he's out on the track, he said, "I can't wait until next year."