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From cold start, Gaffaney wins Grove Creek 'Wally'

Michael Gaffaney, who is in his fourth summer drag racing a 1987 Pontiac Firebird, picked up his biggest victory yet on Sunday at Grove Creek Speedway. Tribune photos by Rand Middleton

WILLMAR -- In his early thirties, Michael Gaffaney seemed like a man in search of a hobby.

Unknowingly, his next-door neighbor had the answer.

"Drag racing!"

Gaffaney and his wife, Nicole, had bought a home on the south edge of Willmar. Their new neighbors were Rob and Tammy Esse, who spent their every other summer weekend at the drag strip along U.S. Highway 12 outside Grove City.

"They invited me out to take a look and four years later I'm still at it," said the Paynesville native, who had no knowledge of the sport previously.

Until that summer, Gaffaney viewed cars as transportation, not recreation.

Pretty soon he had found a race-ready car on eBay. He showed the specs to Rob.

It looked good enough to chance a trip to Illinois, where he picked up a 1987 Pontiac Firebird, a second-generation muscle car. He's gone through several engines. This year he dropped in a rebuilt 350 Chevy motor put together by another neighbor, Marion Fester, who has since moved to rural Belgrade.

He has done well at the Grove Creek runway. He has a large trophy for third place in points and several smaller pieces of hardware which he stacks on shelves in the garage.

This past weekend he picked up his best prize yet -- the coveted "Wally". It's a foot-high bronze statue on a wood base of a man holding a racing helmet standing beside a tire. It honors the late Wally Parks, the founder of the National Hot Rod Association and the first editor of Hot Rod magazine. The Grove Creek Speedway gave out 29 Wallys during the National Dragster Challenge on Sunday, one to each division champion.

The event drew entrants from Ely to Albert Lea, Iowa and the Dakotas.

Gaffaney lost out in the elimination rounds of Street Eliminator early Sunday but went into the "last chance" Super Quick Division. Twenty-eight other drivers were also entered from several divisions.

He toppled one after another to reach the finals. In bracket racing, top speed is not the only key. A driver must "dial in" his time after several test runs. If he "busts" by going faster than his set time, he loses, unless the other driver also busts.

In the final, which was the final race of the two-day weekend, Gaffaney raced 79.61 mph on the one-eighth-mile blacktop in a time of 8.87. Trent Olson of Waconia in a '68 Plymouth Road Runner was the runner-up while Esse, who races in the faster, Street Pro class, was a semifinalist. He also has a Wally, which he won several years ago. That likely makes their neighborhood the only city street with two Wally winners on the same block.

Was he surprised to win it all?

"You bet," said Gaffaney.

Nicole attends all the races, including the NHRA Regional each year in Topeka, Kan.

"She's cheering me up and down the fenceline just as hard as I'm racing," he said.

Michael, who is an operations manager for Northern Business Products, would like to reach the nationals in Pomona, Calif. He's got the transportation. The couple has a 34-foot Holiday Rambler motor home that pulls a 20-foot long enclosed car trailer.

They overnight at the Grove Creek track; they don't go to many other tracks because the hauler is expensive to drive.

The 1992 Paynesville High School graduate didn't have a comparable interest before drag racing. "Maybe computers," he shrugs.

As for this new hobby, he says: "I love it. It's so much fun. It's a real adrenalin rush.''

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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