73-year-old keeps racing for the ‘prestige’
By Randy Hoeft @ YumaSunSports
For all intents and purposes, the sport of dirt track racing has passed Dan Westbrook by.
But while he says the technology involved is ever changing and hard to keep up with, and the cars are going faster than he ever imagined, the 73-year-old Westbrook says there is no where he would rather be on a Saturday night but behind the wheel of his race car.
“I’ve been doing this so long it’s too late to quit now,” said Westbrook as he prepared his car for this weekend’s third annual Deacon Dick Rautenberg Memorial at Cocopah Speedway.
“I’ve done this so long now, it’s just for the prestige, I’m doing it for the prestige,” said Westbrook with a laugh. “It’s not as much fun as it was years ago, it’s more work than an old man wants to do, you know, so it’s just the prestige, and I’m still healthy enough to do it.”
When the cars roll out onto the track for the Friday and Saturday night event, Westbrook holds the distinction of being the only driver in the field who was on hand when the track first opened in 1968 as Yuma Speedway. He is also one of few still around who raced against this special event’s namesake, Dick Rautenberg.
“When I did win my first main, I beat Dick,” said Westbrook proudly. “But back then you didn’t win many championships because it was always Dick and Kent (Rautenberg) who would win all the championships.”
Since beginning his dirt track racing career 48 years ago, Westbrook has raced in every decade but one, which includes competing and winning two championships at Quechan Speedway in Winterhaven, a season championship in Mexico, and returning to then Yuma Speedway when it reopened in 1989. The only time he wasn’t racing, was when Yuma Speedway was closed from 2000 to 2010.
Needless to say, the driver who has the nickname “Dangerous Dan,” has watched the sport evolve tremendously since that first race in 1968.
Take the cars for example. Westbrook said the early cars were pulled out of wrecking yards and “you would just put a little roll cage together, and buy some seat belts from the surplus place, some seat belts out of a jet plane, that’s what we used for seat belts back in those days.
“That’s how I got to know Dick. When I first started racing, I met Dick and he owned a wrecking yard so naturally all the parts came from the wrecking yard years ago. We didn’t order parts, we didn’t have Speedway Magazine to order parts from, we got them from the wrecking yard and he gave us a good deal on everything out there.”
As for the ever changing race car geometry and engineering, Westbrook said, “I don’t keep up with the technology, it’s got to be too complicated. If you look at some of those Modifieds out there, the rear end is so complicated I wouldn’t know how to start to build the thing.
“That’s why it was so much easier to build a car years ago. What was in the car you bought, if it had leaf springs, you left them in there.”
Here is where Westbrook is a true throwback. He has a reputation for building all of his own cars and motors, and is still doing things the same way. The IMCA Sport Modified he currently campaigns was built in his backyard garage.
“That’s what I like about still racing, I still build my own engines and build my own cars,” he said. “I like racing my own material, putting it all together myself.”
Westbrook also observed that “back in the day” he and most of the other drivers either used a “tow bar” to get their race cars to and from the track, or they drove their cars to the track and home again.
“Now look at all the trailers they’ve got rigged up,” said Westbrook. “I look at all those rigs and think I can’t believe I used to use a tow bar all those years. And now I have a half way decent (open air) trailer, and I’m obsolete.”
As for the love of the game, he tells a story about how Rautenberg once pulled the motor out of his brother’s brand new Corvette to use in his race car.
“He borrowed that motor, he wanted to win the championship so bad, that’s how involved he was in racing, he wanted to be out there so bad,” said Westbrook.
Of course, Westbrook also draws from his own experience.
“I got caught up in the same thing,” he said, telling about how he once needed a motor for his race car and took the one from his wife’s Suburban and went out and raced it.
“Yeah, I’ve done some crazy things in my life too when it comes to racing,” he said.
Then there is the matter of his nickname, “Dangerous Dan.”
“Ol’ Kenny Wright, who was the announcer back then, he gave everybody a nickname back then in those days, and I got it because I flipped over three times in a row. The first time I raced I won the semi main, and the next week I rolled over, and the next week I rolled over, and the next week I rolled over,” said Westbrook, laughing.
“Then Bob Martin and Dick Rautenberg and a bunch of other drivers were claiming I was flipping over on purpose because they’d take up a collection in the grandstand in those days, the ‘rollover fund,’ and it was more than the payoff. I got $111 one night and $108 another night. And they were getting $100 to win.”
The coolest moment of his career, he said was when he won his first main event at old Yuma Speedway. He had taken his daughter with him to the races that night, and when the trophy queen didn’t show up and Westbrook parked on the front straight to pick up his trophy, “my daughter came walking across the track as the trophy queen. That was my proudest moment.”
And as for ever winning another race again, he said, “You always have that hope, you know, you daydream you might win one.”