Offroaders turn Lake Winnebago ice into hot winter fun

While many thousands of Lake Winnebago anglers were concerned with big sturgeon or potential prize-winning panfish and walleyes in recent weeks, one group of enthusiasts focused their attention on the lake’s surface.

The only holes they dug were made by their spinning tires on the snow-plowed icy course created by volunteers of the Extreme Offroaders 4-Wheel Drive Club Ltd.

Opening day of the sturgeon spearing season found the lake covered with shanties of hopeful anglers, dozens of parked cars and trucks and a huge beer tent at Payne’s Point on Neenah’s southeastern edge.

There, too, were young ice racers like Cole Cerull, 19, of Appleton, who was putting the hand-studded tires on his 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit in preparation for one of eight classes of racing. He previously spent about 30 hours putting in the metal studs on his tires, and also does all his own engine work, he explained.

Some racers like Erik Staerkel, of Oshkosh, use actual deck screws to stud their vehicle tires. His VW Bug-powered dune buggy sounded throaty as he drove his sons Wyatt and Troy around the edges of the pylon-dotted course, but he didn’t feel ready to race yet. His dune buggy can reach speeds up to 55 mph on the ice, he said.

The nice part about these races is that anyone can give it a shot, using the family car or any vehicle with working brakes and seat belts. There were some literal wrecks out there, including one family sedan that had just been bashed in by a collision with a deer.

Brent Dillman, of Oshkosh, had his V-8 powered 1993 Dodge Dakota ready to go in the 13-degree weather. He’s been enjoying the Extreme Offroaders racing for five years, and was looking for a first-place jackpot of $15 and bragging rights in his two-wheel-drive division.

Extreme Offroaders is a small, informal club that has been heating up the Lake Winnebago ice for about 20 years, according to flagman Nathan Kussmann of Greenville. Kussmann said he got assigned to wave the red (not checkered) flag at the finish line for one main reason: “I’m not a very good driver,” he grinned.

On this sunny February day, a total of 49 cars, trucks and even some UTVs were competing, said Allen Haemmerle, one of the club members who helped organized the race. The previous week, the club sponsored a similar event in Miller’s Bay, Oshkosh, at the Otter Street Fishing Club.

The club member with one of the most important tasks is Dan Bergin, who got the job of plowing snow for the ½- to 1-mile course (even Bergin wasn’t exactly sure how long the curved course was). He, his wife and their daughter all enjoy racing their 2002 Toyota Land Cruiser, which typically does well in the contests.

“I like things that go fast,” Bergin said.

With such a small club, it’s inevitable that family members will get involved. Haemmerle’s wife, Kristy, kept the family truck running while she stayed warm inside the cab as the race’s official timer. Her husband waves the starting flag and she starts her sophisticated timer. When she sees Kussmann’s checkered flag go up, she stops the timer to determine who goes home with a modest cash prize and who goes home with just a few war stories.

A small crowd was gathered around one of the most impressive ice racers on the lake: Casey Kellogg’s 1992 Eagle Talon. This 501-horsepower, all-wheel-drive sports car with studded tires boasts a turbo-charger and has reached speeds of up to 100 mph on the lake, Kellogg said. The 32-year-old Winneconne man typically wins his category every time.

“It started out as a winter beater,” Kellogg said. The EAA mechanic added a roll cage to the Chrysler-based car, tweaked the 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder engine as much as he could (he used to drag race it) and turned it loose as his fans watched.

Despite blowing a head gasket on the third turn, he still won his $15 top prize.

For a $10 entry fee, you can get in on the fun with your mini-van, AMC Pacer or family truckster, too. You don’t need studs or fancy gear, but you do have to be ready to slip, slide and smile as you careen over the finish line.

For more club details, find them on Facebook or call Haemmerle at 920-460-2592.