The oval goes unbroken
Veteran of old Portland Speedway sticks to tradition
MONROE, Wash. - 'It's his life,' says Lynsie Riehl, trying to describe how much racing means to her husband.
'Work is my hobby,' Brandon Riehl says, 'and racing is my life.'
The two got married in January. In the weeks leading up to the nuptials, Brandon Riehl bought his wife's wedding ring - for $3,500, he says - and then kiddingly lamented to her, 'I could have bought my pipes with that.' So, the new Mrs. Riehl arranged to give her husband new, 8-inch-radius smoke stacks for his transport truck - as a return wedding gift.
'She's awesome,' he says. 'The easiest-going person I know.'
Brandon Riehl of Boring drives his 1994 Kenmore truck with his big stacks and race cars as the cargo to events all over the Northwest and West Coast. He is the last known alum of the old Portland Speedway, other than the famed Greg Biffle, to be racing full time on paved ovals.
Just keeping the dream alive, he says.
Riehl has raced on the NASCAR Northwest Series circuit the past four years, and he performed double duty for much of 2005 on the Southwest Series. He finished second in the Northwest, winning twice at Yakima (Wash.) Speedway and already has won two races this season, including Saturday at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash.
He watches Biffle's success and dreams about following in his footsteps. But Riehl also has become realistic. He may be relegated to the small-time racing of the Northwest and West Coast, unless he moves back East and tries the Automobile Racing Club of America or Hooter's Cup series next year. The Northwest Series will cease after this season.
'The dream's fading because of my age - NASCAR teams are looking for younger drivers,' he says. 'They're not looking for a 29-year-old guy - or a 6-4 guy. But Michael Waltrip is 6-5, so there's hope.'
Riehl, a 1995 Barlow High graduate, doesn't fit the mold of the short and wiry auto racing pilots out there. But he drives well and wins.
Riehl estimates that he has won about 60 Late Model races, the four Northwest races and one combined Southwest-Midwest race. He was the youngest Portland Speedway champion ever at 17, winning Street Stock in 1994, and he won the Speedway's Limited Sportsman division in 1997.
Many people pitch in
When Portland Speedway went to a dirt track in 2000 and closed a few years later, a rich tradition of racing in North Portland went away. Riehl's father had raced there for years, before he began to concentrate on his son's racing in the mid-1990s.
'I wanted him to try to go somewhere in racing,' Dan Riehl says. 'It's probably more important to me than him.'
The father pays many of the bills, while employing his son as a truck and equipment operator and a foreman in Dan Riehl Excavating. A sponsor from Utah, Aero Exhaust, has provided much backing - with Riehl saying Aero owner Bryan Hunsaker's financial support is his main 'hope' in trying to race ARCA or Hooter's next year.
Jody Tanner, a Portland bar owner and former Speedway racer, provided the transporter. And Darrel Hanson, a noted muffler shop owner in Portland, owns both of his Northwest Series cars.
'It's a huge group effort,' says Riehl, who also drives Late Model cars for other people. 'I've never owned my own race cars.'
It cost Riehl about $125,000 to race last year - and an estimated $90,000 this year. The Northwest Series takes Riehl to Monroe, Wenatchee and Yakima in Washington and Twin Falls and Meridian in Idaho. He'll race at selected Late Model events and conclude the season at Irwindale, Calif., in November in the Toyota All-Star Showdown.
Bandit remains a hero
Behind the wheel of his big truck, Riehl imagines himself as Jerry Reed in 'Smokey and the Bandit.' It and the sequel are his favorite movies, and Riehl states two goals in life: drive stock cars, and meet Burt Reynolds. 'He's the Bandit,' Riehl says, of Reynolds. Riehl bought a 1977 Trans Am, just like the Bandit's, and he plans to restore it.
On the road, he'll drink sugar-free Rockstar energy drink, listen to old NASCAR races or comedy on XM Satellite Radio, and talk on his cell phone.
'He's seriously on his cell phone seven hours a day, most of it about racing,' Lynsie Riehl says.
Riehl has a 3,500-minute monthly plan. He and his wife will stay in cheap motels and make sandwiches rather than eat out, as they try to make racing pencil out.
Like the Bandit, Riehl has some rebel in him. He and rival Pete Harding had issues on the track during three races last year. At Wenatchee three weeks ago, Harding made a move that Riehl did not like, and Riehl countered with a move that took Harding out. Both got fined and put on probation by the Northwest Series.
A nonfactor Saturday, Harding could only watch as Riehl cut through some rough, early patches of racing and dominated the Northwest Series race on the three-eighths-mile oval at Monroe.
'First time the car was good here,' Riehl says. 'I just tried to be patient and stay out of trouble.'
Few degrees of separation
As Riehl still eyes bigger things, he has connections. He visited with Biffle last December in North Carolina, as a guest of Biffle's former Speedway combatant Tom Sweatman and Biffle's longtime mechanic Roger Ueltschi. Sweatman is the uncle of Riehl's wife; Ueltschi, Biffle's gas man in Nextel Cup races, built one of Riehl's cars.
Some former Speedway competitors race at dirt tracks at Banks and St. Helens. Riehl's uncles, Dan Obrist and Mike Obrist, race at South Sound Speedway in Tenino, Wash., on occasion.
Two years ago, Tanner drove on the Northwest Series. But Riehl remains the lone stallion as far as all-out commitment to oval racing.
'I still do it because I love racing,' says Riehl, whose father remembers his kid going to Speedway events at 6 months old, in diapers. 'I love getting behind the wheel of a race car and doing some aggressive, hard racing. And I don't mind when people bump me and get me loose.'
He'll work on cars up to five days each week at his shop in Boring to prepare them to go racing - with his wife's blessing.
'It has consumed his life,' Dan Riehl says. 'The day he started, I told him, 'You have to be married to the car.''