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At 71, racer still revs his engines

Stock car champ Curtis Zelmer proves he's built for speed


by: COURTESY OF MIKE WEBER - Curtis Zelmer, who lives and works in North Portland, gets ready for another stock-car race at River City Speedway in St. Helens.At an age when many like to have their feet up on a recliner, Curtis Zelmer still has his pedal to the metal — literally. Zelmer is one of the top stock car drivers at River City Speedway, a quarter-mile clay oval track in St. Helens.

“A guy like me has to do something,” says Zelmer, 71, of North Portland.

Zelmer’s team includes 45-year-old son Dion and pit crew chief mechanic Randy Leihrman.

“This is a good, clean and exciting sport to compete in,” Zelmer says. “We like to come out to the track and have some fun.”

Typically, the races are every other week. Zelmer likes the schedule because it allows him to spend the off weeks traveling with wife Janice in their Southwind motorhome.

Zelmer is the oldest driver of more than 100 who enter the Saturday events at the Columbia County Fairgrounds motorsports facility. He and 16-year-old Cody Smith of Scappoose are the only drivers who compete in two divisions.

Zelmer, who owns nice race cars, drives his 1975 Chevrolet Nova in the street stocks; he ranks eighth out of 20 drivers in the point standings. The $4,000 Nova has a 350 cubic-inch, V-8 engine with a four-speed standard transmission.

“If I’m still alive at age 71, then maybe I can race, too,” says Sandy’s Ryan White, 29, who is third in the street stock standings.

Zelmer also drives an open-wheel style, $8,000 Perfection Automotive-sponsored Chevy race car in the modified class, where he is fourth in season points.

On June 29, Zelmer led all the way in winning the street stock race — his first victory in the Columbia County Racing Association main event. Last week, he was fifth in both the street stock and modified main events.

The day before Zelmer’s victory, his Nova got some repair work from Mike Graham at his Perfection Automotive shop in Portland.

“I remember watching him race at Portland Speedway when I was a kid,” Graham says. “It’s cool that he’s still racing.”

After he started Zelmer Towing in the 1980s, Zellmer helped sponsor many drivers at Portland. One of them, Allan Styles of Portland, encouraged Zelmer to try his luck as a driver. Zelmer drove Styles’ car in a Friday night 10-lap heat race at Portland Speedway and was hooked immediately.

Zelmer took part in many “Fast Fridays” at the paved half-mile oval, which closed in 2001. He competed against drivers such as the legendary Hershel McGriff and his son, Hershel Jr., and Portland Speedway champions Greg Biffle (1995) and Tom Pinkowsky (1991, 1992, 1994).

Zelmer, who owns Curt’s RV Storage in Portland, won a modified and street stock championship in 1998 at Seaside’s Clatsop Speedway and a super stock title at South Sound Speedway in Tenino, Wash., in 1999, the same year he had open-heart surgery.

Curtis and Janice have been married for more than 50 years. He’s a 1961 graduate of Roosevelt High. Son Cary, 50, lives in Portland, while Dion lives in Warren. Daughter Tammy, 49, is a secretary at the storage company. The couple has seven grandchildren.

River City Speedway draws drivers from numerous Portland-area locales. Ray Elwess of Gresham, Todd Newton of Gladstone and Josh Pinkowsky of Vancouver, Wash., are among the top contenders for 2013 titles going into the final five of 13 events.

Elwess is a two-time CCRA modified champion (2004, 2006). He is second in this year’s sportsman division, not far behind defending champion Bud Russell of St. Helens. Elwess also competed at Portland Speedway in the 1980s. Driving a Polar King Restaurant/Pacific Ground Works-sponsored 2010 Camaro, he has placed in the top five in every start this year.

“The car is running good, and I just try to stay out of trouble,” says Elwess, 53, a heavy equipment operator for Pacific Ground Works of Warren who is on the track for the first time since 2006.

His son, Aaron, 24, drove the car in 2011 and 2012, finishing in the top 10 both years.

“I told him he had to get out of the driver’s seat because it was my turn to race again,” Elwess says.

The Elwess race team also includes Ray’s son Edward and brother Frank.

Newton, 26, is a former street stock champ (2010) who could be on his way to another title. The 2006 Gladstone High grad has seven top-five main event finishes in his Don’s Performance-sponsored 1976 Camaro.

Pinkowsky, 22, is on target to win the Pacific Mini Sprint title. He has three wins in a Tom’s Auto & Performance Machine open-wheel style winged sprint car owned by Portland’s Dave Walters.

Other area competitors who are top CCRA contenders at the speedway include Erica Asher of Oregon City, Steve McCleary of Aloha, Steven Nusom of Gresham, Vinny Villegiante of Portland and Vancouver drivers Don Jenner, Ric Fors and Kristi Somers.

Like many participants, Asher and her husband, Danny, are co-drivers of their 1997 Toyota Tercel. They’re fourth in the mini-stock division. Erica, 28, has competed in seven of the eight entry-level races.

Erica’s sister, Crystal Flath, also competes in the more-affordable mini stocks. She drives a 1991 Geo Storm and is 11th in the standings.

Their father, Andy Flath, is a former driver who competed many years in Portland and St. Helens. He attends the races and helps his daughters work on their cars.

The next CCRA race is Aug. 17. The program of heats, trophy dashes and main events begins with qualifying at 2:30 p.m., followed by racing at 5 p.m. The season finale is Oct. 5.

River City Speedway opened in 1983, with Don West as track manager and promoter. West, 66, still races his car occasionally in the modified class, but mostly he helps his nephew, Jonathan West of Scappoose, who drives a street-stock Camaro.

Drivers collect a couple hundred bucks for a main-event victory. Most do it simply as a favorite hobby. It’s a way to be with family and friends and create a lifetime of happy memories driving a race car.