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This has not been a typical run-up to race weekend for Tommy Archer. Far from it. Archer always has been a man in a hurry, and has proven he can drive with the very top elite drivers of the world on road-racing tracks all over the country -- the world, in fact.
Ordinarily, the Duluth native would have spent the winter working out to get in top condition and would have had a race car in the Hermantown shop he shares with his brother, John, and his crew members making final preparations.
What is unusual about this season is that Tommy Archer has had to prepare by not racing, right up until this weekend, when he will make his debut in the Trans-Am 2 racing series at Brainerd International Raceway on Sunday. Coming into a series after seven races was not Archer’s choice, but circumstances prevented him from starting sooner.
First, he had a serious distraction while trying to select driving and sponsorship possibilities, before he could get his new Camaro ready for the track. The distraction is called cancer. Three years ago, Archer had surgery for prostate cancer and was confident he had completed a perfect recovery, although the fact that his cancer numbers never went completely to zero left lingering doubts.
“It turned out, my lymph nodes had sucked in a piece of the cancer,” Archer said. “We had to let it grow in order to find it. I had an MRI with that radioactive stuff and they discovered a marble-sized red dot that was the cancer. When we let it grow, it grew from marble-size to egg-size.
“It was like spending three years with Pac Man eating away at me from inside, and we were not sure where.”
Archer returned to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where he praised the four different surgeons who worked to captivate the cancerous growth within the lymph node. Again, he was optimistic the March surgery was successful, and while he had to limit how much he could do and how much he could lift, he kept working on driving possibilities.
He lined up various sponsors, including Kolar Chevrolet, and the Black Bear Casino, among others, and awaited delivery of a new Howe chassis Camaro, which his crew could fit with an all new engine. The delayed delivery of the car worked out OK, because it gave Archer time to regain his strength and make a return trip to Mayo for a final check and medical clearance. The delay also meant Archer Racing’s return to big-time competition would come, conveniently, at BIR, where the former 3-mile road-racing circuit has been shortened to run through 13 turns over 2.6 miles, using only a portion of the former layout.
Archer headed for Atlanta to observe another lead-up race, and on the way, he stopped for his appointment at the Mayo Clinic, and came away on top of the world. “The number is at zero – I’m cancer-free!” Archer said.
The Howe chassis showed up at the shop right about then, and his crew installed the engine, transmission, and myriad other items required to make the magical conversion that transforms a bare-bones chassis into a competitive race car.
“Competitive” is the operative word, because Archer is always competitive unless his car is hopelessly outclassed. To make sure this new Camaro would be ready, Archer and his crew hauled it to Brainerd for a shake-down test.
“We went through everything,” Archer said. “We put about 140 track miles on it and kept trying new parts. We went through everything. We went slower than we thought we would on the straight but we can change gearing. We don’t have the mile-long straightaway anymore, but I never liked that anyway. The real challenge is how fast can you got through 60-mile-per-hour turns.”
After returning to Duluth, the crew made dozens of revisions, from reducing glare on the dashboard and rear deck with flat-black refinishing, to altering the tight-fitting bucket seat to eliminate a nuisance protrusion. The K-Tec engine with its 520 horsepower output, and the transmission are read out on a digital speedometer arrangement at Archer’s disposal.
Last week, it was back to BIR for a follow-up, to make sure all the adjustments from the first set-up were closer to perfection.
The car worked well, and in the final week, Archer declared everything set to go. The bright Bahama Blue paint with brighter yellow trim displays No. 54. “That’s the year I was born,” said Archer, denying that the selection came from the old “Car 54 Where Are You” television show.
The best drivers and cars in the Trans-Am 2 series have established their own pecking order through the first half of the season. But never has such a prominent racing series had such a formidible mid-season entry as Tommy Archer looming for qualifying.
As for Archer, the butterflies that always add to the thrill of road-racing are undoubtedly more welcome than ever before in his life.
“Two years ago, I didn’t expect to be doing this,” said Archer.
Fourth of July, and Summer’s Coming!
Motorsports fans can rely on Proctor or Superior for regional stock car racing, but this weekend’s big race program at Brainerd International Raceway provides a focal point for big-time racing in Northern Minnesota.
The event is, technically, the 29th Annual Pleasureland RV Show and Go, named after a business that certainly hadn’t been involved for 29 years, but nonetheless gets to play on the years that the Show and Go has existed. It has become a fun, fan-friendly weekend, with amateur drag racing on the traditional old straightaway starting midweek and running through Friday, when muscle cars will take over and run their competition.
A car show will be another attraction, along with infield camping, live music and food vendors and all. But the headline event is the Trans-Am 2 race on Sunday, with Mustangs, Camaros, Challengers and other hot “ponycars” competing on the infield road course. BIR was built as a 10-turn, 3-mile track, but in attempts to slow down the drivers from overdoing it on the mile-long straightaway of the full course, the infield now is arranged in a 13-turn, 2.66-mile road-racing course that is more challenging in some ways.
The Trans-Am always has been a favorite with Minnesota fans on the BIR course. Some legendary races in the series can be recalled, such as the 1970 battles among Mark Donohue, Parnelli Jones, George Follmer, Sam Posey, Dan Gurney, Swede Savage, and factory-backed cars straining to decide which was the best. There also was the time Milt Minter, in a privateer Camaro, broadslid his way to an enormous upset victory over all the superstars of the series.
It will take a lot to regain that sort of spotlight for the Trans-Am, but this year is a pretty good start. The race is being moved up from the end of August to Fourth of July weekend to give the new-breed of ponycars proper exposure. The race will be tape-delayed on national television a couple of weeks after the race.
In a lot of places, the Fourth of July weekend signals the midpoint of summer. You’ve spent May and June, and you still have July and August to do your summer bidding. But not in Duluth, not in 2015. We’ve had a few days where the temperature got above 70, and even 80, but then the sun sets and the temperature nosedives down to 40, give or take a few.
But now that July has arrived, we can finally anticipate that we might get some regular high-80, low-60s weather. And none too soon.
Fortunately for us in Duluth, July also means the annual Fourth of July celebration. It may not be genuine sports, but it does stand as the finest Fourth of July anywhere. The fireworks down at Bayfront Festival Park are spectacular, and regularly are the largest in the state. Watching the bombs bursting in air also reflected in the Duluth harbor is something we can always depend on.
It’s a great time, ideal to go hiking, biking, fishing, traveling, or just hanging out, but planning on a rendezvous back at Bayfront for the fireworks. And this summer, we can go home from the fireworks, sleep well, and still drive to Brainerd in time for a big weekend of motorsports.
Huskies Falter, Reload
Having a split schedule makes the Northwoods League more interesting than a long, hot summer once the teams are spread out in the standings. The first half winner can keep playing hard, knowing they are secure in the final league championship playoff against the second-half winner. This year, the first half couldn’t have been more dramatic.
With five games to go, the North Division showed Willmar 18-11, Rochester and St. Cloud tied for second at 18-12 and a half-game back, the Duluth Huskies fourth at 18-13 and 1 game behind, and Waterloo fifth at 17-14 and 2 games out. The Huskies, we were pretty sure, were primed and ready for a run for the top spot, with those five remaining games all at Wade Stadium.
It didn’t work out that way, however. All four challengers hopeful of overtaking Willmar faltered in that first-half showdown, and by Tuesday, Willmar was all along on top, Rochester second, 2 games back, and Duluth and St. Cloud tied for third, 2 1/2 games behind in a tie for third.
The Huskies lost their way out of contention, but they did rise up to knock off the Rochester Honkers 5-2 last Saturday, to vault into second place ahead of the Honkers, thanks to an impressive pitching performance by UMD left-hander Bo Hellquist. He doesn’t overpower teams, but he picks them apart, dodging trouble here and there, and keeping foes off balance.
Hellquist went seven innings, striking out five and eluding the problems of giving up eight hits. But that was about it for the Huskies run at the title.
Oh well, there’s always the second half.