Back when he was a stock car racer in his youth, the 1996 Central Michigan University graduate saw little to fear.
When his children eagerly took up his motorized mantle, the Shepherd native worried for their safety at speeds of 70 to 100 miles per hour along the 1/3-mile track.
“When I was driving, I wasn’t nervous at all,” Gulgoci said. “When I see my son driving, I’m always nervous. (Racing) is part of our family, so I spend a lot of time and money on safety to make sure it’ll keep going.”
Racers at the Mount Pleasant Speedway on River Road are outfitted with fire-proof clothes, helmets and a six-point harness to keep them safe. Seat belts must be no more than three years old to be up to standard.
As a 30-year veteran of the track’s numerous high-speed races, which run from April to late August, Gulgoci said he used to pay for his groceries with his winnings, while earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration at CMU.
He has a father, brother, nephew and son who also take to the track in hopes of bringing home the bacon, which can be as much as $10,000.
His son, Kyle, remembers one of his first races, when a crash sent his car airborne. The 15-year-old drives a Stock Four car and said his class is “very competitive.” He’s been racing for more than two years.
“I like the speed,” Kyle said. “The challenge is getting (the car) set up for the track on race day. They’re always different. Sometimes (the tracks) can be slippery or sticky. (The crash) was pretty scary, but I’ve won the last couple races.”
The Speedway has been active since 1952. Since 1987, it has been owned by Betty Crook of Clare. She said managing the track and its sponsors, including the Soaring Eagle Casino and Mac Tools, is a “full-time job.”
“Basically, you love it or you hate it,” Crook said of the track. “A few people don’t like the noise, but we get a lot of spectators and racers from around the area. The biggest challenge is the weather. If it rains, you can’t race.”
On the last day of races this year, Aug. 30, slight rain forced many events in the area, including the nearby Tri-City Motor Speedway in Auburn, to be canceled. Crook was happy to host several visiting cars from Muskegon, Cherry and even out-of-state guests from Ohio and Indiana.
At the final race, the stands were filled with about 200 spectators. Crook said the races depend on support from fans. Tickets for the events can range from $5 for students to $11 for adults.
“We need spectators to pay for it,” she said. “If you don’t have a good crowd, you have to pay out-of-pocket.”
With a wider dirt track than most speedways, cars were able to race two or three abreast. Crook said this makes the events more competitive. The track hosts several models for competition including late models, modified pro-stocks, street stocks and four cylinders.
“They can race closer,” Cook said of the wider track. “We have good banking, too. If it gets too high, you can roll a car.”
The track’s current point leader, David Mielke of Gladwin, said his attention to such details is key to his success. He’s been racing for eight years and said he and his crew put about 40 hours per week into developing the car and preparing for races.
Competing in the United Midwest Promoters Racing League, Mielke said he has won 22 of about 65 races this year.
He recounted a crash last year where another racer lost control and spun out, colliding into the passenger door of Mielke’s modified-class car.
“Sometimes, it can hurt,” he said. “But if you do what you need to do in the shop, take good notes, and the cars are put together well, everything works the way it’s supposed to. I just stay focused.”
Mielke said he races from February to October, taking time off his cattle farm in Gladwin to make trips down to southern Indiana and even Florida to compete in races. But the camaraderie in Mount Pleasant is what keeps him coming back to the track where he started.
“We got a lot of good guys here,” Mielke said. “I’ll keep racing until I’m no longer competitive, ’till I’m no longer having fun.”