Jeremy Wolff can’t see a path out this time.
As a stock car driver, his career depends on finding a way out of jams and staying in one piece. But now, he is prepared to call his racing career quits. His car owner decided to go with another driver.
Wolff may have been ready to end his career, but his family wasn’t. His uncle Jimmy Ayers, who is four years younger than Wolff, and aunt Marlana Ayers, put money down to buy a car. Then came a motor. And soon, a trailer.
“There’s no way we’re not racing,” Jimmy Ayers said.
By Christmas, Wolff had everything he needed.
The engines were restarted.
INTRO TO RACING
Wolff found a love for racing at age 15, which he considers an older age to get started nowadays.
His father, who raced a little with friends before Wolff started in the sport, let Wolff and his cousin help out at the race track and garage.
Initially, Wolff tagged along as the unofficial mud scraper.
After one of the races at the track, his dad thought Wolff was ready to take the next step.
“I think you could do this,” he said to Wolff.
Before long, he was racing in events called enduros, short for endurance racing. Although he admitted to wrecking some stuff, he loved the atmosphere because it allowed him to spend time with his dad.
By age 16, he started racing weekly at Arlington Raceway and began to adore putting his foot to the gas and racing sideways around a corner. That year he also received his first sponsor, Lenzen’s Auto Service in Carver, a rite of passage for stock car drivers.
Then in 1997, he started racing late model cars at Raceway Park in Shakopee. Success greeted him right away, winning Rookie of the Year at Raceway and in a touring series.
The more he raced, the more he won, and in the early 1990s, a dream came into his mind: NASCAR.
Because the sport was not widely available on television in the 1980s like it is now, Wolff didn’t grow up watching races regularly. But in the 1990s, a young driver named Jeff Gordon came onto the scene, capturing his attention.
Now he had someone to emulate at the highest level. And based on the reactions of his fellow competitors, he knew he had the potential,
One time at Raceway Park he stood in front of a whiteboard where the lineups were announced and overheard another racer. “Wolff is in my heat … damn it!”
His life took a big turn in 1995, however, with the birth of his first child. “Life started happening, so NASCAR ended up being a second passion,” Wolff said.
'ONE OF THE NICEST GUYS'
While the Cup Series, the top NASCAR level, might have been out of reach, he continued competing in lower track competition at Raceway and Elko Speedway.
In 2008, his team won their first track championship at Raceway Park, which Wolff called a “magical year.”
To be a stock car racer chasing a championship is to be at the mercy of the car. Flat tires, overheating engines, and crashes are just some of the many obstacles drivers face at any second of the race.
In previous years, those types of freak incidents plagued Wolff. At the end of the first race in the 2018 season, he unexpectedly blew out his motor. “If it can go wrong, it has gone wrong for me,” Wolff said.
While Wolff and the team captured their first title in 2008, it would be eight years until they won again, this time at Elko. Now with two titles under his belt, Wolff yearns for the feeling of being on top again.
“It was pretty cool,” he said. “I want to keep on winning.”
Dave Reed, driver of the No. 52 car, first met Wolff 10 years ago at Raceway Park. New to the racing lifestyle at the time, Reed just happened to slot next to the veteran Wolff, where he began taking Reed under his wing.
One of the first things Reed noticed about Wolff was his respect not only to other drivers but to sponsors, family, and fans. During a free moment, Wolff would occasionally help with maintenance on Reed’s car and vice versa.
Midway through a race early in Reed’s career, he blew out two tires and needed to pit. When he drove up to his slot, Wolff and his team were standing there with new tires, ready to help out.
“He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet,” Reed said.
Recognized as one of the elite racers in his division, Wolff is not only admired for his performance on the track but off as well.
“He has become a really good friend of mine,” Reed said. “You don’t find that much in racing.”
In 2017 and 2018, like in 2014 and 2015, Wolff came in second place in total points, after leading for most of the season.
Incidents like the blown motor cause Wolff and Ayers to be in the garage often, mending the car and preparing for the unexpected on the track.
In the offseason, Wolff and Ayers spend roughly four days a week working on the car, usually from 4 p.m. to midnight. During the season, that trims down to one night, if there are no significant incidents.
Time isn't the only valuable resource spent in maintaining a racing career. For many racers at tracks like Elko, the winnings aren’t their sole income. Since Wolff estimates that he makes around $2,000 a year from racing, he works as a welder off the track.
He said his annual budget for racing is roughly $13,000.
It may seem like an unbalanced cost equation on the surface, but Wolff doesn’t care. He compares this passion to others spending money on a bass boat or golf game. “It’s just a different way of spending your money,” he said.
THROUGH THICK AND THIN
An obvious difference between fishing and golf, however, is that racing can be significantly more dangerous.
During the last race at Raceway Park in 2013, Wolff was trying to pass another driver on the outside of the track when a car Wolff didn’t see clipped his right rear and turned him sideways. Next thing he knew, he was upside down sliding down the back straightaway at 50 mph.
“I was waiting to stop moving,” Wolff remembers thinking. “It was scary because I had no control.”
Although he left with no injuries, the EMT that checked him after the race joked that his head was as good as it was before, alluding to the passion for high-speed racing.
Wolff was preparing to resume racing on July 11, but Elko Speedway announced on June 30 that they were postponing their July 4 season-opener due to "crowd capacity restrictions."
Elko has so far not announced a definitive restart date.
In lieu of Elko delaying their start, Wolff is planning on racing at Tomah Sparta Speedway in Wisconsin on July 31.
As soon as his engine starts to mutter, Wolff will be back out on the track, whizzing sideways around corners and speeding down straightaways.
In past season openers, Wolff felt tangible jitters.
Years ago, he got to a point where he wouldn’t eat the day of a race until he finished. There were also times during a race where he turned his rearview mirror so he couldn’t see incoming cars, his way to block out any mental distractions.
“You got to stay in your head and not let the other person get in your head,” he said.
The jitters are not as bad now, but any trepidation that does arise is mainly based around the car’s upkeep. Making sure every bolt is tightened or oil secured.
FAMILY IS EVERYTHING
The one thing he doesn’t need to worry about is his support team.
His mother, Ellen Wolff, has sat in her usual seat in the middle of the stands at every weekend race for the last 25 years. “When (Jeremy) is at the track, I am there,” she said.
She believes that his passion for the sport came even before he began organized racing as a teenager. When Jeremy was a baby, she remembers a friend coming in and building a crib in the shape of a race car, now an omen. “I think he always had that drive,” she said.
For the Wolff racing team, family is everything.
One time when Ellen talked with a prospective sponsor, the person asked who owns the car.
“We’re family-owned,” Ellen said.
“(My mom) is my biggest public relations lady,” Wolff said.
When Ellen began working as a flight attendant in 1990, every time she saw someone wearing anything to do with racing, she faithfully mentioned her son.
On a Northwest flight in the mid-1990s, she noticed a man wearing a racing shirt and told him her son is a stock car racer. When she came back later to serve them drinks, the man had left for the restroom and another passenger asked her, “Do you know who you are talking to?”
She remembered seeing the plane’s manifest with a famous racer's name on it.
“I’m always mentioning (Jeremy),” Ellen said. “He’s my best subject.”
The family ties in the Wolff team go beyond blood.
Rob Krautkremer is the owner of The Car Lot in New Prague.
Ten years ago, he began watching Wolff compete at Raceway Park and noticed his unique connection to fans, specifically the kids. Two years later, he offered him a sponsorship and their relationship has grown since.
During parades, Krautkremer lets Wolff use his truck as a float, and Wolff in return goes online and shares every vehicle advertisement from the Car Lot on social media. “We have become great friends,” Krautkremer said.
A couple years ago, when Wolff tore his meniscus, Krautkremer took his motorhome, along with Jimmy and Ellen, and went to Rockford, Illinois to watch races at Rockford Speedway. Moments like that make Krautkremer feel more than a sponsor.
“We went as friends but I felt like I was part of the family,” he said.
“We’ve been really lucky with the loyalty of our sponsors,” Wolff said.
For a man who has the support of many in the racing industry, Wolff is faithful to give his time back to the community.
He donates some of his time to Youth Impact Racing, a faith-based organization that gives kids racing experience with remote-controlled cars, while also teaching them life skills.
Founder and executive director Adam Brachle first met Wolff seven years ago before a race at Elko.
Brachle, a NASCAR chaplain, came up to Wolff before a race and asked if he could pray for him. Even though Wolff initially said no, Brachle still prayed. They have been good friends since.
During the summer, Wolff typically volunteers about two and a half hours a week doing whatever is needed.
Need someone to build a racing simulator seat? Check.
How about fabricating legs for a racing chair? You bet.
Mentoring and sponsoring students? His pleasure.
One mentee is Wolff’s 11-year-old cousin, Jacob, who Wolff helped coach to an R.C. car championship in 2018.
“I wish I could clone him,” Brachle said. “All the kids love him.”
As icing on the cake, he often brings his race car to the sessions and lets the kids sit in it.
“He gives back as much as he gets,” Jimmy said.
“If you would have told me that I would have a volunteer like Jeremy I would have laughed … I didn’t think it was possible” Brachle said. “He’s a blessing to the whole community.”
Whenever Wolff ponders how long he can keep racing, he places two fingers on the side of his neck. Beat. Beat. Beat.
The sensation of a pulse means there remains a passion. “I still have the will to do it,” he said.
In the back of his mind, though, his thinking continues to be selfless. Just as important as accolades or achievements, he is racing to shine a light on the allure of local speedways, something often lost in the area’s culture.
“Local dirt tracks need to be appreciated more,” he said. He hopes that people not only come out to the track to watch races but have something to root for. “I really want short track racing to do well.”
Near the back of Wolff’s garage in Chaska hangs a whiteboard.
In the middle of a to-do list and measurements is a three-letter word written in big font and purple marker.
Written in 2016 by his girlfriend, the week after she wrote it, they won. Then another. And another. Later that year, Wolff captured his second track championship.
Four years later, the command that drove his most recent championship run stands tall on his board.
Only time will tell if Wolff can recreate the success of 2016 on the track. But no matter the results, he has something bigger to lean on: family.
“If it wasn’t for my family supporting me, I don’t know what I would be doing right now.”
“It’s a blessing.”