Jim Sauter Sr. remembered
By Nicholas Dettmann
When Jim Sauter Sr. pulled into a race track, the drivers in the pit area knew they had to step it up if they wanted to win the feature that night.
That didn’t change in a racing career that spanned four decades. It didn’t change when sons, Tim, Jay, Johnny and Jim Jr. caught the racing bug. It still hasn’t changed one year after the elder Sauter passed away.
On Oct. 31, it marked one year since Jim Sr. died at the age of 71.
“He had a huge impact,” said Lowell Bennett, a long-time Late Model racer in Wisconsin. “Look at the family, and what he’s brought up and how they made it in motorsports.”
Jim Sauter Sr.’s racing career started in 1964, racing Modifieds in Minnesota. A short time later, he moved into a Late Model and into Wisconsin where he put together a hard-to-match racing resume.
He won the 1970, 1971 and 1974 LaCrosse Late Model track championships.
Later, he won the 1980 National Short Track Championship, the 1981 ARTGO Challenge Series – winning seven times – and the 1982 ARTGO Challenge Series – winning nine times – and the 1983 All-American 400. He also won the 1981 Wisconsin International Raceway track championship.
Sauter Sr. made 82 career NASCAR starts among the top-three series – 76 Sprint Cup, four XFINITY and two Camping World Truck. He had four top-10 finishes in Sprint Cup. He finished ninth twice – the 1987 Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte and the 1989 Budweiser at the Glen in Watkins Glen, New York.
“Jim was very smooth,” Bennett said. “He was another one of those smart race car drivers. He was always there at the end.”
But Sauter Sr.’s impact on stock-car racing in Wisconsin and across the United States wasn’t restricted to him in the seat of a late model. It extended to his family, especially four sons – Tim, Jay, Johnny and Jim Jr. – as they got involved in racing and carried their legendary father’s name with pride.
“Growing up in a family like we did, I wanted to emulate him anyway I could,” Johnny Sauter said.
Their talent matched the pride.
“They were taught well by daddy and all of them are all skilled,” Bennett said.
The Sauter family tradition in racing has continued with Jim Sauter Sr.’s grandson, Travis, who once won 11 straight Late Model features at Madison International Speedway in Oregon.
“He was one of the premier guys,” said Rich Bickle Jr., a former NASCAR competitor as well with more than 200 career starts. “They were the best racers in the country.”
The Sauters showed that this season as they were competitive and battling for the win at seemingly every track they went to. In all, six Sauters have combined to make 907 starts in Sprint Cup, XFINITY and Camping World Truck.
“It’s amazing to me how many there are,” Bickle joked. “And they’re all good.”
In usual Bickle fashion, he didn’t shy from the true definition of Jim Sauter Sr. on the race track.
“He kicked everybody’s (expletive),” Bickle said. “He was one of the top guys, top-five every night.”
It’s hard to find a driver who didn’t respect and admire Jim Sauter Sr.
“I always had a ton of respect for Jim Sr.,” said Matt Kenseth, 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, two-time Daytona 500 winner and Wisconsin native. “He was no nonsense. He was kind of a man of few words when I talked to him, but he also gave me a few different times.”
“He was a tough racer,” Kenseth added. “Man, to have that kind of family and raise all those kids and do all those things is pretty amazing.”
Jim Sauter Sr. had 12 children – five boys and seven girls. He also had 51 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
“When I think of Jim, I think more of the man,” Kenseth said. “Even though it’s not like I knew him really, really well, but I talked to him a few times. There was the IROC deal with Dick (Trickle) when I did IROC and he did the testing and got to know him there.
“I don’t know all of his kids. I’ve raced against Jay, Tim and Johnny; great kids, really respectful. They’re always standing straight up, looking you in the eye. You could tell they were raised the right way. It made me respect Jim even more.”
The first season without Jim Sauter Sr. started with Johnny Sauter qualifying for his first Daytona 500 since 2007 – his third Daytona 500 overall. He finished 19th.
“One of my main memories growing up was my dad coming down (to Daytona) trying to make the Daytona 500,” Johnny Sauter said. “It’s a race that was a huge part of my childhood.”
Jim Sauter Sr. made six Daytona 500 starts.
Heading into the Oct. 31 race at Martinsville, Johnny Sauter was fourth in the Camping World Truck Series points standings, 55 points behind leader Erik Jones.
And just like his father often did, Johnny Sauter has remained loyal to his roots, racing on the short tracks of Wisconsin. And of course winning races, too.
He won the Joe Shear Classic in May at Madison, then won the Larry Detjens Memorial in July. That followed up Tim Sauter’s back-to-back victories in the event (2013 and 2014).
Also in there was Travis Sauter winning the Icebreaker 100 in April at Dells Raceway Park in Wisconsin Dells. Travis Sauter was second to uncle Johnny at the Joe Shear Classic.
Jim Sauter Jr. finished second in the Super Late Model points at Golden Sands this season. He won the track championship in 2013. Tim Sauter won the track championship in 2011.
“They’re a great family,” Bickle said. “They’ve been doing it for a long, long time.”
Sauter Sr.’s name will also be forever tied to one of the most historic races in NASCAR history: the 2002 GNC Live Well 250 at the Milwaukee Mile with the then-NASCAR Busch Series.
It was his second-to-last NASCAR race of his career. He made a truck race start two years later, also at Milwaukee.
But with the 2002 race at The Mile, it featured four Sauters – Jim Sr., Jay, Johnny and Tim.
It was the second time in NASCAR history where four members of one family competed in the same race. The other occurrence was in NASCAR’s inaugural season of 1949 with the Flock family. Brothers Bob, Fonty and Tim Flock, along with their sister, Ethel, at Daytona.
“It was a cool deal,” said Travis Sauter, who was 19 at the time and is now 33, he added it was one of grandpa’s proudest moments in his career and his life.
Three of the Sauters finished in the top-13 – Tim Sauter was ninth, Johnny Sauter was 12th and Jay Sauter was 13th. Jim Sauter Sr. finished 29th.
In addition to the four Sauters, the race also featured three other Wisconsin drivers – Wausau’s Scott Wimmer, Bennett (Neenah) and Random Lake’s Brad Mueller. Greg Biffle won the race.
“That was just so cool that we were all down there,” Bennett said. “We all had high hopes of going on from there, but the economy hurt a bunch of us.”
Wimmer was third, while Bennett and Mueller each had mechanical problems. Bennett wound up 41st and Mueller was 43rd.
Other notables in that race included Jamie McMurray (16th), Kenny Wallace (18th), Casey Mears (19th) and Brian Vickers (28th).
“Something like that may never happen again,” Bennett said of four family members in one race.
Without Jim Sauter Sr., that race wouldn’t mean as much in the record book.
“Obviously Jim, he had a great seed and made some great racers,” Bickle said. “It’s cool to see it. His name will live on.”
Follow Nicholas on Twitter: @dettmann_wbdn