Tom Naeyaert is often known in Shawano Speedway lore for a record-breaking championship, and a horrifying wreck
By Bert Lehman
Editor, Full Throttle Magazine
When Shawano’s Tom Naeyaert was a kid he didn’t hang around a group of friends who were interested in stock car racing.
Since he grew up within walking distance of Shawano Speedway, Naeyaert said the sounds of the race cars helped create a curiosity for racing. It even prompted him to attend the races by himself.
“I spent many a Saturday night sitting by myself just watching Roger Paul and all the guys from there on up,” Naeyaert recalled.
He said he remembers one night when history was made at Shawano Speedway.
“I can recollect watching Terry Anvelink win his first feature and thinking that had to be a pretty neat feeling because you knew the guy and he held off J.J. Smith,” Naeyaert said. “I thought for him that’s got to be pretty neat. I can see that maybe happening someday in the distant future.”
Naeyaert’s professional life eventually led him to be co-workers with several people involved in stock car racing, including Anvelink.
“Basically it was 1977 or so when I was 22 years old. At that stage I started mingling around racing and with my acquaintances, one thing led to another and the next thing you know we decided to get an old Hobby Stock car,” Naeyaert said. “Kind of like every Late Model story that goes along the lines it was just one thing led to another.”
After racing Mini Stocks and IMCA Modifieds, Naeyaert eventually found his way to Shawano Speedway’s premier division – Late Models.
“What led to the Late Models was basically knowing Chuck Buckbee and being friends with him for a long time, helping out on his car in the late 1980s and purchasing a used car. At the stage in the game the opportunity came, I basically chiseled away at buying a car from him in bits and pieces.”
Naeyaert competed in the Late Model division for the first time in 1991.
Six years later he was involved in what some fans in attendance call the worst accident ever at Shawano Speedway.
Naeyaert describes the horrific crash down the frontstretch at Shawano Speedway in 1997: “Basically what happened is we had a start that didn’t go and on the ensuing restart it did go, at least the green was flown coming down. A fellow competitor behind me I think decided to come off the top and was going to work down underneath. He caught the rear bumper at the right rear corner of the car and turned it in a snap situation right. And I remember it vividly.
“It turned right. I remember knowing that this wasn’t going to be good at this angle and the next thing I knew it got real quiet – I was in the air. Then the next voices I heard were both my son Neal and Chuck Buckbee, who, somehow, when I watch the film, which I do periodically yet today, got out of his car before almost everything had come to a stop and the dust had cleared so to say, and was in an attempt to come over and find out what was going on. And my son Neal, I heard his voice simultaneously at the same time as I was laying upside down.”
Naeyaert said wreck happened quickly but he still remembers it clearly.
He continued, “It happened fast but I did have time to think because I could hear the panic of a lot of people. I could hear the quiet. Bob Schafer was the announcer and it was dead quiet and I could tell by the sound of his voice [it was bad]. Obviously I didn’t know how badly the car was torn up until I got out of the car. Then it started to sink in how bad it really was.
“I had the presence of mind to put my hand down on the fire bottle just in case there was any kind of fire. I heard somebody say in the back that there was a rod of some sort, there was metal sticking through the fuel cell and there was fuel leaking out of it. When I was communicating with Neal and Chuck, I knew we were OK at that stage in the game once I told them I was alright.
“Just trying to keep a sense of calm amongst everybody else to flip the car over, don’t grab onto it and make sparks. Just roll it over and set it down and we’ll be able to get out of here.”
Now, looking at the photos of the wreckage and watching it on tape, he describes it as “ugly” and acknowledges it probably ranks near the top of the list of wrecks that have taken place at Shawano Speedway.
“I hate to have that accolade,” Naeyaert said.
He was strapped back in a Late Model only a few weeks later. He said it never crossed his mind to give up racing. He said the thought did cross his wife’s mind.
“As a matter of fact, unfortunately she very rarely goes to the races yet today after that wreck,” Naeyaert said. “Unfortunately because I think she had a good time. I guess I was at the age where I knew I was going to take my licks as time went along. It was disappointing because the car was 13 nights old and it was a good car and we’d had success with it out of the box. You just bounced back, and as the saying goes, picked up the pieces, licked you wounds and kept on going.”
Naeyaert did bounce back and had what he describes as his best year in 1999.
“1999 was probably our best overall year with Late Models, coming just a couple points short of winning all three [championships] between Antigo, Shawano and Seymour,” he said.
The 1999 Late Model track championship at Shawano Speedway was an historic one, and one that is the answer to a trivia question. It was the first championship won at Shawano Speedway since 1982 by a driver other than one of the “Big Three” of Terry Anvelink, M.J. McBride and Pete Parker.
“I didn’t even realize that at the time and actually, truthfully didn’t realize it until you pointed it out to me,” Naeyaert said. “Now, realizing and seeing what those guys had for that many years it was the start of a new kids on the block-type thing. We see that now even rotating today with the new talent coming in. It was kind of neat to be able to have your name as the first one for that many years.”
(This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of Full Throttle magazine.)