VERMILLION — From all of the stories one hears about Nels “Junior” Brunick, he didn’t set out to become a racing legend.
He simply loved speed and speed became a big part of his life while raising his family in Vermillion with his wife, Shirley, and operating the family business, Brunick Gas Station, in Vermillion.
Junior, who passed away in June 2018, already has received local accolades for his accomplishments on area race tracks. Last Sunday, July 18, his status as a legend behind the wheel was further affirmed when he and four other participants in the sport were inducted into the Huset’s Speedway Hall of Fame.
Junior’s son, Dave Brunick of Vermillion, surrounded by close family members, accepted the plaque at Huset’s Speedway Sunday that officially marked the veteran racer’s induction in to the Hall of Fame.
“I just wish Dad was here to get this. I’m sure he’s looking down on us right now,” Dave Brunick said. “I’m glad that Huset’s Speedway is going again. That’s great. The only thing better than coming down here and accepting the Hall of Fame award would be to come down here to watch Dad race again.”
PASSION FOR SPEED
Junior’s obituary notes his passion for speed.
“He liked speed. He raced boats, motorcycles, but stock cars were his favorite,” it states. “He raced Black & White “16” for about 20 years all around the area and did extremely well. We thought he was the best. He had an airplane and enjoyed hunting coyotes with his father-in-law, Mike.”
Huset’s Speedway naturally attracted Junior and other men like him who love racing. The track was carved from a soybean field by farmer and businessman Til Huset in 1953.
It opened in 1954 and ran in 1955 before he shut it down for 1956 and 1957. The track reopened in July 1958 after Huset sold the track to the Sioux Falls Stock Car Association.
The association was formed by drivers who were boycotting the nearby Soo Speedway track. The track began running sprint cars weekly in 1980. The World of Outlaws national tour ran their sprint cars at the track in April 1983 and it was won by Sammy Swindell. The association ran the races until it sold the track in 1988 to Clarence Rubin and his sons Greg and Steve. The Rubin family ran the track until 2015.
The track was sold in mid-July 2020 to Tod Quiring, the owner of the Jackson, Minnesota Motoplex. He announced an August, 2020 reopening date as well as restoring historic Huset’s name to the track.
Information provided by the “Huset’s Speedway Timeline” Facebook page notes that Junior was well known at racetracks from Aberdeen, South Dakota to Norfolk, Nebraska, and surrounding areas and especially in Sioux City, Iowa, and Sioux Falls.
His career began at the old Riverview Park Speedway in Sioux City in 1950 driving a very stock 1937 Ford sedan. From the slambang early days, Junior developed into one of the area’s most successful drivers.
By 1953-54, modified stock cars were the premier class at most tracks and was where Junior had his greatest success. In late 1953, he drove a modified racer he purchased from Dale Swanson of Harlan, Iowa.
Brunick was an outlaw driver before outlaw driving became a commonly-used term in the racing world. Making the trek from Vermillion each week, Brunick regularly visited Huset’s, Soo Speedway in Sioux Falls, Riverside Speedway in Sioux City, the Mitchell Speedway, Riviera Raceway in Norfolk, Nebraska, Raceway Park in Council Bluffs, Iowa and the Crawford County Fairgrounds, Dennison, Iowa.
Junior won the 1953 100-lap season championship race at Riverview Park Speedway and won many features with the car in 1954. He raced primarily at the new Soo Speedway in Sioux Falls. Huset’s Speedway also started operation in 1954, but it was overshadowed by Soo Speedway.
At Soo he won both “A” features at the Sertoma Club races, which were like “all-star” events, and the 75-lap season championship race. However, after a late wreck that bent the frame, the car was retired. A new ‘39 Ford modified took its place for the 1955 season.
This car was not raced as extensively as the first coupe because Junior started racing regularly at King’s Speedway in Norfolk, Nebraska, where a different set of rules applied. However, it was raced in Sioux Falls and other places until Junior quit racing in the late 1950s to concentrate on his business and family.
DEVOTED TO FAMILY, BUSINESS
Brunick was also offered a ride in the 1957 Daytona 500. However, he passed on the offer so he could continue to run the family service station in Vermillion.
He took over operation of the gas station in 1952, a few years after his father, Nels, died from injuries he received in a work accident there.
The service station is still in operation and is run by Dave Brunick.
He began racing again in 1962 as a car owner at Raceway Park in South Sioux City, Nebraska. By 1963, he wanted behind the wheel again himself and in the mid-summer had Dale Swanson update the coupe’s suspension and to bring it up to current safety standards. He raced the refurbished car at Raceway Park, Soo Speedway in Sioux City (the old Soo minor league baseball park) and the fairgrounds in Sioux Falls.
His victory in the “A” feature at Soo on Aug. 11, 1953, was probably the last feature won by a flathead-powered, full-bodied coupe anywhere in the area. Though the coupe made a couple of other outings after the 1963 season, including one event where it was powered by a fuel-injected Chevy V-8, its racing career came to an end. It has been stored since, although the body was repainted about 20 years ago.
When first built as a modified racer, the car looked a bit different than it does today. Originally there was only a single roll bar (with the diagonal braces) behind the driver. There was no roll cage and no padding of any kind.
There was a World War II surplus seat belt, but no shoulder harness holding the driver in a surplus airplane seat. As now, both doors could open but in competition were held closed by leather belts.
The battery behind the driver’s seat would have been mounted on the firewall under the hood. The driver would have looked different too, goggles and maybe a bandana over the driver’s face.
In 1963, Swanson added extra coil springs and weight jacking screws to the front and rear suspension. In 1955 there would have only been the stock Ford springs and shocks. The original street car used 16-inch wheels but the center sections were cut out and welded into 15-inch rims. This allowed more tire choices.
Street tires were used but extra “grooves” were cut into them for more traction. The original exhaust pipes ran under the chassis then up through holes in the floorboards and cut the two large holes in the trunk lid.
The engine rules in 1955 required “stock appearing” engines. Although the engine would have looked as stock as it does today it would have been extensively modified inside, Junior’s Ford engine would have had a Mercury crank providing an extra 3/8-inch stroke and increasing the stock 239 cubic inch displacement to about 265.
Aluminum pistons, an aluminum flywheel, and a racing cam were installed. The heads were milled for higher compression. Also, a custom-built radiator was used to cool the notoriously hot running flathead engine. An engine like this could push the coupe to over 80 mph on the straightaways at Soo Speedway’s 3/8 mile track.
ENGINE’S ROAR RESTORED
The car had sat idle for decades when a group of Vermillion men, including Junior’s son, Dave, decided 16 years ago to bring it back to life.
Junior didn’t know quite to expect back in August 2005 when he was asked to step out the rear door of a Vermillion restaurant for a surprise greeting from a crowd of family and friends.
A bigger surprise awaited him. A sound not heard for 40 years -- the roar of the flathead V-8 engine of his trusty 1940 Ford coupe race car -- echoed off nearby buildings as the newly restored auto, driven by his son, Dave, made a lap around the parking lot.
Later, Jody Harnois, president of the Vermillion Jaycees, presented Brunick, 76, with the Spirit of Vermillion Award.
According to a story in the Sept. 2, 2005 Plain Talk, Harnois noted that in the late 1950s, Brunick was offered a chance to race at Daytona Speedway.
“He turned that opportunity down because of his loyalty to his family, to his business and to his community,” an emotional Harnois said. “So, a few years later, we figured it was time to give him some payback for his commitment.”
Brunick was presented a glass trophy, engraved with a photo of him being congratulated by a young girl after winning a race during his glory days on area tracks.
The message etched on the trophy reads: “To Junior Brunick for a lifelong achievement and commitment to the Vermillion community.”
Brunick’s race car — known by fans as “familiar number 16” from numerous newspaper reports and photos of his victories on local tracks -- has been idle since the mid-1960s.
For most of that time, it has sat silently in storage, in a shed on the family farm near Vermillion.
In late August 2005, a group of 20 people determined to surprise Brunick managed to move the car from the shed to Todd Moe’s garage.
Dave Brunick, Bob Richardson, Allen Richardson and others worked under the hood and got the engine to run once more.
They gave new luster to the car’s exterior.
All the while, they also brought back dozens of tales of Brunick’s skills on area race courses during the 1950s.
The Plain Talk mentioned back in 2005 the same bit of history that was part of last weekend’s Hall of Fame ceremony – that besides Huset’s and Soo speedways, he competed at River Sioux, and major racing events near Denison, Iowa, Mitchell and Huron.
“He raced weekly down at Norfolk, Nebraska,” David Brunick said during the 2005 event. “He was first place at most of the tracks he went to, and a lot of the newspapers would describe him as ‘as the man to beat tomorrow.’ He was really pretty good.”
Junior discovered, during his racing heydays, that he was being followed by more than just competitors on the racetrack.
“Crowds from Vermillion would travel as far away as Norfolk, Nebraska, which is 100 miles from here, just to watch him race,” Dave Brunick said. “Dad said they had their own big section there that of Vermillion people that would come to watch him race every week.
“They were big fans of him,” he said. “He had quite a following.”
Other racers inducted into the 2021 Huset’s Speedway Hall of Fame are Mike Haugan, John Miller, Rick Dump and Jim Lindberg.