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"A labor of love" Flat track motorcycle racing returns

Dan Jacobson Sr. takes a victory lap after winning the Mad Dog class of the Flatout Fargo motorcycle race at Schollander Pavilion Saturday. A community staple from the late 60s to early 80s, flat track racing has seen a local resurgence in recent years. Jesse Hoorelbeke, J. Alan Paul Photography.

In the midst of one of the most stressful days he'll face all year, Joe Karvonen was all smiles as he took a Saturday stroll around Schollander Pavilion.

Two years after injecting life into the local flat track motorcycle racing scene, one that had laid dormant for nearly four decades in the Fargo-Moorhead area, Karvonen brimmed with pride as spectators again packed the venue at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds for Flatout Fargo, the third incarnation of a race Karvonen founded.

"It's gratifying that something I'm passionate about, other people are passionate about too," he said.

A lifelong motorcycle enthusiast, Karvonen would regularly hear stories of weekend flat track races at Schollander from customers at Sisufab, a West Fargo-based motorcycle shop he owns and operates. Disheartened to hear races that regularly ran on winter weekends from 1969-1980 had been halted, he set out to fix this problem.

Though earnest in his ambitions, Karvonen, a 2007 graduate of West Fargo High School, initially wasn't confident they would pay off.

"I went to some of my friends and said, 'I have a really bad idea, can you help me do it?'" Karvonen said. "I (didn't) think this was going to go very well, but I wanted to try it anyway because nobody else is doing anything in our area for motorcycle racing."

The end result was Flatout Fargo, which began operation in the spring of 2017. Initially pessimistic his creation would last beyond Year 1, Karvonen and his team got a welcome surprise on the event's inaugural run.

"We thought we were going to have 200-300 people show up at most, and we were closer to 1,000," Karvonen said. "We ran out of beer I think three times because we had no idea that many people were going to show up."

Now an annual race, Flatout Fargo saw a significant spike in participation in its third go-around Saturday. After roughly 50 motorcycles participated in the first year, more than 80 took part in Saturday's race, with racers from throughout the upper Midwest and Canada competing in seven classes.

It's even grown enough to attract established riders like J.J. Flarity, who won a gold medal in the Hooligan race of the 2017 X Games. Flarity took first in the Hooligan class Saturday.

"This is something racers look forward to because it is unique," said Jim Bolluyt, who served as the event's media relations coordinator, while also participating in Saturday's Mad Dog and Scooter class races. "A lot of racers like to hit this stop because it's a unique track and it's a unique place."

The resurgence of motorcycle racing has been a welcome surprise for devotees of the sport, who believed it was dead on a local level.

A professional motorcycle racer and daredevil for more than a decade in the 1970s and '80s, Dan Jacobson, from Fargo, got his start during the first year of races at Schollander in 1969, and stayed involved as they began attracting as many as 160 riders a night.

"The cool thing about it was every Saturday night we had a place to race motorcycles indoors," Jacobson said. "For anyone that likes riding and competitive stuff like that, it was just perfect."

Jacobson also raved about the high speeds and tight quarters at the Schollander track, which he said was "like fighter jet racing in a basement."

Jacobson eventually got into the administrative side, working as a local race promoter for four years before moving to Hawaii in 1980. To his disappointment, when he left town, the weekly races left with him.

"I figured somebody would pick it up and keep it going. And nobody did," Jacobson said. "I was kind of flabbergasted."

When he returned to the area, Jacobson better understood why the sport had laid dormant for so long.

After business opportunities took him to California in 1981, he relocated to Moorhead in the late '90s. Upon his arrival, he hoped to bring racing back to Schollander, but was forced to abandon those plans when hosting costs proved too high.

Lofty prices and insurance rates initially derailed Karvonen's aspirations as well. Plans to launch Flatout Fargo actually began in 2016, but were quickly scrapped, as Karvonen said needed funds were "way, way out of our reach."

Luckily, before shelving the idea, Karvonen was thrown a lifeline by another local racing organization.

The Red River Kart Club, which kicks off its season every spring with an indoor race at Schollander, was looking to lessen the financial load of hosting such events, and found a willing partner in Karvonen. The Kart Club, which held its Showdown in the Schollander event prior to Flatout Fargo on Saturday, agreed to split the bill with Karvonen and Co. while also handling insurance costs.

"We just kind of stumbled into each other," Kart Club president Nick Skalicky said. "It's an easy joint deal. I think it runs smoothly."

Karvonen has also gotten plenty of help from established racers like Jacobson, who in addition to working promotion for the event, has lent his services on the track all three years, even taking first in the Mad Dog class Saturday.

Having formed a strong foothold in the community, race promoters are confident they can find continual success with flat track racing by keeping it exactly as it is.

Calling it "a labor of love" more than anything, Karvonen is thrilled with the response the race has gotten over its first three years, and hopes he can continue to payback the support of his fan base on an annual basis.

"This is something to give back to the local community," he said. "If we can do this once a year and get people excited, that's where we want to keep it. If we could do that year after year, I'd be perfectly content.

"It's not really something someone can make money at. But it's something I think the local community needs. And we want to try and fill that void."