by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
It’s a good indication you’re getting the hang of this auto racing thing when you can drive the last 12 laps of a race on a flat tire and still win.
Ryan Kostreba, currently in his sixth year at age 32, won a Street Stock race at Ogilvie on July 3 with his left front tire disintegrating by the time he crawled across the finish line just ahead of the runner-up.
“I have never seen anything like that before!” bellowed the track announcer while the fans went wild.
The crowd-pleaser was one of four features the Elk River driver has won this summer, and by far his favorite.
“That one felt like it was written in Hollywood,” grinned Kostreba, who has two firsts and a second in six features at his main track, Princeton Speedway, ranking fourth in season points despite a poor start.
His 1985 Chevy Monte Carlo (No. 17) started losing air on the eighth of 20 laps. He had a good lead at the time and managed to hold it through several cautions. “At one point, during a caution, the guy behind me pulls up and says, ‘Hey, you’ve got a flat tire,’ “ said Kostreba. “And I told him, ‘I know, but I’m not going to pull out for you!’ “
With two laps to go, the tire started to shred, chunks of rubber flying unto the track. The steering wheel vibrated so much he could barely hold it. He had to almost stop on the last corner to be able to turn. But with the rest of the field in hot pursuit he still held them off. “That was all it had left. I could not have gone around another corner,” said Kostreba.
A mechanical engineer for Minco Products in Fridley, Kostreba got started racing in 2006 after helping a friend, Mark Froelich, for a few seasons. He was rookie of the year for Dirt Track Racing Association that year, racing in Cedar Lake and New Richland, WI, and rookie of the year again at Princeton in 2007. He’s been a Friday Fury guy ever since.
“It’s the adrenaline rush,” said Kostreba, an assessment of racing’s appeal echoed by most drivers. “Especially when you pass people. When you start first and win, just laying down lap time, then yes, it’s great to win, but when you can pass people to get the lead, moving in and out of traffic, that’s the most fun.”
Kostreba got his first two career feature wins last summer and placed fifth in points.
This season, in between six rainouts in 12 dates, he’s been able to build on that success, but not right away.
He rolled his car the first night — it actually stood straight up before capsizing and he was suddenly laying on the roof watching oil gushing unto the ground — and blew up his engine the second night while leading.
“The first two races were just horrible,” he said.
But Kostreba won the next week with an engine thrown together with some borrowed parts, then placed eighth. With a new engine in place, Kostreba roared to second- and first-place finishes the next two outings. Another rainout last Friday interrupted his momentum.
Kostreba, whose pit man is his brother Russell, said that once he learned how to handle the car better he realized that the 350 cc engine was “a little under powered” and upgraded it with different headers that gave him more power on the corners and straightaway.
So far it hasn’t been too hard on his own chassis as his only injury being socked in the eye once by a chunk of mud when his helmet came open.
Street Stock is one of the least expensive divisions, and Kostreba says he’s able to limit the cost of his hobby to $1,300 to $1,500 each year. “That’s not bad, you can spend that much on one fishing trip,” he pointed out. “I’ve always said I’m not going to spend myself to victory line, but race myself to victory lane.”
Preferably on four tires.
THE KOSTREBA SCORECARD
Favorite stuff — TV shows: Speed channel, History channel, National Geographic … Sport to watch: Late Model dirt track racing … Reading: Harry Potter series, John Grisham and Dan Brown novels … Teams: Twins, Vikes, Wild … Racers Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin … Food: meat-lovers pizza