COLUMBIA — ATV’s crawl around the track like ants as workers hop off and on testing lights and preparing the track. Trucks unleash sounds like endless thunder as their drivers test their engines. Shirts are optional in the pit area as men working on their trucks try to escape the heat. A tanker sprays water on the track, ensuring a slick, muddy ride.
Before Friday night's side-by-side mud races at the Boone County Fair, there was much to be done. John Diegelman takes it all in as he sits in his camouflage folding chair next to his son’s trailer.
“I love to hear those motors run, hear the noise of the track,” said Diegelman, who lives in Chillicothe.
Those noises are familiar ones for Diegelman. Building model cars growing up, Diegelman looked for any outlet to express his love for motor sports. Whether he spent his Saturday nights drag racing on deserted blacktops or the local drag strip, Diegelman could be found around an automobile. During his 30 years of racing, he has seen side-by-side mud racing grow from humble rural roots to an organized sport.
Organizations have sprouted up to accommodate the increasing popularity of the sport. Side by Side Mud Racing of Northern Missouri and the Xtreme Mud Racing Organization provide mud racers rules and events to structure the passion for their sport. Among those rules are classifications for the races at each event. How a vehicle is equipped determines the division, and drivers can enter farm stock, stock, super stock, modified stock or rail races. Tires are the most noticeable difference, and they run from 35 inches in the stock division to 42 inches in the modified stock class.
“I’ve been to NASCAR events. Some people go to them for the excitement, the crashes,” Diegelman said. “I can enjoy races without that, but watching 300 miles constantly gets boring. This adds a little mayhem to motor sports.”
That mayhem brought Harry Billinger to the fairgrounds Friday night. Some yearn for those three to four seconds spent speeding down a 170-foot stretch of mud. He describes himself as a “motor enthusiast with an itch for racing.”
“There’s nothing like it. Seeing that green light come on gives me such a rush,” said Billinger, 37, a farmer from Monroe City.
According to Diegelman, racers spend anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000 to bring their trucks to racing form. He estimates that some in the highest division, rail, spend upwards of $20,000. The divisions exist to ensure competition despite racers' different resources.
“Nobody likes to show up and get embarrassed,” Diegelman said. “We try to keep everyone racing. No matter how much you spend, you can still compete. These races also let racers show off their work, investment and driving capabilities.”
Races also serve as a family affair. Many trucks have deep family roots, including Diegelman’s. His son, Ian Diegelman, races is a ’78 Dodge that Diegelman’s father purchased for farm work. It fed cows, hauled lumber and now it rips up mud. The fresh orange paint with black accenting flames hides any wear, and the vintage grill, handles and side mirrors give it a classic feel.
“I’m sure he’ll be racing someday,” says Diegelman as he motions to his grandson.
For some, side-by-side racing is an answer to life's hardships. Steve Bresharm, who owns Precision Body in Sullivan, lost three fingers on his left hand after an accident at his shop, and he was worried about his future in auto repair. His son, Jeff Bresharm, recently got involved with mud racing with a friend from school. After his father’s injury, Jeff invited his dad out to the track to take his mind off rehabilitation.
“It’s been a release for me,” Steve Bresharm said. "Being outside and around something I love really helped me get through that time."
As a jungle green truck named Digger speeds down the track in a race against Old Yeller, oversized tires spray mud into the first few rows in the pit area. Spectators laugh and hide behind each other for cover. As Old Yeller finishes ahead to earn the stock division prize money, John Diegelman reflects on the sport.
“If you’re in it for the money, you’re confused," he says. "There’s too much that’s better about this sport.”