Les Wildin – Driver

Les Wildin ready for midget action in 1950.

Les Wildin ready for midget action in 1950.

By Chad Meyer

Algona’s Les Wildin took the love of driving automobiles, and a farm kid work ethic, molding it into a highly successful racing career. A paid mechanic at the age of 14, and a full-time farmer when he turned 18, Wildin had to wait until he turned 21 before sliding into the frame rails of his first midget racer.

His father loved racing, but hated the idea of his son competing in the dangerous midget division and refused to sign the paperwork needed to let Wildin compete before his 21st birthday.

Wildin and his second-cousin James bought and rebuilt their first midget, which was the predominant class of cars in this area.

Wildin's midget ride, 1950.

Wildin’s midget ride, 1950.

They raced extensively in the Northwest Midget Association, competing at tracks across Iowa and in Illinois and Minnesota. Wildin spent most Sunday afternoons racing at the Mason City, IA track, before completing the double-header at Sports Park Raceway in Fort Dodge later that day. The rest of their summer was spent racing across the Midwest at county and state fairs.

Aside from the trophies earned, Wildin recalls just how dangerous midget racing was then. The cars had no roll bar behind the driver. Wildin’s car featured what was then referred to as a “California Tail”, with no driver protection and had his shoulders extending above the tail tank. He remembers losing friends to the sport and knows that he was lucky to be not only successful, but to not sustain major injury.

He remembers racing the midget fair race in Blue Earth, MN when after winning the heat and the trophy dash, Joie Chitwood stopped by his pit, asking Wildin if he would consider trying out for his popular Thrill Show that winter. Though Wildin was grateful for the offer, he knew he would soon be drafted into the Army.

1967 at Jackson Speedway.

1967 at Jackson Speedway.

In 1953, Wildin didn’t wait for the Army to call his draft number; he chose to enlist in the U.S. Navy. After completing Airline Mechanic training, he was based in Washington State before serving at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii as part of the VR8 Naval Transportation Squadron. Wildin and five others were responsible changing engines on airplanes flying into the base plus performing repairs. They were often on call 24 hours each day.

Wildin says he received the best birthday present ever, being discharged on Jan. 11, 1955. He found racing again a year later, driving midget cars owned by Rowan, Iowa’s Stan Riedel. Wildin continued to race off and on until he began racing for Don Hurn and Wayne Arndorfer in 1960.

In 1961, Arndorfer and Hurn teamed up with fellow Algona High graduates Daryl Arend and Bob Arend. Their first car was old Ford with a flat head engine that featured Wildin as the driver.

1967 Fairmont Raceway.

1967 Fairmont Raceway.

They competed regularly at what was then the half-mile in length dirt oval in Algona and also made the tow to the Wright County Speedway near Belmond. The young team gelled quickly, proving to be fast out of the gate in 1961. With Wildin at the controls, the #00 posted a third place finish at Algona in their first night together.

Never out of the top three in the first part of the season, they posted their first win together in early July. Near mid-season, the Arndorfer-Hurn team acquired the heralded “U2” car from Estherville. This move to a proven car paid dividends as they ended the ’61 season at Algona in fine fashion, earning the season championship feature event. In the final point standings, Wildin guided the Arndorfer-Hurn-Arend entry to second in points, behind point champion Bud Fair.

The start of the 1962 season provided significant changes. Arndorfer and Hurn chose to go their own way as car owners, retaining Wildin as their driver, but were no longer affiliated with the Arends. The track at Algona was cut down from its half-mile size to a banked quarter-mile layout, partially in response to the fiery crash that claimed the life of driver Larry Cordes in week three of the ’61 season.

Once again the team started fast, posting the season opener in Algona, and winning two feature events in the first four weekly nights. Wildin heated up again in late June, grabbing more wins and the point lead in Algona. They also earned wins at the Wright County Speedway and top five finishes at Dayton, IA.

1968 Fairmont MN winner in the Swea City Oil #88.

1968 Fairmont MN winner in the Swea City Oil #88.

As the season wound down, Wildin put the Arndorfer-Hurn car in victory lane for the team’s biggest win of the season. During the 20-lap feature, Wildin played second fiddle to race leader Gene Schattschneider. Wildin waited until the last lap to make his move and capturing the coveted Kossuth County Fair championship in front of a crowd of 2,500.

On their way to earning the 1962 point crown at Algona, they went on to win late in August and again on Labor Day. The team also finished second in the standings at the Belmond track and posted special event wins at other tracks in September.

Over the winter, Arndorfer and Hurn prepared the #00 for the assault on the 1963 season. Come April though, Uncle Sam had other ideas for Hurn as he was drafted into the Air Force, forcing him to miss the racing season.

Arndorfer, with Wildin again as the driver, had another great season. The high water mark occurred at midyear, earning the Tuesday night fair race trophy in Algona, before traveling east to capture the Wednesday special at Mason City. The team returned to Algona on Thursday for another run at the Kossuth County Fair, posting their third feature win in a row that week. They used this momentum to power their way to their second season point championship in as many years, finishing ahead of Leo Christensen.

1971, feature winner at Fairmont, MN in the Doocy Repair #2.

1971, feature winner at Fairmont, MN in the Doocy Repair #2.

In the late 1960’s, the modifieds reigned supreme. In 1967, Wildin’s car owner, Daryl Arend had the itch to race Saturday night’s at Knoxville; however, the driver was less enthused. Wildin didn’t feel the races in Knoxville paid that well and he wasn’t looking forward to the late nights away from home.

His friend Jim Edgington was however, looking to race at Knoxville. A deal was struck where Edgington wheeled Arend’s car at Knoxville, while Wildin took the controls of the #14 modified owned and maintained by Edgington, Ron Barton and Roger Hendrickson.

With Wildin driving the #14, the team reached a new high in 1967, earning track championships at both Jackson Speedway and at the Fairmont speed plant. Impressively, they did it with two different drivers. Wildin earned the championship at Jackson Speedway, while Edgington returned to the ride on Sunday’s at Fairmont…earning the championship there.

During that championship run at Jackson, Wildin recalls earning $400 to win the fair feature. To do it, he made a three wide move around the top to pass Jack McCorkell, and Dick Forbrook for the victory. Winning races at Jackson was a big deal to Wildin. There was great competition each week and the fast cars always started last.

Wildin spent most of 1968 out of racing after a crash sidelined him with injuries. In 1969, Wildin was offered the ride in the #88 Swea City Oil modified. He was also offered the chance to wheel the Utt Electric #30. He chose the red Swea City Oil car, because he believed it was a good ride and that the team had some untapped potential.

1967 Jackson Speedway, Wildin, track champ.

1967 Jackson Speedway, Wildin, track champ.

His hunch was on the money; he was the winner the first night out at Fairmont Raceway and went on to win the 1969 modified championship in the car.

Wildin’s career started to wind down at the start of the new decade, but not before winning races in the Doocy Repair #2 stock car at the Fairmont, MN track in 1971. He retired from the sport in 1972.

He lists his wins at the Clay County Fair in Spencer and the Kossuth County Fair race championships in Algona as his favorite victories. Wildin also cherishes his point championships at Jackson Speedway, Fairmont Raceway and at Algona Raceway.

Wildin is an inaugural member of the Kossuth County Racing Hall of Fame, located in Algona, IA.

Today, Wildin continues to farm and resides with his wife Peg in Algona.