AS THE HEAD OF WISCONSIN’S HIGH SCHOOL RACING ASSOCIATION, THIS COMPETITOR IS LASER-FOCUSED ON ATTRACTING HIGH SCHOOL-AGED YOUTH TO STOCK CAR RACING—AND HOPES TO ONE DAY REACH A NATIONAL AUDIENCE.
The High School Racing Association (HSRA) started in 2020 to give young adults an economical way to enter stock car racing. The organization recently hired Late Model racer Jonathan Eckelberg as director to expand its reach.
It seems like a “Why didn’t someone do this sooner?” idea. Started in Wisconsin, the HSRA enables high school-aged drivers to compete with pre-2005 American V6-powered sedans on dirt and asphalt oval tracks up to a quarter-mile long. Cars are modified only with safety equipment and display their high school’s colors and sports team mascot. The HSRA season runs June through September.
Chuck Deery and Gregg McKarns, promoters of La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway in West Salem, Wisconsin, and Madison International Speedway in Oregon, Wisconsin, respectively, started the HSRA. Tomah-Sparta Speedway in Tomah, and Dells Raceway Park in Wisconsin Dells joined this year.
As HSRA’s newly appointed director, Jonathan Eckelberg comes with the experience of racing with the family team started by his father, which has been a staple at La Crosse for 35 years. Eckelberg spoke with PRI to share his plans for growing the HSRA to other tracks and states and increasing driver participation. He will also manage race schedules and points rankings.
PRI: Tell us how you got into racing.
Eckelberg: I grew up in auto racing at La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway. My dad retired from driving a few years ago, and my sister and I have made our way through the divisions to the NASCAR Late Models. I have raced for 16 years, but 2022 will be our team’s final season.
PRI: What attracted you to the opportunity to lead HSRA?
Eckelberg: I grew up in the racing community and enjoy the extended family I have gained. I want that for other young people who are interested. As I transition from being a racer, I’m thrilled at the opportunity to help build a sport from the ground up and attract young racers.
PRI: What qualities do you possess that you believe make you a good leader for this organization?
Eckelberg: Growing up in the sport and racing myself for years in multiple divisions equips me to help guide new racers and serve as a resource to all the tracks participating in HSRA. As we work to expand the HSRA to other tracks and more states, my planning skills and attention to detail come into play. I will also produce photo, video, and TV shoots and manage social media for HSRA.
PRI: What are you most looking forward to in this new role?
Eckelberg: I’m excited to be connecting and working with other race tracks. I’m also looking forward to watching this grow into something big and impactful.
PRI: What are your goals at the HSRA?
Eckelberg: My immediate goals include expanding HSRA in the Midwest. We’ve already added one new track for 2022, Dells Raceway Park in Wisconsin Dells, and are hoping to add more in Wisconsin and other states. I would love for HSRA to be nationwide. In addition, we want to increase the number of drivers at each HSRA-sanctioned track. We recently had our first school district make auto racing a letter sport at the high school. This was a huge leap forward for HSRA!
PRI: How is HSRA reaching out to youth?
Eckelberg: We’re getting in front of students and their families through high schools regionally based around participating tracks. I make contact both with the athletic director and with any technical education or automotive program instructors. They’re helping to spread the word to students interested in automotive and racing, and about the opportunity to build a car and race it at the local track.
As students express interest, I’m connecting them with veteran racers who can serve as mentors and help them understand the inner workings of their cars and what to expect on race night. In addition, I immediately began working on social media growth to get HSRA in front of students.
PRI: What programs do you offer to generate interest in motorsports?
Eckelberg: Right now, the focus has been on adding tracks and increasing driver counts at the established tracks. Developing HSRA educational materials and programs is certainly a long-term goal.
PRI: How do you think this industry can better serve the youth motorsports market?
Eckelberg: The biggest barrier to entry is cost. The motorsports industry is expensive, and the investment to get started is what deters so many. To make it easier for high school students to enter the sport, we’re doing what we can to provide cost savings, including for safety equipment, gas, and food on race nights.
HSRA racers are not paid a monetary purse. If we pay student athletes, we run the risk of them being ineligible for other sports per the NCAA and state athletic association regulations. Since they are unpaid racers, their $25 annual HSRA membership gets them greatly reduced admission fees to enter the tracks and pits.
PRI: What is one trait that you admire in others, and why?
Eckelberg: I admire people who can focus on one thing at a time.
PRI: Excluding your cellphone/tablet/computer, what’s one thing you can’t live without? Why?
Eckelberg: Can koozies. Who wants cold hands? I’ve got one stuck everywhere and usually have at least one in my pocket.
High School Racing Association
Jonathan Eckelberg co-hosts a podcast “by beer lovers, for beer lovers” called “Pour Another Round.” It features interviews with brewery owners about their businesses and brews. His favorite beer is Milwaukee’s own Pabst Blue Ribbon, which sponsors the family race team.