KAUKAUNA, Wis. (WFRV) – 25 years ago, tragedy struck at Wisconsin International Raceway when Jim Pagel crashed during qualifying and eventually died as a result of his injuries later that night.
The racing community and some of his current family gathered to pay their respects to a man whose impact went beyond the track, and current stock car driver Andy Monday is paying tribute to him.
“Jim was my hero growing up. I used to come out here when I was a teenager when my dad was on his team and we would come out and root for Jim (Pagel) every Thursday night,” said Monday. “That was my guy, that was my hero.”
Pagel wasn’t a lifelong racer, in fact, he was a late-bloomer in the driver’s seat by almost every measure.
“Jim only raced out here (W.I.R.) six or seven years before he had his accident, and he was one of the top guys,” said Monday. “He was winning features, battling against NASCAR champion Matt Kenseth, Jim Weber, and Steve Carlson. Just so many big names that raced out here at that same time, and he was right at the same level as them.”
Jim’s older brother Don Pagel watched his share of races in the stands, and he knew that Jim would eventually get into the driver’s seat.
“He always had an itch to get out there on the track while he was watching in the stands. Whether it was watching Dick Trickle drive here, the Sauter boys, all those guys through the years, even Tony Stewart. He raced against a lot of the big boys and he did very well,” Don added. “He always said ‘I’ve got to move fast because I started in racing too late in life,’ “When those other guys started, they were 14 or 15. He was over 30 years old and would try to move up the ladder at a bunch of different tracks.”
Following Pagel’s death, the #6 was retired by Wisconsin International Raceway, but Monday asked to replicate the look and number to open this year’s racing season.
“We definitely wanted to have a red #6 car this year. I reached out to Wisconsin distributing, (which is Budweiser and Jim’s former sponsor) to get their blessing to do it this year, and I got more than just their blessing,” said Monday. “They wanted to be part of the tribute as well and remembering and honoring Jim‘s legacy on the track. You know, he was a great promoter for the sport and a true sportsman. Just so many memories and so many people that he inspired over the years, so I wanted to do something special for him.”
Ken Dejardin was a co-owner of Pagel’s racing team and even though some things have changed in stock car racing, the look of the car itself is remarkably similar.
“Those are original colors and it is spot on. They did a beautiful job on it. I still get a knot in my stomach about it and it’s been 25 years. You don’t get over something like that,” said Dejardin. “I’m glad to see it. Jim was a great guy and glad to see that they remember him yet. It means a lot, I was always hoping that somebody would do this.”
“I’m very thankful that he’s doing it.” Don Pagel added. “I give a lot of credit to Andy to go about doing all of this. To do what he did with his car? We’re very grateful for it.”
Pagel’s legacy lives on in a variety of ways, and as close-knit as the racing community is, it’s easy to see his impact 25 years later.
“Probably the biggest memory you’ll hear from everyone is just how much of a sportsman he was,” said Monday. “He was very willing to help someone out and keeping his legacy intact, that’s what Jim’s memory is all about.”
His brother Don added, “Jim had two families. He always said ‘I’ve got my racing family, and I’ve got my born family. That’s the way it was for him.”
Pagel’s tribute car will be on display at W.I.R. on Thursday, May 12. Andy Monday will race in it on Saturday, May 14, and Thursday, May 19.