Four shiny red super late model race cars are aligned in a row with a stack of tires on the wall, along with trophies and awards on display.
Behind the cars sits a stack of assorted metal, a steel fabricating saw and a welding station. In the back of the garage is a small tool room with an assortment of weighted springs, bolts and nuts. Many may view it as a scene out of a “Storage Wars” episode.
For Verona residents John Beale and Dalton Zehr, the garage located on Commerce Parkway in Verona serves as their playground as members of the Gildan Racing Team. Beale is the owner and Zehr serves as a driver and crew chief.
“It’s a drug,” Beale said of racing. “You can not beat the rush of going 100-plus miles-per-hour and trying to beat a guy in the corner, through the corner and to the next corner. I love the thrill of competition.”
The super late model is the top racing class before NASCAR. Beale and Zehr raced against each other in the past before deciding to join forces. The two combined to win seven feature races and three championships last season, including Beale’s victories in the Wisconsin Challenge Series and All-Star Triple Crown Series.
Zehr has racked up more than 130 feature wins and more than a dozen track championships. He set track records at the Dells Raceway Park championship last year and the Midwest Tour Championship in 2018, among others.
Zehr finished 11th out of 60 cars in the Snowball Derby, the largest race in the country held in Pensacola, Florida.
“He was obviously the best in the business so I hired him,” Beale said of Zehr.
Beale born into racing family
Beale got his start in racing 14 years ago when he rented a four-cylinder car for $100 to race at Jefferson Speedway.
“I didn’t tell anyone I was going to be racing because it was my first time,” he said. “I was going to be horrible and it was going to be ugly.”
Beale received a phone call from his parents before the race.
“They announced me and they looked at each other and were like, ‘No, we heard that wrong,’” he explained. “They could hear the announcer on the phone and told me to get my butt home.”
Beale purchased a four-cylinder and moved up to the truck series, a stock engine class and then limited later models. He is entering his third season racing super late models.
The super late model limited class is characterized by quick-change rear ends that feature tiny gears in the cars to allow them to jump from a standstill to 80 miles-per hour. This is comparable to a street car leaving in fourth gear. The race car can reach speeds of 150 mph.
Beale’s father, John Robert Beale, owned a racing shop in Verona, Star Motor Sports. His father rejected his initial offer to race, so John Beale decided to race for himself.
“I was on a race team for forever,” John Beale said, “but when I went to the track, all I got to do was work on the cars.”
Beale said the most valuable lesson he learned while working with his father was that every pit crew member should get the opportunity to drive.
“You think a driver can do certain things,” he said. “But until you get in that car, you have no clue. Everyone should get some laps in a race car before they say they know better.”
As a spotter on the radio in his father’s pit crew as a teenager, Beale advised the driver to go harder and faster.
“When you are out there, you are doing just everything you can to hold on,” he said. “There is no more. Even survival is a win.”
Zehr zips into racing
A Middleton, Idaho native, Zehr got his start in racing at age 7 in the Boise Valley area. He then moved to Florida when he was 9 and his passion for the sport was reinforced.
Zehr first raced go-karts and progressed to Bandoleros, which are one-sixth of the size of a standard car and have frames similar to a go-kart. He advanced to truck series racing before moving on to super late model limiteds.
Zehr had several mentors in his two decades of racing that helped him skip the typical trials and tribulations when he first started out. One of Zehr’s neighbors growing up was Gene Coleman, owner of the renowned Coleman Machine Shop and an innovator of racing products. Coleman, a member of the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame, designed products used in NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One and off-road racing.
“So many people learn bad habits by driving cars that don’t handle well,” Zehr said. “I had a car that was already up to speed. All I had to do was learn how to drive it.”
He test drove super late models with his father, Marty Zehr, who raced in that class. Marty Zehr later served as his son’s spotter and crew chief.
“I got to skip a lot of the hard learns,” Dalton Zehr said. “Guys stuff them in a wall because they make a mistake. It was only a matter of time before I had a super (late model) and I started out very competitive right away.”
Prepping for the season
Zehr said this season’s goal is to have the fastest lap at each track. To get the optimum success out of each car, the duo focuses on the suspension and load simulation.
“We want a Cadillac ride at a quarter-inch off the ground like a go-kart so it rides as smooth as possible,” Zehr said.
One of the main tools Beale and Zehr use is a load machine that uses springs and sensors to measure the weight of each tire as it travels to aid in absorbing bumps. Zehr said they want to ride in a load range of 1,500 to 2,000 pounds per tire.
The machine measures the load the car has in each corner. The duo also calculates the fuel burn and the reliance on the right side tire because they are always turning left. The car handles best when all four tires weigh the same.
“This has made us better, but it doesn’t make us fast,” Zehr said of the load machine. “I had already won 80 features before I had this machine the last two years. It hasn’t propelled me. It’s made me more precise. It’s like spell check.”
The first challenge in Zehr building a super late model is ordering all of the parts. The duo starts in October with a plan of changes they want to make. They attended a national auto racing manufacturer trade show in December in Indianapolis, Indiana to gain more knowledge.
Zehr draws on Beale, Coleman, his father and the Gildan Racing Team pit crew, a group with 30 or more years of experience each, to determine the best pieces to add to the car.
Once the team has the chassis delivered for the car, they put on four tires. The front suspension and rear end are attached using various weighted nuts, bolts, transmission features, weights of the fuel cell, frames and drive shafts.
Zehr then mounts the engine and gets to work on the interior. He utilizes a steel fabrication and welding area to bend and mold all of the metal into the various pieces he needs inside the car. After the metal is molded, Zehr works on shaping the body of the car.
After wires are hooked up and the car goes on the scale, Zehr decides the weight of the springs to put on each corner and at what heights.
“I’ve been addicted to racing my whole life,” Zehr said. “I’m just obsessed with it.”
The new race car will allow the duo to use either a two- or four-barrel carburetor. Two-barrels are used on quarter-mile tracks and four-barrels are used on half-mile tracks to generate more power.
“The saying is races are won at the shop and not the track,” Beale said. “If we see an entry list of 30 people coming to a race, we can already tell you who will finish in the top five and bottom five.”
Beale and Zehr schedule at least 35 races annually. Beale has 23 races on his schedule this year and Zehr has 19. The team added a fourth car to its stock this season.
The season begins in mid-April and runs until late October. They trek across the state carrying two cars with a two-level RV hauler that includes a living room, couch and small kitchen.
Beale and Zehr, along with the Gildan Racing Team, have set long- and short-term goals.
“The ultimate goal is to make it to the NASCAR series,” Beale said.
Beale said there have been plenty of off-road racing drivers who have made the climb to NASCAR, but it ultimately comes down to a combination of money and success.
The team has a combination of national, local and non-profit sponsors. Gildan, an apparel company, is the national sponsor. The local sponsors are Sugar River Pizza and AMS in Verona and Best Cleaners in Madison. The Make-A-Wish Foundation is the team’s nonprofit sponsor.
Zehr said a realistic goal this season is for the team to win 10 races combined.
“It’s a reachable goal and those are good ones to have,” he said. “We want to represent the sponsors we have at this level.”