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Hastings driver among those to compete in Washington County Fair's first autocross

Matt Leko, 22 of Hastings, and Mike Swikla, 24 of Woodbury, stand next to their cars ahead of Friday’s autocross race at the Washington County Fair. The two friends spent months setting up and modifying their cars. (RiverTown Multimedia photo by Youssef Rddad)

Mike Swikla totaled his bright blue Chevrolet Cavalier last Friday evening in Lake Elmo.

First, it was his back bumper that fell off from getting rear ended a few times. Later, he got a flat tire when another car clipped his.

A few hours later, he lost his back-left wheel coming around a turn and needed the help of a Bobcat skid-steer loader to push away his damaged, dented and destroyed car.

The transmission was done for, and his car is likely destined for the scrap yard.

“It was worth it,” said Swikla, 24, of Woodbury who was among the two dozen or so autocross contestants at the Washington County Fair last Friday.

Event organizer Steve Heitman has been putting on autocross and demolition derby events throughout the state for more than 25 years, including events at neighboring county fairs. But this year was the first time his company, Impact Motorsports Promotions, hosted an event at the Washington County Fair.

Spectators’ cheers were muted by the sound of roaring engines as drivers kicked up dirt and mud as they crashed, skidded and grinded against other cars as they ripped around a dirt course.

Bayport firefighters and paramedics stood by during the races and were called upon to put out a few car fires throughout the night.

Cars are also inspected before hitting the track.

“Basically, we check anything that’ll start on fire or explode,” Heitman said.

To keep things safe, organizers stopped the race when a car would roll over or catch fire.

The races were divided by vehicle size, which ranged from compact cars to full-sized trucks. The course included four turns, a rough patch of bumps and a large jump for cars to fly over.

Drivers like Swikla and friend Matt Leko, 22, of Hastings spent months modifying their cars for the compact car race by installing metal support bars and knocking out the windows and windshields, among other preparations.

Before last week, the two had never competed in an autocross race. Despite not finishing, the final race the duo had a promising run.

During the first heat, Leko finished first after beating out five other cars in his souped up Dodge Neon.

“I just put the pedal to the metal,” he said, adding that he was still coming down from the adrenaline rush after his run.

In the final race, Leko started out ahead but fell behind mid-race.

In a twist of irony, Leko’s car stopped after running over Swikla’s tire that had rolled into the middle of the track and got wedged underneath Leko’s car.

Swikla’s car was all but totaled at that point, and both he and Leko sat in idle cars as the race finished.

“We tried,” Swikla said after the final race as he inspected the damage his car took that evening.

Winners only take away a few hundred dollars and, more importantly, bragging rights. But for many, the contest is not about the money.

Still, “it would have been nice to win,” he said.

The event came before a demolition derby, which was held the following evening.

As for next year, both Swikla and Leko said they’re interested in racing again.