McLeod County Museum sign

You’ve probably heard of Daytona Beach, Bristol and Talladega. You’ve maybe even heard of Grove Creek or I-94 Speedway. These are, of course, racetracks that conjure images of brightly painted stock cars that zip around a paved track at speeds that reach over 200 mph. Close your eyes and you might even be able to smell the racing fuel.

When it comes to auto racing, names like Bubba Wallace or Chase Elliot often come to mind as modern-day speed demons. Think back a little farther and Dale Earnhardt or Richard Petty are the names associated with the sport. There was a time, however, when a race car driver was a household name in his home alone, and a driver’s passion for the track came in second to his family and his job. A time when his neighbors looked at him as though he had a couple of loose bolts for even daring to hit the track. Such was the case for a young man named Ernest Stucke, a longtime McLeod County resident and early race car driver.

Ernie Stucke was born March 29, 1894, in Appleton, Minnesota. At the time of his birth, the United States was on the brink of a great change. The “horse-and-buggy era” was coming to an end, as was a way of life that had been lived for centuries. Taking its place was the modern world, one filled with technological wonders that just a few decades prior existed in fantasy alone. By the early 1900s, innovations such as airplanes, electricity and telephones were changing the way humans viewed the world. One such innovation, the automobile, was particularly attractive.

Ernie’s older brother, Charley, had a love for cars, and it wasn’t long before Ernie experienced great excitement in them as well. Early on the two began tinkering with carburetors and internal engine components to increase the speed of those early vehicles.

By the age of 20, Ernie’s love for cars had grown to a love of auto racing, and the two brothers had built six race cars. Their prized car was a custom-designed race car built from an old Ford Model T. It had an open cab and was narrow and fast. The car was said to reach speeds of up to 91 mph, a feat at a time when most cars barely reached speeds of 45 mph.

Ernie raced his custom race car in several events. He zipped around tracks in several of Minnesota’s county fairs and was successful enough to qualify for Minnesota’s big race during the State Fair in 1914. The Stucke brothers were well-known racers in the state by this time, and many people were placing bets on Ernie to win, which he did. Additionally, he set a record for being clocked at a speed of 91.4 mph.

In 1917, along with thousands of other young Americans, Ernie answered the call of Uncle Sam and went to Europe to fight the Kaiser and his army of hardened German soldiers. He was sent to France with an infantry supply company whose job was to supply frontline soldiers with clothing, food and ammunition. Though he wasn’t on the front lines himself, his unit saw plenty of action as the enemy often tried to prevent supplies from coming through.

After the Armistice, Ernie was discharged and sent home where he and his brother opened a mechanic garage. A short time later he married and moved to Lynn Township in McLeod County. There, he became active in community affairs and eventually built a respectable name for himself. Few, however, knew of the young man’s racing prowess, including his children.

It wasn’t known until 1984 when Ernie was invited to an event sponsored by the International Motor Contest Association. There, at the age of 90 years old, in front of a large crowd, he received a standing ovation for his skills on the racetrack. He was one of the first, and one of the finest, race car drivers ever to speed around a dirt track in the state of Minnesota.

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. The museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 1-4 p.m. Saturday and by appointment. Admission is free. For more information, call the museum at 320-587-2109.