Curt Eckelberg has enjoyed the 28 years he's spent inside a race car, but is just as excited to climb out of it for good later this fall. Eckelberg is retiring from driving after the annual Oktoberfest Races at La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway in early October and will transition to full-time crew chief for his children beginning next season.
"It's going to be a big brick off my shoulders not having to drive every Saturday night," Eckelberg said. "It will be so much more relaxing to just tinker on the cars."
Running a three-car team hasn't been easy for the Curt and the rest of the racing family, especially with three full-time racers in need of attention. Daughter Mandi Eckelberg races in the Dean's Satellite Sportsmen Division while son Jonathan Eckelberg races alongside Curt in the Kwik Trip NASCAR Late Models.
"We do most of the work in the garage during the week but we fine-tune at the track," Curt said. "With just one or two guys doing three cars, it's really tough."
No one knows that better than Craig Kohlmeier. He joined Curt's race team when he was 16 years old and has stood by the family of drivers ever since, spending countless hours in the family's home garage and at the track helping prepare the cars for each Saturday night of racing.
"It's a workout. Some nights there's 10 guys down there, some times there's only a couple of us. It'll be a relief having him down there," Kohlmeier said. "We work real good together, it'll be fun."
Curt said he can see both of his kids' progression on track this year. Though Mandi suffered a devastating crash in the season-opening Frostbuster race, she has settled in with the new rules package in the Sportsmen and is currently 10th in the points standings.
"I think she'll be OK. She runs probably the best line out there I've ever seen," Curt said. "Jonathan is getting there - a lot of that was his car, but now we've got that straightened out and he's beating me consistently now."
After Saturday's races, Curt leads Jonathan by just one point in the season standings with four weeks of racing remaining.
The plan moving forward is to keep Mandi in the Sportsmen for at least another year as she begins practicing in the late model. The ultimate goal is for her to drive in the track's top division someday.
For now, Mandi is looking forward to working more closely with her father, who has always been one of her biggest supporters.
"I want my dad there and it will be nice to actually be able to kind of communicate with him a little bit more," she said. "It's sad to see that he'll be leaving but I know he'll be there a lot more for extra support when I come in from my race and tell him what's going on, he can be there to kind of help me fix it."
Despite all his experience in the car, Curt admits there are a few things he will have to learn out of it. He'll rely on Kohlmeier's expertise mechanically while they will collaborate on the handling of the car.
One thing that won't change is the connection shared by the Eckelbergs and their racing family. It's visible through the three race car drivers, but stems back to Kim Eckelberg, who has watched her husband, and now her children, circle the five-eighths-mile oval.
"Kim is my backbone of racing," Curt said. "She's brought the kids to the race track since they were a week or two old and they sat there and watched me, and now they know more about the corners than I do because they've been watching since they were kids."
"You can always hear her cheering for us or upset if something goes wrong on the track, but she's there no matter what," Mandi said. "Mom's always been there, supported him 100 percent on whatever he wanted to do."
Curt and Mandi were quick to point out Kim is the hot-head of the family, but offers another perspective that can help when discussing on-track incidents at the end of the night. She said she has become less nervous watching all three drivers over the years, and has become so used to watching them each week, she doesn't even think about it anymore.
It's sure to be a bittersweet moment in October when Curt climbs out of car No. 68 for the final time, but don't expect any tears.
Instead, be ready to share a cold drink with him in the pits.
"I think it will be, "Let's have a beer,'" Curt said, seated next to Kohlmeier, who nodded in agreement. "'It's over, let's have a beer and let's move on, let's get the kids going.'"