Like so many great things in this world, the Crandon International Raceway is a phenomenon with deep but organic roots. The entire Midwest off-road movement that the tiny town of Crandon, Wisconsin, birthed didn’t follow some magnificent or carefully calculated path to greatness. Rather, it came from a television program filmed thousands of miles away in a remote, largely unknown part of Mexico known as Baja.
In 1968, legendary action sports film pioneer Bruce Brown of Endless Summer and On Any Sunday fame convinced ABC Sports producers that a new sport and race, the NORRA Mexican 1000 desert rally, would be an ideal subject for the network’s hugely popular Wide World of Sports show. Although the Mexican 1000 was only a year old, by November of 1968 the fresh, innovative form of motorsports had already gained impressive notoriety – and, most importantly, a growing industry to support this rapidly expanding group of racers.
Together with iconic Wide World of Sports host Jim McKay and one of the first uses of a helicopter in televised sport, Brown captured the gritty adventure, freedom and sense of all-out fun that defined the earliest days of the sport.
The Mexican 1000 coverage sparked an even greater interest all around America in what by now was known as “off-road racing.” Somehow, the show managed to make its influence felt in a small hamlet of a Wisconsin Northwoods town called Crandon.
Wanting to experience what they saw on television, by September 6, 1970 the Crandon Jaycees organized the inaugural Crandon Brush Run 101. Led by Jaycee President Roland Yocum and roughly 150 volunteers, over 50 dune buggies, modified sedans, trucks and motorcycles descended upon the Forest County Fairgrounds but, only after being served breakfast at the local Crandon high school. They also integrated a great Crandon tradition by parading all of the race vehicles from the school to the race course – a tradition that remains today as part of Labor Day’s World Championship Off-Road Race ® weekend.
There was, of course, not a single cactus, dry lakebed, silt bed or Baja taco stand to be found — not within a 1000 miles in any direction.
Nonetheless, the Brush Run and its 101 miles snaked through a heavily wooded 25 ¼-mile race course that included a muddy swamp near a place called Pitts Field. A last minute plea by Yocum to assemble the volunteers needed in the local newspaper had worked, and by race time the first race in Crandon, Wisconsin was ready for the green flag.
Wet conditions, a group of inexperienced off-road racers and the tight, twisting course accounted for only 19 of the starting field earning an official finish. Undeterred, Chicago residents Wally Schauer and Jim Zbella needed just over three hour to take the historic victory, driving a charmingly primitive, homemade race buggy.
“Back the, the Jaycees basically just took the Baja racing on TV and re-created it through the woods around Crandon,” current track President Cliff Flannery once shared with a reporter. “It wasn’t until we got bumped from one farmer’s property to another that this short course idea really took root.”
More than four decades later, that idea has blossomed into one of American motorsports biggest success stories. Just five years later, 46 racers and tens of thousands of spectators would make the Labor Day weekend pilgrimage to what was now a two-day Crandon Brush Run 101 happening. By then, event organizers had already started using the term “World’s Championship Off-Road Race,” a term they would later trademark.
By 1989, the Labor Day race had changed its name to the World’s Championship Off-Road Race®, but by now the famous factory-supported off-road racers like Walker Evans, Robby Gordon and even NASCAR champion Jimmy Johnson joined local standouts like Jack Flannery in making the race so popular that ESPN television producer Marty Reid came to broadcast the it for the rest of the world to see. Only two years later, the race with such humble roots hosted a staggering field of 540 entrants.
In 1993, that surprising success led Crandon International Raceway officials to stage a second race at the now-permanent facility just west of town. This weekend would be held each spring, and go on to write yet another chapter to Crandon’s amazing backstory.
Its name? Why the Brush Run of course!
Now over two decades young, the Forest County Potawatomi Brush Run stands on its own as one of the sport’s most significant events.
If it wasn’t true, the Crandon story might easily be categorized as fiction. Not even the most forward thinking person who stood on that Crandon high school parking lot in 1967 could have imagined what the future held.