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Ben Smith

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Photos courtesy Baer Field Speedway
Cliff Setser started at the old Fort Wayne Speedway when he was 18 years old and never really quit, driving race cars through parts of seven decades before he died Saturday at age 83.

Patriarch’s legacy races on

Courtesy Baer Field Speedway
Setser often drove four nights a week throughout the country.

His grandsons are still out there, tearing up Jack beneath the blue veil of those smoky Saturday night lights.

Guess that’s as good a place as any to start this.

Good a place as any to give Cliff Setser his proper fit now that he’s gone, to talk about legacy and the loud clang of years upon years. The man was a racer, and his sons, Calen and Curtis, were racers, and now if you go out to Baer Field Speedway on one of those clamorous Saturday nights, his grandsons, Cory Setser and Shawn Bonar, might be out there, too, muscling winged sprints or modifieds or street stocks around that half-mile of flat treacherous asphalt.

So it’s a generational thing, as it so often is at the Baer Fields or Avillas or Angolas. Except in this case it keeps alive a man so inseparable from all that he seems to have gone from cradle to grave in some blaring hunk of sheet metal bearing the familiar No. 22.

That’s not quite true, of course. But it’s close enough.

A week or so before he died, after all, he was still behind the wheel of a race car at Baer Field, where, at 83, he got caught up in someone’s deal and crashed out of his last race. Hardly anyone thought he should have been out there. But where else was he going to be?

“I didn’t exactly think it was a good idea at his age,” says his son, Curtis, who’s 59 now. “But he didn’t take my advice. He did what he wanted to do.”

And what he wanted to do was race, always. He raced at Baer Field and he raced out in Pennsylvania and he raced down at Daytona, winning a bunch and losing some. He started at the old Fort Wayne Speedway when he was 18 years old and never really quit, driving race cars through parts of seven decades, capping it all by beating a field of nearly 70 entries in the second-annual Hoosier 200 at Baer Field in 1966.

Sixteen years later, he cashed his biggest check by winning the 1982 Three Rivers Festival/Tom Wible Memorial 100.

“There were so many places in so many cars,” Curtis says. “A lot of times he was racing four times a week. It was what he did.”

Baer Field program director Bob Koorsen concurs.

“He definitely ran everything there was to run,” Koorsen says. “He was one of that group of Fort Wayne guys that would just travel around and hit all the big shows wherever there was big money on the line. He had quite a career.”

And by the late ’70s, his sons were part of it. Curtis started racing in 1978, when he was 23, and remembers that his dad pretty much stayed out of his way. Didn’t help him much at first, but didn’t hinder him, either.

“He never discouraged me,” Curtis says. “He kind of made me do what I did on my own, and then later he helped me after I got a little better.

“I can’t really remember advice he gave me. He just liked the way I did things and knew enough to not really change me.”

And, of course, nobody could change him, either. Inducted into the Baer Field Hall of Fame in 2012, a member of Fort Wayne Racing Association, Star Racing Association, ASA and ARCA as a chief steward, he was actually planning on racing fairly regularly at Baer Field this summer.

“He was all excited,” Koorsen says. “He wanted to come out and race with the boys as much as he could this season.”

Well, of course.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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