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Justin Henderson was 16 years old when he began his time in the IMCA sprint cars. (Ken Berry photo)

Henderson Eyes August Peak

One of the local favorites at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway to keep an eye on is always Justin Henderson. 

Henderson divided his time as a youngster between Minnesota and South Dakota, and now lives in Tea, S.D. 

He came by his racing ability naturally. His father, Rod, paved the way in sprint cars and brought his son along with him. With Rod Henderson came a passion and a dedication to the hard work it takes to succeed.

When Justin Henderson started in sprint cars, his father was his crew chief and mechanic. At age 16, he began his time in the IMCA sprint cars, earning as high as a second-place national finish.

The move to 360s was next and a championship in that class came at South Dakota’s Huset’s Speedway in 2000.

Advancement to the 410 division was gradual, but he landed a ride in Lon Carnahan’s potent No. r19 car and won a co-championship with Chad Meyer at Huset’s in 2002.

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Justin Henderson and his son Maximus celebrate together. (Ken Berry photo)

Henderson was quickly gaining a name with race fans of all ages. Top-10 finishes in the Knoxville Raceway standings in 2002 and ’03 followed and he was named the Junior Fan Club Driver of the Year in ’03.

Rod Henderson had worked with Kansas car owner/driver Dan Oswalt in the past and a deal was struck for Justin Henderson to drive his No. d1 car at Knoxville in 2005. Henderson finished seventh in the Knoxville standings and topped the Jerry Richert Memorial at Wisconsin’s Cedar Lake Speedway.

Rod Henderson was building the team’s engines and they decided to take their show on the road with the World of Outlaws. It was a split season, with many WoO regulars leaving for the National Sprint Tour.

It was a leap of faith, but the time was right for Justin Henderson to take that leap in 2006. 

“We learned a lot in that timeframe and got good miles up and down the road,” Henderson recalled. “We were an extremely low-budget team.  A lot of the guys were nice and gave us tires and some people even gave us fuel money to make it to the next race. So there was a lot of generosity out there. We learned a lot and met a lot of good people.”

Henderson finished eighth in the standings and set three quick times with his dad’s engines. The NST folded after the season and Henderson recorded another quick time and four top-five finishes in 2007 despite the return of many WoO regulars to the tour.

“It’s hard to explain how the Outlaws race from race to race,” Henderson said of the cutthroat business of being on the road. “You don’t have that feeling of local racing, where there are nights you are racing for points. On the road, you have to turn every single lap as hard as you can go, because you have the other 12 Outlaws guys with you. It’s hard to explain. It’s just another level of intensity.”

In 2008, he returned to Knoxville Raceway full time and his experience showed. He won two features and finished 10th in the Knoxville Nationals main event.

The folks in the Keystone State were paying attention, too. Over the next three seasons, he landed rides with Steve Miller and Pete Postupack, but found a home in Charlie and Dawn Sorokach’s No. 35 entry.

The competition in central Pennsylvania was at its peak.

Future Hall of Famers Fred Rahmer, Lance Dewease, Greg Hodnett, Keith Kauffman and Don Kreitz Jr. were all in the mix every night, with several others, including Stevie Smith, still winning. Henderson won twice at Williams Grove Speedway and once at Port Royal.

“Pennsylvania was good for me to say the least. Night in and night out with some of the toughest competitors of that time,” Henderson said. “Racing a lot of races every year … not much different than with the Outlaws. Racing those styles of race tracks was good. Those Pennsylvania race tracks that those guys are good at, they’re not really like other tracks in the country. They’re a little bit different.”

Henderson returned to the Midwest for family reasons in 2012.

He holds the distinction of winning the first Hard Knox Friday night qualifying feature at the Knoxville Nationals in the Buffalo Wild Wings No. 82 car. After brief stints with that team and with Rick Ferkel and the All Stars, things took a fortuitous turn when he met car owner/crew chief Bryan Sundby in 2013.

“I got hooked up with Sundby through (engine builder) Al Parker,” Henderson explained. “I raced with Ferkel for a little bit after the B-dubs car. When I was racing for Ferkel, I was delivering a motor for Vance Peterson back from Fisher’s (Racing Engines) and we decided to go to Knoxville on a Saturday. Al Parker approached me there, and said he had a guy I needed to talk to. I never knew Bryan Sundby before that, but that’s how we got started.”

At the Nationals, they struck with a third-place finish, Henderson’s best to date. In 2014 and ’15, they ran both the 410 and 360 classes at Knoxville. The result was two 360 owners’ championships (drivers were only eligible for points in one class) and third and second place standings in the 410s.

In 2015, they won four features in each class.

“Running both classes helps a lot, especially in that case, because both cars were prepared extremely close to each other,” Henderson said. “Both motors ripped as good, if not better than anyone else’s out there. We had every benefit racing at Knoxville. We should have won a 410 championship. We were close. We won two 360 owners’ championships. Those were some of my most pivotal years at Knoxville for sure.”

In 2014, Henderson finished fifth at the Nationals. 

“I really try to get hot in July and August if I can,” he said. “That’s definitely the highest paying months that we have. Knoxville seems to be perfect timing. I don’t know if they have the perfect start time in April or what it is, but we seem to get hot around July and August.”

When Huset’s Speedway was sold to Chuck Brennan and began running Saturdays in 2016, Sundby took his operation and driver with him.  Running both classes, they garnered third with the 410s and second in the 360s.

After parting with Sundby, Henderson raced the Thone Motorsports entry before hooking up with his current ride in Mike Sandvig’s No. 7 entry. 

“We started racing together in 2018,” Henderson said.  “The first night out, we ran second, but it did take a while to get going with Mike. We definitely had our struggles. Last year felt really good.”

A fifth-place standing in points at Knoxville in 2019 was followed by a seventh-place result during the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season. In 2021, things went well. Henderson brought Sandvig his first two 410 sprint car victories at Knoxville. He went into the final night of the season with a chance to win the title but finished third when all was said and done.

Tod Quiring bought Huset’s Speedway and reopened it after four dormant seasons. Henderson and Sandvig pounced on the opportunity and won the 410 track championship on the strength of five wins and 12 top-five finishes in 18 races. 

“We were hit or miss there for a while, and then last year, we were pretty good,” Henderson said. “We had the same cars and same motors all year and that helps. This year, we started with the same car, but we wrecked that car, so we’re trying to find what will work.”

Running Knoxville on Saturday and Huset’s (a five- hour drive one way) on Sunday can be grueling, but it also sharpens a racer. 

“Doug Wolfgang said a long time ago, Knoxville will make you famous, but Huset’s will make you a racer,” Henderson related. “The back-to-back between the tracks will definitely make you better. It is tough on Sundays after Knoxville. It’s right out of our backdoor, so we can’t complain about that.”

And now Henderson and his team are ready for another Knoxville Nationals.

The 43-year-old has seen it all in sprint car racing. The focus, the preparation and the hard work are put in. He’s looking for that perfect timing again in August at Knoxville.

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