One Last Visit to Illiana
By Stan Kalwasinski
August 1, 2016
I figured I would pay Illiana Motor Speedway one last visit this
past Sunday. If
possible, I wanted to take a few more photographs of the
speedway which is in the process of being dismantled (a nicer
way of saying being torn down) after it was sold to the Town of
Schererville by owner Mike Mikuly.
It was a bright, sunny day and a sort of still, quiet
atmosphere, almost like a cemetery, was about the place even
though workers were taking down the backstretch scoreboard while
others loaded light poles on to a flatbed truck. All
the overhead light banks and poles were down on the ground. Some
of the wheel fencing had already been removed.
A bunch of memories rushed at me. I
remember my Dad and I going to the Tony Bettenhausen Memorial
race there in 1963. We
took a ride from our home on the far southwest side of Chicago. Thinking
back, it seemed like a long ride to Indiana.
The United States Auto Club (USAC) sanctioned the race. Paul
Goldsmith won the 100 lapper in a white Norm Nelson-owned,
factory-backed, '63 Plymouth. Indy
500 winners A.J. Foyt, Rodger Ward and Pat Flaherty were in the
lineup that day along with Nelson, Curtis Turner, Don White,
Gary Bettenhausen and
Sal Tovella, among others.
The cars seemed to have a lot of speed down the long
straightaways and there was a distinctive smell in the air,
which I would later learn was gear lube. I
thought it was a pretty big deal with Indianapolis 500 drivers
racing there and the cars looking pretty sharp and straight, not
the typical stock car from Chicagoland short tracks.
For some reason, my Dad and I never made it back to Illiana
until the 1965 Tony Bettenhausen Memorial. Track
owner Harry Molenaar had parted ways with USAC and the race was
now an ''open competition'' event, giving local drivers from all
the Chicago area tracks a chance to participate. A
50-lap feature would highlight the afternoon's action.
Over 70 cars were on hand that day for time trials. Getting
there late, I remember the announcer, either Illiana's Chuck
Stone or Raceway Park's Wayne Adams, announcing that ''Moose''
Myers, from Fort Wayne, Ind., was the fastest qualifier. Moose
Everyone that afternoon learned who ''Moose'' Myers was. Myers
and his sharp-looking '57 Chevy convertible No. 0 ran away to
victory in the 50-lap feature race that day. Myers
and his Chevy would win again in 1966 with the race being
increased back to 100 laps. Over
the years, I would witness 50 of the 54 Bettenhausen contests
held at Illiana.
Definitely not making Illiana a weekly visit, the Bettenhausen
100 lapper always seemed to be on my personal schedule. Michigan's
Joy Fair came to Illiana twice in his win-filled career and he
won the Bettenhausen 100 twice - in 1967 and 1969. You
never knew who was going to show up for those late-season,
Sunday afternoon races at Illiana. After
the Bettenhausen race in 1971, I remember Dick Trickle showing
up with his Ford Torino No. 99 for the season finale on a Sunday
afternoon late in October. Memories!
I started going out to Illiana with a small camera around my
neck and talked my way into the pits as a photographer for the
old MARC Times Racing News out of Michigan. In
1971 with the season underway, Illiana needed a photographer and
I convinced track owner Harry Molenaar that I was the man for
the job. I
even worked for Harry at his Harley Davidson Motorcycle shop in
Hammond for several years.
From 1971 through 1976, I was Illiana's official photographer
and began writing stories for the various weekly racing
newspapers, including Midwest Racing News. I
got to know race officials Art Kelly, Bob Adams, Red Rinehart,
Keith Switzer and Elmer Steinbeck. I
met various ''media types'' during that time, including Martin
Wyant from the Chicago Tribune and Rick Dal Corobbo, who wrote
then for the Lansing Sun Journal and who was a real big race fan
USAC sprint cars made their first-ever area appearance at
Illiana in 1975 with the likes of Gary Bettenhausen, Duane ''Pancho''
Carter, Larry Dickson, Tom Bigelow and others in competition. It
seemed appropriate that Gary Bettenhausen would win the
first-ever USAC sprint car feature race at Illiana on June 7,
USAC midgets and United Auto Racing Association (UARA) midgets
raced at Illiana in the 1970s with the UARA cars running there
on a weekly basis (Friday nights) for several years. I
got to know a bunch of the UARA guys, including drivers Bob
Richards, Newt White, Bruce Field and race officials, Chuck
Stebbins and Don Carter.
Larry Schuler was Illiana's late model champion in 1975 and
was ''red hot'' in Midwest late model competition in 1976,
winning a total of 43 feature races and three track titles-Illiana,
Grundy County Speedway and Wisconsin International Raceway.
I left Illiana for a while and worked for John and Sue McKarns,
who had taken ownership of the ARTGO Racing late model series. Illiana
held its first ARTGO event in 1980 with Ed Hoffman and Dick
Trickle sharing twin-50-lap feature race honors. Hoffman's
victory came during the legendary ''race in the fog.''
I ended up seeing a lot of races at Illiana over the years. With
announcer Keith Switzer retiring after the 1987 season, I was
asked to become Illiana's ''man behind the mike.'' I
did that from 1988 through 2000 and witnessed a lot of great
races and race drivers-Frank Gawlinski, Mike White, Dave
Weltmeyer and Pat Kelly quickly come to mind. Gawlinski
seemed to be unbeatable at times! Under
the tutelage of Elmer Steinbeck, my sons Jack and Matt became
pretty competent race scorers and timers, working with the likes
of Illiana starters Smokey Smith and Tom White. More
My son Jack started racing at Illiana about midseason in 2000. For
15 years, Jack was pretty much a regular at Illiana. He
drove Nick Trgovich's Ford No. 11 to the Limited Late Model
track championship in 2006, won a super late model feature in
2008 and made his last Bettenhausen 100 start in 2014 with a
''top 10'' finish. A
lot of memories here!
I had the pleasure of writing for The Times of Northwest Indiana
newspaper for over a dozen years, covering Illiana on a weekly
Hoffman, Jeff Cannon, Boris Jurkovic, Brett Sontag, Anthony
Danta and others would be the news for their racing exploits on
the half-mile. Who
would have thought that when Avon, Indiana's Scott Tomasik drove
Tony D'Ambrose's No. 8 late model to victory in the Tony
Bettenhausen Memorial 100 on September 19, 2015 that would
pretty much bring down the curtain on racing at Illiana.
I have a lot of memories, memorabilia and photos from Illiana,
but it doesn't match going out there for a Saturday night of
end of an era and Illiana Motor Speedway is about to become a
chapter of racing history, but the memories will always be
Stan Kalwasinski Photos
Looking west on route 30
The Lucky Wheels Club House
Illiana main entrance
The grove of trees behind the main grandstand
Looking down the main straightaway from turn 4
Turn 3 & 4
Start/ finish line
Scoreboard ready to come down
Looking down the grandstands at turn 4
Gary Gasper Photos
The "old grandstand" in turn one. Word is
it's going to South Bend Speedway.
Top row of the grandstand. Did you sit up
Where the racing was announced from.
Perfect view from in here!
Grandstands being taken down and going to a good
Work crew using the old beer stand for good use.
One of the most important buildings at Illiana
Looking towards the grandstands from the picnic
The scoreboard is gone and will be at Shadyhill
If I don't look happy it's because I'm NOT happy.
After you bought you program and popcorn, did you
go to the left, or to the right?
Driving out of the pit gate for the last time.
And onto Route 30 for the sad drive home.