“Chicago Whispers” column & photos by Stan Kalwasinski

Chicago Whispers

By Stan Kalwasinski

Chicago, Ill.—Before getting too far into 2020, let’s take a look at Chicagoland auto racing 20 and 50 years ago – the years were 2000 and 1970.

2000 – The area’s oldest speedway, Blue Island’s Raceway Park closed it gates for the final time in September of 2000 after hosting an incredible 2,949 racing programs.  The last racing season at the speedway, which had been in operation since 1938, saw Kevin Reidy win late model track championship honors for the third time.  Reidy made off with 16 feature race victories during the year and finished ahead of Kirk Hardin and Gary Raven in the final points tally. Raceway Park, actually located in Calumet Park at the southeast  corner of Vermont Street (130th Street) and Ashland Ave., held its last racing event, an enduro program, on September 30th with Colleen Bruce winning the last race – a 36-car, 75-lap, women’s enduro.

Pat Kelly, Billy Knippenberg and Frank Reaber each had the distinction of winning season track championships at two different speedways during the year.  Kelly and Knippenberg won season crowns in their respective stock car divisions at the Grundy County Speedway (Morris) and at Illiana Motor Speedway (Schererville, Ind.).  Ironically, both Kelly and Knippenberg hail from the small town of Rockdale near Joliet.  Reaber was the United Midwestern Promoters (UMP) late model titlist at both the Kankakee Motor Speedway and the LaSalle Speedway.

A relative newcomer to late model action, Kelly won a total of 12 feature races during the 2000 campaign.  Knippenberg was the dominant force in Mid American sportsman-style competition at both tracks, piling up 17 main event victories during the season.  Reaber, a four-time late model track champion at the old Santa Fe Speedway near Willow Springs, captured four UMP feature wins along the way.

Wisconsin’s Bobby Wilberg won his seventh NASCAR late model track championship at the Rockford Speedway.  Winning 10 main events on his way to his sixth straight season title, Wilberg’s effort tied John Knaus’ mark for the most late model track championships at the speedway and Joe Shear’s record six consecutive track titles at the northern Illinois speed plant.

Garland Spoonmore nabbed super late model track championship honors at the Sycamore Speedway.  Shannon Lee was the track’s late model champ with Gary Langos coping the spectator crown.  Other Sycamore champs included Brenda Weaver (powder puff) and Jim Bognar (demolition).

At Crown Point, Indiana’s Southlake Speedway, Tony Roland made off with UMP late model season honors for the first time in his career.  Dick Wood went home with the UMP open-wheel modified division title.  Tim Walter garnered the track’s super street stock season trophy, while William Harrison won the street stock title and Matt Orns mini stock honors.

Another northwest Indiana dirt oval, Shadyhill Speedway in Medaryville saw Eddie Leviner win the speedway’s UMP late model crown.  Jesse Bitterling was the track’s UMP modified champion.  Don Rance won the street stock championship and Calvin DeYoung mini stock laurels.

Ohio speedster Gene Lee Gibson won the “national” division title in United Midget Auto Racing Association (UMARA) midget action.  Joe Knippel captured three feature races on his way to winning the association’s “sportsman” division crown.

The year saw Steve Carlson winning his sixth career NASCAR Re/Max Challenge Series late model title.  His first came back in 1990 when the series was known as the ARTGO Challenge Series.  Adding another championship to his resume was Joe Roe.  Roe captured his eighth career Interstate Racing Association open wheel sprint car championship.

Some highlights of the past racing season include Carlson winning both NASCAR Re/Max events at the Rockford Speedway, being victorious in the 200 lapper in April and winning the annual 400 lap grind in September.   Speaking of Rockford, late model champion Wilberg scored four straight feature wins to open up the new season.

The freshly remodeled Illiana half-mile oval finally opened on May 27 but the feature races were rained out.  Larry Middleton Jr. won Illiana’s 100-lap Molenaar Classic, the first visit to the track by the Midwest All-Star Racing Series (MARS) late model men and machines.  Eddie Hoffman captured Illiana’s 39th annual Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100, which was part of the track’s season-ending Fall Festival weekend.  Hoffman also won a Re/Max event at the Wisconsin International Raceway in May and a NASCAR All Pro event at Nashville, Tenn. in September.

Dirt track ace Billy Moyer winning the $15,000-to-win Kevin Roderick Memorial event at Kankakee.  Dan O’Neal was another big winner at Kankakee, winning both in UMP action and Northern All-Stars competition.

Pat Kelly was the winner of the 75-lap George Appleton Memorial Classic/Mid Season Championship race at Grundy.  The speedway saw veteran Dave Weltmeyer nab the Lee Schuler Memorial 50 lap season finale.

Rick Aukland won the Hav-A-Tampa, $10,000-to-win 60-lap main event on the dirt at LaSalle in August.  Scott Martin captured Southlake’s annual Harvest 100 dirt track late model chase in early September.

Chicago Motor Speedway in Cicero played host to three major events during the past season.  Mike Garvey won the track’s American Speed Association 200 lapper on July 16.  Cristiano da Matta was the winner of the CART-sanctioned 225 miler on the one-mile oval on July 30.  NASCAR visited the Chicago area for a major event for the first time in more than four decades with Joe Ruttman capturing the Craftsman Truck Series race on August 27. Wisconsin’s Nathan Haseleu won the companion Re/Max Challenge Series 150-lap contest.

Open wheel competition saw Steve Kinser win a Pennzoil World of Outlaws sprint car headliner at Route 66 in Joliet in late June.  Gibson, UMARA’s top man for the season, won the association’s two major events this past year, winning the 50-lap Bob Lockard/Bob Meyers Memorial at Grundy in July and then coming back and claiming top honors in the 60-lap Illinois State Midget Championship in August, again at Grundy.

More open wheel action saw young Kasey Kahne win the 25-lap USAC-sanctioned midget contest at Chicago Motor Speedway in July and Ryan Katz capture the Auto Value Super Sprints main event at Grundy on June 25.

Area stock car competitor Bob Strait closed out his Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) stock car season by winning the rain-delayed ARCA 400 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway on Monday, November 20.  Strait would wind up second in the final ARCA points tally behind champion Frank Kimmel.

1970 – George Hill nailed down 17 feature wins to grab top season championship honors in late model competition at Raceway Park.  Hill defeated longtime Raceway regulars Bud Koehler and Stash Kullman in the final points standings.  Gary Mitidiero turned in a strong performance at the tight, quarter-mile, paved track at season’s end, winning the annual 300 Lap Classic.

Joe Shear won the late model driving crown at the Rockford Speedway.  The title was the fourth in a row for the second-generation driving star.  Coming all the way from the Denver, Colorado, area, Wayne Stallsworth made off with Rockford’s annual National Short Track Championships 200 in early October.

Ray Young scored 19 main event wins on his way to winning the late model championship at the Waukegan Speedway.  Jim Cossman and Bob May finished behind Young in the points standings at the flat, quarter-mile, paved oval.

Young was also crowned the late model champion at the Mazon Speed Bowl, which would see its final year of operation.   Bob Armstrong was the six-cylinder titlist at the high-banked, quarter-mile, paved oval.  The Mazon speed plant would be replaced by the new Grundy County Speedway.

Dick Nelson nailed won his fifth late model driving title on the clay at Santa Fe Speedway.  Nelson bested Don Waldvogel and Larry Jackson in the final points.  Arnie Gardner won the track’s annual National Clay Track Championship 200 in late September.

Nelson was also the late model champion at the Kankakee Fairgrounds Speedway, where he scored 10 feature wins and finished ahead of Wayne Etzel and Jim O’Connor in the final points tally.

Bob Kelly was the late model champion at the Sycamore Speedway.  Kelly finished ahead of Max Zimmerlein and Mel Dorland in the final points.

Piloting his Volkswagen, Dave Decker repeated as mini stock champion at Joliet Memorial Stadium.  The min stockers had replaced the open-wheel midget action that has been a staple at the flat, quarter-mile oval for years.

Bob Boyce took season late model laurels at Illiana Motor Speedway, besting Ray Freeman and Wayne Helfogt in the final points rundown.  Michigan’s Gene Eding won the track’s annual Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 ahead of Bob Pronger and fellow Michigan racer Dick Dunshee.

Familiar names in area midget racing, Bob Tattersall, Gary Bettenhausen, Merle Bettenhausen, Roger West, Henry Pens and Ray Elliott were all victors on the United States Auto Club (USAC) midget circuit.  One of Gary Bettenhausen’s victories was the Turkey Night Grand Prix at California’s Ascot Park.  Elliott won the circuit’s season opener, racing to victory indoors at Indiana’s Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum in early January.  The USAC midgets raced four times on the dirt at Santa Fe Speedway during the year with the like of Billy Engelhart, Jerry McClung, Chuck Arnold and Dave Strickland scoring victories.

United Auto Racing Association (UARA) midget competition saw Jim Gates take the season championship for the locally-based midget racing organization, wheeling he family-owned open wheeler to the title.  Gary Byers and Phil Stebbins finished behind Gates in the standings.  Newcomer George Stefanech was crowned the Grundy County Fair midget champion for his performance at Mazon during the annual fair.

Illinois speedster Whitey Harris was the season champion of the Interstates Racing Association (IRA) modified group with Harris taking individual track championship honors at both Waukegan Speedway and Raceway Park in addition to Wisconsin tracks in Wilmot and Lake Geneva.

The address for news and comments is 9618 Cypress Ave., Munster, Ind. 46321-3418 or e-mail to skalwasinski@yahoo.com.