Chicago Whispers by: Stan Kalwasinski

“Chicago Whispers” October 5th; Column/Photos by Stan Kalwasinski

Chicago Whispers

By Stan Kalwasinski

Chicago—They raced around the Rockford Speedway last weekend during the 58th and final National Short Track Championships (NSTC) as the historic banked, quarter-mile, paved speedway will close its gates after this year’s racing season is completed.  Actually situated in the City of Loves Park, the Deery Family-owned speedway will chalk up its 76th year of motorsports action when it’s all said and done.  So-called ‘urban sprawl” is about to capture another one of America’s speedways.

Rockford’s own Jeremy Miller won Sunday’s 158-lap Big 8 Series late model headliner, which capped off the final NSTC weekend.  Competing in go-karts and trying his skills in four-cylinder division racing at Rockford in his early racing days, Miller became the 33rd different winner of the annual Midwest late model special.

You could close your eyes Sunday afternoon and imagine the likes of Trickle, Shear, Carlson, Martin, Watson, Hoffman and others racing at the Rockford speed plant.  The legendary Dick Trickle won the first NSTC in 1966 and added two more NSTC victories before his short track career was over.  After Trickle had won the 200 lapper and over $1,500 that day in ‘66, the story goes that promoter Hugh Deery paid Trickle in small bills with Trickle stuffing the money anywhere he could for the trip back home to Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.

A Rockford area native, Joe Shear, who was a master at the Rockford oval, won six late model championships during his driving days and captured the NSTC contest a record eight times – his first in 1972.  Suffering from cancer, Shear won his last NSTC in 1997 and passed away in March of 1998.

Steve Carlson, from West Salem, Wis., won his first NSTC in 1992 when the race was part of the ARTGO Challenge Series schedule.  Carlson, a four-time ARTGO late model series champion, equaled Shear’s record of eight NSTC wins in 2011.  Carlson is the only driver to ever win Rockford’s premier race three years in a row, accomplishing the feat from 1998 through 2000.

Mark Martin and Dave Watson were top short track speedsters when they won at Rockford.  Martin, a 17-year-old racer from Batesville, Ark., captured the NSTC 200 in 1977 before going on to a highly successful career in NASCAR racing.

Watson, from Milton, Wis., started his stock car racing career at Rockford after doing some go-kart racing and was the track’s late model champion in 1973.  Both a champion of the ARTGO and ASA late model tours, Watson won the NSTC 200 lapper in 1976.

Chicagoland’s Eddie Hoffman won the NSTC four times – the last one in2013, placing him behind only Shear and Carlson in the race’s win column.  With numerous championships and countless late model victories to his credit, Hoffman is still active in competition at Illinois’ Grundy County Speedway, where he won his record eighth late model track championship this past year.

Other multi-time winners of the event each with two victories to their credit include Rich Bickle Jr., Jeremy Lepak, Steve Rubeck, Alex Prunty, Casey Johnson and Austin Nason.  Bickle came out of retirement last weekend to compete in Saturday night’s super late model headliner, finishing an emotional second in the Jody Deery Showdown.

Ready to try for three-in-a-row, Nason had won the last two Big 8 Late Model Series NSTC events only to encounter mechanical problems during warmup laps before honorary starter and longtime Rockford flagman ‘Jumpin' Jack’ Heiman waved the green flag to start Sunday’s 158-lap chase.

The NSTC was the idea of track promoter Hugh Deery and his partner Bill Earnest, who was the speedway’s director of competition at the time.  In 1966, Deery took over full control of the raceway, building into one of the most successful short track operations in the country.  His many innovations included his introduction of “Rockford Rules” in 1974, attempting to control the spiraling costs of late model racing with the track becoming a member of the NASCAR short track community in 1984.

Deery unexpectedly passed away in 1984 at the age of 63.  His wife, Jody, took over the reins of the speedway, being part of the day-to-day activities and heading up the weekly Wednesday and Saturday promotions pretty much until her passing last year at the age of 97.

Rockford Speedway opened in May of 1948 as part of the American Automobile Association’s weekly midget auto racing schedule, which also included Chicago’s Soldier Field and several other Midwest ovals.

On Wednesday, May 26th, California driver Johnny McDowell won the first AAA midget feature race as a reported 4,800 fans watched.  By July, hot rod racing on Saturday nights was added to the speedway’s schedule with Andy Granatelli’s Hurricane Hot Rod Racing Association in action.  Granatelli’s group, including stock car racing, would be part of the Rockford Speedway picture until about 1955.

Future Indianapolis 500 winner Jim Rathmann was Rockford’s first hot rod champion in 1949 with another future “500” winner Pat Flaherty winning the first stock car title at Rockford in 1950.

Weekly stock car racing would be the featured attraction for years to come.  Some of the early stock car champions included Tom Pistone, Al Shear, Red Aase, Bob Chapman, Gene Marmor and Whitey Gerken.

Later, multi-time titlists included Don Leach, Wayne Lensing, John Luther and Bobby Hacker.  The late 1980s, 90s and the ‘New Millennium’ saw John Knaus, Bobby Wilberg and Ricky Bilderback win a total of seven late model crowns each with Bilderback’s seven-in-a-row from 2001 through 2007 being pretty impressive.

Jerry Gille, Michael Bilderback, Jake Gille and Jon Reynolds Jr. all have been multi-time champions since 2008 with Reynolds capturing his fifth track championship in 2023.

A few more racing events are still scheduled at the Rockford Speedway through October.  It could mean one final visit to one of the country’s historic speedways.

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