“Chicago Whispers” Sept 15; Column/Photos by Stan Kalwasinski

Chicago Whispers

By Stan Kalwasinski

Chicago, Ill.—Grundy County Speedway in Morris, Ill., will be the site of this Saturday’s 60th annual Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 presented by Elite Trade Show Services.

Back in September of 1962, Harry Molenaar presented the first Tony Bettenhausen Memorial at his Illiana Motor Speedway in Schererville, Ind.  The event was to honor Tony Bettenhausen and start a building fund to erect a hospital in the south suburban area of Chicago to honor the late Bettenhausen, who died in a practice crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May of 1961.  The hospital would eventually be erected, becoming known as the South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill.

Bettenhausen, who farmed some 600 acres in his hometown of Tinley Park, Ill., was the area’s favorite “racing son” – who competed in various sorts of motorsports action from the late 1930s until his passing.  Whether it was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he competed in the “500” 14 times, or the “Milwaukee Mile” or at area short tracks like Illiana, Raceway Park, Soldier Field or the Mazon Speed Bowl – Bettenhausen was a crowd favorite.

The first Bettenhausen 100 lapper was sanctioned by the United States Auto Club (USAC) and saw Troy Ruttman wheel his 1962 Mercury to the win.   Ruttman, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1952, defeated Don White, Norm Nelson and Paul Goldsmith that day.

Goldsmith, the former Illiana motorcycle champion, won the Bettenhausen 100 in 1963.  Goldsmith, driving a Norm Nelson-entered ’63 Plymouth, took the checkered flag in front of his car owner, Nelson, who was followed by John Rostek and area racers Elmer Musgrave and Sal Tovella.  By this time, Goldsmith was an established Indy 500 driver and NASCAR competitor.

1963 marked the first time I had ever visited Illiana with the trip with my dad from the Mount Greenwood area of Chicago seemingly taking forever.  I still remember the likes of A.J. Foyt, Curtis Turner, Pat Flaherty and Bettenhausen’s son, Gary, in action that day and the smell of rear-end grease filling the air at the half-mile paved oval.

Nelson came back in 1964 and won the final USAC-sanctioned 100 lapper ahead of Don White and Indianapolis 500 driver Lloyd Ruby.

Illiana owner Harry Molenaar and USAC had their differences in 1965 over car shortages and increased purses with future scheduled USAC stock car races at Illiana being canceled after a Fourth of July 100 lapper, which was won by Nelson.  Molenaar, with help from O’Hare Stadium’s Frank “Ham” Lobaza, made the 1965 Bettenhausen event an “open competition” race with the feature race being toned back to 50 laps for area and visiting “short track” cars.  Handling the director of competition chores at the Schiller Park, Ill., raceway, Lobaza brought along some of the track’s officiating crew including veteran starter Art Kelly.

With Illiana’s Chuck Stone and Raceway Park’s Wayne Adams handling the announcing, the first “open competition” Bettenhausen event was a huge success with 77 entries on hand.  Conan “Moose” Myers, from Fort Wayne, Ind., and his “lightweight” ’57 Chevy convertible came home the winner of the main event, defeating short track aces Joe Shear, Roy Martinelli, who won the 1965 O’Hare late model championship, and Bill Lutz.

Myers won again in 1966 with the feature race being increased back to 100 laps.  Lutz and Elmer Musgrave chased Myers to the finish line.  Myers would win the Bettenhausen 100 again in 1971, becoming the first three-time winner of the event.

Michigan’s Joy Fair won the 100 lapper in 1967 and again in 1969 – marking the only two Bettenhausen races Fair ever competed in.  Buck Hinkle, who hailed from Gary, Ind., became the first Illiana track champion to win the Bettenhausen Classic, winning the 100-lap chase in 1968 after garnering track championship honors in 1967.

The 1970s saw the likes of Gene Eding, Joe Ruttman, Tom Jones, Tom Reffner, Ed Hoffman, Tony Izzo, Joe Shear and Ray Young win Illiana’s annual race with Young winning back-to-back contests in 1976 and 1977.

Wisconsin speedster Jim Sauter won in 1980 with Frank Gawlinski capturing his first of a record nine Bettenhausen 100 lappers in 1981 when the race was held under the banner of John McKarns’ ARTGO Racing.  Gawlinski won a total of four Bettenhausen 100s in the ‘80s with Hoffman adding two more during the decade, giving him a career total of three.  Larry Schuler, Ted Musgrave and Scott Hansen were also winners as the 1980s came to a close.

A nine-time late model track champion at Illiana, Gawlinski, the Lynwood, Ill., leadfoot, started the 1990s by winning  three straight Bettenhausen races from 1990 through 1992 – the only driver to accomplish that feat.  During the 1990s, Larry Schuler added two more Bettenhausen 100 wins, putting a total of three on his racing resume with Dave Weltmeyer winning two and second-generation racer Eddie Hoffman winning for the first time in 1998.  Weltmeyer’s 1995 win was worth over $5,000 as Dana Transport sponsored the race.

Rolling into the New Millennium, Weltmeyer added two more victories, giving him a career total of four.  Eddie Hoffman scored three victories, giving him a career total of four also.  Pat Kelly won three Bettenhausen 100 lappers; Brett Sontag three; Boris Jurkovic two and Brian Campbell two – being back-to back victories in 2013 and 2014.  Indiana’s Scott Tomasik won the last Bettenhausen Classic held at Illiana in 2015 as the speedway closed its gates for the final time that year.

With Illiana closing after the 2015 racing season, the Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 was moved to the Grundy County Speedway – the third-mile paved raceway located at the Grundy County Fairgrounds on Illinois Route 47.

Hailing from Plainfield, Ill., Ricky Baker, a two-time Grundy late model titlist won the first Bettenhausen 100 held at Grundy in 2016 and repeated his winning effort in 2017.  Indiana’s Paul Shafer Jr. also posted two consecutive victories in 2018 and 2019.

Last year, Michael Bilderback was the winner of the Bettenhausen 100 lapper at Grundy during the Pandemic-shortened season.  A three-time late model champion at the Rockford Speedway, Bilderback took the checkered flag with a 1.086-second margin over Ricky Baker.  Eddie Hoffman finished third, followed by Blake Brown, fastest qualifier Rich Bickle Jr. and Nathan Kelly.

With 29 different drivers winning the Bettenhausen race over the year, this Saturday’s 100-lap event will see $6,000 going to the winner.  Entries include Hoffman, Baker, Shafer, Bickle, Schuler, Ty Majeski, Anthony Danta, Wes Griffith Jr. and DJ Weltmeyer – a pretty star-studded cast.   Grandstand gates open Saturday at 3:00 pm, qualifying at 5:30 pm and racing beginning at 7:00 pm. Mid American, street stock and pure stock divisions will also be in action.  For those keeping track at home, this year’s race will be my 56th in attendance.

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Most deserving – motorsports journalist Tony Baranek was recently inducted into the Mazon Speed Bowl/Grundy County Speedway Hall of Fame.  Covering the competition at Grundy for years, Baranek has provided race fans countless number of sports section column inches about automobile racing during his writing career for the Daily Southtown newspaper, which is owned by the Chicago Tribune.

Baranek, who is in his 47th year of covering high school sports, started writing about auto racing in 1976 for the Daily Southtown, covering the action at Blue Island’s Raceway Park.  Over the years, Baranek has penned articles about the racing at Grundy, Raceway, Illiana, Santa Fe Speedway, LaSalle Speedway, Kankakee County Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Route 66 drag strip and the Dirt Oval at Route 66.  He has done feature stories about the competitors at these raceways, highlighting numerous famous and not-so famous racers.

“I have to give a lot of credit to the Daily Southtown.  They have stuck with me,” said Baranek, who has been facing tight, newspaper deadlines for years.

The 65-year-old Baranek, who grew up in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago, first attended the stock car races at Raceway Park, going there with his older brother, Joe, in the mid 1960s.  Becoming a regular fan at the “World’s Busiest Track” during the summer of 1973, Ray Young was Baranek’s favorite driver during those days.

“Ray Young was the champion that year (1973) and I was there cheering for Ray and booing Bud Koehler,” reminisced Baranek.

Asked about his recent induction into the Mazon/Grundy Hall of Fame, Baranek said, “It’s humbling and very cool.  It’s cool because it’s the community (local auto racing) that I love.  It’s the most caring, happy-to-see-you community.”

Again, congratulations, Tony, and keep those newspaper column inches coming.

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