TOLEDO OH (12-4-03) Egnatius "Iggy" Katona, the winningest driver in ARCA RE/MAX Series history, died Thursday, December 4 in Daytona Beach, Florida. He was 87.
Katona, who earned 79 career series wins, also held the all-time series championship mark with six titles in 1955, '56, '57, '62, '66 & '67.
In addition, Katona became the oldest superspeedway winner in history with his third victory at Daytona in 1974.
Katona's amazing string of series wins stretched from 1953 to 1974. Throughout his incredible career, Katona finished in the top-10 points an astonishing 21 consecutive times from '53 through '73, a record still untouched today. In addition to his 6 titles, Katona finished runner-up in championship points in '54, '60, '63, '65 and '70. Katona also finished third in points in '53, '59, '64 and '71.
He is survived his sons Jim and Ron (wife Betty); 8 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. There will be no services. "One of my father's requests was that we not put him on display," said Ron Katona. "But that was my father; he did things his way, and there's no sense in changing up now. If that's what he wanted, that's what he'll get."
Messages of condolences may be sent to
264 Bern St.
Port Orange FL 32127
The following story on the life and career of Katona was recently published in ARCA's 50th Anniversary Book: ARCA, 50 Years of Racing
IGGY KATONA by Don Radebaugh
TOLEDO OH - His real name is Egnatius. Fittingly, the name sounds like it came right out of one of those medieval gladiator movies. But this isn't a movie, nor is this fiction; this is the real thing - the true story of a 20th century American gladiator - the story of Egnatius Katona. Everyone calls him Iggy.
Iggy Katona went from racing motorcycles to racing the dangerous open-wheel contraptions of the day to the hard-top MARC/ARCA stock cars. Through it all, this is the story of an evolutionary career like no other. It was a career that began in 1934, smack-dab in the middle of America's Great Depression and spanned more than 40 years up through 1977. To give it a little more perspective, Katona, after a professional motorcycle career, after fulfilling his service to this country in WW ll, won 14 consecutive main events in an open-wheel roadster on the quarter-mile Motor City Speedway clay bullring in downtown Detroit in 1946. In 1974, nearly 30 years later, Katona won his 3rd Daytona ARCA 300 at age 57. In between, Katona won at least 68 main events in midgets, 'big cars' (sprints), roadsters, modifieds and hard tops all before he would go on to post 79 wins and 6 national championships in MARC/ARCA competition (all-time records in both categories). Unfortunately, we also know that Katona won a lot more than the initial 68 wins, (pre-ARCA) but records are scarce.
Amazingly, Katona never drove a race car with a roof on it until he was 33!; and of course, it wasn't until he was 37 that he would climb into an MARC/ARCA car for the first time. During this era, Katona put up series stats that are, to this day, unrivaled. For instance, we know that Katona won at least 1 ARCA race each season from 1953 to 1972 (20 consecutive seasons). We also know that he finished in the top-10 ARCA points each season from 1953 to 1973 (21 consecutive seasons).
It is also the tale of a very successful union of man and woman. It's the old adage - 'alongside every great man is a great lady'; nothing could be more true here. For more than 60 years Eleanor Katona, the daughter of Polish immigrants, supported her husband Iggy through thick and thin; through good and bad. It was a marriage, born in 1937, that lived until her death in 2001.
Let's start from the beginning.
Egnatius James Iggy Katona Jr. came into the world as 1 of 11 brothers and sisters on August 16, 1916 in Toledo, Ohio just as President Woodrow Wilson was steering American troops overseas toward WW l. The son of Hungarian immigrants (via Ellis Island), his quite-common-in-those-days big family soon moved to southeast Michigan where Katona would grow to manhood. It was there that Iggy Katona, amidst Henry Ford's Detroit-based automobile boom, as a wide-eyed fearless kid full of wonder, caught the racing bug. It was an addiction he would never shake.
By the time Katona began racing motorcycles in 1934, he already had a pretty good handle on the 2-wheel, early-century crotch rockets. As a kid, Katona tore up the Michigan/Ohio countryside on 2 wheels. He began racing professionally in 1937 and won most every race he entered. "Dad was amazing on a bike," said his son Ronnie Katona. "It didn't matter what the course was; he was hard to beat. He broke his arm once on a mile-dirt somewhere. The doctor put it in a hard cast that night. Dad went out the next day and won the race."
"I remember my mom and dad telling Jim and I stories about going to the motorcycle races. We were just babies then, but we'd all go to the track on the motorcycle. My dad would have 1 kid in front of him on the gas tank with the other in between him and my mom who brought up the rear. If dad didn't bust up the bike at the track, we'd drive it home the same way. When we started racing stock cars, same thing; we'd all pile in the racecar and head off to the races. In was an interesting era for sure."
And it was on November 12, 1937, a day that changed Iggy's life forever, that he married his lovely bride Eleanor. They would have 2 children: Jim in 1938 and Ronnie in 1939. It was a family that stayed together, prayed together, raced together, lived, loved, fought, struggled and persevered. A family unit who became a tight-knit crew - a family unit that thrives to this very day. There's got to be something to this part of the tale. The Katona family unit, unquestionably, played a big part in Iggy's success. In short, their admirable family spirit, and its importance can, in no way shape or form, be overlooked.
After a successful stint in the 2-wheel world which included conquering the Michigan Motorcycle Championship, Katona set his sights on the rage of the day - open-wheel midget car racing. However, Katona's midget aspirations would have to wait. With WW ll pressing, Katona was drafted into the U.S. ARMY where he served for a year in 1945. "He strung line during his service," said Ronnie. "telegraph wire I guess it was; and he was a sharp-shooter. Dad was always good with a gun."
Mustered out with an honorable discharge from Fort Sheridan (IL) in November of 1945, Katona steered straight for the local Midget divisions. He knew exactly where he was going.
It wasn't long before he was winning midget main events from Canfield, Ohio to Jackson, Michigan; from Akron to Owosso and from Bedford Sportsman Park in Ohio to Detroit. In 1946, Katona, with his 2 sons Ronnie and Jim as crew, ventured off into the world of the 'roaring roadsters'. Iggy Katona, the grand master; the grand tutor, built his own - the infamous T-3. He built his own engines too.
"They called us the 'world's smallest crew'; my dad, me and Jim," said Ronnie. "My dad was the chassis man and engine builder; we learned everything from him. But dad was so particular and meticulous about everything he did, we learned from the best; nothing was overlooked. Dad's engines would last 8 to 12 races whereas some others only 1 or 2. You needed that sort of reliability when we started barnstormin' across the country and racin' every night of the week. Even when dad was driving for Ford Motor Company in the 50's, he still assembled his own engines. He just didn't trust anyone when it came to that stuff. Ford would just supply the short block and my dad would put it all together. That way he always said he knew his parts goin' in, and how his parts were going in. That's the way he was. It's also why he had so much success."
And just like he had always done, no matter the machine, Iggy Katona continued to win races. In the homebuilt T-3 roadster, he won an astonishing 14 consecutive main events on the rough and tumble clay, quarter-mile Motor City Speedway in Detroit. The race track was long gone before any driver would even come close to matching or surpassing the record. That's another thing that seemed synonymous with Katona - his records. If records were made to be broken, someone forgot to tell Iggy.
Now, as the 40's were becoming the 50's, Katona was racing for a living 6 out of 7 nights a week. And while he was swapping back and forth between the midgets, AAA big cars and roadsters, Katona added another ingredient to the mix - those new-fangled hard-tops. And with these new-fangled hard-tops, the world's smallest crew headed west and south - barnstormin' I believe they called it.
"In those days, we'd go out west barnstormin' on down through Texas. We made our living at it; we raced 6 out of 7 nights a week. Typically, you had 2 choices where you were going to sleep: in the race car or the truck; sometimes 2 and 3 in the car. We slept on wood laying over stacks of race tires. When we woke, we prepared the car for that night's race. Those were rough times; we worked or traveled all day and raced all night, day after day, night after night. But it was our life."
"Many times, when we went south - this is a little later on when we started MARC racin' - they would bill it as the North against the South. And we used a lot of police escorts gettin' north of the border. Somewhere around 56 or 58, my dad won a 100-lapper on the mile dirt in Atlanta Georgia; I think they called it Lakewood or something. I remember the Flock Brothers were there, Fonty and Tim, Curtis Turner and a bunch more. In the race, dad's left-front tie-rod end broke. The car did nothing but want to turn left. But he had such a huge lead that he just slowed down for the straights and went fast through the corners. Everyone wanted Marcum (John/ARCA founder) to black flag him but Marcum refused. We won the race but we also started a riot. They didn't appreciate my dad outrunning their southern heroes. They threw whiskey bottles, beer bottles and everything else at us. We had a police escort all the way out the city limits, which is usually the way we left town down there. They use to call my dad the Richard Petty of the North."
Richard Petty of the north?; quite an honor for sure. You could also turn that around and call Richard Petty the Iggy Katona of the south, an honor equally fitting.
But even before Katona hitched up with Marcum's new traveling MARC club, Iggy mixed in midgets, 'big cars' (sprints), roadsters and hard-tops all in the same week. Can you imagine a driver/team today even considering the aforementioned? Didn't think so. In the early 50's, King Katona was still dominating his open-wheel division of choice, and wasn't quite ready to give it up. And in 1952, won the IMCA-sanctioned Florida State Championship in a 'big car' on the old Tampa, Florida dirt fairgrounds.
After god-knows how many victories and multiple track championships in a variety of race cars, Iggy finally decided to shed his open-wheel roots for good in favor of hard-tops which he thought were the wave of the future; and, in many ways, he was right. With NASCAR, born in 1949, beginning to make a name for itself down south, Toledo-based John Marcum was beginning to give the hard-tops a little organization in the north. Marcum called his new club MARC (Midwest Association for Race Cars) and fired up its inaugural season in 1953 with drivers like Buckie Sager, Jim Romine, Pappy Hough, Paul Parks and Egnatius 'Iggy' Katona.
Much like he had done throughout his motorsports career, Katona wasted no time rising to the top of the stock car world with his first MARC championship in 1955. In fact, Katona was an immediate threat in MARC competition in its inaugural season in '53 placing third in the championship point standings in a Hudson behind titans of the day Jim Romine and Buckie Sager. Katona, who switched to Fords for the new season, stepped a little closer in '54 with a runner-up finish in points behind Sager before clinching the first of a record 6 championships the following year. Katona, still utilizing Fords, added 2 more MARC titles in '56 and '57 becoming the first driver to earn three consecutive championships; all that before he would post 3 more titles in '62, '66 & '67. Throughout his incredible MARC/ARCA career, Katona finished in the top-10 points an astonishing 21 consecutive times from '53 through '73, a record still untouched today. In addition to his 6 titles, Katona finished runner-up in championship points in '54, '60, '63, '65 and '70. Katona also finished 3rd in national points in '53, '59, '64 and '71. In other words, when Katona was strapped into a MARC/ARCA machine, he was always in the hunt, no matter the competition, no matter the venue.
Among 33 events in 1955, Katona, calling Milan, Michigan his home, chalked up an amazing 31 top-10 finishes as well as 8 victories en route to his first MARC title. The versatile Katona, in a 1955 Ford hard-top, notched wins at tracks like the quarter-mile dirt Bedford Sportsman Park in Ohio twice, two at Toledo's half-mile dirt Raceway Park, two on the half-mile dirt at Sharon Speedway in Pennsylvania, one on the mile-dirt Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta, Georgia and one on the half-mile Lancaster Speedway in South Carolina.
In 1956, Katona posted five more victories on his resume with wins at Toledo twice, Dayton Speedway Ohio, Sharon and Bedford Sportsman Park. In 1957, Katona was seldom out of the top-5 and more often than not, in victory lane en route to his third consecutive series crown.
Although Katona would not see another MARC title until '62, his winning ways would continue right on through. He won often and anywhere from the Dayton 500 on the high-banked paved Dayton Speedway Ohio 3-times in '53, '60 and '62 to the Michigan State Fair 250-miler on Detroit's famed mile-dirt. In fact, Katona won the Michigan State Fair classic 3 consecutive seasons in '63, '64 & '65, the only driver to ever do so. As consistent as much as he was a winner, Katona, during his championship drive in '67, won 11 ARCA races, finished 2nd 7 times, 3rd 6 times and finished 4th once in 32 championship events total. Victories for Katona in '67 came in a variety of places and tracks - from Meyers Speedway in Houston, Texas to Northern Kentucky Speedway in Florence, Kentucky; from Toledo Speedway to Sun Valley Speedway in Anderson, Indiana; from Millstream Speedway in Findlay, Ohio to Auto City Speedway in Flint, Michigan. It didn't matter where ARCA roamed, Katona was going to be a factor.
The epitome of consistency, about the only thing that changed from his championship runs of the 50s and early 60s, was the manufacturer he would utilize to get to victory lane. In 1965, with some stiff competition coming in from the likes of 3-time ARCA champion Jack Bowsher, Katona elected to go with Plymouth and Dodge power over the Ford nameplate he had used from ARCA's early days. And it was a combination of the Plymouth and Dodge nameplate that would carry Katona, at 50 years young, to his 5th ARCA title in '66 becoming the oldest ARCA champion in history, a mark that still holds to this day. During the '66 season alone, he won 12 events, 4 in a Plymouth and 8 in a Dodge. When asked at the time why he still had the desire to race, Katona said, "It makes you feel real good. And it's a feeling I've been getting for more than 30 years. And as long as I feel good behind the wheel, I'm gunna keep on racin'." And in '67, Katona, in nothing but Dodges, kept on racing and kept on winning en route to his 6th series crown in his trademarked #30.
Following Katona's record 6th ARCA national championship, the 51-year-old driver looked back on his career. "I've been lucky. Sometimes I haven't been able to run as hard and fast as I wanted to because I was afraid my car wouldn't stay together; but most of time, we've been able to stick in there with them." And since Katona was never seriously hurt in a racecar, to him, there was no reason to quit. "My worst accident was on the highway," he recalled. "A drunk ran into me and flipped me over. I've always said, it's safer on the track than on the highway. Race drivers know what they're doing. They keep their mind on their driving. And, they're all traveling in the same direction. Anyway, if I keep feelin' good, I want to keep on racin'. Retirement?; that's when you're 65 isn't it?"
Through it all, Katona always considered himself a short-track racer. When MARC changed its name to ARCA in 1964 in an effort to represent a more national flavor, superspeedways like Charlotte and Daytona were first introduced to the schedule. And it was in the '64 season that Katona was asked how he felt about adding the superspeedways to the ARCA schedule. "Oh I love these high-banks, and I love these speeds, but I'm only kidding myself when I think I can run as fast on these tracks as these guys. I was raised on dirt, on the short ovals. These guys that race on these bigger tracks grew up on the high-banks; it's what they do."
Yes, it was true, Katona raced most of his career on short-tracks; in fact, he would not race on a superspeedway until he was already 47-years-old at Daytona in '64. Even such, Katona, with little to no superspeedway experience stepped up to become the all-time Daytona ARCA winner with 3 victories in '65, '71 and '74, another record that still stands today. When Katona, who started from the pole position, took the checkered flag at Daytona in '74, he was 57 years old becoming the oldest superspeedway stock car winner in history. History.....Egnatius "Iggy" Katona made plenty of it throughout his amazing racing career. And if you'll check the ARCA record books, you'll forever find the name Iggy Katona atop many of the charts.