Illinois State Fair Enters Second Century of Auto Racing Springfield IL - When the USAC Silver Crown Series and ARCA RE/MAX Stock Cars come to the Illinois State Fair on August 21 and 22 they will be continuing a motor sports tradition at the...
Illinois State Fair Enters Second Century of Auto Racing
Springfield IL - When the USAC Silver Crown Series and ARCA RE/MAX Stock Cars come to the Illinois State Fair on August 21 and 22 they will be continuing a motor sports tradition at the Illinois capitol that reaches back over 100 years at an annual fair that dates back to 1853!
Not long after the Illinois State Fair entered the twentieth century automobiles were added to the entertainment lineup and drew huge crowds to the one-mile dirt oval. Newspaper accounts and official records indicate that many of these events were nothing more than exhibitions, many including the famous Barney Oldfield during his barnstorming days across the country. Oldfield would frequently lap fairground tracks in an attempt to break records and at times would race airplanes.
In 1909 Lewis Strang, Louis Chevrolet and the Buick Racing Team came to Springfield, Illinois for an Illinois State Fair held in July. The media reports and record keeping of the time are less than accurate so news accounts and official records are somewhat sketchy as to the intent of the meet. While the day received American Automobile Association sanction no one is quite sure if this was a 'racing program' or part of the Buick Racing Team tour and an exhibition. Strang broke several records at the Illinois State Fair including circling the dirt oval for 50 miles in just over 50 minutes. A motorcycle race was also part of the entertainment and J. Nash McCrea won on a Thor built in Aurora. Of note is the fact that Strang's run at Springfield came over a month before the official opening of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway!
What is clearer is that the races held in the next Illinois State fair were part of an October race meet that included several classes of cars, local entries and a purse placed on the day's longest event of $500 in gold! Oldfield was a part of the day's festivities and Springfield's Art Bisch won one of the events. The large and raucous crowd enjoyed a full day of racing until the finale. During the final event a racer entered by Springfield's Larue Vredenburgh crashed and overturned killing the twenty eight year old member of one of Springfield's most prominent families.
Racing did not return in 1911, though Ray Harroun's Indianapolis 500 winning Marmon was on display during part of the fair. When the sport did return in 1912 it was open wheel, open cockpit 'Big Cars" that played before large crowds. Drivers such as Louis Disbrow, Fred Horey, Leon Duray, Oldfield and George "Texas" Clark were pioneers of early American auto racing and each won at some point on the Springfield Mile. Minnesota's Sig Haughdahl was an IMCA champion. He would become a crowd favorite at the Illinois State Fair and later set world records on Daytona's sandy beach.
By 1926 the fair board realized the configuration of the racetrack was a problem. Shoehorned near barns and with an old wooden grandstand the east-west slant of the track meant drivers and fans were blinded by the late afternoon sun. A massive reconstruction project was authorized with the track being placed in its present location and a steel/brick and concrete grandstand built along the front straightaway. Records still fell with the new track with Wilson Pingrey lapping at over 80 miles an hour in August of 1927 and Chuck Bane breaking Pingrey's 25-mile record in the second event of the fair!
The famous also showed up with 1931 Indianapolis 500 winner Lou Schnieder setting records and posting victories in 1928 but the next year motor sports faced extinction at the Illinois State Fair. A spectator fatality and numerous injuries caused when a car crashed through the outer fence happened in conjunction with several driver injuries on track. The bad publicity and lawsuits forced the Illinois State Fair board to ban auto racing at the fairgrounds for several years. Racing would return in a big way thanks to the passage of time and a racing promoter who would wind up in the hail of fame.
The destruction of many board tracks across America led AAA to look for other venues to run championship style cars. One-mile horse tracks seemed to be one solution, the facility at Langhorne Pennsylvania was built specifically for cars and the fairground track at Syracuse, New York hosted both cars and ponies. Ralph "Pappy' Hankinson was a legendary promoter and was convinced that Springfield could host a successful national championship race. He lobbied, successfully for the return of racing to Springfield and obtained an AAA sanctioned national championship race. On August 25, 1934 Billy Winn put his name in the record books as the first national championship race winner at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
Winn was a crowd pleaser and a repeat winner but lost his life in 1938 on his beloved Springfield Mile. Future Indianapolis 500 winners Wilbur Shaw and Mauri Rose took wins on the mile before World War II while Ted Horn grabbed a win after the war. Motorcycles also took part in the fair festivities from 1912 on and in 1937 came under the American Motorcycle Association sanction. From 1938-1953 the winner of the Springfield Mile was declared the AMA Grand National champion.
Sprint cars ran before and after World War II with Jimmy Wilburn becoming a household name in the capitol city. Stock cars ran after the 1950and 1953 fair, disappeared and returned in 1961.
During the 1950's Springfield became synonymous with American championship racing. Drivers looked forward to the wide and fast mile, while fans looked forward to the men and the visit of the Indianapolis machines. It would be only fitting that an Illini, Tony Bettenhausen of Tinley Park, become the first three-time national championship race winner in Springfield history. Tony captured his first Springfield win in September of 1947 on the mile, then followed that up with wins in October of 1950 and August of 1951, the latter propelling him to his first national title. His bolt upright style in and out of the car gained him hero status in the sporting world.
Bill Schnidler, Rodger Ward, Jimmy Bryan and Len Sutton joined Tony B. as Springfield race winners during the fifties, while Joe Leonard and Paul Goldsmith would duel on Springfield's dirt, not in racecars but on bikes in the AMA races.
Nineteen sixty-one saw change and sadness at the fairgrounds. Tony Bettenhausen was killed at Indianapolis that May and the championship race, nameless since 1934 became memorialized for Tony. Motorcycle races continued during the fair but stock cars from USAC were added after the fair's run and Len Sutton became the first to take both a championship (1959) and stock car (1961) 100 miler at the fairgrounds.
The sixties have been called racing's greatest decade and that may have been the case at Springfield. A.J. Foyt won three of his then record four Bettenhausen races. Mario Andretti won in 1969 while Jim Hurtubise took the first two Bettenhausen events. Stock car drivers were no slouches either as Norm Nelson, Don White and Butch Hartman won thrilling and controversial events. The decade had it's sad moments as well. First, the passing of Springfield's own Alien Crowe at a USAC Sprint race in New Bremen, Ohio led to the first Allen Crowe Memorial 100 in 1963. In 1964 Bill Horstmeyer lost his life in a horrific championship car crash on the front stretch. Two years later in nearly the same spot a catwalk collapsed in the grandstand during an exhibition resulting in injuries and fatalities.
A new concrete retaining wall was placed around the outside of the Springfield Mile in time for the 1966 race won by Champaign's Don Branson. The new all helped speed up the running of the Allen Crowe 100 stock car race (run during the fair in 1965) as no longer did the outer chain link and board fence have to be repaired in a crash.
The 1970's saw another change at Springfield as it was removed, along with the other dirt tracks, from the national championship trail. The crowds still came as did the star drivers, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Mario Andretti won the first five races of the new Dirt Track Division which would later become the Silver Crown Series. Stock cars ran on Sunday's during most of the decade with controversy remaining part of the Allen Crowe 100. A racetrack in need of a new surface broke up and became dusty and it was necessary to stop more than one race for the water truck. In 1975 the race was stopped due to a power failure on the grounds. State Fair Motor Sports Director Bill Oldani rectified the surface issue in 1979 when 10.000 tons of clay were placed on the track.
USAC's stock car division began to wane in the late 1970's and in the 80's folded up shop completely but not before Dean Roper would win four of six races early in the decade as USAC added a second date to the fairgrounds. ARCA stepped in when USAC needed cars in 1983 and in 1985 became the sole stock car sanctioning body for the Allen Crowe 100. Dirt cars continued their spectacular Tony Bettenhausen 100 runs with Tony's son Gary picking up a win in 106 degree heat in 1983 and Steve Chassey and Jeff Swindell breaking the 31 and 30 second barriers in qualifying respectively as the one lap record fell six times during the decade. Sprint cars came back to the fairgrounds in 1980 as Steve Kinser set a world record in qualifying that would be broken by Rick Ferkel in 1982. Midgets returned during the 1983 fair with the Rex Easton 25.
The 90's opened with Chuck Gurney winning his record tying 4th Bettenhausen then getting 5 in 1991 and two more in 1994 and 1996. ARCA stock car shows proved wildly popular with big crowds and NASCAR and dirt late model stars making their way to the big mile. Ken Schrader returned to Springfield in 1993 bringing dirt standout Bob Hill with him. Unfortunately the decade also saw the passing of Bill Oldani prior to the 1993fair and the future of auto racing at the Illinois State Fair was in great doubt.
Bob Sargent of Track Enterprises, the owner of Macon Speedway had proven that a still date in 1992 would be successful bringing dirt late models and modifieds to Springfield for the first Illinois Fall Nationals. He was the logical choice to take over for Bill Oldani and Sargent immediately made changes adding the local sportsman cars for the Wynn's Sportsman Nationals, an event now entering it's 17th year.
Sargent and his group would see the Bettenhausen 100 and Crowe 100 as well as the Fall Nationals through some glorious and trying times. ARCA's Frank Kimmel won a record seven Allen Crowe 100 races while Dave Darland became a three-time winner of the Bettenhausen. Billy Moyer, Scott Bloomquist and Brian Birkhofer all fell in love with the big mile in late models while Jeff Leka, Wes O'Dell and Dennis Vandermeersch became local heroes who won on the mile. Sprint cars returned and bought large crowds and lap speeds in excess of 145 miles an hour. Sadly, grand champion Dean Roper had a heart attack and passed away during the 2001 Crowe 100 while George Handley lost his life in a modified in the 2002 Illinois Fall Nationals.
The Nationals fell on hard times and eventually were moved to LaSalle in 2007. The Bettenhausen suffered from low car counts and lagging attendance but the Silver Crown Series seems to be on an upswing and the race remains among the most prestigious in the series. ARCA remains the only major stock car sanctioning body to run on dirt. ARCA continues to give fans a battle of local drivers versus national stars. Springfield's Justin Allgaier became the first hometown driver in over 70 years to win a major race at the Illinois State Fair and went on to the 2008 ARCA title.
>From triumph to tragedy, from world renown racing stars to unheralded weekend warriors, from early 'big cars' to national championship machines to sprint cars, stock cars, midgets and motorcycles, the Illinois State Fairgrounds has seen it all in 100 years of auto racing. Seventy-six national championship dirt track races, fifty-seven national championship stock car events. Numerous midget car, sprint car, stock car and motorcycle races. World speed records too numerous to count. The Springfield Mile has a racing history that predates the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As just one of four operating one-mile fairground dirt tracks in the country, she remains a vital link to America's oval track racing heritage.
Here's to another 100 years!
-source: illinois state fair