DuQuoin, Illinois September 3rd The 2000 Southern Illinois 100 for Stock Cars was an event that met with great anticipation for months. The major story of the traditional Labor Day weekend at DuQuoin's mile dirt track was of course the track ...
DuQuoin, Illinois September 3rd
The 2000 Southern Illinois 100 for Stock Cars was an event that met with great anticipation for months. The major story of the traditional Labor Day weekend at DuQuoin's mile dirt track was of course the track itself. A 2.6 million dollar renovation of the fifty-three year old facility had the jaws of race fans wagging coast to coast, and many looked forward to the weekend and seeing the "new" facility for the first time.
Of course, the main topic was the new concrete wall and catch fence that replaced a brittle boiler plate guardrail. Al Unser was quoted in the race program that he "was glad to see it, it was about time." Former winner Billy Thomas said before the race, "This is very nice, they've done a great job here." "We really appreciate the effort", said defending ARCA champ Bill Baird prior to race time, "it makes the place a lot safer for us."
The wall got it's first test early in the show, and it wasn't from a race car. A large orange dump truck used by the State of Illinois to run in the racetrack got out of shape and brushed the third turn wall. One wag said over the radio that "the wall works!" There was minor damage done to the truck, and of course none to the 1 1/2 foot thick wall. This isn't the first time this has happened, a few years ago a dump truck following the calcium sprayer got sideways on the front chute, and knocked out part of the guardrail right in front of the house. Perhaps the track crew needs a little practice time prior to race day.
The other story prior to race time was the heat, as it turned out to be a brutal day. Temperatures soared into the mid 90's by race time, with high humidity and very little in the way of a breeze.
One story that no one anticipated or wanted to see was the race itself, ARCA reports that 55 of the 100 laps were run under green, and the average speed of 51 miles per hour for the distance is the slowest since the stockers began coming to DuQuoin in 1950. In fact, it took almost as long to run 100-miles as it did to run the 250K (156 mile) distance the race ran prior to 1996. The average speed was also the slowest since it took over three hours for Dave Goldsberry to win the 1984 race, at it's 200-mile distance.
Sometimes with new clay it takes some time for it to work in and settle down. That was apparently the case this year as the track broke up badly in turn three creating a dust storm during the 100-miler, helping to cause several accidents. But that was only part of the reason for the slow race, impatience among many of the drivers, something ARCA president Ron Drager pleads for every drivers meeting, was in short supply this day and perhaps the major cause of most of the incidents. Drivers who complained over the radio about the dust in turn three still barreled into the corner full speed. Just as the green came out, another caution would hit the racetrack. There were eleven caution periods, and two red flag periods, and a lot of wrekced race cars, all in all not a real good day.
It would be hard to fault the track crew or the promoter for the track conditions. A few weeks ago it was daily rains, and then during the fair week the heat has been awful each day, with temps in the 100 degree range. The track looked pretty good through qualifying and hot laps, but apparently the new soil in turn three wasn't able to stand up to the pounding of the 3500 pound ARCA machines.
It is unknown if ARCA has a penalty box a-la Winston Cup, but one might come in handy. At least one driver was the subject of ire among fans and competitors at both Springfield and DuQuoin for rough driving.
On the bright side, if the new wall had not been in place the race might never have ended. The Southern Illinois 100 started at around 1:15, and the checker fell around 4 p.m.
It might sound odd, but there are a number of former Winston Cup machines in the ARCA division. Joe Cooksey's Chevy is out of the Felix Sabates stable, for example. Fans might wonder about a Cup car on dirt, but as a man once said, "the car don't know it's runnin on dirt!"
Count Billy Thomas as one who had a good day. The Phenix City, Alabama nice guy couldn't get his car done in time for Springfield, but the new Monte Carlo was ready for DuQuoin. The owner of the Talledega Short Track qualified near the front, and marched back to the front after an early pit stop. Thomas joined legend Norm Nelson as one of two four-time winners of the Southern Illinois stock car race, and in leading the last 79 miles passed another legend, Dean Roper as the all-time lap leader at DuQuoin. Even though Billy isn't from the area his humble personality and driving style has earned him a legion of Southern Illinois fans.
Thomas had one slight problem, and it didn't hit him until he was in victory lane. Billy may have become the first DuQuoin winner ever to pass out in victory lane! Billy explained that he "had come down with a slight cold a few days ago and was feeling a little puny." No doubt sitting in a boiling race car for nearly three hours didn't help his recovery, but after an ice-pack and a ride in an air conditioned ambulance, he felt well enough to do interviews and give out autographs to anybody that wanted one.
Centralia native Joe Cooksey set the place on it's ear by becoming the first Southern Illinois native to take the pole at DuQuoin. Joe's 35.599 lap withstood the challenge of several qualifiers and gave him a great shot at a win. Cooksey pitted early, then avoided the carnage to slide into second late in the race. A late race slide up the track cost him two slots, but Joe was satisfied with his fourth place run.
Other Illinois drivers looked pretty good at times on the DuQuoin clay. Normal's Curt Piercy was strong a good portion of the afternoon, as was Mokena's Bob Strait driving for the former Ken Rowley team. Carlyle's Charlie Schafer also ran well, as did Marine's Mark Voight. Strait dropped out at the end with ignition failure, Schafer got caught up in one of the many incidents.
STP-Prestone Rookie of the Year contender Shawna Robinson suffered a tough day and looked absolutely spent after the race. She battled the heat all day, and got caught up in several incidents that were not of her own doing. Leading Rookie contender Brian Ross fared better, staying out of trouble for a top ten finish.
Robinson and Karla Lampe became the first women ever to qualify for a major auto race on the DuQuoin clay.
Robinson also had a legion of rooters in the stands Sunday, many were interested to see how she would do in her first trip to DuQuoin and she was very well received.
Give a hand to several crews for the repair jobs done to cars from the race at Springfield two weeks ago. Curt Piercy's crew did an excellent job to get him back on track, and John Herb's crew performed a minor miracle just getting his car back on four wheels. One crew that didn't make it was the crew of Todd Coon. The East Peoria native wrecked badly at Springfield and couldn't repair the car in time.
An accident seems to have ended the fine career of Dean Roper, the all-time ARCA win leader on dirt. Dean's Springfield wall contact sent the Mueller Brothers into retirement, and apparently caused Dean to hang up his helmet as well. Here's wishing we see Dean at the track again, there isn't a better story-teller in the pits.
Red Farmer was spotted in the pits helping out Brian Ross. Farmer is a member of the famed "Alabama Gang" which consisted of himself, Donnie and Bobby Allison, and the late Neil Bonnett. On the grounds Saturday for the horse races was former USAC and NASCAR star Paul Goldsmith who pilots the jockeys to and from Chicago.
Shrubbery and flowers adorned the outside of the mile track, adding to the beauty of the DuQuoin facility. Areas that were gravel were paved over, and the place looked fantastic. Word in the pit area is that the lights will be completed next year, and a paved pit lane is on the drawing board. Perhaps with the improvements NASCAR ought to look at bringing the trucks to Southern Illinois. Dirt would be quite a selling point for trucks, with as much off-road use as the street versions get, and a sellout crowd would be in order for a night race. It would be great exposure for the series, not to mention a boon to the local economy.
DuQuoin is well on it's way to becoming the premier dirt mile in the country, a title that Springfield probably claims. Look for a night time ARCA race in the spring of 2001, and perhaps the Southern Illinois 100 to be run at night during the fair. Word is that 5-7 additional events are wanted at the Magic Mile, among several different sanctioning bodies.
ARCA certainly has some of the nicest officials and competitors in the business. Ron Drager of ARCA runs the ship with a fair hand, and PR man Don Radebaugh goes to great lenghts to promote the series. The drivers are all accessible and many waited until the last fan left the pit area before leaving themselves.
Bill Baird really put on a show during the 100-miler, coming from one-lap down to third at the end after spinning in turn three. Baird, and extraordinarily nice person, got chucked into the lake by his crew, who then jumped in after him after the race! The last driver anyone could remember going into the lake was Gary Bettenhausen, who after a hot day and winning the Ted Horn champ car event, cooled off in the infield lake!
Sunday's crowd was fair, but late arriving, no doubt due to the heat. The State Fair did it's part, placing several cooling stations (water spraying fans) around the grounds.
Turn three claimed many cars, and helped cause perhaps the bigest wreck in DuQuoin history. Sixteen cars were involved in a lap 33 shunt that led to the first red flag to water the third turn, several came out badly damaged and some to bad to continue.
Give credit where credit is due, even to politicians. Local State Rep Mike Bost, State Fair Manager Sammye Farke, and Governor George Ryan were instrumental in getting the funds for the renovation project and fighting the horse racing people to get it done. Apparently the horse people were concerned about the new wall, but some concessions were made and they allowed the project to go through. However, the sulkys don't run near the outer wall and no one in the pit area ever remembers a horse running into the outer wall.
Ryan was the honorary starter for the event and got the biggest response from the partisan Democrat crowd, and it wasn't cheers the Republican Governor heard. It was a bit of a shame, considering all that Ryan has done for the Fair but apparently he cannot shake the public image of the license selling scandal while in the Secretary of State position.
Thirty-eight cars entered the event, thirty-seven started the 100-miler as Dennis English couldn't make the start.
GM continued it's dominance of the DuQuoin facility. Sunday's pole was the thirtieth for a GM car since 1950, and the win by Billy Thomas in a Chevy was the 26th for a GM car, the twenty-fourth in a row.
The new surface also did not take quite as much rubber as in past years. Drivers commented on this fact after the race, as DuQuoin usually begins taking a set of rubber right at the end of hot laps. Ordinarily, the track gets faster in qualifying but today that was not the case.
No one usually talks about track temperature at a dirt race, but today the track temp at race time was over 113 degrees!
Missouri Late Model shoe Ed Dixon drives for NASCAR's Kenny Shcrader and Dixon may have brought half of the state of Missouri with him. Ed had a good run at DuQuoin, then was hustling back to St. Charles, Missouri for the track's farewell night and a UMP late model event. Dixon is looking for his third UMP national crown.
St. Joe Missouri driver Doug Keller had a whale of a run, leading 8 laps and biding his time while running second to Thomas. A pit stop set him back, and then a ratchet broke in the rear end sending his Pontiac behind the wall. According to his crew chief, Doug does 60% of the pre-race prep on the car.
Georgia's Mark Gibson may want to cross DuQuoin off his schedule in the future. Gibson, reminded at this year's autograph and car show Saturday night that he was the last driver to leave the ballpark at the Magic Mile, crashed hard in turn three and returned sans fenders, the hood and front end, a real shame as he was running quite well.
Fans came from all over to the Southern Illinois 100, from as far away as Alabama to see the big stockers on dirt for the final time in 2000.
The UMP modifieds certainly put on quite a show on any mile that they run. Chuck Buesch comes from Texas each year, and if a USAC Dirt Car or ARCA owner was looking for a driver this might be the guy. Chuck pitched his car sideways in the turns like yesteryear and rode the high side to a heat race win. Three of the four heats ran without a caution.
The only modified caution was caused when defending winner Kevin Gundaker collidied with another car and popped a tire in turn one. Kevin and the crew were still working on the car for Monday's semi-feature as the pits closed for the day.