Notes from Springfield, Illinois

Springfield, Illinois August 20, 2001 It is with a heavy heart that this edition of the notes and tidbits from the 39th PAR-A-DICE-Allen Crowe Memorial 100 are written, as sadly we must report the death of a great competitor, Dean Roper.

Springfield, Illinois August 20, 2001

It is with a heavy heart that this edition of the notes and tidbits from the 39th PAR-A-DICE-Allen Crowe Memorial 100 are written, as sadly we must report the death of a great competitor, Dean Roper. According to a report released by the Sangamon County Coroner on Monday following an autopsy, Roper suffered a fatal heart attack from a blood clot which caused his Thunderbird hit the inside retaining wall, and he was pronounced dead later at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield. No other injuries were listed in the coroner's report, and the heart attack was listed as the cause of death. Tragically, Roper's son Tony was killed in a NASCAR Truck race at the Texas Motor Speedway last October. The Fair Grove, Missouri veteran was the all-time leader in stock car wins on the Illinois State Fair mile with seven (those coming between 1981 and 1986), and one of the all-time leaders in Crowe Memorial wins with four. His racing career began on the short tracks of Missouri and was entering it’s fifth decade. Dean began his driving career in 1960, and was a five time track champion in the Missouri area. In the early 1970's, he began to branch out into the United States Auto Club Stock Car series, winning three consecutive titles from 1981 to 1983. Dean was the all-time leader in ARCA victories on dirt, and had won more stock car races than any other driver on the DuQuoin State Fair mile as well. His last victory in ARCA competition came in 1994, when he won the Southern Illinois 100 at DuQuoin at age 55. Dean Roper is survived by wife Marilyn, and brother Dale, both were at the track at the time of the incident. Visitation is scheduled in Springfield, Missouri for Wednesday, August 22, and the funeral services for Thursday.

Roper drove for the Mueller Brothers of Random Lake, Wisconsin for most of his career, and enjoyed his greatest success with that team. Dean won many races and all of his USAC Stock Car titles with the Mueller's, a team that fielded Pontiacs for Roper for the majority of his tenure with the team. In fact, Roper won his last race in a Pontiac fielded by the Muellers. The Mueller Brothers also tried NASCAR Winston Cup racing at times, fielded cars on occasion for Roper, and later fellow Wisconsin native Jim Sauter. Last year was their 40th anniversary in auto racing, as well as Roper's. It was announced that both would retire after the two ARCA dirt races in 2000, however the car was heavily damaged after the Springfield event and the team chose not to make the trek to DuQuoin. Reports are that Roper wanted to drive at Springfield, so he contacted the Mueller’s and they were able to put together a 1997 Thunderbird for him.

It’s doubtful anyone could find a more pleasant man to ever set in the cockpit of a race car than Dean Roper. If you saw him in the pits, he was always upbeat and always smiling. It seemed as if Dean Roper never met anyone he didn’t like, whether it be an official, a fellow competitor, or a race fan. He would sign autographs as long as anyone wanted one, and would make appearances to help promote upcoming events. Dean Roper was respected by everyone in the racing community, younger and less experienced drivers would seek him out before the start of practice for one of the dirt events, and Dean was always eager to help. Roper was one of the best storytellers in the pit area too, many of his tales involved his own on the track or off the track antics and usually ended with a great deal of laughter. Dean was a good friend to many in the pit area, especially fellow USAC Stock Car driver Bay Darnell of Deerfield, Illinois. Not only was Roper a friend of Darnell's, but Dean was employed as a foreman for Darnell's Lomax Piggy Back Service for a number of years. Dean helped Darnell in the pre-race promotion of the spring USAC Stock Car events held at Springfield during the mid-eighties by making public appearances in the Illinois capitol. Dean Roper was a fine example of how racing drivers and professional athletes should conduct themselves, and his passing is a tremendous blow to the entire racing community.

There have been many media reports across the nation on how the incident occurred which seem to contain inaccurate, incomplete or misleading facts. This writer observed the entire incident from start to finish, and will try to relay the accident in it’s entirety.

Roper was running eighth or ninth at the time of the accident, which occurred on lap 18 of the 100 mile event. He had qualified in the top ten and was running very well at the time, using the high groove and his traditional low groove to move through traffic. Coming out of turn four on lap 18, Roper's car seemed to wiggle slightly and then turned abruptly left, toward the pit entrance which is about 1/3 of the way down the main stretch. The car showed no signs of braking or slowing down (though it seemed the driver was no longer on the accelerator), nor an attempt by the driver to turn back to the right. While still at a good clip, the car hit the inside concrete wall (on the turn one side of the pit entrance) with a glancing blow to the left front corner and left front wheel, missing the pit opening by about fifteen to twenty feet. The car continued scraping and bouncing along the front stretch wall in front of the stage area, taking a couple of banners off of the wall, and when it reached the pit exit the car turned into the opening and struck the end of the concrete wall with the front of the car, more toward the right side than the left. The right front of the car suffered extensive damage, and the right front wheel appeared to be folded to the firewall area. Two or three people in the pit area were knocked to the ground as was a snow fence used to cordon off the area. Those that were knocked to the ground arose almost immediately and it appeared that there were no injuries in the pit area.

The Sangamon County rescue squad ran to the scene immediately, and began attempts to revive the driver and extricate him from the vehicle. After cutting the roof off of the car, Roper was removed and taken immediately by ambulance to the hospital.

There was some speculation right after the accident that a left front tire may have gone down, but ARCA reported to the media they could find no mechanical reason for the accident after inspecting the automobile. Because of the odd nature of the accident, there was some discussion that perhaps Roper suffered a physical problem in the vehicle immediately prior to the left turn into the wall. Media reports indicate driver Andy Belmont saw Roper slumped behind the wheel coming out of turn four, and saw the wheel turn to the left. Roper's brother Dale reported to the Illinois State Journal Register that he felt that his brother suffered a "seizure or heart attack" which caused the accident. Dale Roper was spotting for his brother on Sunday, and reported to the media that Dean was talking to him on the back stretch, but the radio went silent as his brother came through the fourth turn. Roper's brother indicated that Dean had suffered a heart attack in 1984, but had quit smoking 15 years ago, recently lost 25 pounds and was in good physical shape for his return to Springfield. The 2001 PAR-A-DICE Allen Crowe Memorial was Dean's 24th stock car start on the Springfield Mile.

Roper's passing marks the first driver death at the Illinois State Fairgrounds since Ronald "Doc" Dawson was killed in a sprint car event in the fall of 1976, and the first death in a race during the Illinois State Fair since Bill Horstmeyer's fatal accident in the Bettenhausen Memorial for championship cars 1964. In 1966, photographer Dale Mueller and a worker on the ground were killed when a scaffolding collapsed in the grandstand, prior to the running of the Bettenhausen Memorial.

The death of one of two-four time winners of the Crowe Memorial marred what was an excellent weekend of racing at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, a large crowd showed up Saturday for the Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 for the debut of A.J. Foyt IV, and an even larger crowd came on Sunday for the PAR-A-DICE Crowe Memorial. Promoter Bob Sargent reports that every available spot was taken on the infield, and a great portion of the grandstand seats were sold as well.

The large crowd saw Frank Kimmel nearly lock up his second consecutive (and third overall) ARCA RE/MAX driving title Sunday with a flawless and dominating performance, leading 92 of the 100 miles on his way to his second Crowe Memorial win. The win gave owner Larry Clement his third Springfield win, as Bob Hill took the 1994 event.

Kimmel became the ninth stock car driver in Springfield history to record more than one win, and the seventh to post back to back victories. His win from the pole was the 10th from the inside front row starting slot, and the 3rd for a car carrying the number 46. His 92 leading laps vaulted him to fourth on the ARCA race lap leader list at Springfield, and into the top ten overall. In addition, Frank brought General Motors it’s 26th victory at Springfield, and the seventh for the Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

Kimmel also captured the pole position with a lap over 103 miles an hour, as the 31st qualifier in line.

Kimmel averaged over 79 miles an hour for the event, finishing the 100 miles in just under one hour and twenty minutes, the fastest race since Bob Keselowki's fourth win in 1993.

Kimmel's 92 laps led were the most by a race victor since Don White led 99 laps in 1966, and the most by any driver since 1978, when White led 90 circuits. The 92 laps in front are the most by any ARCA race winner at Springfield, eclipsing the 88 laps led by Bill Baird in 1999.

Rookie Jason Jarrett, son of 1999 Winston Cup driver Dale Jarrett and grandson of two-time NASCAR champ Ned Jarrett had an impressive Springfield debut on Sunday, putting the Biomet Chevrolet on the front role and holding the pole until Kimmel knocked him off. In the race Jarrett ran a strong yet conservative event, staying out of trouble and moving up at the end, finishing third. Jarrett even grabbed the lead at the start, leading the first lap. The amazing thing about his performance is that his first laps in practice were the first dirt track laps in his entire racing career! He indicated that grandpa Ned, who won over half his NASCAR wins on the dirt, had called and given him some good advice before the event, "set the car up tight, keep it straight and drive it like pavement." Apparently the youngster followed the advice very well.

The Dauphin Tech team of owner Bill Hendren and Bob Strait brought a tremendous following to Springfield, estimated in excess of 100 people in the grandstand in addition to those in the pit area. Strait, from Mokena, Illinois, was clearly the crowd favorite on Sunday and the loudest cheers were for the veteran who was competing in only his second race of the year. Strait had a tremendous run Sunday, posting the best Springfield finish ever for the Bloomington, Illinois based operation of second and at times challenging Kimmel for the top slot. The Dauphin team plans on running the event at the new track in Joliet where they recently tested, and the Southern Illinois 100 at DuQuoin on Labor Day. The Hendren team is very popular and well known in racing circles throughout the state, the team fielded stock cars for twenty-five years for nice guy Ken Rowley of El Paso, Illinois before Ken retired in 1998.

Sunday wasn't always smooth for the Dauphin team, they entered a second car for rookie Chris Geier of Lake Barrington, Illinois and Geier looked as if he was adapting well to the Springfield Mile in practice. Unfortunately, he spun the Chevrolet on his qualifying lap and stuffed the rear end into the turn two fence, ending his day.

Other drivers performing well on a sunny and mild afeternoon included Missouri's Doug Keller, who rode to a fourth in his Pontiac, and rookie John Hayden who rode the high groove in his Pontiac to a fifth place finish. Keller originally thought his day was over as the car let loose a plfume of smoke in practice, but the crew found an oil line had come loose and had the car ready by race time. Hayden was impressive in qualifying, and in the race put on a real show, kicking up rooster tails of dirt in the turns. Hayden lists Uitca, New York as his residence and has some dirt track experience out east, but actually hails from Owensboro, Kentucky, the same community that produced Darrell and Michael Waltrip, and Jeremy Mayfield.

Illinois drivers fared very well Sunday, but did not achieve the goal of driving into victory lane. As stated earlier, Mokena's Bob Strait posted a second place finish, while Bloomington's Eric Smith finished sixth and Centralia's Joe Cooksey finished seventh. Carlyle's Charlie Schafer posted a 12th place run, while East Peoria's Todd Coon was running a very strong third until the engine let go on lap 78, in a ball of flame. He was not injured, and strangely it was the second year in a row he dropped out after grenading an engine in a ball of flame.

Smith continued a longevity streak at Springfield on Sunday, his start in the 100-mile event gave him seventeen stock car starts at Springfield, 16 in ARCA competition and 12 consecutive starts in the Crowe Memorial. These numbers are the most among active drivers inthe ARCA RE/MAX series.

Soddy Daisy, Tennessee native Ron Cox had a tough day at Springfield, he qualified 14th and was on the move when it appeared a right front tire went down on lap 28 and he crashed hard into the outseide concrete in turn four. The car was severely damaged, but Ron emerged unhurt and indicated he would be at DuQuoin in two weeks.

Veteran Norm Benning of Pennsylvania also had an early exit, his Chevrolet got crossed up on the backstretch and went hard into the inner rail, destroying the front end. Norm also got out of the car, uninjured.

Rookie contender Todd Bowsher appeared in dad Jack's famous number 21, Jack himself a former ARCA champ and winner of the Crowe Memorial at Springfield. The Ford carried the retro paint job used earlier in the year, the blue and white colors carried on dad's cars in the 1970's when he was sponsored by Don Wagner Ford and teaming with one A.J. Foyt.

North Carolina resident Brent Glastetter showed up for Sunday's race in a Pontiac owned by Joe Falk, a NASCAR Winston Cup owner. Glastetter was making his dirt mile debut, but has previous dirt experience as he ran modifieds in and around the Paducah, Kentucky area prior to moving to the southeast.

Thirty-seven cars were pre-entered, and thirty-eight drew for qualifying times. However, only thirty-three actually lined up for the start of the event, and six of those machines took provisionals. Not showing up on the grounds were the 75 car assigned to Rick Tackman (he was on the grounds and ran the companion Wynn's Sportsman event), the Roulo Brothers 39 out of Chicago, the number 8 ford of James Hylton, and the car of Dick Tracey. The cars of Tim Mitchell and Tim Turner were late arrivals.

Two competitors chose not to make the trip to Springfield, 1999 PAR-A-DICE-Crowe Memorial winner Bill Baird did not show but is entered at DuQuoin, and Billy Thomas had entered the Springfield event, but did not make the trek from Alabama Sunday.

A tip of the hat to promoter Bob Sargent, ARCA head man Ron Drager and the track crew for a perfect race track on Sunday and a well run program. The race track was in great condition, despite a rain storm the previous afternoon, it was smooth and a second groove developed after the sportsman event. Other than the down time for the Roper accident, there were no delays and the checkered flag fell around 3:30 p.m.

Mike Melton came to Springfield with a car sponsored by professional wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler, formerly of the WWF. Lawler is an icon in his hometown of Memphis and is famous for his feud with the late Andy Kaufman, a comedian of Saturday Night Live fame. Melton indicated he is trying to talk Lawler into attending the Southern Illinois 100 at DuQuoin on Labor Day to see some high speed dirt track racing.

After becoming the first woman to ever qualify for a major auto race at Springfield in 2000, Karla Lampe returned and made the show again in her Chevrolet, posting a 20th place finish.

Veteran Springfield announcer recently finished third in an internet poll of fans on who they thought was the best track announcer in the nation. Childers prepares quite a bit for each race and turned in one of his best performances on Sunday during a very trying afternoon.

Perhaps some ARCA owners might look to the Sportsman drivers for future talent, as the sportsman race was a real thriller. Former NASCAR Weekly champ Jeff Leka took the 20-mile event in a car sponsored by Springfield's "Jungle Jim" Davidson. His victory was hard fought, as Steve Sheppard, Junior of New Berlin and Brian Moon pressured him to the finish line, all of them swapping the lead during the last 10 miles. Leka nearly went out of the event near halfway, he and Moon were fighting for the lead when they encountered a lapped car and Leka was forced into the machine. His car shot up into the air and came down on all four wheels. Sheppard is familar to local fans, last year he gave Lou Burmeister's aging dirt champ car it's best ride ever in last year's USAC dirt car event at Springfield.

Next up for the ARCA RE/MAX Series is a race at Berlin, Michigan before they go to the new Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet on Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Then it's the trek for the annual Southern Illinois 100 on Labor Day, when NASCAR invaders Ken Schrader, Andy Petree and Tony Stewart come to town.

-JH

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Series ARCA
Drivers Dale Jarrett , Jeremy Mayfield , Ken Schrader , A.J. Foyt IV , Frank Kimmel , Ned Jarrett , Tim Mitchell , Jason Jarrett , Jim Sauter , Ron Cox , Tim Turner , Todd Bowsher , Andy Petree , James Hylton , Norm Benning , Doug Keller , John Hayden , Tony Bettenhausen , Bill Baird , A.J. Foyt