Reprinted from Midwest Racing News
by Stan Kalwasinski
Chicago, Ill. - Before getting too far into the New Year, let’s take a look back at Chicago-area racing 35 years ago. The year was 1978.
Tony Izzo captured the late model title at Santa Fe Speedway near Willow Springs for the second time in his career. The Camaro-driving Izzo enjoyed a successful end of the season, winning Santa Fe’s annual National Clay Track Championship, as well as the Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100-lapper at the half-mile paved Illiana Motor Speedway (Schererville, Ind.). Izzo defeated Art “Fireball” Fehrman and Wisconsin’s Jerry Smith in the Santa Fe 200 and bested Ray Young and Ed Hoffman at Illiana.
Winning 17 features during the season, Izzo finished ahead of Arnie Gardner, Jim O’Conner and Larry Jackson in the weekly Santa Fe late model points rundown, with Bill Knippenberg claiming the sportsman division title with a total of 19 feature wins to his credit.
Hoffman and his black #1 Camaro were the winning late model combination at Illiana as he captured his fourth Illiana title, defeating Young, Lee Schuler and Bobby Dotter in the final standings. Tom Swets was the sport stock class champion for ’78.
Young, the “tobacco-chewin’ truck driver,” nailed down the late model crown at Grundy County Speedway (Morris). The “Friday Night Racin’ Place” saw Young, with seven feature victories, finish ahead of Hoffman and Schuler in the final point’s tally. John Gordon was the track’s street stock champion, giving Gordon his second straight title.
Larry Middleton wheeled a 1978 Camaro to two feature wins on his way to his second consecutive late model championship at Raceway Park (Blue Island), where the late model racing season came to abrupt halt in September because of a tire rule disagreement between drivers and track management. Middleton claimed track title over Frank Gawlinski, Ted Moore and Tom Nielsen. Two female drivers, champion Barbara Bosak and Nancy Prince, dominated Raceway’s hobby stock division, winning a total of 21 features between them.
In its fourth season of operation, the ARTGO Racing late model series saw Wisconsin’s Tom Reffner garner his second series championship. Reffner, the 1975 ARTGO titlist, and Dick Trickle, the 1977 ARTGO champ, were involved in a dead-heat finish for first place in an ARTGO 50-lapper at the Grundy oval in June. On July 11, ARTGO made its first appearance ever at the high-banked, quarter-mile Rockford Speedway with Trickle, “The White Knight,” winning the evening’s 100-lap main event, which saw NASCAR stars Bobby Allison and Neil Bonnett compete. Later in the year, Mike Miller won a controversial Wayne Carter Classic 100-lap chase at Grundy. Besides Reffner, Trickle and Miller, ARTGO winners during the season included Bob Senneker, Randy Sweet and a couple of youngsters, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin.
Trickle, the Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., speedster, was the victor in the annual National Short Track Championship 200-lap headliner at the Rockford oval in late September. In his Superamerica 1977 Firebird, Trickle defeated Martin, the young Arkansas driver, and Grundy County champion Young in the 13th running of the Midwest late model event. Don Leach was the “Rockford Rules” late model champion at the Rockford speed plant.
Leach, along with fellow Rockford racer, Wayne Lensing, ventured into Indiana in September and captured ASA late model sportsman victories. Leach’s win came at Anderson Speedway, while Lensing and his Ford Granada won at Winchester Speedway.
Wheeling a 1974 Barracuda, Don Collins corralled late model stock car honors at Waukegan Speedway, which saw its quarter-mile oval converted back to a dirt surface after the 1977 campaign. Bob Robel was the champion of Waukegan’s supermodified division.
Other late model dirt track champions in the area included the veteran Gardner, the “Geneva Fox,” at the Kankakee Fairgrounds Speedway; Larry Mosher at Sycamore Speedway Bill Davis at Broadway Speedway (Crown Point, Ind.); and Dick Potts at Rensselaer (Ind.) raceway. Bob Pierce won the season-ending Brooks Ford 778 at Rensselaer, while O’Conner captured the 100-lap Northern Illinois Clay Track Championship season finale at Kankakee.
Don Carter Jr. was crowned the champion driver in the United Auto Racing Association (UARA) midget ranks Carter finished ahead of Tom Corcoran, Bob Richards, Bill Kollman and Dick Pole in the association’s final point standings. UARA competed on a weekly basis at Joliet Memorial Stadium.
USAC midgets were in action several times at both Santa Fe and Rockford with Ron “Sleepy” Tripp winning two main events at Santa Fe and one at Rockford. Jerry Weeks (Santa Fe) and Rich Vogler (Rockford) were other local USAC midget feature winners. Vogler, a product of Glen Ellyn, was crowned the USAC national midget champion at season’s end.
Illiana hosted USAC sprint cars on three occasions with Mack McClellan, Greg Leffler and Gary Bettenhausen scoring victories. Sheldon Kinser was the first feature winner at Santa Fe during USAC’s first-ever show there.
A graduate of Soldier Field stock car racing of the 1950s and 1960s, Sal Tovella, wheeling a 1978 Dodge Magnum, won a 100-lap USAC stock car race on the one-mile dirt fairgrounds at Springfield and finished seventh in the USAC stock car point standings. Other local USAC stock car aces were Bay Darnell, who finished third in the points, and former mini-stock champion Dave Decker, who finished 12th. Decker’s racing career came to an end when he was seriously injured during a USAC stock car event at Du Quoin in late August.
That was Chicago area racing in 1978.