Friday opened the 49th Annual National Short Track Championships at the historic Rockford Speedway with temperatures in the eighties and no rain in sight for the entire weekend. Getting into the place was a challenge for the behemoth race haulers, as the main road was undergoing a renovation. But they came anyway. More than 115 entries arrived, those from other tracks joining the Rockford regulars now that their championship battles are over. The Rockford divisions were on their last event for the Gilley’s Cool 5 Series, with an increasing pot offered for anyone who correctly predicted the top four feature finishers. Qualifying began at five o’clock, followed by preliminary races and features. In the pits a few teams were thrashing on their cars with problems that did not show up until they arrived at Rockford.
Mitch Garfield topped the weekly late models early in line, the only one in the 13-second bracket. Danny Church discovered he had no brakes during his two hot laps, and made it to the end of the qualifying line, but still had problems. Jerry Gille clearly had problems with an ill-sounding car, barely posting one lap, while his brother Tom Gille doubled his fun by also racing in the American Short Tracker field. Tom’s son Jake Gille came closest to fast time, finishing second in qualifying. Bobby Wilberg was the last to qualify, posting one lap after coming out late. Michael Bilderback fielded a twin car to Adam Peschek. The top twelve in time would have an eleven-car invert after Garfield rolled the die. Dale Nottestad and Dana Czach won the fast heats and Wayne Freimund was the other heat winner.
The late model feature was set at 49 laps to reflect the history of this event. John Beinlich and Czach shared the front row, followed by Nottestad, Justin Sellers, Wilberg, and Tom Gille. Czach got ahead at the green flag and enjoyed the view as the rest battled for position. Looking to win this event as his late father did, Czach’s plans were challenged when Beinlich’s car spun before the halfway mark to force the first caution flag. Taking the blame for the spin was Bilderback, who then left his top spot and restarted in the back of the pack. Beinlich’s luck ran out when his car was in the wall four laps later, and Dan Lensing was sent to the rear for his involvement.
Lane choice found few willing to take the inside lane each time, but the leader starts alone. After the next green flag Jake Gille found his choice paying off, taking the point with 21 circuits remaining. One more slowdown came when a mishap involved both the Peschek cars along with Sellers, eliminating all three fifteen laps from the end. Gille found a new challenger in Wilberg after the restart, with Garfield waiting for his chance. They came to the final flag in that order, followed by Czach and Tom Gille. The young winner happily climbed onto the stage and was asked about fending off Wilberg in the restarts. Gille agreed it was quite a challenge, “Especially when he came so close the last two times. This feels really good. I knew it was kind of the last chance I had. I have to thank Bobby Wilberg for backing off. He knew I was in the Gilley’s Challenge. I’ve got to apologize to John (Beinlich). I got into him a little bit.” With no one picking the top four, the cash for the Challenge rolls over to next season.
Rodney Gilley was the last car to qualify in the All American Sportsman field, edging out Jason Thoma for the coveted bullet trophy for fast time. Kyle Chwala and Deanna Chandler won the heats and all 22 cars started the 40-lap feature. Butch Swinbank barely got a qualifying lap earlier, but his time set him on the pole at feature time. Brian Mayer, Chandler, Chwala, Pat Featherston II and Brett McCoy followed. Mayer got the jump at the green flag, but the next time around saw the yellow when Swinbank’s car spun. Chwala took the lead on the third lap, and a dozen circuits were complete before another spun car regrouped the field again. Five laps later Matt Lundberg and Doug Bennett both wanted fourth place, but spun instead.
Thoma got past Chwala four laps after the restart, but with twelve laps remaining Mike Coleman’s car was in the wall. The restart say Chwala’s challenge thwarted when Andy Welter’s car was in the wall three laps later to become the last retiree of the race. Daryl Gerke came from the fifth row to duel with Chwala for second spot by the midway mark, allowing Thoma to get away while they raced two abreast for the final nine laps. Chad Smith and McCoy completed the top five finishers. A jubilant Thoma exclaimed, “It was a blast. I love this place. There’s just something about Rockford. Those cautions might have helped me.”
George Sparkman claimed his seniority by posting quick time in the American Short Trackers, and Devon Dixon won the qualifying heat. The 40-lap feature invert placed Mark English and Dixon in front of Keith Pierce, Mark Bielefeldt, Zach Rodriguez and champion Kelly Evink. Dixon shot into the lead at the start, but only six laps were complete when Beilefeldt and Rodriguez crashed in the third turn. Dixon’s car began showing glowing brakes as the race went on, challenged by Ryan Nelson from the fourth row in the closing circuits. Negotiating through lapped traffic, the challenges were thwarted as all watched in suspense.
Nelson’s car showered sparks from his brakes in the turns, and Dixon’s wheels glowed red all the way around the track as the final laps were completed. The white flag waved and the pair came through the final turn in tandem, with Nelson the leader at the finish line. Both had given all they had in the classic duel to the end. Nelson declared, “It was a lot of fun. I didn’t think I’d be able to get around him (Dixon). I just got lucky.” Behind Dixon were solid finishes by Sparkman, Evink and Nick Cina Jr. from the fifth row.
Dennis Smith Jr. topped two dozen Road Runners in qualifying, followed by heats won by Adam Cartwright and Robby Robinson. Their 40-lap feature began with 22 cars answering the call. Jeff Allendorf and Cartwright began ahead of Robby Robinson, Jason Van Hise, Chris McQuality and Trevor Robinson. Cartwright took the lead at the green flag, which was replaced by the yellow banner on the third lap when Allendorf’s car spun with a couple others. The restart quickly ended when Gene Marocco’s car was in the wall, but the rest of the race sped to conclusion quickly. Cartwright led the first half of the contest, and Bobby Frisch came from the sixth row to lead the second twenty circuits. “The car was hooked up tonight,” declared Frisch afterwards, adding, “Hopefully next year we can move up, maybe sportsman of something.”
The Hornet/Bandit field had thirty cars answer the call at qualifying time and Chris Jones setting the mark early to claim quick time honors. Steve Putman and Ryan Ostenson won the heats and Kelsey Dobbs led the final three transferees from the last chance race. The final 24 cars started the 25-lap feature with Ostenson, Heather Stark, Putman, Brian Cook, Brian Beale, Steve Dickson, Nick Schmidt and Zach Sontag in the front rows. Stark jumped into the lead at the start and Schmidt forged past nine laps later. Three caution flags followed in the next five laps for minor incidents.
With four laps remaining Stark spun with another car, and the ensuing restart ended with Schmidt spun after contact from Jones, who had begun in the sixth row. Dave Schmidt replaced his brother Nick, but the next green flag was quickly replaced with the red one. Sontag and Tracy Wallin crashed hard in the third turn, with Sontag’s car atop the outer fence. Both were awake and alert afterwards, but sent to the hospital for checkups as their mangled mounts were removed. During this process the field had stopped where they were and shut off their engines. A loud popping sound was heard, followed by a puddle of fluid under the third-place car of Dickson.
The race was declared complete shortly after this and the finishing order was based on the last completed lap, including Dickson with a burst radiator hose. Dave Schmidt was the happy winner, claiming, “I was happy with third following my brother and Chris (Jones), but Chris got a little antsy.” This made up for Schmidt’s calamitous beginning at this even a year ago. Schmidt told the audience, “Last year I came here and rolled it coming to the green flag. The next week we won the Bahama Brackets (at Rockford).” His race experience is anything but boring.
The Figure 8 field closed the program with Josh Thiering winning the 10-lap finale just past midnight. The wonderfully warm weather of the day had cooled by the time the live band began playing in the pavilion. Patrons gathered to hear the music, visit the pits, and enjoy camping area activities. There was a time we were part of the merriment on the grounds into the wee hours, but that was decades ago. Visiting with Jody and Sue Deery on Friday, we all agreed we may be older but we’re still at it. The parade of trailers and haulers followed as the next day’s competitors replaced Friday’s group.
(Editors Note: Fay Hendricks is a long-time racing columnist and periodically will share her racing stories on Speed 51.com)
Photo Credit: Fay Hendricks