FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Last Stand at Joliet

This story first appeared in the November 2009 edition of Sprint Car & Midget Magazine.

For 2008 UMARA champion Jim Anderson, the Joliet Memorial Stadium has been a constant source of bittersweet emotions. On good days, it brought back childhood memories of Saturday night races and those glorious moments when he rubbed elbows with some of his heroes after the roar of the engines had ceased.

On the other hand, the old plant also reminded him of things lost – notably his father, who introduced him to midget auto racing. Yet, there it stood, a monument frozen in time – and resting just two blocks from his home, he could scarcely avoid it.

We all have places like this. These are canvases where our life, and the lives of those we love have been enacted. To others it is simply a building, a park, or an open field – not worth more than a passing thought or reflection.

For so many who found their way back to 3000 West Jefferson, it was clear that the Stadium was not just another race track, but a repository of images of summers gone by – recollections that came in all shapes and sizes.

It was a homecoming, with all the attendant experiences, that familiar mixture of joy and sadness that comes when people band together after years apart.

So in the final analysis, The Last Stand at Joliet was far more than a race – it was a highly charged emotional event.

Yes, the old stadium still shakes with cheers when local football squads hit the gridiron – but on this weekend, it was thoughts of Bob Tattersall, Ray Elliott, Danny and George Kladis, the Voglers, Bob Richards, and clans like the Carters, Andersons and the Pens that found a home in the hearts of the sons of thunder, as well as the legion of fans who once followed every lap in rapt attention.

It was a celebration of a breed of blue-collar, hard working, everyday Americans who once shared a common bond on muggy Midwestern nights. It was a celebration of a bygone era – a time when racing truly had a soul.

Certainly this was a race that few thought possible. What began as a simple conversation on the way to a Chicago Blackhawks game soon captured the imagination of many. It was a daunting proposition.

It had been 23 years since midget racing was staged at the Memorial Stadium, but Joliet Park District President Dominic Egizio was on board – and constant prodding by the likes of Mike Guglielmucci, announcer Joe Kirkeeng, and UMARA PR man Bill Fries moved the project forward.

Current UMARA owner and former series champion (and Joliet winner) Steve Thinnes quickly recognized the potential of this revival.

Henry Pens
Henry Pens was very strong when he raced for Howard Linne. (Kalwasinski Collection photo)

“A bunch of us who serve on the Mike Guglielmucci Sr. Racers Benevolent Fund began talking about staging an exhibition to make folks aware that the midgets are still in the Chicagoland area,” Thinnes noted. “It seemed that a lot of people thought that the midgets were gone when, in fact, we race only 15 miles away at the Grundy County Speedway in Morris. Later we decided it would make more sense to actually promote a race rather than stage an exhibition, and one thing led to another. The Joliet Park District was kind enough to lease us the facility for the weekend since there wasn’t a football game. Because of the work they are going to do on the stadium, this is the absolute last time that this kind of event will happen at this facility.

“Since 1952 this was a mainstay for midget auto racing; the United States Auto Club competed here, and some of the greatest racers of all time raced at this facility. Once the idea was put out there in the press, people really got behind it – and so many people put forth a great effort to make it happen. We hope this launches us into 2010, and really serves as a rebirth of sorts for midget racing in the area.”

For Jim Anderson a prayer had been answered, and with a chance to fulfill a dream within grasp, he was more than willing to do his part.

After a hard week of work, Anderson and friend George Meiferdt spent Friday and Saturdays manning forklifts and moving concrete barriers into place. They weren’t alone.

When race day loomed, the man old-timers call “Jimmy” was raring to go.

“I’m pretty excited,” Anderson admitted. “In fact, if we could win the race it would probably be more exciting than winning my dad’s memorial. I have ran second in that race three of the last five years, but I know this is something that won’t be coming back. I was born in March of 1976 and came to the first race held here that year, and I was 10 when they shut it down.”

Echoing the sentiment of so many, Anderson paused, and then quickly added, “The racing is really secondary. I have put in a lot of hard work, but it is for people like my dad and Ray Elliott, people who are long gone. This is for all of them. This is so great. People are coming by here telling story after story.”

Some landmarks that had distinguished the track were long gone; in particular, the old Joliet Memorial Stadium sign, which had loomed prominently over turns three and four for years.

Nonetheless, when the first car hit the track the spirits and ghosts quickly came back home.

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