FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Last Stand at Joliet

Tim Delrose enjoyed many years as a successful owner on the USAC Silver Crown trail, but his passion for the sport was nurtured right here.

“If it wasn’t for Leo Melcher and Chuck O’Day this would never have happened,” Delrose said emphatically. “None of this. Leo was a smart man, and Chuck O’Day was the financer. They talked the Park District into doing this, and they called it the Joliet Racing Association. Before long the guys that were racing here wanted to go out to race other places. Leo told them that they should form a club, and that was the start of the United Auto Racing Association (UARA). I came here with my parents in 1952 when I was 10. I saw Ray Elliott and all those guys. Later I became an owner and raced with Roger West, Bob Hauck, George Kladis, and Danny Kladis drove for me a couple of times.

“When it first started, they said the track was blue clay, and Mr. Melcher said that was the best surface to hold moisture. But people complained, and they went to cinders. But the trick was – and guys like Newt White and even Bob Tattersall were good at this – was to hook that left front wheel over the curb, and they would keep it there all the way around. Tattersall was the best here by far – pavement or dirt, it didn’t matter.”

Like Delrose, Dick Heerboth spent many evenings at the stadium, and after deciding he might not make it as a driver, he moved seamlessly into the ownership ranks.

Again, it was time for reflection.

Looking around the place with a broad smile, Heerboth recalled, “People just came here forever. It’s like Anderson (Ind.) Speedway, where the people just showed up no matter what was running. You had ton of fans. They loved it, and they grew up watching guys like Tattersall and those guys who raced on the cinders. You had a bunch of high quality racers in the local group. Ray Eliott could have been a USAC champion, and Henry Pens was very strong when he raced for Howard Linne. They all went away when the purses got better elsewhere, and I assume that the park board just got tired of it.

“I think the maintenance was a bit of a burden on the town, plus once in awhile you had a midget out there in the football field tearing up the grass, which was real easy to do. I drove a couple races here and I realized I was never going to be any good. So I had Dennis Dorsey drive for me, then I got Richie Vogler and all hell broke lose. The thing is, the track is easy to drive by yourself, and even I could do that and go relatively fast. It was like driving around the block; that is until there are 10 other guys out there with you. There were a few guys who learned tricks like spinning the cars when they qualified and keeping the wheels churning to get the rear tires hot. Then the club president did it, and nailed it on the second lap and set fast time. That didn’t go over well.

“If this could have been kept up the people would have continued to come, and for some reason they just won’t go to Grundy County.”

Don Carter Jr.
Don Carter Jr. and “Big Jim” Anderson at the Joliet Memorial Stadium after clinching the 1978 Stadium Championship.

Aaron Willis was a front row witness to the evolution of racing at Joliet, first as a spectator, and when the 1957 season bloomed he couldn’t resist the urge to climb into a race car.

When Leo Melcher and Chuck O’Day retired in the mid-1970’s Willis took the reigns at the stadium for five seasons, and he would later serve as the president of the final serious tenant of the stadium, the World of Outlaw Midgets.

At the conclusion of the 1986 season, though, the WoO midgets was gone, and midget racing hung by a thread in the Chicago area.

Undaunted, Willis launched the United Midget Auto Racing Ass’n (UMARA) and stayed at the helm for 14 years. Like so many who migrated back home, his eyes remained misty throughout.

Walking to his seat on Friday afternoon, Willis was greeted by so many well-wishers that it was difficult for him to watch the action. Bombarded by this kaleidoscope of sights and sounds, it was impossible not to be deeply moved.

“There are so many people here, and we are getting so much older that it is hard to remember faces, but this is something I will never forget. I have been in this business 52 years. I wanted to keep midget racing alive, so we started UMARA. When we got going my whole family was involved.”

When qualifications began on day one of the two-day affair, it was impossible not to notice the persistent smiles on the faces of all. The loudest ovations came for those with the deepest roots in Chicagoland midget racing.

Danny Pens was back after a seven-year hiatus from the cockpit, and was warmly received. Not surprisingly, when Jim Anderson made his way forward there was a sea of waving hands and cheers all around. Watching Anderson intently was racing legend Mel Kenyon.

Kenyon had many reasons to be nostalgic as well. Not only had he raced here and won in the early days of his career, but he also met his wife Joy at the stadium in 1962.

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