FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Last Stand at Joliet

If there is one constant in racing it is that the torch is always passed forward.

New faces replace old familiar ones, new stars emerge, and hopefully a new crop of fans will catch the fever. This was certainly the hope of Steve Thinnes and other UMARA principals. The evolution of the sport was certainly there for all to see.

Ralph “The Racer” Ligouri raced everything on four wheels, excelling in sprint cars, and can rightfully claim his status as a NASCAR pioneer. He was there watching his grandson Joe, who capped what has been a splendid 2009 season with a win in the Ford Focus event.

Young Taylor Ferns, at just 13 years old, was the 2009 UMARA Sportsman midget champion, and the young woman from Michigan delighted many by scoring the Sportsman feature event.

Do you think the knuckle-down clan who signed in the pit shack at Joliet in 1952 could have imagined battling a girl – let alone one still in her teens?

On the midget side of the ledger the youthful Armstrong brothers dominated the two-day affair.

Dakoda Armstrong – fresh off several strong ARCA stock car races, and buoyed by his newly-minted development contract with Penske Racing – scored the Friday night preliminary race, and held high hopes of pulling off the double in Saturday night’s 50-lap main event.

JOLIET UMARA NAT’L MIDGET FEATURE (50 laps)
1 – Dalton Armstrong
2 – Jimmy Anderson
3 – Dakoda Armstrong
4 – Scott Shilkuski
5 – David Gough
6 – Grant Galloway
7 – Doug Dietsch
8 – Johnny Heydenreich
9 – Wes Carner
10 – Bob Shreffler
11 – Steve Thinnes
12 – Terry Ahern
13 – Zach Daum
14 – Klaus Wever
15 – Patrick Wilda
16 – Billy Hulbert
17 – David Budres
18 – Mike Schenker
19 – Dave Fuhrman

Patrick Wilda Jr., another in a long line of second-generation drivers on hand jumped out to the early lead, but Jim Anderson, as well as Dalton and Dakoda Armstrong were on the move.

After Wilda brushed the wall, a mad scramble ensued, with Dalton Armstrong, who started sixth, holding the point.

The sentimental favorite, Jim Anderson, made a valiant effort that came one position short, with Dakoda Armstrong rounding out the podium.

It was impossible for young drivers like the Armstrong’s, Taylor Ferns, Grant Galloway and others who were on hand, to truly understand the significance of the event. What they could relate to was a tremendous and enthusiastic crowd on hand for both nights.

In the final analysis the last stand at the Stadium proved to be the rarest of events – it was a happening that lived up to all the hype, and more.

It allowed many to rejoice in a time when short track racing was far less complicated, less corporate driven, and viewed as an end all to itself.

Perhaps there were larger lessons here. Provide an entertaining event, with a range of activities for people of all ages, and promote it hard, and you just might have a winner.

Thinnes can only cross his fingers and hope the magic found on this weekend will travel south to Morris, Ill., in 2010.

In a year that some signature midget events were starved for cars, and others cancelled outright, this was a needed breath of fresh air. Evidence abounds that something must be done.

As Willis surveyed the action, he remarked, “There are too many big dollars today. These are some of the little guys, and you have to have little guys to keep the sport going.

“When I started, I had a total of $3,500 in my car, and we ran all year. Now you have to have $35,000 to go racing and how many people can do that? You’re knocking the little guy out and it is killing midget racing. When you get down to 12 and 13 cars, the fans are not going to come back.”

But on one weekend in September the fans did come, and as they filed out of the old stadium, they did so with broad smiles on their faces.

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