O'HARE STADIUM - 1956 THROUGH 1968
O’Hare Stadium, part of the Chicagoland racing scene for 13 years, was located just southwest of the corner of Mannheim and Irving Park Road in Schiller Park. The speedway, which operated between 1956 through 1968, was initially surrounded by farm fields and was situated just south of Chicago’s famed O’Hare International Airport.
Records show that the track, which for a number of years was in the planning stages by a group which included former midget racing ace, Bob Muhlke, opened its gates for the first time on June 17, 1956 with stock cars and midgets on the inaugural card. Tom Croft, wheeling a 1950 Mercury, won the 25-lap stock car main event on opening night with Ernie Zartler capturing the special 15-lap midget event. Other stock car drivers in competition during the inaugural program included Red Swanberg, Tony Venturini, Howard “Marblehead” Thome, Vince Rizzo, Jack Holbrook and Ben “Shorty” Michonski.
Gene Marmor claimed the track’s late model stock car championship that first year, which also saw modified stock cars in competition. Marmor and his Chevy topped Tom Cox and Fred Lorenzen in the final standings in ’56.
Under the promotion of Bill Cherney and Tex Wooten, the speedway would see Marmor win the late model title again in 1957. Marmor in a ’56 Chevy again bested Cox, who was trailed by Kenny Paulsen.
1958 saw Lorenzen, a 23-year-old Elmhurst resident, win the track championship. Lorenzen, who would later go on to fame in NASCAR Grand National racing, captured 17 feature races that year in his Talarico Brothers 1957 Chevrolet. Lorenzen finished ahead of Bill Lutz and Arnie Gardner in the standings.
Lutz, who commuted from his home in Louisville, Ky., was Lorenzen’s chief rival in ’58 and the overall champion of the three-track “Chicago City Series” that included top drivers from O’Hare as well as Raceway Park and Soldier Field in a series of three special feature events.
Lorenzen, who would also capture the 1958 and 1959 USAC “National” stock car championships, won the features at both O’Hare and Soldier Field. Lorenzen came home fifth in the Raceway 100 lap chase that was won by Raceway regular Bill Van Allen and his ’58 Studebaker Hawk late model. Lutz and his 1956 Chevy finished second in all three races and missed winning the finale at Raceway when a rear tire exploded with one lap to go.
Lutz was the late model track titlist in 1959, taking season title laurels over Marmor and Lorenzen.
NASCAR sanctioned the late model racing at O’Hare in 1960 and 1961. Roy Czach was the man to beat in ’60 and ’61, winning back-to-back titles. Czach, who won six feature races in his Hollywood Automotive-sponsored ’57 Chevy, was crowned the 1960 Midwest NASCAR Champion ahead of Skippy Michaels and Lorenzen. Czach was again O’Hare’s NASCAR late model champ in 1961, winning seven main events and topping the points over Erik Johnson and LeRoy Roberts.
Johnson, in his Reno Martinelli-prepped ’61 Chevy “hardtop” No. 7, was the champion in 1962. Johnson won a single-season record 18 features during the campaign and finished ahead of Lutz and “teammate” Martinelli in the standings.
During 1963, 1964 and 1965, O’Hare rules, under the guidance of Frank “Ham” Lobaza, called for all late models to be strictly convertibles. Marmor and his ’63 Chevy “rag top” garnered this third title in 1963 over Johnson and Lutz, while Lutz repeated his title-winning efforts in 1964 in his Grand Car Wash-sponsored ’63 Chevy convertible. Lutz bested William “Whitey” Gerken and Bob Urban in the final standings. Martinelli was the champion in 1965, defeating Lutz and Czach.
From 1962 through 1966, the speedway, now under the sanction of the American Racing Organization, would host the O’Hare American 500 each year with the 500 lapper being the longest contest in the area. Lutz, with two victories, along with Gerken, Johnson and Martinelli, were winners of the 500 lap grinds.
Teammates Johnson and Martinelli would dominate the track’s late model action in the speedway’s final years. Wheeling their “Pride of Half Day” mounts, the duo would claim the final four track titles with Martinelli and his red and white ‘64 Chevy convertible winning it in 1965 and 1966 and Johnson capturing back-to-back titles in 1967 and 1968. Johnson used his Martinelli Brothers-owned, Wing & Wheel Café-sponsored ’68 Chevelle to grab the ’68 crown.
With property values rising, the track, which also featured cadet (sportsman), figure eight, Volkswagen and midget racing over the years, was demolished weeks after the final race program on September 7, 1968. Martinelli was the winner that night of the late model 30-lap feature.
Longtime officials, in addition to Lobaza, included starter Art Kelly, assistant starter Jack Minster, scorer Elmer Steinbeck, timer Keith Switzer and pit steward John Stanek, along with public relations man Bud Booth. The announcing chores were handled mainly by the legendary Ed “Twenty Grand” Steinbock and Art Hellyer. Don Theobold provided the laughs as “T-Bone” the Clown.