By Stan Kalwasinski
Perhaps the most well-known short track in the Chicago area during its run, Santa Fe Speedway operated between 1953 and 1995.
Located just southwest of the corner of 91st Street and Wolf Road in the Willow Springs area, the speedway featured a quarter-mile and a “short” half-mile clay oval. Howard Tiedt built and operated the speedway on the property where his father, Frederick, had built the original Santa Fe Park, a picnic grove/race track complex, in 1896 in the area that became known as Tiedtville. The early track saw horses, bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles raced there until a tornado in the late 1920’s destroyed the grandstands, bringing a halt to the racing activity at the site located adjacent to the Santa Fe Railroad tracks, thus the name.
Carved from the hilly area by teams of horses drawing wheel scrapers, the original track was a quarter-mile in length and featured two grandstands. Early attendees came via the Santa Fe Railroad to view the racing. Other entertainment was offered in the form of a dance hall, beer garden, a bowling alley and other refreshments stands. Frederick Tiedt passed away in 1946 with his son, Howard, taking over the facility. Prior to the 1953 racing season, Tiedt established Santa Fe Park Enterprises, Inc. and as president of the group he began an overall construction program of the race track and grounds—the beginning of the modern-day Santa Fe Speedway.
With a few rainouts to dampen the scheduled opening day, the first race program at the new speedway was finally held in May with Kenny Boyer of Highland, Ind., winning the first stock car feature race on Sunday afternoon, May 31, 1953 ahead of Bill Van Allen of Chicago on the quarter-mile track.
With 87th Street Speedway’s Eddie Anderson helping with the promotion, a number of 87th Street regulars, including Van Allen and Hammond, Indiana’s Red Duvall, were visitors to Santa Fe’s clay tracks. Boyer was the track’s first stock car champion. A number of races were televised live by WGN TV with popular baseball announcer Jack Brickhouse handling the microphone.
Three 200-lap long distance events highlighted the inaugural season at Santa Fe with Bill Clemans, Bill Moore and Fred Kasten picking up wins. Hailing from Mishawka, Ind., Clemans, who eventually would move over to the supermodified circuits of Indiana and Ohio, was a dominate force in Chicagoland racing, giving area regulars fits with his little 1940 Ford No. 79.
At the conclusion of the inaugural season, Tiedt and company had provided a wide variety of racing in addition to the weekly stock car shows. “New Car” late model races were featured, along with an IMCA sprint car event (won by Deb Snyder) and a Central States Racing Association “big car” show (won by Tom Cherry), United Auto Racing Association (UARA) midget races and American Motorcycle Association (AMA) contests. Weekly motorcycle racing and annual AMA Grand National Championship events will be part of the Santa Fe schedule for years to come.
A bunch of drivers won feature races at Santa Fe in 1954, including Clemans, “Happy Dan” Walters, Bob Button, Gene Crowe, Legs Whitcomb, Erik Johnson, Bill Brown, Bob Kirkpatrick, Tony Bigelow, Johnny Slowiak, Roy Martinelli, Bob Wissman, Bob McKeiver, Paul Burrow, Dick Raiza and Van Allen. Walters, the Griffith, Ind. speedster, was reported to have won 17 consecutive feature races. Van Allen won the 300-lap/150-mile Season Championship race in Mike Gbur’s Nash No. 6, capping off his title-winning season. Van Allen and Gbur’s Victory Towing-sponsored cars would also win Santa Fe championships in 1955 and 1956. The ’56 season saw United States Auto Club (USAC) stock cars compete with ’56 Indianapolis 500 winner Pat Flaherty and Les Snow grabbing victories.
On July 10, 1954, the first-ever NASCAR Grand National stock car race in the Chicago area took place at Santa Fe with Dick Rathmann winning the 200-lap race and a reported $1,000 for his efforts. Rahtmann, a California native, guided his Pure Oil-sponsored 1954 Hudson to the win over Herb Thomas, Hershel McGriff, Lee Petty, Buck Baker and Jim Reed, all NASCAR regulars. Over 6,000 fans were said to have witnessed the event, which saw Baker, the fastest qualifier, lead the first 46 laps until Rathmann took over. A number of local drivers participated including Hal Ruyle, Art Doogan, Frank Ropp, Robert “Legs” Whitcomb, Bill Brown, Bay Darnell and Bill Moore, who turned in the best performance by a “local” with his 10th place finish in his 1950 Plymouth among a field of 23.
Whitcomb started 13th and came home in 21st place after completing 97 laps in a 1950 Ford.
“We built a Ford especially for late model racing,” remembered Whitcomb years later. “I couldn’t keep up with the Hudsons. I remember that.”
“Santa Fe was way out in the country back then,” added Whitcomb. “I was running out there and at 87th Street Speedway (in Chicago). “The area was called Tiedtville and all that was out there was (promoter Howard) Tiedt’s big house, the track and a tavern and general store.”
Darnell, who would go on to a successful career in both modified and USAC stock car competition, started 17th and finished in 23rd in a 1950 Ford.
“It seemed Lee Petty lapped me every four laps or so,” said Darnell in 2001. “I remember I had a lot of trouble. It was a long race. I just started racing back then. I had an old Ford with a flat head engine.”
With the “tough to beat” Van Allen leaving Santa Fe for other racing endeavors, Boyer repeated as Santa Fe’s stock car titlist in 1957 with Don Waldvogel grabbing top honors in 1958. 1959 saw a unique tie come about for the championship honors with Ken Finley and Rich Clement being named co-champions. A sportsman stock car division was added to the weekly racing in 1959 with Wayne Etzel being crowned the first “sportsman” champion.
Dick Nelson won his first of seven Santa Fe championships in 1960. Nelson scored 13 features in 1960 on his way to the title. He would win again in 1961, 1966, 1967 (another Santa Fe tie with Larry Jackson), 1970, 1971 and his last—1972. Nelson had a variety of winning mounts, all painted yellow and lettered with his familiar number—11.
Van Allen came back to Santa Fe in 1962, pretty much dominating the action and winning three straight driving crowns—1962 through 1964. Track records show that Van Allen won a total of 51 feature races during those three years. Relocating to Wautoma, Wis., Van Allen continued to race at Santa Fe, running his final season in 1972. Suffering from cancer, Van Allen passed away at the age of 46 on January 26, 1973.
Teaming up with car owner/mechanic and former driver Bob Pohlman, Ken Finley notched another Santa Fe title in 1965. Finley won a total of 13 features on his way to the championship compared to Van Allen’s 14.
Leading the standings and looking to be on his way to his second straight championship, Finley died at the wheel of Pohlman’s ’66 Ford No. 777 after winning a 25-lap feature race in early June of 1966. After winning the race, Finley took a victory lap around the track with the checkered flag and then slumped over the wheel. His car, traveling at a slow speed, ran into the pit area, where it struck several other cars before stopping. At 38 years old, Finley had suffered a fatal heart attack.
Bob Kelly was the late model track champion in 1968 with Waldvogel claming his second title in 1969. Winning his first of three Santa Fe crowns, Jim O’Connor captured late model laurels in 1973, repeating in ’74 and again in 1976. Larry Jackson interrupted O’Connor’s winning spree in 1975.
The 1977 racing season saw Tony Izzo claim the first of his nine Santa Fe track championships. Izzo would win four straight from 1977 through 1980 and then would put a string of an incredible five consecutive titles together between 1984 and 1988. Al Johnson, winning in 1981 and again in 1983, along ’82 titlist John Provenzano busted up Izzo’s possible 12-year domination.
“When I got started, we were just having fun, riding around and bouncing off the fences,” Izzo once said. “But later, when we got caught up in the championship hype and all the prestige that went with it, we got serious.”
And getting serious he did with Izzo seemingly being the guy to beat year after year. If there was something new in racing, chance are that Izzo would be among the first to experiment with it.
“All these things I do make up tenths of a second,” he once explained. “You gain enough tenths and you’ve got a full second. It’s like trying to save $100. All at once it’s hard, but if you save a dollar a hundred ways, it’s easy.”
Hailing from Bridgeview, Izzo began racing the Santa Fe’s sportsman ranks in his No. 99 entry. Flipping over on his roof one night, Izzo thought maybe that number 66 looked better and that became his trademark number during his career.
A big player in the battle with the Illinois Pollution Control Board regarding noise pollution and race tracks, Howard Tiedt would pass away in 1990 with his daughter, Mary Lou and her husband, John Moskal, pretty much running the track during its final years. Prior to his death, Tiedt saw Santa Fe become part of NASCAR’s weekly Winston Racing Series in 1987.
Another graduate of Santa Fe’s sportsman division, Frank Reaber added his name to the champions list in 1989 and would again win titles at the ‘Fe in 1992, 1994 and 1995, which would be the last season of racing at the famed speed venue. Bob Pohlman Jr. was the track champion in 1990 with Larry Jackson involved in yet anther “tie” for the championship in 1991, this time with Bill Knippenberg. Dennis Erb Sr. grabbed title honors in 1993.
Announcers like Stew Reamer and Bobby Baugh and later Jan Gabriel, who handled the Santa Fe microphone for some 14 years, would add color to the racing events. A number of official starters would wave the flags at the ‘Fe including Pete Passantino, John Zebrowski, Jack Minster and Al Chodora. Photographer Vince Mayer and his wife, Dorothy, were mainstays at the speedway. Lucky the Clown provided the comical antics at the track.
Over the years, USAC midget and sprint cars, along with World of Outlaws (WoO) sprinters competed at Santa Fe. Records show that USAC sanctioned a total of 66 races between 1964 and 1995. Bob Tattersall of Streator, Ill. won the first midget race on July 10, 1964 with Tony Stewart winning the last sprint car race in July of 1995. A total of 38 different drivers were victorious in the USAC competition in those 66 races with Ron “Sleepy” Tripp’s six wins heading the list.
The winged WoO sprint cars began racing at Santa Fe in 1979. The “King of the World of Outlaws”—Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell each won four times.
With the ’95 season completed, participants looked forward to another season of racing the following year, but drivers and fans were shocked when track management announced through a letter to competitors that they did not plan on opening the speedway in 1996.
The letter to drivers, dated January 15, 1996, was signed by Santa Fe president May Lou Tiedt.
“Increasingly, and more so in recent years, operation of a racing facility has been more involved with issues unconnected to racing,” the letter stated. “Particularly, our society has become more litigious, drawing our managerial and other resources away from the focus of providing quality racing programs.
“In the present situation, Santa Fe Speedway has decided to curtail, and perhaps even suspend completely, the 1996 racing schedule,” the letter continued. “If racing is to be held in 1996 or thereafter, you will be notified of the schedule.”
That was the end of Santa Fe Speedway. The facility sat idle in 1996, 1997 and 1998 and fell to the wrecking ball in March of 1999, making way for a $70 million upscale housing development.
How did that radio jingle go? “There’s only one speedway, it’s the track of clay. You ain’t seen nothing till who’ve been to Santa Fe. Racing on a track of clay.”
Thanks to Tony Baranek and Bob Markos for sharing some of their Santa Fe information for this story