THROUGH THE YEARS ... 1976 - THE COUNTRY'S BICENTENNIAL CELEBRATION
By Stan Kalwasinski
Second generation racer Larry Schuler was the talk of local racing as he won 43 late model stock car feature races on pavement during the season, which saw the 23 year old speedster capture three track championships in three states. Schuler and his George Appleton-prepared, Al’s Garage-sponsored “Junkyard Dog” 1976 Camaro were tough to beat.
Schuler, a Lockport resident and son of veteran driver Lee Schuler, nailed down season championships at Grundy County Speedway (Morris), Illiana Motor Speedway (Schererville, Ind.) and Wisconsin International Speedway (WIR) in Kaukauna, Wis.
In dirt track action, Jim O’Connor had an impressive season, winning late model season crowns at both Kankakee Fairgrounds Speedway and at Santa Fe Speedway (Willow Springs). O’Connor and his Boyce Trackburner Chassis ’76 Camaro dominated the competition, winning countless main events. One of O’Connor’s victories was the 200-lap National Clay Track Championship at Santa Fe in October, besting rival Tony Izzo and Al Johnson on the ‘Fe’s “short” half mile. Al Madden was Santa Fe’s sportsman champion for the second time in his career.
Veteran Ray Young copped Illiana’s 15th annual Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100 lapper. Young and his ’76 AVC Camaro bested Jerry Kemperman and Indiana’s Dave Roahrig. Michigan drivers Bob Schippers and Larry Knowlton rounded out the top five.
Art Frigo’s ARTGO Racing late model series was in its second year of business with the Grundy third of a mile oval hosting three events. Ray Young won the opening May 9th 100 lapper, which featured NASCAR star Bobby Allison in competition. From there on, it was all Dave Watson with the Milton, Wis. driver winning twin 50’s during the Summer Classic in August and the 100-lap Wayne Carter Classic in September in his Fred Nielsen-owned Camaro.
A couple of weeks later, the new ARTGO Champion, who also garnered the late model title at the Lake Geneva (Wis.) Raceway, made off with top honors in the 11th annual National Short Track Championship 200-lap contest at the Rockford Speedway. A former rookie of the year in the track’s late model ranks, Watson defeated Joe Shear, Randy Sweet, Dave Roahrig and Canadian racer Don Biederman. Wayne Lensing set a “tough to beat” winning pace during Rockford’s weekly late model action, capturing numerous main events in his “Boss” Mustang and making off with the “Rockford Rules” late model crown.
Father and son, Arnie and Mike Gardner battled weekly on the dirt at the Sycamore Speedway with the younger Gardner taking home top honors in super late model action. Another front-runner during the year, LeRoy Schneiderman scored the win in Sycamore’s $1,000-to-win Farnsworth Ford Classic 100 lapper in August.
Ray Young defeated Bob Dotter in the final points tally to grab the late model crown at the Waukegan Speedway, giving the Dolton driver his third Waukegan stock car title in his career. Wisconsin’s Bob Robel was the track’s supermodified champion with Mike Simon taking the hobby stock championship.
Putting together his first promotional effort, John McKarns presented the All-Star 200 at Waukegan on July 5. Schuler grabbed the 100-lap late model segment and Gene Pennington won the event’s supermodified main event. Schuler took the checkered flag ahead of Young, Wisconsin’s Mike Miller, Tom Jones and Kemperman. Another “big win” for Schuler was his winning the 50-lap “Red” race, the opening event for the Red, White and Blue Championship at WIR. Schuler and his Al’s Garage Camaro bested Dick Trickle and Miller in the June race.
Bud Koehler won 29 feature races and his 11th and final stock car season championship at Raceway Park. Koehler made off with his third straight late model division title at the tight quarter mile paved oval with now well over 400 feature wins to his credit at his “home” track. One of his victories during the campaign was the track’s annual 300-Lap Classic in his Bill Koenig-owned Camaro. Jerry Clark was the track’s hobby stock champion with Bruce Odell winning six cylinder honors.
Roger Long, the 23-year old racing farmer from Fithian, was crowned the late model dirt track champion of the Illiana Clay Racing Club (ICRC). The Indiana-based ICRC circuit included the Rensselaer Raceway and the Chase Raceway. Long won a total of 10 ICRC features and took season title honors at the Chase oval. Indiana veteran Dick Potts won the annual Brooks Ford 100 at Rensselaer in October.
Local racers, Indiana’s Dave Whitcomb and Bay Darnell posted victories in USAC stock car competition. Whitcomb’s win came in June at the paved I-70 Speedway in Odessa, Mo. with Darnell scoring a victory in a 100 lapper on the dirt at the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds mile oval in September.
The hottest topic during the entire season was noise as the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency working with the Illinois Pollution Control Board tried to put in place strict noise restraint guidelines for Illinois track operators to follow. Speedway owners, competitors and fans alike wondered what the outcome would be.