by Stan Kalwasinski
April 3, 2016
Chicago, Ill.—I was surprised, caught-off-guard and a little angry and upset when I learned Illiana Motor Speedway in Schererville, Ind., would not be opening this year for weekly stock car racing. It seems I have been going there a good part of my adult life, since convincing owner Harry Molenaar that I could be his new track photographer in 1971. I put in several terms at Illiana, finishing up my final full season there in 2000 as the track’s announcer.
Current owner Mike Mikuly posted the sad news on the speedway’s website on March 11th to drivers, crews, fans and sponsors.
“It is with a heavy heart that we make this announcement, Illiana Speedway will not be opening for the 2016 season. The sale listing has ended but the property is not sold, it is still for sale. We do have some interested parties looking at the facility in hopes it will re-open as a race track. If we hear any news, we will post it on our web site.
“It is up to all of you to save racing. With all the negative posts it is hard to get people to make the choice to come enjoy a night at a race track. If something isn't done to make people want to come to the races, short tracks in America will be a past memory and a remember when.........
“It's hard to put on a race and all it takes to make it all work when all you hear is the negatives. There is so much more than opening the gates on race night then you will ever know. It has finally taken the drive out of me and the dedication it takes to keep going.
“We will miss you all and wish you all success in your travels and ventures to come.”
Mikuly purchased the track in the spring of 1999 from Molenaar, who built the track and first hosted motorcycle racing at the 50-plus acres facility in 1945. Stock car racing was presented at the speedway for the first time in 1948 when the track was a half-mile dirt oval. Molenaar, who passed away in October of 1999, developed several sized dirt tracks on the grounds over the years, but finally paved the half-mile track before the 1962 racing season.
During Mikuly’s ownership, the track saw major improvements occur with the half-mile and a quarter-mile track being repaved in addition to new grandstands, lighting, concrete walls and safety fencing being installed. The track gained national attention with several races being nationally televised during Mikuly’s rein.
“It was a tough decision,” said Mikuly. “It’s like taking your child and dropping him off on a street corner and leaving. Everybody knows that things haven’t been really good the past few years. The weather has really beaten us up the last couple of years.
“People don’t read newspapers anymore. They don’t pick them up to see what going on. Social media has become such a big thing. It can make you or break you. It seems like people post on social media all the negative things that are going on (at the track) and it makes people not wanting to come out. If they keep it up, short track racing will be a thing of the past.
“I have a couple of guys who are serious about buying it and keeping it a race track and I’ve got a number of lookers and a bunch of “tire kickers” - who really don’t know what it’s about. A lot of people don’t know all the work that goes into it before opening the gate on Saturday.”
A former racer himself, Mikuly, who won the track’s Street Stock division title in 1994 and later raced late model cars at the speedway, summed up his 17 years of ownership,
“I have enjoyed it. I have a love of racing and I’ve met a lot of great people over the years. Am I going to miss it? Yes, you bet. It’s going to be tough not to open this year.”
Since the March 11th announcement, a number of rumors/stories have come about including there would be an announcement soon of a new owner with various names being tossed about, including several current NASCAR driving stars.
Nothing has happened and possibly nothing will as Illiana might have run its last race. Gregg McKarns’ ARCA Midwest Tour’s May 29th date is in jeopardy unless Mikuly comes about and gets the track ready for one more race or a series of “farewell” events. What are the chances of this happening? You make the call and don’t bet too much of your hard earned money on it happening.
I personally give Mike Mikuly tons of credit for saving Illiana for the past 17 years. In early 1999, a bunch of us Illiana employees met with an aging Molenaar and he confessed that he thought he wasn’t up to opening up the track. Molenaar’s health was failing and I don’t think he really ever had a real strong plan for Illiana’s future once he was gone.
Fortunately, Mikuly took over the speedway for the 1999 season and put it though a major rebuild/remodeling project during the winter of 1999-2000. A repaved raceway, new lightning, concrete walls and safety fencing greeted fans at the 2000 season opener. New grandstands were added in 2008.
Those first years under Mikuly’s management saw a number of special events take place including American Speed Association stock car races and United States Auto Club (USAC) open-wheel events. But as the years wore on, the Illiana schedule became stagnant with the same weekly fare being presented and the excitement of both fans and competitors beginning to dim.
Who is at fault you ask? Mikuly’s name quickly comes to mind, but you can’t lay all the blame on him. Mikuly is definitely a “brick and mortar” guy. The improvements made by him prove the point, but his promotional expertise is questionable. From my vantage point, Mikuly never seemed to get the word out about Illiana. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from longtime northwest Indiana residents, “Is that track still open?” or something to that effect.
Times have sure changed, but an ad in the sports section of the local newspapers or a few radio spots once in a while wouldn’t hurt or using social media to your advantage could have helped the cause. It seems like Illiana and the Town of Schererville were always at odds. A proactive approach towards the town and its citizens and some free tickets to local residents or a “Town of Schererville Night” might have been a plus. An extensive email address list for both fans and competitors and avenues like Facebook could have been used in a more positive approach.
Late model stock cars have been the headlining class at Illiana since about 1963. Let’s face it – fans came to Illiana to see late model racing and everything else was just “extra.” Late model stock car racing technology is really out of control with the local “Joe Racer” having a hard time to keep up or simply not willing to try late model competition. Rising costs and a shrinking number of total late model cars around hurts the weekly entry list number.
Racing on the half-mile last year, the Turbo Stox (Street Stock) class at Illiana should have stayed on the quarter-mile, giving drivers from the Legends and Pure Stock (four-cylinder) divisions a chance to move up and race on a track they are familiar with. Again it seems too much technology is involved in these support divisions now days – thus the dwindling car counts. A hard and simple approach of “keep it simple” is a must.
The old vicious circle of more cars means more fans might not be the case today. A two-hour or so night at the races might be all today’s high paced society can take. Modern conveniences and the availability of good and quickly-served food are not options. Weekly short track racing is in trouble and might be on its way out unless some real changes are made.
Hopefully, before it’s too late, someone, even Mike Mikuly, can grab Illiana “by the horns” and make some changes for the good or Illiana will be going the way of other local short tracks. Remember Crown Point Speedway, Raceway Park and Santa Fe Speedway?
The address for news and comments is 9618 Cypress Ave., Munster, Ind. 46321-3418 or e-mail to email@example.com.
An aerial view of Illiana
- from the early 1950s.
(Stan Kalwasinski Collection Photo)
Open wheel racing on the half-mile dirt track, circa 1950.
(Stan Kalwasinski Collection Photo)
Late model stock car
racing has been the featured division at Illiana for years. Eddie Hoffman (8)
and Jeff Cannon (33) battle here during 2014 action.
(Stan Kalwasinski Photo)
A Legends division heat
race - 2015.
(Stan Kalwasinski Photo)