This summer the racing's on at two local tracks.
by Rick A. Richards
Northwest Indiana has a long history of racing, dating back to the early 1940s. This summer, for the first time in four years, area fans and drivers will have their choice of two local tracks to attend or at which to compete – Illiana Motor Speedway in Schererville and South Bend Motor Speedway.
Both tracks have played host over the years to legendary drivers such as A.J. Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser, Bobby Allison and Rusty Wallace, but the tracks also have served as the proving ground for current drivers such as Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, David Stremme and Tony Raines, all of whom race in NASCAR.
For fans, the most anticipated news over the winter was the reopening of South Bend Motor Speedway. Four years ago, the track closed when former owner Mike Bird couldn't find a buyer. The speedway has sat unused ever since, ultimately going into foreclosure. After several attempts to negotiate a deal with Bird, an agreement was reached last October, says new owner Steve Brown of South Bend. He is an electrical engineer, but also is a former driver and a huge race fan.
“We're upgrading the facilities here,” says Brown. “We're starting with concessions. We're replacing toilets that have been here for 30 years. The bathrooms were terrible and we have to upgrade that. We're starting with the fundamentals.”
Brown says that for now the show on the track will take care of itself. His first goal is to make the track as family-friendly as possible for the 5,000 to 6,000 people expected to show up for his weekly Saturday events.
“We have a big advantage being in South Bend. We draw people from Michigan City to Plymouth. We have nearly 1 million people to draw from and that's what it takes for small tracks to succeed.”
At Illiana, a half-mile paved track along U.S. 30 at the east edge of Schererville, owner Mike Mikuly has made major investments since acquiring the track from longtime owner Harry Molenaar in 1998.
“We have a great group of fans here,” says Mikuly, a driver who was track champion in 1992 and 1993. “We would like to see this group grow this year.”
The track, which encompasses 60 acres, was a Civil Defense airstrip during World War II. When the war ended, it became a dirt track and in 1961, the track was paved. It was repaved in 1999.
“I've put in new walls, new catch fencing, new lighting and new bleachers that can seat 7,000,” says Mikuly. “One thing led to another.”
Mikuly has worked to make Illiana not only fan-friendly, but friendly to the residents of the nearby subdivisions that have slowly expanded toward the track. He has mandated that participants install mufflers on their cars to cut down on the noise and has kept his promise to end his Saturday night racing card by 10:30 p.m.
“Years ago, racing would go on until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. You just can't have that these days,” says Mikuly. “You have to respect your neighbors.”
For some race fans, though, getting involved in the sport has meant a whole different kind of involvement. For Michigan City's T.J. Jahnz, it has meant stepping into the world of sponsorship in both NASCAR and Indy Car.
Jahnz is one of the founders of Voodoo Ride, an automotive appearance firm that supplies a variety of waxes and polishes to both the consumer and racing markets. A cofounder of the company is Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR.
“Initially, we had a marine product line that was developed here on the shores of Lake Michigan by our small family-owned company,” says Jahnz. “We got into racing by accident.”
When the company developed an aerosol product that cleaned burned rubber and asphalt off the front of cars, NASCAR teams began using it, says Jahnz. “They were using it by the caseload and in 2003, we had just about all of the race teams using our product.”
Jahnz says his company continued to refine the products and in 2006 teamed up with Earnhardt to create an entirely new product line. This year, Voodoo Ride is the primary sponsor for two races for Earnhardt's JR Motorsports, which also sponsors driver Danica Patrick.
For now, consumers are only able to buy Voodoo Ride products along the East Coast and in the Southeast, but he says he hopes that will expand to the Midwest soon.