October 1, 2012

The Bickle Tickle & Reynolds Wrap

Rich Bickle Jr. is joined by Rockford CEO Jody Deery after Bickle won the 47th annual National Short Track Championships 200-lapper on Sunday afternoon. - Kyle Ealy Photo

Loves Park, Ill. – “It tastes better the second time,” remarked Rich Bickle Jr., after kneeling down and kissing the start/finish line. Moments earlier, Bickle had won his second career National Short Track Championship, muscling past Brian Johnson Jr., with 45 laps to go in the 200-lap slug fest and then holding off a stubborn Casey Johnson at the end.
Bickle won his first NSTC championship 22 years ago, but this win was much sweeter in a lot of aspects. After winning his first title back in 1990, he’s experienced his share of heartbreaks in this race ever since. A 37-year veteran of short track racing, I’m sure there were thoughts going through his head if he’d ever win the big one again.
“I ain’t getting any younger and to race these young guys, it isn’t easier. But this car has been pretty good since we built it for this race last year. After all this time, it was my turn. All year long I have been a ping pong ball on the racetracks and I said today that I wasn’t taking any prisoners, I don’t give a damn about nobody, I ran into a few cars and I said after getting body slammed they are getting paid back.”
For me, the National Short Track Championships was the perfect way to cap off my 2012 racing season and like Bickle, it tasted good.
For 47 years Rockford Speedway has been hosting this event and it gets better and better every year. The legends of short track have all competed here at one time or another and to just to win this event is an achievement in itself. Dick Trickle, Ramo Stott, Whitey Gerkin, Joe Shear, Jim Sauter, Junior Hanley, Al Schill, Johnny Ziegler, Mike Miller, Butch Miller, Scott Hansen, Steve Carlson, Eddie Hoffman and of course, Bickle, are just a few of the illustrious drivers who have graced victory lane and had their name permanently etched into NSTC history.
Kenny Joosten survived a wild Mid-American Stock Car Series 75-lap feature on Sunday afternoon that included three red flags. Joosten held off Lyle Nowak on several restarts in the late going of the race to capture his second NSTC crown in this event.
Two spectacular crashes highlighted this race…
The first came when Rick Corso and Brian Holtz tangled entering turn three. Corso slammed into the turn three barrier head on while Holtz’s car was sent spinning into the air (much like a helicopter) and hitting the pavement hard upon landing, destroying the car. Fortunately, both drivers were sore but okay.
Jeremy Spoonmore's engine goes up in flames...

Brad Keith does his best to avoid the inferno...

Keith, however, clips the rear of Spoonmore's car....

Sending Spoonmore head-first into the unforgiving Rockford wall...

The second incident saw Jeremy Spoonmore’s engine blow and go up in flames as he entered turn three. It literally was like some dropped a grenade in the engine. Brad Keith, unable to clear Spoonmore’s burning wreckage, clipped Spoonmore’s machine and sent it nose first into the concrete wall. Spoonmore was shaken but not stirred and managed to stagger away from the car. As close as I was standing to the action when it took place, the heat from the burning wreckage was very intense.
Saturday night’s card was probably one of the best nights of racing I’ve witnessed since coming to my first NSTC in 2006.
Jon Reynolds Jr. (X) makes the winning pass on Bobby Wilberg (28) during the Big 8 Series feature. - Kyle Ealy Photo

The Big 8 Series, the brainchild of Rockford GM Gregg McKarns, put on a tremendous show in their 108-lap main event with Jon Reynolds Jr., passing seven-time track champion Bobby Wilberg with 10 circuits to go to win a thriller. It was Reynolds’ third NSTC Big 8 win in five years and his celebration in victory lane upon exiting his car perfectly summed up what it means for a driver to win a race during the NSTC.
Matt Lundberg took the family station wagon to victory in the 50-lap Area Sportsman feature. - Kyle Ealy Photo

The 50-lap Area Sportsman feature saw Matt Lundberg, competing in a Chevrolet station wagon; win a NSTC title in a hard-fought battle that is always typical of this division. He battled Kody Hubred for the first half of the race, and then after passing Hubred for the lead at the halfway point, had to hold off a pesky Daryl Gerke for the remaining laps. There was solid racing from top to bottom of the lineup and it was as good as a race as I’ve seen all year.
Frankie "The Kid" Slabenak Jr. grabbed top homors in the Illinois Vintage Club 20-lap feature. - Kyle Ealy Photo

The Illinois Vintage Series is unlike most of your vintage car clubs. While they all like to show their cars off on the track and show what they got, most will "baby" their rides when it's time to go race. Not so much with this vintage series. These guys definitely get after it and aren't afraid to swap a little paint if and when it's necessary. I had the opportunity to speak with series' director Art Fehrman beforehand. In addition to running the series, Art is also heavily involved in the recently-formed Illinois Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame, which is located in Rockford. They had their inaugural induction ceremony last April, which I wasn't able to attend. I've already made plans to attend next year's ceremony...
Patrick Bruns pulled off a last lap pass to win the 50-lap Illini Racing Series season finale. - Kyle Ealy Photo

The Illini Racing Series, one of my favorite midget series, had the fans on the edge of their seats in their 50-lap main event. Sean Murphy, who had led throughout, saw his chances for NSTC glory dashed as Patrick Bruns came out of nowhere to pass Murphy on the last lap to claim the victory. To see these two drivers go wheel to wheel on the last lap and watching Bruns pull out the win coming out of turn four as the checkers were being waved was sheer beauty. I’ve observed quite a few midget races over the years and this race ranks as one of the best I’ve ever seen.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent with my good friend and Rockford track photographer Jim Ambruoso during my stay in Rockford. As always, Jimmy A’s graciousness and hospitality is one of the many reasons while I enjoy my visits each and every time. Fred Brockway, who normally assists Jim with track duties at Rockford every weekend, was laid up at home due to illness, so I was more than happy to take over as Jimmy’s “right-hand man” this weekend, helping out whenever I could.
On Sunday morning, Jim, pace car driver Daryl Williams and I had breakfast together at the speedway. Both Jimmy A and Daryl have both been a part of Rockford in one capacity or another for the better part of 50 years and I spent a couple of hours that morning hearing stories, yarns and yes, even a few tall tales of what has made Rockford Speedway so special for them. I listened, laughed, and thoroughly enjoyed the company of these two gentlemen.
Another highlight of my visit was finally being able to meet Stan Kalwasinski. Stan, one of the more noted historians in the Midwest, owns his own website; www.chicagolandracing.com; has written a racing column (Chicago Whispers) for many years and recently published a book about the history of the now-defunct Raceway Park in Blue Island, Ill. Stan and I have been trading email for six or seven years now, but this was the first time we’ve actually met. We spent part of Sunday afternoon chatting about what else? Yep…the history of Midwest auto racing.
Thanks to Jody Deery, Gregg McKarns, Jim Ambruoso and the rest of the Rockford Speedway for their hospitality during my stay.
This is the National Short Track Championships and there is no event like it…
Thanks for picking us up,

Kyle Ealy