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UMARA at Joliet Stadium

by: Bill Freis

Joliet, IL “They've got big hearts and a whole lot of horsepower. Brave souls with the will to win.... they're the local hero's, and they live for Saturday night”. That phrase used by EPSN’s Dave Despain each week during the late 1980’s and 1990’s for the open wheel show Saturday Night Thunder, absolutely sums up the racers that did battle each Saturday night at the Joliet Memorial Stadium for nearly 60 years.

Located on Joliet’s West side next to the Armory this historic venue has hosted, tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands, who have watched local high school and college football talent play their way into the pros. Most Saturday nights each summer many of the same people would watch local talent like Bob Tattersall, Russ Sweedler, Jim Gates, George and Danny Kladis, Tony Saylor, and Henry and Danny Pens take on drivers from across the country in their attempt to make it to the big time.

Joliet Memorial Stadium was built in 1951 and is dedicated to Joliet residents who fought in World Wars I and II as well as the Korean Conflict. The facility built originally for the purpose of hosting high school and college football as well as track and field events, became the home to UARA midget auto racing in May of 1952. Walt Weineke took the first checkered flag and some of the best drivers in the country raced each Saturday night of the summer there until August 30, 1986, when Dennis Devea crossed the finish line as the last winner ever at Joliet Memorial Stadium.

Now 57 years later the facility is going through a facelift. After the final football game is played this fall, the pavement track and the grass football field will be torn up and replaced with a new olympic style running track and an artificial turf playing field. But not before one last racing event takes place on the historic, flat, ¼ mile paved track.

On September 11 and 12 the United Midget Auto Racing Association will sanction the last auto racing event ever to be held at the Joliet Memorial Stadium. The event will include National, Sportsman and Ford Focus midgets as well as Vintage midgets and will likely also include Dwarf Cars, Legend Cars and go-karts.

Already the buzz has been tremendous. Dennis Devea, who now resides near Apache Junction, Arizona got wind of it a couple of weeks ago and has already made plans to be here and is actively pursuing a ride for the event. Says Devea, “I won the last event ever run there in ‘86, and I have to be there to defend my title!” Klaus Wever, known as “Mr. Excitement” back in the stadium days, also recently transplanted to Arizona, is planning his return in September too.

Don Carter Jr., won the 1978 and 1984 Joliet Memorial Stadium Championship and is the only driver to win championships in the old UARA, WOOM and UMARA. Carter was on hand last Saturday at the Grundy County Speedway for the UMARA Carter Anderson Classic and announced that he too would be pursuing a ride for the event.

Carter Jr. drove for owners Jim and Sharon Anderson, of Joliet, for years at the Stadium. Now Jim and Sharon’s son Jimmy pilots the car and is the reigning UMARA National midget champion. Anderson’s eyes and grin grew quite large last fall when he was amidst a conversation with Joliet Park District President Dominic Egizio and host of 1340 WJOL’s Racers Forum Mike Guglielmucci. Egizio asked Guglielmucci, “Do you know anyone that would be willing to bring a midget out and make a few laps before we tear the track up in the fall?” Anderson couldn’t get the word “Yes” out of his mouth fast enough. “I was going to races at Joliet Stadium from the time I was about two weeks old, that would be a dream just to get a chance to drive my midget around that place let alone race it there!” says Anderson.

From that conversation, which also included UMARA announcer Joe Kirkeeng (nephew of Joe Paluga and Jim Eyeman, also former Joliet Stadium racers) the talk turned to an exhibition and then to an actual race. Several months and several meetings later the dream of many locals finally came to fruition late last Friday.

Racing is a family sport and September 11 and 12 will likely be the largest “Family Reunion” Joliet and Will County have ever seen, when the bruised and battered drivers of yesterday, bring their vintage midgets to meet up with today’s young guns and their high-dollar midgets for one last race at Joliet Memorial Stadium.