Short Track Heaven

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You probably wouldn’t think of the Rockford Speedway as an auto racing Mecca in the same vein as Daytona or Indianapolis. But the tiny, quarter-mile facility in northwest Illinois has carved its place in the racing world as one of the premiere short tracks in the country.

When you’re taking the team photo of America’s best bullrings, Rockford is right there in the picture with legendary spots like Eldora, Jennerstown, Knoxville and Hickory.

This weekend the historic track hosts the 44th annual National Short Track Championship, the ultimate Super Bowl of short track stock-car racing. Over three days, nearly 500 cars in a multitude of divisions will take to the tight, high-banked speedway in quest of greatness, culminating with Sunday’s super late model 200-lap main event.

It’s a non-stop, fast-paced racing festival that features nearly any division of competition imaginable and includes late model stock cars, hobby stocks, legend cars, mini-Indy machines, trucks, a ladies-only class and figure-8 events.

“We try and give our fans the most unique racing experience possible every year by presenting a diverse menu of action at the Short Track Championship,” track president Jody Deery, whose late husband Hugh started the event and is considered the godfather of short-track racing promoters, told me earlier this year when I brought a group of kids up to watch a Saturday night show at the venerable speedway. “And Sunday’s main event kind of brings together the best of the best in the Midwest late model ranks.”

The list of NSTC late model competitors that have taken part in the annual Rockford tradition since its inception in 1965 reads like a “Who’s Who” in stock-car racing: Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Dick Trickle, the late Alan Kulwicki, Ted Musgrave and Matt Kenseth just to name a few.

“Rockford is like the Daytona 500 or Indianapolis 500 of short-track racing,” said Trickle, a four-time NSTC winner. “A lot of careers have been started at Rockford Speedway over the years, and winning the National Short Track Championship is an excellent way to get noticed.”

Indeed a couple of years ago I had the opportunity to do a television interview with Mark Martin. I told him the weekend we were talking was the same one as Rockford's annual NSTC.

Martin's eyes glistened as he told me "Winning the National Short Track Championship to this day remains one of the highlights of my career."

The field for Sunday has several candidates for future stardom. It's an open competition affair, hoping to attract drivers from around the country to compete against one another, which was the original concept of the event when Deery started it more than four decades ago.

The 200-lap super late model chase may be one of the most grueling in all of stock-car racing. The field will have the challenge of what is billed as “the 800 toughest left-hand turns in racing,” which means traffic and staying out of the way of the day’s inevitable accidents will be key to making it to victory lane.”

The weekend also features the Big 8 Series, a limited late model touring division that has been nothing short of a success since it was launched a few years ago. Big fields of cars are the norm whenever this circuit hits the track and this weekend will be no different, highlighted by a young driver named Ross Kenseth who is following in the footsteps of his father Matt at becoming a force on the Midwest stock car scene.

Alas places like Rockford are a dying breed unfortunately as the short track world continues to struggle attracting fans and drivers alike.

NASCAR isn't doing the industry any favors by scheduling more Cup races on Saturday nights, which forces many fans to stay home and watch the big boys rather than supporting their local tracks.

But there's still hope and weekends like the one on tap at Rockford are the perfect chance to go out and see what real racing is all about.

For only the third or fourth time in about 20 years, I won't be trackside at Rockford this weekend, taken away for reporting obligations at Kansas Speedway.

I may be in the Land of Oz, but my heart will be with the short trackers in Rockford.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2009

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