Shawn Wiltjer | Kim Kemperman~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 27, 2013 6:33AM
Wiltjer, 34, of Calumet Township, Ind., has been racing since 1995, when he got his start in a street stock at Raceway Park in Blue Island. He finished second in the Mid-American division at Illiana Speedway in 2006. This season, he’s in fourth place in the late-model standings at Illiana. His stepfather, Billy Bob Wiltjer, and mother, Dawn, both were short-track competitors.
Was there any chance you wouldn’t have become a race car driver?
There was always a chance. My biological father, actually, worked as a crane operator at a mill for over 30 years. So I guess I could have taken another path and been a guy working at the mill. But as long as I can remember, I was always at the race track.
What was your first car?
It was one of Peter Hernandez’s old enduro cars, I believe, a ’76 Cutlass. It was sitting in a guy’s parking lot for many years, and I drove past it every Saturday and Sunday going to the race track. I finally got up the courage to go to talk to the guy and bought it for a couple of hundred dollars.
Was it an interesting first adventure?
On our first night ... I didn’t know any better about gears. I was too young to really pay attention. We had the wrong gear in the car, and I ended up blowing up the motor to smithereens. We sat out for almost the whole rest of the season until I could buy another motor.
What was your dad (Bob Wiltjer’s) most significant influence?
He made us (children) get it honest. I bought my first race car, saved up for it, and he said, “You’re going to maintain it, you’re going to work on it, you’re going to pay for it. You’re not getting any handouts.” I give my dad a lot of credit for saying, “You’re going to earn it.” And he held us to that 100 percent.
Who were some of your driving heroes when you were growing up?
The easiest one would be Dave Weltmeyer. I always looked up to him, thought of him as an icon. I still do to this day. And I have just as much respect for his son (D.J.). His son is a chip off the old block. Ted Janecyk is another one. His No. 1, I’ve always tried to run that number, because of my dad (Bob Wiltjer) and Ted Janecyk.
What made them different?
They were guys who always tried to spend time with their fans. They never shied away from giving autographs to kids. I probably have 300 autographs from Janecyk and probably 3,000 from Dave Weltmeyer.
Any other memorable drivers that you’d race against in your ultimate trophy dash?
Jim Gilbert. He’s always on top of the wheel doing something. And “Wild” Wally Komanski. He lived up to his name. He was one of my childhood, “Wow, look at that guy!” drivers. He was wild. No matter what car he bought, it wasn’t the greatest equipment, but he always managed within that five- or eight-lap range to get the job done.
Where do you want to see your racing career go from here?
I’d like to continue to have fun. I would love to go on a traveling series and hit all of the different tracks and see how good I could be. If in 10 years, I could have half the respect of the fans that a Dave Weltmeyer does, I believe I’ll have accomplished something in local racing.
As told to Tony Baranek