Auto Racing: Division races enter home stretch at Grundy County, Illiana speedways
By Tony Baranek email@example.com August 21, 2014 11:10PM
Nearly 300 racing friends saluted Tommy "Turtle" Weckler at a party Sunday at Tinley Park Bowl. | Tony Baranek/Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 23, 2014 6:22AM
It’s T-minus three and counting, and track championships are far from decided at Grundy County Speedway and Illiana Speedway.
The three stands for points nights remaining: Friday, Aug. 29 and 31 at Grundy, and Saturday, Aug. 30 and Sept. 6 at Illiana.
Illiana has a non-points night Sept. 13, highlighted by the 53rd annual Tony Bettenhausen Memorial 100.
Let’s start at Grundy, where three of the four divisions have hot points battles.
The fourth, the Mid-American class, has been all but sewn up by defending champ Tommy Knippenberg, who has a commanding 94-point advantage over Joe Vinachi. Knippenberg would have to miss a night or suffer a DQ for Vinachi to snatch away the gold.
It’s a little different in the late-model class, where Ricky Baker, with a 50-point lead over Eddie Hoffman, is still sweating it out as he chases a second straight title.
Baker carried his seventh checkered flag after winning the first of three features in last week’s Frank Welch Memorial. He struggled in the second race after an early mishap, but rebounded in the third to record a third behind winner Brett Sontag.
Hoffman, who has three feature flags to date, didn’t win any of the three segments, but kept pace with Baker points-wise with better overall finishes.
It’s always interesting this time of the season to watch the front-runners as they weigh the merits of “going for it” at the risk of mayhem that could cost them a bunch of points.
“Last week was the first time I really was points racing after I got caught up in the wreck in the second feature,” Baker said Thursday. “I knew we had to go to the front in the last race and that’s what we did. To go from 18th to third was awesome after the car was torn up that bad.
“I pretty much go out every night to set fast time and win. Last year we won four of the last five features and the one we didn’t we lost by about a foot (while) passing Eddie Hoffman. That shows, I guess, that I just go and try to win every night and let the points come with it.”
Street stock points leader Eddie Ligue is in just about the same position as Baker, with a 53-point edge over Jake Bradley. Ligue struggled Friday to a seventh-place finish while Bradley was second behind winner John Senerchia.
“We’ve been struggling with the car the last few weeks,” Ligue said Thursday. “We tore it all apart this week and we found a few things bad and we finished up (Wednesday).
“I’m not worrying about winning these last couple of races. Now it’s time to stay focused, stay clear of any wrecks and keep my points lead. I’ve just been trying to stay consistent and finish all of the races.”
The other points race at Grundy to keep an eye on is in the pure stocks, where Austin Blackwell is protecting a 41-point lead over Mike Slabenak. Defending titlist Dan Schmeissing is lurking just 10 points behind Slabenak.
At Illiana, Jeff Cannon is in position to secure his fourth title in the late-model class, but his 27-point advantage over Hoffman is a precarious one.
Cannon stretched out just a bit Saturday, capturing his fourth feature victory. Hoffman, who also has four wins, has been surging of late. Don’t count on it, but a big finishing kick by Hoffman and a little bad luck for Cannon would turn things around.
The real dogfight is in the Legends, where Paul Shafer Sr. holds a microscopic 1,603-1,599 edge over Stan Zolodz IV.
The two drivers, more than 40 years apart in age (Zolodz is just 13), have made the depressingly low car counts in that division a little less depressing by battling bumper to bumper all season. Zolodz has five wins,Shafer three.
The only real runaway at either track is in the Illiana turbo stox, where Chris Woodall has won eight times and leads Michael Gerike by a whopping 170 points.
Racing friends salute ‘Turtle’
Nearly 300 drivers, car owners and friends spent Sunday afternoon in the beer garden at Tinley Park Bowl paying tribute to Tommy “Turtle” Weckler, who for more than three decades was a car owner and the Hoosier Tire Dealer at Raceway Park, Grundy County Speedway and Illiana Speedway.
The only word I can think of to describe the atmosphere is heartwarming.
“If you looked around, there were even some people there who normally wouldn’t rub shoulders, (Turtle) brought a lot of people together,” said Steve DeNovi, organizer of the event, along with Pat Echlin and Bob Pochinskas.
Weckler, who retired after the 2010 season, has been battling some physical issues the past couple of years, but this summer has made several trips to the speedways. Proceeds from Sunday’s events were used to help defray his health care costs. That truly is fitting.
“He was always the low-budget guy’s tire distributor,” DeNovi said. “If they didn’t have the money he’d carry them. He’d go home a lot of times with nothing in his pocket because he gave tires away and kept people on the books.”