Auto Racing: Grundy County Speedway titlists bask in championship glow
By Tony Baranek firstname.lastname@example.org September 5, 2013 10:30PM
Tommy Knippenberg celebrates his Mid-American championship at Grundy County Speedway. | Kim Kemperman~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 7, 2013 1:21PM
It can be said the end of the 2013 season at Grundy County Speedway was sort of anticlimactic.
All four division titles had been decided before Sunday’s “Night of Features.” It was far from same old, same old, however. Three new champions were crowned.
For Ricky Baker, it was a night made doubly exciting when he put a cap on winning his first track championship with a masterful performance in the 61-lap Lee Schuler Memorial.
Baker finished the season with four feature wins and a slew of top fives. The 28-year-old from Plainfield led the points just about from the start.
“It feels pretty good,” he said. “I never thought we’d probably be here, just starting out the way we did. I knew we were going to be good, but I didn’t know about this level. Now we have to see if we can get better.”
This was Baker’s fifth season in a late-model. He came in with a name and sponsor (Baker Ford) that’s long been associated with short-track racing in the Joliet area and learned a lot as a member of pit crews for Larry Schuler, Biff George and Pat McCabe.
He’s always been fast, just not consistent. In 2013 he was consistent, but didn’t really hit his stride until about midseason in a new Pathfinder chassis.
“Oh, geez, how long have we been working on that thing, two years now?” Baker said with a grin. “It seemed like we’d get to the point where it was about ready to be put together, and we’d decide to change everything.
“I think we changed it two times. This time I guess we got it right.”
Baker was a rocket during the final month. Sunday, he held off two challenges from Brett Sontag using the outside groove.
It was a fantastic finish, something he’d like to pursue again in 2014.
“It is,” Baker said, laughing. “It’s a lot of hard work and takes up a lot of time, but I don’t even know what I’d do with myself if I wasn’t doing this.”
Mid-American king Tommy Knippenberg became the third member of his family to win a track championship. Bill Knippenberg Sr. was a champion at Santa Fe Speedway, Peoria, Fairbury and Princeton. Bill Knippenberg Jr. won three Mid-Am titles and one late-model crown at Grundy and a Mid-Am championship at Illiana.
Like Baker, Knippenberg got off to a good start points-wise and stayed at the top. Unlike Baker, he already had two victories by the end of May.
“I think we came into the season pretty confident,” the 29-year-old Channahon native said. “We had a great car, a great crew, a great owner (Ed Patrone) ... all the pieces were there for a championship. We had a great start and just held on to it.”
At 36, Dan Schmeissing became the oldest driver to win a pure stocks title. His biggest thrill, he said, was to have some competition.
“Our goal in 2013 was ultimately to help build the class up again after it fell apart with no policing or teching,” Schmeissing said. “It was a lot more fun racing 15 to 20 cars every week vs. eight to 10 cars the year before.”
Multitime and track titlist John Senerchia, meanwhile, cruised in the street stock class at Grundy. He’ll be trying to double up Saturday at Illiana, where the points wrap up in a three-way battle among himself, Jacob McKown and Ryan Moore.
“This year I had more fun than I’ve had in a while,” said Senerchia, who was celebrating the birth earlier in the week of his second son, Zachery. “Everything went pretty smoothly. We didn’t have the fastest car every night in qualifying, but when it raced it was pretty good.”