In the stands or the pits, race fans, drivers geared for families
By Shelley Jones Post-Tribune correspondent August 16, 2014 6:06PM
Brandon Payne (right) talks to his friend, Late Model Class driver Paul Shafe, Jr. before qualifiers at Illiana Motor Speedway on Saturday, August 9, 2014. | Jim Karczewski/for Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 18, 2014 6:09AM
SCHERERVILLE — For those uninitiated in local racing, it may be surprising that beyond the intense throttle and smell of burnt rubber a family landscape emerges when the dust clears.
Certainly the dominant relationship is that of fathers and sons. But there also are fathers and daughters decades into a shared hobby and many husbands and wives out on date night.
At the Illiana Speedway in Schererville on a Saturday night you would be hard-pressed to find someone not present with family, be they fans or drivers.
“I remember being here when I was 4,” said 23-year-old Victoria Aldridge, of Hammond, who was at the track Aug. 9 with her dad, William Aldridge. She said they are there together most Saturday nights during the season, which runs from April through September.
“I’m not a partier or a drinker,” said William Aldridge, also of Hammond. “I come here. I’ve been coming here 30 years. I don’t ever remember any problems.”
Munster resident Andy Horin grew up on the South Side of Chicago and used to go to Illiana and Raceway in Calumet Park, Illinois, with his dad. Now he makes a point to bring his family — wife, Carrie, and kids Madison, 13, Allison, 9, Jillian, 7 and A.J., 6 — once a year. “I’m the big race fan, and they’re just the sports for coming,” Andy Horin said.
Daughter Madison doesn’t mind. “I like it here, though,” she said. “Something about it says, ‘cozy.’ It feels like home.” An extremely raucous home.
Cars careering out of the fourth turn look a bit like colorful Matchbox cars in black, white and orange. The noise, however, is deafening. It’s so loud that sounds at normal decibels feel strange after walking away from the track.
“You just watch the leader,” said veteran fan Harold Kimmel, of Griffith, on viewing strategy.
He and his wife, Mary Lou, have been coming to Illiana since their son-in-law raced there long ago. Mary Lou said they’ve been fans since the days the track was dirt and the lighting was bad. She said the viewing experience has improved greatly since current owner Mike Mikuly bought the place in 1998.
“Besides that, we can hear them from the house,” said Harold Kimmel. “When she hears them, she’s got to come out.”
Gates open at 4 p.m. when practice runs are happening. The evening runs until 9:30 when the track aims to wrap things up in a commitment to be good neighbors to area residents. Adult admission is $12. Kids 8 to 12 are $5 and kids under 8 are free, as is parking. Mikuly is proud to offer “very affordable family fun that lasts more than an hour.”
The family theme is just as strong over in the pit where drivers are often following in their dads’ footsteps. Some families, such as Paul Shafer and Paul Shafer Jr., of Portage, race on the same night — senior in the Legends class and junior in the late-model class. Shafer Sr. has been racing for 30 years and his son for three.
Paul Shafer Jr., a senior at Portage High School, won the late model championship at Illiana last year. He’s chosen not to defend his title this year as competition in the CRA Super Late Model Series takes him away most weekends across Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. He’s not only chasing other cars, but his dream of making it to NASCAR.
“Right now, I tell him it’s an investment, because we make $1,000 a week and a car costs a lot more than that,” Shafer Jr. said of his dad, who is able to fill in the cost gaps. Even those less flush with funding find a way to carry on their passion for racing but admit the competition has dwindled with the economy.
Ryan Moore, 28, of Kouts, and his buddy Mark Ross, 24, of Highland, take turns racing one car in street stock races at Illiana. They’ve each been racing over a decade, having followed their fathers pedal-pushing and intending to involve their own young children someday.
“Last week, we had part of our motor fall off,” Moore said with a smirk and a shrug.
That everyman feel carries throughout the track environs. Fans who didn’t pay for a pit pass might not know that back in the pit the winner of the late model feature race, car 00, is pulled on a simple open trailer by an old pickup. Towering over it are the pricier set-ups: slick enclosed haulers with all the bells and whistles.
“It’s all about the car and the driver,” said 00 co-owner Mark Fredette of Crestwood, Illinois. “We’re not racing trailers. We’re racing race cars.”