Cars in the Late Model class run the laps during a heat at The Illiana Speedway in Schererville, IN on Saturday, April 27, 2013. | Jim Karczewski~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 1, 2013 6:38AM
The roar of the Late Model engines around the half-mile track, the joviality of the little cars going around the quarter-mile track in the Bandoleros division, the loyal fans — it all added up to another opening night at Illiana Speedway on Saturday.
Make that 66 years overall for the track on U.S. 30 and 14th year under the ownership of Mike Mikuly.
It was a beautiful sight and some beautiful sounds, no matter what nearby residents or the town of Schererville think since they haven’t been fans of the track at times over the years.
Attending opening night on Saturday night, I couldn’t help but think about the fight between the town and Mikuly back in 2007. Schererville wanted to buy the land and expand adjacent Rohrman Park with an option of adding new houses. One councilman was quoted as thinking 2007 would be Illiana’s last season.
The words “eminent domain” even came up as a possibility. That’s basically when local, state or federal government have the right to take private property for public use, paying the owner a fair amount even if the owner doesn’t want to sell.
It was scary to race fans, but it’s a storm Mikuly has weathered, in addition to real storms over the years causing postponed race nights. Two years ago was quite bad with multiple dates — and money for Mikuly and drivers — lost due to Mother Nature.
On the way to Illiana on Saturday, I drove by the corner of Broadway and Summit in Crown Point.
Longtime region race fans know that location. It’s near the site of the former Crown Point Speedway, a dirt track that was open from 1957 to 2005 before it was closed and sold to a housing developer.
Turns out there’s no houses there now, just a strip mall.
It should still be a racetrack, which is why Mikuly and his family-oriented business should be lauded when other Chicagoland tracks have gone by the wayside — such as Santa Fe in Willow Springs, Ill., and Raceway Park in Blue Island, Ill., which closed in 2000.
“I lived in Harvey (Ill.) and used to sit out on our porch when I didn’t get a chance to go to Raceway and just listen to the cars,” said Illiana employee Jim Rogers, who now lives in Cedar Lake.
Rogers, who has worked at Illiana for three years, says he’s been going to racetracks since he was 16 years old. Same for Judy Alger, who sits in the little stand at the entrance of the pits giving drivers wristbands as they enter, and money earned as they leave.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 16,” she said, not revealing her actual age, but saying she has been married for 50 years to husband Dave, who couldn’t make it to opening night due to being ill. “Hey, when you’re old, you’re old.”
Just to exemplify the family atmosphere at Illiana, Alger’s daughter, Rhonda, is Mikuly’s fiancé.
The owner can tell you the progress of almost every driver who rolls his or her car onto the track like he’s some sort of racing savant.
“How about Paul Shafer Jr.?” Mikuly said as the Legends division was finishing its feature race. “He started in Bandoleros, then moved up to Legends. Last season he was second in points in Late Models, and he was still getting his regular driver’s license.”
Like any other family relationship, not all the drivers have always liked every decision from Mikuly. But he deserves credit for keeping the track alive and well despite several pitfalls over the years, including the town and neighborhood around him.
It’s much more enjoyable to attend the racetrack and watch competitive stock car racing than going to a strip mall. It’s less expensive, too.