Kankakee Speedway History

Kankakee Fairgrounds Speedway in 1973
Brief track history....

The Kankakee County Fairgrounds has hosted racing in various forms - on and off -- since 1940.  The first track was eight furlongs and designed for horse racing.  That flat track, nearly one-half mile long, can besee in old aerial photos of the grounds.  It fit around what would become today's speedway, sharing only the stretch in front of the grandstands.

The longer track was also home to motorcycle competition, but there was no racing at all during the war years.  The stock cars didn't make the scene until the quarter-mile track was estalished in 1950.

"I guess it was the only way for some of those World War II vest to get some excitement," said Jimmy Corsaro, a Bourbonnais racing fan, a former pitman, and a longtime pit steward at the track.  "They came out here in old coupes and they had a good time.  It was all local guys then."

By 1957, the drivers had worn out their welcome with the Kankakee County Fair Board.  Percy Loiselle was head of the board then he cast the first vote to end the first stock car era.  There was no racing for three years, but te racing teams kept their organization alive: the Kankakee Valley Stock Car Racing Association.

"We talked to Don Montalta, who was running a little go-cart track over at Sugar Island," said Don Hartman, a former driver, flagman and track photographer.  "He built a quarter-mile track there on his land and we started racing again in 1959.  We stayed there until 1966, and that when I went to Herb Hess.  He was the president of the fair board then.

"My first talk didn't go anywhere, but I came back with Earl Hubert and Don Waldsvogel - and those were the right two guys.  Herb liked them," Hartman recalled.  "We didn't have any problems with Don at Sugar Island, but lots of guys wanted to go back to racing at the fairgrounds and we did - in 1967."

Over the years, various promoters rented the track.  Wayne Etzel, Glenn Morin, Tony Izzo, the Jim O'Connor family, Brian Osterhoff and Sherri Heckenast each took a turn at the helm - with varying degrees of success.

The most notable changes in the track came during the O'Connors' tenure when the banking was increased in the turns and the wall was removed from turns one and two.  "It really changed the look of racing," said Bill Yohnka, the track announcer and the Director of the Kankakee Chamber of commerce.

"Drivers will try to go faster and faster on th ehigh side - and suddnly they're gone.  The car just slips off of the edge and disappears.  Fans go wild, but the driver generally corrals it without any serious damage.  A couple times a year the car will roll, but most times you see them a couple minutes later, storming back onto the track.The speeds picked up with the exra bank, and the competition was turned up quite a few notches when the O'Connors took charge."

The O'Connor family left to manage two tracks they purchased in Indiana, and Osterhoff filled in when it looked as though the 2005 season was going to be cancelled.  He really preferred to focus on his son Chad and his promising racing career, so the door was open for Heckenast in 2006.

While an attractive woman promoter created some initial excitement, the crowds built by the O'Connors didn't last.  Heckenast's departure after two years may have come as a surprise to many, but she saw the writing - not on the wall, but in the accounting books.  She has told would-be promoters that the track can create a financial drain as big as $75,000 a year.  Osterhoff and Etzel, who now sit on the fair board and serve on the racing committee echoed the same sentiments.

"It's definitely a different business now than when I ran things," Etzel said.  "Brian had one of those years like I had where it seemed to rain or threaten to rain every Friday night.  But he had much bigger expenses than I had.  These guys put more money into their cars and they want to make a little more.  That's only natural."

The dwindling fan base has to be a major source of concern for any prospective promoter.  "They had a drop off in Fairbury (at the American Legion Speedway) a couple years ago," said Jim Whittington, the Kankakean who has been in the flagstand at the local track for most of the past 20 years of summer Friday nights.  "But they found ways to build it back up.  Kankakee could do that too if they had the right promoter."

"We haven't given up hope," said Keith Lewis, who heads the fair board's race committee.  "We really don't wasnt to see it sit idle.  But we want to be fair to the of constituency we serve here.  We're not here only for the race fans.  We're not here only for the agricultural side.  We have a balancing act to do here, but we haven't given up hope."
Jim O'Connor 1969
1969 Pacecar
Earl J Hubert

Website Created By Steve Coffer   s.coffer@mchsi.com