By Todd Houston
Exclusive to TRRT
The Rockford Speedway is a quarter-mile asphalt oval short track located at the corner of Illinois 173 and Forest Hills Road in Loves Park. It opened in 1948 as a midget car racing venue. Owned and operated solely by the Deery family since 1966, the high-banked quarter-mile oval has been tabbed as “Mid-America’s Finest Racetrack.” Throughout the years, The Rockford Speedway has seen many racing champions including Bobby Wilberg, Joe Shear, Travis Kvapil and Rich Bickle. Dick Trickle was once quoted as saying “It’s like racing jet fighters in a gym!”
Racing isn’t the only thing the Rockford Speedway is known for, throughout the ’70s and ’80s it was also known for hosting concert events, including performances by Black Sabbath, The Scorpions, Waylon Jennings, and Heart. For this week’s column, Mr. Jack Deery was kind enough to share his thoughts and memories about the iconic racetrack and his time there.
Rockford Rocked Interviews: How much did America know about auto racing in 1948 and what made the Rockford area a good place for a racetrack?
Jack Deery: The idea and the setting up of a corporation was brought about by Jim Wagner, who at the time was closely associated with the owners of the South Bend (Indiana) Speedway – a quarter-mile, high-banked paved track built in 1946. Plans were drawn up during the winter months and contracts were let for construction and the land, some 30 acres along Route 173, seven miles north of Rockford, was purchased. One of the original eight owners/investors Jay Hart, owned the farm land.
RRI: The race track was built out in the country for a reason I’m assuming, and was there well before any of the subdivisions started popping up along Forest Hills Rd. and 173. I understand you have a very proactive approach to handling noise complaints from the neighbors.
JD: My father believed that the track should be used for more than racing one day a week – more events and happenings, which of course meant more traffic. In the old days, they burned the trash in barrels – there were no neighbors to complain. As the city grew we soon were surrounded by development. Our decision was to be proactive concerning our new neighbors versus impending complaints. Immediately after events, the parking lots were always cleaned first so the paper and trash didn’t blow onto the roadsides or neighbors. During the 1980s explosion of homes in the area, we began to build the sound boards or “billboards” around the track. The signage once was painted on the cement retaining walls – then to 4’-6’ signs above the track. We eventually converted the billboards to 8’ and 10’ heights as the extra height helped funnel the noise up and not “out”.
Also during this time, we planted 30-plus trees behind the grandstands and corners to help muffle noise. We were always pro-active about our relationships with the neighbors.
RRI: What about Doug Rose’s Green Mamba jet car. Some reports said that a few area residents were convinced a plane had crash landed inside the speedway during one of his visits!
JD: It’s all true. The Winnebago County Sheriff and Loves Park Police would get the calls. We began to fax a “warning notice” to all of the local first responders before the “Meltdown at Sundown” because of the decibel rating!
RRI: Sometime during the 1970s the Speedway started hosting concerts. Did you get a chance to meet any of the performers and do you recall any major problems associated with the events?
JD: I do recall at one show, it may have been the Black Sabbath concert, we set dumpsters up to funnel the crowd lines however the crowd kept working forward and eventually knocked down the fence! It was a stampede of people through pit area and onto the racetrack. Within minutes, you could hear barking and yelling from the infield. As quick as they rushed in the security team and guards dogs chased the crashers back into the parking lot and we repaired the fence. There was also a guy who climbed the infield light pole (90’ high) and was dancing standing on the top of it! Dad made them announce that if he didn’t get down immediately, the concert would end. There’s a photo of him on the pole somewhere in the files. I’ve been to the top of those poles in a crane bucket, the guy definitely had balls.
RRI: Tell us about The 1976 Bicentennial Jam with Foghat, Ted Nugent and Mahogany Rush.
JD: The Bicentennial Jam was memorable because it was the first concert. I think it was labeled the largest event ever in Winnebago County at that time. For the BC Jam, we planned on using the existing restrooms and adding just a few porta-potties. Being on a septic system, halfway through the concert the drain fields were saturated and the water was coming to the surface. The heat of July 4, the sun, some beer and you see puddles of water in grassy areas – good place to have a “water slide” to cool off. It was a popular place till we fenced off the area. Needless to say, we locked the permanent facilities and only used porta-potties for future concerts.
Ted Nugent and my dad hit it off great. Dad couldn’t believe the screaming and cussing “Terrible Ted” was the polite, articulate gentleman off the stage. Ted signed the bass drum skin and gave it to my dad. It’s hanging on the wall in the speedway office.
RRI: Whose idea was it to build the go-kart track on the premises?
JD: Dick Blakely. Dick raced in Rockford’s first Four Cylinder Class in a VW bug that cleaned house. A mechanical engineer by trade, he also developed kit cars, Bantam and the Bearcat heat also had a three-wheeler that is still around today. Using the same thought on something always going on at the track, dad was 100 percent for the track. Dick made it special with the banks and later “wet track”. Vandals started the go-kart building on fire in the late ’90s and we removed the track. The cement floor of the building was removed during the recent 173 expansion.
RRI: Please tell us what you recall about the following:
RRI: July 11, 1978 – The first Tuesday Night Special race with Dick Trickle and Rusty Wallace going head to head.
JD: We had no idea that we would have over 7,000 people for that event. A Tuesday night! Dick Trickle was a true fan favorite who knew how to interact with his fans – as a race fan, there’s not much I can say nice about RW. I ran the beer stand back then – it was non-stop. I was cheering for Neil Bonnett of the “Alabama Gang” to win.
RRI: Bobby Allison – Three things I remember about him.
JD: The first is while driving back from Georgia I stopped into a Cracker Barrel in Manchester, Tennessee and ran into Bobby and Judy Allison. I was traveling alone and they I insisted I sat with them. They of course asked about family before there was any talk of racing.
JD: The second – Bobby made a guest appearance for a meet and greet when I was at the Nashville Fairgrounds track. We were in the middle of rebuilding the fan base and Bobby was a great positive. Knowing and appreciating those who came to see him, he would have signed autographs all night. I gave my each of my siblings an autographed copy of his book.
JD: The third – The Tuesday night All-Star 100, July 17, 1984. Just hours before race time, we buried my dad. The stands were packed. Our families were there. I was sitting in the grandstands with my cousins Dan and John. Bobby was leading with just a few laps to go when he had a tire beginning to go flat. His lead evaporated as he was slow in the corners and Joe Shear would pull along side him. The straights gave him a chance to charge back to the lead. The entire crowd was standing and cheering each driver. The checkered flew for Bobby. Everyone cheered. It was absolutely the greatest race I had ever witnessed. The victory photo shows us in our funeral clothes and the checkered wreath from my dad’s funeral.
RRI: Dale Earnhardt’s 1988 Rockford Speedway Run.
JD: I think this race was held the day after a World Famous Trailer Race. We cleaned the track all night long in preparation for this event. About 5 a.m. one of the dumpsters, full of trailer debris, started on fire. The fire department wanted us to tip the dumpster over and then clean it up again. It all ended well.
RRI: Spectator races in the 1970s.
JD: Brother Tom was fantastic as the “Spectacular Drag!” I remember him interviewing the guy who won and was wearing the helmet backwards. He had 5,000 people rolling in laughter! The term “spectator drags” gave the insurance companies the jitters, so “Spectacular Drags” was the politically correct insurance jargon. Spectator Drags started somewhat because of the July Fourth Firework Extravaganza – with longer summer daylight – we needed the Spectacular Drags to get us to fireworks “darkness” time of the night. Now a fan favorite.
RRI: Anything you would like to add in closing?
JD: I can’t remember his last name at the moment, but Brian, one of the “Jam” promoters, sent his Christmas card with a photo of a concert goer, passed out on the ground surrounded by trash, laying against a white picket fence we had surrounding the beer tent. The greeting below the photo was simple…”it’s only rock n roll”.