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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A storied Missouri short track will celebrate its 30th anniversary as it re-enters the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series in 2013.
Lebanon I-44 Speedway was part of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series from 1989-2001 and is now on its second run with an asphalt surface. The historic speedway’s property fronts on a section of Historic U.S. Route 66. The old road, now known as Pecos Drive where it passes the track, was designated as one of the United States’ first national highways in 1926. The speedway was designated as one of the first modern-era NASCAR-sanctioned paved short tracks in the state in 1989. Route 66 ran 2,451 miles between Chicago and Los Angeles. The speedway runs three-eighths of a mile. The old highway is no longer a part of the nation’s interstate highway network but retains its history. The track rejoins NASCAR and continues to add to its history.
The late Bill Willard owned and operated Willard Construction Company, and developed the speedway adjacent to his quarry on terrain that formed a natural bowl. The track, quarry and old U.S. Route 66 all sit alongside the modern era’s Interstate 44 that runs between St. Louis and Wichita Falls, Texas.
Willard opened Lebanon I-44 Speedway as a .375-mile dirt track in 1983. Dirt Late Model driver Larry Phillips from nearby Springfield, Mo., frequented the track between chasing big money dirt events. As the popularity of dirt Late Model racing exploded in the early 1980s, Phillips became nationally known.
The Lebanon track produced great racing and was a comfortable facility for both fans and teams just as Willard engineered it. What the track lacked was the national prominence Willard envisioned. He decided to shake-up the Missouri racing scene in 1989.
In a state still dominated by dirt track racing, Willard became a revolutionary and paved his speedways in Lebanon and Bolivar, Mo. He crowned his renovated tracks by leading them into the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series.
With their conversion to asphalt, Phillips was noncommittal about his future racing at them. He had plenty of pavement racing experience but he was still earning a good income running on the big money dirt circuit. Fellow dirt track star Joe Kosiski, the 1986 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion, encouraged Phillips to give the NASCAR program a try.
Still uncertain, Phillips decided to follow Kosiski’s advice and Lebanon I-44 Speedway became the launching pad for his extraordinary NASCAR Whelen All-American Series career. In NASCAR-sanctioned events between 1989 and 2001 Phillips won five national championships, seven regional championships, 13 track championships spread over three tracks, and a career total of 226 feature wins in 308 starts.
Three of those national titles (1989, 1995-96) came by racing at Lebanon and Bolivar.
Phillips won a total of five Lebanon I-44 track championships in 1993-96 and 1998. Off track, he’d share knowledge or if need be critique young drivers. In the 1990s rising stars at Lebanon included Jamie McMurray and Ricky Icenhower. McMurray, now a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star, won Lebanon’s 1997 Late Model championship over Phillips. Icenhower won a 1992 NASCAR regional championship. James Ince served as Phillips’ crew chief for a couple of championships. Ince went onto be a race-winning crew chief in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Another former crewman, Kevin Greven, is now the track’s General Manager and promoter. Earlier in his career, Phillips mentored young guns including Ken Schrader, Kenny Wallace and Mark Martin.
In addition to Phillips and McMurray, other NASCAR Late Model champions at Lebanon between 1989-2001 include Kirk Shaw, Mike Wallace, the youngest of brother of Rusty and Kenny Wallace; Russell Phillips who was not related to Larry Phillips, and Ken Dickinson. Tim Swearengin won the most recent two NASCAR championships there in 2000-01. Afterward, the track became independent and converted to dirt.
Phillips health began to fail and he ran the last race of his career at Lebanon in April 2001. He passed away in 2004.
After Willard’s passing in 2002, his sons Bradley and David became the track owners. Wanting to shake things up again, the brothers took the track back to its origins as a dirt track in 2003. It changed back to the asphalt surface again in 2010. Mike Slone won the pavement Late Model division track championship in 2010 and 2012. Chrissy Wallace, daughter of Mike Wallace, won the division championship in 2011.