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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - When you walk into Illinois’ Rockford Speedway, it becomes obvious very quickly that the track isn’t like other motorsports venues.
It’s small, just a quarter-mile in length, with 22 degrees of banking in the turns that helps create intense, high-speed racing. You could argue that there are plenty quarter-mile tracks in the United States and you’d be right, but none of them have the history that Rockford Speedway has.
The track, first opened in 1948 as a venue for midget racing, is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. During those 70 years a who’s-who of racers have walked through the doors at Rockford, including the likes of Matt Kenseth, Alan Kulwicki, Dick Trickle, Rusty Wallace, Joe Shear and Rich Bickle, just to name a few.
Located in Loves Park, Illinois, on Illinois Route 173, the venue was built in 1947 by local farmer Jay Hart and a group of investors. In 1966 the facility was purchased by Hugh Deery and the Deery family has owned and operated the track ever since.
“I don’t know if there is anything special about the 70th (anniversary), but it’s a long time,” said 92-year-old Jody Deery, Hugh Deery's widow and current owner of the legendary facility. “We didn’t get involved until the racetrack was 11 years old, but we’ve been around here for quite awhile. At that time we were the only entertainment in the community.
“Of course now we have lots of competition. We’ve got hockey and all kinds of things that the park district puts on. But we were the biggest entertainment,” Deery said.
Despite all the competition from other forms of entertainment, Rockford Speedway continues to thrive. The track is the only NASCAR sanctioned short track in the state of Illinois and allows competitors to battle not only for local recognition, but also national recognition through the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series.
The track officially celebrated its 70th anniversary last Saturday night, with Jon Reynolds Jr. besting defending NASCAR Division I late model track champion Michael Bilderbeck in the late model main event.
Track owner Jody Deery has been a staple at Rockford Speedway and, at 92, has no plans on slowing down anytime soon. Rockford Speedway
In addition to weekly racing, the track is recognized as the home of America’s World Famous Trailer Races, which are run on both the quarter-mile oval as well as the figure-8 track that is carved into the infield.
“The trailer race is one of our biggest events. It is a race where the cars pull trailers of any sort, kind or description,” Deery explained. “Then in the fall we have the figure-8 trailer, which is bigger yet because they’re meeting at the X. They’re pulling all kinds of trailers and that’s very interesting.
Deery explained that the idea for the trailer races came from one of her sons, who was studying abroad in England when he witnessed a trailer race at an English racetrack. He brought the idea back home with him to Rockford, where he convinced his father it was worth trying.
“It happened to be one of my sons ideas,” Deery said. “He was going to school in England and he went to a racetrack and they were doing trailer races. So he came home and said to his dad, ‘This is something we ought to do. You should see this.’ So we were one of the first racetracks in the United States I believe, and I could be wrong, but we were certainly one of the first few that even had a trailer race.”
To this day the annual trailer races at Rockford draw some of the biggest crowds to the track, with competitors and fans coming from hours away to witness the mayhem and destruction that ensues.
Even without the trailer races, Rockford still draws strong crowds every year for its weekly racing programs. The biggest race every season at Rockford is the annual National Short Track Championship, a 200-lap late model race that has been won by the likes of Steve Carlson, Bickle, Shear, Butch Miller, Tim Fedewa, Trickle, Jim Sauter, Junior Hanley, Mark Martin and Ramo Stott, just to name a few.
The track was even home to Chad Knaus, crew chief of seven-time and defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. Knaus’ father, John Knaus, won seven track championships from 1987 through 1994.
“We call him our boy,” Deery jokingly said of Chad Knaus.
Of course none of this would have been possible without the Deery family. Hugh and Judy Deery were admittedly novices when they took over operation of the track 1960s. They both grew up on farms, so racing wasn’t exactly second nature to either of them.
Together, the pair not only made sure Rockford survived, they made sure it thrived. They raised seven boys at the track, with several of them moving on to careers in motorsports thanks in large part to their experiences at Rockford.
“We called it the Deery farm,” Jody Deery explained. “My husband and I both grew up on a farm, we realized the value of family working together. One of the dreams my husband had was to buy a few small acres and put kind of a model farm so people could bring their kids out from Chicago to see what farm life was like.
“Well that never materialized, but then when we got involved in the speedway it became our farm and my kids, as soon as they could talk or walk, they were involved. They grew up here.
“It was fun. It was a family business and still is a family business and we did everything as a family.”
At 92, Deery said she has no plans of slowing down. She’s at the track every week making sure the races run smoothly and if she has her way, she’ll be doing that for years to come.
“I’m 92 and a half years old and this is still fun for me. There are days I’d like to beat everybody up, but that’s a different story,” Deery said with a laugh.
Rockford Speedway will host weekly racing most Saturday evenings through the end of September, with the 52nd running of the National Short Track Championship slated to close out the season on Sept. 29 through Oct. 1. The track will crown its weekly racing series champions during the Whelen Engineering Night of Champions on Sept. 9.
Rockford Speedway has hosted racing since 1948. Rockford Speedway