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Fabric Of Rockford Speedway Includes The Sparkman Family

By Paul Schaefer, NASCAR
July 16, 2009 - 2:59pm

A trio of drivers represent the second and third generation of their families to compete at a Chicago-area NASCAR-sanctioned short track.

Brothers George and B.J. Sparkman, along with George’s daughter Rachel, compete in the American Short Tracker division at Rockford (Ill.) Speedway. The 62-year-old, .250-mile banked paved oval has been part of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series since 1984.

The Sparkmans were drawn to racing at Rockford by the late Boyce Sparkman, George and B.J.’s father, who raced at the track for the first time in 1956. In addition to racing in Late Models at Rockford for 25 years, the senior Sparkman competed in the USAC Stock Car division in the 1970s on both dirt and asphalt. He favored the Milwaukee Mile, where he made six starts over the 1976 and 1977 seasons with a best finish of 10th there. It was a huge family event when he raced there.

The brothers grew up at the Rockford Speedway on weekends during their youth, eventually establishing their own driving careers at the track. Third-generation driver Rachel was driven to follow her grandfather and father into competition at the track.

“My heroes are my grandpa and my dad,” Rachel Sparkman, 23, of Loves Park, Ill. said. “Back in his day, Grandpa was ‘The Man’ at Rockford. I wanted to be as cool as him. My dad followed him and has always been a great driver. They set the bar for me. I wouldn’t be as competitive-natured as I am without them.”

In 1980, B.J. Sparkman, 47, of Machesney Park, Ill., shared a Late Model with his dad in Boyce’s final seasons, and built his own Late Model to continue the family racing tradition. He competed in Late Models for the next 10 years, posted six feature wins and had a best points finish of sixth. He then took 10 years off from racing. He returned in the American Short Tracker division in 2004, and has since won three division championships.

George Sparkman, 53, of Loves Park., Ill., embarked on his own career in the American Short Tracker division at Rockford starting in 1984. He has more than 125 career wins, three track championships and won a regional title in the former NASCAR ShorTrack Series.

Track officials say George Sparkman is the go-to guy for help and advice, especially for drivers new to the division.

“If someone doesn’t help them, some of them will just quit because they’re not having fun,” Sparkman said.

Sparkman was recognized for his longtime helpful efforts by receiving the track’s 2007 Hugh G. Deery Memorial Award

“That one took me by surprise,” Sparkman said. “I was lost for words. I never imagined that I’d win that award.”

Deery, who passed away in 1984, is still revered for recognizing and presenting short-track racing as entertainment. His wife Jody, many family members and the track’s General Manager, Gregg McKarns, have maintained Rockford as a fun place on race nights.

Each of the Sparkmans repeat a familiar sentence: “I grew up at the speedway.”

George Sparkman recalls the time when NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby was a Rockford Speedway track official. He points out that Chad Knaus, crew chief for three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, began his career at Rockford, as did 2003 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Travis Kvapil. Along the way he’s also met, known, or raced with the likes of A.J. Foyt, Dick Trickle, Tom Reffner, Joe Shear, Ramo Stott, Darrell Dake, Don Marmor and many others.

It is not an overstatement to say racing has been a way of life for the Sparkman family.

”When I was a kid, that’s what I thought every family did on the weekends – go to the races,” B.J. Sparkman said. “Going to the Milwaukee Mile was our big highlight, but I remember when we could go racing six nights a week. I still race out of the same shop that dad raced out of. He’d take the same Late Model and race on pavement one night and dirt the next. He raced his USAC Stock Car on dirt at DuQuoin and Springfield, Ill.”

The chance to go racing herself and try to emulate the determination of the two generations before her played a big roll in Rachel Sparkman’s life.

She graduated from Robert Morris University in Chicago in 2008 and specializes in graphic design.

Rachel played soccer throughout high school and college. Even today, if she’s faced with a choice between racing and soccer, it is a perplexing question.

“Driving was something that was ‘out there’ someplace for me, but I didn’t think it was something that I could reach,” Rachel said. “I never thought it would be a reality. I kind of joked about it with dad, but I didn’t think he’d go for it.”

Then came her sophomore year of college. “The Sophomore Blues,” her father calls it.

“She wanted to race. I wanted her to do better at school,” George said. “I told her if she improved her grades and improved her soccer play, I’d help her with a car.”

“We like challenges in our family,” Rachel said. “Give us a challenge and we’ll come through. Dad told me if I got my grades up and got into training for soccer, he’d put a car together for me. I thought, ‘bring it on.’ I worked my butt off.”

In one year, her grade point average improved from 1.9 to 3.0; and she trained in the college soccer off season. In high school, games were played fall, winter (indoors) and summer. College was in fall only, and her game fell off, her dad thought.

She held up her end of the bargain. Despite breaking an ankle on a racquetball court, she continued to work out with the weight machines and improved her play the following season. George pulled an old car and engine out of moth balls, and the two went to Rockford Speedway as drivers in 2007.

“She had never driven a stick shift before,” George said.

“When we were in hot laps my first season, I didn’t know how deep I could drive the car into the corners,” Rachel said. “Every time we’d go into the corners, he’d hit me. He was showing me how deep to drive it in. … I was thinking more along the lines of picking a place on the wall to know when to brake. He wanted me to learn it by feel.”

She won her first heat race in 2008 and has won three so far in 2009. Her best feature finish to date has been eighth. Her concerns are evolving into confidence.

“Now when I see my dad coming (from behind), I think I drive harder. I’m more aggressive when he or my uncle is around me on the track.

“I grew up at the track with a lot of the people I’m racing with now, and I was afraid I might wreck them,” Rachel said. “I think I’m more confident now. People will race along side of me now. That’s made me feel better.”

George Sparkman
Car No. 5 Ford Mustang
Sponsors Auto Beautifiers, Advantage Auto Sales, K&V Hardwood Moulding, B&B Racing Engines, High Standard Fabricating, Boom Did It Custom Car Audio and Air Brushing, Crazy Times
Owner/operator George Sparkman Auto Repair and Auto Sales, Loves Park, Ill.
Crew Mark Bielefeldt, Gary Bielefeldt, Kenny Hammer, Barry Swanson, Brian Cover, Brian Peterson, Steve Rubeck, Becca Sparkman

B.J. Sparkman
Co-Owner Kerry Klamann
Car No. 70 Ford Mustang
Sponsors Neighbors Bar & Grill, Collision Headquarters, Martin’s Towing, Advantage Auto Sales
Owner/operator Sparkman Automotive, Machesney Park. Ill.
Crew Bruce Tucker, Kerry Klamann, Billy Slagal, Tim Steier

Rachel Sparkman
Co-Owner George Sparkman
Sponsors George Sparkman Auto Repair and Auto Sales, Boom Did It Custom Car Audio and Air Brushing
Occupation Freelance Graphic Artist; Grandstand beer vendor, Soldier Field (NFL Chicago Bears)
Crew Mark Bielefeldt, Gary Bielefeldt, Kenny Hammer, Barry Swanson, Brian Cover, Brian Peterson, Steve Rubeck, Becca Sparkman

Knaus Connection

The crew for George and Rachel Sparkman’s race cars include touring Late Model driver Steve Rubeck. Rubeck was the 1993 American Short Tracker Division champion at Rockford Speedway.

Among those who crew for Rubeck when he goes racing is John Knaus, father of three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winning crew chief Chad Knaus. Chad established his racing career working on his dad’s race cars. John Knaus is a seven-time Rockford Speedway Late Model champion, and 1994 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series regional champion. He retired from driving in 2004.

Tara and Jeff Cook are also on Rubeck’s crew.

Beer, Here!

Rachel Sparkman works as a grandstand beer vendor at Chicago’s Soldier Field for all its NFL Chicago Bears games. Prior to turning 21, she was the top-selling hot chocolate vendor in the stadium during a 2006 game featuring the Bears and Green Bay Packers. She has also sold hot dogs.

The 2009-2010 NFL season will be Sparkman’s fourth at Soldier Field, which seats 61,500.

Tough crowd? Not really.

“I definitely enjoy and take pride in being ‘one of the guys’ whether I’m racing or slinging beer at Soldier Field,” she said.