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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A pioneer in weekly short-track racing continues to be celebrated for lasting contributions to the sport nearly 29 years after his passing. Hugh Deery will be posthumously inducted into the Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame on Saturday, April 13.
Deery was nationally known as owner and promoter of Rockford (Ill.) Speedway. He was a pioneer, visionary and leader in American short-track racing. His wife Jody, the Deery family and general manager Gregg McKarns continue operate the quarter-mile paved oval. The track opened in 1948, joined the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series in 1984 and opens for its 66th season on April 20.
Deery fathered the concept of automobile racing as entertainment. In 1966 he developed the idea for a big season-ending event and titled it the National Short Track Championships. In the early 1970s he invented what was known as ‘Rockford Rules’ Late Models. His dual goals were full fields of affordable cars on track, and great entertainment for fans in the stands. Promoters across the nation took note of Deery’s innovations.
“He would have liked to be the ringmaster at a circus,” Jody Deery said. “He was always looking for ways to create new motorsports entertainment. Trailer races, school bus races and the like grew from our grocery cart races and outhouse races. We once had a t-shirt printed with what Hugh called The 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Entertain Thy Customers.”
While racers initially panned the novelty events, they drew curious newcomers to the track and helped cultivate weekly race fans.
From special promotions to insisting concession stands be referred to a “refreshment” stands to entice sales, Deery’s enduring contributions to the sport were many. He found a platform to share ideas with fellow promoters at the early RPM Promoters Workshops organized by like-thinking friend Stew Reamer. Deery was a selected by his peers as two-time recipient of the national RPM Auto Racing Promoter of the Year Award. He was the inaugural winner in 1976, and received the 1984 award, after passing suddenly on July 14, 1984, in February of 1985. Jody Deery won the same award for operating Rockford Speedway in 1994; one of their sons, Chuck, won the award in 2000 for operating LaCrosse (Wis.) Fairgrounds Speedway.
“Those who knew Hugh Deery say he was always looking for new ideas and unafraid to try them,” said Stewart Doty, editor of Racing Promotion Monthly, presenter of the RPM Promoters Workshops. “And he is remembered most for the way he exhorted promoters at the workshops yet inspired them, encouraging them to better their operations and the industry.”
In the early 1970s, Rockford Speedway like many tracks faced dwindling Super Late Model car counts. Burgeoning costs associated with engines, chassis and high performance components were pricing a lot of weekly racers out of the business. Deery made a radical move in 1973 when he introduced ‘Rockford Rules’ Limited Late Models. The cost-cutting rules were initially protested by many racers. In just a few years, though, the limited style of car caught on a Rockford and elsewhere. While the cars have evolved to remain current with the times, the concept remains the same.
“Hugh was passionate in his beliefs,” Jody Deery said. “People said he couldn’t do it (introduce “Rockford Rules” cars.) They thought he was crazy. They tried a boycott. Hugh just went to the pit gate and told the guys who wanted to race to c’mon in, and the guys who didn’t, to go home.”
Jerry Gille, 48, of Roscoe, Ill., is a 27-year Rockford racing veteran. He won his third NASCAR Late Model track championship and second NASCAR state championship in 2012.
“Hugh Deery’s Late Models -- that’s the car I race. That’s what I run,” Gille said. ”I’d never be able to keep going if I had to race a Super Late Model today. I couldn’t afford it.
“I grew up at Rockford. I was three months old when my parents took me for the first time,” Gille said. “When I was 11 or 12 I sold racing papers at the track so I could go to the souvenir stand to buy little tin race cars. I crashed them every Saturday night on the playground at the track.”
Gille, a board member for the Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame, nominated Deery to the Hall of Fame, and will introduce Deery’s enshrinement Saturday night.
Jody Deery will speak at the event as well.
“Hugh didn’t wait for his ship to come in,” she said. “He found oars and paddled out to it. He always had a good crew.”
The Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame is located at the Historic Auto Attractions Museum in Roscoe, Ill. Induction dinner and ceremonies will take place at Hoffman House in Rockford Saturday evening beginning at 5 p.m. CT.