Chicagoland Speedway and Grundy County Speedway are located roughly 25 miles apart. But until recently, that distance might as well have been 2,500 miles.
Their class of racing is as disparate as you can get. Chicagoland Speedway, located in Joliet, Illinois, plays host once a year to NASCAR’s Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series, while Grundy County, located in Morris, Illinois, hosts four sportsman series on more than 20 weekends.
The 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway has a seating capacity of nearly 50,000, while the 1/3-mile Grundy County Speedway seats about 3,700. Ticket prices, concessions and souvenirs are also a world apart.
It used to be that the two tracks had little in common and little interaction. But that’s changing. Big tracks like Chicagoland Speedway realize that grassroots speedromes like Grundy County are fertile breeding grounds for racing fans. That’s why the two tracks are no longer competitors fighting for the same dollar. Now, they’re partners and friends in the racing world. Each supports the other, offers assistance and cross-promotes at the other’s events.
“They’re in our backyard essentially, we’re neighbors,” Denny Hartwig, Chicagoland Speedway’s public relations director, told NBC Sports. “There are several other short tracks around, but I think it’s so important to connect the dots between Chicagoland Speedway and Grundy County.
“We actually have some staff members that go there and work on their operations crew, so there’s a natural fit there. With them being so close to us and us to them, it’s important that we stay in touch. We find ways that are going to help them and there’s ways they can help us. But we need to be working hand-in-hand; it’s so important.”
Scott Kosak, founder of the grassroots racing site RacingIn.com (its motto is “For Fans of Fast”) has kept a keen eye on increased relationships between tracks like Chicagoland and Grundy County.
“Any time a major league entity recognizes the synergies with the minor league entities that are in proximity, that’s a great thing for the sport,” Kosak said. “Specifically for NASCAR, when the series only comes through Chicago once a year, many of those same race fans want to be engaged year-round.
“If they’re not able to watch a race on Sunday on TV, they can go to a place like Grundy County Speedway virtually 25 or 30 Fridays or Saturdays a year and be engaged by the product. That can only help race fans continue to feel engaged with a sport that has had its share of growing pains, but also has its share of opportunities if they’re able to continue to engage fans year-round rather than just watching on TV or a hand-held mobile device.”
Chicagoland Speedway opened in 2001. Grundy County has been around since 1905, first in rural Mazon, Illinois from 1905-71. When it outgrew its venue, Grundy County Speedway relocated 10 miles north to its current home.
“Short tracks right now are trendy, it’s hip, it’s cool,” Hartwig said. “It’s a pretty small space, so there are synergies between the two (tracks), and along that path, there are ways we can help them and they can help us. That’s going to help everybody involved, from the local guys to the (NASCAR) folks down in Daytona.”
Grundy County Speedway has also seen its share of NASCAR luminaries chase the checkered flag there, including Hall of Famers Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Stewart, as well as Tom and Ted Musgrave, late actor/racer Paul Newman, Johnny Benson, Ryan Newman and others.
“Those guys don’t forget their roots, they don’t forget where they come from, guys like Clint Bowyer, who hasn’t forgotten where he comes from in Kansas,” Hartwig said. “Going back at Grundy, some of the guys that have raced there are big names in addition to the guy that works at the local hardware store.
“There’s a ton of history and the need to default back to it, that this is where they started, how it’s evolved and to reconnect, to realize and make sure this works well for both of us.”
As Technical and Operations Director at Grundy County Speedway, Don Marshall is essentially the traffic cop who keeps things on the straight and narrow. If a fight breaks out in the pits or if there’s an on-track incident similar to what happened between Johnny Sauter and Austin Hill at the NASCAR Trucks race in Iowa earlier this month, Marshall has a zero-tolerance policy.
“I make the rules up and enforce them,” Marshall told NBC Sports. “My thing is if it’s in the rules, it’s black and white. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I don’t care who it is.
“If you want to fight, you’re going to get booted out. There’s no fighting, no leaving your pit to go to someone else’s pit and start something. Kids don’t need to see that or hear bad language. They want to see adults act like adults.”
Marshall oversees the racing with a soft-spoken but firm manner. Fields for the four classes have drawn a combined 87 cars entered this season, from the entry level Four-Cylinder Division, through the Street Stock and Mid-America classes, up to the kings of the track, the Late Models.
Racers come from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. And they bring family and friends.
“A lot of the fans in the stands probably know somebody who’s racing, and then there’s fans that have been going to races since they were kids,” Marshall said. “Their parents took them and now they’re bringing their own kids to the races.”
Those kids are the key to Grundy County’s future.
“We have to get the kids involved,” Marshall said. “We’ve got to take the phones away from the kids and also do things to get the costs down to get more people involved.”
Like in NASCAR, fans at Grundy County have their loyalties. One of the most successful drivers there is five-time track champion Eddie Hoffman Jr. The current Late Model points leader is bidding to tie his father, Eddie Hoffman Sr., for all-time titles (six) at the track this season.
“Eddie has fans and he has non-fans,” Marshall said with a smile. “When you’re a winner, people boo you. They don’t like repeat winners. If you win a lot, you’ll get booed.”
Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Grundy County Speedway often played host to packed houses. And while Morris has grown in population, the track still suffers from somewhat of an identity crisis at times.
“There’s a lot of people in Morris that don’t even know the race track’s there,” Marshall said. “We’ll do some promotional stuff and people will be like, ‘There’s a race track in Morris?’ Yes, it’s been there since 1971.”
Marshall has been involved in racing for more than 40 years. A former midget car championship crew chief, he has been at Grundy County Speedway since 2011. As long as there’s racing and he’s involved, Marshall is happy.
“Once you get racing in your blood, it’s hard to get away from it,” he said. “I tried to get away from it for a little bit and I got drawn back in.”
The enhanced relationship between Grundy County Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway is paying dividends, bringing more fans to the short track, especially on a weekend like this with NASCAR in town, both Hartwig and Marshall agree. While Grundy County will welcome NASCAR fans on Friday night, Chicagoland Speedway will recognize and introduce some of Grundy County’s champions during Saturday’s pre-race activities, as well as have them take part in a meet-and-greet in the infield fan zone.
“The guys at most of these short tracks are pseudo celebrities,” Hartwig said. “They’ve built their own brands, are racing in front of the same people – they may be racing in front of their neighbors. We thought it would be cool to bring them out, put them in front of a new audience and with the ultimate intention that some of our fans go to their track, some of their fans come to our track and we just tell their story.
“Later this summer, we’re going to be the entitlement sponsor for one of Grundy County’s races, so it’s something we’re going to continue to grow and work closer together to make sure we help one another. Whether it’s us going to Grundy County for a night doing social media at their track or bringing our mascot or our show car. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that I think is going to pay dividends for both facilities.”
Grundy County Speedway sits on the northern edge of the Morris, a blue-collar town of about 15,000. Located 60 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, Morris is surrounded by fertile farmland and is bisected by Interstate 80, which sees thousands of semi-trailers and cars pass through daily.
On the northern edge of town sits the Grundy County Fairgrounds, where the annual Corn Festival – a five-day festival touted by the Heritage Corridor Convention and Visitors Bureau as “the perfect mix of small-town charm and big city fun” – is held and also is the home of Grundy County Speedway, which hosts races every Friday night (and occasionally on Saturdays) in spring and summer.
Two of Grundy County’s veteran racers are Randy Weese and Cheryl Hryn.
The 63-year-old Weese is celebrating his 25th year of racing at the speedway.
“I’m the old-timer,” Weese said with a laugh.
But racing keeps Weese young. He’s in excellent physical shape and could pass for someone 15 years younger. He attributes a lot of that to coming back week after week to race.
“It’s the camaraderie with the other drivers,” Weese told NBC Sports. “I was in it for about 21 years and then got out of it for about three years when we started our own (floor covering) business here in Morris and pulled me away from racing. I wanted to get that up and off the ground and then got lured back into the racing. I love it because it’s very exciting and it’s in the blood. Once you get it in the blood, it’s hard to get out of it and give it up.”
Grundy County Speedway has been good to Weese. He’s a two-time track champion and one of its biggest supporters. Not only does his company have several billboards and signage around the track, Weese also sponsors his own race car and six others driven by friends in the four divisions that regularly compete at the track.
He admits there are some unique moments with the cars he sponsors.
“It becomes interesting when your own sponsored race car is next to you and you’re doing a little bit of beating and banging or you’re trying to push that guy around and you say, ‘Hey, my name’s on that car,’” Weese said with a laugh.
But in a more serious tone, Weese says he believes in giving back to a track that has been so good to him. That’s why he writes so many sponsorship checks.
“If you don’t have cars, you don’t have a race track and you don’t have fans is what it boils down to,” Weese said. “You’ve got to fill the stands. But before you fill the stands, you have to fill the pits with race cars. People don’t like to see eight or nine cars. They would rather see 30 cars. Today, we’re 18 or 19 cars (in most classes). But I see that coming back, I see the car count getting better. That’s of course going to naturally increase the (number of fans in the) stands also.”
Although he has raced at other tracks, Grundy County Speedway is and always will be Weese’s home.
“It all started with my children,” Weese said. “I started coming out there when my children were six years old and I brought them year after year. I started getting to the point where I thought, ‘You know what, I could do this.’ My kids absolutely loved it. They’d pick out their favorite driver, go down into the pits after the race to get their autograph, get their hat or program signed. That’s what really keeps the people there.”
Weese’s 36-year-old daughter, Tracy, helps in the pits not only with his car but with others. The elder Weese sees himself racing for many more years.
“Even though I’m 63 years old, it’s still exciting,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. If the health stays well, I’m probably going to go to 70. It keeps you young.
“Most of the drivers out there are in their 30s or 40s. Hanging around that kind of age group keeps us older guys young. Plus, I’ve also taught a lot of guys racing things. We’ve got guys out there 15, 16 years old (racers can begin competition at 14 years old). I tell them to try this or that, and those 16 year olds started beating me. But I’m the kind of person that says, ‘You know what, that’s great, you tried it, it worked for you, you beat me, more power to you.’”
One of Weese’s fellow competitors and close friends is Hryn, who also competes in the Street Stock Division. The Blue Island, Illinois, resident followed in the footsteps of her father, who also was a sportsman racer.
“I always wanted to be behind the wheel,” Hryn said. “I thought it was neat when he did it and when I watched him against the people he competed with, that was what I wanted to do when I got older.”
Hryn is one of more than a half dozen females who compete at the speedway. She will make her first start of the season Friday.
“Each one of us girls, when we go out there, we stand on our own,” she said. “We fight tooth-and-nail with the guys and the other girls equally.”
Now in her 13th year of racing, the 49-year-old Hryn has ended the last few seasons thinking that maybe its time to hang up her helmet. But once January 1 rolls around, she’s already heavily into getting her race car ready for the upcoming season.
“It’s hard to walk away,” Hryn said. “I went to Rockford (Illinois) Speedway and they had a guy who was 78 years old in the Road Runner Division. When you’re almost ready to give up and then you go there and see someone out there 78 years old and still winning, how can you quit?”
Like Weese, racing is a family affair for Hryn. Her 31-year-old daughter Alexis is a major part of the crew, setting up the car, changing tires and more. It’s that kind of mother-daughter relationship that helps Hryn serve as one of the track’s key role models for female fans.
“Girls come up to me all the time,” Hryn said. “I have some of the real little ones that follow me real close. I have a Late Model driver whose daughter has been following me. She’s only five years old. Daddy was her favorite and now I’m her favorite.
“And then there are a couple of girls that race right now that have told me, ‘I’m doing this because of you. You made it interesting and you inspired me, so I want to race just like you.’ It makes me feel really great.”
Like Weese, Hryn also believes in giving back to the sport and to the track. Friday, she’ll have her fourth annual Kids Night bicycle giveaway, where she presents several dozen two-wheelers to kids attending the race.
“Last year, we gave away 86,” Hryn said. “Over 400 kids show up every year.
“That’s one of the reasons I do what I do with the kids because there’s a huge age gap between me and the next generation, and if you don’t get them in the stands, no one is going to be interested – and how are you going to keep the tracks going then?”
One of the closest observers of grassroots racing around the country, and particularly in Illinois is Scott Kosak, who started RacingIn.com in 2008. At the time, racing in all forms faced challenges in the U.S. Not only was that the height of the downturn of the economy, numerous grassroots short tracks and drag strips began closing.
“Over a decade ago, there were 1,600 grassroots tracks, including dirt and asphalt tracks, as well as drag strips,” Kosak told NBC Sports. “Now there are about 1,100.”
Grundy County Speedway is a survivor. Several popular grassroots tracks within a 100-mile radius of it have closed over the last two-plus decades, including Raceway Park (Calumet Park, Illinois); Santa Fe Speedway (Willow Springs, Ill.), Illiana Speedway (Schererville, Indiana) and Lake Geneva (Wisconsin) Raceway.
But Kosak has also noted a turnaround – primarily for grassroots tracks like Grundy County – in recent years.
“One of the benefits that grassroots racing has endured, while NASCAR has felt challenges over the last 10 years, is people that wanted to see great racing found it at their local race tracks,” Kosak said. “That’s not to say that NASCAR isn’t great racing, but as people’s attention spans have diminished over the last 10 years with the rise of social media, people wanted to see racing in a shorter segment, be able to see it close to home. They wanted to get their fix of fast, if you will, and they could see it in heats, and in a matter of three or four hours, they could see eight or 10 different races during that time period with shorter lap segments.
“I think NASCAR has adopted some of those things to its benefit and is starting to take a little bit from the playbooks of local tracks that are experiencing success because of some of the shorter attention span opportunities that they have evidence are successful.”
One of the biggest things that tracks like Chicagoland Speedway, Daytona International Speedway and others have taken from the playbooks of grassroots tracks is increased fan engagement and accessibility.
“The ability of race fans to see, touch and feel race cars and be a part of that experience (has rubbed off on NASCAR),” Kosak said. “The last time I went to Grundy County, what stuck out in my mind is that when they were done for the night, they opened the pit gates for people to be able to go into the pits and walk around.
“I believe that was an opportunity for everybody, whether they had a pit ticket or not. The racers of tomorrow are the youth of today. I think any time younger kids and younger fans and families can go and experience something like that and get as close to the action as that, that’s a plus for sure. NASCAR has some of those experiences now, as well.
“I think a lot of the reasons that grassroots racing is starting to come back is that the tracks that are surviving are finding ways to form partnerships with other larger entities to help them drive traffic. I think the relationships between grassroots tracks and some of the larger NASCAR tracks are a great example of that beginning to happen. We’re seeing that in the dirt world side with tracks in the World of Outlaws and other entities like that, but I think the parallel for paved oval track racing are relationships like what Chicagoland Speedway is doing with Grundy County Speedway.”