By Jay Hardin
Track Enterprises Staff
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Saturday’s Tony Bettenhausen 100 USAC Silver Crown race at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield marks the 80th anniversary of the first 100-mile national championship dirt track race on the stories Springfield Mile. That first event featured two-man Indianapolis cars and was won by the popular Billy Winn, who would win the second one as well. As the late Tony Bettenhausen of Tinley Park is remembered this year, along with members of the Bettenhausen racing family, the 53rd Bettenhausen 100 is marked by the largest Springfield entry list in seven years as evidenced by the large number of Illinois participants in the field.
“Illini Pride” has swelled the entry list this year with at least 8 drivers entered from the home state, plus an owner with two machines expected and yet another driver or owner perhaps in the mix to attempt to conquer the World’s Fastest Mile Dirt Track.
The Illinois contingent is led by two-time defending Bettenhausen 100 winner A.J. Fike of Galesburg in a machine owned by his father Don. A.J. nearly pulled off the impossible last year by winning on Saturday and then nearly winning the Allen Crowe 100 stock car race on Sunday, a feat performed only by Al Unser in 1972. Fike became the first home state driver in 29 years to win the Bettenhausen in 2012, the last before Fike was Gary Bettenhausen, the eldest son of Tony and also a Tinley Park native. Gary, who won his father’s race in 1978 and 1983, passed away earlier this year at the age of 72.
Another contender from the Prairie State is Canton’s Chris Windom in the RW Motorsports entry. Windom led 85 laps of last year’s race at Springfield before surrendering the lead to Fike and led late at DuQuoin two weeks later before running out of fuel. He did score his first win in the mighty uprights at Eldora in the USAC Silver Crown finale last year.
Yet a third Illinois driver could join Fike and Windom as Silver Crown victors and drivers pulling double duty over the weekend. Benton’s Shane Cockrum qualified fourth at Springfield last year after a practice crash and was in contention for a victory at DuQuoin until the car ran low on fuel. He, like Fike and Windom, should have an ARCA ride for Sunday as well.
Two other contenders from Illinois already have impressive resumes in and out of the series. Pocahontas driver Zach Daum was the 2009 USAC Rookie of the Year and leads the POWRi midget standings after winning the title last season. Elkhart’s Chris Urish scored an upset win at DuQuoin last Labor Day weekend and the driver should have plenty of fan support Saturday from his native Logan county.
Other Illinois drivers expected include series veteran Randy Bateman of Murphysboro, Patrick Lawson of Edwardsville and Jerry Bruce of Benton. Another possible entrant is Chris Fetter of DuQuoin who purchased not one but two of the machines over the winter.
Springfield’s Dennis McQuinn is a long time crew chief and car owner who provided cars for capitol city native Donnie Beechler. McQuinn is expected to return with two cars this year, one for Oklahoma hotshoe Brady Bacon and the other for third generation driver Steven Russell. Frequent entrant Ricky Nix of Benton is thought to be considering a series return with an as yet to be named driver.
Should the stars align one third of Saturday’s field will come from the home soil, a fact not lost on promoter Bob Sargent of Track Enterprises who greatly appreciates the support of the home contingent. “I really appreciate the support of all the competitors, drivers or car owners who call Illinois home.” “They add a lot of local flavor to the two Illinois dirt miles, they appreciate the history and what it means to compete on one of these historic tracks and they draw a lot of attention to our events.”
Fans wishing to see their local favorites should not wait until the last minute to arrive at the Illinois State Fair on Saturday. Practice for the Silver Crown Championship dirt cars starts at 9 a.m. with qualifications at 10:25 and the Bettenhausen 100 at around 2.