If you knew me 13 years ago, you’d have a hard time believing I was the same person. The Summer of ’00 I started working for a small manufacturing company near my home town for the summer. One of the three employees happened to be a friend of mine and my dad worked with the boss’ husband…so I sort of had an in.
The workshop was in the garage of one of the owners just outside of Kankakee, IL. I actually had a lot of fun the two summers I worked there. The people were great and I made enough cash to keep gas in my car and to run around with my friends on Friday and Saturday nights.
The interesting thing that happened while I worked there was that I got in to racing. My dad had always been a race fan, but it never really rubbed off on me. All of the people I worked around would gather at the local short track on Friday nights and cheer on their friends. Eventually, they talked me in to joining them….and I got hooked…hooked bad.
For the next few summers, I was at different short tracks in the area two, three, four times a week. All of the money I was making was going to gas and pit passes. If you read this blog, you know how obsessed I get about things…and yup, there was an informational website that I created and updated on a regular basis almost as obsessively as I do this one.
The great thing about me getting in to racing is it was something my dad and I could bond over. We took trips all over the Midwest to as far away as the Lake of the Ozarks, Eastern Iowa, Southern Indiana, Western Kentucky, etc. to follow one series in particular. The summer event known as the UMP SummerNationals.
After I moved away to take my first job in Peoria, IL, the racing trips died off a little bit. We would still try to take one trip every summer, but I went to the races much less often until it got to the point of not at all.
Last month, Dad was looking at the 2013 schedule for the UMP SummerNationals (now known as The Hell Tour) and noticed a date in Michigan. He asked if I had heard of the track and if I’d be interested in going. It just so happened the race was on a Sunday night…my night off…so I said “What the hell?” I haven’t been to a race in six or seven years and thought it would be fun.
The Hell Tour rolled in to I-96 Speedway just outside of Lake Odessa. The track sits in the country on Portland Road not too far from I-96. It was easy to find with a couple of quick rights getting off the highway coming from Grand Rapids.
We pulled up to the track a little before 5:00. According to the schedule, the Late Models were going to time trial at 5:15, so we figured we’d sit through that just to see what cars made the trip north.
The parking lot is a huge grass field behind the grandstands. It was pretty empty when we pulled in. I was a little surprised because at some tracks, people will camp out and make a day out of the experience when the Summer Nats roll in to town. The grand stands were still pretty empty and there weren’t a lot of people milling around.
Dad was hoping we would pay on our way in then park the car, but at this track, you park, then pay at the gate to the grandstand entrance. We were given wristbands so we could have went in and out if we needed to, but it was so warm, there was no chance of us needing a coat or extra layers.
The cost to get in to the race was pretty high. Adults were $30 just to get in the grandstands which is high for a $5000-to-win UMP race. That price tag is usually for the $10K or higher-to-win races. Dad, who has been to a couple other SN races in Illinois was shocked when I told him what the gate price would be. For another $5, you could get access to the pits (at most races, there is at least a $10 difference between general admission and pit passes).
After getting our wristbands, we walked around a little to check the place out. Behind the main grandstands, there are a couple little buildings including one, huge concession stand. As far as race tracks go, this was a pretty great concession stand. It’s sort of cafeteria style where you walk in and pick up what you want to eat. They have a number of sandwiches all wrapped up under warmers as well as popcorn chicken, wings, mozzarella sticks, bags of popcorn, nachos, fries and more. There is a fountain Pepsi machine at the end and a cooler with cans of pop if you’d rather. There are then two cashiers at the end of the building and you pay before leaving.
As the night wore on, the announcer kept talking about the cheeseburgers being the best at any race track in the country. Of course I’m gonna go get a cheeseburger.
After the hots laps and late model qualifying, I walked back down to the concession stand to grab a cheeseburger and a bag of popcorn. The cost was just a little under $7.50. I used what was left from my $10 bill plus another $.50 to hit up the beer stand on the way back to the seat. As you would expect, the choices were limited to a few mass produced domestics. I grabbed a Miller Lite…just because it’s what I used to drink with my buddies at the track and there’s nothing better than a Miller Lite with a little bit of dirt from track on the rim.
My dad and I chose to sit in the Turn 1 Grandstands. There are actually two tracks at I-96. There’s a nice, big 1/2 Mile track and a smaller 3/8 Mile track cut in to the infield. For this race, they were using the 3/8 mile track, so there’s a little bit of a distance between the track and the grandstands. The wooden bleachers run all the way from Turn 4 to Turn 1 of the half mile track and there’s sky boxes at the top of each set of bleachers. For no particular reason, we went about half way up in the turn one and plopped down claiming two aisles seats for ourselves.
When I got back to the seats, I broke up the bag of popcorn first. The salty, buttery bag of popcorn was nothing out of the ordinary, but damn tasty. I had to slow down because I only brought one beer back up to the stands with me and I really didn’t want to have to go back down.
After a few handfuls of popcorn, I unwrapped the foil for the cheeseburger. It was hyped up as the best cheeseburger in all of racing. It was very simple and very delicious. The standard frozen patty was topped with American cheese that just melted in to it from being wrapped in the foil. My dad said it looked like a mess. It wasn’t pretty, but it was really good, off the grill race track food. It wasn’t the best burger I’ve ever had…not by a long shot, but as far as concession stand food goes, it was better than the typical burger you usually find at places like this.
The racing itself was something I had been looking forward to for a while now. I really miss the smell of racing fuel and getting pelted in the face from the dust being kicked up by the cars. We talked on the way over about the lack of rain recently and wondered aloud how that would effect the track.
I will say, they tried really hard to get moisture in the track, but it was tough. They got started late because they were still watering and trying to turn up some fresh dirt when we got there then they took a long intermission after the heat races to again try to get some moisture in the track.
For whatever reason, they chose to run the UMP SummerNationals Hell Tour A-Feature last and it didn’t take long for the already dry track to soak up the spent rubber and slick up. It was already a pretty one lane racetrack and once the track slicked over, pole sitter Shannon Babb didn’t have much competition. There were a few passes a little deeper in the pack, but the leader ran away with the race. You can’t blame the track for not trying. They did a lot to get the track in shape…we just haven’t had much help from Mother Nature recently.
I’m really glad my dad asked me to go to this race and I’m really glad they made the trip up here so we could do it. For a couple years, dirt track racing was a huge part of my life and one I don’t really think about too often anymore. I always had so much fun spending Friday and Saturday night at some little town somewhere in the Midwest watching these guys sling some mud. I-96 is a pretty nice track and one I would go to more often if I was still in to the racing like I used to be. If this track stays on the SummerNationals schedule, I’m sure my dad will want to come back up this way in the years to come and I wouldn’t have a problem with it if he did.